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, 30 December 2016

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

 

Connections are very special. There is a particular pleasure in joining things up. It is an urge, perhaps even a need. Sometimes the more disparate the elements appear to be, the greater our thrill in feeling we have linked them. This applies to geography, to history and indeed to people, not least, of course, when the connections are with our own selves. We seem to need to spin a web, the threads of which fan out from our centre and  tie us to other times, other places, other people. It makes us feel a part of something larger than ourselves, this moment. When we visit distant countries we bring back souvenirs so that we retain a physical link with them. On a more casual level, out walking, we pick up a pebble from a beach or a acorn from a wood and leave it long on our desk or mantlepiece. It links us and our memory, our imagination, to another place, another time. It can be even more potent to hold some ancient object, a fossil amonite, a faience ushabti, a flint axe head, and feel connected to times so long ago. More rewarding still can be to discover an old photograph or marriage certificate from a distant ancestor of our very own. Connections.

For some time now, I have been developing an enormous admiration for the novels of Kate Milford, growing ever closer to the opinion that she is one of our most important, and wonderful, contemporary writers for children. This response grows exponentially with each book of hers I read. More than anything this is pure delight in the connections that exist between each and all of them. Each emerges as another facet of a truly enchanting world, created with the most original and fertile imagination. Her novels are not a sequence in the sense of the Harry Potter or Septimus Heap books. In fact they are not only each freestanding stories, set in different periods in history, but each has a very distinct and different 'feel'. They belong, almost, to different genres, or at least to different sub-genres. Yet there are links between each of them, sometimes strong and clear, sometimes subtle or almost covert - and it gives a reader the most wonderful thrills to discover them. Sometimes the same character may appear at a different age, or the same place at a different time. Sometimes we meet ancestors or descendants of characters we already know. Sometimes the books are linked by stories; what in one is recounted or read as folklore, in another is lived out as 'reality'. Central to this world, though only peripherally featuring in some books, are enigmatic 'roamers',  characters who seem able to travel along magical roads through place and time. Roads and crossroads. Places. Times. People. Stories. Reality. Roamers. In her rich and complex creations Kate Milford conjures a kind of hinterland, a cusp, between history, folklore and fantasy which is very potent. Discovering her world, exploring its connections, building its picture piecemeal,  is truly thrilling. I know of no other children's books that do this in quite the same way. 

However, the fact that all the  books interconnect does not prevent each from being a fascinating and engaging read in its own right. I have saved up reading Greenglass House for a Christmas treat and that proved to be a very good decision indeed. The only drawback, perhaps, is that if I had read it when I first bought it, a few weeks ago, it would most certainly have been included in my books of the year, alongside The Left-Handed Fate. (See previous post.)  Although first published in handsome hardback in 2014, the paperback has only just come out, so I would have counted it for 2016. Although Greenglass House was written before The Left-Handed Fate, the books are not sequential as such, so my reading reversal was no drawback. In fact Greenglass House far post-dates the subsequent book in terms of its time setting. 

The Left-Handed Fate is, at least in part, a quite brilliant younger-readers version of something akin to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. The Greenglass House fits rather more comfortably into a familiar sub-genre of American children's literature, treating, in its simplest terms, with children using clues to solve a mystery    In this it is related to such classics as The Westing Game, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler  and, more recently, The Mysterious Benedict Society. However it is very much it's own book, with many wonderful, original and highly engaging qualities. 

Milo lives in a eccentric 'smugglers' inn, the titular Greenglass House in Nagspeake, run by his adoptive parents. All is quiet there in the run up to Christmas and Milo is looking forward to the holidays when a number of enigmatic guest arrive quite unexpectedly. Just as Kate Milford's different books are scattered so cleverly with interconnections, this book is in itself about connections, or rather about the discovering of them. What connects Greenglass House  with its past, and how are each of the strange visitors connected to the house? In short why are they there? That is the mystery that Milo and his friend Meddy have to solve.

