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.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Last Gargoyle by Paul Durham

Following early success

I was much taken with Paul Durham's debut book, The Luck Uglies, and it has since been a real pleasure to see it developed into an original and very engaging fantasy trilogy. I can strongly recommend the complete sequence.

If you are interested, my original review of that first novel can still be read here, in the BLOG ARCHIVE from July 2014. 

Enter Penhallow

If anything I found his latest novel, The Last Gargoyle, even more enjoyable. It is a real delight of a book and hugely entertaining, chillingly spooky in the most heart-warming of ways! Penhallow, its unusual hero, is a rare stone grotesque (emphatically NOT a gargoyle - that is something quite different) on an old building in the US city of Boston. However he has the ability to leave his sculpted shell in his 'wisp' shape as a hoodie-clad street boy, and a decidedly cocky one to boot. Despite his grim nature, his character is completely benign (at least to living people) and it is his is his mission to protect his human 'wards' from the many ghouls, spectres and other monstrosities that lurk in the dark corners of the city. As well as being powerful he is both funny and immensely likablr. If you imagine a younger cousin of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus and then plonk him as the principal ghost-buster in  a Lockwood and Co plot line, then you will be getting somewhere close to the idea. However, I do not mean to imply that this book is in any way a copycat work.  Paul Durham is very much his own writer, with an imagination and a style very distinctly his own, and Penhallow is a wonderfully clever and original creation in his own right. (Never call him 'Goyle' by the way. He hates it. Penhallow that is. Not Paul Durham. Although . . . )

A city that sometimes sleeps

One of a good number of master strokes is the setting of this tale in its essentially real location. Paul Durham clearly knows Boston well and calls it 'a very old city - at least by American standards'. His consequently vivid evocation of place, with a real sense of history and associated atmosphere, gives the tale a compelling grounding. There is ample precedent for children responding particularly strongly to books with real settings, whether rural or urban, local or exotic,  and this one certainly belongs in that tradition. Readers do not even seem to need to know a locale personally to be caught under its spell. The author's love of a place is often infectious, and it is not at all uncommon for children (and even the adults they become) to later want to seek out and get to know locations that they first encountered in novels. I have actually visited Boston myself, although a good while back, but this book of Paul Durham's has put a return firmly on my bucket list.

A girl called Viola

Since this writer's first trilogy, he has shifted from using a strong girl lead character to a male one. However a spunky girl  still features prominently in The Last Gargoyle in the person of 'Viola',  a new friend for Goyle (sorry). Although not her real name, he calls her Viola because of the violin case she always carries around with her. Eh? Well actually he knows it's a case for a violin and not a viola, but he gets it deliberately wrong because she is the one who persistently calls him Goyle (oops sorry again) even though he's a grotesque and emphatically NOT a gargoyle at all.  The continual banter between these two, a  superficial and often witty disrespect that actually hides much deeper feelings, is one of the true delights of the book. Their  growing relationship, beautifully revealed through Paul Durhams skilful writing, is as charming as it is entertaining. It is ultimately deeply touching too. 

Such clever plotting 

Over and above everything though, this books works quite brilliantly as story. Paul Durham has developed into a consummate plotter. Not only does he fill his fiction with so many effective ingredients - fascinating, finely drawn and richly developed young protagonists, a chilling villain in the person of the 'Boneless King, ghouls galore and plenty of humour - but he constructs a clever storyline with more than enough intrigue and surprise to keep the pages turning right up to its  thrilling  climax - and  even beyond. (But no spoilers. ) However, beneath all the chilling spookiness, it is a book with a great deal of heart. It is wonderful 'escapist' entertainment, which children often need in their reading. But it provides some important stuff to think about too. For all its grotesquery, it may well leave them with a little more human understanding than when they started. 

The present and the future

Although I am not a big fan of the current trend to write first person narrative in the present tense, I have to admit that it does feel right here. Its immediacy seems to capture well the voice of Goyle  Penhallow. It is actually great fun that the character only discovers things alongside the reader - whether unearthing the true nature and intent of the Boneless King, or, indeed, penetrating the intrigues surrounding  'Viola'. 

