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.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

It is one of the classic formats of fantasy fiction for the narrative to be built around a journey. The Mark of the Dragonfly sits securely within this tradition and the protagonist, Piper, sets herself the mission of taking the lost and amnesiac Anna back to her supposed home in the distant 'Dragonfly Territories'. It is however unique in my experience of reading children's fantasy for almost all of such a journey to be made on board an old and very special steam train, as it is in Jaleigh Johnson's exciting debut.

And this is far from the only imaginatively mould breaking element of her book.
At the core of the world this writer creates is a dystopian society operating with rather crude mechanics (essentially 'steampunk' ), where disparate and largely broken elements of 'our' more advanced civilisation are scavenged as treasures. This is, in itself, a set up that I have encountered in so many recent books that is in danger of becoming over worked and rather tired as a concept. In addition the geography of the relatively small world of her narrative is split into two rival kingdoms clearly close to the brink of war. This is another fantasy trope that hangs for me on balance between convention and cliché. However here Jayleigh Johnson revitalises these elements by mixing them with other surprising and superficially rather inconsistent elements. Her creation has elements of pure science fiction in that, alongside the human inhabitants of her world, live a race of completely non- humans, the tentacled 'sarnuns' . Their place, at least In this particular narrative, is almost incidental and close to feeling gratuitous. Yet their presence does give the world a strong feeling of 'otherness' and challenges what could otherwise have been an easy assumption that this is simply part of our own earth projected into some post apocalyptic future. On top of this, or perhaps more accurately within it, are elements which belong far more to high fantasy. Not the least of these comes with the realisation that one of the story's key characters belongs to yet another race of beings and is in fact a shape shifter who can transform from his human form into a winged, rather dragonish, creature. There is magic too, at least of a kind, and the protagonist, Piper, discovers that she is a 'synergist', with the power to command and control mechanisms, both constructively and also with dramatically destructive force. This is all very strange - but in a good way, in fact a wonderful way. All these elements could feel very disparate and confused, yet Jayleigh Johnson manages to meld them very effectively into a totally convincing and enthralling world.
The great strengths of the book lie in its story-telling, which skilfully provides both compelling narrative drive and rich character development. The plot is gripping and has many surprising, even shocking, twists and turns. Edge of the seat excitement abounds. Yet the author also allows her story space and time. It is relatively long for a first children's novel, but here this is an asset. It gives ample opportunity for reflection on and enrichment of her world and her characters. The protagonist, Piper, together with Anna and Gee, who develop into her two very close friends - she is just a little young for outright romance - are all splendid creations. They are complex, endearing without being saccharine and certainly not idealised. Their development is as much a gripping element of the story as is the action which precipitates it. Other characters are strongly drawn as well, both the good guys on the train and those met en route. The chief 'baddie' is appropriately chilling too, and also turns out to be somewhat more complex that first painted. However this is very much Piper's story and it is excellent to have found yet another great fantasy adventure with a strong and feisty female lead. I hope we are moving steadily towards blurring or even erradicating silly distinctions between girls' and boys' books and through literature, licencing the young of each gender to identify with the thoughts and feelings of the other. We may then truly move closer towards genuine 'He for She/She for He' society. This book should certainly help. It deserves to reach a wide audience and I hope it will shortly be published over here as well as in the US. However, thanks to the Internet I am pleased to say that it is already fairly easily obtainable.

Strangely, neither this volume nor its accompanying website make any specific mention of a sequel. I hope and trust there is actually more on the way, and soon. Here is a story crying out to be developed into, say, a trilogy or quartet. Despite this book's warm and satisfying ending, there is so much in both this world and these characters which the reader is left aching to know more about. As it stands, this is an excellent fantasy read. If the author can extend its potential into a cohensive, fully developed and resolved sequence, then it could be the start of a great work of children's literature.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee



Here is another stunningly good find from publishing house Hot Key who seem to have been signing up some wonderful writers recently.

It is good too to have made my first recent discovery of a great new book by an Australian author. There is such a strong tradition of outstanding children's literature from Australia. Going back a while, I would certainly place Patricia Wrightson on my list of all-time greats, and there are many deserved classics like Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow. More recently Sonya Hartnett and Morris Gleitzman spring to mind (especially the latter's deeply affecting Once, Then, Now and After sequence) and there are many more

Karen Foxlee certainly proves herself to be a writer fully worthy of this rich heritage. However Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy also belongs to a tradition of children's literature to which I refered in a vey recent post (on Holly Black's Doll Bones), that in which young people's traumatic issues are worked out through a (metaphorical) involvement in fantasy, often in the form of reimagined or reinvented fairy tale. This is a sub-genre which I primarily associate with US writers, although of course there is a lot of cultural interchange between The States and Australia. Ophelia is certainly a splendid addition to this important strand of children's literature. The tradition has already provided many all time greats and there is good reason to think that here we have another.

Superficially, however, there are several basic aspects of this book that seem rather a long way from being particularly original. The central issue of the book concerns a young girl, the eponymous Ophelia, trying to cope with the recent early death from serious illness of her mother. Such bereavement of children has already been the subject matter of a good many notable antecedents. It is, of course, an important topic and will come as fresh and vital to many of this book's young audience. However, in children's literature terms, it has been rather well worked already.

