Chantelle Atkins is an English author who certainly seems to have writing in her DNA. She says she has been writing for as long as she can remember. And has always been a reader too; always with her head in a book. Well, the two usually go together, do they not? As a child she had to, and still to this day Chantelle needs to escape, she says, to dream, to make believe, which to state the blindingly obvious is what writers of fiction do of course. But even so, she really exemplifies that.
To quote from her Amazon author profile:
‘I never decide or aim to write about anything in particular; instead I am at the mercy of the characters who enter my head, set up home and start talking. Their stories start to unfold, their voices get louder and writing begins. To me, the characters are everything. If you cannot make a reader care about them, a fantastic plot is worthless. If I can make a reader shed a tear or two, then I feel I have done my job.’
Certainly, Chantelle’s work, whilst gritty and often dark, is compelling, intense and takes you by the emotional throat. You can’t be apathetic. She writes with humanity and compassion, provoking your empathy with her very realistic, often flawed characters.
To date she has published three novels: The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, parts one and two, and The Mess of Me. These might all be described as Young Adult, as they have teenage protagonists, although the subject matter is unflinchingly adult. Remarkably (and precociously!) The Boy (etc) was begun when Chantelle was just twelve years old. As I say: writing must be in her genes! It certainly won’t be kept down, it seems.
Her latest novel, This Is Nowhere, will be out very soon. Keep your eyes peeled!
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (part one)
Having moved towns to escape his mother’s ex-boyfriend/stalker, Danny is consumed with anger, and he just wants to fight. It’s what he does best. He soon makes friends with the local misfits and troublemakers and finds himself embarking on a thrilling musical journey. We follow his exploits with school bullies, the girl from the nice end of town, and his attempts to scare boyfriends away from his beautiful single mother. However things become darker when she is swept off her feet by powerful local nightclub owner, Lee Howard, who is a dangerous psychopath who seems to be addicted to violence, and there are very few adults who will believe a word Danny says. The story is told from both points of view, Danny’s and Howard’s. Who is he, and what does he ultimately want from Danny? With his own personal soundtrack in his head, Danny explores the power of music, how it gives him hope, and becomes an obsession. A story about music, dreams, first love, the friends who would do anything to save you, and the choice between escaping, or fighting back…
Being a bit of an old softy, I would not normally have regarded this as my sort of book. Not, you understand, because I usually consume Mills and Boon, far from it, but this is at the other end of the spectrum and is extremely gritty, edgy stuff. But it’s compelling.
Yes, at times, when Danny is for the umpteenth time angrily rejecting his mum’s clumsy attempts to reach out to him, you feel you want to give him a good shake – or at least a little grown-up’s lecture about seeing the other’s point of view. But at other times, when he’s suffering abuse, you want to cry for him. Either way you can’t be indifferent, and in this alone the author scores a full five stars from me. Involvement, and empathy most of the time, with the disturbed young protagonist is compulsory.
And he’s a well-drawn and utterly believable character. It’s a cliché but in this case it’s true: Ms Atkins’ characters are certainly not one-dimensional or constructed of cardboard. They’re proper, complex, grey as opposed to black-or-white creations. I even found myself feeling a smidgeon (but only a smidgeon) of sympathy for the control-freak stepfather as he reacts in the only way he knows how to Danny’s implacable hostility.
This book will certainly make you think and confront some uncomfortable notions. So kudos to the author for that too. And technically it’s excellent.
Very well done indeed; it’s a great read!
