This blog is a record of the gems I am discovering on a personal reading journey. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited. To see where I started from and why please read my first ever post: My Quest from April 2014.

Here you will find only recommendations not 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 have also just started a new blog which will discuss my favourite children's fantasy fiction from the second half of the twentieth century: Magic Fiction Before Potter. You can link straight to it below.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Exciting new edition of The Wee Free Men

 
To mark 'Terry Pratchett Day' (the author's anniversary, on April 28th) , Penguin (Corgi) are publishing a new edition of this little masterpiece with a fresh, child-friendly cover. To accompany it, they have also produced a free 'virtually live' webcast for schools. (puffinvirtuallylive.co.uk)

I hope this initiative will help to introduce a new generation of children (and  their teachers) to this first book in the Tiffany Aching series. These are amongst the few Discworld titles written especially for a younger audience and the sequence is undoubtedly one of the real gems of 21st century children's fantasy. (See my posts from June '14 and Sept '15.)

This first book is tremendous fun, accessible and engrossing. Trainee witch,Tiffany, is a strong, likeable protagonist and shares her story with the  Nac Mac Feegles, a clan of tiny but belligerent warriors who must rank amongst the best comic creations of children's literature. Tiffany matures through the series as she struggles to become the sort of witch she wants to be, so these are wonderful books for children to grow up with, and through. They are rich in folklore and magic, but also profoundly humane, full of what you might call the milk of human kindness - as well as being some of the best entertainment around. 

The Wee Free Men is the ideal place for an 8-12 year-old to start on this enriching journey. The sequence continues with: A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight, and concludes with Terry Pratchett 's wonderful final book, The Shepherd's Crown 

"People think that stories are shaped by people. 
In fact, it's the other way around." Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad


Monday, 24 April 2017

Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas

 

Stacked on the bookshop display, Dragon's Green was prominently stickered: THIS BOOK GLOWS IN THE DARK. For goodness sake. Decent quality fiction, even that intended for children, does not need phosphoresce to recommend it. Had I not recognised the author as one whose adult novels I have much admired (The End of Mr Y, et al), I might well have passed it by. But I did, so I didn't. I was intrigued as to whether such a writer could leave aside her literary fiction sensibilities and pen a children's book. It turned out that she couldn't leave them aside. Not entirely anyway. But it didn't matter. This is a remarkable and hugely enjoyable children's novel notwithstanding. In fact it is the better book for it. I am even reconciled to its gratuitous green glow. But I will come to that. 

Many years ago, in my Boy Scout days, a regular feature of our anual camp was a competition to see how many things we could collect and fit into a matchbox. Dragon's Green reminded me of that challenge. This novel feels as if its author has collected as many features as possible of popular children's (fantasy) fiction and tried to fit them all into one small book. There are elements here of Roal Dahl, perhaps David Walliams, J.K.Rowling, of course, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, C.S.Lewis, thankfully, without the religion, Cornelia Funke, Shannon Hale and Joanne Harris, to pick out but a few.  There are even vague echoes of Enid Blyton ('Five go on a Magical Adventure'?), though without the darned dog. Plenty of other bits and pieces get into her matchbox too. For example video role play gets a look in, its character energy status bars 'borrowed' and seen here through magic spectacles. Nor are more traditional stories neglected. The author gaily appropriates bits from George and the Dragon, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, Bluebeard. And is it Goblin Market in there too?

Such an eclectic, not to say hackneyed, mix sounds like a potential train crash of a book; that or a hack-written crowd-pleaser.  And in other hands it could well have been. But Scarlett Thomas is a wonderfully skilled and imaginative author.  So it isn't. Far from it.  The originality of Dragon's Green is to be found in its unoriginality. Rather it is to be found in the way its author reinterprets these familiar elements, playfully, sometimes wickedly reimagining them in new light.  Sometimes she undermines former conventions, sometimes she exploits them for delightful humour, sometimes she respectfully reinvigorates them. But always she melds them skilfully into the most fresh and captivating of stories creating a fascinating new take on children with magical abilities. She is, here, Uncle Abanazar of fantasy, but with a trickery all of her own. 

Dragon's Green is actually a book which can be approached, and appreciated, on different levels.

Whether intentionally, or simply because she cannot leave her lively intellect at home when she writes, Scarlett Thomas has crafted a book which provides much entertainment for an adult reader. It is, in no small part, a metafiction, a book about books and reading, a children's book about children's books, a fantasy about fantasy. As well as toying with the genre, its tropes and its conventions, it is jammed full of literary allusions. Many are blatant, others more esoteric*. It is self-consciously literary in a very literal sense. Other disciplines such as science and philosophy are not ignored either, and even Schrödinger's cat gets a look in. There are what I suspect to be academic in jokes too.  ('Epiphanised'. Really.) It is altogether enormously entertaining. 

