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, 28 November 2017

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford

'The transmundane adventurer knows that there are many more realms than any map can show, and that not all of them are places of the body. There are realms of the mind and of the spirit in addition to the physical, and the transmundane is proficient in traveling all three.' (Milo reading the 'Transmundane Warrior Manual' on page 205.)

Kate Milford's world

Kate Milford is one of my favourite US children's authors. Try again. US writer Kate Milford is one of my favourite children's authors. Better. One more time. Kate Milford is a truly great children's author, and one of my favourites. Yes. 

To date she had written five published children's novels, The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate, as well as two 'novellas', The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne (of which more shortly).

Her new book, Ghosts of Greenglass House, is the first to be a true sequel to one of the earlier ones, as is suggested by both its title and jacket. It is perhaps not surprising that Greenglass House is the book that has been specifically followed up; it is the one that has gleaned numerous high profile accolades and the most widely popular, even though, in my view, each and every one of its predecessors has been quite wonderful. 

New sequel

Writing a sequel must be a particular challenge to a writer, especially when, as here, it is on the back of an enormous success. Readers eager for  'more of the same' can be a double-edged sword. If the follow up is not similar enough to what they have already loved, they will be disappointed; if it is merely repetitious, then they will equally be disappointed. It needs to be the same thing experienced a completely new way, a hard act to pull off. Yet here Kate Milford achieves exactly that, with all the skill of a truly fine writer. 

Exactly as they were in Greenglass House, all of the same, truly loveable main characters are involved in a 'closed house' Christmas mystery, in the tradition of such classics as The Westing Game. The two young protagonists again  adopt fantasy role-play characters to support them in acting as 'their braver selves', and once more the process involves many of the characters telling stories, so that the narratives nest like a set of Russian dolls. Although there is intrigue aplenty, the whole still has a homely and comforting feel, with friendship and loving family at the true heart of the book. But if all this starts to feel as if the sequel errs on the side of being simply regurgitative, then it needs to be added that the mystery of this second book feels completely and fascinatingly fresh, introducing a whole new set of potential 'suspects'. Its development and ultimate denouement involve as many twists and turns, red herrings and reversals as the best of any Agatha Christie 'golden age' detective novel. Greenglass House itself ended with a remarkable 'coup de narrative', and that too could have been difficult to follow up. But, just like the Queen of Crime herself, Kate Milford shows that she has more than the one astounding tail-twist in her repertoire. 

Real fantasy

However, there is far more to 'Ghosts' than even this. The wonderful quote you see at the head of this post speaks of 'different realms', and so it is with the book itself. Kate Milford continually deals in multiple levels of reality. There is a base sense in which the life of Milo, home from school for The Holidays, is the tale's 'reality'. The thoughts and emotions he experiences there are very real, very easy for the reader to identify with. Yet, even in this, we know that both Nagspeake and the house itself are creations of fantasy. His immediate world also includes ghosts as an accepted and'tangible' element, so it is hardly 'real' in a conventional sense. Beyond that he and Meddy add a layer of imagined 'reality' when they adopt characters from the role-playing game 'Old Trails' itself seeming to involve a whole complex fantasy world with its own characters and abilities. The 'Waits' who come carolling to his door, with their 'hobby horse' and chimney sweep, bring with them resonances of yet another realm, that of old traditions and beliefs with their origins in the distant past of the British Isles. Whilst, in the stories told by the house guests and in those held in 'The Raconteur's Commonplace Book', the author draws on yet other layers of legend, some grounded in American lore, others springing from pure imagination.

Often, her shifts from one realm to another surprise and delight us. At one point, when Milo/Téngfēi is listening to a story, its developement provokes the exchange:

" I think Milo is just confused by the sudden genre switch."
"I thought we were hearing a historical thing, is all," Téngfēi apologised. "Something real. I like fantasy. I just wasn't expecting it." (Page 308)

This is exactly how it sometimes is for us as readers. At other times 'reality' and fantasy are inextricably mixed. They blend one into the other. There is no distinction in Kate Milford's world, and, thus, perhaps our own. Here too 'not all places are of the body.'

Greater than the parts

But there is more depth yet. Far more. For all of Kate Milford's books, although not a sequence or series as such, are linked in various ways. Taken together, they are in the process of forming a whole world and its history. Many are linked by geography (real and imagined). Some track events through different periods of history, sometimes including descendants of characters in other books. Some enigmatic characters  ('roamers' ) actually travel through time and appear in more than one book and period. Other 'real' characters from one book, have become absorbed into the stories and legends of others. 