In the fairy tale world which intrudes itself into Ophelia's life the principal character is an evil Snow Queen who is holding the land in perpetual winter. Of course, one of the features of fairy tale is that it uses easily recognisable archetypes. Certainly too this queen is an excellent metaphor for the frozen emotions that Ophelia's family experience following the bereavement. However, it is also a figure that has already been very well used in children's story, not least of course by C S Lewis. Is it perhaps getting over-worked? The idea of this fairy tale persona eventually conflating with the principal adult character of the 'real' story is again not new.

The setting too, a museum, although offering lots of fascinating potential is one that has already featured in numerous children's books. And then the core of the inner narrative revolves around a 'prophesy', the fulfilment of which eventually inevitably emerges as falling to Ophelia. If any story device in a fantasy book is likely set my alarm bells ringing it is that old chestnut the prophesy!

In fairness, Karen Foxlee does add to these familiar elements many imaginative and inventive features of her own. The whole character and story of the Marvellous Boy himself, the unlikely hero who has been sent to find the 'Other One' needed to defeat the Winter Queen, is charming and original. Additionally many of the witch's minion creatures, not least the 'misery birds', do very potently conjour up nightmarish fears.

However it is not the plot as such, nor even the basic theme, important and potent as it is, that makes this book so very compelling. It is the way that the novel is written. This is quite wonderful and undoubtedly transforms what could have been a good but slightly unoriginal story into an all-time gem of children's literature.

Three things particularly excite me about Karen Foxlee's writing, although I could go on for ages about its many delights and stunningly effective qualities.

The first is her use of language itself. What is remarkable here is not so much the vocabulary she employes, although this is has that quality of apt and deceptive simplicity that makes it easily readable yet immediately communicative. Rather it is her turn of phrase, her imagery, and her patterning of language which is such a constant delight. Often mellifluous, always fresh and exciting, this writer can build words together in ways which constantly enlighten and enliven her storytelling. Her wording really draws the reader into her characters, as well as into the two initially different, but gradually integrating, worlds of her story. There is a richness that continually catches both the imagination and the inner ear of the reader. It unobtrusively but surely beguiles that reader to enter right inside her narrative. Karen Foxlee's creation proves, is effect, not to be that of an impoverished or derivative voice, but of an enormously rich and lively authorial imagination. Over and again she demonstrates a lightness but sureness of touch which belies very considerable writing skill. One particular aspect of this is that she is almost obsessed by lists. But not in a bad way, in a totally entertaining and delightful way. The beautifully constructed and patterned lists which permeate this narrative - lists of the museum rooms through which Ophelia runs, lists of her putative names for the Marvellous Boy, lists of the thoughts of the ghost girls who haunt one of the rooms - give it an energy and rhythm which verge on the poetic and would make it a wonderful text to read aloud. And there are not only actual lists, but stylistic 'lists' too. Karen Foxlee makes frequent and effective use of those rhetorical devices of repeated words and phrases which are often associated with Churchillian speeches; things like anaphora and isocolon, if we want tobe technical. But technicalities don't really matter here. Felicities abound.

The second feature of this writing which so impressed and thrilled me is the clever subtlety with which character, plot and theme are in practice revealed and communicated. This writer never hits you over the head with exposition or explanation. Rather she reveals gently, often briefly, but always tellingly too. And what she reveals is therefore all the more believable and all the more affecting. A great of example of this is the way in which, once we have been introduced to her little behaviours, it only takes a simple statement that Ophelia has puffed at her inhaler, or tugged on one of her own hair plaits, casually mentioned, often without elaboration, for us to know exactly how she is feeling and reacting. All the depth of thought and feeling associated with the loss of her mother is dealt with in exactly the same casually simple but profoundly revealing way. In fact the central character, Ophelia herself, is so cleverly and sensitively drawn that she ends up as one of the most endearing and moving protagonists that I have encountered in a children's novel for a long time. In her own way she is very much a Frodo. She is basically insecure, lost, afraid, and yet she presses on with doing the difficult things which need to be done in a way that shows character and bravery far exceeding flashy heroics. This is epitomised in one of my very favourite lines, spoken by Ophelia after the Marvellous a Boy has thanked her for rescuing him: 'I probably shouldn't do it again. I have very bad asthma.'

The third aspect of the writing that I found so compelling was the structuring of the whole narrative. The way the 'back story ' of the Marvellous Boy Is integrated through the early sections is beautifully handled with gently differing styles distinguishing the two realities. Even more telling is the way the two world converge as Ophelia's quest evolves. The metaphorical dimension of her crucial part in defeating the Snow Queen becomes gradually clearer as her own 'real' emotional journey deepens. The resolution, which is of both the fairy story and of the real-life issue, is a small triumph of storytelling.

As well as being a book about dealing with loss and grief , this is also a book about the importance of fantasy itself. Initially Ophelia finds her security in order, rational explanation and scientific understanding, traits very much inherited from her father. By the end she has allowed her life, her thinking, and her being to be balanced by imagination, by the creativity that is the legacy of her story writing mother. Opelia has learned to follow her heart as well as her head, and this is another wonderful thing.

On the surface, this is a relatively short, easy read intended primarily for a young audience. There is no problem in that. Indeed the writing skill, the imagination and the sensitivity which have gone into its crafting have resulted in a true little gem. I am tempted to include it on my list of the real greats of twenty first century children's literature to date. In fact I will. Children who read it thoughtfully will not only have an enthralling experience but also end up more sensitised to important aspects of the human condition. Even if unaware of it, they will have experienced extremely skilful writing too - and that is another most valuable thing. They will have been enriched.