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, 29 July 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

This book seems to belong only on the margin of what might be termed fantasy. However it is such a beautifully written book with so many exceptional and engaging qualities that I would not wish to miss the opportunity of recommending it. Of course it scarcely needs my recommendation, already bestselling as it is in its native USA. However it is perhaps not yet as well known here in the UK and it emphatically needs to be, of which more later.
For the most part Serafina and the Black Cloak is perhaps best described as a mystery, a mystery with possible supernatural overtones. Yet take this element out of the picture and what is left, actually the biggest part of the narrative , is essentially a period piece about an impoverished girl living in the cellars of a luxurious mansion who develops a friendship with the young nephew of the household. The location is Biltmore Estate, Noth Carolina, genuine home of the extremely wealthy Vanderbilts. The setting is the very end of the nineteenth century. The basic idea of Serafina and her father living unbeknown to the owners in the grand house's basement, with the girl occupying her night times prowling the corridors undetected and catching rats, seems initially a little on the fanciful side. (Clever author!) This apart, much of the story has a very real and grounded feel. The house and much of its interior are described in loving detail and the period setting is beautifully evoked. Both of these aspects speak of committed research and of the writerly skill needed to bring the results evocatively to life. Word painting is achieved most effectively and, indeed, at some length, although never in the least tediously. This is compounded by the most meticulous creation of the personality, thoughts and feelings of Serafina. Sometimes almost her every step, her every breath are brought to vivid life as she moves through the relatively short time span of the narrative. Rarely, as a reader, have I felt that I have come to know a character so well, to understand her so fully, or to empathise with her so completely. This is lyrical writing of the highest order and it is achieved through some of the most beautifully constructed, classical English prose that I have encountered for a long time. Not that this is thrust in the reader's face, quite the contrary. This writing epitomises the art that conceals art, but its phrases and sentences flow mellifluously across the reading ear. They are a constant delight and convey every nuance of atmosphere, thought and feeling superbly.

In all of this the book has, for me, a great deal of old fashioned charm, in the very best sense. English reader that I am, it reminded me as I went along of some of the later works of Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool, for example, of Helen Cresswell's delightful Moondial, and, yes, even of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.

Serafina and the Black Cloak is a sensitive, evocative piece of writing. Serafina herself is a quite wonderful literary creation and one who generations of children, boys as well as girls, will surely delight in discovering. Equally her rapidly, but deeply developing friendship with Braeden, the young master of the house - friendship that she has never before encountered except in books - is quite wonderfully and touchingly drawn. Both young protagonists personify admirable and most likeable characteristics, whilst remaining convincingly human and vulnerable. Serafina's gutsy determination and fierce loyalty, tempered but never daunted by her very real insecurities, are conveyed every bit as strongly as the author seems to have intended.

For these qualities alone this would be a notable book. But I have not yet reached the real reasons for its unique and very special appeal. Interspersed within the lyricism of this narrative are several passages of high tension, high adrenaline action, again skilfully, but now thrillingly, written. However, this is not the whole picture either. For very gently and subtly the elements of strangeness, of mystery, of horror even, are introduced and built through this lyrical narrative. There are weird goings on in house and in the nearby woods.There are strange things about Serafina too, of which she herself is only all too well aware. The story edges further towards the supernatural. As readers, we begin to feel less sure of our ground. What seemed initially to be Serefina's fanciful imagining creeps closer to reality. Then, in the truly amazing, compulsively exciting climax, the story, helter-skelters into a new understanding. Less well handled, these startling developments could have seemed inconsistent with the earlier tenor of the story. However, such is this author's skill that, once the shocking revalations are reached, we readers see that the seeds of its shifted reality were there all along, even in such subtle clues as the chapter head embellishments. It all makes sense to us in the end, as well as to Serafina, even if it took us a while to fully register quite what sort of world we were vicariously sharing.

It is Robert Beatty's wonderfully trick of turning one story into something quite other, and then getting us to see that it was that story we were being told all along, which makes this book so very special. He pulls it off wonderfully. And if the consequent denouement seems, to an adult reader, to verge on the sentimental, then it must be remembered that children of the age of the intended readership often need everything to be 'all right in the end'. And sentimental or not, even as an adult, it is heart-warming when things work out this way. Then, in the very closing pages, the author lifts us beyond this happy-ever-after with some powerful and imaginative speculation about Serafina's life in the future. It is all quite masterly; a book to fire the imagination and stir the heart, as well as to delight, excite and shock. Wonderful.

