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, 8 April 2016

Half Lost by Sally Green


The final part of the Half Bad trilogy is here.

No way are these books for children. They are young adult, possibly with a plus. They are dark, they are violent, they are gruesome, they are harrowing - and they are quite, quite brilliant.

You are given a page and a bit of introduction to this third part, all dialogue. Unattributed. Enigmatic. There are no crude prompts. You can't start here. You need to remember who these people are, where they are, why. You need to understand what they are about.

But you have read the first two books. You do remember. You do understand. What went before is unforgettable. Hard wired now. Burned in. But this is a marker. You will not be spoon fed here. You are part of this story. You must share the work - and the killing.

And now you are straight back. Right inside Nathan's mind. Sharing his every thought. It is where you badly want to be. You have waited a while. It is where you least want to be. You are dreading it. He is disturbed and seriously disturbing. Deranged? He is counting again. He counted at the start of Book One. He often counts, or so it feels. But then he counted to survive. To survive his incarceration. Now he counts his kills. He counts and plans to add another. The big one. And already you want to scream at him. He is still so young. Please no. It is yourself you will kill.

Annalise is your past not your present. Gabriel is now. Gabriel loves you. You know that. You as Nathan, and you as you. His love is so patient, so all pervasive. It too is terrifying.

There are scraps of recap in Nathan's mental rambling. You do not need them. You remember because he remembers. He knows. He feels. You feel. Already you have to struggle to keep yourself separate from Nathan. It is useless. Give in. In almost every other instance, present tense narrative gets right up your wick. Here resistance is useless. You are Nathan. It is your present. Get used to it.

And this is war. In war you kill. You are a killer. Do you live to kill? Kill the enemy? Kill her? It starts to feel like it. Despite yourself and any qualms of your own, the you that is now, that is Nathan, revels in the kill. In the fight. In the victory. In the act of killing itself.

Sometimes talking to Gabriel feels like hearing your own conscience. Maybe he is your conscience and you don't have one of your own. He says the war is killing you. Not your body but your mind, your soul. A lot of the time you just swear at him. You swear at him a lot. Can you do anything but kill? You are mastering your father's gifts. Now they are your gifts. You can use them to kill. You are half black, half white. Are you becoming all black? Or is your white side just as much a killer as the black. Are you your father?

And then that great witch, Van,arrives with her tale of the Vardian Amulet. With her quest to find the mystical, supermagical witch Ledger. With her mission to use the amulet to defeat the arch-evil Soul. And sudenly you could almost be swept back into a world of high fantasy.

But no. For all its cloak of fantasy, of witches, of magic, this is essentially a war story. The witches' 'gifts' are weapons. Of ever increasing power and sophistication. At least potentially so. To be used for good or ill. But what is 'good'? The early books in the sequence shockingly warped the Tolkienesque concepts of good-bad, light-dark, white-black. Here there is good in black, evil in white, ambivalence in both.

Now, though, what is formed is an alliance of black and white. At least nominally so. Formed to defeat the repressive, megalomaniac tyrant. To institute instead a society of inclusion and tolerance. Black and white living together in cooperation and mutual respect. So this is a 'righteous' war then. A 'justifiable' war, despite its horrendous carnage. Perhaps we are back to Tolkien after all. But here the depiction is subtler, more nuanced, more realistic. More now. This Young Adult story is as grown up as it gets. It asks the most profound question. How much killing is justified by the greater good?

It is a universal theme. Potent with resonance. In the present.

The adagio of this war symphony is provided by a visit to the male/female Ledger. He/she is the arch-mage of hippies. The personification of 'make love not war'. A sort of wonderous composite of Carl Jung, Mahatma Gandhi and Mister Miyagi. He/she offers Nathan an alternative to war. To find himself by establishing contact with the earth, the source of all true power. But Nathan cannot stay with Ledger. He may not know if he should kill, but he knows he must. It is what he is for. What he does. He is needed if the war is to be won. And it must be won.

