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, 19 July 2014

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

This is a hugely entertaining and engaging fantasy from a most promising debut US author.
Mapped world

Paul Durham creates a self-contained and relatively small scale fantasy word centered around a 'medieval'-feeling small town which he calls Drowning. So far this is fairly conventional. There is even the usual hand-drawn picture map, although I have to say that I actually found this one more helpful in following and locating incidents from the story than is often the case. The author's naming of locations shows some originality and wit and avoids the annoyingly obscure and unpronounceable. There is an entertaining glossary too, of 'Drowning Mouth Speak', that adds nicely to the character and atmosphere of the place.
Original imagination

Built on this is much that it even more inventive and original, which begins to place this book well above the general run of somewhat tired post-Rowling children's fantasy. I am delighted to say that there are no orphans here (each of the main child characters appears to have at least one parent), no portals to another world and, best of all, no prophesy to be fulfilled. What there is instead is a relatively complex set of interactions between the villagers, its 'feudal' lord and his soldiers, and a horde of truly hideous and threatening monsters, the Bog Noblins. Added to these are a very intriguing, mysterious and probably morally rather dubious band of monster-fighters, the Luck Uglies - if indeed they exist! It all makes for an exciting romp with a good many mysteries to unravel and, of course, a group of likeable children to do it.
Strong girl lead

Rye, the book's protagonist, is in many ways a very modern girl. Much of her thought and speech is woven through with language and ideas that have a distinctly contemporary feel. Were this a historical novel then these would be anachronistic and a problem. But this is not a history, it is a fantasy and makes its own rules and realities. Paul Durham cleverly succeeds in merging these modern elements and the fantasy 'medieval' setting in a way that will help the book's intended young readers identify with the characters and cope with the deliberate and intriguing strangeness of its world. How much better, in fact, that Rye and her friends speak something close to the language of the readers than had the author misguidedly opted for some form of phoney 'olde worlde' talk. It also means he can throw in quite a few good, incongruously jokey passages too. I particularly enjoyed baby sister Lottie being potty trained using the Drowning village equivalent of marbles in a jar.
Great characters aplenty 

In fact it is the sympathetic nature of Rye and her young friends, together with other characters such as her mother and sister, that makes the story so engaging - and the threats they face so frightening. Further, Paul Durham peoples his relatively small fantasy world with a very rich and diverse range of largely original characters, both human, animal and other. Many of these are strengthened by a fair degree of complexity and ambiguity. Even though the lord of the manor, Longchance, is as cartoon evil as they come (think Sheriff of Nottingham), other characters are, interestingly, often neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Indeed it is the unknown and possibly unknowable qualities of the Luck Uglies, the monsterous Bog Noblins, and the principal adult character, (who Rye calls Harmless) that give the book much of its originality and strength. And at the heart of everything lies the intriguing development of Rye's relationship with Harmless. But no more of that; no spoilers here.
More to come

Other potentially very interesting minor characters are introduced and not fully developed in this book, but then it is clearly conceived as the first of a sequence, so hopefully there is more of these characters to come. Other elements of the storyline remain intriguingly unresolved too. However the circular structure of the narrative, ending where it began on the rooftops of Drowning, but with Rye having moved on so much as a person, is very satisfying. I do hope, though, that the author is going to develop this work into a well-shaped trilogy or quartet and not let it degenerate into a sprawling, repetitive series instead. The characters and ideas here deserve better.
Ultimately this is a great start, well worth anyone's read and will, I am confident, delight and enthrall countless children. It seems to flag up a writer of considerable potential. He may well produce even greater in time.


Since I wrote this post, the trilogy has been completed, and is as rounded and well-developed as could be wished. The outstanding qualities of the first book have been fully maintained. Indeed they have been delightfully extended, and this whole sequence is highly recommendable. Well worth seeking out for 9-12 readers. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Dyerville Tales by M. P. Kozlowsky

At last. Another wonderful book by a US author.

Now don't get me wrong. I love America and the rich heritage of American literature. I think some of the greatest works of children's literature ('period') have been written in the US. Amongst others, wonderful writers such as Katherine Patterson, Betsy Byars and Lois Lowry come immediately to mind, not to mention Anne Ursu, who I have just discovered. And then there is ,in my view, the greatest of all, Ursula Le Guin. No. But I have to say that in recent years the States seem to be publishing enormous piles of decidedly third-rate children's fantasy: usually series fiction (I have come to rather dread seeing #1, #2, #37, etc. after a title) and mostly of the ordinary-kids-find-some-random-portal-and travel-to-a-fantasy-world-to-fulfill-a-prophesy-and-save-the-world-from-unspeakable-evil variety. I keep picking them up, more in hope than expectation as they say. But so far many have been very disappointing. Of course I have spent my entire career trying to get children to read and if these books start kids reading and keep them reading, as many of them clearly do, then they are are very good thing. But that does not mean I want to include them as finds in this quest for twenty first century greats. (I am excepting Rick Riorden, by the way ,and will probably write about him at some later time.)

