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, 29 June 2018

Mirror Magic by Claire Fayers


Illustrated Becka Moor


Here is another recent and very welcome book that I think many children will enjoy enormously. It will entertain, amuse and intrigue them as well as exciting their imaginations, all of which are wonderful things. We very much need books like this that both get and keep children reading for pleasure. 

Magical

The story's nominal Victorian setting is not completely convincing, historically speaking, but it does not need to be for this is  pure, whimsical fantasy, rather than a tale authentically rooted in particular time or place. Nor does it even matter that the rationale for its two mirror-linked worlds, one human and one of 'Fair (fairy) Folk', is not particularly logical. We are, here, well into 'willing suspension of disbelief' territory. However, the book does fully deserve to be called 'magic fantasy' and that is a big plus for me.  At a time when so much  of the most popular children's reading centres on humour, often from big name and 'celebrity' authors, magic and adventure provide a much needed balance. We know many children revel in silly humour, and there is nothing wrong in that,  but it is good for them to sometimes have food for  their wilder imagination too. In Claire Fayers story,  the possibility of magic, and even magical people, leaking from another world into ours, is  the very stuff of children's fantasy - and sometimes children need to discover the magic in themselves, defeat evil and save the world, albeit vicariously and from the safety of a book. 

Colourful

Where Mirror Magic scores highly is in the  quality of its writing, the originality and liveliness of its invention and the cleverness of its plot building. These attributes lift it well above the level of many of the offerings currently piled high on the tables of high street stores. 

Although if its cast of characters is relatively standard - likeable children pitted against somewhat grotesque caricatures of villains - the inhabitants of its two worlds are drawn with admirable colourfulness. The tale  is enlivened, too, by the addition of a wonderful 'talking' book. Very much a character in its own right, and with, it has to be said, considerable 'attitude', the book initially provides a header for each chapter but later becomes more directly involved in the story itself. Its often sarcastic, dry humour, not to mention its arrogant self-importance, makes it a gem of invention. Its recurrent intrusion adds a great deal of amusing entertainment to the tale, as well engendering tingling trepidation through predictions that are dolefully doom-laden. 

The author's use of language is always skilfully controlled in service of the narrative. It is unpretentious in ways that render it readily accessible to its young audience, whilst still vividly communicating character, setting and action. Particularly notable is the strong evocation of sensory experience, particularly that of an olfactory nature. This story smells of magic in a way that greatly enhances its imaginative hold. 

Engaging

Above everything, Mirror Magic is a well told story. Compelling questions keep the pages turning: Why does everyone think, Lord Skinner, the powerful town patriarch, is such a 'fine gentleman'? What strange magical connection exists between protagonist Ava and her 'fairy' friend Howell? Why have so many magical mirrors, the doorways between the two worlds, ceased to work? These and more intrigues keep the narrative working powerfully as a mystery. But there is excitement and adventure aplenty too, as well as many laughs and a good few scares and surprises. It may not be a book offering high literary experiences, or deeply meaningful insights, but it is is a rattling good children's read, celebrating admirable qualities of resourcefulness, resilience and loyal friendship - and with more than a little magic. 




Sunday, 24 June 2018

First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner edited by Erica Wagner



Wizards

Sometimes my reading thread takes me a little 'off piste'. But these days I try to go-with-the-flow and I have been such a lifelong aficionado of Alan Garner that this book was a must-read as soon as I discovered it. In many ways, then, this post doesn't really fit under my 'Magic Fiction Since Potter' banner.  The book in question is indeed a recent publication, but it is not in itself fiction. The writer it celebrates is, thankfully, still alive and writing, but that part of his work which could be called magic fiction for children substantially predates Potter, whereas his more recent fantasies are not really for young readers. Yet his impact is so significant across the entire gamut of contemporary children's fantasy, and this new book about him has been such a revelatory element of my recent reading, that I can't resist including it.

