Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited. Here you will find only enthusiastic 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, 18 August 2022

Wolfbane by Michelle Paver


Illustrations: Geoff Taylor

And last

Now we have the final instalment of Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence (earlier called The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness). It has been a long time coming, the first volume was published in 2004. But some things are well worth waiting for. And, in any case, the journey in-between has been quite something.

This series of novels is very possibly one of the finest contributions to contemporary children’s literature. Set in the New Stone Age it is necessarily very largely imagined, but is based on deep knowledge and understanding of prehistory so that its vivid world is both convincing and compelling. Its evocation of the natural landscape, as it must have been at that time, including its humans and its wild creatures is just stunning. Elements of fantasy are added, but these too are based firmly on what can be deduced about the spiritual beliefs and practices of the times, so that the ‘magic’ too enriches the potently convincing world-building. Then, on top of all this, the books contain some of the most powerful and moving explorations of the intense relationship that can form between humans and animals, specifically here between protagonists Torak and Renn and wolves

Over the course of eight existing titles, it is inevitable that the effectiveness of the narratives varies slightly. However, Michelle Paver is such a skilled writer than none of these books is less than gripping and most are breathtakingly compelling, combining visceral excitement with deep emotional pull, and a fair amount of thought provocation too. Unlike the characters in some book series, the protagonists here do get older, so there is a through line of development across the series as well as a degree of completeness in each of the separates stories. And after so much thrilling  time spent growing with them, the commitment to these particular protagonists, human and animal, is now total. 

So will this final instalment live up to expectations?

 

By no means least

The answer of course is a resounding yes.

From the outset, the tension of the tale is drawn taught as a gut bowstring. Michelle Paver quickly and vividly reestablishes her familiar wild topography and the jeopardy that stalks it, threatening the heart of our beloved characters. And when it is Wolf that is initially in danger, what better to pull us headlong into this final story.

One of the many things Michelle Paver has always done particularly convincingly is to capture the voice of the wolf, using mainly standard English, but adding in some distinctive vocabulary to reflect the different lupine view of the world. This enables her to give the creature a readily understood role in the narration whilst maintaining its credibility as a wild creature. Consequently, she is able to construct a narrative alternating between human and animal perspectives, with intense reading momentum. 

As Torak and Renn set off in desperate pursuit of missing Wolf, not to mention Renn’s demonic half-brother, across the terrifying open ocean, neither they, nor we Michelle Paver’s readers, have ever felt so close to nature. This has always been one of the elements making these stories so powerful, but when Torak takes the drastic step of ‘spirit walking’ in the body of a killer whale, so desperate is he to be reunited with his Wolf, the intensity of the natural world in which they all live so  intimately becomes almost overwhelming. This is nature in all its utter wildness, red in tooth and claw. But this is no longer the bold, innocent young Torak of the Wolf Brother days. This is Torak torn apart by all his intervening experiences, Torak whose very soul is in mortal and immortal danger. Almost unbearable tensions develop as it looks like so many of the characters and relationships built beautifully over the whole series are horrendously threatened. 

Michelle Paver again imagines the customs and spiritual beliefs of these ancients wonderfully, giving them intense expression that feels completely authentic. Here she develops them even further than previously and weaves them beautifully into one of the most compulsive narratives of the series. The climate, environment, creatures, peoples and demons of this distant age are all conjured with the most vivid and affecting life and when the story reaches its gut-wrenching climax, with what might be called ‘Wolf love’ pitted against the deadly ‘Wolfbane’, the reader can do nothing but hurtle through the pages looking desperately for a resolution. It would be so wrong of me to give more away, but suffice to say that I cannot imagine a more fitting ending for this stupendous series.

With so many stunning vignettes 

In trying to communicate Michelle Paver’s  gripping, epic storytelling, I would not wish to neglect the contribution made throughout the series by Geoff Taylor’s stunning illustrations. Consistently his chapter head vignettes have caught to perfection the creatures and landscapes of this distant world, bringing it even more poignantly to life. His drawing of a whole range of animals, but especially the wolves, help to capture their feelings as well as their form, without for a moment every detracting from the reality of their wild nature. It is remarkable how such relatively small drawings can be simultaneously so sensitive and so majestic, or so deeply affecting. And now, in this latest volume, we are also treated to a handful of highly atmospheric double page spreads that we have not had before. His contribution to this whole series is considerable and has not, I think, always had the full accolades it so richly deserves. 

