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“How the Hangman Lost His Heart,” “Fish”

by Payal Kapadia

“How the Hangman Lost His Heart,” K.M. GRANT, Puffin; 2006; 192 pp.

This is a story about a head. Yes, a head.

Now let’s take this further: This is a story about a head without a body. Well, not at first. The head starts out, as all heads do, sitting pretty upon a body — that of Uncle Frank, known to all and sundry as Col. Frank Granville, traitor to the king of England and sympathizer of Bonnie Prince Charlie . . . but more on that later. Let it suffice to say for now that head and body are rudely parted by the end of Chapter One.

After the rather morbid hanging and decapitation of Granville, the book takes off into a wild caper involving Uncle Frank’s well-bred but feisty niece Alice, a hangman whose name — Dan Skinslicer — makes no bones about his profession, and a dashing captain named Hew Ffrench, who gets flack throughout the novel for having an extra “f” in his name.

After Alice retrieves her uncle’s head from a spike and makes off with it, she finds herself on the run from the law — and in the unlikely company of hangman Skinslicer, who likes nothing more than a good, clean killing and a hearty supper afterward.

Grant, who is already an old hand at historical novels (see this column, Feb. 5, 2004), takes a shot at humor — and doesn’t do too badly. Apart from the clunky beginning, in which the author tries too hard to make a morbid hanging look funny, the rest is an entertaining read set in the late 18th century, when Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, son of James III of Scotland, made a failed bid for the throne of England.

With their leader forced to flee to France and tensions increasing between Protestant England and Catholic Scotland and France, the prince’s supporters were hounded — and hung — as traitors to the English king. Those were violent times — traitors were not just hung, but decapitated and disemboweled, their innards cooked in the fire and their heads hoisted like flags on to spikes for all to see. Grim stuff indeed, but not in the able hands of author Grant, whose head-without-a-body looks almost amused by all the trouble that it has started.

This is a hugely enjoyable tale with the choicest of ingredients:clever disguises, sly subterfuge, naughty switches, hot-at-the-heels chases and nick-of-time escapes. Dan Skinslicer makes it his mission to help pretty Alice make it home to her parents — with her uncle’s head and her own — and ends up losing his heart to her. He’s not the only one: Capt. Ffrench also finds himself doing everything in his power to help Alice escape. Only one of them will find his love returned in this unlikely romance — which one will it be?

For readers ages 13 and up.

“Fish,” Charlie James, Bloomsbury; 2006; 176 pp.

Debut author Charlie James makes quite a splash with her first novel, “Fish,” a light-hearted adventure about Ned Finn’s little 6-year-old brother Bill, who is always up to his neck in trouble with a capital T. By munching into their father’s newly invented special Fish Crisps, Bill lands the entire family in some rather deep water.

Of course, Ned’s mother gets part of the blame for depriving Ned, Bill and their older sister Stacey of sustaining meals made of “crisps, biscuits and chocolate bars” and replacing them with — blech! — carrot juice and dried fruit. Bill is practically keeling over from junk-food withdrawal symptoms when he spies a box labeled “Top Secret,” which, obviously, is sufficient reason to open it. It turns out that the box contains samples of Dad’s wild invention — Super-Strong Fish Crisps for Scarce Sea Fish, a special food source designed to bolster endangered fish populations and ensure the future of the marine world. Being starved, Bill willingly tests the crisps upon himself . . . and turns into an ugly cod.

If that isn’t bad enough, Bill draws the attention not only of the local bully, but also an international industrial spy from the Underwater Underworld, who is determined to get hold of the coveted crisps at any cost. Before you know it, the entire Finn family is in some very slippery situations, some involving an encounter with the local aquarium’s resident killer whale.

As Ned puts it in the prologue to this tall tale: “If he was going to turn into a fish, couldn’t he have turned into something slightly more exciting? Couldn’t he at least have been — well, a shark?” Ned’s grouses are unfounded: “Fish” is exciting enough as it is, with or without a shark.

For ages 6 to 8.