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. I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the truly great books authors are currently writing for our children and of the important, life-affirming experiences these offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts these writers give.

I was, recently, graciously awarded an MBE. It pleased me, not so much for myself, but as an affirmation of my career-long efforts to promote children's reading and the high quality literature which supports it.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Doldrums and The Helmsley Curse by Nicholas Gannon



'But I've always had a particular fondness for your mother, Archer,' (said Grandpa Helmsley.) 'I know she can be a bit strong - but I admire her conviction.'
Archer thought the word strong was a bit weak. 

(This quote from the book is not here for any very particular reason. I just like it.)

Picture perfect

Perhaps my best way in to identify the very special delights of The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse is by way of its captivating illustrations. The full page and double-spread art works (no lesser phrase will serve) glow, in almost entirely sepia tones. They are like old photographs, but with subtle hints of other colours occasionally pushing through, hints of a more real world, perhaps in an idiosyncratically fantastic setting. Landscapes, interiors, furnishings and objects are meticulously drawn, with draftsmanlike detail and dramatic perspective. There are echoes of Edward Hopper and perhaps  Andrew Wyath, but yet they are startlingly original. These pictures are mesmerising and draw you in to a world so like and yet so not like out own. Thy are peopled with stylised figures, projecting a feeling of stringless marionettes. They act upon the viewer in much the same way as masked actors in Ancient Greek or Classical Japanese drama in that they allow emotions and personalities to be projected upon them - from within and without. So clever. 

The large illustrations are supplemented by equally skillful greyscale vignettes, scattered through the text. Only rarely are children's books graced with art of this quality. It is a treat I am sure countless of them will appreciate now and come to value even more in years to come. In short Nicholas Gannon's artwork is breathtaking. And I know of virtually no work of children's fiction where pictures and text complement each other so perfectly.



Quite some characters

At the very heart of the charm of Nicholas Gannon's Doldrum books lies his cast of young protagonists. They are more than a little whimsical, sometimes odd, and certainly unique. However they are also completely adorable and, in important ways, very 'real'. My own favourite by miles is wooden-limbed Adélaïde, a girl who's aspirations to be a ballerina were tragically cut short when a lamppost fell on her leg (or,perhaps it was eaten by a crocodile, but that's a different story). It is however an impediment that this feisty child takes in her stride (sorry!), asserting herself and acting bravely and indeed boisterously nonetheless. Indeed her woody appendage is often more a source of humour than an handicap . I love that, when going out into the snow (of which there is a superfluity through the book), she wrapped on a scarf and then, 'wedged a second scarf into her boot to fill the gap around her wooden leg.' This is typical Adėlaïde, who is also rarely short of a delightfully cutting repost. When her friend Archer has to drag her across a room after she has been hurt, his: 'You're heavier than you look,' quickly earns: 'Or maybe you're only as strong as you look.'

However, the said Archer, the true central character of the tale, is hardly less likeable. Totally winning is the way that he talks to the stuffed animals that abound in his house, and then projects onto them replies which voice his own doubts and concerns. (Or maybe the taxidermy actually talks. You can never be absolutly certain about many things in these books.) He is an ever enthusiastic would-be adventurer, but often not as competent as his aspirations - and he is all the more like us as a consequence. 

The other two members of the central gang of friends are delight too. Chocolate-lover Oliver is ever willing and supportive, but sometimes lacking confidence, except when . . . (Well, I'll let you read for yourself the 'except when'). Kana, the rather mysterious girl who is newly introduced here  in Book 2, fell down a well when she was throwing in a coin to make a wish and then decided she didn't want to let go of it. Enough said surely. 

Their world is one in which readers will wish to join, eagerly sharing these children's adventures, even when Archer's carefully thought up plans go awry. Or perhaps because of that. 

Around these kids the author creates a wonderful cast of eccentric characters, some warmly endearing, some deeply enigmatic, some chillingly villainous. Just like the book's vignettes though, all are drawn with skilfully bold lines and subtle shading, stylised without ever descending into caricature. The entire creation is pure joy. 




Quirky or what?

