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.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Copper Gauntlet (Magisterium #2) by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare


 
With their first book in this new sequence, The Iron Trial, these talented, experienced and hugely popular writers worked a very clever trick. They started a story which seemed to be based on so many of the now standard features of Harry Potter type children's fantasy that it was feeling almost clich├ęd. Before the end however they had given this such an original twist, and confounded so dramatically all the expectations they had cannily set up, that it emerged as a most interesting and exciting new contribution to the genre. (See my post from Feb '15.)

Coming to a second in the series however, I did wonder whether they would be able to sustain the same level of originality, having shot the bolt of their devastating surprise at the end of the first novel. I need not have feared. The authors have managed to capitalise wonderfully on the tensions they set up, and even managed to spring a few more surprises, in what is another page turning thriller that builds towards a shocking climax. This is helped along by the very skilful writing and adept plotting you would expect from these two authors. The ending of this second book is, in some ways, rather more positive than the first, although there remain enough intriguing ambiguities and unresolved issues to promise more enjoyable follow-ons.
 
This is essentially comfort reading rather than great children's literature. It is at heart a story about a group of friends having an adventure, albeit with a sinister overlay; The Famous Five, reimagined for contemporary kids through the addition of dark magic. It has all the classic elements, strong friendships and equally strong enmities, jealousies and misunderstandings, sympathetic and hostile adults - and a very special animal. Its characters and relationships are of course far more interesting and complex that anything Blyton ever wrote, and unlike such precursors it includes a dark overlord, no few diabolical monsters, and the persistent threat of evil. In Magisterium all of this is most interestingly intensified by a core confusion about where the boundaries between light and dark lie, particularly within the persona of its principle protagonist.
 

I am sure there will be many children who will feel that here at last, after so many other books have been misleadingly hyped, is something which really is as good as Harry Potter. They will will not be far wrong. It has enough of the same features to make its world reassuringly familiar, and more than enough that is original and different to keep it always intensely engaging and exciting. It explores many of the situations and feelings children know and understand at the same time as giving them, through imagination and empathy, the magical powers they would so like to have. It will entertain, thrill, amuse and 'safely' scare them. J.K.Rowling succeeded because she provided all these things in spades; it looks like these two skilful writers are doing the same.

 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick


I make no apology for including here a book that isn't a fantasy, because The Marvels is a truly magical work in just about every other possible way.

Brian Selsnick's contribution to children's literature has already been amazing, ground breaking in the most exciting of ways. Very much out on his own, he has created what is essentially a new genre of fiction, a novel told through pictures as well as words.

The picture book has, of course, been one of the most important and artistically productive genres in children's literature for a long time. The art of storytelling through graphic conventions has also been an occasional but significant element, developed in pioneering series like Tintin and Asterix. However Brian Selznick's works are categorically not picture books as we know them, nor are they comic books or graphic novels. In most picture books the illustrations complement the words, in one way or another, sometimes simple, sometimes complex. Here pictures alone carry much of the storytelling. In this way these works are much more closely akin to the wonderful wordless picture books of David Wiesner, Shaun Tan or Raymond Briggs. However Brian Selznick's are in every sense full-length novels, with all the extended development, depth and complexity that this term implies. Their uniqueness lies in that their narrative is conveyed through whole sections of full double spread pictures as well as, at other times, through words. The interrelationship of these two forms, of the stories they tell and the way they are told, is germane to Brian Selznick's creations. They are very special.

Although I think The Marvels is the pinnacle of his work to date, it does,of course, have two glorious precedents. His first book in this particular style was the deservedly lauded and awarded The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a considerable wonder of an achievement in itself - and a very important milestone in the history of children's literature.Although Martin Scorsese's subsequent film of the book, titled just Hugo, was an affectionate homage and itself very lovely to look at, in no way could it ever have come near to the quality of experience of the original. It is as a reading phenomenon that this work is so special.

Also a delightful and important book is his second foray into this genre, Wonder Struck. It is particularly exciting that Brian Selsnick continued - and indeed continues - to explore his own format through each subsequent title. The first book told its story primarily through pictures, but with interleaved short passages of text continuing the same narrative. Wonder Struck tells two stories separated by fifty years, one entirely in pictures, the other entirely in words, with each in short sections, again physically interspersed. As the book progresses the intriguing relationship between these two stories gradually becomes apparent.

