Cover illustration: Kim Geyer
Well done, Mr Tomlinson
Often, if you dip a bucket into the well of a book, the first few sentences you wind up will give you clear indication of the quality of the water and, indeed, of the depth of the well itself.
Nick Tomlinson’s new children’s novel has no pretensions to be anything but humorous, spooky entertainment (in which ambition it succeeds gloriously). Yet, when I raised that first test bucket from his particular source, what instantly glistened within it it was a brimming pail-full of joyously evocative language and inventive wit. This well of a book may not be as deep as some, but its water has the liveliest of sparkles, giving it a richness that hugely enhances both its merit and its enjoyment as a read.
‘Mrs Fullsway flung open the door and stood looming . . .“0h! Yug Mommy!”
Mrs Fullsway pirouetted, flowed to her bedside table, plucked her teeth from a glass of water and slotted them into her mouth . . .
“Young Molly!” She said again.’ Mrs Fullsway had a voice like very heavy tomato sauce.’ (p 21)
In fact Nick Tomlinson’s descriptions are often so lush that, in a ‘serious’ work, they might be considered over-written. But, here, they simply add to the effulgent entertainment that suffuses almost every page. Time after time his language, his turn of phrase, and, indeed, his own obvious delight in writing, morph what could have been vaguely amusing incident, into chortles, guffaws, and truly joyful reading experience.
Every trick in the graveyard
The story itself bursts with crowd-pleasing features: Molly, a plucky girl protagonist (almost de rigeur these days); a best friend, Lowry, partner in much hugely entertaining banter; a classmate ‘enemy’, Felicity, to up the ante; a boy, Carl, to balance out representation; a rather odd, but much-loved cat; a strange, small town that provides both a mystery to be solved and enough spooky goings on to stock countless Halloweens; dastardly doings and a creepy villain to hiss at. Nothing is lacking for an ideal escape under the duvet with a torch, although the quaking to be seen from without will be as much from mirth as from horror.
Nick Tomlinson’s storytelling has many touches of delightfully fresh imagination too. I particularly love his conjuring of the disturbing orphanage building:
‘The odd thing about Howlfair Orphanage was that it had no windows. Instead, windows had been painted on. Within their phoney frames were painted various scenes of happy orphans in bygone attire playing in cosy firelit rooms. But the paint had run and faded and the children’s features were misshapen.’ (p 88)
Just what the spook-doctor ordered
Sometimes what young readers want, and need, is a light, entertaining read. When it has real energy and flair in its writing, then that makes it a particularly valuable addition to their bookshelves. This title reminded me quite a lot, in its tone and qualities, of the wonderful, humorously spooky books from Eva Ibbotson that I so much enjoyed reading to my class when I was teaching. (Humphrey the Horrible, from The Great Ghost Rescue was a particular favourite of us all.) The Ghouls of Howlfair will provide a highly motivating independent read for many children, but it would also make a glorious read-aloud.
The back cover promo calls this author ‘a fresh new voice’, which he certainly is. He also looks to be a very talented and spine-tinglingly promising one.