The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster

fosterad-blackholeNovelisations are a thing of the past – the distant past. They were useful in the days when hardly anyone owned a VCR (that’s video cassette recorder, since the term is no longer in common usage). Back then, the only chance of rewatching a movie was to wait until it was televised. So we had novelisations as a means of re-experiencing our favourite films. But since everything is now available inexpensively on DVD or blu-ray, novelisations are an irrelevance.

Alan Dean Foster could write them well. In the case of his treatment of James Cameron’s Aliens, I recall that it gave fans a chance to experience the content of the extended cut long before it was ever released. The movie The Black Hole is a childhood favourite of mine, and I have always been haunted by the strange ending which involved an elaborate journey through heaven and hell. Very disturbing for an eight-year-old to watch. I could never figure out what the conclusion of the movie was trying to say. So I decided to visit the novelisation and see if Foster would shed any light on the matter.

The story begins with a small spacecraft, the Palomino, carrying a crew of five, travelling through deep space in search of life. They come across a long lost vessel, the Cygnus, positioned just outside a massive black hole – remarkably not being sucked in. The Palomino crew investigate. Aboard the Cygnus is Dr. Hans Reinhardt, living with only robots for company. He has invented gravity-defying technology and plans to take his ship through the black hole. The story and characters are reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Foster adds a lot of detail that wasn’t in the movie, giving Dr. Reinhardt a much more substantial background. There are also a few incidental things that are different from the movie. And what of the trip through heaven and hell, which clearly took up a significant slice of the movie’s budget? Well, Foster ignores it completely, opting for an abstract ending about unified consciousness. I feel cheated, frankly. I wish I had jumped to the last chapter and read it, instead of investing my time in the whole book. Then again, perhaps I was naive for thinking that a 1979 Disney space opera would have a deeper side.

No Man’s Land by Simon Watson

watsons-nomanslandThis obscure little children’s science fiction novel is another nostalgia trip for me. I recall reading it as part of the English curriculum in Junior High School. I recall that the main thought in my head, during the first read, was, “When do we get see the robot?” Action involving the robot, called Giant, was confined mostly to the closing chapters, and my twelve-year-old brain had little appreciation for the book’s subtler thematic content. Now, as an adult, I probably enjoyed the story far more, precisely because it dealt with real themes: the effects of over-population and industrialisation, where old people are forced into care homes, rural areas are transformed into urban, ancient landmarks are demolished to make room for housing. If anything, the presence of a gigantic semi-sentient construction robot that throws temper tantrums was a bit of a crude addition to an otherwise realistic story.

Alan, the protagonist, is a boy in his early teens, whose family is one of the last to move away from their countryside home. So ends a much-loved way of life for the boy, involving fun and games with other boys in an around the ruins of an old castle known as the Keep. Also brought to a close are Alan’s friendships with his best friend Ben and an old man known as the General. Alan reluctantly begins to adjust to his new life in the city, but when he obtains a motorcycle, the first thing he does is go back to his old home. He discovers that the General is still there; the man stubbornly hid himself when the authorities came to take all the old folks to a care home in the city. Later, the General discovers that there are plans to destroy the Keep, to make way for “progress.” Alan and the General will have none of it, and so they make a plan. But how can one boy and an old man thwart the might of a gigantic construction robot?

Some might criticise this novel for its slow pace and lack of dramatic action, especially when the front cover of many editions displays a robot. But I found it a very pleasant story, with realistic characters that I genuinely felt for. I’m glad I revisited this one.

The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Starstormers 5: Volcano by Nicholas Fisk

In this, the final Starstormers adventure, our heroes Vawn, Makenzi, Ispex and Tsu crashland their ship on Volcano. While waiting for their parents to rescue them, they must contend with the planet’s strange semi-sentient vegetation and bizarre animal life. Their “magical” friends from the previous adventure, the veils of Moloch, show up to lend a helping hand. Before long, their old nemesis the Octopus Emperor makes an appearance. The Starstormers, accustomed to running, decide to make a final stand against the ruler of Tyrannopolis.

