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.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks illustrated by Quinton Winter

Go girls

It is vitally important to help girls to see that they can become whatever they want to be and to provide them with role models to support this; to encourage them to throw off the shackles of restrictive gender stereotypes and the pernicious influence of those who perpetuate them. On this site, I have been delighted to be able recommend a range books with strong girl protagonists, of which there are now many  excellent examples. Similarly, I have warmly welcomed the Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls books, together with the flood of similar titles that has followed in the wake of their enormous and deserved popularity. In fact I chose the original as one of the books I wanted my young granddaughter to grow up with, and through. (See my post from December '17.)

But what about the boys?

However, it can sometimes be easy to overlook that the growth and development of boys too can be seriously, sometimes disastrously, harmed by the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. The issue with boys is often not so much what sort of opportunities they can or can't have, as what sort of person they can or can't be. 

Perhaps the most insidious stereotype here is that of the 'proper lad', the boy who likes football and things mechanical (especially cars), who behaves confidently and boisterously and generally expects to get what he wants. If he acts aggressively, well, it is only to be expected really, he is just 'being a boy'. If he is tempted to go off script and show weakness or emotion, then he will remember (or be reminded) that he needs to 'man up'. This may be an oversimplification- but it is not all that much of one. 

Of course there is nothing wrong in itself with liking football or cars, although the aggression is a different matter. The problem is the pressure put on many more sensitive boys who are just not like this, the humiliations they have to endure and the resulting negative impact on self-image and self-worth. Those who do not fit neatly into this mould are often made to feel that they are in some way freakish, 'gay' in the nastily pejorative playground use of the word. Many more are cowed into unwilling attempts to conform with which they never feel truly comfortable. 

The right to weep too

This is not exclusively, or even principally, about boys who may be showing gay or transgender inclinations (although they are an important part of it). It effects boys who are sensitive in many  different ways and can include: those who like to act, dance, sing or play a musical instrument (especially if they play classical music); those who show emotion, appear caring and  empathise readily with others; those who want to do well at school, are academically bright and flourish in tests and exams; those who daydream and imagine; and, very pertinently, those who like to write and to read. Denying any of these the right to be consider himself a 'real boy'  is one of the most heinous cruelties of our society. 

The right to read too

Further, the disastrous attitude that reading is 'not really a boy thing' not only unnecessarily handicaps many educationally, but deprives them of tremendous opportunity to grow and develop as human beings. Associated with this too is a prevalent attitude that books about girls are only for girls. Almost all fiction is fundamentally about human beings, about who we are, about what we have been and what we could become. And we are all human beings.  Through books we learn more about ourselves and about others too. To draw arbitrary lines around their 'appropriateness' on the sole basis of a protagonist's gender is both ludicrous and depriving. 

Stereotypes still

Of course there are many aware, enlightened individuals, families and, indeed whole groups, who would never countenance this negativity. There are many boys too who do dare to throw off the shackles. However we do not need to look far to see how deeply entrenched gender stereotypes and their  associated attitudes still are in our society overall. Very recently we bought a pair of cloth dolls, one girl and one boy, as a present for our young grandchild. They are very attractive toys and actually came from what I would call a very trendy, modern baby product retailer. Yet we had to remove the labels before gifting them; the parents would have been as annoyed by them as we, the grandparents, were. The boy doll, named Tommy, was introduced on the label in this way (verbatim): 'Tommy loves playing football and climbing trees. His favourite toy is a bow and arrow and he is always ready for an adventure,'  as if a boy doll would only be acceptable if  he were made out to be a 'proper lad'! 

If you need further proof go into any high street greeting card shop and look at what are provided as (separately) suitable for girls and boys. Of course this is a looping phenomenon, in which the card manufacturers produce this stuff because it is what people buy. And people buy it because the fact that it is all that is there reinforces their idea of what is appropriate. The self-perpetuating nature of social attitudes more generally is very similar. It is a vicious circle that desperately needs to be broken. 


For these reasons Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different is most warmly welcome as a companion and complement to Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls*. Even more so in that it fills this spot very admirably. The book itself breaks a mould, as did its earlier counterpart.  It is also enormously encouraging to see it already on bestseller lists. Ben Brooks writes his diverse biographies in easy, accessible style and they are each short enough to pique interest and make their point without being overloaded with detail. Many readers will, I am sure, be prompted to find out more about those individuals who catch their imagination. As with the rebel girl books, not everyone will agree with every inclusion or omission, but that is not the point. There are more than enough different personalities, interests and talents represented here for many boys to find role models with whom they can identify, or to whose achievements they can aspire. It is a book whose purpose is to say that there is a huge range of possibilities out there, that it is good to be different, and that 'normal' includes far more than the stereotypes imply. The rebel girl books do, of course, benefit considerably, in quality and diversity from the large number of contemporary female  artists who have contributed. Nevertheless here Quinton Winter does an excellent job by himself; his illustrations are clear, strong and attractive, covering an interesting and varied range of perspectives and formats, even within a core homogeneity of comic-book style. 

