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“Tunnels,” “The Boy in the Biscuit Tin”

by Payal Kapadia

“Tunnels,” By Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, Chicken House; 2007; 463 pp.

Books that lead to sequels are good news and bad news bundled into one. Good news because a sequel means that there’s more where this came from, and bad news because the author is not obligated to resolving the plot by the time the book is over.

“Tunnels” falls into this category, and it is more than a little annoying that we still don’t know what’s going on at the end of its 463 pages. But, because this is an intriguing story — and a deftly told one — something tells me that its noncommittal conclusion will be forgiven.

Fourteen-year-old Will, our albino hero, doesn’t like going to school or hanging out with the other boys — not when he gets called “Frosty the Snowman” and “Chalky,” because of a problem with his skin pigmentation. His only friend, Chester, is a misfit like him, who gets called “Snake Arse” because of the patches of eczema on his body. Home isn’t a refuge, not when his mother spends all day watching sitcoms and his younger sister, Rebecca, holds down the fort and lords it over him.

The only time — or rather, place — that Will is really in his element is when he’s underground, literally. He shares his father’s passion for digging tunnels — splitting open the earth, battening and propping a tunnel, and discovering a whole new world right under his feet.

But when Will’s father, Dr. Burrows, disappears all of a sudden, and a pair of pale-faced men tail Will and Chester, Will realizes that they’ve ruffled more than a few layers of topsoil. Soon Will and Chester find themselves miles away from home — that is, under it. They discover a musty subterranean world where human beings — are they totally human? — live without sunshine and fresh air. Can they find Will’s father? And will they ever be able to go home again?

This offbeat adventure story conjures up a vivid picture of an underground civilization, so realistically imagined that it seems almost possible. Most terrifying of all are the Styx — tall, thin men who dress identically, speak in conspiratorial whispers, and who torture Will and Chester without explanation. The authors expertly capture Will’s conflicted mind as he struggles between the guilt of dragging his friend Chester into trouble, and his burning curiosity to explore the underground in a way he has never done before.

Pale-faced men in black coats and thick dark glasses; a hero who goes underground; torture chambers and interrogation rooms — this could be the stuff of spy fiction. What makes it so refreshing is that it isn’t.

Note: For teenagers 14-16 years.

“The Boy in the Biscuit Tin,” By Heather Dyer, Chicken House; 2007; 150 pp.

Ever dreamt of becoming a magician so that you can snap your fingers and vanish, or pull things out of a black top-hat, or levitate? Well, you might want to hold that dream for a while, at least until you’ve read Heather Dyer’s hilarious take on how magic isn’t as easy as it appears to be.

Ask Ibby, who comes to spend a few days with her Aunt Carole and her cousins, Alex and Francis. The trouble starts when Francis breaks into the attic and finds his Uncle Godfrey’s Magic for Beginners kit, with a wand and an instruction booklet on how to perform seven magical tricks. But Uncle Godfrey is no longer around to help — he disappeared while performing one of his tricks and hasn’t been seen since.

So Francis tries his hand at Trick One: Amazing Miniaturization, and turns himself into a mouse-size fellow with no inkling on how to get back to normal. He manages to get out of this scrape, with help from Ibby and Alex, but barely.

Chapter by chapter, Dyer paints a comic picture of magic gone wrong. When Alex tries to levitate, he ends up convincing at least a few devout churchgoers of the presence of God. And when Francis does a vanishing act, he discovers that being invisible isn’t always a good thing. Then Alex turns himself into an old man and gets hauled off by the police for trespassing.

It seems that only poor Ibby can save her meddlesome cousins from becoming victims of their own magic — and demonstrating that magic isn’t so bad after all, especially if it can bring Uncle Godfrey back.

Whimsical and imaginative, in large print and with charming illustrations, this book is a good choice for early readers — magic lovers or not.

Note: For children 7 to 9 years.