With the exception of the first volume, the rest of the Starstormers saga has been fairly mediocre, including this final episode. That said, I found myself always captivated by the characters, if not the stories themselves. I think children, who are much more forgiving of plot-holes and unoriginality, will have a great fondness for the saga. It was my own childhood memories of volume 1 that led me to take this nostalgia trip in the first place, and I’m glad I did. I can’t help thinking it might have made a great little children’s TV series, given a chance.

Volcano provides decisive closure to the saga. Farewell, Starstormers. It’s been fun.

See also:

Starstormers 4: Evil Eye by Nicholas Fisk

Once again the Starstormers – four children in a home-made junkyard spaceship – blast off into space to escape the onslaught of the Octopus Emperor. Their ship, barely holding together, crashlands on a planet known as Moloch (interesting term, if you’ve read the Bible). Upon exiting the ship, they find themselves in a jungle filled with all manner of Earthlike creatures, although mutated beyond recognition – and many of them hostile. Makenzi and Tsu take on the role of learning to hunt for food, while Ispex concerns himself with locating metals with which to repair the ship. Vawn starts hearing voices in her head, discovering that there is a vast intelligence in their midst. The Starstormers eventually learn that they are not on the planet itself but have crashed into a doughnut-shaped satellite that was placed in orbit – a structure made by mankind as an environment suitable for life, but upon which life has now run amuck. And the Starstormers must restore balance.

One question occurred to me: if you crash through the outer shell of the satellite into its Earthlike atmosphere, how do you avoid evacuating the entire atmosphere into space? Well, let’s just say, if you’ve read volumes 1 to 3 of Starstormers, Fisk isn’t terribly concerned with major plot holes or wacky science. In children’s literature anything goes; it shouldn’t, but it often does. Is it sloppy storytelling? Of course. Should a writer know better than to say to himself, “Ah, kids never notice that sort of stuff”? Yes, he should. Does it ruin the book? For an eight-year-old, probably not. And so, Fisk gets away with it.

I’ve had fun on this nostalgia trip so far, but with volume 4, I’ve started to get impatient and bored. The strength of the book is in the humourous interactions between the characters. It’s just a pity Fisk couldn’t come up with better story material. I’m on the home straight now, so I’ll probably read the final volume, Volcano, just for the sake of completeness.

See also:

Starstormers 3: Catfang by Nicholas Fisk

There are five adventures in the Starstormers children’s space opera, and it has taken me a over year to locate copies of them all. This third adventure, Catfang, finally completes my set. The books are rare and hard to find on eBay, but judging by the amount of search requests my previous two reviews have generated, they are fondly remembered. I was very pleased with the first adventure, not so enamoured with the second, but something just keeps me reading. In part, I guess I’m revisiting my childhood and completing some unfinished business. But the books do hold a certain silly charm for me, even as an adult. The characters of Vawn, Ispex, Tsu and Makenzi (and not forgetting the robot, Shambles) all have their individual quirks, and the interactions between them are frequently funny.

The plots of the stories require a massive suspension of disbelief. If adventures one and two seemed unbelievable, Fisk really goes into overdrive with Catfang. At the end of book two, the Starstormers have escaped the clutches of the Octopus Emperor and are on the run in space. They now discover a stowaway on board: a cat. They name it Fang. Now, I won’t spoil the story by telling you what strange things the crew end up doing with this cat; all I will say is, “Fisk, what have you been smoking!” Because the antics in this book could only seem logical to an author floating several feet above his keyboard. But you know what? I just went with it and I had fun. And I’ll probably finish the series in due course.

See also:

Starstormers 2: Sunburst by Nicholas Fisk

Volume 1 of the Starstormers saga ended with our heroes, Vawn, Ispex, Makenzi and Tsu, reunited with their parents on the colony of Epsilon Cool. Unwittingly they brought the evil Octopus Emperor – a being made entirely of a dust-like substance – along for the ride. Worse still, we learn that one of the Starstormers is a traitor, secretly in league with the Emperor in return for seeing their parents again.

