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, 28 April 2019

The Fire Maker by Guy Jones



‘Strange how the extraordinary and the ordinary separated themselves and lived side by side. Strange how quickly the unbelievable became almost, if not quite, normal.’  (p 90)

A childhood of magic

Alongside reading piles of books, I spent a good deal of my childhood leisure time practising magic tricks. I think it all started with a Christmas present of a ‘David Nixon Magic Set’. (David Nixon was the Dynamo of his day, but not quite as dynamic. Magicians weren’t in those days.) Like many other youngsters, I guess, I used to imagine being able to do real magic instead of just parlour tricks. A little later I discovered Paul Gallico’s wonderful (but now, sadly, neglected) The Man Who Was Magic* and it became one of my frequent re-reads. Little wonder, then, that I am attracted to books about magicians, and couldn’t resist this new one from Guy Jones. It turned out to be a real find. 

Initially the storyline, about a boy from a split family, bullied at school and neglected by his work-obsessed father,  feels a little deja-vu in terms of children’s fiction. However this is significantly offset by the author’s use of skilfully evocative description and his very sensitive and highly credible handling of the thoughts and emotions of protagonist, Alex. It is also good for others to see that ‘middle-class’ children, of which Alex is clearly one, are not in any way immune from life’s traumas.

However, it is the introduction of ‘real’ magic, into Alex’s aspirations as a stage magician, that truly brings this narrative to life. The discovery of a trio of fire-magic ‘jinn’, together with their ancient keeper, plummets the story into dramatic and engrossing action. And whilst the juxtaposition of actual magic and real-life complexities could have been an uneasy one, it is not so here. The catalyst of fantasy only enriches this tale of fractured family, lost friendship and childhood dreams. 

The magic of childhood

Guy Jones turns out to be no slouch in constructing an engaging narrative, and he succeeds in springing a number of  intriguing twists. Indeed there is one major surprise which even I, as a very seasoned reader of such books, didn’t see coming, a rare phenomenon indeed.

In the end, this is a novel of no little depth, of thought as well as of feelings, and the issue of how much children need to use external magic to be special, when they have a particular natural magic of their own, is well explored - with a satisfying resolution. 

Although the recent prominence given to strong girl characters in children’s fiction is important and timely, in a current publishing scene where such girls protagonists predominate, it is a welcome balance to have a novel with a central boy character, especially one of imagination and sensitivity. Not that The Fire Maker lacks a strong girl character too. In fact, whilst many other books also feature pre-adolescent boy-girl friendships, this one is handled with particular insight and originality. 

This is a book that will, I’m sure, ignite many an imagination, as well as showing that others can find growing up difficult too. A neat trick. 


Note:
*Although I am pleased to see that his delightful Jennie, another childhood favourite, is still around in some bookshops. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Galloglass (Worldquake Book Three) by Scarlett Thomas



‘Applying stories to life - or vice versa - is one of the things we’re best at. It can go too far of course. But that’s never stopped me.’ (p 295)

A quiz

Books in Scarlett Thomas’ Worldquake series have the distinct advantage of being easily locatable in the dark. Switch off the bedside light (after the lengthy bedtime read that they inevitably provoke) and once it’s gone (the light that is) they will spontaneously emit Luminiferous Ether (well, something like that).

Another distinguishing feature of these novels is their ability rapidly to identify the age and character (kharakter?) of any reader (by means of a quick and entertaining quiz). Viz:

Did you think Galloglass was:
A) a brilliant fantasy adventure about five children with magical talents; the best thing since a Harry Potter?
B)  a highly entertaining pastiche of just about every children’s fantasy novel ever written, underpinned by brilliantly wicked satirical sideswipes at contemporary society?
C) a witty amalgam of creatively reimagined fantasy tropes and scenarios giving them vital new resonance in a post-modern age?

If your answer is:
Mostly A: You are a child of around 9-12; never stop reading
Mostly B: You are a Senior Citizen who has spent a lifetime reading far too many children’s books; no point in stopping now
Mostly C:  You are a professor of English who is possibly too clever(and too talented)by half: never stop writing

No kidding

Joking apart, the correct answer is actually ‘all of the above’, which could easily have ended up as “a bit of a pile-up”. But not here.  Scarlett Thomas proves that it is possible to take many well-used elements from much-loved children’s fiction and, by bringing to them both writerly skill (not least in narrative construction),  rich imagination, and no little wit, remould them into something original, and joyous. And the most remarkable thing is perhaps, that, by and through all her cleverness, she successfully tells a story for children that is completely compelling, and, well . . . quite magical. Galloglass, will be much enjoyed by adults who like reading children’s books, too, but that is something different. It has many elements of sophistication, but then many children are remarkably sophisticated readers. It is still a essentially a children’s book. However, there  is absolutely nothing demeaning about saying this. To write such books well, requires exceptional skill, and their potential influence is staggering. ‘Every new book makes a much bigger difference to a child than it does to an experienced adult reader.’* Scarlett Thomas’ Worldquake novels will be enjoyed by many, on any number of levels, depending on the experience and sensibilities of each reader. They will, however, glow hauntingly in the memories of all. 