However, even though these titbits will pass many children  by (Viz: 'My name is Yorick, as in "Alas poor . . . ".' ) Dragon's Green will still provide them with a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It has hugely likeable characters and an exciting, engrossing plot. After all, it really does take so many of the features children love in their reading, with the possible exception of animals, and combine them quite wonderfully into a credible and compelling whole. 

Yet it is to the highly literate, well-read child (and I am delighted to say there are no small few of them about) that I think Scarlett Thomas's book will bring the greatest delight. As well as revelling in the story, they will pick up many, even if not all, of the clever references and be amused by the playfulness with genre. I am sure they will equally enjoy being led to think about what fiction is and what it means to be a reader. It is good that such readers are offered not only a great story but to begin to see glimpses of the enormous treasure house that the finest fiction has to offer. And perhaps it will direct some towards other rewarding books they may not have found for themselves, at some future point if not immediately.  For this is a thinker's book too. It explores moral as well as esthetic and logical conundrums. Despite its mega villains, its true heros, healers, et al, it avoids simplistic notions of good and evil and explores the dilemmas and ambivalences which often lie between them. It is a book for all readers but the best sort of book for the best sort of reader too. Page 211 of the current UK hardback edition provides a very pertinent insight into what it is to be a creative reader. It is a wonderful passage that I think many educators will find most valuable and many readers elucidating. (Anyone interested might also wish to delve into the archives of this blog and read my own thoughts on why reading is so important, posted back in June '14.)

Most remarkably of all , perhaps, on whatever level this book is being read, by whatever age of reader, by part way through its sheer narrative power takes over , as I suspect it may have taken over its author too. It hurtles to the end in truely compulsive, page-turning style. However, in the final pages, many possibilities are left open and, as this is labelled Worldquake Book One, it will leave all those readers eager for more 

I am delighted that Scarlett Thomas has 'epiphanised' in terms of children's magic fiction. True, there is a great deal of pulp around,where cliche is piled on cliche in both content and language.  But this is is not what writing for children is about. It does not need to be like this, and often is not. It is no more fair to judge the genre on the basis of such books than to condemn all adult fiction on the basis of the worst  airport paperbacks. Children are no more discriminating than adults - but no less either. The very best of children's fantasy is fine literature on as many levels as adult fiction, and Philip Pullman is far from its only exponent. I sincerely hope that Scarlett Thomas will continue to read the best of children's fantasy, and write it too. 

And now that I have read Dragon's Green, I am reconciled to this edition's dust jacket. I even like it. Enjoy it. The book contains so many elements of child appeal, why should it not glow in the dark too? If you look very carefully you might even detect a tinge of post-irony in its luminescence. The best place to see it is under the bedclothes, once you have turned off the torch. 



Note:
*I admit to much enjoying the smug satisfaction of identifying the Bulgakov, before being told 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Spiral Path by Matt Griffin

 

It is great to now have the final part of Matt Griffin's Ayla Trilogy. (See post from May '16 for reviews of earlier volumes.) For the reader in me, it has  rounded off a hugely enjoyable story sequence and, for the reviewer, it has fulfilled the earlier promise that this is a fine work of children's fiction. 

The trilogy is now confirmed as sitting within the 'classic' tradition of children's fantasy (think Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, et al) yet it is more than fresh enough and rich enough to constitute a most welcome addition to this notable canon. Like its illustrious predecessors, it draws upon both rich location and deep lore for its inspiration, but this is no retelling of folktales or mythology. Matt Griffin's throws an ancient Ireland and an archetypal lore into the crucible of his own imagination and smelts a tale that is darkly original, yet resonates with what lies deep within us all. His foil to this is a group of highly credible, contemporary kids and it is in the meeting, indeed the clash, between these two disparate elements that his story lies. 

In the previous volumes,  his quartet of young protagonists has been dragged (usually kicking and screaming) into the realm of 'old' magic. Now, however, they have returned to their own world, only to find that the magic has followed them there. This is an inspired twist which ignites the story anew and only serves to intensify the conflict between reality and legend. And this is no benign magic. There is nothing of the charming here. This magic is largely malevolent - and violent, vicious, cruel, to boot. It challenges both the protagonists' and the reader's concept of 'nature' magic, and indeed of both magic and nature themselves. This is no Narnia. The Spring which awakens mid-tale carries with it more horror than hope. Like much in the story, it is a trap; both illusion and delusion. It is powerful and powerfully disturbing. 