Volume 2 begins with the Octopus Emperor enslaving the Starstormers and their parents and bringing them to his homeworld of dust. The youngsters manage to trick the Emperor and escape in their home-made spacecraft, but they must leave their parents behind. Wandering the stars, they come across a vast deserted starship. Curious, they dock and board, only to learn that the ship is heading straight for the sun. They panic. Why? Good question. Four children who were smart enough to build their own spaceship are apparently too dumb to realise that they can simply undock and fly away. When they finally do realise and attempt to take-off, they’re too dumb to uncouple the docking mechanism, and they assume the larger ship’s gravity is too strong. Oh, brother.

When the kids are finally on their way again, they head for the Octopus homeworld and make a stab at rescuing their parents. The title, Sunburst, is a reference to the encounter with the ghost ship, but this is really only a mini-adventure of 40 pages occupying the centre of this 120-page book. The rest of the volume is concerned with the Octopus Emperor.

The general gist of what I’m saying would lead you to believe I hated this book. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and read it in a couple of days. Elements of the plot are poorly thought out, some of the writing is sloppy; Nicholas Fisk may well have written the Starstormers saga purely as a money-spinner. Normally I crucify a book like this. Instead, I find I want to chase up the remaining three volumes. The adventure, as a whole, is a fairly decent pulp space opera for kids. I’m into nostalgia in a big way at the moment, and reading Starstormers gives me the same feeling I got reading the likes of the Eagle comic as a kid. Bite-sized throwaway stories; such things have their place.

See also:

Starstormers by Nicholas Fisk

I remember buying this book from a mail-order school book club when I was about eight years old, although I was so uninterested in reading as a child that I probably didn’t consume the book till I was about thirteen, when the reading bug finally bit me. Now, over twenty years later, I’m being bitten by the nostalgia bug, so here we go again …

Four children, Vawn, Ispex, Tsu and Makenzi live in a boarding school on Earth, while their parents are busy building a colony on the planet Epsilon Cool. It has been years since they last saw their parents and more before they ever will. Bored and frustrated, they come up with the crazy scheme of building their own spaceship out of parts salvaged from a spacecraft junkyard. They name their ship Starstormer and blast off. Weeks later, soaring through space on route to Epsilon Cool, they come across an ancient colony ship from earth called the Conqueror. The inhabitants have developed a strange religion, worshipping the “Glorious Ones,” whoever they are. Ispex is first to figure out that there is great peril here for the Starstormers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s clear from the beginning that the story requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief, what with kids building a spaceship, but once you accept that, you can get on with enjoying the tale. The four children have diverse character traits that make for interesting drama. I had one worry, initially, about a particular moral stance taken by the book: I didn’t like the way the author had one of the kids resorting to fraud in order to obtain spaceship parts. But the surprise ending casts a new light on the character’s actions. The ending leaves much unexplored, and feels like a cliffhanger from a multi-part drama. And indeed, there are five volumes in the Starstormers saga, each around one hundred pages. I’ve already found and purchased volume 2 on eBay.

An excellent children’s space adventure.

See also:

Uncovered! by Paul Jennings

There are quite a number of short story collections in the “Un-” series by Paul Jennings: Unreal!, Unbelievable!, Uncanny!, etc. After reading the first one, I could have picked another at random, but the title of one story in the volume Uncovered! caught my attention. It was called “Pubic Hare.” Recognising Jennings’s brand of slightly risque humour for kids, I plunged ahead.

Imagine my surprise when the first story, “For Ever,” turned out to be a deliberately humourless melancholic drama about a boy who’s terminally ill. I have no problem with being surprised, but the story was too sentimental for my taste. There are a couple more stories (of the ten in total) that are semi-serious. The rest are in keeping with Jenning’s usual brand of wacky comedy, covering such topics as seing ghosts, bed-wetting, growing pubic hair, and even eating a cat-turd!

My favourite was one of the more serious stories: a time-travel tale called “Backward Step.” The majority of the others I found a bit, well, lacking in imagination.

