reviews sister and brother are on their own.
So begins a series of trials and tribulations for the three children; not for nothing is the book called A Twist of Fortune. Sam and his siblings experience all the vicissitudes of life for the Victorian poor but the nod to Oliver Twist is entirely deliberate too. Oliver Twist is Sam’s favourite book, he keeps hold of his copy even when they’ve lost everything else. And the children’s adventures echo those of Dickens’ hero. The characters they encounter – feckless husbands, waspish wives, generous benefactors – could have stepped straight out of the pages of Dickens; Sam and co come across their own Artful Dodger, and remain charmed by him even when’s he’s picked their pockets. Mitchelhill even engineers a meeting for the children with Dickens himself. He tries to help them, unsuccessfully it turns out.
Fast-moving and varied, each chapter puts the children in a different dangerous predicament, often finishing on a cliff-hanger. It’s full of humour as well as adventure, and of course, the ending will move the sentimental (such as this reader) to tears. Dickens would have approved! The book is packed with details of Victorian life but above all gives a proper sense of what Dickens’ world was like. It should inspire young readers to read Oliver’s story after Sam’s.
Young Knights of the Round Table
Julia Golding, Oxford, 368pp, 978 0 19 273222 4, £6.99 pbk
Fletcher Moss won the Times Children’s Fiction Competition, run in association with Chicken House, for this book. The competition has discovered some excellent authors and books, Janet Foxley’s Muncle Trogg, Sophia Bennett’s Threads spring to mind, and The Poison Boy is another worthy winner, an gripping and original adventure.
This sprightly fantasy novel, the first of a planned quartet, starts unfavourably in a welter of sub-Tolkien over-blown rhetoric. But readers who stay the course will then be rewarded with an excellent story where four young visitors from another world battle to pass themselves off as humans in contemporary Oxford. Their mission is to discover who is damaging the order normally existing between the human and the fey world from which they come. With each having their own familiar, and making use of portals between one universe and another, there is more than a touch of Philip Pullman here over and above the Oxford setting. But attending a comprehensive school for this fey cohort brings about quite new problems,
The poison boy of the title is Dalton Fly, employed by the wealthy and important to taste their food. When we first meet him, he has indeed just consumed poison and things look very black. Fellow poison boy Bennie Jinks is lying next to him, dead in a pool of his own blood, ‘ghosted’ by deadly belladonna. Dalton though is made of stronger stuff and somehow manages to escape the scene to reach his friend Sal Sleepwell, and an antidote. When the boys return to retrieve Bennie’s body, they come close to death again as an explosion tears the mansion apart, and are then caught up in a vicious power struggle for control of their city state. The duke has died heirless, the rich families of his court are ruthless, and corruption is rife.
Their effort to survive and find out what is going on becomes a search for Dalton’s true identity, and Books for Keeps readers can probably already guess who he turns out to be. It’s the setting and the characters that make this so entertaining and original. The dirty underworld inhabited by the poison boys contrasts vividly with the opulent houses where they ply their trade, both feeling equally solid. Dalton and the gang he gathers around him are as appealing a bunch of characters as you could wish for, and the language they use gives the book an edge and an energy all
particularly for young Rick, who bases his idea of what a human adolescent would be like on very dated sources. The only fault in this story is too much attempted explanation of ‘feysyks’, the science that normally keeps the two worlds apart so avoiding a mighty conflagration. Since this science is all imaginary, it seems unnecessary to dwell upon it in such numbing detail. That apart, this is good writing from a quality author.
NT The Poison Boy HHHH
Fletcher Moss, Chicken House, 352pp, 978-1908435446, £6.99 pbk
of its own: ‘Kite’ and ‘Dreck’ are curses, ‘Wet yourself’ is a common cry (for get stuffed) while to make a mess of things is to ‘flog things up’ . And who could resist the poisons, the pastoral sweetness of their names - doll’s eyes, John Crow, jessamine, clotbur - in such contrast to the horror of their effects.
The book ends with Dalton on the brink of another adventure, and with everything to play for so we can look forward to another episode. Fletcher Moss is a talented author and I wouldn’t be surprised if The Poison Boy made its way onto other prize shortlists too.
MMa Smuggler’s Kiss HHHH
Marie-Louise Jensen, OUP, 320pp, 9780192792808, £6.99, pbk.
It is very satisfying for a reviewer to see a writer improve with each book reviewed and this is certainly true of Marie-Louise Jensen. This is a very good story with real depth and a joy to read.
Isabelle tries to drown herself but is rescued by the crew of a smuggler’s ship in 1720. She has led a very pampered and sheltered life and when she is asked to work her passage, finds herself totally unprepared for the life aboard ship. Isabelle works in the galley and becomes aware of Will, who is not rough and ready but obviously a gentleman from her own world. Slowly Isabelle is drawn into the smuggling life of the Invisible and is used by the skipper to smuggle lace, round wound her person, with Will in attendance. She helps to decoy the Revenue men with Will and helps him when he is shot. Her reason for attempting suicide is revealed at the end of the story, after she is
The Child’s Elephant HHHHH
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, David Fickling Books, 390pp, 978 0 857 56076 6, £9.99 hbk
One of the best children’s novels published this year, and surely a hot contender for any prizes going, this is a story of two parts. The first dwells on the life of Bat, a young herds boy living in a traditional village in the African Savannah. Finding and adopting a baby elephant, the two live happily enough together with his grandmother through times where food is often short but where family and community structures remain strong. Rich in detail, the author seems to know absolutely everything and then more about how to bring up a baby elephant against the odds. But this is no sentimental story; Bat realises that the rapidly growing young elephant must join a herd for its long-term survival. The final separation between the two is heart-rending but made to seem properly inevitable.
At this point, the story could well have ended. But conscious of recent history it
Books for Keeps No.200 May 2013 27
captured. Her experience on board ship leads her to question the life she led and the thoughtless treatment of those below her, and there is a happy ending!
The reader is totally involved with Isabelle, and will understand not just her reluctance to work on the ship, but her growing realisation that Jacob whom once she would not have considered at all, is a very fine man. Similarly, readers will understand that her reason for trying to drown herself was a real and valid one. The position of women at the time, chattels to be married off, with no status at all, save that of their husbands, is very clearly drawn for today’s young women. The Channel with its lovely coastline, made for smuggling, is beautifully described and the reader feels there with Isabelle and Will.
There are echoes of Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, but this is a fine romantic story standing on its own merits, measured, well-written and with a real feel for the period and the women of its time. JF
The Book of Doom HHHH
Barry Hutchison, Harper Collins, 400pp, 978-0-00-744091-7, £6.99, pbk
The Book of Doom is the most important object in existence – a database that records and controls everything that has happened and is yet to happen. When it goes missing from its home in Heaven, apparently stolen by the Devil, the duplicitous angels Gabriel and Michael decide to recruit Zac, Earth’s most resourceful young thief, to recover it. This involves having him murdered, then sent to the underworld in the company of a wimpy mongrel angel who is a fan of both the
then moves into a truly harrowing stage involving a Boy Army into which Bat and his close friend Muka, another orphan, are brutally kidnapped. Horrors follow, yet the two still manage not to lose their souls as well as their freedom. Both finally survive, and if there is something a little pat in their being rescued by the same elephant, now fully grown, few would wish to complain given how hopeless the children’s lives had become up to that point. The author writes authoritatively and well; her novel is genuinely eye-opening. It should not be missed.
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