Best yet

It can be the case, with series fiction, that inspiration becomes thin and ideas over-stretched once the energy of the initial volumes has dwindled. That is emphatically not the case here. If fact, quite the opposite, the first two titles in the Worldquake series were fine books; Galloglass is a truly great one - strange, quirky, complex, challenging and, yes, truly great. 

I love that Scarlett Thomas, skilled and experienced writer of high quality literacy fiction that she is, does not condescend to her young audience, as can many of the popular children’s books currently piled high in bookshops. At present, the (over?) simple viewpoint of first person, present tense narrative, seems to be ubiquitous. I know this makes for easy reading, and children do sometimes need the security of easy comfort. But literature should challenge as well as merely entertain, and I think children’s literature is no exception. 

Scarlett Thomas weaves her narrative from multiple strands and perspectives including  those of different members of the story’s group of magical children, several (potential) perpetrators of unspeakable evil - and, indeed, a cat. Amongst her many other writerly skills, she is a true expert in plot construction.  She understands exactly how to bring readers with her every step along the convoluted path of her narrative, and hold them enthralled. She knows just how to lull with candy floss and pretty flowers before suddenly throwing a vicious punch to the emotional guts. She knows how to intrigue and tease with story lines suddenly, if temporarily, dropped, only to pick up another exciting thread. And then, just as Galloglass is developing beautifully, along the lines that you might expect of the sequel to its two predecessors, the author catapults her reader into worlds that are, even in this context, truly bizarre, with storylines, by turns, intellectually challenging and emotionally disturbing. 

Not only does the author pick up on imaginative worldscapes from her previous books - the wonderfully named Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange in the ‘Realworld’ and Dragon’s Green with its Awesome Great Library in the ‘Otherworld’ - but readers will also find themselves amidst a futuristic variant of the Hunger Games scenario, where combat is by ethical questionnaire rather than armed conflict, and even a surreal world of 
cats, served by butlers and drinking ‘pawsecco’ and listening to jazz in a cellar, that conjures the paintings of Louis Wain. 

‘“That,” said Marcel, “is the local cats’ home. . . Someone donated a billion pounds to them. Inside the building are the richest cats in the whole world. . . I hear that the chef is in line for the first Michelin star to be given for pet food.”’ (p 108)

There are even ‘personal’ appearances from no less than The Bermuda Triangle and The Northern Lights. That’s not even to mention the odd spacewarp into the world of Douglas Adams (The Luminiferous Ether manifesting as a gigantic stick of pink rock!) To say the whole is a riot of wild and wonderful imagination is almost an understatement. 

From satire to ethics 

And all of this is peppered with witty authorial sideswipes at many aspects of contemporary life. Her targets can be trendy vegan food, self-help manuals, or ‘survival guides’,

His trained warrior’s eyes scanned . . . for landmarks he could use to navigate, for enemies, and for sources of food or materials he could use to construct a shelter. Flowers often pointed south, he’d read once. But of course Wolf didn’t know where he was and therefore in which direction he was supposed to go. And there were no flowers.’ (p 109)

or even, perhaps, contemporary politics,

‘(It was) the subject of many complex negotiations . . . But complex negotiations took a very long time.’ (p 285)

All add amusing leaven to Scarlett Thomas’ fantasy world.

However, what singles this book out for particular greatness is the depth of its thinking, and the depth of thinking it provokes. One of its story strands deals with the very serious issue of child molestation. The abuse is not overtly sexual, but is sufficiently disturbing to heighten children’s awareness about what is inappropriate. The victim’s responses are both sensibly and responsibly dealt with and the resolution will be hugely helpful to children, as well as to adults, many of whom will want to discuss this with their charges. 

