Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Ghouls of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson


Cover illustration: Kim Geyer

Well done, Mr Tomlinson 

Often, if you dip a bucket into the well of a book, the first few sentences you wind up will give you clear indication of the quality of the water and, indeed, of the depth of the well itself. 

Nick Tomlinson’s new children’s novel has no pretensions to be anything but humorous, spooky entertainment (in which ambition it succeeds gloriously). Yet, when I raised that first test bucket from his particular source, what instantly glistened within it it was a brimming pail-full of joyously evocative language and inventive wit. This well of a book may not be as deep as some, but its water has the liveliest of sparkles, giving it a richness that hugely enhances both its merit and its enjoyment as a read.

‘Mrs Fullsway flung open the door and stood looming . . .“0h! Yug Mommy!”
“Yug Mommy?’
Mrs Fullsway pirouetted, flowed to her bedside table, plucked her teeth from a glass of water and slotted them into her mouth . . .
“Young Molly!” She said again.’ Mrs Fullsway had a voice like very heavy tomato sauce.’  (p 21)

In fact Nick Tomlinson’s descriptions are often so lush that, in a ‘serious’ work, they might be considered over-written. But, here, they simply add to the effulgent entertainment that suffuses almost every page. Time after time his language, his turn of phrase, and, indeed, his own obvious delight in writing, morph what could have been vaguely amusing incident, into chortles, guffaws, and truly joyful reading experience. 

Every trick in the graveyard

The story itself bursts with crowd-pleasing features: Molly, a plucky girl protagonist (almost de rigeur these days); a best friend, Lowry, partner in much hugely entertaining banter; a classmate ‘enemy’, Felicity, to up the ante; a boy, Carl, to balance out representation; a rather odd, but much-loved cat; a strange, small town that provides both a mystery to be solved and enough spooky goings on to stock countless Halloweens; dastardly doings and a creepy villain to hiss at. Nothing is lacking for an ideal escape under the duvet with a torch, although the quaking to be seen from without will be as much from mirth as from horror.

Nick Tomlinson’s storytelling has many touches of delightfully fresh imagination too. I particularly love his conjuring of the disturbing orphanage building:

‘The odd thing about Howlfair Orphanage was that it had no windows. Instead, windows had been painted on. Within their phoney frames were painted various scenes of happy orphans in bygone attire playing in cosy firelit rooms. But the paint had run and faded and the children’s features were misshapen.’ (p 88)

Decidedly creepy.

Just what the spook-doctor ordered

Sometimes what young readers want, and need, is a light, entertaining read. When it has real energy and flair in its writing, then that makes it a particularly valuable addition to their bookshelves. This title  reminded me quite a lot, in its tone and qualities, of the wonderful, humorously spooky books from Eva Ibbotson that I so much enjoyed reading to my class when I was teaching. (Humphrey the Horrible, from The Great Ghost Rescue was a particular favourite of us all.) The Ghouls of Howlfair will provide a highly motivating independent read for many children, but it would also make a glorious read-aloud.

The back cover promo calls this author ‘a fresh new voice’, which he certainly is. He also looks to be a very talented and spine-tinglingly promising one.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll


Cover: Julian De Narvaez


A shelf-full of delights 

Children’s author, Emma Carroll has good reason to feel very proud of the remarkably long line of novels that she has produced since her 2013 debut, Frost Hollow Hall. They now fill almost a whole shelf (if your bookcase is not too wide).Young readers have good reason to feel enormously grateful too, for her books are a wonderful addition to the store of children’s literature, both individually and collectively. Each is somewhat different in content and tone, each being set in a different places at, largely, different times in history, so inevitably some will appeal more to some children than others. But each is an enchanting read, in its own way, and many young readers, I know, avidly devour each title of hers as soon as it is published, as, indeed, do I.  Thankfully, we never seem to have too long to wait.

Favourites 

Amongst my own particular favourites are Letters from the Lighthouse, one of the best younger children’s WWII stories of recent years, and Strange Star, a lyrical ghost story built loosely around Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein, perhaps best suited to somewhat older children or ‘tweens’. And now there is a further volume to add to my shelf, and to my favourites, because The Somerset Tsunami is another particularly sparkling gem amongst Emma Carroll jewels.




