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, 31 July 2018

Dark Sky Park: Poems from the Edge of Nature by Philip Gross

Differently magic

Here is another temporary departure from my usual focus of 'magic fiction'. But I make no apology. I have always been a lover of poetry, both as an individual and as a teacher, and I would like to celebrate the work of Philip Gross, one of my all time favourite writers of poetry for children.* 

Instead of magic fiction then, this is a post about the magic of language, incantations with a different kind of power, spells of being and of being aware. Children need and deserve more poetry, especially when it is of this quality - poetry proper, rather than simply 'children's verse'. 

A poet and a hill

I have now followed the writing career of poet and author Philip Gross, collecting all his publications, over the course of more than twenty five years. I have had a very particular reason for doing so (over and above his simply being a wonderful writer). Even though I am sure he will have long forgotten it, he visited our school for a day way back in 1991, when I was a Primary headteacher in Lancashire's beautiful Ribble Valley. After starting his visit by reading and discussing some of his poems with our children, he and I took a group of them off on an expedition to climb the nearby Pendle Hill. As we climbed, we periodically stopped, took notes and made sketches that tried to capture our experience. On return to school, Philip led a workshop where the children composed a group poem about the climb. Later they wrote individual poems too (see below) and I combined them, with their drawings. into a booklet called 'The Poet and The Hill', which we distributed to parents and the local community. We were all thrilled that Philip Gross also contributed a poem of his own to our little 'publication'. I still remember that day of walking and writing with children as one of the highlights of my teaching career. 

Over many years since, and with many cohorts of children, I have shared Philip Gross' poems to inspire and stimulate, which they certainly did. My favourite, and most often used, collection remained his first book of children's poetry Manifold Manor, although I also made extensive use of The All-Nite Café and Scratch City. All contain quite splendid, if sometimes challenging, material for sharing with children, and some of his poems even come with exciting suggestions for follow-up writing. I think these older books can all still be tracked down, with a little effort, and I warmly recommend them, alongside his subsequent writing. 

Dark Sky Park

Now he has a new collection out, Dark Sky Park. Of course it is too late for retired old me to use it in classrooms, but if I were still teaching I certainly would. These 'poems from the edge of nature' are a treasure trove of  language and condensed thought, imagery and fresh insight. Amongst its pages we are asked to think about the importance of seeing in the dark; of 'seeing' things far too small for us to see at all; of extremes and freaks of nature and of many things we may otherwise just overlook. If, like me, you have never even heard of a tardigrade, then this is the place to meet it. 

As ever, Philip Gross' poems are challenging, in thought and in language, but they remain accessible once mind and ear are tuned to his idiom. In this new book they are made even more approachable by copious illustrations from Jesse Hodgson, by turn entertaining, illuminating and arresting - and sometimes all three. Philip Gross himself helps too by adding occasional notes of  information and context.  Together with the poems themselves, they help us see nature in fresh, vibrant ways and could do much to set children on a path of writing too. However, crafted as they are with consummate skill, if these poems did no more than open ears to the flow and patterns, the power and potency of language, then that would be no small thing. 

mud worm    blood worm
flood worm borne on waters boiling
liver fluke and tape worm
and the maggot and the leech
wire worm   fire worm
dire wyrm and dragon coiling
rag worm and lugworm
making pockmarks on the beach 

(from Worm Dreaming)

If  you want a longer example of what I mean, just try reading aloud A Tardigrade by any other name on page 30-31. It is word-music of a truly enchanting kind. It is also a most potent invitation to write (whether about some alternative creature, or about yourself) as well as a cornucopia of ideas as to how you might go about it. 

I know that many teachers have recently drawn wonderful things out of children in response to Robert Macfarlane's and Jackie Morris' superlative 'Lost Words'. Quite different, but not totally unrelated, Dark Sky Park could, perhaps, provide rewarding, directions to move in next. 

Building children

I ask Philip Gross to forgive me if I close this post, not with one of his own poems, but with one written by a ten-year-old in response to that day back in 1991. 

