Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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Today, Thea reads the first book in John Christopher’s Tripod series, The White Mountains!
Title: Black Hearts in Battersea
Author: Joan Aiken
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Alternate History
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Publication date: First published in 1964
Paperback: 320 Pages
Simon is determined to become a painter when he grows up so he sets off to London to make his fortune. But the city is plagued by wolves and mysterious disappearances. The Twite household, where Simon is lodging, seems particularly shifty. Before he even gets a chance to open his glistening new paints Simon stumbles right into the centre of a plot to kill the King. And worse than that Simon is kidnapped and sent to sea! Luckily there are two friendly stowaways aboard – the feisty Dido Twite and the spoiled young Justin. But when the ship catches fire things look pretty dire. Can they escape? Will they save the king in time?
Standalone or series: Book 2 in the Wolves Chronicles series
How did I get this book: Borrowed
Format (e- or p-): Print
Why did I read this book: Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book, I was reassured by good sources that I’d like the second book more, so I decided to give it a try.
Black Hearts in Battersea is book two in The Wolves Chronicles sequence by Joan Aiken. It follows Simon, the orphaned boy from the first book as he makes his way to London to meet his friend Dr Field and under his tutelage, start a new life as an arts student. Upon arriving in London, Simon finds that Dr Field has vanished without trace from his boarding house and the landlords refuse to acknowledge he was even there.
In between art tutorials, finding work as a blacksmith and reconnecting with his old friend Sophie, there is Intrigue! Adventure! Wild Escapades! as Simon gets entangled in a villainous plot to overthrow King James (and to kill his new friends, the Duke and Duchess of Battersea).
And worst of all: he must also find the time to appease Dido, his landlord’s youngest child, a girl with ferocious wants and nearly incomprehensible vocabulary.
First, the good: the female characters in these books are extraordinary. They are resourceful and smart and full of agency. There is no amount of adjectives to describe how fun the interactions between Simon and Dido were and how devastated I was in the end (until I learned that book 3 is all Dido’s). Equally, Sophie’s fun way of using the Duchess’ tapestry for just about everything in their time of need could be seen as the precursor to the multi-use towel from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
But…beyond appreciating the female characters, I just don’t connect with these books as a whole.
I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase for a myriad of reasons but mostly because the plot felt too…familiar. Unfortunately, I found myself having the same feels about Black Hearts in Battersea. Every single plot point is wholly predictable, every single stereotype surrounding “orphan” stories can be found here – from swapping babies, to fiendish plots and utterly goody two-shoes children (who are even frustratingly good when they are starving). I also wonder about how the series is billed as “alternate history” that takes place during the fictional reign of King James III when that doesn’t really affect the plot in any meaningful way (the story could be exactly the same without being set in this particular reign). It was difficult to even bring myself to finish it.
I am struggling here. It’s hard to separate this (admittedly quite personal) opinion about the book from the fact that I am well-read and well-acquainted with similar plots even though I know this was first published in 1964 and possibly predates all the stories that I read that made this one familiar.
So what does one do in such cases? Do I consider this book a good book? I don’t know how to answer that question but I do know it is a beloved children’s classic. I also know it was simply not for me.
Rating: 5 – Meh
Reading Next: Wake by Anna Hope
Buy the Book:
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Andrea KFebruary 12, 2014 at 8:59 am
Sometimes books just don’t work for people, I guess. I’m glad you liked Dido. 🙂
Elisa @ Leopards and DragonsFebruary 12, 2014 at 11:08 am
This is almost certainly a book you would have to have read when you were a child to appreciate. It is a children’s classic because if you read it as a child it wouldn’t have been familiar. The story would have been adventurous and new, and the assertive female characters would have been a huge change from most of the books out there. Now there of tons of books that are actually derivative which make the original books seem tired. It is like going back and watching the original Star Trek after having grown up with the more recent iterations.
AnaFebruary 12, 2014 at 12:57 pm
@Andrea K – Yep, I did.
@Elisa – but by this logic wouldn’t it mean that those old stories/movies/TV shows are dangerously beyond criticism?
hapaxFebruary 12, 2014 at 1:57 pm
How are they “beyond criticism”? You just did, and very fairly, too.
I understood Elisa to be making the exact same point that you did in your review — something that was fresh and new in 1964 might feel tired and derivative fifty years later, even though that isn’t the fault of the original book.
If we’ve learned anything from deconstructionism (and, imho, we’ve learned too much!), it’s that NO reading of ANY text can be divorced from the reader and her context. A fair criticism will acknowledge the reviewer’s particular circumstances, not pretend that any evaluation is somehow “objective” and beyond space and time.
That’s why we keep reading the classics — from Aiken to Zolotow, every generation (and every reader) will find something different in them. That doesn’t mean they are required to like what they find!
AnaFebruary 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm
@Hapax: I completely agree !
I might have misunderstood Elisa’s comment though as I read it as exactly the opposite point you (and I) tried to make?
Elisa @ Leopards and DragonsFebruary 12, 2014 at 2:25 pm
@Ana – Good lord no! Nothing is beyond criticism. I was just trying to say that context matters. If you read Joan Aiken’s books in the early 70’s it is a way different experience then reading them now. Just think about the other children’s books that were available for girls at the time. This is the reason that they are still quite beloved, though apparently they haven’t aged well.
@Hapax explained it better than I did.
AnaFebruary 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm
Oh thanks for coming back and I am sorry I misunderstood!
CharlotteFebruary 13, 2014 at 7:54 am
I think this was the first child swap story I ever read, back when I was seven years old…I was indifferent to Dido, perhaps because she is sticky the first time we meet her, and I found it off-putting, and partly because I was put-off by her name (these things matter to a seven year old), but Simon was one of my first fictional loves, and I loved the art sub-plot.
I read that edition of the book literally to pieces…but I haven’t felt any need to go back and read it as a grown-up, the way I have felt about other beloved books from my childhood.
Lory @ Emerald City Book ReviewFebruary 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm
I adored Joan Aiken as a child, but when I recently re-read this book I could see some of the same problems you note. I hope you might still give her another try. She wrote some absolutely brilliant short stories (see “The Serial Garden” and “The Monkey’s Wedding” from the wonderful Small Beer Press/Big Mouth House for some selections), and the fertility of her imagination, most rampant in her Gothic pastiches and Jane Austen sequels, is just incredible. Two of my favorite, perhaps lesser-known titles by her are “Midnight Is a Place” and “If I Were You.”
AnonymousDecember 3, 2015 at 11:06 am
I do not like this stop