Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Nigel McDowell

It was devastating to hear the news of the very recent death from cancer of extraordinarily talented young writer Nigel McDowell. You can see how highly I regard his books in my posts from July and October of 2014. Literature and human kind are much poorer for his loss but inordinately richer for his legacy. Our best tribute now is to read (or re-read) his books and to try to make sure that as many young people as possible enjoy the enormous pleasure of doing the same.

Our thoughts go out to those privileged to love and be loved by him.

 

 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

No True Echo by Gareth P Jones

I do not want to pass on, for the present, from the books of Gareth P Jones (see my post from 3rd Feb, below) without recording some thoughts on what I think is his other very remarkable recent book for older children.

Although very different in many ways from Death or Ice Cream?, No True Echo, is also a rich and complex exploration of life and death, which very cleverly and effectively plays with narrative structure. This time there is perhaps slightly less emphasis on death itself, although several very significant characters do die - sometimes more than once! It is rather more of an exploration of the way life is lived, and what makes (or distorts) who we are. It is deep and often disturbing stuff, but again Gareth Jones succeeds in making it hugely entertaining at the same time.

He choses to explore his theme via a concept of time travel. Of course this is not in itself an original idea. Moreover, even though a novelist can easily use fantasy to overcome any purely scientific impossibility of such activity, it always carries with it real logical difficulty. The very concept of going into the past to alter the present always brings up the well explored, but never really satisfactorily resolved anomoly, sometimes called the 'grandfather paradox'. Some children's novelists (and others) seem to choose to more or less ignore this issue, just accepting the illogicality, but this rarely results in truly satisfactory fiction which, however fanciful, still needs to be logical at least in its own terms. Others resort to very complex, if not abstruse, explanations to try to avoid or resolve the paradox.

Gareth Jones certainly does not ignore the dilemma, but rather opts for the second potential route, exploiting the hypothesis that any intrusion of the present back into the past must necessarily split the time stream and create a second alternative reality alongside the 'originating one'. Since this happens , or has happened, multiple times in his story confusion is never far away. Indeed the chapter where he tries, through his characters, to offer a 'scientific' explanation is probably the least satisfactory one in the book. However this apart, Gareth Jones gleefully embraces the confusion, often using his beautifully worked narrative structure to jump time, and indeed 'timelines', without clear indication, so that the reader very soon shares and identifies with the confusion felt by Eddie, the story's principal character. The tale is told from different perspectives and in different voices, leaving the reader to piece together what is happening at the same time as Eddie. This means that, like Death or Ice Ceam?, it is a puzzle as well as a read - and a very absorbing and entertaining one too.

As the story unfolds and multiple versions of the characters' 'reality' play out it also becomes a very affecting one. For No True Echo is in many ways a love story. It is a story above a boy's love for his dead mother, and also about his (potential) love for the book's young female lead. As in Groundhog Day, certain key days are relived a number of times, but the similarity with that film is only superficial. Here, not only do we see a number of potential scenarios lived out, some seeming far more satisfactory than others, but also start to lose track of which is the 'originating' reality. The same soon applies to the characters. This means that when, at the end, an apparent resolution is reached, it is charged with all the poignance of underlying ambiguity. The superficial sentimentality belies, perhaps even points up, the reader's awareness of possibiy less happy outcomes. It is all very skilfully handled by this amazing writer and presents young people with a great deal to think about.

Despite its 'heavy' concerns, the book is certainly not without humour too, and much of the dialogue, for example, is delightfully amusing, often in a particularly droll way. There is wit as well as wisdom in the way it repeats, and near repeats, as it reoccurs in different temporal iterations. Is is simultaneously both impressively clever and subtly disquieting. Delicious.

I am pleased to see that No True Echo has recently been published in the US (and in a very handsome hardback to boot - cover below). I sincerely hope this means it will find many readers over there, and that you who do enjoy it will be encouraged to seek out other recent books too, particularly Death or Ice Cream? (Purchasable online.) It may be rather different from much you read, but I think you will be delighted as well as surprised, despite, or even because of that.

With these titles Gareth P Jones shows how writing for children and young adults can be quality literature in its own right. It seems to me that, on the back of a string of enjoyable and deservedly popular books, he is now emerging as a really original and significant children's writer, and heading for being one of the contemporary greats.

 

 

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Dragonborn Quartet by Toby Forward

I am delighted to see that Starborn, the completing volume of Toby Forward's Dragonborn Quartet, has just been published in a handsome new hardback edition in the USA, with each book being followed up by a matching paperback.

I sincerely hope that this new edition will bring deserved appreciation and acclaim to a masterpiece of quirkily original fantasy, stunning writing and deep humanity which has, sadly, been largely overlooked so far here in the UK.

Please look back to my post from August '14 for a full discussion of this amazing work.

 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Death or Ice Cream? by Gareth P Jones

 

This is one of those posts where I deviate slightly from my self imposed brief of 'magic fiction', but with, I think, very good cause.

Gareth P Jones has developed his skill in writing for children (which is to say, his skill in writing, period) over a considerable range of books and series for younger children. In fact his amazing ability to adapt style and structure to different content is one of remarkable things about his authorship. Recently, he has written several books for older children (age11-13, give or take?), published by Hot Key, which are particularly special and well worth seeing out. The first three are: Constable & Toop, The Society of Thirteen and No True Echo (of which I intend to write more very soon.) followed by his latest, Death or Ice Cream? These books are certainly not high fantasy, but nor are they anywhere close to reality as we know it. They are fantastical, in the literary sense, and also fantastic in the colloquial one.

