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.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Nest (and other books) by Kenneth Oppel


The very recent publication of this latest book from Canadian author Kenneth Oppel provides me with the prompt to record reflections on his work, an important task since he is amongst the world's finest living writers of children's fiction. Not all of his books fall neatly into the category of fantasy, although some do. In fact his books collectively do not fall neatly into any category, and that is probably one of the most remarkable thing about his writing. Unlike some highly popular authors he has scorned the practice of churning out virtually the same book over and over again. He has not even limited himself to any particular genre or style. Yet whatever book he writes is always wonderfully idiomatic. He is a chameleon of a writer, and that is a rare thing. If you were to read certain of his books without knowing their author, I think you would be hard pressed to recognise them as by the same hand at all. And yet there are three things common to all his work, consummate writing skill, gripping storytelling, and a fertile imagination that seems to recognise no bounds.
 
His Silverwing sequence (Silverwing, Sunwing, Firewing) from around the turn of the millennium, together with Darkwing, a more recently written prequel of sorts, remains one the very finest example of animal fantasy. As such it is tempting to compare it to Richard Adam's masterpiece and call it Watership Down with bats. However, brilliant and groundbreaking as it is, many children seem to find sections of Watership Down rather dense and difficult reading. Silverwing is far more accessible to children and teens, and overall more excitingly imaginative. What the two do share is the basic approach of retaining their creatures' natural body forms and much of their behaviour. While anthropomophosised in terms of thought and language, both rabbits and bats are presented to the reader as animals rather than people, albeit ones with most engaging characters. Silverwing is no Redwall with cute little animal heroes and villains running around on two legs and fighting with swords (although Brian Jacques' books are enjoyable enough in their own terms.) It is far more serious fantasy, but no less entertainng, and indeed moving, for that. To anyone who has not yet lost themselves in this classic little epic, the Silverwing books come highly recommended.
 
 
Kenneth Oppel's new book for 2014 was very different, but equally special. If I describe The Boundless as something of a 'Boy's Own' story I do not mean to imply any gender bias. I would never wish to do so for any children's book. Books are books and people are people, and all books are for whoever wants to read them. What I am trying to convey is that it is one of those high- adrenaline, action adventures that purport to be set in the real world, but do not actually confine themselves to situations that are altogether feasible - or even, sometimes, remotely possible.
 
 
Kenneth Oppel's story appears to be set in the pioneering days of the Canadian Pacific Riailway. Yet it features a train, the titular Boundless, some nine hundred and eighty-seven carriages, that is several miles, long. It also involves the presence of sasquatch, not as folk legend, but as real creatures indigenous to the snowy heights through which the railway passes. There are other stretches of reality too, including a clockwork dismembered hand that can shutter off and hide, only to later return and grab a living victim. If this is history, it is not, as they say, quite as we know it. But is is the most tremendous fun.
 
In fact The Boundless is perhaps much closer to fantasy than might at first appear. In the train itself, the location of almost all the action, Kenneth Oppel has essentially created a fantasy world. It has its distinctly different 'lands', with barriers making travel through them difficult: pioneer class with its squalor and mountebanks, huge third and second class areas, first class with its lush dining car, observation deck, shooting gallery. And it is all fronted of course by the huge double decker steam loco. Each area has its own characterful inhabitants or passengers too, wonderful creations all. This wondertrain also has its outposts: caboose, break cars, even an incredible funeral car, an actual treasure-laden mausoleum, with tomb, corpse and all; a steam punk fantasy version of Tutenkhamen's tomb on rails. History, like the train itself, is stretched into fantasy. And with such imagination.
 
Then, to crown all, at the centre of the whole train is a travelling circus, packed with the most (sometimes literally) incredible performers, characters, and contraptions. This is a story which caters beautifully for the dreams of every young child (and I was one) who has yearned romantically to run away and join the circus.
 
The narrative is very much a fantasy quest, not so much of the train itself, but of young protagonist Will's long and eventful journey from his 'exile' at the very rear of the train to seek his father in the engine at the front. This includes, of course, a mega villain, who, with his gang of cronies, pursues Will at every stage. And perhaps another, greater evil is misleading the boy too?
 
Thankfully our young hero is not without a companion. His evolving relationship with circus girl Maren is part of the glue which holds this story so perfectly together. Theirs is an early adolescent friendship which just, but only just, begins to touch on sexual attraction. There are many such pairings in children's books, understandably because it gives pre-teen and early teenage readers a choice of protagonist with whom they can identify, and caters to their nascent awareness of the opposite sex, without going too far. But this pairing is particularly involving, touching and amusing; one of the most special in recent children's fiction. Only Tom and Hester in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines are, I think, close rivals.
 