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (part two)
Danny’s story continues…His mother has married Lee Howard, psychotic nightclub owner and violent control freak, while Danny has been befriended by his creepy sidekick ex-copper Jack Freeman. Keeping his friends at bay for their own safety, Danny spends his days in a drug induced haze, relying only on music and his job in The Record Shop to keep him going. When Anthony is released from prison, he vows to help Danny escape, and with a bit of help from drug dealer Jaime, he soon uncovers the vile truth behind both men. Will Anthony and Michael be able to help Danny, without putting their own lives at risk? Will Lucy and Danny ever get together? Will Danny’s mother finally learn the truth about her successful and charming husband? Told from Howard’s point of view as well as Danny’s; what is it Howard really wants from him, and will Danny ever be able to give it to him? A gritty, uncompromising story comes to its brutal and violent climax when Danny and his friends make a bid for a new life…Howard is not about to let them go that easily…
Having read and been totally gripped by the first book of this author’s two-parter, I couldn’t wait to read what became of hapless, cruelly abused Danny. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
He’s painted as a rough diamond in some ways but Ms Atkins, avoiding the temptation to depict her characters as either fully black or unblemished white (Danny smokes, does drugs and swears like a trooper), has the clever knack of making him wholly sympathetic. There is a lot of nuance and humanity here. I felt I wanted to take him home with me and show him parental love for the first time in his sad, dysfunctional life. I felt completely involved.
The tension throughout the book is maintained superbly, skilfully building to a searing, well-resolved and utterly believable denouement that takes your breath away. And the epilogue is deeply touching and satisfying.
The book is thought-provoking too; it reminds us that there are usually deep-seated reasons for messed-up minds, even those of psychopaths. A very commendable piece of literature, that puts me in mind of the grittiness of Minette Walters. If you prefer your reading matter ‘real’ complete with un-airbrushed warts, rather than frothy and escapist, read this. I thoroughly recommend it.
I’ve dipped into Chantelle’s novel The Mess Of Me and it looks equally promising of great things. I’m so glad I discovered this author. Keep them coming, Ms Atkins!
The Mess Of Me
“I want to punch myself in the stomach, I want to smash my face into the wall and watch the blood run down. I slide my hands down onto my stomach instead. I search for the rise and the fall. I feel for my ribs. I calm myself down by thinking about fading away.”
Lou Carling is 16 and obsessed with getting thinner. Joe is her best friend, and last night they found something they shouldn’t have in Joe’s older brothers wardrobe. Travis and Leon are shady figures, leading shadier lives, and during one summer Lou and Joe find themselves pulled into the drama, the confusion and the violence. Will Joe go to any lengths to impress his older brothers? Will Lou’s obsession with losing weight spiral out of control? Is Marianne, her self-harming friend, really her friend, or an enemy in disguise? And will Lou and Joe ever be more than just best friends?—
I’m tempted to say that this is vintage Chantelle Atkins, implying that she’s a writer with an impressively long back list. In fact that’s not so, which makes The Mess Of Me all the more remarkable, because it’s written with considerable maturity and verve and self-confidence for only a second novel (her other ones, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side parts 1 and 2, are strictly speaking one long book split into two). In this context, for ‘vintage’ read ‘quality,’ not ‘quantity.’
This second outing follows a similar pattern to ‘Boy,’ in that it centres around a teenager with ‘issues’ in addition to the usual ones often afflicting young people (and the secondary characters are sometimes burdened with problems too). In this case you are taken on a journey into the mind of troubled, often stroppy (so what’s new?), anorexic Lou, and by extension that of her lifelong-so-far friend Joe. Theirs is a purely platonic relationship but Lou, although she refuses to acknowledge the fact, is beginning to feel the first hormonal stirrings of sexual attraction – indeed, love.
I really liked the way Ms Atkins wrote this book in the first person/present tense voice. It conferred immediacy and strong involvement; I really felt I was there sharing Lou’s often troubled and sometimes downright traumatic experiences.
The tension built steadily to a dramatic, heart-stopping climax – with a second one involving a secondary character thrown into the steaming cauldron for good measure – and I had to read the last five chapters non-stop through to the emotional, very affecting end.
This book isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s very sweary for one thing (although I believe the second edition has been toned down in that regard) and cruelty is depicted unflinchingly. But if you’re like me, you’ll be completely hooked and crave to know how Lou and Joes’ troubles are resolved.
Very, very enjoyable. Congratulations to the author on a wonderful read!
