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.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Station Zero (Railhead Book 3) by Philip Reeve



'"This isn't real. It's a virtual environment."
"Yes, but it's a real virtual environment."' (p 267)

Quotable quotes 

Station Zero is described on its UK hardback cover as, 'A stunning step beyond the universe.' It is totally apt. However, if I were selecting a quote for the jacket, from the work itself, it would be the one above - enigmatic, psychedelic and perfectly capturing the essence of this wonderful book. 

  Traction cities

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines sequence, built initially around the wild concept of mobile, predatory cities, is one of the finest works of children's speculative fiction from recent times. It is characterised by startlingly original and imaginative world-building coupled with characters who are complex, entertaining and completely engaging. He develops these through highly communicative language and intriguing plots that grip through multiple twists and turns. The end result is to create a bizarrely fantastic world and render it totally credible and utterly absorbing. 

Engines of a different kind

In a very different context, and for, perhaps, a slightly older readership*, he has recaptured exactly these qualities in his most recent Railhead Trilogy, now concluded in Station Zero.  (See my reviews of the first two volumes from October '15 and November '16. )

If at the heart of Mortal Engines are traction cities, then central to the Railhead books is a vast network of sentient trains. These startling phenomena use mysterious 'K Gates' to travel  in seconds through vast distances of space, linking planets and galaxies into a connected universe of different worlds. This network underpins the complex politics and warring  behaviour of human dynasties across a vast Empire. Also to be found in Philip Reeve's creation are alien species, many most imaginatively conceived, as well as highly advanced androids,  called 'motoriks', some with realistic human personalities. It is indeed a 'world' of highly complex cyber-technology, underpinned by vast data sets which not only store information but can house cyber-copies of dead personalities and indeed an entire pantheon of 'data gods', known as the Guardians. All of of this is linked by the trains, with their esoteric language of trainsong. It is they who transport data from one world to another, maintaining a hyper-complex Web. 

And behind everything, or perhaps above everything, hangs the spectre of the long-vanished Railmaker, creator of the network itself.  Is he a myth? A Ghost? A data-memory? Or could he be a reality? 

The whole is a fantasy-fest of immense fascination . Only the very finest SF writers of the past have created speculative worlds of such originality and richness. 



Trains are people too

The build of narrative through the first two books has been rivetingly strong, but any fears that the staggering climax of the second would be hard to follow are rapidly dispelled in Station Zero. Protagonist, 'railhead' Zen, continues to develop strongly as a complex, flawed, yet deeply likeable hero. He is surrounded by equally fascinating characters, human, alien, mechanical and even virtual. They emerge rich and rounded, regardless of the number of dimensions they apparently have. This is a world that truly lives in the reader's imagination, and memory. And again, of course there are the magnificent trains, with their exotic names and varied personalities. If ever you doubted that trains could be engaging, evolving characters (and I would not blame you if you did) then you need to read this book. 

'Humans and Guardians have one thing in common, I've found. They both tend to underestimate trains. We are people too, you know, and we have just as much interest in working out the problems of this crazy galaxy as you do.' (p 198)

Believe me, these trains are as far from Thomas the Tank Engine as George Orwell's farm is from Old Macdonald's 

Love-bot

Railhead is deeply political and violent, but it carries a central love interest, too, albeit one with a remarkable twist. The strong feelings which Zen develops are not for another human being but for Nova, a 'female' motorik, a 'wire dolly', that is to say a machine, albeit a sentient and highly intelligent one. At the end of the second book they are separated, it appears for good. Here in the third, there is a development that is shocking to the core. I could not possibly spoil things for others  by giving away even the slightest hint, but suffice to say that it is as mind-blowing for the reader as it is for Zen. 

Riding the rails

Even more so, perhaps, than in his earlier books, Philip Reeve's consistently skilful use of language is frequently stunning. His word pictures of different worlds are vividly evocative, sometimes ravishing, sometimes bleakly disquieting. His capturing of action, character and emotion are equally effective and he can thrill, shock and move with remarkable power.  

His complex plot is continually engrossing and speeds down shining rails, glides over sweeping viaducts, negotiates strange stations and plunges into dark tunnels just as dramatically as do its phenomenal trains. It can bring tears to a reader's eyes as well as breathless excitement; it intrigues and surprises; it amuses and confounds. 

Our world too

Despite its fantastic setting , there is much in the Railhead books that resonates strongly with our own world, and this is perhaps particularly pertinent in Station Zero. 

Directly and indirectly, Zen and Nova have opened up gates to new and alien worlds and brought both beneficial trade and floods of immigration into their section of the Empire. However, the malevolent usurper Emperor wants to close off these routes again and protect the insularity of his own domain. Moreover he is prepared to use overwhelming force to consolidate his power and exclude all alien influence. 

