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.

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. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee


This author's previous children's book, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, was one of my top finds of last year, a substantially new 'fairy tale', highly original, touching and with rich depths. (See my post on this blog from March '15.)

In its basic story concept, this book, it has to be said, is not anywhere near as original. A child abandoned to the 'care' of  a pair of Dahlesque aunts, so that they, witches that they are, can teach her to develop the magical talents of which up to that point she was unaware, or at least unconscious. The revelation  that she is the subject of a prophecy and the only person who can recover a key magical object and thereby save the world from the clutches of an unspeakably evil magician,. These are key elements of a story, that in various forms and guises, has been told many times already. Annabel, the protagonist here, is a 'poor little rich girl' abandoned by her mother to a world of hardship  she scarcely recognises let alone understands. This is admittedly a slight variation on the ubiquitous hard-done-to waif taken from an grim orphanage. But even this story element has been used often enough before.

Yet A Most Magical Girl is, in fact,  a fine, remarkable and most magical book. This is because Karen Foxlee is a fine, remarkable and most magical writer. 

To these 'classic' children's fantasy story elements she adds layers of rich, original and often quite poetic imagination. The aunt's bedroom characterised by its sound of an river running deep belowit; a map etched on the protagonist's skin, which, superficially at least,  disappears as she achieves objectives; a nervous and rather wayward broomstick - just a few examples of the writer's enhancing and entrancing inventions. Her story too is peopled by sensitively drawn and endearing characters with often quite complex relationships. The gradually revealed truth about Annabel's patents, her emergent feelings about them, and her developing relationship with her aunts, each add layers to the narrative. Over and through everything, her rich friendship with her two companions, the strange 'wild child' of London, and 'the only troll with a twinkle in her eyes', would themselves be enough to render this a very special story. Although very different, both are wonderful and endearing creations.  Nor is this tale without its sadnesses - another enriching feature of what might otherwise be simply an it-all-turns-out-all-right-in-the-end story. Much does turn out all right, but not quite everything and this leaves the reader reflective as well as satisfied. A good way to be at the end of a book. 

However it is the excellent quality of Karen Foxlee's actual writing which makes this book most particularly remarkable. She has a most skilful way with English prose. Always mellifluous and with a combination of balance, variety and potency, it brings endless delight to the 'reading ear'. Her  powers of picture painting are considerable and both her characters and locations truly live. You can see, hear, smell and almost breathe the very air of the Victorian London in which the tale is set. Her dialogue sparkles, as well a sometimes provoking out-loud chortles. Her lead characters soon become precious friends. And not only are her word choice and sentence building  masterly, but so is her storytelling, with a range of clever narrative devices compelling the reader to turn the next page. And the next. And the next. All of this means that the narrative rattles along with a rollicking  and enchanting excitement. 

In the end, Annabel does turn out to be a not-too distant cousin of Ophelia's. Whilst her defining mantra of,  'Be brave. Be good.' may be in some ways basic and simple, germane to this type of fantasy, it is none the less both touching and inspiring. There is an honest truth about her which will strike a chord in those who read her story. It will delight and enthrall many children, I'm certain, and will, I strongly suspect, also become a favourite of parents and teachers Young fans of magical fantasy, and indeed those new to the genre, should not miss it; it is a real treat. It is published now in an American edition (a beautiful volume as US hardbacks so often are), UK readers, who do not get hold of an imported copy, should not have long to wait for their own. It looks like it is due out from Picadilly Press in early September. Meanwhile, if you haven't already met her, catch up with the equally magical Ophelia

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Fantasy gem now out in U.S

This funny, scary, brilliantly written and hugely entertaining MG fantasy is now out in the U. S. and transatlantic readers should NOT miss it. See the my full review on this blog, posted May '16. 
It is also great to have a fine hardback edition of a book I feel sure is destined to become a children's fantasy classic.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Beast on the Broch by John K Fulton


A warm welcome to a new independent Scottish publisher, Cranachan. They are introducing an imprint called 'Pokey Hat' (a colloquial term for an ice cream cone, I understand) which will publish historical fiction for children 9-12, with an emphasis on Scottish authorship and/or content. Valuable contributions are already being made in this area by a established imprint, 'Kelpies' from Floris Books,  albeit in a wider range of genres. However competition is always welcome. In any case this is hardly an overcrowded field. And, certainly, if this first title I have read is anything to go by, 'Pokey Hat' is set to provide some most valuable and enjoyable additions to the canon.

