31 May 2012

Review 40: Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

"Stuart Horten - ten years old but small for his age - moves to the dreary town of Beeton, far away from all his friends. But in Beeton begins the strangest adventure of Stuart's life... He is swept up in a quest to find his great-uncle's lost workshop - a workshop stuffed with trickery and magic. There are clues to follow and puzzles to solve, but what starts as fun ends up as danger, and Stuart begins to realise that he can't finish the task by himself."

This is a lovely and fun book that is written with charm and wit and heart. The story of the below-averagely height Stuart as he begrudgingly moves to a new town and ends up solving a family mystery full of puzzles and tricks, magic and mystery. I feel like this would make a great children's TV show as Stuart races around Beeton, managing nosy triplet neighbours, quirky parents and a scheming enemy with a hapless magician sidekick.

First Line: "Stuart Horten was small for his age - the smallest boy in his year at school - and both his parents were very tall, which meant that when he stood next to them he looked about the size of an ant."

Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie Prize shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of Rebecca Stead or Frank Cottrell Boyce. If you like quirky stories full of heart.

Stuart Horten is plagued by his height and therefore by his name. He has withstood years of people realised that his name is S. Horten and that he is, indeed, significantly below an average height for a ten year old boy. People often assume that he is much younger than he really is. However, when Stuart is forced to move with his parents to Beeton he discovers that his long lost uncle, a renowned magician, was also of small stature and in fact used the stage name Teeny Tiny Tony Horten. However, he disappeared mysteriously at the height of his career and has never been heard from since.

Stuart's parents are well meaning and affectionate but rather quirky and distant. His mother is a busy doctor and his mother an absent-minded crossword designer who enjoys using complicated, long words in his everyday conversations. So when Stuart first finds some mysterious clues, they are largely oblivious as he sets out to work the puzzle out. Less oblivious are the triplets who live next door and their homemade local newspaper. He first encounters them after they catch him trying to get inside his uncle's abandoned house.

The mystery is kicked off by two strange events that happen to Stuart; a phone in a phonebox with the cord cut rings whilst he is hiding from the nosy triplets and the library phones to tell him the item he requested is available, which turns out to be an old book of photographs of the town requested by somebody else. When  he finds some old threepenny pieces in a trick bottom of one of his father's belongings, Stuart sets out to work out the messages he is being sent by someone or something to track down what happened to his uncles and his workshop of incredible mechanical creations that he used in his tricks.

Small Change for Stuart rips along at a fast pace, and I read it almost in one go, stopped only by life not by a lack of desire to finish it. Full of twists and turns and mystery, I didn't know what Stuart was going to find or how he was going to find it. I loved the way Evans winds all the clues and puzzles around each other and the wonderfully imagined devices that Stuart tries to track down that were invented by his uncle. The finale is exciting and magical in particular. The book is packed full of heart as well, Stuart is wonderfully and completely open to adventure. April, one of the triplets who ends up helping Stuart, is clever and resourceful and has a great moment to shine at the climax of the story. The book is also full of quirky Roald Dahl-esque supporting characters and as I mentioned in the summary, I could imagine this as a great children's TV programme or film. As a brief aside, the hardback cover for this was absolutely lovely and a perfect fit for the puzzles and mysteries of the book. I also enjoy the title which has at least three meanings tied in to it.

Despite all of this though, I found it difficult to consider it is a viable contender for the Carnegie prize just because its intended audience is so obviously much younger than the other shortlisted novels which are definitely aimed at the firmly young adult, older teens audiences. It is difficult to compare this to something harrowing like Between Shades of Grey or something lyrical and meandering like My Name is Mina. So, whilst I'm not sure  it is a good novel for Carnegie, I do think it is superbly written and incredibly charming.

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