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.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Twelve Nights by Andrew Zurcher

'Sometimes there are truths and comforts and ways in stories that are not so apparent outside stories. Sometimes stories are answers, or make answers possible. Sometimes they are the mothers of answers.' (p 94)

Some achieve greatness

It is always good to welcome a new authorial voice to children's fantasy fiction - especially when it is as exciting a one as Andrew Zurcher's. 

Today's young readers are fortunate. There is a truly outstanding range of quality fiction available to them from wonderful contemporary writers. The choice is even more extensive if we include the best of titles written in the later half of the twentieth century, many of which remain fully accessible as well as fairly easily available. This amounts to a treasure trove of high quality reading material waiting for those who are prepared to look beyond the piles of current best sellers in the high street stores - or those who are favoured with knowledgable adults to guide them*.  

However, just a handful of times in each generation, we are gifted children's books that are truly great. In such a category I would certainly include: Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea: Alan Garner's The Owl Service; Philip Pullman's Northern Lights; Richard Adams' Watership Down; Lois Lowry's The Giver; Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. Other people's lists might vary slightly, but I think there would be a broad consensus as to the outstanding quality of most of these titles. 

It is perfectly possible that, in time, Twelve Nights will be seen as belonging in this group too. 

Of course, any such a statement needs to be cautious, at such an early stage after its first publication.  This is a book that I feel I will need to read several more times, over a period, before I really start to appreciate everything it has to offer. More importantly, it will need deep appreciation from a wide spectrum of readers over many years to fully achieve such status. However, Twelve Nights certainly possess many of the defining qualities of my listed books, and combines those qualities into a whole of stunning originality and richness.  

It came o’er my ear like the sweet south

Fictional debut this may be, but from its opening pages, it becomes evident that Andrew Zurcher is no novice writer. The first thing to strike me was the elegance of his prose, the substantial yet unobtrusive skill of its crafting and its mellifluous fall on the reading ear. This is emphatically not the easy-read, staccato rendering of many young children's writers, nor a trendy playing around with narrative tense to achieve immediacy or impact. This is English prose at its richest and finest and provides a wonderful opportunity for young readers to become immersed in the splendours of our language. 

'Behind them lay the soft glow and hum of the small city, but before them a whole scape of darkness, furred by a little mist off the water, lay thick but scattering, like the cloak a magician might wave over a trick, just before revealing its marvel. 
'Look at that,' said Phantastes, 'Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?'' (p 232)

AndrewZurcher's writing is equally beautiful. Nor is he afraid to linger, without ever wallowing. He writes long, atmospheric descriptions, be they of places, characters, events or feelings. They serve truly to transport you, the reader, into the world of his story; they give you time to live there, to come to know it, to experience it intimately and vividly. He is a master in painting both internal and external landscape and of melding each with the other in full service of his mesmerising tale. 

What country, friends, is this?

To this, he adds the most fertile fantasy imagination that I have encountered in a very long while. True, at its most basic level, this is a story about a girl who goes off into a 'fantasy' world in order to try to find and rescue her missing father, probably one of the most frequently encountered scenarios in all of children's fantasy fiction. However beyond this simple core, Twelve Nights, exudes originality from every page

Once lifted, by balloon no less, away from the reality of contemporary Cambridge, the world to which protagonist Kate, and her sister, Ell, travel centres on Bithynia, a place suspended somewhere between geography and dreams. However their travels also roam through more recognisable locations, although again ones with romantic and mythic associations: Alexandria, Rome, Pylos, Paris. Alongside strong human characters, the author's storyscape is co-habited by wraiths and phantasms. They are the embodiments of folklore, creatures of faerie, in but not of our world - or is that the other way around? Indeed, one of the many fascinating aspects of this novel is the ambiguity of its relationship to our own reality. 

Early in her balloon journey from Cambridge, Kay has a conversation with one of the wraiths flying her away. 

'Where are we going?'  she said after a while. 'Are we going to another world?' . . . 
'So far as I know,' Will said, the suspicion of a grin turning up the corners of his mouth, 'this is the only world there is.' (p 49,50)

There may well be no reason to doubt Will here. But then this is a book to read with a one eye metaphorically closed, to look at askance. Seeing this strange world less clearly, we may just see it more fully. We should not try to own it, but to let it own us . Like a great book, it then gives us back our own selves. What we thought fantastic becomes our world after all.  This is a world of imagination only insofar as image and metaphor are the stuff of fantasy, the stock-in-trade of poets and storytellers. It is our story.  

