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Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

Puffin, 1969, 172 p.

Night Birds on Nantucket cover

At the start of this follow-up to Black Hearts in Battersea, itself a sequel of sorts to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Dido Twite has been comatose for four months, fed by one of the crew on the whaling ship Sarah Casket, which rescued her from drowning.

On her awakening she is asked by Captain Casket to befriend his now motherless daughter Dutiful Penitence (Pen) who is too scared to come on deck and hides away in her cabin. Dido soon finds another member of the crew, Mr Slighcarp (a surname readers of the series know well,) acting suspiciously and keeping secret the presence on ship of a mystery woman.

After following a pink whale (the captain’s obsession) from the Arctic down past the Galapagos and round into the Atlantic, Dido and Pen, now firm friends, are dropped off at the ship’s home port in Nantucket, where it has been arranged for the captain’s sister Tribulation to look after Pen for a while. Readers familiar with the series know where this domestic situation is going by now but perhaps its target younger audience might not. Excitement ensues though, when our two young friends come across a Hanoverian plot to kill King James III.

This is wholesome fare, as befits its intended YA audience but also eminently readable for older booklovers. Dido and Pen are agreeably portrayed – though some of the adults’ characterisations are a little over the top.

The book is decorated at intervals with illustrations (one of which is unfortunately placed one page too early.)

Pedant’s corner:- “The whole crew were trying to…” (the whole crew was trying to,) imposter (I much prefer impostor,) sculduggery (I know Dido does not speak in received pronunciation but the spelling of words she does speak ‘normally’ should not be altered; skulduggery,) trapesing (traipsing,) “‘when you Papa’s at sea’” (your Papa’s.) In the ‘About the author’; “the Amercian writer” (American.)

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott.

Vintage, 2012, 290 p.

 Black Hearts in Battersea cover

This is a sequel of sorts to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. However it does not follow the fortunes of the two main characters from that book but rather those of their friend Simon. He has received a message from Dr Field containing an invitation to take up a place at a school of drawing in London and to lodge in the same house as himself. However, when Simon reaches Rose Alley no-one admits to knowing the Doctor. He was first met there by Dido Twite, a perky child, though neglected by her parents. It soon becomes apparent that underhand activities are taking place in the house. Mr Twite sings Hanoverian songs (in this setting the Stuarts were never displaced from the British throne that second time) and Simon inadvertently stumbles on a stash of guns in the basement.

In the meantime Simon has enrolled in the Art School and encountered Justin, the heir to the Dukedom of Battersea, and a very poor artist, despite artistic ability running in the family. Also in Simon’s orbit is Sophie, his friend from the orphanage back home, who is now the Duchess’s lady’s maid. The Duke is an eccentric who befriends Simon through the medium of chess and asks him to clean one of his paintings. This, it turns out, has a representation of a Battersea ancestor to whom both Sophie and Simon bear a strong resemblance. It is immediately obvious where this is going and Aiken does not disappoint. In its working out, as befits a YA novel, we have breathless incident galore – a fire in a box at the opera, a sinking barge, shanghaiing, hot–air balloons, possibly poisoned mince pies, a gunpowder plot – before the villains are unmasked and the world brought to rights. (Well, most of it.) The characters are necessarily broad-brush but recognisable human types nevertheless. Yet quite why a putative James III (even if he would have been the eighth King of Scotland of that name) would be described as a Scottish gentleman, have a Scottish accent and speech patterns is beyond me. He would have been brought up as an English gentleman.

The book is slightly marred by its illustrations being misplaced so that they often occur just before the incident which they depict but it is all good fun.

Pedant’s corner:- “to show this good intentions” (his,) hoboy (hautboy. I suppose the spelling “hoboy” may have been adopted to avoid flummoxing Aiken’s younger readers but it is still wrong,) a missing full stop, topsy-turvey (topsy-turvy,) “the whole party were in charity with one another (the whole party was,) knit (knitted.)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

Virago, 1998, 202 p.

