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.

Monday, 21 January 2019

The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods by Samuel J. Halpin

‘Fairytales are always wrong. If you want to be truly brave, listen to your heart - then ignore it.’ (p 261)

Fresh as a . . .

I love my reading to be steeped in the tropes of traditional fantasy. Yet, perhaps because I read so many children’s books, I quickly lose interest with those who simply re-churn the same jaded characters and scenarios. So it is a real pleasure to welcome to the canon of children’s fiction a debut writer whose novel is as fresh and lively as Samuel J Halpin’s. 

. . . fairytale?

Of course, modern children’s novels drawing on much older fairy stories are many, some good, some less so. But this author does manage to pull off a very original and entertaining take on them, capturing much of the potency of the genre whilst still producing something as surprising, and indeed shocking, as the originals must have been in their day. That he also manages to be quirkily funny, spookily scary and warmly touching at the same time is a considerable bonus. If the book reminded me of anything at all, it was of Adam Gidwitz’ delightful series A Tale Dark and Grimm. Howeverwhereas those books draw much more directly on the stories of the famous German brothers, Samuel Halpin is far more eclectic in his references and does not simply dress older tales in redesigned clothes but weaves some of their powerful elements into a richly hued bolt of his very own stuff. 

Zany but not vacuous 

After an intriguing, if disquieting, opening, which certainly grabs from the offset, the author drops protagonist Poppy, and her new friend Erasmus, into a world with names, characters and  and scenarios that are rib-tickling in their childish wackiness. We seem almost to be in a crazy, cartoonish world, and this is beautifully caught in Hannah Peck’s highly entertaining illustrations. Yet the text itself has an underlying wit and wry intelligence that distinguishes it from many simply populist comedy titles. 

Very then, but very now

Even more remarkable is that, in and amongst all this, are to be found some very real children’s issues, together with sensitive and touching treatment of them: the loss of a parent in tragic circumstances, a boy ‘on the autistic spectrum’, social ostracism and the declining health of a much loved grandparent. In many contexts this intermingling of comedic fantasy and stark reality would feel uncomfortable or incongruous. But here the author pulls it off brilliantly. Each element provides a most effective counterfoil to the other - and is the source of more welcome humour too. 

‘There weren’t many scenarios in life when your friends’ lives depended on speaking to a catfish.’ (p 280)

Into the woods

From a little way into the story, our protagonists ‘enter the woods’ and the tale takes on a much darker tone, sometimes even a rather frightening one. But then, of course, this was always an integral element of most original fairytales too. The narrative also becomes grippingly exciting with no few twists and turns. It is quality writing in terms of both its language and its plotting, and the payoff is an excellent read. 

A place on a fine shelf

This is a very clever piece of work. It has much that will immediately appeal to its young readership (echoed in its design and presentation by the publisher). Yet it also envelops much that is richly thoughtful in its humanity. It is a book about valuing others, looking beyond the superficial, and thus about acceptance and inclusion as much as it is about silly names and scary excitement. 

In the end, this new novel rates justified comparison with other books that cleverly explore children’s issues by slipping into fantasy. It deserves to be shelved alongside fine works such as Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs  Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy  and Piers Torday’s There May Be a Castle. That is not to say it is in any way derivative.  It is its own unique and very entertaining book. 

At one point the contents of Erasmus’s mind are described as:

‘humming with a sweetness known only to bees, peppered with the fire of stars, moulded by the wisdom of an ancient library, twisted with the cunning of snakes and the loneliness of the twisted shadow.’ (p 314)

This could almost be a distillation of Samuel J. Halpin’s startling and delicious new novel itself.  

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Books by Sonya Hartnett and the Greatest Children’s War Stories

Going with the flow 

Sometimes one thing follows on from another. And sometimes one reading interest follows on from another. In this instance, it seemed to flow on naturally that having just spent a period exploring the wonderful books of Ursula Dubosarsky, I went on to look at those of another justifiably lauded Australian children’s author, Sonya Hartnett. Although Ursula Dubosarsky was a new discovery for me, I was, already a big fan of Sonya Hartnett and had read some of her books before. Perhaps not surprisingly she has won enough major international awards to have a well deserved reputation in this country too. But, for some reason, I had not read anything particularly recent of hers, so picked up these two novels, both of which are set during WWII, but which in many other ways could not be more different. What does unite them, however, is quite breathtakingly wonderful writing. 