Kenneth Oppel, like Charles Dickens, knows that creating fictions around history does not prevent him making real social comment. There is also much for the young readers to think about here in terms of such issues as social deprivation and the exploitation of the poor, not to mention the largely white pioneers' 'rape and plunder ' of the lands of the Native Americans.
 
However The Boundless is primarily a hurtling thrill of an adventure, its highs and lows, it terrors and laughter beautifully structured and paced by a master craftsman. This is a writer who can make the tension of painting a portrait top even the wild adrenaline rush of a pitch battle atop a moving train. The whole is a movie born of pure imagination and filmed on paper, then projected onto the most vivid of all screens, the reader's mind. It is as tender as it is terrifying. It is as endearing as it is engrossing. It is a real adventure, a true quest, a little epic, a whole world on rails. It is an absolute joy of a book.
 
And it may just be a little magic.
 

Moving from The Boundless to Kenneth Oppel's latest novel, The Nest, is a true chalk and cheese scenario. This is a book that is easiest to classify as an example of 'contemporary kids with issues' fiction. There are a lot of these around at the moment, with conditions such as autism and dyslexia heading almost towards fiction overkill. Their quality varies from outstanding to tedious, but of course, with this one written by such a master, it is something very special. The immediate 'issue' for Steve, protagonist narrator here, seems to be the very recent birth of a sibling with severe and complex medical problems. However this is not the heart of his problem for Steve suffers from near paranoid insecurity, which he attempts to cope with through obsessive-compulsive routines. It soon becomes apparent that these behaviours actually well predate 'the baby'. In fact the baby is more of an externalisation, a physicalisation, of Steve's belief that there is 'a lot wrong with him'. This author succeeds magnificently in getting right inside his character's head, and hence putting the reader there too. The writing is remarkable, so that you share every moment of Steve's experience, both real and imagined.

The stunning thing about this book, however, is the way that Steve's imaginings and dreams morph into a sort of reality. These imaginings revolve around a nest of wasps whose angelic queen has a plan to make the baby perfect again. At the same time his dreams are haunted by a terrifying knife grinder who seems to wish the opposite. But the world inside and the world outside Steve's head do not remain stable. Dreams become nightmares and the reverse. Cure becomes curse and vice versa. Metaphore leaks into reality. Life for Steve becomes a helter skelter of horror.

The second from last chapter of The Nest is a masterpiece of ever building terror. The book is a page-turner from the start, but from this point to,the end I almost defy anyone to put it down without finishing it.

Parents probably need to be aware that this is a very disturbing story. For those children who can take it, it will be disturbing in a good way, by making them really think. It does not end altogether happily ever after. In fact rather the opposite. That is the point. But this does not prevent the denouement being positive. For all its dreamscape and its metaphor, the core message of Kenneth Oppel's story is very real. This is possibly the most humane, most life affirming book I have come cross in a long time. It will change attitudes towards those with illness and disability, be it physical or mental. It is an inordinately important book.

It has been said by others, but is well worth repeating, that this story is considerably enhanced by Jon Klassen's darkly atmospheric illustrations. The small physical volume, too, has itself a disturbingly beautiful look and feel; altogether a triumph for its publishers as well as for author and artist. If this book doesn't win awards then the system is seriously awry, even though my personal preference rememains for The Boundless.

If you haven't yet read either of these amazing books it is worth trying them back-to-back just to get a feel of just how breathtakingly versatile (and brilliant) this writer is.

 

Friday, 18 March 2016

Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park

 

Here is the very fine and delightfully original start to another new fantasy sequence for younger (MG) readers. Linda Sue Park is already a popular and respected author, indeed an award winning one, in the States where she lives. But she is probably less well known and read by children here in the UK , a situation which urgently needs to change - of which more later.

She is probably best known for A Long Walk to Water and A Single Shard. These two, and others of her books, are outstanding examples of that noble tradition of children's literature which uses story to help the young to better understand challenging aspects of life for others in our world. They often explore the experiences of those living through war, under repressive regimes, with unfair disadvantage, serious disability, or experiencing devastating loss. There are thankfully many wonderful examples of such books, including recently Katherine Applegate's Crenshaw, Laura Williamson's A Boy Called Hope, Holly Goldberg Sloan's Counting by 7s, Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, and R. J. Palacio's Wonder; great reads all. Such books do an enormously important job in developing empathy and understanding, and thus really do help us grow better people and a better world.

