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 November 2018

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay



'Away from the front, where the supply lines ran. . . you could hear skylarks over the fields. Soldiers remarked how strange it was that the birds should be there, but in fact the birds had been there for centuries. The really strange thing was that the soldiers were there.' (p 194)

100 years on

Here is another of my occasional digressions from my usual practice of reading and reviewing fantasy books. I simply had to write this one up. 

Often, when  I finish a good book, I trawl about for ages trying to find the 'right' one to read next. The last time this happened, though, was 11th November, the exact one hundredth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, so it seemed appropriate to pull out from my reading pile this historical novel, charting a family's lives through what we now call WWI. I did not regret the decision for a minute. It is not only a truly wonderful  but also a very important one, one that will certainly feature amongst my children's books of the year. 

The cover of The Skylarks' War, by talented Dawn Cooper, is a telling reflection of its contents. It presents a striking evocation of a bygone era, capturing beautifully a colour palette of it period and bringing immediately to mind those attractive prints of old railway posters, now found on many a wall calendar. Yet the image is not exactly a holiday advertisement; the farewell it depicts has an air of poignancy, especially in view of the uniform of the departing figure, and, indeed, the youth of those waving him off. 

Living through a war

The book inside this cover is just as evocative as its jacket, just as alluring and every bit as poignant. The story follows Clarry, together with her brother Peter, and some of their friends, relatives and neighbours, through from her birth in 1902 to sometime in the 1920s. However, the greatest focus is on the war years themselves. It is  a story  about growing up, about a time of war and, most particularly, about growing up in a time of war. 

Clarry's family situation is totally credible, even if it is not at all a conventional one, and the story of her childhood and youth is amazingly gripping for what is essentially a narrative of day to day domestic incident. Part of this engagement comes from the utter likability of its principal characters and our consequent empathy with what they have to endure and overcome. Part too comes from the way the war gradually impinges more and more on the lives of people we have quickly grown to care about. Time before the war is epitomised for Clarry by idyllic holidays staying with her grandparents in Cornwall. Soon, though, the presence of the war becomes almost a character in the tale. Its influence is initially peripheral, almost incidental. In its early days there is little real understanding of what is happening and will happen, even a naive romanticism about it. 

''Shells' was another word that became more often used. 'Shells' and 'shellfire'. Always when Clarry heard it , her mind jumped to the fans and spirals and fragile treasures she had collected on the Cornish beaches, summer after summer . . . 'A rain of falling shells': Clarry caught the phrase one day as she hurried home from school. It sounded entrancing.' (p 109)

However, the darkness of war begins to creep in, on Peter, as on the others, particularly once their beloved older friend Rupert, companion from the blissful stays in Cornwall, enlists despite being under age. 

'It was hard to hide the despair he felt, for Clarry in the comfortless house, for ridiculous Rupert, for summers that were so far away, for all the Ruperts and Clarrys caught up in this hardly understood war.' (p 106)

As the book develops,  the author does not shrink from war's horrors, or from the devastatingly grim realities of the trenches. It impinges devastatingly upon her characters, as indeed it does on us, her readers. This is strong, brave writing, disturbing  and moving as we share with its characters an incomprehensible nightmare. 

'It was a war where absolutely nothing made sense.' (p 194)

Yet Clarry's quiet passion and remarkable inner strength may well see her through, and us with her. 

The Skylarks 

When I first picked up this book I imagined it was going to be about a family with the surname Skylark. (Collectively, 'The Skylarks'. You know, rather like 'The Larkins' in Darling Buds of May), But Clarry and her family are actually Penroses. This title turns out to be much more subtle, more thoughtful, that I initially thought it. In fact you need to look quite hard to find the skylarks. Poignantly, they are mentioned once, singing above the battlefields of France. There is one further mention of the actual birds as a feature of Clarry's Cornish summers. Perhaps most significantly, her grandfather uses the term once to refer to his visiting grandchildren. The book's key characters are skylarks, if not by name. Ultimately, they rise above the battles, above the war. 

However, the war itself is not the only thing they rise above. Hilary McKay's novel treats of many things, many important things. The book rightly, but often disturbingly, reflects the attitudes of that period towards the role and potential of women. It highlights how many opportunities were considered 'only for boys', and the fact that Clarry determinedly pushes on through all this to get herself a higher education and a potential career is inspirational, providing a wonderful role model as well as a harbinger of the women's struggles to come. Similarly the character of Peter's schoolfriend Simon, sensitive, caring and wildly in love with the slightly older Rupert, is handled with wonderful sensitivity. We are brought up hard against more hurtful prejudice of the times. 