We walked and walked
Up the hill
Over the cattle grid
I picked up a stone
Over the stile
Through the field
Up the steep path
To the summit
Put the stone down
Pendle Hill
Five inches bigger

Dylan**, Year 6

I hope that Dylan, the human being, ended up just a fraction bigger too. Exposing children to poetry, like that of Philip Gross, can be a challenge, but it grows them little by little. In time it can build mountains. 

* He writes for adults as well as children - and sometimes for either, or both. 
** Dylan, I'm sorry that, after so long, I have no way of contacting you, so, in the very unlikely event that you come across this, I really hope you don't mind me sharing this amazing writing by your long-ago self.

Friday, 27 July 2018

The Frozen Telescope (The Uncommoners 3) by Jennifer Bell

Uncommon indeed 

Here is an update of my post from June '17.  I lauded Jennifer Bells's new children's fiction sequence then - and my enthusiastic recommendation still applies, but now threefold. This wonderful 'entry level' fantasy trilogy has reached its third title.  

The Uncommoners  continues to provide escapist entertainment of the highest order for children who are starting on what will hopefully be a lifetime of reading novels. These books will certainly help them on that road. It is an exciting journey and these are exciting books. This author has no pretensions to be profound or 'relevant', but rather to provide young readers with engrossing escape into magic and imagination - and that she does quite superbly. And what a riot of fanciful invention, what gripping writing she brings to the task. She takes many of the best conventions of children's mystery/adventure/fantasy stories and refreshes  them with a  charm and vigour that is simply delightful. In this, she provides a wonderful complement to the many children's books that deal with real life 'issues'. Both are important, but if children are to learn to read for pleasure, they crucially need books like this into which they can escape and feel magical, at least vicariously. Such books are part of life's rich pattern and indeed help to make that pattern richer. 

Uncommonly exciting

Now that she has reached The Frozen Telescope, Jennifer Bell's quirky world of everyday objects with magical powers, has developed far greater complexity. The original setting of Lundinor, the 'undermart' below London, where such uncommon objects are traded, has now expanded to encompass similar hidden realms below other major cities, most prominently New York. The 'souls' trapped in uncommon objects have emerged as belonging to a vast army of 'the dead', many seeking the reunion which will allow them to become 'the departed'. There is also a secret society of spies, a missing sister to be found, and objects of particular power to be located and used. That is as well, of course, as the whole world to be save from the evil machinations of 'the Dirge'. Wow! How much more page-turning excitement can be squashed into a story? The answer is quite a lot. And the climax is, well . . . duly climactic. 

Uncommon and Extraordinaire 

Illustrator Karl James Mountford contributes not only another arresting cover, with a lot more intriguing detail to be found than initially strikes the eye, but again enhances the feel of the story quite wonderfully with his many in-text vignettes. 

Inevitably, this conclusion of a trilogy is not the place to start. Readers will need to have a good grasp first on all that has gone before. But for those many who are already into this world 'big time' (and there are, deservedly, hoards of them) the arrival of this final title will be an absolute joy, and bring with it not one iota of disappointment. 

I see that these books are already being translated into other languages, and so they should be. This trilogy is destined, I'm sure, to join the likes of The Faraway Tree, the Narnia books, The Borrowers and  Half Magic as a much-loved classic of children's fantasy, enduring through generations. 

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Night Flights by Philip Reeve

'It's a town-eat-town world.' (p 120)

Engines restarted 

Fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines* sequence will warmly welcome this new volume. And I most certainly count myself amongst that huge number. For any who don't know them, these SciFi-fantasies originally published between 2001 and 20011 and still very much in print, are amongst the most imaginative and thrillingly entertaining of children's speculative fiction from the early 21st Century. I am sure there will be further hoards of fan shortly, when a major movie is released, but the wonderful books themselves should most certainly not be overlooked. 