However children also need fantasy. They need to be taken out of themselves as well as into themselves. It is another way of finding who they are. They need to grow their imaginations. They need to learn not only what they can do but what they could do. The best fantasies help in all of this and more. It is really good, therefore, to see a writer of the quality of Linda Sue Park adding further fantasy to her oeuvre. That Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders is so well pitched for pre-adolescents and 'tweens' is a real bonus.

In many senses this is a relatively light fantasy - or at least it feels so in the early stages. It does not seem to revolve around a potentially world-shattering conflict between the massed forces of light and some monstrous denizen of the dark. Nor does it seem to involve the quest of some little person to save the world. Its protagonist, Raffa, is the son of apothecaries, dedicated to helping and healing, and although he seems a gifted boy, if he has 'powers' they reside in an instinctive feeling for creating effective herbal concoctions rather than any magic as such. In fact there would be no real 'magic' in the book at all were it not for his discovery of a particularly potent vine whose compounds not only heal rather miraculously but seem to give certain animals some limited ability of human speech.

And yet, Forest of Wonders soon develops as a completely engrossing, indeed exciting, fantasy. This is partly because the author skilfully creates a totally credible fantasy world, of broadly mediaeval/fairytale character, without it feeling tweely 'olde worlde'. Amongst many other aspects of her writing, I much admire the clever way she uses language to help establish the 'otherness' of this world by dropping in words and phrases which are just slightly distinct from our own usage and yet are never difficult to read or to understand. It is most ingeniously done, and her imaginative creation will, I am sure, be a world to which contemporary children can easily relate.

This is further enhanced by a cast of strongly drawn and likeable young characters. Raffa himself makes a delightful protagonist with his mixture of diffidence and precocious skill. His good heart but lack of self-confidence quickly endear him to the reader. His cousin and near contemporary, Garith, is the close companion of his childhood and makes an excellent foil. And, once the 'magic' vine provides Raffa with not only a dear pet but a talking one to boot, the child-animal bond quickly becomes the tender heart of the story. Echo, the little bat he finds and heals, is as amusing, charming and endearing a creature as almost any in children's literature; a rival for Charlotte the spider any day!

The development of this relationship gives the story a captivating, if relatively gentle, lead in. However, once Raffa follows his cousin and uncle away from the security of the forest, the only home he has known, and to his world's central town of Gilden, the tension and excitement very quickly ratchet. On his travels he makes two further friends, a working girl from an struggling family and another girl who has formed a strong bond with a forest bear. I love the way in which the author subtly but clearly ensures that not only both genders but children of different background and skin colour are well represented. Together these new friends make a captivating team of adventurers, soon in veritable heaps of trouble. There is humour as well as action, and the escape of this little tribe from impending, and of course unjust, incarceration in the town's terrifying prison is a delight of slapstick entertainment. There are however, increasingly strong clues that the ruling elite of this settlement, which has slums and a strong military guard as well as the sumptuous buildings of its central 'commons', is not as benevolent as it might wish to appear.

By the end of this first book instances of shocking betrayal and heartwarming loyalty are displayed that are fully worthy of the 'highest' fantasy. Similarly, an 'evil' has emerged which, even if not quite on the Sauron scale, is devastatingly significant to Raffa and his friends. Perhaps it is indeed the tip of an iceberg that threatens their whole way of life. Our young little apothecary and his friends could have a world to save after all.

It is a story very cleverly built. And perhaps it is not as far from this author's earlier non-fantasy books as first seemed. Linda Sue Park subtly blends into this story too a great deal for her young readers to think about. She achieves this not by bludgeoning them with 'issues' but by raising questions and provoking reflection through the story itself. What right have we to use animals to serve our own ends? Don't the abilities we have been given carry responsibilities too? Aren't there wrongs in the world which we just have to try to do something about?

I am sure many children will emerge from this enjoyable reading experience thinking about and questioning aspects of their own world, even as they reluctantly leave Raffa's fantasy one. Fortunately that exile will not have to be for too long. More is clearly to follow and will be anticipated eagerly.

Linda Sue Park is a writer who fully deserves to be better know over here. Our children (and those in other countries too I'm sure) surely have a right more easily to access all she has to offer. Her books needs U.K. publication very soon please. This absorbing and original fantasy, with all its underlying wisdom and humanity, is surely a good place to start?

