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

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

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

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Earlier books by Laura Ruby

Catching up

Having been so completely taken with York: The Shadow Cipher (see my post from January '18), I decided to catch up on some earlier children's books from this clearly talented writer, which had previously passed me by. Turns out it was a sad omission, but I have thankfully caught up now. 

Some children's writers seem to start off with an amazing blockbuster of a book, but then spend a career trying in vain to really match it. Others rollercoaster between fine novels and less convincing ones.  Yet others develop a remarkable consistency, often through long series and sequences of books and establish themselves as real favourites.There are a rare few authors, though, usually the finest of all, who just get better and better, who continually develop their skill and thrill  us with ever more breathtakingly writing. Laura Ruby is one such. However, to say she keeps on developing as a children's writer is in no way to patronise or belittle her early work; the graph of her improvement starts somewhere around 'highly enjoyable'' and rises quickly to  'totally outstanding'. She has explored a range of audiences in her overall output, writing for teens and adults as well as for children, and I am sure this will have helped to hone her craft. As you might expect though, I have focused essentially on her books for younger readers. 

The Ghost-of-Wonders-Yet-to-Come

Lily's Ghosts seems to be Laura Ruby's first published childen's book, from 2003, although it was reissued in a new edition in 2011 (pictured), presumably once some of  her other books had become popular.

It is essentially  a 'tweenage' title with a basic story about a girl, the eponymous Lily, who has had to move to a strange house in a new town and feels displaced from her former life and friends. This is a scenario not uncommon in children's books, but Laura Ruby riffs very imaginatively and entertainingly on this 'standard' theme. The tale draws very loosely on a once 'gentile' US seaside resort, and its out of season atmosphere. It is enlived by a cast which includes several ghosts (including at least one with considerable 'attitude' and one with a Dark past) an aging-hippy mother, a fake medium and an intriguing mystery involving the disturbing  hauntings. It is occasionally creepy but more often very funny indeed. However, the heart and highlight of the book is the developing relationship between Lily and Vaz, the boy she (literally) bumps into and falls for (in both senses). Encounters between these two result in a good deal of hugely entertaining dialogue, a strong feature which is to become something of a 'trademark' in all this writer's books. Vaz also provides a fine role model of a boy who reads (an exceedingly good thing) and Lily does a great line in put-downs if anyone expresses opinions which might be called 'male chauvinist' (making her an even better role model perhaps). 

Despite the tale's supernatural elements and its predominance of humour, Laura Ruby manages to explore a range of human feeling and relationships with touching understanding. Unfortunately the highly melodramatic last few chapters, together with a rather trite ending, almost detract from all the good things the book has to offer - but not quite. 

This title clearly carries within it the embryos of the even finer works to follow, and is worth seeking out in its own right as an entertaining read for the appropriate age group. 

Visibly fine

However, Laura Ruby gets fully into her children's fantasy stride with The Wall and the Wing. It is is a real cracker, one of the very best of the post-Potter years. It may not be quite the book that York is, but that is only because it stands in the shadow of a masterpiece. It already shows many of the signature qualities of this fine author: vivid imagination tempered with great sensitivity, explored through rich language and laced throughout with delightful humour. 

Compared to most other recent children's fantasies, it is wonderfully original. True, its basic story premise - supposed orphans living in a decrepit institution ruled  by a horrendous 'matron' - is one that has been much exploited already. But, in, around and beyond this, Laura Ruby's imagination soars. The idea of children wanting to fly, or to turn invisible (or both), which lies at the heart of this tale, treats of fantasies that fascinate and resonate with us all. The protagonist are warmly likeable (and humanly flawed) and the villains are suitably dastardly and monstrous. The action is non-stop, and continually enthralling, even though the plot is strewn with wild coincidences and Dick-Barton-style escapes. 

In fact the  story is wild, crazy. The precepts that underly its magic - its Wings, Wall, Professor, monkeys, Punks, villains and all - are somewhat complex and sometimes confusing. But to the reader, this matters not at all. It is is a rich imagination-fest, a smorgasbord of fantasy concepts, characters, conflicts and contentions. It is a constant joy, a truly thrilling read. 

It also holds another bud that will blossom in a later book, a deep affection for  New York.  In fact, in Chapter 11 the two protagonists, Gurl and Bug, find themselves in Central Parkt at night and experience the city in a particularly magical way, in every sense. It makes for a very special and affecting piece of writing.

This excellent  fantasy seem to have been rather overlooked (here in the UK at least) which is a great pity. It has huge kid appeal and I am sure many young readers would enjoy it no end. It is well worth digging out*. 

