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, 21 December 2018

The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas

The Magic Thief

Were I to list my top ten children's magic fantasy sequences from the 'post-Potter' era, then Sarah Prineas' The Magic Thief books would certainly be up there. They may not be amongst the more profound of such works, but they are certainly amongst the most enjoyable. They have all the qualities of first rate fantasy entertainment. 

Now she has struck gold again with The Lost Books. Precisely the same accolades apply, and they apply to this recent offering largely because of two outstanding qualities. 

A librarian and a queen

This book shares its core premise with most other children's fantasies; a young boy discovers a special destiny and has to grow his way into it. His dramatic journey is paralleled by that of a young girl. The setting of a broadly 'mediaeval' fantasy kingdom is very familiar too, although no less convincing for that. However Sarah Prineas' most recent take on these tropes is both original and highly imaginative. Young Alex's discovery is not that he is a wizard, but a librarian, albeit one who has to contend with enchanted books, many of them violently hostile to boot. There have been many books about books over the years, but this one is certainly fresh and vivid. It explores, both explicitly and implicitly, the many potentialities of books, their power to be a source of evil and of good. 

At the same time, it charts the journey of young queen, Kenneret, from domination by her self-seeking, former regent uncle, to acceptance of her own authority and responsibilities. It is a tale which very successfully marries an exciting and engaging plot with many prompts for thoughtful reflection. And of course any book that celebrates libraries and librarians is, in the present climate, warmly to be welcomed. 

Irascibility and bickering 

Yet it is not the narrative context that is the real delight of this novel, but its characters and relationships. Alex is far from the usual fantasy hero. Rather he is moody and petulant. Quick to anger, he often opens his mouth inappropriately, when he would do far better to keep it closed. And yet he has a basic honesty of demeanour which is refreshing and his unswerving determination to become a librarian and protect his books is richly admirable. He manages to be hugely engaging despite his many flaws. Similarly his relationship with Kenneret is far from an easy friendship. Their bickering and even outright hostility are frequently entertaining. Witnessing their gradual growth towards grudging mutual respect is possibly the highlight of the novel. 

More to come?

Although it appears that Sarah Prineas has a new novel, Dragonfall, in the pipeline for this coming year, it does not look to be a sequel to this. It should, of course, be well worth looking out for in its own right. Yet it would seem from several clues that The Lost Books is being set up as the start of a new sequence. I do hope so; it has much potential to be an outstanding one. However, either way, there is clearly much to look forward to from this excellent children's writer. 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

The books I am giving my (second) granddaughter for Christmas

A brief seasonal diversion from my usual reviews. 

Last year we experienced the tremendous joy of our first grandchild and, believing passionately that there are only a few things more important that growing up a reader, at Christmas we gave her a parcel of books. They were not baby books as such (she already, thankfully, had a basket full of them) but what I thought of as 'books that she can grow up with and through'. (See my post from December 2017.) This summer we were equally thrilled by the birth of our second granddaughter, so have been eager to do the equivalent for her. After much enjoyable searching and reflection, there are the books I have chosen. 

Two things I would dearly love our granddaughter to grow up with are a deep love of the natural world and an equal love for language and poetry. With the parents she has, I think there is every chance of both, but hopefully these two volumes will help a little too. The first was an easy and immediate choice, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris. Robert Macfarlane is undoubtedly one the the greatest (nature) writers of our generation and Jackie Morris is one of my all-time favourite children's book artists, far more than simply an illustrator. As a result, this volume is quite simply one of the most ravishingly beautiful and inspiring I know. The writer's 'spells' and the artist's large-scale images are together an irresistible invitation to get to know and appreciate the natural world around us. 

The anthology I Am the Seed that Grew the Tree compiled by Fiona Waters and illustrated by Fran Preston-Gannon is a superbly rich resource of nature poems by a diverse range of fine writers. It serves both my aims here perfectly . Hopefully, with these books,  our granddaughter will be able to revel in looking at the stunning images and hearing the evocative language even before she is able to read for herself. 

