Teens' Book of the Month: The Last Soldier

Author: Keith Gray | Age category: Reading age 8, interest teen. This book has a dyslexia-friendly layout, typeface and paperstock 

Synopsis

It's 1920s Texas and the carnival is in town. Two brothers are drawn to the newest exhibit, the Last Soldier of WWI, but the gruesome soldier has a message for them.

''I don't like carnivals...all that sparkle and glitter washes off in the rain, you know.''

Brothers Joe and Wade live in Texas and it's 'hotter than the devil's own frying pan'. Their father set off for war in 1917 and has yet to return and so Joe and Wade reside with their grieving mother in their dusty town. Captain Tom Peacock's American Amazement is a welcome distraction and not even bully Caleb can stop the boys from visiting the carnival, but is there something odd about these attractions?

At the Museum of Marvels, Wade sees a wolfman, a vampire, a dragon but no exhibition is as horrific as ''The Last Soldier''. On display is Stanley George, the last solider killed by bullet wound during The Great War. This horror is no folklore, no Lon Chaney Jr, this horror is real. The imprinted suffering on the soldier's face terrifies Wade.

Does Wade leave the carnival with more than a memory of ''The Last Soldier'' or is there a ghoulish specter that follows, a ghostly reminder of the atrocity of war? 

Perhaps it's not always the dead that you must fear, perhaps it is the living. 

Competition

We have 5 copies of The Last Soldier to be won! To be in with a chance of winning one, just answer this question:

Keith has written a book about three characters, Kenny, Sim and Blake and their remarkable journey of friendship. What is the title of this book? 

Send your answer to Miriam Morris at miriam.morris@scottishbooktrust.com. Competition closes on Tuesday 30 June. Entrants outside the UK must cover postage.

 

Q&A with Keith Gray

In your work you often tell modern, urban stories that feel quite rooted in the UK. The Last Soldier is set in the past and in a different country; were there any particular challenges with research and writing in this different style?

The Last Soldier is definitely a bit different to my usual stuff, and setting the book in Texas in 1922 was a challenge. I surprised myself by even coming up with the idea for a story set back there and then. Once the story was inside my head, I couldn’t get rid of it. I honestly tried my best to forget about it because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it work the way I imagined. But the idea kept growing and Wade’s character became noisier and soon enough it was difficult not to write the story.

The Last Soldier examines many themes, one of which is the appeal of military service to many teenage boys. Was this something that ever appealed to you?

I’ve never wanted to join any of the armed forces and would probably describe myself as a pacifist. I find it difficult to understand why we as a species and civilisation haven’t outgrown our ridiculous desire for war. I really wish there was such a thing as a last soldier.

Was there any particular book that stands out in your memory from when you were a teenager?

It took me a while to get into this reading malarkey as a teenager, but once I did I read lots and lots and lots of horror. Stephen King, Clive Barker, HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury. I also often talk about a writer called Robert Westall, saying he was the author who first got me into books. He's probably best known for his novels aimed at teenagers, but have a look at his short stories too. He wrote some brilliant ghost and horror stories. There were two huge life-changing books for me when I was a teenager (books can change lives, homework never does):

  • The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. This was the book I read when I was 12, the one that made me a reader and ultimately a writer.
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I read it when I was 15 (and 21, 27, 32, 35, 40). I have to buy this book again and again because I keep giving it away to other people to read. It’s a horror story that’s deeply moving, totally immersive, brimming with insight, beautifully written and scary as hell!

It’s weird, that after just writing about those two books now, I’ve suddenly realised how much The Last Soldier falls almost halfway between them. It’s very different to either of them, certainly not trying to imitate them, but all of a sudden I can see a couple of parallels.

What have you got in the pipeline?

I've got a couple of longer novels on the go right now and I've genuinely got no idea which one I'm going to finish first. One day I'm writing a psychological horror story about Marshall Will who almost accidentally finds himself out of control and out of his depth, which is called The Flyswallower. And the next day I'm writing a story about writing stories, about fiction and reality crashing together, which is called The Brendan Rewrites. I wish I could decide which one I like best, which one to stick with. Fingers crossed I at least manage to finish one of them soon...

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