Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

My Books of the Year 2020

My best of the best 

This year I have not always completely agreed about the quality of some of the children’s books lauded on social media. I have to admit that some new titles by writers I much admire have rather disappointed. I have nevertheless had many wonderful reads, some of which seem to pass by with less media attention than others. I have tried throughout the year to highlight these whenever I could.  

Here are the books that have thrilled me the most; the ones that, had I still been teaching, I would have been recommending the most enthusiastically to young readers. There will of course have been many others I have missed. I can only hope that I will catch up with some of them in the future.

Continued brilliance

For starters, there were three eagerly anticipated additions to outstanding sequences that most certainly did not disappoint. Celine Kiernan’s trilogy The Wild Magic is one of the most original and engaging children’s fantasy creations of recent years and The Promise Witch has now brought it to a thrilling conclusion, adding layers of rich, fresh imagination to the resonance of traditional Irish storytelling. 

Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence is already a classic of contemporary children’s fiction and deservedly so. Combining fantasy elements with a prehistoric setting, it brings not only compulsive adventure but also an intense sensitivity to both the reality and the spirituality of the natural world. For a long while, we all thought the series had ended, and the author had moved on, but she has now returned to it with Viper’s Daughter. With this new addition she has taken up seamlessly and gloriously from where she left off, albeit with now slightly older protagonists.   

Way top of this little group, though, comes the new instalment of The Wizards of Once from Cressida Cowell. This series had been a joyful triumph from the start, and now this fourth part, Never and Forever, is its crowning glory. In my original review I called it ‘the apotheosis of children’s fantasy fiction’ and I stand by that view. A riot of fun and fantasy, visual as well as verbal, it ensures delightful entertainment. But there are depths here too for readers to explore and grow through. Cressida Cowell’s writing has a thoughtfulness behind its infectious energy, and, amongst other things, has much to say about the importance of story itself. 

Classic storytelling

Here are two stand-out books that epitomise good, old-fashioned storytelling, in the very best sense. They each construct narrative that, even if far-fetched and at times melodramatic, is nevertheless compulsively gripping. However, they also underlay its many conflicts and dramas with a wholesome warm-heartedness that promotes such eternally important qualities as friendship, loyalty and courage. They are the sort of stories where you can be sure that goodness will prevail and wrongs will, in the end, he righted, however bleak events along the way. In this they belong to a fine tradition of children’s fiction that traces right back to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Edith Nesbit. Lucy Strange’s The Ghost of Gosswater is not so much a ghost story as a historical Romance, a sort of young readers’ Jane Eyre, whilst Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is a most endearing example of a classic children’s adventure, set against a background of WWI. These are not books to change the world, but they are wonderful books to snuggle up with and lose yourself in. 

My top three novels for 9-12s

My top favourite books are here because they are not simply entertaining reads, but examples of the highest quality writing. They are also refreshingly original and have a great deal to say to young readers about the world we live in and the people we share it with. Two of these titles are from US authors, but both have been published this year here in the UK, so I have no hesitation in including them in recommendations for a British audience, As happens, each of these three novels, in its own particular way, speaks very eloquently about our relationship with nature, contrasting this tellingly with the man-made realities with which we all have to deal on a daily basis. 

The novel that made the biggest impression on me this year was undoubtedly Katya Balen’s breathtaking October, October.
This book is stunningly beautiful in both its thought and its language. It takes us intimately inside the mind of a fellow-human being in a way that is both enriching and deeply moving. Its intensity and passion bring both the experiences of its young protagonists and those of its readers into fresh sharp focus in way that is truly life-enhancing. It is a very fine book indeed.

Not very far behind at all in my estimation is Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain. This explores many of the same themes,  but in the very different context of rural, ‘back woods’ America. Any feeling of unfamiliarity with the setting is, however, rapidly banished by the immersive qualities of the storytelling. Again the writing is superb and the book’s captivating characters and evocative world-building are completely mesmerising; deeply human and richly humanising. This author has already written several brilliant children’s books, and this new one certainly joins them in my not-to-be-missed category.