A new favourite 

This time we are taken back to the England of 1616. But, as in many of her books, Emma Carroll does not pretend to write history as such, rather to borrow elements of history as the background to a completely engaging, and viscerally exciting, story of her own. Yet there is much history to be learned from its pages, even if this is not the book’s principal purpose. As the twin foci of this story, she cleverly intertwines a historically attested huge, sudden and violent sea surge (the ‘tsunami’ of the title, even if it would not have been identified in that way at the time), with the witch hunts horribly real enough under the patronage of King James I. It is very much to the author’s credit, and a testament to her writing skill and experience, that she succeeds in conveying this horror to her young audience in a way that disturbs in its total unfairness and injustice, as it must, but without ever descending too far into the most gruesome details of historic practice.

Girls and boys . . .

Most importantly for me though, this is a strongly feminist novel. Yet, despite having a wonderfully strong, ‘modern’ and plucky hero in the highly memorable character of Fortune Sharpe, it does not make its point by overtly preaching. Rather, it does so by continually pointing up the truly horrendous attitudes to women endemic in this period of history. Through this, it implicitly raises questions as to how much better things are (or aren’t) in our own time..

Wonderfully, too, Emma Carrol does not ignore the equally important issue of stereotyping boys. When Master Ellis, son of a prominent landowner and merchant, displays aspirations to become a travelling acrobat, his grotesquely prejudiced father tries instead to ‘make a man’ of him. That Ellis is shown to succeed in being his own self, despite such depredation, is one of the many triumphs of the book. In fact this is a title that celebrates, as strongly as any children’s novel I have read for a good while, the importance of children being who they need to be, despite all the pressures of social stereotyping,

I hope that it will be widely read and enjoyed by both girls and boys, as both a valuable window on the appalling attitudes and treatments of the past, and an invaluable reflection on how much they have changed, and how much they still need to change in our own societies. It certainly deserves to be.

. . . and books

And of course it is a great read into the bargain.

Long live tolerance. Long live diversity. Long live books.

Long live the right to be who we choose to be. Long live the right to read what we choose to read.  

Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different 2; Stories for Kids Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks


Cover Design: Arnauld     Illustrated by Quinton Winter

I am a strong supporter of the feminist cause, and make it known at every possible opportunity, delighted that so many recent children’s books celebrate the limitless potential of girls. However I am also starkly aware that many boys can be painfully and destructively limited by the horrendous prejudice of stereotyping. A particular concern is those countless boys who do not wish to be ‘real men’ or ‘proper lads’, or, indeed, know that they simply cannot be. This is not only an issue of sexuality, but applies to boys who are ‘different’ in a myriad ways. I was therefore thrilled to welcome Ben Brooks’ Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different (see my post April ‘18), when it came out as a kind of counterpart to the deservedly global megastar book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (see my Christmas posts Dec ‘17 and Dec ‘18).

Now we have a ‘Boys who Dare’2, to balance ‘Rebel Girls’2 and doubly welcome they both are. This second volume greatly  expands the range of potential role models offered, and what a tremendously important job it continues to do in the process.

To be even more warmly welcomed, I think, is the further follow up Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different, for here is a volume that even eschews the potential divisiveness of being focused on a particular gender. All are kids, all have the right to be different in their own way, and this is perhaps the most important message of all.

Of course, with each of these books, not everyone will necessarily approve of all the portraits offered, in words and pictures, but that is not the point. Or rather, it is the point. Diversity and unconventionally are its strength - and its purpose. In there somewhere many kids will  find figures, aspects of whose lives they can identify with, figures whose interests and ambitions they may share, figures whose achievements they may aspire to. But more than anything they will perhaps find there, permission to be different, to be themselves.

These books, together with ‘Rebel Girls’, cannot but help a vital ambition for a society, a world, where all children have a right to be accepted and respected for who they are, and the opportunity to strive to be who they want to be.

My only real regret about these particular titles is that the artist Quinton Winter is not acknowledged on the cover, even though he is inside. His striking, ‘poster-print’ illustration are often amusing, sometimes enlightening, occasionally touching and always entertaining. They are every bit as important an element of the book as the text.



Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The Velvet Fox by Catherine Fisher


Cover: Anne Glenn

Faery interlude

I am actually in the middle of reading Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, (along with half the reading world, of course), but I had to travel to London by train yesterday, and the thought of carrying that particular tome around with me was daunting, however eager I was to read on. So I took this instead and read the whole thing over the two legs of the journey. A most diverting and enjoyable interlude it was too.

Having interjected one story into my reading of the other, it did not take long to realise a commonality. Although far more complex, Philip Pullman’s concept of the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ is, on at least one level, much the same as the dominant presence in Catherine Fisher’s Welsh-myth-based tale: the ‘Fair Family’ or Tylwyth Teg, that world of faery folk that exists beneath the surface of our own reality, and can sometimes be glimpsed at the periphery of our vision, if we are sufficiently attuned to it.