One of the many joys of the book is the subtlety of its fantasy. For the most part the characters and actions of Greenglass House seem grounded in realism, at least in the book's own terms. And yet elements of their world's folkloric story find their way into concrete reality, and their reality feeds intriguingly back into the realm of story. The concrete and the imagined impinge on each other mysteriously. One might even  say they interact. They certainly interconnect. Milo and Meddy take on roles from fantasy gaming, and almost become their gaming characters. Sometimes we are  led to question whether they are indeed just imagining. And then, towards the end of the novel, the narrative  tips more fully into fantasy. We are brought up again against the realisation that this is not the 'ordinary' world; it is the world of the 'Roamers' after all. These shades and shifts of focus are quite beautifully handled in what is a most skilfully realised piece of fiction. 

Amongst many other finely drawn, and often amusing characters, it is Greenglass House itself which is in many ways the star of the story. It is vividly conjured in such way that as a reader you experience for yourself its intimate mixture of warmth and quirkiness. How wonderful it would be to spend Christmas there, to ride the clanking funicular up from the bay, to climb the quirky stairs to its many floors, to bathe in the light of its magical stained glass windows. To those who already know Nagspeak in more detail from other books, this inn fits perfectly. To those who don't, it it a perfect introduction to a truly amazing place. 

Moreover, the fact that the story is essentially rather domestic in scale does not stop it from grasping and holding the reader in its narrative thrall. The climax of the piece, when the identity of the 'villain' amongst the guests is finally discovered, is as  thrilling as anyone could wish. And the twist in the tale towards the end (yes, there is a huge  one, but I am certainly not saying what)  is just as jaw-dropping for the reader as it is for the characters. Kate Milford has lead up to it so, so cleverly. It is one of those revelations that, once in the know, you look back and think you should have suspected all along- but you didn't. 

It was not only the Christmas setting that made this such a heart-warming seasonal read (although of course it would still be brilliant at any time). It is the refreshing fact that Milo is the epitome of 'Friday's child', loving and giving. So many child protagonists in contemporary fiction are traumatised, or hard done to by life, and it is of course important for literature to explore children's issues and difficulties. Yet even though Milo is an orphan, and understandably sometimes muses about the identity of his birth family, he is clearly in a stable, secure relationship in his adoptive family, loving and loved. We know that not all children are so lucky, but, thankfully, many are. It is wonderful to find a book celebrating this aspect life too. Milo so often gives away what he has found in order to to make others happy. He can do so because he already has the love he needs. He s a wonderful and important model. 

Whilst the story of Greenglass House itself has been resolved by the end of the book, many intriguing story elements have been the introduced but not fully explained. I so hope that in future books there will be more to illucidate intrigues such as the secret underground railway, Georgie the Eye, and 'The Raconteur's Commonplace Book'.  I suspect there might. Yet again I would want to call strongly for UK publication of Kate Milford's masterly books so that we can buy them in real, independent bookshops, and not be reduced to patronising internet conglomerates. Strongly 'American' they may seem, but they are actually universal books with a satisfyingly rich geographic and cultural background and as such deserve the widest possible worldwide audience. 

Kate Millard, (I know you are out there somewhere. The 'Roamers' World' links even to Digital Media Land.) I love the contribution you are making to the canon of children's literature. It is huge and truly wondrous. You connect us all to places that are real and imaginary, or both. You connect us to the past and perhaps our future too. You connect us to folklore, to ethnicity, culture and heritage (our own and others'), to story, to magic - and to the greatest magic of all, imagination. You connect us to ourselves, and to each other. Keep filling the note books. Keep finishing the novels. And, please, don't let even Border Saints and Greensward drift off into utter disconnection. Hook them in somehow. Even one small cross-reference would satisfy your so admiring readers and thrill us with joy of connectivity. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

My books of the Year 2016

 

The time has come around again to pick out my best of the best 'magic fiction' books of 2016. A stunning collection they are too. Many fit comfortably into the fantasy genre, others are more what might be termed fantastical, but all are the products of wonderful writers of hugely creative talent. My selection this time  covers  age ranges from children's (Middle Grade) well into young adult. Of course I know that these books will be enjoyed by many adults too. But it is their potential contribution to the growth of young imaginations  that excites me most - the  part that they will play in creating, developing and sustaining readers in the very fullest sense. 