The Midnight Zoo 

Cages come and get you’ (p 158)

Another great Australian writer, Morris Gleitzman, is quoted as saying, ‘Stories are rarely what they seem to be at first glance,’ This could not be more true of The Midnight Zoo. An apparently simple wartime story about two displaced boys discovering a small, deserted zoo, is, through its extended metaphor of the the denial of life and liberty, one of the most devastating books I have read about the anathema of war and the inhumanity of man. 

It is also a most remarkable feature of Sonya Hartnett’s superlative writing that this bleak, and in some ways terse tale, is told through the most rich and ravishing prose. Sections of the book are close to prose poetry, not in any sense of florid verbosity, but in terms of deep, challenging thought,  caught through the most vivid use of language and imagery. 

The story is set in Eastern Europe during WWII, where two young brothers, Andrej and Tomas, have just witnessed their immediate and extended Rom (‘Gypsy’) family ‘removed’ by invading soldiers, and their homes destroyed. 

The monster that had escaped its chains had countless arms and legs and eyes and mouths, innumerable shapes and disguises; and it was merciless even to mothers and children, even to the best of men.’ (p 154)

They find themselves rather aimlessly wandering the devastated countryside, seeking only to try to keep themselves alive. Further intensifying their plight, not only does the elder boy, Andrej, feel totally responsible for his younger brother, but the two have to carry with them their tiny baby sister, Wilma, caring for her as best they can. Everything that was their life has been taken from them, for no reason other than the most prejudiced demonisation of the race and community to which they belong. 

‘Andrej stood amidst the wreckage, the last of the day’s sunshine beaming on his head and the birds chirping to one another, feeling as if his life had slipped off him like a coat and that his heart was exposed to the air.’ (p 145)

The boys stumble across a small zoo, where a disparate assortment of  animals have been abandoned by their keeper and are desolately close to starvation. At the astonishing heart of the book, the various encaged wild creatures speak with the boys and eventually tell them their devastating stories. In many ways its seems totally incongruous to find the fantasy of talking animals in the context of a gruesomely realistic story and setting. Yet Sonya Hartnett pulls it off wonderfully. The various animals ‘personalities’, whose histories speak again and again of unspeakable cruelty, provide a most telling parallel to the life and freedom stolen by those who perpetrate aggressive warfare and the abomination of genocide. 

The tale is harrowing and gut-wrenchingly cruel. It is compelling and heartrendingly beautiful. It is unspeakably moving. 

Much of the story, particularly its closing chapters, are too demanding and potentially confusing for younger children. This is therefore a book for experienced, sensitive readers of, perhaps, twelve upwards. 

Its ending swells with a vision of optimism, of freedom for boys and animals, and  seems to offer hope and comfort. But, it is quite possible that such freedom is to be found only in their own hearts, in their disparate desire for it. Their escape is, perhaps, only in death. Ultimately this merely adds to the novel’s devastating bleakness, another reason why this is not a book for most younger readers. However, for children with the maturity and sensitivity to take it, it is the most wonderful example of what fine literature, as opposed to mere fictional entertainment, can offer to the mind and spirit. It shows how, in the hands of a great writer, the artistry of artifice can, through rich language, powerful images and skilfully constructed narrative, bring us face to face with reality. It can also powerfully lead us in the direction of a better world. This cutting vision of the inhumanity of men, of our potential for grotesque cruelty - to animals, to fellow human beings, and thus, in the end to ourselves - must be a spur to our determination to be more humane. We must seek for them the freedom that Andrej, Tomas, Wilma and the creatures of The Midnight Zoo so desperately wanted. It is for us to find the keys to their cages. 