Old fashioned - in a good way

When I read The Clockwork Crow at about this time last year (see my review from then) I warmly welcomed this fine writer back to MG fiction after many years of her writing outstanding, if sometimes decidedly scary, YA fantasy. I have long been a huge fan, and think her early Garneresque works, like Fintan’s Tower and The Conjuror’s Game still well worth seeking out as well as later ones for older readers, like Incarceron and the Chronoptika series. 

The Velvet Fox is a truly splendid sequel to her triumph of last year. If I call it a piece of old-fashioned children’s fiction, then I mean this in the most positive of senses. It eschews some of the more fashionable trends and styles of many current children’s fiction offerings, but rather tells a splendidly engrossing, not to say spine-tingling, story through simple yet effective language. It is never less than accessible, but always imaginative, sensitive and thoroughly engaging. It could, in a sense, have been written at any time in the last forty or fifty years, and is none the worse for seating itself firmly in what might be considered the golden age of children’s literature.  Sometimes it reminded me a little of the likes of Joan Aiken and I even caught vague echoes in places of Frances Hodgson Burnett. There are times, of course, when we want contemporary and ‘relevant’, but there are also times when what is needed is simply a good story, beautifully told. And that The Velvet Fox certainly is.

More faery than fairy

But if all this sounds like it is simply a cosy read, then think again. Catherine Fisher’s fantasy worlds can be very dark, and although, here, she has rightly and successfully moderated this for her younger audience, her Tylwith Teg are still a very long way from Cicely Mary Baker’s Flower Fairies. Definitely not the sort of creatures you would wish to meet on a dark night, or, in this case, an Autumn afternoon.  Sinister figures escape a disquieting toy carousel, a tormenting drummer, a  dangerously beguiling dancer, a vicious juggler - and there is worse to come, far worse. No plush toy fox will every feel quite the same again.

In fact, for me, the highlights of this book are a series of chilling dreamlike evocations of the evil faery world into which hero Seren and her cantankerous clockwork companion are drawn to save her friend Tomos. As I might expect from this author both characters and settings are evocatively drawn, with just enough feeling of Welshness and snippets of its wonderful language to feel authentically steeped  in Celtic magic. Of course the good characters are brave, kind and loyal and the evil ones scarily malevolent, and that is exactly as it should be in this type of book.

This is one for young readers everywhere to curl up with, and temporarily escape the realities of everyday humdrum into imaginatively conceived and skilfully crafted fantasy.

Monday, 30 September 2019

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay


Cover: Dawn Cooper

In parenthesis 

If I didn’t already know (which I do because I have read The Skylarks’ War) I would have identified Hilary McKay as a truly fine writer within the first page or two of reading this book.

At grammar school, fifty-odd years ago, our English teacher Bernard D***** (commonly referred to as ‘Nard’) taught us many rules for writing English prose, amongst which were: Never start a sentence with ‘And’, ‘But’ or ‘Because’ and Never use brackets; for parenthesis use enclosing commas. An inveterate rebel against such constraints, I have always taken delight in the likes of William Blake (‘And did those feet, in ancient times . . .’). And I now have the example of the breathtaking writing  of Hilary McKay (who strews her opening pages of text  with brackets like sprinkles on a trifle ) to add to my conviction. She seems to respect only one rule of writing (to me, the only correct one), that the language used should  communicate effectively. And that she achieves superbly. 

And there (right in the first paragraph) comes the mind-expanding phrase: ‘Abi herself, hunched over her book like a diving bird on the edge of a pool, poised between worlds.’ (p 1) Well, what more need be said?

The Time of Green Magic is quite simply another unspeakably wonderful book, from a superb children’s author. It has sentence after sentence, page after page, image after image of breathtaking writerly skill evoking equally intoxicating readerly pleasure.

Follow that? Why try?

The Skylarks’ War, Hilary McKay’s most recent book prior to this, is unquestionably one of my favourite children’s titles of recent years. (See my post from November, ‘18.)  It is in many senses a huge, and hugely important book. Although it explores events through the lives of only a relatively compact cast of characters, they are animated on the huge stage of the First World War, and carry with them all the life-shattering issues, all the devastating disruptions and and heart-rending conflicts, all the love and loss, that engulfing  war involves. The book is a microcosm or a macrocosm - and is deeply affecting.

The Time of Green Magic is no less a book, albeit in a somewhat gentler, more domestic vein. Its canvas is far more limited - but not its import.

