I always find something I want to read in the Candlewick catalog, and among their spring/summer releases my eye was caught by three books that all turned out to have been previously published in the UK (Candlewick is part of the UK-based Walker Book Group). In other ways, though, they were quite different — not all to my taste, but they might be to yours!
The first one I picked up was Sophie Someone by Hayley Long. Here we have a contemporary tale about a fourteen-year-old girl trying to figure out what’s happened to her family, why they left England for Belgium, what her real name is, and many other mysteries, all wrapped up in Sophie’s “special language” which both mirrors her confusion and masks her real pain and anxiety. This involves switching out words for other similar words, in a way that seems baffling at first but soon becomes surprisingly simple to follow.
My first reaction was that this was an fascinating example of how our minds can create wholeness out of fragmentary parts, a confirmation that language is built of meaning, not of words. However, after a while I found myself wishing that Long had done something more with this device, had caused it to develop or transform in some way; as it was, it was like reading a rather ordinary story written in code, the novelty of which soon wore off. I think there’s a chance that young readers will be intrigued and amused by Sophie’s style and by the playful typography, and this might be enough for some, but I was left wanting more. (I was reminded of the books of Ellen Raskin … time for some rereading.)
Next I sampled Maid of the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, a historical novel by the curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in London. For one so steeped in the history of Hampton Court and other sites, it must be endlessly tempting to weave one’s knowledge of the everyday details of Elizabethan life into an exciting narrative. Worsley’s knowledge and love of the era was clear, but its transformation into fictional form did not quite work for me.
I had a hard time connecting with her protagonist, a fictional Elizabeth whose destiny becomes intertwined with real-life figures including the notorious Catherine Howard, and of course King Henry VIII. Elizabeth talked and acted like a modern teenager, and in general the tone was indistinguishable from a contemporary YA romance. This may make history spring to life for some readers, but it’s not my style at all. I would still be interested to see Worsley in her capacity as a TV documentary host, though, or maybe read some of her non-fiction, to see how she presents this kind of material in a different context.
Fortunately, I enjoyed my third selection much more: Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman was an exciting, satisfying adventure with an atmospheric setting based on the Devon coast and on real people and events of the eighteenth century. Plus, puppet shows!
The plausibility level was not always high here either, and yet with her storytelling energy and well-crafted language Landman managed to keep me engaged with her coming-of age story of a mixed-race boy with a mysterious past. Set adrift by the death of the man he’s always known as Pa, Caleb must try to unravel the secrets of his own origins as well as of his supposed father’s life and death. For fans of high-action, character-rich period drama by the likes of Philip Pullman and Leon Garfield, this will be a welcome new addition to the genre.
Thanks, Candlewick, for bringing these British imports to our shores! I hope each one will find the right audience to enjoy it.