Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding

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Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A young girl in a most mysterious world, with oddball animal and human (and in-between) characters, and a musical quandary of sorts to put to rights. At times the story stretches too far, but on the whole this is a charming and singular read for the 9-13s.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: October 2008
Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 0552555649

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I do like a challenge – one the author sets himself. I at times agree with the phrase having writing about music being akin to dancing about architecture, and so the task here is immense. Not only has Tim Binding had to create some new and bizarre musical instruments for our heroine's father to play, but the sounds they conjure, and the effect of a host of sonic factors is on the page in a most vivid and descriptive way.

I do like a challenge for the heroine, as well, as long as it is realistic. Here, Sylvie is slowly getting used to being in a motherless household (she drowned an unspecified time ago), and one particular evening when father does not return is at the beginning of all that follows here. There's a very deft touch to the realism – when he doesn't arrive, and she's proudly laid out a Spanish omelette and glass of wine for him, she helps herself to both.

Finally, I do so like a challenge for a reader, in a nice way. And here's yours. This book involves a mute household dog, a fox missing from his routine, a hot air balloon going awry, a man selling bottled birdsong, and woodpeckers misbehaving. Now you put them together, coherently, as here.

What Tim Binding has, er, bound them together as, is a fantasy that starts with a most charming sense of reality, and distorts into one of quite 'out there' qualities. The unusual is brought in in subtle ways – the regular rhythm of the train Sylvie takes to school is twisted; nightmare comes into play; coded messages are passed between father and daughter. There is no alienation whatsoever in act one.

However the middle section does involve a quite strong suspension of disbelief – Sylvie's character is changed in a remarkable way, and while we're still marvelling at what the mystery seems to be entailing, we're also furrowing our brow a little. I think the author gets away with what he does, but I can imagine readers thinking it's a step too far.

Beyond that and certain odder elements of the night-time journeys of Sylvie and her rotund, asthmatic best friend, there is an outstanding fantasy adventure for the pair (and the dog). I can't really pin it down as a mix of Babe and Alan Garner, but there's something about me that wants to. I cannot think of any two previous books to conjoin and come up with anything close to this.

Furthering its claim for uniqueness is the quality of the writing. There are visuals, and copious sounds, noises, musics and songs that feature, and all (except perhaps the initial, crux one) come across most vividly. It's noticeable but at no time is too much, detracting from the story. Similarly, the pictorial side of the description is done so easily the book doesn't really need to be illustrated (although my proof copy was so far in advance they were not all ready so I can't pass much judgement).

What we have here is a very distinctive book, which really does hold great claims for being unique. It's a shame then that I can't award such singularity with a must-read status and five stars – I would still strongly recommend it for all, and not just for the nine-thirteen year old audience I think it most suitable for. The fantasy remained coherent enough for great stretches, and the story coped with being so odd-ball so well for so much, but a couple of minor niggles regarding where it went and how it – and the heroes – got there make me prefer to knock off half a mark.

Still, four and a half is hopefully an award to make you make note of this remarkable read (pun not intended). It is, as one of the characters keeps saying, serious malarkey.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Buy Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding at

Buy Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sylvie and the Songman by Tim Binding at


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