This author's first trilogy has subsequently been published here in the UK (and internationally), and I sincerely hope that the same thing happens with this book. The Last Gargoyle has so many features that kids love - ghouls and ghosties, humour aplenty, original and likeable young characters, an engrossing storyline with plenty of monster-bashing (or in this case monster-eating), intriguing mysteries - and lots of compassion. I know it will be relished by an enormous audience if it gets the chance. 

Neat cover too, by the way. Sometimes illustrations don't capture a character quite as you imagine them, but, to me, this depiction seems exactly right for (you-know-who). 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Twister by Juliette Forrest

'I smelled earth and rock and mushrooms and damp wool and tobaccy and grass and wood smoke and sweet water.' (p 20)

Lost parents galore 

In terms of recently produced children's fantasies, we seem to have hit peak season for parent hunting. Children searching out and rescuing a missing or magically captured parent has been a major plot line in an amazingly large number of the books I have enjoyed most recently. And here is another. Synchronicity strikes again. On second thoughts, perhaps it is not altogether surprising. This is rightly a 'classic ' theme of the genre, and an important one psychologically. Children are at a stage of life where they, quite properly, live under the care and protection of their parents*, but this means that they are very attracted by a vicarious adventure in which the power-role is reversed and a child is responsible for saving a parent. Nevertheless, it still has to be said that this story concept is far from original. However, in every other aspect, Juliette Forrest's new book is just about as joyfully and exuberantly original as they come. 

A Twist(er) in the tale

Finding a new children's writer who already shows considerable mature writing talent is a cause for great celebration. So it should be  a very big  HOORAY for the arrival of Juliette Forest from all who wish to support children's reading. As a debut author she does far more than just promise a substantial contribution to children's literature, she delivers. 

Perhaps, though, I should say 'she surely do deliver', because her principal character and her setting, a 'backwoods' farm and its environs, are clearly American. It was initially a surprise to find a Scottish author situating her first children's novel across he Atlantic. But, of course, there is no real reason why she shouldn't. Juliette Forest has clearly done a lot of research, including extensive consultations with US resident relatives, and is very sympathetic to this idiom. Her  tale has a completely authentic feel and the context  emerges as perfectly suited to the voice of  'sassy' young Twister, which is quite brilliantly caught. It is soon impossible to hear it otherwise. The author captures not only the language of her protagonist, but also the patterns of her young thoughts. She is often quick and smart but at times, too, as yet unaware of all the ways and sayings of the adult world. Twister is highly entertaining and hugely endearing; even when unintentionally funny, we laugh with and not at her. 

Past perfect

In fact , despite its fantasy elements, its excitement and its danger, there is no doubt at all that the star of this particular show is Twister herself. And she shines out  like the very brightest. More than just a story about magic, this is a story about the thoughts and feelings of a young girl as she gamely faces a difficult period in her life, and pulls through thanks to the sheer force of vibrant life which she embodies. She is so brilliantly drawn that she carries the whole book with her uber-charming mixture of resilience and vulnerability. It is quite simply one of the very best creations of a first person narrator in contemporary children's fiction, and one that, written in 'conventional' past tense, is actually far more immediate and involving than many of the first person, present tense narrations that seem to have become so faddy of late. 

Magic naturally

Another particularly recommendable feature of the book is Twister's (and hence the author's) considerable sensitivity to the natural world. This should do a good deal to help young readers develop a similar awareness . Delightfully, Twister is a girl with highly developed sensory perception. Almost every moment of her life is full of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, and her continual evocation of them pulls the reader into her world in a quite wonderfully vivid way. The magic, too, which initially lurks on the periphery of Twister's life, but intrudes more and more violently as the story progresses, is very much a magic of nature, of forest and river and storm.  Both good and evil draw power from the 'souls' of life (and death) which surround them. And in her evocation of this magic, the strength and originality of Juliette Forrest's imagination is very much to the fore. When Twister draws on these powers and is temporarily transformed into a wolf, a river or a storm, the descriptions are truly magical, lyrical, almost poetic. But the evil in the tale is chilling too, including that of some human characters, as well as of the fantastical villain, White Eye. 

