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.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Black North by Nigel McDowell


In seeking out books that are very special indeed, I seem to be having a remarkably good run at the moment, for here is another.

'In the end it is not nightmares that prevail, but dreams that defeat the dark,' writes Nigel McDowell in The Black North. I am tempted to say this sentiment echos that of Martin Luther King, but 'echoes' is not the right word to use in the context of this particular book as any reader will discover; here it has terrifying connotations. Nevertheless, in crafting this truly remarkable work, Nigel McDowell will give many readers at least a little of the courage to dream the world a better place. Not through simply doing good, but by imagining good into being. This is magical fantasy in every sense.

It is a book that feels both richly old and almost shockingly new, an inheritor and a stunning innovator. In many ways it draws directly on the rich heritage of fantasy, yet at the same time it forges something so new it emerges still white hot and molten. Dazzling and searing. Most remarkable, especially for a children's book (perhaps it should be called YA these days but I am rather set in my ways), it pushes boundaries until they almost, but don't quite snap. It pushes the boundaries of its genre but, even more, those of language itself.

Black North inhabits an 'enclosed world' fantasy island. It doesn't have a map, but easily could. It is under invasion by the minions of a dark lord, led by a terrifying, faceless general with a red-eyed corvoid on his shoulder. The north had already been turned by their dark magic into a devastated wasteland of black ash and foul, clinging mist. They personify the power of fear and nightmare.

When children are stolen and taken to the north our hero figure reluctantly but courageously heads into the great darkness, accompanied by a somewhat irascible wizard/mentor figure, and carrying only a talisman of ancient but, as yet, not fully discovered power. Does this all sound wonderfully, deliciously familiar? It is Frodo heading off to Mordor ('I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.'), it is Belgarion's long, dark journey to destroy Torak. There are even vague echoes (sorry) of Parsifal, in an albeit negative grail quest, and references to the hero-figure as 'fool' and 'foolish' are an iterative motif. It clearly has its roots in rich traditions and archetypes, both of the genre itself and of Irish folklore.

However, this story is remarkably fresh. Both Oona, the feisty heroine, and her companion/mentor (I probably should say would-be mentor), Merrigutt, are engaging and original characters. The invaders seem to be comparatively 'modern' soldier who fight primarily with guns. They speak and act much like squaddies. They are opposed, with more bravado than success, by a more ragtag army of local men and boys, 'The Cause'. This is not the traditional world of sword and sorcery. The devastation the invasion is causing feels, in some ways, rather more like an armed conflict in our world, or perhaps a post-appocoliptic chaos. I don't think this story is actually meant as a metaphor for the author's native Ireland, but surely something of the 'troubles' there have fed through into his imagination.

Yet this is in no way whatsoever a 'natural' world. It is filled with magic as an essential element of its own reality, both the deep traditional magic of the 'old' north and the dark, destructive magic of the evil lord. Morphing of form, conjuring of creatures, child-eating 'briar witches', the wonderfully imagined concepts of the 'dispell'' and the 'echoes' as the expression of negative magic, they are all here. And, as a result of this totally refreshed imagining of a fantasy world, readers can live this old story in a new, vivid, terrifying and sometimes heart-breaking way. Although the ending is largely upbeat and satisfying as a resolution, the future is enigmatic and has been won only at high cost. This is children's fiction of considerable maturity and humanity - and all the better for it.

Even more thrilling, though, is the language and style of writing. This pushes boundaries in the most exciting and refreshing way of all. The prose is intense and beautiful, poetic in every sense, but never obscure. Quite the reverse; it is compellingly and strikingly communicative. Sometimes, at moments of tensions, it reduces to a fractured delivery, short or incomplete stenteces and irregular syntax heightening drama, pace and reader engagement. It is even, occasionally and for very brief sections, laid out in the short, patterned lines of a poem. But, more often, it settles into a magical, flowing lilt. It is remarkable and totally enthralling. It certainly has the cadences, the idioms of Irish speech behind it. But is is more than this. Poetic is the only word I can come up with. However, I don't want to give any impression that it is precious or self-regarding; it is most certainly not. Its overall effect is mesmerising and quite beutifully matched to the drama and pace of the ever-deloping narrative. It is like a film that sometimes dazzles with quick, flashing images, then settles into slow soft focus, or pans through action then closes in onto talking heads before flowing on again. More than anything, the prose, to me, almost begs to be spoken aloud. In that sense it reminded me of Under Milk Wood, despite the different underlying accent. It was just in the way that it it seems to come even more alive when spoken, or at least heard in the reading mind. It is quite magical. What a way to tell a tale!