The real must haves

Both remarkable books, 'Rebel Girls'* and 'Boys who Dare', should be prominently displayed in classrooms and school libraries and welcomed by parents into homes. Both girls and boys should be encouraged to explore both of them; to read them, talk about them and learn to value them. The addition of 'Boys who Dare', and the  aspirations it embodies, does nothing to distract or detract from the cause of empowerment for girls; rather, the complementary nature of the two books only reinforces the vital importance of each. It is the constriction of both gender stereotypes that still threatens many of our children. Absolutely, we need to encourage and support 'rebel girls', but we also need to do the same for boys who 'dare to be different'. 

One day, I hope, there will need to be nothing rebellious or daring about them at all. Not for these reasons, anyway. 

*And now, of course, Book 2 as well. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

The Book Case: An Emily Lime Mystery by Dave Shelton

'It was no work of literary genius, it was true, but the writing had a certain brutal energy that made it more than worthy of  . . . attention.' (p 12)*

And who lives in a house like this?

Somewhere in Cambridge there is a domicile that will one day need a blue plaque. (Although hopefully not for a long time yet.) Maybe even a gold plated one. That's because it is the home of not one but two of contemporary children's literature's finest author/illustrators. To be a successful children's author is a wonderful thing. Ditto illustrator. But both at the same time? And then two of them? Well. There's a turn up for the bookcase. 

Pam Smy is the creator of Thornhill, a sensitive and telling interleaving of graphic and verbal narration that was one of the very best new children's publications of 2017. It will, I'm sure, come to be considered as the one of the classics of the decade/century/millennium . . . (See my post from August '17; also my Books of the Year.)

Those who read my reviews regularly**, will be aware that I rate A Boy and Bear in a Boat, by her husband, Dave Shelton, as one of my favourite (children's) books ever.  His more recent publications have included the gothic story collection, Thirteen Chairs, and further graphic novels in his Good Dog, Bad Dog series, originally published in the excellent Phoenix Comic. Each are strong examples of their genre. Comic book stories of this quality are particularly welcome as graphic novels can sometimes be too easily dismissed as inferior reading material by guiding adults. 

However, whilst for me not quite knocking the boy-bear-boaty book off its lofty pedestal, it is his latest offering, The Book Case, that comes closest to doing so. It is also a splendid thing in its own right. In it is to be found much of the same deliciously dry humour and joyfully absurd comedy as in the earlier book, albeit in a very different context. 

Not remotely boring

'The door opened and a boring-looking man in a boring looking raincoat came out of the boring-looking door. 
"It looks a bit . . . boring, doesn't it?" said George.'

On one level, this is a gloriously funny send-up of the currently popular boarding-school-girl-detective novels (à la wonderful Robin Stevens). However these books themselves also have elements of parody (of both older girls' school stories and 'cosy' detective fiction), so this is essentially a spoof of a spoof, which itself adds wonderful layers to its effulgent humour. The sending-up is, however, affectionate, not in any way malicious, and is all the more hilarious for it. In fact this whole midnight feast of a book is a counterpane replete with humour: wit so dry it is as desiccated as the coconut on a macaroon, one-liners as sparkling as ginger pop (or as corny as tinned beef), absurdity by the brimming bowl full***  and enough slapstick and farce to have you wobbling like a jelly. There are ludicrously grotesque characters, too, and some improbable heroes, a nonexistent librarian - and (as of course is required these days) a token boy. 

And, remarkably, in and amongst all this, there is still an engrossing mystery that litters red herrings, leads down blind alleys, and surprises at every turn. It will keep young readers enthralled and guessing to the last. 

Oh, and the clever author manages somehow to get in a few good plugs for libraries and books too - even reading. 

All in all, this is as joyous and entertaining a romp as you could hope to read on a wet Wednesday in Withernsea (or indeed anywhere else). 

Cover story

The book is greatly enhanced by Dave Shelton's own profuse illustrations. Highly entertaining in themselves, they have the same sense of self-conscious send-up, mixed with rumbustious delight, as if, perhaps,  Ronald Searle had illustrated Mallory Towers instead of St Trinian's. They complement the text brilliantly and add yet another layer to its delights.  

This may not be a work of 'literary genius' (as the man said), but it is one of considerable flair and comic (if not 'brutal')  energy. In time, I am sure Pam Smy's (self-deprecating) husband will also be fully appreciated and deemed worthy of that plaque (or at least a bit of it).  Meanwhile his book should be sought out by eager hoards, whether they look on the mystery shelves, in the children's school story section or indeed amongst the comedy greats, where I think it most aptly belongs. 

I know you should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case (sorry!) if you find the title and jacket illustration amusing and intriguing, then I think there is a very good chance you will revel in the contents too. 