And here is the great heart of the book. It is not simply a universal story. It is simultaneously a deeply individual one. Nathan's story. Now, in the present moment, your story.

It is the fallout of an abandoned and horrendously abused childhood. A boy trying to find out if he can truly be himself or only be what others have made him. Or if the two are now the same. It is a boy trying to find out if he can be both black and white, or whether he must descend for ever into the dark.

Perhaps more than anything this is a love story. It is Love in the Time of War. In the earlier books Nathan was Heathcliffe, with his childhood friend Cathy. Falling adoringly for her as they both emerged into adolescence, only to be betrayed, cut to the quick. But now he is Achilles to a shimmering Patroclus. The passage between the two youths in the bunker bathroom, where the blood of a slaughtered victim still stains the bath, must surely be amongst the most sensuous, tender and moving ever written, whatever your gender or orientation. This is not so much Tolkien as Wagner. Redemption through love. The witch boy learns to mind that it hurts.

Time moves. The story moves. You find yourself slipping out of Nathan's head and then back into it again. It is such clever, such absorbing writing. Its ambivalence, its frequent morphing of viewpoint, is itself exciting. There is no truth, only perception.


Not Nathen.


Not Nathen.

There are still times, many times when you share his eyes, his thoughts, his every breath. You are still Nathan. At others you allow him to narrate for you, first hand, as events scutter, jostle, hurtle past. Either way it grips, like an iron claw around your heart. Don't forget to breathe.

The Half Bad trilogy is classic tragedy. It may not have unity of time place and action, but Nathan's story is one of hubris, nemesis and catharsis. It explores both the compellingly universal and the tellingly individual. What else is a great book?

Knowing it is the last of the trilogy, Half Lost is one of those rare, precious books you simultaneously do and don't want to finish. Call it masochism. You know it will end badly. It is really no spoiler to say it ends badly. It was always going to end badly. It could end no other way.

It is a book which, when finished, when present is finally past, leaves you stripped, raw, drained. There are enough words to be heart-rendering. Never so many as to be sentimental. You are bereaved. All you can do is cling on to the memories. Plant them. Grow them. But the mouth-to-mouth whispers in the bloody bathroom are still just too poignant. Do not think of them. Count or something. Keep them out of your head. Better to remember the night you sat by the fire in Camp Three and told him about Wales.

. . . When the war is over!

I said after reading the first two parts, Half Bad and Half Wild [see my post from June '15] that this was a fine work which might very possibly be great in the future. It depended on Part Three. Half Lost is here. Sally Green builds searing reality out of fantastical imagination. It demonstrates how great writing for young adults can be great writing, period. It is true literature. It is a great story, a desperately important one, and a deeply affecting one. It may end in the past. But the whole is indeed a great work. Right now. In the present.



Monday, 4 April 2016

Wildwitch Wildfire, Wildwitch Oblivion by Lene Kaaberbøl


Pushkin Children's Books are doing a wonderful thing in publishing English translations which open the doors for our children to a whole range of high quality stories from different languages and cultures. There is thankfully already much cross-publishing with the USA and other English speaking countries (although not always enough). And one of the ups of Internet book buying is that it has become much easier to access titles from the US particularly, even when they aren't published here.* However books in other languages remain much less accessible to English readers, unless of course they are available in translation, which so few are.** There must be countless amazing stories out there that our readers sadly miss. So a big thank you to Pushkin. Amongst many others they have recently given us access to Tonke Dragt's classic fantasies from the 1960's, The Letter for the King and its sequel. These have deservedly been a great hit; they are a most important (and hugely entertaining) addition to children's literature in English. And now here are some contemporary gems, Lene Kaaberbøl's Wildwitch stories.

The storyline of the first book Wildwitch Wildfire, concerns a young girl, Clara, who gradually discovers she has the inherited magic 'talent'. She is taken for tutoring to her strange aunt who lives in the wilds on the edge of nowhere. All of this is pretty much classic young fantasy material, rather than startlingly original, but none the worse for that.