'Yes of course (Simon gets laughed at at school) . . . and so does anyone who isn't a silly, grinning, sports-playing, book-hating, first-year-tormenting, prefect-grovelling, hair-parted-on-the-right ---' (p 122)

Yet Hilary McKay contrasts these hateful attitudes most movingly with the empathy and understanding for Simon that she rightly engenders in us as readers. 

An abiding humanity

It is a book that champions the rights of both girls and boys to be who they are and become who they can become. It shows how far attitudes and opportunities have moved in the last hundred years, but also, by implication, flags up, too, how far we still have to go. There are just too many instances where the prejudices of 1918 still sound all too like some we might encounter, in at least some quarters, today. 

This telling story also has much to imply about the role fathers need to play in their children's lives, about the importance of educational opportunity and, indeed, about the power of books to help us survive and grow. More than anything though, more than being about the Great War, more than about girls' abilities, rights and needs, more than the rights and needs of sensitive, emotional and gay boys, this book is about how kindness and love can transcend even the most grotesque of horrors. And that is a wonderful message for any children's book. It is truly heartwarming. May it warm yours and that of many, many children. 



The book is published in the USA as Love to Everyone, a reference to Rupert's usual sign off in his letters home from the Western Front. I am delighted that such a fine novel is available over there too, although I think the UK title is, on this occasion, by far the better. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

The illustrated World of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve & Jeremy Levett




Treat for fans

The 1st November was a red letter day for fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines, of which I am but one of a huge number. It marked the publication of The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines, a sumptuous supplement to the original sequence. 

This book is certainly one for those who are already immersed in the world of the novels. The text, produced by Philip Reeve in collaboration with writer Jeremy Levett, is not a continuous narrative, but a sequence of snippets filling in background information and additional detail about places, characters and events from the books. As such they are, however, fascinating. The highly inventive naming of people, places and things has always been one of the many highlights of the books. This particular delight is well built upon here and the verbal vignettes are both entertaining and informative, often wittily amusing but revelatory too. Whilst their considerable attraction attraction will be essentially for aficionados, perhaps they will attract and whet the appetites of newcomers too. I do hope so. 

Illustrated world

However, for me, and I suspect many others, there is an even greater pleasure to be found in this volume, its plethora of wonderful illustrations by a range of highly talented fantasy artists. It provides truly breathtaking images of the world Philip Reeve created, from Aedel Fakhrie, Ian McQue, Maxime Plasse, Rob Turpin, Philip Varbanov, David Wyatt and Amir Zand. 

The range of these artists' envisioning is as diverse as it is fascinating. Their images delightfully add to the what we have so far pictured only in our own heads, and, since the visual imagination of so many of these illustrations far outstrips our own, they constitute a considerable and most valuable enrichment. That they do it in so many individual, but equally valid, ways only adds further to their collective effectiveness. 

Amongst my own particular favourites are Philip Varbanov's amazingly intricate line diagrams of the traction cities. His contributions to the development of 'London', near the start of this volume, is especially engaging and gives a strong feeling of credible history to Philip Reeve's world. Similarly,  the maps from Maxime Plasse help relate its  post-apocalyptic geography chillingly closely to our own. David Wyatt and Amir Zand both add strongly coloured and  dramatic images too. For me, however, the most mind-blowing illustrations of all remain the double-page spreads by Ian McQue, also used for the covers of the most recent paperback editions. 

And a movie still to come

I am sure that the forthcoming major film, based on the first book, will engender many more fans of the Mortal Engines world. I only hope that it will also encourage more young people to read for themselves the whole sequence of books, which are amongst the very finest examples of children's speculative fiction to have been penned for many a year*. 



*Philip Reeve's more recent Railhead sequence is also very special indeed.  See my review from May 2018. 

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Train to Impossible Places by P. G. Bell



'This whole stupid situation - trolls and bears and trains and just all of it - was starting to upset her. Because, while she never would have admitted it, she had always been secretly proud of her ability to understand the nuts and bolts of reality. Now, though, it felt as though that reality was tilting underneath her, threatening to throw her off. She just wanted to make sense of it again.' (p 30-31)

Infinite impossibility drive

Some fantasies create a world that, whilst clearly very different from our own, retains enough of the same cohesion and logic to feel completely credible. The very best of such fantasy worlds often provide metaphors for aspect of  our own lives too.*

There is, however, a very different quality of fantasy that is also an important feature of the canon of children's literature, one that builds a world of rampant imagination, paying little if any heed to reason as we know it.  Such are the worlds Alice finds down the rabbit hole and Milo enters through The Phantom Tollbooth. Lewis Carroll, Norton Juster and other such writers play with logic by making it illogical. In their imagined worlds illogicality becomes the dominant schema.

