Wednesday 6 September 2017

Guest Blog Post + Novel Extract: The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell (Children's, 9 years +)

Book summary
I am how I've always been.
My name is Auden Dare.
I am eleven years old.

Auden Dare has an unusual perspective on life: he cannot see in colour. He's always had this rare condition - and life is beginning to get harder for Auden. The war for water that is raging across the world is getting a little closer all the time. It hardly rains any more, anywhere. Everyone is thirsty all the time, and grubby, and exhausted. Auden has to learn to live without his father, who is away fighting, and has had to move to a new town with his mother, and start a new school, where everyone thinks he's a weirdo. But when he meets Vivi Rookmini, a smiling girl bright with cleverness, his hopes begin to lift.

It soon becomes clear to Auden, though, that there are some strange things afoot in his new hometown. He and his mother have moved into the old cottage of his recently-dead uncle Jonah Bloom - a scientist and professor at the university. The place is in disarray - and although Auden's mother tells him it's because Jonah was a messy old thing, Auden knows differently. Someone else did this - someone who was looking for something of Jonah's. Auden had heard too that Jonah was working on something that could cure Auden's condition - could this be it?

Then Auden and Vivi make an extraordinary discovery. Hidden away under the shed at the bottom of Jonah's garden is an engimatic and ingenious robot, who calls himself Paragon. A talking, walking, human-like robot. Apparently built by Jonah - but why? The answer to this will take Auden and Vivi on a thrilling journey of discovery as they seek to find out just what exactly Paragon is - and what link he has to Auden - and find that the truth is bigger and more wonderful than either of them could have imagined.

Nayu's thoughts
This is up a little later than planned (but still made it on publication day!). It's not a review, as I haven't read the book and right now kind of want a lighter read, but I liked the sound enough that I thought all of you would like it too. Zillah kindly did a guest blog post about what she'd like readers to take away from the book, and at the end of that post there's the first 2 chapters to entice you in to Auden's world!  

Please excuse format issues - of course when I'm in a hurry Blogger doesn't want to play ball...

Roles, Robots, Rain by Zellah Bethell

Meet Zellah!
The themes in The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare I refer to as My Three R’s.
Roles, robots, rain. 

Roles. How we play them, fulfil them. Our roles as sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, friends, workers… How they confine us sometimes and how we want to slip them, reinvent ourselves beyond them. How would that feel – to slip out from under the assumptions other people have of us, their preconceived view of us. And how would they react to our doing so? Would they be admiring? Would they be afraid? And could we get back in if we ever broke out? Is that what stops us trying? 

In The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, Paragon is a robot but not quite what he seems. He slips out of his role into somebody we can love. One of us. He shows us that we really can be more than the sum of our parts. Artificial intelligence, Stephen Hawking says, will be the best or worst thing to happen to humanity. Our salvation or our destruction. Can we create machines that will supersede us? Machines that make jokes, grow old, have a conscience? Will we create machines that can repair the damage humans have done? Will we create our own immortality?

And rain. So annoying to us in this country. Those ridiculously wet summers. And yet so precious and rare in other parts of the world. So rare that it is fought over, traded, leased, black-marketed, bargained with. Like houses, dolls, a piece of candy. A commodity. Something we thought of as free. Something we thought belonged to everyone. Like sunshine. Or air. Perhaps one day they will have to be paid for too. Bought and sold, traded and bargained for. Cans of air. Marbles of sunshine.

So there you have My Three R’s.

Roles, robots, rain.

Chapters 1 and 2 of The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell

Chapter One – A Difficult Word to Pronounce.

Sometimes, after school, I stand and watch the traffic lights. I stand and wait for the red to turn to amber and then the amber to turn to green. Not that I understand what is meant by red, amber or green. They are just words to me. Words to describe things, to tell one thing from another. To pick things apart. Only, that’s something I just can’t do. The top light is red, the middle one is amber, the bottom light is green. I know that much. Like a fact from history that means nothing nowadays. Like the names of Egyptian kings and queens, or the ancient tribes of Great Britain. But if somebody had got up early one morning and turned the lights upside down – switched them around – I never would have known. They all look exactly the same to me. They all look the same sort of gooey grey.
            Green, blue, red, pink, purple, yellow.
            I don’t understand any of them. Not one.
            I have a condition, you see. It’s got a funny name – a long name – that I can barely pronounce or spell. It sounds impressive, I know. But having a condition with a long name that you can barely pronounce or spell isn’t much of a comfort when you can’t even tell which side in football you’re on at school. (The number of times I’ve given the ball away to the opposing team…!)
            Not that I notice my condition most of the time. I suppose everyone gets used to everything about themselves. I’m used to seeing everything look black and white and a washed out grey. Everything.
I mean, it’s not even like I was once okay. I’ve always had this condition. Right from my very first breath. It would be worse, I’m sure, if once upon a time I had been able to see colour. Then I would know precisely what it was I had lost.
But the truth is I didn’t lose anything.
I am how I’ve always been.
My name has always been Auden Dare.
I am eleven years old.

