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, 7 December 2016

Starchaser by Angie Sage

 

When Angie Sage rounded off her Septimus Heap books with Fyre in 2013, it looked like the close of one of the very best children's fantasy sequences. However, over the three subsequent years, she has continued with a sequel trilogy, Todhunter Moon, introducing a new generation of characters into the same world - and she is to be given enormous credit for extending and expanding that world so successfully. The latest trio of books is no disappointment, in fact very much the reverse. (See earlier posts.) Angie Sage has done what very few writers of such sequences have done so well. She had retained much of welcome familiarity, satisfying the longing for more of the same, whilst introducing enough new characters and story elements to keep everything very much alive and exciting. Not least, of course, she has now added a captivating girl protagonist, one who equals the charm and vulnerability of Septimus Heap whilst also providing another courageous world-saver with whom young readers will want to identify. 

So many contemporary children's fantasies, including of course some wonderful modern classics, involve either  children from our own world suddenly finding themselves in a fantasy one, or else magic invading our world to a greater or lesser  degree. However Angie Sage has succeeded in creating a self-contained 'high fantasy' world, rich, complex and convincing, yet made it totally accessible and meaningful to her young readership. Her 'darke', leavened  as it is with much delightful comedy, is threatening enough to be thrilling, yet not so gothically nightmarish as to be truly disturbing. Her  'good' characters are magical and special enough to be awesome, yet human enough to be totally captivating and to engender easy identification. The result is total involvement and commitment on the part of the reader to a story with endless excitement, suspense and ultimate satisfaction. These are books to truly feed the imaginations and indulge the fantasies of the young. They are however not simply escapist and readers will learn much from sharing the aspirations, dilemmas and, sometimes quiet, triumphs of this rich set of characters. 

Starchaser itself brings the latest trilogy to a magnificent climax,  revealing truly amazing and thrilling  new aspects to the Pathfinders story, as Tod and her friends pursue a final quest to avoid the devastation of much they hold dear. The book cover carries the strap, 'The Magykal conclusion to the world of Septimus Heap,' and if this one really is the end, as it appears to be, it is a worthy culmination of a veritable triumph of children's fantasy. The book is a pure joy. Starchaser is undoubtedly one of the children's books of 2016, just as the series in its entirety is one of the real highlights of 21st century children's fiction.

Although the U.K. Edition is handsome enough in itself, I cannot finish without an enormous thank you to US publishers Bloomsbury/Katherine Tegen, as well as illustrator  Mark Zug. I know that books are so much more than their  covers, but these guys have consistently seen through the whole series, creating what to my mind is one of the most physically beautiful sets of children's books, a book-lover's aesthetic delight. And the production of the Todhunter Moon trilogy echoes its content in that these volumes looks sufficiently like the earlier ones to clearly belong to the full set, whilst still having a distinctive feel of their own. A triumph. And the illustrations are every bit as magical as the books. True enhancement. Sadly the UK editions are the poorer for their lack. Fortunately it is possible to source the US ones over here too.  


Friday, 25 November 2016

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

 

Garth Nix's YA Old Kingdon (Abhorsen) Trilogy, now 15-20 years old, is undoubtedly one of the greats of contemporary fantasy. It remains a must read for any who don't yet know it, and, I suspect, provides a periodic indulgent re-read for many who do. A couple of related shorter works aside, we waited a long time for a follow-up. However last year brought us the magnificent Clariel (see my post from August '15) which was actually a prequel to the original trilogy, set hundreds of years earlier. Now, at last we have a continuation of the story of Lirael in the recently released Goldenhand. And whilst the wait has been long, patience, or perhaps impatience, is now magnificently rewarded. 

This is high fantasy of the very finest. Through the whole sequence Gareth Nix has built a stunningly rich, imaginative world of magic that is completely convincing in it own terms and hence totally absorbing. In Goldenhand he exploits what he has created to the full. There is one new major character, Ferin , the messenger girl from one of the tribes of the north, but largely this is a return to many characters introduced and developed through the original trilogy. In a sense, then, this new addition to the Old Kingdom sequence is not strikingly different or original. What is on offer in spades, however, is the most wonderful storytelling; gripping action with hugely interesting, rich characters, and some really jolting shocks. There is, too, enough romance to be endearing, without so much as to be cloying. Garth Nix's masterly construction and control of narrative is an object lesson to lesser writers. In the early parts he uses the technique of alternating story strands, which when as skilfully handled as this, is guaranteed to keep the pages turning. He builds and relieves tension and continually develops characters to always maintain absorption. 