'His rail armada would go storming onwards . . . until . . . the gate to the Web of Worlds was barred, and his Empire was safe and whole again.' (p 29)

There is much that feels all too familiar. . 

Even more importantly though, Station Zero, with all its different worlds, its pervasive datasets and its many layers of  virtual existence, provides for a thoughtful exploration of what reality actually is and means. It challenges our preconceptions. It provokes, disturbs and moves in a way that completely lifts it from being merely an entertaining read and establishes it as a work of fine literature. 

This operates not only on a conceptual level but on a deeply human one too.  Zen's love for Nova, a being who can change her appearance, back up her personality, even exist out of her body, calls into question exactly what it is that we love about another. What does or doesn't it take for a person to cease to be the one we love? This book questions some of our deepest convictions. And yet it is profoundly beautiful too, deeply affecting, transfiguring and enlightening. The song of the trains, like the songlines of native Australians, or the singing of humpback whales, reverberates through our very bones. 

Station Zero, the place, is itself is a most telling creation. The origin of the Railmaker's whole network, with its idyllic recreation of a Railway Children station, is perhaps the railhead equivalent of W. B. Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree. It is the escape from everything, the place we always want to get back to. Together with Zen, we yearn to re-find it. It is the childhood we have lost (or perhaps never had). 

And yet it is not Station Zero that lies at the end of this storyline. This book is not about escape from reality. It is about finding it. In astonishing places. 

It's all one in the end

I am tempted to say that Station Zero is by far the finest book of a very fine trilogy. But this is not quite it. It is more that Station Zero is the work that brings its predecessors into full focus and illuminates the greatness of the whole trilogy. In fact, this is, not really a trilogy so much as one book, one story, in three parts. Its climax is truly staggering, but could not exist without its complex development. 

Many works of children's and young adult fiction centre on their protagonist discovering their own self, finding out exactly who they are. Railhead, rather, is about discovering how many selves we can be - and all of them us, and all of them real. 

'Human being live loads of different lives at once. They always have. One life in the real world and the others in daydreams, in memories, in stories, in games. Lots of lives all going on at once, and all of them real in some way or other.' (p 268)

Those who read Railhead, with its superb culmination in Station Zero, will be left with multiple worlds, multiple lives. And always . . . the trains. 


US editions

Note:
*Although this always very much depends on the reader. 


Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Chosen Ones (Worldquake Book 2) by Scarlett Thomas



'You've really read (her) books?'
'Yes, I just said.'
'But they're for children!
'Lots of adults read children's fiction.'
'Doesn't it stunt your mind?'
(p 215)


Originality is curved

Scarlett Thomas' Worldquake novels, now up to their second iteration in The Chosen Ones, have helped me to an understanding of something very important about fiction, and perhaps about life too, you never know. The continuum that stretches from completely unoriginal to wildly imaginative is not in fact linear, but, like Einsteinian spacetime, curved. It is a giant, flexible mollusc or, if you prefer a sort of conceptual Möbius strip. It only has one side. In simpler terms, if you go far enough in one direction you end up going in the opposite one, which turns out, after all, to be the same one as you were going in to start with. Simple. QED, you can be so unoriginal that you end up being wildly imaginative. Of course, it's all to do with spacetime really being a field, so originality is probably a field too, complete with cowpats.  But let's not go there *

Like it's predecessor, Dragon's Green (see my post from April '17),  her new sequel is a catch all for elements that have epitomised children's fantasy fiction over recent decades. Apart from dragons and other 'fantastic beasts', just about everything you can think of is in the The Chosen Ones - and you are left with a strong suspicion that even the firedrakes may appear before long. Here there is magic of many different qualities, 'good' and 'dark', performed by mages, witches, clairvoyants, healers, and goodness knows how many varieties of practitioner. There are two 'worlds' beside the 'real' one, accessed by a variety of portals. There are children who are 'epiphanised' to discover they have magical talents and world-saving destinies There is a school with oddball teachers, there are prophesies, magical objects and plots by megalomaniac villains. It is possible to step into stories, talk to animals and be transported by music. Nor is fantasy the only source of the author's borrowing. The Worldquake set up references a good number of other 'classic' elements of children's literature too, as well as drawing  heavily on aspects of fantasy role play gaming. 

A writer of kharakter 

Of course Scarlett Thomas is a highly intelligent and experienced author, so all of this is not a weak writer's overuse of standard characters and plots but conscious, clever and playful reference.  However, the most impressive thing of all is that, whilst she revels, and allows her readers to revel, in this delicious feast of pastiche, she still succeeds in weaving all these elements into a most engaging and original fantasy story of her own. In doing so she shows unbounded imagination. In short she shows just how original unoriginality can be. 