This Is Nowhere
Jake Morgan has never been scared of dying. It’s living he can’t quite commit to. Homeless, jobless and aimless, he thinks he is happy. Then one night his estranged sister Gina calls him back to the home he ran away from as a teenager. Their father is suffering from dementia and she thinks it is about time Jake grew up. With nowhere else to go, and loan sharks on his back, Jake returns to the small village he grew up in. He goes back to help his father, but ends up being forced to face the question he ran from. What really happened to his mother who vanished in 1996? Jake decides it’s time he had some answers, if only to stop himself constantly wondering what the point of his existence is. Will he be able to get Gina on side to uncover the truth? Will his confused father be able to help him work out what was wrong with his mother? And when he finds it, will Jake really be able to handle the truth? This Is Nowhere is a story about a family blown apart by untold truths. A mystery that must be solved in order for a fragile young man to find some meaning in life.
Here is a sample chapter from the book:
He left the next morning without waking May, and without saying goodbye. He merely wrote ‘thanks’ on the newspaper she had poked him with and left it on the bed beside her. He grabbed his things; heaving a bin liner over each shoulder and moments later he was outside, yet again leaving some kind of life behind. He tried not to think about it or dwell on it as he started off down the street, not wanting the weight of it to slow him down. He tried not to think ahead, to where he would be by the end of the day and he tried to ignore the fiery stabs of pain that were already stoking up his guts.
Old man Sullivan laughed and cheered and clapped when he saw him coming, and then duly bent over double with a coughing fit. Jake smiled at him wearily. ‘See you later Sully.’
‘Come back and see us, will you?’ Sully leaned on him while he coughed.
‘Course I will,’ Jake shrugged, not knowing if he really would. He looked up at the sky and drank in the great blue vastness of it all, whilst helplessly feeling like a man returning to the scene of his crimes. It was not his choice, he reminded himself, feeling that ever-present stirring of sulky resentment in his belly. My hand is being forced, he told himself dramatically, I am being forced out and forced back, and they are all conspiring against me. He sighed without meaning to, as Sully’s coughing eased off enough for him to grin.
‘I would say good luck sunshine, but I hate saying it.’
‘What does it mean?’ Sully asked, and Jake remembered that the old man was good at that; saying something obscure and then throwing questions back at you when you asked why. Jake shrugged.
‘Guess it just means good luck.’
‘Don’t believe in luck,’ Sully said shortly. ‘Don’t believe in fate either.’
Jake gazed up the hill, at the road that led away from the seafront, the road that would lead him down the high street and towards the station. ‘What do you believe in then?’ He thought he may as well ask Sully, in case he never saw him again.
‘The thing I’ve been closest to my entire life,’ Sully replied without hesitation, pointing a finger very deliberately into Jake’s face. ‘The thing that’s made me and ruined me and comforted me and thwarted me, time and time again.’ He stood before Jake then, his shoulders shaking as he took in the young man’s troubled expression.
‘God?’ he tried. Sully bellowed hot beer laced breath into his face.
“Nature, you fuckwit! Nature!’
Jake nodded, feeling lost. ‘Of course. Well I better go. Any words of wisdom or advice to a young man who feels like he’s heading back into the lion’s den?’
‘Yeah,’ Sully said, fiddling with a roll up as he started to turn away. ‘Get on with it.’
Jake waited for more but there was none. He sighed again, hoisted up his bin liners, realising morosely that there lay his entire life thrown haphazardly into two plastic bags. Everything that had survived his rambling, his wandering and his feeble attempts to set up home, it was all there in those bags. At least he hoped so. He hadn’t exactly been given the chance to pack up himself. He turned and started to trudge up the hill. It felt like the heaviest walk of his life.
