Ben Street: the Secret of the Lost Soul by Tobias Cooke
Review by Danielle Walters de Alarcon
Fantasy Book Review Children’s Book of the Month, July 2011
This book caught my eye because of the short synopsis which I found intriguing. I was looking for a new fantasy book to read and came across the Fantasy Book Review website. The book is the first of a series and so far as I can see it’s a debut for Tobias Cooke. The first attraction is the cover showing a hip hop artist in a dance pose. The subplot is about dance skill rivalry, amongst school students at a stage school. The main character, Ben Street, is an aspiring street dancer and hip hop artist. The main plot is a murder mystery of a most unusual kind! I have never seen a fictional book with a street dance character, so that in itself is different. It does read smoothly and in an easy prose style. The chapters are well defined and have clear intentions as the book progresses. The opening chapter, set in the past, is especially well constructed and you will find out how clever it is when you reach the end and the jigsaw finally falls into place. You don’t hear from Ben Street until the second chapter when the book moves to the present. It is a mystery book with a purpose written primarily for children. It manages to envelope some adult themes into a story suitable for both children and adults. It fuses fantasy with mystery rather well. In fact it suspends reality in a successful way, mixing in some highly amusing moments. The young characters are believable in their behaviour and thoughts and well contrasted to the adults. It does fall into that category of book, where despite some childish moments it is still attractive for an adult to read. I enjoyed it, just as I might enjoy some Horowitz or Rowling.
“Haunted by events from over sixty years ago, the William Ingram School of Performing Arts is troubled by strange goings-on. Twelve year old talented dancer, Ben Street, unwittingly gets caught up in the thick of it, jeopardises his place at the school and risks his life trying to solve the mystery of what happened to dead pupil, Sonia Bird. With the help of his special powers, can Ben and his friends, Laura and Hitti survive the curse of the Scarigus? Can they expose the school’s evil impostor? And can they save Sonia from her never- ending torment?”
Ben Street was a very entertaining book in many ways. It had a tremendous start which was the hook upon which I was immediately caught. There was a unique story to tell and as it proceeded it became unstoppable. It had a good deal of complexity about the plot detail which enhances the adult reader’s enjoyment. Luckily Tobias Cooke has written in such a way as the younger child reader could still easily follow and enjoy Ben Street on a simpler level, through his fast moving adventure. There were some very fine passages in both the quality of writing and in the sheer excitement which pushed you on to next chapter. I never wanted to stop reading this book once I had read the first few pages. A short example of fine writing; the introduction to Dr Bird: “A slimly built man, his frame bore out his name. With tufted hair going grey where he wasn’t losing it, his bushy eyebrows and his wide eyes behind round spectacles, he looked very much like some rare bird as he perched over his laboratory desk, pecking away at his latest theories.”
Sheer excitement: “It was a monster of a ghostly form that had taken on flesh-like qualities. It was barely possible to see through it now as the huge ball about three metres high became a mass of human feet, mouths, arms, eyes and ears. There were no other features. It wobbled and wriggled around the stage, moving closer to Ben, Laura and Hitti, pressing its vile flesh onto the ground… The mouth was disgusting; hairy round the edge of its lips, with dark green dribble and spikes sticking up inside like shining, sharpened forks. It had a furry tongue you could see and there were puffs of acid- smelling fumes emanating from it as it spoke.”
I loved the way everything came together in this book. It was a surprising and thrilling ending although your suspicions as to who was involved were high. There were diversions along the way and the story did conclude well, but the door was firmly open for more to follow. I also loved the way the dance competitions were interspersed and made to feel a real part of the book, introducing the arch rival Tom Cortazzi.
For an adult, I did think it was overly concise on descriptions at times. It could have had just a little more here and there which would also have enhanced the characterisations. Having said that, the pace of the story combined with plenty of speech, meant you still grew to know each character in reasonable depth. I would have liked more ghost and monster moments as they were really well done and exciting. The general feeling of pressure building is ever present, but there is a pause between episodes around the middle of the book which felt a bit too sedate. Perhaps it was the contrast before the storm, but the story reignites into its crescendo vey rapidly. If you don’t want to be intrigued or scared, laugh, or be reminded of school pranks then don’t read Ben Street.
Conclusion: This book is a worthy debut for Tobias Cooke. It is a unique storyline using relatively easy and sometimes very fine prose maintaining a high level of interest throughout the book. It is a mystery and a thriller all in one with the added bonus that it will make you laugh too. An improvement would be further depth to the descriptive passages. But it is primarily written for children and I think they will love it. Readers of Nancy Drew, Potter, Alex Rider, Jimmy Coates or even Twilight will enjoy this (but don’t expect romance, as there’s no hint of it in this offering). It will delight anyone who likes a mystery story. It could develop from here a great deal as this is billed as Book One and presumably there are more to come.
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