In terms of what, in these books, she calls  'kharakter',  Scarlett Thomas seems to be something of a 'composer interpreter, one who creates something entirely new through the reading of something already in existence.' (p 225)

Laughing all the way to the Otherworld

Even more than in the first book, in this second her narrative feels like it has begun to coalesce, to become more comfortable in its own artistic skin. Inevitably, her story is a rather complex one; she is weaving together so very many elements. Yet it only makes her world so much the richer, so much more intriguing and engrossing. And the fixative of this cohesion is humour. Much of her book is simply and joyfully, very, very funny. 

However the huge entertainment value of The Chosen Ones does not come solely from parody. Some of its humour  lies in ridiculous characters, attitudes and actions and  some in near farcical action and incident. Scarlett Thomas' use of incongruous juxtaposition is often delicious. 

'Terrence and Skylurian ate prawn cocktails by the fireside, gazing into one another's eyes. And that is when she'd told him her whole plan. Flipping heck! He had been, as they say, gobsmacked. It had been a little hard to take in at first, especially while trying not to get Marie Rose sauce down his jumper.' (p 171)

Wicked

Scarlett Thomas, the writer, has a wicked sense of humour and (thankfully) cannot resist also peppering her narrative with jibes and japes about many contemporary issues. Her main targets are all things writerly, including insecure, jealous authors, as well as agents, editors and the down side of school author visits. She has a delightful dig at children's books with '. . . no magic . . . no mythical creatures and no exciting action scenes. Instead . . . lots of swear-words and miserable children. ' (p 215). She sharply mocks knee-touching, powerful yet illiterate Americans ('I pay people to read and write for me, sugar.') and unscrupulously ambitious academics ('Orwell would do pretty much anything - including changing his entire belief system - if it meant a chance of promotion.' ) Amongst a wide range of other butts for her wit are Freudian-type dream interpretation, fermented foods and, apparently, turquoise shirts (?!). Her book really is a completely joyful hoot. 

Story will out

Yet, although a very different style of writer, she shares with Terry Pratchett an ability to toy with the genre without diminishing involvement in the storyline. In her case, the success of this duality lies largely in the fact that it is the subsidiary characters who are the focus of the humour, whilst her group of young protagonists are always fully involved in and seriously committed to the action of the story. Her 'famous five' are vividly drawn, believable characters with real issues and emotions with which young readers will readily identify. The adults may be stupid, but, even when they are young and foolish, the children aren't. We desperately want them to save their world, just as much as we do the young heroes of more straight-laced fantasy, and so their wayward adventures are still grippingly exciting. 

Back to quantum physics

Perhaps I can risk my sadly limited understanding of physics and propose one further final image from the quantum field. Apparently a sub-atomic particle can potentially be in any number of possible places and only actually resolves this ambiguity by materialising in a particular location when it bangs into something else, that is, when it experiences an 'event'.  

Scarlett Thomas has cleverly produced a book with multiple potential readings that will only resolve in the event of it being read. Bookish intellectuals will delight in its witty pastiche and droll jibes. More importantly, however, children will be enchanted by it as an absorbing fantasy; a transporting tale in the Harry Potter tradition, but cleverer, richer, funnier and, yes, more original than most. However her most appreciative audience will, perhaps, comprise child-like intellectuals and intelligent children. Both these groups will joyfully revel in all of the book's fascinating facets.  

Positively glowing

Underneath all its jolly japes, Scarlett Thomas' novel is a peon to the power and importance of books, even children's fantasy books. Surely the clinching factor in its being a fine work is that its thwarted super-villains are those who 'like abusing the natural magic of books for their own ends.' (p 320) There are few more important triumphs. 

'Remember, children, that the only good authors in this world are long dead,' pontificates caricatured classics-loving schoolteacher Mrs Beathag Hide. (p 173)

She is, of course, far from correct, as Scarlett Thomas again ably proves**

There are now another two beacons of children's fantasy literature joyfully glowing in the dark. 

(Unless of course Canongate is just a cover for the Matchstick Press!***)



Notes:
*I might just get out of my depth. Even though I did Physics up to 'O' Level (I'm that old), I'm only up to page 27 in Carlo Rovelli's Reality Is Not What It Seems and haven't even started The Order of Time yet. 
**Along with many others. 
***You'll understand when you read it!



