This enticingly titled first novel is hardly flawless: Its point of view is wobbly, it flirts with melodrama, and it bristles with stage villains. But pre-teens who enjoy historically based fantasythe story is purportedly set centuries back but reeks of Dickensian Englandwill find The Black Book of Secrets, thoroughly rewarding.
The Washington Post
This polished debut from a British writer tantalizingly blends secrets and thick, evocative atmosphere. In an indeterminate, grim past (think Dickensian squalor by way of a Broadway stage set), the boy Ludlow Fitch flees the City, "a stinking place undeserving of a name," and his parents, who have betrayed him for the last time. Chance (or is it destiny?) leads him to remote Pagus Parvus and to another newcomer, Joe Zabbidou, who sets himself up as a pawnbroker. But Zabbidou has a sideline: he pays good money for secrets. One by one the villagers come to him at midnight to unburden themselves-and they spill some doozies. The undertaker has dug up corpses, to be sold to a medical school; the butcher served his father a pie of rat, mouse, beetles and worms. As Ludlow inscribes the secrets in Zabbidou's Black Book, he fights down his suspicions of Zabbidou even as he joins the villagers in their hatred of Jeremiah Ratchet, the wealthy villain to blame for their misery and evil deeds. Higgins, framing her book as texts discovered in a hollowed wooden leg, expertly sustains the audience's curiosity, revealing just enough information to keep readers riveted. And for all the grisly details, the novel gets at important themes about self-determination and trust. Original and engrossing. Ages 9-12. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Rachelle Bilz
Raised by his drunken, avaricious parents to be a pickpocket, Ludlow Fitch manages to run away on the night that Ma and Pa try to sell his teeth. After a mad chase through the City, Ludlow escapes to the mountain village of Pagus Parvus by desperately clinging to the back of a carriage. Thus begins an intriguing blend of adventure and historical fiction spiced with a light touch of the fantastic. Arriving in Pargus Parvus late at night, Ludlow spies a lone man walking in the bitter cold and follows him to an abandoned shop. Ludlow, caught peeking through the window, is invited inside by Joe Zabbidou who describes himself as "the Secret Pawnbroker." Although Ludlow has no idea what it might mean, he accepts Joe's offer of a job as his apprentice. The villagers begin bringing items to sell and some get specially invited back for a midnight appointment. With Ludlow acting as scribe, the citizens of Pagus Parvus sell their secrets to Joe, confessing evil deeds and nasty affairs. The villagers initially like Joe but are turned against him by nasty Jeremiah Ratchet, the wealthiest man in town. Higgins creates a fascinating novel peopled with colorful characters and imbued with clever plot twists. The reader's interest is sustained throughout the book, and the novel's climax is both excellent and surprising. This book appears to be the first in a series, good news for junior and senior high students who appreciate a well-spun tale.
Ludlow Fitch is a young city boy who finally escapes his thieving, lowlife parents and arrives at a small, mountain-top village to begin a new life. Fitch becomes the scribe for a pawnbroker of secrets-Joe Zabbidou buys secrets. In doing so, Joe and Fitch find out everything about the insular world of Pagus Parvus. In a world of Resurrectionists, chimneysweeps, and evil landlords, Fitch finds safety, magic, and quiet happiness with his new master. Higgins writes her debut novel as if she found Fitch's memoirs and Zabbidou's Black Book of Secrets, and the device works. Fitch is the classic Dickensian adolescent boy, who is raised by horrible parents and must choose a better, more honest life. By adding the villager's tales in the Black Book, Higgins creates fascinating characters who add depth to the plot. The author should have saved the last few chapters for a sequel-the end wrapped up too nicely. One chapter does not seem to fit with the rest of the novel, with a little too much fantasy thrown in when the rest of the book is almost a historical fiction novel with incredible characters. The book has beautiful black-edged pages, and if it were not for the illustration of the young boy on the cover, the spooky cover would draw in older readers. Reviewer: Sarah Hill
