The Stickleback Catchers by Lisette Auton

The Blurb On The Back:

Down by the river, where the silvery sticklebacks swim, Mimi, Titch and Nusrat are the Stickleback Catchers: solvers of puzzles, seekers of adventure.

Mimi’s gran has started forgetting things.  There are cracks appearing all around their home, and a mysterious black crow – both of which only Mimi seems able to see.

The Stickleback Catchers begin piecing the magical clues together – which, one by one, might help the to close the crack, and bring Gran back forever.

THE STICKLEBACK CATCHERS was released in the United Kingdom on 9th February 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE STICKLEBACK CATCHERS by Lisette Auton from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

11-year-old Mimi Evergreen lives with her Gran and Grandad in a flat above a lawn bowls club in the north east of England.  Mimi uses crutches and has some neurodivergent issues (she gets caught in loops a lot) but she’s also lonely.  It used to be that she and her classmates enjoyed going down to the river to catch sticklebacks and have adventures but now all anyone seems to want to do is ‘hang out’ and she finds that really boring.

One day Mimi comes home to find her grandparents talking to a strange man in a suit and although her grandparents say that everything is fine, Mimi sees strange cracks start to open in the walls that emit a terrible smell and reveal horrible faces that only she can apparently see.  Shortly after, her Gran begins to forget things and every time she has a memory loss episode, Mimi notices more cracks appearing in the world around her and that wherever the cracks open, a large flock of crows gathers.

Before her memory started to go, Mimi’s Gran put an advert in the newspaper asking for friends to join Mimi in adventures.  The only person to answer is Titch who is very tall and also neurodivergent, who lives alone with his dad after his mum left a few years ago.  Like Mimi, Titch can see the cracks and the crows plus he loves the river (and even has a den there) and also like Mimi he listens to a podcast called The Puzzler, who they discover is a young girl like them called Nusrat who, has to limit the amount of time she spends with people because she gets tired easily.

Together the three follow a series of magical clues including impossible messages, a lot of stars and even a talking raven to uncover what the cracks mean, how they can seal them and thereby save Mimi’s Gran’s memory.

Lisette Auton’s fantasy novel for readers aged 9+ is a moving affair that covers the effects of dementia and features a trio of characters with different disabilities.  I respected Auton’s decision not to specify the characters’ conditions because it makes it easier for readers to identify with them and while the plot does meander at times, it’s still absorbing and Mimi’s reaction to what’s happening to her Gran is very believable.

The book is told from Mimi’s point of view and Auton gives her a strong narrative voice.  I really enjoyed the way that Auton incorporates Mimi’s various disabilities without having them define her.  As a disabled author, Auton brings a lot of authenticity and I particularly liked the way that she depicts Mimi’s use of crutches and how that makes navigating certain terrain difficult works really well without making her a subject of pity.  I particularly enjoyed the snatches of slightly old-fashioned terminology that Mimi uses (which she has picked up from her grandparents) and Auton quickly establishes the close relationship she has with her Gran (who is shown as a colourful, unique person who used to be an opera singer, which makes her slide into dementia all the more heartbreaking).

Also well drawn is the budding friendship between Mimi and Titch.  I did want more of Titch in the book, particularly his relationship with his dad and why his mum left because there is a suggestion that Titch thinks he was responsible but because his condition is left unspecified, it’s not clear why he feels responsible or why he feels so lonely.  I also wanted more of his friendship with Nus, which is only imagined by Mimi and happens off-page.  That said, the way he calls out Mimi for not caring about his or Nus’s issues is well done and I liked the enthusiasm he brings to the proceedings, even if he’s not quite sure he believes in everything that’s happening.

Nus, by contrast, is the least developed character in the book and I felt that this was one of the biggest disappointments. She essentially functions as an exposition device and doesn’t have much of a character in her own right, which is a shame because there was a lot of potential there with her brother Ranveer had a lot of potential as she clearly has drive and intelligence to set up her own podcast and she likes puzzles and mysteries.

The magical elements are imaginative and have a vivid, eerie quality to them that’s quite effective.  I wanted more of Fig the raven, who is a lot of fun – the scenes where he introduces  the feathers and bottles to Mimi and Titch has a playful quality to it and I thoroughly enjoyed his speech patterns with their mixed imagery together with the backstory that emerges for him.

There’s a serious theme about dementia and the effects it has on the sufferer and their loved ones.  The magical elements could have cheapened this but Auton cleverly focuses on a real life message about focusing on the present and the future, which I think readers will appreciate.

All in all although there are, for me, flaws in this book it is still an absorbing read and the depiction of dementia and its effects is very moving.  As such I do think that this book is worth a look and a few hours of your time and I look forward to seeing what Auton writes next.  

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