Tag Archives: London

Book Review Saturday – ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’

This book is one I’ve wanted to read for years. I kept forgetting about it until the other day when my lovely husband handed me a copy. ‘I thought you might like this,’ he said. ‘It sounded right up your street.’

Well. They do say that when a spouse speaks their affection through books, they’re worth holding on to, don’t they?

Okay, they don’t. But they should.

Image: whytebooks.com

Image: whytebooks.com

‘Goodnight Mister Tom’, by Michelle Magorian, was originally published in 1981. It won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, an amazing feat for a first novel, and has been a classic of children’s literature ever since. It tells the story of William (‘Willie’, later ‘Will’) Beech, a London child evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II, and his relationship with Tom Oakley, the man with whom he is placed.

From the get-go, I loved Tom. He’s depicted as the typical ‘gruff’ countryman, keeps himself to himself, doesn’t bother anyone and nobody bothers him – but beneath it all you know that his neighbours respect and like him. He reacts with thinly veiled irritation when Willie is deposited on his doorstep, fresh off the London train, but almost instantly we see his annoyance begin to melt. He has the instincts of a father, and he sees straight away that Willie has been terribly abused by someone in his past. Without having to be told, Tom knows how to take care of Willie. He is patient, and he is understanding, and he is gentle. He is kind, and generous, and he gives the child space to be himself – he gives him a chance to come to trust him, and he never forces the issue.

It is one of the most beautiful ‘parent’-child relationships I’ve ever read. Often, when reading this book, I was moved to tears by Tom’s understanding of what it is to be a child, and how easily he placed himself in Willie’s shoes. It made me wish that every child had a ‘Tom’ – a parent or guardian who treated them with consistent kindness and patient love, allowing them to be who they are and express who they are without judgement.

Just a minute. I’m getting weepy again. Here, have a picture:

John Thaw (Tom) and Nick Robinson (Willie) in the 1998 movie adaptation of the book. Image: kingsroad.learningspaces.net

John Thaw (Tom) and Nick Robinson (Willie) in the 1998 movie adaptation of the book.
Image: kingsroad.learningspaces.net

Right. Anyway. As the story progresses, we learn a bit more about Tom, and his own painful past. We find out why he keeps his world small and why he has locked away all the love in his heart for so long, and we watch it slowly start to re-emerge as he and Willie grow closer. We see Willie learn how to run and laugh and play like an ordinary child, and we see him make friends – best friends – for the first time. It is through showing us all the things Willie has never experienced before that Magorian expresses the depth of the abuse he’s suffered – and that abuse is like nothing else I’ve ever read.

Willie’s life with his mother comes back into play in the latter part of the book, after she summons him back to London. He has been with Mister Tom for over six months, and he has transformed from a sick, weak, bruised and broken child into a strong, healthy boy. He is so changed that, when he arrives back in London, his mother does not recognise him. In the character of Mrs Beech, Magorian has created one of the most compellingly evil fictional mothers; we see her belittle Willie, and we see her anger when she realises that Tom has not been beating Willie regularly, as she would have wished. We see her determination to ‘break’ him once again, undoing all the good work Tom and the people of Little Weirwold have been doing since Willie arrived among them. We see, in fact, that Mrs Beech is profoundly mentally ill, and has taken out her own frustration and anger on her son.

Tom, meanwhile, has had a premonition that all is not well with Willie. A month goes by, and there is no word from the child despite several letters having been sent to him. Suspicious and uneasy, Tom – who has never ventured beyond his own village – finds his way to London, and eventually to Deptford, where Willie lives. He persuades a policeman to break down the door of the Beechs’ seemingly-abandoned flat – and, inside, they find Willie in the worst possible condition.

During this part of the story, I had to put the book down once or twice because I couldn’t deal with what I was reading. The sheer brutality of what Willie has endured is shocking, even to me; I thought I was fairly worldly, but this book showed me I am not. It was hard going, and I wondered how I would have coped with it as a younger reader. I think children would react entirely differently to this sort of thing, though: it’s almost like something out of a fairy tale, something unreal. It’s only to an adult reader that the true horror reveals itself.

Suffice it to say, I wept as I read the final twenty or thirty pages of this book. As well as Willie and Tom’s story, a character meets their death (unnecessarily, I thought, but that’s just me) which had me in a heap on the floor, and the conclusion of the story wrenched every last drop of emotion from my soul.

So, the story is wonderful.

I'm fine - honestly... Image: drhealth.md

I’m fine – honestly…
Image: drhealth.md

However, I did have a problem with the writing. Specifically, there’s a lot of showing, as opposed to telling, in this book, and it is – despite not being the heftiest of tomes – too long. Lots of what happens is not vital to the plot, and pages of pointless description and minutiae take away from the book’s power, for me. Having said that, while the style of writing is irritating at times, it shines when Magorian is writing dialogue. At that, and at characterisation, she absolutely excels. In any case, the sheer heft of the story, and the profound effect it had on me, more than make up for the perceived shortcomings in style. Perhaps, after all, there were different ‘rules’ or expectations from children’s books in 1981 in terms of how they were written, and it was Magorian’s first book.

But what a first book.

