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, 17 November 2015

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon

'I know you're not a fantasy, in the sense of the books I usually record here,' said the blogger, 'but I'll be blowed if I'm not going to write about you anyway. I feel very privileged to have read a classic whilst it's so newly minted.'
He was speaking to the book he'd just finished. If Archer B. Helmsley* could hold conversations with stuffed animals, then he didn't see why an old codger like him shouldn't talk to his books.
'Do you mean me?' said The Doldrums. 'I feel pretty new, but I didn't know I was a classic.'
'Well you are,' said the blogger. 'Or you will be, sure. Sure as eggs.'
'You mean like Aristotle's Poetics?'
'I always knew you were a very intelligent book, despite your hiding it quite well. No. Not exactly. More like The Railway Children or The Borrowers.'
'Hey. I am American you know.'
'To the core. Sorry. Like The Phantom Tollbooth then, or A Winkle in Time.'

'Am I very like them?'
'No. Not a bit. You're a bit like a lot of things. And not a lot like anything. In fact a lot not like anything. That's the thing. That's why you're classic. Mostly. That and being beautiful. And funny. And clever. And amazing. And touching. And Different. Did I say that already?'
'You may have. Was it a compliment?'
'It surely was.'
'Well, Thanks then, I suppose.'
'You're welcome.'
Probably enough. The Doldrums is indeed an odd read. In a good way. In fact in a wonderful way. As I just told the book, it kept reminding me vaguely of other things - a very eclectic mix of other things - but without being terribly like any of them.
It is very much a children's book, although with a sophistication and wit which I think will greatly appeal to older readers too. It certainly belongs to a particular, very American tradition of writing for children: books about the everyday lives of rather hard-done-to, just slightly quirky, but independent-thinking kids, with remarkable resilience and humour. You know, The Pinballs and the like. In The Doldrums there are three principal children: Archer whose explorer grandparents have disappeared by floating off on an iceberg and, in consequence, whose mother won't ever let him out of the house in case anything similar happens to him; Adeliade, who is trying to compensate for a wooden leg and the fact that it thwarted her ambitions to become a dancer; Oliver, who is desperately lonely and just wants friends. The story has just hints of Roald Dahl too, with the kids presented as the more normal ones in a world of grotesque and sometimes rather monstrous grown-ups; although here not all the adults are quite so bad.
There are also strands of a tradition that goes right back to Edith Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers say, and through her to Edward Eagre's Half Magic, and on; all those countless books about children having 'an adventure'. But here's the thing about The Doldrums. Although its kids very much want an adventure, and even plan one (after a fashion), it never actually happens. In fact nothing very much happens at all. In this sense the comparison which leapt to my mind is David Shelton's phenomenal*** A Boy and a Bear in a Boat****. The Doldrums is not quite as enigmatic or indeed as absurdist as David Shelton's book*****, but there are times when it feels like it is getting close; so little happens in such a wonderful, totally enthralling way. These kids so much want to go on their adventure but, like the stuffed animals which permeate the story (and the illustrations), they go nowhere fast.
I have another comparator too, perhaps a weird one. In this one respect the kids in The Doldrums bring to mind The Three Sisters. In Chekov's play the main characters are always harping on about going to Moscow. But they never actually go or even make much move to get there. In fact their desire to go to Moscow, and their failure to go is a metaphore, an outward expression of their inner state. So with our trio in The Doldrums, their inability to make it as far as the adventure is essentially what the story is about. Actually, they are not in a position to go. They can go in their own fantasies, but in reality it is just not feasible. They are at an age and stage where they are caught in the Doldrums of life, they have plenty of ideas, bold intentions, aspirations, but they are only children, becalmed by their lack of age and experience.

In fact it is a little unfair to say that nothing happens in the book. It narrates many incidents in the everyday lives of these children. These are mostly amusing, some are farcical and some hilarious. Towards the end of the book they do travel alone across town on a bus to look for a ship to take them to Antarctica. Then they come right back home on the bus again! As the climax of the whole tale they precipitate a stupendous chase through a museum, when they are pursued by tigers (for once real not stuffed). But they still end up at home again at the end of it. It is not quite that nothing happens, just that nothing much happens, or at least that the adventure the kids so long for doesn't happen.
Yet the book is an unalloyed joy, every word, every page, every chapter. So what makes a book with so little (apparent) development of its key storyline so hugely enjoyable? More than anything it is the fact that it is written with such humanity, such humour, such pervasive wit and so much love and understanding for its hugely likeable protagonists. It is a very funny book indeed. One last comparison, it reminds me somehow of the Peanuts comic strip and its characters. I am still trying to sort out just why. I think it is because both invite us to laugh at the precocious cleverness of these children but also at their naïveté, sometimes at their over-confidence, and even their self-delusion. Yet they never do so with any malice whatsoever, rather always with admiration and love. These are just delightful children, far from perfect, but quite wonderful in their integrity and in their commitment to each other. It is actually a story about being young, about having dreams, about looking for love, but more than anything about friendship, and this is the story which Nicholas Gannon develops richly in the course of its telling.
There is another major thing which makes this book such a great one and that is the author's wonderful skill with language in particular and with writing overall. His original style and often very dry verbal wit are a constant delight. An excellent example of his unique bookcraft is when, after having employed, very entertaining section headers right through, he uses these in quick-fire succession to create furious momentum for the climactic chase through the museum.
The volume is lavishly illustrated too, not only with numerous drawn vignettes but with many stunning full page and double spread paintings, all by the author himself. These paintings, in muted colours across a predominantly sepia pallette, are often detailed, somewhat architectural scenes with very squared off perspective and a somehow exaggerated feeling of space. They are populated, often sparsely, with realistic animals (albeit generally stuffed) and more simply depicted, rather cartoon-like people. They are distinctly idiosyncratic and rather difficult to pin down in style. They made me think of some sort of weird cross between, say, Anthony Browne and Edward Hopper, with perhaps a touch of Andrew Wyeth thrown in. Just like the text of the book, though, they are arresting, and somehow very American. You instinctively know that they are something very special. They communicate strongly to both head and heart and are strangely beautiful. The combined result of this harmonious amalgam of text and visual images (supplemented by the outstanding production values of the hardback volume itself) makes for a remarkable whole; like the very best picture books, but vastly extended. It hefts most satisfyingly in the hand, and in the memory too.
This volume is prominently marked as Book One, so clearly there is more to come. Exactly where this is going, or whether indeed anything much will happen next is less clear. Indeed, after the delights of this first book going nowhere much, it may not be such a good thing if it did. I probably should not try to second guess such a startlingly original writer. I shall abide in impatience instead.
*Who? Just read it for yourself. Love Marmite**, love this book!
**US readers: What?
****Which reminds me I have not yet written up what is surely one of the most remarkable (and brilliant) children's books of recent years. Note to self: must.
*****Magnus Mills for children. If you haven't read it you really should. My biggest non fantasy must for fantasy fans.




Saturday, 14 November 2015

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone, Illustrated by Jim Kay

Yes. I know. This blog is supposed to be about children's and YA fantasy written since Harry Potter. So why am I writing about the already iconic . . . and the Philosopher's Stone from way back in 1997? Simply because the publication of a brand new, fully illustrated edition is, for good or bad, too significant an event in the history of children's publishing to ignore. As happens, I think it has turned out to be very much for the good.
Of course illustrating the first Potter was always going to be a big risk. Most of us have already read it, probably reread it, read it to our children and even read it to the cat. Not to mention having done the same with the rest of the huge series too. This means we already each have our own cherished and long built-up images of its characters, settings and scenes, having rightly and wonderfully let our own imaginations and sensitivities respond to Joanne Rowlings evocative text. Added to which most of us, like it or not, also have the images of the movie emblazoned on our brains. Some I suspect have let the latter superimpose themselves , others will have reconciled the two, and yet others tried to reject the film in favour of their own preferred visualisations. But do we really now need someone else again to try to foist their own images on us? Of course there have been other new visuals since the movie, on the website and on the covers of subsequent editions, but nothing really on this scale. Is this new edition something that diehard Potter fans need to shun, leaving it to the few, perhaps younger, children who have yet to discover him?
Actually, I think that any who do will miss out, in a very big way. Jim Kay has succeeded wonderfully in giving us some magnificently stimulating and enriching images, which genuinely enhance rather than conflict with those that come directly from the text itself. They add too rather than break the spell of our own imaginings; illuminate the fantasy without destroying the magic.
Jim Kay's pictures have been created in a wide range of styles and formats, from delicate and detailed vignettes to dramatic and impressionistic double page spreads. But then Joanne Rowling's story equally encompasses a wide range of moods and styles, from humorous to heroic and from tender to tense. One of her many great achievements is to meld these different elements convincingly into a totally enchanting whole. Jim Kay has now pulled off the equivalent feat with his illustrations, pulling together his entertaining variety of approaches into pleasing overall cohesion; always exciting, surprising and enthralling, but never jarring or out of place.
Amongst my many highlights are the very detailed architectural drawings which he uses thrillingly to depict the exterior of Hogwarts. Here he suggests something approaching high fantasy, feeding rather than impoverishing the imagination. Sometimes sharply drawn buildings are atmospherically contrasted with more hazily iimpressionistic landscape or foliage (as when Draco Malfoy is shown flying with the Remembrall), almost reminiscent of the work of John Piper. In a different style the intricately detailed wooden door which backgrounds the portrait of Hermione wonderfully evokes all the generations of students who have attended Hogwarts in the past. In yet another rather different style, he echoes wonderfully the rampant invention and the pure magical charm of Joanne Rowling's Diagon Alley in a way that the movie, for all is high tech wizardry, never quite does.
Also impressive are Jim Kay's full page portraits of many of the major characters. These too vary slightly in style, often echoing the personality being depicted. Draco Malfoy's is verging on photorealism and decidedly creepy, whilst Hagrid's is dark and wild, it's dramatic perspective giving us a stunning feeling of his huge size. Almost all do what the very best portraits always do, provide considerable insight into the person as well as describing their appearance. Dumbledore's eyes speak volumes and the juxtaposed objects (honesty plant, bag of sweets, book and - yes, look carefully - knitting) wittily echo Renaissance symbolism. In somewhat similar vein, Prof McGonagall is portrayed very much as she is perceived in this first book, toad and all. Ron's portrait, in contrast, has superficial simplicity yet shows brilliantly so much about him. The artist has captured his outward geekiness and self-deprecating humour but also, again in the eyes, the capacity for love and loyalty that will see him through so much. All these portraits add much to, rather than take away from, our appreciation of these large personalities.They are masterly.
Yet is in the representation of Harry himself that Jim Kay really excels himself and makes a truly great contribution to a truly great book. There are many splendours to discover. The sensitive depiction of Harry in the under stairs cupboard movingly captures both the injustice of his situation and the boy's inner strength. Equally poignant is the scene of Hagrid taking Harry from the island shack. Here the forward motion of the boat, the wheeling of the seagulls, the boy's reaching arm and, more than anything, his face brilliantly capture Harry's joy at escaping and his desperate wish for a better future.The cover picture of the Kings Cross platform (better seen opened out inside than folded as the dust jacket) is inspired in the way it uses the train's steam to isolate Harry, and fix his gaze oh the flock of magical owls wheeling overhead. It so touchingly conveys him as experiencing complex feelings of awe, excitement and insecure trepidation. There are many other delights, too, not least Harry with the Mirror of Erised and Harry talking with Dumbledore shortly afterwards, which again tenderly enhance the text and provide illuminating insight into the boy's feelings.
For me, though, the supreme triumph of this whole suite of illustrations is the large sepia portrait of Harry from late in the volume. In this one image Jim Kay captures a vulnerability within Harry, which no one else has so perfectly or so movingly revealed.
All in all, Jim Kay's sensitivity and skill has turned what could potentially have been a damp squib, or even a disaster, into a triumph. This Illustrated edition is a major and very welcome addition to the Harry Potter canon.

Nevertheless, were I talking to a confident, independent young reader who had not yet encountered Harry Potter as a book, I would still recommend reading a text only edition first. This volume could then provide a treasured later addition to their bookcase. However this illustrated version may well also proove a way in to the first Potter for many less confident readers, who may, as yet, be daunted by uninterrupted prose. As so it is a wonderful opportunity. Even more so, I think this new volume is possibly the ideal one for any parent, grandparent or other carer who wishes to read with their child. Spread out between the two, it would provide an attractive, accessible and marvellously rich shared experience.

Whichever way, the fact that it might encourage more new readers to this iconic text is to be most warmly welcomed. Harry is now, after all, as much a part of our culture as Caroll's Alice's or Milne's Winnie the Pooh, perhaps more so. Indeed anything which brings children into reading, and especially into reading magical fantasy, does enormous service to each individual child and to the world.

Why? Because such reading engenders imagination. And imagination is the very lifeblood of all that we are and all that we do. It is a big part of what turns existence into living. It is vital for human relationships - for establishing empathy with others - for the arts, for science, for politics, for business. It feeds the impoverished, it frees the chained, it gives sight to the blind.




Monday, 9 November 2015

The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

Although ravishing in several ways, this is not just a lovely book, it is an important one too. It is not just another retelling of a Fairy Story, it is far more.

Of course I already know the work of Jackie Morris as the creator of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful children's picture books, ever. I am thinking particularly of the likes of The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear and Lord of the Forest (this last with writer Caroline Pitcher). So it is no surprise that The Wild Swans is illustrated with scenes and vignettes which are both telling and hauntingly lovely. This artist's supreme talent is for painting animals (and human faces in ultra close up) but she is also a skilful master in representing bare trees (deceptively simple but so perfectly caught) and other aspects of nature. Add to this deep resonance with the story itself and the art work emerges as truly magical.

Yet this is not quite a picture book. It is an illustrated novella. The greater emphasis is on Jackie Morris's own text - and in this case rightly so, because she can also write, quite wonderfully, and her reimagining of this Fairy Tale makes the book far more that just its illustration.

Of course Fairy Tale is so important in itself. Along with mythology, which delves even deeper, Fairy Tales are part of the tap root of contemporary children's fantasy.*

Pablo Picasso is attributed as saying that 'Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.' He was speaking of course about visual art, but his statement equally applies to the literary image, to the apt metaphore where the assertion that something is what it is not, jolts us into seeing better what it actually is. This extends very much into the tropes of Fairy Tale and thence into well written fantasy.

The contemporary representation of Fairy Tale actually covers a wide spectrum of writing. At one extreme an established story is simply retold for a modern children's audience, with appropriate language and 'simplified' concepts. At the other extreme authors take the bones of a traditional story, and reinterpret it, perhaps completely changing its context or setting. Others just use it as the starting point for new imaginings of their own or as an extended metaphor for contemporary issues. Jackie Morris's approach falls somewhere in the middle of these, but the ground to which she lays claim is a most interesting and important place.

She brings many things of her own to this older tale. One of the most striking, in her words as well as her pictures, is her knowledge of and sensitivity to the natural world. Clearly she has a deep love of nature and this glows through her many beautiful and detailed descriptions. They continually enrich the story with context and life. Over and above everything, her use of language is a constant delight. Words and phrases are chosen with consummate artistry to create a lyrical prose which is hauntingly beautiful (and totally fitting for the genre) without ever being precious or flowery. Children's own writing, as well as their reading experience, will potentially be much enriched through encounter with such a fine model of its type; writing which does what writing should, communicate vividly, but also richly and beautifully. Anyone looking for a good example of this should read the description of the colours of the sea in the middle paragraph of page 96. Masterly.

Jackie Morris maintains much of the feel of the tale from which she works, together with a range of the archetypal tropes of its genre, but, perhaps most importantly of all, endows and develops its characters with authentically human thoughts, feelings and motivations. She adds doubt to the certainty of even the best intentions, allows understanding of the human beings behind magical malevolence and introduces poignancy to her outcomes, which are not blandly 'happy ever after' for all. To the considerable beauty of her prose she adds humanity and in this way she subtly but surely builds a bridge for her young readers between the images and events of Fairy Tale and their own world, their own selves; between fantasy and reality.

It is a remarkable achievement and will greatly extended and enrich children's literary experience.

(Her earlier East of the Sun, West of the Moon, to which this now forms a companion volume, is equally worth seeking out.)


*Probaby all fantasy, but this blog happens to be about children's books.