But The Dyerville Tales is something quite different and in its way very special. It fully deserves its place in the canon of notable children's literature.

It is essentially a story within a story. The framing narrative concerns a boy named Vincent who runs off from an orphanage to find his way across country and attend his grandfather's funeral. His big dream is that he is not really an orphan and will find his missing father there too. He is given a book, purportedly his grandfather's life story, which he reads on the way. The inner narrative, the content of the book, is a fairy tale adventure in which a boy, also called Vincent, pursues a quest to kill an evil witch and free those she has enchanted.

I have been trying to pinpoint just why this book feels so special. It belongs, in many ways, to a strong tradition of US children's fiction dealing sensitively with kids who don't have the easiest of lives, but who fight through with considerable feistiness. Superficially it is not hugely original. Stories of supposed orphans on quests for lost parents abound. The device of one narrative framed within another is not uncommon, nor is the notion of reworking fairy tales, or even of using them as metaphors for real life (for example in Anne Ursu's brilliant Breadcrumbs).

However, where The Deryville Tales scores so highly and makes such a remarkable impact is that it is quite wonderfully written. The first thing to strike (and to continue to delight throughout ) is that its use of language is rich, evocative and, at its best (which it often is) simply beautiful; prose of remarkable refinement and writerly skill. Make no mistake, this is literary language. Right from the start, when Vincent is described as, 'he of the fair skin and the sad eyes, the disheveled hair and the honest smile,' we know that we are in the world of book language, not the vernacular. But children sometimes need to be extended in the style and usage they meet. More than this though, this book is a story and is about story, and that is where its language takes and hold us. It is lyrical and evocative, creating pictures in the mind and washing the reading ear with waves and eddies of mellifluous sound.

Even more cleverly, this is never at the expense of narrative flow. This is no nineteenth century wallow in fancy words. In fact the pace of the storytelling is quick. In the inner narrative particularly (but in the framing one too) the story is essentially incident driven, fully reflecting the fairy tale genre. It romps from one crisis to the next. This strand does not retell one particular fairy tale nor, in fact, does it draw its characters and situations from this genre alone but from a whole range of story sources including myths and legends from various traditions. Thrown into the amalgam here are elements of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Duke Blubeard's castle and Baba Yaga's hut on chicken legs, amongst many others. In fact adult readers may particularly enjoy spotting sources, even if some of these bypass its younger audience. The excitement piles, page by page, and the fact that it is not a completely known story, despite its very familiar characters and motifs, gives it a driving momentum. This is reflected too in the framing story and, of course, the fact that the narrative strands alternate adds further page-turning impetus. Even more than this, however, what makes both narratives so engaging is the sensitivity, and indeed humanity, with which the protagonists and their responses to each situation are drawn. Despite the excitement and speed of the action we are led to feel every moment with the two Vincents. There is reflection too, quietness and pathos. And if, as for example in the scene between the grandson Vincent and the artist on the train, the writing sometimes comes close to sentimentality, it always keeps just the right side of the line and ends up as genuinely affecting instead.

Perhaps the most interesting question is just how much this book is a fantasy at all - but then that is, I think, its point. For, although the inner narrative of grandfather Vincent is indubitably fantasy in itself, it is for almost all of the book presented as nothing more than a story. Unlike, say, Inkheart, the characters do not step out of the tale and inpinge on the real world, nor does grandson Vincent actually leave his own world and enter the fantasy one. Yet it is made clear that his imaginative absorption in his grandfather's tale is such that he does vicariously enter its world. This is reinforced by both grandfather and grandson sharing the same name. Sometimes we lose track, as does he, of which Vincent's experiences we are sharing. There are times, too, when the two worlds begin to draw together. The criminal family in the real world feel very like fairy tale characters; grandfather Vincent's relationship with Sarah feels very real. Only at the very end of the book do the two narrative strands, and with them reality and story, actually merge. (Not wishing to be involved in spoilers, I will not say how.)

But then the whole book is a story; its language has reminded us of that from the start. It is a dream, Vincent's dream, every child's dream, the dream of all of us: to be a hero battling through any difficulties to make everything all right for those we love, for the whole world, for ourselves. In real life it generally doesn't work out quite this way. In life it is not real. Here it is not real. It is a story. It does not need to be true, because it is.