Beyond this, though, the storyline raises deep moral and philosophical issues, to the extent that it could well be used as a text in ‘ethics for active young minds’ It asks such provocative questions as ‘Is selfishness necessarily always bad thing or altruism invariably a good thing.?’ It treats of Nietzsche and of a  concept of ‘flow’ as might be found in, say, Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful poetic translation of the Tao Te Ching. Few children’s books come close to this level of intellectual stimulus, but it is so well handled here, so cleverly integrated into the issues and choices faced by its magical protagonists, that it will be a ‘Realworld’ boon for sensitive and thinking young readers. This is another wonderful book for them to grow up with and through.  

Neptune, like all creatures bound to one universe, one planet or one locality, simply could not visualise the unknown. The unknown is, of course, by definition, not known.’ (p 136)

Galloglass helps to expand the universe we can visualise and so to push back the shadows of intellectual darkness.  



US edition

Famous for fun

Although I was already a fan of her adult novels, enjoying some and admiring all, I think her decision to write children’s books has been the making of Scarlett Thomas. She puts these words into the mouth of one of her characters:

‘Lady Tchainsaw was quite famous and had recently joined the university‘s Creative Writing Department. It was always good to get in with the creative writers. Not only were they the most famous members of the university, but everyone knew they had the most fun.’ (p 120). 

Well, Professor Thomas, if Galloglass is anything to go by, you might just be correct on this second point, and fully deserve to be so on the first too.



University Library (Special,Collection) Rules: ‘We only have three rules. No chewing gum. No talking. And if you die, it’s your own fault.’  (Galloglass, p 134)


Note:
*Peter Hunt, How Did Long John Silver Loose his Leg? (2013), p 136

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson; Ghost by Jason Reynolds

New Knights on the block

‘Knights Of’ (KO) are an exciting new company dedicated to bringing more diversity into children’s book publishing in the UK: into management, production, editing, writing and illustration, as well as into the characters and contexts of the stories themselves. 

Recent years have seen massive strides forward in liberating and celebrating the roles of girls and women in children’s books, and a wonderful and important thing this is. Diversity and inclusion are starting to emerge far more positively too, but there is still a long way to go, so initiatives like this one are to be welcomed warmly  - and, hopefully, supported strongly. 

Happily, these two recent titles from KO look set to establish themselves amongst current bestsellers. They certainly deserve to do so. 



An important new take on a popular genre

Another fine writer, Robin Stevens, had done a great job of bringing something akin to ‘golden age’ detective stories to a children’s audience. Her ‘Wells and Wong’ murder mysteries have kicked off a popular trend in children’s fiction, as well as providing many young readers with thrilling entertainment, cleverly written and with some pertinent messages slipped in amongst their period coziness. 

Now Sharna Jackson has added important new dimensions to the children’s murder mystery. Her up-to-date story is set amongst the high rise blocks of an urban estate, and her two young detectives are kids from the top floor of one of them. These two protagonists, Nik and Norva, are wonderfully drawn, and their characters, providing complementary detecting skills, are clearly and entertainingly distinguished. Their lives and language feel very credible and their interactions are often amusing, always engaging. Many young readers will identify readily with  them. Similarly, the residents of their home block have identifiable elements of authenticity as well as providing the usual varied cast of  witnesses and suspects. The storyline is kept light, as befits the age of this audience, with the emphasis on the puzzle of the detection rather than the horror of the crime. (If such subject matter can be considered light - but then that is the way of the ‘cozy murder’ genre.). The mystery is as clever and entertaining as any - and its young detectives far more so than many. 

This book contributes an important contemporary counterbalance to the white middle-class ethos of some children’s books, whilst still providing a highly quality, light entertainment read for any enthusiasts of junior sleuthing. It will surely make many new fans for the this particular genre too, and is warmly to be welcomed. 

‘Nova grabbed my hand. “Time to shine,” she said, throwing her braids over her shoulders. “This is our moment.”’ (p 350) 

Indeed it is!


Far wider appeal than might first appear 

Ghost, by justifiably lauded US author, Jason Reynolds, is a truly exciting find for children’s reading and we should be enormously grateful to KO for bringing it to the attention of a UK audience. 

As someone not really into sport, or, for that matter, a fully paid-up subscriber to ‘The American Dream’, if I had been asked in advance if I were particularly interested in reading a book about a poor American kid, whose life was turned around by becoming a member of a ambitious track running team, under the direction of a pushy coach,  I would, in all honesty, almost certainly have said no. Same old, same old? Field of Dreams rework yet again? That just shows the folly of making rash assumptions. If I hadn’t actually read Ghost I would have missed out on a truly wonderful and important children’s book, so I am inordinately thankful for the book bloggers who raved about it so much that I felt I had better check out what the fuss was about.

