The Joy of Spooking: Fiendish Deeds by P J Bracegirdle

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The Joy of Spooking: Fiendish Deeds by P J Bracegirdle

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A children's horror, with many nods to Edgar Allen Poe, that falls some way short of reviving his spirit. Still, there is some quirkiness in this tale of bog monsters and nasty adults, and borrowing it, rather than buying, would not disappoint.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's
ISBN: 978-1847383891

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Spooking – the terrible town on the hideous hill. Thus is the location of this read introduced. But that's only one point of view. A near-derelict and abandoned old settlement resting above much shinier and newer suburbs, Darlington, it appears unwelcome and unenjoyable, unless you are someone like the ironically-named Joy Wells. She is a young goth type, who once considers a leech for a pet, is trapped with annoyingly bright and glossy blonde hair, and thinks the too-plush, too-pink and too anodyne Darlings she is forced to go to school with most ridiculous.

Happy to play hide and seek with her younger brother Byron in their sprawling, aged and cheaply maintained Spooking mansion house, she also is fond of having her nose in horror books, and one in particular – the oeuvre of someone called E A Peugeot. She it seems is unique in realising that Peugeot was a local resident, and could even have been writing from nature when creating stories of daring doctors, and the horrors of bog fiends and more.

I'll leave it for you to decide if this is true or not, and indeed to consider how this slightly post-modern, referential horror for the under-twelves also features a new aquatic theme park being built on swamp land, and the token witch-type character that lives there. It seems from the outside a most unusual thing to have as an unwanted entity in a children's book, and indeed at times perhaps the political reasons we are shown for it might be a bit less dry, but there is a lot in these pages that is quite novel.

Not so, for me at least, the main character and her setting. The difference between the towns is Tim Burton writ large – although when Bracegirdle gets his more florid penmanship to work there is a great charm to the descriptions. The dark side to the story and the nicely detailed character of Joy will be relished by the younger reader, however, and she comes across as most likeable even before the slight bullying she encounters is revealed.

The very strong levels of characterisation extend to the parents – the valuable personage of Mrs Wells, and the rather hen-pecked father – if not perhaps to the baddies. The back story, regarding inheritances, past and present character, and punk bands of all unnecessary things, really seemed a little unfortunate at times.

Here I have to consider if the tidying up of this book would spoil the character of the novel. I at times found it a bit annoying that the clearly bright and spunky Joy did not come out and bluntly declare Peugeot to be writing from fact. The clashes between Joy and brother, and adults, whether said mysterious old lady or governmental busy-bodies, are at times not positioned for the best narrative clarity. Certainly I was finding the need quite often for a greater sense of the cliff-hanger between chapters, and a greater zest to the adventure.

Beyond that there is a charm in the unusual, and the setting of this story and its telling does have the odd about it, although married to it is a great grounding in the real-seeming, if Americanised, reality. There is nothing in the speeches about the future of Spooking that does not make sense. The naïve problems of Joy and Byron with members of the opposite sex are perfectly recognisable, and do not get in the way of the story at all.

However the book remains flawed. The Poe references are underwritten, and could have been much greater, with more wit and educational value – a lost opportunity. The contrivance of the heroic official coming in and leaving Joy with too little to do to wrap things up was too awkwardly fought for. The baddy, and his fear of being scorned by reverting to the job of children's entertainer, had too many sides to his character. And however mature the dipping into philosophy gets, I think the book is too slight, and just shy of a wacky odd-ball energy that would keep this on the shelves for longer. Our publishers suggest 9+ for this, but I can't see any teen desperate to keep this from the discount pile when her growing library is pruned.

To be more kind, it does wilfully provide us with something unexpected, and for the right reader does create a suitable romp, with quirks, humour and the unforeseen. For a first book it does not discredit Bracegirdle as a children's writer. I won't say much about the wrapping up of this volume, but I cannot see what else is going to happen to Spooking in the future. To damn these Fiendish Deeds with faint praise, though, I can certainly see the rush to find out being a small, if select, one.

I would like to thank Simon and Schuster for sending us a review copy. We also have a review of The Joy of Spooking: Unearthly Asylum by P J Bracegirdle.

If this type of book appeals then we think that you might enjoy The Haunting of Nathaniel Wolfe by Brian Keaney.

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