There are, in my view, three great English wizards of 'magical' fiction; three who are the supreme myth-takers and myth-makers.* First there was JRR Tolkien, who essentially defined magic fantasy in his seminal The Lord of the Rings. Most recently we have Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials takes this genre into new dimensions in far more than the fictional sense, and who now seems to be successfully extending his masterpiece into The Book of Dust. Howeverbetween the two comes Alan Garner. He is certainly the equal of these others, perhaps even the greatest of the three, certainly in terms of development over a lifetime's writing. 

Here and now

Alan Garner's is quintessentially the magic of place, of landscape, of the earth, which is to say the Old Magic. His spells, like those of Robert Macfarlane's in The Lost Words (written with Jackie Morris)are the conjuring of names. School has taught too many people that history is about the 'olden times'. But history is not  layers of 'then', it is layers of 'now'. Places are built on people and events, yet, whilst they belong to a particular 'here', they can seem not to belong to our own present. Alan Garner finds in the landscape objects, 'beauty things'**, that carry those 'heres' into our 'now'. He takes myths from the depth our collective heritage, he resurrects them from their sleeping place under our landscape, and makes them into myths for now, for us. This is his most consistent theme. It can be found in his early children's books, and continues through all his work. 

Celebrants

First Light (published just a couple of years ago, under the remarkable new Unbound imprint) is a collection of tributes to Alan Garner from a quite fabulous array of writers. Most are short pieces. Many of them are illuminating, many inspiring. Some are reflective, some analytical, and some more oblique in their homage. All are from people whose lives have been touched by this author, many quite profoundly. Collectively they constitute a wonderful kaleidoscope of tributes. They make  you want to rush immediately back to Alan Garner and, however well you already know his work, discover him anew. For me the most affecting contribution of all is from children's fantasy author and Fairy Tale expert,  Katherine Langrish. Her piece in this book set me off exploring her own writing too, of which more soon. But for the many moment I must try to keep focus. 

Growing old together 

Alan Garner has continually developed as an author through a lifetime of writing, not producing a vast output, but delivering a deeply considered book every now and then. His writing becomes increasingly challenging, deeper, more multi-layered and often darker, bleaker - although generally with a degree of hope, of redemption, at its close. Each successive novel is the work of an older , more mature writer. This makes him an author who it is possible to to grow with and through, over the course of a reader's own lifetime. Not that he has to be read in this way. But it is possible.***

The remarkable and ground-breaking early books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, are essentially children's magical adventures, although far more depth and resonance is there to be found by older readers. The stunning urban fantasy Elidor remains fully accessible to young people, but is already much darker, disquieting, and starts to feel like book for somewhat older readers. The Owl Service, elliptical, intense and enigmatic, is very much a book about (and for?) those on the cusp of adulthood, as is the highly challenging read, Red Shift. 

The truly superb books of The Stone Book Quartet (my absolute favourites amongst this whole list, all of which are favourites in different ways, and at different times) are for young adults who, like the author, are establishing their place in the world, discovering where they came from, who they are, where they belong. This theme is taken even further in Strandloper, and now we are totally in the realm of adult literary fiction. We are soon to move far beyond it.  Thursbitch is, in its way, as revolutionary in thought and language-crafting as is Joyce's Ulysses, and as challenging (although not nearly as long). 

Boneland is nominally the conclusion of a Weirdstone trilogy, and in some senses it is. However it shows all the many years of gap that came between it and his two early children's adventures. To my mind it is an old man's book; written by someone with a lifetime of experience of writing and living. That does not mean it cannot be read by the young. But is is a distillation of narrative, language and thought. As such, it is difficult, hard to penetrate. It is not comfortable. But it rewards more than it costs. Consolation in ambivalence. 

Present magic

Through place, Alan Garner has, over and again, transmuted 'thens' into 'nows'.  They are often his 'thens', grounded in his places. But in his writing they become universal, our places, our 'thens', and so our 'nows' too. Where there is only one 'here', there is only one 'now'. 

