A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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Joining dots

Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery
Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)

Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.

On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.

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Municipal Darwinism

St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz

Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines 
Scholastic Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

[…] Oh, now forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
— Othello, Act III Scene 3

Even with a reread the first instalment in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines sequence astonishes with its vision, humour, tragedy and sheer storytelling — and to think this was his debut novel! Set in a far distant dystopian future, it imagines a devastated world dominated by Municipal Darwinism, a town-eat-town mentality in which large Traction Cities gobble up smaller towns for their raw materials. But successful entities like London are running out of prey, and the hunt is on for a way not only to become top predator but also to gain access to so-called statics and their defended resources.

In this future London is young Tom Natsworthy, a lowly apprentice in the Guild of Historians. He hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, a successful archaeologist in the Indiana Jones mode. But when a girl from a mining town which has just been caught attempts to assassinate his hero, Tom discovers that the historian is not who he thought he was, and is literally and figuratively precipitated into a life that he could not have in all his years envisaged.

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Paradox

Rainbow Rowell Kindred Spirits Macmillan 2016

“Kindred Spirits” is a novella the bestselling US author wrote especially for World Book Day 2016 in the UK and Ireland. Its sixty-odd pages tell a sweet story of how teenage Star Wars fan Elena determines to show her independence of mind by joining a queue at her local cinema, in Omaha, for a first showing of Episode VII of the franchise. She has high hopes of being part of a tribe of fellow enthusiasts, sharing the bonhomie and exuberance that she anticipates from her understanding of such occasions. But she is disappointed that, four days before doors open, she is third in a line of only three, and that it remains so for a good many days. With so many things to contend with — her mom’s disapproval, the cold December nights, and anxieties about the call of nature and what she considers her “mid-trovert” temperament (being neither introvert nor extravert) — she fears she won’t last the four days and instead yield to the lure of home comforts.

Her fellow travellers are Troy and Gabe, with whom she has to establish a working relationship where she had instead expected the anonymity of the crowd. Troy is the garrulous confident one while Gabe is taciturn and self-contained. Elena, feeling as a newbie a natural loss of confidence, is concerned that not having seen Episodes 1 to 3 will result as well in loss of face. Everything seems to be militating against her attempt at independence. But the mini-crisis that arrives is not what she expected, nor is the fallout from that what she anticipated.

This is a delightful short story, exactly catching the angst of being a teenager, especially the sense of simultaneously being different while yet wanting to conform and belong. Balancing this paradox is, for Elena, both painful and yet delicious. For readers it must also be satisfying, as they decide whether they too feel kindred spirits with Elena and her new acquaintances — perhaps just like Star Wars fans feel they’re kindred spirits with Leia, Han and Luke.

Making tracks

tracks

China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)

Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies, hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?

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Conflicted emotions

churchyard yew
Churchyard yews

Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Illustrations by Jim Kay
Walker Books 2012 (2011)

Anyone who knows or knew anyone with a prolonged life-threatening illness may well sympathise, even empathise, with young Conor in this moving story. His mother has for some time been an out-patient at a local hospital but the doctors have to resort to alternatives when her illness fails to respond to the usual treatments. Meanwhile Conor has to hope against hope that things will get better, but at the same time has to cope with a recurring nightmare, bullies at school, a disapproving grandmother and a father whom he sees less and less of, due to a demanding new family across the Atlantic in the US.

And then a monster calls. Or does Conor call it?

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