Smells great too

Although there is warmth and love in Twister's young world (largely brought there by her splendidly characterised Aunt Honey) there is much heartache and loneliness too. She is a brilliantly rich and rounded character. In the second half of the story, when the fantasy element kicks in with a vengeance, there are shocks and  thrills aplenty too. This is a real page-turner, despite, indeed because of, the focus on Twister's character and development. 

And if, at the climax of the story, the esoteric workings of the story's magic system verge on being rather obscurely complex, the outcomes are so totally satisfactory, in both sentiment and actual result, that this matters not at all. We are so rooting for Twister by this stage that our empathetic sharing of her achievements (and her newfound acceptance of realities in her life) are a heartwarming thrill. 

Juliette Forrest's rich writing features a kind of verbal leitmotif, a long string of descriptors, linked only by a series of 'and's. This may seem a simple construct, but in her hands it is a recurring delight. Often olfactory in its subject matter, it acts as a verbal equivalent of a scratch-and-sniff card, releasing a flood of vivid Proustian associations.  Like a musical 'ear worm' it insinuates itself into the brain and becomes a recurrent theme of the reading. It is a stamp. A signature. It says Juliette Forest, and it says Twister in an idiosyncratic and most endearing way. And this is writing that most certainly deserves to be signed. If such things can smell (and I think perhaps thy can) this story smells of hardship and resilience and spirit and family and warmth and nature and darkness and loss and humanity and life. It sure is swell. 

*There are, of course, a minority of children who, through force of circumstance, become real life carers for their own parent. They deserve and need far more understanding and support than, sadly, they sometimes get. 

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

'The wound is the place 
Where the light enters you.' (P 307)

I have just discovered two more wonderful books. 

Those who have read this blog before will know how highly I value originality of imagination in children's fantasy, especially when paired with skilful writing. I certainly found both here. 

The very recently (US) published Whichwood is actually the second in a series. So, as I haven't posted anything about the first yet, it makes sense to start with that. 

'People are so preoccupied with making sense despite it being the most uninteresting thing to manufacture. Making magic is far more interesting than making sense.' (p 168)

Glowing colours

The core plot of Furthermore may not, in itself, seem startlingly new. A girl from a magical community fails her coming-of-age trial (or thinks she does). She is subsequently whisked off with a boy companion to an even stranger fantasy world in quest of her long-missing father. However, any suspicions of staleness are swiftly and thoroughly dispelled by Tahereh Mafi's wholly original and sparklingly imagination. Her creation of a world where magic is related to colour glows in every possible way. Her inventions are wild, wacky and completely enchanting. Furthermore (sorry!), her whole story is anchored in one of the most entertaining character relationships of recent children's fantasy. Protagonist, Alice, and her counterpart, Oliver, are not only totally fascinating in their own right - complex and flawed,  whilst still being immensely likeable - but their continually developing relationship is an ongoing joy. That may start off by bickering like Beatrice and Benedict but  . . . well, no spoilers. 

Sparkling words

Additionally, Tahereh Mafi's highly skilled use of language is often idiosyncratic in the most delightful way. It surprises on almost every page and this gives the book a thrilling liveliness. She endows Alice's home world with its own word-hoard of coined language, exotic-sounding yet still comprehensible in its context.  This gives Ferenwood, and Alice's life there, a vividness that is completely captivating. A further writerly frisson is added when the narrator (author?) periodically intrudes into her own story. She belongs to the time-honoured 'dear  reader' school, of narration, colouring (sorry again!) both text and section headings with a delicious and highly entertaining soupçon of meta fiction. 

Riotous magic

The place to which Alice and Oliver travel to seek Alice's father is the Furthermore of the title. Here magic  is used profusely, even with profligacy. Its world is a riot of weirdly imaginative invention, like that of Lewis Caroll, bursting with conceits and cleverness, linguistic. literary and logical (or illogical). However, also like the Wonderland of that other Alice, its continual irrationality generates a certain randomness. The protagonists' stumbling from one catastrophic 'adventure' to the next could seem haphazard.  Yet in Tahereh Malfi's hands the through line of narrative is fully sustained: she cleverly engenders a continual fascination with the two heros and their quest. Despite all the seemingly random oddness of Furthermore, the reader is propelled forward by what is the very essence of good storytelling, the desire to discover exactly what is going on, to find out what happens next. 

