Stumbling On a Tale
Stumbling On a Tale by Suzanne Roche is a beautifully crafted time travel novel aimed at middle grade readers (8-12 years old). It follows Book 1, Making it Home, in Suzanne’s Time to Time series.
The writing style and fluency in Stumbling On a Tale is just as wonderful as previously, but the style in mapping out the story line differs substantially.
Perhaps all sequels should be like this.
Often, sequels follow the same format as earlier novels in a series – Suzanne does it differently in Stumbling On a Tale and I think the approach works well.
We have the same characters – brothers Henry and Max, and their older step-sister Peri, and we have the same scenario where they’re transported back in time. From here there’s a divergence in the structure.
Where the plot was moved forwards in Making it Home by laying out a series of tasks for Peri, Henry and Max to follow with a clear end goal in mind, the plot in Stumbling on a Tale appears at first glance to be stationary. The children are dumped in a forest and come across secondary characters who tell stories to each other.
And that seems to be about it. The children are lost in a forest – but have we lost the plot somewhere?
I don’t think so. It’s not until the closing chapters that the tales come into focus and their context with each other is made clear. Indeed, things are wrapped up very nicely.
But that’s not to say that prior to the revelation of clarity that Stumbling On a Tale is dull! Suzanne’s writing style is gently humourous and we get the feeling that this is an author who genuinely has fun in the time and location that she’s placed her characters – and she sweeps the reader up in her enthusiasm by educating us in a subtle yet effective manner through her narration!
My biggest disappointment was the loss of Peri as the main character (as she was in Making it Home). The focus in Stumbling On a Tale seems to be on Henry – although of course he frequently looks to his older step-sister and star of the last book.
Henry is not as strong a main character as Peri was. Mostly he just whines and wants to be at home playing chess. He’s a negative kind of a chap and I felt little sympathy for him. Sadly, Peri often seemed to be dragged down to Henry’s level in discussion. Actually, even one of the indigenous characters even noted how much they bickered with each other.
Thrust into time travel
I’ve always hated the confusion beset by unknowing time travelers. Not that I’d do any better, but I’m a reader and I’ve picked (or been given) a book from the time travel section off the bookshelf. Unlike the characters in the novel I at least partly know what to expect.
Peri, Max and Henry have their share of confusion but being younger maybe they rely on their adventure method of learning more than getting bogged down like us oldies who stumble and rummage around looking for previous experience to help us deal with problems. And with no time travel experience we’re lost and confused.
The children in this second novel of the Time to Time series have a new take. They’re ready for adventure (sort of – Peri is, and Max is young enough to, but Henry whines), but they also have experience of how their time travel works. It happened before, so surely they can follow the same rules and get back home the same way that they did last time?
There’s the catch. Either they’re prevented from following the rules, or the rules have altered, or they need to develop their ideas of the rules further.
In Making it Home, the time travel rules weren’t known, so the children – and plot – kept moving forwards. In Stumbling On a Tale the time travel rules aren’t playing and so present a problem. The children spend more time in mental solving mode – and this is the journey which moves the plot forwards.
The time travel mechanism itself, as you can imagine in a novel for younger readers, isn’t exactly realistic, but it does fit nicely into the realm of magic and fantasy – and ideas for children to consider.
We’re reminded of the time travel method fairly early on. An antique is placed on an encyclopedia and the children are taken back in time to where that antique first came from. The return mechanism is slightly more complex – but won’t be mentioned here because that’s a large part of this novel!
I missed it when I read Making it Home, but I caught it this time; when the children go back in time, they ‘arrive’ in clothing suitable to the period. Often in time travel novels there’s a lot of attention given over to the transport of non organic matter (such as clothing) when time travelling.
Again, there’s no scientific explanation as to why clothing morphs from the style of one time period to another, but then again – this is a kids book! But the point is embraced here all the same, and indeed the clothing styles help the children (through Peri) understand something about the era in which they’ve arrived, as well as the status that they – and those they meet – hold in relation to each other.
I like the closing scenes of Stumbling On a Tale because we start to hit some of the deeper time travel stuff. I mentioned earlier that Peri, Henry and Max are in need of figuring out how to possibly expand the rules of their time travel and one of their discussion ends up with the idea of pre-destination – the things that the children did in the past had to happen because they had already happened in the present and had been already been recorded in history.
We can therefore deduce that we’re operating on a single time line, and not several time lines with alternative histories.
That said, there’s the encyclopedia. I mentioned in my review of Making it Home that the encyclopedia had an interesting angle, and indeed we are slowly learning some more of the intricacies behind the the mysteries that it holds – such as a change in location of publisher. The epilogue here adds another layer of of mystery of the origin and meaning of the book. I’m looking forward to reading more!
Print layout and quality
I’ll finish with a superficial look at the print layout and quality. It was a problem in the first book and I harped on about it in my review of Making it Home and I’ve since noted that several other reviewers have also mentioned it. It’s sad that it hasn’t been addressed in the second book of the series.
This print edition has the look of a low quality novel. The paper quality is good, but the text is faint. The point size is one bigger than previously which helps, but the text is squidged within a narrow print space with huge margins on each side so it looks like there was a problem with the printer – a possible scenario given that the Epilogue and following pages have a more sensible layout.
The images suffer the same problem as before – they’re too small. Perhaps this is an odd thing to say because they already reduce the amount of text on a page (leading to more page turns) so increasing their size would exacerbate the problem the problem further.
I’m in two minds about the inclusion of the captioned images. They seem like an easy way of removing description from the narrative which may be appealing for the young target audience and they do make the page visually attractive. But there’s no real right time to look at / read them because they’re relevant for a large chuck of text on the page which may or may not flow onto the next.
Personally I don’t like pictures in books. To quote / paraphrase Sheldon from the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom, the greatest graphics card is the human imagination. That’s where the power of an author lies – in helping to shape a reader’s imagination. Slapping a picture ‘saves’ a thousand words but it makes us lazy.
Admittedly, maybe it’s a different condition with younger readers.
I’d advocate resizing the images to page width, and inserting them at a suitable locations in the text. They’d be larger, clearer, easier to read, and at the right place. But yes – more page turning.
How the above issues translate on an electronic book format I don’t know.
Final thoughts and rating * * * * *
My first instinct was to knock off a star because Peri is no longer the wonderful main character that she was in Making it Home, and instead we have whingey Henry.
Will Max be the main character in the third novel? Personally I hope not. Good child actors are rare, and I’d be cautious that we may have a literary equivalent here with Max. I’d love to see Peri return, but I do concede that it’s probably Max’s ‘turn’.
I was also tempted to knock off a star because of the vagueness of the general story line where we stagger from one tale to another (as the title may suggest!). But I got to thinking that not only is this a novel approach in appealing to younger readers, things do sort of come together at the end and wrap up.
I also really appreciate that layers are being added to the time travel element – not just the the encyclopedia aspect, but in more subtle things like the discussions leading to the idea of predestination.
I’m looking forward to Book 3 which guessing from the Epilogue sounds very promising – Peri trying to the solve the mystery which shrouds the encyclopedia. Perfect!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of “Stumbling On a Tale” from Word Slinger Publicity to read and provide an honest review. This is it!
| 5* Excellent! | 4* Good | 3* OK | 2* Not good | 1* Crud |