Friday, October 7, 2016

School Ship Tobermory

School Ship Tobermory
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

Twins Ben and Fee MacTavish feel a little nervous about starting their first school term on the School Ship Tobermory, an actual ship based on the Scottish isle of Mull, where children learn sailing and navigation while also taking regular classroom subjects. It's like a boarding school that doesn't stay put; but it is full of new experiences for the siblings, even though they have spent part of their childhood on a submarine with their scientist parents. They get to make new friends, such as an American boy named Badger and an Australian girl named Poppy. Surprisingly fast, they also make some new enemies, with such sinister names as Hardtack, Flubber, and Shark. They get to test their nerve against heights, seasickness, diving, and uncharted rocks. And before they have sailed out of Scottish waters, they are already embroiled in a mysterious adventure.

The twins and their friends smell a rat on board a nearby ship, the Albatross, where a movie is supposedly being filmed. Several Tobermories, including Ben, are invited over to serve as background extras in the film. The press even comes aboard to shoot a news story about them. But something just doesn't feel right about the Albatross. The Tobermory's captain's dog Henry senses it. But what could be hiding in plain sight, on a ship that has so many visitors tromping over its decks? The question, as the Tobermories find aboard their own vessel, may be misleading; the answer lies below. Even though Captain Macbeth doesn't believe the kids, with a little initiative and a little luck, they hope to find out.

This is a rare children's novel by the author of many, many charming books for grown-ups, such as the "Number One Ladies' Detective Agency" series, the Isabel Dalhousie mysteries, and more. Its tone has an innocence and wholesome straightforwardness that seems to place it in an earlier generation - like the teen adventure novels I used to find at my grandparents' house, lining the shelves of rooms my parents and their siblings grew up in. On the other hand, it has some up-to-date technology in it, like digital video cameras; up-to-date social ideas, like a co-ed boarding school; and a strain of facetiousness in such details as the naming of characters, hinting at a layer of self-deprecating fun. It's a gentle thriller, with almost-too-intelligent animals, almost-too-silly adults (one of them, for example, has a mustache that can be used to gauge wind direction), almost-too-silly background details (like the dog that caught a mermaid), and nobody getting seriously hurt in spite of some moments of deadly peril.

It is, in short, like a lot of Alexander McCall Smith's stuff, except it is designed specifically for kids. And in spite of the solidly G-rated dialogue, the endearing over-literalness of its heroes, and the bland comeuppance for its villains (also hallmarks of AMS's writing), it never seems to talk down to the younger reader. It patiently guides its main characters, and the reader with them, through some elementary lessons in seamanship and nautical vocabulary. And it leaves room open for a sequel - which, in the U.K., already exists; its title is The Sands of Shark Island. In the U.S., however, this first book in the series is scheduled for release Oct. 11, 2016. This review was based on a pre-publication Kindle proof made available through Netgalley dot com.

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