Jennings’s Wikipedia page shows that several of his “Un-” books have picked up multiple awards. I couldn’t help but notice that, in contrast, Uncovered! only picked up one single award. I haven’t read enough of Jennings’s books to make an objective comparison, but my suspicion is that this is one of his weaker efforts.

Anne Droyd and Century Lodge by Will Hadcroft

Three children, Gezz, Luke and Malcolm, are playing on some waste ground close to where they live, when they bear witness to the arrival of an old man and a startling young girl. The man is Professor Wolfgang Droyd and the girl is Anne Droyd – not his daughter, but his android creation, capable of great feats of agility, speed and ingenuity. The two are on the run from the facility where Anne Droyd was developed: The Ministry. The children are initially frightened by the duo, but it soon becomes clear that the two escapees need their help. Soon, the professor is recaptured, and it falls to the three children to take care of Anne in his absense. Whilst Anne is in many ways superhuman, she is sub-human in terms of her emotions and experience. Gezz, Luke and Malcolm arrange for Anne to attend their school, to help her learn how to be human.

On the surface, the novel is a fairly straightforward children’s story, in a similar vein to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures. But there’s also something going on underneath: a look at the human race from the quirky perspective of a non-human. For instance, if someone said to Anne, “Go back,” she might start walking backwards. Misunderstandings are part of the fun of the story, but this is also a theme close to the author’s heart. Will Hadcroft has felt a bit like an alien all his life, suffering a mild form of Asperger Syndrome. I’ve already read Will’s autobiography, The Feeling’s Unmutual (I thoroughly recommend it), and I recognised immediately that some scenes in Anne Droyd were straight out of his past experiences, for instance, his childhood fascination with smokers and a particularly bad bullying incident. The novel is currently marketed as an “Asperger Adventure,” designed to give affected readers a protagonist that they can really empathise with. Note: the novel’s first publication was not aimed at such a restricted target audience; I don’t want to convey the idea that it’s not aimed at all children, when it is.

I sense a three-act structure to the novel. First, the story charts Gezz, Luke and Malcolm’s experiences of getting to know Anne, followed by Anne’s impact on life at school, and finally a showdown with the bad guys from The Ministry. When reading, I couldn’t help thinking about those multi-part dramas that I used to see on Children’s BBC when I was a kid – often adaptations of novels. Anne Droyd and Century Lodge would make a pretty good one.

The novel is not without a few problems. I felt the pacing was rather slow; some of the more mundane and domestic scenes in the novel were over-developed and took up too much reading time. Sometimes, characters made incredulous decisions, like the police apprehending Professor Droyd at Gezz’s house, then failing to search the property for Anne just because the professor told them she wasn’t there. Kids won’t care about that, of course, but this kind of faux pas does hinder the novel from being appreciated beyond its target audience. Quibbles aside, the author demonstrates a good writing ability that shows a lot of promise. I have to confess, also, that I’m reading well outside my preferred genres on this one. Any children’s literature I do read tends to be the more gritty “young adult” stuff. I think kids will enjoy Anne Droyd.

A sequel, Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows, is due to be published in 2008. Keep up to date with news on the author’s blog.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Kip is a young teenage boy obsessed with getting to the moon. It seems like an unreachable dream until one day a soap company announces a slogan competition with the grand prize of – you guessed it – a trip to the moon. I should state that the novel is set in the future, where mankind has already set up a base on the moon, and travel there is common. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that this is one possible future, from the point of view of the 1950s (when the book was written). Because it actually feels like you’re reading something set in the past. The effect is quite charming, really.

Kip goes to outrageous lengths to win the competition, and ends up coming runner-up. His prize? A genuine used space-suit. When he gets it home, he becomes obsessed with fixing all the faults with it, so that it works just like it did when it was originally up there on the moon. Heinlein goes into great detail on the scientific aspects of the suit. You might think this would make boring reading, but I found it quite stimulating – even more so, when you consider that the book was written when lunar landings hadn’t yet been attempted.

