Due to ongoing building stress, I’m still finding it very hard to concentrate and actually finish a book I’ve started. So it’s a tribute to The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart that I romped through its 500-odd pages in no time. The book was recommended by Nan of Letters from a Hill Farm; I decided to treat myself and found The Book Depository had the best offer. It’s hard to say how I knew from the start that this is an American book; perhaps it reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth? The publisher’s blurbs make comparisons with J K Rowling, Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket but luckily I found it more like Joan Aiken.
The starting point is an advertisement in a newspaper: ‘Are you a Gifted Child looking for Special Opportunities?’ (not a spoiler, it’s on the cover). The first character to appear is Reynard (Reynie) Muldoon, an exceptionally clever child living in an orphanage and receiving special tuition from his beloved Miss Perunal. He takes up the newspaper challenge, finds himself taking part in an increasingly bizarre series of tests and, having passed them all, meets the three other children who will be his companions in a classic good v. evil battle.
I loved the story because although fantastical it is not fantasy. The child heroes have no special powers but they are all gifted in different ways and the point is that (as with Harry, Ron and Hermione) it’s by working together that they can accomplish the difficult task they’ve agreed to undertake. In spite of their gifts they all behave like real children: enjoying food, getting frightened, quarrelling. This makes the strange events more believable. The story never goes off the boil but is full of cliffhangers, a real page turner.
I’d never heard of this book, certainly not seen in it in the UK and I’d recommend it for children aged about nine. Parents, librarians and booksellers take note!