Chapter Two – The Bot Job.
Over the years my mother developed lots of ways to avoid using colour to describe things to me - she would try to use other means to single things out. She counts – ‘the second one along’ sort of thing. She compares sizes – ‘the third smallest’. She does both at the same time - ‘the fourth smallest in the fifth row’. She even uses the alphabet to describe different shades of a colour (A is the very lightest and, theoretically, Z would be the darkest. However she only ever really gets up to a D or an E as her feel for shades is a little too crude for an entire twenty-six letters). When I was really young, she drew symbols to help me understand the colours of certain things. For green she would draw an apple. For blue she would draw two wavy lines. She would scribble them on stickers and go around putting the stickers on everything so that I got to understand which things were which colour. I don’t think she did it for my benefit though. I mean, it didn’t actually bother me to know if a particular jumper was red or yellow. But I think she did it so that I wouldn’t struggle around other people and stand out too much from the crowd. She did it so that I wouldn’t look too much of a freak.
            However… having said all that… even though my mother had come up with some inventive ways of avoiding making reference to colour, sometimes – just sometimes – it would slip her busy mind.
            Like it did the day she bought the Bot Job.
            ‘I’ve bought a car,’ she said pulling her coat off and slamming the front door behind her.
            ‘You’ve bought a car?’ I replied. ‘Why?’
            She hooked the coat over the hanger on the back of the door and ignored my question.
            ‘Don’t you want to know what sort of car it is?’
            I put the pencil and my magnifying glass down on the pad of paper. I’d barely started the sketch of Sandwich curled up and purring on her cushion, her eyes squashed shut, contentedly dreaming of baby birds and tiny mice. All I’d drawn so far were her ears.
            ‘Okay then. What sort of a car is it?’
            ‘Not sure. I don’t know much about cars. All I know is it’s a big one.’
            I sighed. ‘A big one?’
            Mum nodded.  ‘Have a look for yourself. I’ve parked it out front.’
            ‘How much did you pay for it?’ I pulled the curtains aside and peered down to the road, ten flights down. A number of cars – all of them old -– were lined up on the sides of the road, each of them waiting for their owners to return to spark them back to life.
            ‘How much? Only a quarter of a million pounds.’
            ‘A quarter of a million?’ I couldn’t believe it. You couldn’t get any car for a quarter of million nowadays. It must’ve been a real bot job. Perhaps it only had three wheels or something.  Perhaps the passengers had to hold their legs up because of the holes in the floor. ‘That’s cheap.’ I turned back to look at my mother who was now kneeling in front of the chest of drawers and pulling out lots of pieces of paper. ‘I bet it doesn’t even go,’ I added, hardly able to hide my suspicions. ‘If that’s all it cost.’
            Mum did her scowl face at me. ‘Of course it goes. Drives very well. It got me back here all the way from Romford, didn’t it?’ She took the large pile of paper and shoved it roughly into a plastic bag, before opening up another drawer and doing exactly the same. ‘Honestly, Auden. You should have more faith.’
            I looked back down at the segmented snake of cars below. ‘Which one is it?’
            And that was when she did it.
            ‘The green one. The long green one.’
            ‘Oh,’ she shoved the large bag aside, stood up and came over to the window. ‘Sorry, Auden. I didn’t mean to do it.’ She snapped the elastic band she kept around her wrist for such occasions against her thin skin. A tiny punishment for a tiny crime.  ‘You know what I’m like. Too much on my mind.’ She looked out of the window and stabbed her finger downwards. ‘That one there. This side. One, two, three along.’
            I could see it. It had a long bonnet and a long roof and looked as if some giant creature had picked it up at both ends and stretched it.
            ‘It is big.’
            We stood there in silence for a while, watching the people down below coming and going like dust on the breeze. Behind us on the sofa, Sandwich gave a short squeak, and clawed the corner of her little, fluff-covered cushion. She scratched it hard, pulling out threads.
            ‘I don’t understand why you’ve bought a car,’ I said. ‘We don’t need one.’
            ‘You know why,’ she answered, not even bothering to turn to look at me. ‘We talked about this last week.’
            It was true. We had talked about it last week. Or should I say she talked about it while I tried my best not to listen.
            ‘Yeah, but what about Dad?’
            ‘What about him?’
            ‘Well, when he comes back home, he’s not going to know where we are.’
            She reached along the windowsill and tried her best to give my hand a gentle squeeze. ‘It’ll be alright. I’ll write him a letter.’
            A letter? What good was writing a letter?
‘But he’s fighting. You can’t just send him a letter. He won’t get it. It’ll just get lost or something. It’ll get trampled into the mud in Paris or Rome or wherever he is. Then, when the war’s over and he comes back here, he won’t find us.’