*There's nothing to beat an author writing his own review. 
**That's both my wife and my daughter (although I wouldn't swear to my daughter). 
*** Viz: In order to facilitate the pilfering of food from the school larder, the pupils have excavated a tunnel beneath the ground floor, and even wallpapered it - although they haven't yet got around to hanging the pictures. Brilliant. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

'I don't know what's really real, but then nobody does. All I know is I'm ten years old and . . . '

As strange as fiction

I have been a big fan of Christopher Edge ever since his hugely entertaining Victorian 'melodrama' series about PennyDreadful*, to me even better children's historical thrillers than the Sally Lockhart tales from Philip Pullman.  

However he really hit his full stride and established himself as one of our finest and most important contemporary children's writers when he moved his focus from history to science for the stunning The Many Worlds of Albie Bright (see my review from April '17) and then the equally impressive The Jamie Drake Equation. 

He has now followed  these, indeed possibly surpassed them, in the devastating The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day. 

Much of the the theorising of recent science, especially in the fields of astrophysics and quantum mechanics, is deeply, if disturbingly, fascinating. In dealing with the infinitesimally small and the infinitely vast (if these are indeed different) they propose concepts that are nothing short of mind-blowing; throwing  to the winds many of the understandings, and indeed perceptions, that we have taken to be 'reality'. Their  empirical and calculation-based theories legitimise understanding that exists only in the speculative imagination. They draw together science and fantasy to a point where they almost seem to merge. 

Unsurprisingly then, a number of writers have tried to make these ideas accessible to children, either through the fictionalised presentation of information (so-called 'faction') or by incorporating them into fiction proper. However, few, if any, have been as successful at it as Christopher Edge. This is in no small part because he brings two writerly qualities to his obvious fascination with the science: a highly developed skill in storytelling and a remarkable ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of children realistically (and movingly). 

Reality check - big time 

Besides many profound ideas, Albi Bright is laced with delightful humour. Jamie Drake involves elements of SciFi. Maisie Day, in contrast, majors on what might best be called human drama - and very intense, often terrifying drama it is too. At the heart of this book is a sensitive and moving exploration of the relationship between siblings; its rivalries and jealousies, its loyalties and its love. Under, above and, indeed through this, though, is a deep and often disturbing exploration of what reality might be and mean, and an examination of the science that brings into question our narrow and often automatic assumptions about what is and isn't real. Here are the Big Bang and Black Holes, infinity and the Möbius loop, Escher's art and the virtual worlds of computer gaming. It is powerful stuff indeed. 

And all is quite magically interwoven in Christopher Edge's skilful story structure. Initially feeling like a double narrative, suggesting perhaps that the same day is playing out in contrasting 'parallel worlds', the two strands become increasingly entwined in ways that are richly intriguing. Strangely, the unfolding picture is simultaneously mystifying and illuminating. Scientific explanations never feel didactic because of the clever way they are integrated into the storyline. It is a comparatively short book. eminently readable, yet at times almost poetic in its condensation, the intensity of its emotions and the potency of its images. I am generally not a fan of present tense narrative, but there are exceptions, and this is one. Here the essential 'in the moment' nature of protagonist Maisie's different experiences are perfectly caught, and tellingly contrasted. Form and content are ideally matched and it is hard to conceive it working as well were it narrated in any other way. You experience everything with Maisie as it happens. But what you (and Maisie) see may very well not be what you get. 

A winning formula

Christopher Edge's recent book seems to hang on that very cusp where fiction meets physics, to inhabit the ground where imagination and theorising blend. It deals in metaphor as much as it does in knowledge, in 'subjective' experience as much as in empiricism, in perceptions not certainties - and even they may be deceptive. Thus it  epitomises quite beautifully the reality/unreality enigma upon which it draws. Like the science itself it does not really provide answers. But it will help many children to seek and to question, to ponder and to wonder, to imagine .  And is that not an important part of what fiction is for? 

Christopher Edge's books have now been nominated for major awards on several occasions. Come on. Get real. It's high time he won one of the big ones. 

*Twelve Minutes to Midnight, Shadows on the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy. 

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

'Normal, boremal. Peculiar's coolier.' (p 3)

Difference is good

Here is a very different book from ones I have reviewed recently, but it is occasionally good to have a reading break from the intense dramas like The Endless King (previous post), and this comparatively gentle book is warmly recommendable for other reasons 

The Lotterys Plus One, the first novel for children by the author of Room, will be valued by the enlightened liberal-minded as implicit and explicit  reinforcement of many important principles of freedom, equality and inclusion. However I think it may also prove a challenge to some parents and teachers, because of the lifestyle it portrays. Despite this (indeed, because of it) it is an important and welcome book, since it could well help towards ensuring that a younger generation do not grow up with the same fears and prejudices as some of their elders. I sincerely hope it will not be denied to them. 

