Book Review: Strong Stuff

strong stuff

I was happy to be offered a copy of Strong Stuff having enjoyed A. F. Stone’s previous novel, The Raven Wheel. This is an author willing to portray both the positives and negatives of growing up within working class families. Her writing, while sympathetic to issues faced, is direct and unflinching. In some ways certain books by Jacqueline Wilson came to mind due to the topics explored, although Stone writes for an older readership.

This latest story focuses on Ruby, a fourteen year old who has been primary carer for her mum, Lisa, for a couple of years. Lisa has motor neurone disease and is now developing further complications. Ruby is struggling to cope but remains unwilling to accept the help offered by social services, fearful they will separate the pair and put them into the care system. When Lisa is hospitalised and dies, Ruby loses the home they shared. Her estranged father, an alcoholic and convicted criminal, offers to take her in, the least bad of the options available.

From here we learn about life on a grim estate of high rises populated by the people many in society fear. There are drug dealers and others looking to make money through illegal enterprises. Even in the playgrounds there is regular violence. There are families brought into the country illegally, who remain beholden to their traffickers with all the fear this entails. If Ruby is to survive she must find some way to go unnoticed, to fit in. She is not always able to keep her head down when she observes wanton cruelty.

Ruby lost most of her friends during the time she cared for her mum as she had little time to socialise. The exception is Annabelle, a girl living in comparative luxury within a loving, wider family. In Annabelle’s home, food is always available and bills are paid without worry. The contrast between the two girls’ lived experiences brings to the fore how little those who ‘have’ appreciate the day to day difficulties faced by those existing on the brink, among adults who have their own serious issues to deal with.

Yet in many ways Ruby is a typical teenager. She experiments with alcohol, falls in love, worries about her appearance, and takes risks that sometimes put her in danger. Much of what she faces is down to circumstances she has no control over due to her age. Ruby’s focus is to survive the year it will take before she may legally get her own place.

The writing is taut and engaging, the structure and flow keeping the reader eager for the next development. The problems Ruby encounters add tension: her dad’s new girlfriend, the fear under which her boyfriend lives, police interest in an acquaintance. Ruby walks a tightrope of trying to improve her own prospects while supporting those she becomes involved with. In some ways there is simplification of outcomes but this is a novel aimed primarily at teenagers.

While the story retains the pace and interest of a thriller, it delves deep into social issues using characters made fully rounded and complex. There is much to consider, especially around the challenges faced by the marginalised – those too often condemned as bringing their troubles on themselves.

A timely reminder of the humanity of those on the periphery. A thought-provoking and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, SRL Publishing.

Book Review: The Raven Wheel

The Raven Wheel, by AF Stone, is a hard hitting tale of contemporary teenagers whose lives have gone awry due to the actions of their parents. Set in what the protagonists regard as a backwater, near to Stoke-on Trent, they must deal with the fallout from: drug use, mental health issues, and sexual abuse. The author is direct and unflinching in her portrayal of the cost to families when their loved ones sink through the cracks of society’s accepted behaviours. If help is offered and rejected there is little appetite, or resources, for looking beyond what appears obvious – to treat the cause rather than the effect.

Chapters tell the story from alternate character’s points of view. The book opens by introducing Ria, a fifteen year old who self harms. She wishes to reinvent herself and tries to do so when she meets Tye, a couple of years older and living with his nan and younger brother, Kian, after their dad attempted suicide. Kian misses his mum and struggles to comprehend the damage she could do feeding her addiction, and the damage already done.

These three young people are far from innocents. They experience: run-ins with the police, expulsion from school, under age drinking, theft and joyriding. Their families want better for them despite it being the adult’s actions that precipitated the issues being faced. The cycle of problematic behaviour across generations is difficult to break.

The setting moves to a secure unit where mental health patients are treated or, at least, contained. Those still on the outside try to find ways to move on with their lives as best they can. Each of the characters is desperate for freedom to choose their life trajectory, whatever that may mean. It is not just those locked up who feel imprisoned by circumstances they cannot find a way to change.

Plot development is shocking in places but the author has done a fantastic job in keeping it nuanced as well as real. The fast paced action and unmasking of respectable facades will leave the reader breathless as well as appalled. I’m not sure when I last read a book that is so bleak yet also a solid page turner. The circumstances described mirror those we know exist yet too often turn away from.

A wake up call for more empathy and compassion, even towards those who, at face value, bring down trouble on themselves. No easy answers are offered and there is no shying from the devastating impact of certain actions.

The author has created a compelling story with unforgettable impact. Dark and brutal as it may be, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Book Guild.