Nicholas Gannon's must be one of the most idiosyncratic and quirky imaginations amongst contemporary children's writers. He is one on his own.  He turns characters, settings, incidents and even objects into things of weird wonder. His story lurks in a strange hinterland between reality and fantasy. In his books the fantastical seems real and his reality fantastical. Sometimes his imaginative conjurings resonate quietly with other works, yet both his graphic and verbal images are always drawn and coloured in a way that is uniquely and unmistakably Gannoned. In this book the opening ,  in a remote and antiquated boarding school, with wretched food and cold accommodation, vaguely echoes those of Dickens and others; the strange chocolate-making owner of 'Duttonlicks' wonderous store, is perhaps just vaguely Dahlesque; the amazing and fantastic headquarters of 'The Society', where cohorts of uniformed young apprentice explorers are inducted into its arcane secrets, might stir the vaguest memories of Potter. But all such thoughts are  immediately and completely quashed by the intensity and originality of completely new visions. This book is no imitation. Its odd, delightful, enigmatic, amusing world is completely and wonderously its own.

Not heavy at all

The currently available hardback of The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse is a physically heavy book for its size. 
Wonderfully so. It hefts beautifully in the hand. It feels like a substantial read, even before opening. Something to have and to hold.  And its contents fulfill the promise of its physicality delightfully. However, there is no way its story could be described as 'heavy'. It is an uplifting read from first page to last. Following after The Doldrums it is the sort of sequel that richly continues and extends the story; happily not one of those disappointing virtually-the-same-story-over-again-with-minor-tweaks sequels. In the first book Archer and his chums went on a carefully planned, highly entertaining, but actually fairly eventless adventure  (if you don't count outrunning a pack of tigers) to find his explorer grandparents. In Book 2, with his grandparents surprise return, the action hots up considerably (despite freezing weather and extensive snow) as he tries to solve a mystery and thwart dastardly villains and clear his family name. Nicholas Gannon's storytelling is delicious, at times witty, often hilarious, frequently thrilling, and always hugely engaging. As a writer he employs a colourful pallet of approaches, flashback, dream, split perspectives - and his narration of a whole escapade through the medium of a halting radio conversation is just pure delight. He is such a clever writer. Better than most out there. 





What's left

The only bits that are left for me to say are the bits that are left, so to speak. 

Whilst the first two Doldrums books provide totally satisfying reads in themselves, there remain many mysteries not fully answered, many possibilities not fully explored, many characters not known and understood as well as we would like. Surely, for example, there are lots of stories yet hiding in the wondrous 'Society' as well as in the exploits of its trainee explorer 'Greenhorns'. And what's with the highly enigmatic Mr. Dalligold? And then the trunk of mysterious jars and bottles clearly contains other wonders besides  'doxical powder'.  Surely the stories of Archer, Adélaïde, Oliver and Kana are not over? Please no. Please, Mr. Gannon, sir, no. Splendid though these two books are, the Doldrums world has the potential to develop into one of contemporary children's fiction's finest, richest (and oddest) creations.  Bring it on. The first two books seem only to be the tip of the iceberg. Thank goodness Nicholas Gannon is an author who can send bits of an iceberg half way across the world, through the mail, without them melting at all. Magic. Well (almost). 


Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Moon Spun Round: W. B. Yeats for Children, Edited by Noreen Doody, Illustrated by Shona Shirley Macdonald



'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.' (from He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven)


I have not often posted on this site about a poetry book for children. Even though I love poetry, it is well outside the remit of 'magic fiction' I originally set for myself. However this book is so brilliant in both concept and execution that it has sent me rushing to recommend it. 

Doubly exciting discovery

The Moon Spun Around was actually published in 2016, but I have only just discovered it, and am thrilled to have done so. It brings together two things that are, for me, wonderfully welcome. Throughout my long teaching and advisory career I have promoted poetry, alongside fiction, and consistently held that children need to be exposed to the highest quality examples as well as to the jingling rhymes and comic verse that so often pass as 'poems for children'. Even young children can draw much from real* poetry, even where it is 'difficult'. To experience its verbal richness and skilfully crafted sound patterns makes an enormous contribution to their developing a love of language, and children can often  intuitively understand and appreciate a good deal more than we think they might. 

Added to this, W B Yeats is one of my all time favourite poets, so to find so skilled an editor and illustrator presenting his work in a format attractively and comfortably accessible by children is enormously exciting. Here an excellent selection of whole poems and extracts is accompanied by some some of Yeats' stories, as well as short pieces relating to his life, which are illuminating without ever being heavy. All are greatly enhanced by extensive attractive and highly evocative illustrations, adding up to a book that is a real treasure. 



