From the moment Ben Chapman ( ‘Hoodie’ to the other Shady Boys) crashes out of school, determined never to return and, incidentally, seeking his revenge on the school’s drug dealer by stealing and concealing his stash in his trousers on the way out, you know that this is a boy to whom caution and reticence are alien concepts. Outwardly, he maintains that all he wants is a job, his own money and to follow his heart towards the girl of his dreams, Isabelle. But, underneath that concealing hoodie, Ben has a rich inner life, fed by dope, wine and the belief that he is someone special. During his ‘summer of love’, we follow his attempts to engage with the real world with frustration and compassion. His adventures cause him to question today’s competitive, consumer-based values, eventually challenging his perception of reality and prompting him to reflect upon who and what his purpose in life is before finding himself faced with the definitive test of resolve and bravery. Hoodie’s blend of up-to-date realism, dream-like escapism, fast-paced, hard-hitting action, wistful musings, humour and tragedy, all while the story navigates its way on a magical mystery tour of Ben’s mind, ensures an enjoyable read. It provides the perfect antidote to alarmist Daily Mail reporting of youth issues, exploring the problems facing modern day Britain from the perspective of a disempowered, disaffected teenager.
On a deeper level, there is a moral/spiritual sub-text, fed by Ben’s belief that he has a secret weapon; the simian lines (fused head and heart lines) on the palms of his hands. These are extremely rare and noted as being a genetic abnormality shared by drug addicts, mass murderers, scientific researchers and religious fanatics (and, by sheer coincidence, Tony Blair). Could these lines hold the key to his future?
Brendon Lancaster, grew up and still lives in London and has worked for some 25 years in civil service employment.
Deciding that he then wanted to take time to explore and pursue his creative potential, he discovered that writing gave him the ideal opportunity to daydream, although ‘Hoodie’ is his first published work, with a second novel already on the drawing board.
Brendon has stamped his individuality into the storyline, by giving his principal character Ben, one of his own distinguishing features, having simian lines on the palms of both hands.
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“Learn to read life’s signs, boy. They’re all over the place and full of hidden messages. Your head and heart will sniff them out and lead you to your destiny. Follow your instincts and you’ll be sure to find success over failure, distinguish right from wrong, tell truth from reality. You’re gifted boy”
“But speak from the heart”, he said profoundly, “for it is only from there that we can see the truth. What’s essential to life is invisible to the eye!”
I am really struggling to know where to start the discussion about this book, as it stirred so many strong emotions that my allegiances and sympathies constantly shifted back and forth, until I found myself completely ‘sitting on the fence’.
At times I just wanted to put my arms around Ben, let him pour out all his worries and troubles, then help to set him on a hopefully more fulfilling and worthwhile path. Then he would do something so crass and thoughtless, that I just wanted to slap him and tell him that I wanted nothing more to do with him.
Such is the maturity and intensity of Brendon’s superb narrative, with totally believeable and genuine characterisations, relationships and situations.
The book is brutal in its vivid descriptions of the progression through the spectrum of anti-establishment activities, which the gang participates in, and with which they appear to be sending out a challenge, both to authority and to each other, as they increase in intensity and violence … gang membership and violence, teenage sex, underage smoking, alcohol abuse, banned substance abuse, knife culture, illegal possession of firearms, underage driving and murder…
The writing is also perceptive, sensitive, well considered and balanced, when we manage to get Ben on his own and see his true personality begin to develop and expand … Loneliness, aloneness, unhappiness, dysfunctional families who do not communicate, the need to succeed, the feelings that he should start to try and find someone with whom he can share his life. These are all emotions and observations which Ben is more than adequately able to express , when he puts his mind to it and he is not being led and influenced by others in the gang, or is acting the big shot in front of them, with always something to prove. He is actually quite astute and observational when he takes the time to ‘people watch’, concluding that most of them are inherently unhappy and spend most of their time ‘chasing their tails’, in an effort to appear trendy and part of the ‘in crowd’.
At what point, Ben wonders, was his innocence lost, when did everyone become so judgemental of him that he felt the need to close himself off from the outside world into a place of safety and security by hiding behind his hoodie. Why is it that the only person he feels really wants to talk and (more importantly) listen to him, understands him and is sensitive to his vulnerability is Joe, a disreputable tramp?
Joe is perhaps one of the best supporting characters in the book, although he makes the least appearances. Despite his own obvious fall from the mainstream of life, Joe comes across as an educated man, who is quietly aware and sensitive to Ben’s inner turmoil and is genuinely eager for Ben to get on with his life and make something of himself. Things are going well between them, until Joe badly mis-reads the situation and his relationship with Ben, and makes what is to Ben, a devastating revelation, his reaction to which sends them both into a downwards spiral, with disastrous consequences for both and leading to their combined ultimate sacrifice.
I am not sure whether Brendon deliberately wrote the book in such a way, that the reader is almost forced into this position as a neutral observer, however, after much contemplation, I came up with these clear thoughts about the book …. It is, in almost equal measure ….
- Sickeningly Realistic
- Profoundly Touching
- Emotionally Draining
- Uncomfortable, yet unputdownable
Would I give this book to a Young Adult to read? … possibly.
For many, it would certainly be all the deterrent needed to avoid this path to certain, total and ultimate self destruction. However, I would worry that for the certain, albeit small minority group, it might only serve as a catalyst to magnify, glorify and promote to exalted status, the power which ‘Hoodie’ and ‘The Shady Boys’, think they command.
On the other hand, I think that ‘Hoodie’ should be compulsory reading for all guardians of young adults, about to enter the ‘Secondary’, or ‘Middle School’ phase of their education. ‘Hoodie’ is an inspirational work of fiction, which speaks to everyone, regardless of age or social class, so if you don’t think this scenario is ever one that you will face with your own young adult, then be sure to track the character of Isabelle, very closely.
The poignant, emotional and personal poem, with which Brendon chooses to close the story on ‘The Shady Boys’, is a fitting tribute and brings a closure and finality to the book, unlike anything else he may have written in its place.
On a final, lighter note, I loved the cover graphics for ‘Hoodie’, the design for which became apparent as I followed Ben on his travels to the skatepark, and was brought full circle by its obvious link to the book’s title. So many book covers have no cohesion to the storyline in any way, that ‘Hoodie’ provided a refreshing change and set the scene before I even started to read.
As this was an author invitation to read and review, a copy of ‘Hoodie’ was sent to me, as a ‘smashwords’ gift, free of charge by its author, Brendon Lancaster.
This will in no way influence any comments I may express about the book, in any blog article I may post. Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article.
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