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, 11 October 2014

Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn

 

This is a little gem of a book. It is very American in several senses, but that is not to say that it is in any way inaccessible to children (or adults) here in the UK, where it deserves to find a wide and appreciative readership. It belongs, I feel, very much to a particular distinctive thread of US children's fiction which grew with such wonderful writers as Betsy Byars, Katherine Patterson and Lois Lowry and is being continued, for example, in some books from the brilliant Sharon Creech. Now a most promising new voice, Edith Cohn, inherits the mantle of these illustrious predecessors yet makes the genre very much her own.

I do do not mean to be pejorative in describing this book as 'little'. To me it belongs very much to a tradition of US writing for children that I think of as 'backyard' fiction. Such books usually narrate in detail a short period in the everyday life of one or more children, very much centered in their own, often 'ordinary', home and local community. These children play out events which help them come to terms with issues which may be small in the global scale of things, but which are huge and very real to the children themselves. In the hands of such great writers, these stories end up reaching right into the heart of the human condition, resonating with universal significance despite, or perhaps because of, their young protagonists and their domestic scale and setting.

In this very sense Spirit's Key is both a little book and a huge one. What makes it rather distinctive is that, whilst it very much captures the features and qualities just described, it also engagingly teeters on the edge of fantasy. Of course it is just about as far from epic 'full' fantasy it is possible to be. Yet the psychic talents inherited by the protagonist, Spirit, from her 'Greats' (ancestors) and, perhaps more especially, the ghost dogs in whose company she spends much of the tale, have a level of 'reality' in her world rather than than being the simple workings of her imagination. After all the dogs do appear physically to drag a kayak across her island, several people do see rope apparently suspended unsupported in mid air and the fulfillment of Spirit's clairvoyant predictions seems more than mere coincidence. If anything Spirit's Key is perhaps best described as magic realism for children. The result is indeed magical without this in any way detracting from the human relevancy of the story's conflict and resolution; a beautifully balanced and most engaging amalgam.

Within this, there are two things particularly that make this book so special. One is the great sensitivity and ultimate power with which the character of Spirit and her relationships, not least with her dog, Sky, are imagined. The other is the wonderfully vivid creation of the locale, a tiny island community which manages to evoke some sense of the exotic at the same time as epitomising an American small town community. This is peopled with the very entertaining cast of mostly endearing eccentrics usually associated with such places, at least in fiction. Oh, and did I say, this is a book for dog lovers. It's overall messages about the importance of the natural world and all life are strong, clear and enormously important too. My wife always hates stories in which 'the dog dies' but since, in this one, the dog has already died before the story starts perhaps she would be okay with it.

I must admit to generally having a strong antipathy to novels written entirely in the historic present. This seems to have become something of a fashion, particularly amongst writers of adult literary fiction, but I usually find the somehow very pretentious artificiality of this style of writing both intrusive and discomforting. However in this book, where it is indeed used throughout, I surprised myself by thinking it very apt. Here it does indeed help create a very 'in the moment' feel and puts the reader right behind Spirit's eyes, as it were, engendering the strongest and most moving of empathy.

A beautiful story beautifully told. What an exciting prospect for the future Edith Cohen is.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

My quest six months in

Six months or so into this blog seems a good time to reflect on my reading quest thus far. I set out principally to explore a question: are there recent works of children's fantasy fiction that measure up to the undoubted greats of the last half of the twentieth century? This has already been answered with a resounding yes. Sequences like Toby Forward's Flaxfield Quartet and Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, together with Philip Reeve's more SF Predator Cities and the Tiffany Aching books from the remarkable Terry Pratchett certainly belong in the canon of great children's literature just as much as the very best of their predecessors. Wonderful writers such as Frances Hardinge and Anne Ursu are, in their different ways, just as significant. There are incredibly promising fantasy sequences underway from Ian Johnstone and Sheila Rance. Across the pond writers like Matthew Jobin, M P Kozlowsky and Paul Durham are emerging as potentially very special. Most exciting of all for me, though, has been to discover such amazingly exciting new talent as Sara Crowe and the quite superb Nigel McDowell. These could truly be the Alan Garners and Ursula le Guins of their generation.

What I must say, without mentioning any names, is that I have also found in my reading a considerable amount of much more derivative, formulaic and sometimes even poor writing, not least from the authors of some series fiction. It seems that it can be quite a task these days to pan out the nuggets from the silt in children's novels as much as in the adult sphere. However, I do not mean to condemn out of hand some of the very popular books that get and keep countless young people reading. In achieving this they do something very important and wonderful. It is just that many have not met my demanding criteria for great children's fiction of the 21st century.