A true legend

The cover calls Michelle Paver ‘Creator of Legends’ and for once the hype is justified. She is now herself a legend and her Wolf Brother chronicles will live long, ancient and darkly fearful, but warm and comforting too. They bring our distant past intensely alive, with a richness and power that will hold countless readers in thrall.


Note:
Particular thanks are due first to Orion and then to Zephyr for maintaining the presentation style throughout, so that the nine books also make a beautiful physical set.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harrold, Illusrrated by Levi Pinfold



‘It was like being a caveman, not a boy of the present, with schoolwork and tests and bedtime.’ (p 12)

For all readers, including children

I remarked in my last post (Running With Horses) that high quality illustrated fiction for older children (as opposed to graphic novels or picture books) is a rare thing. I would not wish to change this general statement, but here is another breathtaking new example. This one is probably accessibly to a slightly younger readership (10+ perhaps), although I say this in the context of what a good number of prominent literary figures have reminded us*, that children’s books are most emphatically not just for children. I am sure that a wide audience will gain immense pleasure, reward and challenge from this truly mind-blowing joint creation.

Truth beyond reality

A.F. Harold has already produced a considerable body of fine work for children in both poetry and fiction, ranging from moving, through odd, to downright silly. However, he always provides an idiosyncratic, insightful way of seeing that is never without the underlying skill of a true wordsmith. This, his new full novel is truly remarkable. In it he tautly creates the characters and lives of a group of contemporary kids with convincing authenticity. They vividly emerge as credible, down-to-earth children, with realistic lives, in family situations generally far from the easy. Their dialogue is naturalistic, often funny and truthful, even down to the level of them finding underarm farts hilarious. However, the author then moves these same characters seamlessly in an out of a fantasy, fairy-tale world in a way that is disturbing to say the least, often seriously chilling, yet never disrupts total credibility within the context of his narrative. So much so, that when they segue again, this time into something far more of an ‘X Files’  scenario, it doesn’t jar either. Most remarkable of all, this allows him to explore almost metaphysical speculation about what life might be like if those who cause us serious problems were somehow removed from it. This highly original mental (and emotional) speculation, almost hypnotically repetitive, yet quite different from the already much explored ‘groundhog day’ type of experience, is both riveting and profoundly challenging.** When events seem to be repeating themselves, but with different participants, the changes are as important as the similarities. It is almost a magical, mystical game of literary ‘spot the difference’. It is all very complicated, but (at the risk of clichė) then so is life. It has much darkness, but then so too does life. This may be a story accessible to young readers, but perhaps not so much for those seriously given to nightmares. At times it is truly terrifying. But then there is much light too, again, as thankfully in life. And if the ending is odd, ambiguous, idiosyncratic, well this is A. F. Harrold. At least it opens a door. 

A poet’s prose

All this is achieved through language that is equally remarkable. It is superficially simple and often constructed in relatively short, almost abrupt sentences, their rather stilted rhythm, emphasised by frequent line breaks, capturing thought patterns. Yet, behind this is the skill and sensibility of the poet, rendering everything vividly communicative and rich in allusion: redolent of meaning and emotional resonance.

‘It was always like this.
Had been since his mum had gone.
Just the two of them, rubbing up against one another, like stones.
You were supposed to get sparks and start a fire and keep warm, but more often than not, all you got was dust and scrapes and bad feelings.’ (p 139) 

This gives rise to easy accessibility at a functional reading level at the same time as offering deep challenge and rich, true reading experience at deeper ones. It is the work of a very fine writer, 

So much more than illustrations

All of this is yet to take into account the Levi Pinfold’s copious  illustrations, which provide a fully integrated contribution to the reading experience.. I already could hardly admire this artist more. As examples, his collaboration with David Almond in the older children’s picture book The Dam is just breathtaking, as are his illustrations for Hannah Gold’s two beautiful books, The Lost Bear and The Last Whale. And that’s not to mention his previous stunning collaboration with A. F. Harrold himself in The Song From Somewhere Else.