P. G. Bell's is just such a world: one where gravity can be redirected at the turn of a dial, so that a train can run vertically; one where, a yellow bear can be the 'firewoman' of an steam engine fuelled by fusion bananas; one where a little girl's house can be a shortcut to reroute a troll postal express. This is, after all, The Train to Impossible Places. It dos not need to embody the possible. Quite the reverse. This train travels 'from Trollville to the five corners of reality.' (p 32). It is interdimensional. Like Dr Who's Tardis, it does not conform to the laws of our physics. 

Protagonist Suzy, a girl with a logical, scientific outlook on life, is catapulted Alice-like into this impossible  world.  Through this sudden fracture of credibility, the author is able to develop a wonderful contrast between her physics, 'which always makes sense', and 'fuzzics', a totally different order for her new world', which doesn't make sense at all - and doesn't have to. It is impossible. 

And yet Suzy wants desperately to understand what is happening to her and around her.  It is this  need, in fact, that leads her to take the wild leap and board the train in the first place. Shortly afterwards, when she first comes face to face with Ursula, the on-board bear, her reaction is typical, fear superseded by curiosity. 

'It's going to eat me, she thought. Eaten by a bear in my own house. But the thought that made her saddest was this: Now I'll never get to understand what's happening.' (p 31)

Clever clever

Like Carroll and Juster before him, Peter Bell plays with words and ideas in a way that is both clever and utterly delightful. 

'In panic she saw the waves rise past the portholes. . . 
"We're sinking!" she exclaimed. 
"Actually, we're diving," said Wilmot. "It's like sinking, but on purpose. "' (p 105)

'"As a nation we're positively pecorous."
Every head turned to Neville in bewilderment. 
"Pecorous," he said. "It means 'full of cows'. No?" He looked around for a sympathetic face, but found none. "It's a terribly useful word, in the right circumstances," he muttered.' (p 130)

Rattling Tale

One problem with such illogical worlds is that it can be difficult to build a compulsive narrative within them. When absolutely anything can happen, without rhyme or reason, it is hard to engender anticipation and build tension. But Peter Bell rises magnificently above this potential constraint. His story rattles along, just like the crazy, fantastic, impossible train that it is. But then, how could it not, when it is fuelled by the atomic bananas of this author's wild imaginings?



Animated 

In many ways, this narrative has both the feel and the appeal of the very best children's animated feature films: it is zany and funny; it positively zings with cliff-hanger suspense; it is brightly coloured and  filled with eccentric but loveable characters. Wilmot, the young postmaster, dressed in a uniform many sizes too big, and trying to carry a responsibility to match, must be a strong contender for the most endearing troll in children's literature. Frederick, the less-than-honest prince enspelled into a snowglobe, is as entertaining as he is intriguing - although perhaps he isn't a prince at all. And then there is the grumpy engine driver and his 'sidekick'  'firewoman', who just happens to be a huge yellow bear. This hugely entertaining cast is vividly imagined, and, dramatically balanced by the villainous and power-hungry Crepucula, who appears to be every bit the match for Cruella, Grimhilde or Maleficent.

And through it all rides Suzy, enormously likeable, so easy to identify with in her bewilderment, her trepidation and (yes) her occasional anger, but also so admirable in her resourcefulness, her loyalty and her courage. She is the ideal protagonist, simultaneously who we are and who we want to be. 

The solutions to the plot's many dilemmas and crises jump out with predictable unpredictability. Improbable they may be, impossible certainly, but the story has more than enough twists and turns to keep any driver of this wonderful reading train steaming full pelt along its rails. And, when the destination is reached, suffice it to say that the climactic final chapters are not only thrilling but completely unexpected. What else?

In the end, as with a myriad other children's fantasies,  yet another whole universe is, of course, saved by the bravery of an ordinary child who turns out to be rather special. However, P. G. Bell's debunking of the situation is enough to turn even this cliché into a delight. 