Ghost is contemporary, relevant  and truthful. The voice of its first person narrator, Castle Cranshaw (Ghost is his self-chosen nickname) is superbly caught, with enough of the vernacular to convince of authenticity, without making comprehension over-challenging for those not of the culture. The story touches, very poignantly, on some of the hardest aspects of life for some children today. But it also majors on some of the qualities that are best, and some of the things that are most important, about humanity. It has warmth and heart as well as darkness. It reminded me, in part, of lines from a hymn I sang at school: ‘Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’  That it is set in America and concerns track running gives it grounding, but in no way limits its universal resonance. It is ultimately a positive, hopeful tale, and not only is that right for a book for this age group, it is right for all of us. 

It is not about winning the race; it is about starting it. 

Ghost is, of course, fiction, and its ‘reality’ is carefully manipulated by the author, as it should be, to create a fully satisfactory read. Yet it is one of those novels that is not only experienced as real in the reading, but contains enough of the truth of actual life, enough real experience and enough deep understanding of human beings, to give those with similar lives many point of identification, and those with different lives,  greater understanding and empathy.  Both of these are so important for our young readers, and for our world, for both provide insight that can change, for the better, how we see ourselves and others. 

It seemed like we were all connected in some strange way that none of us had imagined.’ (p 158)

Once again, I say, ‘Indeed!’


On shelves, please: in shops, homes, schools, libraries

It would be good to see both of these books included with the offers in many upper KS2 classrooms. They will contribute strongly to the range and diversity of reading available as well as to its attractiveness and quality. Getting and keeping children reading is often a matter of leading each one gently towards the right book at the right time. I am sure that these books will speak to many children, of all backgrounds, and I hope that Ghost, particularly, will become the hugely enriching part of their reading diet that it has the potential to be. 




Thursday, 4 April 2019

To the Edge of the World by Julia Green



‘I thought of those tiny remote islands . . . way out in the Atlantic ocean, right at the edge of the world.’  (p 54)

Simple?

Even being the hopeless fantasy addict that I am, I sometimes crave respite from remarkable children battling to save the entire world from unspeakable evil. I yearn, at least temporarily, for something more ‘real’. I need recovery from trying to keep track of numerous oddly-named characters and unravelling multi-stranded plots. My mood requires something simpler, gently evocative , perhaps, rather than viscerally exciting. 

I have been saving this book for just such an occasion, and it was a brilliant choice. In this context, Julia Green’s lyrical evocation of two children’s short summer in the Outer Hebrides was perfect. (And I do not use the word lightly.) I think many children sometimes crave the same things in their reading too.

This is a story completely devoid of wizards or monsters, yet is has its own magic, transportation magic. It is writing that takes you with it to the very places it describes, so that you see its wildly beautiful island landscapes. You hear the churn and crash of its waves against the rocks, you catch the sting of its sharp breeze against your skin, feel its white beach sand between your toes, smell the pungent tar of its boathouses, and taste the smoke from its tideline bonfires. There may be no spells here either, but the author so beautifully conjures the characters of her two protagonist, Jamie and Mara, that you live their experiences, share their days, know their hopes and fears, almost breathe their air. The story, too, may have no dramatic conflict between the light and the dark, but yet is far from being without excitement or tension. The young pair’s sea journey to remote, and long abandoned, St Kilda, is brave, foolish, cold, wet, terrifying and at times deeply moving. 

More than anything, though, this is the simple story about a boy and a girl (and a small dog) who share a few weeks in a remote and wonderful place, and, in doing so change each other, and help each other to grow. 

‘You’re always too careful . . . Though you’re getting better.’ (p 164)

It is also a tale of the wild ocean that takes them to the edge of the world and back.

Perhaps not so simple

However, the very best ‘simple’  writing is underpinned by well-honed craft and consummate artistry, and that is very much the case here. Julia Green is an author of subtly potent  language and of sensitive insight into the lives and minds of children. Apparently simple books can be profound too, sometimes the most profound of all. Here, a young boy’s all-too-understandable fear of the sea, and a young girl’s determination to control her own future, are transformed into a wild adventure,  dangerous and scary, but exciting too, alive - and survivable. This story embraces the wild wonder of remote islands, of their beaches, their winds, their skies and their stars - and, of course, of the sea that is their essence. And the sea can be many things; imagination, other people, change, freedom, danger, life; life that is a wild, scary, exciting, beautiful adventure; yet life that is also anchored in secure return to harbour and home. 

‘I want to live a big life.’ (p 188)

Like many of Julia Green’s books before, To the Edge of the World is a wonderful gift to our children. Her next, The House of Light, is apparently not far off, and I look forward to it enormously.