Monday, May 23, 2016

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, 1964

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Simon, the foundling from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, arrives in London to meet an old friend and pursue the study of painting. Instead he finds himself unwittingly in the middle of a wicked crew's fiendish caper to overthrow the good King James and the Duke and Duchess of Battersea. With the help of his friend Sophie and the resourceful waif Dido, Simon narrowly escapes a series of madcap close calls and dangerous run-ins. In a time and place where villains do nothing halfway, Simon is faced with wild wolves, poisoned pies, kidnapping, and a wrecked ship. This is a cleverly contrived tale of intrigue and misadventure.
(240 pages)

I've loved Joan Aiken's Wolves chronicles for almost as long as I can remember. I literally harassed my parents into getting a library card for a whole different library system than our usual one just because I desperately wanted to re-read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and our system didn't have it. That will always be one of my favorite childhood books - I can't even remember the first time I read it! When I found out, at about age ten, that there was an entire series that spun off of Wolves, I was thrilled. This is the first book that comes after it, and it was when I finished Black Hearts in Battersea that I knew I was absolutely in love with Aiken's books. One can be a fluke, right? But after two (and later three, and then four, and then five, and . . . well, you get the picture) you know it has to be love.

Re-reading it for the umpteenth time, I have to admit that the book doesn't hold quite as much charm for me as it used to. Perhaps I've grown older, or perhaps some of the excitement lies in the sudden realizations that come with the plot twists. Perhaps knowing so much about Dido's future adventures makes her childishness in this book feel rather stilted. I don't know, but while I still enjoyed the read I was sad to realize I couldn't get as into it as I used to. That really doesn't have much to do with you, though, because I guarantee as a newcomer to the book you'll be utterly enchanted.

I can't say much about the book itself for fear of spoiling what really is a delightful read, but all I can say is that few writers are as captivatingly escapist the way Aiken is. Her characters are always simultaneously realistic and idealistic - leading lives that are both perilous and charmed - and the plots that surround them are always ridiculous but just plausible enough to remain grounded (even when they aren't literally - just wait until you get to the part about the air balloon!).

I truly hope you give the entire Wolves Chronicles a go, and that you begin with either this or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I can't recommend Joan Aiken's books enough.

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