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.