Death at the circus

Sat, Jun 12, 2010, 01:00

Murder and mayhem makes teenage reading a scream, writes Anna Carey

ONCE UPON a time, mystery novels for children involved stolen cats, vanished princes and impressive disguises.

But things have changed since the innocent days of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers. If Tanya Landman’s Poppy Fields novels are anything to go by, today’s youthful detectives are investigating (and indeed witnessing) actual murders. In Certain Death (Walker Books, £4.99), young Poppy and her friend Graham are disturbed by circus posters that promise “certain death” – and their worries are proved to be justified when a member of the circus audience is shot. But she wasn’t the real target.

Certain Death is about as realistic as the adventures of the Find-Outers, albeit with fewer “comic” working class characters and more fatalities. But thanks to its fast-paced plot and clear, accessible prose, it’s an exciting adventure that’s particularly suitable for reluctant readers.

There’s more death and law-breaking in Ally Kennen’s Sparks (Scholastic/Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99). Carla and her siblings are heartbroken when their beloved grandpa dies of a heart attack in the barn where he’s been working on building a boat. Then Carla finds a letter written to her by Grandpa, revealing his secret dream: to have a full Viking funeral, drifting out to sea on a burning boat at sunset. Grandpa knew this wasn’t possible, so asks Carla to send out his old letters on the boat instead. But Carla, with some help from her siblings, is determined to give her grandfather the funeral of his dreams – even if it involves breaking the law. Despite the subject matter, there’s nothing macabre about this surprisingly gentle and uplifting story of bereavement and family ties.

Fans of Derek Landy, whose Skulduggery Pleasant won the Irish Book of the Decade title at the end of last month, can rejoice – the hugely successful Dublin writer has returned with a new Skulduggery Pleasant adventure. But the eponymous wise-cracking skeleton detective is absent from much of Dark Days (Harper Collins, £12.99).

He was transported into a horrible dimension at the end of the last novel, and now his loyal friends, led by charismatic teenage heroine Valkyrie, are determined to bring him back to earth. And that’s not their only problem – they also have a gang of very determined villains to defeat. Whip-smart, exciting and, as ever, funny, it shouldn’t disappoint Skulduggery’s many admirers.

Thanks to Landy’s unobtrusive exposition, even those who haven’t read Landy’s previous novels will be able to enjoy Dark Days, but unfortunately Caro King’s Shadow Spell (Quercus, £6.99) is less welcoming to newcomers. And, as many children don’t necessarily have access to every book in a series, a little bit of background information is important. The sequel to the acclaimed Seven Sorcerers, it tells the story of Ninevah, who is seeking the lost sorcerer who she hopes can save the magical land of the Drift. But those who haven’t read the previous books will find themselves at a loss, and the so-so writing and bland characters don’t really push the casual reader into making the considerable effort to figure out what’s going on. King also suffers from the lazy fantasy writer’s fondness for ridiculous neologisms, which doesn’t help.

Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books are hugely popular with young readers. And it’s not hard to see why. In Mr Gum and the Cherry Tree (Egmont, £5.99), the evil Mr Gum fools the inhabitants of Lamonic Bibber into worshipping him by pretending to be an ancient woodland spirit. Our young heroine, Polly (who, for reasons best known to Stanton, talks a bit like Popeye), teams up with delightful gingerbread headmaster Alan Taylor to save the rest of the town from Mr Gum’s dreadful scheme. The wordplay and self-conscious wackiness is so relentless that at times reading this book is a bit like being trapped in a lift with a hyperactive child who’s eaten too much sugar. But when Stanton is funny rather than zany just for the sake of it, he’s very, very funny.

Stanton has been compared to Roald Dahl, but Mr Gum lacks the disturbing strangeness and cruelty of Dahl’s best work. A more fitting heir to Dahl’s throne is Leander Deeny, whose debut novel, Hazel’s Phantasmagoria (Quercus, £6.99), is both hilarious and genuinely unsettling. Don’t be put off by the inevitable sub- Edward Gorey cover art and the Lemony Snicket comparisons in the blurb – this is a distinctive and original book, albeit one that may disturb some children (as a child, I know I’d have been haunted by certain scenes).

It begins in classic children’s fiction style, as young Hazel is sent to stay with her nasty aunt Eugenia and peculiar cousin Isambard in their rambling, decrepit country house while her parents are working abroad. There she encounters a host of peculiar creatures, from a dog with a wooden head to the monstrous hybrid animals that turn out to be (literally) her aunt’s nightmares. Hazel joins forces with the nightmares to torment Eugenia, but eventually discovers that revenge really isn’t much fun at all. Effortlessly surreal, very funny and strangely moving, it’s a hugely promising debut.

Anna Carey is a freelance journalist