The weakness of the book, for me, comes a little later, from the point where Kip has his very own close encounter with an alien civilisation. The reader is treated to various bug-eyed and tentacled creatures that simply have no place in the imagination of anyone who thinks seriously about what real aliens might possibly be like. And the problem isn’t just the physical descriptions. The aliens’ characters are pretty one-dimensional. There’s the fuzzy, furry, friendly, caring face. The multi-tentacled, angry, evil, we-will-conquer-the-galaxy race. The emotionless, obstinate, we-are-in-charge race. I remember trying to read this novel about fifteen years ago, and as I recall, I stopped when all the creatures started to crawl out of the woodwork. This time I pushed on through, but was slightly disappointment at how the story evolved.

It’s not all bad. The best parts for me were scenes like Kip on board a spaceship trying to walk in low-gravity and slipping all over the place (again, this is made extra special because man had never been to the moon at the time of writing). This is the stuff that made the book interesting. The closing chapters are also fairly dramatic. The book visits the theme of Earth under the scrutiny of alien eyes, in a similar but not identical vein to one of its contemporary films, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Children are much more forgiving of one-dimensional bug-eyed aliens than adults, and I have to remember that this is a children’s book. I can see young science geeks loving it.

Unreal! by Paul Jennings

I became interested in Paul Jennings recently as a result of revisiting an old TV series called Round the Twist on DVD. The series is about a family that lives in a lighthouse around which all manner of weird things happen. The episodes are often hilarious, especially when the humour gets a bit, well, filthy. And by that I mean, for example, losing your false teeth down the toilet and having to collect them at the sewage works, then having the clean and wear them. Ugh! This is typical Jennings story material, and it’s a lot of fun.

I believe Unreal! is the author’s first published book. It contains eight stories, five of which I recognise as episode of Round the Twist from seasons one and two, although the television versions have been significantly reworked to revolve around the Twist family. The versions in the book are stand-alone tales. I heard that seasons three and four of Round the Twist weren’t as highly appreciated as the first two, due to Jennings leaving the show. Having just watched season three, I can attest to that. There were a few excellent episodes, but most of them lacked the imagination Jennings brought to the show.

The first story, “Without a Shirt,” is about a boy who can’t help himself adding the words “without a shirt” to the end of every sentence he speaks. Filmed as “Without My Pants” in the TV series.

“The Strap-Box Flyer” is about a travelling con man selling glue that sticks anything … but stops working after four hours.

“Skeleton on the Dunny” is about a boy who uses an outdoor toilet cubicle on which he sometimes finds a ghostly skeleton sitting. Filmed as the pilot episode of the TV series.

“Lucky Lips” is about colourless lipstick that will make any girl kiss you. As you can imagine, it will not be a smooth ride for the wearer. Another one of the TV episodes.

And so on. I enjoyed this book to the degree that it motivated me to attempt writing my own children’s stories. Full of outrageous fun. As an adult, it occasionally made me think, “I can’t believe he just wrote that,” but always with a smirk.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s a thirty-four-year-old man doing reading Alice in Wonderland? you might ask. Well, I have a fascination with classic literature, and this is one of the most popular novels. It’s not hard to find references to Alice in modern film and literature: since I’m a sci-fi fan, the character Morpheus in The Matrix is the first one that jumps to my mind. For whatever reason, Alice has stuck in the public’s imagination.

I didn’t find much enjoyment in reading during my pre-adolescent years. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever read Alice. Can it be enjoyed by an adult? That’s too general a question. Was it enjoyed by this adult? Not overly. It’s a story about a girl who’s sitting by the riverbank with her sister. She spots an odd-looking rabbit; it’s wearing a waistcoat. The rabbit enters a rabbit-hole. Alice goes in after him. She falls and falls, eventually landing on a pile of leaves in a tunnel. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters with characters that range from eccentric to psychopathic (usually talking animals of one kind or another). Alice herself does a lot of growing and shrinking in order to squeeze through small spaces and get from place to place. At one point she creates a lake out of her own tears. Each scene in the story has very little to do with any other, and there is no motivating factor in the story’s progression other than mere curiosity. I am loathe even to call this an adventure, on that basis; it reads more like a child’s acid trip. In the end, the story resorts to the most shameful plot device of all, in order to get Alice home: “It was all a dream.” This just would not fly, if written today.

