Friday, January 11, 2008

Jon Berkeley

Just the other day I got an email from Mr. Berkeley, who liked my review so well that he offered to have a copy of his latest book sent to me. Sometimes it's good to be Robbie F, the perils of fat-stupid-jerkitude notwithstanding.

The Palace of Laughter
by Jon Berkeley
Recommended Age: 11+

Book One of The Wednesday Tales comes to you with the endorsement of no less than Julie Andrews Edwards, who wrote Mandy and starred in Mary Poppins but did not write this book. Instead, it was written by a Dublin-born book illustrator who thought up much of the story while walking his dog. I assume this means he thought it up during a series of walks, rather than one long ramble, though the plot does involve a foot journey of several days accompanied by a large, furry friend.

Miles Wednesday is a smelly orphan who sleeps in a large wine barrel with his only companion, a toy bear named Tangerine. After escaping many times from the cruel orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Pinchbucket, Miles has finally made his escape "stick," but he still lives a perilous existence, earning just enough money at odd jobs to eat every day or two. The peril becomes even greater the night a circus comes to town, and Miles finds himself face to face with a talking Bengal tiger. The boy's attempt to sneak into the circus has even more perilous consequences. Before the dust has settled, Miles has helped a delicate little girl with wings escape her cage, the pair are on the run from a bloodthirsty monster called the Null, and Tangerine is in the hands of the enemy.

This last matter is more than Miles can bear. Tangerine is the only thing he has left of his parents, who left him at the orphanage when he was a tiny baby. So Miles and the little winged girl, named Little, pursue the villainous circus people through a country fraught with risk and adventure. A dangerous carnivore becomes their traveling companion. A fierce blind man mistakes Miles for a thieving scoundrel. The two children blunder into the middle of a gang war in a nightmarish city where the atmosphere of dread thickens until they stand before the Palace of Laughter - a place where people go in free and come out enslaved, a place where a thunder-and-lightning angel and an orange bear languish in captivity, a place where the Null dwells like the embodiment of everyone's worst nightmare.

Obviously, considering Miles's history of eluding the Pinchbuckets, he is good at escaping. The challenge this time is to go into such a place and set things right. In the process, Miles learns a good deal about his own history, and about how it feels to have a place to belong.

This is a very warm-hearted story that sparkles with wit, mesmerizing images, and memorable characters. Even the predictable word-pattern that opens each chapter (such as "Miles Wednesday, stone-warmed and Tangerine-less..." and "Baumella the giantess, straight-boned and tree-tall...") grows into something comforting and amusing that you anticipate with pleasure, combining the expected and the unexpected. And though this book is very satisfying by itself, once you have read it you can't help feeling interested in the second book, The Tiger's Egg.

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