Highfire by Eoin Colfer

This review is something of a departure for me.  Firstly it is about an adult novel and secondly the post is just about this one title.

Eoin Colfer has been a favourite author of mine since I first came across Artemis Fowl in the early years of this millennium; has really been nearly twenty years?  His work is always quirky, whacky and full of laugh out loud humour, I think he invented the concept of ‘fart flaps’ for dwarfs and his imagination takes him to places that we can only dream of, but of course he then takes us along for the ride with these amazing stories.

Although he has written two other adult novels this is the first that I have read and it is definitely a change from any of the other works I have read.  rather than being set in Ireland this story is firmly embedded in the bayou lands of Louisiana and although the nearest I have been is the Florida Everglades, there is a real sense of place; so that you can really feel the heat and humidity  that the characters are having to live in.

The story itself  has a small cast but the two central ‘heroes’ are unusual to say the least.  Squib is a young teenager who spends his life trying to avoid trouble and school, whilst making money doing errands for those who live in the bayou.  What he doesn’t  expect is that one of his clients turns out to be a cable TV, flash dance loving dragon called Vern (that’s short for Wyvern).  At that moment it is time to suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow.  Of course this is not going to be the end of the story; enter the villain of the piece,  the sadistic sociopath of a sheriff called Regence Hooke who has his eyes on Squib’s mother and also is more than willing to get involved in bending the law to suit himself.When Hooke finds out about Vern the $$$ signs appear before his eyes and life gets extremely dangerous for anyone who gets in his way.

Given that this book is full of very strong language as well as a lot of blood and guts I didn’t think that I would like it, after all I am now in possession of a bus pass!  However I really loved it, so thank you Eoin Colfer for expanding my horizons and reminding me that you need to give a book a chance; this was definitely worth the read.  I found myself chuckling over some of the very subtle humour that the author has brought to this story; the references to Peter Pan which you can see with the name ‘Hooke’ as well as the Louisiana alligators which fill in nicely for a Crocodile are a joy.  However I think it is Vern who has definitely stolen my heart.  This is someone who has lived for a very long time, seen all other members of his family and species killed by humans,  has become a creature of legend and yet still manages to have a sense of humour and a desire to enjoy his life.

Eoin Colfer has given us a wonderful story of hope and friendship that overcomes the mutual distrust of some of the characters.  There is a wonderful sense of community despite the truly awful machinations of the sheriff and a sense of neighbours who are willing to share and help each other in the ups and downs of every day life.  Definitely a five star rating for this title.

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton

Venice has long been a favourite setting for children’s books and if they happen to have an element of magic then so much the better. This fabulous book delivers on all levels and takes us into the world of  a charming and very resourceful heroine.

Chicken House, 9781912626106

Aribella has been brought up by her lace-maker father after the death of her mother ten years previously.  Their lives are poor and Aribella’s father is still grieving for his wife and takes little notice of his daughter.  The day before her 13th birthday Aribella is out fishing with her friend Theo when a dark fog comes down and fishing become impossible.  The local fishermen think it is a bad omen and seek to blame Aribella, as females are bad luck on ships!  When an older lad Gian gets into a fight with Theo and Aribella she is horrified to discover that flames shoot out of her finger ends.  What follows next takes Aribella into a secret world that she had never heard of and leads her to discover what had actually happened to her mother.  It appears that she is a Cannovacci, a person who holds special powers, and she needs to discover what this means and how to control the powers.  Not only this, but she has to try and rescue her father from prison and save Venice from a dark and threatening danger.  All of this adds up to a thrilling and fast paced adventure story that will have the readers totally engrossed by the plot and wanting more.

This is a magical story in several senses of the word.  The author has managed to really imbue the book with a feel of the city and the the atmosphere that surrounds the waterways.  At its core this is a story about the meaning and importance of family and friendship, as Aribella is torn between the various calls on her loyalty and has to decide who she can trust.  It is also a story about people’s craving for power and what they will do in order to achieve their ends, even betraying their friends and colleagues.

She pulls in some of the things that make Venice so individual, especially the masks, which are central to the way that special powers are controlled.  These masks appear in several stories about the city and everyone knows them from Carnival, in fact they have become popular style icons around the world. A quick search online reveals a fascinating history and I have added a couple of links that might be of interest.  The term canovaccio, which is a close relation to the title Cannovacci actually refers to the performances by the “Commedia dell’ Arte”  and seems to basically describe the outline of the performance.  In order to circumvent the censorship laws the actual script was not written down, so the artists were able to ‘ad-lib’ within the basic frame work.  I would be interested to know whether there was an intentional connection when the name of the group was chosen.

Anna Hoghton

Anna Hoghton is a poet and filmmaker and is also a graduate of  Bath Spa University and its outstanding MA in Writing for Young People Course.  This is her first published novel and I very much hope that it will not be the last.  She really has put together a work that connects the characters with the audience, but also gives us that desire to know more about the magical city that they inhabit.  What a brilliant start to this part of Anna’s career!

Thank you to Chicken House for providing this excerpt from the book to whet your appetite.

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