'"How dare you put me through all that!" (Suzy) said. "I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in a snow globe!"
"And it was very noble of you," said Crepuscula. "Perhaps you'd like a sticker or a lollipop or something?"' (p 347)

Transatlantic treat

This is truly wonderful children's reading entertainment, some of the very best I have come across for a good while. It does not try to be profound or 'relevant', and yet its wild, imaginative invention, its clever play with ideas and its sheer liveliness of storytelling lift it into the category of fine children's fiction. 

Fortunately for transatlantic readers, there is also a US edition, with the 's' removed from 'maths' and everything. It has a great cover to boot, even though it lacks the gorgeous illustration that hides beneath the dust jacket of he UK hardback. Swings and roundabouts. But it's a rollicking, track-rattling ride on either version of the train. The impossible will make sense, for a while at least.  





Note:
*As, for example, in Dragon Daughter, which I reviewed very recently. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford



'He liked to do it this way: walking easily and leisurely from then to now just as you'd walk from here to there, so that the passage of time took on the feel of a hike along a gusty road, the years passing on all sides like buffeting leaves in a hard wind.'

A very special author

Regular readers of this blog will know that I rate US author Kate Milford as one of the most important, exciting and original contemporary writers of children's fiction. Taken as a whole, her body of work is up with the finest creations in the genre.*  So the first hardback edition of her novel Bluecrowne has to be one of my highlights of the publishing year. 

Each novel in her growing opus is essentially complete in itself. Only Ghosts of Greenglass House  can really be called a sequel (to Greenglass House, obviously). Some of her books are indeed quite different in character and atmosphere. Yet all are interrelated in intriguing ways; they are all ultimately part of the same world. Sometimes the books are linked by place, sometimes by the reappearance of particular objects. They sometimes tell stories about different generations of the same family, and many feature the same enigmatic figures, 'Jumpers' who are able to travel across  time as well as place. 

A very special world

The books cover slightly different periods from a span of history that is almost, but not quite, real history. They are not chronological in their writing order, but can be arranged into a chronology. They are set in places that are almost, but not quite, real places. They can be arranged on a map, which is almost, but not quite, a real map. They contain elements of fantasy and rich folklore and are almost, but not quite, fantasies. They are not quite like anything other than themselves; but they are very special and very wonderful. Each one is a completely enthralling read in its own right; intriguing and exciting; sometimes a little scary, but warm and life-enhancing too. Yet it is as a whole that this group of novels is at its most glorious, in building up its unspeakably rich and rewarding tapestry of hugely imaginative fiction. Many an emotional or intellectual tingle arises from gleefully recognising elements as you move from one story to another, discovering ever more of what you know, and  what you don't know, about this world and its people. It is pure reading joy, I promise you.  

A very special book

Of the various components of her world, two complete, shorter novels, The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne have, until now, only been available in e-book format. Yet both are significant and hugely enjoyable works. Bluecrowne is not only an engrossing read in its own right, but also a key link between her other books. It fills in an early history for Greenglass House itself, but also links directly to The Left-handed Fate and, through the character of firework genius, Liao, to The Broken Lands. Involvement from the enigmatic 'Jumpers' also ties it back to The Boneshaker and to The Kairos Mechanism. It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to at last have Bluecrowne in book form. Even more pleasure is to be found in the fact that this is now a most handsome hardback, with a striking jacket from Jaime Zollars and enchanting internal images by Nicole Wong. These latter also subtly but effectively enhance the book's delightful representation of an ethnically diverse range of characters, with both girl and boy characters playing strong lead roles. 

Those who have already read Bluecrowne on screen need to be aware that this is not a different novel, only a new, lightly re-edited version. Nevertheless, to be able to shelve this exciting book alongside the author's others is a treat. Hopefully it will attract many new readers too, both as a follow up to the very popular Greenglass House books, and as a  lead on to Kate Milford's other novels. Because they dot about between people, places and times, they do not need to be read in any particular order.  However, though each book is outstandingly rewarding in itself,  it is her interlocking world as a whole that is her towering achievement and one of the greatest reading experiences of contemporary children's literature. Do not miss any of them. 

A very special wish

The books' American background should present no barrier to accessibility for those from other countries and cultures, and I most heartily recommend all to seek them out.  I very much hope that a matching volume of The Kairos Mechanism will be published very soon. This is in addition, of course, to my longing for Kate Milford to add further new dimensions to her wondrous world. 




See my earlier posts from September, November and December '16 and November '17.