The Salt-Stained Book by Julia Jones, the first in the Strong Winds Trilogy, is a wonderful mixture of social realism and sailing novel. It's sort of Swallows and Amazons meets Tracy Beaker. I first came across it on Geranium Cat's children's book blog Hurleyburlybuss and I'm very glad I decided to read it.
Teenager Donnie Walker's family is unusual: he lived with his grandmother and his disabled mother Skye until his grandmother's recent death. Skye is deaf and autistic and Donny communicates with her through sign language. Knowing social services will think that he and Skye can't cope on their own Donny makes sure his grandmother's last letter, to her estranged sister in China, is posted. Great Aunt Ellen is their only hope. After a cryptic telegram from Ellen arranging to meet in Shotley, Donny and Skye set off to make the journey down to Essex from Yorkshire. They don't quite make it before they're ambushed by social services after Skye goes into meltdown in an Essex car park.
Now Donny is fighting for his, and his mother's, freedom. With Skye locked up in a mental health unit and stuck in a vicarage with well meaning but distant foster parents and their dysfunctional foster family Donny must find a way to make the rendezvous with his great aunt. Social services and the police are behaving oddly and seem to have a greater interest in his aunt than makes sense, especially as they claim not to believe she exists.
Overlaying the gritty realism of life in care is Donny's burgeoning romance with water. His grandmother had always kept him and Skye away from water; there has been no swimming or sailing in his youth, but from the moment he gets his hands on Swallows and Amazons Donny is obsessed. At school he falls in with the determined Ribiero sisters and with the help of their family he learns to sail.
In the end the water seems his only hope of meeting his great aunt, and like John in Swallows and Amazons a brave night sail seems his only chance.
The main thrust of the plot would be exciting enough but the story is bookended with a prologue and then a final explanation of the deaths of two sailing brothers during WWII. The loose threads caused by this and the rather strange behaviour of a police officer named Flint and Donny's social worker suggest the adventure has only just started and buying yourself the second book in the trilogy suddenly becomes very necessary!
The parallels with Swallows and Amazons, and with Treasure Island, are obvious throughout but unlike S&A The Salt-Stained Book has action from the first. If you hadn't read those classics you can still follow the plot, but you'll obviously get so much more out of the book if you have. Spotting the characters is fun, and the word play is clever: Maggi and Peggy both being pet names for versions of Margaret, for example, emphasising how the Ribiero sisters so clearly parallel the Blacketts.
I was not totally convinced by some of the teenage dialogue, especially at the start, but not so that it spoiled the book. The plot, charactisation and inter-textually make for a fascinating novel. Donny engages you right away and you will him to succeed. The women in the novel are all fascinating, and all very different, from his remembered grandmother to the dreamer Skye, to the Ribiero sisters, to strange Anna in his foster home, to the mysterious Great Aunt Ellen.
The book is almost self-published, in that Golden Duck is the publishing vehicle of the author and her partner, but she is an established writer with several other books to her name, and is, amongst other things, an expert on Margery Allingham and her family.
The book, physically, is far from self published, indeed the production values could teach mainstream publishers a thing or two. The cover is by Claudia Myatt and there are vignettes throughout in the style of older children's paperbacks. The design is excellent (with a named designer, Roger Davies, on the colophon) and there are interesting extras such as a diagram with parts of a dingy, and details of the fingerspelling alphabet used by the deaf.
All-in-all there is charm and excitement on every page.
Peril: this is much tenser book than Swallows and Amazons, and Donny's dramatic sail to meet his aunt is quite scary, but not worse than, say, Treasure Island. The scariest thing, I think, is Donny's uncertain future and the fact his mother is locked up, rather than the physical problems. There are the briefly referred to dangers of being in the navy in WWII.
Violence: there is a rather brutal interview with the police officer and odd social worker.
Death: Donny's grandmother dies, just before the book starts, which is the catalyst for the events of the book. The seamen in the WWII flashbacks die, one in an apparent suicide. Donny's grandmother's death is handled well as the imaginative Skye has some lovely ways to say goodbye which Donny recalls.
Relationships: friendships, and parenting (both good and bad) are covered but not romantic relationships. Donny's parentage, and indeed Skye's, is in question, so some basic knowledge of the facts of life are assumed. The other children in the foster family are from a badly broken family, with different dads.
Religion: the foster mother is a vicar, and the portrait is not a flattering one!
Anything else: the foster family is dysfunctional in itself, as well as the problems that the children come from. There is a suggestion of Chinese gangs/smuggling with the implied violence/drugs etc. This is not over played. The politically correct blinkers on social services and the foster family get them into real trouble, and mean the foster kids can manipulate them. There is of course lots of sea and boat related language which may challenge.
Overall: this is an exciting book in its own right, with the added bonus of its relationships with Treasure Island and Swallows and Amazons. Autism, deafness, and non-traditional families are all dealt with sensitivity. The very middle-class Ribiero family with their kindness, intelligence, education, culture and money are black and make for a very positive portrayal. Unlike social services the Ribiero parents treat all the children as people with their own talents, attributes and needs. For those who have read Swallows and Amazons, the Ribieros are Mother and Uncle Jim at their best! The WWII flashbacks and some revelations at the end of the book mean that much more is to come in the next installments: A Ravelled Flag and Ghosting Home. A lovely book, making a great start to an intriguing series: highly recommended.
Other reviews and useful sites:
The author's website is here.
There is a review on Hurlyburlybus here.