As a definite land-lubber, I am starting to mess about in books on boats and sailing, ready for next year’s work in progress. So it was a pleasure to be sent an audio-book of Julia Jones’ THE SALT STAINED BOOK recently.
As the current owner of the real “Peter Duck”, Julia is a woman who knows her sailing stuff. So it was no great surprise to discover this novel draws heavily on the world of Arthur Ransome, “Swallows and Amazons” and sailing on the River Orwell in Suffolk. There are references to Hiawatha and Treasure Island within the mix as well.
Although the book is intended for older middle grade and young teens, it seemed perfect “escapist” listening for a winter afternoon when you have some mind-numbing tasks to do.
THE SALT STAINED BOOK is definitely a ripping-yarn type of adventure but one brought into modern times: it has a contemporary setting and modern believable child characters, facing current problems. The likeable main character, Donny is almost fourteen, is used to helping his reclusive Granny care for his beloved mother Sky, who is deaf, dyslexic and scared of strangers.
When Granny dies, Sky and Donny leave Leeds in Granny’s old holiday campervan. They drive south to the Suffolk coast, ready to meet Great Aunt Ellen, their unknown yet only living relative, as directed by a mysterious telegram.
Donny and Sky fulfill Granny’s last wish - to buy him a copy of “Swallows and Amazons” - but after they leave the bookshop, Sky wedges the van in a car-park exit and gets in a panic. Suddenly, life gets much worse. A nasty version of Social Services intervenes, rule-bound and unwilling to listen to what Donny is trying to tell them. Sky ends up in a secure hospital and Donny, not knowing where she is, is in a foster home.
I must say that the reader, Anna Bentink, really does enjoy voicing her baddies: the sweetly two-faced social worker Denise “Toxic” Tune, the bullying, racist policeman Jake Flint and the worryingly awful foster team: unctuous Vicar Wendy and Gregory, her weak, veg-peeling husband. The double-tongued “languages” of care, health and safety, social systems, school and more made me squirm with a sort of recognition. Julia Jones was, I felt, clearly making pointed observations here. I rather wondered if any young listeners should know that at least two of these nasty characters are revealed as “real” villains later on?
However, the quartet of young characters really makes this story. Donny - slow and lacking in confidence - falls in love with sailing from the moment he sees dinghies bobbing on the reservoir near his new school. He is still determined to meet Great Aunt Ellen at Shotley.
Then at the Vicarage, Donny makes friends with Anna, a cunning looked-after child who knows how to work the system to her own advantage.
(The scene where Anna makes sure she and Donny are allowed out is a comic delight. She may be small but she has such wit!)
On the school bus, Donny and Anna meet the privileged Ribiero sisters:, admirable loud-mouthed Xanthe and her kind, observant little sis, Maggie. Daughters of a black magistrate and a doctor, these new “Amazons” have learned to stand up for what they believe in. So, when they eventually hear about Donny’s love of the water and his need to meet up with his lost relative – as well as being attacked by a bully in a boat - what can they do but help him?
The long and complex plot of the “SALT STAINED BOOK” offered me plenty of exciting moments (and an enigmatic back-story), moments of sadness and joy on Donny’s behalf, and a rather wonderful meeting near the end. Perfect for a grey day, I felt. The paper version of this book is the first in Julia's "Strong Winds" trilogy which seems, for keen readers, a good thing. How can an old Chinese junk be otherwise?
Although, amazingly, Donny starts learns to sail by studying his battered copy of “Swallows and Amazons”, Ransome’s inspirational stories never quite made me into a sailor. But, for a while, I certainly longed to be one and - though a duffer* - did enjoy re-living those young sea-dreams through Julia Jones Salt Stained Book adventure.
Have you listened to any good audio-books lately?
Review by Penny Dolan
Ps At another level entirely, I found the chapters being read didn’t correspond to the chapters indicated on my Ipod display, but that is a technical niggle, and may well be at Apple’s audio end rather than a Golden Egg production problem.
*“Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” is the permission given for the children to sail to the island in Swallows and Amazons.
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