Quite a family

This book is essentially a tale about a particular family. The Lotterys may be unconventional, chaotic, even somewhat anarchic, but they are bright and sparky, with lively banter, wordplay and 'in' jokes a continual descant to their everyday activities. To some degree they are reminiscent of the Brockmans in UK TV sitcom Outnumbered. There are just more of them. A lot more. Indeed, the sheer number in this fictional family, and their tendency to use terminology that is not only (to us)  transatlantic but also idyosincratic to the family, can mean the text is not always the easiest to follow  Consequently, this is probably a book for reasonably able young readers, who are quick on the uptake, and able to go with the flow of this somewhat eccentric but endearing household. However, the many who can, will be totally engaged and hugely entertained. A picture of the whole family, with names, is presented at the front of the book (rather an equivalent to the map in a fantasy novel) and this is very helpful in orientating the reader, particularly whilst still getting to know the various siblings. 

Most importantly, though, The Lotterys is a peon to individuality, diversity and inclusion. The large family is co-parented by two same-sex couples and the largely adopted children represent a wide a mix of racial heritages. The personalities, interests and and talents of the family members are hugely diverse and individual too. Even more pertinent perhaps than their ethnic diversity, they represent 'neurodiversity ': 'brains not being the same as each other.' Yet clearly all are valued and loved for who they are, wonderful examples of children being supported to develop into whoever they want to be.  All of this gives such important messages to young readers. There is also much in the book that reinforces awareness of our environment, and the potential impact of lifestyle upon it, which is only slightly less important. 

Grumpy Gramps

The introduction to the family home of a cantankerous grandfather ('Gramps' or, more often, 'Grumps') is a clever narrative device His presence continually highlights the negative effect on a would-be free and inclusive society of old-world reactionary thinking (of which there is, sadly, still a very great deal around*). Grumps coming to live with them has quite an impact on the daily lives of the Lotteries, and indeed it is the family's struggles to adapt to his presence which provides the book's main storyline. For this is no rollercoaster action adventure. It is simply a window into of the life of a family over a few weeks.  In this sense it could perhaps be considered a sort of update on The Family from One End Street, although The Lotterys is even more consistently domestic and familial in its narrative than Eve Garnett's classic. 

Yet the comparative simplicity of this storytelling is deceptive. It is actually very involving as well as hugely entertaining. The present tense narrative (in an objective third person voice, as opposed to the currently trendy first person) is very effective. It gives us something of the feeling of  watching a video, a sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary, allowing us into many intimate and revealing moments of the family's life.  However,the fictional nature of the story also lets us share the thoughts and feelings of protagonist, nine year old Sumac. None of the Lotterys are perfect people of course, but their flaws and foibles  only serve to make them more endearing, none less so than Sumac herself. Her delightful nine-year-old character is quite beautifully conjured by Emma Donoghue. And at least the Lotterys all try to live lives according to their heart-felt principles, to 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk'. That they actually succeed quite a lot of the time is even more remarkable. 

Opening up

It may be that some parents and teachers (or retired ones like me) have concerns about the model of home schooling' presented in the book. However, for me, this is far outweighed by its multiple positives. In any case we should welcome this and other potential controversies. Discussion points in children's books are a splendid thing, provided they are met with opportunity for open and honest exchange. Children should not be patronised.They are  perfectly capable of making up their own minds about issues. Our task is to help ensure they have sufficient balanced evidence upon which to base their opinions. The real danger is the rigid-minded self-righteousness that is the start of  prejudice, whatever its matter. 

A new normal

The Lotterys Plus One is indeed a celebration of, 'Normal, boremal. Peculiar's coolier,' if we take 'normal' and 'peculiar' as understood by reactionary conservatism. However, in terms of human beings and their relationships, Emma Donoghue's book helps positively to expand our concept of the loving family, and our appreciation of individual worth. It shows us an alternative, and better, 'normal'. In  doing so it, perhaps, also provides a metaphor for how our own societies could better learn to rub along as a human family.  I wish. 

The book is greatly enhanced by Caroline Hadilaksono's copious illustrations which beautifully capture both the diversity and exuberance of the Lottery family. All in all, it is rather special. 

*As a grandfather myself, at the age and stage of a potential 'Grumps', this story was a timely rememinder to look for the huge positives in many things that 'weren't like that in my day'. In fact I had better start by embracing the glorious mess of 'baby-led weaning'. As soon as I've posted this I'm off to buy avocado, cucumber, yoghurt and broccoli as  'finger food' offerings for her impending visit. Oh, and a huge bib to catch the copious dribble. (We won't discuss who that's for.)

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Endless King (Knights of the Borrowed Dark: Book 3) by Dave Rudden

'You've spent your whole life . . . steeling yourself for disappointment and pain . . and yet when someone needs you you're there, blood and bone.' (p 356)

This is war

The cover says 'Rudden is an author to watch.' Wrong. Dave Rudden is an author to read. But only for those who dare. 

Protagonist, Denizen, recruit to magical power though he is, fighter of supreme evil though he is, is no Harry Potter. 