So full of shapes is fancy

And the very essence of Twelve Nights is story. It is a narrative that is profoundly and richly about story itself. It is about the art and craft of story making and draws deeply on the well of its long traditions. It is also about the reason for stories and the value of their telling. The titular twelve nights are the twelve nights of Christmas, but this is not a Christmas story, in the Christian sense, or even the modern secular one.  The twelve are the twelve nights of storytelling, reaching back into tales, poems and songs from across centuries and seemingly disparate cultures. Here, in reference and retellings, are Scheherazade and  Orpheus, Isis and Osiris, Odysseus - and, above and through all, the elusive, enigmatic 'Bride', who is their Muse, their 'White Goddess'. She is the bard's inspiration. She is the braid. 

Braid? Yes. For the iterative image which dominates and defines this book is that of the loom, the weaving of the fabric of story itself. 

Yet this story also works wonderfully as story in its own right.  It is by turns, exciting , terrifying , amusing, disturbing. It is consistently engrossing. It is a layered onion of a narrative, so that each revelation only uncovers more intriguing questions and keeps the reader desperate to know ever more. In Bithynia, the plotting and imagining components of story-making have been harmfully detached. In fact the whole body of story has suffered 'Sparagmos', been wrenched into separate pieces and dispersed,  like the sacrifice at a Bacchanalian orgy, like the Greek Phaethon, like the Egyptian Osiris. The desperate quest for reintegration which is the narrative's core makes for compulsive reading. Moreover, Andrew Zurcher cannily saves some of his greatest surprises for the book's climax, which is every bit as amazing as it is revelatory. 

All of this is underpinned with characters of real depth and relationships of touching sensitivity. Particularly poignant are Kay's complex feelings for her somewhat estranged yet still beloved father. Similarly, her sense of responsibility for  her sister.  However, possibly most deeply affecting of all is the relationship between the two wraiths, Will and Flip. Their special bond, able to transcend even the rending events of the narrative, is subtly explored but profoundly felt and is one of the most special of all Andrew Zurcher's magical conjurings.

I have unclasp'd to thee the book

With its rich language and extended description, its long apparent diversions into older stories, its complex plotting and its extended metaphors, this is not a quick, easy book to read. But, then, which of the great books I listed earlier are? It is, therefore, probably not the right book to give to entice a reluctant reader. It needs an experienced young book-lover of intelligence and sophistication. But there is nothing wrong in that. Children's literature must  provide for all. And, for the right readers, it will return immeasurable rewards. For all it is written with great scholarship, it is actually still a book that can and should be read by children, as well as adults.  It needs to be read as a child - experienced as much as understood, lived in and through rather than dissected. As the author himself points out:

'An image cannot be both known and understood, both seen and grasped. . . In the act of imagination we perceive, and perhaps admire, but to interpret, we must also destroy the image.' (p 235) 

Children may well be better than any of us at responding to archetypal resonances without feeling the need constantly to analyse and 'understand' them. 

Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote of his science:

'The incompleteness and the uncertainty of our knowledge, our precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don’t know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.'** 

Andrew Zurcher immerses his audience in the scarcely fathomable universe that is story, with all its curved spacetime and quantum fields. He refigures Einstein's beautiful formula as a song of Penelope's, its elements warp and woof and weave, loom, shuttle, pirn, thread and braid. He does not present his young readers with certainties, but he makes their lives more interesting and precious. 

Ghast, the arch-villain of the book, would have the Honourable Assembly of Bithynia  abandon their long traditions of weaving stories  in favour of  'managing, packaging and selling' them. Into his mouth the author puts the stinging indictment: 

'Who pours by weak candlelight over the heavy volumes of old tales? . . . Who knows them now? Scholars! . . . Scholars  who would sooner own a story than honour it, who would sooner scorn a tale than have skill in it. ' (p 414) 

Yet Andrew Zurcher proves than he is a scholar who does honour stories, and one who has consummate skill in their making.   

The same character also asks:

'For whose sake shall we rebuild our great library?  For whose sake re-hang the great tapestried hall?' (p 415) 

In and through the very nature of the book he has chosen to write, the author answers his own question. And he answers it correctly. It is for the sake of our children. For them, his book is the future of a wondrous past. 