The Marvels is slightly different in structure again; a further inventive exploration. The first 400 or so pages of the book tell the story of the eponymous Marvels, a family of theatre folk, over several generations, entirely in pictures. They tell it quite wonderfully too. Brian Selznick's trademark full page pencil drawing are enchantingly lovely. He uses a wide range of cinematic perspectives - long shots, overheads, close ups, ultra close ups - and the illusion of different momentums, ranging from quick fire action and periods of quiet stillness, to propell the narrative and dramatically engage the reader. It is amazing how much intense empathy for his characters these pictures can evoke. His story is intriguing and sometimes cleverly shocks by letting readers discover that what they had been led to believe thus far was complete wrong. His interiors and exteriors, including weather and lighting, are often exquisite achieved within the medium. His figure drawing is somewhat naive, yet still enchanting. However it is in his drawing of human faces, in close up and ultra close up, that his great genius as an artist lies. Not only are his faces often exquisitely beautiful, but they convey thoughts and emotions with almost unbelievable depth and truth. The crowning glory of this is his drawing of these characters' eyes. In his hands, these eyes truly are windows to the soul; they convey a complexity of inner life and feeling that is quite uncanny. I would need to reference some of the great masters of portraiture to find anything comparable. They are startling, stunning and so very moving. Anyone thinking that reading pictures like this is a soft option compared to reading text would be very wrong. It needs sensitivity and acuity of observation, and as much, if not more, imaginative contribution from the reader as any written text. However is is a most worthwhile and rewarding activity.

In the second main section of the book, the author tells a story, set much later, in 1990. This principally concerns a runaway boy, Joseph who finds himself staying with his Uncle Albert in a remarkable time-capsule of a house in Spittalfields, London. This narration is entirely in prose and it is clear that, on top of his remarkable drawing skill, Brian Selznick is no slouch with words either. The writing is sensitive and masterly. The story is engaging and intriguing. However it is the gradually discovered relationship between the written narrative and the picture story that is at its heart. The way that we as readers are allowed to tease out what fits where, spiced with the occasional tingling shock of realising that we have been misled, is a real delight and ultimately a most moving revelation. There are ambiguities too, and these just make this remarkable text all the more rich and rewarding.

Towards the very end the narrative reverts to pictures only and so squares the circle, in several ways. Not only is this a return to the format of the earlier storytelling, but it now raises some of the same questions. Of course they are now seen in a different light. The earlier drawings turned out to have been created by a character in the later story. Who is supposed to have drawn these later ones? Do they represent something that actually happened, or are they just someone's dream? Is this part of the 'real' story? But then of course, even the 'real' story is itself a fiction. The whole also, however, has some relationship to an actual reality, that of a remarkable man called Dennis Severs who did indeed create a time-capsule house which can still be visited at 18 Folgate Street, Spittalfields in London. This book both answers questions and asks others. The ideas contained in its multiple layers and considerable depths are fascinating, enigmatic but ultimately beautiful. It challenges our ideas of what is real and what is true and proves yet again that story does not have to be one in order to be the other. This book matters, as only the very greatest of books matter.

There is another way too in which The Marvels is hugely important. It presents a gay relationship in exactly the way I think a 21st Century children's book should do, and needs to do; not only as a loving, long term commitment, but as one which is not 'an issue' in any way. It is simply accepted by Joseph and those around him as a normal, and very special, part of life. When, later, Joseph's own future, in another gay partnership, is subtly and sensitively sketched in, it is touching and beautiful - and perfectly normal too. Children in our still often all too prejudiced world need to see this normality so affectingly modelled.

In fact this work is wonderfully important in so many ways. It pushes the boundaries of Brian Selznick's own ground breaking genre and opens new levels of richness. It movingly tributes Dennis Severs' amazing creation of 18 Folgate Street, yet remains, every word and picture, a magnificent and totally original artistic creation in its own right. For years to come it will enrich the lives of those children who access and explore it, who open themselves to its many marvels and start to see all there is to see in it. It will deepen not only their intellectual understanding but their emotional understanding of their world: of history, lineage and heritage, of stories and dreams, of the reality of the imagination, of beauty, of integrity, of poetry and drama and music, of home and family, and of love.

Some won't see it, but that will be their loss.

The Marvels is the gift of one gentle, quirky, original, inspired anduniquely talented man to the memory of another such - and through him to us all. It will become one of the great works of children's literature of all time, not just of our own. No. It already is.