On YouTube is a brief extract of Nigel McDowell reading, not from this book but from his earlier Tall Tales From Pitch End. Once I had heard him and caught the voice, it's accent, it's lilt, in my mind I continually imagined that voice reading Black North to me. The cadences and the sensitivity to the pitch and flow of the language fit so well. Amazing. He should record his own work as audio books.

Which reminds me I must now read Pitch End which I missed.

Ireland seems yet again to have given us a great writer here. That he is working in the field of children's literature is just wonderful. That he is so young is hugely promising.



Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Bell Between Worlds by Ian Johnstone

I am delighted. Even in the couple of months that I have been pursuing my search for high quality children's fantasy from this century, I have found several remarkable books and a couple of great ones. What I notice though, looking back on my posts so far, is that hardly any of them have been what I would describe as classic fantasy. Those that have been great have mostly lain on the fringes of the fantasy genre, or been significant reinterpretations of it. Those that I have read that have been quite clearly fantasies have, frankly, not been great. And I have read or part read a good few of these. (I was brought up to think I should finish a book once I had started it, in much the same way as I had to finish the food on my plate. Consequently I have tended, through life, to feel I was doing a 'bad thing' if I abandoned a book part way through. But now I am much older I have reached a stage where I am just not prepared to spend precious time on something not worth reading - and am finally confident in my ability to know when this is.)
At the moment the market seems flooded with what I consider third-rate children's fantasies - endless tales of 'ordinary' kids (often orphans) discovering random 'powers' and charging off through random portals (often with cute if somewhat weird pets at their heels) into cliche-ridden fantastic realms to defeat super- baddies and save the world (often repeating the process through many numbered sequels). In all this, too, what often bugs me the most is the 'prophesy' (often written in gruesome doggerel) a tired and lazy mechanism for justifying the whole shenanigans. It may have worked for C.S.Lewis, but can it stand its 200th regurgitation?
All this is a preamble to saying that - yes!, wonderful, amazing, get-out-the-bunting-and-let's have a party - I have now found a truly exciting new fantasy that keeps many of the feature of this genre, draws on its traditions and heritage, yet avoids all sense of cliche, bringing instead an incredible freshness of imaginative word-building and a rich, complex and compelling narrative. Ian Johnstone's The Bell Between Worlds is the outstanding first volume of a promised fantasy sequence, The Mirror Chronicles - and in the context of my introductory comments, outstanding is exactly the right word for it.
The work is very much a 'portal' fantasy with its protagonist drawn from his own 'real' world into 'The Other', after being summoned by the huge, mysterious bell of the title. However, an initial realisation that its opening involves a boy sent, after his mother's death, to live with his uncle in a ramshackle old building and then finding his way into this alternative world could superficially suggest that the author has fallen into just the cliches complained of earlier. Yet the way with which even this first section is handled by the author lifts it well above this: the rich imagining and engrossing drawing of that initial location, Gabbety Row, the sensitive and subtle introduction of Sylas as well as other intriguing characters, and such telling details as the making and decorating of the kites. The writer uses convention to root the story in the fantasy tradition, but, more significantly, nothing is gratuitous, despite possible first impressions, and all the elements introduced at the beginning will be seen to have considerable significance as the story develops.
And once Sylas enters The Other, then this book really begins to unfold in all its rich length and depth. This is truly a tale in which to become engrossed, a world to experience and discover alongside the enormously empathetic protagonist. A huge diversity of characters, societies, landscapes and narrative details are all most creatively imagined here. It is described with language that is rich and evocative without ever being 'purple' or self-regarding. The world emerges as a large and complex one, as is the narrative. It is epic stuff. There are wild excitements too as well as lyrical beauty, the genuine menace of growing evil, and a truly helter-skelter excitement leading to the devastating climax of this first volume.
It is ideas too, though, that make this such a good book. Many of the characters are neither as purely good or bad as often in this genre, they are complex, interesting and 'human', despite their fantasy-world existence. And the underlying concept of the mirror world is as engaging and thought-provoking as, say, Pullman's Dark Materials, though raising philosophical and psychological questions rather than the religious (or anti-religious) connotations of the latter. Sylas's gradual recognition of, and ultimate conjoining with, his 'mirror self' is as poignant as anything in recent children's fiction. This book is many things, exciting, disturbing, lyrical, frightening and hugely imaginative, but it is ultimately warm and deep in its humanity.
This is certainly the best 'classic' fantasy I have come across so far from the last 14 years. If the trilogy (?) lives up to its opener then it could well prove to be one of the greats of any period.