Yet, this current work is almost on another level again. The two drawings that staggered me most are the close-up face of the old ‘witch’ on page 57 and the girl’s eyes on page 220. I have seen pictures in the National Portrait Gallery that do not communicate character and emotion with near as much power and potency. Not far behind are the many pictures of the woods, combining natural wonder with ancient (dark) power. They create the same tensions and potentialities as the text, with subtle differences reflecting their position in the narrative. Overall the illustrations complement the text perfectly in giving a sense of heightened reality to both the everyday and the fantasy elements, blending them into one all-consuming narrative. Light in the shadows. Shadows in the light. Ironically (for they are almost blank)  the most powerful  illustrated pages of all are those that come between the ‘Tuesday Night’ and the ‘Wednesday’ chapters. (But I cannot say more without spoiling the story, and I would certainly not wish to do that. You must read it for yourself, the pictures as much as the words.)

Philosophy too
 
An incident with a rope swing  on a tree by a stream instantly brings up echoes of the wonderful Bridge to Terabithia  by Katherine Paterson, but this is a very different book, though equally wonderful. Its narrative continually shocks and surprises even after seeming to set up predictability. It conjures a series of intensely experienced moments, and yet pulls them together into flowing, viscerally exciting, storytelling. This is a book that will end up with thinking, as well as feeling,  readers, even if it did not start with them. 

‘How real are you if no one thinks about you? If no one remembers you? . . . . . Tommo didn’t know the word ‘philosophy’, but in bed, in the dark, it knew him.’ (p 163)

Youngsters who read (and enjoy) this book may, or may not, know the word ‘philosophy’, but it will know them.

Butterfly wings,
Ripples,
Consequences.
Leading where? 

Today was today, and the only thing to do with todays is to live them.’ (p 241)

This stunning collaboration goes straight onto my list for Books of 2022, alongside Running With Horses. I confidently predict major award nominations ahead.


Notes:
* For example, Katherine Rundell and S.F.Said
** The closest comparison here is perhaps with Gareth P. Jones’ very fine novel from 2015, No True Echo, although that one is not illustrated.

    






Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Running With Horses by Jason Cockcroft



‘The white horse trapped in the night, eyes wide. Its pain so shrill it makes my head hurt.’ (p 74)


Rare and precious

Jason Cockcroft is a significant book artist with jackets and illustrations for many excellent titles to his name, however, he made a huge impression with Carnegie Medal and Kate Greenaway Medal nominated We Were Wolves which he wrote as well as illustrated. Now he has followed this up with the equally fine Running With Horses. 

In reading for young adults, fully illustrated text novels (as opposed to graphic novels) are relatively rare. Those where the images form an integrated partnership with the text, each contributing significantly to the overall quality of the reading experience, are even rarer. For the text and the art to have both been created by the same hand is even rarer still. When it does happen my admiration knows no bounds. So it is with both We Were Wolves and Running With Horses. Other recent works I would put into this same category are Pam Smy’s The Hideaway and Brian Selznick’s Kaleidoscope, although this latter is a collection of interrelated stories rather than a conventional novel. Nevertheless this is a small and very distinguished group of highly recommendable works.*

Does it follow?

Neither the jacket nor the blurb make any mention of Running With Horses being a sequel to We Were Wolves. Howeveralthough either book makes a totally satisfactory stand-alone read, the one does assuredly follow on from the other. With only a moderate time gap, the same narrating boy continues his story, and the trauma of the first book forms the backstory of the second. Now known as Rabbit, following a period of emotional stress-induced muteness, the boy was clearly not fully over his earlier mental and emotional disturbance. At the start if this new book he seems to be at least partially recovering,  following a move with his mother to live in a caravan park on the coast. But this is no happy holiday resort, despite the park’s name of Happy Sands. It is bleak, even through the hottest days of the year, and oppressive because of them. Even more pertinent to Rabbit’s  recovery seems to be the strong bond he has formed with Joe Fludde, a boy of dubious reputation.

‘Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m in love with Joe. It’s not that, not really, although there’s plenty who make jokes about it and take the mick when they see us together. But I do love him. He gets me, see, he knows me. Me and Joe, we’re closer than mates. Closer that we can get without being brothers.’ (p 17)

However, Joe’s actual older brother, Billy, is a very seriously ‘bad lot’ and the boys are led into a situation every bit as dramatic, and indeed traumatic, as developed in the first book.

Just as good

Sequels can be rather disappointing, especially when they follow up a super-impressive debut. But here the very qualities that characterised and so elevated We Were Wolves are carried through into a fresh narrative without losing one gram of their quality or impact. 