If I still had a class of nine, ten or eleven year-olds I would be desperate to read this aloud to them. It would enthrall and delight them - and teach them so much about language and about story too, without me saying a word.

I must add this author's slightly earlier Juniper Berry (2011), which I have so far missed, to my reading pile straight away.



Thursday, 10 July 2014

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

The purpose of this blog is not primarily to review new books but to record my reading quest for great works of children's fantasy fiction written since the turn of the century. This being so, Kate Thompson's The New Policeman (2005), and it's follow-up, The Last of the High Kings (2007), fully merit inclusion. My recent, albeit belated, discovery of these simple, almost delicate, yet rich, thought-provoking and strangely moving tales has been a delight. The first volume was, of course, much praised and won deserved awards at the time, but I have not seen the later book recognised to quite the same extent. Yet is is also a very special and unique achievement.
Although each book is to a large extent stand-alone, they are linked in that at the heart of each is a fantasy interplay between rural Ireland and the mythological world of Tir na n'Og, The Land of (Eternal) Youth, with its 'fairy' inhabitants, the Sidhe.
The books are in many senses slight by fantasy norms; they revolve around the members of a single farming family, the Liddys, together with a few other locals. In the 'other' world of Tir na n'Og too only one or two main characters and a handful of supporting cast really feature significantly. The books are comparatively short and the writing deceptive simple and straightforward, although, of course, belying considerable authorial skill. Chapters are short too, giving the narrative a quick, light and airy feel, but one which readily entrances and soon engages most beguilingly.
The first volume,The New a Policeman, is essentially a portal fantasy with its hero JJ entering Tir na n'Og through the underground chamber of a 'fairy ring' part way through the story and returning near the end. The characters of the 'real' world are sympathetically drawn and the emphasis on their involvement with traditional Irish music and dance, together with the longstanding opposition of the old Catholic Church paint a vivid and engaging picture of a corner of rural Ireland. The treatment of Tir na n'Og is also relatively light, witty and almost tongue-in-cheek. However it does become deeper as the story develops and is sometimes very moving. JJ playing for the Sidhe warriors lost in the great fairy war is beautifully described and deeply touching.
The book is in part an exploration of time and the implications of mortality/immortality. It, importantly, creates its own credible and indeed though-provoking logic within its fantasy conceit. However more than anything it is a pean to Ireland's traditional music, to its roots not only in history but in the depths of its mythologies, and by implication to all rich and identity-defining tradition. It is an unusual and enchanting book.
The second work of the trilogy The Last of the High Kings is something rather different, whilst still drawing continuity from setting, themes and some of its characters. It is if anything even more engaging than the first. This time the story is not really a portal fantasy at all, but much more of a 'dual world' one, where the real world and the fantasy exist in parallel with the latter occasionally impinging on the former. In fact, although the story very largely plays out in the 'real' Ireland this blurring of the edges of the realities cannot help but happen as the principal character emerges to be a changeling child, a member of the Sidhe farmed out to be brought up in the world of time.
In this second volume JJ, the hero of the first, has moved into adulthood and it is his somewhat anarchic family, bearing some passing resemblance to that of 'Outnumbered', who are at the centre of the tale. The characters and their relationships are most tellingly drawn, not least JJ's rather selfish inclination to put his commitment to his own considerable musical talents before the needs of his family. There is both humour and human understanding displayed in the telling of this tale and Jenny, the changeling child, for who freedom and irresponsibility are paramount, is a truly enchanting and endearing creation. For much of the story she epitomises a lack of restraint and responsibility that many of us will secretly admire, even if we would never actually emulate it. Although themes of time and Irish music both carry forward into this story, this is most essentially about freedom and responsibility, responsibility both for each other and for our world. And it is Jenny's journey into understanding and her accepting at least a degree of responsibility for others which is touchingly at its heart . Although unusual for a fantasy it is a most endearing book that will endure long in memory.
The author did write a third book in 2009, The White Horse Trick, to complete this as a trilogy, but sadly this does not match the quality of the first two. She clearly was very concerned at the time with issues of global warming. There is of course nothing wrong in being so, but here her treatment of the theme seems very heavy handed. Although there are some entertaining interplays between the Sidhe of Tir na n'Og and a distopian future Ireland there is too much in the book that sounds like rather pious preaching for it to make an engaging conclusion.
Were the whole as good as the first two, this trilogy would go straight onto my 'greats' list, but as it is the first two books are fully original and engaging enough to be well worth reading.