So many current YA fantasies are written rather pointedly for a teen girl audience. Despite the principal protagonists being female, this is of much broader appeal. True sword and sorcery in the best sense. 

By the time of the story's truly riveting climax, the author has skilfully pulled together threads not only from this novel but from the whole sequence. It is as devastating as it is delightful; you gasp and tingle at one and the same time. Here are old 'friends' as well as endings, on many levels. By the close there are in fact few loose ends, so this feels like it could be the last of the sequence. On the one hand, this is hugely satisfying. On the other it is to be fervently hoped that this is not to be. This world is too special and, by this stage, too much a part of the reader to feel anything other than bereavement at the thought of losing it. At least there is always the option of starting to read it all again from the beginning. 

This whole sequence is a rare example of what I consider a 'Lord-of-the-Rings-read'; one which feels something akin to that first experience of reading Tolkien, with its all-absorbing depth of engagement and enjoyment. Such quality of fantasy fiction is to be constantly yearned for, but very infrequently found. Thank goodness Garth Nix is around to give it to us. 



Monday, 14 November 2016

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

 

I was delighted when I discovered the children's novels of Kate Milford (see my post from Sept. '16) and this, her latest book, has only added to my considerable admiration. One of the remarkable features about her work is that whilst each of her books is in many respects quite different from the others, and they certainly do not constitute a sequence as such, that are all related in some way. Sometimes it is a place that is common, sometimes a character, for example the same character who has appeared as an adult in one book, appears as a young boy in another, with a much earlier setting. This means that each book builds further understanding of her world, bringing revelations which excite, thrill and intrigue, as they build into an ever more rich and amazing storyscape. 

Another remarkable feature common to all the books is an idiosyncratic mixing of genuine history and hugely imaginative fantasy. It is an alalgam which ought not to work. It is one which would perhaps leave some actual historians aghast. But in the hands of this fine writer it actually comes off superbly and gives a reading experience which is as refreshing as it is enchanting, as magical as it is educative, and, at the end of it all, as moving as it is enthralling. Kate Milford's history is always exceedingly well researched and convincingly recreated. It is generally place specific, as well as time  specific, featuring US locations, and covering periods from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This American history should not put off UK readers. It is totally accessible, always well enough contextualised and explained to make complete sense, and is indeed all the more fascinating for being rather less familiar. This is most valuable education in hugely enjoyable fictional form. We, over here, should be more aware of the history and heritage of our global neighbours across the Atlantic. 

As the other principal ingredient in her fictional mix, Kate Milford's fantasy is also in many ways very American. It owes more to folklore and sometimes even religion than do the more conventional mythology-based worlds of dragons, wizards and the like. It is however equally imaginative, with the added thrill of originality, quirkiness and surprise. This strange and sometimes frightening fantasy quietly shares the reality of her history, lurking beneath the surface, or existing in startling parallel. Her world is a fictional joy, and very hard to describe. You really must explore it for yourself.

In this book her historical setting is primarily the English/French conflict of the Napolionic Wars, specifically its working out in a naval context. However since much takes place on a ship sailing in and out of US ports, primarily Baltimore, this is further complicated by the US declaration of war on England. However all the complexities of this situation are very skilfully and smoothly  explained as an integral part of the narrative. The whole first part of the book struck me as very much a children's version of Patrick O'Brian.* And I mean that very much as a compliment. I have long loved O'Brian and this homage pays tribute without being in any way derivative. The Left-Handed Fate has all the features which make O'Brian's adult novels such a wonderful read; history brought vividly into focus, the authentic detail of life at sea on a large sailing ship, exciting sea battles and engagements, yet all underpinned with the human interest of hugely engaging protagonists and a rich cast of minor characters. It is quite beautifully done. Kate Milford's young characters really are endearing, often highly amusing and sometimes deeply moving too. Their banter is a constant delight and so are the relationships which develop, shift and grow, both between them and with the adults. 

Kate Milford does not shy away from really important issues either. There is an underlying questioning of war and what it means, and indeed a strong thread of pacifism throughout. There are very real and very moving passages about war and it's realities, not least the  account by a sailor of French nationality of the horrors he witnessed in his homeland during the massacres in the Vendee, following the post-revolutionary 'terror'. 