One of the most telling aspects of both these books is the narrative voice Jason Cockcroft so skilfully crafts. On the one hand, this is the convincingly authentic, first person voice of a troubled boy. He is very much the product of his environment and upbringing, layered with the emotional trauma of his experiences. At the same time his voice is also highly individual; it can be lyrical, sensitive,  descriptive, almost at times poetical. To achieve both of these without the one every rendering the other in the least unconvincing is something close to genius. And it gives the narrative a vividly visceral and intensely poignant reality.

The second amazing quality is the contribution of Jason Cockroft’s intimately integrated illustrations. That they are wonderfully drawn can be sometimes almost taken for granted, for these are no mere adjuncts to the text, but a fully complementary element of it. Time and again they contribute so much to creating and heightening both mood and emotions of the narrative. Even when they are little more than marginal strips, they help do much to establish, place, time, weather and atmosphere. When they are far more, they conjure a darkness that simultaneously harbours a strange luminosity. When of the daytime they convey the oppression of a hot summer; of night, grim terror, and the pervasive ghosts of non-existent creatures,  Like the text, the images explore relationships, conjure dreams, and expose the harshest of realities with the same penetrating intensity. 

His third triumph, closely interdependent, of course, is to create a narrative that is compelling, extraordinary, unsettling, unsentimental. It is sometimes terrifying, often brutal, yet is underpinned with a deeply effecting tenderness, a sort of rough beauty that leaves you distraught even as it horrifies.

The overall result is deeply truthful in ways that are utterly human and profoundly humanising. And at heart, for all its grit and pain and, yes, blood, it is about love.

Awards surely?

I know of few other masters of this hard-hitting , almost hyper-realism, capturing the lives of kids fighting for survival amidst family and social breakdown in highly deprived environments. The best comparators are perhaps David Almond at his grittiest (Kit’s Wilderness? The Fire-Eaters?), Anthony McGowan in his staggering quartet The Truth of Things or, further back, Janni Howker in The Nature of the Beast, and, of course, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (Kes)Jason Cockcroft’s writing and storytelling is certainly right up there with this elite group. Then when you add in the power and potency of his integral illustration, you have something quite exceptional. 

‘Me and everything in the universe. All of it is one and together, held together with a love like atoms.’ (p 145)

The first of these two books was nominated for national awards. This second must surely win one or more. If it does not, then the world of UK literature is failing to recognise phenomenal dual talent as it should.

 

*Note:
Although very different from this book and each other, equally recommended as wonderfully illustrated, exceptional teen fiction are the following (however, each has an illustrator different from its author):

When Shadows Fall, Sita Brahmachari, illustrated Natalie Sirett
The Song From Somewhere Else, A. F. Harrold, illustrated Levi Pinfold
Phoenix, S. F. Said, illustrated Dave McKean
And The Ocean Was Our Sky, Patrick Ness, illustrated Rovina Cai
Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black, Marcus and Julian Sedgwick, illustrated Alexis Deacon

(A F Harrold and S F Said each have a new book out soon, which is very exciting. In fact, A F Harold’s may already be published, so I must seek it out pronto - from an indie bookshop of course.)

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Paper Boat, Paper Bird by David Almond



‘She is herself, Mina, but it’s like there’s another Mina waiting to be discovered or created here.’ (p 1)

A small book?

You can measure my regard for David Almond’s writing in inverse proportion to the length of time between a new book of his arriving in the post and me starting to read it. And that is often little longer than it takes to remove the packaging, quite regardless of any other delight(s) I may be in the middle of reading at the time.Which is how come I finished reading Paper Boat, Paper Bird and am writing this post within a day or two of its publication. (My indie bookshop is just great at sending books promptly.) Any additional time has only been because I read it through several times and then went straight back to reread My Name is Mina too (just brilliant, by the way), before I felt ready to write.*

All of which was because I think that Paper Boat, Paper Bird is not what it initially seems. Or rather, it is so much more than it initially seems. 

On first glance, the format of this book and the amount of illustration would seem to indicate one of David Almond’s works for a slightly younger readership (like War Is Over or Brand New Boy). The story itself is short, one might almost say slight. 

A girl visits Japan with her mother, goes to a temple and other sights, and likes it a lot. She sees a woman on a bus doing origami and  tries herself to make a paper boat and bird. She writes her name on them and then sends them off into the water/sky. A Japanese boy finds the bird and writes his name on it too. Later the girl and boy meet (by chance?) on a pedestrian crossing and stop to greet each other. 

