Strange encounters

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Tony Bradman samples fantasy adventure

Drift House: The First Voyage By Dale Peck pound;12.99

The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp By Rick Yancey pound;9.99 Bloomsbury Children's Books

Dale Peck has a reputation as a proper grown-up novelist and memoirist, but is probably rather more famous for his caustic criticism of other writers' work: a collection of his essays was published a couple of years ago under the memorable title Hatchet Jobs. So why has this hard-bitten denizen of the Manhattan literary scene written a children's book?

Let's be generous and assume his reasons are not related to the current gold-rush stampede into the formerly isolated territory of fiction for the young, and that Dale has always had a yen to do it.

Unsurprisingly, Drift House is the first in a fantasy trilogy, but it does at least feel like a book by someone who's read the classics of children's literature, ancient and modern. It's the story of three children from New York, Susan, Charles and Murray, who are sent to stay with an uncle in Canada for safety "after the towers came down". It quickly becomes clear that Uncle Farley is an eccentric (but then he would be, wouldn't he?) and his house, the Drift House of the title, a very strange building indeed.

Normally at this point in a review I would say something like: "And soon the children find themselves involved in a wild adventure...", followed by an outline of the plot. A lot does happen in Drift House - a journey on the Sea Of Time, encounters with pirates, parrots and talking whales, battles with evil mermaids ruled by a queen who is half mermaid and half octopus.

But none of it could be said to happen soon.

Dale Peck writes beautifully, and some of his characters (particularly the children) are very well realised. He has a rich and powerful imagination, too. But one reason children's fiction has had so much impact in recent years is that the best writers know great storytelling is all about pace, even in a trilogy of long books. It looks like Peck still has that particular lesson to learn.

Indiana Jones gets a namecheck in the press release that came with The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp. The publishers claim that the lead character of Rick Yancey's fantasy adventure novel is a cross between Indy and Stanley Yelnats, the teenage hero of Louis Sachar's wonderful novel Holes. That's not a bad description, but I'd say the story is less Indiana Jones and more Da Vinci Code, although far better written.

Alfred Kropp is a troubled teen who makes one mistake as the result of trying to help his definitely un-eccentric, very ordinary uncle, and finds himself pitched into a titanic battle between good and evil. The setting is contemporary, but the backstory is Arthurian. Great characters, thrilling sword fight scenes, a terrific plot with plenty of twists and turns and a great climax. I simply couldn't put it down, and I'll bet plenty of other boy readers will feel just the same.

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