The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond

Dominic Hall and Holly Stroud have been connected since they were very young and lived across the street from one another in a town in the North of England by the Tyne River. As five year old Dom and Holly were walking on garden walls, Dom was hit by a stone thrown by the new boy in town, Vincent McAlinden and that’s where the story really begins. Vincent who is three yearstightrope-walkers older than Dom, lived in “the lower wasteland,” “squatted in holes in the dirt by smouldering fires. He wore a sheath knife at his waist. He smoked, he spat and snarled.”

Their walking on walls advances to homemade tightropes after a visit to the circus and later to wire ones that Holly’s father gets from work . It also becomes a metaphor for their dreams of walking in air as well as the balancing act Dom has to make of his life. As Dom and Holly excell at primary school, other boys are hit with mis McKane’s cane and Vincent is always on the edge of their lives causing trouble. In primary school Dom watches as another boy falls under Vincent’s bullying allure. When Dom and Holly graduate and move on to high school, Dom feels out of place. He is a caulker’s son and grandson of a tank cleaner while many of the others are sons and daughters of office workers, doctors and teachers. Dom wants to be a tightrope walker, to read and wander, to go far but heis is conflicted and also wants to be hard like Vincent . His bitter father is frightened by his potential and tells him “never forget where you come from.” .

In high school he starts to hang out with Vincent McAlinden and changes into a brutish thing. His father welcomes this new friendship. When Vincent shows up at his house with an air gun, he encourages Dom to go with Vincent. He thinks Dom needs toughening up. Vincent takes Dom out shooting animals for the thrill of it, they curse, smoke and drink, they fight with knives and soon Vincent teaches him to steal. Their relationship is intense as Vincent is something of a psychopath. Their friendship is broken quickly when their actions come to the awareness of the police, but McAlinden enters their lives again with devastating consequences when Dom and Holly are about to take their University entrance exams.

The struggle inside Dom between becoming a writer or staying in his hometown and working in the shipyards is central. Almond used the Geordie dialect of the Newcastle Tyneside region to write this book and the sense of place is deep. Listening to the audiobook narrated by Richard Halverson was a wonderful experience.

Almond’s writing is very sensual. You smell the shipyard, hear the noises and see the grime. You can hear the thrashing of the cane on students’ hands in primary school. The setting in the fifties through the late sixties is clear with references to bands and poets. The characters are clear as well. There is a mute wanderer Tom, who lives in a mining hole where he has painted tightrope-walkers-brit-edimages, and who seems to watch over Holly and Dom. There are supportive teachers and their fathers are well drawn. Holly’s is very encouraging of her artistic and academic talents while Dom’s takes longer, but eventually begins to see that Dom needs to move on.

This is a terrific book that absolutely grabs you with its rawness and beauty. I believe it may have been published for adults in the UK while in the US it was published for young adults.

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Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Here is a wonderful fantasy filled with riddles that is great for middle grade students, especially ones who like riddles. It is also Gabriel-Finleypacked with animal, or avian, lore as well as being based upon two ravens from Norse mythology, Huginn and Munin. The story alternates between the story of Paladin, a baby raven, and Gabriel. Gabiel Finley is eleven-years old, living in an old part of Brooklyn with his aunt. His mother disappeared when he was very young and his father has been gone for three years. Gabriel is an expert on riddles; he says they create flexible minds. It turns out that ravens also are riddle experts. That is how they can tell if another raven is indeed a raven or a valraven. Valravens have no sense of humor and are “vicious, spiteful creatures.” Nothing is funny to them. The first valraven was created when a raven obeyed a phantom who told him he could live forever if he at the flesh of his master. Since then humans began to shun ravens as soldiers saw valravens eating dead soldiers on battlefields. Before then ravens and humans were friends.

As Gabriel notices that he knows what a raven is thinking, Paladin learns that his grandfather had an amicus, a raven’s human friend, that they could share thoughts and paravolate, merge and fly together. Later, when Gabriel receives his father’s childhood diary, he learns that his father could also communicate with a wounded raven who he took to his father to heal. His father learned that this raven was in danger from Corax and when he asked who Corax was, he was told that Corax was his older brother.

Gabriel and Paladin embark on an adventure to the underground world of Aviopolis, where he must use riddles to rescue his father who is being held prisoner. Traveling with them is an untrustworthy thief, two friends from school and a young violin player named Penelope. They are clearly drawn and unique.

I loved the beginning and the end, but became impatient in the middle. Though set in Brooklyn, it felt like it could have been set anywhere. Except for Aviopolis, which is very vivid, the book lacks a strong sense of place.  The author left room for a sequel.

Fort by Cynthia DeFelice

fort-coverCynthia DeFelice’s Fort is a good, old-fashioned read for middle grade boys.  It has a great first page that is sure to draw you in.  I’m not sure if kids still build forts, but this may inspire some to do so.  Their fort is terrific, since Augie’s uncle owns a junk yard, so they have access to wood, much of it painted pink(!), for the sides and tin for the roof.  Their fort is built in the woods, but near enough to the junk yard so that hauling stuff back and forth isn’t too hard.
Wyatt, who vacations with his dad every summer in upstate New York, and Augie, who lives there, have a great time in their fort killing, with a slingshot, and eating squirrels, fishing, and looking through Augie’s uncle’s STP motor oil calendar with its girlie photos. But their main ambition for the end of summer weekend is to get back at two older boys who have been bullying them and a developmentally disabled boy, Gerard, for way too long.  They know that the brother’s have trailed them to the fort and they have a deliciously planned surprises for them when they attack.  The payback scene is funny and has some unanticipated events too.
This will be a great recommendation for 4th – 6th grade boys.  Publication date, May 19, 2015