Wow, the weeks are rushing by and this is the fifth of thirteen Branford-Boase Prize posts already. So far I’ve managed to keep up with the pace and have read all the books I’ve featured. This week I have two more longlisters to talk about, neither of which I’d read before their nominations.
Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door by Ross Montgomery
Alex Jennings is a boy with a problem. His mum's sent him away to boarding school because his father, the most famously failed explorer in the history of the Cusp, has escaped from hospital again, yelling 'squiggles'. Make that two problems. Now the evil Davidus Kyte and all his henchmen are after Alex, convinced he alone knows the meaning of the word 'squiggles'. OK, make that three - Alex Jennings is a boy with a lot of problems. But with the help of a talking dog and a girl with unfeasibly sharp teeth, he just might have what it takes to cross the Forbidden Lands, escape the evil Davidus Kyte, and find out what lies beyond the Cusp
I have mixed feelings about this book and I’ve done my best to separate my own personal tastes and my overall assessment of the story. It is a little bit too silly for me as a reader; I am not good with slapstick and would have liked a bit more subtlety. But I can definitely see how much it would appeal to lots of other people.
When I started to read it I quickly realised it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. From the title I thought it was going to be a real-life but humorous story about a boy and his dog. I got the humour bit right but it’s actually set in a fantasy world and the dog is in the story less than I assumed, although he does play a crucial role. For me, the cover, title and synopsis don’t match with the story and it made it harder for me to get into the story.
The world that Alex lives in is arranged around a Forbidden Land whose centre is a mystery. His father was a famous explorer until his last expedition to reach the centre left him barking mad. With his dad in hospital Alex is left at a horrid boarding school where he’s relentlessly bullied. The one bright spot in the form of a new sympathetic headmaster is quickly rubbed out by the arrival of the hideous Davidus Kyte. Davidus is determined to make it to the centre himself and needs Alex to put his dastardly plan into action.
I did like the double act of Officers Mike and Duncan, they are not very nice grown-ups but their incompetence is funny. Alex makes a friend along the way in Martha, who is clever and cunning. I felt sorry for Alex, but his inability to stop talking was incredibly irritating! I’m also not sure how satisfying I found the resolution of the story either but I hope Alex is going to have a nicer life in future.
I’m hoping to get a child’s-eye view of this book to add to my thoughts, but in the meantime here are two excellent reviews:
The Hanged Man Rises by Sarah Naughton
When their parents are killed in a fire, Titus Adams and his little sister Hannah are left to fend for themselves in the cruel and squalid slums of Victorian London. Taking shelter with his friend and saviour, Inspector Pilbury, Titus should feel safe. But though the inspector has just caught and hung a notorious child-murderer, the murders haven't stopped. Now everyone is a suspect, even the inspector himself, and unless Titus can find a way to end the killings, he will lose all that is dear to him. For this evil cannot be contained, even by death.
I wonder if Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door also suffered because I read it right after The Hanged Man Rises, which is exactly to my reading tastes. It brilliantly combines the supernatural with historical fiction to make a chilling tale.
Titus is devoted to his family, even though his parents have sunk low. After their tragic death he has to make a challenging decision to keep his sister Hannah safe and I really felt for him. In his efforts to build a better life for the pair of them he becomes entangled with a sinister child-killer, the Wigman, whose crimes continue even after he is hanged.
The Hanged Man Rises starts scary and continues the same way. The first chapter introduces the murderous Wigman as he pursues a victim. He’s no less terrifying once he’s caught; if possible he’s actually more disturbing. There’s also a hanging, a witch and a spirit medium so bring your sturdy hearts - it’ll be worth it.
I think I loved everything about this story. The descriptions of the Devil’s Acre slum transported me to their fog-filled streets. I loved all the details such as the Ragged School and workhouse. I thought there were some truly heart-breaking moments, and the depths of grief expressed by Inspector Pilbury and by street urchin Stitcher was very different in character but equally affecting. It’s also a very exciting and tense story that has proper page-turning power. I highly recommend it to all older readers not of a nervous disposition, I think it’s on the cusp between children’s and teen fiction.
Let me know what you think of these two books.
Next week: Alison Rattle's The Quietness and Geek Girl by Holly Smale.