Note:

If after reading The Marvels you are fascinated by the idea of the Spittalfields house - and it is hard to see who wouldn't be - then I would warmly encourage adults (and maybe some children) to read Dennis Severs' own book 18 Folgate Street (available from the website). It is as charming, whimsical, eclectic and enigmatic as the house itself. Visit too someday, of course; but I suspect that, like me, you will already want that.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett


 

The last published Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett was always going to be a special book, in his readers' affection if nothing else. His contribution to fantasy literature has been enormous, ground-breaking, seminal, what you will. The pure pleasure he has given to so many has been immeasurable. He has also made a most significant (and enjoyable) contribution to children's/YA fantasy writing through the Tiffany Aching series (see my post from June '14). It is therefore a double delight that his last novel is also a continuation of Tiffany Aching's story. That it turns out to be a rather wonderful book in its own right is a considerable bonus. We would confidently have expected this from such a master wordsmith if it hadn't been for his encroaching illness. But we need say no more about that here. No apologia is needed. This book can more than stand up for itself - and will continue to do so for a considerable time to come.

The wonderful Tiffany Aching sequence, is built both structurally and thematically, around the growth from girlhood to early womanhood of its eponymous character. It recounts the key stages of Tiffany's development both as a witch and as a person, which ultimately amount to the same thing. The most charming, and in some ways the most entertaining, of the books are those which deal with the young Tiffany - not least because that is when we are first introduced to a certain little tribe that is one of Terry Pratchett's most entertaining creations, the clan Nac Mac Feegle. The fourth of the sequence, I Shall Wear Midnight, probably remains the most important and the most magical, because that is where Tiffany fully comes into her power as a witch and accepts the implications of who she truly is, even though this means sacrificing a more normal future with her 'young man', Preston. It will always be for me a very moving and special book.

Although not, to be honest, in quite the same exalted league, The Shepherd's Crown does provide a significant extension of Tiffany's personal journey. Now a young woman, it catalogues her personal struggles in taking on the mantle of the Discworld's leading witch, following the death of Granny Weatherwax.

Delightfully The Shepherd's Crown is suffused with the trademark humour of its author, humour which ranges from the sublimely witty to the joyfully silly. It also has quotable aphorisms aplenty. Terry Pratchett's erudite eclecticism still involves misquoting sources as dispirate as Dad's Army and Shakespeare. His effervescent and twinkly wicked invention still includes the coining of names like Becky Pardon, the creation of characters like the privy-using goat, and the mild scatalogy of witches' broom makers cutting a special notch in the staff to accommodate the 'comfort' of a male rider.

However it has to be said that, although the through line of Tiffany's development is clear, this book, does not have the strongest storyline of the Terry Pratchett oeuvre, or indeed of the Tiffany Aching sequence. Its narrative is particularly meandering and episodic. It is sometimes lyrical, more often anecdotal but, the final battles with the elves apart, it is rarely action-packed. As such it's is almost certainly not the best introduction to either Discworld or to Tiffany Aching. But then it is very much a conclusion, an ending, so it wouldn't be, would it?

Nevertheless, this book does contain a number of very wonderful and very important story elements.

As might perhaps be expected in a book from this author at this stage of his own life, it is very much about death and legacy. The whole long sequence about the death of Granny Weatherwax, which dominates much of the early part of the book, is quite superbly handled. He narrates beautifully Granny's simple acceptance of her own impending death, expressed through her very practical preparations for it. Yet, when it happens, he also skilfully expresses its resonance through so many dispirate lives across Discworld. Her conversation with Death is another Terry Pratchett classic, touching in its honesty. This is not a picturing of death that plumbs the depths of religious (or anti-religious) theorising, but it is nevertheless a profound and moving depiction of acceptance and reconciliation, of the proper and natural end of a long life well spent. It also, of course, sets up the context for what will be the principal developmental theme of the rest of the novel: whether Tiffany should take over 'wearing Granny's boots', whether she wants to, whether she can if she wants to, and if so how she should go about it if she does.

A second quite stunning and vitally important element of this final Tiffany Aching book is Terry Pratchett's bringing into being the brand new character, Geoffrey Swivel. Geoffrey is a reader, an animal lover and a vegetarian. He is a 'calm-bringer' not a fighter and he empathises readily with other human beings. In other words his interests and inclinations are those which some factions of our society still identify as 'girly'. To compound this, he wants to be a witch, a role hitherto exclusively filled by females. Yet he is portrayed as an enormously strong and influential character within the story. Indeed he not only contributes very significantly to the defeat of the elves but is the person eventually chosen by Tiffany for a particularly special role. One of the most telling passages of the book comes when Tiffany questions whether Geoffery really wants to become a witch rather than a wizard, reminding him that it is not considered a very manly calling: 'I've never thought of myself as a man, Mistress Tiffany. I don't think I'm anything. I'm just me,' He said quietly. In his portrayal of Geoffery Swivel Terry Pratchett makes the strongest possible case against gender stereotyping, and provides a supportive and sympathetic role model for boys of similar disposition, of which there are many. Good for him.

