Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Valley of Secrets

The Valley of Secrets by Charmian Hussey was one of those random library picks. I do it occasionally - instead of looking for specific books or authors I pick up what looks a bit interesting, and this YA book, with it's lovely cover illustration of a wrought iron gate, looked... well... different.

Teenager, Stephen Lansbury, is alone. His mother abandoned him as a baby, or so he has always been led to believe, and he's been brought up in care. He's now in a bedsit having just finished a course, with no clue what to do with his life. Salvation comes in the form of a letter summoning him to a solicitor's office in Lincoln's Inn Field. Here he meets Albert Postlethwaite, a plant mad lawyer, who informs him that his Great Uncle Theodore has died and that Stephen is heir to his large estate in Cornwall. Stephen, having no idea he even *had* a Great Uncle Theodore, is astonished and confused but the solicitor refuses to enlighten him further, merely providing him with the means to get himself to Cornwall on the train.

Arriving, eventually at the gates of the estate, with dreams of kindly housekeepers and wonderful food floating around in his head, Stephen is shocked to find the path beyond the gates overgrown and, even more so, to find the house empty and neglected. An independent boy he sets about looking after himself, which basically means camping out in the house. But odd things start to happen. Items he knows he has placed somewhere are moved, wood for the stove arrives in the kitchen with no sign of who put it there, and things go missing. And there are odd sounds and noises in the woods... like nothing Stephen, a keen naturalist, has ever heard before.

Stephen then makes a discovery in the library: his uncle Theodore's travel diaries from when he and a mysterious person, referred to only as 'B', travelled and spent two years in the Amazon rain forest. Stephen starts to read...

Well, *different* is certainly a good way to describe this YA book. Charmian Hussey apparently wrote it for her teenage son, some seventeen years ago and then stored it in the attic. How it came to be published I'm not sure, it doesn't say, and in a way I'm almost surprised it was because it doesn't really fit into your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy type book. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, which was some kind of supernatural element to it, although it definitely has a slightly creepy atmosphere in the beginning and there is certainly a mystery to the plot.

The travelogue element was also unusual in a children's book... but a very good part of it. I got quite wrapped up the uncle's adventures up the Amazon and his encounters with Amazonian Indians. It all sounded very authentic indeed.

Where exactly Lansbury Hall is situated, in Cornwall, the author doesn't hint at. My local knowledge tells me somewhere on or around Bodmin Moor but I can't be certain of that, it just feels right.

Nit-picks? There is a very slight amateurish feel to the writing, not enough to put me off, but it's there. I also take issue, once again, with a lad brought up in care speaking like a boy who's been educated at Eton. You do wonder what planet some of these writers live on if they think deprived children speak like Prince William.

So who would this book appeal to? Well, anyone interested in ecology, plants and animals, and the future of the rain forests. Hussey knows her stuff and details are precise, apart from one rather delightful imaginary element. All told, it wasn't a bad read, charming, informative, and with some gorgeous illustrations, at the beginning of each chapter, by Christopher Crump... which of course I couldn't resist photographing:

Book 4 for my support your local library challenge being hosted by J.Kaye.


DesLily said...

hmmm, well in the beginning you thought this was a great book.. sounds like you were let down???? yes? no?

Jeane said...

I think it sounds wonderful, and I'm adding this to my TBR (hoping my library has a copy). Sometimes you find the most interesting things just picking up books that look curious.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy picking a book from the library randomly like this - sometimes it's a good book but sometimes not. It sounds like this one is "different", promising but not quite getting there? I also like trying to match real places to fictional ones.

Cath said...

Hi Pat! Wish I could answer that, because, typical of me, I can't make up my mind. It went in directions I didn't expect it to and *maybe* just maybe there was slightly too much detail about the fauna and so on. But someone else might love that. Let down? Maybe a little as I do prefer a fantasy or supernatural based story and this turned out not to be. But I'm happy to have read it, nevertheless, though quite glad I didn't buy it.

Jeane: I think this might be right up your street and hope you're able to find a copy at your library.

You're quite right, Margaret, books picked at random can be good or otherwise. And even if they're otherwise I'm not usually sorry to have read them - providing I managed to finish the book - because there is usually something to be gleaned from even an average book. This one didn't *quite* do it for me but was nevertheless interesting and different. I'm quite happy to take it back to the library though!

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Harj said...

I too randomly picked this book up from the library years ago and I found it a great read! I'm 16 years old and I think this was the first book I read that had so much detail, and I was totally entranced by it. I had forgotten about this book until recently and I am so happy that I remembered the name of the book so I can buy it and read it again!

Cath said...

Harj: I hate it when I can't remember ther name of a really good book, so I'm glad you've tracked it down and can read it again.