ketchup clouds“Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner.”

The idea of an teenage girl in England having anything to do with a death row inmate in Texas is a strange one, but the combination of the two is what is happening here in Annabel Pitcher’s novel, Ketchup Clouds. Zoe Collins (not her real name) has a dark, guilty secret that is eating her up from inside. She did something awful and she got away with it, so she begins writing to Stuart Harris on death row, thinking that if anyone knows what she’s going through, it could be him.

Zoe is a bookish sort of girl who loves writing and works at the library part time, but doesn’t seem too keen on the ideas of big parties, if only because her fairly strict parents don’t let her go to many of them. At one of these parties, she meets a cute boy but doesn’t get his name and, instead, goes off with Max, one of the most attractive and popular guys in the school. They begin dating and, a little later, Zoe finds the first boy again. He’s called Aaron and, it turns out, is Max’s brother.

When Aaron finds out that Zoe is already involved with his brother, he is furious about being lied to and the two of them, after some arguing, decide that they really want to be together. They just now have to tell Max. Meanwhile at home, things are no easier. Zoe’s dad has just lost his job, and her estranged grandfather is very ill in hospital, causing friction between her parents.

This is a young adult book, so I’m over the marketed age, but a story is a story, regardless of who it was written for. I have very mixed feelings about this book, though. It bristles with truth, you can’t deny that, and there’s a certain innocence running through the whole thing (which is ironic), but the writing lacks magic and while you keep hanging on to find out what exactly happened to make Zoe so guilty, the payoff feels a little rushed and the ending almost casual.

Zoe is, at best guess, fourteen or fifteen, although that’s based only on references to her GCSEs because her actions make her appear older, while her writing makes her sound younger. She writes like she’s about eleven or twelve, with strange twists in language, but she goes to parties, drinks, doesn’t bat an eyelid about kissing and more with boys she’s just met, and gives the impression of being seventeen or eighteen. In fact, the book has a strange dichotomy throughout, as things clash and everything is a bit confused. Zoe is studious and knows the name and call of every bird on the British Isles, and occasionally speaks like she’s shy and retiring, but as soon as there’s a boy involved she’s bolshy and outgoing. The two verisons of her don’t quite match up.

Ideas and plotpoints skitter about and around one another, such as when she’s hiding in the wardrobe with her nine-year-old sister, talking about her boyfriend (again, she’s too old to be in the wardrobe, or too young to be talking like she is), which seems a bit out of place. The leaps between what’s currently happening and what happened a year ago to give her such guilt are usually clear, but sometimes it feels a little muddled. It’s quite funny, and the ending is somewhat predictable, but there’s definitely something in here that makes it worth a look.

Perhaps the best thing throughout it the battle between good and bad, and how it’s not always as easy as doing the right thing. As they say in the book, sometimes there are good reasons for doing bad things. I think ultimately the book is about that, about how sometimes doing the right thing or the good thing is difficult, or painful, but we should do it anyway.

The book culminates with an excerpt from her six-year-old sister’s diary, which is quite cute but again, the six-year-old writes like she’s much older than she is (despite the spelling mistakes), and then is followed by the first chapter of the novel Zoe is writing, which in turn feels like it’s written by someone younger than her. I appreciate that at fourteen, you are at that difficult age where you’re not really a child and not really an adult, and there are ways to write that well, but it’s not done here. It’s a good story for what it is, it has heart and humour, but much like many teenagers, it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be.