Related, although slightly different, the wordless picture book Footpath Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith is another kind of poetry. It is essentially the poetry of ideas, of thought,  expressed through simple but telling images. It speaks of finding beauty in small  things as we move through life, and of making our world better through simple giving. It is deeply touching and conveys a most important message to grow up with. Our granddaughter will perhaps be able to access this book a little earlier than the others here, but hopefully its simple images and honest sentiment will last a lifetime. 


Another thing I would wish our granddaughter to grow up with is her full inheritance of Folk and Fairy Tales from across the world. This collection is only one of many wonderful ones I could have chosen. However this particular edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon edited by Noel Daniel is distinguishing by the most stunning art work from justifiably renowned Kay Nielsen. Her luxurious, almost Beardsley-like, Art Nouveau images make this another ravishing volume, a delight in its own right and a superb invitation to dream and to wonder. 

As children's author Cornelia Funke recently wrote*, even though many Fairy Tales do not reflect the social attitudes we look for today, they 'still enchant profoundly. For in their imagery of monsters and magical things they preserve many forgotten truths. Sometimes we lost the key to decipher them, but the images keep their power nevertheless '. Fairy Tales are an important  part of our cultural and literary heritage. Children need to know them, even though they do not need to think or behave like some of the characters in them. A girl cannot understand that she need not be a fairytale princess unless she knows what a fairytale princess is in the first place. 

And on which matter, my last choice was as easy to make as it is important to give. Last year I gave my first granddaughter the unspeakably wonderful and rightly trendsetting Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo (illustrated by a host of contemporary female artists from around the world). When a follow up '2' came out from the same team it was a must for our second grandchild. The two cousins are close enough in age that hopefully they will share and compare some day. I inscribed last year's gift with, 'Be a rebel,'  so I just cannot resist signing this book from Grandma and Grandpa with, 'Be a rebel, too.'

In Through the Water Curtain & Other Tales from Around the World, Introduction, page 12   (This is itself a fine book that I hope to review in full very soon.) 

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

My Books of the Year 2018

Long list

I read hundreds of children's books each year but only write about a handful of them, those that have really excited me and that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Consequently, all the titles I have reviewed this year constitute a long list of my best books of 2018. They are all wonderful stories by staggeringly talented writers; if I did not consider them so, they would not be on my blog at all. 

Of course there will also have been amazing new books that I have missed, or that are still waiting in my enormous reading pile. I very much hope that I will be able to catch up with many of them soon. 

The best of the best

However, I have been able to pull out my ten favourite favourites without too much difficulty; they are truly outstanding. All of them are highly engaging, hugely entertaining books, but they are far more too. Each, in its different way, shows that originality and imagination, that richness of thought and language, and, above all, that depth of resonant humanity that makes for a truly great children's novel. 

Some are from amongst the best-sellers of 2018 and alrighty heaped with accolades. Others are, as yet, perhaps less well known. I sincerely hope that recommendation here will encourage at least some of you to seek them out, if they are new to you.  The richest of rewards lie in wait if you do 

My books of 2018

Here they are then, not in any order of preference. If you wish, you can look up my full reviews in the blog archive. 

The Endless King (Knights of the Borrowed Dark, Book 3) by Dave Rudden (Post April '18)
This final instalment of Dave Rudden's sequence is every bit as good as might have been hoped. There are very few  more exciting, involving, terrifying or affecting reads currently to be found. His writing is masterly and this trilogy, crowned by The Endless King, is one of our finest examples of exactly what children's fantasy fiction can achieve. 

Twelve Nights by Andrew Zurcher (Post April '18)
With its rich language and extended description, its long apparent diversions into older stories, its complex plotting and its extended metaphors, this is not a quick, easy book to read. But, then, what truly great book is? Andrew Zurcher weaves us a story that is breathtaking in its imagining, masterly in its realisation and profound in its resonance.  We must wrap its fabulous fabric around us and live for a while cloaked in its enriching mysteries. 