On top of all this though is the fantasy element; demonic villains, a supernatural ship and its  terrifying crew, an amazing ancient machine, whose nature turns out to be as magical as it is scientific (or in the book's terms 'philosophical '). Above all is the truly amazing town/port of Nagspeake, which has to be seen (that is, read about) to be believed. It is truly every bit as imaginative and magical a creation as anything in J K Rowling. Simply joyous. 

I cannoy recommend this book highly enough for young UK readers, and indeed any in the US or elsewhere who have not yet discovered it. It is a wonderful read, and an important new addition to a corpus of work which is even greater than its individual parts. This is a highly significant writer in terms of the canon of fine children's literature worldwide, with a such a refreshingly unique imagination that you really should not miss her.

Like the two books I reviewed previously, this is a handsome physical volume. I have only one small quibble though. Although attractive in themselves, I find the illustrations don't quite work for me. The very simplified drawings of the characters are too cartoony and don't really accord with the convincing and untimately very touching 'reality' that this author achieves with her textual creations. I far prefer the pictures in the two earlier books, which to me enhance the text far better.  But this is a very minor quibble and does not detract from the considerable enjoyment I derived. 

I have set aside another of her recent books, Greenglass House, for my Christmas read,  and must also catch up on the two novellas which are currently only available as e-books. That is a format I do not really much like reading, but for Kate Milford I will certainly make an exception. 

*Note: I had already written the draft of this review when I read  Kate Milford's acknowledgment of the influence  of Patrick O'Brian's naval novels on The Left-Handed Fate. So I got that one right at least. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve

 


Book cover hype can be exactly that, hype, but in this instance the quote from The Sunday Times is spot on.  For sheer power of imaginative world building Philip Reeeve is hard to beat. The same can be said of his storytelling, his character drawing and the sheer quality of his masterful writing.

I welcomed the first book in this new trilogy as possibly his strongest creation since the original ground-breaking and now classic Mortal Engines (Predator Cities) quartet. For a detailed review of Railhead please see my post here from 0ct 2015.

Middle books in even very fine trilogies can feel a little flat; they are after all neither the beginning or the end but, well, the middle. No such issues here though. Philip Reeve seems to have challenged himself with a hugely demanding 'Top that!' - and then done it. He takes both his fantastic, sci-fi, train -dominated world, and his cast of wired and wonderful characters and develops  them further, in an almost mind-blowingly rich and imaginative way. Hovering on the very verge of fantasy, his high-tech multiverse becomes the setting for action which twists and turns amazingly, sometimes quite shockingly and even disturbingly. He stretches excitement on an ever tightening rack. His conjuring of  worlds and creatures seems to know no bounds, and yet his characters and their story grip and wring the reader's emotions. He paints for us the blackest of villains and yet his 'heros' are complex and ambivalent, wonderfully human - even those that aren't. And beneath it all lies still the most original and touching love story. This book has everything , and more. For any avid reader from late childhood onwards it offers rewards on so many levels.

A subsidiary, but nonetheless  delightful, feature  is that it is peppered with humour, often slyly wicked, sometimes just plain silly and occasionally reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide, in the best possible way. I rolled about at the hotel lift which, when ridden in the midst  of a roaring inferno, advised its passengers to use the stairs next time there was a fire. Such moments provide a wonderful foil to the many genuinely tense situations, whilst other quips add warmth and depth to its already endearing protagonists. The glossary is a particular highlight of mischievous humour and should not be missed. 

The close of this second book is bitter sweet, reminiscent almost of The Amber Spyglass, but here the big difference is that this is not the end. Philip Reeve showed in Mortal Engines, how skilfully he can move stories on  and I am sure he will do so here. 'Wire dolly', Nova, with her touching love for Zen, given and reciprocated despite her being an android, is one of his finest, most thought-provoking and magical creations. I for one am desperate for whatever he imagines next. 

We readers will, I know, thrill to the songs of his trains far into our future.

Railhead was one of my books of the year, last year. His follow-up cannot fail to top the pile for this year too.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Thornthwaite Betrayal by Gareth P Jones

 

Alongside many populist series books for younger children, Gareth P Jones has built up a now substantial oeuvre of fiction for middle years and early teen readers which establish him amongst the best of contemporary writers  for these age groups. Although rarely magic fantasy as such, his books exude quirkily delightful imagination and a huge sense of fun. He hit new heights recently with two remarkable - although very different - novels whose  originality, richness and ingenuity puts him up there with the greats, No True Echo and Death or Ice Cream? (See my reviews posted here in February of this year.) 