New stories for familiar worlds

Over the years, many famous authors have added short stories to the main volumes of their highly successful fantasy creations, right from Lloyd Alexander (almost 50 years ago now) through to Philip Pullman and Sarah Green. Most of these addenda allow us fascinating extra glimpses into the relevant worlds. They often provide illuminating insights into incidents and lives not revealed in the main works, without actually recapturing anything like the stature and power of the full novels. This is very much the case with the three additional stories about the world of Mortal Engines that now make up Philip Reeve's Night Flights. Their main focus is aviatrix and spy Anna Fang. Whilst she is  not exactly an insignificant character in the main books, those novels do not principally tell her story, and what we know about her life before the events of Book 1 comes only from hint and inference. Night Flights fills in much of this gap, as well as making us aware of a few other significant precursors to later events. As such, it makes a valuable and welcome extension to readers' appreciation of the whole sequence. 

Something old, something new 

In fact, of the three stories that make up this latest volume, the central, and longest, one, is not completely new. In an earlier version and under the title Traction City it was published in the UK back in 2011, half of a special 'World Book Day' offering. 

However, this is not just a reprint The present version, retitled Traction City Blues, has been substantially edited and in some parts completely rewritten. It now has a much clearer focus on Anna, showing how she grew through the experiences its events and characters provided. The preceding, completely new, story reveals how she escaped her early life of slavery and took to the 'bird roads'. The third one, also new, is is a further adventure which adds yet more to our understanding - and hers. 

The life lessons which she learns, like the societies through which she moves, are not always easy and comfortable ones. These stories are part of a life that has made her hard as well as soft, that have made her who she is - the remarkable and fascinating Anna Fang. 

Philip Reeve's use of language is of his trademark high standard, viscerally engaging and emotionally affecting. Every now and then, too, flashes of an impish authorial humour, particularly in the naming of people and places, add an extra little frisson to the telling. 

Haunting images, beautiful book 

These three main tales are held within a framing narrative, not a story in itself, but linking them to each other and, in a delightful way, to what readers of the full series already know is to follow. Philip Reeve is such a fine writer that he does in miniature here what he does superlatively in his more recent masterpiece The Railhead Trilogy**; he creates a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. 
In fact this little book is much more even than its words. It is a most handsome volume in every sense. The original Traction City was illustrated by the author himself. Philip Reeve is a talented artist as well as a writer, so the 2011 World Book Day publication remains well worth seeking out. However Night Flights is also a magnificent triumph for its current illustrator, Ian McQue, whose superb greyscale images add enormously to the new volume. Many of his larger spreads are breathtaking, particularly in the wonderfully detailed and evocative portrayals of this world's fantastic cities and airships. He captures 'spacescape'  and atmosphere beautifully too, as well as characters and action, both dynamic and chilling. My favourite of all his depictions is the portrait of Anna herself which appears on page 73. It seems to capture both her outer bravura and inner, often well hidden, vulnerability - Anna to a T. 

Added to the welcome stories of Anna Fang's background, its illustrations, and indeed its overall fine design, make Night Flights, a quite wonderful book to have and to hold. 

*It was formerly given the series title Predator Cities in the US, but in the most recent editions seems to have reverted to the original, Mortal Engines, presumably because this is the film title. 
**See my review on this blog from May '18. 

Monday, 2 July 2018

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

Cover illustration Bill Brag, lettering Patrick Knowles

'. . . places can be just as important as people. . . they can have the same power over you if you let them.' (p 4)

Quotable notable

Sometimes a book offers up so many delectable quotes that I agonise long over which to include. It is often a sign that it is a great book. The Storm Keeper's Island does. And it is. Occasionally, but only very rarely, I come across a book that I just know is one that deserves to join the canon of 'classic' children's literature. This is such a book. However, thoughts of potential status should not distract from the fact that it is is a totally gripping read, and ultimately a very affecting one. 

This is a story firmly grounded in an actual and particular place, the wildly beautiful island of Arranmore (Árrain Mhór) off the northwest coast of Ireland. Catherine Doyle, herself rooted in the place and its myths, develops a story of an evil Sorcerer, Morrigan, buried deep in the island, which is now protected by the mysterious and elusive 'gifts' of her benevolent counterpart, Dagda. At the same time, the human role of 'Storm Keeper' is being passed through generations. The holders do not only embody those 'gifts', in some strange way, but have, over time, captured particular instances of weather, in the form of numerous wax candles. In these candles are held all the layers of time that have built up the island's climate, its character and history. For example the author writes of one such candle:

'It was sheets of freezing rain and the burnt shriek of lightning striking sea. It was peril and adventure and terror and hope all rolled together, and it was unapologetically pungent. ' (p 159)

 It is all wonderfully imaginative, yet completely credible in its own context, and hence enormously potent. 

