Sunday, 21 July 2013

Guest Review: Charlie Morris on Hollow Pike by James Dawson

Today, awesomely, I have a guest review to share with you from Charlie Morris of Charlie in a Book. Charlie is and indie bookseller at The Book House, and is studying for her MA as an Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies student, where her MA major project is a marketing plan for an LGBTQ inclusive young adult fiction book. For LGBTQ YA Month, Charlie is reviewing Hollow Pike by James Dawson, with a focus on the LGBTQ elements.

Charlie MorrisHollow Pike by James Dawson

Hollow Pike is a dark mystery story which follows a coven of friends, Lis, Kitty, Delilah and Jack, as they deal with horrific visions, murder and rumours of witchcraft. It’s like Mean Girls meets nineties teen horror film The Craft. It also casually includes a lesbian couple and a questioning boy among the core characters, making it one of few young adult genre fiction books published in the UK to do so.

Lis London is moving to live with her sister in the small village of Hollow Pike. She desperately wants to escape from the bullies at her old school in Wales. Haunted by creepy dreams and bad memories, she can’t wait to have a fresh start and let go of the past. But her new school has secrets of its own. Beautiful queen bee Laura rules the school with an iron fist of gossip and control that brings out the horror story in everyone’s social life. Lis is torn between trying to fit in with the popular clique and her intrigue with the school “freaks”, goth-punk Kitty, her free spirited girlfriend Delilah and quiet Jack. To top it all off, Lis’ dreams are getting worse, black birds keep stalking her, and she doesn’t know what to do about dreamy Danny. As the school goes into lockdown after a murder, panic breaks out and the kids reassess their friendships. Meanwhile the adults are caught up in their own secrets, with absent families, strange locals, and teachers who see all. Lis and her friends must find out the truth to the rumours of Hollow Pike’s dark past steeped in witchcraft and witch hunts.

Published by Indigo in 2012, I came across Hollow Pike on Booktrust’s reading list for inclusive young adult literature after attending a talk on UK LGBTQ YA back in February. With an eye catching dark purple cover and page ends, and a face silhouetted by a tangle of dark hair, the book fits well into its genre. There is nothing in the blurb to indicate the characters’ sexual identities, allowing the story to act as the hook for browsing book buyers. Dawson has written an excellent post on his covers here.

Hollow Pike was written partly as a response to the rise in the supernatural fiction, and also as an effort to write a story which reflected Dawson and his friends growing up in West Yorkshire. When it came to crafting the friendship group of core characters, Dawson says ‘it never occurred to me not to include queer characters in there.’ (He uses queer as an umbrella term). His characters are driven by their differences, but their difference is that they are witches, not whom they love. They likewise struggle with deadlines, parents and ‘universal experiences.'

What Dawson does best is write a story that is decidedly not using sexuality as a plot device. Kitty and Delilah are outcasts, yes, but it is their secrets not their sexuality that really sets them apart from the school.

The characters self-identify, eschewing labels in favour of letting their actions and feelings speak for them: in a friendly conversation with Lis, Kitty discusses her friendship turned relationship with Delilah:
‘It seemed like the logical thing to do when you really like someone … We’ve never had to clarify what we are. We both fancy boys as well as girls.’ (p.105). She doesn’t qualify her statement with the label of bisexuality, nor does she explicitly say that she and Delilah are in an exclusive relationship, but that their closeness makes sense to them. Time and the unfolding events in Hollow Pike will reveal the lasting fate of their emotional and physical connection.

Hollow Pike by James DawsonJack’s journey intrigues me, and I feel like if there were ever to be a sequel, his point of view and internal voice would be an interesting one to follow. Kitty, Delilah and Lis speculate in private over Jack’s sexuality:
‘he’s playing it very close to his chest and we don’t want to ask…’ (p. 104) – whether Jack is aware of his friends’ curiosity, we don’t find out. But he does make self-aware tongue in cheek references to his own silence and laughingly continues to explore his sexual identity without giving the game away. Here Dawson explores within a few pages the topic of coming out; Kitty, who comfortably owns her identity, is left curious as to why Jack won’t share his. Although Hollow Pike is not a coming out narrative, the intricacy of letting the characters share as much as they wish is deftly written.

The story is not without its tough moments. Kitty, Delilah and Jack are targeted with homophobic slurs and scorned for their alternative appearances. Whilst this is unfortunately reflective of experiences at school playgrounds, it does set my teeth on edge to see slurs casually banded about. What the narrative does well is set you up so you are an observer to the bad behaviour and can call it out as childish. At times the fighting at school takes a turn for the decidedly cruel. But ultimately, all of these painful reminders of the cruelty of adolescence add to the tense atmosphere and discomfort that pervades Hollow Pike. As sharp words are exchanged, the creeping dread of the woods nip at the heels of the reader on every page turned.

In the US, queer identifying characters have appeared in genre fiction such as Cassandra Clare’s Bane Chronicles and the Mortal Instruments series or Malinda Lo’s science fiction stories, Adaptation and Inheritance, and her fantasy fairy tale reinterpretation, Ash. With stories like Hollow Pike that revolve around external forces rather than internal struggles, Dawson takes LGBTQ YA in the UK a step forward, moving away from the ubiquitous coming out narratives of contemporary bildungsroman into a horror thriller that just so happens to be inclusive. His next young adult novel, psychological thriller Cruel Summer, will continue in this vein. Ryan reunites with friends on holiday in Spain, but they soon become caught up in unravelling the truth about the supposed suicide of one of their group. A perfect summer pool side read for fans of a good murder mystery.

One of the phrases that stood out from the talk was James Dawson discussing the importance of portraying gay characters as more than lazy stereotypes: ‘Just because you’re gay, doesn’t mean you’re a special snowflake.’ – It is important for characters to be well rounded, and not to be so perfect, or perfectly misunderstood, that the character’s actions within a narrative become implausible. In Cruel Summer, Dawson’s protagonist has his own agenda, and a whole slew of flaws – much like Kitty and Delilah in Hollow Pike.

When I asked Dawson about what makes his Cruel Summer protagonist tick, he said: ‘Ryan is a RARE example of a gay main character, but he isn’t in a book about coming out, first love or teen suicide. This guy happens to be in a sun-drenched murder mystery. That sometimes happens to gay people, I hear. Like any LGBT* person he isn’t just a ‘best friend.’ He’s actually quite devious at times, but that’s true of any of us.’

At the LGBTQ YA event, Dawson said that inclusive books aren’t just ‘special books for special people’ but a realistic representation of the reality of the world we live in and share. Together with non-fiction imprint Red Lemon Press, Dawson is writing an uncensored guide to growing up male, with good humour, frank honesty and hilarious illustrations. Being A Boy will be published in September and includes an open discussion of body development, common misconceptions, and LGBTQ inclusive discussions regarding gender and sexual fluidity. The book draws upon Dawson’s experiences as a PSHCE teacher, breaking taboos about subjects often overlooked in Health Ed and advising the next generation of readers to think of the world as a spectrum of individual identities.

Thank you, Charlie, for such a fantastic review! This is particularly useful for my regular readers, because if you remember, my review of Hollow Pike was negative - so now you get a positive as well as a negative review on one blog, and can make a more informed decision! And can I just say, wow, what a review! This lady can write! I am in awe of her eloquence and coherency. Fantastic review! Be sure to check out Charlie's website for more awesome posts!

What do you think? Have you read Hollow Pike? What are your thoughts on the LGBTQ aspects?

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