'What might have been and what has been 
Point to one end, which is always present.'****

On this Alan Garner and T. S. Eliot seem to agree. Both conjure a world from small places, from words, from names. But they have be the true names, the old names, the lost names. Let the names be re-found, remembered. They are magic. Not cozily magic. Ambivalently magic. Truly magic. 

In Boneland he takes everything that his books have been about, compresses it into one hundred and fifty or so pages of numinous intensity and lifts it from the old earth to the cold stars. It is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. 


Notes:
*Susan Cooper runs them close, with The Dark is Rising books, as, of course does the wondrous Ursula Le Guin, with her whole sequence of Earthsea novels, but then she was American, and I am talking here of English wizards.
** Significant found objects that link us to the past, as defined in his latest, non-fiction publication The Beauty Things, co-authored with Mark Edmonds
*** I have not included here his non-fiction writing, nor his many retellings of folk and fairy tale, all of which are well worth exploring.  
*** *Four Quartets: Burnt Norton T. S. Eliot

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Embassy of the Dead by Will Mabbitt




Dead good

This was another of those books that I happened to pick up and didn't put down again until I had finished, despite being in the middle of other reading. It is always a good sign. 

Young readers should sometimes to be exposed to high quality, challenging writing, stories that help them develop empathy, learn more about their world and themselves. Through such books they can learn too about the power of language, of image and metaphor. 

But it is also important that they have  access to well written entertainment reads, books into which they can escape and discover new worlds of the imagination, worlds that amuse, excite, captivate and sometimes thrillingly scare them.  Good examples of such books are not always as easy to find as you might think. However, Will Mabbitt's latest certainly provides an outstanding example. 

His earlier Mabel Jones books are lovely examples of zany-comedy-with-a-warm-heart and deservedly have many young fans. Undoubtedly this will shortly increase as the first in the series, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones, has been included in the heavily promoted 'Tom Fletcher Book Club'. 

His new book, Embassy of the Dead, is, if anything, even better. 

Dead original

There have been a number of children's books recently which centre around the spooky fantasy of living humans who help ghosts to 'move on' into an afterlife. It is an idea that features strongly in Jonathan Stroud's brilliant series Lockwood & Co and in another book I much admire Whichwood by US author Tahereh Mafi (both for older children and young adults) as well as in the recently popular The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson. 

Despite sharing part of this basic premise, Embassy of the Dead has much about it that is hugely and entertainingly original. Rather than presenting us with the young agents of some ghost-busting organisation, protagonist Jake is a regular boy who suddenly finds himself having to try to penetrate the bureaucratic and somewhat inept Embassy of the Dead, an organisation tasked with guarding the border between this life and the afterworld. More specifically, he has to try to return a severed finger before it can be reunited with its long-dead corpse and used for uber-evil ends. All the while he is being pursued by monstrous foes, at least one of whom seems set on sending him into the Eternal Void. Will Mabbitt's great skill is to render such ludicrous goings on not only hilarious but grippingly involving too. 


Dead clever

Jake himself is grappling with the trauma of parental break-up and this convincing grounding in real life is one of the hooks that pull us so empathetically into his story. However his companions are far from the bravely loyal but rather anaemic friends of so many children's adventure stories. Instead Jake is partnered in this escapade by the ghost of a rather elderly, grumpy and self-righteous undertaker. Soon also joining his little 'gang' is a spectral schoolgirl who has, to put it mildly, something of an attitude, not to mention a hockey stick that delivers quite a clout, its ethereal nature notwithstanding. Later there is also the rather forlorn shade of a fox, and, thankfully, a heroic 'knight' of the agency, who at least understands what's going on. Agh, Hush! Enough! Suffice it to say that the weird and wonderful characters who people this story are its  greatest joy.  

Embassy of the Dead segues cleverly between creasingly funny and scarily exciting and sometimes even manages to be both at the same time. Even though this is a relatively light read (if you can use the term for a such a 'dark' storyline) Will Mabbitt builds his plot with masterful skill, continually surprising and twisting to keep his readers intrigued and the pages turning. Equally admirable is his construction of English prose, which conceals considerable craft and succeeds in communicating vividly whilst always remaining easy and comfortable to read. 

