Friday, 30 December 2016
Monday, 12 December 2016
Friday, 9 December 2016
Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Friday, 25 November 2016
Monday, 14 November 2016
Tuesday, 1 November 2016
Sunday, 23 October 2016
Friday, 7 October 2016
Saturday, 17 September 2016
Wednesday, 17 August 2016
Tuesday, 16 August 2016
Sunday, 24 July 2016
Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Thursday, 30 June 2016
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?
Wednesday, 29 June 2016
Thursday, 23 June 2016
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
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
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 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.
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
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.