Profoundly simple

It is, superficially, a slight, simple story about a girl (who happens to have dark skin) and her two new step-brothers. Throw in a caring (step-)father, an absent (step-)mother, a beloved grandmother on the other side of the world, an attractive, young French babysitter, a friend lost and found, and you have almost the complete personae of the book. The core characters move into a strange new house (strange in both senses) and what they find there is a magic that is both real and unreal. This ‘green magic’ is simultaneously what precipitates the story and what provides some of its most potent images. Few books can have a more apt or telling title.

But what is this ‘green magic’? That is for readers to discover, alongside some of the most beautifully drawn, most lovable and most profoundly human characters in recent children’s fiction. To read this little book is to make friends for life; friends to grow up with; friends to come back to again and again.

Words on paper

Towards the end of the book, the youngest boy, Louis, writes a letter, and Hilary McKay says of it:

‘It was words on paper, It opened a door, it made a friend, it told a story.’ (P 213)

All these truths apply to equally to The Time of Green Magic. Simple truths. Deep truths. Simple magic. Deep magic. The best sort. But, at the same time, what words they are, what a door, what a story! This is a ‘Tardis’ of a book: its small exterior opens into a huge interior. It is a wise book, full of encouragement, and no little humour. It is a book for families and about families; a book about new starts, new places, and new people (even if they are not always sought). It is a book about books and the magic of books. It is a book about insecurity and need, about love, and the need for love. So many children’s books are about being ready to grow up; this is, perhaps, a book more about not (yet) being ready to grow up. Somehow (I can’t  quite say how)  it is, to me, a twenty-first century equivalent of Edith Nesbit’s ground-breaking magical children’s adventures. But in this book the children’s adventure is to find the magic in each other.

It is a story to read as summer comes to and end and winter draws in. It is a perfect book to read in the run up to Christmas. It is a book for all time. It is a joy.

Once again, Dawn Cooper’s striking cover beautifully echoes the tone of the story as well as subtly pointing up some of its key elements. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

I Go Quiet by David Ouimet


‘When I read I know that there is a world beneath my branches. I read that every living thing is a part of me. I think I may be part of everything too.’

Words and pictures 

There are a comparatively small number of hard to classify books, by highly talented artist/writers, that seem to me to fall somewhere between the graphic novel and the older children’s picture book. They are generally characterised by few words, if any at all, yet often deal with very sophisticated subject matter, brilliantly explored through stunning artwork.Too often overlooked as being unchallenging for more able readers (which is most certainly not the case) they not only provide a rich and stimulating independent reading experience but also make wonderful resources for imaginative, thoughtful teachers and their classes. David Wiesner and Shaun Tan are prominent amongst artists-authors who have produced some truly mind-blowing books of this type. And David Ouimet’s recently published I Go Quiet is a particularly outstanding example.

Words

The very short text is superficially simple, but is actually profound in its ideas and implications. It shows perfectly how a few words can say a very great deal. A young girl feels herself alienated from a noisy world, and so turns inward; literally and metaphorically, she goes quiet. Yet she frees herself through imagination. This book is itself a compelling testament to all books, to their power to liberate, to educate in the fullest send. And, in the end, the loud, clear message of I Go Quiet is superbly positive, supportive, encouraging. Silence will find its voice in good time, and what a voice that will be.

Pictures

Yet it is David Ouimet’s detailed, idiosyncratic and compelling illustrations which carry the greatest power within this work, adding multiple layers of both meaning and mystery to the text. Primarily monochrome, yet playing mesmerisingly with darkness and light, they are often disturbing, hauntingly surreal. The countless people who populate this world all carry masks of conformity, which they sometimes do and don’t t wear, yet their faces are mask-like either way. Across one double page spread, these hordes seem to pass through some vast, dark machine, like product on complex conveyors. In another they are arrayed as a vast ancient army, malevolent terracotta warriors. At what appears to be school, ranks of desks with their masked/unmasked pupils stretch, towards infinity, multiple indoctrinated clones. It is no wonder our girl goes quiet. Yet, when her imagination is freed, the drawings rush, swoop and soar towards flight in exhilarating abandon. And, in the vast library, the girl climbs and climbs up the dark stacks of books until her hand reaches towards the light, the sky, the grass.

Images

These are images that ask questions, many questions, questions in their wholeness and even more in their detail, more questions than answers. But therein lies their power and their potency.