Nothing in my miserable life could possibly be as bad as what is about to happen, Ludlow Fitch declares as his teeth are about to be removed solely to subsidize his parents’ greed. Ludlow fights back and escapes, sneaking a ride out of town. The carriage belongs to a wealthy tyrant named Jeremiah Ratchet, who is hated and feared by the entire village. When the carriage stops, Ludlow meets a mysterious but friendly man named Joe, who is also new to town. Joe gives Ludlow food, shelter and a job transcribing townspeople’s secrets. The first secret belongs to the gravedigger, Obadiah. Like most of his fellow townspeople, Obadiah owes impossible amounts of money to Jeremiah. Unable to get out of debt, he has been forced to dig up the bodies he has recently buried, so that Jeremiah can sell them to medical schools. When Obadiah tries to refuse, Jeremiah blackmail him. (After all, bodysnatching is punishable by death.) After unburdening his secret, Obadiah receives both a clean conscience and enough money to finally clear his debt with Jeremiah. And so it goes from one villager after another: Joe pays for each secret, and the villagers are able to pay Jeremiah. It seems like a win-win situation, until suddenly the townspeople grow suspicious of Joe. They turn on him and Ludlow … Higgins’ debut novel is a page-turning mystery brimming with humor and originality. The ending hints of a sequel, which is good news for anyone lucky enough to read this unusual and absorbing book. Reviewer: Naomi Milliner
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8- A secret pawnbroker, Joe Zabbidou pays for secrets, and everyone has one. Ludlow Fitch, escaping his parents' efforts to sell the teeth from his mouth, meets Joe in the desolate mountain village of Pagus Parvus. It is an ideal place for Joe as miserly Jeremiah Ratchet uses people's transgressions to blackmail and cheat them. Joe offers young Ludlow a job transcribing confessions into Joe's Black Book. Desperate individuals declare they are grave robbers, thieves, even murderers, and are freed by their confessions. As folk unburden their secrets, mass hatred for Ratchet begins to foment, and later Joe himself becomes a target. A tightly woven novel, Black Book grabs readers from the first image of Ludlow protecting his vulnerable teeth. The author uses the device of claiming to have found extracts of Joe's book and Ludlow's memoirs, bridging the gaps with her imagination. The shifting perspective slows the action considerably. That said, Higgins employs visceral imagery (rat pies, wives buried alive) as well as Rembrandt-like contrasts of light and dark to illuminate the loneliness of wealth and despair. Add to this a dollop of suspense and the intriguing idea that fear of our own actions is our greatest enemy, and the result is an unusual, compelling read. Readers who like Sharon Shinn or Megan Whalen Turner will love this unique novel.-Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT
Higgins's Dickensian debut features an opening scene that is both literally and figuratively gripping, plus an intriguing premise-but only about a short story's worth of plot, and that's riddled with gaps of logic. He frames his tale as chapters from two old volumes somehow stored in a wooden leg, plus frequent departures into other points of view to fill in gaps. It alternates between memoirs of young Ludlow Fitch, a lad who narrowly escapes his gin-soaked parents' attempt to have his teeth extracted for sale and then falls in with itinerant pawnbroker/psychotherapist Joe Zabbidou, and the confessions of several patients-most involving murders or other dark deeds-as recorded in Zabbidou's titular tome. Having engineered an ugly end for a particularly despicable villain, Zabbidou ultimately takes Fitch to a huge underground library where the ledger of confessions is shelved with thousands of others (how it came to be in that leg remains unexplained), and Fitch gets a clean, new one of his very own. Though set in an alternate universe, the tale closes with historical notes on the Victorian-style horrors mentioned or committed. The parts don't hang together at all, but readers may enjoy many of them individually. (Fantasy. 11-13)
From the Publisher
“Wonderful. Anyone looking for the next big thing has come to the right place. Higgins has created a uniquely grim fantasy world that more than holds its own with Dickens or Peake. Her characters are brilliantly realized and the story grabs at the reader with hooked talons.” Eoin Colfer
“This polished debut from a British writer tantalizingly blends secrets and thick, evocative atmosphere . . . Higgins, framing her book as texts discovered in a hallowed wooden leg, expertly sustains the audience's curiosity, revealing just enough information to keep readers riveted. And for all the grisly details, the novel gets at important themes about self-determination and trust. Original and engrossing.” Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“The story's vaguely Dickensian atmosphere is exquisite . . . A tantalizingly revelatory ending leaves at least one thread dangling for future volumes (which are sure to evoke more picaresque oddities and nefarious tales), making this a smart, peculiarly thrilling book that is sure to appeal to readers ready to sidestep the goodygoody Harry Potters of adventure fiction.” Booklist, Starred Review
