Page 45 Review by Stephen
Welcome to Stephen's New All-Ages Taste Test in which I declare that if you can imagine a book being read aloud by Alan Bennett, with his dry yet full-mouthed, fruit-jam-flavoured, deadpan delivery, then you are onto a winner!
So it is here, with the most perfect preamble that I can recall, setting you in very good stead for all that will follow.
"Kevin lives in the wild, wet hills of the Outermost West, where he has built a large, untidy nest for himself in the branches of an old oak tree."
Kevin - if you hadn't gathered from the so-spangly cover - is a Roly-Poly Flying Pony. As David Attenborough once noted, their nests can be famously dishevelled.
Kevin comes from the "wild, wet hills of the Outermost West". Not Plymouth, nor Basingstoke, nor even the Dartmoor plains; but somewhere wilder, wetter and even more westerly. This is Important, as you shall see.
"His favourite things to eat are:
"... only not in that order."
Why, Philip, why?
"Grass is quite easy to come by, because it grows all over the wild, wet hills of the Outermost West. Apples are grown on the trees in the orchards, and Kevin often flies down to eat them. (You can imagine how delighted the farmers are when they see him coming.) Biscuits are a bit harder to get hold of, but sometimes Kevin makes friends with a hiker, and if he's lucky they share their biscuits with him. So if you ever visit the wild, wet hills of the Outermost West, be sure to take plenty of biscuits. Kevin's favourites are:
"1. Pink wafers
"3. Custard creams
"... only not in that order."
Reeve is a master of playful repetition and the cumulatively funny joke, and that won't be the last of his winking, tongue-in-cheek, parenthetical asides, either.
You are now fully prepped for the latest deliciously mischievous all-ages, illustrated and fully integrated prose from the award-winning creators of PUGS OF THE FROZEN NORTH, OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS, CAKES IN SPACE, JINKS AND O'HARE FUNFAIR REPAIR and the creation inspiration that is the PUG-A-DOODLE-DOO BUMPER BOOK OF FUN. Never have I read a funnier kids' activity book in my astonishingly long life.
It was there that I first acquired the sneaking suspicion that Philip and Sarah were building a subtly shared universe in which - at any unexpected moment! - you might meet much beloved, long-lost friends from previous adventures as guest stars in brand-new ones. Oh, my lovelies, that moment is now! Perhaps Kevin is not alone in living around the nebulous "wild, wet hills of the Outermost West" with its Outermost Coast and Outermost Sea. Who do you think you might become reacquainted with here?!
Clue: please bring shampoo! They're all stinky and eww!
The blustery, rain-soaked action begins immediately as a preternaturally turbulent storm blows in from the Outermost Sea, scooping poor corpulent Kevin up out of his messy nest, and sweeping him far, far away to the towns and cities where ordinary people live until he bumps into the side of a very tall building. "Doof"! It's a good job there's a balcony.
Inside that building, in its topmost flat, live Max, his dad, his mum and his older sister Daisy who would prefer you call her Elivira, please, because she's going through her gothic period (don't we all).
Now, Max had always wanted a pet - a dog or a cat, or a bird-eating spider (guess who suggested that one) - but the flat was always deemed too cramped and tiny, without so much as a garden for even a small dog to do its 'doings' in. It's the perfect size of a roly-poly flying pony, though, right?!
Of course, to begin with Max doesn't know that it's a roly-poly flying pony that's landed like a hefty haggis outside his bedroom window. For a moment he's fearful that it might be a fearsome polar bear.
"Don't be silly, he told himself, how could a fearsome polar bear have got all the way up here?"
Or a pony, to be fair.
McIntyre's startled, bright white, limp-winged, shivering and sopping-wet Kevin - eyes wide and clueless while caught in the flashlight - is a dripping masterpiece of lost and lonely forlorn fauna and I defy any of you with your melted hearts not to invite the poor creature indoors immediately, towel him down then wrap him in your duvet.
You might want to find him some biscuits.
"Quiet as a mouse, he opened the cupboard, opened the biscuit tin, and took out a custard cream. Then he took another one, because he thought a flying pony as far as Kevin might be able to manage two biscuits. Then he took a third, because he thought maybe he should have one himself to keep Kevin company. (Max was very thoughtful like that.)"