            She leaned in close, trying to hug me and kiss me on the head. But I wasn’t having any of it. I am eleven years old, after all.
            ‘Silly,’ she said. ‘He’ll know where we are. Don’t worry.’
            Out of the window a Scoot drone – one of the ones with reflectors for eyes and extended antennae - hovered its way along the street, its tiny camera head swinging left to right to left to right to left as it went. The sound of the buzzing wings dropped a semitone as it passed by, watching out for trouble on the streets below. Eventually it disappeared from view.
            ‘So…’ It was no good fighting it. It was all going to go ahead anyway, regardless of what I said or thought. She obviously thought it was for the best. ‘When do we go?’
            ‘I’ve given two days notice on this place. I’ve notified the Water Allocation Board and the War Authority, so we’ll have to pack up and be gone by Thursday.’
            It wasn’t like there was a great deal to pack up anyway. We didn’t own much stuff. A load of clothes; a stick or two of furniture; a handful of books; some documents and papers; Sandwich. That was about it. Two days was more than enough in which to pack all that away. We could probably do it three times over in that amount of time.
            ‘When we get there,’ Mum added quickly, keen to stop me from changing my mind again, ‘we’ll find a nice school for you. A good school this time. Somewhere you can make friends. Yes?’
            I wandered over to where Sandwich was yawning and stroked her until she began to dribble.
It may well have been a bot job (the way the doors rattled every time you opened them seemed to suggest that it had never been exposed to a single human being during its construction, only robots) but the car was massive. Absolutely massive. It had more than enough room to fit all of our belongings, and by the time we had finished filling it, there was still space for a few more suitcases and crates. I propped Sandwich - who was in her wicker basket - on top of a box of books just behind my seat and, after we had said our goodbyes to the empty flat and the neighbours who couldn’t have cared less about us anyway, we strapped ourselves into the car and headed off.
            At the garage, Mum filled the Bot Job full of the cheap petrol – price at an all time low apparently - and then, reluctantly, added some of the much much more expensive water to the water reservoir.
            ‘It’s a long trip, I’m afraid,’ she said climbing back into the driver’s seat. ‘Might take us a few hours. Make yourself comfortable.’
            The car rumbled unconvincingly along beneath us as my mother steered and braked and crunched gears in spectacular fashion, speeding up through the narrow, twisting streets of east London. There seemed to be very little traffic on the road. A couple of other cars. A few food lorries. Some war effort supply vans. A heavily protected water tanker. One or two refugees with heavy packs on their backs or pushing handcarts full of possessions. That was about it.
            As we drove on – the Bot Job giving out the occasional backfiring bang - the buildings became smaller and fewer, and the roads longer and straighter. Eventually, the city faded into the countryside and the trees began to cluster together in dry looking patches. There weren’t many trees, not since the rains slowed and water got scarce. Field after field of ornamental cactuses lined the roads while small towns and villages swept by.
            ‘Let’s play I-Spy,’ Mum suddenly sounded weirdly enthusiastic. If only Dad was here, I thought, so they could jabber on together while I sat in the back listening to music.
            ‘I’m not four years old!’
            ‘Go on. You go first.’
            I sighed. ‘Erm… I-Spy with my little eye something beginning with…er… R.’
            ‘Road!’ she shouted triumphantly.
            ‘You got it.’
            ‘That was easy. Do another one.’
            ‘Okay then. I-Spy with my little eye something beginning with… T.’
            ‘No. No trucks here anyway.’
            ‘Er…’ Her eyes scanned around trying to find something. ‘Telegraph pole?’
            ‘I give up. What is it?’
            ‘So you’ve had ‘Road’ and you’ve had ‘ Tarmac’. Hmm. I think I see a pattern emerging.’
            ‘It’s pretty much all I’ve seen for the last two hours.’
            ‘Well, not to worry,’ Mum smiled. ‘We’re nearly there.’
            Having consulted my QWERTY ten minutes earlier, I knew this already. Cambridge was five miles away and at the speed we were travelling (fifty miles an hour which, for my mother, is speedy let me tell you) we would be there in six minutes. I also knew that the chance of precipitation was nil (as always) though breeze was fair to moderate, that Cambridge was the epicentre of good taste and vending machines and that the vintage cinema on Collier Road was screening a black and white movie for the Old & Mouldies, even distributing free popcorn to those who still possessed a set of their own teeth.
            I eyed my mother sideways wondering whether to try the joke out on her but decided against it. She looked tired and strained and her hands were gripping the steering wheel like she was going a heck of a lot faster than fifty miles an hour.
            ‘Yippedee do dey!’ I said, trying to reach behind my seat to stroke Sandwich through the bars of her basket.

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