A taut, tense and thrilling read.
Synopsis from the Bloomsbury Website:
If you go down to the woods today … Well, every child knows NOT to, don’t they?
Tamaya is on a scholarship to the prestigious Woodridge Academy and every day she and seventh-grader Marshall walk to school together. They never go through the woods. And when they arrive at school they stop talking to each other – because Marshall can’t be seen to be friends with a little kid like Tamaya. Especially not with Chad around. Chad-the-bully, who makes Marshall’s life utterly miserable. But today, hoping to avoid Chad, Marshall and Tamaya decide to go through the woods … And what is waiting there for them is strange, sinister and entirely unexpected.
The next day, Chad doesn’t turn up at school – no one knows where he is, not even his family. And Tamaya’s arm is covered in a horribly, burning, itchy wound. As two unlikely heroes set out to rescue their bully, the town is about to be turned upside down by the mysterious Fuzzy Mud …
So what do I think?
The multi-award winning Louis Sachar brings us a chilling new tale this summer. Given that Holes has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the Bloomsbury edition alone, expectations from readers will be skyscraper high. The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a nice, manageable size, which is instantly inviting; so it’s perfect to pack in your suitcase for your summer getaway! And very satisfyingly, there is a map depicting the grand Woodridge Academy surrounded by thick woodland. Is this an educational fortress shielding its pupils from the horrors of the big, wide world, maybe? (I started thinking of JG Ballard style closed communities where Bad Things Happen!)
At the start of the book we are introduced to Tamaya, a girl whose parents are divorced, and who feels left out. She’s called a “kind of goody-goody” by Monica. We note the grandness of the private school she attends. In the dining hall the boys tell tall tales of a deranged hermit who lives in the woods:
“He’s got this superlong beard…splotched all over with blood.”
“The guy can’t chew his food…so his dogs have to chew it up for him. Then they spit it out, and then he eats it.”
“He came this close to eating me.”
When Tamaya tells the boys, “you’re not really allowed in the woods,” you just know that somehow that’s where she going to end up.
In a significantly lonesome small separate section at the end of the chapter, we are introduced to Marshall Walsh, who is eating alone in the middle of two groups.
As the story progresses, the narrative is alternated with the transcript of an inquiry regarding SunRay Farm and mysterious man-made microorganisms, the “tiny Frankensteins” called Biolene. As Tamaya discovers Fuzzy Mud, we realise that the good intentions of the biolene producers are going to be linked to the main action.
Chapter one has a petri dish in the page corner with a single cell. With each chapter the cells multiply, and multiplication calculations appear at the end of the chapters, creating an air of intrigue and tension.
The book is a very fine balance of high school day to day trauma and dysfunctional family life with a twist of scientific research and biological engineering. Tamaya’s world is oh so familiar, yet eerily surreal. The conflict between Chad and Mitchell is very believable. The lockdown situation in her school is chilling and tense. In fact, a lot of this book is tense! The whole way through I was trying to guess the outcome, but you’ve got to hand it to Louis: he certainly knows how to keep a reader dangling! There are plenty of scenes that left me flinching or worried for the main characters.
Tamaya starts off as a timid girl who is afraid that if she does anything wrong that she might be expelled. “Tamaya was scared to death of getting into trouble”. She recalls a teacher saying, “If you’re not scared, then there’s nothing to be brave about, is there?” The question we ask ourselves constantly is will Tamaya be brave enough to handle the strange and sinister events that keep coming?
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this, as did my 13 year old son who was lucky enough to review this for the LoveReading4Kids website. It’s very different to Holes, but is bound to be just as big a hit.
Finally, a special alert for teachers, Bloomsbury have kindly prepared a reader’s guide with interesting questions, which is well worth a look.