If you liked Harry Potter you may not like this. (Or you may just be blown away by it.)  It could be called Harty Potter with attitude. It could be called Harry Potter with edge.  But actually is not Harry Potter at all. It is the nightmare Harry Potter never lived. It scorns children playing with magic. It is not about children playing at all. It is about magic children fighting a real war. It is about magic children living life at its darkest. Harry's is the magic you always wanted to have. Denizen's, believe me, is a magic you never want to know. This dark 'tween'/teen fantasy is closer to Sally Green* than it is to JK Rowling. It is, however, brilliant. Devastatingly brilliant. Terrifyingly brilliant. Awesomely brilliant. Breathtakingly brilliant. 

Black rain

This is emphatically the third of a trilogy, the culmination of Knights of the Borrowed Dark. (See my reviews of the first two volumes, posted May '16 and May '17.) It is not the book to start with.Denizen needs all his previous training and experience to face what is here. And he still not truly prepared. As the reader you will need all your experience of style, plot and characters from the previous two books. And you still won't be prepared for this. The text is dark, dense and intense. So is the action. It can be hard to follow. Images are as thick as unsrirred treacle, rich as triple chocolate. Go with the flow. It will propel you on in a tide of surging language. It will take you to horrendous places. It will submerge you in a sea of tumultuous warfare. It will pit you against the essence of a blackness way deeper than the borrowed dark we know. Voices speak from the void. They come at you from all over, just as they come at Denizen and his companions Whose are they? Their own , their comrades' , intrusive thoughts, the voices of the terrible Tenebrae? It can be a challenge to fathom. But go with the flow. It will sweep you along. Just when you think you are drowning, it will vomit you out into clear air - and what you see there will be unspeakable. 

Unknit by sunlight

But there is great tenderness and sensitivity here too. Both writing and story drip crystal showers between the downpours of black rain. The tale makes war of necessity, but seeks peace, out of hope. And always there is Mercy, Denizen's infatuation from the previous book. She is at once a haunting girl of shimmering light and the essence of alien monstrosity; 'a dream unknit by sunlight.' Does Denizen still love her? Do you love her too? Can fractured love, surpressed love, transcend trust, or the lack of it? Trust Dave Rudden. He will steer you through, even though you will not emerge unscathed. But then this is war. This is fantasy fiction at it finest. This is where the imagination of the comic book and the deep resonances of literature collide. This is where classic tropes fuse with the complexity of sophisticated storytelling; where heavy metal segues with the sensitivities of poetry  This is where, to quote another Irishman: 'A terrible beauty is born.'

Girls and boys come out to fight

Without being explicitly fussy about it, Dave Rudden does an excellent job of reinforcing diversity, inclusion and equality. In fact his lack of fuss - the total acceptance of these factors as 'normal' for the society he paints - is exactly what convinces so persuasively. Although main protagonist Denizen is a boy, there are numerous examples of both genders, young and older, and a wide range of racial types and personalities to be found amongst the 'heroes' of the Knights of the Borrowed Dark. And there is clearly no distinction in terms of power, ability  or status made between them on any of these grounds alone.  

He also conjures characters who have far greater dearth and complexity than is often associated with fantasy fiction. Amongst other superb creations are Vivien Hardwick, supreme 'Malleus' (war hammer) of the Knights, battling her nature as a mother as much as the Dark; Ediface Greaves, the metaphorically masked commander, hiding what few understand; the troubled and troubling Grey, mistrusted by himself more than anyone; and Abigail Falx, Denizen's friend and fellow Neophyte, her determination to make sense of her heritage leading forward whole sections of narrative. Then there is Denizen. Well you must meet the young Hardwick boy for yourself. But if you can get the full measure of him that is more than he can do.  He is an adolescent after all. 

Just willing him

And inside all the power, all the anger and fire, Denizen is still just a boy. A real boy, with elements of Aspergers's: maps, counting, ordering, cataloging. And it allows the reader to discover complete empathy, despite the wildly imaginative fantasy world through which Denizen moves. You will him to win, or at least survive, with every page-turning breath. He is war, love, self-discovery, torment, growth. He is you. He is truth reflected through the mirror of unreality. Extraordinary in his ordinariness. 

'I just did what I had to do. that's all.'
No, said Mercy. That's everything 

And, over and above all, Dave Rudden's storytelling  is tension-racking at it most masterly. This is no rollercoaster; it has too few downs. He defies plot building convention and screws an ever upward spiral of breath-stealing horror,  twists ever-tightening bands of chest-squeezing iron. If not external cataclysm , then internal wringing, wrenching. Conflagration without, combustion within. Until . . .

It is story of horrendous war and of its cost. It is a story of those who fight simply because they must. It is a story of the darkness we borrow, and of the sunrise for which we scarecely dare hope. It is almost a love story 

The naming of cats

Years back,  there was a inspirational book by Sandy Brownjohn about teaching children to write poetry, called The Ability to Name Cats. Its premise was that such ability demonstrated the essential poetic quality, original imagination coupled with illuminating aptness. In terms of fiction I often think that a parellel ability lies in the ability to title chapters. As well as being master of the eye opening verbal image, Dave Rudden is a supreme namer of chapter titles: original, imaginative, enigmatic, yet ultimately illuminating. It is an ability that telegraphs a fantasy writer of the highest calibre. 

