I have a stack of hardbacks on the desk beside me as I write. Anyone who knows this household would say that’s entirely normal – there are stacks of books absolutely everywhere, endlessly reconfigured, occasionally collapsing sideways and either a prompting a grown-up to curse or causing the cat to leap across the room in alarm (the grown-up at least pauses to tidy up the fallen books). I only draw attention to it because these are all this year’s publications and purchases, not library borrowings, either by authors I’ve long admired or by certain of my talented friends and colleagues. It’s an interesting side-effect of the digital publishing age that conventional hardbacks are more beautifully produced than ever before; not only the established children’s classics, but even first-time authors, if they’re well-enough thought of, are exalted with good quality paper, generous leading and margins, arresting cover design, special finishes (lately I am noticing a rubbery effect: the latest Lemony Snicket has it, and Marcus Sedgwick, see below – it’s slightly offputting and weirdly compelling at the same time).
Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books were always beautifully produced, with their imitation gold tooling on the (naturally, hardback) spine. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse goes one better with its silver skull motif on spine and endpapers, amethyst-bordered pages and the mini-comic mouse-memoir tucked into a pocket at the back. Riddell’s illustrations are magnificent as ever, with a strong flavour of Tenniel and of Edward Gorey in their precise eerie make-up, yet entirely distinctive and inimitable. The plot is beyond bonkers, toeing the tightrope (appropriately, as it happens) between hommage and send-up as young Ada, neglected daughter of a tortured poet, befriends a ghost-mouse and several plucky young servants, discovers a misunderstood monster in the ice-house and several more mythical creatures in the rarely-visited Unstable Stables and Broken Wing of the ancestral home, and enlists the help of her glamorous, garlic-hating governess against the sinister gamekeeper and his machinations.
For the grown-up reader it’s a grand game of spot-the-literary-allusion, from the moment on page two where Ada’s grief-stricken father, given to taking pot-shots at the garden ornaments, acquires a reputation for being “mad, bad and dangerous to gnomes.” That sort of thing can be wearying for the younger reader, trailed uncomprehendingly along the cultural byways like a bored child at a museum, but the exuberance of Riddell’s plot avoids any feeling of using a children’s story to set up grown-up jokes: my eight-year-old enjoyed it at least as much as I did, without attaching any special significance to Mrs Beat’em the cook, Metaphorical Smith the landscape architect, Charles Cabbage with his calculating machine or successive governesses Morag McBee, Hebe Poppins, Jane Ear and Becky Blunt (who tried to steal the silver). My only worry would be: this is clearly the first in a series, but can there possibly be enough Gothic-literature gags left to sustain any sequels?
Clearly, Chris Riddell is becoming the go-to illustrator for bonkers stories. Ottoline and Fergus Crane aside, look at picture books The Emperor of Absurdia and Wendell’s Workshop… and now Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk… the sort of shaggy dog story you tell your children if you have taken an unaccountably long time to do something very simple, like go to the corner shop to relieve a small but critical breakfast shortage, and you have a galactic-sized imagination. “Dad” in the story – who looks a lot like Neil Gaiman, as it happens – manages to buy the milk: that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is escaping from the green globby aliens who abduct him on the way home, without being forced to walk the plank by the Pirate Queen – although there is always the chance of being rescued by the mad-scientist dinosaur professor, as long as they can then escape the wrath of the volcano gods, fend off the hungry wumpires and hope against hope that the galactic police will show up in time to restore order. (I had a good look: I couldn’t spot the kitchen sink, although it might well have been in there somewhere. There were a few distractions along the way.) Who would believe such a yarn? Not the story’s children: there’s a Usual Suspects-style moment at the end when they look around the kitchen and take in the cereal-box alien, the pirate party invitation, the dinosaur models… but I’m relieved to say, Dad has the last word. And the milk.
