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which is clearly intended to be the first of a series. Inevitably, the book takes time building up the ambiance and introducing a vast cast of characters, who often have confusingly similar names. The book begins with a TV-style ‘teaser’ in which an elderly man is pushed to his death in his wheelchair down a flight of stairs – an incident which typifies the black humour of the story but which might be unsuitable for younger readers.

Overall, this is an engrossing book, encompassing a convincing and detailed mythology, dark humour, a Dickensian sense of social satire, and an exciting adventure with an enterprising young heroine. Some younger readers may find the establishing chapters slightly hard going, but the adventure that follows is worth the effort.


family situation with an unsettling world that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

VC Sigrun’s Secret HHH

Marie-Louise Jensen, Oxford, 320pp, 978 0 19 272882 1, £6.99 pbk

Sigrun Bjornsdottir is a 15-year-old Icelandic girl living in some undefined historical period. Her father is a trader and her mother a visionary and healer. She has a brother named Asgrim. Sigrun’s mother suffers from sinister and ambiguous dreams about dark invaders. These dreams seem to be fulfilled when a stranger named Halfgrim turns up, accusing Sigrun’s father of stealing his father’s heritage.

In recompense for the supposed theft Sigrun’s father is forced to undertake a three year exile, taking Sigrun and Asgrim with him. Sigrun is thus separated from Ingvar, a boy who has been a close friend and with whom she is now in love. Sigrun’s mother is left behind, too weak to travel. The family settles in Yorvik, where against all expectation life is not too bad – Sigrun begins to make a reputation for herself as a healer. But Halfgrim breaks the bargain and comes hunting for Sigrun’s father. The stor y now revolves around the conflict between the avenger and his intended victim.

If I Could Fly HHHH

Jill Hucklesby, Egmont, 304pp, 978 1 4052 5226 3, £6.99 pbk

A dystopian world in which disease is spreading necessitates the sectioning of society into zones by a totalitarian government. This is the backdrop for Calypso’s flight, but just what she needs to flee from is not revealed until the end of a gripping story which twists and turns just like Calypso, a fine athlete, as she runs from danger.

Finding refuge in a disused hospital, Calypso begins to build a home within its walls, comforting herself for the loss of her mother whose injunction to her to flee resonates in her head, but from what and why she can’t recall. The threat of lurking danger interlocks with the more recognisable danger of what will happen to her should she be apprehended by the authorities. She is befriended and helped by Dair, an older man, and then by Alfie, a boy nearer to her in age, but they too have strange secrets. Calypso is an engaging heroine, whose mysterious and troubling circumstances will maintain the interest of readers.

Hucklesby maintains the pace and sense of mystery right up to the gripping conclusion. It is a finely-told tale incorporating a sad and realistic

The characterisation of Sigrun and Ingvar is par ticularly strong. The reader is able to identify closely with Sigrun’s struggles, as she gains in confidence. At the age of 15 she is delivering babies single handed and she helps a former slave, Maria, who is mute to speak. It would have been easy for Jensen to make of Maria nothing but a token of disability, whose role is merely to highlight Sigrun’s vir tues. Instead Jensen makes Maria a credible and independent character in the narrative.

This book has a complex narrative – it is sometimes necessary to backtrack and check how we got to where we are - and uneven pace though it soon picks up again.

RBu Small Blue Thing HHH

S C Ransom, Nosy Crow, 320pp, 978 0 8576 3000 1, £6.99 pbk

This, the first in a trilogy, taps into young readers’ interest in romance and the supernatural. While celebrating the end of exams with her friends, 17-year-old Alex sees a swan in distress, trapped in the mud of the river Thames. As she frees the bird from the wire encircling its leg, she unearths a silver bracelet with a deep blue stone at its centre. The stone, dancing with fiery colour and light, seems to radiate a mysterious power. A few days later, during a visit to St Paul’s cathedral – and the bracelet firmly around her wrist – she sees the image of a beautiful boy reflected in the stone. She is instantly attracted towards him. It is only after her dinner date with the school’s hear t-throb ends in catastrophe that the image speaks to her and tells her his story.

His name is Callum and he’s a Dirge, one of many unfortunate apparitions, who, hovering in limbo between life and death, devour human memories to ward off unbearable depression.

Alex falls head over heels in love with Callum, and, in keeping his existence a secret, manages to alienate both her best friend Grace and her family. Her personality and behaviour change: her open and level-headed approach to everyday life of school, home and friendships giving way to secretive- ness and passion.

