27 January 2013

Review: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

"Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret - a dark and terrible secret that she can't confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is not stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder. Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can - in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal."

I was hugely impressed by Ketchup Clouds - I was nervous because I had such high expectations due to the huge success of My Sister but thankfully this more than matched them. Annabel's real talent lies in creating such wonderful, believable characters and I felt for Zoe so very much that I got really emotionally invested in her story. The gradual reveal of Zoe's secret builds to a very tense climax with an emotional denouement that left me a bit teary. I would be very surprised not to see this on as many awards shortlists as My Sister.

First Line: "Dear Mr. S. Harris, ignore the blob of red in the top left corner."

Why I read it: I loved Annabel's debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, so I was super excited  to read her new book.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of My Sister (although the content is darker in Ketchup Clouds), and readers looking for a beautifully compelling exploration of relationships and guilt.

Ketchup Clouds is told entirely through Zoe's letters to Stuart Harris, a convicted murderer on death row in Texas. She starts her letters talking about the present before giving him the next chapter of the story that led up to now. The intimacy of the letters works beautifully to tell Zoe's story as the freedom Zoe feels to tell this stranger everything allows her to completely honest. I found myself empathising with Zoe to a huge degree, even though I've never experienced anything like what she does, but I think we can all relate to guilt for things big or small and Pitcher really captures those feelings to an almost uncomfortable level. I know a lot of people responded to the character of Zoe's little sister, Dot, and whilst I did love her, I found confused, flawed Zoe to be just overwhelmingly wonderful. All the characters are carefully drawn; her parents are dealing with their own challenges and secrets and I found the male characters are satisfyingly realistic. Whilst on paper they are a sporty jock type and an artsy, intelligent guy, they both have more to them than that, making the story that much less black and white.

I really don't want to give away anything about the story because part of the pleasure of reading Ketchup Clouds is piecing it together as Zoe tells Stuart and being desperate to find out exactly what happened. The reveal is done cleverly as we get  hints and clues and we know right from the start that someone is dead but the who and why and when and all of that is revealed slowly, kind of a simpler, teen version of The Secret History (a comparison I don't use lightly, The Secret History is one of my all time favourites). I was constantly switching being theories about what I thought had happened, and whilst I did end up being pretty sure I knew at least the who, the why was still very gratifying.

As a very brief aside, I'm not convinced about the cover, I think white covers are difficult to pull off and makes it look as though it's audience should be a bit younger than it actually is, I think perhaps it has a little bit too much writing on. But that is such a small complaint, and nothing to do with Annabel's story, and at least it doesn't have some girl in a ballgown and eyeliner on the front.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading a young adult novel (although technically I think it's being marketed as crossover/new adult if you want to be pernickity) that had guilt, and a real world guilt, as it's focus as well as a mature and realistic approach to relationships that captures the confusion and messiness that romantic feelings can cause as well as the excitement. This is a book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to my students, as well as adults, and a book that makes me proud to work in the UK children's book industry. It is fresh and unique and most importantly, you can't put it down.

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