The Children of the King 

‘It seemed peculiar that the war, which was huge and serious and complicated, should bother to disrupt even the littlest life - like a tiger so bad-tempered it would crush a ladybird.’  (p 17)

Aside from being set during the period of WWII, the setting of The Children of the King could scarcely be in starker contrast to The Midnight Zoo and, to a large extent, the tenor and style of the story reflect this. Here two children, Cecily and Jeremy, from a clearly affluent background, move with their mother from bomb-threatened London to live with an eccentric uncle in a country mansion in northern England. Here the household also takes in an evacuee, May. So far, more Noel Streatfield than Morris Gleitzman.  But, yet again, first impressions are deceptive and Sonya Hartnett is clever and more original than this core scenario implies. This is another book about the realities of war, it just comes at it from a very different direction. 

A large part of the author’s inspired approach here is to combine this account of the experience of realistically drawn children with a recounting of the journey to the throne of the man who was to become King Richard III. The telling of this story-within-a-story is prompted by a nearby ruined castle and the girls meeting with two strange boys, who, it emerges, seem to be the ghosts of the murdered ‘princes in the tower’. Once again Sonya Hartnett draws together what might seem to be two disparate, and even incongruous elements, into a compelling whole, with the historical narrative providing an image of manic power-seeking that results, amongst many other negative consequences, in the killing of innocent children. 

 Much the compelling fascination of the book comes from the exploration of character and relationships, particularly those of Cecily. Her uneasy friendship with the more independent minded May is beautifully drawn and developed through action and dialogue, as is her equally turbulent, if loving, relationship with her slightly older brother. Jeremy is particularly angry and frustrated in being corralled off to the safety of the countryside when he feels that, despite his fourteen years, he should be back in the thick of the war, ‘doing his bit’. 

‘“A sweet boy talking about killing people . . . That’s what this war’s done.”
“Jem couldn’t kill a butterfly.”
“But that’s the thing, see? A boy who can’t kill a butterfly wants to kill a man. Where’s the good in that? Where’s the victory in that?”’

Whereas The Midnight Zoo is more directly about the victims of war, the characters in this book experience war from a distance. But it is still there. In fact the chapter describing the start of the London Blitz is just about as powerfully devastating as any in children’s fiction. The threat to life and liberty posed by man’s lust for power over man is ever harshly present, in both strands of the narrative, and it is deeply frightening. 

‘She had the dream of being encased in a skin of glass: everything, so far, was happening outside the glass and could not touch her. But glass is breakable, and Cecily knew that the moment it broke, a river of fear would gush in . . . fear for the world she would grow up in.’ (p 200)

As always, Sonya Hartnett tells her tale through ravishing prose . Her many long descriptions never seem to slow the story, as could be the case, but instead seductively pull the reader further under its spell. It is a lyrical book, rather than an action-packed one, but packs its own compelling punch nonetheless. 

More than anything, perhaps, it is about that feeling of smallness and uselessness that we all feel when faced with the horrendous issues on a societal or even global scale. Ultimately, however, it reminds us of a wonderful and wonderfully important thing: when the problems of the world seem just too daunting, when there seems to be nothing that we can do,  amidst all the horror and cruelty and injustice, it is really only necessary that we do something. One action is sometimes enough. One change. The beating of a butterfly’s wing. ‘One change changes everything.’ (p 232)

Remember this writer

Both of these books were critically acclaimed when they were published, and rightly so, but, even a couple of years on, I don’t see them around very much. Teachers, parents and others who recommend books to children should not neglect one of our finest contemporary authors of children’s literature - and particularly for those children who are ready for more challenging and thought-provoking reads.

Greatest children’s war stories

These are a good many children’s novels set in one or other of the twentieth century’s ‘World Wars’. A remarkable number of them are very fine books and these have been added to recently as a way of marking various significant anniversaries. This is an excellent thing as, now that those dark days are beyond the living memory of even the grandparents of most children, such books have a most important part to play in awareness, understanding and remembrance. 