The story begins slowly but gathers pace with the introduction of Callum and the shadowy world of the Dirges. Building on a well-structured plot that twists unexpectedly, intrigue builds as to Callum’s true intentions towards Alex.

I must admit to certain misgivings about the genre of romantic fantasy, which seems often to be based on the manipulation of the fantastical elements to serve a romantic end. The fact that Alex’s feelings of love and physical attraction are channelled solely towards a ghostly, unreal figure is in some respects a contrived – and safe – way of dealing with sexual awakening in a book aimed at young teen (or even pre-teen, as the publisher’s press release suggests), mainly girl, readers. This apart, the book successfully mixes dialogue, first-person narrative and description into an exciting storyline that is sure to find an enthusiastic readership. AF

Tyme’s End HHH

B R Collins, Bloomsbury, 336pp, 978 1 4088 0647 0, £6.99 pbk

H J Martin is the owner of Tyme’s End, a desolate and dilapidated house in the country. The novel recounts three episodes – in 2006, 1996 and 1936 – when some lonely soul in the house comes into contact with him, with his memory or with his ghost.

The stor y is dark, gothic and disturbing, reminiscent of classic gothic novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. The theme that recurs through the three episodes, which appear in reverse chronological order, is the effect of history, time and human manipulation to undermine and destroy relationships.

Collins adds a complication which seems to me to be unnecessary and confusing. The main character in the episode set in 2006 is called Oliver Gardner. The main character in the 1936 episode has exactly the same name. As we read, it transpires that the contemporary character is the other’s grandson. Of course it is not unknown for boys to be named after their grandfathers. But for a time, reading the book, we are not certain whether we are witnessing a time slip. The coincidence of naming might easily create confusion in the mind of a young reader, possibly undermining the will to press on.

One of Collins’s strengths as a writer is to raise issues without seeming to do so. In one episode she hints at a homosexual relationship the fulfilment of which would at that time have been

a criminal offence. In another she describes the effects of post traumatic stress brought on by experiences in the First World War. These issues float convincingly just below the gothic surface texture of the novel. Collins manages to avoid importing contemporary values into these situations, giving them the capacity to generate cultural shock.

Collins is an expert dramatic writer. She finds her way convincingly into the minds of these male characters set in different historical periods. It is of course difficult for a novelist to judge the required narrative pace for a novel of this type. The novel needs to brood but not to falter. Sometimes this book falters.

RBu Half Brother HHHH

Kenneth Oppel, David Fickling Books, 384pp, 978 0 385 61841 0, 10.99 hbk

13-year-old Ben Tomlin is the son of two research scientists. Uprooted from school and friends in Toronto, he resents the move to Victoria so that his father can take up a promotion at the University. When it turns out that his parents’ new project centres on a baby chimp that will share house space with the family, jealousy compounds his difficult feelings. His mother empathetically suggests he names the chimp and he is co-opted to care for Zan, as well as assisting in teaching him ASL sign language. Gradually both fascination with the project and affection for Zan replace his hostility and time with Zan becomes something of a refuge from pressures at the challenging private school Ben’s ambitious father has enrolled him in. He co-opts scientific insights to start his own project to become an ‘alpha male’ at school and attract Jennifer Godwin, the cool daughter of his father’s boss – with mixed results.

An average student, who has always struggled with ‘letters and numbers’, Ben has an alert eye for his father’s impatience when Zan doesn’t satisfy his scientific criteria quickly enough and displays ‘difficult’ chimp behaviour. Peter, one of his father’s team of research students assigned to the project, proves a sympathetic ally, but when a visiting professor of linguistics effectively condemns the validity of the research on the basis that Zan is only mimicking ASL signs and not creatively using language, it looks as if the project is doomed and Zan’s fate dangerously uncertain.

Ben and Peter’s subsequent attempts to find an adequate sanctuary for Zan dramatically foreground the book’s concern with issues of scientific responsibility. More fundamentally still, Half Brother confronts young readers with profound questions as to what it means to be human and where humanity lies on a continuum with animals. Through variously touching, humorous and dismaying parallels between chimp and human behaviour, Oppel makes a case for a little more humility from the ‘superior’ species. He also weighs in gently on the ‘nur ture’

Books for Keeps No.187 March 2011 29

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