Very superficially, that’s about it. The girl is ostensibly Mina, from Skellig and My Name is Mina, but apart from the way she writes the exact phrase ‘My name is Mina’ on her paper boat, there seems to be little obvious to connect her with the earlier character. Perhaps most surprising of all, the Japanese setting of this little story feels incongruous for this writer, so untypical of an author we associate strongly and passionately with the North East of England.

But all of this is wrong. So very wrong. 

A big book

The publishers have included at the end of this little book both an autobiographical note from the author (interesting) and the first few chapters of Skellig (but not any extracts involving Mina, which might have been more relevant). It is almost as though they themselves felt that the story on its own was too short to justify the book. But to call out this story for being too short is like criticising a haiku for only having three lines. In fact, the parallel of the haiku is a valuable one for this piece is in many ways a love letter to Japan. It borrows its essence from many things Japanese: from origami itself, from the temple and its reflecting lake, from the house in which Mina and her mother stay, as well as from other things essentially Japanese, its poetry, its art, its theatre, its tea ceremonies. All of these things represent to some extent or other the philosophy that less is more. And that is what David Almond’s story is. Compared to a full length novel it is a prose haiku. Condensed. Considered. If it is simple (and in many ways it is) then its simplicity is sophisticated, sensitive. The same applies to the words and sentences of which it is composed. They are the apotheosis of T S Eliot’s ideal words ‘neither diffident nor ostentatious’, simple, yet carrying layers of meaning and of feeling. Beautiful because of, not despite, their simplicity.
And as the language, so the ideas it subtly and sensitively conveys.

For this reason, I do not think this is a book particularly for the youngest readers. It is an ageless, timeless story and will be appreciated by a wide audience, and perhaps most by those who already know and love David Almond’s work.

And what of Mina? Is she the same? Through both earlier books Mina is a flexible person, open to ideas and experiences as they come to her. 

In Skellig she says:

‘See how school shutters you. I’m drawing, painting, reading, looking. I’m feeling the sun and the air on my skin. I’m listening to the blackbird’s song. I’m opening my mind.’ (p 56)

And in My Name is Mina:

Some say that you should turn your face from the light of the moon. They say it makes you mad. I turn my face towards it and I laugh.’

and then, as she starts her journal:

I’ll let my journal grow, just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does. Why should a book tell a tale in a dull straight line. Words should wander and meander.’ (p 11)

This is the Mina of Paper Boat, Paper Bird. She is the same Mina. She is open to the experience of Japan. She turns her face to Kyoto and laughs. She is the same Mina, but the experience, the place makes her different too.That is the point. She shares herself with the place, with the water and the air of the place, through her paper boat and bird. They carry her name and a different name comes back to her.

A true gem

Sometimes I rather uthinkingly call a particular book a gem, and although I mean it up to a point, it is without paying much heed to the image. This little book of David Almond’s really is a gem though, small, compressed, multi-faceted and reflecting and refracting light quite brilliantly.

There are many themes, many images in this little space of words. 

The question, ‘Where are you?’ and the response, ‘Here I am!’ run through the text. It is not insignificant. Mina has lost her father, but in some way finds him again in the reflection in the temple lake. Miyako , the Japanese boy seems to be gaining a new mother and begins to accept her seeing his city, its temple reflected in the same water of the same lake. Multiple reflections. Mina and Miyako  are folded as the origami is folded. Re-shaped. Made anew. They swim in the temple water and float in the Japanese sky. There are many more images, too, for those with eyes, ears and hearts to see. 

 Over and over again, David Almond’s books are about a person’s relationship with particular place. Yes, that place is most often his own North East. But, at root, Paper Boat, Paper Bird is about Mina allowing herself to be shaped, made and re-made by place, by Japan. Even though the location is different, is this not essential David Almond?

Kristi Beautyman’s visual images have countless felicitations too: the beautiful way the paper birds fly across the landscape; the way Mina and Miyako looks so very alike, despite their differences; the communicative expressions on such simply drawn faces. This is more than mere illustration. Kristi Beautyman is a storyteller too. 

One Mina, two storytellers, one story that is short, but in no way small. There is more magic in these few pages than in many a fantasy epic.

Nice to meet you, Michael.’ (Mina, early in Skellig)

‘My name is Mina’  (to Michael, at the end of My Name is Mina

‘“Konnichiwa!” says Miyako. “Kon-ni-chi-wa!” says Mina.’ (Paper Boat, Paper Bird)

Meeting. Greeting. Growing.

