Book Reviews: Freaks by Kieran Larwood and Long Gone Man by Phyllis Smallman

FreaksFreaks
Kieran Larwood
Chicken House, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-47424-5
Hardcover

A delightfully charming read, brimming with genuinely unique characters, who stumble onto an epic mystery and later embark on a fabulously frightening, daring adventure to solve it; with the entire tale brilliantly set in London, in 1851.

The most unlikely of pals, our cast of characters have been tossed together due to circumstances far beyond their control. Despite the vast differences among them, and deplorable living conditions; they offer support and form a formidable team.

Sheba, the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate little wolf-girl to ever walk the earth, narrates for us. Luckily, we have only a glimpse of her time caged with a sickly two-headed lamb for company before she is purchased to join a much larger Freak Show. Her new family consists of a spirited, smart-mouthed, bitter Monkey-Boy; Mama Rat, the pipe-smoking sweet-natured woman that appears to communicate telepathically with her “babies”; six giant rats that prove ingenious and endearing; Moon Girl, the soft-spoken, but surprisingly deadly ninja; a gargantuan hulk of a man, Gigantus and undoubtedly the most ornery, mischievous horse that has ever existed.

If this hasn’t piqued your interest, the mystery certainly will. Our freaks aren’t the lowest rung on the ladder in London during these times. Mudlarks are beneath them. These people spend entire days trolling the filthy, slimy banks and bottom of the polluted Thames River searching for any scrap that could be sold for a penny or two. When the mudlark children begin disappearing, no one would care, if Sheba hadn’t met Till.

The tiny, filthy mudlark stole into the show, marveling as Sheba, captive in her cramped quarters, frightened away grown men. For one fleeting moment, there were simply two little girls chatting. Sheba’s heart had never been so full as when Till slipped a chipped marble into her small, furry hand.

What follows is a quick-paced, exciting escapade that reveals a plan so sinister and devious, this reader was floored. Packed with action, compassion, engaging and humorous dialogue and a mystery beyond belief, this is certainly one of the coolest books I’ve read.

Although this is written for Middle Graders, and I am no longer even a “Young” Adult, I was completely immersed, in part, I think, because (as a teen) I actually visited a traveling Freak Show. I am curious to see how today’s American 10 – 14 year olds view this obscure concept. The astute addition of the author’s notes detail that, while this is a work of fiction, the deplorable conditions of London during this time were very, very real. He generously includes pictures of London Street Children, along with brief biographies of historic figures mentioned. The combination of a truly ingenious, remarkable story; supported with stranger-than-fiction facts of a time so long ago it seems unfathomable, makes this a fabulously superb book that will be a treasure to any reader.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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Long Gone ManLong Gone Man
A Singer Brown Mystery
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, September 2013
ISBN: 9781771510301
Trade Paperback

From the very first sentence, readers will sense they are in the hands of a master storyteller. With discerning eye and sensitivity to the feelings of a stressed woman, we land in a decrepit Dodge van laboring up a narrow, twisting, fog-enshrouded mountain road toward an unknown destination and what is meant to be a long-overdue confrontation. The driver is Singer Brown, a down-on-her-luck itinerant street busker with a history of travel and living on the street, of singing curbside for the change of passers-by. Like many of her ilk she’s had her ups and downs, including club gigs with bands as well as solo stands. As she struggles tensely up the mountain road we learn of a long-festering hatred that drives her on toward this mountain peak on an island off the British Columbia coast. Glenphiddie Island is home to a band leader singer Brown encountered many years ago far to the south in Taos, New Mexico.

When Brown finally reaches her destination, toward the top of the mountain, she encounters another highly stressed woman holding a gun, a woman whose husband, the band leader, lies dead of a gunshot to the head. Readers will already have had some intimation of layered mystery and several relationships in disarray. Members of the band Vortex, all of who live in proximity, are fading into career-ending oblivion, yet their controlling leader holds them in iron fingers.

There are other strands, bits of which are revealed chapter after chapter, including a stirring love story. Readers will have to pay attention as the suspense builds and more and more relationships and conditions are revealed. One never understands completely or sees the entire nasty web until the fog is finally swept away and the true character of all the players is revealed in a classic confrontation.

I thought the author could have done a bit more with the location, an area of spectacular vistas and seascapes, and surprising if minor actions involve some police figures. A few wisps of foggy threads are left to the imaginations of readers. The changeling, enigmatic central figure of Singer Brown is precisely characterized with murky strength and occasional clarity of purpose. She is a wonderfully sympathetic figure. I look forward to more from this excellent writer.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.