A dying fall

The book closes with an image of a woman playing a piano. I must leave you to discover its import for yourself. Suffice to say that it is the most potent and powerful such image I remember encountering since D H Lawrence's famous poem. 

The future status of his book may not yet be determined. But for the present Andrew Zurcher weaves us a story that is breathtaking in its imagining, masterly in its realisation and profound in its resonance.  We must wrap its fabulous fabric around us and live for a while cloaked in its enriching mysteries. 

There is a particular children's publisher who invites readers to sample by way of a back cover strap saying: 'Try page such-and-such.'  To apply that here, I suggest you try pages 232-234. If you share my responses at all (and of course you may not) you will find this passage, and indeed the whole book, deeply affecting. 

*Dare one suggest that librarians might be an asset here?
**Reality is not what it seems: The journey to quantum gravity, Carlo Rovelli, pub. Allen Lane (Penguin), 2016

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks illustrated by Quinton Winter

Go girls

It is vitally important to help girls to see that they can become whatever they want to be and to provide them with role models to support this; to encourage them to throw off the shackles of restrictive gender stereotypes and the pernicious influence of those who perpetuate them. On this site, I have been delighted to be able recommend a range books with strong girl protagonists, of which there are now many  excellent examples. Similarly, I have warmly welcomed the Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls books, together with the flood of similar titles that has followed in the wake of their enormous and deserved popularity. In fact I chose the original as one of the books I wanted my young granddaughter to grow up with, and through. (See my post from December '17.)

But what about the boys?

However, it can sometimes be easy to overlook that the growth and development of boys too can be seriously, sometimes disastrously, harmed by the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. The issue with boys is often not so much what sort of opportunities they can or can't have, as what sort of person they can or can't be. 

Perhaps the most insidious stereotype here is that of the 'proper lad', the boy who likes football and things mechanical (especially cars), who behaves confidently and boisterously and generally expects to get what he wants. If he acts aggressively, well, it is only to be expected really, he is just 'being a boy'. If he is tempted to go off script and show weakness or emotion, then he will remember (or be reminded) that he needs to 'man up'. This may be an oversimplification- but it is not all that much of one. 

Of course there is nothing wrong in itself with liking football or cars, although the aggression is a different matter. The problem is the pressure put on many more sensitive boys who are just not like this, the humiliations they have to endure and the resulting negative impact on self-image and self-worth. Those who do not fit neatly into this mould are often made to feel that they are in some way freakish, 'gay' in the nastily pejorative playground use of the word. Many more are cowed into unwilling attempts to conform with which they never feel truly comfortable. 

The right to weep too

This is not exclusively, or even principally, about boys who may be showing gay or transgender inclinations (although they are an important part of it). It effects boys who are sensitive in many  different ways and can include: those who like to act, dance, sing or play a musical instrument (especially if they play classical music); those who show emotion, appear caring and  empathise readily with others; those who want to do well at school, are academically bright and flourish in tests and exams; those who daydream and imagine; and, very pertinently, those who like to write and to read. Denying any of these the right to be consider himself a 'real boy'  is one of the most heinous cruelties of our society. 

The right to read too

Further, the disastrous attitude that reading is 'not really a boy thing' not only unnecessarily handicaps many educationally, but deprives them of tremendous opportunity to grow and develop as human beings. Associated with this too is a prevalent attitude that books about girls are only for girls. Almost all fiction is fundamentally about human beings, about who we are, about what we have been and what we could become. And we are all human beings.  Through books we learn more about ourselves and about others too. To draw arbitrary lines around their 'appropriateness' on the sole basis of a protagonist's gender is both ludicrous and depriving. 

Stereotypes still

Of course there are many aware, enlightened individuals, families and, indeed whole groups, who would never countenance this negativity. There are many boys too who do dare to throw off the shackles. However we do not need to look far to see how deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and their  associated attitudes still are in our society overall. Very recently we bought a pair of cloth dolls, one girl and one boy, as a present for our young grandchild. They are very attractive toys and actually came from what I would call a very trendy, modern baby product retailer. Yet we had to remove the labels before gifting them; the parents would have been as annoyed by them as we, the grandparents, were. The boy doll, named Tommy, was introduced on the label in this way (verbatim): 'Tommy loves playing football and climbing trees. His favourite toy is a bow and arrow and he is always ready for an adventure,'  as if a boy doll would only be acceptable if  he were made out to be a 'proper lad'! 

