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, 5 August 2019

The Colour of the Sun by David Almond


Cover: David Litchfield

‘Get yourself out into the sun, lad,’ 

Over the course of twenty years or so, I have read David Almond’s books with frequent intakes of breath at his remarkable writing skill, his honest sensitivity, his consummate artistry. I  tried to say as much when I reviewed The Dam, his picture book with artist Levi Pinfold, back in my post from September of last year. However, seeing his endorsement on the cover of Chloe Daykin’s Fish Boy, brought to mind that I hadn’t yet caught up with his own most recent full-length  novel, The Colour of the Sun

Once the thought had landed, it couldn’t be postponed one (sunny) day longer. 

Within a few pages of returning to this author’s writing, the phrase that was burning in my mind was one from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover: ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.’

His first children’s novel, Skellig, probably remains his best known, and it is a very fine work. However, he has written many other great books since, and to chart his journey from that first novel to this one is to delve ever deeper, ever more richly and rewardingly, into the potential of literature for young readers. 

So what, makes David Almond so special? What makes this book so breathtakingly wonderful? I can only offer tentative thoughts and fumble clumsily for some of the vivid colours.

Perhaps

it is the way that every single word he uses seems to be the right one, in the right place. His language is superficially simple, yet every sentence he crafts transports you, every image he conjures, every small action of his tale, takes you right to the heart of his narrator, Davie, to the heart of the author, and to the heart of yourself. Davie’s life, past, present and future, is caught in his wandering on a single, particular day, and so is your own, even though you have never before seen it though his eyes.

Perhaps

it is the way that this superficially slight narrative is redolent with images, depths, and resonances, with folk memories, with ghosts and portents, with things real and unreal, with enigmas. It is profoundly rich, even in its beautiful simplicity of form. It is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Davie wanders to the top of a hill and down again, and neither he nor you will every be quite the same again. Literally? Ah! That’s the question.

Perhaps 

it is that there are precious few, if any, other writers who can make a highly significant moment out of the sharing and eating of a dusty fruit gum. Perhaps only he notices its potential to glow in the sunlight.

‘Davie chews the green gum, mixed it in his mouth with the remnant of the purple gum. It’s so sweet, so delicious. He thinks of the multi-coloured light inside him and the thought pleases him.’ (p 43)

Perhaps 

it is because he can capture with tender poignancy the thoughts and feelings of a boy on the cusp between childhood and early adulthood, belonging to both and neither; that he understands so completely how the first loss of a parent can be the most devastating event in a young life; and that he can explore these things with deep honesty, and profound empathy, yet not one jot of over-sentimentality.

Perhaps

it is because he can write a whole book where almost nothing happens - a young lad spends a single sunny day wandering about the places he has known all his life - and yet leave you desperately turning pages to know how it all ends. (Although he does throw in the discovery of a murdered body, and the ever present possibility that the lad will encounter the murderer - which I suppose you might consider takes the edge off this just a bit.)

Perhaps 

it is  because he can tell you very near the beginning of his book what the whole thing is about,

(‘This is a world of wonder. And some folk stroll through it with their eyes down to the dirt like it’s all nowt but a great big bore! Look around you! You should be running around dancing and singing your head off at the glory of it all! )

not to mention telling you again on the back flap, and yet leave you desperately turning pages to know how it all ends. (Although the same qualification applies as above, which you might still think is a bit of a swizz.)

Perhaps

it is because a very particular place is the heart of his book, and this is a book of his heart; because he is that place, and Davie, and both are everything he writes, and has ever written.

‘It’s a place, like all the places he passes through today, all the places he has passed through since he was an infant, that seeps deep into Davie’s dreams. It’s a place, like all the places, that feeds the tales he writes, that infects the sentences and pages that fall from his pen as day comes to a close and night comes slowly on.’ (p 125)

Perhaps 

it is  because he sees nature, becomes nature, in the city, in the streets, in the fields, everywhere,

‘Amid the gorse and the bees and the exploding seed pods, below the blue sky and the yellow sun and upon the blazing earth, he loses himself, finds the fox and the deer inside himself, and he is wild.’ (p 177)

Perhaps

it is because of the way he says bollix to stultifying religion, bollix to the need for two sound legs, and bollix to ingrained prejudice and violent hatred.

Perhaps

it is because his book is suffused with generous, understanding, forgiving, accepting humanity; because it is profoundly optimistic.