Both the aforementioned are great fun for ages seven plus. Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase is an older and scarier read, and brilliantly done – I had to wrest it from the resident ten-year-olds well after lights out (not least because I wanted to finish reading it myself). Stroud is the sort of writer who combines superb style and soaring imagination with (less often appreciated, but the mark of real writerly craft) giving his fantasy a proper armature: everything is believable, the world makes sense, nothing is strained or forced to help the story along. Determined ghost-hunter Lucy with her pride and vulnerability, Lockwood with his brilliant, feckless charm and the stolid, maddening, loyal George are so persuasive that I found myself seeing friends in their likeness (Lockwood is surely my musician friend Jason, to the life.) Ranged against them are ghosts both pitiable and vindictive, as well as irritable clients and the ghost-hunting establishment, not to mention a far more dangerous human enemy determined to put an end to their investigations. Normally I’m deeply distrustful of the mash-up genre, especially in children’s fiction – you know, pirate vampires, or dinosaurs in space – the ker-ching!!! of splicing two popular themes to create a story (these days, more likely a series). It’s a mark of The Screaming Staircase’s quality that I didn’t even think of it as one until I’d read to the end; and if it is indeed the first of a series, this whole household will have eyes narrowed and talons out ready for the next volumes.
So exciting that Usborne got to publish Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere, and how elegantly they did it, too, with that parched orange-red cover and the ancient silhouette of the leafless blue gum tree, the widow-maker. Could anyone but McCaughrean have woven such a story, set in the late-Victorian Australian outback: between the lonely widowed telegrapher, his daughter Comity’s trusting friendship with an Aboriginal boy, the swaggering, bullying evil of the telegrapher’s new assistant, the wary Punjabi cameleers delivering goods across the outback, the chain of dreadful misunderstandings that almost ends a war and starts a massacre? Could anyone else begin such a story with “The piano arrived too late to stop the sky falling in”? Against the parched landscape and the desolation of Herbert and Comity’s loss, I don’t know that I have ever seen McCaughrean’s descriptions more pin-sharp or her writing more deftly lyrical, even as the desolation, destruction and madness spiral – and, more difficult still, as they are captured and brought in to a gentle, (mostly) dignified resolution. A great and great-hearted book.
Marcus Sedgwick’s She is not invisible shares heart and craft with McCaughrean, but plays out very differently: this is a thoroughly contemporary young-adult thriller, with teenage Laureth (“Why I haven’t learned to say ‘it’s Welsh’ or something, I don’t know”) and her seven-year-old brother Benjamin boarding a flight to New York to meet their writer father. So far, so normal; except that Laureth has bought the tickets secretly with her mother’s credit card; she has her reasons for wanting to get through the airport without being noticed; and her father, obsessively working on a book on coincidences, isn’t where he said he was, and hasn’t made contact for days. The first forty pages of the book are a masterclass in show-don’t-tell; on page 54, you learn (or have confirmed) something devastating about Laureth that can only add to the impossibility of combing New York City for an elusive writer… and if you think it’s unnatural for Laureth to keep it dark, as it were – from my own family experience, I can tell you it’s anything but. Benjamin, meanwhile, is a sweetly otherworldly child with an uncanny disruptive ability around anything with a screen – how can that be anything other than a handicap? Interspersed with pages from their father’s notebook, Laureth and Benjamin’s story becomes more sinister and the questions become more troubling, as the alien adult world closes in on them. Just what was their father hiding from them? A gripping, thought-provoking book that challenges to the very end (follow the advice in the second-last paragraph, and you’ll see).