Sara Pennypacker’s Here in the Real World tackles head on the tensions between a need to live in the world as it is and a desparate wish to improve it. Yet it does this in a simple but intensely lyrical way, by intimately sharing the experiences of two children as they try to build their own personal ‘paradise’ on a patch of waste ground. The narrative is built around some of the most telling, and moving, dialogue that I have come across in many years. This book is funny and honest, original, idiosyncratic, specific and yet universal. Much of its unique potency is almost impossible to describe and it is a classic candidate for a recommendation that says, ‘Just read it.’

All three of these novels are challenging. They are what might be called quiet books and will appeal to sensitive, committed readers, rather than to those seeking easy entertainment. They are, however, also powerful books that will reward hugely children who are open to the many layers of  richness within their gentle, thoughtful storytelling.

The very best of YA

In and amongst the many contemporary YA titles are to be found examples of truly high quality literature; books which can stand comparison with the finest from any genre. Here to prove the case are three such novels. They are stunningly written, original and utterly compelling. 

Patrick Ness already has an reputation of considerable standing, and his latest book Burn is amongst his very best. A complex work, it mixes genres in a gripping story that is both fantasy and not fantasy. It it is threaded through with the most sensitive exploration of close relationships, including young love between both opposite and same sex couples. It is a passionate book, and an empowering one. It is deeply disturbing and deeply moving.  It is grotesquely violent and sweetly tender, thoughtful and yet viscerally excitingly. It is, in short, remarkable.

The Wolf Road, an equally impressive book from Richard Lambert, is all the more remarkable for being this author’s debut. Here, the intense loss felt by an adolescent boy after the sudden, traumatic death of both parents is played out against a bleak Lake District landscape, where nature provides potent images of his journey through grief. As befits its subject, this is a harrowing book and its narrative grips like a hand around the throat. Not for the young, or indeed for the faint-hearted, it illuminates humanity by focusing on its contorted shadow. It is a masterclass in both writing and storytelling.

Although set in the seventeenth century, Finbar Hawkins’s Witch does not so much tell a historical story of ‘witches’, but rather uses this context as background for what is essentially an exploration of character. And a very powerful study it is too. It is a violent, sometimes horrific tale. But at its heart is a story about the power and potency of sisterhood, both within and beyond the family. It celebrates a collective female strength that can move beyond the oppression of a male-dominated world: it is a book that boys need to read as well as girls.The author conjures a potent feeling of period, pressingly real without ever seeming artificially archaic. Yet he creates a voice that speaks directly to us and to our world. By distancing things from us, he brings everything nearer. He shows us the past as a mirror, not as an oil painting. When the power of language and the power of story meld as thrillingly together as they do here, they make something very special, and very important.

And that which was lost . . .

Even though it is not a novel like these others, I cannot end this round up of my 2020 favourite children’s books without mentioning The Lost Spells, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s follow up to the phenomenally, and deservedly, successful The Lost Words. The breathtaking effect of that earlier publication was much enhanced by the huge size of the pages themselves. This much smaller format book inevitably does not have quite  the same impact.  However both its spell poems and its art work are just as devastating and their creators’ passionate commitment to the wonders of the natural world around us is just as great. In fact the physically smaller volume has a special quality all of its own. It feels almost like a handbook for sensitising its readers to nature. And that is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange

Cover and illustrations: Helen Crawford-White

‘I am midnight. Neither one day nor the next. Yesterday is behind me, and a new day is ahead. But right now there is only darkness . . .’  (p 148)

Strangely good

Lucy Strange has already made her mark in children’s fiction with two excellent novels, The Secret of Nightingale Wood and     Our Castle by the Sea, but this, her third, is even better and fully confirms her place in the canon of the finest children’s literature. 

When authors cite their literary influences, or share their own favourite authors  from childhood, it can be difficult to detect those influences in their own work. But that does not apply here. Lucy Strange quotes the Bront√ęs, Stevenson, Hodgson Burnett and Ransome as inspiration. The ghosts of Jane Eyre, David Balfour and Mary Lennox and Nancy Blackett certainly do haunt the periphery of this novel, never as actually present, or anything like, but as the merest echoes of an earlier existence, just occasionally caught out of the very corner of the mind’s eye. Even more, this new title brought to mind the later ‘romances’ of Eva Ibbotson,  like The Star of Kazan. This is because, despite adopting the current vogue for present tense narration, The Ghost of Gosswater is good, old-fashioned storytelling. And I mean that as an enormous compliment. It sits within a fine tradition of fiction writing for children and is captivating escapism of the very highest order.