Thursday, 5 June 2014

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe


I am not at all sure that this is a 'fantasy' book, in the sense that I have used in this blog. There are certainly no wizards or spells. And in terms of its primary audience it really falls into the YA category and not children's. But I am including it for one simple reason. It is without doubt the most exciting book I have read for a long, long time - and I have read many.

Exciting is exactly the right word here too. In fact this book was exciting in two different ways. It was hugely exciting to have found a first book by a new writer of such exquisite ability and promise. It was also an amazingly visceral excitement actually to read it, especially its final third. I almost defy anyone to read from the start of the stag race (of which more shortly) to the end in less than one sitting. It is a breath-taking experience.

The book put me in mind of two others that I read and admired a good while ago, one even longer ago than the other. The first was Janni Howker's The Nature of the Beast (from 1985), the second David Almond's Secret Heart (from 2001). The resonances came from the fact that both those works deal with young characters in very grim and stressful circumstances who play out their traumas through engagement with a 'fabulous' creature that exists on the cusp between reality and fantasy. However I emphatically do not make these comparisons to the detrement of Bone Jack. It is every bit as thrilling and well-written as these others- and they are both outstanding books.

There is actually a third book too with which I feel Bone Jack has certain affinities and that is Alan Garner's The Owl Service. Here there are two particular resonances for me: the theme by which an ancient legend is played out over succeeding generations until reaching its expiation in the present, and the the almost extreme concentration of both story and language into the tautest of expressions. Now, if I say, this time, that I think Sara Crowe's book is not quite the equal of The Owl Service, then this must be taken in the context that I consider the latter one of the finest ever works of children's (and possibly any) literature in English. And The Owl Service was a book written well on in Garner's development. Bone Jack is a first book - and actually I think much better in many ways than Garner's first works, even though these were importantly ground-breaking in their time.

In drawing comparison with remarkable writing of the past my intention is purely to highlight the quality of Bone Jack. In no way do I impute its originality or integrity. It is very much it's own book, and wonderfully so. If it is in any sense fantasy, then it exists right on the edge of this description. More accurately perhaps fantasy exists right on the edge of this story - although it is, paradoxically, an essential and integral element of it. If anything this book is what I earlier called a 'dual world fantasy'. (See 'Waymarkers' posted May '14.) That is to say, it is largely sited in the real world, but with another world, that of myth and legend, ghosts and 'magic', lingering on its very peripherary and just occasionally intruding into greater awareness or even physicality to affect characters and their story.

Here the reality centres on a mock hunt that is essentially a cross-country race, but belongs to very long- standing tradition in the northern fell country where the book is vividly set. The 'magic' is one of the oldest possible and lies at the ancient heart of that same hunt, a blood sacrifice made to the land itself to restore lost fertility. The traumatic issues to be worked through involve a soldier father suffering from PTSD and the aftermath of the recent suicidal hanging of his childhood friend. The main actors are the sons of these two men, now playing the roles of 'stag' and 'hound' in the hunt. The context, a sun-parched, foot-and-mouth ravaged farmland denying a living.

On one level the story is a simple one, simply told, but it has countless layers and depths. All the wonderfully and sympathetically drawn main characters, the two boys, their fathers, the sister of one boy, even the mother, are involved in a web of relationships and intense feelings that cross the generations and prove to be intimately mixed with the legends and 'ghosts' surrounding the hunt. It is rich and powerful stuff.