As a lover of books as objects, as well of course of their content, I have to congratulate and thank the US publishers that the hardback edition of Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders, with its attractive, tactile cover, strong but not obtrusive illustration, and sensuous deckle edge pages, is such a beautiful thing in itself. Hopefully these high production values will be maintained in future complementary volumes. One very minor point though. Is what is labelled as the 'northern ferry' on the otherwise delightful map (I too just love maps in fantasy novels) not actually the southern ferry? Or am I just being obtuse? It wouldn't be the first time.

 

 

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Dreamsnatcher, The Shadow Keeper by Abi Elphinstone

 

For some unknown reason I didn't read The Dreamsnatcher when it was published last year, and have only made amends following the recent release of its sequel, The Shadow Keeper. I missed out hugely, but at least I have caught up now with these tremendous titles from a very exciting new writing talent.

If I say that these books provide entry level access to the genre of high fantasy, I do not intend to demean them in the least. Quite the reverse. Although there are shelf upon shelf of fantasty titles for older readers, adults, teens, and even 'tweens', there is relatively little of this quality of fantasy writing so well geared for pre-adolescent children. In a situation where their particular market seems too often dominated (at least in the UK) by zany comedy and gaming spin offs, such accessible yet absorbing fantasy is to be welcomed with open arms. Of course this is an age group which often revels in somewhat irreverent, at times scatalogical humour, and there is nothing at all wrong with catering to it; it turns countless children into avid readers and that is a glorious thing. But children also need books which will develop and stretch their imaginations, take them beyond the world they know. There is nothing better than fantasy for doing this and Abi Elphinstone's books are pure story in the very best sense. Like the early J K Rowlings they are outstanding examples of how the genre can be made captivating for young readers.

The world of The Dreamsnatcher is very firmly built around classic high fantasy conventions, and this is, of course, exactly what it needs to be if it is to introduce young children to this genre. Its core scenario is the Tolkinesque good v evil, light v dark. It has at its centre the child (cf hobbit) who is selected as the one who can defeat the dark, and, despite youth and considerable vulnerability, proves to have the character and courage to meet this task. This is in itself such an important central image for children. Their lives are rightly restricted and controlled, they are at an age where they must be kept safe and secure. Yet they need in their fantasies to explore being special, important, and, at least vicariously, to be the one who saves the world.

Yet Abi Elphinstone builds around this core scenario a world that is more than original enough to give it vibrant life and freshness. The home base of Moll, her twelve year old protagonist, is a small encampment of gypsies. This works well and gives the characters strong identity and rich heritage, not least in the areas of superstition and 'magic'. It also very poignantly creates a core community which, in its simple, largely-outdoor living, its consequent strong connection to the earth, and animistic beliefs, could well represent any of a huge range of cultures and lifestyles across human history. It therefore has considerable resonance. Such fresh, clever imagining combines with strong writing to very powerful effect.

Against this the author pits evil characters based on traditions of voodoo-style witchdoctors, shamans or medicine men. These contrast well with the gypsies whilst being fully believable as belonging to the same world. They certainly fulfil most convincingly their iconic status as representatives of all that is evil. Although it has its lighter moments, and many touches of good humour, there are times when this book is actually quite dark, darker, indeed, than its rather picture-book cover would suggest. But this is a good thing too. A certain amount of 'behind the sofa' fear-tingle is another ingredient of fantasy that needs to be introduced and experienced. The eventual triumph of light over dark does not carry its full potency if the dark is not experienced as black and threatening enough. In fact Abi Elphinstone is fully to be trusted as a writer for this age group. She cleverly and rightly eschews the worst horrors of her protagonists actual killing without sacrificing the necessary shivers of horror engendered by their monstrous adversaries.

On the 'good' team, she successfully assembles a cast of likeable chracters with whom young readers will readily identify. Moll is feisty and rebellious enough to engender ready admiration, but is also touchingly naive and vulnerable. There is great charm in the way she takes on monstrous evil with a catapult. There are warm smiles too for her friend Siddy's devotion to his pet earthworm, especially as Porridge the Second is a replacement for a sadly deceased predecessor. After defecting from 'the dark side,' a third friend, Alfie, completes a trio of vivid young characters, to whom Moll's wildcat soulmate, Gryff, also adds an animal dimension. All in all, it is a 'tribe' of protagonist to rival the best young fantasy has to offer.

