Un-put-downable yarns for all ages

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Jack black and the ship of thieves. By Carol Hughes. Bloomsbury Pounds 4.99

Fire, bed and bone. By Henrietta Branford. Walker Pounds 8.99

Kite. By Melvin Burgess. Andersen Pounds 9.99

In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri."

I love these lines from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They bring to mind the days spent curled on a chair in my Grandad's parlour reading from One Hundred Best Yarns for British Boys, unaware of the appalling racism, sexism and stereotyping I was imbibing.

In contrast, what a joy it was to enter the quite marvellous "Boy's Own" world of Carol Hughes's second novel, Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves, where the stakes are sky-high in a tale of aviation and piracy in a timeless setting with a 1930s feel.

When Jack falls from the airship on which his father is captain, a sextant still in his grasp, his landing is softened by the sails of a pirate ship which slide him into an unsavoury hammock in its dingy hold. Alive, if not entirely safe among the cut-throat crew, he remains desperate to warn his father of the bomb plot on the airship. Then news reaches him that the airship has gone down in the Arctic Sea.

Sabotage, volcanoes, a dreadful war machine, a female flying ace, pirates that sing in their sleep and the most perfect desert island I've ever encountered make this a yarn for all ages and may explain why I had to wrest it back from my eight-year-old son, who was reading it by torchlight under his blankets in the very best tradition.

Fire, Bed and Bone is an extraordinary book - trying to explain it to other people is difficult. It started with my husband.

"I've just read this amazing book," I told him.

"What's it about?" he asked. The answer took me some time.

"Well," I said uncertainly, "it's about the peasants' revolt of 1381 - remember Wat Tyler? But it's seen through the eyes of a dog - well, a bitch actually - and her puppy, and the village dogs."

My husband gave a scornful grin, and a little huffing laugh.

"Read it," I said. Later, I had to insist he turned out the bedroom light so we could get to sleep. He was hooked. Our son's got it now.

Henrietta Branford's book seemed to defy all categorisation until I found myself reaching for an ancient family Bible and looking up the Parable of The Husbandmen in Mark, Chapter 12, and the Parable of The Unjust Steward in Luke, chapter 20, verse 9. I realised I was in the presence of a potent storyteller.

Watching her master die on the scaffold, sitting beside her pregnant mistress, the old dog hears the lines: "When Adam dug and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?" As dog is servant to the man, as man is servant to the feudal lord, as feudal lord is servant to the king, or any form of government, and each is servant to his or her own wild nature, this book explores the nature of just domination and servitude.

The best hunting dog in the village is Henrietta Branford's own eyes, ears and nose, giving a sense of earth, blood and chill, and the wrenches of loyalty between law and justice.

This is no issue-based book. It is a true parable. Fire, Bed and Bone will stay on my shelf and become part of that disparate and uncanny collection of books that I keep in the hope that they will teach me wisdom.

Kite, by award-winning author Melvin Burgess, tells the story of two small boys, one of whom, Taylor Mase, is the son of a gamekeeper on the Harris estate, and collects birds' eggs. The story is set in the late 1960s, when small boys say "Wow! Wow! Wow!", mums sing along to the Beatles, and lords of the manor, such as Harris, are the hunting, shooting and fishing enemy, even though the uncle who finances Harris's estate is an eccentric bird lover.

This book has enormous pace, but the constantly shifting points of view are confusing. In Fire, Bed and Bone I had felt compassion and empathy for all involved, despite the narrative viewpoint being that of a dog; in Kite I felt distanced from the action.

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