The road that led down to the station was lined with antique shops, second hand shops and fast food outlets, most of which had not opened yet. Jake listened to the rumblings in his stomach and walked on past them all. At the station he pushed through the double doors, crossed over the walkway and trotted down the steps on the other side. The train would take him to Redchurch, and he hoped Gina would pick him up from there, or it would be another hour-long walk from there to the tiny village of Herne. He dumped his bags on the grimy station floor, pulled out his phone, found her number and rang it.
‘Yes?’ she answered impatiently on the third ring.
‘Can you pick me up on the other side?’ he asked, yawning.
‘You said you were on the train last night.’
‘I nearly was,’ Jake lied, as another yawn stretched his face. ‘Then something happened. It doesn’t matter. I’m at the station now. Shall I text you when I’m on the train?’
‘Yes, all right then. See you soon.’
Gina hung up and Jake stretched out his legs and folded his arms behind his head. Going home, he thought, feeling the impudent urge to kick out at the bag nearest to his foot. Yes sir, no sir, I’m going home like you all wanted, right from the start, so what does that mean? You’ve all won, and I have lost. He stared in a dazed-like state at the edge of the platform, at the wide yellow line that warned you not to step beyond it. He wondered what it was about lines like that that made you just want to cross over them anyway. If you didn’t care that much about life, if you only saw a kind of emptiness in almost every day that rose and fell, would you eventually start to edge closer and closer to lines like that one? He stared at it and a part of him wondered how many more days he would sail through, not touching anything and with nothing really touching him; how many more days until he found himself on the other side of lines like that, on the other side and starting to lose balance. He stared until he heard the first hissing sound from the tracks, and willed his body to move and get back up. His limbs felt rubbery, so he shook them out and squinted down the tracks, listening and watching for the first sign of the train. He hoped there would not be any ticket inspectors at this time in the morning.
When the train rumbled to a stop, Jake climbed aboard with his bin liners and sat down close to the door. He crossed his legs, stared out of the window and tried to look invisible. He realised that he did not know what he was doing. Yet in a way, he was doing what he had always done; he was letting things push him along, he was allowing other forces to guide him and propel him. He considered himself to be like a piece of junk, a wrapper or a plastic bag floating down the river. It goes where the water takes it. Or it gets stuck on a reed, or a tree branch and stays there for a while. Or it gets plucked out by a curious child, or a hungry dog, or a fisherman’s hook. Either way, it has no control, nor does it want any. Jake rested his chin in his hand, his elbow on his knee and wondered if that was why his body always felt so rubbery and willowy at the same time, like it had no firmness to it, no substance, only a constant yield.
As the train ground on, closer to what had once been home, he began to experience a deeper level of pain in his stomach. The pain was a common companion and always had been. It had been a worry as a child, but he had also used it when he needed to. Now he regarded it mostly with favour. Pain was one way of distinguishing that you were actually alive. Because sometimes it was all too easy to forget.
He’s worse when he’s stressed, or worried, he heard his mother saying somewhere a long way away. He couldn’t think about her without his mouth going dry, and then normally what would follow was a flood of other thoughts and memories and feelings which would immediately interrupt his thinking, and that would be a relief. You’re such a fucking baby, Gina sneered from somewhere else; you’re always putting it on.
The train rumbled from station to station, stopping each time for no one and he started to feel like he was actually on a ghost train, going nowhere. Where is nowhere? He wondered vaguely, whilst also wondering if there was any chance Gina might have some sweets or a chocolate bar in her car. Jake was one of those people who had to remind himself to eat. For most of his life eating food had caused him some level of pain, and so eating it had never climbed that high on his list of priorities. He couldn’t understand obese people. He couldn’t understand these junk food addictions people claimed they had. Food was food; it was good or bad, one way or another, but not something to get excited about.
Finally the train pulled into the tiny station at Redchurch and Jake left his seat, and the train, dragging his bags behind him. His body felt heavy now, his feet pinning him to the ground every time he took a step, as he walked away from the yellow warning line and scanned the platform for any sign of her. There was no one about, not a soul. He stopped for a moment as the tracks began to hiss again, his eyes focusing again on the bright yellow warning line. Who would stop him? Who was around? Everyone was nowhere. He shook his head, gritted his teeth and walked through the archway and out into the car park behind the station. There was a silver estate car parked to his right, and he frowned at it, suddenly realising he had no idea what kind of car Gina drove these days, or even what she looked like.
