Imagine a wood in which children wander, but never return. Imagine a town which is used to weird things happening. Imagine you shouldn't leave your laundry out after six o'clock or terrifying things may happen...
The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods by Samuel J. Halpin is a mysterious and well-written children's book, full with dark twists, riddles and two thoroughly enjoyable main characters. Attracting with aggressively purple pages (not on the inside), this books holds even more than it promises from the outside.
Follow Poppy into the town of Suds where her quirky grandmother lives. She already stumbles into the first mystery on the train there. Or why would anyone leave a miraculously silken-bound empty book on the train?
Together with her obnoxious and fantastic new friend Erasmus, Poppy sets out to find out why children keep vanishing in this town, and why no one seems to particularly bother.
But not all vanish simply into thin air, some also return, bald and lifeless, unable to speak properly.
And does the vanishing of children really have something to do with all the peculiar rules Poppy's grandmother imposes, like
Lock away the sugar
Don't leave any laundry out after six o'clock
or, most importantly,
NEVER DUST THE WINDOW SILLS.
Wreathing their way through adventure, Erasmus and Poppy soon learn the awful truth why kids keep popping into thin air, their eyes wide as snow and their heads deprived of dreams. It has to do with an old legend, the river, which may be far deeper than anticipated, and the Peggs who come at night...
As an advocate for giving children more to chew than most people think possible, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was, surmising from the colourful cover, surprisingly dark and took a few even darker twists towards the end. I thought Halpin's way of describing the scenery and surrounding especially enjoyable and the main characters possessed wit, emotion and reliability. Even though the illustrations were not entirely up to my taste, they still added plenty to the story and make for a truly wonderful children's book.
Especially through know-it-all Erasmus, we learn a lot and are guided well through the adventure, but he is not all knowledge and superhero. One especially great feature of the book was what happened outside the adventure. Poppy's Mum died in a tragic accident and the relationship to her father has been strained ever since,so when he comes to visit many emotions stir up. Additionally, topics like bullying, well-known children's fears and authentic school yard banter sneak their way through the main plot and give the characters complexity and texture.
It seeps through the lines that Halpin is a fan of fairy tales and folklore, as it is very reminiscent of a more complex and darker fairy tale. The woods, the witches, the mystery, it's all there, entangled into a delightfully sinister story, combed with friendship and sprinkled with fantastic words and concoctions I would love to come up with, too.
In terms of age recommendation, I would say eleven years and upwards. Smaller children may find witches making masks from their victims' skins a tad too much and children vanishing forever are also part of the plot.
"The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year."
A magnificent story of magic, engineering, a family saga and betrayal has the reader hooked from page one, on the life-transforming story of the brothers Emil and Kaspar, as well as Cathy Wray, a young runaway.
Papa Jack's Emporium is a place of magic, where dreams come true and where Emily and Kaspar grow up with their father as the most incredible toy maker in London. But the Emporium only opens for the Christmas season - as soon as the first frost settles and the first snowdrop unfolds her petals. This family saga starts in the early 20th century with 15-year old and pregnant Cathy Wray fleeing to London, so her parents cannot make her give it up for adoption. Stumbling into the Emporium, she becomes a sales girl and quickly falls for handsome and charismatic Kaspar. Emil, the other brother, is a quirky, weird boy, always shoved into the shadows by his superior brother.
But the shadows unfolding outside the Emporium as war knocks on the door also leave their imprint on the family, and when Kaspar is recruited, Cathy has to say goodbye to her sweetheart and step-in father of her child for a long time. Always trying to keep the Emporium afloat, a family crisis ensues when deeply traumatised Kaspar returns and everything falls into mayhem.
Genre-wise I would describe this book as a children's book for adults. From its playful cover and way it is written, it is suggestive of a children's book, but topics like war, mental instability and teenage pregnancy may be a little intense for young readers.
This book was a particular gem in my latest reading history, perfectly fusing magic and engineering, a little reminiscent of books like Northern Lights or Cogheart. The magically infused toys that literally come to life in this story are not perceived as too-out-of-the-ordinary, but it only adds to the magical atmosphere of the plot.
One particular wonderful aspect of the book was its perspective. Author Robert Dinsdalde foregoes all traditional "rules" of narrator and happily mixes all perspectives, sometimes providing an omniscient view, sometimes even out of the toys' views. Dinsdale does a great job of guiding the gaze of the reader, addressing us directly before pulling out again and directing it in a different way.
Instead of a usual story arch where something triggers the action before there is a resolution and happy end, this book simply follows the lives of this extraordinary family over a few decades, stricken with war, personal grief and growing up, all amidst the magic of the Emporium filled with toy soldiers, rocking horses and almost real-life stuffed dogs. Parts of their story (and I won't review which for spoiler reasons), were almost impossible to bear, as tragedy does not only strike once or twice, but in regular periods. Especially the incredible twist at the end comes as a huge surprise and is almost too shocking to take, but definitely a fantastic turn towards the end.
Fans who look back to their childhood nostalgically and love a pinch of magic will appreciate the wonderful story-telling and enchanting setup guiding through this story line - and you will never look at toy soldiers the same way again.
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