All in the mix

Although there is indeed a ghost, who plays a significant role in the narrative, this is not really a ghost story. Rather it is the most compelling of Romantic adventures. It has many features, archetypical of this genre, a young girl cheated out of her considerable inheritance; a dastardly older cousin, hell-bent on doing her down and aggrandising himself at her expense; a discovered friendship with a boy of ‘lowly status’; a father unjustly imprisoned; an eccentric recluse and a secret  story of love tragically lost. And all is set against the equally Romantic and evocative setting of a Lake District conjured from imagination as much as from geography, which can therefore offer, in addition to fells and lakes, a rambling gothic mansion, a bleak mountain pass, its summit marked by a ram’s skull, and an eerie graveyard island. 

The story’s central character, is rich and complex. She is both Lady Agatha, the child of Gosswater Hall, and farm girl, Aggie. She is full of anger and bitterness as well as of love and kindness. She is lost and lonely as much as she is fiercely brave. Like the geese she adopts into her care, she can be different things at the same time.

‘The geese huddle close, their warmth and softness surrounding me, keeping me safe. They can be soft and they can be fierce. It is possible to be more than one thing.’  (p 164)

This ambivalence adds to the story’s tension, and hence to its excitement.  

All of these ingredients contribute to a quite wonderfully constructed narrative, that, interspersed with precious, if brief, lulls of warm positivity, rolls from one gripping crisis to the next, tension ever mounting as Aggie deals with one drama after another . Just  as the reader’s  passionate desire for everything to be alright grows almost desperate, things only get worse.  And if , at the tale’s climax, events teeter on the brink of melodrama, then they provide breathless reading excitement in the process.

Great escape 

Ultimately the story celebrates the triumph of goodness over malice, as all such tales should. It endorses the power of love, friendship and true family to see us through, whatever adversity may throw at us. These are values important to us all, and to our lives. Nonetheless, the essential value of a book like The Ghost of Gosswater is not to help its readers explore everyday reality. Quite the contrary; it provides a temporary, and perhaps very welcome, escape from it. But that is no bad thing. No bad thing at all. It offers a respite, a sanctuary that many children need in their lives, as a recovery that all need at some point, Lucy Strange’s book is a celebration of story, and the power of story to take us away from where we are. It is pure story. Not story as anything, except story as story. And, as such, it is something very special indeed. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

Cover: Holly Ovenden

‘The American tribes believe that the wolf can move between this world and the spirit world. That the Milky Way is the Wolf Road down which the first wolf travelled, and that when human beings killed the first wolf that was when death entered the world.’ (p 276)

There are many strong examples of the psychological thriller amongst contemporary adult literature. However, it is less common for a writer to bring this particular genre successfully to a YA audience. However, Richard Lambert does so here  with the same powerfully gripping compulsion and moving engagement as the very best of them.

Wolf death

As the genre demands, this is an intense book. It is often a harrowing one, too. Its language is taut and powerful with fractured sentences and repeated fragments often used to particularly striking effect. Its protagonist, Lucas, is hurtled (literally) into horrific tragedy within sentences of the opening, witnessing the gruesome death of both of his parents in a car crash.  His trauma is profound and its effects protracted, worked out in difficult relationships with a handful of other people, none of whom are themselves spared life’s pains, the best brittle and distant, the worst violently hostile. All of this is played out against a winter landscape portraying the Lake District, where Lucas has to live with his taciturn grandmother, at its most bleak and isolated. Then behind and through the whole narrative runs the wolf, both creature and metaphor, death and life, hunter and hunted. Above all the wolf is wilderness, glorious and cruel, vicious and gentle. It brought death to Lucas’s parents, can it bring life to their son? This narrative grips like a hand around the throat. It is one of those books that many will devour (and be devoured by) in a single sitting; if only because of a desperate need to breathe again. Not for the young, or indeed for the faint-hearted, it illuminates humanity by focusing on its contorted shadow. It is a masterclass in both writing and storytelling, and those who can live with it may never again live without it.

Richard Lambert’s is an unsentimental book, but not a cynical one. Although it is intensely bleak and troubling, it does, in the end, offer consolation and hope; close connections forged between individuals that may not be ideal, but are at least real.