T S Eliot said of the Jacobean playwright John Webster, 'Webster was much possessed by death, He saw the skull beneath the skin.'* The same could well be applied to Gareth P Jones, although, to be fair, he generally writes in a somewhat lighter vein. Most of these books of his have more of the supernatural than the magical. Several feature death as a central concern, although often with humour in spades to boot. Those spades dig down to considerable depth though.

He does not always write in a particular genre, nor are any of this group series books. They are very much one offs. Gareth Jones is a consummate story teller, and clearly has many varied and interesting stories to tell. However each of his tales has a thrillingly different feel and is told in a very particular, distinctive way. The novels in this group do have at least two things in common though. The first is this author's ability to play with story format in in really exciting ways, always surprising and highly creative. The second is his apparent preoccupation with death, although this is never morbid. Rather he presents death, and offers it for consideration, often with considerable humour, and always underpinned by provocative thoughtfulness. This is a quality he shares with the great and much missed Terry Pratchett, although their books are very different.

The title Death or Ice Cream? may initially appear as a gimmicky attention grabber, which on one level of course it is, but it is also cleverly indicative of the book's tone and content. This is a world of weird juxtapositions, surrealist imaginings; very much the world of the exquisite corpse. Is is also a world of questions, questions posed by the author but also questions sold by a door-to-door salesman. (What? Just read it.) And all is presented with such clever wit and enormous humour (sometimes even roll on the floor laughter) that the whole read is a joy.

In structure, Death or Ice Cream? is essentially a novel built of a collection of linked short stories. This is of course not a completely original idea, but it is a rare and pleasing find for a children's book. And this particular author pulls it off with great aplomb, and many original twists.

Now I have to say at this point that I am, as a rule, not the biggest fan of short stories. I find satisfying ones a real rarity, although in the world of children's books those of the wonderful Paul Jennings are sometimes a exception. However almost every one of the chapters/stories in Gareth Jones' book is a delight in itself, intriguing, funny and hugely entertaining. More than this, however, Death or Ice Cream? is exactly what its author has so skilfully created it to be, far more than the sum of its parts. For these short stories are not simply linked by simple elements of character or location or theme, or even by a framing narrative, as is often the case with such collections. They interlink beautifully so that each adds another astounding element to the overall picture of what is happening in Larkin Mills, the town where they are all set. They truly are chapters of the same novel, pieces of the same jigsaw. And working out how they fit together is the most enjoyable of puzzles. So what might, superficially, appear to be a fragmented book was in fact, from beginning to end, the most engrossing and page-turning of reads. There are so many enigmas, so many intrigues, so many questions about what is going on in Larkin Mills, that to find out quickly became an obsession, and piecing it all together a delightful challenge; almost a battle of wits with the author, in the best possible way.

The chapters/stories also entertain with continuous variety. Most, though not all, feature a different child protagonist, in a very different circumstance. They are written from different perspectives, in different voices, sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first, and once (another writing coup) even in the second person. Such clever writing.

Much of what is happening in Larkin Mills is totally jaw-dropping. This is certainly no world as we know it. Gareth Jones' imagination is wild, wacky and wonderful. In Larkin Mills there is a funeral parlour doubling as a hotel, which happens to be sinking to boot, so that what was the third floor is now only the second; there is a derelict house, now sealed and turned into a massive tank for training sharks; there is a 'steam fair ' that is actually powered by electric eels, a sewage system that is used for a surfboard race, and an artist who has been incarcerated inside his own monumental statue of a human heart. The list could go on. The adults in the story, too, are often wildly eccentric in their appearance, attitude and behaviours. This is some town.

Yet whilst reading, this whole world seems strangely believable. And this credibility springs from the children who are its principal protagonists. It comes because the reader is able to invest in these children's own belief in the reality of their lives, their acceptance as 'probably normal' what is happening around them. Children so often accept the only life they know as normal; what other norm do they have? Additionally the children of Larkin Mills seem frequently to consider that the things adults do are crazy, incomprehensible, just accept the fact and get on with their own lives regardless. Wonderfully, the young protagonist of one of the tales observes that she just can't comprehend why adults 'like watching the news, eating olives or staring into estate agents' windows.' What, to us, are far more outlandish behaviours are just classified in the same way. If adults are freaky enough to do this, why not that? The grown up world is barmy. Get used to it.

It is a view of childhood with many resonances.

And if at the end of this book much of the resolution is enigmatic, unresolved even, then that is actually strangely satisfactory. Trite soultions would have come as a terrible let down. And life is after all weird, complicated, and wonderful, isn't it?

The ingredients for this book seem to me to comprise something along the lines of: 1 cup Neil Gaiman, 1 cup Paul Jennings, 1 cup Terry Pratchett, 1 tsp Roal Dahl, 1 tsp Magnus Mills, and whole bucket loads of imaginative and original Gareth P Jones, finished off with a very generous pinch of metaphysics. It is quite a mix and well worth seeking out. That it turns out in the end to be a work of postmodern ethical philosophy should not put anyone off - least of all children. There is much here that they will want to think about. At the risk of alienating the multitude of Neil Gaiman fans, I have to say that I actually enjoyed it even more than The Graveyard Book, although that is itself a fine work. In fact in terms of pure enjoyment, I think that Death or Ice Cream? is the best book I have read for quite a time. It also makes you re-evaluate life in general and your own life in particular, to question what is normal. Moreover it changes for ever the way you think about ice cream. There will have to be some cracking titles later in 2016 if it is not to stay one of my top books of the year. Miss it and miss out. Death or Ice Cream? There really isn't a choice.

 

* In his poem Whispers of Immortality. The phrase 'the skull beneath the skin' was later quoted by P D James as the title of one of her detective novels.