Cobweb ghosts are so inconvenient—especially grumpy ones with bad breath. Don’t they know silence is golden?
Johnny Strong is the expert; he hasn’t spoken in two years. Not one word to anyone except the ghost. The main purpose of life is to avoid people and being noticed. Friends? He doesn’t need them; and certainly nobody wants him despite what the ghost says.
Until a new boy appears—Finn Lyons, teenage wizard. He eats frogs, concocts potions, and is always hungry. Not only does Finn stand up for Johnny; he actively seeks his company and soon becomes part of life.
First love; family and words; a heady mix to go in the potion but how will it all turn out?
Hubble bubble; Johnny Strong’s in trouble! Silence is not always golden in this sweet, zany story of purest magic.
We received an ARC from the ever so generous authors. We also both purchased our own copies.
It is the season for heartwarming short stories and novellas and the latest offering from Al Stewart and Claire Davis is up with the best of them this year.
At times tender and melancholy this short book also manages to deliver the trademark hopefulness that we have come to associate with Stewart and Davis stories.
Fra: I have read the story three times: the first I was so lost in the lyrical language that I missed a couple of plot points and had to go back and pay attention to the actual story. The third time I just re read it for the sheer pleasure of it.
Set in a foster group home the book deals with hard themes without ever losing its lyrical qualities or its hopeful undercurrent.
Karen: Fra, I did the same, the first time I read this I was just overtaken by how bloody sad it seemed, and I really wasn’t sure that I liked it. I appreciated the writing (as always) and the sentiment and I so felt for Johnny – but Finn’s story made me cry. The second time reading I appreciated the positive much more !
Fra: The main character, Johnny Strong, is isolated from the rest of the children in the home, hasn’t spoken aloud in over two years to anyone but the ghosts he places in the cobwebs outside his window. Johnny is an endearing character, his narrative voice at once so young and so haunted and we see the story evolve exclusively from his point of view.
Counter balancing Johnny’s silence and meticulously planned approach to life the authors introduce chaotic, uncout, spontaneous Finn Lyons. And here is one thing I loved about both characters: because Johnny is quiet (literally so) and methodical I initially regarded Finn’s imagination as stronger than Johnny’s but I was wrong. My successive reads showed me two hurt young kids who use the only power available to them as a coping mechanism in a world long grown callous to their needs. Johnny’s ghost is no less imaginative than Finn’s songs and potions and heartfelt declarations of being a wizard.
In fact the more I think about it the more the two seem to carry inverted roles: Johnny is an introvert, closed off and yet he is much more streetwise than raucous Finn who is most certainly an extrovert and yet so very naive of the world he has come to inhabit.
Karen: When this was being written, the authors mentioned that it had been sparked by Children in Need, and I found that the boys started to save each other really poignant, especially as they were both facing leaving the foster system. I don’t know how true to life this is, but for me it read true.
Fra: There are various levels to this short story which make me wish this had been a full length novel.
On one level the story is about kids in the foster system: not only the tragedies and horrors that land them there but also the inevitable distance of the jaded carers more focussed on paperwork and targets than the welfare of their charges. I felt for Greg and Anna I did but ultimately I was unconvinced about their turnaround and this was one of the reason I wished the book had been longer: to witness for myself that the change did in fact happen.
On a deeper level the way the two boys learn to communicate with each other and eventually the world around them was beautifully rendered and brought a much needed element of hope to the story. The way Johnny speaks aloud for the first time seems so natural in the context of Finn’s tornado like chattering that it isn’t until he questions himself if something momentous has occurred that we as readers take a step back and look again.
Karen : I think that the book is a balance between reality and optimism, there is an feeling that as Johnny and Finn start the next stage of their lives, their friendship will be a strength to them both, even if the potential for romance never fully develops. I think more than anything else in this book I appreciated that. Given the boys backgrounds the relationship level was spot on for me.
Fra: As the boys grown into friendship and the most tenderly delicate relationship their voices become more audible; they take stands for each other, they demand and obtain the respect they deserve and need to move their lives forward. They assert themselves and each other and they are heard.
Karen: I totally agree that this could have been longer for me, I wanted to know more about what had happened to Johnny, and as Fra said earlier I wanted to see how Greg and Anna developed as well. That being said the slight fairy tale quality to the story made it both more Christmasy, and as we said before – more hopeful.
All in all this was yet another beautiful book from these authors and one of our favourite Christmas stories: tackling issues of mental health and the well being of children in care – and of the carers themselves, to a point- the novella delivers a message of magic and hope that Stewart and Davis do so well.