Like the earlier ones, this is a comparatively short book in terms of word count. But it is no 'easy reader', nor is it a book for younger children. The storytelling is intense, almost condensed, at times verging on the enigmatic. (Again echoes of Garner.) It is a multi-perspective narrative that hurls one story strand on top of another. Yet there is amazing image-building too. Matt Griffin is an illustrator as well as an author. This volume, like the others, is greatly enhanced by his own starkly powerful, disturbingly dark pictures. (I found the one of the kneeling, magic-helmed Ayla particularly devastating. ) But these are echoed in the text too, which is stamped throughout with image after image from 'classic' mythology and folklore, but so often distorted, twisted, envisioned anew. The smith, the weaver's loom, goblins, bards, they are all here. And through them all, the spiral, the Troy, often implied more than described, but always leading inexorably to the centre of the magic. But what magic? Whose magic? This book asks questions too - of Ayla and her friends, and of its readers. Where might today's kids and ancient magic meet, and what might happen if they did - or do?

And is the ending as reassuring as it seems, or are its surprising final sentences as chilling as they are exciting? 

Another triumph, Mr Griffin. Please do not stop writing as well as drawing. Children's literature will be the richer. 



Monday, 10 April 2017

Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

 

To my mind, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy (starting with The Amulet of Samarkand and published between 2003 and 2005) is one of the all-time greats of children's fantasy. It combines hugely entertaining comedy with really thrilling action more successfully than almost any other sequence I can think of. Sometimes drily witty, sometimes broadly farcical, each volume is laced through with delights, yet its fantasy world is built with total credibility and much originality. The character of the cantankerous ‘djinni’, Bartimaeus, is one of the most splendid and imaginative  creations of recent children’s literature, and his relationship with rather incompetent magician’s apprentice, Nathaniel, is developed quite wonderfully. Recommended every bit as strongly is the subsequently written prequel, The Ring of Solomon (2010).

In truth, I have not felt his more recent children's/YA series, Lockwood & Co (started 20012), to be in quite the same league in terms of originality. These books involve the exploits of a small 'firm' of teenage ghostbusters, in a broadly contemporary world, which is being plagued by an extensive outbreak of the supernatural. However, each of these books is extremely well written, as I have come to expect from Jonathan Stroud, and provides great reading entertainment. They too are a clever and successful mixture of humour and viscerally exciting action, with strongly drawn, interesting and likeable characters, as well as a whole cast of gruesome spooks. Jonathan Stroud most certainly has an imagination with a strong feel for the supernatural. These are haunting adventures in every sense; entertainingly dark, whilst falling short of being seriously disturbing. 

The latest in the series, The Creeping Shadow, is the best yet. Three elements in particular ratchet up its involving readability. Lucy Carlyle, the narrator, undoubtedly talented but actually somewhat insecure, was a founder member and stalwart of Lockwood & Co. Now, however, she has left the firm to set up as an indendent investigator. Her reasons I will not reveal,  as that would be something of a spoiler. However, the hanging question of whether or not she should or will return to the fold of her old firm adds an extra frisson to the story. In fact her relationship with enigmatic Lockwood is developing (or not, as the case may be). It teeters somewhere on an intriguing cusp between teenage friendship and pre-sexual romance. Frisson upon frisson, then. 

Additionally Lucy's conversations with the gruesome talking skull, which she insists on carrying about with her, have developed something of the same entertaining love-hate relationship as Nathaniel had with Bartimaeus. Jonathan Stroud has cleverly transposed a winning formula into his new context, changed it enough to be novel, but retained its huge entertainment value. Laughs upon laughs then. 

Finally this book significantly ups the ante for our psychic investigators. Now it is no longer simply (!) the ghosts, ghouls and other grizzlies that the intrepid teens have to battle. There is a mega-villain to be thwarted, and perhaps an even bigger, badder one over the horizon. Not only horror upon horror, but thrill upon thrill too. 

This series has now developed into something very special in its own right. The next book, heralded as the final climactic one, will be eagerly anticipated by many fans - and they certainly include me. 


Saturday, 8 April 2017

The House of Mountfathom by Nigel McDowell

 

My posts from June and October '14 have already recorded my profound admiration for writer Nigel McDowell, who died at a tragically young age early last year. Thankfully, we now have his posthumously published third and  final work, The House of Mountfathom. 
 