However,  if I was asked to nominate those that I see as the greatest of the great amongst such titles, (as I seem, in fact, to be doing) these present two books by Sonya Hartnett would certainly be up there, along with Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Blue Cat (recently reviewed here). They would most emphatically be joined by Hilary McKay’s recent The Skylark’s War (also reviewed on this site). Alongside these would then need to go a few earlier books: Morris Gleitzman’s Once (and its sequels), Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Robert Westall’s The Kingdom by the Sea*, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, John Boyne’s The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas and, of course, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom. 

All of these are inevitably challenging reads for children, emotionally even more than intellectually. However we must never forget what yet another fine writer said:
‘Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.’  E.B. White
To these readerly qualities I would also add empathetic and courageous. 

*His The Machine-Gunners and Blitzcat would also be strong contenders. 

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Earlier books by Ursula Dubosarsky


During this last year I was thrilled to discover two truly wonderful books by Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky. (See my post on The Blue Cat and The Red Shoe from September ‘18, and also my recent ‘Books of the Year’.) She was a previously unread writer for me, but such an exciting one that I have spent much of my Christmas reading time exploring as many other children’s novels of hers as I have been able to get hold of in the UK. It has been a truly exciting revelation. 

Living the game 

‘What had happened to each of them had happened to all of them and they knew it for ever.’ (p 134)

Like many of Ursula Dubosarsky’s books this is a challenging  but richly worthwhile read. 

Three children from immediately neighbouring houses live largely  separate lives, knowing very little of each other, and understand even less. They are self-centred through enforced isolation. Dramatic changes are, however, precipitated when their parents decide to replace their old fences and their three gardens (‘back yards’) temporarily become one. As the children start to explore joint rather than separate lives they play a version of an ancient board game, the ‘Game of Goose’ of the title. One by one, they are pulled into the fantasy world of the game. 

Now, stories of children entering and becoming part of gaming worlds are already to be found across a range of entertainment media. But any unoriginality on the part of this author ends there. The game world that these three children enter is built of powerful yet enigmatic images. The meaning of their dreamworld journeys is as elusive as it is disconcerting   Yet, what  they do eventually learn, as pieces in the strange race, is their need to depend upon each other, literally as a matter of life and death - and perhaps even of rebirth! This newfound sense of community, of caring for others, continues after the game, and even survives the rebuilding of the garden fences. This is a most important message for young readers, and my feeling is that this is one of those rare and special books that really needs to be a part of every childhood, along with other contemporary psychological fantasy masterpieces such as Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and Piers Torday’s There May Be a Castle. 

Something to write about

‘Stories can only happen because of all the things that happened before, no matter how small and sudden those things may have seemed at the time. Or no matter how large and terrible, and no matter how much much a person might prefer to live as if such things had never happened.’ (p 5)

This is a comparatively early book* by this author, and it does show. However I do not mean this as a negative. Rather that the writing here is not as terse, the content not as enigmatic, the images not as elusive, as in many of her later works.  Of course this makes it more accessible, and perhaps a good book with which to begin, for young readers themselves at least. It is the story of three generations of a rather eccentric family, primarily as perceived and experienced by two half-siblings, Samuel and Theodora. As in many of her other works, this author has courage to face her young audience with the realities of life; it certainly pulls no punches in terms of some of the tougher consequences of failed and failing family relationships. However it also celebrates some of their most important and valuable bonds. More than anything, though, this novel demonstrates one of Ursula Dubosarsky’s finest talents, an ability to capture the world from the perspective of childhood. Her young characters often naively misunderstand and misinterpret the world in which they find themselves, but can, equality, sometimes display a surprising perspicacity. 

Although the family concerned is Jewish, both they, and the story itself are essentially ‘humanist’ rather than conventionally religious. For those who can pick them up, there are interesting allusions to the biblical Book of Samuel, but recognising them is not essential to appreciation of the story  The author’s rich messages are deeply and universally humanitarian. Much more important than religion per se is history and heritage, particularly that centring on the horrors of prejudice and hatred. Samuel’s sister, Theodora, is a habitual, even a compulsive, writer, but Samuel himself is not able to begin to write his ‘first book’ until he starts to discover more of the story of his holocaust survivor grandfather. The First Book of Samuel is a novel which is often amusing, always warmly charming, frequently moving and ultimately richly rewarding. 

