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, 19 February 2019

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

‘For Jinny this Changing would be different. This moment would never fade for her. She knew that inside herself. She could feel it being etched into her memory.’ (p 8)

I bought this book when it came out in paperback, towards the end of last year, but have only just got around to reading it. But,  wow! Now that I have!

This is an deeply affecting book. It is a book whose narrative simplicity belies its emotional richness and its profoundly human understanding. It is not a book for the thrill seeking young reader; it is no action packed rollercoaster of an adventure, yet I would put it straight onto my list of greatest ever children’s novels. 

Nine on an island

Its strange, haunting story is about nine children, one of each age from four to twelve, living out their early years together on an isolated, otherwise uninhabited island. Mists shroud every horizon and it is essentially the only world they know, apart from that they learn about in a large selection of old children’s books that they read together regularly. Their island is very much a paradise in which they live, for the most part, in happy safety and security. There are always plentiful  sources of food, of the natural, wholesome kind. Whilst there are also some animal on the island, all of them, even the snakes, are harmless. Apart from minors bangs and scratches,  the children remain healthy too. In many real senses the island takes care of them. Even though there are high cliffs at one end, should the children fall (or even jump!) over the edge, a supportive breeze always buffets them back to safety - one of the very many captivating and memorable images of the book. 

‘Joon . . . took  a running leap off the top of the high cliff and, for an instant, shone bright, silhouetted against the sun. It looked like Joon would fall, and Ess gasped. But a second later a soft push of wind brought her feet back to solid ground. . . Jinny laughed. . . “The cliffs won’t let you fall. You’re safe.” ‘ (p 66)

Despite differing temperaments and personalities, the children live in largely harmonious cooperation, following the ‘rules’ of the island, which are passed down from the older to younger children. The only significant disruption of this life comes from the fact that once each year a boat appears out of the mists with a sole occupant. It brings one new youngest child and takes away the eldest, giving the group an annual ‘succession’. As the novel opens, the boat arrives and the story’s principal character, Jinny, becomes the eldest of the group, taking on the care of the youngest newcomer, Ess, and educating her in the ways of the island. 

Magnetic pull

In its early stages, the narrative develops largely through the incidents of the children’s daily life, and, although gently lyrical, appears superficially undramatic. Yet its reading is continually underpinned by the  captivatingly intriguing mystery of what this is all about. Where is this island? How did the children get there? Why are they there? What happens to those who leave? It is amazing how riveting such apparently simple storytelling turns out to be. The multiple, haunting images of the story add up to one extended metaphor. But a metaphor for what? It is its own unique form of page-turner. 

And when, later, events take off in a very dramatic, in many ways shocking, direction, the compulsion to race towards the end is irresistible. By this stage, we know and care about Jinny so deeply, that we become part of her dilemma, her confusion, and her fear of the future. 

To each our own island 

It is book for those on the cusp between the relative safety and simplicity of childhood and that far more confusing and troublesome hinterland that we call adolescence. In her postscript, the author says she wrote the book for her own twelve-year-old self and it is a wondrous gift to all other girls at, or approaching, the same sort of age/stage. But I do not think that books have ages or genders. They need to be widely available so that readers (any readers)  can find them when they need them. I am sure this truthful and compelling novel will be equally appreciated and valued by older readers who remember that time in their own lives. It may even jog more than a few memories. And even though it is principally about a girl, sometimes very specifically, boys need to understand the ways in which they are different, and the many ways they are the same - and to be allowed to know that the confusions and fears of growing up are shared. 

However,  I am now close to seventy, and the book, for me, took on a whole other layer of enormously poignant meaning. Whether intended by the author or not, almost every single image of the story resonated with my reading. You see I too am lining up the pebbles. I know that the green blur is on the misty horizon - and that the island has its rules.

When you read the book, or if you already have, you will, I hope, understand. 

This is surely one of the finest and most important works of American children’s fiction, and believe me, the greatest of American writing for children is amongst the very best in the English-speaking world. I rate it alongside such masterpieces of the genre (and I do not use the term lightly) as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Katherine Paterson’s  Bridge to Terabithia, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs and Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. It is that special. 

Sunday, 10 February 2019

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

‘Betty Widdershins first learned of the family curse on the night of her birthday. It was her thirteenth, a number considered unlucky by some, but Betty was too practical to believe in all that.’ (p 5)

Some new children’s books come out and immediately receive accolades galore. When I can,  I prefer to review here books that are a little more ‘off the beaten track’, to try to draw attention to wonderful books that could get overlooked by a UK readership. However every now and then a smash hit of a book comes along that I too find so exciting that I cannot resist adding my voice to the many already singing its praises. 

