Wednesday 26 March 2014

Review: Circus of Thieves and the Raffle of Doom by William Sutcliffe

Hannah's life is boring, boring, boring! Then Armitage Shank's Impossible Circus comes to town and Hannah's world is turned on its head when she meets Billy Shank, his astonishing camel, Narcissus, and a host of other bizarrely brilliant members of the circus. But all is not as it seems; Armitage Shank, evil ringmaster and Billy's surrogate father, has a dastardly plan that could end in catastrophe for Hannah's dull little village and it's up to Hannah and Billy to stop his stinking scheme before it's too late…

I am sure that many of the adult readers of this blog will remember a time when the circus coming to town was a cause of great excitement for children in the area. Circuses were also a staple scenario for writers like Enid Blyton, in stories like The Circus of Adventure, Five Go Off in a Caravan, Five Are Together Again and  Secret Seven Adventure. In addition to these mystery stories (circuses made great locations for mysteries back in the day), Blyton also wrote a her Circus Series trilogy, starting with Mr Galliano's Circus, about a boy and his life as part of a circus. Blyton wasn't the only writer who used circuses to great story-telling effect, so why are they so absent from modern children's literature? Is is just the way society has changed, with the arrival of a traditional circus being far less an exciting event for kids these days? Are there just far less circuses around these days due to vastly improved animal welfare laws? Whatever the reason, I have been thinking for some time that we need to see a resurgence in the circus as the background for a story, especially as so many people find clowns to be so damn creepy.

Writer William Sutcliffe has thankfully arrived on the kidlit scene to start bringing circuses back into the world of children's literature with his delightfully funny debut for children, Circus of Thieves and the Raffle of Doom. This first book in what I hope will be a long series introduces us to Hannah, a young girl whose life 'boring, boring, boring!' However, in a classic case of be careful what you wish for, things suddenly become a whole lot less boring for hannah when Shank's Impossible Circus arrives in town. Hannah very quickly makes friends with Billy Shank, camel trainer extraordinaire, and heir to the Shank Entertainment Empire. However, not all members of the circus are as friendly as Billy circus owner Armitage Shanks being a particularly nasty piece of work, and Hannah soon finds herself on a mission to foil a scheme so dastardly that it would make you swoon.

There were so many aspects of Circus of Thieves that I loved. I'm sure I'm not the only reviewer who will find it impossible to start talking about this book without first mentioning the fantastic cast of characters. William Sutcliffe obviously had a great deal of fun creating the many different characters that populate his story. Naturally, a circus setting gives a writer a great opportunity to let their imagination run wild, and so we have Armitage Shanks, the vicious and despicable ringmaster, Maurice (pronounced 'Murrggghhhheeece') the trapeze artiste and his assistant Irrrrrrena his assistant, Jesse the Human Cannonball and Hank and Frank, the clowns who simply do not get on with one another. And the great list of supporting characters doesn't stop there: there's also Fizzer the dog, Fluffypants McBain the cat, and a stick-wielding granny.

Despite sharing an illustrator with Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books (the increasingly prolific and totally wonderful David Tazzyman), the similarities with Stanton's anarchically bonkers books ends there (apart from the occasional made-up word, that is). The humour is at time brilliantly off the wall, but it is not as in-your-face wacky as the Mr Gum books. The publishers, Simon and Schuster, are pitching this books as being great for fans of Andy Stanton and David Walliams, and the humour is somewhere between the two. The writing is also of the highest quality, and 7+ readers will love the story of good versus circus evilness. It is also another to add to the ever growing list of books that are great to be shared between parent  and child as a bedtime story (or any time story - reading together is not just for bedtime!).

Another technique that William Sutcliffe employs to add a further level of wackiness to his story is the use of footnotes. I've seen this used in books before, and it doesn't always work as sometimes they do little but distract the reader from the flow of the story, but in this case I totally loved them. In Circus of Thieves they are invariably funny, and the reader is drawn to them, not by reference numbers, but by little pictograms.

There are some stunningly good and very funny books being published for this age group at the moment and Circus of Thieves is definitely up there as one of the best. I'm really looking forward to reading the sequel, as and when it is published, and I'm sure I won't be the only one. My thanks go to the lovely people at Simon and Schuster, not just for sending me a copy of the book, but also for the wonderful set of promotional Circus postcards, illustrated by David Tazzyman.

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