However it is most disappointing that this book is not yet published in the UK. If there is a fear that its very specific US context and setting would make it less relevant to a British audience, this is nonesense. Being given the chance to understand a different time and culture is most important for all children, and it is something they are perfectly capable of doing. In any case the parallels between life at Blitmore and that in some of the great English households at the end of the Victorian era appear to be strong. Americans clearly 'get' Downtown Abbey, so we will get Blitmore. Of course Serafina and the Black Cloak can easily be sourced via the Internet, and this is much better than having no access at all. But, as a firm believer in both this novel and in 'real' independent bookshops, I think an actual book presence here would be preferable by far.



Monday, 27 July 2015

Circles of Stone (The Mirror Chronicles #2) by Ian Johnstone

Although we know that he drew on many traditions and narrative precedents, Tolkein essentially provided the benchmark for the epic fantasy as a contemporary fiction genre. Since then such fantasy has proliferated in adult fiction. Although the stories produced have varied enormously in quality, the best are amongst the finest works of imaginative writing of our age. Epic fantasy has similarly been adapted for, or simply crossed over into, a YA audience. Philip Pulman's devastatingly wonderful His Dark Materials is perhaps the ultimate example. This is truly epic, but its sophisticated (anti)religious themes, drawing, sometimes obliquely, sometimes more directly on John Milton, probably require an audience at very least towards the oldest end of the children's fiction range and probably older. In contrast I am aware of hardly any recent examples of genuinely children's fantasy fiction that I would consider epic. By this I mean work which is not simply a long, possibly multi-part, sequence (of which there have been any number), but which is also vast in the scale of its concept and content. The true epic treats with matters of cataclysmic significance for an entire world or worlds, albeit ultimately resolved by a 'simple' individual and his or her companions. What such epic fantasy provides, perhaps more than anything, is a fully immersive experience where the reader becomes involved with a rich and complex world over an extended period of time, experiencing grand dramas both physical and emotional. The best are works of profound universal and personal resonance.

