The Black Book of Secrets by F E Higgins
|The Black Book of Secrets by F E Higgins|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A wonderful idea with a great story and a kind and generous moral framework. Ludlow's world is grim and full of misdeeds, but he learns how to put some integrity back. Great detail, lots of tension although very slightly let down by clunky plot devices. Nevertheless, highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: September 2007|
|Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books|
Ludlow Fitch regains consciousness to find himself chained to a chair by his drunken parents. Barton Gumbroot, the local toothpuller, is leering over him, brandishing his pincers. Ludlow's parents have sold his teeth to Gumbroot for threepence a throw, to pay for their gin. In a frenzy of fear, Ludlow manages to escape the gruesome threesome and steals away on the back of a carriage, away from the filth of the City and to the remote village of Pagus Parvus, where he meets Joe Zabbidou, a pawnbroker and fellow newcomer, who offers him a job.
Ludlow soon discovers that Joe is no ordinary pawnbroker. Joe buy secrets; people's deepest, darkest, secrets. He pays well for them too. And Ludlow writes them all down in Joe's big black book. There's the gravedigger who's been digging bodies up as well as burying them, the butcher who makes poisonous pies, a bookseller who murders her customers. But all the secrets in Pagus Parvus have a common thread - they all come back to the local landowner and bully, Jeremiah Ratchett...
Minor criticism first. I wasn't entirely convinced by the various style devices. Higgins slots in an author note at the beginning, talking about finding fragments of Ludlow's diary rolled up inside the mysterious wooden leg we encounter in the book. Then the book takes turn and turn about with first person narratives from Ludlow and third person sequences where Higgins fills in the "gaps". I thought the story was quite tense and interesting enough. It stood up wonderfully well alone and didn't need this kind of excess decoration. In fact, it distracted my attention and I found it a little irritating.
Other than that, I absolutely loved The Black Book of Secrets. Its simply and directly written in a slightly old-fashioned style that instantly conjures up Dickensian images. The world Higgins has us envisage is indeed very Dickensian - Ludlow himself is a real Oliver Twist character. It's dark and grim and full of malfeasants, but underneath the grimy surface, there are people struggling for no other reason than for having being born poor and powerless. And there are people trying to redress the balance. I was plunged into Ludlow's world from the very first chapter, which sees his escape from his drunken parents and Barton Gumbroot, the maniac tooth puller, and I barely drew breath until I'd reached the final chapter. A confident nine year old could read and enjoy The Black Book of Secrets - and that it kept an adult waiting for the resolution with bated breath speaks volumes for its quality.
The characters are wonderful - from the mysterious secret pawnbroker Joe, through the bent and wizened gravedigger Obadiah Strang, the poisoning butcher Horatio Cleaver and the bullying rich man Jeremiah Ratchett, to the young boy with a destiny - Ludlow Fitch. This is the book those awful Lemony Snicket books should have been. These characters are so visual, and the plot so deceptively clever and simple, it would make a wonderful film (without Jim Carrey though).
My thanks to the nice people at Macmillan for sending the book.
Children who like similarly dark fantasy worlds and also enjoy world-building detail might like the slightly more complex morality in D M Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Black Book of Secrets by F E Higgins at Amazon.com.
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