In his three books, Nigel McDowell has pushed the boundaries of children's/YA literature in brave and remarkable ways. Because of this, his contribution to the canon is considerable. His work is lyrical, thoughtful, at times almost mystical. It is resonant of myth and magic. It is powerfully political and intensely personal. It is of the past and of the future. Yet, in the present, it is profoundly human and deeply loving.

His books are not a trilogy, although  his trademark themes interweave between them, as do his exciting adventures with both language and narrative form. This third book is again a wildly original and imaginative amalgam that mixes echos of Irish political strife and violence with the translucent shimmer of fading magic.  The land  is being overrun by hatred and conflict, and the old magical order, which has long upheld its peace, is failing to take. Protagonist, Luke, seems destined to become the last of his magical family, the titular  Mountfathom, 'house' in both its dynastic and architectural sense. 

The story of Luke's growing is a baroque fantasy where an intertwining dance of narrative and language, content and form, weaves a spell of fiction that feeds on the very highest traditions of Irish writing   It is breathtakingly done. The house itself must be one of fantasy literature's most enchanting and enchanted creations; its weird and wonderful rooms delight the imagination and thrill the senses. Opposed to it, however, is all that is violent and self-seeking, whether this is the authoritarian rule of 'the castle', or the freedom-fighting rebels and 'land-grabbers'. Worst of all is the dark magic of 'Westminster', turned to political and destructive ends. The beautiful, fey magic of Mountfathom stands little chance.

In fact this is, in many ways a bleak, ominous story. It is about death and endings. It is the fading, the forgetting of beautiful magic. Yes, it is about change of revolution The old order is certainly being overturned. The long-oppressed are asserting themselves at last. But is all for the best? I was constantly, and perhaps very appropriately, reminded of W B Yeats: 'All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.' And, even more potently: 'Many ingenious, lovely things are gone.'

But this book is also the story of a friendship, an unexpected friendship between the magical son of the 'great house' and, Killian, a former thief from the city tenements. Have and have not. Have all and have nothing. One is proud, determined, sensitive, questioning, the other is down-to-earth and uneducated but ultimately savvy, brave and loyal. Yet they develop a mutual commitment that is rarely described, but often implied, and ultimately left beyond doubt.  Which, if either, is the  stronger is less certain. But their interdependence is the heart of the book in every sense. They hold each other's hands through the darkness 

Is The House of Mountfathom a masterpiece? It could well be.  Is it an entirely comfortable read? In truth, I think not. It is heavy going at times, rather humourless. Its unrelenting use of the present tense can be tiresome. Yet it remains a very fine piece of writing from a very fine writer; one who, I am sure , would have produced more wonderful books had he lived longer. But now we must be grateful for what we have. And indeed we are. And when, at the close, the beautiful, magical, Luke goes off into the utter, unknown dark of the 'gloaming', it is unspeakably moving. What he leaves is his friend, and love, and loss and longing - and,perhaps some hope. At the last. Luke is determined to use imagination to return the creatures of ancient magic to the land. And Killian?

I much regret that I have missed the chance to say thank you to Nigel. 'Many, ingenious, lovely things are gone.'

But the gyants and the faerie raths are back. 


Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Bitter Sixteen trilogy by Stefan Mohamed

 

Okay. Stanly. (And yes, it is Stanly, without an 'e', although I have to wrestle my predictive text into submission before it will allow me to write it as intended.) Imagine, if you can, Adrian Mole (at an age a bit older than the original Diary), crossed with Bridget Jones (at an age a bit younger that the original Diary). Now adapt the image so that he's not nearly as much of  a pompous nerd as Adrian nor such an infuriating klutz as Bridget. Make him instead a rather intelligent, sensitive, loner of a geek. Then give him superpowers. Oh and add, as a sidekick, a talking beagle. Put him down in claustrophobic small-town Wales, but then move him to a graphically drawn gritty, grotty, violent, bemusing London - talking dog and all, of course. 

Having trouble picturing all this? Well don't worry. Stefan Mohamed has already imagined it for us. And what an amazingly, weird and wonderful imagination he has.  Oh, and did I say original? Well it is. With knobs on. 

It was only the recent publication of Part 3, Stanly's Ghost which drew me to this work. It seemed sensible to start at the beginning though. Duh! So I have. 

I don't usually go for such blatant 'teen' reads. Not quite my bag. In fact I'm not exactly sure why I am reading this.  But I do know that I'm mightily glad that I am.  