Of course some children's writers have come close. The seminal Harry Potter sequence is certainly vast in length if considered as a whole, but its seven volumes only really encompass a relatively limited world; despite its ultimate 'big battles' it is essentially a school story with Hogwarts always at its heart. Toby Forward's wonderful, and as yet rather under appreciated Flaxfield (US: Dragonborn) Quartet, creates a rich and rewarding world, but it is also relatively contained. Other writers have brought aspects of the epic into the sphere of children's reading by using comedy to offset and lighten the impact of its evil and traumas. A good example of this is Angie Sage's delightful Septimus Heap sequence. Many others have taken the ordinary-kid-discovers-special-powers-and-saves-the-world aspect of the epic fantasy and presented it with more of the ethos of the comic book, if not actual comedy, or compressed its length in supposed deference to the audience. But little seems to have seriously captured the full scope of the truly epic fantasy and successful rendered it accessible to a children's readership. Little, that is, until Ian Johnstone's The Mirror Chronicles. Here now we have developing a true epic fantasy for children - and it is very special indeed.
Circles of Stone is the second volume of what the author seems to have planned as a trilogy. I recorded my very positive response to the first volume, The Bell Between Worlds, earlier in this blog (see post from June '14). This second book is, in fact, very much a direct continuation of that first one, a true Part 2 rather than simply a sequel or a further book in a series. It therefore needs to be read after, perhaps ideally soon after, the first. Its rather gentle opening is the perfect respite, for protagonists and reader, after the high adrenaline climax which ended its predecessor; it would perhaps seem a slow start if approached separately. In any case the second book contains virtually no recap, so it is essential for any reader to be fully cognisant with the characters and events of the first. The pay off is a wonderful sweep of extended story.
I often find that the middle book of even a great trilogy can be the weakest and most meandering. Inevitably it does not have the power and potency of either the beginning or the end, being, by definition, neither. But not so here. I found this second book an even more powerful and engaging read than the first. This is largely because Ian Johnstone skilfully uses the same authorial technique as does Tolkein in The Two Towers, a split narrative. The Mirror Chronicles is essentially a portal fantasy and treats of two worlds, roughly our 'real' world of science and the 'other' world of fantasy. As presented they seem separate but are ultimately interdependent and need to be brought back together. At the centre of this tale are the the 'mirror' halves, the yin and yang, of the same individual, one character from each of the story's two worlds, a boy Sylas and a girl Naeo. In the first book they find each other and experience for the first time the potential power of their united self. Now they split up again to pursue broadly parallel quest, each in the other's world, and seeking the other's missing parent. Their characters are wonderfully drawn and their developing interrelationship highly engaging. Therefore the constant shift between their exciting adventures, so often cleverly left at an intriguing or cliff-hanging moment, draws the reader on in a helter-skelter of compulsive excitement. This is compounded by the author's use of language, which, though perhaps never mould-breaking in style (in the way, say, of Black North or Half Bad) is nevertheless masterly. The way in which Ian Johnstone can vividly evoke a location and thrillingly capture high adrenaline action is mightily impressive.
The world building of The Mirror Chronicles is very special too. Of course, being 'classic', post-Tolkein, high fantasy, the books draw on many archetypes of the genre. Here, for example, are to be found broad equivalents of Rivendell and Lothlorien, there is crucially a Sauron, with hoards of grotesque and gruesome minions, as well as a Galadriel and indeed several Gandalf figures. All of these root the story firmly in its genre and traditions but each is also given fresh and imaginative reinterpretation. Much previous fantasy writing has drawn on Celtic and Scandinavian sources for its characters and recreated mythologies. Others have tried, generally somewhat less successfully, to use Greek and Roman models. Ian Johnstone looks to the mythologies of Ancient Egypt for much of his inspiration, without tying himself to too literal a representation. This gives his world an excitingly different feel and sets up many powerful resonances. Thoth becomes his personification of ultimate evil and an Isis figure, his redemptive 'goddess'. He takes inspiration from an eclectic variety of other sources too though and succeeds in melding them all into a convincing and richly complex fantasy world. Many of Ian Johnsone's imagined or reimagined creations are quite superb, not least the double-helix spiral of a white marble tower that is the Temple of Isia, the black pyramidal Dirgheon and the wonderful but vulnerable sanctuary of the Winterfern Hospital. This latter must surely owe some inspiration to Cornwall's magnificent Eden Project, but, like eveything else, it is here turned into something quite breathtakingly magical.
The extended climax of Circles of Stone is so vividly imagined and skilfully crafted that it is viscerally exciting and turns the later part of this instalment into an irresistible page turner. However, as is fitting for a children's book, there is a good deal of consoling resolution to be found at its end, albeit achieved at considerable cost. Heart-warming reunions are made, but Thoth's war still looms and 'the black' continues to seep into the world. Part 3 awaits, hopefully not too long away. There are hints that it will centre around a visit to Egypt, and it's equivalent in the 'other'. As a life-long Egyptophile, this makes an already exciting prospect doubly so.
In Circles of Stone, what could potentially have been rather disparate elements are strongly held together by the story's key concept of the two related 'mirror' worlds and especially by the personification of these in Sylas and Naeo. They are inspired creations and the developing interrelationship of these two (one?) is absolutely fascinating and quite beautifully handled. There are many other strong and engaging characters too, with often moving relationships developed. These all give the book a very 'real', human feel despite its fantastical context. The issues of the divided world are real too. How science and fantasy relate and need to be reconciled, indeed unified, is something that matters. This is a book to excite and engage children, but also one to make them think; to imagine but also to reflect.
Ian Johnstone uses skilfully crafted language to weft his own highly imaginative and original yarns through a warp of classic fantasy archetypes. The result of this weave is the richest of narrative tapestries, epic in scale and vibrantly alive in colour, texture and figuration. His sequence thus far achieves every aspect of the immersive and all-consuming read that is epic fantasy, whilst still remaining a genuine children's book. However there is clearly more to come. The Mirror Chronicles now needs only a completion which maintains the qualities demonstrated in its first two parts for the whole to become one of the great works of children's fiction.

