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, 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.