"Crow Boy" by Philip Caveney is a really good example of the way that the best books aimed at a younger audience can keep readers of all ages entertained and turning the page. Within its covers we find a great combination of fairly simple premise, some complex ideas and an intriguing storyline: plus interesting and believable characters. An excellent read, and one that can be highly recommended.
Young Tom Afflick finds himself moving to Edinburgh from Manchester following the breakup of his parents' marriage. He is not particularly welcomed by his mother's new partner, and is considered an outsider, known as "Manky" because of his background, by the kids at his new school. We join Tom on a school trip to Mary King's Close, an old Edinburgh close hidden and for many years forgotten beneath the buildings of the old town of Edinburgh. Here Tom follows the ghostly figure of a young girl, and suddenly finds himself transported back in time to 1645, a year in which Edinburgh was badly afflicted by plague. After a spell in an orphanage, Tom finds himself unwillingly apprenticed to a vicious plague doctor in a city living in fear.
Tom spends much of the book trying to come to terms with a world that is far more alien than the one he was confronted with at the beginning of the book, though which has odd links with it. As he struggles to survive, we find ourselves immersed in a superbly researched Edinburgh of the 1640s, and learn rather more than we might ideally want to know about the effects (and still worse, the treatment) of bubonic plague.
Having gone through one dislocation, Tom increasingly suffers from unpredictable shifts of time and space, moving from 1645 to different "present day" realities in which his personal and domestic circumstances are very different. As the book moves towards a climax that is genuinely exciting, the reader is left wondering how Tom will find his way back to the real world, assuming it is possible to work out what "real" means anyway. The ending of the book is especially neat and satisfying, leaving some questions open but answering others: but in a way we'll not go into here to avoid spoiling it...