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Book wars: debut novels

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Two new authors, two 10-year-old narrators – but which one of these acclaimed new titles should you be reading this week?

Jessica Whiteley, Stylist review writer, on why The Land Of Decoration by Grace McCleen (£12.99, Chatto & Windus) is an arresting debut

I’ll confess – I devoured this week’s other contender Wonder in one tear-drenched sitting. But it was The Land Of Decoration and the truly unforgettable narrator Judith McPherson, a 10-year-old with unwavering faith and a huge heart, which really captured my imagination. Judith and her religious father lead a life of Necessary Things: eating bitter greens, enjoying peace and quiet, and preaching about the forthcoming Armageddon. Bullied at school, Judith seeks solace in her Land of Decoration – a model of the Promised Land built from discarded rubbish – and discovers the power to make miracles happen. When she makes it snow, I was enthralled.

As the voice of god becomes ever more demanding of Judith, the spirited narrator is pushed to a final, potentially devastating act.

But what starts as fantasy gives way to something darker and much more affecting than I originally anticipated. McCleen grew up in a fundamentalist sect, and the life she creates for Judith is cold, lonely and for the most part, loveless. When Judith’s father replaces religion with alcohol and bullies target her home, the tension tightens and the novel becomes impossible to put down.

As the voice of god becomes ever more demanding of Judith, the spirited narrator is pushed to a final, potentially devastating act. Like Wonder, The Land Of Decoration is a psychologically complex story told through the simpler eyes of a child. But while Wonder’s moral message is an endearing one, the story remains predictable. McCleen meanwhile steps it up a notch with some seriously inventive storytelling to create a debut that’s surprising, affecting and brilliantly written.

Debbie McQuoid, Entertainment Editor, argues that Wonder by RJ Palacio (£12.99, Bodley Head) will be the breakout read for spring

In many ways, I agree with Jessica’s verdict on the predictable nature of Wonder. Here we have a little boy, Auggie, who has undergone 27 operations to correct the many facial anomalies he inherited from a rare genetic disorder. After years of being home schooled, he’s about to start fifth grade. He doesn’t have the power to make miracles happen, but he does touch the lives of everyone he meets. And that’s just as powerful.

The uncomplicated structure of a narrative written through the eyes of a child has always appealed to me; one of my favourites is Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life Of Edgar Mint, which gave Edgar an intelligent opinion of the world, not unlike Judith in The Land Of Decoration. Auggie is much simpler. The voice you hear is that of a 10 year old; his internal narrative giving us exclusive insight into how he’s treated by a world struggling to live with the unnerving sight of his deformities.

He doesn’t have the power to make miracles happen, but he does touch the lives of everyone he meets. And that’s just as powerful.

Debut author Palacio decided to write the book after encountering a girl with Treacher-Collin’s Syndrome – a rare disorder that causes craniofacial deformities – at an ice-cream shop. So terrified of the embarrassment if one of her children reacted, she hysterically abandoned the shop and later wondered how she could have been better prepared for such a meeting.

It’s already being likened to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and is likely to become a commuter’s favourite. A thought-provoking fast read that serves as a great lesson in how to be a better person.

The verdict:

Both books offer exciting new work from first-time authors - and interestingly both have used children as their unswervingly direct narrators. But while Wonder is a powerful read and one that's likely to become a huge hit with readers of all ages thanks to Palacio's endearing protagonist, it's Land of Decoration's spirited heroine, Judith, who provides a haunting and enduring new voice. Complex, rich and introspective, Land of Decoration is a truly awe-inducing debut. Add it to your reading list now.

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