The Magic Toyshop cover

Fifteen year-old Melanie feels on the cusp of womanhood and wonders to herself how having sex or being married will feel. Her cosy middle-class existence is disrupted the night after she tries on her mother’s wedding dress – damaging it in the process – as in what she interprets as a piece of (un)sympathetic magic she receives news her parents have both died on the trip they had been on. Along with brother Jonathon and much younger sister Victoria she is packed off to live with Uncle Philip, their mother’s brother, who is married to Margaret Jowle, in turn rendered dumb ever since her wedding, communicating by means of chalk and blackboard. This new home is a constrained environment, ruled by Philip with a frugal rod of iron, Margaret and her brothers Finn and Francis (whom she brought with her to the marital home) living in fear. Philip is a toy/puppetmaker and they live over the toyshop which gives the novel its title.

The book has an odd sensibility, tonally and atmospherically redolent of Dickens, with some relationship dynamics reminiscent of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase but also containing faint echoes of The L-Shaped Room. The occasional references to such things as radios and other manifestations of (relative) modernity feel quite strange in comparison with the Victorian atmosphere which pervades the book even in the earlier chapters where Melanie is untroubled by straitened circumstances. This disjunction verges on magic realism as there is an aura of weirdness hanging over things throughout yet which never declares itself openly.

As the novel progresses Melanie’s revulsion to Finn’s lack of cleanliness and his interest in her is countered by her burgeoning awareness of sexuality. The twist near the end is one which I suspect neither Dickens nor Aiken would have dared essay though it might not have troubled Lynne Reid Banks.

Pedant’s corner:- “Scarborough-is-so-bracing” (in the posters it was Skegness that was so bracing,) focussed (focused.) “There were a number of shops” “There were a number of cake tins” (there was a number,) “some armless, some legless, same naked, some clothed,” (some naked,) “in two hundreds beds” (hundred,) “greasy Orientals” Vyella dress (Viyella,) tremulo (tremolo.) “The first of Jonathan’s wooden ships were up for sale” (the first was up for sale,) “in the butchers” (the butcher’s,) “open eyes of pure of colour” (has an “of” too many.) “She spread out her skirts and put shells into it” (skirts is plural; so, ‘put shells into them’,) pigmy (pygmy,) “who had laid in bed” (lain,) Aunt Margaret must have fried up everything friable in the larder” (fryable; “friable” means crumbly,) hiccoughing (hiccupping, the supposed resemblance to a cough is a misattribution,) “and she not sure” (and she was not sure,) a missing end quotation mark.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Illustrated by Pat Marriott. Vintage, 2012, 227 p.

The book is an altered history set in an early Nineteenth Century England. There is a Channel Tunnel mentioned in a prefatory Note and wolves roam the countryside. Apart from two instances (where they variously attack a stationary train and chase the main characters) plus the odd howl from far off the wolves are mainly an off-stage menace though. It is clearly aimed at a YA – or even younger – audience.

Bonnie Green is the daughter of the grand house Willoughby Chase. Her cousin Sylvia is coming to visit as her carer, Aunt Jane, is getting on. Bonnie’s mother is ailing and requires a trip to help cure her, naturally accompanied by her husband. The first requirement of a children’s adventure, the absence of parents, is hereby secured. The governess hired to look after them, Miss Slighcarp, a supposed distant relative, is the usual wicked creature, not content with mistreating the pair but also intent on defrauding Bonnie of her inheritance with the assistance of the forger Mr Grimshaw. Much Dickensian harsh schooling ensues but the plucky pair escape with the help of Simon, a local boy who lives in the woods. They make their way to London to enlist the services of Mr Gripe, the estate’s lawyer.

It all rattles along (as YA novels have to) but this leaves little time for anything but sketching each character. Best read as a young person I would think.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, backboards (context demands “blackboards”.)

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