Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf by Paul Stewart, pictures by Chris Riddell, 240 pp RL 4
Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf is the latest series by the duo Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, who brought us Far-Flung Adventures for third grade readers and the Edge Chronicles for fifth and sixth grade readers. The Barnaby Grimes books fall nicely between these two. Written at a fourth grade reading level, this series is set in pre-1900s London and is full of curiosities like high stacking, tick-tock lads and cordials as well as a host of British names that trip over the toungue, Cadwallader and Jolyon to name a few. While the Edge Chronicles and the Far-Flung Adventures take place in wonderfully described, detail laden imaginary worlds that are populated by fictional creatures and odd human beings, Barnaby Grimes' story takes place in a real city, albeit one that is equally laden with details and creatures, all of which, except for one or two, are factually based.
At its heart, this book is a mystery and a thriller and it has a fair amount of blood and violence befitting its subject and time - werewolves and the grimy, impoverished world of a post-Industrial city. Stewart takes as much care describing the poorer and the poorest neighborhoods of London and their inhabitants as he does the werewolves and their rampages through the city. His eye for minutiae that made his imaginary worlds so totally livable in his other series is used here to draw you into the gritty, smelly streets of the Wasp's Nest and the East Bank along with Barnaby, who, as a tick-tock lad, delivers messages and packages all over the city.
While high stacking one evening, high stacking being the habit of climbing onto the top of a building in order to jump from roof to roof, clinging to chimney stacks as you go, Barnaby is attacked by a great grey wolf. Despite a horrible burn on his shoulder from a hot chimney pot, he manages to evade the wolf and send him crashing through a skylight and into a vat of glue boiling away in the glue factory below. From that night on, he winds his way through a series of clients, clues and cordials that lead him to discover the genesis of the night wolf, the real purpose of Dr Cadwallader's Cordial and the source of the luxurious Westpahlian fur that is being used to trim the collars and cuffs of the fashionable swells and fine ladies of London.
I am a huge fan of the works of Stewart and Riddell, as well as a lover of all things British, so this book was a genuine treat for me. While I am not such a huge fan of creatures like werewolves and the havoc they wreak, there was so much else going on in this story, from the descriptions of the characters Barnaby encounters to the squalid details of the lives of the lower classes, that I was entertained and riveted from the start. While this strikes me as mostly a book for boys, I think it will have crossover appeal, as do the other series by this team. Older readers who enjoyed this book should not miss the Edge Chronicles and younger readers looking for something a bit more light hearted should definitely check out the Far-Flung Adventures.
If your daughter likes this book, I strongly recommend the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, the first of which is The Case of the Missing Marquess. Springer imagines that Sherlock Holmes' mother has had a daughter, Enola, very late in life. Because of the eccentricities of her mother, which really turnout to be proto-feminist ideas about independence and the right to ownership and inheritance for women, Enola does not know her brother, only knows of him. This all changes when her mother disappears on Enola's fourteenth birthday. Enola follows the cryptic clues left behind by her mother and ends up on the trail of a missing Viscount and a phony spiritualist as well. Springer evokes the period beautifully and creates an initially timid, but very intelligent, emotional and sympathetic character in Enola, who evolves nicely over the course of the book, which ends with her setting up her own investigative agency, posing as the secretary but doing all of the work on her own. There are currently four books in this series, the fifth due out in 2009.