The car door opened though, so he guessed it was hers and started walking towards it. She appeared on the other side, half out of the driving seat, giving him a cursory wave, the look on her face set and grim. Jake swallowed a thousand stirring memories and smiled at her as best her could, and greeted her; ‘hi Gina,’ although it was there on the tip of his tongue to tell her how much weight she had put on since last time.
She walked to the boot and opened it for his bags, and he quickly looked her over. She was a few inches shorter than he was, dressed in navy blue leggings and a red t-shirt, under which massive loose breasts rippled like the waves on the ocean. Her hair was a shade lighter than his, thick like their mother’s, and pulled back into a low ponytail that came half way down her back. She looked mostly like their father. Thick eyebrows over suspicious green-grey eyes. She had his nose too; wide and slightly flattened, nostrils that flared a constant warning. She looked like a mum, Jake thought dully, as he threw his bags into the boot. She looked like the majority of mothers he saw hanging around school gates, car keys clutched in hands, spare tyres jiggling around their bodies. She looked like what he knew her to be, what he assumed her to be: tired, worn out, run down and demanded upon, aged before her time and teetering on the edge of constant impatience.
They faced each other as she slammed the door on his bags. He wondered if he ought to put his arms out for a hug, or offer his hand to shake but neither seemed right. She planted her hands on her hips and looked him up and down, and Jake played with the possibility that she might be on the verge of complimenting him, thanking him, or encouraging him in some way, but she didn’t. She exhaled, blowing her hair from her forehead.
‘The prodigal son returns,’ she said instead, making him wince at the cliché. He strongly disliked people using clichés; it made him want to physically cringe, and even worse than that was the overuse of words, the creation of cliches. Gina, you are one big cliché, he wanted to tell her in spite. ‘You look like hell.’
‘Do I?’ he asked in mock surprise.
‘You look like a tramp,’ she explained, and stalked back to the driver’s side. ‘Get in,’ she ordered, and so he did.
‘Have you got anything to eat?’ he asked, when they were on the move. Gina clicked her tongue,and nodded at the dashboard.
‘In there. Haven’t you eaten?’
‘Didn’t get time.’ He saw her roll her eyes and he could feel her frustration already growing. He found a tube of mints and took two out. Gina drove out of the car park, turned left and started off down Old Mile road, almost immediately driving past their old school. ‘Do your kids go there now?’ he asked, in way of conversation and Gina nodded in reply. ‘How old are they anyway?’
‘Sean is eleven, Mia is ten and Grace is eight.’
‘Blimey,’ Jake nodded. ‘That went quick. And how is…’ he thought hard for a moment, totally forgetting the name of their father, Gina’s ex.
‘Lewis,’ she helped him out with another roll of the eyes. ‘He’s the same. Fat useless sponging slug.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Was he being paranoid, or had her gaze flicked to him on speaking the words useless and sponging? ‘Thanks for the lift,’ he said then, struggling for anything else to say. ‘And the money.’
‘I’ll drop you off and leave you to it,’ she replied. ‘I’ve left the kids alone. They’ll be okay, but I can’t be gone too long.’
‘No course not. That’s fine. Thanks.’
Silence built up between them as they drove on, following the straight line of the two roads that would take them back to the village. Jake looked around and noticed that nothing obvious had changed. He sucked on the first mint and put a hand to his stomach without thinking. ‘Your stomach bad?’ Gina asked right away, not looking at him.
‘Oh. Yeah. It plays up a bit.’
She was shaking her head. ‘Ever got it checked out properly? Ever got a proper diagnosis and some medication?’
‘I’ve moved around a lot,’ he started to explain, trying to ignore the level of vitriol in her tone. ‘Haven’t been with a surgery in years.’