However, since the development of his fiction has been so strong over recent years, I was initially just a little concerned to discover that for his most recent title he has gone back to write a sequel to an earlier novel from 2009, The Thornthwaite Inheritance. This was, and indeed still is, a very entertaining book, and, deservedly, a hugely popular one. However its core concept and tone does belong clearly to  the comic-gothic sub-genre already established by Lemony Snicket and the like. At the heart of its story are the continued attempts to kill each other of two twins who are the joint inheritors of an ancient mansion. The violence is, of course, closer to Looney Tunes than to Chainsaw Massacre and has a great deal of appeal for its intended audience. But by the end of this book the conflict between the two protagonists is essentially resolved, engendering doubts as to whether a sequel might have strong enough places to go, or whether it might just be an an over-contrived re-run. 

With a writer of the considerable ability of Gareth Jones I need not have worried. The Thornthwaite Betrayal is a fine book, unlike many sequels, actually even better than its precursor, and engagingly successful on a number of levels.

What the author has penned here is essentially a mystery, and one that works in all the best ways, drawing the reader in with innumerable questions and holding rapt attention through a succession of intriguing developments. The compulsion of the Thornthwaite twins to try to kill each other has now been replaced with apparent attempts by person or persons unknown to kill them both. This may not sound particularly inventive as a plot idea in itself, but its execution here is very clever indeed. Through a sequence of very short chapters Gareth Jones introduces numerous eccentric and fascinating characters and scenarios. These sections, often told from different character perspectives, really do act like jigsaw pieces, gradually building a picture, illuminating back-stories, adding evidence, and also raising questions as to what may pertinent, what a red herring, or what entirely irrelevant. Another of this author's particular talents on display here is his skill in writing dialogue which illuminates events, and particularly character, through what it said, the way it is said, and of course what is not said. Much of the gradual piecing together of this mystery is absurd,  some is touchingly enlightening, everything is enthralling and the whole hugely entertaining.

And that leads on to the second level on which this book is so successful. It is often very funny indeed. Its humour ranges from the slapstick to the surreal and also includes a great deal of wit. It is pure delight to read from beginning to end. 

Yet the book has surprising depths too. Without bludgeoning the reader over the head with 'issues', the story explores life's delicate balance between truth and lies very tellingly, and perhaps even more so that between suspicion and trust. Gareth Jones is also quite delightfully clever, in the way he sneaks an impassioned plea for libraries into the mouth of one of his characters; he certainly earns another gold star from me for that. In the same way he also threads in  some really pertinent advice for young writers, which I'm sure will be valuable to teachers as well as to children, in schools and out of them. 

On perhaps the most important level of all, though, this is a book about two children if not quite fully 'coming of age' then at least growing a little more into their own skins. For underneath their superficially cartoonish demeanours , twins Laurelli and Ovid, are drawn with many genuine qualities and concerns. They are warm, rounded characters with whom the readers will readily identify. Laurelli's initially abortive desire to become a writer of stories, together with Ovid's almost Adrian-Mole-like fumbling with the idea of a first girlfriend, make them endearingly human. Underneath the mutual mistrust that persists from their earlier behaviours, the author cleverly conveys a real affection between them and their journey of discovering who they can trust is a most warming one - especially when they discover that it is principally each other. Ultimately they learn to trust that who they are is of much more worth and importance than they once thought. 

When aspiring writer Lorelli shares potential plots with the librarian, she responds,  'Your ideas are rich, vivid and exciting'. This equally applies to the writing of Gareth Jones himself. 

Ultimately this new novel  does not have quite the originality of concept, depth of thought or bold playfulness of structure of its two most recent predecessors. But this is a different work for a different (younger) audience. The Thornthwaite Betrayal is a fine children's book in its own right, as skilful as it is delightful. I am sure it will be hugely enjoyed by its young readers and prove highly successful. Not far under its surface bubbles the talent of the quirkily brilliant writer who penned No True Echo and Death or Ice Cream? I trust it will erupt again very soon. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill

 

I read so many children's fantasies that recycyle the same old elements and themes. A few give them wonderful fresh vitality, but most are drearily predictable. I have therefore come to value originality hugely - provided, of course, that it is coupled with high quality writing. It is with absolute delight then that I have discovered The Beginning Woods, because it scores five stars (plus) on both these fronts.