If you need further proof go into any high street greeting card shop and look at what are provided as (separately) suitable for girls and boys. Of course this is a looping phenomenon, in which the card manufacturers produce this stuff because it is what people buy. And people buy it because the fact that it is all that is there reinforces their idea of what is appropriate. The self-perpetuating nature of social attitudes more generally is very similar. It is a vicious circle that desperately needs to be broken. 


For these reasons Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different is most warmly welcome as a companion and complement to Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls*. Even more so in that it fills this spot very admirably. The book itself breaks a mould, as did its earlier counterpart.  It is also enormously encouraging to see it already on bestseller lists. Ben Brooks writes his diverse biographies in easy, accessible style and they are each short enough to pique interest and make their point without being overloaded with detail. Many readers will, I am sure, be prompted to find out more about those individuals who catch their imagination. As with the rebel girl books, not everyone will agree with every inclusion or omission, but that is not the point. There are more than enough different personalities, interests and talents represented here for many boys to find role models with whom they can identify, or to whose achievements they can aspire. It is a book whose purpose is to say that there is a huge range of possibilities out there, that it is good to be different, and that 'normal' includes far more than the stereotypes imply. The rebel girl books do, of course, benefit considerably, in quality and diversity from the large number of contemporary female  artists who have contributed. Nevertheless here Quinton Winter does an excellent job by himself; his illustrations are clear, strong and attractive, covering an interesting and varied range of perspectives and formats, even within a core homogeneity of comic-book style. 

The real must haves

Both remarkable books, 'Rebel Girls'* and 'Boys who Dare', should be prominently displayed in classrooms and school libraries and welcomed by parents into homes. Both girls and boys should be encouraged to explore both of them; to read them, talk about them and learn to value them. The addition of 'Boys who Dare', and the  aspirations it embodies, does nothing to distract or detract from the cause of empowerment for girls; rather, the complementary nature of the two books only reinforces the vital importance of each. It is the constriction of both gender stereotypes that still threatens many of our children. Absolutely, we need to encourage and support 'rebel girls', but we also need to do the same for boys who 'dare to be different'. 

One day, I hope, there will need to be nothing rebellious or daring about them at all. Not for these reasons, anyway. 

*And now, of course, Book 2 as well. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

The Book Case: An Emily Lime Mystery by Dave Shelton

'It was no work of literary genius, it was true, but the writing had a certain brutal energy that made it more than worthy of  . . . attention.' (p 12)*

And who lives in a house like this?

Somewhere in Cambridge there is a domicile that will one day need a blue plaque. (Although hopefully not for a long time yet.) Maybe even a gold plated one. That's because it is the home of not one but two of contemporary children's literature's finest author/illustrators. To be a successful children's author is a wonderful thing. Ditto illustrator. But both at the same time? And then two of them? Well. There's a turn up for the bookcase. 

Pam Smy is the creator of Thornhill, a sensitive and telling interleaving of graphic and verbal narration that was one of the very best new children's publications of 2017. It will, I'm sure, come to be considered as the one of the classics of the decade/century/millennium . . . (See my post from August '17; also my Books of the Year.)

Those who read my reviews regularly**, will be aware that I rate A Boy and Bear in a Boat, by her husband, Dave Shelton, as one of my favourite (children's) books ever.  His more recent publications have included the gothic story collection, Thirteen Chairs, and further graphic novels in his Good Dog, Bad Dog series, originally published in the excellent Phoenix Comic. Each are strong examples of their genre. Comic book stories of this quality are particularly welcome as graphic novels can sometimes be too easily dismissed as inferior reading material by guiding adults. 

However, whilst for me not quite knocking the boy-bear-boaty book off its lofty pedestal, it is his latest offering, The Book Case, that comes closest to doing so. It is also a splendid thing in its own right. In it is to be found much of the same deliciously dry humour and joyfully absurd comedy as in the earlier book, albeit in a very different context. 

Not remotely boring

'The door opened and a boring-looking man in a boring looking raincoat came out of the boring-looking door. 
"It looks a bit . . . boring, doesn't it?" said George.'