‘Oh that’s sensible, when you have an illness!’
‘Well, it’s okay, it’s nothing, I’m used to it.’
‘Course you are.’
‘I know you think I make it up, but really Gina, I don’t…’
‘Nothing to do with me,” she was quick to retort. ‘I just can’t stand it when people moan about something they have no intention of sorting out.’
‘I wasn’t moaning, Gina.’
‘Whatever,’ she sighed, and took the left down the lane to Twisty Corners. Jake shook his head. What was the point in arguing with her? There had never been any point, he remembered. You couldn’t win arguments with Gina; no one could, not even his parents, not ever. He had learned at a young age to just walk away, just mutter under his breath and just let her win. He felt his stomach lurch as she drove too fast over the little bridge, remembering how he and Curly had whiled away the hours down there paddling, playing pooh sticks and pretending to hide from pirates. She turned right, barely checked the lane for traffic and sped off again. Jake felt suddenly, frighteningly sick. He wanted to get her to slow down, better still, to pull over and let him have a few minutes. Was she driving that fast on purpose? It felt like he was being delivered.
‘So how is dad?’ he asked, as she hurtled over the bumps, taking the corners like a lunatic, speeding him back to where he had come from. ‘I mean, what do I need to know? Anything important?’
‘I’ve written everything down for you,’ Gina said curtly, not looking at him. ‘Plus you can call me if you need to. I won’t be able to just drop everything and come running of course, but I’m there if you need me. If dad needs me.’
‘She still lives in town. Still rides her bike about, even though she is far too old and frail and will kill herself on it one day.’ Gina sighed as she finally pulled the car up outside the pair of semi-detached cottages at the end of River lane, next to the main road. ‘But I am sure once she hears you are back, she will be biking it over soon enough. She always did have a soft spot for you.’ Gina left the engine running, but turned in her seat to look at Jake properly. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him like that, and he wondered, like he had always done, why she hated him so much.
‘So….’ He dropped his hand onto the door handle and bit at his bottom lip. He wanted to say something to her then, something meaningful, something that might bring them closer together in some way, something that would help her to look at him differently…
‘The state of you….’ she said again though, distracting him from this thought. She was looking him up and down.
‘So I don’t really go in for looks and materialism and stuff like that,’ he shrugged and waved a hand. ‘So what?’
‘It’s not just the shabby clothes Jacob,’ she said, making a face that reminded him even more of her as a teenager. ‘It’s the fact you obviously barely manage to feed yourself, it’s the vacant look in your eyes, and the way you just float along in life, with absolutely no responsibilities, no commitments, no roots, nothing!’
‘And that’s wrong, because?’
‘Not saying it’s wrong,’ Gina tutted. She shifted her backside on the seat, and he felt like laughing at her then, because what else could she be saying?
‘I’m back, aren’t I?’ he pointed out, finally pushing the door open. ‘This isn’t easy for me, you know. This isn’t exactly where I want to be right now.’
‘How gracious of you,’ Gina looked at him and smiled a cold smile. ‘I suppose we should all be thanking you then? Being grateful that you have graced us with your presence at last?’
‘Could do without the hostility that’s all,’ he shrugged and got out of the car. He felt weakened by her as usual, worn down and ragged, and if his father was there now in the house, then he might as well get this over with. He closed the door, went to the back of the car and opened the boot to get his bags out.
‘I’ll call later,’ Gina yelled, when he had slammed it shut. ‘When you’re settled.’ And that was it. She pulled away, turned right out onto the main road and was gone.
He stood in the lane with his bin bags and stared at the cottage. His eyes travelled down to the long white gate and he reached out for it, one of the bags swinging from his hand. The paint was flaking off badly. The hinges were rusting and the gate had dropped an inch or two, so that when he pushed it open, it dragged against the ground. Jake stepped into the front garden, and he took a deep breath. He was home.
Her website is chantelleatkins.wordpress.com