But it is the telling of the story that is its greatest triumph. The language too is superficially simple, with predominantly short sentences and curt dialogue, but this hides that great skill and power of economy and aptness which is so powerful and engaging. This language comes most fully into its own in the final long section of the book, from the start of the actual hunt onwards. Here the writing truly comes alive and the whole sequence is the most wonderful, engaging and thrilling narrative reading experience. The language use, for example, for a whole section at the start of Chapter 34 is just the most marvellous and affecting prose, rhythmical and almost poetic. If anything is magical this is.

The ending of such a book could be a let down, but the author handles this well too. Her outcomes which say, essentially, 'Everything was still not all right - but it was better,' manage to strike the right note, achieving credibility and avoiding sentimentality whilst still leaving the reader will a satisfying element of feel-good resolution.

This book is a remarkable achievement. If its author continues to hone and develop her considerable skills, rather than just rushing further books out on the back of this one, then I am optimistic of real greatness to come.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Some magnificent misfits

Whilst pursuing this quest so far I have inevitably read quite a few books which did not really fit my self-imposed parameters as 'magical fantasy' (see My Quest posted April '14). Yet a few of them have been truly wonderful books. I set out intending not to spread my net too widely so that this blog keeps its focus - and I will still try to do that. However I could not resist at least briefly recording here a handful of these 'misfits' (in my own terms only) simply because I think they do each deserve a place amongst the greats of recently-written children's literature.

Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers is a moving and absorbing story. Its writing is as fiercely independent but also as humane and beautiful as its totally engaging characters. The rich, lyrical narrative explores themes of familial love, loss, hope, friendship, determination, bravery and, not least, the importance of both books and music. It contains one of my all-time favourite quotes, 'Books crow-bar the world open.' It is another truly important work of children's literature and will surely become a classic in the very best sense. This book lifts you to the Paris rooftops and uplifts you in so many other gentle but profound ways too.

Bobbie Pyron's The Dogs of Winter has its origin in true-life newspaper reports of a street boy in Moscow who lived for a period as a member of a pack of feral dogs. Yet it is far more than a re-telling of facts, it is a profoundly insightful, imaginative reconstruction. The writer gets right inside both the boy, Ivan, and the reality of his bare existence on the streets. She also reconstructs painfully and movingly the circumstances and treatment that brought him there as well the cruelties he continues to meet. Equally she seems able (as far presumably as anyone can) to get inside the minds of the dogs too. This author clearly knows dogs and their behaviours intimately and it shows most tellingly in her writing of this tale. Although much about the story is inevitably harrowing, at its heart it is about the almost redemptive love that Ivan develops for and with the dogs. As might any book that combines the gruesome maltreatment of a child with aminals there are times when this one comes close to sentimentality, but it always manages to stay just the right side of the line - and is all the more moving for it. The Dogs of Winter seems to have commanded relatively little attention, here in the UK at least. It deserves far, far more. It is another wonderful and important piece of storytelling that ought to become a children's classic in the future and a must-read in the present.


Monday, 2 June 2014

Being a Reader

I am often amazed at how many people in this world harbour ambitions to be writers (although I suspect publishers and literary agents would be less surprised). How many metaphorical bottom drawers in how many metaphorical cupboards around the globe must house unpublished manuscripts of one kind or another? There seems to be a be a widely held belief that to be truly creative, in literary terms, you have to be a published author. I am not scorning such ambitions for a moment. I must admit that in my younger days I was there too. There is a drawer somewhere . . .

Now, though, I have come to realise that it is just as important, just as creative to be a reader. Don't get me wrong. You can see from my shelves here how much I need and value writers. But our world needs readers every bit as much.

Of course I am talking about real reading, not just going through the motions of lifting words off a page. What I mean is acting as the vehicle through which a story is enacted, characters coalesce and come alive. Real reading means creatively adding your own imagination, your own personality, your own life experience to what is printed on a page. And it is a vital part of the process. It completes the cycle started by the writer. It closes the circle. It is not as easy as might appear. It is both an art and a craft in its own right. To be good at it needs skill and practice, perhaps even talent - although I think this is developed rather than given. Without the reader the whole process is incomplete and, ultimately, meaningless.

Am I just making excuses.? I truly no longer think so.

Some people are writers and we must be enormously grateful to them. But for some of us our role in the process, in life perhaps, is to be a reader. And we should not feel ashamed of it; should not feel that it is in some way inferior, less creative. Each reader and each reading of a book is just as unique, just as special as the writer and the writing of it.