I know I often complain that children's fantasy (and children's fiction generally) has too often recently been formulaic and derivative, with publishers pandering to what they already know children will go for in high numbers. This is perhaps understandable from their commercial point of view, but does not necessarily advance the provision of great literature for children. However, I have to say that this has actually been a remarkable year with a good deal of startlingly original and high quality children's fantasy fiction published. For this both admiration and gratitude are due in spades to some masterful writers (both new and established) and to the publishers who have had the courage and vision to support them. 

In no particular order, as they say:

For children, my first gems, all by debut authors, certainly come into the excitingly innovative category: Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden (full post May) is a superbly imagined and thrilling fantasy romp with more than a little influence from video games, but still totally its own creation; The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill (full post Oct) is simply one of the most imaginatively conceived and wonderfully realised fantasies I have come across in a very long time; The Girl of Ink and Stars (The Cartographer's Daughter in US) by Kiren Millwood Hargrave (full post May) is in some ways a slightly gentler fantasy, but her rich, multi-layered tale is no less original or engaging. Each of these books looks like it could be the first of a series; I sincerely hope they are. 

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford (full post Nov) is the latest novel from a US author who is my big discovery of the year. Her unique blend of history and fantasy ought not to work, but does, magnificently. This latest is no exception, but U.K. Readers should seek out her other books too. Pure delight. Similarly the latest from an already well established U.K. author should not be missed either side of The Pond (or elsewhere). There Might Be a Castle by Piers Torday is heartbreaking magic of the purest kind and one of the most deeply enriching children's books of the year. Back across to Canada for another wonderful latest from one of our best contemporary children's writers. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (full post March) is as enriching as it is disturbing. Another example of the finest literature for children. 

Finally in the children's section, I cannot possibly miss out what appears to be the conclusion of one of the very best children's fantasy sequences of recent years. StarChaser by Angie Sage (full post Dec) is the final part of the Todhunter Moon trilogy, itself an extension of the Septimus Heap series. It is a worthy and joyful farewell  to a totally captivating world. 

For older children and young adults:

Another startlingly impressive debut is Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff  (full post June). Deservedly highly acclaimed, this book often gets labelled 'feminist', which it certainly is. However I hope the label does not prevent it from reaching the widest possible audience as it is no less about the 'feminine principle', which is a profound part of the humanity of all of us. Again the first of a planned sequence. Hurray!

Then there are more most welcome sequels to already published triumphs by masters of the fantasy genre. Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (full post Apr) returns to the brilliant, uber-imaginative SciFi fantasy world of Railhead and is every bit as captivating. Half Lost by Sally Green (full post Apr) brings to devastating conclusion one of the most original, stunningly written, but disturbing fantasy trilogies ever. Goldenhand by Garth Nix follows up last year's Clariel in returning to his Old Kingdom world after quite a gap. It is unmissable. Another all time fantasy great. 

And my 'left field' choice may or may not be fantasy, but who cares. It is virtually unclassifiable. Death or Ice Cream by Gareth P Jones (full post Feb) is hilarious , weird, wacky, profound and quite, quite wonderful. Read or miss out. 

I have saved my final words in this review of a wonderful year of reading for a book which, on its pages, has no words at all. However, if anything is 'magic fiction', this is. 2016 has seen the publication of Return by Aaron Becker, bringing to a conclusion his truly great, wordless picture book trilogy Journey. In a very real sense, these three books contain more words than any written story. They are possibly better known in the US than here - but if so, this needs to be remedied urgently. For the richest possible story stimulation of any child, young adult, or indeed person (period),  there is little to  better it.  Journey simultaneously captures and liberates imagination. It is imagination imaginatively imagined and perfectly stimulated. And it is breathtakingly beautiful to boot. As an added bonus,  this last volume is a huge consolation for us oldies, sensitively showing, as it does, how significant  a part adults can still play in the imaginative growth of children. Celebrate and be thankful. 

