To say something is textbook could come across as a bit of a dig- like it's an obvious choice or a by-the-numbers churned out formula. But that's not what I mean. This is a textbook Middle Grade adventure slice of historical fiction loveliness, something that future MG writers will read in Creative Writing modules entitled "How to Write the Perfect Middle Grade Book". It's got brilliant characters, plenty of shady goings on to secretly investigate, moustache-twirling villainy and a lively and characterful setting.
The book stars 14 year old Sophie, a kind, noble and hard working orphan that's taken a skydive down the social ladder but isn't going to let it defeat her. We also have the beautiful Lillian Rose, a boisterous and daring part time showgirl, part time model and sidekick/BFF of Sophie and lastly Billy, an absent minded but well meaning porter, secretly besotted with Sophie. They work in the soon-to-be-grandly-opened Sinclair's, a sumptuous Edwardian department store, a paradise on Earth that will revolutionise the very idea of shopping, transforming a drab chore into luxurious leisure. Think Mr Selfridge meets Ruby Redfort.
On the eve of the grand opening (no expense spared), a collection of priceless artefacts and trinkets meant for exhibition goes missing. Unjustly, suspicion falls on Sophie as she was one of the last people to see the incredibly valuable one-of-a-kind clockwork sparrow. When she is conveniently dismissed for her position in the millinery department, Sophie must join forces with her new friends and Joe, a street urchin with insider knowledge, to prove her innocence, find the sparrow, get her job back and beat the dastardly (but very discreet) crime-lord The Baron.
Despite its historical setting, there are lots of little inclusions that modern readers can relate to; the schoolyard bullying that Sophie endures from the other shopgirls, the jealousy and reverse snobbishness, the themes of friendship and teamwork, the injustice of being accused of something of which you are innocent. It's not hard to warm to the kind-hearted Sophie, who is a sort of MG Esther Greenwood- neat but impoverished, hard-working and never once bemoaning her reduced situation.
The author has got the balance of regular and archaic language just right, and the tone is just perfect. This might not bother most people, but I personally am irrationally furious when authors are inconsistent with their decision to use period language or archaic terms (the worst is when they just pepper a novel with multiple uses of some random VICTORIAN WORD, like 'tendrils' or 'complexion', and it is evidently a very difficult thing to do, but Woodfine pulls it off impeccably. The book's tone is quaint without ever being sickly, it's consistently in-keeping with the Edwardian setting but also entirely readable and absorbing. It creates a mood and evokes a time so thoroughly and so undetectably that the reader doesn't stop to think about it. It's simply perfect.
The pacing is spot on, the plot just complex enough to support the mystery and allows the reader to experience the thrill of successfully matching up clue after clue, but it's straightforward enough to not become lost or bogged down. The narrative unfolds beautifully into a happy and very satisfying ending. I think fans of Opal Plumstead and Hetty Feather will love this. There are so many awesome girls in fiction right now detecting up a storm see also: Wells & Wong, Lucy Carlyle and Poppy Pym.
I enjoyed this book immensely and really loved getting to know the characters. I'm definitely looking forward to Sophie and Lil's next caper, and I hope we get to find out more about the shop's dapper and mysterious proprietor, the mostly absent so far Mr Sinclair.