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.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Doldrums and The Helmsley Curse by Nicholas Gannon

'But I've always had a particular fondness for your mother, Archer,' (said Grandpa Helmsley.) 'I know she can be a bit strong - but I admire her conviction.'
Archer thought the word strong was a bit weak. 

(This quote from the book is not here for any very particular reason. I just like it.)

Picture perfect

Perhaps my best way in to identify the very special delights of The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse is by way of its captivating illustrations. The full page and double-spread art works (no lesser phrase will serve) glow, in almost entirely sepia tones. They are like old photographs, but with subtle hints of other colours occasionally pushing through, hints of a more real world, perhaps in an idiosyncratically fantastic setting. Landscapes, interiors, furnishings and objects are meticulously drawn, with draftsmanlike detail and dramatic perspective. There are echoes of Edward Hopper and perhaps  Andrew Wyath, but yet they are startlingly original. These pictures are mesmerising and draw you in to a world so like and yet so not like out own. Thy are peopled with stylised figures, projecting a feeling of stringless marionettes. They act upon the viewer in much the same way as masked actors in Ancient Greek or Classical Japanese drama in that they allow emotions and personalities to be projected upon them - from within and without. So clever. 

The large illustrations are supplemented by equally skillful greyscale vignettes, scattered through the text. Only rarely are children's books graced with art of this quality. It is a treat I am sure countless of them will appreciate now and come to value even more in years to come. In short Nicholas Gannon's artwork is breathtaking. And I know of virtually no work of children's fiction where pictures and text complement each other so perfectly.

Quite some characters

At the very heart of the charm of Nicholas Gannon's Doldrum books lies his cast of young protagonists. They are more than a little whimsical, sometimes odd, and certainly unique. However they are also completely adorable and, in important ways, very 'real'. My own favourite by miles is wooden-limbed Adélaïde, a girl who's aspirations to be a ballerina were tragically cut short when a lamppost fell on her leg (or,perhaps it was eaten by a crocodile, but that's a different story). It is however an impediment that this feisty child takes in her stride (sorry!), asserting herself and acting bravely and indeed boisterously nonetheless. Indeed her woody appendage is often more a source of humour than an handicap . I love that, when going out into the snow (of which there is a superfluity through the book), she wrapped on a scarf and then, 'wedged a second scarf into her boot to fill the gap around her wooden leg.' This is typical Adėlaïde, who is also rarely short of a delightfully cutting repost. When her friend Archer has to drag her across a room after she has been hurt, his: 'You're heavier than you look,' quickly earns: 'Or maybe you're only as strong as you look.'

However, the said Archer, the true central character of the tale, is hardly less likeable. Totally winning is the way that he talks to the stuffed animals that abound in his house, and then projects onto them replies which voice his own doubts and concerns. (Or maybe the taxidermy actually talks. You can never be absolutly certain about many things in these books.) He is an ever enthusiastic would-be adventurer, but often not as competent as his aspirations - and he is all the more like us as a consequence. 

The other two members of the central gang of friends are delight too. Chocolate-lover Oliver is ever willing and supportive, but sometimes lacking confidence, except when . . . (Well, I'll let you read for yourself the 'except when'). Kana, the rather mysterious girl who is newly introduced here  in Book 2, fell down a well when she was throwing in a coin to make a wish and then decided she didn't want to let go of it. Enough said surely. 

Their world is one in which readers will wish to join, eagerly sharing these children's adventures, even when Archer's carefully thought up plans go awry. Or perhaps because of that. 

Around these kids the author creates a wonderful cast of eccentric characters, some warmly endearing, some deeply enigmatic, some chillingly villainous. Just like the book's vignettes though, all are drawn with skilfully bold lines and subtle shading, stylised without ever descending into caricature. The entire creation is pure joy. 

Quirky or what?

Nicholas Gannon's must be one of the most idiosyncratic and quirky imaginations amongst contemporary children's writers. He is one on his own.  He turns characters, settings, incidents and even objects into things of weird wonder. His story lurks in a strange hinterland between reality and fantasy. In his books the fantastical seems real and his reality fantastical. Sometimes his imaginative conjurings resonate quietly with other works, yet both his graphic and verbal images are always drawn and coloured in a way that is uniquely and unmistakably Gannoned. In this book the opening ,  in a remote and antiquated boarding school, with wretched food and cold accommodation, vaguely echoes those of Dickens and others; the strange chocolate-making owner of 'Duttonlicks' wonderous store, is perhaps just vaguely Dahlesque; the amazing and fantastic headquarters of 'The Society', where cohorts of uniformed young apprentice explorers are inducted into its arcane secrets, might stir the vaguest memories of Potter. But all such thoughts are  immediately and completely quashed by the intensity and originality of completely new visions. This book is no imitation. Its odd, delightful, enigmatic, amusing world is completely and wonderously its own.

Not heavy at all

The currently available hardback of The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse is a physically heavy book for its size. 
Wonderfully so. It hefts beautifully in the hand. It feels like a substantial read, even before opening. Something to have and to hold.  And its contents fulfill the promise of its physicality delightfully. However, there is no way its story could be described as 'heavy'. It is an uplifting read from first page to last. Following after The Doldrums it is the sort of sequel that richly continues and extends the story; happily not one of those disappointing virtually-the-same-story-over-again-with-minor-tweaks sequels. In the first book Archer and his chums went on a carefully planned, highly entertaining, but actually fairly eventless adventure  (if you don't count outrunning a pack of tigers) to find his explorer grandparents. In Book 2, with his grandparents surprise return, the action hots up considerably (despite freezing weather and extensive snow) as he tries to solve a mystery and thwart dastardly villains and clear his family name. Nicholas Gannon's storytelling is delicious, at times witty, often hilarious, frequently thrilling, and always hugely engaging. As a writer he employs a colourful pallet of approaches, flashback, dream, split perspectives - and his narration of a whole escapade through the medium of a halting radio conversation is just pure delight. He is such a clever writer. Better than most out there. 

What's left

The only bits that are left for me to say are the bits that are left, so to speak. 

Whilst the first two Doldrums books provide totally satisfying reads in themselves, there remain many mysteries not fully answered, many possibilities not fully explored, many characters not known and understood as well as we would like. Surely, for example, there are lots of stories yet hiding in the wondrous 'Society' as well as in the exploits of its trainee explorer 'Greenhorns'. And what's with the highly enigmatic Mr. Dalligold? And then the trunk of mysterious jars and bottles clearly contains other wonders besides  'doxical powder'.  Surely the stories of Archer, Adélaïde, Oliver and Kana are not over? Please no. Please, Mr. Gannon, sir, no. Splendid though these two books are, the Doldrums world has the potential to develop into one of contemporary children's fiction's finest, richest (and oddest) creations.  Bring it on. The first two books seem only to be the tip of the iceberg. Thank goodness Nicholas Gannon is an author who can send bits of an iceberg half way across the world, through the mail, without them melting at all. Magic. Well (almost).