Make no mistake, this is a indeed a teen read (or older of course, but definitely not younger). It is very much about those things that teenagers are about. It is one of its great strengths. In much the same sense that I am stuck in childhood, so Stephan Mohamed seems to be stuck in his late teens - or, if not, he certainly remembers vividly what they were like. This first book, Bitter Sixteen, does stop short of outright sex. In fact its romance is sweetly chaste.  But, be warned.  There is swearing and violence aplenty. And then some. For the right audience, though, it is gripping, hilarious, staggering, shocking, charming - and quite simply one of the most downright enjoyable reads I have had the pleasure to indulge in for quite some time.  

It is in many ways a very much more realistic take on a boy suddenly waking up with superpowers (if that's not self-contradictory) than say, you-know-who's you-know-who. It is of course self-contradictory; it is in this clash that the heart of the book lies. Protagonist, Stanly, is not at all comfortable with his new abilities, He does not know what to do with them, or what it will mean to be a superhero in the 'real' world. Nor what 'good' and 'bad' really are. How can he hope to cope? He is a 'normal' kid isn't he.? He wants to act in plays, form a decent relationship with the beautiful girl who, incredibly, seems to be in love with him.  Should he really act as an avenging angel? As a killer even? Will it really make the world better.? And who are the biggest monsters anyway?

The moral ambiguity is a huge part of this story. But it doesn't stop the book building to a cataclysmic and complex climax of superhero action, monster-bashing, and evil rooting out. Or does it? There is so much to Bitter Sixteen. In its own terms, it is fantastically well written too. An easy read in one sense and a very difficult one in others. Despite many other books demanding my attention, the next part of Stanly's story has started to behave like the strongest magnet and is turning me into a pile of iron filings.

(Review of Ace of Spiders and Stanly's Ghost will be added here shortly.)

The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, The Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

 

Christopher Edge's books sit comfortably in the middle of the children's category, not too long and reasonably accessible, yet high in quality of content and writing. As such they are most welcome on our bookshops shelves - but should not stay there for too long. 

His first publications were a trilogy of historical mystery adventures, starting with Twleve Minutes to Midnight (2012). These are highly entertaining romps with a strong girl lead and more than a touch of lurid melodrama inspired by the 'Penny Dreadfuls' of the late Nineteenth Century. Recently the author has exchanged science for history as the inspiration of his fiction - and to some of the most difficult thinking of recent science at that. However the results are splendid. 

Of course, others have already used fiction as a vehicle for explaining difficult scientific concepts to children, perhaps most notably Professor Russell Stannard in his Uncle Albert books (starting with The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, 1989) and the George series, penned by Lucy Hawking in collaboration with her famous father, Stephen (starting with George's Secret Key to the Universe, 2007).

However, whereas Russel Stanard is himself an eminent scientist, and Lucy Hawking has a direct connection to one, Christopher edge is a novelist. He actually does a pretty good job of explaining some fiendish concepts from contemporary science and philosophy, such as 'Schrodinger's Cat', but his primary interest is in the narrative that he can construct around these ideas. In fact he might upset some pure scientists because he weaves fantasy and actual scientific theory together without distinguishing very clearly between them.  But then it is possible to argue that quantum physics has become the point where science and science fiction/fantasy almost meet anyway.  Certainly Christopher Edge uses this possibility in both challenging and exciting ways. 

His story is that of a boy trying to come to terms with the recent loss of his monther. He becomes obsessed with the idea of looking for her in parallel worlds, where, some of the most radical scientific theories would seem to suggest, she will not have died. His journeys into these other worlds, and what he finds, and doesn't find there,  are at  the fascinating heart of his story. The issues of childhood bereavement and loss are sensitively handled and helpfully moved forward by the end of novel. However there are perhaps other books that deal with this subject more profoundly. This is not so much a book to give to a grieving child as to a thinking one. Its parallel-universe-hopping  may not always be completely logical, any more than is the time travel in Back to the Future, but it raises the most interesting issues. In doing so it provides material for some fascinating, and perhaps important, reflection for those children who can open their minds up to it. It is a book both educational, in the very best and biggest sense,  and hugely entertaining at the same time. 

One of the most difficult issues in life is knowing what you can change about yourself and what you can't;what you should try to change and what you shouldn't. This novel will help many children along the path towards that understanding. It is one for for children who ask questions, ponder, wonder and imagine - and that makes it very special. It explores the gap between the cutting edge of science and the world of fantasy, and implies that it might be far smaller that we thought.  


 

A review of this, Christopher Edge's most recent children's novel, will be added here very shortly.