And so to my talented friends. Some years ago, Conrad Mason and I had the dubious pleasure of working on a Latin book together (the Latin was dubious, the pleasure was working with Conrad); his remit, as I remember, also included Romans, castles, inventions, polar bears and the First and Second World War for nine year olds. How all of that fed into The Demon’s Watch, I couldn’t honestly tell you – perhaps The Demon’s Watch was a kind of escape, to the more exotic byways of Port Fayt which is as vivid, mazy, shambolic and anarchic as any harbour town on any fantasy shore ever was. Fayt, on its offshore archipelago, is a kind of freetown where humans mix more or less easily with goblins, trolls, elves, wizards and fairies. Some are more open-minded than others, as Joseph the half-goblin boy knows to his cost; and the veneer of tolerance can mask terrible danger, as the late governor’s daughter Tabitha knows to hers. Both Joseph and Tabitha are drawn into the Demon’s Watch, a motley militia despised by the town’s official guards, and yet with a habit of being in the midst of whatever real trouble brews in the port. When the trouble is a crazed and ruthless witch, acting for the League of Light, the powerful and sinister mainland organisation which is determined to suppress Port Fayt’s easy tolerance and coexisting species, the tension rises chapter by chapter and it seems quite impossible that Joseph and Tabitha, the Watch and the Fayters can prevail. At this point, it’s reassuring to know that there is already a second volume in a planned trilogy (still in my to-read stack, but already devoured with great relish by the resident ten-year-olds)… A terrific read, rich in character and atmosphere and incident and huge imagination. (All it really needs, in my opinion, is a little more Latin.)
Conrad, Rob Lloyd Jones and I worked in the same office – and to read the supernatural shenanigans of The Demon’s Watch or the merciless, hyper-real fairground Victoriana of Wild Boy, you’d hardly believe it a place of heavy-duty carpets and messy desks and dusty ceiling tiles and tea rounds. Rob’s Wild Boy is first met, chillingly, in a workhouse where he’s just a part of a transaction: from despised and bullied monster to despised and bullied freak (and revenue source) for the odious showman Finch. But Wild Boy, covered in hair, exhibited as a savage to be shrieked and squealed at, has a keen and subtle intelligence and puts it to use, secretly watching his watchers and neighbours. With almost Holmesian powers of deduction, he can easily identify the frauds and the crooks and the other petty and not-so-petty deceits in his audience. Just as he starts to uncover something more sinister even in the fairground’s murky terms, he becomes first a witness and then naturally chief suspect – he’s a monster, isn’t he? – in a brutal murder, and he barely escapes alive into the foul murk of the London sewers. While the price on his head rises weekly, Wild Boy and his only two friends attempt to solve the murder – soon to be murders – and the dark forces that gave rise to them: a mysterious machine, illicit experiments, a secret society. For all Wild Boy’s brilliant interpretations, he contrives to put himself and his friends into mortal danger time and again, up until a final desperate coach-and-caravan chase across London Bridge and the waiting Thames. A classic up-all-night read, oozing and blazing, harrowing and exhilarating.
Natasha Farrant’s After Iris is something of a Trojan horse. The only paperback in my stack, its pretty cover – dominated by a pastel floral dressing-gown, my daughter has one just like it – suggests a cupcake-light West London family saga with a poignant catch (the bereaved family, bereft surviving twin) that will, nonetheless, be triumphed over. Instead, After Iris is a verbatim mix of diary entries and video transcripts that works brilliantly to convey a greater truth: tragic Iris’ twin Bluebell uses both to refract and distract from her paralysing loneliness, both at home and at school. What seems to be an artless and throwaway diary style takes on the perceptiveness, sweetness and aching sadness of a classic like I Capture the Castle, an echo that is all the more pronounced when Iris’ stroppy elder sister Flora makes a play for Blue’s cool new neighbour, friend, protector and inadmissible crush, Joss. Meanwhile, grief realistically pushes Blue’s parents into self-absorbtion and bickering; Joss helps Blue to turn the tables on school bullies and become visible again; Flora’s stroppiness hides vulnerability, although not the terrible secret Blue imagines; and longsuffering PhD student and unlikely “manny” Zoran somehow contrives to hold the Gadsby family together, despite its best efforts to spin off in all directions. Most writers wouldn’t trust themselves to the minefield between bereavement and family comedy, and rightly so; Natasha Farrant crosses it light-footed, warm-hearted, thoughtful and true.
The best news of my talented friends, though, is that Paul Dowswell’s First World War novel Eleven Eleven is longlisted for next year’s Carnegie Medal; richly deserved, and I hope it will make the shortlist or better. See? I told you he was good.