A ribbon runs through it

There have been many children's novels recently with strong, feisty girl protagonists. Many other books are showing how girls and women have been high achievers in any number of ways. These role models are so important. However Furthermore captures something that I think is important too: a girl who feels inadequate compared to what she sees as all the more obviously talented people around her. It is not just about being strong and successful in the way others are. It is about learning to see the strength in who you are. 

'Darling Alice,' said (her father), reaching for her, 'Why must you look like the rest of us? Why do you have to be the one to change? Change the way we see. Don't change the way you are. . . You're an artist. You can paint the world with the colours inside you.' (p 254)

It is, at the end of the day, a book that revels in the joy of language. It celebrates imagination - and, well, magic. It encourages openness to experience. It promotes difference and extraordinariness and adventure. It is also a compassionate book which gives permission for girls (or boys for that matter) to sometimes be weak as well as strong. And I think that is something we all need. 

'(Alice had) decided long ago that life was a long journey. She would be strong and she would be weak, and both would be okay.' (p 255)

Altogether it is a triumph of original and captivating children's fantasy. It is a dream; it is a poem; it is a painting. It very special and its final messages are amongst the simplest, most difficult and  most important in life. 

Through this magical book, in between its chapters, dances a ribbon. But you must follow it for yourself. 

'the strangest sort of children come to hold hands with the Dark.' (p 41)

Writing an immediate follow-up to a highly successful opener can be a challenge, and many a second book is a little disappointing, even some of those within outstanding sequences. Yet in Whichwood Taharah Mafi far exceeds even her own previous success. She does not try simply to produce more of the same, but takes her tale in a completely fresh direction (and to a radically different world), whilst still maintaining continuity by bringing forward her two protagonists, Alice and Oliver. Additionally, she not only reproduces her most exciting qualities as a writer, but develops them wonderfully too.  

Colours just as rich, but darker

The fantasy world she builds here is every bit as original, imaginative and colourful as Furthermore. However, lacking the random, Wonderland quality of that previous location, Whichwood it is far more consistent in its ethos and atmosphere. In consequence, this story seems far more coherent and even more compelling. It is considerably darker too, disquieting, even at times disturbing. (I know our heros were under threat of being eaten in Furthermore - but even so!) There is a gruesomely fascinating focus on death and the processes involved in ritually dispatching the dead to their otherworld. There are also the spirits of the said departed, who can and do turn particularly nasty at times. But there is also humour, warmth and a good deal of compassion too, so do not worry too much. 

Our heroes now have a new and vital mission in this different world. They are slightly older than they were too - very much entering the 'tween' stage of moving from childhood into early adulthood. In this sense, and in some of its themes, this is perhaps a book for slightly older readers than the first, although such matters are highly subjective. To these two familiar figures are added a richly fascinating new character, Laylee. She is also in her early teens, but weighed down by the burden of being the the last  (functioning!) descendant in a line of 'mordeshoors'. They are practitioners endowed with the magical abilities to 'process' the corpses of the dead and service their residual spirits. Also most welcome is a new boy character, Benyamin, whose peculiarity is to host myriad insects on his body. Complex and beautifully drawn, both these new protagonists clearly reflect the darker nature of Whichwood, but this does not stop them from being immensely likeable. 

Later in the story they are joined by another wonderful character, Benyamin's mother, who, despite 'bad legs' makes a significant contribution to the quest. She is the one to whom the author gives the brilliant line, 'Never, ever again tell a woman she's not strong enough.' A dictum many men would do well to take to heart. On setting off  for the city, she is also the one to ready her younger charges with: 'Everyone's got their coats? You've all used the toilet? No? Well, best hold it in.' An injunction many children would do equally well to take to heart. It is great to see an older character contributing experience and common sense alongside the spunk and verve of younger heroes. 