‘Love - that difficult country, always at your back.’ (p 344)

Whilst not a tyger, this wolf burns bright in the fells of the night, and has a truly fearful symmetry.

Kindred beast 

There were several times when The Wolf Road reminded me of Janni Howker’s The Nature of the Beast from the 1980s. The two books share the haunting presence of a speculative wild beast, although in the case of the earlier title it is a big cat on the moors rather than a wolf on the fells.

Both are outstanding titles, and, in mentioning this parallel, I do not mean any diminution of the originality of either novel. Merely that those who, like me, enjoy comparing and contrasting books that share common themes, may be interested to seek out this earlier title too.

Knowable by its cover

The jacket of The Wolf Road, illustrated and designed by Holly Ovenden, is very striking and wonderfully apt; it is a pity that she is not given rather more acknowledgement that the minuscule credit on the back. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Never and Forever: Wizards of Once Book 4 by Cressida Cowell

‘The crucible of the story changes those who listen to it, those who are within it, and the person who is telling it, all at the same time.’ (p 380)

(No) more to be said?

I have written enthusiastically about the Wizards of Once series so many times now, (well, once, twice, three times actually, most recently in May 2019 - see previous posts) that I have little left to say. Except that this concluding book of the quartet fizzes and crackles with all the thrillingly entertaining magic of the previous three, and a good deal more too. Cressida Cowell certainly proves to have a great deal of value still to say.

As one, so the other

As ever, her own exuberant illustrations are strewn across the pages. Her anarchic line and sprawled captions pull in her excited readers, their imagination freed by the freedom of the images. Like the pictures in the best graphic novels (although most certainly not confined in rectilinear frames) they are not perceived as static but create momentum, propelling both the characters they represent and the reader through the story with breathtaking drive. Whether conjuring the swooping of a flying door, materialising a rider clinging on for dear life to the fur of a jet-propelled bear, or simply capturing the downward drift of a gifted feather, these pictures both move and move. They are funny, terrifying , thrilling, touching, bewildering and bewitching. They can be incredibly sensitive too, and that is a big part of Cressida Cowell’s genius; she creates hilarious scrawls of fantastic creations that are often deeply compassionate and somehow profoundly human. Us as not us. (Or is that vice versa?)

And as the artist so the writer. Cressida Cowell’s story is all these same things too, and more besides. This book, these books, are the apotheosis of young children’s fantasy. They are pure reading joy. They have just about every kid-pleasing element and have it in spades (and enchanted spoonfuls). But they have more besides (did I say that already?). Her story changes and changes us. 

Meta matter

Ultimately this is metafiction for young readers. And that is a hard thing to pull off. But Cressida Cowell can do it. This is a story wrapped in story. It is old story wrapped in new story. Rich legend wrapped in wild invention. It is story of story yet to unfold, told through stories told before. It is steeped in lore as much, as the tales of, say, Alan Garner or Susan Cooper. It just wears its erudition more lightly. It is sometimes ‘magical and invisible in the quiet still darkness of the sheltering trees.’ (p 380) At other times, it lurks in gleeful laughter But though its echoes often chortle, they resonate no less for all that. 

Through four wonderful books Cressida Cowell has developed the intriguing mystery of which character in her story is the secret  narrator. In this volume, all is finally revealed. I am most certainly not going to tell you who it is.  But that which was lost is found, and that which was found is lost. Study the faces, and you may just spot the face. And if young readers are puzzled by the esoteric esthetic of the denouement, then many will think too, and is that not the purpose of a puzzle? Of a story? Of a fantasy? We are story. We are fantasy. (Or is that verse vica?)


This title , like the series, is a triumphant tour de force from one of our very finest children’s book creators. But is this really the end of the story of Wish and Xar? The author is at pains to point out that a story never truly ends. Will there be more? Hopefully, never say


I did find a bit more to say, after all. 

Little in response to much.

Monday, 12 October 2020

October, October by Katya Balen

‘Let neither friend nor foe this secret know.
In the wild world flies Stig 2450’  (p 267)

For the present

Here on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, not many miles from the Humber, October has felt like the month of the wild geese. Thousands have arrived to roost on the islands of the estuary and now head inland daily to feed on the stubble fields left behind by the recent grain harvest. My regular walk has been enlivened by the spectacle of wave after wave of pink-footed geese flying overhead in huge, ragged V formations, their incessant honking unmissable.