Monday, 14 May 2018

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead, illustrated by Nicholas Gannon



'I'm putting two and two together, as Dad says. Except it's more like trying to add the square root of seven and thirty-one to the fifth power.' (p 100)

Picturing Bob

Bob initially attracted me (irresistibly) by virtue of its being illustrated by a children's book artist I consider to be one of the very finest around, Nicholas Gannon. He writes as well as illustrates and I have hugely admired, as well a greatly enjoyed, his own books (The Doldrums and The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse - see my reviews from November '15 and December '17)*. Here, however, he is just the illustrator - although 'just' is far too demeaning a word. His characteristic sepia toned pictures, whole pages and occasional vignettes, are as bewitchingly brilliant as ever. (Did you spot the few subtle hints of colour on the cover?  Another characteristic of his work.) His images are often beguilingly beautiful too. My only complaint is that there aren't more of them. I know of few others illustrators who can draw you quite so magically into a world that is intriguingly caught between reality and imagination. The woodland scene on page 177 is breathtaking. 

In fact, this little volume, from US publishing imprint Fiewel and Friends, has been beautifully designed all round. Gentle brown tones in chapter headers and page footers, as well as occasional text, echo the  illustrations, and extend the sepia mood to the whole book in a way that feels completely apt. 

However, in dwelling on the art and aesthetic of Bob, I do not mean to imply any lack of enthusiasm for the story itself, which is truly special in its own right. Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead are both deservedly renowned authors and the comparatively short book they have now penned together is as skilfully and sensitively written as we might have expected. It enchants and delights at the turn of every page. 

Telling Bob

The story is about Olivia (Livy), a ten (and a half) year-old who has come from her home in Massachusetts to visit for a while with her grandmother in Australia. The last time she was here was when she was only five. Arriving back, she rediscovers a strange 'friend' who she had completely forgotten about. Bob is not exactly human, however. Rather, he appears to be a sort of very distant cousin of E.T., or perhaps a much younger, less obstreperous, non-Scottish version of Raymond Briggs' The Man. He certainly isn't the zombie she thought him to be when she was younger. Whatever he is,  though, after five years of waiting for Livy in a dark cupboard dressed in a makeshift chicken outfit, he is certainly feeling a little neglected - and boy does he know how to play on it. 

Livy's quest to discover who (or even what) Bob is, and possibly to help him home, provides the core of the subsequent narrative. It is hard to explain more without giving too much away, but suffice to say that you may well find you have not worked out the ending anywhere near as well as you thought you had. 

The book is imaginative, intriguing and endearing. It is charming and funny in equal measure. It is sweet, in a myriad delightful ways. It truly touches at the same time as it entertains and surprises. It is a story that so beautifully captures aspects of both five and ten-year-old childhood that it chimes with much that is universal too. 

In all honesty, Bob is also verging on the sentimental. In fact, it might well have verged. But that is not always so bad a thing. After all, the same applies to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince and that is loved the world over, and, even seventy-odd years after its original publication, has sales of more than two million copies per year. The little prince's simple story and its original illustrations are treasured by countless readers as an affecting link to their lost childhood (or even to a childhood they never actually had). People like to get sentimental sometimes, and children more so (even if they don't always want to admit it). 

In fact, now that I think about it, The Little Prince is not too misleading a comparator at all. Bob could well become the twenty-first century's equivalent. 

 A listamabob

Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead's clever writing uses quite a few numbered lists in Bob to capture the thoughts and feelings of their characters. So, with apologies to the authors,  here is what I think could very well happen to this little book into the future:

1. Parents will read it to their kids. They will all be enchanted by it. 

2. Kids will read it for themselves. They will reread it at intervals over coming years, even when they are 'too old' (way 'too old') for it. 

3. When it is time to go to college or uni, they will sneak it into their luggage along with their old teddy bear (wonky donkey, cuddly armadillo, busted action figure, smelly bit of blanket, or whatever). 

4. When they get there, they will hide Bob in the bottom of a drawer and most certainly not put it on the shelf with the two titles from the pre-course reading list that they bought dirt cheap off eBay, but haven't actually read. (They want to appear cool, after all.)

5 They will furtively take it out to read on the first night,  when they feel a bit home sick, and on several other occasions when they should be completing assignments or revising for exams. 

6. One night, after drinking far too much alcohol, they will confess to their new best-ever friend that it is their favourite book of all time, only to discover that their soulmate thinks exactly the same.  

7. They will later shelve it with their others books as a post-ironic statement.

8. When they fall in love they will send electronic billets-doux with their feelings expressed as numbered lists, in homage to Bob. 

9. When they have a child of their own they will buy a new copy well before the kid is old enough to read, on the basis that it is a book every child should grow up with. 