This one is highly recommended, for those of you who haven’t read it already. Just be prepared to weep, is all I’ll say.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Go read!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Rat Runners’

This week, it’s the turn of Oisin McGann’s ‘Rat Runners’ to fall under the Review-o-Scope…

Image: ebookweb.org

Image: ebookweb.org

Four teenage spies, a vast crime network, terrifying surveillance, and a murdered scientist – all the ingredients for a thrilling, twisty adventure story are to be found in the pages of this novel. It’s well written, well plotted, fast-paced and fun; as well as that, it delivers a punch of action right where it’s needed. The high-tech elements in the book, particularly near the end, are brilliantly observed and described, and they’re also – to be frank – monumentally clever.

Nimmo, Manikin, FX and Scope are our unlikely heroes, each of them with their particular skill, each of them surviving without family (besides Manikin and FX, who are brother and sister and live together in a fiercely guarded bunker), and each of them leading an existence outside of the eyes and ears of the law. This last achievement is no mean feat, for in the London of ‘Rat Runners’, to be alive is to be watched. Cameras and recording devices abound, and everyone lives in fear of the creepily described ‘Safe-Guards,’ who have access everywhere and seemingly limitless power to observe, record and dissect your life. The entire city is run by ‘WatchWorld’, who can invade your privacy and peer into every nook and cranny of London and the lives of those who live in it with impunity. One of the things I liked the most about this book was its use of the term ‘rat runners’ – in the world I know, a ‘rat run’ is a shortcut through a city, taken by someone who knows where they’re going. In this book, the term means a route through a city that is as invisible as possible – timed to be just outside of a camera’s sweep, or using shadows and architecture to your advantage – and our heroes are adepts at getting around London like this.

Our four young criminal protagonists are thrown together by crime boss Move-Easy, who requires them to do some work for him. Their task is seemingly simple: find a box which was, until recently, among the possessions of a certain Dr. Watson Brundle. Poor old Dr. Brundle has met a sticky end and the box has, apparently, vanished; the best guess is that it is in the possession of Dr. Brundle’s daughter, Veronica.

How hard can it be to steal it back? Well. Pretty hard, as it turns out.

Not only do the four anti-heroes have to contend with WatchWorld and the Safe-Guards, but they are also being pursued by two rival criminal gangs, including the mysterious ‘Vapour’, a crime-lord about whom nobody seems to know anything. To further complicate matters, a pair of ambitious but incompetent small-time crooks named Punkin and Bunny (think Bonnie and Clyde, minus the charm and intelligence), are continually getting in the way, and they’re bent on revenge against our foursome for an earlier slight. Ingenuity brings our heroes into contact with Veronica Brundle, and sheer guts and brains help them to uncover the truth behind the project her father was working on – a project which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could spell the end of the world as they know it…

This book is so good. I enjoyed every word. Everything about it, from the surveillance state to the technology to the criminal underworld, feels real and believable. The four protagonists are, at all times, seen as individuals with their own skills and talents. As well as this, they are all given a vital role in telling the story and in bringing events to their conclusion; the book could not exist without even one of them. The girls are as brave and strong as the boys, and the boys are as intelligent and quick-witted as the girls. I can’t tell you how much I loved the way McGann handled his protagonists. I was utterly absorbed in the technological reality of the world this novel creates – the CCTV state feels so believable, and the fear of being spied on is something which is already such a part of our world. The book couldn’t be more timely, really – the tech is futuristic, but the mindset is already with us. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and so well written that each character’s voice is clear in the reader’s mind from the first time they are encountered. The baddies are properly scary, and there is something to be wary of in almost everybody. As is to be expected in a place where WatchWorld holds sway, nobody finds it easy to trust anybody else, and this is very cleverly explored in the book.

My absolute favourite thing about ‘Rat Runners’, though, is this: in the world of Safe-Guards, books which contain ideas about freedom and corruption and surveillance and overturning the state are seen as so dangerous that they are banned. Books like Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (‘Ratched’ is even used as the name of a place in the novel, which I thought was a nice touch!) are ‘contraband’, passed from person to person and sold by ‘dealers’ under the noses of WatchWorld. This aspect of the book was such a thrill that I was sorry more wasn’t made of it, but I enjoyed it hugely anyway.

I wish, having said all this, that McGann had made more of the Safe-Guards themselves, and WatchWorld as an entity; the book becomes all about the criminal underworld, which is excellent (of course), but I would have loved to find out the truth behind the Safe-Guards, and the ‘face’ behind WatchWorld. Outside the scope of the novel, perhaps! I also found myself marginally irritated at something which happens to Scope toward the novel’s conclusion, in relation to her ability to see; I completely understand why it’s there, and why it was necessary in terms of the book’s denouement, but I still wish there had been another way to resolve the plot point. There’s also a description of a female character near the beginning of the book which – while totally in keeping with the tone of the character describing her – was, to me, annoying. I had a few small issues surrounding the character of Veronica Brundle, actually, but nothing important enough to stop me enjoying the book.

Overall, this is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time. On the question of genre: the storyline is, in my opinion, perfectly appropriate for a children’s book, and in many respects it fits neatly into that category, but some parents might want to be warned about the mild foul language that is used throughout; this probably elevates it to the lofty heights of 12+, which is fair enough. If you are lucky enough to have any young ‘uns of that age hanging around, and they look bored, then shove a copy of this book into their hands before they can pick up their PlayStations, or whatever. They’d be much better served by this wonderful story!

Happy weekend, everyone. Whatever you’re doing, I hope it’s reading.

Image: publicdomainpictures.net

Image: publicdomainpictures.net