We need people who can truly listen to music just as much as those who compose and play it. We need people who can truly see pictures just as much as those who paint and photograph them. We need readers just as much as writers. A long time ago I made a positive choice to stop trying to be a writer. Now I work instead at being a better reader.


Tiffany Aching sequence by Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men; A Hat Full of Sky; Wintersmith; I Shall Wear Midnight

This sequence of four books, targeted primarily at children/YA, tracks through much of the later childhood and early teen years of young witch Tiffany Aching. Although started well over ten years ago now, it was all written within this century and completed not too long ago so emphatically needs to be included in my quest for high quality contemporary magical fantasy for children. It is another jewel. Of course the quartet is a sub-set of the hugely popular Discworld comedy fantasy series, largely adult orientated but of immensely wide appeal. However this sequence stands apart and has a rather different quality, perhaps because of its primary audience. Certainly these books contain many of the wonderful elements of classic Pratchett, but they also have a sensitivity and a simple sincerity very much their own. They are both hugely entertaining and deeply enriching reading.

Key characters throughout the books are the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first title, clearly based on the traditional 'little people' of so many folklores, but here painted as wildly anarchic, fighting, lying, stealing, arguing little blue men. They are Pratchett comic creations of the highest and most entertaining callibre. Yet is is their unswerving and, indeed, loving devotion to young Tiffany, adopted as their own 'wee hag o'the hills', that begins to flag up the warmth and sensitivity of these stories.

The books abound in Terry Pratchett's trademark and quite brilliant use of language and word-play. Not least amongst his innumerable and often hilarious felicities of English usage is an ability to coin imagery of quite breathtaking originality that makes you see things freshly and vividly. For example, I recall readily an intensity of sound that 'wrapped itself around you and tried to followed you home', a character described as 'so stiff you could have ironed sheets on him' and I just love Tiffany's rather sniffy reaction to the name Letitia as sounding 'like a cross between a salad and a sneeze'. So many such instances make reading these books a constant joy. In itself this feature would be enough to lift these works well above mere 'farting fairy' humour (although Pratchett can offer his share of this too).

But the Tiffany books are much more even than this. Discworld is of course an enclosed world fantasy, albeit a vast and rich one. 'The Chalks', on which Tiffany grows up, is presented as an area of Discworld, but is in fact very clearly and blatantly based on the South Downs of England; it has a much more 'real' and grounded feel than much of Pratchett's fantastic, and often self-lampooned, imaginary world. This particular setting has a certain historical feel too, built alongside elements of fairy tale, although this does not prevent the author from treating, usually very insightfully, with many situations and issues that remain all too common in our own times: prejudice, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and a good many more. But it is in the character and development of Tiffany herself that the greatest depth and most meaningful sensitivity of these books lies. This often shows real insight and compassion. She frequently demonstrates an admirable strength and feistiness, but can be surprisingly lacking in self-confidence underneath. She has foibles too and can be arrogant and hasty, she is sometimes silly, but she always engenders warm empathy. Collectively the stories involve exploration of what it means to grow up, both as a 'real' girl and as a witch - cleverly, both at the same time. At their heart lies Tiffany's development from the early discovery of her own destiny, through adolescent self-doubt to her ultimate acceptance of who she is. And becoming who she is requires a good deal to be sacrificed and a good deal to be endured. Witch or no, though, she is fundamentally a good person and becoming a wise one.

Like much of the very best fantasy fiction, these books draw extensively from tradition and folklore, evoking archetypes and deep resonances that expand and enrich our experience as human beings. And in this particular sequence of books, unlike some other Discworld titles, genuine exploration of the power and potency of these elements wins out over the primarily comic 'sending up' of fantasy worlds. They are something of an exploration too of what magic itself is and means.

This sequence is, classically, more than the sum of its parts. In the final analysis, though. I think the books are just a little too episodic and inconsistent in quality to rival the absolute all-time greats of children's magic fiction. But they come very close. Pratchett shows amazing wit, genuine wisdom and a great deal of humanity and Tiffany Aching is a character to treasure for a lifetime - not to mention the Nee Mac Feegles.