Sumptuous language

Tahereh Mafi's remarkable use of language is also just as fully in evidence here. In Whichwood it is perhaps not quite as linguistically idiosyncratic as in the earlier book, but it is still just as lushly communicative, sometimes thrillingly surprising, sometimes touchingly beautiful. More than anything it is sumptuous, replete with colour. Compellingly images, which linger long in the mind's eye, are strewn like petals across the surface of the story: the magical red rose bushes that carpet the cemetery; the pomegranate seeds raining red from the sky at Yalda; Laylee ritually bathing herself in the red water. (How many of them are red!)

Her imagery is so often strong and original: 'A skin of darkness had been hitched across the daylight and left to rot until midnight itself had become a curtain of charred flesh you could pinch between two fingers.' (p 35)

Another outstanding feature of this author's writing is her willingness to expand on a moment of time, rather than continually rush into a action. It is not that her story lacks incident or excitement, it has plenty. But her courage to linger in observation and reflection means  that she not only can paint wonderful pictures, but also fully explore her characters thoughts and feelings. She gives her readers real opportunity to get to know them intimately, to share their inner lives as well as their external ones. At such times she is never tedious or dull. Quite the contrary; the insights she provides continually captivate and enthrall. 

The interjected comments of the narrator continue and indeed grow in frequency too. She (?) even begins to assert an actual relationship to the characters whose story she is telling, adding layers of intrigue as well as narrative complexity. Exactly whose voice is this? And will we ever find out?

I admit to virtually no knowledge of Iranian culture or folklore. (Except for a deep love of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - and even there I rather think that the FitzGerald translation may have little of the authentic 'Persian' about it.) But I  suspect that this author's heritage may have had some influence on both her language and on the character and colours of Whichwood, bright and dark alike. If so, such influence is most welcome. Indeed, whatever the author's inspiration, it could not be more rich or enriching. Tahereh Mafi's writing and her worlds are sumptuous and sensuous in the glorious extreme. 

A rose is a rose - or not

The story is as rich in themes and ideas as it is in language. Fantasy it may be, but I know of few better works for  expressing the mysteries of that strange, confusing, conflicting 'tween' time of early adolescence. And certainly none better at articulating the grim, uncomprehending pangs of 'first love', as explored here thorough smitten Oliver. Similarly, in Laylee, she explores the difficulty that circumstance-damaged individuals have in accepting help and friendship, convincing themselves that they do not deserve it. Instead they often protect themselves with anger and resentment. Alice's 'task' shows how difficult it is truly to help the likes of  Laylee. It also shows how much such individuals need to be helped. To stay true to who you are, regardless of what the world thinks, may be fine and noble. But we all need to know that we are accepted by others if we are to be fully ourselves.

If  anyone has doubts that fantasy can be just as much much about human life as can gritty realism, then this is a perfect book to dispel them.  Here the fantasy is symbol and metaphor; it is not reality but it is truth. 

Through the chapters of Furthermore floats and twirls a ribbon. Those of Whichwood are embellished with a twining rose. (I can only see it as red even though the actual image is greyscale.) It is 'simultaneously beautiful and disturbing'. Like the plate patterns of Garner's The Owl Service, which can be either owls or flowers, or the classic optical illusion, which can be either young woman or old crone, the rose encapsulates a paradox.  It is briar and bloom; it is blood and death; it is love and life. And, like Schrödinger's cat, it is an ambiguity which resolves itself only in the eye of the observer. This is a magical story and will make you see the image quite differently at different times. But fear not, dear reader, like Garner before her, this narrator leads us all to good things in the end . 'The wound is the place where the light enters you.'


No ambiguity here

I loved Furthermore, I love Whichwood even more. In my view it earns itself a place amongst the very finest of contemporary children's fantasies. It can also hold its own with some of the greats of the past. Following its US release, the Puffin imprint published a paperback of Furthermore in the UK. I sincerely hope they do the same with Whichwood. These books need to become equally well known to readers over here, and indeed to children worldwide. Those who miss them will most certainly miss out.