On one level, this is a gloriously funny send-up of the currently popular boarding-school-girl-detective novels (à la wonderful Robin Stevens). However these books themselves also have elements of parody (of both older girls' school stories and 'cosy' detective fiction), so this is essentially a spoof of a spoof, which itself adds wonderful layers to its effulgent humour. The sending-up is, however, affectionate, not in any way malicious, and is all the more hilarious for it. In fact this whole midnight feast of a book is a counterpane replete with humour: wit so dry it is as desiccated as the coconut on a macaroon, one-liners as sparkling as ginger pop (or as corny as tinned beef), absurdity by the brimming bowl full***  and enough slapstick and farce to have you wobbling like a jelly. There are ludicrously grotesque characters, too, and some improbable heroes, a nonexistent librarian - and (as of course is required these days) a token boy. 

And, remarkably, in and amongst all this, there is still an engrossing mystery that litters red herrings, leads down blind alleys, and surprises at every turn. It will keep young readers enthralled and guessing to the last. 

Oh, and the clever author manages somehow to get in a few good plugs for libraries and books too - even reading. 

All in all, this is as joyous and entertaining a romp as you could hope to read on a wet Wednesday in Withernsea (or indeed anywhere else). 

Cover story

The book is greatly enhanced by Dave Shelton's own profuse illustrations. Highly entertaining in themselves, they have the same sense of self-conscious send-up, mixed with rumbustious delight, as if, perhaps,  Ronald Searle had illustrated Mallory Towers instead of St Trinian's. They complement the text brilliantly and add yet another layer to its delights.  

This may not be a work of 'literary genius' (as the man said), but it is one of considerable flair and comic (if not 'brutal')  energy. In time, I am sure Pam Smy's (self-deprecating) husband will also be fully appreciated and deemed worthy of that plaque (or at least a bit of it).  Meanwhile his book should be sought out by eager hoards, whether they look on the mystery shelves, in the children's school story section or indeed amongst the comedy greats, where I think it most aptly belongs. 

I know you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case (sorry!) if you find the title and jacket illustration amusing and intriguing, then I think there is a very good chance you will revel in the contents too. 

*There's nothing to beat an author writing his own review. 
**That's both my wife and my daughter (although I wouldn't swear to my daughter). 
*** Viz: In order to facilitate the pilfering of food from the school larder, the pupils have excavated a tunnel beneath the ground floor, and even wallpapered it - although they haven't yet got around to hanging the pictures. Brilliant. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

'I don't know what's really real, but then nobody does. All I know is I'm ten years old and . . . '

As strange as fiction

I have been a big fan of Christopher Edge ever since his hugely entertaining Victorian 'melodrama' series about PennyDreadful*, to me even better children's historical thrillers than the Sally Lockhart tales from Philip Pullman.  

However he really hit his full stride and established himself as one of our finest and most important contemporary children's writers when he moved his focus from history to science for the stunning The Many Worlds of Albie Bright (see my review from April '17) and then the equally impressive The Jamie Drake Equation. 

He has now followed  these, indeed possibly surpassed them, in the devastating The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day. 

Much of the the theorising of recent science, especially in the fields of astrophysics and quantum mechanics, is deeply, if disturbingly, fascinating. In dealing with the infinitesimally small and the infinitely vast (if these are indeed different) they propose concepts that are nothing short of mind-blowing; throwing  to the winds many of the understandings, and indeed perceptions, that we have taken to be 'reality'. Their  empirical and calculation-based theories legitimise understanding that exists only in the speculative imagination. They draw together science and fantasy to a point where they almost seem to merge. 

Unsurprisingly then, a number of writers have tried to make these ideas accessible to children, either through the fictionalised presentation of information (so-called 'faction') or by incorporating them into fiction proper. However, few, if any, have been as successful at it as Christopher Edge. This is in no small part because he brings two writerly qualities to his obvious fascination with the science: a highly developed skill in storytelling and a remarkable ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of children realistically (and movingly). 

Reality check - big time 

Besides many profound ideas, Albi Bright is laced with delightful humour. Jamie Drake involves elements of SciFi. Maisie Day, in contrast, majors on what might best be called human drama - and very intense, often terrifying drama it is too. At the heart of this book is a sensitive and moving exploration of the relationship between siblings; its rivalries and jealousies, its loyalties and its love. Under, above and, indeed through this, though, is a deep and often disturbing exploration of what reality might be and mean, and an examination of the science that brings into question our narrow and often automatic assumptions about what is and isn't real. Here are the Big Bang and Black Holes, infinity and the Möbius loop, Escher's art and the virtual worlds of computer gaming. It is powerful stuff indeed. 

