Page 45 Review by Stephen
Hold on to your hats, your toupees, your seawigs, this is going to prove... exploratory!
Oliver Crisp may be only ten years old but he's already seen so much because his parents are Famous Explorers. They even met on top of Mount Everest!
Since Oliver was born they've taken him right round the world. They've pushed his pram across rope bridges dangling precariously above alligator-infested rivers; they've balanced him in their backpacks as polar bears roared so loudly that ice cliffs have cracked; they took him into a musty old tomb where his mum met a mummy. (Oliver didn't scream "Mummy!" Probably.)
Now that they believe they've peered into every nook and cranny and discovered all there is to discover the family's going home to Deepwater Bay, to the house they've barely set foot in. Believe it or not, Oliver's delighted to lay down some roots for a change. But when they get there they discover that there is more to discover: the bay is full of steep, craggy, grass-tufted islands that weren't there before. The Crisps of course love exploring mysterious islands, but now they're going to encounter mysterious islands which love to explore! These are the Rambling Isles whose dark caves are mouths and they're about to set off for The Hallowed Shallows for the Night Of The Seawigs contest - taking Oliver's mum and dad with them!
This illustrated prose for Young Readers is such deliriously great fun that I bought a copy myself! Both creators constantly surprise.
At their first sight of Deepwater Bay Oliver goes "Wow!" and his parents go "Wow!" and I defy you not to go "Wow!" as well. The headland they're driving down from curves up in a cliff of line-free grey tone leaving room for its black nesting birds to stand out a mile; the gabled house below is all curves too, reflecting the Crisps' quirky nature - it's quite wonky-woo! - while the sea blooms below it, more curved lines reflecting the white-on-black stems of the bushes up above.
On page after page Philip Reeve lobs out such loopy ideas so often that I swore even Sarah McIntyre - comics' own exuberant human hat-stand of JAMPIRES and VERN AND LETTUCE fame - couldn't possibly illustrate them, yet she does. In fact she illuminates them, matching Reeve's zeal with her own wild imagination to create gibbering, chittering, chattering sea monkeys which grin with gormless glee no matter what chaos is coming up behind them! There are googly eyes everywhere - blinking within shipwrecks, lurking in the murk of tunnels or poking up from behind flapping fern fronds - while Colin the crab pops up all over the place.
But, oh my days, you wait until you see all the Seawigs!
What is a seawig, you ask? They're wigs worn by the Rambling Isles fashioned from all sorts of found things. Everyone loves a little bounce to their bonce, so imagine you're an island with a lighthouse on top of you. That's flashy all right! But what if you were a sentient isle that could dip down underwater then come up for air (they don't really need air) with a narwhal on your noggin, a train in your tresses or even a radio telescope? Somehow one does. Ridiculous! They're all so elaborate they almost match McIntyre's own crazed and colourful headpieces, and they'll have to if they want to win the Seawig competition.
Now let's catch up with Oliver in pursuit of his parents on top of another Rambling Isle called Cliff. He's also made friends with a short-sighted mermaid called Iris (of course she's called Iris!) and Mr. Culpeper, a grumpy old Albatross. When Oliver leaves Iris a handwritten note she has to squint hard to read it.
"What does it say?" she wondered.
"How would I know?" said Mr. Culpeper. "I'm an albatross."
I love the way Reeve tweaks one single word to create hours of caustic commentary thus:
"We must be in the Sargasso Sea!" [Oliver] said excitedly. "Sailors fear it because their ships get becalmed here, and the weed tangles round them and traps them."
"No, this is a completely different place," said Iris. "It's called the Sarcastic Sea, and sailors fear it because the weed keeps making horrid, hurtful comments about them."
Once more McIntyre delivers on the eye front, the seaweed bladders we all love to pop peering with withering disdain.
Eventually they will find the Rambling Isle that ran off with Oliver's mum and dad. It's called the Thurlstone and it's not very nice at all.
"Octopuses writhed their tentacles among its eyebrows, and a shark fell out of its nose like a fierce bogey."
It has a most elaborate seawig already including a stone temple, knotted trees, a rusty battleship and a mean-spirited bully called Stacey de Lacey in command of the pesky sea monkeys. He overcompensates appalling for having a girl's name. The language here is delicious.
"He was older than Oliver: a tall teenager, balancing precariously on beansprout legs and about to tumble clumsily into adulthood."
Sometimes the text is integrated within the illustrations. When Oliver crawls through the cave which is the Thurlstone's craggy throat, so does the writing. When the sea monkeys grow so boisterous at play that they threaten to smother Oliver out at sea, Sarah comes up with a double-page spread which is as close as you can imagine to the suffocating sensation of drowning, the monkeys' faces looming over him, wide-eyed and grinning, squeezing the text between them and the air out of Oliver.
Stacey de Lacey and the Thurlstone are going to give Oliver, Iris, Cliff and that Culpeper a terrible time. So are the sea monkeys.
You, on the other time, are going to have a riot. Err... so are the sea monkeys. "Eep!"