In his lyrical A Song for Ella Grey (2014), David Almond transposed the Orpheus myth to the north of England. Now, brothers Marcus and Julian Sedgwick have produced Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black, which contains eerie, black-and-white illustrations by Alexis Deacon. The book centres on the rivalry between siblings Harry and Ellis Black. Harry is an artist and conscientious objector, while Ellis is a writer and believes in fighting for his country. The story takes place in a dilapidated, bombed-out London during the Second World War – a murky, sinister and terrifying world. After a pub is hit by a German bomb, Harry frantically searches for his brother. Orpheus himself presides over all this, singing in clear verse. This is a strange, hugely engrossing and original tale, investigating creativity, the machinery of war and the love that we have for those closest to us. Like most of the books under review this month, it will best suit children aged eleven and above.
Katherine Rundell’s latest novel, The Good Thieves, tells the story of another family torn apart and seeking to bring itself back together. Vita is an appropriately lively heroine, with hair ‘the reddish-brown of a freshly washed fox’. Rundell has a gift for precise and beautiful descriptions: New York stretches ‘up to the sky like the calligraphy of a particularly flamboyant god’. The plot revolves around Vita’s attempt to get her grandfather’s castle (which has been brought over to America from Europe brick by brick) back from a villainous property developer who specialises in fraud and bullying. She enlists the help of a pickpocket and a pair of circus performers. The book is full of lovely, startling scenes, such as one involving a white horse galloping through the early morning city, as well as a generous-hearted sense of adventure and companionship. Rundell uses, and gently subverts, the classic treasure-hunting story.
Caroline Lawrence’s The Time Travel Diaries is the kind of book that readers will race through in one deliciously heady, galloping go. Alex’s dodgy headmistress sends him to meet an even dodgier oligarch, and there’s a mission to seek out news of a blonde girl with an ivory-handled knife. The only problem is that the girl is an ancient North African who moved to Londinium. In my 2015 novel, The Broken King, the Mithraeum in modern London was a portal to other dimensions. For Lawrence, it’s the perfect place for a time machine, and Alex hurtles through it in an adventure both historically accurate and hilarious.
From ancient London to the early modern capital… Patrice Lawrence’s Diver’s Daughter is the second in Tony Bradman and Elizabeth Scoggins’s Voices series, the remit of which is to tell the stories of those not usually heard. Eve and her mother are Mozambicans living in Elizabethan England. An unscrupulous businessman offers them the chance to get rich by diving to a shipwreck rumoured to be full of treasures. The tender relationship between Eve and her mother is the touchstone of this simple yet affecting story, in which they must fight the racist and sexist prejudices of the day by finding strength in each other. The Thames is a powerful presence and the ending is elegiac. This is an intriguing fictional glimpse for teens into a portion of history that in recent years scholars have been making more accessible.
Prejudice is also the main theme of Gill Lewis’s The Closest Thing to Flying, which has two interweaving strands. The modern-day plot concerns the daughter of an Eritrean refugee, who lives with her mother and her controlling friend in a multiple-occupancy house. One day she finds and buys an old hat with a bright feather in it; in the hatbox she discovers a diary written by a girl of her age in the late 19th century. Both find themselves trapped by what their respective societies expect from them and both find release in the simple pleasures provided by a bicycle. Featuring suffragettes, the founding of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a middle-class girl who dresses as a boy and falls (shock horror!) for a railway man, this is a thoughtful, well-crafted novel.
Another daughter of a refugee stars in Toby Ibbotson’s The Unexpected Find. Judy’s mother is English; her father, a mathematician, has escaped from a dangerous regime. When he receives a letter from a friend asking for help, he disappears, leaving Judy on her own on a houseboat. Meanwhile William, a boy with Asperger’s, discovers a mysterious object in the aftermath of a storm and the two are thrown together on a haphazard journey to Norway. Their guide is a one-eyed cross-dresser who drives a camper van; they find peace and answers, of a sort, on a quiet farm. This is a hugely ambitious novel, glittering with snow and ice, imbued with a love for sagas, adventure and the magic of the North.
Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s bestselling Edge Chronicles series has been going for over twenty years. The Descenders is the final part of the Cade trilogy, and it’s full of all the glorious things we’ve come to expect from the pair. Riddell’s distinctive, quirky illustrations complement the daredevil plot, as the Fourth Age of Flight is ushered in and hero Cade must defeat his enemies and discover the secret of Descending. Fans will be delighted.