A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson

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A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A gang of street crooks undertake one final, large deception, in order to retire to the country. We ask ourselves quite what makes the morals appropriate, and the level of entertainment good enough, for the 8-12 audience it seeks.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
ISBN: 978-0552557627

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If any children's book provides stronger proof that there is nothing new under the sun than this one, I would be much surprised.

Cato is a member of a gang roaming London in the early 1710s. An ex-slave boy, he flits from nark to nark, picking pockets, cheating people of their money, swindling, thieving. Around him in the gang are similar children, black or white, all under the control of Mother Hopkins, the nearest to a family figure he has.

With their skills at impersonation, and blending in they are a most successful troupe of criminals. But the end is nigh, and Mother Hopkins feels the need for one final, giant swindle, lucrative enough to let them retire in the country. Hence what, when it boils down to it, is a 419 scam, – the internet routine of swindling someone into paying an advance sum to procure something that does not exist, eighteenth century style.

Now, while I often pick books for the younger reader with some lawlessness in, rarely am I asked to sympathise so much with the actual criminal. The main stylistic thrust of the book is that the opening and closure are told in a first person confessional to the pastor inside Newgate jail – Cato is on death row, to be hanged on the morrow. While we might ask why the rest had to drop to the third person, the reason for the Cato's-eye-view is obvious.

And while Cato is a very human creation – feeling a little sorry for the more lovelorn of the gang's victims, having gently lustful thoughts towards the apple of his eye, Addeline – he is, and always will be, a crook. As pleasant as the idea is that the gang is all one happy family, and they hold to at least the first half of the Robin Hood sensibility of robbing from the rich-looking and giving to the poorer, there are no people in the book we'd welcome into our homes.

Of course, the young reader might be blissfully ignorant of such real-life intrigues, and would be as one with the likes of Cato in his colour-blind gang, but I for one cannot let it rest unsaid that this boils down to a pair of young black men undergoing a 419 scam. So what if there is a sense of revenge from the ex-slave boys, getting one over on the rich who one is left to assume would tend to be racist? I did feel awkward in accepting the morals I was asked to here.

Beyond that, I also had to wonder if the slender story offered enough for the target audience? The narrative allows for the crooks to show their skills off greatly – from playing find the lady with cards to earn a penny here and there, to passing themselves off as exotic Russian countesses at society balls – but the twists and turns, set-backs and happy delights the book might offer are all rather on the undercooked side.

The setting is on the whole well done, and the period detail worn lightly. Characterisation is on the basic side, but commendable where it matters, but as the questions Cato has to ask are left unanswered by the end, I do wonder if the biggest scam is the idea this book is the last we'll hear of this particular 'family'.

I would like to thank Corgi for sending a copy for the Bookbag to read.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might enjoy Jupiter Williams by S I Martin.

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Buy A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson at Amazon.com.


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