Of course I am not stopping here. You can see from my reading pile that there is much ahead and surely more gems to find. In fact at the moment my pile is rather like a motorway tail back. Stuff joins at a faster rate than it leaves so it gets bigger and bigger. I am sure it will continue to do so; it is all the more exciting (not to say precarious) for it. If anyone out there has suggestions for other 21C children's fantasy you think I should try please tweet @gordonaskew.

One thing I have noticed is that, in order to include all the books that have most thrilled me, my definition has had to broaden from the original concept of 'magic fantasy' with which I started. I am now including virtually anything that is not wholly 'real' (albeit imagined) and will continue to do so. It makes my blog title of 'Magic Fiction Since Potter' not as apt as I thought it was when I started - but what the heck! It seems more important to record all my most exciting finds that to limit myself to some preconceived format.

Another thing is that, for exactly the same reason, I seem to have rather widened my original focus on what I termed children's fiction. I am now also including some of what is more properly these days called YA. Children and young people can, in fact, generally access and enjoy a remarkably wide range of stories when the quality is high enough. Again all to the good, I think. However, I will still steer clear, if I can, of what to me is 'teen' fiction (young romance, with or without swords, sorcery or indeed vampires). That does still fall outside my own area of interest.

So, onward! The pile awaits.

 

 

 

 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Tall Tales from Pitch End by Nigel McDowell

 

Although it is some while since my last post I have not completely neglected my quest. It is partly that I have recently had a rather fallow period with my children's fantasy reading where nothing has quite met my criteria for quality. However I have also been refreshing my reading palate with some more adult fare. Much of this has not even related to my fantasy interest, but one read of particular note in this context was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. This is certainly well worth investigating by anyone interested in children's fantasy. Although it is certainly a more adult book than anything covered in this blog, in terms of sexual content as well as length and complexity, it concerns, in a very central way, the continuing pull and potency of fantasy books read in childhood.

However I am now back on song and have several things to write up.

Those of you who have been following my quest will realise that I have come to Nigel McDowell's first novel Tall Tales from Pitch End the wrong way round, as 'twere, having already read his more recent book The Black North (see post from June). But this has proved, in many ways, to be an interesting order, since it has allowed me to explore the antecedent of what I feel is indubitably a masterpiece.

Predictably Tall Tales is not too far from being a masterpiece itself and certainly contains the seeds of greatness. It can perhaps best be described as presenting a somewhat Orwellian (in some ways even Kafkaesque) dystopia with magical elements. Yet behind its small world of inhabitants cowed by an elite of pseudo benevolent 'Elders', exerting self-centred power through indoctrination and fear, surely lurks the shadow of small town, Catholic Ireland at its most stifling. Perhaps there is something of Ireland too in the 'Rebels' who try to oppose them, unsuccessfully until their final remnants, boy protagonist Bruno and his young friends, finally bring the heritage of story and power of imagination into the fray.

And it is the richness and sheer originality of Nigel McDowell's own imagination that is the first great strength of this book and the first great promise of even more to come. Here he so bravely and originally combines his dystopian world with an apparent magic, identified as 'Talent', and the time distorting/controlling power of clockwork. In this idiosyncratic amalgam he bravely defies fantasy cliches and transcends rigid genres. Yes his characters and their relationships are wholly and richly human. His theme of the importance of story and imagination in countering tyranny and oppression is enormously important too.

Similarly, the author's use of language is already remarkable. Even if it does not yet have quite the mould-breaking excitement and power that begins to show in Black North, there are everywhere wonderful felicities of word and phrase. In the very strong action sequences particularly, he develops an eloquent tautness of language that wonderfully creates pace and beautifully conveys both outer and inner conflict. A delightful Irish lilt subtlety underlies much of the writing too.

In the final analysis I find the plotting of this book somehow just a little heavy. It speaks, understandably, of a debut author trying perhaps just a little too hard to produce a novel of significance. It lacks too some of the subtle ambiguity and rich resonances of The Black North. However it remains a most engaging read; the final battle scenes are thrilling and the denouement moving and satisfying without being trite. It is a wonderful book.

Some writers produce one great work but then never really succeed in living up to it. Great writers, however, develop their craft from book to book, continually break new ground and end up making an astounding contribution to literature and to all of our lives. His first two novels are sufficient to promise that Nigel McDowell will be one such.