In fairness, Alice was not written for someone my age, so I should try and ask myself whether I think I would have enjoyed this as a young boy. When I think about what I did like as a boy (Star Wars, Knight Rider, The A-Team), again I have to say no. I suspect Alice is for little girls only (and that’s a place I just can’t take my mind back to!). However, I can’t ignore the fact that there is children’s literature that I do enjoy today. And it’s not all boys’ sci-fi adventures. Take C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The haphazard structure of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pales by comparison to the carefully woven tapesty of Lewis’s novel. So, I’m sticking to my guns. Alice gets a thumbs down.

The Thousand Eyes of Night by Robert Swindells

The more Robert Swindells novels I read, the more I realise that he has two modes of writing. When he’s writing for young adults, he writes like he’s talking to equals; he talks about the world the way it is; few, if any, subjects are taboo; and bad things can happen to good people, as can happen in the real world. When he writes like this, his fiction is gripping and, I would dare to say, important. Then comes the other mode, writing for children, where the realistic drama disappears and everything turns one-dimensional; the kiddies get safely wrapped in cotton wool.

I know there are some classic novels that are very “safe” books for children, such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The characters in these novels are far from realistic, and yet I still enjoyed them. So what exactly is the point I’m trying to make? I can’t put my finger on it, but something vital is missing from Swindells’ novels, when writes for children. Everything just turns to cardboard.

Sadly, The Thousand Eyes of Night was written with kids in mind. It concerns an abandoned railway tunnel, within which killer mice reside. Actually, they’re not real mice; they’re tiny aliens from a doomed planet in orbit around Betelgeuse. I’ve got no problem spoiling that for you, because Swindells spoils it in the first paragraph of the novel. Yes, hiding that fact might have added a sinister air of mystery to the whole story, but Swindells puts all his cards on the table at the start of the game.

The story moves along at a fairly slow pace. Tan (short for Tristan) is the central character. The tunnel is the play area for he and his friends, and the discovery of a dead body with its flesh picked clean to the bone leads them on the trail of the weird mice. The story is padded out with parent troubles and a sub-plot about the local bully. Around page 175 we get to the final showdown, which is practically summarised in only ten pages. It seemed as if the author got bored and wanted things finished quickly.

A disappointing children’s novel from an author I’ve grown to respect a great deal for his contribution to literature for older readers.

Room 13 by Robert Swindells

Robert Swindells rocks as an author of young adult novels. He writes fiction that is hard-hitting and realistic, filled with true-to-life characters, and endings which are not always happy. Room 13, however, is a childrens book, and unfortunately all those things that make his YA fiction so good disappear here.

OK, so I’m an adult, and that could be part of the problem. I don’t like stories that have a kind of feel to them where you know no one’s going to get seriously hurt or – God forbid – murdered – except maybe the inhuman bad guy. Kids can maybe tolerate that kind of thing. But I’m afraid my dislike of this book runs a bit deeper.

The storyline is unoriginal and predictable. It’s told from the perspective of Fliss, an eleven-year-old girl, who goes on a school trip with her classmates. In the hotel at which they stay, during the night, another girl sleepwalks into a strange room on the top floor, coming back with a bite mark on her neck. At one point, Swindells goes to great pains to describe a huge stick of rock candy, two inches thick, that a schoolboy has sucked and sucked into a point. Anyone out there who’s not already thinking “vampire” and “stake” is probably asleep right now. I suppose a vampire being staked with candy is a new concept, but I was always under the impression it had to be wood.

The drama is divided up with several scenes of the children doing “fun things” on their holiday. Might have been nice to be at those scenic locations, but it made pretty dull reading.

Now comes the part where I have to admit that this novel won the 1990 Children’s Book Award. Don’t ask me to speculate how. I didn’t much like the book, and I’ve tried to qualify that. If you have a place in your heart for ridiculous fiction (that which cares nothing for realism in plot or character), then read this book.