Thursday, September 09, 2010

How Ali Ferguson saved Houdini by Elen Caldecott


Ali Ferguson has just moved into Lever Tower with his mum. It’s not long before he meets Caitlin and the Alsatian dog she looks after, Falcon, who doesn’t take too kindly to being walked on a lead. Caitlin introduces Ali to her best friend, Gez, and together the three set out to discover, firstly, why the foxes have disappeared from the area, secondly, why the owls have appeared and, thirdly, why Miss Osborne has, it seems, vanished . . . And how exactly her disappearance is related to the previous two.With the help of his friends and, significantly, Caitlin’s dad, Ali and his mum begin to feel comfortable and happy in their new life without Ali’s dad.

It took me ages - stupidly - to realise that Elen Caldecott is also the author of How Kirsty Jenkins stole the elephant . I really enjoyed HKJSTE and am happy to report that How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini is an equally cracking book for younger readers.

The language is fun and very easy to read. It calls to be read aloud in a class or before night time. I also think readers of around eight or nine, who want a bit of mystery of their own, would do well to pick this up to read solo. Even I felt a sense of accomplishment when I put it aside after closing the covers for the last time.

Ali Ferguson is my kind of kid - active, funny, charming, clever, imaginative and full of life. I loved the relationship he has with his mum, Anita. She sounds exotically beautiful and did a lot of smiling and laughing with Ali, which won me over. I have noticed that a lot of parents scold and shout in kids books, but few enough of them laugh and joke with their kids.

When Ali and his mum move to Lever Tower he did not expect a lot of excitement. Life at his Nan's and Granddad's house was pretty sedate. We are quickly filled in that his dad had left to travel to India and that it's only Ali and his mum. But, instead of bitterness and recrimination taking hold of the book, both Ali and his mum are chirpy and positive about their new move.

Ali makes friends with the moody and slightly socially awkward Caitlin who sounds like she prefers Falcon, the dog, for company. Caitlin lives in the same tower of flats as Ali, but on the higher floor. She is also in a single parent family and her dad is called Dave. Dave is a big balding guy with tattoos, so not really someone you would really want to be around. And this is where Ms. Caldecott's cleverness comes in - she takes what we perceive when we see a person for the first time (or several times) and we may think "oh no, bad guy, stay away" and tilts it neatly on its head. But more of that later.

When Dave doesn't get back from taking Falcon out for his late night walk, Caitlin runs to Ali's flat for help. Together with Anita, the two kids set out to find Caitlin's missing dad. They find him, slightly groggy near the river. Someone had attacked him. They help him to his flat and it is inevitable that these four people's lives will become meshed together somehow.

It is only when the kids meet Gez in his hide near the river and they find out that he saw the whole attack happen, that things get interesting very fast. Why is Dave so anxious about his attack? Why won't he speak to the doctors or the police and why are there rumours that he is in a gang? Everything points to Dave being a bit dodgy and unpleasant and it is only Caitlin's voice that that prevents all of us from deciding that yes, he is the bad man.

As Gez and the two new friends, Caitlin and Ali investigate matters they learn about a mysterious van that comes to the river at night. Someone comes in from the river and deposits something into the van and it then drives off and goes to the local pet store.

Well, needless to say, you can figure out what's going on, just from that. But it was great fun sticking it out with the kids as they went through a variety of set-ups and false alarms to eventually figure it all out.

Ms. Elen Caldecott is a very good writer and she got her characters in this one pitch perfect. I secretly quite liked Gez who is utterly thoughtless and as blunt as a brick through your window. There is no guile there, just honesty. I would love to meet these kids again in another adventure as I am pretty sure they are up to it.

The book ends on a wonderfully high note and I was smiling all along. I would recommend this to parents who have kids who may be reluctant readers but who are fond of animals, mysteries and adventure. It was a quick read for me - only a few hours - and the dialogue reads well and the chapters are snappy and short. It's definitely a keeper.


Unknown said...

Sounds like one for my middle girl.
Absolutely terrific review Liz - I will add it tto her list of books :D

Linda said...

Thoroughly agree - I find Elen Caldecott's books refreshing and fun to read. And you're right - she does allow her parents to be kind and funny and accessible.