Philip Womack

Spectres & Steam Trains

Sunny and the Ghosts

By

Salt 96pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

Enchantée

By

Macmillan 467pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

The Steam Whistle Theatre Company

By

Walker Books 304pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novels deal with the nightmarish and the claustrophobic. Her most recent, Missing, teetered on the edge of the supernatural. Moore’s first children’s book, Sunny and the Ghosts, deals with things that really do go bump in the night. The story is set in an old junk shop in Devon stuffed with more than its fair share of ghosts, who arrive, wistfully attached to the bric-a-brac, in the state in which they died. There’s pyjama-clad Herbert; Walter, a miner who never learned to read (Sunny teaches him); Violet, who’s writing a novel (in a meta-literary touch, it turns out to be Sunny and the Ghosts); and many others, including a mischief-maker who fills the shop with cats. This is a gentle, intelligent and warm novel about friendship and imagination for children of seven and up.

Paris, 1789. Camille is the daughter of an aristocrat disowned by her family for marrying a lowly printer with revolutionary ideas. Now orphaned, she must support her drunken brother and her pretty, socially ambitious sister, using her limited and draining magical skills. A chance encounter leads her to the complex, dangerous court of Louis XVI, where she uses her powers to transform herself into the gambling-loving Baroness de la Fontaine; meanwhile, a half-Indian aristocratic aeronaut falls for the real Camille, and Paris is rocked by violence. An extended riff on Charles Perrault’s version of the Cinderella tale, this is an ambitious, rich and absorbing debut, featuring intrigues, balloons, midnight games of hide-and-seek among the fountains at Versailles, and cameos by Marie Antoinette, Madame de Staël and most of the cast of Simon Schama’s Citizens. Gita Trelease’s Enchantée is a fine teen novel that deals with concealment and identity: the young characters experiment, hiding and revealing secrets, as France tries to forge a new path. This is a thrilling account of love, passion and adventure.

Trains are such a prominent feature of children’s books that someone ought to write a treatise on them: they carry messages and people; they branch through countries and (in science fiction) the universe. In The Steam Whistle Theatre Company by Vivian French, newly built train tracks are images of hope. Optimistic thespian Pa Pringle is the head of a ragtag theatre company down on its luck. Its members decide to take the train up north, believing that there they will find riches with their revised, song-filled version of King Lear. French is a writer of tremendous charm, her world at once comedic and believable. The Pringles end up lodging in Uncaster Hall with the chatelaine, Arabella Poskett. Unfortunately, she’s also been left in debt by her rascally husband. And there’s a rival act in town too, Little Baby Bubbles, the eight-year-old escapologist (actually a rather plump teenager). Uncaster Hall, meanwhile, is in the sights of wicked Olio Sleevery, a classic children’s book villain in the vein of Miss Slighcarp. The children are as capable as the adults, if not more so, and it’s the little scullery maid, Edie, brave, loyal and determined, who helps to stave off disaster. French controls her disparate elements effortlessly and every character, charming or dastardly, is drawn with care and love, including the ghastly Poskett children, Hypatia and Affogato, and Vincent von Greazle, who is ‘no longer able to play the Noble Hero unless the lights were exceptionally dim’. Familial love underpins everything. Children of nine and upwards will want to jump aboard.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter