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.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

 

Connections are very special. There is a particular pleasure in joining things up. It is an urge, perhaps even a need. Sometimes the more disparate the elements appear to be, the greater our thrill in feeling we have linked them. This applies to geography, to history and indeed to people, not least, of course, when the connections are with our own selves. We seem to need to spin a web, the threads of which fan out from our centre and  tie us to other times, other places, other people. It makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, this moment. When we visit distant countries we bring back souvenirs so that we retain a physical link with them. On a more casual level, out walking, we pick up a pebble from a beach or a acorn from a wood and leave it long on our desk or mantlepiece. It links us and our memory, our imagination, to another place, another time. It can be even more potent to hold some ancient object, a fossil amonite, a faience ushabti, a flint axe head, and feel connected to times so long ago. More rewarding still can be to discover an old photograph or marriage certificate from a distant ancestor of our very own. Connections.

For some time now, I have been developing an enormous admiration for the novels of Kate Milford, growing ever closer to the opinion that she is one of our most important, and wonderful, contemporary writers for children. This response grows exponentially with each book of hers I read. More than anything this is pure delight in the connections that exist between each and all of them. Each emerges as another facet of a truly enchanting world, created with the most original and fertile imagination. Her novels are not a sequence in the sense of the Harry Potter or Septimus Heap books. In fact they are not only each freestanding stories, set in different periods in history, but each has a very distinct and different 'feel'. They belong, almost, to different genres, or at least to different sub-genres. Yet there are links between each of them, sometimes strong and clear, sometimes subtle or almost covert - and it gives a reader the most wonderful thrills to discover them. Sometimes the same character may appear at a different age, or the same place at a different time. Sometimes we meet ancestors or descendants of characters we already know. Sometimes the books are linked by stories; what in one is recounted or read as folklore, in another is lived out as 'reality'. Central to this world, though only peripherally featuring in some books, are enigmatic 'roamers',  characters who seem able to travel along magical roads through place and time. Roads and crossroads. Places. Times. People. Stories. Reality. Roamers. In her rich and complex creations Kate Milford conjures a kind of hinterland, a cusp, between history, folklore and fantasy which is very potent. Discovering her world, exploring its connections, building its picture piecemeal,  is truly thrilling. I know of no other children's books that do this in quite the same way. 

However, the fact that all the  books interconnect does not prevent each from being a fascinating and engaging read in its own right. I have saved up reading Greenglass House for a Christmas treat and that proved to be a very good decision indeed. The only drawback, perhaps, is that if I had read it when I first bought it, a few weeks ago, it would most certainly have been included in my books of the year, alongside The Left-Handed Fate. (See previous post.)  Although first published in handsome hardback in 2014, the paperback has only just come out, so I would have counted it for 2016. Although Greenglass House was written before The Left-Handed Fate, the books are not sequential as such, so my reading reversal was no drawback. In fact Greenglass House far post-dates the subsequent book in terms of its time setting. 

The Left-Handed Fate is, at least in part, a quite brilliant younger-readers version of something akin to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. The Greenglass House fits rather more comfortably into a familiar sub-genre of American children's literature, treating, in its simplest terms, with children using clues to solve a mystery    In this it is related to such classics as The Westing Game, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler  and, more recently, The Mysterious Benedict Society. However it is very much it's own book, with many wonderful, original and highly engaging qualities. 

Milo lives in a eccentric 'smugglers' inn, the titular Greenglass House in Nagspeake, run by his adoptive parents. All is quiet there in the run up to Christmas and Milo is looking forward to the holidays when a number of enigmatic guest arrive quite unexpectedly. Just as Kate Milford's different books are scattered so cleverly with interconnections, this book is in itself about connections, or rather about the discovering of them. What connects Greenglass House  with its past, and how are each of the strange visitors connected to the house? In short why are they there? That is the mystery that Milo and his friend Meddy have to solve.

One of the many joys of the book is the subtlety of its fantasy. For the most part the characters and actions of Greenglass House seem grounded in realism, at least in the book's own terms. And yet elements of their world's folkloric story find their way into concrete reality, and their reality feeds intriguingly back into the realm of story. The concrete and the imagined impinge on each other mysteriously. One might even  say they interact. They certainly interconnect. Milo and Meddy take on roles from fantasy gaming, and almost become their gaming characters. Sometimes we are  led to question whether they are indeed just imagining. And then, towards the end of the novel, the narrative  tips more fully into fantasy. We are brought up again against the realisation that this is not the 'ordinary' world; it is the world of the 'Roamers' after all. These shades and shifts of focus are quite beautifully handled in what is a most skilfully realised piece of fiction. 

Amongst many other finely drawn, and often amusing characters, it is Greenglass House itself which is in many ways the star of the story. It is vividly conjured in such way that as a reader you experience for yourself its intimate mixture of warmth and quirkiness. How wonderful it would be to spend Christmas there, to ride the clanking funicular up from the bay, to climb the quirky stairs to its many floors, to bathe in the light of its magical stained glass windows. To those who already know Nagspeak in more detail from other books, this inn fits perfectly. To those who don't, it it a perfect introduction to a truly amazing place. 

Moreover, the fact that the story is essentially rather domestic in scale does not stop it from grasping and holding the reader in its narrative thrall. The climax of the piece, when the identity of the 'villain' amongst the guests is finally discovered, is as  thrilling as anyone could wish. And the twist in the tale towards the end (yes, there is a huge  one, but I am certainly not saying what)  is just as jaw-dropping for the reader as it is for the characters. Kate Milford has lead up to it so, so cleverly. It is one of those revelations that, once in the know, you look back and think you should have suspected all along- but you didn't. 

It was not only the Christmas setting that made this such a heart-warming seasonal read (although of course it would still be brilliant at any time). It is the refreshing fact that Milo is the epitome of 'Friday's child', loving and giving. So many child protagonists in contemporary fiction are traumatised, or hard done to by life, and it is of course important for literature to explore children's issues and difficulties. Yet even though Milo is an orphan, and understandably sometimes muses about the identity of his birth family, he is clearly in a stable, secure relationship in his adoptive family, loving and loved. We know that not all children are so lucky, but, thankfully, many are. It is wonderful to find a book celebrating this aspect life too. Milo so often gives away what he has found in order to to make others happy. He can do so because he already has the love he needs. He s a wonderful and important model. 

Whilst the story of Greenglass House itself has been resolved by the end of the book, many intriguing story elements have been the introduced but not fully explained. I so hope that in future books there will be more to illucidate intrigues such as the secret underground railway, Georgie the Eye, and 'The Raconteur's Commonplace Book'.  I suspect there might. Yet again I would want to call strongly for UK publication of Kate Milford's masterly books so that we can buy them in real, independent bookshops, and not be reduced to patronising internet conglomerates. Strongly 'American' they may seem, but they are actually universal books with a satisfyingly rich geographic and cultural background and as such deserve the widest possible worldwide audience. 

Kate Millard, (I know you are out there somewhere. The 'Roamers' World' links even to Digital Media Land.) I love the contribution you are making to the canon of children's literature. It is huge and truly wondrous. You connect us all to places that are real and imaginary, or both. You connect us to the past and perhaps our future too. You connect us to folklore, to ethnicity, culture and heritage (our own and others'), to story, to magic - and to the greatest magic of all, imagination. You connect us to ourselves, and to each other. Keep filling the note books. Keep finishing the novels. And, please, don't let even Border Saints and Greensward drift off into utter disconnection. Hook them in somehow. Even one small cross-reference would satisfy your so admiring readers and thrill us with joy of connectivity. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

My books of the Year 2016

 

The time has come around again to pick out my best of the best 'magic fiction' books of 2016. A stunning collection they are too. Many fit comfortably into the fantasy genre, others are more what might be termed fantastical, but all are the products of wonderful writers of hugely creative talent. My selection this time  covers  age ranges from children's (Middle Grade) well into young adult. Of course I know that these books will be enjoyed by many adults too. But it is their potential contribution to the growth of young imaginations  that excites me most - the  part that they will play in creating, developing and sustaining readers in the very fullest sense. 

I know I often complain that children's fantasy (and children's fiction generally) has too often recently been formulaic and derivative, with publishers pandering to what they already know children will go for in high numbers. This is perhaps understandable from their commercial point of view, but does not necessarily advance the provision of great literature for children. However, I have to say that this has actually been a remarkable year with a good deal of startlingly original and high quality children's fantasy fiction published. For this both admiration and gratitude are due in spades to some masterful writers (both new and established) and to the publishers who have had the courage and vision to support them. 

In no particular order, as they say:

For children, my first gems, all by debut authors, certainly come into the excitingly innovative category: Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden (full post May) is a superbly imagined and thrilling fantasy romp with more than a little influence from video games, but still totally its own creation; The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill (full post Oct) is simply one of the most imaginatively conceived and wonderfully realised fantasies I have come across in a very long time; The Girl of Ink and Stars (The Cartographer's Daughter in US) by Kiren Millwood Hargrave (full post May) is in some ways a slightly gentler fantasy, but her rich, multi-layered tale is no less original or engaging. Each of these books looks like it could be the first of a series; I sincerely hope they are. 

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford (full post Nov) is the latest novel from a US author who is my big discovery of the year. Her unique blend of history and fantasy ought not to work, but does, magnificently. This latest is no exception, but U.K. Readers should seek out her other books too. Pure delight. Similarly the latest from an already well established U.K. author should not be missed either side of The Pond (or elsewhere). There Might Be a Castle by Piers Torday is heartbreaking magic of the purest kind and one of the most deeply enriching children's books of the year. Back across to Canada for another wonderful latest from one of our best contemporary children's writers. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (full post March) is as enriching as it is disturbing. Another example of the finest literature for children. 

Finally in the children's section, I cannot possibly miss out what appears to be the conclusion of one of the very best children's fantasy sequences of recent years. StarChaser by Angie Sage (full post Dec) is the final part of the Todhunter Moon trilogy, itself an extension of the Septimus Heap series. It is a worthy and joyful farewell  to a totally captivating world. 

For older children and young adults:

Another startlingly impressive debut is Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff  (full post June). Deservedly highly acclaimed, this book often gets labelled 'feminist', which it certainly is. However I hope the label does not prevent it from reaching the widest possible audience as it is no less about the 'feminine principle', which is a profound part of the humanity of all of us. Again the first of a planned sequence. Hurray!

Then there are more most welcome sequels to already published triumphs by masters of the fantasy genre. Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (full post Apr) returns to the brilliant, uber-imaginative SciFi fantasy world of Railhead and is every bit as captivating. Half Lost by Sally Green (full post Apr) brings to devastating conclusion one of the most original, stunningly written, but disturbing fantasy trilogies ever. Goldenhand by Garth Nix follows up last year's Clariel in returning to his Old Kingdom world after quite a gap. It is unmissable. Another all time fantasy great. 

And my 'left field' choice may or may not be fantasy, but who cares. It is virtually unclassifiable. Death or Ice Cream by Gareth P Jones (full post Feb) is hilarious , weird, wacky, profound and quite, quite wonderful. Read or miss out. 

I have saved my final words in this review of a wonderful year of reading for a book which, on its pages, has no words at all. However, if anything is 'magic fiction', this is. 2016 has seen the publication of Return by Aaron Becker, bringing to a conclusion his truly great, wordless picture book trilogy Journey. In a very real sense, these three books contain more words than any written story. They are possibly better known in the US than here - but if so, this needs to be remedied urgently. For the richest possible story stimulation of any child, young adult, or indeed person (period),  there is little to  better it.  Journey simultaneously captures and liberates imagination. It is imagination imaginatively imagined and perfectly stimulated. And it is breathtakingly beautiful to boot. As an added bonus,  this last volume is a huge consolation for us oldies, sensitively showing, as it does, how significant  a part adults can still play in the imaginative growth of children. Celebrate and be thankful. 

 


Friday, 9 December 2016

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

 


Piers Torday's Last Wild trilogy is a fine work of children's literature, carrying important messages. But this latest work of his is the finer by far. I need to say this clearly at the outset. There May Be a Castle is not only a very fine book but a hugely important one. It deserves to become, indeed needs to become, a contemporary children's classic.

Now please remember that I have said this and bear with me through my next comments. 

As an adult reader I found there was a lot I needed to get past in this book. First and foremost, the basic concept is far from original. A lead character has a serious accident (car crash) and enters a strange 'other world', leaving the reader not really knowing whether this is a classic 'portal' fantasy, whether the protagonist is unconscious and 'dreaming', or whether she or he is actually dead and in some form of afterlife. With variations, this idea has already been well used, both in fiction and in film.  A further concern was that the metaphor which pervades this book is rather heavy handed, over-obvious and even somewhat patronisingly explained at points. Finally I could not escape the feeling that this tale verges on sentimentality. Whether it actually tips over into the mawkish is debatable, but at best it comes close. 

However, I did completely forgive these things. And I did so for two overriding reasons.

Firstly, of course, this is not a book for adults. It is not even a nominal children's book with adult pretentious.*  It is a genuine children's book, and, as such, it is pitched to its intended readership with consummate skill. The core concept is reworked afresh for the 9-12 age group, in a quite riveting way. There will be nothing unoriginal about it for them. Moreover, Piers Torday has succeeded brilliantly in inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of a young contemporary boy. The rich picture conjured of protagonist, Mouse, and of his family life is spot on. It is realistic and funny, sweet and annoying. And it is one with which so many children of this age will be able to identify - even if their superficial lives are quite different. Mouse is one of the great creations of recent children's literature, and his long-loved baby toys, his interests, his likes and dislikes, his family relationships, his hopes and fears all spring vividly from these pages. 

Secondly, I could forgive this book anything, because it is quite beautifully written. This applies not only to the writer's character and world building skills, but also to his ability to capture incident with amazing immediacy. His description, for example, of the car crash are rivetingly, shockingly vivid. In contrast his inventions of  dialogue between, say, Mouse and Nonky, the horse that was his favourite toy in real life but in the 'fantasy' world is amazingly altered, is a joyful delight. This writer's exceptional craftsmanship also applies to his structuring of the story. Mouse's quest for the castle that 'might be' is interleaved with scenes from the aftermath of the actual accident. This keeps the reader's not only involved in the fantasy but simultaneously desperate to know what is really happening to the family, and of course to Mouse himself. It is these unanswered questions which are most powerful of all in keeping the pages turning. And when a resolution does appear to be reached, it is the twist of the final passage before the 'Epilogue' which is the book's true, and devastating, heart.

Rather than being heavy-handed this novel introduces its relatively young readers to extended metaphors in a quite brilliantly appropriate way, explaining just enough to keep them clear, yet still leaving room for poetic imagination and independent response. This in itself is a wonderful thing. Even if they come away from this story only subconsciously aware that metaphor can be more than just a descriptive device  in a single sentence, their appreciation of the potential of fiction will be hugely increased. 

And all of this is underpinned by wonderful use of language itself. Sentence after sentence, passage after passage, is an object lesson in the construction of prose which is simple but effective, elegant but unpretentious. It is so much what young readers deserve, but do not always get. 

Even more importantly perhaps, there is too little written for this age group which has this book's degree of underlying seriousness and import. There are many wonderful examples for older children and young adults, and even, in their way, picture books for younger children, but sometimes something of a gulf in between.   However, here is a book for 9-12s which for once does not pander primarily to humorous entertainment. It is, thankfully,  not full  of farting aunties or warty grandmas. It is quality literature made completely accessible to middle-years children. It is deeply challenging without ever being heavy or intimidating. It will make its readers reflect whilst still engaging them hugely, and it will greatly move them. Few books for this age group deal so well with some of life's biggest issues. 

As soon as you take the intended readership into account, together with the masterly use of language, what could have been sentiment becomes emotional truth of the most affecting kind. This book exudes great humanity, an overriding commitment to love for family, in all its potential forms, and a profound belief in the power and potency of imagination. It is life-affirming. All of these are quite wonderful things to lay out for the young. In exploring what can so easily be lost, it commits to what must not be lost at any price. 

This will not be an easy read for many children, but it will be an enriching as well as an involving one. It is a book for committed and sensitive readers.  But it will also help to grow more committed and sensitive readers - and perhaps more committed and sensitive people too. Which is why I opened this review in the way I did. 

The subtle but potent design and illustration have as much class as the story. A volume to treasure. 

Note:
*It will, I'm sure, be enjoyed and valued for what it is by countless adults, but that is something different. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Starchaser by Angie Sage

 

When Angie Sage rounded off her Septimus Heap books with Fyre in 2013, it looked like the close of one of the very best children's fantasy sequences. However, over the three subsequent years, she has continued with a sequel trilogy, Todhunter Moon, introducing a new generation of characters into the same world - and she is to be given enormous credit for extending and expanding that world so successfully. The latest trio of books is no disappointment, in fact very much the reverse. (See earlier posts.) Angie Sage has done what very few writers of such sequences have done so well. She had retained much of welcome familiarity, satisfying the longing for more of the same, whilst introducing enough new characters and story elements to keep everything very much alive and exciting. Not least, of course, she has now added a captivating girl protagonist, one who equals the charm and vulnerability of Septimus Heap whilst also providing another courageous world-saver with whom young readers will want to identify. 

So many contemporary children's fantasies, including of course some wonderful modern classics, involve either  children from our own world suddenly finding themselves in a fantasy one, or else magic invading our world to a greater or lesser  degree. However Angie Sage has succeeded in creating a self-contained 'high fantasy' world, rich, complex and convincing, yet made it totally accessible and meaningful to her young readership. Her 'darke', leavened  as it is with much delightful comedy, is threatening enough to be thrilling, yet not so gothically nightmarish as to be truly disturbing. Her  'good' characters are magical and special enough to be awesome, yet human enough to be totally captivating and to engender easy identification. The result is total involvement and commitment on the part of the reader to a story with endless excitement, suspense and ultimate satisfaction. These are books to truly feed the imaginations and indulge the fantasies of the young. They are however not simply escapist and readers will learn much from sharing the aspirations, dilemmas and, sometimes quiet, triumphs of this rich set of characters. 

Starchaser itself brings the latest trilogy to a magnificent climax,  revealing truly amazing and thrilling  new aspects to the Pathfinders story, as Tod and her friends pursue a final quest to avoid the devastation of much they hold dear. The book cover carries the strap, 'The Magykal conclusion to the world of Septimus Heap,' and if this one really is the end, as it appears to be, it is a worthy culmination of a veritable triumph of children's fantasy. The book is a pure joy. Starchaser is undoubtedly one of the children's books of 2016, just as the series in its entirety is one of the real highlights of 21st century children's fiction.

Although the U.K. Edition is handsome enough in itself, I cannot finish without an enormous thank you to US publishers Bloomsbury/Katherine Tegen, as well as illustrator  Mark Zug. I know that books are so much more than their  covers, but these guys have consistently seen through the whole series, creating what to my mind is one of the most physically beautiful sets of children's books, a book-lover's aesthetic delight. And the production of the Todhunter Moon trilogy echoes its content in that these volumes looks sufficiently like the earlier ones to clearly belong to the full set, whilst still having a distinctive feel of their own. A triumph. And the illustrations are every bit as magical as the books. True enhancement. Sadly the UK editions are the poorer for their lack. Fortunately it is possible to source the US ones over here too.  


Friday, 25 November 2016

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

 

Garth Nix's YA Old Kingdon (Abhorsen) Trilogy, now 15-20 years old, is undoubtedly one of the greats of contemporary fantasy. It remains a must read for any who don't yet know it, and, I suspect, provides a periodic indulgent re-read for many who do. A couple of related shorter works aside, we waited a long time for a follow-up. However last year brought us the magnificent Clariel (see my post from August '15) which was actually a prequel to the original trilogy, set hundreds of years earlier. Now, at last we have a continuation of the story of Lirael in the recently released Goldenhand. And whilst the wait has been long, patience, or perhaps impatience, is now magnificently rewarded. 

This is high fantasy of the very finest. Through the whole sequence Gareth Nix has built a stunningly rich, imaginative world of magic that is completely convincing in it own terms and hence totally absorbing. In Goldenhand he exploits what he has created to the full. There is one new major character, Ferin , the messenger girl from one of the tribes of the north, but largely this is a return to many characters introduced and developed through the original trilogy. In a sense, then, this new addition to the Old Kingdom sequence is not strikingly different or original. What is on offer in spades, however, is the most wonderful storytelling; gripping action with hugely interesting, rich characters, and some really jolting shocks. There is, too, enough romance to be endearing, without so much as to be cloying. Garth Nix's masterly construction and control of narrative is an object lesson to lesser writers. In the early parts he uses the technique of alternating story strands, which when as skilfully handled as this, is guaranteed to keep the pages turning. He builds and relieves tension and continually develops characters to always maintain absorption. 

So many current YA fantasies are written rather pointedly for a teen girl audience. Despite the principal protagonists being female, this is of much broader appeal. True sword and sorcery in the best sense. 

By the time of the story's truly riveting climax, the author has skilfully pulled together threads not only from this novel but from the whole sequence. It is as devastating as it is delightful; you gasp and tingle at one and the same time. Here are old 'friends' as well as endings, on many levels. By the close there are in fact few loose ends, so this feels like it could be the last of the sequence. On the one hand, this is hugely satisfying. On the other it is to be fervently hoped that this is not to be. This world is too special and, by this stage, too much a part of the reader to feel anything other than bereavement at the thought of losing it. At least there is always the option of starting to read it all again from the beginning. 

This whole sequence is a rare example of what I consider a 'Lord-of-the-Rings-read'; one which feels something akin to that first experience of reading Tolkien, with its all-absorbing depth of engagement and enjoyment. Such quality of fantasy fiction is to be constantly yearned for, but very infrequently found. Thank goodness Garth Nix is around to give it to us. 



Monday, 14 November 2016

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

 

I was delighted when I discovered the children's novels of Kate Milford (see my post from Sept. '16) and this, her latest book, has only added to my considerable admiration. One of the remarkable features about her work is that whilst each of her books is in many respects quite different from the others, and they certainly do not constitute a sequence as such, that are all related in some way. Sometimes it is a place that is common, sometimes a character, for example the same character who has appeared as an adult in one book, appears as a young boy in another, with a much earlier setting. This means that each book builds further understanding of her world, bringing revelations which excite, thrill and intrigue, as they build into an ever more rich and amazing storyscape. 

Another remarkable feature common to all the books is an idiosyncratic mixing of genuine history and hugely imaginative fantasy. It is an alalgam which ought not to work. It is one which would perhaps leave some actual historians aghast. But in the hands of this fine writer it actually comes off superbly and gives a reading experience which is as refreshing as it is enchanting, as magical as it is educative, and, at the end of it all, as moving as it is enthralling. Kate Milford's history is always exceedingly well researched and convincingly recreated. It is generally place specific, as well as time  specific, featuring US locations, and covering periods from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This American history should not put off UK readers. It is totally accessible, always well enough contextualised and explained to make complete sense, and is indeed all the more fascinating for being rather less familiar. This is most valuable education in hugely enjoyable fictional form. We, over here, should be more aware of the history and heritage of our global neighbours across the Atlantic. 

As the other principal ingredient in her fictional mix, Kate Milford's fantasy is also in many ways very American. It owes more to folklore and sometimes even religion than do the more conventional mythology-based worlds of dragons, wizards and the like. It is however equally imaginative, with the added thrill of originality, quirkiness and surprise. This strange and sometimes frightening fantasy quietly shares the reality of her history, lurking beneath the surface, or existing in startling parallel. Her world is a fictional joy, and very hard to describe. You really must explore it for yourself.

In this book her historical setting is primarily the English/French conflict of the Napolionic Wars, specifically its working out in a naval context. However since much takes place on a ship sailing in and out of US ports, primarily Baltimore, this is further complicated by the US declaration of war on England. However all the complexities of this situation are very skilfully and smoothly  explained as an integral part of the narrative. The whole first part of the book struck me as very much a children's version of Patrick O'Brian.* And I mean that very much as a compliment. I have long loved O'Brian and this homage pays tribute without being in any way derivative. The Left-Handed Fate has all the features which make O'Brian's adult novels such a wonderful read; history brought vividly into focus, the authentic detail of life at sea on a large sailing ship, exciting sea battles and engagements, yet all underpinned with the human interest of hugely engaging protagonists and a rich cast of minor characters. It is quite beautifully done. Kate Milford's young characters really are endearing, often highly amusing and sometimes deeply moving too. Their banter is a constant delight and so are the relationships which develop, shift and grow, both between them and with the adults. 

Kate Milford does not shy away from really important issues either. There is an underlying questioning of war and what it means, and indeed a strong thread of pacifism throughout. There are very real and very moving passages about war and it's realities, not least the  account by a sailor of French nationality of the horrors he witnessed in his homeland during the massacres in the Vendee, following the post-revolutionary 'terror'. 

On top of all this though is the fantasy element; demonic villains, a supernatural ship and its  terrifying crew, an amazing ancient machine, whose nature turns out to be as magical as it is scientific (or in the book's terms 'philosophical '). Above all is the truly amazing town/port of Nagspeake, which has to be seen (that is, read about) to be believed. It is truly every bit as imaginative and magical a creation as anything in J K Rowling. Simply joyous. 

I cannoy recommend this book highly enough for young UK readers, and indeed any in the US or elsewhere who have not yet discovered it. It is a wonderful read, and an important new addition to a corpus of work which is even greater than its individual parts. This is a highly significant writer in terms of the canon of fine children's literature worldwide, with a such a refreshingly unique imagination that you really should not miss her.

Like the two books I reviewed previously, this is a handsome physical volume. I have only one small quibble though. Although attractive in themselves, I find the illustrations don't quite work for me. The very simplified drawings of the characters are too cartoony and don't really accord with the convincing and untimately very touching 'reality' that this author achieves with her textual creations. I far prefer the pictures in the two earlier books, which to me enhance the text far better.  But this is a very minor quibble and does not detract from the considerable enjoyment I derived. 

I have set aside another of her recent books, Greenglass House, for my Christmas read,  and must also catch up on the two novellas which are currently only available as e-books. That is a format I do not really much like reading, but for Kate Milford I will certainly make an exception. 

*Note: I had already written the draft of this review when I read  Kate Milford's acknowledgment of the influence  of Patrick O'Brian's naval novels on The Left-Handed Fate. So I got that one right at least. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve

 


Book cover hype can be exactly that, hype, but in this instance the quote from The Sunday Times is spot on.  For sheer power of imaginative world building Philip Reeeve is hard to beat. The same can be said of his storytelling, his character drawing and the sheer quality of his masterful writing.

I welcomed the first book in this new trilogy as possibly his strongest creation since the original ground-breaking and now classic Mortal Engines (Predator Cities) quartet. For a detailed review of Railhead please see my post here from 0ct 2015.

Middle books in even very fine trilogies can feel a little flat; they are after all neither the beginning or the end but, well, the middle. No such issues here though. Philip Reeve seems to have challenged himself with a hugely demanding 'Top that!' - and then done it. He takes both his fantastic, sci-fi, train -dominated world, and his cast of wired and wonderful characters and develops  them further, in an almost mind-blowingly rich and imaginative way. Hovering on the very verge of fantasy, his high-tech multiverse becomes the setting for action which twists and turns amazingly, sometimes quite shockingly and even disturbingly. He stretches excitement on an ever tightening rack. His conjuring of  worlds and creatures seems to know no bounds, and yet his characters and their story grip and wring the reader's emotions. He paints for us the blackest of villains and yet his 'heros' are complex and ambivalent, wonderfully human - even those that aren't. And beneath it all lies still the most original and touching love story. This book has everything , and more. For any avid reader from late childhood onwards it offers rewards on so many levels.

A subsidiary, but nonetheless  delightful, feature  is that it is peppered with humour, often slyly wicked, sometimes just plain silly and occasionally reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide, in the best possible way. I rolled about at the hotel lift which, when ridden in the midst  of a roaring inferno, advised its passengers to use the stairs next time there was a fire. Such moments provide a wonderful foil to the many genuinely tense situations, whilst other quips add warmth and depth to its already endearing protagonists. The glossary is a particular highlight of mischievous humour and should not be missed. 

The close of this second book is bitter sweet, reminiscent almost of The Amber Spyglass, but here the big difference is that this is not the end. Philip Reeve showed in Mortal Engines, how skilfully he can move stories on  and I am sure he will do so here. 'Wire dolly', Nova, with her touching love for Zen, given and reciprocated despite her being an android, is one of his finest, most thought-provoking and magical creations. I for one am desperate for whatever he imagines next. 

We readers will, I know, thrill to the songs of his trains far into our future.

Railhead was one of my books of the year, last year. His follow-up cannot fail to top the pile for this year too.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Thornthwaite Betrayal by Gareth P Jones

 

Alongside many populist series books for younger children, Gareth P Jones has built up a now substantial oeuvre of fiction for middle years and early teen readers which establish him amongst the best of contemporary writers  for these age groups. Although rarely magic fantasy as such, his books exude quirkily delightful imagination and a huge sense of fun. He hit new heights recently with two remarkable - although very different - novels whose  originality, richness and ingenuity puts him up there with the greats, No True Echo and Death or Ice Cream? (See my reviews posted here in February of this year.) 

However, since the development of his fiction has been so strong over recent years, I was initially just a little concerned to discover that for his most recent title he has gone back to write a sequel to an earlier novel from 2009, The Thornthwaite Inheritance. This was, and indeed still is, a very entertaining book, and, deservedly, a hugely popular one. However its core concept and tone does belong clearly to  the comic-gothic sub-genre already established by Lemony Snicket and the like. At the heart of its story are the continued attempts to kill each other of two twins who are the joint inheritors of an ancient mansion. The violence is, of course, closer to Looney Tunes than to Chainsaw Massacre and has a great deal of appeal for its intended audience. But by the end of this book the conflict between the two protagonists is essentially resolved, engendering doubts as to whether a sequel might have strong enough places to go, or whether it might just be an an over-contrived re-run. 

With a writer of the considerable ability of Gareth Jones I need not have worried. The Thornthwaite Betrayal is a fine book, unlike many sequels, actually even better than its precursor, and engagingly successful on a number of levels.

What the author has penned here is essentially a mystery, and one that works in all the best ways, drawing the reader in with innumerable questions and holding rapt attention through a succession of intriguing developments. The compulsion of the Thornthwaite twins to try to kill each other has now been replaced with apparent attempts by person or persons unknown to kill them both. This may not sound particularly inventive as a plot idea in itself, but its execution here is very clever indeed. Through a sequence of very short chapters Gareth Jones introduces numerous eccentric and fascinating characters and scenarios. These sections, often told from different character perspectives, really do act like jigsaw pieces, gradually building a picture, illuminating back-stories, adding evidence, and also raising questions as to what may pertinent, what a red herring, or what entirely irrelevant. Another of this author's particular talents on display here is his skill in writing dialogue which illuminates events, and particularly character, through what it said, the way it is said, and of course what is not said. Much of the gradual piecing together of this mystery is absurd,  some is touchingly enlightening, everything is enthralling and the whole hugely entertaining.

And that leads on to the second level on which this book is so successful. It is often very funny indeed. Its humour ranges from the slapstick to the surreal and also includes a great deal of wit. It is pure delight to read from beginning to end. 

Yet the book has surprising depths too. Without bludgeoning the reader over the head with 'issues', the story explores life's delicate balance between truth and lies very tellingly, and perhaps even more so that between suspicion and trust. Gareth Jones is also quite delightfully clever, in the way he sneaks an impassioned plea for libraries into the mouth of one of his characters; he certainly earns another gold star from me for that. In the same way he also threads in  some really pertinent advice for young writers, which I'm sure will be valuable to teachers as well as to children, in schools and out of them. 

On perhaps the most important level of all, though, this is a book about two children if not quite fully 'coming of age' then at least growing a little more into their own skins. For underneath their superficially cartoonish demeanours , twins Laurelli and Ovid, are drawn with many genuine qualities and concerns. They are warm, rounded characters with whom the readers will readily identify. Laurelli's initially abortive desire to become a writer of stories, together with Ovid's almost Adrian-Mole-like fumbling with the idea of a first girlfriend, make them endearingly human. Underneath the mutual mistrust that persists from their earlier behaviours, the author cleverly conveys a real affection between them and their journey of discovering who they can trust is a most warming one - especially when they discover that it is principally each other. Ultimately they learn to trust that who they are is of much more worth and importance than they once thought. 

When aspiring writer Lorelli shares potential plots with the librarian, she responds,  'Your ideas are rich, vivid and exciting'. This equally applies to the writing of Gareth Jones himself. 

Ultimately this new novel  does not have quite the originality of concept, depth of thought or bold playfulness of structure of its two most recent predecessors. But this is a different work for a different (younger) audience. The Thornthwaite Betrayal is a fine children's book in its own right, as skilful as it is delightful. I am sure it will be hugely enjoyed by its young readers and prove highly successful. Not far under its surface bubbles the talent of the quirkily brilliant writer who penned No True Echo and Death or Ice Cream? I trust it will erupt again very soon. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill

 

I read so many children's fantasies that recycyle the same old elements and themes. A few give them wonderful fresh vitality, but most are drearily predictable. I have therefore come to value originality hugely - provided, of course, that it is coupled with high quality writing. It is with absolute delight then that I have discovered The Beginning Woods, because it scores five stars (plus) on both these fronts.

I suppose at heart its story is 'classic': an (apparently) orphaned boy goes off into a fantasy world in search of his 'forever parents'. Additionally he is tasked with saving his own world from devastating 'vanishings' by discovering their cause and thwarting a malevolent mastermind. As with many such tales he comes to realise that these two quests may be related, or even the same. Yet Malcolm McNeill's is just about as far from a conventional telling as it is possible to be. His tale is crammed full of the most fantastical and original imaginings, and his narrative idiosyncratic to say the least. It is an odd book, in the most weirdly wonderful way. It is wild and uninhibited in its invention and virtually defies classification. It is at times steampunk, at others fairy tale; it veers from gothic horror to laugh-out-loud comedy. Is is philosophical and discursive, in the most entertaining of ways; it raises profound issues and yet is a rollickingly exciting read. It is terrifying and endearingly touching. The relationship between Max, its ambivalent and complex protagonist, at once both empathetic and disquieting, and the (almost) ghost girl who moves in under his fingernail and engages him in frequent internal discussion, is one of the most entertaining (and moving) in recent children's fiction.

So rich and varied is the invention that for much of the story, especially the first two thirds, it has an almost Alice in Wonderland feel of moving from one unexpected scenario to another, without much clear connection. However each new encounter is more than intriguing enough to keep the pages turning. Yet unlike that earlier classic, this is not whimsy justified as dream. All the strange and apparently disparate elements do eventually weave together in a way that excites and delights.  The final third of the book is a rollercoaster of both action and revelation, leading to a thrilling denouement.

Essentially this story centres on one of literature's most profound and important themes, itself. That is, on the relationship of story to reality; dreams to empiricism. In this, it treats not only profoundly and touchingly of death, but, as a consequence, on what it means to be alive. Its ending then, cannot be anything but ambiguous and questioning. Much is resolved and much is happy, but at inevitable cost and loss. The closing sentences, though, leave room for endearing warmth and hope too. Through all this, the writing is quite superb, sometimes edging towards the post-modern by boldly and delightfully using both wordplay and typography to greatly enhance and enliven the narrative.

This book is one of the very finest recent additions to the children's fiction canon. It fully dererves to join the classics and the ranks  of those lauded  through awards and it will surely do both. It is a great find for publishers Pushkin, to whom we seem to have a good deal to be grateful for these days. An enormous thank you to them - but most of all to Malcolm McNeill. 


Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands by Kate Milford

 


 

These two children's/YA novels by US author Kate Milford are not completely new, having been published in 2010 and 2012. They are however a new find for me - and a very special one. They seem to have earned deservedly accolades in The States, and the two together are more than enough to prompt me to add this author to my list of the finest contemporary writers for children.

They are most evocatively set in place and time, the first in  small town America of 1913, the slightly later-written prequel in the emerging New York City, specifically Brooklyn and Cony Island, at the time of the building of the Brooklyn bridge around 1877. Each setting delighted me as well as enlightened me rewardingly about these particular periods of America's development. But they are far more than historical fiction: each is also an intriguing mystery, a very engaging human story, a thrilling fantasy, and has more than a touch of grand gignol to spice the excitement too. 

It is truly refreshing to come across such original, diabolical and yet folksy fantasy, rather that the apprentice wizard fare that has become so standard in recent years. These books deal with important 'issues' too, but sensitively and subtly, rather than  beating the reader over the head with them. They have wonderful characters, the young teenage protagonists totally beliveable  and engaging, the older characters just that, be they warmly drawn and loveable, eccentric and intriguing or spookily disturbing. The first book is gingered by such wonderful ingredients as automatons, a weird and wonderful travelling medicine show, and the seemingly untameable rogue boneshaker of the title. The second by magical fireworks, a demonic plot and a sensitively and touchingly developed young love story. In each case too the whole is most skilfully written to create rich atmosphere and hold the reader enthralled. 

Both books are a delight and for me a real discovery. I shall now most certainly seek out Kate Milford's more recent titles and I most warmly recommend her to you.

As is too often the case, these books are sadly not published here in the UK, although they can be sourced online. As you know I like to support independent 'real' bookshops whenever possible, but sometimes . . . 

Children need and deserve access to the best writing of the English-speaking world, and although many fine books are published in the UK there are numerous treasures out there which aren't. Kate Milford's books are remarkably fine examples. Five stars to her for striking originality and captivating storytelling. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

 

This author's previous children's book, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, was one of my top finds of last year, a substantially new 'fairy tale', highly original, touching and with rich depths. (See my post on this blog from March '15.)

In its basic story concept, this book, it has to be said, is not anywhere near as original. A child abandoned to the 'care' of  a pair of Dahlesque aunts, so that they, witches that they are, can teach her to develop the magical talents of which up to that point she was unaware, or at least unconscious. The revelation  that she is the subject of a prophecy and the only person who can recover a key magical object and thereby save the world from the clutches of an unspeakably evil magician,. These are key elements of a story, that in various forms and guises, has been told many times already. Annabel, the protagonist here, is a 'poor little rich girl' abandoned by her mother to a world of hardship  she scarcely recognises let alone understands. This is admittedly a slight variation on the ubiquitous hard-done-to waif taken from an grim orphanage. But even this story element has been used often enough before.

Yet A Most Magical Girl is, in fact,  a fine, remarkable and most magical book. This is because Karen Foxlee is a fine, remarkable and most magical writer. 

To these 'classic' children's fantasy story elements she adds layers of rich, original and often quite poetic imagination. The aunt's bedroom characterised by its sound of an river running deep belowit; a map etched on the protagonist's skin, which, superficially at least,  disappears as she achieves objectives; a nervous and rather wayward broomstick - just a few examples of the writer's enhancing and entrancing inventions. Her story too is peopled by sensitively drawn and endearing characters with often quite complex relationships. The gradually revealed truth about Annabel's patents, her emergent feelings about them, and her developing relationship with her aunts, each add layers to the narrative. Over and through everything, her rich friendship with her two companions, the strange 'wild child' of London, and 'the only troll with a twinkle in her eyes', would themselves be enough to render this a very special story. Although very different, both are wonderful and endearing creations.  Nor is this tale without its sadnesses - another enriching feature of what might otherwise be simply an it-all-turns-out-all-right-in-the-end story. Much does turn out all right, but not quite everything and this leaves the reader reflective as well as satisfied. A good way to be at the end of a book. 

However it is the excellent quality of Karen Foxlee's actual writing which makes this book most particularly remarkable. She has a most skilful way with English prose. Always mellifluous and with a combination of balance, variety and potency, it brings endless delight to the 'reading ear'. Her  powers of picture painting are considerable and both her characters and locations truly live. You can see, hear, smell and almost breathe the very air of the Victorian London in which the tale is set. Her dialogue sparkles, as well a sometimes provoking out-loud chortles. Her lead characters soon become precious friends. And not only are her word choice and sentence building  masterly, but so is her storytelling, with a range of clever narrative devices compelling the reader to turn the next page. And the next. And the next. All of this means that the narrative rattles along with a rollicking  and enchanting excitement. 

In the end, Annabel does turn out to be a not-too distant cousin of Ophelia's. Whilst her defining mantra of,  'Be brave. Be good.' may be in some ways basic and simple, germane to this type of fantasy, it is none the less both touching and inspiring. There is an honest truth about her which will strike a chord in those who read her story. It will delight and enthrall many children, I'm certain, and will, I strongly suspect, also become a favourite of parents and teachers Young fans of magical fantasy, and indeed those new to the genre, should not miss it; it is a real treat. It is published now in an American edition (a beautiful volume as US hardbacks so often are), UK readers, who do not get hold of an imported copy, should not have long to wait for their own. It looks like it is due out from Picadilly Press in early September. Meanwhile, if you haven't already met her, catch up with the equally magical Ophelia

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Fantasy gem now out in U.S

 
This funny, scary, brilliantly written and hugely entertaining MG fantasy is now out in the U. S. and transatlantic readers should NOT miss it. See the my full review on this blog, posted May '16. 
It is also great to have a fine hardback edition of a book I feel sure is destined to become a children's fantasy classic.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Beast on the Broch by John K Fulton

 


A warm welcome to a new independent Scottish publisher, Cranachan. They are introducing an imprint called 'Pokey Hat' (a colloquial term for an ice cream cone, I understand) which will publish historical fiction for children 9-12, with an emphasis on Scottish authorship and/or content. Valuable contributions are already being made in this area by a established imprint, 'Kelpies' from Floris Books,  albeit in a wider range of genres. However competition is always welcome. In any case this is hardly an overcrowded field. And, certainly, if this first title I have read is anything to go by, 'Pokey Hat' is set to provide some most valuable and enjoyable additions to the canon.

Of course there is a fine tradition of children's historical fiction going back to the incomparable Rosemary Sutcliff and beyond, and this is not without 'classic' Scottish examples like Kathleen Fidler's The Boy with the Bronze Axe and Mollie Hunter's The Stronghold* which most certainly deserve to be read by a new generation of children. The Beast on the Broch is almost, but not quite, straight historical fiction in the same mould. However, here, an intriguing, and in this case charming, element of fantasy is added in that the eponymous creature belongs to legend rather than history, and yet has an actual, physical presence in the story. 

John Fulton's skilful use of language is clear and accessible, yet pertinently evocative, which makes this a good 'entry level' to the genre for its intended audience. It will I'm sure help to bring many new young readers to enjoying historical fiction, as well as hugely pleasing those already hooked. It does extremely well what all good historical fiction must, that is to say it creates a convincing, well-researched social context and explains a good deal of the 'political' background, in ways which are totally and comfortably integrated into the narrative, rather than imposed upon it. The period of Scottish history reimagined here (around 800 AD) is a most interesting and, to me at least, relatively unknown one. However, more than this, the story told within it is an involving  and, in its later stages particularly, a grippingly exciting one.  Added to this is the frisson of fantasy provided by the actual presence of the 'beast'. This is beautifully described to fit in with that depicted in genuine stone engravings found from the Pictish culture. Drawing on both history and legend proves a strong way of illuminating  what is often a 'dark' period of history and the author certainly brings it vividly to life.

However the close relationship between protagonist, twelve year old Talorca, and the beast is really, as much as anything, a classic, heart-tugging child-and-companion-animal scenario, which will only add to the appeal of this story for its intended readership. Imagine if you can Wolf Brother, but with a feisty girl instead of Torak, a beast instead of a wolf and a setting in 'Dark Age' Scotland rather than prehistory. 

Yet what makes this book particularly fine is not simply its historical interest, or the driving excitement of its storyline. Within these lie a strong, complex character development and the exploration of some most important issues. As the narrative evolves, questions begin to arise about Talorca's actions and motives; whilst understandable these may not necessarily always be 'right'.  She has much to learn about life and its living, some, but not all, of which she has realised by the end. Many readers may unobtrusively learn something alongside her too. Stories have, throughout time,  been used as a way of teaching, organically rather than didactically. Their great power lies in the way that they can speak to the heart as much as to the head. And this one is no exception. It may be going too far too see it as an allegory of our own world. However the conflict between resentment and acceptance of new 'immigrants' into her community, which lies at the heart of Talorca's dilemma, together with the need  to unite against larger, life-taking threats from further 'outside', gives young readers a great deal to think about. And maybe they will make more connections than we think, implicitly if not explicitly. 

I appreciate that many Scottish people, regardless of their stand on independence, will wish to help their children appreciate the very special and particular heritage of their homeland. Similarly, their children need the opportunity to identify with stories which directly relate to their own background.  It is equally important, however, that children outside Scotland also have the opportunity to come to know and value something of the the history and culture of this unique, special and, in many places, unspeakably beautiful country (midges apart). 

This fine book will, I'm sure, contribute significantly on all these fronts, as well as giving many children a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read. It could well end up helping to grow their humanity too.

(Please note: This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy. Publication in paperback and as e-book is due in Sept '16.)

*Which, incidentally, imaginatively fills in a story of the origins of the Brochs, a ruined example of which features in John Fulton's tale.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Bone Jack for US publication

 

Great news for US readers. I have just discovered that Sara Crowe's stunning debut YA novel is to be published there in early 2017. Dark, dangerous and disturbing, it is a gripping read and lovers of fine writing for young people should certainly look out for it. It is one of the real UK gems of recent years. You can see a full review in my post from June '14 when I first read it here. It has been quite a long time crossing the pond, but will be well worth the wait.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Revisiting a master


                                            

With a new title in Garth Nix's Old Kingom YA fantasy sequence, Goldenhand, due out this Autumn, I decided to go back to the beginning and reread right through this series. Actually I have a great many new books on my pile that I am keen to read, but sometimes it is good to visit old friends as well as make new ones. And anyway this is probably one of the very finest YA fantasies ever. So why not?

As well as being an indulgent and hugely enjoyable experience, going back to the first book has highlighted for me just how much this sequence has developed over the years. This applies to the storytelling and world building which has just grown and grown in richness from the inspiration of the early Sabriel, through to the brilliant Clariel. It also applies to the writing; the hugely talented new author of 1995 has now matured into the consummate master of his genre as demonstrated in Clariel. (See my post from Aug '15.)

It has made me even more excited about the prospect of Goldenhand.

                                           


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Yet more good things to come

 

I am greatly looking forward to more of the new titles to be published later this year.

Towards the end of the summer the final part of Kate A Boorman's wonderful YA Winterkill trilogy is due out. The first two volumes of this 'alternative history' have combined touching romance with gripping intrigue in some outstanding storytelling, so the final part promises to be really special. I hope to write up my full review of the first two books (Winterkill and Darkthaw) very soon.

Even earlier I will eagerly be reading The Wildings from Nilanjan Roy, a tale of feral cats in Dheli. Most promising. And if this one lives up to expectations it seems there is a sequel (The Hundred Names of Darkness) to follow fairly hot on its heels. 

Then in the autumn we will have new books from three writers I admire enormously, as well as a debut which sounds well worth watching out for.

Piers Torday is the author of the hugely enjoyable, and successful, The Last Wild trilogy. His new book promises to be a stunning addition this year's children's books.

Marcus Sedgewick is one of the very greatest of our contemporary writers for young adults, so little needs to be said about Saint Death except: don't miss it 

Another book for older readers, Laurence Anholt's The Hypnotist looks like it will be a landmark work on a most important theme, and Lucy Strange's debut could well be a charmer for younger readers.

Which will make my books of the year I wonder?  I already have some strong contenders on my metaphorical  top shelf (see earlier posts) but I wouldn't be surprised to find some of this little group joining them.


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

 

Parents looking for reading recommendations for younger children must not be confused. This is another book emphatically for young adults (plus). Its initially quiet style about the ritualistic life of a cloistered all-female community plunges later into physical and sexual violence which is no less horrendous for avoiding the excessively graphic. It is a shocking and disturbing novel, but also, for appropriate readers, a deeply moving and altogether wonderful one.

Appropriate readers. Yes. There lies the rub, to borrow a phrase. For a while I (mere man that I am) side stepped reading it, despite rave reviews, thinking it was just (aghast) a 'teen girl' novel - and labelled a feminist one to boot. I was badly wrong. It is, I suppose, what I thought it, but it is so much more too - and a hugely important book for so much wider an audience. It is also a truly great read.

To start with it is, as YA fantasy goes, refreshingly original and, well, fresh. Of course all-female communities in cloistered settings have been done before. However this 'abbey' is very vividly and evocatively imagined as is the life of young protagonist, Matesi, within it. And there are no vampires, fallen angels or grotesque monsters. That is not to say there are no monsters at all; in this context the monsters are men. And I do not mean individual members of humankind, just all the males. It has to be said that as both narrative and thematic device this is made to work very powerfully.

Of course the polarisation of the genders here into female/good, male/evil is (I hope) an oversimplification in terms of actual society. The almost complete vilification of men (the single male character who gets any degree of sympathetic portrayal, a gay boy, is good to have included) is at least a partial exaggeration. Yet this is fantasy, and it is one of the most dominant characteristics of the genre starkly to contrast the forces of good and evil, of light and darkness. So the convention has to be accepted here. In any case, I think that men as a whole have acted badly enough in many periods of our history, and indeed plenty of contemporary ones, to justify being cast in the role of uber monster.

Even more importantly, though, I think this great book is, at heart, more than simply an expression of feminism; it is a rich and deep exploration of the 'feminine principle'. Much of its considerable power comes from the fact that it draws on some of the oldest and most potent symbols of humankind. The belief system of its principle characters is built around the ancient concept of the 'threefold goddess' - maiden, mother and crone. Even though we mostly no longer accept such entities as actual deities, they remain powerful archetypes of fundamental aspects of our life and humanity. Equally the author reinvents most vividly many other profound and ancient symbols and rituals, the 'magic' labyrinth, the power of the moon, sexual sacrifice, the door to death. The whole narrative is redolent with the resonances of older stories and beliefs. Yet all are woven into the most skilfully constructed narrative, completely engrossing and hugely complex in its very simplicity. Through this, it bring to us anew the potency, and relevance, of its symbolism.

Strangely I felt a little of Tiffany Aching in Maresi, if only in that both grow through their costly spiritual/magical education yet ultimately elect to use what they have gained in the service of others. There are also just faint echoes of Tenar in the labyrinth of the Atuan tombs, although that older (and equally wonderful) novel is coming from a rather different place. Both are worthy and noble comparators. However Maresi is totally herself, as well as a very real part of all girls, and, hopefully, of all of us. She is one of the great creations of contemporary YA literature.

I trust it is fair to say that not all males in our world are represented by those portrayed here, although I am well aware that the issues of gender worth are far from completely resolved in any society, and in some even less so. Nevertheless this novel is a rich and important exploration of the feminine essence that is a vital element of our whole world, and of each one of us - male as well as female. It is also a timely reminder of the horrendously negative side of some of the more ignorant, aggressive, domineering and frankly brutish characteristics associated with 'manning up'. I hope that many boys will read it as well as girls. I think it will surprise them, as it did me, with its power and potency

Considerable thanks are due to Pushkin Press for bringing this fine Finnish novel to an English-speaking audience. Much credit is also due for what appears (to a non-Finnish speaker and least) to be an outstanding translation. What I can be certain of is that, in this edition, the world of the Red Abbey is tellingly conjured in simple, elegant, lucid and totally idiomatic English prose. It beautifully captures the voice of Maresi as she records of her own story

The whole is a triumph and, I feel, a most important book. I am including it in my short list of works which I consider the very finest examples of contemporary children's writing, rivalling the 'modern classics' from the twentieth century.

Heads up US. Due to be published your side of the pond Jan '17, I believe.

 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Upcoming

It's turning into a great year for children's and YA books. New titles from some of my top favourite writers are due out fairly soon. I can't wait to read them. Watch this space.

Also due soon are the latest instalments of some of the finest ever fantasy series, one children's, one YA: A new Todhunter Moon from Angie Sage, and another Old Kingdom novel from Garth Nix. Just brilliant.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Crimson Skew by S. E. Grove

 

Here is the final part of the trilogy that began with The Glass Sentence and continued in The Golden Specific. (See my posts from Jan & Aug '15.) I wrote then at length explaining my huge admiration for and enormous enjoyment of these truly wonderous books, and this conclusion fully lives up to the standard of its predecessors.

S.E. Grove's is, to my mind, easily the most original, imaginative, intelligent and convincing creation of a fantasy world since that conjured by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, which matches it with one of the great children's literature creations of recent years. Even its intriguing and captivating titles show the profound inventiveness of its author. (It is so refreshing to have children's fantasies whose titles do not ape the Harry Potter/Percy Jackson format: you know, Jimmy Blog and the Slime of Superstition, or whatever.) The deep, rich complex novels to which they belong are no less amazing. If you haven't done so, please read my earlier post about this megastar author and DO NOT MISS THIS WONDERFUL SEQUENCE. It may not be the quickest and easiest of recent reads, but it is up there with the greats in terms of rewards.

Hopefully it will soon be showered with awards too. it certainly deserves to be.

UK publication PLEASE.

 

The Skeleth by Matthew Jobin

 

The Nethergrim, the opener for this series, was actually my very first post when I started this blog. (See May '14.)

It has been a comparatively long wait for the second part, but one that turns out to have been very well worth it. US author Matthew Jobin's promising start is now opening out into a true high fantasy epic, but one with strong and engaging teenage protagonists, both male and female. This is not highly original writing in core concepts, but rather a most vividly reimagined combination of all the truly 'classic' elements of high fantasy. It has little in common with the children's whimsy of Narnina, slightly more with Tolkein. However it is actually best thought of as the highest quality 'sword and sorcery' most tellingly reinvented for adolescent readers, without in any way aping those much more ubiquitous teen romance/fantasies about vampires, fallen angels and the like. This is real deal high fantasy, but pitched beautifully for its intended readership. Few others have achieved this so well.

A truly gripping read. UK publication as soon as possible please.

Mort by Terry Pratchett


I was prompted to return to this little masterpiece by the recent publication of a quite stunning new hardback edition.
 
My love and enormous admiration for Terry Pratchett's YA Tiffany Aching sequence is already fully documented on this blog. (See posts from June '14 and Sept '15.) I suppose strictly speaking Mort counts as one of the adult Discworld books, but it is one that is perhaps particularly accessible by teen readers. Not only is it jammed packed with this author's trademark wit and wisdom, but here the subject matter is a youth, and a girl too for that matter, discovering what they want to do with their lives - and indeed why. It is the very stuff of YA fiction. Although younger readers may not necessarily get every last witticism (there are so many clever references and sly allusions that probably few of us do) there is still an enormous amount here to amuse and entertain them most engagingly. And if it makes us reflect thoughtfully, rather than morbidly, about the role of death in life, is that a bad thing?

 

Catch Up Note

I am aware that I have spent a lot of time recently climbing fells rather than writing reviews. Not that I regret this. However I have still been reading between times, so, to catch up a little, there follow a few short notes on my most recent favourites. I do not feel too guilty about their brevity as they all happen to be books by authors about whom I have written before. You can find all my more detailed thoughts about these outstanding writers on earlier posts if you are interested.

 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A Cage of Roots, Storm Weaver by Matt Griffin

When are fine young Irish writers for children like London buses? Sorry. I know that's trite. Although when I was a student in London, getting on for fifty years ago, it was often literally true about two buses arriving together. I don't know whether it is now. I haven't caught busses in London for many years.

Anyway, in my previous post I raved, with ample justification, about Dave Rudden, and now, hot on his wheels, I have found myself reading Matt Griffin*. His books are actually very different from Knights of the Borrowed Dark, and if anthing even more Irish. In fact they are more Irish than an Irishman in a (genuine) Irish pub**. They are set in Ireland, have Irish characters with Irish names, and most import of all, they draw deeply on Irish myth and folklore. And that's just great.

Of course there is a most important heritage of children's fantasy that sources much older, cultural stories. It goes right back to the seminal works of Alan Garner and was then developed magnificently by other all time greats like Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. However the majority of such fantasies mine the more Welsh Celtic sources, Arthuriana or The Mabinogion, to conjure their magical worlds. A few years ago, Kate Thompson was notable for delving into Irish traditions (see my posts from July '14), but her magical world was a relatively good-humoured one of Little People and fiddle music. Matt Griffin's fantasy creation is, in total contrast, one that lies at the very darkest edge of fairy tale. It is a nightmare world of viciously cruel goblins, of being buried alive, of a child's life unravelled to provide the thread for a grotesque weaving loom. It is a place not of nursery story but of nightmare, not of Tir Na Nog, but of an 'other' magical pre Ireland where life literally withers away after forbidden return. Yet his creation and his narrative are all the more resonant and potent, and indeed all the more terrifying, for their link to the tropes and archetypes of ancient tales.

One of the particular strengths of Matt Griffin's narrative is placing within this dark fairy tale context a quartet of young protagonists who are fully contemporary in their language and outlook. They are every inch kids of today, clever, lippy, streetwise. These are certainly no Pevensie children, stumbling with wide eyed wonder into Narnia. They most assuredly do not go gentle into the black night*** of this magic world. Even though they eventually show the inner courage, integrity and loyalty that characterises their role in such stories, this is most believably overlayed with a deal of cynicism and, understandably, no little terror. Their down to earth realism makes them completely engaging, and their encounters with dark magic all the more disquieting.

Having just read them (almost) back to back, it is impossible for me not to compare Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Cage of Roots/Storm Weaver. In terms of language, Matt Griffin does not have the intense and remarkable power of imagery of Dave Ruddock, but instead he selects nouns, verbs and judicious adjectives with great potency and thus succeeds in describing vividly and narrating tensely. His, in some ways simpler, language has its own remarkable effectiveness.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark, with much more of the comic book and video game in its fantasy world building, perhaps feels the more contemporary.The Cage of Roots sequence is more 'classic', but it is certainly none the worse for that. It is a gripping and powerful read, a potent and imaginative refreshing of many of the tropes and themes of great children's fantasy - with more than a touch of darkness thrillingly added. And of course that wonderful whack of Irishness.

Matt Griffin uses very effectively too some of the classic fiction techniques: starting in mid action, interweaving split narratives. It is most skillful writing in any terms - and, as an authorial debut, exceptional. His already much admired artist's imagination, together with its expertly crafted realisation, clearly transfers readily into his writing.

Often in trilogies/quartets, second books can drop off a little in quality. But not so here. Storm Weaver, as much a continuation as a sequel, fully maintains the momentum and visceral excitement of the first book, with Ayla's 'power ' growing, the other kids developing engagingly, their involvement with the 'other Ireland' enriched by further interaction with both 'ancients' and more dark adversaries. From the ending, it is clear that this sequence is not yet complete - a cause for eager, indeed impatient, anticipation.

Assuming that any forthcoming completion will be as good as the first books (and there is every encouragement here to think so) then this will be a very fine and important addition to the cannon of quality children's fantasy literature.

Matt Griffin provides his own art work and the simple but darkly elegant covers and strong, menacing illustrations make these books stunning packages in their own right as well complementing the text superbly. It is a shame there are , at present, no hardback editions to collect for posterity, but surely this sequence will soon get the US publication it well merits, and hopefully then.

 

*To be strictly fair Matt Griffin's first book came out well before Dave Rudden's, but I didn't catch up with it until his second, Strorm Weaver, was published last month. Life is so subjective.

**And not a shillelagh of leprechaun in sight.

***Sorry, that's Welsh.