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.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper in new editions introduced by Robert Macfarlane


New cover illustrations by Joe McLaren

Stunning new editions 

I am just thrilled to see these beautiful new editions of Susan Cooper’s deserved classic, the Dark is Rising sequence, released by Puffin. They should bring a whole new readership to these wonderful books - and our children’s reading experience (and very possibly their lives) will be hugely the richer as a result. 

Prelude

The first of the set, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written well before the others, and its earlier genesis does show, although it is still an important development in children’s literature, and well worth reading. It provides a valuable prelude to what follows.

The dark days of Midwinter

Susan Cooper really hit her stride, however, with the book that now gives its title to the whole series,  The Dark is Rising. This is one of the very greatest works of children’s fantasy fiction, and a very fine piece of literature at any level. With its narrative spanning just a short period of days from Midwinter’s  Eve to Twelfth Night, it is perhaps the apotheosis of a child’s stand against the forces of the ‘Dark’. It also draws on the resonances of British landscape and folk myth more sensitively and yet more powerfully than almost any book I know.

. . . and beyond 

The series subsequently develops into a quite devastatingly memorable fantasy sequence. Overall, it is truly a story for all time, which very much deserves a presence in our own.

New contributions from two other greats

There are also two very particular reasons for seeking out these new editions. Firstly, the sequence is introduced, at the start of each book, by Robert Macfarlane, a brilliant writer, who is fast becoming the Merlin/Gandalf (Merriman?) for our contemporary world. He conveys his love of, and admiration for, these books most tellingly, and his illuminating introduction is unmissable for any aficionado of children’s literature, as well as for more general readers. No less an attraction are Joe McLaren’s striking new cover illustrations which brilliantly capture the distinct character and energy of each book, whilst still subtly tying them together as a set. Both new additions bring these titles vibrantly into our own time, and a wonderful thing that is.

For now . . . and the future

The Dark is Rising sequence needs to be discovered by as many new young readers as possible, not to mention any older ones who have not yet read these stunning books. They are not one jot less accessible, powerfully thrilling or rewarding than when they first came out fifty or so years ago. I hope these reissues will also prompt revisits from many old friends too, for these are books which amply reward multiple re-readings.

Robert Macfarlane reminds us in his introduction that, ‘The dark is always rising, and the work of the greatest stories is to hold it back.’  Few books succeed better in this than these from Susan Cooper. Long, long may they continue to help hold back the dark.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Ghouls of Howlfair by Nick Tomlinson


Cover illustration: Kim Geyer

Well done, Mr Tomlinson 

Often, if you dip a bucket into the well of a book, the first few sentences you wind up will give you clear indication of the quality of the water and, indeed, of the depth of the well itself. 

Nick Tomlinson’s new children’s novel has no pretensions to be anything but humorous, spooky entertainment (in which ambition it succeeds gloriously). Yet, when I raised that first test bucket from his particular source, what instantly glistened within it it was a brimming pail-full of joyously evocative language and inventive wit. This well of a book may not be as deep as some, but its water has the liveliest of sparkles, giving it a richness that hugely enhances both its merit and its enjoyment as a read.

‘Mrs Fullsway flung open the door and stood looming . . .“0h! Yug Mommy!”
“Yug Mommy?’
Mrs Fullsway pirouetted, flowed to her bedside table, plucked her teeth from a glass of water and slotted them into her mouth . . .
“Young Molly!” She said again.’ Mrs Fullsway had a voice like very heavy tomato sauce.’  (p 21)

In fact Nick Tomlinson’s descriptions are often so lush that, in a ‘serious’ work, they might be considered over-written. But, here, they simply add to the effulgent entertainment that suffuses almost every page. Time after time his language, his turn of phrase, and, indeed, his own obvious delight in writing, morph what could have been vaguely amusing incident, into chortles, guffaws, and truly joyful reading experience. 

Every trick in the graveyard

The story itself bursts with crowd-pleasing features: Molly, a plucky girl protagonist (almost de rigeur these days); a best friend, Lowry, partner in much hugely entertaining banter; a classmate ‘enemy’, Felicity, to up the ante; a boy, Carl, to balance out representation; a rather odd, but much-loved cat; a strange, small town that provides both a mystery to be solved and enough spooky goings on to stock countless Halloweens; dastardly doings and a creepy villain to hiss at. Nothing is lacking for an ideal escape under the duvet with a torch, although the quaking to be seen from without will be as much from mirth as from horror.

Nick Tomlinson’s storytelling has many touches of delightfully fresh imagination too. I particularly love his conjuring of the disturbing orphanage building:

‘The odd thing about Howlfair Orphanage was that it had no windows. Instead, windows had been painted on. Within their phoney frames were painted various scenes of happy orphans in bygone attire playing in cosy firelit rooms. But the paint had run and faded and the children’s features were misshapen.’ (p 88)

Decidedly creepy.

Just what the spook-doctor ordered

Sometimes what young readers want, and need, is a light, entertaining read. When it has real energy and flair in its writing, then that makes it a particularly valuable addition to their bookshelves. This title  reminded me quite a lot, in its tone and qualities, of the wonderful, humorously spooky books from Eva Ibbotson that I so much enjoyed reading to my class when I was teaching. (Humphrey the Horrible, from The Great Ghost Rescue was a particular favourite of us all.) The Ghouls of Howlfair will provide a highly motivating independent read for many children, but it would also make a glorious read-aloud.