 


Friday, 9 December 2016

There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

 


Piers Torday's Last Wild trilogy is a fine work of children's literature, carrying important messages. But this latest work of his is the finer by far. I need to say this clearly at the outset. There May Be a Castle is not only a very fine book but a hugely important one. It deserves to become, indeed needs to become, a contemporary children's classic.

Now please remember that I have said this and bear with me through my next comments. 

As an adult reader I found there was a lot I needed to get past in this book. First and foremost, the basic concept is far from original. A lead character has a serious accident (car crash) and enters a strange 'other world', leaving the reader not really knowing whether this is a classic 'portal' fantasy, whether the protagonist is unconscious and 'dreaming', or whether she or he is actually dead and in some form of afterlife. With variations, this idea has already been well used, both in fiction and in film.  A further concern was that the metaphor which pervades this book is rather heavy handed, over-obvious and even somewhat patronisingly explained at points. Finally I could not escape the feeling that this tale verges on sentimentality. Whether it actually tips over into the mawkish is debatable, but at best it comes close. 

However, I did completely forgive these things. And I did so for two overriding reasons.

Firstly, of course, this is not a book for adults. It is not even a nominal children's book with adult pretentious.*  It is a genuine children's book, and, as such, it is pitched to its intended readership with consummate skill. The core concept is reworked afresh for the 9-12 age group, in a quite riveting way. There will be nothing unoriginal about it for them. Moreover, Piers Torday has succeeded brilliantly in inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of a young contemporary boy. The rich picture conjured of protagonist, Mouse, and of his family life is spot on. It is realistic and funny, sweet and annoying. And it is one with which so many children of this age will be able to identify - even if their superficial lives are quite different. Mouse is one of the great creations of recent children's literature, and his long-loved baby toys, his interests, his likes and dislikes, his family relationships, his hopes and fears all spring vividly from these pages. 

Secondly, I could forgive this book anything, because it is quite beautifully written. This applies not only to the writer's character and world building skills, but also to his ability to capture incident with amazing immediacy. His description, for example, of the car crash are rivetingly, shockingly vivid. In contrast his inventions of  dialogue between, say, Mouse and Nonky, the horse that was his favourite toy in real life but in the 'fantasy' world is amazingly altered, is a joyful delight. This writer's exceptional craftsmanship also applies to his structuring of the story. Mouse's quest for the castle that 'might be' is interleaved with scenes from the aftermath of the actual accident. This keeps the reader's not only involved in the fantasy but simultaneously desperate to know what is really happening to the family, and of course to Mouse himself. It is these unanswered questions which are most powerful of all in keeping the pages turning. And when a resolution does appear to be reached, it is the twist of the final passage before the 'Epilogue' which is the book's true, and devastating, heart.

Rather than being heavy-handed this novel introduces its relatively young readers to extended metaphors in a quite brilliantly appropriate way, explaining just enough to keep them clear, yet still leaving room for poetic imagination and independent response. This in itself is a wonderful thing. Even if they come away from this story only subconsciously aware that metaphor can be more than just a descriptive device  in a single sentence, their appreciation of the potential of fiction will be hugely increased. 

And all of this is underpinned by wonderful use of language itself. Sentence after sentence, passage after passage, is an object lesson in the construction of prose which is simple but effective, elegant but unpretentious. It is so much what young readers deserve, but do not always get. 

Even more importantly perhaps, there is too little written for this age group which has this book's degree of underlying seriousness and import. There are many wonderful examples for older children and young adults, and even, in their way, picture books for younger children, but sometimes something of a gulf in between.   However, here is a book for 9-12s which for once does not pander primarily to humorous entertainment. It is, thankfully,  not full  of farting aunties or warty grandmas. It is quality literature made completely accessible to middle-years children. It is deeply challenging without ever being heavy or intimidating. It will make its readers reflect whilst still engaging them hugely, and it will greatly move them. Few books for this age group deal so well with some of life's biggest issues. 

