Children that grow up in relative comfort, love, and sanity get sick of that stuff pretty early in. This is no reflection on the people who have raised them or the world in which they inhabit. It’s just that when you live in safety and security you may wish to shrug off the quiet world in which you live with and make a break for anything that offers you dank corners and mysterious underpinnings. The essential premise of P.J. Bracegirdle’s Fiendish Deeds did not at first appeal to me. In spite of its alluring Nicoletta Ceccoli cover, the title and the glace I took at the book jacket did not initially cause my heart to beat any faster. It looked like Tim Burton lite, which I understand there is a market for but could it really be worth my time to read? It is in cases such as this that it really all comes down to the writer’s pen. If it were not for the fact that Bracegirdle is a talented author with an original story cobbled together out of unoriginal parts, I might have despaired long before finishing the first chapter. However, if Fiendish Deeds offers the reader anything it would have to be a truly enjoyable leap into dark bogs, long lost mysteries, and cunning foes in wholly new ways and worlds. When I tell you that I could not stop reading, I mean it. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful series.
Joy and Byron Wells are Spooking residents and quite proud of the fact, thank you very much. Though the town is old and decomposing slowly, Joy would much rather spend her days exploring its crooks and crannies rather than have to attend school in Darlington, the shiny city down the hill. Of course Joy’s real fun comes when she gets to read and reread chapters from her favorite book, The Compleat and Collected Words of E.A. Peugeot, an Edgar Allen Poe type of collection. Joy is convinced that Peaugeot spent time in Spooking, recording the deeds of a monster in the nearby bog but to her horror that very same bog is due for destruction thanks to the mayor of Darlington and his right-hand man Octavio Phipps. Now Joy and Byron must do what they can to save the bog and its denizens, even though they are only two people and there are dangers out there the like of which they’ve never known.
It is a reluctant fantasy, as if the book is straining against its otherworldly chains in an attempt to be relevant and realistic. Instances that seem to be fantastical turn out to have practical real world causes. In a way, we are sucked into Joy’s need for the spooky and unexplained, but aside from some pretty hungry leeches (which conjure up memories of Lemony Snicket, to say the least) and hints of "disappearing" that never come to fruition, this is a pretty realistic little book. Funny that Bracegirdle that give all the indications of a magical story, but when push comes to shove it’s the writing that provides the intimations of magic. Not the plot.
I was rather fond of the writing anyway. I must have been to continue reading it at all, really. You know that you are in good hands when in the first chapter a little old lady writes in her will, "The rest of it, including this house and all my worldly possessions therein, please flatten with one of those giant balls on a chain." Who doesn’t love a good ball on a chain anyway? And Bracegirdle appears to be a fan of contrasts, pairing the cute and cuddly alongside the fanged and rabid with relative ease. Spooking, we are told from the start, is an old village full of, "Drafty old mansions, standing impossibly against the onslaught of time – each sinister and terrible, they flash with menace whenever a storm rolls in." The nearby town of Darlington, on the other hand, is hideous in its own suburban fervor. The height of its ridiculousness comes when Joy and Byron attend a birthday party in a faux pink castle. About the time you come to the "girls, wearing shiny smocks and pointed princess hats [who:] bickered viciously over turns on a mechanical unicorn," you too would be ready to pack it all in for Spooking, never to return.
The book also happens to contain a villain of whom I have grown inordinately fond. I am not always a fan of the villains found in children’s books. Too often they’re just two-dimensional set pieces meant to stand in for "Evil" in some manner. I think a good villain is one that lets you into their head a little. And a really successful one can make you sympathize with them on some level. Think of Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, as one example. In this particular case our villain is Octavio Phipps, a man attempting to avoid his own fate by any means necessary. He’s a former punk rocker (not your usual spooky occupation for a bad guy) with a penchant for an elegant phrase. He is not a good man, but he does make some awkward stabs at civility that are always interesting to watch. One gets the feeling that though he manages to kill two people in the course of this story, he probably can tell himself that they were both accidents and believe it.
The general rule when it comes to villains is that if there is a mayor in a children’s book, they are a bad mayor. This is always true unless A) The mayor is the hero’s dad or B) The mayor is the hero. The same rule often applies to principals of schools. And the usual crime committed by mayors? City development, of course. You probably saw it in Hoot where it threatened endangered owls and in Highway Cats where it threatened felines. In this case the redevelopment would threaten only the residents of a bog, but it’s still seen as a pretty underhanded act. Sex scandals and graft are difficult to impossible to work into children’s middle grade novels, so good old nepotism and illegal development often have to do the job instead.
Consider this a kind of Edward Scissorhands for the new millennium. It’s a book for those kids that love Emily the Strange, The Addams Family, the Pure Dead Wicked books, and anything else with a bit of spook and scare to it. This may be the rare book that satisfies both the kids who long for fun realistic fiction and those who like their fantasy novels dark. A crowd pleaser and a darn good bit of fiction in its own right. Fine writing.
Notes on the Cover: Nicoletta Ceccoli could probably illustrate a cover featuring a single solitary spot of dust on an infinite blank space and people would still buy the book in droves. Bracegirdle lucked out with this one, no question. I always like it when jacket artists appear to have read the books they do the covers for anyway.
Note on the Bookflap: No mention of Byron? Not even an allusion to his presence? Geez guys, I mean isn’t he sort of the other hero of this tale? Even Ceccoli recognized how important it was to include him on the cover. And considering the fact that he is one of the three heads the book’s narrative enters into unannounced, it’s cruel to say that this story is all Joy’s. She may be the lead, but she needs her handy-dandy sidekick just the same.
Winner of the 2008 Bad Pun in the Title Award: “The Joy of Spooking”?? Starring Joy who lives in Spooking? Shameless.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Montreal Mirror
- The Monitor
- CM Magazine
- Montreal Families
- Quill and Quire
- Teens Read Too
- The Bookbag
- Write Away
- There’s an interview with the author over at Presenting Lenore (quoth the raven, nevermore?). Reading it is worth your time. The author, as it turns out, is a hoot.
- Further "hoot" proof: Dressing up as one of your long dead characters for bookstore readings. Nice.
- There’s a good interview with Bracegirdle (actual name, apparently) here in which he essentially admits that he is the villain of the piece. Here is my attempt to embed it:
- And here, finally, is the far inferior British cover:
To be fair, it’s hard to compete with Ceccoli.