Of course at the centre of this book is Tiffany herself. Despite her magical abilities and her calling as a witch, Tiffany Aching is easily one of the most human, the most real of Terry Pratchett's creations. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Discworld is inhabited completely by two-dimensional characters, quite a few have significant depth, but Tiffany is more fully rounded, more complex and ambivalent in her makeup than most. This has been well established in the earlier books in her series, but it is certainly compounded here. Tiffany's full commitment to becoming a witch, made at the end of I Shall Wear Midnight turns out, realistically, not to be the end of the story. It is significant that her interpretation of this role in practice involves relatively little magic and much more caring for people - she is essentially a district nurse/midwife on a broomstick. Further, her big issue in deciding in whose shoes, or 'boots', she wants to live her adult life, is very real, one with which it is very easy to identify. When, at the end of the book, she realises that she can only be herself, not try to live like someone else, however significant that person's life might have been, Terry Pratchett is making his most important statement in this book, and perhaps in his entire oeuvre.

There is one more vital element in Tiffany's story, 'The Chalk', the place where she was born and brought up, as were all her family before her. Just as Tiffany has always been the most real of Terry Pratchett's characters, so The Chalk is the most real place in Discworld. Its landscape, its features and its very particular rural activities are really very close to those of a part of England. It is a little bit of England in the middle of Discworld. And it is Tiffany's bond to this place, the place where her family has always belonged, where she herself feels rooted, grounded, which ultimately motivates her. The Chalk helps Tiffany find herself. She needs to know not only who, but where she is, where she comes from. Tiffany finally sees her true heritage as being from her own grandmother, Granny Aching, the shepherd, and from The Chalk itself. It is the titular Shepherds Crown on a thong around her neck, and the spirits of her grandmother's sheep dogs which seem to be the source of her ultimate victory over the elves, and in the end she realises this..

Importantly, the Shepherd's Crown is not actually a magical,object, it is a relic and a symbol of The Chalk and its ancient past. Although she will continue as a witch, in her own way, Tiffany will in future be just as much a shepherd, as was her own grandmother. She is discovering a new 'magic '. At the very end of the book she moves into the little shepherd's hut which she herself has built, not using witch magic, but with her own hands, and: 'From the bed she could see out of a small window - see clear across the downs, right to the horizon. And she could see the sun rise, and set, and the moon dance through its guises - the magic of everyday that was no less magic for that.'

Discworld is changing too, perhaps also becoming less magical, or magical in a different way. Not only will Tiffany be a very different kind of 'Senior Witch', but the railways have arrived and are crisscrossing the landscape with the iron that will ultimately reduce the evil elves to storybook fairies. The goblins are being integrated into society. Industrialisation will change Discworld as it did our own. Fantasy will eventually meld back into reality. Not yet, but it is coming. It may not be the change that we want, but it will happen nonetheless. We and the inhabitants of Discworld will just have to accept it,

This is at heart a gentle book, but also a brave one and a wise one. The ideas which it embodies are essentially simple: that when a life draws to its proper end, death is to be accepted and not feared; that we need to move past gender stereotypes; that each of us has both a right and a duty to be our own person; that certain people are fortunate to belong to a particular place and take forward its legacy; that as time moves on the world must change; that peacemaking ('calm-bringing') is a wonderful thing, but that sometimes we just have to fight back when those we love are threatened.

Such thoughts are not particularly original. They have been said and heard often enough before. However they are profoundly truthful. They need to be said and heard again - and again. To fully understand this, to say the things that need to be said without trying to be fancy or smart arsed, and to say them with both wit and compassion, is the wisdom of age. Terry Pratchett 's writing is deeply humane. If we allow it to, then reading it will make us all a little more human. This is why his work and its crown, its Shepherd's Crown, are very special. Terry Pratchett's final book will be read by folk of many ages, but he chose to write it for the young. To quote the man himself: 'They are to deal with the future. And being young means they've got a lot of future.' He has left to them the accumulated wisdom, the simple truths of one whose actual life had very little future. It is a wonderful gift. And now he has a lot of future too.

 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano



I have noted before that some books seem to find their own way to you; they chose their own time to be read. Here is a good example. I am currently in the middle of reading Terry Pratchett's final Tiffany Aching , a book I that have been eagerly awaiting. It is a fine book and I am enjoying it enormously. I confidently expect that it will be the subject of my next post. Yet when A Curious Tale of the In-Between landed on my doormat, in consequence of a pre-order I had almost forgotten, I just flipped it open to get a feel of the writing and virtually didn't stop reading until I had finished it.