10. When they become grandparents they will gift their grandchild an anniversary edition, with, of course, Nicholas Gannon's original illustrations. (It would simply not be right without.)

All this will repeat in cycles for generations to come. 

Bob is that sort of book. . . and it may, just possibly, help  us know life, the universe and ourselves a little better. . . if we find the pawn . . .and remember the liquorice.**

Unmissable.





Note:
*In fact I love them far more than Marmite. 
**You'll and understand when you've read it!

Friday, 11 May 2018

Burning Magic (Shadow Magic Book 3) by Joshua Khan



'"According to the Ruby Warlock, one should never linger in Necropolis after dark."
"Did he say why?"
"No, because he didn't linger to find out."' (p 255)


Entertaining Magic

Astonishingly, this Spring has already brought us two stunning new additions to children's fantasy literature, Adam Kurcher's Twelve Nights and Dave Rudden's The Endless King, the final part of his Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy. Both are recently reviewed here. 

Now, here is another children's fantasy that, in its different way, can also be recommended enthusiastically   What we have in Burning Magic, the third of Joshua Khan's Shadow Magic novels, is 24 Karat gold children's entertainment. Together with is predecessors (see post from August '17), it is a real crowd pleaser in the very best sense, and should be warmly welcomed by anyone wanting to encourage and support the reading enjoyment of young fantasy fans. It has all ingredients that so many children love, and it has them in spades. For a start there is magic aplenty, and in a mesmerising variety of forms. There is the dark necromancy of the 'Shadow' land, Gehenna, complete with ghosts, ghouls and even zombies (whose mouldering body parts have a frustrating habit of falling off at inconvenient times). There is the magic of the exotic Sultanate of Fire, all flames, larva and efreets.  And there is the wild, ancient magic of the Shardlands. There is copious action and excitement, too, wrapped up with mystery, murder and suspense - all culminating in a dangerous challenge-quest with competition from dastardly villains. There are monstrous beasts to fight, a giant vampire bat for an ally (if not quite a pet!) and even an obstreperous camel to cope with - although Gobber, as it is called, turns out to be more of a hero than might have been expected. 

Imaginative Magic 

To add to the book's attractiveness  there is also plenty of humour, ranging from witty repartee to the debunking of buffoons, and including both farcical antics and running gags.  It can by turns be laugh-out-loud funny and delightfully clever. Amongst the most entertaining of its recurring titillations are hero Thorn's frequent and often tiresome attempts to quote the 'wisdom' of his revered  peasant grandfather - although, when he does get a chance to utter them, these pithy sayings often contain more folk wisdom than other characters give credit for. 

'Grandpa says the cow don't care why its being milked, just as long as the farmer has warm hands.' (p 120)

Whilst Joshua Khan's world building draws on many recognisable conventions to root it fairly in the 'high fantasy' genre, it is more than original and imaginative enough to keep the whole fresh and engaging. His geopolitical landscape, with several different 'kingdoms' each representing the contrasting  qualities of one of six super-magician ancestors is sufficiently rich to be convincingly epic, without being so complex as to confuse young readers. His core idea of making his principal protagonist, Lily, not a 'goody-goody' princess, but a prominent member of the elite Shadow family, a necromancer, from the kingdom of dark magic, is an inspired one. It has given these books a hugely engaging and entertaining  twist right from the start. By this third book Lily is well establish as the 'witch queen' of her kingdom, although still very much a young girl too. However the author cleverly now moves the setting from Lily's  own shadow land to the exotic  'Sultanate of Fire', with its different style of 'fire magic'. This allows him to continue to develop his established characters within a new freshness of context. Its 'Arabian Nights' atmosphere contrasts beautifully with the gothic one of former books. The change of scene is further exploited in whole sections set in the desert landscape of the 'Shardlands', where the story's principal quest takes places. These lands house the ruined palaces of earlier and even more magical forebears and allow the exploration of much powerful and riveting back story to further enrich the ongoing tale. 

'The limits of reality, fragile in the Shardlands already, could be more easily broken the deeper they went.' (p 230)

Characterful Magic 

Lily's character has always been cleverly contrasted with those of the books' other two main characters, the  non-magical but courageous peasant boy, Thorn, and the scholarly fire prince, K'leef. Similarly these two themselves make an interesting pairing with each other. 

K'leef: My mother used to tell me stories about the golden age of magic. 
Thorn: My mom used to tell me to clean up after the goats. (p 128)

In Burning Magic their relationships are skilfully developed further. Indeed there are the very first stirrings of love interest and rivalry nestling within their close friendships. However, these are always within the bounds of what is fitting for their own tender age - and, indeed, that of the readers. That all three of these friends  are, at heart admirable, likeable and easy to identify with is another feature that  makes the book so involving. Perhaps surprisingly, this applies even to the young witch queen, despite (or maybe even because of) her talents for sewing back the the rotting body parts that have fallen off her zombies. 