Turn your face to the moon and laugh. 

Thank you once again, David Almond.

 M



*I already know Skellig so well I could quote you great chunks.

Saturday, 6 August 2022

The Blackthorn Branch by Elen Caldecott


Cover: Rachael Dean

Elen Caldecott made a big impression with her previous book, the gripping historical novel The Short Knife. It deservedly won accolades, nominations and awards. Anyone who hasn’t yet read it would do well to seek it out.

Something wicked this way comes

Her latest offering is, as they say, something completely different - but none the worse for that. It is a fantasy novel in what might broadly be termed the post-Garner tradition - and in my book that is something very special. With a Welsh setting and characters, it contains rich geographical and cultural references rooting it firmly in place and time.  The text also has a  sufficient smattering of national language vocabulary to feel authentic, whilst remaining totally comprehensible in context to English-speaking readers. Essentially it is a portal fantasy, with its main characters finding a doorway into the folkloric underworld of the ‘tylwyth teg’ in order to rescue an older brother, ‘stolen’ by, and now under the thrall of, these ‘fairies’

A book probably for older MG at least, it is far darker and less childish than the rather cartoonish youngsters on its front cover would suggest. This is not a criticism of the story itself, which is deliciously creepy, and at times disturbing, but more a warning as to its appropriateness. Although its protagonists are a young girl, Cassie, and her cousin/friend, Siân, the recent death of a beloved grandfather (Taid) permeates the  thoughts and  actions of all main characters. It is also as much about the troubled stage of adolescence of older brother, Byron, and the family’s response to it, as it is about the two early-teen girls themselves.

Wingless in Annwn 

If the ‘other place’ which the characters visit through this fantasy portal, is ‘fairyland’, then Elen Caldecott has reimagined it strongly and significantly. In fact ‘fairies’ is a very poor translation of the ‘tylwyth teg’, as least insofar as such creatures have come be thought of in their ‘flower fairy’ incarnation. Here, they, and the ‘Annwn’ they inhabit, take us back deep into Welsh legend rather than into the gardens of Victorian Cottingley. These are the ‘Helynt’, mischievous (possibly wicked) troublemakers, appearing in the form of ragged, dirty humans, distinguished only by a blue light of magic in their eyes, and under the control of the frightening Gwenhidew. The author’s imagining of this version of Annwn is particularly inventive, dank caverns whose scrawled wall pictures can be brought ‘alive’ as a glamour. Two deep halls are particularly prominent, one, ‘The Tanglement’, is filled with weird sculptures made up from human detritus, whilst the other is a vast, empty space save for the huge but dying mulberry tree that features in the title. It is all beautifully handled, with enough of authentic Welsh legend to root the story deeply, yet also enough originality to make it feel vividly engrossing and contemporary.

Up with the best

As in all the best such fantasies, what happens in the ‘other place’ is closely tied in to issues in the story’s present. The doorway is not so much one into escape as into discovery, discovery of what is really important in life. Elen Caldecott’s writing is strong and assured, so that both reality and fantasy are sensitively developed and skilfully interwoven. Her characters are real and involving. Moving from the cod magic of the girls’ play at the book’s opening  to the terrors of the Tanglement and the real power of the blackthorn tree at its climax, her thrilling story is involvingly told. This is as notable (and as enjoyable) an example of its genre as The Short Knife is of its own very different one.


Thursday, 4 August 2022

Our Tower by Joseph Coelho and Richard Johnson



Sharing a tower

It is rare for me to review a picture book, but a new piece of work by our current Children’s Laureate is not to be ignored; and this certainly turns out to be a treasure.  

Drawing on the experiences of his own childhood, Joseph Coelho has already given us the brilliant poetry collection Overheard in a Tower Block (strongly recommended). Now he returns to explore issues of that  familiar upbringing for a rather younger audience, in the equally moving Our Tower.

Joseph Coelho’s story is, unsurprisingly, poetic, but its poetry is not simply in its language but in its ideas. in its ability to condense rich and meaningful experiences into a few words and pages. 