I suppose at heart its story is 'classic': an (apparently) orphaned boy goes off into a fantasy world in search of his 'forever parents'. Additionally he is tasked with saving his own world from devastating 'vanishings' by discovering their cause and thwarting a malevolent mastermind. As with many such tales he comes to realise that these two quests may be related, or even the same. Yet Malcolm McNeill's is just about as far from a conventional telling as it is possible to be. His tale is crammed full of the most fantastical and original imaginings, and his narrative idiosyncratic to say the least. It is an odd book, in the most weirdly wonderful way. It is wild and uninhibited in its invention and virtually defies classification. It is at times steampunk, at others fairy tale; it veers from gothic horror to laugh-out-loud comedy. Is is philosophical and discursive, in the most entertaining of ways; it raises profound issues and yet is a rollickingly exciting read. It is terrifying and endearingly touching. The relationship between Max, its ambivalent and complex protagonist, at once both empathetic and disquieting, and the (almost) ghost girl who moves in under his fingernail and engages him in frequent internal discussion, is one of the most entertaining (and moving) in recent children's fiction.

So rich and varied is the invention that for much of the story, especially the first two thirds, it has an almost Alice in Wonderland feel of moving from one unexpected scenario to another, without much clear connection. However each new encounter is more than intriguing enough to keep the pages turning. Yet unlike that earlier classic, this is not whimsy justified as dream. All the strange and apparently disparate elements do eventually weave together in a way that excites and delights.  The final third of the book is a rollercoaster of both action and revelation, leading to a thrilling denouement.

Essentially this story centres on one of literature's most profound and important themes, itself. That is, on the relationship of story to reality; dreams to empiricism. In this, it treats not only profoundly and touchingly of death, but, as a consequence, on what it means to be alive. Its ending then, cannot be anything but ambiguous and questioning. Much is resolved and much is happy, but at inevitable cost and loss. The closing sentences, though, leave room for endearing warmth and hope too. Through all this, the writing is quite superb, sometimes edging towards the post-modern by boldly and delightfully using both wordplay and typography to greatly enhance and enliven the narrative.

This book is one of the very finest recent additions to the children's fiction canon. It fully dererves to join the classics and the ranks  of those lauded  through awards and it will surely do both. It is a great find for publishers Pushkin, to whom we seem to have a good deal to be grateful for these days. An enormous thank you to them - but most of all to Malcolm McNeill. 


Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands by Kate Milford

 


 

These two children's/YA novels by US author Kate Milford are not completely new, having been published in 2010 and 2012. They are however a new find for me - and a very special one. They seem to have earned deservedly accolades in The States, and the two together are more than enough to prompt me to add this author to my list of the finest contemporary writers for children.

They are most evocatively set in place and time, the first in  small town America of 1913, the slightly later-written prequel in the emerging New York City, specifically Brooklyn and Cony Island, at the time of the building of the Brooklyn bridge around 1877. Each setting delighted me as well as enlightened me rewardingly about these particular periods of America's development. But they are far more than historical fiction: each is also an intriguing mystery, a very engaging human story, a thrilling fantasy, and has more than a touch of grand gignol to spice the excitement too. 

It is truly refreshing to come across such original, diabolical and yet folksy fantasy, rather that the apprentice wizard fare that has become so standard in recent years. These books deal with important 'issues' too, but sensitively and subtly, rather than  beating the reader over the head with them. They have wonderful characters, the young teenage protagonists totally beliveable  and engaging, the older characters just that, be they warmly drawn and loveable, eccentric and intriguing or spookily disturbing. The first book is gingered by such wonderful ingredients as automatons, a weird and wonderful travelling medicine show, and the seemingly untameable rogue boneshaker of the title. The second by magical fireworks, a demonic plot and a sensitively and touchingly developed young love story. In each case too the whole is most skilfully written to create rich atmosphere and hold the reader enthralled. 

Both books are a delight and for me a real discovery. I shall now most certainly seek out Kate Milford's more recent titles and I most warmly recommend her to you.

As is too often the case, these books are sadly not published here in the UK, although they can be sourced online. As you know I like to support independent 'real' bookshops whenever possible, but sometimes . . . 

Children need and deserve access to the best writing of the English-speaking world, and although many fine books are published in the UK there are numerous treasures out there which aren't. Kate Milford's books are remarkably fine examples. Five stars to her for striking originality and captivating storytelling.