Today I signed the contract for my first children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Now starts the exciting part of the process, when words that were only fountain pen scribbles in four silver and orange WHSmith exercise books last summer are either cast in iron or thrown down the well, and the story takes its final form. The book is currently scheduled for publication in February 2015, ahead of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London a year later.
The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of twelve-year-old Samuel. Orphaned by the Great Plague, Samuel has to learn how to steal to survive, but unfortunately for him he’s not very good at it. When the Great Fire breaks out and begins to engulf the city, Samuel and his fellow pickpockets see it as a great opportunity to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when they discover a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, the thieves are split over what to do with him. Meanwhile the wall of flame is quickly closing in.
Aimed at 9 to 12 year olds, it’s a fast-paced adventure set during one of British history’s most exciting events, but it is also a story about friendship, moral complexities, greed and self-respect.
Naturally, I will be writing a lot more about the book in the months to come. Indeed, it will be over ten years by the time it is published since I first had the idea, and the story of writing the story is another blog post in itself. But for now I will simply link to one of the paintings that inspired it all.
Jason has schizophrenia, but he isn’t mad. Sometimes thoughts, daydreams and anxieties, which everyone else have too, seem just a little bit more concrete to him than they would the rest of us. Jason hasn’t completely lost his filter, however. He knows what’s real and what isn’t. The medication helps with that, but when his best friend Sunshine goes missing, and Jason is suspected of knowing what’s happened to her, he stops taking his ‘fuzzy pills’ so that he can stay awake long enough to find her.
This teen novel is serious stuff. It’s told from a first person perspective, and when Jason’s reality threatens to break down, so too does the structure of the novel, with sentences fragmenting and words running into each other. The distinct voices he hears also interrupt the narrative constantly throughout. Anyone could have such second-guessing thoughts and doubts but to Jason they don’t always seem internalised, and at times they seem almost ready to seize control of the story.
The only downside to what Susan Vaught’s doing here is that to stop the novel being inaccessible she keeps the plot very basic and linear. Of course, the book isn’t really about Sunshine’s disappearance and the twenty-four hours that follow. That crisis is really just a plot device to bring Jason’s simmering problems to boiling point.
I daresay the novel could help improve understanding and tolerance of mental illness. Jason goes to a mainstream school, is open about his diagnosis, and the relative grimness of his world isn’t really related to schizophrenia. The novel is full of characters of varying degrees of unpleasantness, and many of them are institutionalised in their own way, whether by school, the military or prison. It’s not a very happy book, but it is hopeful in the end.
Or, to give it its full title, Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (and Joined the Library). This one is aimed at a slightly younger readership (ages 7 to 9) than most of the children’s books I read, but it came highly recommended because I never really grew out of Roald Dahl. A F Harrold’s universe is only a sidestep away from some of Dahl’s, so all the grown-ups are either despicably vile or well-intentioned idiots, and the surreal, slightly anachronistic world is depicted by Quentin Blake-esque doodles throughout too.
Fizzlebert Stump, or Fizz for short, is the son of a circus strongman and a clown. Travelling from town to town with the circus doesn’t give him much opportunity to make friends, but when a local child accidentally leaves a library book behind at the circus, Fizz thinks it would be the friendly thing to do to return it to the library. Except he doesn’t actually know what a library is. When he finds out, he wants to join immediately, but that decision quickly lands him in the clutches of the most disgusting people this side of a Channel 5 series with a name like Help! My Mother Collects Used Toilet Paper.
Harrold (or at least the narrator he is hiding behind) plays an important part in the story, frequently commenting on what’s going on (all the funniest gags are in the parentheses (or even in the parentheses within parentheses)). So not only does he get to explain what long words mean, he also gets to explain what a cliffhanger is, and why he’s using it! In more ways than one, it’s a book about the joy of storytelling, and I’m pleased to see A F Harrold is writing more of them.
This is the third Liz Jensen novel I have read and the similarities between the first two now just look like recurring themes: troubled youngsters, almost equally troubled adults having to deal with them, and the spectre of impending apocalypse hanging over it all. They’re billed as ‘psychological thrillers’, but that makes me think of The Silence of the Lambs. Jensen’s plots remind me more of episodes of Torchwood. The Rapture was about a disturbed girl predicting a major ecological disaster. The Uninvited was about children spontaneously and simultaneously trying to kill the nearest adults.
The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is about an accident-prone boy who probably should have died at least seven times. Following a fall from a cliff, however, it becomes clear that it’s not just luck that has saved him. Somehow, miraculously, he manages to survive this time too, though he spends the rest of the novel in a coma. Accompanied by his odd mother, he is transferred to the clinic of maverick neurologist Pascal Dannachet, and that’s when things really start to get odd. Meanwhile a bone-dry summer turns the surrounding Provencal forests into tinder simply in need of a spark.
This is the slightest of the three Jensen novels I’ve read, and it probably suffers as a result. Several chapters are given over to the comatose Louis’ stream-of-consciousness ramblings, but the main character is probably Dannachet. He just isn’t given much scope to develop in less than 250 pages beyond being thought of as a maverick by his peers, and having a subplot about marital difficulties compounded by his infatuation with Louis’ mother. There are plenty of plot twists (more than in the other two Jensen novels), but the last one, as the book heads into Awakenings-meets-Flatliners territory, ultimately confirms suspicions rather than surprises.