Of course Max's torch battery is "going" - as in, dying - that's what torch batteries do. Reeve nails this sort of everyday family life, like the biscuit tin (I'd forgotten we had one of those), Max's "Swimming Things bag", and that fact that parents have been saying "Yes dear" while paying no attention whatsoever to what you've been saying ever since Gerald Durrell's mum. I love the animism in Reeve's weather as well: the way the wind "leaned" against a window, or, later the sunlight coming down in "silvery fingers through the wave tops and tickled the shop signs" (italics, mine).
Ah, yes, the wave tops. I did mention, didn't I, that this was a preternaturally turbulent storm? Well, it was, for it blew in from the wild, wet Outermost Ocean flooding the city from its sewers to its shops, its bike lanes and its bus stops, almost to the rooftops, and sweeping in all sorts of strange sea creatures.
From very first page McIntyre effortlessly integrates her illustrations with the type-set prose so that it is not just a balanced, harmonious whole but a narrative fusion, seamlessly incorporating both into a single fluid stream. Here, however, she instinctively and strategically leaves areas of space in her illuminations, so that the words artfully framed by the sides of the skyscraper, forming what actually looks like substructure to the building!
Elsewhere she uses colour to consolidate an image so that it has no need for a line-drawn frame, but melds the individual components into a single, unified coherent whole, as if the Sea Monkeys were caught in a mousse mould then plonked out on the page, set in a gelatinous or at least aqueous blue mass.
Haha yes! The bickering Sea Monkeys are back! Those chittering, chattering, smelly little mentalists from OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS have returned to pull faces, blow underwater raspberries and throw whiteboard rubbers at Mr. Mould, Max's headmaster, now stranded on the school roof. Personally I'd leave him to it, but Max isn't that sort of a lad, so it's action stations, rescue elevations once the winged wonder's got his old strength back. Because, honestly, if Mr. Mould thought that the little human monkeys he was used to teaching were loud and ill-disciplined, then this lot are totally bananas.
"The monkeys threw a few pencil sharpeners and things after him, just to make themselves feel better. Then they went back underwater and started writing rude words on the school walls, and they didn't even spell them properly or bother to use capital letters and full stops; it was an absolute disgrace."
Quite a lot of this takes place underwater as Max attempts to rescue some resuscitating custard creams from the supermarket biscuit aisle, encountering a granny down there in an aqualung, I kid you not. It's underwater that I first spied our old mate Colin the Crab, who is renowned for getting around, admiring himself in a circular compact's mirror. Page 67 - perhaps you can spot him earlier?
This is a carnival of cooped up, flood-fleeing neighbours, a romp and a riot, and a minor misadventure for Beyoncé and Neville, two guinea pigs caught in a tide of their own. It's also a book about newly found friendship - about looking after each other and pulling together whatever the weather, for that's what Max and Kevin do!
And it's a little bit about belonging too.
Kevin, you see, comes from "wild, wet hills of the Outermost West". Not Plymouth, nor Basingstoke, nor even the Dartmoor plains.
But somewhere wilder, wetter and even more westerly. Somewhere that's way, way beyond.
He doesn't belong in a city. Not really.
It's here that Reeve and McIntyre's early decision to set limits on Kevin's anthropomorphic qualities pays true dividends. To begin with, it's comical hearing Kevin do little more than repeat "Biscuits!" or "Custard Creams!" oh so covetously. Oh what a funny fella! But that's just about the extent of his ability to communicate verbally, and I'm afraid that when you first find the poor pony pining near the flat-roof railing - staring out at the sunset, tail still, ears drooping, without the first clue as to where he actually came from, a full fifteen pages from the end - you'll know instinctively where his silent animal instincts are taking him, and you might remember that Reeve and McIntyre did this to you once before, in PUGS OF THE FROZEN NORTH.
The teary, heart-break stuff, I mean.
For many more reviews, pleases see Page 45's Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre section, especially THE NEW NEIGHBOURS hardcover and THE NEW NEIGHBOURS softcover for which we still have a few signed editions of a completely different bookplate also drawn by Sarah.