My only regret, as a collector as well as a reader of children's fiction, is that there is currently no hardback of this second volume to stand on my shelves alongside that of the first. Less selfishly, an important work of this quality surely needs an edition with more enduring and aesthetically pleasing presence than that provided by a paperback. Despite living in a largely disposable and e-media infused world, or perhaps because of this, our children too need to experience, at least on occasion, the feel, the heft, the smell, the joyful physicality of a beautiful volume.


Friday, 3 July 2015

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

I was lucky enough to master reading early and amongst the first longer books I read for myself, at around age five, were those about Mr Galliano's Circus by the then ubiquitous Enid Blyton. (No, sorry, not War and Peace. I was a bit precocious, but not that precocious.) Looking back from a much older perspective her circus stories are most certainly not quality literature, but they made a big impression on me at the time. I put it down to them that I have always had rather a thing about circuses - perhaps the image rather than the reality. I am always a sucker for a good story about a magic circus, and this is a particularly special one.

With Circus Mirandus we are firmly back on the shelf of children's fiction. In fact it is something of an old fashioned children's book - but in the very best sense. It is imaginative, thoughtful, engrossing, exciting, intriguing, moving and, ultimately, comforting.

There are ways in which It belongs firmly in the tradition of Roald Dahl: it has an orphan boy with a much loved grandfather figure; it has an obnoxious, child-hating great aunt; it has a cranky talking parrot; it has its protagonist unexpectedly finding entry into somewhere not totally unrelated to Wonka's Chocolate Factory. However, there are many strands drawn from its rich American heritage too - Katherine Patterson, say, and Betsy Byars - with more than a hint of a particular US brand of whimsy. More than anything it belongs with those children's' books that use fantasy as an expression of children's tussles with difficult aspects of life - and death.

Here the impending death is that of a beloved grandparent, an important issue as this can be the first experience of personal loss for many children. There have, of course, been many other books which have dealt sensitively and helpfully with this particular life event, not least several wonderful picture books. John Burningham's classic Granpa springs particularly prominently to mind and Benji Davis' Grandad's Island is a very notable more recent example. Circus Mirandus is very special too, though, and its longer fictional format and outstanding writing, allow some quite deep exploration of the final stages of a wonderfully strong and rich relationship.

But It is the magic circus, a circus of the imagination, which is at the heart of this little book, and needs most crucially to be a part of the experience of every child. It is because of the inspired conjuring of such a circus that this seemingly gentle novel punches well beyond its weight.

Circus Mirandus is a place of wonders visited first by Ephraim, the grandfather, when he is a boy, and years later by Micah, the story's young protagonist. Whilst there, Ephraim is promised a miracle by the circus's magician, the 'Man Who Bends Light' but decides with great maturity to delay its collection until he really needs it. On his deathbed Ephraim finally decides to call in payment of his miracle and Micah assumes that his grandfather wants what Micah himself so desperately wants, for his grandfather to get better and be his old self again. Whilst the reader begins early to realise that Ephraim's request was not exactly what Micah thought it, a big part of the story's engrossing intrigue is that we do not really get to know, or even quite guess, what the actual requested miracle might be - or whether it can indeed be achieved, even by a magician.

The story cleverly intertwines many other excellent elements too. These include a wonderfully drawn developing friendship between Miach and Jenny, a girl in his school class, and a family tradition of tying knots, which is quite magical - perhaps literally. The climax, which, at least for me as a reader, came as an enchanting surprise (and which I would never dream of revealing here) is very special indeed.
However one the biggest positives of all for this delightful book is its writing. The narrative structure is reasonably complex, with episodes around Ephraim's boyhood visit to the magic circus, skilfully interleaved with current events. There are too several changes in character viewpoint. These are not overtly telegraphed, yet still made accessibly clear for the young reader. Later other characters' stories are woven into the mix, most notably, and illuminatingly, that of Victoria, the Bird Woman. The levels of response to the magic circus are ultimately surprisingly rich and thoughtful for a children's book. It is comparatively rare, that young readers are trusted with so much complexity in the style and structure of their stories; they will benefit greatly from this lack of condescension.
Circus Mirandus is a book that will feed children's imaginations, help them deal with difficult emotions and begin to familiarise them with the glorious possibilities of multi-strand narratives. It is a little classic in waiting, ready to stand alongside the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, although it is, I think, actually the finer book by far.

Well done to UK publisher Chicken House for picking up so quickly on this super US debut.