mystery

Tamsin and the Deep by Neill Cameron and Kate Brown

Tamsin and the Deep

This is a first for this blog – a review of a comic book. Last year I came across The Phoenix, a weekly children’s comic that’s growing in popularity, and on Feb 4th they are publishing one of their strips as an entire book.

Tamsin and the Deep borrows from folklore and myth, with echoes of The Little Mermaid, as it tells the story of Tamsin, and the legend stalking her family.

While surfing at the beach, Tamsin wipes out and goes missing for a month. She can’t remember what transpired in the weeks she went missing, but before long other strange things start happening to her – from the appearance of a magic stick to a talking bird. Then, she realises that her brother is in terrible danger, and she must break the mermaid’s ancient covenant to save him.

This is a dense storyline, with compelling plot and imaginative vocabulary. The comic book style lends much immediacy to the story – at times enabling several simultaneous events to be unfolded on the same page. It hones terrific inference skills as the reader gathers much of what’s happening from the pictures rather than the text.

But this is no standard comic, no standard story. The characters are rounded, and richly developed. The dialogue between the siblings and their friends is realistic, engaging and witty. There’s a beautiful sibling relationship, but underwritten with the impatience and frustration that accompanies familial dynamics.

The darkness of the legend, and the story within a story give this comic a real potency – it’s both adventure story and fantasy, containing both humour and dark undertones.

The illustrations too are a cut above – the initial drawings of wet-suits at the surf lend this a space age feel, but then it seems to borrow from manga too in its depiction of our feisty heroine. The legend is told almost in sepia, and looks fantastical and romantic – different styles highlighting the illustrator’s wealth of talent.

In a blogpost, Neill outlined the trickiness of writing a comic – it’s not just about the text of course, but a directive and collaboration with the illustrator, almost as in a film script – to work out from which point of view the drawing is in each box, to depict not just the action but the expression on the face, whether there’s a close up or background. This is an intriguing and completely different way of writing from prose, and it draws out attention to detail, each emotion, and each development.

This was a delight to read – darkness, humour, and a great story. A great many books fall through my letter box weekly and not all are snatched away by the children who live here – but to review this one I had to wrestle it from their hands. If that’s not proof enough, then what is? Suitable for all readers, 8+ years.

Publishes 4th Feb 2016. You can pre-order or buy it here.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

An Island Of Our Own

Sally Nicholls’ An Island Of Our Own has been longlisted for this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, with good reason. Thirteen year old Holly and younger brother Davy have been left in the care of their elder sibling, Jonathan, since their mother died. Told in Holly’s authentic first person voice, the book recounts the year Holly was twelve, in which her Great Aunt suffers a disabling stroke, and although unable to speak, gives Holly clues to finding what might be a much-needed family inheritance. With the kindness of strangers, some savvy Internet usage and her own unflappable competence, Holly sets about solving the mystery of the missing inheritance.

Not only is this a compellingly crafted family mystery, but there are many other elements that combine to make this a joy to read from start to finish. Lacking any kind of morbidity or sentimentality, Nicholls manages to portray a family struggling with their circumstances with pathos and wit. Jonathan is beautifully drawn out by Holly’s voice, a portrayal of an older brother shouldering responsibility with dignity, sacrificing his own path for the sake of his siblings. Even though Holly has a normal twelve year old’s view of her sometimes irritating elder brother, the reader is cleverly shown how patient and loving he is. For me, he was the stand-out character of the book. By showing some of the fun that can be had without parents around, as well as illuminating those moments when the absence of parents is heartrending (eg., Holly’s shopping trip to buy a first-time bra with an older brother instead of a mother in tow), Sally Nicholls affords the book the reality of the circumstances.  Bringing in meetings with social workers, extended family complications, school, work and money issues, everything is encompassed within this accomplished book.

And yet the plot is neat, the chapters bite-size, suitable for even reluctant readers. There are numerous other wonders to be explored within the story, too, such as Jonathan’s refuge at makerspace, and the family’s adventure to the Orkney Islands, all of which is clearly well researched so that the details lend the book authenticity. Sally Nicholls set out to write about family, generosity, the goodness of the Internet and the wonder of everyday ordinariness. She has succeeded – and her characters live on in the mind. For readers aged 9 and over.

To purchase a copy of An Island Of Our Own please click here or see the Amazon sidebar.