The back cover promo calls this author ‘a fresh new voice’, which he certainly is. He also looks to be a very talented and spine-tinglingly promising one.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll


Cover: Julian De Narvaez


A shelf-full of delights 

Children’s author, Emma Carroll has good reason to feel very proud of the remarkably long line of novels that she has produced since her 2013 debut, Frost Hollow Hall. They now fill almost a whole shelf (if your bookcase is not too wide).Young readers have good reason to feel enormously grateful too, for her books are a wonderful addition to the store of children’s literature, both individually and collectively. Each is somewhat different in content and tone, each being set in a different places at, largely, different times in history, so inevitably some will appeal more to some children than others. But each is an enchanting read, in its own way, and many young readers, I know, avidly devour each title of hers as soon as it is published, as, indeed, do I.  Thankfully, we never seem to have too long to wait.

Favourites 

Amongst my own particular favourites are Letters from the Lighthouse, one of the best younger children’s WWII stories of recent years, and Strange Star, a lyrical ghost story built loosely around Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein, perhaps best suited to somewhat older children or ‘tweens’. And now there is a further volume to add to my shelf, and to my favourites, because The Somerset Tsunami is another particularly sparkling gem amongst Emma Carroll jewels.




A new favourite 

This time we are taken back to the England of 1616. But, as in many of her books, Emma Carroll does not pretend to write history as such, rather to borrow elements of history as the background to a completely engaging, and viscerally exciting, story of her own. Yet there is much history to be learned from its pages, even if this is not the book’s principal purpose. As the twin foci of this story, she cleverly intertwines a historically attested huge, sudden and violent sea surge (the ‘tsunami’ of the title, even if it would not have been identified in that way at the time), with the witch hunts horribly real enough under the patronage of King James I. It is very much to the author’s credit, and a testament to her writing skill and experience, that she succeeds in conveying this horror to her young audience in a way that disturbs in its total unfairness and injustice, as it must, but without ever descending too far into the most gruesome details of historic practice.

Girls and boys . . .

Most importantly for me though, this is a strongly feminist novel. Yet, despite having a wonderfully strong, ‘modern’ and plucky hero in the highly memorable character of Fortune Sharpe, it does not make its point by overtly preaching. Rather, it does so by continually pointing up the truly horrendous attitudes to women endemic in this period of history. Through this, it implicitly raises questions as to how much better things are (or aren’t) in our own time..

Wonderfully, too, Emma Carrol does not ignore the equally important issue of stereotyping boys. When Master Ellis, son of a prominent landowner and merchant, displays aspirations to become a travelling acrobat, his grotesquely prejudiced father tries instead to ‘make a man’ of him. That Ellis is shown to succeed in being his own self, despite such depredation, is one of the many triumphs of the book. In fact this is a title that celebrates, as strongly as any children’s novel I have read for a good while, the importance of children being who they need to be, despite all the pressures of social stereotyping,

I hope that it will be widely read and enjoyed by both girls and boys, as both a valuable window on the appalling attitudes and treatments of the past, and an invaluable reflection on how much they have changed, and how much they still need to change in our own societies. It certainly deserves to be.

. . . and books

And of course it is a great read into the bargain.

Long live tolerance. Long live diversity. Long live books.

Long live the right to be who we choose to be. Long live the right to read what we choose to read.  

Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different 2; Stories for Kids Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks


Cover Design: Arnauld     Illustrated by Quinton Winter

I am a strong supporter of the feminist cause, and make it known at every possible opportunity, delighted that so many recent children’s books celebrate the limitless potential of girls. However I am also starkly aware that many boys can be painfully and destructively limited by the horrendous prejudice of stereotyping. A particular concern is those countless boys who do not wish to be ‘real men’ or ‘proper lads’, or, indeed, know that they simply cannot be. This is not only an issue of sexuality, but applies to boys who are ‘different’ in a myriad ways. I was therefore thrilled to welcome Ben Brooks’ Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different (see my post April ‘18), when it came out as a kind of counterpart to the deservedly global megastar book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (see my Christmas posts Dec ‘17 and Dec ‘18).

Now we have a ‘Boys who Dare’2, to balance ‘Rebel Girls’2 and doubly welcome they both are. This second volume greatly  expands the range of potential role models offered, and what a tremendously important job it continues to do in the process.

To be even more warmly welcomed, I think, is the further follow up Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different, for here is a volume that even eschews the potential divisiveness of being focused on a particular gender. All are kids, all have the right to be different in their own way, and this is perhaps the most important message of all.

Of course, with each of these books, not everyone will necessarily approve of all the portraits offered, in words and pictures, but that is not the point. Or rather, it is the point. Diversity and unconventionally are its strength - and its purpose. In there somewhere many kids will  find figures, aspects of whose lives they can identify with, figures whose interests and ambitions they may share, figures whose achievements they may aspire to. But more than anything they will perhaps find there, permission to be different, to be themselves.

These books, together with ‘Rebel Girls’, cannot but help a vital ambition for a society, a world, where all children have a right to be accepted and respected for who they are, and the opportunity to strive to be who they want to be.

My only real regret about these particular titles is that the artist Quinton Winter is not acknowledged on the cover, even though he is inside. His striking, ‘poster-print’ illustration are often amusing, sometimes enlightening, occasionally touching and always entertaining. They are every bit as important an element of the book as the text.