Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed

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Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: A contemporary superhero tale that manages to be both relatable and grounded, and a lovingly crafted tribute to other superheroes, and geek culture in general. A marvellously uplifting, funny and enjoyable read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Salt Publishing
ISBN: 978-1784630133

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Stanly Bird is about to turn sixteen - a solitary teen in a small Welsh town, he has few friends. Unless you count his talking dog, Daryl...

A splitting headache on the eve of his birthday soon develops into incredible powers, and Stanly swiftly finds himself defending his neighbourhood, falling in love, and gaining his first real friends. When jealous rivals, a mysterious figure and a horrific evil come into play though, Stanly finds himself cast away from home, and struggling to save everything he has come to hold dear.

I'll start by admitting that my name is Luke and that I am a fully-fledged comicholic. I grew up on tales of the X-Men, and whilst they remain my first love, I've come to enjoy all sorts of comics - and I think they are often an overlooked medium where some incredible writers and artists often tell epic and groundbreaking stories. Spiderman is probably one of the best-known superheroes, and the one whose origin story is the most iconic - intelligent, but often weak and unpopular Peter Parker gains fantastic powers in a mysterious accident, and becomes a strong and powerful superhero, winning the girl and saving the day. Whilst Spiderman may no longer be particularly relatable to teens (Spidey has had a hell of a lot happen to him in the fifty or so years since his creation; clones, dead Uncles, resurrected Aunts, awkward neck-snapping incidents and a marriage that may never have existed…), several young heroes have sprung up in his stead - Ultimate Spiderman - a mixed-race young boy called Miles Morales, and Ms Marvel - a shapeshifting young Muslim called Kamala Khan, have proved huge critical and commercial hits, and show that there is still a big market for grounded, relatable heroes.

However, one thing that never seems to work is novels about superheroes. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem are books that, whilst brilliant, can't really be called Superhero novels, despite featuring powers and heroes as part of the story. The only real success I can think of is Perry Moore's Hero, and sadly the author passed away before he could expand on the story he began. Novels commissioned by the major comic publishing houses tend to be pale imitations of the original comics, and seem to be crying out for speech bubbles and beautiful art.

That could all change with the publication of Bitter Sixteen though, a novel that manages to conjure up the relatable thrill of early Spiderman, grounds it in rural Wales, throws in a talking dog, a winding plot and fantastic twists, and peppers little geeky references throughout the novel that both fit with the main character's interests, and made this reviewer laugh out loud.

The plot is an absolute page-turner - it is hard not to like Stanly, and Daryl (the talking dog) becomes an immediately likeable presence. The plot moves in a way that may seem relatively formulaic for those who have read a lot of Superhero tales, but the twists here are stonkingly big, and always surprising, making this a very fresh and original read. In addition, the villain is truly chilling - and one who I would love to see portrayed on screen.

I initially gave this book a second look due to the bizarre collection of recommendations on the cover - Cerys Matthews, BBC 6 DJ and former Catatonia singer is a fan, as is award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies, and Human Traffic director Justin Kerrigan. Pepper anything with multiple Buffy the Vampire Slayer references, and there is a good chance I will love it, but Bitter Sixteen does that and more - this is both a fantastic start to a trilogy and a dazzling introduction for a great new character.

Many thanks to the publishers for the copy. We also have a review of a stand-alone novel from Mohamed.

For further reading? The Secret Service - Kingsman by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons is Mark Millar at his best. Whilst it may be slightly too violent for some, this is Millar doing an origin story that is both relatable and fun, making it well worth a read. You might also appreciate The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Booklists.jpg Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed is in the Top Ten General Fiction Books for 2015.

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