‘And the larks sing high in the sky as they always do, no matter what dreadful things might have occurred on the earth below.’ (p 113)

Perhaps

it is because he doesn’t just write this book for young readers, but writes it for old men too, as he and I are; for the children we were and are.

‘This is a world of wonder. And some folk stroll through it with their eyes down to the dirt like it’s all nowt but a great big bore! Look around you! You should be running around dancing and singing your head off at the glory of it all!  . . . There’ll come a time when you have to leave this wondrous place, you know?’ (p 12)

Don’t I know it. 

And what’s that got to do with the price of fish?

Well, this book is a master’s masterpiece. It is profound and profoundly beautiful. It stands in relation to David Almond in something of the same relationship as The Stone Book Quartet does to Alan Garner. They are very different, of course, because the two writers are very different people. And very much the same, because the two are very much the same.

Why have I never read it until now? Sometimes a book finds you when you need it. This is a book to read when you are thirteen or fourteen, and wandering without quite knowing where you want to go.  But it is is book to read and re-read later too.  Every year?  Every month? Every day? Every day when the sky is grey. Every day when the yellow sun shines. (Which is every day.) 

Walk on.Walk on. . . . and don’t tread on the fairies.


Friday, 2 August 2019

The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle


Cover: Bill Bragg

‘It was always a storm.’  (p 194)

Now number two

I warmly welcomed the first in this series, The Storm Keeper’s Island, as one of the most original and exciting of recent children’s fantasies, and it easily made it onto my list of Children’s Books of the Year for 2018. (See posts from July and December, 2018.) 

This follow-up does not disappoint in any way. In fact, it builds most thrillingly on all the promise of its opener. Catherine Doyle most successfully combines four ingredients. Primarily her setting on the remote island of Arranmore off the Atlantic coast of Ireland has a completely authentic feel in terms of both landscape and people. The sea, which plays a prominent role in this story, is an ever powerful presence and the inhabitants who live under the influence of its bounty and its dangers, its waves and its storms, are a vividly drawn group of families. Credibly for such a small, isolated community they exhibit both longstanding loyalties and equally in-bred rivalries. Against these, the three friends, Fionn, Sam and Shelby, who are the book’s protagonists make for ready empathy and compulsive reading. Their various  interactions are not without humour too, and, in fact, Chapter 10, where the ‘Third Musketeer’ rejoins the other two after enforced absence on the mainland, is one of the most entertainingly amusing I have read for some time.

Storms and candles

Into this context the author has dropped  her own very original fantasy concept, where storms and other weathers are ‘caught’ in wax candles, which, when burned, transport the holder into different layers of Arranmore time. These phenomena, and other magical powers for the defence of the island, are in the control of the ‘Storm Keeper’, a role that in the previous volume fell to young Fionn These promising plot devices are mesmerisingly exploited in this sequel. To come up with original magic ideas for a new children’s book sequence is quite a feat, and Catherine Doyle’s candle magic is a triumph of invention, different, yet convincingly compelling. 

Under and around this, the author ties her tale in to the resonances of Ireland’s mythic heritage by building into her drama some of the legends and ancient beliefs of her location. This allows her to weave real richness and potent threat into her narrative and build it into a furiously exciting race to to thwart the forces of  ancient malevolence.

Irish English

In some ways most powerfully of all, Catherine Doyle continues to conjure all this through often startlingly skilful and evocative language, that thrills and excites sentence after glorious sentence.

‘Dionne and Shelby stepped over the old waterline, and the smell slammed into them. It was like opening an old can of tuna and drowning in that first, pungent whiff.’  (p 193)

What is it about Irish writers and the English language?

Magical potential

Perhaps less original, yet still important, within these inventions are embedded some of the rightly timeless themes of children’s literature: friendship, loyalty, courage, and, of course, the determination to save the world from unspeakable evil. Protagonist, Fionn, is discovering in himself a power (for magic) which he has not yet mastered, and this is a frustration that will chime pertinently with many pre-adolescents, even those whose burgeoning potential is not so overtly magical, 

So, what we end up with is the second part to a classic children’s fantasy adventure, moulded in the finest Alan Garner tradition, in that it draws heavily on particular place and its legends, yet refreshed in the fullest possible way, vibrant with new energy, vivid imagination and evocative language. After two such thrilling additions to the children’s fantasy canon, we can surely look forward with impatient confidence to a triumphant Part Three. The sky is already black with ravens!

Bill Bragg’s cover art is wonderfully dramatic too and will help attract numerous young readers to discover this storming read.