Reading Katya Balen’s book has seemed particularly apt at this time, not simply because of her protagonist’s name, but because I have felt a close kinship with eleven year-old October’s love of autumnal nature.

I am actually no great fan of fictional narrative written in the present tense, especially now that it has become so ubiquitous. There are notable exceptions, though. It seems to me this viewpoint is most truly effective when an author has a very particular narrative reason for the wanting the reader to share a protagonist’s intense, moment-to-moment experience. A few years back YA novelist Sally Green was shockingly arresting when she used such a present tense narration to capture the stream of consciousness of Half Bad ‘witch’, Nathan Byrn. The effect was disturbed, disturbing and quite devastating. More recently Christopher Edge  has used first person, present tense narration to great effect in books like The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, where time and the perception of time play a pivotal part. And now here is another remarkable exception. Katya Balen’s chosen style captures brilliantly a sensual receptiveness in her young protagonist, October,  that amounts almost  to a perpetual state of mindfulness. She is intensely aware of every moment she lives, responding to the natural world around her with committed passion. October’s voice is utterly captivating and her story would not be the one it is were it written in any other way. Which is exactly how a fine novel should feel.

Wild woods and terrifying town

However, this intensity is conjured not solely by the narrative perspective but also by the author’s stunningly beautiful use of language. Her construction of prose is often breathtaking in its mastery, as is her occasional use of arresting typography. Whilst never obtrusively ‘arty’, her writing has an intrinsic lyricism that enchants the reading ear, thrills the senses, and stimulates the mind with its vivid conjuring of experience. Nor is it only October’s adoration of her life living wild in the woods with her father that is caught with persuasive truthfulness. This is contrasted quite wonderfully with her horrified reaction to everything around her when, after a serious incident, she is forced to live instead with her estranged mother in London. Her appalled terror at  the unfamiliar oppression of the sights, sounds and smells of the city is also conveyed with devastating potency.

Inside and out

There is also much of huge implicit importance in Katya Balen’s book,  caught as effectively through her clever writing as it is through her storytelling. In first establishing October in the context of the wild, wood-living life that she experiences as so idyllic, our empathy for her is deeply established. This means that when, in the city, she exhibits behaviours that could well be experienced as strange or ‘difficult’, we already see and understand things completely from her perspective. We fully appreciate her ‘normal’, even when it may be very different from that of others. It is therefore a book that engenders understanding in a truly vital and compelling way. More than this, without any feeling of  didacticism, it also shows how beneficial to children experiencing dislocation and loss can be the patience, acceptances and appropriate love of others, whether they be a parent, friend or teacher.

Naturally the best

As happens, I am also a huge fan of Angela Harding’s art work. For several years now her Advent calendars have taken our family’s countdown to Christmas to a whole new level of loveliness, and many special celebrations have been marked by the sending of one of her magical greetings cards. She captures a vibrant and deeply effecting essence of the natural world quite breathtakingly, and her jacket for October, October is a perfect example of this. It is almost impossible to think of there being a more fitting cover for any book. Equally apt and moving are her vignettes of  Stig, the owl that October rescues. Interspersed  through the text, they echo Katy’s Balen’s story in leading the reader towards the final heart-lifting image of freedom and flight.

Wild anywhere 

This book captures so vividly and powerfully the potency of the wild, with its healing and invigorating potential, that even young readers who have no direct experience of wildness will be able to find it vicariously through October. In her they can discover the value of wildness in their own lives and world, whatever the context of their current living. There is a somewhat different, if related, theme in the book too, that also has much to offer young readers. This is the idea encapsulated in the activity of  Thames Mudlarking, rediscovering lost treasures from the past, and not only rediscovering them but ‘hearing’ and telling their stories. All this, of course, is in addition to the most valuable insight into the lives and minds of others who may appear to think differently from us but have so much to offer in and through that difference. And, above everything, October, October is a thoroughly enchanting and engaging read that ravishes with its writing. There is so much treasure for young readers (or indeed older ones too) to discover in this wonderful book.

‘All the world is wild and waiting for me.’  says October. (p 287). It is waiting now for us all. In the present. Which is exactly where it should be. Where it is. 