This is a book to disquiet, but ultimately one to comfort and support too. Support for those who feel intimidated , those who feel alienated, and perhaps do not even want to belong, for those who go quiet, for those who read and learn and imagine. It provides the encouragement, the hope, the certainty, that someday they will make a ‘shimmering noise’.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson


Illustration: Kathrin Honesta

‘We don’t have to be the same to fit together.’ (p 376)

At last

After what has seemed like an interminable wait, I have finally managed  to buy a copy of the new Sophie Anderson. (I won’t say from where, as I think they sold it to me a bit before the official release date, and I’m certainly not going to dob them in, as I was so desperate to read it.). Inevitably I dropped everything else and raced through it in a couple of days. 

The Girl Who . . .

Probably the first and most important thing to say about this book is that it is categorically not the next in the Stig Larson Dragon Tattoo series.  (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,  etc., etc.) Anyone expecting the further exploits of Lisbeth Salander will be sadly disappointed.

However,  those who know better will be hoping for a captivating follow-up to this author’s justifiably lauded children’s debut, The House With Chicken Legs (see my review from July ‘18). And they will most certainly not be disappointed. Not one jot. 

That first book was a highly original tour-de-force that managed simultaneously to be excitingly readable, deeply moving and richly though-provoking. It was always going to be a hard act to follow. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is not exactly a sequel as such, but it is set in the same Russian folklore-inspired world, and, indeed, another house with chicken legs does put in a notable appearance, together with its ‘Yaga’ inhabitants. Whilst it is in no way essential, it is perhaps advantageous for young readers to have experienced  the earlier title first, so that they understand the background of what happens inside this animated dwelling.

However, this new book not only turns out to be a worthy successor to its illustrious predecessor, but in many ways exceeds its remarkable achievements.

Grown from the rootstock of folklore

I have always loved and admired children’s books that have their roots in both particular place and the folklore of that place - what I think of as the Alan Garner tradition. Not only is The Girl Who Speaks Bear one such book, but it has the added advantage that the particular tradition of old Russian tales on which it draws will be novel ground to many young readers in the West. It makes for an intriguingly fresh quality of  ‘fairy tale’ experience whilst still evoking, albeit unconsciously, those deep archetypes and universal emotions that resonate with the humanity of us all.

Form and content dancing together

But, for me, it is the fact that this book is a veritable masterpiece of narrative form, that most completely sets it apart. Many of the finest examples of literature (children’s or otherwise) are those where form and content work in perfect harmony to reflect and complement each other. Again, this book is one such. And, because of this, I am confident, it is destined to become a classic of the children’s fantasy canon.

Superficially, the book alternates between a principal narrative, in the present tense, and past tense retellings of what are nominal folk tales, each with its ‘Once upon a time’ opening. Yet it is really not as simple as this, for, from an opening that seems to find its setting in a credibly ‘real’ picture of village life in the far north of Russia, the main narrative itself soon takes on elements of the recounted fairy tales, so that these two elements of the structure move closer and closer together. The folk tales become more like flashbacks in the personal history of protagonist, Yanka, or, to put it another way, her story becomes a living out of the consequences of the the folk tales. It is all most cleverly handled by a wonderful writer already hitting superb form.

So many delights

All this is not to mention beautifully crafted language, evoking vividly the landscapes of village, forest and legend. These, too, are peopled with rich and engaging characters, human and animal. And, through all, distinctive Yanka, a protagonist far from the clich├ęs of storybook ‘heroine’, is engaging, admirable and lovely in the very best sense. She is a character fascinatingly torn between the pulls of society and nature, civilisation and wildness, life and story, and many children, girls and boys, will be honoured to know her and call her their friend. She seeks to belong, despite being different, and her dilemma is shared by many, so her story’s ultimate celebration of home and family (whoever they may be) will comfort and encourage.

The book is quite a long one, but the time taken to read it will repay children a hundredfold. Its cumulatively exciting incident is mixed with gradual revelations about the book’s central mysteries, and its extended climax is thrillingly compulsive. Yanka’s tale will enrich their reading, and their lives, immeasurably. Many will learn to speak bear too, discovering the language of the bear from the forest, the bear from story, and the bear that will always be somewhere within themselves. If a story can have a soul, then this one does.

‘(I wonder) what other stories from my past lie in the forest. My heart races and my toes twitch. But . . . more important than the stories of my past are the stories of my future. And those - with a little help from my family and friends - I can write for myself.’

Wonderful writers like Sophie Anderson help a little too.

. . . and ravishing visually as well

I cannot finish with out adding a word in praise of Kathrin Honesta’s enriching illustrations, which themselves manage beautifully to hover in the hinterland between realism and fairytale, the very place of magical adventure that is the very heart of this life-enriching tale.

US readers can rejoice in the fact that The Girl Who Speaks Bear is coming your way next March. (And book collecting fanatics, like me, will be able to buy an additional hardback edition.)


US cover