Man vs Bookshelf: Junk

This entry is part 21 of 45 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Sex, drugs, prostitution, unplanned pregnancy, homelessness, squatting.

And, now we’ve finished the recap of my weekend, let’s talk about this week’s book.

It’s YA adult Carnegie Medal winner, Junk and it’s about:

Sex, drugs, prostitution, unplanned pregnancy, homelessness, squatting.

Ah, how life mimics art.

Let’s do this.

Melvin Burgess and Me

My knowledge of Burgess is limited, to say the least.

I wrote that line then referred to his bibliography to see if I recognised anything.

Aside from Junk, the topic of this blog, I know I used to own Bloodtide, although I only read the first few pages. And my brother might have read Kite.

So, my relationship with Burgess comes from my knowledge of him as quite a famous author. As well as from this book, Junk, which has long been one of my favourites.

Let’s talk about that.

Junk

Rereading Junk it seems amazing teach gave it us to read in Year Nine (so as a thirteen year old).

Yes, it’s for young adults but it also features sex, drugs and all the other topics mentioned above. It’s quite full on, quite powerful and seems more like something schools would save for at least GCSE.

But then, our English teacher was Scottish, so I guess all bets were off.

As a thirteen-year-old, I was already well into books. To me, they were like friends except I could actually get them and they never used me for help with their homework.

For this reason, my Year Nine teacher was a revelation (such a revelation I now can’t remember her name).

At the start of every lesson, we’d spend ten minutes reading a book of our own choosing which for me was amazing.

I loved reading, as I say. Yet, I hadn’t enjoyed a school book since Biff and Chip and now I was being given the chance to read whatever I wanted.

Then came Junk. The book that Mrs, uh, Scotland, choose for us to read as a class and, well, it blew me away.

It was engaging, it was powerful, it was fast paced, it was exciting, and it was different. I loved it.

So much better than bloody Of Mice and Men and even than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It received points from me just for being a bit more modern (written in 1996, set in the 1980s.)

Until Junk, I had assumed there was a ban on reading books in schools released after the Cold War.

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So it was a landmark moment for me, in school, and one I’ve remembered ever since.

It was because of these memories I bought Junk for myself several years later. And a reason I was dead excited to get into it for this Man vs Bookshelf challenge.

Let me say right now that it stacked up to everything I had remembered.

YA novel or not, it was brilliant, and I can imagine it working for anyone from the age of 13 all the way up to 130.

On Goodreads, I gave it a 4/5 but it was up there (in terms of comparisons to this challenge) with Big Little Lies and Lisey’s Story. As with those, I would have given it a 9/10 if I could.

I’ve not mentioned my hate of the Goodreads five-point scale in a while but, as you can see, I have not forgotten.

So, here we have a brilliant book, but that’s not all I’ve got to say.

Last week I lamented that, with Ayoade on Ayoade, despite loving it, I didn’t feel there was much I could write about.

I asked for something meatier and here it is.

Junk is a fictional book but, as Melvin Burgess says at the beginning, every word of it was true. It contains some powerful messages and themes.

I’m going to split this review in two. One part for the story basics (what makes this story so good). One for important theme based stuff and things and all that jazz.

If that sounds boring and you’d rather do something else then please feel free to read it all anyway.

The Story Basics

Funnily enough, you can draw parallels between Junk, and another book I read recently. The Thin Executioner.

Beyond, I mean, the fact that they are both for Young adults.

I’m referring to the use of messaging in a way that doesn’t make me want to snooze.

Executioner discussed racism and tolerance, while Junk discusses problems around addiction and runaways.

But, neither message ever comes at the expense of story, and that’s key.

One of the things I always hated about school appointed books was the stuffy messaging. Like the author wanted to write a pamphlet and shove it through the door but knew no one would read it. This resolved by framing it around a thin excuse for a story.

This, in my mind, usually makes for a crappy book, often bloated and almost always with terrible pacing.

Of course, that is my opinion.

But it is right.

The Thin Executioner, as I noted at the time, is not like that.

And nor is Junk.

The key strength of Junk is it’s pace, especially given the time covered.

Many less accomplished writers (myself included) struggle to deal with writing books that take place over longer than a few days. Pacing becomes an issue.

If you don’t nail it then you get one of two things. Either your pace becomes far to slow and your story becomes too bloated as you include too much, just to show the passing of time.

Or, you mess up the transitions and make awkward jumps that feel out of place and don’t work within the story.

The flow of Junk is one of its great strengths. It covers several years but you never feel Burgess is jerking you from one time to another. Nor that your spending too long on things that don’t matter.

The transitioning is amazing.

For example, we end one chapter with Tar (one of the main characters) talking about the group getting into Heroin.

Yes, they’re doing heroin, he says, but they’re not using needles.

They’re not that silly.

Then starts the next chapter and very quickly we see someone pressing the plunger on a needle.

We don’t know what pushed them into using needles and it doesn’t matter. What we see here is that they have jumped up a level of their addiction. Time has passed, the situation has changed, and all in a few lines that capture everything.

These easy transitions as time passes and the characters develop is one of the hallmarks of the book.

It’s easy to keep up, and that’s what a story should be.

This effect is also helped by the cast.

The book is first person with different characters taking different chapters. Each character is interesting and multi-dimensional. So it’s an interesting way of keeping the story flowing.

Themes/ Messages

Like most people, I hate thinking.

It makes me sad.

I read and I watch telly and films so I don’t have to think.

But Junk is one of those amazing stories that make you think without you ever realising you’re thinking.

Sneaky bastard.

What I love about the way Burgess portrays his messages is how he examines them from all sides.

The book is called Junk, and its central pillar and story revolve around the developing drug addictions of its main characters.

Gemma and Tar are runaways, the latter coming from a home where he was abused. They get involved in drugs, and prostitution, and whatnot, and we are supposed to see what a horrible situation this all is.

And we do.

But Burgess isn’t here to shout Drugs Are Bad in our faces or to say Stay In School or Don’t Run Away from Home or Don’t Have Sex etc. Etc.

He’s here to examine those topics through the story in a way that doesn’t just look at the negative.

So, yes, we see the way heroin and homelessness tear the characters’ lives apart. But we believe because we first got to see their rationalising of the drugs. We know how it made them feel when it was fresh and new. We understand why they fall further and further into the hole.

The way the narrative builds makes it plausible to us that Gemma and Tar get into stealing and prostitution to continue to feed their habit. That they steal drugs from friends who OD’s using it because they aren’t going to need it anymore.

By the time we get to the Climax, when Gemma is given a reason to try and change, and to stick to it, it all gets very emotional.

I may even have cried.

Although I’d never admit that.

Uh…

The ending did not disappoint.

The book did not disappoint.

It’s one of the best books out there and I would recommend anyone get on and read it.

If you can only read one thing this year then, well, that’s pathetic.

But make it this.

No, wait, make it my book, Poor Choices.

Yeah, that’ll be good.

Next Time

Next time up we’re back into the world of hard to review non-fiction (yay!) and it’s with a book about that legend of English football…

Our World Cup hero.

Bobby Moore.

Americans and Rugby fans need not apply (no wait, come back!)

See you then.

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International worst selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). Recently he is taking the internet by storm with his Man vs Bookshelf Challenge where he aims to read the 210 books on his bookshelf in 210 weeks, reviewing them on his blog and Goodreads along the way. He is also publishing books on Amazon, his most recent being the family suspense novel, Poor Choices, which you can find here.

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