“Higgins's debut begins with a bang--on the streets of a London as dark as in any Dickens novel--and ends in a mysterious cave, with no let-up in pacing from start to finish . . . One of Higgins's great achievements is the way she manages to convey a degree of innocence in Ludlow despite his harsh life surviving the city streets. Redemption emerges as a strong theme in the book, as she reveals the complexities of human nature, and she leaves open several mysteries (including the history behind a wooden leg and Joe's prized pet frog). Readers can only hope for many more black books filled with secrets.” Shelf Awareness
“Pre-teens who enjoy historically based fantasy . . . will find The Black Book of Secrets thoroughly rewarding.” The Washington Post
“. . . will keep readers on the edge of their seats.” Scripps Howard News Service
“There can be few more nightmarish openings than that of The Black Book of Secrets . . . A beguiling mix of gothic fairy tale and Dalhesque macabre for 9-13-year-olds.” The Telegraph (UK)
“Higgins creates a fascinating novel peopled with colorful characters and imbued with clever plot twists . . . the novel's climax is both excellent and surprising.” Voice of Youth Advocates
“Higgins's fine writing and wry tale will charm readers who are ready for the unusual . . . like the film Chocolat . . . a stranger enters a town and changes the lives there forever, all from the confines of a small shop, this time a pawnbroker's place.” KLIATT
“The resolution, as tidy a piece of plotting as can be imagined, not only collects all the plot threads but leads to the deeper revelation of who Joe is and why he plies such a curious trade. Strongly seasoned with details of nineteenth-century oddities, the story abounds with puzzles, quirks, and enticing disclosures.” The Horn Book
“While Ludlow & Co. do live in an alternate reality, there are many details about life in the late 1800s that readers of historical fiction will enjoy--especially those who like reading about the more gruesome, less well-known details, like stealing and selling teeth, grave robbers, body snatchers and Sweeney Todd.” Bookshelves of Doom
“I thought this book was outstanding. It's a horror book with lots of mystery. I would give it four stars.” Jennifer Hopkins, age 11, in The Washington Times
starred review Booklist
The story's vaguely Dickensian atmosphere is exquisite . . . A tantalizingly revelatory ending leaves at least one thread dangling for future volumes (which are sure to evoke more picaresque oddities and nefarious tales), making this a smart, peculiarly thrilling book that is sure to appeal to readers ready to sidestep the goodygoody Harry Potters of adventure fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Fragment from The Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch
When I opened my eyes I knew that nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen. I was lying on the cold earthen floor of a basement room lit by a single candle, no more than an hour’s burning left. Instruments of a medical nature hung from hooks in the beams. Dark stains on the floor suggested blood. But it was the chair against the opposite wall that fully confirmed my suspicions. Thick leather straps attached to the arms and legs were there for one purpose only: to hold down an unwilling patient. Ma and Pa were standing over me.
“E’s awake,” crowed Ma excitedly.
Pa dragged me to my feet. He had me in an iron grip, my arm wrenched up behind my back. Ma held me by the hair. I looked from one to the other. Their grinning faces were only inches away from mine. I knew I should not look to them to save me.
Another man, concealed until now in the shadows, stepped forward and took me by the chin. He forced open my mouth and ran a blackened, foul-tasting finger around my gums.
“How much?” asked Pa, drooling with anticipation.
“Not bad,” said the man. “Thrupence apiece. Maybe twelve in all.”
“It’s a deal,” said Pa. “Who needs teeth anyway?”
“Someone, I hope,” replied the man dryly. “I sell ‘em for a living.”
And they laughed, all three, Ma and Pa and Barton Gumbroot, the notorious tooth surgeon of Old Goat’s Alley.
Once the money for my teeth was agreed with Barton, they moved quickly. Together they dragged me over to the surgeon’s chair. I kicked and shouted and spat and bit; I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. I knew how Barton Gumbroot made his living, preying on the poor, pulling their teeth, paying them pennies and selling them for ten times as much. I was racked with fear. I had no protection. I was going to feel it all. Every single nerve-stabbing twinge.
They came close to succeeding in their evil quest.