An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

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An Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Three brilliantly evoked parentless siblings on an unlikely adventure, that will charm and test in equal measures.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 216 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Scholastic Press
ISBN: 9781407124339

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Shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2015

Shortlisted: Costa Children's Book Award 2015

Meet Holly. She lives, with her older brother and, er, shall we say demanding younger brother, in a flat above a London chippy. That's right – no parents around, as all three are orphans. Older brother Jonathan sacrificed uni to be their legal guardian, so is ostensibly their carer as well as sibling, which means that welfare and what he earns being a grease monkey in a corner café is all they live on. Times, therefore, are hard. But twelve year old Holly does have a straw to clutch on to – their eccentric aunt may have bequeathed them her antique jewellery collection. But what is going to make that a search for one exact straw in a haystack is that nobody knows where it may be…

This is a book that's definitely 'about' the struggles of life, while paying certain strong homage to old-fashioned adventure books. It's surprising how realistic the mix can be – the anxiety and anticipation of questing children, crossing borders for the first time, could easily have been written sixty years ago but feels most right under these straightened circumstances; the dynamic of the three children could come from any time in history – Arthur Ransome and Narnia never really worried about parent figures, either. Nicholls, here, however, makes great store by her realism – compounding the family woes with domestic disasters, and an ill rabbit that makes a ridiculously anonymous-seeming and very late entry into the proceedings.

In fact that's not the only thing to turn up late, for the plot summary I have given above actually takes you past more pages than I would normally be comfortable divulging. It's almost as if the book needed to set out its realistic grounding before it could go off on its plot-like travels. In a way, I have no real problem with that – it is still well worth remarking on, but so is the fact that it brilliantly gives us the trio of heroes – Jonathan, Holly and young Davy. That certainly helps proceedings, for the written style is superb, and Holly's voice is definitely the biggest draw for me here.

Also warming things up is the fact that a lot of the quest is achieved through crowd-funding, couch-surfing, and a mental get-together of likeminded geniuses at a scientific club, the Maker Space (which seems to most handily run at full occupancy at weekends and after any school day you care to mention). Nicholls likens this book to a Nevil Shute inspiration, with added Internet, so I was right to pick up on the old-fashioned, gung-ho qualities. But that doesn't make it timeless.

In fact there is a lot of work to be done with this book to make it timeless. Despite the grounded, earthy reality the children face – and the diet they are on seems most true to life, for one, if the size of their DVD collection doesn't – the whole smacks of a little too much that is too remarkable, too fantastic. This modern, fresh and real world is peopled by too many people helping strangers, or aren't strangers anyway as everyone turns out to be connected. The whole drop-in centre for lock-picking and brainstorming doesn't ring true, nor do a lot of aspects of the case in hand. And when too much of the book near the end is one of those 'you don't mind if I dramatise my latest holiday, do you?' episodes, I didn't care for it as much as I wanted. Which is a shame, for the mixture of naïve and nerveless that is Holly, and the brilliant authorial style she has, really made me fall in love at first sight; it was a pity, then, that that love wasn't allowed to last.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The last time I fell in love regarding Sally Nicholls was with the entirety of the last book of hers I read, the teen read Close Your Pretty Eyes. For more old-school adventuring for this audience, however, you may enjoy Island of Thieves by Josh Lacey, while The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley and Vladimir Stankovic has another quest regarding a bequest.

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