Nor are adults neglected in the world Abi Elphinstone creates. Moll's gypsy family offers a range of interesting figures too. Even though the writer plays the classic 'orphan' card with Moll, her adopted father, Oak, lives up to his name. It is good to see that the care and protection of 'responsible adults' is valued alongside the qualities of youthful bravery and friendship.

Like the cast of characters, the topography of the world of The Dreamsnatcher is limited, which keeps everything within the easy grasp of young readers. Yet Abi Elphinstone skilfully uses such iconic locations as the ancient woodland, the dark and dangerous forest, the dividing river, and the blasted heath to establish landscapes of either security or menace, fitting for high fantasy.

As it builds to its climax The Dreamsnatcher achieves tremenous power, the power of wonderful story. It is gripping and thrilling, moving and terrifying in spades; truly awesome as only the very best stories can be. It is also a deeply moral book and one bursting with humane understanding. It is a celebration of the glorious struggle of all children to be someone special, and of their magical triumph of achieving it. Young readers will be captivated and enthralled.

One small thing. In reading this book, as indeed in a good many others, I do find myself wishing that the magical forces which engender prophesies and the like didn't do so in quite such dreadful doggerel. If their verses at least scanned acceptably their mystical utterances would make for a much more comfortable read as well as conveying far more awesome resonance. But this is tiny quibble in the context of a triumphant writing debut.

The Shadow Keeper is everything a sequel should be. It offers more of the same, just as readers desperately want, but without being in any way tediously repetitive. Abi Elphinstone cleverly shifts the base locale from the forest to the coast. This sacrifices something of the tightness of the first novel but opens up engaging new possibilities with smugglers, sea caves, kayaking and the like extending and invigorating the narrative.

There is a level on which this story continues the noble tradition of children's adventures. It has a classic gang of four children and an animal (two animals, I suppose, if you count the hermit crab) following coded clues and boldly seeking treasure, a second amulet. They even have dandelion-and-burdock cordial to refresh them when they need it (instead of lashings of ginger beer). It has no less charm, no less vicarious excitement than the best of its precursors, but it also adds a whole new dimension wih its fantasy elements and particularly with the ever threatening presence of evil magic. It is Enid Blyton for the post-Potter generation. However it is infinitely better written both in its language and in its story-telling than the work of that earlier children's icon. Its writing is unostentateous but always powerfully effective. It bursts with imagination too. It is indicative that its aminal 'companion' is a wild cat rather than a shaggy dog. This tale has edge; it's protagonist and her 'pet' are both semi ferral. Yet they remain endearing and the telling still has the capacity to wrap its readers in a warm blanket. It provides cozy insecurity. It helps children to become aware of the 'broken beauty of the world'. It weaves many threads from older tales into a new tapestry. It is consummate storytelling for this age group.

However it is its protagonists who carry this book's real power. Even more than their quest for the amulets, it is the children's journey to discover who they are, what they are made of, that is at its heart. Most of all, in this second instalment, it is the desire to restore the 'real' Alfie that provides the true emotional thrust of the narrative. It is this story's people who matter to us most of all. And that is a large part of what makes this, like its predecessor, a great book.

In crafting this sequence Abi Elphinstone is achieving something very special. She has taken the potent core conventions of fantasy and not messed about with them too much. Yet she has totally refreshed them and made then accessible and hugely exciting for a new generation of young readers. These books are already picking up fans daily. Very soon they will be BIG. They need international publication and will I am sure get it. They will be read and enjoyed by numerous children, now and in years to come. (Come on US publishers. These are certainly ones for you. Please can we have beautiful hardbacks with deckle edged pages? These are books which deserve editions as special as their content.)

Now,of course comes the wait for the third of the trilogy. The tantalising ending sets up thrillingly high expectations which the evidence of these first two books indicate will be wondrously fulfilled.

Meanwhile, here's a 'Jinx' link (Jinx is the name of Moll's cob in the Shadowmasks books).

Readers who are looking for something equally special to keep them going in the meantime are strongly recommended to seek out the Jinx (The Wizard's Apprentice) series by US author Sage Blabkwood (Jinx, Jinx's Magic, Jinx's Fire). Here is more 'high fantasy' pitched well at younger children. The Jinx books have a slightly different feel but are just as strong on imagination and storytelling. And they too have the frisson of fighting off malign forces but within a wholesome (and in this case admirably green) compass.

 

 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Blue Peter Book Awards 2016


Delighted to see this excellent title winning a Blue Peter Award. I always thought it was good. (See my post from May '15.)