From a starting point of thinking the place where they live is grey and boring, children living in a tower block are encouraged to exploit its height and look out beyond their immediate concrete labyrinth. When they do, they see trees and set off to seek out one in particular. Consequently they connect with nature and an ancient spirit of the tree in question gifts them a stone with a hole, through which they can look. This new perspective allows them to see the humanity, and the goodness of humanity, to be found in their own tower homes. It is a profound an important message condensed into simple but highly effective form.
Grey to yellow by way of green

However, as is right and proper for the highest quality picture book, the illustrations are as big a part as the text and here Richard Johnson’s are quite superb. In fact whilst Joseph Coelho’s text carries the essence of the book, far more of the actual narrative is conveyed through the pictures. It is in the visual images that the characters of three individual children are introduced and developed: one a strong leader, an explorer, the second an observer, recording, sketching, and the third younger, but inquisitive, intuitive. Actions and reactions, are beautifully conveyed, often in multiple rectangles that echo the windows of the tower block, sometimes creating sequences, sometimes revealing simultaneous facets, but always illuminating and enriching the story. What impressed and delighted me most of all, however, is Richard Johnson’s wonderful use of a changing colour palette: blue-greys for the initial tower, green hughes for the world of nature, pinks and purples creeping in for the ‘magic’ revealed there and, finally. sunny oranges and yellows for the joys to be found at home. Such conjuring with colour will communicate with young readers every bit as powerfully as the wonderful words, so that the two work in ideal artistic complement to create something very fine indeed. 

His tower, your tower, our tower

To many children who live in tower blocks, Our Tower will be a reassurance that their lives can be just as magical and joy-filled as anyone else’s.

To the rest who live in grey, concrete towers of any other kind it will be a path to a new freedom and light too. It is, after all our tower, perhaps everyone’s tower. 

Whilst those of us who considered The Girl Who Became a Tree to be just about the most excitingly devastating  poetic feast to come our way in a long while, this lovely book is a small but tasty crumb to sate our appetites whilst we await impatiently the huge treat that I anticipate in October when The Boy Lost in the Maze comes our way.  

  



Monday, 25 July 2022

The Asparagus Bunch by Jessica Scott-Whyte

The Asparagus Bunch

Sorry. Once more. Less literally.

Cover: Russell Cobb

‘Oh my God, Noel, you’re magic! . . . that’s why I hang out with you : you’re different. You’re a complete misfit and you don’t give a toss. I love that. Even more than Jazzies.’ (p 186-7)

For any one with (sadly) limited confectionery experience these are Jazzies.


Curiouser and curiouser and curiouser

It is now almost twenty years since Mark Haddon produced the ground-breaking The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. His book was remarkable in featuring very positively as its main character a boy with what appeared to be Asperger’s Syndrome. It was it even more remarkable in its phenomenal and continuing international success. (Although it is a brilliant book, so perhaps not all that surprising.)

In the years since, there have been quite a number of children’s and teen novels featuring characters on the Autistic Spectrum, many of then outstanding books. This may well be because of their authors’ strong commitment to the importance of this subject, but clearly many of them are excellent writers too. This has, of course, been a wonderful and important thing. However, it does beg the question of whether we needed yet another novel for young readers about a kid with ASD.

The answer is a resounding YES when it is as entertaining, truthful and moving as TheAsparagusBunch from Jessica Scott-Whyte. It is a simply joyous read.

The story centres on three young people, brought together by the fact that they each display a different form of neurodivergence. Its narrator (or supposed author) Leon, lives with his single-parent mother, who works on Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The most prominent aspect of his Asperger’s (ASD, or whatever you like to call it) is a huge obsession with sweets; that is international confectionary in every conceivable aspect, its comparative quality,  its history, science, social importance, you name it. It is hard to imagine that he is not a (if not the) world expert. Tanya, his eventual big ‘mate’, wants to be a writer, despite her dyslexia, whilst Lawrence (aka Beeboy) has ASD with somewhat different characteristics (as is often the case). In this book you get three joyously neurodivergent characters for the price of one.

Novels about neurodivergent kids usually have lists 

Here are some of the reasons I am so excited about The Asparagus Bunch:
  1. I love Blackpool; I was born and brought up not too far away and my grandmother lived there. 
  2. Leon, the main kid, calls lunch dinner and dinner tea, just like I do (what with me having been born and brought up not too far from Blackpool).
  3. Leon just says straight out the sort of things about other people that we (I suppose I mean I ) wish we could say.
  4. Leon is great. I would love to hang out with him.
  5. It is a very sweet book (sorry). Leon loves some of the confectionery items I did as a kid (especially Christmas selection boxes).
  6. It is written in the past tense (Yea!).
  7. It is hilariously funny (main reason).