And all is quite magically interwoven in Christopher Edge's skilful story structure. Initially feeling like a double narrative, suggesting perhaps that the same day is playing out in contrasting 'parallel worlds', the two strands become increasingly entwined in ways that are richly intriguing. Strangely, the unfolding picture is simultaneously mystifying and illuminating. Scientific explanations never feel didactic because of the clever way they are integrated into the storyline. It is a comparatively short book. eminently readable, yet at times almost poetic in its condensation, the intensity of its emotions and the potency of its images. I am generally not a fan of present tense narrative, but there are exceptions, and this is one. Here the essential 'in the moment' nature of protagonist Maisie's different experiences are perfectly caught, and tellingly contrasted. Form and content are ideally matched and it is hard to conceive it working as well were it narrated in any other way. You experience everything with Maisie as it happens. But what you (and Maisie) see may very well not be what you get. 

A winning formula

Christopher Edge's recent book seems to hang on that very cusp where fiction meets physics, to inhabit the ground where imagination and theorising blend. It deals in metaphor as much as it does in knowledge, in 'subjective' experience as much as in empiricism, in perceptions not certainties - and even they may be deceptive. Thus it  epitomises quite beautifully the reality/unreality enigma upon which it draws. Like the science itself it does not really provide answers. But it will help many children to seek and to question, to ponder and to wonder, to imagine .  And is that not an important part of what fiction is for? 

Christopher Edge's books have now been nominated for major awards on several occasions. Come on. Get real. It's high time he won one of the big ones. 

*Twelve Minutes to Midnight, Shadows on the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy. 

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

'Normal, boremal. Peculiar's coolier.' (p 3)

Difference is good

Here is a very different book from ones I have reviewed recently, but it is occasionally good to have a reading break from the intense dramas like The Endless King (previous post), and this comparatively gentle book is warmly recommendable for other reasons 

The Lotterys Plus One, the first novel for children by the author of Room, will be valued by the enlightened liberal-minded as implicit and explicit  reinforcement of many important principles of freedom, equality and inclusion. However I think it may also prove a challenge to some parents and teachers, because of the lifestyle it portrays. Despite this (indeed, because of it) it is an important and welcome book, since it could well help towards ensuring that a younger generation do not grow up with the same fears and prejudices as some of their elders. I sincerely hope it will not be denied to them. 

Quite a family

This book is essentially a tale about a particular family. The Lotterys may be unconventional, chaotic, even somewhat anarchic, but they are bright and sparky, with lively banter, wordplay and 'in' jokes a continual descant to their everyday activities. To some degree they are reminiscent of the Brockmans in UK TV sitcom Outnumbered. There are just more of them. A lot more. Indeed, the sheer number in this fictional family, and their tendency to use terminology that is not only (to us)  transatlantic but also idyosincratic to the family, can mean the text is not always the easiest to follow  Consequently, this is probably a book for reasonably able young readers, who are quick on the uptake, and able to go with the flow of this somewhat eccentric but endearing household. However, the many who can, will be totally engaged and hugely entertained. A picture of the whole family, with names, is presented at the front of the book (rather an equivalent to the map in a fantasy novel) and this is very helpful in orientating the reader, particularly whilst still getting to know the various siblings. 

Most importantly, though, The Lotterys is a peon to individuality, diversity and inclusion. The large family is co-parented by two same-sex couples and the largely adopted children represent a wide a mix of racial heritages. The personalities, interests and and talents of the family members are hugely diverse and individual too. Even more pertinent perhaps than their ethnic diversity, they represent 'neurodiversity ': 'brains not being the same as each other.' Yet clearly all are valued and loved for who they are, wonderful examples of children being supported to develop into whoever they want to be.  All of this gives such important messages to young readers. There is also much in the book that reinforces awareness of our environment, and the potential impact of lifestyle upon it, which is only slightly less important. 

Grumpy Gramps

The introduction to the family home of a cantankerous grandfather ('Gramps' or, more often, 'Grumps') is a clever narrative device His presence continually highlights the negative effect on a would-be free and inclusive society of old-world reactionary thinking (of which there is, sadly, still a very great deal around*). Grumps coming to live with them has quite an impact on the daily lives of the Lotteries, and indeed it is the family's struggles to adapt to his presence which provides the book's main storyline. For this is no rollercoaster action adventure. It is simply a window into of the life of a family over a few weeks.  In this sense it could perhaps be considered a sort of update on The Family from One End Street, although The Lotterys is even more consistently domestic and familial in its narrative than Eve Garnett's classic. 