He does not patronise his young audience. And hooray for that. Readers should rise to the challenge. They will be hugely rewarded if they do. There are very few  more exciting, involving, terrifying or affecting reads currently to be found. I sincerely hope these books prove as popular as they are good. They deserve blockbuster sales worldwide. This trilogy, crowned by The Endless King, is one of our finest examples of exactly what children's fantasy fiction can achieve. 

*The stunning YA sequence starting with Half Bad (Although this is for much older readers.)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Earlier books by Laura Ruby

Catching up

Having been so completely taken with York: The Shadow Cipher (see my post from January '18), I decided to catch up on some earlier children's books from this clearly talented writer, which had previously passed me by. Turns out it was a sad omission, but I have thankfully caught up now. 

Some children's writers seem to start off with an amazing blockbuster of a book, but then spend a career trying in vain to really match it. Others rollercoaster between fine novels and less convincing ones.  Yet others develop a remarkable consistency, often through long series and sequences of books and establish themselves as real favourites.There are a rare few authors, though, usually the finest of all, who just get better and better, who continually develop their skill and thrill  us with ever more breathtakingly writing. Laura Ruby is one such. However, to say she keeps on developing as a children's writer is in no way to patronise or belittle her early work; the graph of her improvement starts somewhere around 'highly enjoyable'' and rises quickly to  'totally outstanding'. She has explored a range of audiences in her overall output, writing for teens and adults as well as for children, and I am sure this will have helped to hone her craft. As you might expect though, I have focused essentially on her books for younger readers. 

The Ghost-of-Wonders-Yet-to-Come

Lily's Ghosts seems to be Laura Ruby's first published childen's book, from 2003, although it was reissued in a new edition in 2011 (pictured), presumably once some of  her other books had become popular.

It is essentially  a 'tweenage' title with a basic story about a girl, the eponymous Lily, who has had to move to a strange house in a new town and feels displaced from her former life and friends. This is a scenario not uncommon in children's books, but Laura Ruby riffs very imaginatively and entertainingly on this 'standard' theme. The tale draws very loosely on a once 'gentile' US seaside resort, and its out of season atmosphere. It is enlived by a cast which includes several ghosts (including at least one with considerable 'attitude' and one with a Dark past) an aging-hippy mother, a fake medium and an intriguing mystery involving the disturbing  hauntings. It is occasionally creepy but more often very funny indeed. However, the heart and highlight of the book is the developing relationship between Lily and Vaz, the boy she (literally) bumps into and falls for (in both senses). Encounters between these two result in a good deal of hugely entertaining dialogue, a strong feature which is to become something of a 'trademark' in all this writer's books. Vaz also provides a fine role model of a boy who reads (an exceedingly good thing) and Lily does a great line in put-downs if anyone expresses opinions which might be called 'male chauvinist' (making her an even better role model perhaps). 

Despite the tale's supernatural elements and its predominance of humour, Laura Ruby manages to explore a range of human feeling and relationships with touching understanding. Unfortunately the highly melodramatic last few chapters, together with a rather trite ending, almost detract from all the good things the book has to offer - but not quite. 

This title clearly carries within it the embryos of the even finer works to follow, and is worth seeking out in its own right as an entertaining read for the appropriate age group. 

Visibly fine

However, Laura Ruby gets fully into her children's fantasy stride with The Wall and the Wing. It is is a real cracker, one of the very best of the post-Potter years. It may not be quite the book that York is, but that is only because it stands in the shadow of a masterpiece. It already shows many of the signature qualities of this fine author: vivid imagination tempered with great sensitivity, explored through rich language and laced throughout with delightful humour. 

Compared to most other recent children's fantasies, it is wonderfully original. True, its basic story premise - supposed orphans living in a decrepit institution ruled  by a horrendous 'matron' - is one that has been much exploited already. But, in, around and beyond this, Laura Ruby's imagination soars. The idea of children wanting to fly, or to turn invisible (or both), which lies at the heart of this tale, treats of fantasies that fascinate and resonate with us all. The protagonist are warmly likeable (and humanly flawed) and the villains are suitably dastardly and monstrous. The action is non-stop, and continually enthralling, even though the plot is strewn with wild coincidences and Dick-Barton-style escapes. 

In fact the  story is wild, crazy. The precepts that underly its magic - its Wings, Wall, Professor, monkeys, Punks, villains and all - are somewhat complex and sometimes confusing. But to the reader, this matters not at all. It is is a rich imagination-fest, a smorgasbord of fantasy concepts, characters, conflicts and contentions. It is a constant joy, a truly thrilling read. 

