"The Sands of Shark Island" by Alexander McCall Smith is the second in the author's series of children's books largely set on the School Ship Tobermory. We join twins Ben and Fee MacTavish on board ship at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull as they prepare to be picked up by their marine scientist parents' submarine and taken to Glasgow at the start of the holidays. After two weeks in the company of friends, and a brush with one of those friends' evil uncle and aunt, the children return to the ship, which then sets sail on a planned trip to the Caribbean.
The account of the voyage to the Caribbean and the adventures the children have there forms the core of "The Sands of Shark Island". What emerges is an enjoyable romp which is light in tone and easy to read to the young person or people in your life, or by them. The book is beautifully written by Alexander McCall Smith, and very nicely illustrated by Iain McIntosh, and the characters and plot are engaging enough to keep you turning the page. On arrival in Antigua the children learn to scuba dive, high dive or kite surf, and we also encounter an old friend of the Tobermory's captain, who gives him a mysterious sea chest. We then follow the ship and its crew to Guadeloupe, where events take a slightly darker turn and the real adventure begins.
It's human nature to try to compare new experiences with old, and the same holds true when reading books. "The Sands of Shark Island" is hard not to compare with "Peter Duck" by Arthur Ransome. In both, children under the supervision of adults sail to the Caribbean; in both a mysterious island lies at the heart of the story, whether it be Shark Island or Ransome's Crab Island; and in both there is a pirate to be bested. The tone of the two stories couldn't be more different, however. Some children might find the real tension and the sense of jeopardy Ransome evokes in "Peter Duck" to be rather more than they want. In contrast "The Sands of Shark Island" has a much happier feel. There are occasions, at various points through the book, when characters are in danger, but nowhere does it feel really dark or even potentially frightening. The danger here has more of a "Fireman Sam" feel to it: you always know that rescue will arrive in time, and the enjoyment comes not from any sense of anxiety about the outcome, but instead from engaging with the flow of a well-told story. "The Sands of Shark Island" has one further echo it is worth highlighting. Inter-house (in this case inter-deck) bullying by one particular individual and his two acolytes has a very "Harry Potter" feel, though again without any sense of the darkness of J.K. Rowling's books; and, of course, without the magic wands.
This is a book we would strongly recommend to those looking for a story to read to their children or grandchildren, or for a book for slightly older children to read for themselves. We suspect that when it is read to him, our six-year old grandson will ask why the pirates' ship isn't lost with all hands at the end, as it is in Arthur Ransome's "Peter Duck", but the degree of darkness one likes in a story is very much a matter of taste, and it is nice to find a lighter alternative that will certainly appeal to many young readers or listeners. We do have one slight gripe about the book. At one point the reader is told that most of the children from the ship get on two large buses in Tobermory that "would cross to the mainland of Scotland by ferry before making their way to the station at Fort William..." Why Fort William, when the ferry they are most likely to have taken from Mull to the mainland docks a few yards from Oban railway station? A small detail, yes, but one that is likely to cause any reader who knows the west coast to stumble a little.