Although their adversaries are every bit as corrupt and nastily chilling as you would expect fantasy villains to be, even some of them are not without real interest and roundness as characters. They too are subject to influence and (sometimes surprising) change as the narrative develops. 

It is all tremendously exciting, involving fantasy fun of the highest order. And yet the popular appeal of Burning Magic should not be taken to imply that this is a superficial read. It has real class, and a fair amount of depth too. 

Meaningful Magic 

Joshua Khan's use of language is outstanding, both elegant and powerful. It can be evocatively descriptive or excitingly dynamic at need. It provides an excellent model for young writers, and shows wonderfully that English prose does not need to be simplistic to be accessible to a young audience.This feature alone would ensure the book stood head and shoulders above many more run-of-the-mill children's fantasies. 

Even beyond this, though, Burning Magic embraces a number of important themes which will get young readers thinking as well as keeping them entertained. Yet it does so without being in the least didactic. Like many of the best children's books, it valuably explores the real meaning of friendship, emphasising the importance of valuing the contributions of others rather than dwelling on apparent differences. However it also interestingly plumbs issues of  kinship and loyalty, betrayal and trust. It implicitly poses many challenging questions, too, about the exercise of power and its huge potential to corrupt. 

'The throne sat empty except for its bitter promise of power.' (p 276)

More than anything, it majors on the potential of girls and women and on the pernicious effect of denying them the opportunities granted to boys and men. Lily quite wonderfully represents girls' right to be 'magic', in all its manifestations. 
 
'By the Six, she hated those stories! The ones with a simpering princess, an evil witch - usually one of her relatives -and a heroin prince or a handsome peasant who thought, just by killing the monster, he basically got to own the idiot princess. . . She made a much more interesting heroine. The Witch queen who lived with the undead, conversed with her father's ghost, and kept her brother in an eternal sleep in a tall tower covered with cobwebs.' (p 253-4)
Too true. And all those who sympathise (girls and boys) will love this book. 

Book Magic

It is a great pity that Joshua Khan's sparkling fantasies do not, as yet, seem to be better known here in the UK. They should be piled high in our bookshops (preferably independent ones) where they deserve to figure prominently amongst bestsellers. I am sure countless children will just love them.  Meanwhile it has to be said that the three US hardbacks from Disney Hyperion now make a very handsome set indeed, beautifully produced, sumptuous volumes greatly enhanced by Ben Hibon's strikingly dramatic illustrations. Book lovers should seek them out and treasure them, both as stories and as artefacts. 







Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Goat by Anne Fleming



'Kid supposed that the beauty of the falcon was directly related to its ability to kill, a completely different kind of beauty than the beauty of the pigeon, and that humans' ability to recognise the two beauties and not to call one beautiful and the other ugly said a lot about humans.' (p 74)

Grown-up stuff for children

I love children's books to be original (providing of course they are good with it), to stand out from the same-old-same-olds that so often dominate the bookshop shelves. Yes, I know children like to read the familiar, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is sometimes the need too for a breath of fresh air, particularly one that blows in like a deliciously cool blast in a heatwave. 

I also love it when children's books don't patronise their young audience. Many children are far more sophisticated readers than we give them credit for - and bright too of course. 

The Goat meets both these criteria quite magnificently. Canadian author Anne Fleming is a highly successful writer for adults but this is her first venture into children's fiction. However, unlike many, what she has done is not so much write a childish story as to make a work of pretty 'grown-up' fiction accessible to (and hugely enjoyable for) an audience of young people. And that makes it a very special book indeed. 

True, her central character is a young girl, Kid, who has just moved to NYNY, and is almost pathologically shy. Even more pertinent, perhaps, another major young character, Will, has lost both parents in The Twin Towers, and suffers serious consequences, including an inability to look out of high (or indeed almost any) windows. Whilst these are important themes, given potent contemporary relevance here, they are indeed the stuff of children's fiction. In fact, North American literature for children has a particularly strong tradition of very moving books which feature children dealing with death and bereavement.* However the other lives that feature in Anne Fleming's short novel are something of a different matter. Prominent amongst these is a couple where the husband has suffered a stroke and his ever-loving wife feels she has 'lost' him. There is also a blind adult who meets the woman he thinks could be the love of his life but is then distraught when he cannot find her again. There is a city-loving gent whose who finds himself tasked with scattering his outdoorsy dad's ashes on a mountain trail. And then there are Kid's parents, a frustrated writer and a chronically insecure actress. All these you would perhaps expect to find in an adult book more than in a children's one. 