Magic nonetheless

On reflection, it is perhaps not so strange a choice for my 'magic fantasy' blog, after all. Both W B Yeats' life and his writings are steeped in magic and mysticism, in the ancient folklore and mythology of Ireland. And he was certainly a magician who could weave the spell of language quite superlatively. There is much in his work that will enchant, enthrall and delight children, and this book is the very thing to cast that spell over them. 

It is a work that should be known to, and drawn on, by all teachers of primary children, and others who want to grow young minds. Were I still teaching, it would soon earn its place on my shelf of well-used resources, alongside such gems as Ted Hughes' What is the Truth? and anthologies like The Rattle Bag  It should be read to, with and by as many children as possible. They should be immersed in its luscious language as they are enticed by its attractive and atmospheric illustrations. They should lilt with its varied rhythms,  wallow in the stories, learn some of its verses by heart. They do not need always fully to understand, or necessarily to,understand at all. That will come . They should grow with, and through, these wondrous words and their rich and enriching images. This is what poetry is, and what it is for. 

Let them: 'hear it in the deep heart's core.' (from The Lake Isle of Innisfree)




Note:
*That not necessarily written specifically for children. 

Friday, 8 December 2017

The books I am giving my granddaughter for Christmas

A brief seasonal divergence from my usual reviews.

My baby granddaughter is very lucky. Her mother is a Reception Class teacher and her home is full of wonderful young children's books. Yet, being me, I still just have to give her books for Christmas. So I  have, gone for ones that (I hope) she will keep and treasure into the future, ones that she might not be quite ready for yet, but will be remarkably soon, books that I want her to grow up with, and through. 

So, her Gramdma and I are giving her:



Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. I trust she will find amongst these pages role models that will help to inspire and encourage her to be whatever she wants to be - and to have the confidence and determination to fight for it if need be. If I ruled the world (!), I would present this book to every girl child at birth. It's that important.*



Aaron Becker's deservedly 'modern classic' trilogy JourneyQuest and Return. Growing children need fantasy alongside reality. They need time to dream. They need to have adventures, both real and imaginary - and these wordless, all-age picture books capture this quite magically. 





The hugely special and breathtakingly beautiful, large-scale 'Artist's Editions' of The Ice Bear and The Snow Leopard by Jackie Morris. Because no book is too special or too beautiful to give to children. 

For the same reason I just could not resist including One Cheetah, One Cherry, also by Jackie Morris - very possibly the most beautiful 'counting book' ever.

Happy Christmas, little one. As you grow, may you be a rebel, have fantastic adventures and treasure beautiful things.




*It very much needs to be read by boys too, but I don't have a grandson at present. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

My Books of the Year 2017




I have spent another year seeking out the best of  contemporary children's fantasies, as well as allowing my reading to sometimes broaden into titles that are more 'imaginative fiction'  than fantasy per se. I also sometimes include books for older children and young adults, although I avoid  'teen romantic fantasies'. They are not really my personal bag. Each to his or her own. 

This has certainly been an interesting reading year, as well as a very exciting one. Not all heavily promoted or popular books have turned out to be as good as might have been hoped, although some certainly have. In contrast, there have been fine books that have arrived comparatively quietly. It has also been a year with a remarkable number of examples of great authors who have stunningly illustrated their own novels. 

Of course I much enjoyed and admired all the books I have posted about this year, I would not have written about them otherwise. There were particularly exciting conclusions to fine children's fantasy sequences from Abi Elphinstone, Matt Griffin and Jonathan Stroud, as well as a wonderful prequel to N. D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards. The year also brought quite a few Book 1s and/or Book 2s in (so far) brilliant sequences: most notably those by Sebastien de Castell, Dave Rudden and (for the younger end) Peter Bunzl and Jennifer Bell.  I shall await their concluding  books eagerly, and they could well be strong contenders for next year's list. Meanwhile I recommend any who don't yet know their developing sequences to catch up in readiness for the impending finales. 

However, these are the titles  I consider to be the finest of all from my 2017 reads. I am sure I will have missed reading other fine books, but will hope to catch up with them eventually. A great book cannot hide for ever. I did try to keep my final list a little shorter than this, but, in the end, there were none of these outstanding titles that I could bear to leave off. 