It is clearly a compelling little tale. This is in no small part due to wonderful writing, both in terms of its language and of its narrative. It is strikingly original in concept and in realisation. Both its language and its story have a certain quirkiness, an arresting weirdness, and emanate from a very unique and special authorial voice. Lauren DeStefano adds to this a protagonist - twelve year old Pram, who is beautifully drawn and readily engenders empathy - and a supporting cast of equally vivid characters. In consequence, a reading experience which starts off as intriguing rapidly becomes engrossing. Beneath its quirky, sometimes humorous, cloak this book shelters much truth, warmth and humanity.

A children's book (key audience around 9-13?) is I think a new departure for popular US YA author Lauren DeStefano. The genre of this relatively short novel is rather hard to pin down. It hovers between ghost story and fantasy. However it is probably in the end closer to fantasy, or perhaps 'magical realism'. Within its own parameters as a fiction, ghosts, and Pram's ability to see and talk to them, are perfectly real. Others may think she is imagining them, but she is not. This ability is her 'magic', her gift. Yet underneath this her situation and her issues are very grounded. In this, the novel shares much with a strong tradition of American children's literature that uses fantasy to explore the issues of very real kids, often when they find themselves in challenging life circumstances. It is related to other wonderful, and equally 'spooky' books like Holly Black's Doll Bones and Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs, although as with both these examples, it is never derivative, always totally its own work.

On many levels 'spooky' is too comfortable a term for this book. There are many things about A Curious Tale of the In-Between which are genuinely frightening and possibly disturbing. The story opens with a brief but vivid scene of a pregnant mother hung from a tree; this sets something of a tone for later developments. It is a book for children, but for children with a certain maturity as readers. Actually these opening paragraphs are quickly passed and the story settles for quite a while into a charming and entertaining one where the ghosts encountered are no more threatening to either Pram or the reader than those of, say, Neil Gayman's Graveyard Book; they are friendly little chappies. In fact the principal ghost at this stage is Felix, a young boy who fulfills much the same role for isolated Pram as would the imaginary friend, even though he is actually as real as it is possible for a ghost to be. At the same time Pram's growing friendship with, Clarence, a living boy from her school, is warm and reassuring.

However, about half way through, the story takes a decidedly darker turn and enters a long sequence which verges on the surreal. It is at least disquieting and potentially genuinely frightening. Even though the final denouement returns to something much more positive, if still somewhat ambiguous, this is overall quite a long way from being a cozy read. To put this in perspective, the darkest parts are no more dark than those, say, in the final book of Harry Potter. However there is something in the way this book treats with death, and sets ghosts and the spirit world against a otherwise comparatively realistsic setting, that could be very troubling for some. I do hope that not too many children (or parents) are put off by this, for within, and indeed through, this somewhat dark context, this book has a great deal of humanity and compassion. More than anything it has much of major importance to say about being a child of this age.

Many books for young readers concern themselves with growing up, with coming of age, with an individual starting to become 'what they were meant to be.' This is of course a crucial theme. However A Curious Tale of the In-Between is not really about growing up. It is about being almost-but-not-quite-ready-to-grow-up, not-really-a-child-but-not-yet-an-adolescent-either, and this stage is in itself a most important and valuable part of life. It is not simply a preparation for adulthood or even for adolescence, it is something in its own right. Further, at its very heart this book is a pean to that quality of love that abides in very special, close friendship. This can often and particularly be found at this age, for it is a love which is not yet ready to be sexual, it is not even really romantic. Nevertheless it is love, a very intense and poignant love. It is significant that the nightmares of the book are precipitated by the sudden absence of the ghost Felix, but even more so by what happens to Clarence.

The friendship Pram has for Felix is indeed a childish one, a friendship of shared laughter and silly games, and by the end of the novel she is ready to move past it. But the friendship she develops for Clarence is truly one of love, perhaps the purest she will ever know. It belongs to pre-adolescence and to that period alone. It may be that in the furture it will grow into something different for either or both of them. But for the present it is what it is. It Is important. Their present stage of life is important, for them and for all children, and it is important for children to know this. It is a worry when our society pressurises them to hurry through or past it.

At the very end of the book Pram can start to see some of the things she might do and some of the things she might become in the the future. However she also knows that she is not quite ready yet to be older than she is. Good for her. This is a very special and rather wonderful book. It is a tale of the in-between in more ways than one. It is a tale about and for the in-between.