For example,  the mysticism/magic that is 'real' in some books becomes absorbed into role play gaming in others. The ancient Chinese system of  'Way', as embodied in Madame Xiaoming in Bluecrowne, resurfaces in  the 'Old Trails' game and its complex manuals in the Greenglass House books. Then, in a different way, it is brought to 'life' again through the imaginative adoption of its roles by Milo, as 'Téngfēi', and Meddy, as 'Sirin'. 

Visualising reality

The most obvious links from 'Ghosts' are indeed back to Bluecrowne (and The Left-Handed Fate) where we discover how and why  Greenglass House itself came to be built, and given its original name, so important to these stories too. It also fills in much of the background of young Liao, whose letter Milo is  given by his friend Owen in the current book. 

But, these are not the only links. Over Kate Milford's full oeuvre, the interrelationships are multiple and complex, often subtle. To map them out on paper would be impossible as they exist on so many different levels and even dimensions. But they are an inexplicable joy. Simply to recognise an object from other times and places in the books is a reader's delight. (' Oh yes, I remember who used that strange spherical chalkboard, and what for.'; 'Wow! The empty vial that Millo just found in the lacquer box must be the one that Madame Xiaoming drank from before her battle with the pedlars!') The total body of her work, as it develops, is one of the great creations of contemporary children's literature, rivalling even the likes of Philip Pullman in its huge and original imagining. It is perhaps not as 'heavyweight', but it is every bit as rich and resonant. 

'Maps don't show reality, they give you a way of visualising it.' (Page 368)

That's how Kate Milford's books work too. 

Let it snow

Elsewhere she says, through her fiction: 'Time passes, and every morning we wake into a subtly different world than the one we fell asleep in the night before. Nothing stays the same.' (Bluecrowne)

So it is. And so it is with Kate Milford's books. Each  new book is subtly changed by knowledge and understanding from its predecessors. And each new books throws illumination back onto those predecessors. I find it utterly delightful in ways that are beyond words. Kate Milford is a 'transmundane adventurer' and she turns all her readers into the same multi-magical beings. May she long continue to do so.  

The Greenglass books bring a warmth, a degree of gentle coziness, to Kate Milford's fantastical world of Nagaspeak and beyond. They feed into the whole awesome epic of magic and mystery whilst still providing the ideal comfort read for The Holidays. Let it snow. 

A heartfelt plea

A footnote, but an important one:

It appears, as far as I can tell from this side of The Pond, that The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne have only ever been published in e-book format. Until very recently they were easily available through Kindle, However, they seem now mysteriously to have been removed from even this platform. 

So I make a final passionate plea to publishers (or whoever it may concern). Now that Kate Milford's books are such a deserved phenomenal success, may we have these two important and hugely enjoyable works published in print form? The world of Nagspeake and beyond is seriously incomplete, and indeed bereft, without them. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The White Hare by Michael Fishwick


Here is a book which, for me, can indeed be judged by its wonderful cover. Both are engaging, imaginative and beautifully crafted; enchanting in the deeper sense. 

This older children's/YA story is one of those you fall straight into and are carried, mesmerised along, through heartbreak, intrigue and mystery to its thrilling climax. It is on the long list for the 2018 Carnegie Medal and fully deserves to make it onto next year's shortlist, at very least. 

Grittily real in its scenarios,  yet poetically magical  in its treatment, it is a most welcome new addition to a tradition of British writing for young readers that strands back to masters such as Alan Garner (The 
Owl Service and Red Shift, although ultimately not so densely enigmatic) and  David Almond. It reminded me too of Jani Howker's The Nature of the Beast (perhaps little remembered these days, but well worth unearthing) and, more recently, Sara Crowe's Bone Jack. What links it to these earlier titles is a stunning ability to link very realistic and telling characters, their relationships and traumas, with powerfully evocative landscape and nature. Each draws on rooted myth and folklore as both narrative element and metaphor to explore experiences deeply and resonantly. 


However, The White Hare is also very fresh and vibrant, a compellingly new creation that is in no way derivative. It is written  with consummate skill and touching sensitivity in both its language and structure. Michael Fishwick's story draws on much the same ancient images of the hare and its relationship to fire as does Terry Pratchett's equally wonderful (but very different) I Shall Wear Midnight. However here the white hare runs through this lyrical tale like the  hauntingly magical creature it is, setting both landscape and narrative ablaze with thrilling flames. 

Its young protagonists are truthfully drawn and richly developed. All the love and loss, all the pain and acceptance, all the estrangement and reconciliation of the difficult but wonderful process of coming of age are affectingly captured here amidst a mystical wildness that thrills the senses and refreshes the spirit.  

The new Zephyr imprint of publishers Head of Zeus could hardly have got off to a better start and the excellent production values of the volume itself reflect much credit on them.