Sunday 17 June 2012

YA REVIEW - 'Kill All Enemies', Melvin Burgess (Penguin, 2011)

14-year-old Billie has managed to alienate nearly everyone who has ever meant anything to her - her mother, her foster parents, her friends. Rob has been labelled a bully, but is struggling to cope with a violent stepfather and absent mother. Chris is always quick with a smart remark but struggles at school and has his parents putting pressure on him to change his ways. When they end up at the Brandt Pupil Referral Unit, care worker Hannah tries to help them overcome their problems. But is it too late for one of them?

I ashamed to admit that I'd never actually picked up a Melvin Burgess book before this one. Which is a terrible, terrible thing as he a lord of UKYA and in particular, the sort of YA that I love reading - contemporary, angsty, hormone-fuelled pages that drip with ISSUES and RAGE and FURROWED BROWS.

Kill All EnemiesAnd even though I've got two of his books sitting on my shelf already, just waiting to be devoured, I wanted this to be my First Melvin Burgess. Why? I was just attracted to everything about it - teenagers on the fringes of society, the fantastic title, the RAAAHHHH cover, the split narratives (love a great split narrative). It all sounded brilliant.

Mmmm, well. Yes, umm...

It's not that I didn't like it. Because I did. There are so many things to commend it - it is an ambitious, controversial subject he tackles here and it could so easily have fallen apart and just become one big messy old mess. I'm sometimes weary of books that wear their issues on their sleeves - it can be so easy to simplify and trivialise these things and it takes a writer of great skill to do these characters justice. And I'm pleased to say that Mr. burgess does just that.

He doesn't choose to tackle only one 'problem' teenager, but three. On the surface, these kids, especially Billie, wouldn't garner much sympathy from most - from the first page, the reader is treated to an onslaught of her violent, unpredictable temper. But all three are allowed to tell their own story in a convinving voice. From Billie, who struggles to articulate her emotions  through any way, other than with her fists, shy, frustrated Rob and, my personal favourite, Chris - quick-witted and smart but stubborn to the point of you really want to shove his head through a wall on a number of occasions. He provides some much needed and very welcome comic relief. And his logic is oddly convincing, especially when putting his arguments forward about exactly why he shouldn't be doing any homework

Even if you are stupid enough to want to go to uni and run up massive debts, why not wait until you're nineteen or twenty? You don't even have to do all those stupid A-levels then. You can do a nice, easy, one-year access course and get in almost for free because you're a grown-up. Why bust a gut doing it he hard way now, when you can do it the easy way, just by waiting a few years?

But like I said before, it's an ambitious book and he doesn't always pull it off. So much happens in not that many words and some scenes which I would consider important, are glossed over. The time span here was very confusing. With one character we are given the impression that several days, maybe weeks, have past, then we move back to another and it only feels like hours, yet the story lines tally up. One particularly harrowing and disturbing incident involving Billie is given particularly short shrift - the situation that she finds herself in is possibly one of the most terrifying any young girl, or woman, could be in, but the whole incident feels so rushed. I would have loved a bit more insight into Billie's thoughts and feelings - she was such a complex character, I just felt a bit cheated out of really 'getting' her.

And you know when you want two characters to get together but clearly the author has entirely different ideas? That's really annoying, right? Well, it happened here for me. I won't give anything away, but I reckon he really missed a trick on that one.

Now I come to the sticking point which really prevented me from enjoying this book completely. Dividing the narrative between three - good job well done. He's a talented writer and he manages it here, apart from the points I've mentioned already. But adding a fourth perspective into the mix? It might have worked if it had provided any genuine insight and had been an engaging character, but care worker Hannah only succeeded in making me get a major case of character RAGE. Her holier than thou, condescending tone just annoyed the shit out of me to be honest. Was she supposed to annoy and infuriate? I don't know, I really don't. I'm guessing her narrative was there to provide an informed, outsider's opinion on these kids and some sort of explanation as to why they behave like they do. But, honestly, I think the author did a good job of conveying these points to the reader through the kids perspective...and would have done an even better job if he used the words he wasted on Hannah and gave us a bit more Billie, Rob and Chris.

If I were to meet a Hannah in real life I suspect I would have a strong urge to do a Billie on her. Ok, maybe just roll my eyes at her a lot.

And the close bond she was supposed to have with Billie, which felt like the whole reason for the inclusion of her perspective, was never properly explained - we are told that she loves her, but without putting this in context, it just felt a bit,,,meh.

I can't not mention the ending - MINOR SPOILER ALARM. OK MAYBE NOT ALARM, MORE LIKE LITTLE TINKLING BELL - would everything really be tied up so neatly, all thanks to the power of death metal? And why the rush to the end? Before I knew it, everyone was all smiles (or as smiley as you can be screaming metal into a mic), and I was thumbing back through the pages, convinced I'd  missed a major plot point.

I feel very strongly, VERY STRONGLY, that these sorts of stories have to be written and need to be told and this book does it extremely well indeed. Just more of the brilliant characters and less of the daft music story lines and MUCH LESS of annoying care workers called Hannah who like to point out the bleeding obvious.

So less is more. Or is that more is more? I'm confused. But I can say with absolute certainty that I will be working my way through Mr. Burgess's back catalogue in the next few months. *picks up copy of Doing It* *gasps* *clutches pearls*


  1. Hahaha, brill review Anna.
    I've wanted to read this book for aaaaages now (that cover is absolutely amazing.. I just love it). Sorry you weren't completely enamoured with this one though.

    The only other Burgess book I've read is Junk and... well, I wimped out of writing a review for that because I am a wimp. Very harrowing, very terrifying, very good.

    1. Have you got a copy of this? If not, I will send you mine. I'm not sure whether I'm being overly picky with this one. It really is rather good, but it's just the ending and bloody Hannah...grrr

  2. I'm ashamed to admit I've never read a Melvin Burgess book before. I guess I will have to change that soon. ;)

    Amazing review, Anna. It's a shame Hannah had so much screen time... I think you've convinced me that I don't like her either before having even met her. :P I will have to give this book a shot one day. :)

    1. This is definitely worth a read, Sam. Reading this back, I'm starting to think I may have been a little hard on Hannah, but then I remember and yes, she IS that annoying ;)

  3. Wow. While I enjoyed reading your review, it is clear that I enjoyed this book way more than you did :) Oh well, can't win 'em all, right? :)

    1. I really, really wanted to like it more than I did. I just loved the teenagers, especially Billie and Chris and just wanted more of them and less of Hannah

  4. I have two of his books on my shelf too, mostly because I keep reading about how he's the best UK YA writer, but I am yet to read them, so thanks for the reminder.

    I haven't heard of this one but it really appeals to me. It's a shame about the pacing with each different character, that would bug me too, I don't like feeling like I've missed things, only to realise it's the author who seems to have lost track of what day it's supposed to be. And shame about Hannah, she sounds like a pain.

    But, I am keen to read his books and I'll deffo get to this one when I can!

    1. Even though I didn't completely love this one, I can't wait to read more of his stuff :)