Lost and found

‘And at that moment, Cubby realised she was not going to turn into the person she had thought she would become. There was something inside her head now that would make her a different person, although she scarcely understood what it was.’ (p 156)

A book, perhaps, for slightly older readers than the others here (early teens plus?), The Golden Day combines remarkable lyrical prose with a story that moves from being a highly amusing comedy, to an intriguing murder mystery and ends in almost metaphysical enigma. Overall, however, it encapsulates perfectly a girl’s growth into the potential of life with all its unfathomable strangeness. 

It begins as something approaching a delightful and delicious Australian equivalent of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, with a small class of young schoolgirls under the sway of a supposedly free-thinking but decidedly eccentric ‘artistic’ teacher. Her initial act, for example, is to take them ‘out into the beautiful garden’ to ‘think about death.’ (p 11). However the said Miss Renshaw subsequently goes missing, possibly murdered, after involving her girls in her clandestine meetings with a young, bohemian, possible criminal, gardner/poet, only to reappear years later as a possible ghost. When the story and its telling are not hilarious, they are deeply chilling. When the tale is  not hitting hard with reality, it is refulgent with romantic fantasy. When it is not mundane in its details, it is deeply mysterious in its import. And, through it all, the thoughts and feelings of young protagonist, Cubby, are quite wonderfully caught. So too are her relationships with a diverse range of classmates and teachers. The book is original, imaginative and, in it its illusive potency, quite stunningly written. 

Life after life

‘In an alcove was a globe of the earth the size of a large bouncing ball. Gussie twirled it around . . . . Everything is a circle, thought Sarah watching it . . . . The world and everything in it is round. There are no edges to things.’ (p 53)

This is the most odd, and certainly the most disturbing of the books here, although not altogether in a bad way. It is a story of girls with a ‘privileged’ but isolated upbringing, playing with dolls in a dolls’ house, who may themselves be playing with dolls in a dolls’ house. It is often unclear as to who are the children and who are the dolls, which is the house and which the dolls’ house. The interrelationship becomes ever more complex and ambiguous. A girl makes up stories about the dolls, but are they imagined, or real,  or do they,  in fact, segue from one to the other? 

And then again,  is one or more of the characters actually dead? Did they die, or will they die? Is this a ghost story of sorts? It certainly touches on a the possibility of a kind of reincarnation, or perhaps it’s just that life goes on and a life lost in one place is replaced by a different life in another. 

‘In the circle there can be no gaps, no spaces. Loss and gain, a child for a child.’ (p 47)

Once again the author’s handling of character voice is superb, her prose mesmerising. Like so many of Ursula Dubosarsky’s books, Abyssinia asks more questions than it answers. Her helpful explanatory postscript is illuminating but ultimately unhelpful. The book most certainly gives its readers a great deal to ponder on, and to dream about. And that is no bad thing. In fact, it is a wonderful gift. 

This may be a strange book, but a strangely magical one. It haunts in more senses than the one. It will strike a chord with anyone who has ever asked, ‘Just who is playing with who here?’

International importance

Overall, the quality and range of these books has confirmed for me that Ursula Dubosarsky is a children’s writer of international status and importance. Many of her books will lift those young readers who are ready for them beyond the realms of entertainment fiction and into that of the highest quality literature for children. They are potentially life enriching, perhaps even life-changing. As an adult interested in children’s literature, it is fascinating to see how threads and themes developed in earlier works have come to gather in her recent masterpieces, The Red Shoe and The BlueCat. It is a tragedy that her novels are not better known in this country and I sincerely hope that a UK publisher of vision and integrity will recognise the need to make them more readily available over here. 

Both The First Book of Samuel (originally published by Penguin Australia in 1995) and Abyssinia (ditto, 2008) have recently been republished independently. Unfortunately the new editions have some slightly disconcerting formatting problems, but it is far better for these outstanding books to be available thus than not at all.