Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady

Reposted from GeraniumCat's Bookshelf

The Bloomsbury Group's reissues are almost always must-reads and this -- one I'd never heard of -- turned out to be pure delight.

The S.S. Haida Prince is arriving at a island on the west of Canada with two children on board:
The deck steward, an ex-fighter with sloping, powerful shoulders, approached them.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "Do you know anything that will dissolve chewing gum? Something that won't dissolve a dog?"
The first mate and the purser exchanged glances.
"Them?" asked the first mate.
"Yes, sir. One of the border collies in the hold. Its muzzle is glued together. They just thought he'd like a wad of gum, the little bastards."
Although the island looks idyllic, one of the sailors describes how it is cursed:
"In two world wars thirty-three men have left to fight for their country. Only one has come back alive. See that Mountie on the dock? He's the fellow. All the rest killed, down to the last man. If there such a thing as a dead island, this is it."
The island has no idea what's going to hit it. The children, who are nothing to do with each other, are exceedingly unprepossessing. The girl, Christie, has come to board on the island for the summer to give her a holiday from her single mother, while Barnaby is supposed to be holidaying with his uncle, but the uncle hasn't turned up. Fortunately, Mr and Mrs Brooks at the store volunteer to look after the boy while his uncle is contacted. But things start badly because on the boat trip the children have decided they are sworn enemies. Of course the adults don't realise this and next morning Barnaby sent to play with Christie in the expectation that it will be nice for them both. Mayhem ensues, and the Mountie has to intervene.

It is Christie, however, who finally learns why Barnaby is so troubled - heir to a large fortune, he is certain that the uncle who appears so kindly to everyone else is actually out to kill him. Whenever he tries to explain this, Uncle says sadly what a wicked and deluded little boy he is. Once Christie is persuaded that the danger is real, she comes up with a solution: they must kill Uncle first. In this, they are unwillingly assisted by a battered, one-eyed cougar who is, to his annoyance and humiliation, befriended by the children. Hence the adorable Edward Gorey cover which graced the original edition:

The children and their troubles are real and immediate, their bickering and ingratitude a very plausible reaction to their bewildering new circumstances. Christie finds herself unwittingly echoing that earlier exile, Heidi, with her bed in the attic of the goat-lady's house. Barnaby, meanwhile, becomes an instant substitute for the Brooks boy who went off to war -- expected to eat Dickie's favourite supper of bread-and-milk he throws the bowl in fury at the wall. Fortunately, the goat-lady, Mrs Neilson, and Sergeant Coulter know how to set some boundaries. Not necessarily any consolation to the long-suffering border collies though.

This gothic little gem is just itching to be turned into a film by Wes Anderson and if, like me, you adored Moonrise Kingdom, you will love it. In fact, it's rather similar in tone and setting and even, to some extent, plot (I wonder if Anderson has read it? I hasten to add, it's only reminiscent of Anderson's film, there's no actual connection that would in any way spoil it for the reader). It was, apparently, made into a horror film in 1966, and I found a copy of the poster:

I suspect that the rather joky appearance is an indication that the film will clumsily eradicate the subtlety of the writing -- although the humour is black, it is gently so, and if Uncle may be something of a comic-book villain, his intended victims belie it. The other adults, in contrast to Uncle, are thoughtfully portrayed, especially the Mountie who, as the only one to make it back from the war, has his own poignant story -- not at all the stuff of horror films.

It's not intended to be a children's book, but young adults would find much to enjoy and, as you must have gathered reading this blog, I'll have no truck with adults who think books with child protagonists beneath them. But anyway, the wit and originality of Let's Kill Uncle should be enough to charm the hardest of hearts.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Salt-Stained Book by Julia Jones

 Published 2011

Reading this book was a little like finding that I'd somehow missed one of the Swallows and Amazons series, because The Salt-Stained Book takes you straight back to Ransome's world. Its child hero is a second John Walker, known as Donny, and Amazons Nancy and Peggy are much in evidence in the guise of Xanthe and Maggi Ribiero, two experienced young sailors who befriend Donny when he is sent to live at a foster home in Suffolk. At first, Donny doesn't really want to know them as he's too battered by recent events: his granny has just died, his deaf and dyslexic mother has been hospitalised and, although he knows his Great Aunt Ellen is on her way to Felixstowe from Shanghai, no-one will believe him. He's never met Great Aunt Ellen, she's never been back to England during his lifetime and the only information he has about her is in a cryptic telegram. Donny and his mother Skye decided to set off from Leeds to meet her but it all went horribly wrong once they got to Suffolk and now Skye's locked in a secure ward and Donny is being cared for by vicar Wendy and her husband Gerald, well-meaning people with lots of house rules and four other foster children. Everything looks bleak, but then Donny, who's never been near a lake in his life, discovers sailing and takes to it like the proverbial duck.

The duck cliché is apt, because the author Julia Jones and her family own Arthur Ransome's yacht Peter Duck and clearly the whole lot of them have webbed feet. Her parents knew Ransome and she obviously grew up steeped in Swallows and Amazons and all things nautical. This familiarity makes this first part of the Strong Winds trilogy a terrific little book, and it ends with the implied promise that the sequels are going to be every bit as good, full of wicked villains and pirates and boats in a contemporary setting that could prove the ideal way to tempt a modern young reader into exploring the original books (come to that, they might tempt a few adults as well!). Parents beware! as they may also tempt young readers into trying sailing (as Swallows and Amazons did me), in which case you might end up spending a good deal of time hanging around in chilly conditions watching your more robust offspring repeatedly capsizing and righting a dinghy.

I don't want to talk too much about the book because I don't want to give the story away. There's a wonderfully nail-biting finish that'll keep you up way past bedtime and the villains are suitably nasty (though some villains follow a very Arthur Ransome route, too – a nice touch). And if Donny's situation seems very dire at the start, there are good things to come as he discovers his affinity with boats, makes new friends among both children and adults and begins to learn things about his own past and family. I loved all the child characters, but especially Anna, the oldest of the children at the vicarage - I do so hope she'll appear again.

Finally, I'm torn over buying the second and third part of the trilogy – my shortage of bookshelf has become a serious problem and I'm trying to buy new books only on Kindle but these are so nicely produced! They are self-published and look and feel lovely, with little line drawings at the ends of the chapters and beautiful covers. I desperately want the full set to sit snugly somewhere to hand, ready to be leafed through or re-read, because these are books to treasure. I really can't recommend them too highly – they'd be great for reading with younger children, or as a gift for good readers from 10 or 11 upwards. The complete series is, in order: The Salt-Stained Book, A Ravelled Flag and Ghosting Home.