Station Zero (Railhead Book 3) by Philip Reeve (Post May '18)
I am tempted to say that Station Zero is by far the finest book of a very fine trilogy. But it is more that. It is the work that brings its predecessors into full focus and illuminates the greatness of the whole trilogy. Many works of children's fiction centre on their protagonist discovering their own self. Railhead, rather, is about discovering how many selves we can be. Those who read Railhead, with its superb culmination in Station Zero, will be left with a head filled with multiple worlds, multiple lives, and, always, the image of those incredible sentient trains. I promise you that nothing could be further from Thomas the Tank Engine. 

The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine Doyle (Post July '18)
Catherine Doyle's is one of the most devastatingly exciting new voices in children's fiction that I have encountered in a long time. Her protagonist, 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, and resonances with the power that lies within us all as human beings. His story is a great fantasy, and is surely the opener of a great fantasy sequence yet to come. 

The Turning by Emily Whitman (Post August '18)
There have been many children's novels about Selkies. There have been even more about a young person's journey towards finding their true self. There can have been few of either more affecting than this one. It is a work of rich imagination and superlative language, a very fine novel indeed.  It is about anyone who has two identities, two lives, which are both their true self.  As the author says in her own final note: 'We've all got the ocean inside us. beautiful, mysterious, and untamed. Like Aran we are two everythings.' 

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay (Post September '18)
This is not only a gripping read, but a hugely important book too. It is also an exciting, terrifying, moving and deeply disturbing one.  It is a story that made me reflect profoundly on the world in which we live, where it has come from and where it is going. It took me to a place I have never been, a culture I have never known - and it helped me to realise, with shock and with grief, that all along it has been part of me, and I of it. 

The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky (post September '18)
This author is my discovery of the year, a world class children's writer that I am only just getting to know. Her latest book is not an easy read, but it is a revelation. No book relating to the Second World War and its horrors has moved me more . Although those horrors are only conjured obliquely, through metaphor, they are no les affecting. It is not a particularly long book, but it is one that needs to be read slowly, to relish its captivating detail, to pick up its delicate nuances, and to spot the rare glimpses of the elusive blue cat amidst the seemingly commonplace experiences of a war-haunted childhood. 

Dragon Daughter by Liz Flanagan (Post October '18)
Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, and of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered. 

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford (Post November '18)
Kate Milford is one of my all-time favourite children's writers and the world she creates across her several linked novels is truly wondrous, original, imaginative and deeply compelling. This title, formerly only available as an e-book, is not only an engrossing read in its own right, but also a key link between her other books. It is therefore a truly wonderful thing to at last have Bluecrowne in book form. Hopefully it will attract many new readers, not only as a follow up to the very popular Greenglass House books, but also to her other fascinating works. 

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay (Post November '18)
This book is a fine commemoration of WWI and a telling reconstruction of what it meant to grow up through that deeply troubled period of our recent history. It is about many other important things too. However, more than being about the Great War and its terrible waste, more than being about girls' abilities, rights and needs, more than being about 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 wonderfurl message for any children's novel. It is truly heartwarming - and a real gem of a book. 

And to round off

In finishing,  I would like add two final recommendations, that are, in a sense, more retrospective. Alan Garner is one of the finest ever children's writers as well as one of the most innovative. First Light (post June '18) is a remarkable anthology in which a whole host of contemporary writers pay tribute to his remarkable genius and helpfully elucidate some of his often challenging work. 

The most recent publication by the author himself, a short memoir, Where Shall We Run To? (post August '18) is far from a major work, but nevertheless a fascinating example of deceptively simple writing conveying remarkable human truths. Both books provide invaluable insight into the author and his work and are surely essential reads for any interested in children's literature, past or present.