Layers of time and meaning

This book has much in common with those of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, in that it unpacks the strata of time encapsulated in a particular place. In this case its remote, wild island embraces sea as much as land, weather and sky as much as earth and history. However, for all its depth, its layers of magic and myth, time and place, The Storm Keeper's Island, is not obscure or inaccessible. It is also wildly, stormily exciting and completely enthralling. 

The magic here is rendered all the more credible (or incredible) by its juxtaposition with vividly drawn contemporary characters, centring on rival siblings Fionn and Tara. They are completely convincing, often in conflict with each other, or even  themselves, and yet the layers of myth are as much acted out in these children as they are in their island location. Fionn and his sister must work through the inherited battles of previous generations, enmities and loyalties, the ambitions of contemporary islanders, and the traumas and tragedies of their own family. Reality and magic become the mirrors and metaphors of each other, each 'storm', and each magic candle. both the externalisation and the internalisation of conflict and resolution that is richly resonant. In this, The Storm Keeper's Island reminds me of Alan Garner's The Owl Service, although Catherine Doyle's book is less obscure, more accessible to young readers, whilst ceding nothing in depth of mystery or magic. 

What is it about the Irish?

I don't quite know what it is with Irish writers and the creation of wondrous poetry and prose in English, but there just has to be something. Aside from all the long and fine legacy of Irish writing in the past, we have relatively recently had children's fantasy writing of staggering brilliance from Dave Rudden, as well as from Matt Griffin and the late, and much missed, Nigel McDowell. All distinguished by breathtaking language. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that one of the many remarkable features of Catherine Doyle's stunning writing is her use of language. Hers is language that digs into meaning much deeper than the words she spreads over the page. It delves below the surface of characters and locale, island, cottage, sea and chimney smoke. But what we discover  in its depths is not simple or blatant. Its secrets are hinted at. rather than laid bare, revealed by inference, rather than  exposition. Its power is not in exuberance on elaboration but in the superbly chosen word, original, surprising in its context. She creates images that illuminate, sometimes with a flicker of candlelight sometimes with the electric brilliance of lightning. 

'(Fionn) wanted his father to be unchained from the lifeboat at the bottom of the sea. . . All his life it had dwelt in the sliver between his soul and his heart - where desire dissolved into impossibly.'  (p 43)

No more sandwiches 

The Storm Keeper's Island has already been called Book of the Month, and this time those who have tagged it have got it so right. But it is and will be more too.  It could well be a Book of the Year, of the decade, and on. Catherine Doyle's is one of the most devastatingly exciting new voices in children's fiction that I have encountered in a long time. 

As the story has promised all along, this book turns out to share a major theme with so many other children's fantasies: an ordinary boy who is chosen as the special one to lead the defence of his world against the powers of darkness. It is the narrative of his coming into power. 

'Being a guardian of this wild and ancient place would mean learning snowstorms instead of long division, composing rainbows instead of acrostics.' (p 147)

Yet Fionn is not quite a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson. He is far more. His story is deeper, richer  and more genuinely dark. It is linked to the power of an island, to the power of the elements, both to place and to the resonance that lies within us all as human beings. His story is a great fantasy, and is surely the opener of an even greater fantasy sequence. Its completion looks set to be one of the children's book events of the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. 

For much of the book,  Fionn is afraid of the sea and its storms. He does not believe he has the courage to take up the challenge the island offers him. 

'He was not brave . . . When everyone else was in Helm's Deep, he'd be back in the Shire, making a sandwich.' (p 45)

But on Arranmore he finds a new self as well as an old self, an ancient self, yet still an entirely contemporary self,

Even into the storm. . . Especially into the storm. 'You just have to walk . . . Will you walk with me?'

It is an invitation from his grandfather to Fionn. It is also an invitation from Catherine Doyle to every potential reader. 

Leave off making sandwiches and accept it.