Needle by Patrice Lawrence

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Needle by Patrice Lawrence

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A vivid look at a modern teen in care of social services, but one whose character is perhaps too extreme and single-minded to generate enough sympathy.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 128 Date: May 2022
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
ISBN: 978-1800901018

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Brave. Charlene, the 'heroine' of this piece is extremely hard for some people to like, characters and readers both. Kicked out of multiple homes and schools, she's fostering with a pleasant yoga tutor, Annie, and has taken up residence in her son Blake's old room while he's at uni. Such a tempestuous personality may be in need of a comfort blanket, you might perhaps think, and the creation of one such item is part of the plot here, as Charlene is a wonder knitter, and is making something full of love for her younger sister – a younger sister she's allowed contact with no more. We see Charlene prove her belligerence with a store detective, and then force people to give her two days off school, when she shouts someone down as expletively ignorant. And then... well, what exactly happens is not for me to say, only to remark how sharp and pointy those knitting needles can be...

Yes, Brave. It feels brave for Barrington Stoke, with their specialist audience, to go so far against the standard English. For on their usual thick, lemony card stock and within their large, dyslexia-friendly printing, comes black British patois, with every page having a double negative, the police called feds and more. You almost feel like pointing out that this is written from the point of view of Charlene, and definitely in Charlene's voice, but remains a book that the Charlenes of the world will never read. But you cannot be so damnably pessimistic. They will get to see themselves in print; we must hope only good comes out of it. Or some nice mittens, or a balaclava.

Still, can you be optimistic about the catty, vicious, vindictive, self-righteous narrator? I'm sure you can imagine people who went through what she went through and didn't come out the other side so pointedly unapologetic about her behaviour. The book reads as if we're supposed to be very much on her side, and even when it drops in social commentary that might prove otherwise – the fact that the school people move house to get their kids into is a violent Bedlam; Charlene has been programmed to play the race card in quite disgusting ways – it reads as incidental, and not a comment on the state of the country.

I think it's a test of our sympathies too far – although, as I alluded, the Charlenes in the audience will probably marvel at the realism of her. It is indicative of what I see as a change in editorial policy in Barrington Stoke over the last couple of years, and one I don't like (although probably based on a small portion of their output). For me, their stories which were perfect stories in and of themselves, a wonder for all to read, have veered towards the socially conscious, 'woke' and have become much more open-ended. It's far beyond my remit to say what of those is at play here, but in leaving so much conviction in my mind that I was given an impression about Charlene and it was not the intended one, I found this as a result to be less enjoyable than it should be.

And that doubt remains in my mind when I attempt to see what the target audience of this would feel about it. To be technical it's designed to be of interest to those twelve and up, and yet accessible if their reading ability is that of an eight year old. Now I'm never going to pretend that audience is more gullible and susceptible than any other, but I do fear that glorifying Charlene is not going to help the impressionable reader. I would almost hope some of the intended audience do see how unlikeable she can get. Like I say, it's brave to put a character like her out there.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Wrath by Marcus Sedgwick is a standout Barrington Stoke title from recent weeks. For more fluently-reading teens, this author's Rose, Interrupted has been a huge success.

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