So, here are the titles  I consider to be the finest of all from my 2017 reads, as they say, in no particular order. They are an eclectic selection, but each in its own way, exemplifying writing of the highest order - as well as being hugely enjoyable. Most, but not quite all, are at least broadly 'fantasy'; all are bursting with originality and imagination. 





La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust 1) by Philip Pullman 
This is almost certainly my most predictable choice, yet it simply has to be here. It fully meets its massive pre-publication expectations. It is undoubtedly a great book from a great writer, rich and  resonant on so many levels. (Full review October.)


Thornhill by Pam Smy
This book stands beside those of US author Brian Selznick in pioneering a most exciting new format for children's fiction, alternating text with sections of wholly graphic narrative. It is a superb example of both forms of storytelling and adds up to a highly original and moving novel. Far more than just a ghost story, it is another seriously important contribution to children's literature. (Full review August.)


A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge 
A YA author possessing a most original and idyosincratic imagination, combined with sparkling mastery of language, Frances Hardinge has produced another gem of a book. It is dark and disturbing but completely enthralling too. (Full review October.)


The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
This MG book was published in The States last year, but since it has only recently come out in UK, as a paperback, I feel justified in including it in my 2017 picks. This is the best yet from a fine writer. Kelly Barnhill takes elements from traditional tales and reworks them into a completely new 'fairy story',  rich, poetic, funny and thoughtful. (Full review January.)


The Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford
The new sequel to the popular Greenglass House is not only captivating in itself but adds significantly to an interrelated body of work from this US author which I consider to be one of the major highlights of contemporary children's literature. (Full review November.)


'


The Murderer's Ape by Jakob Wegelius
With sure fire appeal for a wide range of readers, this quirkily charming,  and very 'European', novel is one of the best examples of enjoyable, old fashioned storytelling that you could find. It is beautiful  book that is magnificently illustrated by its author too. (Full review September.)


Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean 
One of our true greats of contemporary children's fiction has produced a novel for older children/teens that pours vivid imagining into an existing embryo of  'real-life' story, to produce a historical tale of men and boys stranded on a tiny sea stack in the Outer Hebrides. It is as gripping and affecting as anything I have read for a very long time, although is decidedly not for the squeamish. (Full review September.)


The Wizards of Once by Cressida Caldwell 
This fresh and funny new children's fantasy from the wonderfully talented guru of 'dragon training' is a triumph; hugely entertaining, and a great deal more besides. It is brilliantly illustrated by the author too.  Magic in every sense. (Full review September.)


The Ravenmaster Trilogy by John Owen Theobald
Far more straight historical fiction than anything else here, this young people's trilogy is one of my most gripping reads of the year. Its recreation of the experience of growing up through WWII from the perspective of a girl whose home isThe Tower of London is inspired, and its writing is graphic, sensitive, involving and deeply affecting. Rebel girls should not miss it, nor boys who want to be understand them. (Full review December.)


The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse by Nicholas Gannon 
This book almost didn't make it onto this year's list, not because of any doubt about its quality (it is actually one of my top favourites) but simply because I have only just finished reading it. But when a book is such a total joy as this one, it just couldn't miss being a Book of the Year. This is another novel quite breathtakingly illustrated by its own author. Delightfully eccentric and completely brilliant. (Full review to follow very soon.)


And finally, two books that fall well outside my (self-appointed) fantasy remit, but that I can't help but passionately recommend anyway. 




Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin
For me, this book, has to be here for two reasons. Firstly it is an outstanding example of an important format that is sadly undervalued by many parents and teachers, the graphic novel. But even more importantly, it carries a hope of giving children understanding and empathy that could help to combat the ignorance, prejudice and jingoism sadly so rife in our societies. (Full review October.)


The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris 
Although this is neither fantasy nor even a novel, it is simply the most breathtakingly beautiful children's book of this (or many) years, in both its pictures and its words, and its ambition to reconnect children with nature is vitally important. (Full review October.)


Note (Christmas Reading):

I know some people like to read at Christmas books that are set at Christmas. Ghosts of Greenglass House fits this criterion quite magically, as indeed does Greenglass House, the book to which Ghosts of . . . is the sequel. 


Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Ravenmaster Trilogy by John Owen Theobald




Book I

Here is the best piece of YA historical fiction that I have come across in a long while.

There are a good number of fine children's novels set on the UK 'home front' during WWII, most involving evacuation, but this piece of teen fiction, capturing brilliantly the experience of a young person actually living through the Blitz in London is a very exciting new find. 

 WWII in The Tower

A inspired element of this writer's approach is setting most of the novel's action in and around the Tower of London. Anna, initially a13 year-old, is moved to live within its ancient walls, with her uncle, one of the Yeoman Warders, after both  her parents have been (apparently) killed.  Coinciding with the end of the 'phoney war' and the beginning of Hitler's Blitzkrieg, her disrupted life also becomes wrapped up with looking after The Tower ravens. The central role of 'Ravenmaster' is initially her uncle's, but gradually passes to her. The presence of The Tower itself, its gloomy stones a repository of England's history, albeit a dark as well as an enduring one, makes a powerful symbol as well as a setting. Even though it does not protect Anna from the horrors and heartaches of the war, it becomes an emotional home, just as the ravens, in legend symbols of the nation's security, become her obsession as well as her responsibility. It is a truly inspired combination of location and events on the part of John Owen Theobald, and a deeply enthralling one for the reader. 

'Before us stands yesterday.' (Ted Hughes, quoted on page 304 of Book 3)



Presenting the past

It has become very trendy recently for authors to choose to narrate their fiction in the first person present tense. I have to say that, in general, this particular fad is much to be regretted. More often than not it comes across as a writerly affectation that alienates (at least this particular reader) far more than it involves in the moment of action. I have encountered any number of books recently that had perfectly good storylines but were sadly marred by this often limited and limiting viewpoint. It too often amounts to an abnegation of control over the perspectives that Philip Pullman likens to a director's choices of camera position in movies*. 

However, there are just a few instances where, in the hands of a skilled writer, using it for very specific purpose rather than simply voguish narration, this device works brilliantly. One such instance is in Sally Green's Half Bad books; another is here. And, although these books are very different, I think the reason for the success is much the same in both these cases. Here, as with Nathan Byrn, it is not simply a question of Anna narrating a story in the present, it is that what is going on in her head is the story. These Dark Wings is not simply about the war, or The Tower, it is about Anna's experience of these things. Using the style and approach he does, John Owen Theobald perfectly captures those experiences and allows the reader to share them intimately. What are presented are almost like recollections so vividly conjured that they are relived, moment by moment. So Anna's narration is often somewhat fragmented, even confused, especially when she is at her youngest and her life at its most insecure. It is subjective. We do not know everything that happens, what we know is what happens to Anna, what matters to Anna, what effects Anna. But that we know, see and feel, in vivid detail. It is quite wonderfully done and gives the novel a spellbinding perspective of considerable depth. Through air raids and rationing, through sleeping in The Bloody Tower and through relationships with The Tower's other inhabitants, we experience growing up along with Anna. And all this is spiced with disturbing secrets about her parents, potential spies,  strange friends, and, of course, the ravens. The writer's camera positioning may be limited, but the detailed reactions thus caught are revalatory




Book II

The second book of the series does not have quite the same intensity of focus as the first - but there are compensations. A second voice is introduced, that of Anna's 'friend' from The Tower, Timothy Squire. His internal dialogue is now interleaved with Anna's own to broaden the story's  viewpoint, as well as its action. Much of the latter also moves beyond The Tower itself, although it remains anchored by it. The two protagonists move into a phase of  'doing their bit' in the conflict (each still at a ridiculously young age) and the scenarios they experience become grippingly thrilling as well as devastatingly terrifying. We still see it all through the direct experience of these two, and this writer's device continues to work with stunning effectiveness, bringing searing vividness to quite  horrendous, heartbreaking, scenes. 

Whilst Timothy Squire (almost) trains as a sapper, Anna moves towards flying planes for the 'ATA'. Whether the author knows about WWII planes as intimately as he does The Tower of London, or whether his research of both is simply meticulous, his descriptions of flying and learning to fly rival those of the classics of Antoine De Saint-Exupery; they are viscerally exciting, quite breathtaking   This book is in part a teenage romance, spiked with all the bear traps of inexperience. But it is far more too.  It sensitively explores the first hand experience of living through war in ways that far outstrip many other books on the same topic. Here, too, the effect that the war had on the roles and self image of both young women and young men is broached in an intensely pertinent and affecting way. It is a work of great humanity. 

