Thursday 6 March 2014

Review: A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

I'm Dan Hope and deep inside my head I keep a list of things I want to come true. For example, I want my sister, Ninja Grace, to go to university at the North Pole and only come back once a year. I want to help Sherlock Holmes solve his most daring mystery yet. And if it could be a zombie mystery, all the more exciting. I want to be the first eleven-year-old to land on the moon. I want my dog to stop eating the planets and throwing them up on the carpet. And finally, the biggest dream of all, I want my dad to love me. A Boy Called Hope is a brave, bold and funny debut about family in all its shapes and sizes.

Dan Hope keeps a list inside his head of things he wants to come true. He wants to help Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery; he wants to be the first eleven-year-old to set foot on the moon; and most importantly, more than anything else, he wants his dad to love him. You see, four years ago Dan's father walked out his him, his mum and his older sister (who Dan unaffectionately refers to as Ninja Grace, as a result of her propensity for using "words as a weapon"). In the four years since he left, Dan has not heard from his father at all, until the day that he appears on the TV screen, reading the news, whilst Dan is eating his lunch. All of a sudden Dan's world is turned upside down and he starts to believe that a) he can get his father back and b) in doing so he will super popular at school as the son of a local celebrity.

A Boy Called Hope is the story of Dan's quest to meet his father and find that paternal love that he so desperately craves. It is a quest that is littered with Dan making mistake after mistake, as he seems blind to obvious, blinkered as he is by that overriding desire. However, it is also a quest that will totally change his life, and that of his friends and the rest of his family.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate World Book Day than by posting this review of a book  by a debut writer that is already the leading contender for my Middle Grade book of the year. I also know I'm not alone in feeling this way as I have seen so many positive tweets about A Boy Called Hope, with readers likening Lara's writing voice to that of such luminaries as Frank Cottrell Boyce, David Almond and Annabel Pitcher. Every one of these fantastic writers has won many awards, and I am pretty damn sure that Lara Williamson will follow suit over the next twelve months.

Written in the first person, A Boy Called Hope is a captivating and inspirational story that pulls mercilessly at the heart strings, whilst also having the reader crying with laughter. The author strikes the perfect balance between sentimentality and humour, ensuring that the story never feels schmaltzy or twee. This is achieved predominantly through the outstanding voice that Lara Williamson has created for her main character. I've read books where female authors have struggled to get the voice of a male boy character feeling 'right' but Lara Williamson absolutely nails it - as a reader I really believed in Dan Hope, and empathised with his hopes and fears, and his trials and tribulations. And this is all the more stunning in that this is Lara's first book.

Lara Williamson's writing is also very clever, with word play, twists, turns and great plotting. I especially loved the humour that permeates through what is essentially a rather heartbreaking premise, with my personal favourite being the description of Grace being a "word ninja" because of her sue of "words as a weapon". Yes, I know I have already mentioned that above, but it is just too good not to repeat. And then there's the name of Dan's dog - Charles Scallybones the First. Brilliant!

This is a perfect read for the 9+ audience, but there will be many older reader, both young adult and older, who will totally love Dan's story. It is also a book that could have great impact on children who are in a similar situation as Dan, where one parent has walked out on the family. Without creating too many spoilers, it is a story that shows that hope is a wonderful thing, and although things don't always turn out the way you want them to and will rarely be perfect, sometimes things happen for a reason and a little bit of hope can go a long way to making things better.

I guess before I sign off I really should mention that I have been in contact with Lara over Twitter for some years, in fact probably for most of the time I have been blogging. In that time I have read several of Lara's early attempts as a favour to her, including a thrilling supernatural story and a laugh-out-loud comedy for the 8+ age group. I enjoyed both of them, but A Boy Called Hope beats them hands down and is a perfect example to aspiring writer of the importance of practising the craft and never giving up. Sometimes the practice will improve your plotting or your character building; in other cases, as in Lara's, it will help you find the writing voice that everyone will love.

Yes, I loved this book, but don't just take my word for it. Usborne came up with a great way of promoting the book, whereby they sent reviewers two copies. They asked that the second copy be left somewhere public or passed on to someone. Back in January I went on a school trip to the British Museum and left my spare copy there (no photo unfortunately - sorry Usborne, it was a bit of a hectic day). I also included my blog's details, and several weeks later received an email from a family from Toronto who had been at the museum on that day and had picked up the book. They told me that all three kids, and mum and dad, and all read the book and totally loved it.

A Boy Called Hope was published by Usborne on 1st March and I can't recommend it enough, so please get your hands on a copy as soon as possible as I really don't think you'll regret it. Lara Williamson is already working on her second book, wonderfully titled The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean on an Armchair, which is due out in 2015 I believe.


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