I didn’t think anything could be better than Philip Reeve’s The Hungry City Chronicles, published by Scholastic in four volumes. Earth, five thousand years into the future, has been ravaged by wars between moving cities which follow the principles of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, in which places like London hunt smaller ones and ‘eat’ them. The novels have heaps of wit and style, are unashamedly rip-roaring and I love them.
Larklight is a departure from the series: we are in Victorian London, but not a recognisable one; Isaac Newton has discovered the secret of space travel, and the capital is ‘the largest and greatest city in all the worlds of the sun’. The British Empire has outposts on Mars and the moons of Jupiter; people travel through the aether with great ease. Larklight is a stately home which orbits the earth and holds within it, as well as two lively and engaging children called Art and Myrtle, the secret of the Universe. The house is a character in itself: vast, gloomy and cleaned by a pack of Hoverhogs who propel themselves by their own emissions. When it is attacked by a space spider (called Mr Webster) with evil intentions, the siblings embark on amusing and perilous adventures. They encounter a fifteen-year-old pirate called Jack Havock (‘The Terror of the Aetheric Main’) and his crew of scurvy aliens who have escaped the halls of the Royal Xenological Society; they consult a storm (called Mr Thunderhead) who lives on Jupiter, and of course they have to rescue the planets from the menacing arachnids who want to rule as they did at the beginning of Time. The rollicking, devil-may-care attitude of the book is an absolute delight: ‘as soon as we have saved the Solar System, Art, we shall have to redecorate’, says Art’s mother on returning to Larklight. This book will provide enjoyment for all ages, and I long for more from Reeve’s pen. I have a plan, concocted with my young friends Maud and Theo Bruton, to kidnap Philip Reeve and make him write books all day: he’d better watch out.
Tanglewreck is also the name of a stately home – this time rather boringly static, although it does have a weird mind of its own. The novel is by Jeanette Winterson, and it left me uneasy: I’m not sure it quite works as a children’s book. The heroine, whose house it is, is called Silver, which I find immensely irritating. I wonder if there are any children called Silver (barring those unfortunate sprogs of reality-TV stars or celebrity dog-walkers) bounding about twenty-first-century London, where most of this book is set. She is also just not interesting enough to make you like her.
Everyone else has a similar, Gormenghastian name (Darkwater, Sniveller, Fisty and Thugger), which makes the work unconvincing, because, unlike Reeve (or indeed Peake), Winterson hasn’t made a coherent universe where names like that are plausible. But she does write beautifully. When time tornados hit the city, causing mammoths to walk the banks of the Thames and buses full of schoolchildren to disappear, the scenes are vivid and startling. The plot is compelling, concerning a lost ‘Timekeeper’, Silver’s heirloom, which can control Time itself. Two villains are after it: Darkwater (whose habit of saying ‘oh yes’ in every sentence made me think of nothing else but John Major), and the slinky, centuries-old nymphet Regalia Mason. The latter runs a company called Quanta, which wants to rule the universe.
Silver must stop Regalia and face up to her destiny. She does this with the help of an ex-lunatic who has lived underground for four hundred years, and a group of London children with comedy accents; quantum physics, rabbits and an army of Popes all feature. Although the press release says ‘eight and up’, I’d plump for twelve – the complicated plot might lose younger ones.
Marcus Sedgwick’s My Swordhand is Singing is a taut, compactly constructed tale about a rash of vampire attacks blighting a small village in Eastern Europe. The hero, Peter, and his alcoholic father, Tomas, move around a lot. Settling into an isolated cottage they are naturally suspected by the villagers; but Tomas’s past hides a powerful secret which Peter must uncover in order to stop the undead. Sedgwick, as in his last novel, The Foreshadowing, does not hold back the darkness. Gripping, mysterious and melancholy, this will suit older children and is an excellent addition to his work.
Peter Pan in Scarlet is the ‘official sequel’ to the play and novel by J M Barrie, by well-established children’s writer Geraldine McCaughrean, who has written more than a hundred books (including A Little Lower than the Angels, a great favourite when I was little). The original novel has its oddities: I remember, on first reading a passage in which fairies come back tipsy from an orgy, asking, to stunned silence, what an orgy was; McCaughrean avoids such things and has produced a sensitive follow-up. The Lost Boys and Wendy are grown up now – Tootles is a judge, Curly a doctor. They all start to have strange dreams: the Twins, asleep on a bus to Putney, wake up with warpaint on their faces; John finds a pistol under his pillow. These are signs that Neverland is in trouble, and they must go back to save Peter Pan. To do so they must become children again. The author writes with exquisite precision: Pan is described as ‘wild and fragile and beautiful as an autumn leaf’. Children, including those who are now rather taller and eat sandwiches at their desks every day, will love it.
Barefoot Books are a small publisher which produces stunning picture books of classic tales and poems: one in particular is The Adventures of Odysseus by Daniel Morder and Hugh Lupton, which retells the story in a clear and thoughtful way, with striking Art Deco-style illustrations (by Christina Balit) on every page, suitable for younger children of five and up.