It also holds another bud that will blossom in a later book, a deep affection for  New York.  In fact, in Chapter 11 the two protagonists, Gurl and Bug, find themselves in Central Parkt at night and experience the city in a particularly magical way, in every sense. It makes for a very special and affecting piece of writing.

This excellent  fantasy seem to have been rather overlooked (here in the UK at least) which is a great pity. It has huge kid appeal and I am sure many young readers would enjoy it no end. It is well worth digging out*. 

Mind the Gap

Bone Gap may seem a slight anomaly in this little survey as it is most definitely a YA title (even edging towards adult). However I do from time to time include such titles on this blog, if they are sufficiently exceptional. And this one is most certainly that. Even more though, it seems to me to represent another huge development in Laura Ruby's writing, and as such begs inclusion here. 

It is in many respects ways a fantasy, although it is one with a close, even intense, relationship to the reality of both the book's world and our own. It is a fantasy that delves into character more than it defines setting; a fantasy that explores themes more than it established context. It places very real people into a fantasy context, but does so in a way that augments their reality rather than diminishing it. 

Terrible beauty

It is firmly rooted in place (small town rural America) yet it is as much about about 'inscape' (in the sense coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins) as it is about landscape. It is about how we see people  (or we don't), about what we love in a person (or don't), about not having the right to possess some one just because we think them beautiful.  It is itself a beautiful story, but also a deeply disturbing one. It is written in stunningly beautiful, but never, pretentious, language . More than any of the earlier titles, the story it tells becomes intimately blended with both the form and the language of its telling. It develops far further too the use of dry humour and repartee, very effectively conveying character and development through dialogue as much as through continuous prose. It is a complex book, yet a completely cohesive one. It is very American and yet totally universal. 

Although a very different book, it strikes me as something of an American equivalent of Alan Garner's The Owl Service - and that is saying a great deal, for I consider The Owl Service as one of the finest examples of children's literature, period. 

Bone Gap has been heaped with awards and accolades, and deservedly so. 

And now York

However, the outstanding quality of Bone Gap notwithstanding, I for one am delighted that Laura Ruby has now returned to MG fiction. And I think that she has brought the exceptional writing quality of that title forward with her, albeit appropriately translated for her younger audience. She also capitalises on some of the wonderful strengths of her earlier MG books, adding greater cohesion without losing an ounce of imagination or richness. The 'trademark' dry humour and delicious dialogue, of course, remain. And there are always cats. 

I am hopeful that we are just about entering a time when the very best YA fiction is being recognised (at least in some quarters) as meritorious literature. However, I am also well aware that many adults still rather look down on Children's (MG) Fiction as an intrinsically inferior form, if indeed it merits being called literature at all. They may well think her latest book a bit of a come down from Bone Gap. I beg to disagree on all counts. Although for a largely different readership, I think York is every bit the equal of Bone Gap in quality and import and is indeed Laura Ruby's second masterpiece to date. Bring on the next instalment. (Again, I refer you to my detailed post about York - from January '17 - if you haven't already been there.)

Up amongst the stars

There are a number of American MG (loosely 'magic fantasy') authors who I rate amongst the very finest currently writing in English. I now need to add Laura Ruby to this glowing list, alongside Anne Ursu, Kate Milford, Adam Gidwits and Kelly Barnhill. Even though we have some outstanding writers this side of 'the pond' too, UK readers (including parents and teachers) should not bypass these transatlantic gems, which will add enormously to the richness of children's reading. 

*The Wall and the Wing, originally published in 2006, was a few years later, given what seems to me to have been a somewhat misguided 'makeover'. It was reissued with the rather unexciting, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of The Invisible Girl. If this is the edition you come across, and like me initially react rather unenthusiastically, I can only beg you not to judge the book by its cover.  

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Max and the Millions by Ross Montgomery

'The world is filled with millions of miracles that no one sees.' (p 230)

Jumping the reading queue

Very occasionally it happens that (even when I am in the middle of reading something, and very much enjoying it) I pick up a new book, just to see what its like, and end up not putting it down again until I have finished the whole thing. It just happened again. Maybe it was the tabloid headline masquerading as a book title that got me going. More likely it was the very striking cover image. (I think that the intense close-up version of David Litchfiel's super illustration works brilliantly on the UK paperback). Mostly though, it was the story and its telling that hooked me straight in and never let go.

Of course, the author's name had a lot to do with it too. Ross Montgomery writes highly original and imaginative books that are hugely entertaining, often riotously funny, and more than anything, what I call 'kid friendly'. (Which is a quality the world of children's reading very much needs.) They are easy, comfortable reads for the young to become engrossed in, and yet they also offer a good deal to think about too. They reflect the world that children know and need to know, as well as the sort of world to which they like to escape.  Ross Montgomery seems to have a quiet genius for understanding (or remembering) how kids think and feel, as well as what interests and entertains them. His books are exactly the sort to help turn children who can read into children who do. He has already written a growing little pile of such books, and yet I think this one could be his best yet. 