Book III

As the young lives of Anna Cooper and Timothy Squire move increasingly away from The Tower to become involved in combat, so the narrative becomes more of a conventional war story. However if this third book lacks the intriguing and inspired location of the first, then it is by far the most  viscerally exciting and devastatingly compelling of the three. And still the writing is superb, with the strongly subjective viewpoints taking the reader into every moment of experience,  vicariously to share thoughts and feelings with blistering intensity. It is by turns heart-stopping and heart-rending. 

It also subtly asks many questions and provokes much thought, about both war and the eventual nature of the peace that was sought at such cost. For young readers, now much further from the World Wars than their grandparents, or even parents, there is much that will be educational, in the best sense, because it is honest too. For there is not only much stoicism, bravery and daring do in Ravenmaster but also all the terror and grief, the deprivation, the unspeakable cruelty, and the  narrow minded stupidity, that was to be found on both sides. There is no simplistic morality here, but a constant dilemma, with the conflict as much between what had  to be done and what should not have been done, as between the Allies and the Nazis. It also, rightly,  pays due heed to the fact that it was not the white British alone who fought Hitler. 

Again, in this third book, the author increases the positioning of his narrative camera, introducing new viewpoints and allowing more character perspectives. Yet the essential focus remains on the stories of Anna and Timothy, and we feel for them and with them through the final dreadful stages of the conflict. The tale speaks continually of both their separation and of their commitment to each other - as well as to The Tower and its resident birds. 

For it is now that presence of the ravens, in actuality and image, comes most into its own. As Anna herself becomes a flier, a pilot, involved in transport and ultimately in conflict, the heart of this narrative truly beats.  The ability  of girls and women to fulfill their potential in the context of the war is profoundly and sensitively explored, not only through Anna herself, but through her flying comrades, her immediate commander and through the role of an SOE officer in occupied France.  

As a preface to one of the final sections of this book, the author quotes Nancy Astor, from 1940, and it is very pertinent. 'Women of ability are held down because of a subconscious  Hitlerism in the hearts of men.'

Yet Anna and the others openly and robustly challenge such attitudes. 

'For too long we've been caged, our wings clipped. Now we're really part of it. Now we're going to help end it.' (Page 88)

But will they continue to fly once the war is over? Many think they should not. 

The Ravenmaster Trilogy is very much a piece for all those who, quite rightly, want to be 'rebel girls'*. However, it just as much for the boys who need to encourage them, or perhaps just keep out of their way. For our societies to work as they should, boys need to understand, and act to resolve, the issues just as much as girls. Equally boys need to be freed from socially imposed stereotypes just as girls do. 

Those who have read this blog before will know that my principal penchant is for fantasy, and I tend to like even my history with a touch of fantasy too. But I found this 'realistic' imagining of growing up through WWII totally compelling. It messages are even more so. 

At the end of this tale, the wing-clipped ravens of The Tower may soon fly more freely. Others of their kind already swoop the skies. The kingdom of prejudice is falling. It has not completely fallen even yet. But it will. It must. And Anna Cooper will have done her bit. In the first book she began by allowing the feathers of two ravens, Mabel and Grip, to grow so that they can to fly free.  Now she has started the Raven Flying School, its motto:

 'Flying is the future. Man or woman, black or white, young or old. Learn to fly. '


Note:
*As in one of this year's most important and finest non-fiction books Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. 








Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford




'The transmundane adventurer knows that there are many more realms than any map can show, and that not all of them are places of the body. There are realms of the mind and of the spirit in addition to the physical, and the transmundane is proficient in traveling all three.' (Milo reading the 'Transmundane Warrior Manual' on page 205.)

Kate Milford's world

Kate Milford is one of my favourite US children's authors. Try again. US writer Kate Milford is one of my favourite children's authors. Better. One more time. Kate Milford is a truly great children's author, and one of my favourites. Yes. 

To date she had written five published children's novels, The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, Greenglass House and The Left-Handed Fate, as well as two 'novellas', The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne (of which more shortly).