As soon as you take the intended readership into account, together with the masterly use of language, what could have been sentiment becomes emotional truth of the most affecting kind. This book exudes great humanity, an overriding commitment to love for family, in all its potential forms, and a profound belief in the power and potency of imagination. It is life-affirming. All of these are quite wonderful things to lay out for the young. In exploring what can so easily be lost, it commits to what must not be lost at any price. 

This will not be an easy read for many children, but it will be an enriching as well as an involving one. It is a book for committed and sensitive readers.  But it will also help to grow more committed and sensitive readers - and perhaps more committed and sensitive people too. Which is why I opened this review in the way I did. 

The subtle but potent design and illustration have as much class as the story. A volume to treasure. 

Note:
*It will, I'm sure, be enjoyed and valued for what it is by countless adults, but that is something different. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Starchaser by Angie Sage

 

When Angie Sage rounded off her Septimus Heap books with Fyre in 2013, it looked like the close of one of the very best children's fantasy sequences. However, over the three subsequent years, she has continued with a sequel trilogy, Todhunter Moon, introducing a new generation of characters into the same world - and she is to be given enormous credit for extending and expanding that world so successfully. The latest trio of books is no disappointment, in fact very much the reverse. (See earlier posts.) Angie Sage has done what very few writers of such sequences have done so well. She had retained much of welcome familiarity, satisfying the longing for more of the same, whilst introducing enough new characters and story elements to keep everything very much alive and exciting. Not least, of course, she has now added a captivating girl protagonist, one who equals the charm and vulnerability of Septimus Heap whilst also providing another courageous world-saver with whom young readers will want to identify. 

So many contemporary children's fantasies, including of course some wonderful modern classics, involve either  children from our own world suddenly finding themselves in a fantasy one, or else magic invading our world to a greater or lesser  degree. However Angie Sage has succeeded in creating a self-contained 'high fantasy' world, rich, complex and convincing, yet made it totally accessible and meaningful to her young readership. Her 'darke', leavened  as it is with much delightful comedy, is threatening enough to be thrilling, yet not so gothically nightmarish as to be truly disturbing. Her  'good' characters are magical and special enough to be awesome, yet human enough to be totally captivating and to engender easy identification. The result is total involvement and commitment on the part of the reader to a story with endless excitement, suspense and ultimate satisfaction. These are books to truly feed the imaginations and indulge the fantasies of the young. They are however not simply escapist and readers will learn much from sharing the aspirations, dilemmas and, sometimes quiet, triumphs of this rich set of characters. 

Starchaser itself brings the latest trilogy to a magnificent climax,  revealing truly amazing and thrilling  new aspects to the Pathfinders story, as Tod and her friends pursue a final quest to avoid the devastation of much they hold dear. The book cover carries the strap, 'The Magykal conclusion to the world of Septimus Heap,' and if this one really is the end, as it appears to be, it is a worthy culmination of a veritable triumph of children's fantasy. The book is a pure joy. Starchaser is undoubtedly one of the children's books of 2016, just as the series in its entirety is one of the real highlights of 21st century children's fiction.

Although the U.K. Edition is handsome enough in itself, I cannot finish without an enormous thank you to US publishers Bloomsbury/Katherine Tegen, as well as illustrator  Mark Zug. I know that books are so much more than their  covers, but these guys have consistently seen through the whole series, creating what to my mind is one of the most physically beautiful sets of children's books, a book-lover's aesthetic delight. And the production of the Todhunter Moon trilogy echoes its content in that these volumes looks sufficiently like the earlier ones to clearly belong to the full set, whilst still having a distinctive feel of their own. A triumph. And the illustrations are every bit as magical as the books. True enhancement. Sadly the UK editions are the poorer for their lack. Fortunately it is possible to source the US ones over here too.