Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Doing the Time Warp

I recently came across this blogpost by @Miss_Alaynius this week (via the very lovely tweeter and blogger @PrincessofVP), and it sent me to revisit Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Widely regarded as a classic (John Rowe Townsend termed it a "masterpiece" in his book Written for Children) it was one of CILIP's Carnegie Medal top ten , chosen to celebrate the Carnegie Medal's 70 years' celebration. The novel won the medal in 1958.

Tom's brother Peter has measles, so Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle. They live in a large house now converted into flats, and Tom is disappointed to learn that there is no garden that he could play in alone- since he is in quarantine he can't mix with other children. Mrs Bartholomew, who owns the house, lives upstairs, but a grandfather clock remains on the landing from before the house conversion, as it is screwed to the wall. The clock still keeps good time, but is prone to strike hours at random. His aunt and uncle are kind, but his aunt is inclined to fuss and his uncle is rather pedantic. Due to his lack of exercise, since he is not allowed to play outside, Tom finds it hard to sleep, and when he hears the clock striking thirteen he gets up to investigate. Rationalising his disobedience to his aunt and uncle by explaining to himself that a thirteenth hour is not a real hour, Tom slips outside and discovers not a back yard with bins, but a sunlit garden with children playing: the house before it was converted to flats. Here he meets an unhappy, lonely little girl named Hatty wearing odd clothes, who becomes his friend. Tom returns every night to play with her, but strangely she seems to be growing up much faster than him, eventually becoming a young woman, and in my favourite section, it is no longer summer, but winter with a frozen river. Tom and Hatty skate to Ely and climb the cathedral tower, something he had been unable to do on his journey to his aunt and uncle. When the mystery is solved at the end of the book, there is a connection between the emotional states of Tom and Hatty; two children feeling isolated and misunderstood, longing for a friend, and the clock and its motto connects them both.

This beautifully written book is more than just a time-slip adventure; it is also a meditation on the nature of time and memory. An angel on the grandfather clock is holding a Bible with the motto "Time no Longer", which Tom and Hatty learn is from the Book of Revelations. Re-reading Tom's Midnight Garden has made me reflect on other books with time-slip and time travel themes. I have already written about Charlotte Sometimes, a book that I find profoundly disquieting. The History Keepers: The Storm Begins by Damien Dibben is a much more straightforward adventure story, and highly enjoyable it is.


Fifteen year old Jake Djones lives with his mother and father in Greenwich, where they run a bathroom fitting business. The firm isn't very successful, so Jake is surprised when they are called away suddenly on business, but very concerned when they don't return at the appointed time. Then Jake is kidnapped by a mysterious man dressed in a morning suit and top hat, and he discovers that his parents, and missing brother, are secret time travelling agents whose job is to protect history from rogue agents who would manipulate it for their own ends. Jake must travel through time to join them, rescue his parents, who have become trapped in history, and thwart the plot that the rogue agents are hatching.

This book has had favourable comparisons with Harry Potter, since it has a young hero and an action packed plot. For me this is overstating it a bit; it is certainly engrossing and a page turner, but it lacks the world building of Harry Potter. I couldn't imagine the History Keeper's HQ at Mont St Michel, the ship or the rogue agent's castle as well as I can Hogwarts. However, maybe this will come with later books. I would say that The Storm Begins is likely to appeal to fans of Charlie Higson's Young James Bond, Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider or Mark Walden's H.I.V.E. series.

I knew Mary Hoffman from her wonderful Amazing Grace picture books, rightly staples of UK classrooms, but was unaware of her books for older readers, until I spotted the cover of Stravaganza: City of Masks in a charity shop.


The first in a series partly set in present day Islington and partly in an alternate version of renaissance Italy (Talia), the book opens with fifteen-year-old Lucien, who has cancer. His father buys him a beautiful notebook to write in as his throat is too sore to speak. His father tells him about Venice, where the notebook originated. Lucien falls asleep holding the notebook, and wakes up in Bellezza, an alternate version of Vanice. He discovers that he is a Stravagante, a time traveller, who can travel through the possession of a talisman: his notebook. 

In Bellezza Lucien is not ill. His dark curls, which fell out through his cancer treatment, have grown back. He becomes involved in the intrigue of Bellezza, through friendship with a girl named Arianna, Rodolfo, the advisor to the Duchessa who rules the city state of Bellezza, and the Duchessa herself, under threat from the powerful di Chimini family. His life in Bellezza, with Arianna, increasingly seems more "real" than his life in London. This wonderful book is very similar in many ways to Tom's Midnight Garden in theme- an unhappy child or young person can be transported to another time by means of an object connecting their two worlds. 

I would recommend Tom's Midnight Garden to confident readers of 8+, though it works well as a read-aloud to 7+. The History Keepers and Stravaganza are aimed at older readers: 10+, though Stravaganza's thematically may be more suited to 12+. 


  1. I've never read Tom's midnight garden - but I'm going to now! I've seen a TV adaptation and enjoyed that so am sure I will enjoy the book. Great review.

  2. Thank you! It's a wonderful book. I hope you like it! There was a great radio adaptation recently too.

  3. I love Tom's Midnight Garden so much - I discovered it through the late 80s BBS TV series and then read the book, and loved both. It's such a beautiful story - I still have an unfulfilled ambition to ice skate through Castleford, Ely, King's Lynn and the sea...

  4. I meant BBC - typing while late and tired...!

  5. I want to skate to Ely too! (If only I could skate!) I have never seen the TV series, but it is an amazing book. Totally deserving to be seen as a classic, I think.