Review: Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep


I recently joined NetGalley and was thrilled for the chance to read an advance copy of Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep, a river “road trip” tale that put me in mind of so many English literature classics I lost count, but that still managed to steer its own course and be thoroughly itself, and thoroughly unforgettable.

Wulliam is set to take on the role of riverkeep when he hits his 16th birthday in a few days, but he dreams of escaping the responsibility of the frankly abominable family calling: fishing corpses from the river, honouring these dead, and keeping lit the heat lamps that stave off freezing of the waterway.

He’s forced to assume the mantle of riverkeep early, however, when his father becomes possessed by a water spirit; poor Wulliam instantly and energetically messes up everything, but manages to keep his sights on one goal – and it’s not keeping the river, but keeping his father from slipping fully under the spell of the spirit that possesses him.

This book had me at “father” – I’m a sucker for any tale of child and dad, and that’s the heart of Riverkeep. But Stewart has also done such a phenomenal job at sketching character, and evoking the timeless but subtly changing riverside landscape. He also fearlessly weaves in Chaucer-esque bawdiness that passes the time delightfully as Wulliam goes on his nigh-impossible quest to cure his father, an odyssey downriver during which he not only grows up fast, but also attracts a gaggle of hangers-on with their own agendas.

It’s impossible not to think of Chaucer reading this, but there are also shades of Dickens (the crushing misery of poverty, against the backdrop of the distant industrial city) as well as Neil Gaiman in the way Stewart details the horror of Wulliam’s situation, including the spirit consuming his father and the murderous vigilantes pursuing their (potentially sentient) riverboat.

Did I mention that Stewart makes up his own words? I’m officially adopting “sleepmutter” into my vocabulary, and I loved the description of a sea captain’s scarred skin as “onceinjured.” One of my favorite American writers in university was Dos Passos, who shunned hyphens and coined his own compound words left and right – another sure way to my heart. The sea captain’s monologue about life on the water versus life on land, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve read in years.

Published 28 April in UK and 26 July 2016 in US by Penguin Random House. More info here.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Your story can make a great story

The Mirror

I shouldn’t be blogging when this is my only clear morning to work on novel revisions, but yesterday’s twitter pitch contest aimed at increasing the diversity in children’s literature has me thinking thoughts that are crowding out everything else.

#DVpit, the brainchild of New York literary agent Beth Phelan, took over twitter yesterday, encouraging writers with polished, ready manuscripts to put a one-liner about their work onto twitter if theirs is a diverse book — especially if the writer him- or herself is from a diverse background. Of course that’s open to interpretation, but here’s how Beth described DVpit.

So for example, if you are a writer of colour and your book centres around characters of colour, or if you are a writer with a disability and so is your main character, #DVpit wanted to hear from you yesterday.

By the way, if you missed yesterday’s contest and you’re writing a diverse story that’s ready to be seen by agents, you haven’t missed the boat. It’s clear from yesterday’s huge industry interest in #DVpit that agents and publishers are keen to hear from you whenever your story is at its best.

That’s why I wanted to jot down some thoughts today – to encourage you, whoever you are, not to be afraid to put your own culture – or elements of it – into the story you’re writing for children. I’m a Caucasian, first-generation Irish-American now living in Scotland, so I don’t pretend to have first-hand experience of living in our society – which still tends to prioritise and reward white, male, heterosexual, middle-class Judeo-Christian backgrounds – as a person from a minority or marginalised background.

But I do know what it’s like to assume, at a gut level, that my own story isn’t as interesting as something I could invent. The first two manuscripts I wrote were set on a space station, centred around a boy struggling with self-confidence issues. The problem with skilled writers is that they can write just about anything and make it sound good, and I was indeed able to write a competent story that had very little of my own guts, fears or fantasies in it.

It was only when I wrote a story that I decided was going to be 100% for me – with deep roots in my own Irish-American Massachusetts upbringing – that I tapped into something special. That third story was the one that got me my amazing agent, Jennifer Laughran, and while a huge amount of writers-craft work and practice was needed to pound the story into shape, I do believe the story works because it’s plugged right into my guts, into who I am.

Don’t discount your own heritage, background, insights, inherited legends or cultural traditions if you’re looking for the stuff of your own stories. I’m not giving the pat advice to write what you know; I’m saying don’t forget who you are when you’re looking for ideas that resonate.

The best advice I remember hearing on this topic is “write what you fear.” (Who said that? If you can remember, stick it in the comments below.) All the way through my Massachusetts book, I had the palpable sense of exploring things that really, really scared me.

And those are the books I adore reading: books like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina or Brian F. Walker’s BLACK BOY WHITE SCHOOL, or Lindsay Eagar’s HOUR OF THE BEES, or Julie T. Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, where the main character struggles to find peace with where they came from and where they want to go. Not all those stories, by the way, are own-voice tales by and about authors from the same tradition. But they are the stories I love most, because they pack an unbeatable punch.

A lot of people in the publishing industry would agree that books on shelves don’t reflect the true diversity of the great wide world, and #DVpit looks like it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging more writers to tell stories that spring from their own backgrounds. I’ve looked at Twitter contests for some years – that’s what set me on the road to finding my amazing agent – and I’ve never seen such a high calibre of industry folks watching the one-line pitches as I saw yesterday with #DVpit.

Whatever your story is, write it, make it awesome, hone your pitch until it shines so much it hurts your eyes, then submit. What have you got to lose?




Mirror photo by Pellesten on Flickr

Great middle grade reads: review of PAX by Sara Pennypacker

Although I write for middle grade I’m largely catching up on young adult reading at the moment, and amazing YA it is. That’s why I was extra thrilled to come across a middle grade book that really packed an emotional punch: PAX by Sara Pennypacker.

I haven’t read a dual voice narrative that works in quite a while, and Sara manages it elegantly, alternating between the fox’s world and “his boy,” Peter, whose father has pretty callously obliged Peter to abandon tpax_coverhe fox at the side of the road before the boy goes to live with his grandfather.

The fox’s outsider view of the human world is well done. As a writer it’s hard to choose which details of the “normal world” the outsider should fail to comprehend: I loved that the foxes don’t have a word for lying, or for tears. Sara has also laced in lovely realistic details of red fox behavior from her research into the animals, including details of how they show affection, and it all works beautifully.

PAX has picked up a reputation as a tearjerker — if you’re concerned that the story might be too much of a heartbreaker for a middle grade audience…well, there’s plenty of sadness in here, but nothing the 9 to 12 reader can’t cope with.

Artist Jon Klassen (I WANT MY HAT BACK) has done a superb emotional cover that captures the isolation of the book, and the book features an occasional black and white double page spread with his evocative, spare style, but I would’ve loved to see more of his work in this piece, the way Ongbico’s work was woven into THE WOLF WILDER, for example.

If you’d like to see more, there’s a video of my review above.

A gorgeous read and a brilliant animal story.