Mind the Gap

Bone Gap may seem a slight anomaly in this little survey as it is most definitely a YA title (even edging towards adult). However I do from time to time include such titles on this blog, if they are sufficiently exceptional. And this one is most certainly that. Even more though, it seems to me to represent another huge development in Laura Ruby's writing, and as such begs inclusion here. 

It is in many respects ways a fantasy, although it is one with a close, even intense, relationship to the reality of both the book's world and our own. It is a fantasy that delves into character more than it defines setting; a fantasy that explores themes more than it established context. It places very real people into a fantasy context, but does so in a way that augments their reality rather than diminishing it. 

Terrible beauty

It is firmly rooted in place (small town rural America) yet it is as much about about 'inscape' (in the sense coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins) as it is about landscape. It is about how we see people  (or we don't), about what we love in a person (or don't), about not having the right to possess some one just because we think them beautiful.  It is itself a beautiful story, but also a deeply disturbing one. It is written in stunningly beautiful, but never, pretentious, language . More than any of the earlier titles, the story it tells becomes intimately blended with both the form and the language of its telling. It develops far further too the use of dry humour and repartee, very effectively conveying character and development through dialogue as much as through continuous prose. It is a complex book, yet a completely cohesive one. It is very American and yet totally universal. 

Although a very different book, it strikes me as something of an American equivalent of Alan Garner's The Owl Service - and that is saying a great deal, for I consider The Owl Service as one of the finest examples of children's literature, period. 

Bone Gap has been heaped with awards and accolades, and deservedly so. 

And now York

However, the outstanding quality of Bone Gap notwithstanding, I for one am delighted that Laura Ruby has now returned to MG fiction. And I think that she has brought the exceptional writing quality of that title forward with her, albeit appropriately translated for her younger audience. She also capitalises on some of the wonderful strengths of her earlier MG books, adding greater cohesion without losing an ounce of imagination or richness. The 'trademark' dry humour and delicious dialogue, of course, remain. And there are always cats. 

I am hopeful that we are just about entering a time when the very best YA fiction is being recognised (at least in some quarters) as meritorious literature. However, I am also well aware that many adults still rather look down on Children's (MG) Fiction as an intrinsically inferior form, if indeed it merits being called literature at all. They may well think her latest book a bit of a come down from Bone Gap. I beg to disagree on all counts. Although for a largely different readership, I think York is every bit the equal of Bone Gap in quality and import and is indeed Laura Ruby's second masterpiece to date. Bring on the next instalment. (Again, I refer you to my detailed post about York - from January '17 - if you haven't already been there.)

Up amongst the stars

There are a number of American MG (loosely 'magic fantasy') authors who I rate amongst the very finest currently writing in English. I now need to add Laura Ruby to this glowing list, alongside Anne Ursu, Kate Milford, Adam Gidwits and Kelly Barnhill. Even though we have some outstanding writers this side of 'the pond' too, UK readers (including parents and teachers) should not bypass these transatlantic gems, which will add enormously to the richness of children's reading. 

*The Wall and the Wing, originally published in 2006, was a few years later, given what seems to me to have been a somewhat misguided 'makeover'. It was reissued with the rather unexciting, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of The Invisible Girl. If this is the edition you come across, and like me initially react rather unenthusiastically, I can only beg you not to judge the book by its cover.  

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Max and the Millions by Ross Montgomery

'The world is filled with millions of miracles that no one sees.' (p 230)

Jumping the reading queue

Very occasionally it happens that (even when I am in the middle of reading something, and very much enjoying it) I pick up a new book, just to see what its like, and end up not putting it down again until I have finished the whole thing. It just happened again. Maybe it was the tabloid headline masquerading as a book title that got me going. More likely it was the very striking cover image. (I think that the intense close-up version of David Litchfiel's super illustration works brilliantly on the UK paperback). Mostly though, it was the story and its telling that hooked me straight in and never let go.

Of course, the author's name had a lot to do with it too. Ross Montgomery writes highly original and imaginative books that are hugely entertaining, often riotously funny, and more than anything, what I call 'kid friendly'. (Which is a quality the world of children's reading very much needs.) They are easy, comfortable reads for the young to become engrossed in, and yet they also offer a good deal to think about too. They reflect the world that children know and need to know, as well as the sort of world to which they like to escape.  Ross Montgomery seems to have a quiet genius for understanding (or remembering) how kids think and feel, as well as what interests and entertains them. His books are exactly the sort to help turn children who can read into children who do. He has already written a growing little pile of such books, and yet I think this one could be his best yet. 


Max's millions are, in fact, not pounds, dollars or euros, they are, rather, millions of tiny people living in their own miniature 'kingdom', spread across the floor of a room in Max's school. 