Her new book, Ghosts of Greenglass House, is the first to be a true sequel to one of the earlier ones, as is suggested by both its title and jacket. It is perhaps not surprising that Greenglass House is the book that has been specifically followed up; it is the one that has gleaned numerous high profile accolades and the most widely popular, even though, in my view, each and every one of its predecessors has been quite wonderful. 

New sequel

Writing a sequel must be a particular challenge to a writer, especially when, as here, it is on the back of an enormous success. Readers eager for  'more of the same' can be a double-edged sword. If the follow up is not similar enough to what they have already loved, they will be disappointed; if it is merely repetitious, then they will equally be disappointed. It needs to be the same thing experienced a completely new way, a hard act to pull off. Yet here Kate Milford achieves exactly that, with all the skill of a truly fine writer. 



Exactly as they were in Greenglass House, all of the same, truly loveable main characters are involved in a 'closed house' Christmas mystery, in the tradition of such classics as The Westing Game. The two young protagonists again  adopt fantasy role-play characters to support them in acting as 'their braver selves', and once more the process involves many of the characters telling stories, so that the narratives nest like a set of Russian dolls. Although there is intrigue aplenty, the whole still has a homely and comforting feel, with friendship and loving family at the true heart of the book. But if all this starts to feel as if the sequel errs on the side of being simply regurgitative, then it needs to be added that the mystery of this second book feels completely and fascinatingly fresh, introducing a whole new set of potential 'suspects'. Its development and ultimate denouement involve as many twists and turns, red herrings and reversals as the best of any Agatha Christie 'golden age' detective novel. Greenglass House itself ended with a remarkable 'coup de narrative', and that too could have been difficult to follow up. But, just like the Queen of Crime herself, Kate Milford shows that she has more than the one astounding tail-twist in her repertoire. 

Real fantasy

However, there is far more to 'Ghosts' than even this. The wonderful quote you see at the head of this post speaks of 'different realms', and so it is with the book itself. Kate Milford continually deals in multiple levels of reality. There is a base sense in which the life of Milo, home from school for The Holidays, is the tale's 'reality'. The thoughts and emotions he experiences there are very real, very easy for the reader to identify with. Yet, even in this, we know that both Nagspeake and the house itself are creations of fantasy. His immediate world also includes ghosts as an accepted and'tangible' element, so it is hardly 'real' in a conventional sense. Beyond that he and Meddy add a layer of imagined 'reality' when they adopt characters from the role-playing game 'Old Trails' itself seeming to involve a whole complex fantasy world with its own characters and abilities. The 'Waits' who come carolling to his door, with their 'hobby horse' and chimney sweep, bring with them resonances of yet another realm, that of old traditions and beliefs with their origins in the distant past of the British Isles. Whilst, in the stories told by the house guests and in those held in 'The Raconteur's Commonplace Book', the author draws on yet other layers of legend, some grounded in American lore, others springing from pure imagination.

Often, her shifts from one realm to another surprise and delight us. At one point, when Milo/Téngfēi is listening to a story, its developement provokes the exchange:

" I think Milo is just confused by the sudden genre switch."
"I thought we were hearing a historical thing, is all," Téngfēi apologised. "Something real. I like fantasy. I just wasn't expecting it." (Page 308)

This is exactly how it sometimes is for us as readers. At other times 'reality' and fantasy are inextricably mixed. They blend one into the other. There is no distinction in Kate Milford's world, and, thus, perhaps our own. Here too 'not all places are of the body.'

Greater than the parts

But there is more depth yet. Far more. For all of Kate Milford's books, although not a sequence or series as such, are linked in various ways. Taken together, they are in the process of forming a whole world and its history. Many are linked by geography (real and imagined). Some track events through different periods of history, sometimes including descendants of characters in other books. Some enigmatic characters  ('roamers' ) actually travel through time and appear in more than one book and period. Other 'real' characters from one book, have become absorbed into the stories and legends of others. 



For example,  the mysticism/magic that is 'real' in some books becomes absorbed into role play gaming in others. The ancient Chinese system of  'Way', as embodied in Madame Xiaoming in Bluecrowne, resurfaces in  the 'Old Trails' game and its complex manuals in the Greenglass House books. Then, in a different way, it is brought to 'life' again through the imaginative adoption of its roles by Milo, as 'Téngfēi', and Meddy, as 'Sirin'. 