You think that there’s  nothing funny about ASD?

Well, I’m sorry. but Jessica Scott-Whyte just proved you dead wrong. The Asparagus Bunch is one of the most delightful, entertaining, sometimes side-splitting books I have read in a long time. But it is also one of the most sensitive, caring, and positive in sharing understanding about neurodivergence and promoting the importance of valuing ways of thinking and experiencing that are different but not inferior. It strongly encourages those with neurodivergent outlooks to be strong and proud in their difference. It also promps the rest of us to recognise their potential and their integrity as well being sensitive and supportive to their needs. 

Jessica Scott-Whyte’s genius is to get us to identify wholeheartedly with Leon from the very start. This means we are always totally on his side, understand completely where he is coming from and indeed accept his different thinking and behaviour as our new normal. So often this author brings out the humour in Leon’s neurodivergent behaviour, but she is categorically not poking fun, rather just seeing the funny side, as it were, from inside.

More than this, Leon is frequently witty, clever and downright hilarious in his comments on life and other people. He shows remarkable insight, pertinent, needle-sharp observation and honesty (crowned by the glory of saying exactly what he thinks without inhibition). At other times he displays a charming naivety, that is more to do with his age and life experience (or lack of it) that with any neurodiversity.

One of this author’s great talent is in making valid points at the same time as being funny. As in her chapter title, ‘Dyslexics are Teople Poo’. She make us smile, and gets her point across without any heavy lecturing. It is just brilliant.  

Conversation at school (from page 78):
Tanya: Gotta swing by the loo.
Leon: As if this place wasn’t shambollic enough. Why would they go and install a swing beside the toilets?
Tanya (rolling her eyes): I have to go to the loo. Is that better?
Leon: Well, it’s certainly more reassuring.

Typically, it’s not Leon’s inability to relate to idiom that is so funny, as much as his final dry reposte.

Although, to be fair, Tanya herself does a pretty good line in repartee.
‘You’d better shut that smart-arse mouth of yours, mate, before I rip off your goolies, roll ‘em in icing sugar and eat them as bonbons.’ (p 106)

(Remember. Leon has an obsession with confectionery.)

(If you don’t find at least one of these very funny then this book is probably not for you. But are you for real?)

There is also much entertaining banter between the three ‘mates’ and though it often includes mocking of each other’s ‘afflictions’, it is always good-humoured, underpinned with understanding and respect. This is effectively contrasted with the taunts of the bully, Glen, which make very clear the difference between friendly joshing and cruel mockery.

Another of Jessica Scott-Whyte’s master strokes is to make Leaon’s principal problem in the narrative one that pertains to many children and is not exclusive to ASD, his mother’s taking up with a ‘new fella’. Leon’s extreme reaction, as usual very freely and bluntly expressed, probably opens up feeling shared by many, as well as promoting understanding by others. 

What another list?

Some more reasons I am so excited about The Asparagus Bunch:
  1. Like much good comedy, there is touching pathos not far below the surface.
  2. Noel is possibly the only person I have ever met (real or fictional) who can turn an appallingly bad attitude into an endearing (even an admirable) quality. He thinks he is normal and the rest of us think differently. He could well be right.
  3. Like Noel, I am delighted that God made me an atheist.
  4. Amidst the humour, the author communicates effectively the severe stress that can be experienced by ASD and other neurodivergent children.
  5. Jessica Scott-Whyte uses laughter to show us vividly and truthfully how someone who thinks differently thinks. That is so much more accessible (and effective) than lecturing (main reason).
  6. The sweet ending might verge on the sentimental but it still sent me rushing off to seek out again Track 7 from Carole King’s Tapestry LP*
  7.  . . . and a Toblerone.

Got it covered, mate

This wonderful book revels joyously in promoting and celebrating the importance of difference in our society, both for those who are neurodivergent and those who aren’t.  It deepens the humanity in us all. It lightens the load for those facing difficult times in life and is simply one of the finest books of recent years.**

After all, sometimes, for all of us, ‘Life is like a Marshmallow. Easy to chew but hard to swallow.’ (p 156)

Russel Cobb’s cover illustration not only catches the essence of the book, but is startlingly arresting, which is just brilliant for a book completely deserving to be (correction) destined to be one of the biggest hits of 2022.




* ‘You’ve got a friend
** Oh, and did I say, it’s very funny.