Max's millions are, in fact, not pounds, dollars or euros, they are, rather, millions of tiny people living in their own miniature 'kingdom', spread across the floor of a room in Max's school. 

There is a happy tradition of tiny people stories threaded through the history of children's literature, almost all of them delightful  When my son was much younger, one of his bedtime favourites was Raymond Briggs' hilarious graphic story of The Man. And there are, of course, real classics, like Lynne Reid Banks' The Indian in the Curboard and Mary Norton's Borrowers. I can't think of any though that have so many little folk as this, or ones that are quite so microscopic. Ross Montgomery's latest creations are a delightful and innovative addition to the species. They are often hilarious too, but then so is the whole book. (Have I said that already? If not I should have. It is highly pertinent.) Possibly the closest to these particular miniature creations are Terry Pratchett 's  The Carpet People, but that is a very different book, albeit equally delightful and also very funny indeed. 

Hearing and understanding 

However, there are other important elements too, in the writing of Max and the Millions , which add up to its being such a fine addition to this little canon. Not least, by a long way, is the creation of Max himself. The engaging protagonist of this story, is profoundly deaf, a condition that renders him important in so many ways. Books which promote understanding and inclusion, either directly or (probably better) by implication, are thankfully becoming more common. However a mainstream children's book featuring a deaf child in its 'lead role' is still too rare, so this  one is to be most warmly welcomed. Children who are differently abled crucially need to be able to find others like themselves in the stories they read. Just as importantly hearing youngsters need to see deaf children quite naturally and properly playing an important role in fiction, so that they can learn to see them in the same way in real life. Further, this portrait of Max, and his relationship with his new American friend Sasha, have much to teach about how we can all most helpfully relate to deaf peope, not least by treating them as deaf, and not as stupid - or even as not there at all. Although what happens to Max is often very funny indeed, it is never his deafness itself that is the source of the humour. He is so well written by Ross Montgomery that we relate to him as a person first and as a deaf person second - and both with warmth and understanding. He becomes our friend as much as Sacha's. And that in itself makes this book very special. 

A gentle intro to narrative complexity

There are other things too. The story of Max and the Millions is largely told through a double narrative with Max's direct experiences interleaved with a separate account of what is happening in the miniature world. To this is added occasional further complexity with quotes from a supposed 'Book of the Floor'. This is all kept very clear for young readers , through the undoubted skill of the writing reinforced by the use of different typography for each perspective  of narrative. It is very valuable for young readers to be introduced to such fictional devices in a way that is still fully appropriate and accessible to them. It begins to prepare them, gently, and probably even unconsciously, for the approaches of later, more sophisticated fiction, wonderfully supporting their growth as readers. 

Yet, within this relatively sophisticated structure, Max and the Millions  remains a twisting, looping rollercoaster of a read, soaring and plunging with as many thrills as giggles and as many screeches as chortles. Ross Montgomery's plotting is that of a true master of storytelling and will lead its gripped young readers delightedly and inexorably towards its satisfying (and edifying) conclusion. 

The little things are big things

In amongst all the hilarity, adventure and excitement, this is a book which gives young readers plenty of important messages too, without ramming them down young throats; plenty to think over, but without them feeling preached at. It emphasises the value of  peace over war, of cooperation over conflict; it graphically demonstrates the corrupting potential of power; it promotes the consoling, and indeed redemptive, view that we can make amensds for our all-too-human mistakes. More than  than anything, however, it highlights the importance of the little things in life, the significance of the 'butterfly effect', the pertinence of detail. Literally and metaphorically, it celebrates the tiny things that happen in our world that are so easy to overlook and undervalue. 

'The world is filled with miracles which no one sees, '  says one of the characters. (p 261) It is an important thing for our children to know too.  And, as well as entertaining them grandly, this book will help them to be more aware of it. Ross Montgomery's wise closing words in his 'Acknowledgements' are, 'Take care of the small things - they make up,the entire universe.'

Max and the Millions, is, it has to be said, relatively dominated by boy characters. However there have (thank goodness) been so many recent novels for children with strong girl leads, that this doesn't really matter - or may even be good for balance. In any case there is at least a subsidiary character here (Ivy from amongst the 'millions') who is more than feisty and effective enough to keep the flag flying for 'rebel girls'. 

My high street Book of the Month

Weirdly, the UK's major high street chain bookshop has just made the same novel its 'Children's Book of the Month' for two months running, February and March, as though there were nothing new good enough in March to succeeded their February selection. I for one would certainly have singled out Max and the Millions for this month instead. 

US readers can be pleased that this super book is being published over there very soon (mid March from Wendy Lamb Books). I will have to buy myself their hardback too. It is in paperback only over here, and this is a title well worth adding to my long-term collection. It may not have pretentions to great literature, but it is a fine children's book. Ross Montgomery is making a very substantial contribution to encouraging and developing children's reading - and so to their lives. 

(However, one will suffice!)