Yet the comparative simplicity of this storytelling is deceptive. It is actually very involving as well as hugely entertaining. The present tense narrative (in an objective third person voice, as opposed to the currently trendy first person) is very effective. It gives us something of the feeling of  watching a video, a sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary, allowing us into many intimate and revealing moments of the family's life.  However,the fictional nature of the story also lets us share the thoughts and feelings of protagonist, nine year old Sumac. None of the Lotterys are perfect people of course, but their flaws and foibles  only serve to make them more endearing, none less so than Sumac herself. Her delightful nine-year-old character is quite beautifully conjured by Emma Donoghue. And at least the Lotterys all try to live lives according to their heart-felt principles, to 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk'. That they actually succeed quite a lot of the time is even more remarkable. 

Opening up

It may be that some parents and teachers (or retired ones like me) have concerns about the model of home schooling' presented in the book. However, for me, this is far outweighed by its multiple positives. In any case we should welcome this and other potential controversies. Discussion points in children's books are a splendid thing, provided they are met with opportunity for open and honest exchange. Children should not be patronised.They are  perfectly capable of making up their own minds about issues. Our task is to help ensure they have sufficient balanced evidence upon which to base their opinions. The real danger is the rigid-minded self-righteousness that is the start of  prejudice, whatever its matter. 

A new normal

The Lotterys Plus One is indeed a celebration of, 'Normal, boremal. Peculiar's coolier,' if we take 'normal' and 'peculiar' as understood by reactionary conservatism. However, in terms of human beings and their relationships, Emma Donoghue's book helps positively to expand our concept of the loving family, and our appreciation of individual worth. It shows us an alternative, and better, 'normal'. In  doing so it, perhaps, also provides a metaphor for how our own societies could better learn to rub along as a human family.  I wish. 

The book is greatly enhanced by Caroline Hadilaksono's copious illustrations which beautifully capture both the diversity and exuberance of the Lottery family. All in all, it is rather special. 

*As a grandfather myself, at the age and stage of a potential 'Grumps', this story was a timely rememinder to look for the huge positives in many things that 'weren't like that in my day'. In fact I had better start by embracing the glorious mess of 'baby-led weaning'. As soon as I've posted this I'm off to buy avocado, cucumber, yoghurt and broccoli as  'finger food' offerings for her impending visit. Oh, and a huge bib to catch the copious dribble. (We won't discuss who that's for.)

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Endless King (Knights of the Borrowed Dark: Book 3) by Dave Rudden

'You've spent your whole life . . . steeling yourself for disappointment and pain . . and yet when someone needs you you're there, blood and bone.' (p 356)

This is war

The cover says 'Rudden is an author to watch.' Wrong. Dave Rudden is an author to read. But only for those who dare. 

Protagonist, Denizen, recruit to magical power though he is, fighter of supreme evil though he is, is no Harry Potter. 

If you liked Harry Potter you may not like this. (Or you may just be blown away by it.)  It could be called Harty Potter with attitude. It could be called Harry Potter with edge.  But actually is not Harry Potter at all. It is the nightmare Harry Potter never lived. It scorns children playing with magic. It is not about children playing at all. It is about magic children fighting a real war. It is about magic children living life at its darkest. Harry's is the magic you always wanted to have. Denizen's, believe me, is a magic you never want to know. This dark 'tween'/teen fantasy is closer to Sally Green* than it is to JK Rowling. It is, however, brilliant. Devastatingly brilliant. Terrifyingly brilliant. Awesomely brilliant. Breathtakingly brilliant. 

Black rain

This is emphatically the third of a trilogy, the culmination of Knights of the Borrowed Dark. (See my reviews of the first two volumes, posted May '16 and May '17.) It is not the book to start with.Denizen needs all his previous training and experience to face what is here. And he still not truly prepared. As the reader you will need all your experience of style, plot and characters from the previous two books. And you still won't be prepared for this. The text is dark, dense and intense. So is the action. It can be hard to follow. Images are as thick as unsrirred treacle, rich as triple chocolate. Go with the flow. It will propel you on in a tide of surging language. It will take you to horrendous places. It will submerge you in a sea of tumultuous warfare. It will pit you against the essence of a blackness way deeper than the borrowed dark we know. Voices speak from the void. They come at you from all over, just as they come at Denizen and his companions Whose are they? Their own , their comrades' , intrusive thoughts, the voices of the terrible Tenebrae? It can be a challenge to fathom. But go with the flow. It will sweep you along. Just when you think you are drowning, it will vomit you out into clear air - and what you see there will be unspeakable. 