Grown-up writing for children

This rather adult approach to fiction is also carried through into the narrative structure of The Goat. Here there is little exciting, action-packed children's 'adventure', but rather a series of vignettes of the lives of several residents who share  a NY apartment block. Pen portraits, dialogues, flashbacks, and day-to-day incidents are skilfully interwoven to build insight into the complex thoughts, feelings and relationships of these diverse and fascinating characters This author shows the skills of a brilliant short story writer and can, in just a few pages, open revealing windows into the lives of each of her subjects. Nor does she shy away from the very real pains and problems of life itself. Much of the content here is, in essence, strong stuff, although handled with sensitivity and compassion. In fact Chapter 4, where the young man goes, initially rather reluctantly, into the mountains with his father's ashes, is as heartfelt and affecting a passage as in any adult fiction. 

Leavened by humour

Yet what makes this story so accessible and enjoyable it its lightness of touch, and, more than anything, its pervasive and delightful humour. Without actually detracting from its potent and moving content, this is a very funny and entertaining book. From the naming of pets (a dog called Cat) to sharp one -liners, from slick, clever turns of phrase to witty dialogue, from drollery to farce, the book is a continual joy to read. And, because of this, a story that is touchingly sad in parts is never morose; though much is heart warming,  it is never sickly 

'We are sunker than sunk,' moans Kid's mum at one of her lower ebbs, 'We're a wreck. We are on the ocean floor. Divers are swimming through us looking for relics.' (p 129)

It does indeed expose children to the realities of adult life, but it also shows them its joys. 

'Joff realised he had a smile on his face. He'd been recalling different things Mara had said, and the way she said them. The way she said "buckaroo" most of all.' (p 32) 

The central part played by Kid and Will gives children a point of identification with the story which is important. 
But it is not simply about children's lives, nor yet simply about adult lives. It is simply about life - and I think many children will respond to that.

Getting the goat

And then, of course, there is the Goat of the title. And the baby mountain goat, putative resident of the apartment building roof, is the glue that holds the story together. It is the children's quest to ascertain whether it actually exists that provides the principal thrust of this intriguing, and completely engrossing story. It is the goat, too, which eventually draws the strands together into a heart-warming resolution- but not until after it has precipitated (ha ha!) what is possibly one of the most hilarious 'Keystone Kops' type chases that you will come across in print. 

Despite its superficial levity, though, this is a book with much to say; one that will leave the reader with a lot to think about. It implicitly endorses a wonderful aesthetic, both metropolitan (with its museums, opera and theatre) and rural (with its mountains, its open vistas, and  its simple smell of grass).  It celebrates the healing power of friendship. It is, very movingly, about loss. But most of all it says that life is wonderful and goes on despite its many setbacks and tragedies. Children, like Will, can and should look out of the window, literally and metaphorically. 

This book is only short (even I, who emphatically belong in the slow readers' group, devoured it in a couple of hours) but it is long on human resonance In the final analysis, there's only one word for it: it is, as the lady says,  'buckaroo!'



Afterword: Pushkin Press

I am becoming ever more impressed with books from the list of Pushkin Children's. Their stated mission is to 'share tales from different languages and cultures with younger readers', and they are succeeding wonderfully in this. Amongst other treasures they have published is one of my 2017 Books of the Year, The Murderer's Ape by Jakob Wegelius. The Wildwitch series by Alene Kaaberøl is a brilliant 'entry level' fantasy, and they have been bold enough to publish Cornelia Funke's disquieting but brilliant Reckless series for slightly older readers. They have also recently republished From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by American writer E L Konigsburg, a true classic of children's literature, but one that could otherwise easily have been overlooked this side of the pond. And now there is this more recent gem.  Pushkin seems to have a remarkably good nose for quality children's literature. Many of these books represent a 'road less travelled by' for young UK readers. But Pushkin Children's are now providing a wonderful opportunity to explore that road. For those who do, it it will make 'all the difference'.  



Footnote:
*Including: Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia; Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries; Jean Little's Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. Important and wonderful books all. 

Friday, 4 May 2018

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw



The long way home

'Journey' books, tales of, generally, displaced children finding their long, difficult way to home and/or safety, represent a strong tradition in children's literature. Amongst the great classics are Anne Holm's unforgettable I Am David (1963) and Maurice Gleitzman's devastating Once (2006). There are even variants with animal protagonists rather than human ones, epitomised by Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey (1961).* 

Similarly there are, and have been, many books for young readers with dystopian settings. One of my recent favourites is another outstanding book, Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon. 