Of course there is a fine tradition of children's historical fiction going back to the incomparable Rosemary Sutcliff and beyond, and this is not without 'classic' Scottish examples like Kathleen Fidler's The Boy with the Bronze Axe and Mollie Hunter's The Stronghold* which most certainly deserve to be read by a new generation of children. The Beast on the Broch is almost, but not quite, straight historical fiction in the same mould. However, here, an intriguing, and in this case charming, element of fantasy is added in that the eponymous creature belongs to legend rather than history, and yet has an actual, physical presence in the story. 

John Fulton's skilful use of language is clear and accessible, yet pertinently evocative, which makes this a good 'entry level' to the genre for its intended audience. It will I'm sure help to bring many new young readers to enjoying historical fiction, as well as hugely pleasing those already hooked. It does extremely well what all good historical fiction must, that is to say it creates a convincing, well-researched social context and explains a good deal of the 'political' background, in ways which are totally and comfortably integrated into the narrative, rather than imposed upon it. The period of Scottish history reimagined here (around 800 AD) is a most interesting and, to me at least, relatively unknown one. However, more than this, the story told within it is an involving  and, in its later stages particularly, a grippingly exciting one.  Added to this is the frisson of fantasy provided by the actual presence of the 'beast'. This is beautifully described to fit in with that depicted in genuine stone engravings found from the Pictish culture. Drawing on both history and legend proves a strong way of illuminating  what is often a 'dark' period of history and the author certainly brings it vividly to life.

However the close relationship between protagonist, twelve year old Talorca, and the beast is really, as much as anything, a classic, heart-tugging child-and-companion-animal scenario, which will only add to the appeal of this story for its intended readership. Imagine if you can Wolf Brother, but with a feisty girl instead of Torak, a beast instead of a wolf and a setting in 'Dark Age' Scotland rather than prehistory. 

Yet what makes this book particularly fine is not simply its historical interest, or the driving excitement of its storyline. Within these lie a strong, complex character development and the exploration of some most important issues. As the narrative evolves, questions begin to arise about Talorca's actions and motives; whilst understandable these may not necessarily always be 'right'.  She has much to learn about life and its living, some, but not all, of which she has realised by the end. Many readers may unobtrusively learn something alongside her too. Stories have, throughout time,  been used as a way of teaching, organically rather than didactically. Their great power lies in the way that they can speak to the heart as much as to the head. And this one is no exception. It may be going too far too see it as an allegory of our own world. However the conflict between resentment and acceptance of new 'immigrants' into her community, which lies at the heart of Talorca's dilemma, together with the need  to unite against larger, life-taking threats from further 'outside', gives young readers a great deal to think about. And maybe they will make more connections than we think, implicitly if not explicitly. 

I appreciate that many Scottish people, regardless of their stand on independence, will wish to help their children appreciate the very special and particular heritage of their homeland. Similarly, their children need the opportunity to identify with stories which directly relate to their own background.  It is equally important, however, that children outside Scotland also have the opportunity to come to know and value something of the the history and culture of this unique, special and, in many places, unspeakably beautiful country (midges apart). 

This fine book will, I'm sure, contribute significantly on all these fronts, as well as giving many children a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read. It could well end up helping to grow their humanity too.

(Please note: This review is based on an Advance Reading Copy. Publication in paperback and as e-book is due in Sept '16.)

*Which, incidentally, imaginatively fills in a story of the origins of the Brochs, a ruined example of which features in John Fulton's tale.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Bone Jack for US publication


Great news for US readers. I have just discovered that Sara Crowe's stunning debut YA novel is to be published there in early 2017. Dark, dangerous and disturbing, it is a gripping read and lovers of fine writing for young people should certainly look out for it. It is one of the real UK gems of recent years. You can see a full review in my post from June '14 when I first read it here. It has been quite a long time crossing the pond, but will be well worth the wait.