There is a happy tradition of tiny people stories threaded through the history of children's literature, almost all of them delightful  When my son was much younger, one of his bedtime favourites was Raymond Briggs' hilarious graphic story of The Man. And there are, of course, real classics, like Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Curboard and Mary Norton's Borrowers. I can't think of any though that have so many little folk as this, or ones that are quite so microscopic. Ross Montgomery's latest creations are a delightful and innovative addition to the species. They are often hilarious too, but then so is the whole book. (Have I said that already? If not I should have. It is highly pertinent.) Possibly the closest to these particular miniature creations are Terry Pratchett 's  The Carpet People, but that is a very different book, albeit equally delightful and also very funny indeed. 

Hearing and understanding 

However, there are other important elements too, in the writing of Max and the Millions , which add up to its being such a fine addition to this little canon. Not least, by a long way, is the creation of Max himself. The engaging protagonist of this story, is profoundly deaf, a condition that renders him important in so many ways. Books which promote understanding and inclusion, either directly or (probably better) by implication, are thankfully becoming more common. However a mainstream children's book featuring a deaf child in its 'lead role' is still too rare, so this  one is to be most warmly welcomed. Children who are differently abled crucially need to be able to find others like themselves in the stories they read. Just as importantly hearing youngsters need to see deaf children quite naturally and properly playing an important role in fiction, so that they can learn to see them in the same way in real life. Further, this portrait of Max, and his relationship with his new American friend Sasha, have much to teach about how we can all most helpfully relate to deaf peope, not least by treating them as deaf, and not as stupid - or even as not there at all. Although what happens to Max is often very funny indeed, it is never his deafness itself that is the source of the humour. He is so well written by Ross Montgomery that we relate to him as a person first and as a deaf person second - and both with warmth and understanding. He becomes our friend as much as Sacha's. And that in itself makes this book very special. 

A gentle intro to narrative complexity

There are other things too. The story of Max and the Millions is largely told through a double narrative with Max's direct experiences interleaved with a separate account of what is happening in the miniature world. To this is added occasional further complexity with quotes from a supposed 'Book of the Floor'. This is all kept very clear for young readers , through the undoubted skill of the writing reinforced by the use of different typography for each perspective  of narrative. It is very valuable for young readers to be introduced to such fictional devices in a way that is still fully appropriate and accessible to them. It begins to prepare them, gently, and probably even unconsciously, for the approaches of later, more sophisticated fiction, wonderfully supporting their growth as readers. 

Yet, within this relatively sophisticated structure, Max and the Millions  remains a twisting, looping rollercoaster of a read, soaring and plunging with as many thrills as giggles and as many screeches as chortles. Ross Montgomery's plotting is that of a true master of storytelling and will lead its gripped young readers delightedly and inexorably towards its satisfying (and edifying) conclusion. 

The little things are big things

In amongst all the hilarity, adventure and excitement, this is a book which gives young readers plenty of important messages too, without ramming them down young throats; plenty to think over, but without them feeling preached at. It emphasises the value of  peace over war, of cooperation over conflict; it graphically demonstrates the corrupting potential of power; it promotes the consoling, and indeed redemptive, view that we can make amensds for our all-too-human mistakes. More than  than anything, however, it highlights the importance of the little things in life, the significance of the 'butterfly effect', the pertinence of detail. Literally and metaphorically, it celebrates the tiny things that happen in our world that are so easy to overlook and undervalue. 

'The world is filled with miracles which no one sees, '  says one of the characters. (p 261) It is an important thing for our children to know too.  And, as well as entertaining them grandly, this book will help them to be more aware of it. Ross Montgomery's wise closing words in his 'Acknowledgements' are, 'Take care of the small things - they make up,the entire universe.'

Max and the Millions, is, it has to be said, relatively dominated by boy characters. However there have (thank goodness) been so many recent novels for children with strong girl leads, that this doesn't really matter - or may even be good for balance. In any case there is at least a subsidiary character here (Ivy from amongst the 'millions') who is more than feisty and effective enough to keep the flag flying for 'rebel girls'. 

My high street Book of the Month

Weirdly, the UK's major high street chain bookshop has just made the same novel its 'Children's Book of the Month' for two months running, February and March, as though there were nothing new good enough in March to succeeded their February selection. I for one would certainly have singled out Max and the Millions for this month instead. 

US readers can be pleased that this super book is being published over there very soon (mid March from Wendy Lamb Books). I will have to buy myself their hardback too. It is in paperback only over here, and this is a title well worth adding to my long-term collection. It may not have pretentions to great literature, but it is a fine children's book. Ross Montgomery is making a very substantial contribution to encouraging and developing children's reading - and so to their lives. 

(However, one will suffice!)