Visualising reality

The most obvious links from 'Ghosts' are indeed back to Bluecrowne (and The Left-Handed Fate) where we discover how and why  Greenglass House itself came to be built, and given its original name, so important to these stories too. It also fills in much of the background of young Liao, whose letter Milo is  given by his friend Owen in the current book. 

But, these are not the only links. Over Kate Milford's full oeuvre, the interrelationships are multiple and complex, often subtle. To map them out on paper would be impossible as they exist on so many different levels and even dimensions. But they are an inexplicable joy. Simply to recognise an object from other times and places in the books is a reader's delight. (' Oh yes, I remember who used that strange spherical chalkboard, and what for.'; 'Wow! The empty vial that Millo just found in the lacquer box must be the one that Madame Xiaoming drank from before her battle with the pedlars!') The total body of her work, as it develops, is one of the great creations of contemporary children's literature, rivalling even the likes of Philip Pullman in its huge and original imagining. It is perhaps not as 'heavyweight', but it is every bit as rich and resonant. 

'Maps don't show reality, they give you a way of visualising it.' (Page 368)

That's how Kate Milford's books work too. 

Let it snow

Elsewhere she says, through her fiction: 'Time passes, and every morning we wake into a subtly different world than the one we fell asleep in the night before. Nothing stays the same.' (Bluecrowne)

So it is. And so it is with Kate Milford's books. Each  new book is subtly changed by knowledge and understanding from its predecessors. And each new books throws illumination back onto those predecessors. I find it utterly delightful in ways that are beyond words. Kate Milford is a 'transmundane adventurer' and she turns all her readers into the same multi-magical beings. May she long continue to do so.  

The Greenglass books bring a warmth, a degree of gentle coziness, to Kate Milford's fantastical world of Nagaspeak and beyond. They feed into the whole awesome epic of magic and mystery whilst still providing the ideal comfort read for The Holidays. Let it snow. 

A heartfelt plea

A footnote, but an important one:




It appears, as far as I can tell from this side of The Pond, that The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne have only ever been published in e-book format. Until very recently they were easily available through Kindle, However, they seem now mysteriously to have been removed from even this platform. 

So I make a final passionate plea to publishers (or whoever it may concern). Now that Kate Milford's books are such a deserved phenomenal success, may we have these two important and hugely enjoyable works published in print form? The world of Nagspeake and beyond is seriously incomplete, and indeed bereft, without them. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The White Hare by Michael Fishwick



Grounded

Here is a book which, for me, can indeed be judged by its wonderful cover. Both are engaging, imaginative and beautifully crafted; enchanting in the deeper sense. 

This older children's/YA story is one of those you fall straight into and are carried, mesmerised along, through heartbreak, intrigue and mystery to its thrilling climax. It is on the long list for the 2018 Carnegie Medal and fully deserves to make it onto next year's shortlist, at very least. 

Grittily real in its scenarios,  yet poetically magical  in its treatment, it is a most welcome new addition to a tradition of British writing for young readers that strands back to masters such as Alan Garner (The 
Owl Service and Red Shift, although ultimately not so densely enigmatic) and  David Almond. It reminded me too of Jani Howker's The Nature of the Beast (perhaps little remembered these days, but well worth unearthing) and, more recently, Sara Crowe's Bone Jack. What links it to these earlier titles is a stunning ability to link very realistic and telling characters, their relationships and traumas, with powerfully evocative landscape and nature. Each draws on rooted myth and folklore as both narrative element and metaphor to explore experiences deeply and resonantly. 

Lyrical

However, The White Hare is also very fresh and vibrant, a compellingly new creation that is in no way derivative. It is written  with consummate skill and touching sensitivity in both its language and structure. Michael Fishwick's story draws on much the same ancient images of the hare and its relationship to fire as does Terry Pratchett's equally wonderful (but very different) I Shall Wear Midnight. However here the white hare runs through this lyrical tale like the  hauntingly magical creature it is, setting both landscape and narrative ablaze with thrilling flames. 

Its young protagonists are truthfully drawn and richly developed. All the love and loss, all the pain and acceptance, all the estrangement and reconciliation of the difficult but wonderful process of coming of age are affectingly captured here amidst a mystical wildness that thrills the senses and refreshes the spirit.  



The new Zephyr imprint of publishers Head of Zeus could hardly have got off to a better start and the excellent production values of the volume itself reflect much credit on them.