In my last post I flagged Finbar Hawkins’ Witch as my YA book of the year so far. Now October, October leaps into my other top spot, as front runner for children’s novel of the year. In fact, it is way ahead of the field. 

The same but different 

Back when I was a teacher I loved to explore comparisons and contrasts with my class. If I were reading October, October with them (which I certainly would have been, were it around then) I would compare it with American author Lauren Wolk’s equally superb Echo Mountain, which also explores wildness, of both nature and character, but within the context of a very different landscape  and culture. I would also contrast Katya Balen’s story with one of the several excellent children’s novels about evacuees in World War II, where the experience of children was so often exactly the opposite of October’s, being uprooted  from urban life and moved into the alien countryside. 

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Witch by Finbar Hawkins

Jacket: Edward Bettison 
Internal illustration: by the author

‘I had found my witching way. And it felt so good. Now I must finish my spell.’ (p 269)

Witch seeker

As a boy in East Lancashire, I was more or less brought up with stories of The Pendle Witches. Later, when our own children were young, we lived for quite a few years in the shadow of Pendle Hill itself. Robert Neil’s book Mist Over Pendle was one of the first ‘grown up’ books I ever read. It was amongst the few novels my father owned and the same volume, very tatty now, still stands on my own, much fuller shelves. That particular book about the Lancashire Witches is not exactly a literary masterpiece, but, even so, it made a big impression, and I have had a particular interest in seeking out historical fiction about seventeenth century ‘witches’ ever since.

There have been quite a few in the intervening years, both adult and YA, some truly  excellent, others rather less so. But Finbar Hawkins’ new contribution is one of the very best. In fact this astonishing debut goes straight onto my list of books of the year and, ironically, makes the list shorter by being there. How so? Well,  because it has raised the bar for me considerably. I have read only a few other novels this year that can stand comparison with the breathtaking quality of this one.

Now and then

Witch does not, in fact, so much tell a historical story of ‘witches’, but rather uses the seventeenth century context as background for what is essentially an exploration of character. And a very powerful study it is too. Superficially, teenaged Evey seeks to revenge the brutal murder of her mother, a country woman of benign ‘witching ways’, devoted to births and healing. Her targets are the perpetrators, a gleefully vicious gang of witch-hunting men. However Evey’s less conscious quest is to discover her own identity, particularly in relation to the dead mother and living sister she resents because of her own perceived lack of their power. It is just as much a story of our time as it is of its setting, for it is the very fact that men would deny Evey her own integrity, indeed her own life, that gives her the incentive to find it. She needs the shared strength of sisters too, though - and that too resonates. Finbar Hawkins borrows from the historical period  men’s  appalling degradation of women; men whose fear of women’s true power threatens their own tenuous dominance and superiority. His ‘tall  man’ based very loosely on the historical ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins provides his archetype and Evey’s nemesis. But it all speaks to us still. 

Make no mistake, this is no book for young children, It is a violent, sometimes horrific story, just as the emotions Evey has to work through are violent and destructive. But it is at heart a story about the power and potency of sisterhood, both within and beyond the family, the collective strength that can resist, move beyond, the oppression of a male-orientated world. It is also untimately about the triumph of goodness over evil, of the benign use of the ‘witching way’ over its destructive potential. But the triumph is ultimate. Very ultimate.Thank goodness the tale includes one ‘good man’ within its world  of obnoxiously gross, but not exaggerated, misogyny. There is one corrupt and malign female too, to restore a little balance. Yet, even though this overwhelmingly a story of sistershood, it does not mean it is only for ‘sisters’, but I will come to that.

Bewitching writing

There is something even more to say first, for special as all of this is, the narrative itself is, for me, not the crowning glory of  this novel . Witch is not simply its story, powerful though it is, in more ways than one. It is not simply its story, but the way it is told that makes it very special indeed.

The brusque, single word Witch, feels like a very fitting title for this work. It reflects its style well, for the components  of Finbar Hawkins’ prose, its sentences, are themselves, generally terse. They are short and powerful, crafted, honed. In the voice of Evey, and in the conjuring of the settings, he achieves something very difficult. He gives a real feeling of period, pressingly real without ever seeming artificially archaic. Yet he creates a voice that speaks directly to us and to our world too. By distancing things from us, he brings everything nearer. He shows us the past as a mirror, not as an oil painting. 