Unknit by sunlight

But there is great tenderness and sensitivity here too. Both writing and story drip crystal showers between the downpours of black rain. The tale makes war of necessity, but seeks peace, out of hope. And always there is Mercy, Denizen's infatuation from the previous book. She is at once a haunting girl of shimmering light and the essence of alien monstrosity; 'a dream unknit by sunlight.' Does Denizen still love her? Do you love her too? Can fractured love, surpressed love, transcend trust, or the lack of it? Trust Dave Rudden. He will steer you through, even though you will not emerge unscathed. But then this is war. This is fantasy fiction at it finest. This is where the imagination of the comic book and the deep resonances of literature collide. This is where classic tropes fuse with the complexity of sophisticated storytelling; where heavy metal segues with the sensitivities of poetry  This is where, to quote another Irishman: 'A terrible beauty is born.'

Girls and boys come out to fight

Without being explicitly fussy about it, Dave Rudden does an excellent job of reinforcing diversity, inclusion and equality. In fact his lack of fuss - the total acceptance of these factors as 'normal' for the society he paints - is exactly what convinces so persuasively. Although main protagonist Denizen is a boy, there are numerous examples of both genders, young and older, and a wide range of racial types and personalities to be found amongst the 'heroes' of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark. And there is clearly no distinction in terms of power, ability  or status made between them on any of these grounds alone.  

He also conjures characters who have far greater dearth and complexity than is often associated with fantasy fiction. Amongst other superb creations are Vivien Hardwick, supreme 'Malleus' (war hammer) of the Knights, battling her nature as a mother as much as the Dark; Ediface Greaves, the metaphorically masked commander, hiding what few understand; the troubled and troubling Grey, mistrusted by himself more than anyone; and Abigail Falx, Denizen's friend and fellow Neophyte, her determination to make sense of her heritage leading forward whole sections of narrative. Then there is Denizen. Well you must meet the young Hardwick boy for yourself. But if you can get the full measure of him that is more than he can do.  He is an adolescent after all. 

Just willing him

And inside all the power, all the anger and fire, Denizen is still just a boy. A real boy, with elements of Aspergers's: maps, counting, ordering, cataloging. And it allows the reader to discover complete empathy, despite the wildly imaginative fantasy world through which Denizen moves. You will him to win, or at least survive, with every page-turning breath. He is war, love, self-discovery, torment, growth. He is you. He is truth reflected through the mirror of unreality. Extraordinary in his ordinariness. 

'I just did what I had to do. that's all.'
No, said Mercy. That's everything 

And, over and above all, Dave Rudden's storytelling  is tension-racking at it most masterly. This is no rollercoaster; it has too few downs. He defies plot building convention and screws an ever upward spiral of breath-stealing horror,  twists ever-tightening bands of chest-squeezing iron. If not external cataclysm , then internal wringing, wrenching. Conflagration without, combustion within. Until . . .

It is story of horrendous war and of its cost. It is a story of those who fight simply because they must. It is a story of the darkness we borrow, and of the sunrise for which we scarecely dare hope. It is almost a love story 

The naming of cats

Years back,  there was a inspirational book by Sandy Brownjohn about teaching children to write poetry, called The Ability to Name Cats. Its premise was that such ability demonstrated the essential poetic quality, original imagination coupled with illuminating aptness. In terms of fiction I often think that a parellel ability lies in the ability to title chapters. As well as being master of the eye opening verbal image, Dave Rudden is a supreme namer of chapter titles: original, imaginative, enigmatic, yet ultimately illuminating. It is an ability that telegraphs a fantasy writer of the highest calibre. 

He does not patronise his young audience. And hooray for that. Readers should rise to the challenge. They will be hugely rewarded if they do. There are very few  more exciting, involving, terrifying or affecting reads currently to be found. I sincerely hope these books prove as popular as they are good. They deserve blockbuster sales worldwide. This trilogy, crowned by The Endless King, is one of our finest examples of exactly what children's fantasy fiction can achieve. 

*The stunning YA sequence starting with Half Bad (Although this is for much older readers.)