This hilariously spooky new book is entertainment of the highest order and will, I am sure, prove to be a real kid-pleaser. Hurray for another author who is doing so much to get and keep children reading. 

Dead right

Chris Mould's quirky and amusing illustrations complement the story perfectly. His accessible cartoon style adds another dimension of vivid life to the idiosyncratic and eccentric characters, and also helps to signal that this is 'gothic light', amusing escapism rather than anything that will seriously disturb young readers. 



The story ends as such stories do, and should. There is enough warm fuzziness to feel satisfying, without over sentimentality - and then a teaser for the next in the series. That there is more to come from this particular Embassy is further cause for celebration. 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green



Something rather different

Here is another book very much for teenagers (and, of course, older readers too). 

Sally Green's Half Bad trilogy is one of the very finest works of recent YA fiction. Startlingly original and imaginative, in both concept and writing, it succeeds in being viscerally exciting and profoundly disturbing, both horrendously brutal and meltingly tender. It is a a triumph in every way, and has deservedly won the author international adulation. (See my reviews from June '15 and April '16. )

In her new follow up, The Smoke Thieves, she has sensibly gone for something rather different. In the three books (and two ebook-only stories) she has extensively exploited her unique Half Bad world and more of the same now would probably only dilute its impact. Her new book, in contrast, has a rather more conventional 'YA' feel, a pseudo-historical romantic fantasy, though with considerable edge and no little depth. Too much comparison with Half Bad is probably unhelpful. The Smoke Thieves is its own book. It is what it is, and what it is is very good, wonderfully written and hugely readable. 

Five times the story

As might be expected from Sally Green, the narrative is skilfully constructed, in this case following the interleaved stories of five main characters. At its heart is certainly romance. Catherine, is a classic 'feminist' lead, an initially duty-bound princess destined for a politically arranged marriage, who is gradually learning to assert her independence and become her own person. As the book develops, her inner conflict between a forbidden passion for her handsome guard and a growing admiration for her intended husband provides an involving emotional storyline. Soldier, Ambrose, the  principal 'love interest', is the most conventional character of the five, handsome, strong, and passionately devoted, yet inhibited by his comparatively lowly status. 

The other three character are, in different ways, rather more original and interesting. Tash, the youngest, and part of a team that hunts demons for their sought-after narcotic smoke, charmingly mixes feisty bravery and wicked cheek, with a longing for fashionable boots, perfectly capturing the ambiguities of her 'tween' years. Aggrieved 'nationalist'  March, grows strongly and captivatingly as a character alongside his developing relationship with feckless Edyon, who himself turns out to be of far more substance than is initially apparent. Sally Green, in this book, as in her last, shows a particular sensitivity towards gay relationships and their insecurities, especially when reciprocation of attraction is ambiguous. 



A book with everything (well almost)

Although The Smoke Thieves, in undeniably romantic, it is much else too.  In fact is a very long way from being 'soppy'. There is complex and fluctuating politicking between the rival kingdoms involved, and, indeed, bloody war is impending. There are a good number of gruesome killings and a highly graphically described and disturbing execution. Much of the tale. is viscerally exciting as well as emotionally engaging. There is intriguing mystery too, in enigmatic messages concerned with the titular smoke. If this book does not quite 'have everything', then it does have a very great deal. 

Sally Green has outstanding abilities as a storyteller and can mix and switch moods and atmospheres tellingly. There are sections, indeed, involving the theft of the demon smoke, which would have all the attributes of farce, were they not littered with a good deal of blood and gore. Her writing is given edge and modernity too with a generous lacing of 'strong language', although this is always used to effect, sometimes dramatic, somtimes laugh-out-loud funny. 

This long and highly entertaining read, turns out, in its final pages, to be not so much a self-contained novel, as the first part of a continuing saga. It will, I am very sure, leave its hoards of smitten readers, desperate for the next instalment.

US cover