Often the narrative fractures. Particularly at moments of high drama and explosive emotion, which often in Witch  amount to the same thing, the storytelling fragments into a kaleidoscope of language, images, events and impressions. It floats across the page like blown seed-down, it scatters like dead leaves, then it swoops like a murderous flock of crows. 

Many fine authors enrich their language with powerful images, and Finbar Hawkins does so excitingly, but, like a great film maker, he also builds his narrative through visual images, conjured in the mind’s eye of the reader. And sometimes it is the events described in the narrative, or the objects that are its catalyst, that are themselves the images. It is all most marvellously done. It is not only the pivotal images, like  the birds and  the scrying stone, that burn into the memory long after this story is done, but the kicked gallows bench, the wood ash on the face and the ash wood on the hill. The magnificently crafted chapter, I think it was number twenty two, where agonising news is learned during the spilling of a bowl of apples, bites deep and will live long. So too does the one about Evey’s stealing through a dark market. And these quieter scenes only serve to throw into high relief the trauma of chaos in the hanging square and the subsequent storm-fed battles on the hill. 

Images of images

Finbar Hawkins’ own skilful drawings front each chapter and add wonderfully to the atmosphere, as well as foreshadowing themes, becoming partners with the words in creating  rich imagery. One of his particular touches of  design genius is the way small silhouettes creep across the text pages, around chapter heads and into blank spaces in the text block; leaves, feathers, creatures, dandelion seeds. They draw the eye and the mind of the reader through the story and deeper into its meaning. And, oh, the blood magic! Oh, those crows!

I have seen this book classified as ‘Women’s and Girls’ YA’. However, it would be a crying shame if its audience were limited, even to such an important one. Men and boys need to read it too.Even those who themselves stand with the ‘good man’, and I hope there are many, will rightly cringe at the despicable acts their sex commit. All the more reason they need to read it. More important though, no avid reader who is old enough should miss this wonderful writing from a debut writer.

When the power of language and the power of story meld so thrillingly together, they make something very special, and important - witching magic. They leave us

‘Dancers all of the day’ 

Monday, 5 October 2020

The Book of Hopes Edited by Katherine Rundell

Cover: Axel Scheiffler 

Hopes come . .

Ever since it arrived in this morning’s post, from the wonderful Sam Read Bookshop in Grasmere, I have spend today’s down-time browsing this delightful anthology. It is a true treasure chest, and, quite the opposite of Pandora’s box. Open it and out fly clouds of glowing enchantment: poems, illustrations and short prose passages from many of our very finest children’s writers and book artists. Each, in their own way, brings a warm message  of hope, optimism and encouragement. Their multitude of bright colours truly glow in a world that might at present feel particularly dull and bleak.

. . . not single spies . . .

These are little gems for our times, but far more too. The need for hope, comfort and inspiration extends far beyond our current pandemic and I am sure this book will have much to offer to many children (and perhaps others too) in many places, and under many circumstances, for many years to come. 

As well as for children themselves, this book is a real gift for parents, carers, grandparents and teachers.The numerous lovely little snippets make it ideal for just picking up, dipping into and sharing at odd moments of time, odd moments of need. And it has more to offer too than just its comfort and encouragement. It will also act as an introduction for children and their adults to many quite wonderful writers and illustrators that they may not yet know, but will surely, after this, want to explore further. Were I still teaching, this book would be always to hand on  my desk, ready to pick up and share whenever those few spare minutes arise, precious little oases before the next thing in class life needs to happen.

. . . but in battalions 

The lists of ‘Further Reading’ that Katherine Randell has added to the end of the book, are themselves a wonderful source of inspiration. Herself one of our finest contemporary writers for young people, she clearly has extensive awareness of some of the very special books currently around for each age group. Perhaps because it is her own main audience, her suggestions for ‘Older Readers’ (MG) are particularly rich and extensive. I would be surprised if even avid readers don’t find some titles here that they do not yet know and are encouraged to seek out. 

It is yet another bonus that proceeds from the sale of this book are supporting ‘NHS Charities Together’. Buy it. Treasure it. Share it. And like the figure on Lauren Child’s brilliantly simple but evocative endpaper, look out to see bright birds of hope. 

Lauren Child