Michelle Harrison has been writing engaging children’s fantasies for the best part of ten years now. However she has continued to develop her considerable skills and, even from a starting point of ‘very good’, her writing gets better and better. 

The other one first

Just before I get to her latest though, let me briefly go back one. The Other Alice, her immediately previous book to this, is exceptionally interesting. As well as being a gripping and distinctly disquieting mystery, it explores challenging ideas about the nature of writing and reading fiction, asking exactly what it means for characters to be experienced as ‘real’. 

Eleven year old Midge’s older sister, Alice, is an inveterate writer of stories. When she disappears, and several of the characters from an unfinished tale in her notebooks start to turn up in ‘real life’, he is left trying to unravel the significance of it all. These  characters of Alice’s include a talking cat and a near double of Alice herself as well as the very sinister ‘hangman’ and a serial killer called Dorothy Grimes. To add to the mix, the narrative takes place in a village with the weird tradition of an annual ‘Summoning’ festival and also involves, a curse.  (Curses are one of the most consistently occurring elements in Michelle Harrison’s stories.) This all gives the book a tone  that is somewhat closer to ‘Unrest’, her novel more specifically for older readers, than to her earlier children’s books. Perhaps because it is rather different in feel from her justly popular ‘13’ series, it does not seem to have attracted quite the same attention. However it is a great, if somewhat chilling, read for all who love to inhabit books (or to let books inhabit them), and perhaps especially interesting for any who invent their own stories. It is a comparatively complex novel that will plays around with  its readers disturbingly, but offers  much to enjoy as well as a great deal to reflect upon. It  is very well worth seeking out - for children brave enough. 

‘The problem with monsters is that those of our own making are the most terrifying of all. Yet, if we create them, we also have the power to overcome them.’  (p 339)

More than a pinch of magic

Her latest book, A Pinch of Magic, is attracting cartloads of admiring attention, and deservedly so. It not only returns closer to the feel of her earlier successes, without being simply ‘more of the same’, but is an absolute cracker of a story in its own right. I am generally a fairly slow reader, but the lightning pace at which I raced through this one is testament to the fact that it is one of the most compelling narratives I have encountered in quite a while. Michelle Harrison has now developed into a consummate storyteller and this is just the sort of book to curl up with on a wet Saturday afternoon, or any other day for that matter. It is children’s entertainment reading at its very best. 

The title of the novel is, in one sense, very apt; rather than a pure magic fantasy, this is really a powerful adventure/mystery story with a little magic thrown in. The author pulls together various elements from fantasy and fairy tale tradition, a bag that transports between places, a mirror that sees absent people, a magical nesting dolls  that enable invisibility. Together these constitute the ‘pinch of magic’ of the title. Into this mix are thrown imprisonment in a tall tower, something of the historical persecution of supposed witches, and, of course, the author being Michelle Harrison, a most significant curse. It is never altogether clear where the story’s magic actually comes from, certain people just have it, and overall the story is perhaps not completely logical. But, in context, that matters not one jot, for its narrative is completely convincing and utterly compelling.

Queen of curses 

The setting on a small homeland island called Crowstone, surrounded by the often mist-shrouded ‘Crowstone Marshes’, is captivatingly original. Together with its trio of grim surrounding islets, Torment, Lament and Repent, it is also hauntingly atmospheric. Protagonist, plucky, determined Betty Widdershins, is joined by her older and younger sisters in a desperate quest to break their devastating family curse. There is a strong boy presence too, in the person of a young prisoner they help to escape. Together they make a varied and likeable crew and are backed by a cast of fascinating and richly drawn characters, adding considerable further engagement to the story. Yet it is the narrative structure itself that the author handles so brilliantly. As the book develops, we follow two interwoven narrative lines: the adventures of the sisters in their present and, as they themselves gradually learn it, the historic tale that lead to the instigation of their curse. That the result is a compulsive page turner is almost an understatement. At every juncture the plight of our heroines just gets more and more desperate, so that we, the readers become more and more desperate to know what happens next. It is a breathtaking and brilliant read and, whilst it has no pretentions to any great depth or ‘relevance’, it is just the sort of book we need on children’s shelves to turn them into lifelong readers. 

Magical treasure

The many young fans of Michelle Harrison who have already read her Thirteen Treasures series will surely be thrilled by this new novel. Those who come to A Pinch  of a Magic new to its talented author will, I’m sure, want to seek out her earlier books. They are, thankfully, all still all in print. And the great news is that A Pinch of Magic is just the start a new series; there is more about the Widdershins sisters yet to come. Michelle Harrison is a treasure of a writer with far more than a pinch of magic.