Clara soon learns that she is a 'Wildwitch' with particular powers of communication with the natural world. She develops a rather interestingly ambivalent relationship with a cat familiar. Later she has to play a lead role in staving off an attack from a rogue witch, Chimera, who wants bring Clara under her evil sway. All of this is in essence familiar material, but here told beautifully afresh for a new young audience (8-10 ish?)

Clara and the other 'good' characters are wonderfully warm and empathetic, whilst the evil element is suitably frightening without descending too far towards adult horror. All the elements of a good children's fantasy story are here, adored animals, a close boy friend who loyally supports from afar, a second girl who starts off as a rival but comes to be more helpful, and of course tinglingly exciting 'trials' which have to be passed to defeat the arch enemy.

It is good that young readers are introduced to all these central fantasy elements. But what makes this book so special is the quality of its writing, both in terms of its language and of its storytelling. Of course it is always difficult with a translation, where you are unable to access the original directly, to know exactly how much the qualities of the written language are due to the author and how much to the translator. Here I suspect a good deal of each. Certainly the translation is exceptional from an English reader's point of view; it is always completely idiomatic and comfortable to read at word, sentence and text level. If it is true to the original as well, which I guess it will be, it is a skilled piece of work. But I feel the greatest credit is probably the author's. The story is written in relatively short sentences. These make the text readily accessible to young readers, but more importantly carry them straight into the delightful mind of, Clara, the first person narrator. It is totally credible as her own story, told in her own way, with her own words - and this is totally charming. Though the writing is simple, it is never simplistic; it allows readers to share every moment of this exciting story in a way which is at once both touchingly human and delightfully magical. It is scary too of course, but in a good way; all that a young fantasy should be.

Thanks to these translations Lene Kaaberbøl can join the likes of USA's Sage Blackwood and UK's wonderful Abi Elphinstone in providing young, English speaking readers with appropriate and engaging introductions to magical fantasy. The actual world of children's literature and the imaginative world of magical fantasy have much to offer. These titles are most warmly welcome as outstanding examples of both.

And if the splendid character of mentor Wildwitch, Aunt Isa, had not been written in Denmark, then I might have thought her modelled on wonderful Welsh artist/author Jackie Morris!

And now, just published here, we have the second in the series, which confirms, indeed exceeds, the promise of the first. In fact the story grows considerably in this second book, and, although many of the most recognisable features of children's fictions remain, it is perhaps even more original and imaginative than the first. It is certainly very compelling.

As before, it is a little hard to tell if it is a result of the writing or the translation, but the sentences are generally rather more extended and complex than in Wildfire. That means that the original, clear directness of Clara's voice is a little lost. But that now seems right for Clara too is growing, growing with the book, growing with the story. She is continually trying to see and to understand what is really around her, to discover what she really needs to do, to find who she really is. This is a deeper, richer, darker story than the first - but not so dark as to stray outside the sphere of its target age group. It is now a story for children who can take just a little blood and gore with their magic, and, indeed, blood is at the core of its magic. (If I am understanding correctly its title in the original Danish translates as something like 'Wildwitch: Viridian's Blood')

If I say this book get more Harry-Potterish, I do not mean to imply that it is in any way derivative, or even largely similar, but simply that it has that same extremely effective combination of spooky magic and unfolding mystery that is to be found in, say, The Chamber of Secrets.

This author is a real find and I hope that many English-speaking children will now find her.

It seems that fans, of which I am sure there will soon be many, will not have too long to wait for Book 3. They will I'm sure be delighted.


*Even so I strongly urge the support of actual bookshops (especially independent local ones) whenever possible. They are a treasure that we will lose if we don't use.

**Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren have, of course, always been amongst the notable exceptions. I love both. And the latter's Ronia the Robber's Daughter is high on my list of all time favourite children's books.