What author Fiona Shaw does in Outwalkers, her first book for young readers, is combine these two elements. Her story is one of an orphaned youth and his dog attempting an often nightmarish journey of escape from the clutches of a horrendously controlling, compassionless state. The fact that this near future dystopian England realises some of the worst fears about current extremist jingoism adds considerable chill to her tale. Even so, it has to be said that the core concept and context here are not the most original ever. However, in compensation, Fiona Shaw's storytelling is quite brilliant and her narrative makes compulsive reading from very first pages. 

Quite some writer

She is clearly a very experienced and skilled writer. Her use of language is never obtrusive yet always strikingly communicative, brilliantly evoking scenes, events and feelings and, supremely, the constant breathtaking, gut-wrenching tension of her tale. 

A good deal more of her success lies with the vivid conjuring  of her characters. Of course 'one-boy-and-his-dog' is always a potential heart-winner, but, way beyond this, the author quickly establishes protagonist, Jake, as totally human and 'real'. In me, he almost immediately evoked committed empathy. His perilous escape from the 'care' of the State-run Home Academy, at the opening of the narrative, soon found me sharing his hopes and fears as well as feeling every one of the cuts and bruises it costs him. To use common parlance, this book had me from page one. 

Inside outside

Even so, it is not until a few chapters in, when Jake  meets up with the small 'Outwalkers' gang, that the story comes most fully into its own. The bringing to life of this little group of disparate, diverse young people  is a work of writerly genius. Each leaps straight off the page into the our imagination, and our heart-felt affection. When Jake proves himself as one of them, inside the gang but outside the law, the story swiftly develops into being as much that of the whole group as of Jake individually. Their various expressions of courage and commitment, of fear and insecurity, of anger and love are completely involving. The every changing dynamic of their interrelationship is continually enthralling, but ultimately it is their commitment to their cause and to each other that is so affecting. 

Add to this Fiona Shaw's quite masterly plot building, which cleverly and continually  throws these characters from one tense drama into another. What you have, in consequence, is a viscerally exciting and at times almost heart-stopping read. I was so committed to these characters that I breathlessly shared every horrendous episode and just longed for things to turn out well for them. Not that they always do. In fact this is probably not a read for younger children, not because the writing is inaccessible or over-challenging, but because of its intense emotional impact. This is in many parts a devastating read. It is a hideously harrowing experience, even if ultimately a hopeful one. This, however, is the very thing that engenders so much involvement. 

Dare to care

The truly terrifying nature of this dystopian England, also racks up exponentially as the narrative develops.  Fiona Shaw's book ends up doing for our era very much what George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four  did in the 1950s. The society she brilliantly brings to life is every bit as grim, every bit as terrifying as his - perhaps, for us, even more so, because it relates so closely to our own times. This is the world of our own fears and nightmares, representing the negative, but very credible, corollary of attitudes currently being expressed and political paths even now being pursued. How exaggerated a picture it may or may not be is one of the very pertinent questions this book asks. 

Yet at heart, in something of a contrast to Orwell's classic,  Outwalkers, is not really a political story; it is a human one. It is the story of Jake's journey with his dog, of his strengths and failings, his courage and his fears, his vulnerability and his resilience, his dogged determination. But nor is it his story alone. It is that of his whole Outwalker 'gang', 

In the end, this is a book that says, and says with persuasive and compassionate conviction, that we are not alone. That however dangerous and hostile the world may seem there are others who can and will support us. That however uncaring may seem the society, the world in which we live, there are others who care, about the world, about each other, and about us. It we find them, if we work together with them, if we help and support them, then they will do the same for us. Together we can, perhaps, beat the system. There is a price. For some a huge price. But collectively we can survive. We can win. Perhaps. There is at least very real hope. 

It is an important message. 

Up there with the best

Outwalkers is as affectingly powerful a human drama as just about any young people's book I have read. In this respect I would put it into the same category as, say, Michelle Magorian's much loved Goodnight Mister Tom, or, indeed, any of the other modern classics I mentioned at the top of this review. 

And if you were thinking that moving to Scotland might not be a bad idea, this could just be the clincher!



*All three are, thankfully, still in print. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Twelve Nights by Andrew Zurcher



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

Some achieve greatness

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

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

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

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

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

It came o’er my ear like the sweet south

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

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

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

What country, friends, is this?

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



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

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

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

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

So full of shapes is fancy

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

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

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



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

I have unclasp'd to thee the book

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

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

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

Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote of his science:

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

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

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

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

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

The same character also asks:

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

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

A dying fall

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

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





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

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