The Storm Keeper’s Island

Buy THE STORM KEEPER'S ISLAND by Catherine Doyle

Fionn and Tara Boyle’s mother has been avoiding Arranmore Island ever since their father died in an attempted lifeboat rescue that went disastrously wrong. Struggling to cope, she sends the pair of them back to Arranmore to stay with their grandfather, and that’s when Fionn discovers his (and the island’s) secret.

Malachy Boyle’s cottage is full of strange candles, named and labelled, including some that must never be allowed to go out, and others that must never be lit in the first place. Fionn finds out the hard way what happens when you mess around with these candles. They are effectively the levers controlling the island’s magic. Lighting a candle allows the bearer to peel back the layers of time and catch a glimpse of past eras when good and evil magicians fought their battles over Arranmore.

Old Malachy’s time as Storm Keeper is coming to an end, however. And that means ancient rivalries are coming to the fore once more as the established families jostle to offer the island a replacement. Fionn knows he’s not brave enough, but after visiting the past and being seen, he may have changed the course of the future already.

I loved books like this when I was younger, where the parents abandon the kids, send them off to a mysterious coastline, there are caves and magic and old secrets, and beastly local kids, and the shy boy finds out he’s the hero of the story after all. For a while it seemed as if this kind of tale had gone out of favour, when everyone was trying to go the Harry Potter route, or stories for this age group had gone darker or more urban.

Despite some modern trappings, this is a very traditional story. It might seem a bit churlish to call it old fashioned, but Catherine Doyle isn’t trying to reinvent any wheels here. She’s polished up an old one nicely, though, with sparkling, genuinely witty dialogue that brings her characters to life.

I, Coriander

Buy I CORIANDER by Sally Gardner

Coriander Hobie is growing up in the 1650s – Cromwell’s England. Her mother is a woman with secrets, but when she dies, Coriander fears those secrets may have died with her. Unfortunately for her, she soon has bigger things to worry about. Her father, never the most discreet of Royalist sympathisers, is warned that he should take a Puritan wife to prove he has had a genuine change of heart.

The plan doesn’t work, and he has to flee certain death, leaving Coriander behind with Maud, her new stepmother. Maud is the embodiment of the cruelty of ignorance. Under the sway of a fundamentalist preacher (the wonderfully named Arise Fell), she subjects the household to the pernicious meanness of puritanism, which eventually results in Coriander being shut in an old wooden chest as a punishment.

Her good god-fearing guardians haven’t even decided whether they will let her out in a couple of days or leave her in there to die. But they don’t get the chance to do either. Because Coriander has found another way out of the chest – one that leads to another world.

This is very much a novel of two halves, but halves that are somewhat splintered and spread around the entire book. Having read it back to back with Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace, I couldn’t help but make comparisons, and during the half set in the real world, I tended to feel it was the better book. Less so during the half set in the fantasy world.

The historical half of the novel is suitably grubby and dripping with the usual injustices of political and religious oppression, which help give the more whimsical fairytale elements of the other half (it’s a bit like Cinderella finding a way to Narnia instead and not giving that prince’s ball a second thought) a bit more of an edge. I wanted to read more of the latter, which largely revolves around revelation of back story. Everything comes to a close very quickly, and I was left feeling as if this was just the start of a series.

The Red Necklace

Buy THE RED NECKLACE by Sally Gardner

Young gipsy Yann gets to see it all, living in Paris in 1789 and being part of a unique magic act. Along with his mentors Tetu and Topolain, Yann is hired to give an exclusive death-defying performance for a gluttonous Marquis, his generally unloved young daughter Sido, and his aristocratic friends, including the malevolent Count Kalliovski. The performance ends in disaster, and Yann is forced to flee for his life.

Three years later Yann is living safely in London, whilst France devolves from Revolution to Terror. He doesn’t think he has any reason to return home, but then he hears stories that young Sido is facing the wrath of the Revolutionary courts, that Count Kalliovski is behind a dastardly plot, and that maybe Yann wasn’t the only one of the magicians to have secretly survived that fateful night. Back to France he goes, but it is a country that he barely recognises any more.

A Tale of Two Cities would have gone a lot differently had Sydney Carton been able to wield Jedi-like powers, and that’s pretty much the thrust of this story. It’s an indulgent book, in only the good ways, and is entirely unpatronising towards its target readers. It doesn’t gloss over the brutal violence of mass executions or indeed anything about the adult world – the storming of the Bastille is covered from the perspective of a guy too busy with a woman to notice.

The Island at the End of Everything

Buy THE ISLAND AT THE END OF EVERYTHING by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives an apparently idyllic existence on the island of Culion. She and her mother live in a quiet, laidback village surrounded by friendly neighbours, their lives revolving around school, church and trips to the palm-shaded beaches that surround their forested island home. But Culion is not really the paradise Amihan can see, and she’s old enough now to properly understand why. Culion is a leper colony.

This doesn’t really matter to Amihan, though, until the appearance of the fastidious Mr Zamora. Zamora is an evangelical bureaucrat, a suited zealot on a mission from Manila to isolate all those who have been touched by leprosy and remove healthy children from their affected parents. This means Amihan must leave her mother and the only home she has ever known for an island of strangers, from which Culion is only visible on a clear day. There’s only one way she will ever get to go back, but she’s not going to be able to manage it on her own.

When a book is so wonderfully written as this one, what flaws it has become all the more apparent, but at the same time are easier to accept. I felt the ’30 years later’-style extended epilogue unnecessary, and that the pace slowed to a bureaucratic churn when Zamora became the one driving the plot for a while in the middle, but those niggles aside, this is still beautifully written, and a story that felt modern yet still with a certain timeless quality at the same time.

Zamora might be a drag on the pace for a few chapters, but he is still the richest character in the story – unforgivable, yet never evil; his small-mindedness balanced against his strange, strange love for butterflies. But at the end of the day, his desire to preserve their beauty forever by killing and pinning them captures the unrecognised turmoil that he both inhabits and creates for everyone around him. He’s drawn with a complexity that’s unusual for books supposedly aimed at this age group.

The Executioner’s Daughter

Buy THE EXECUTIONER’S DAUGHTER by Jane Hardstaff

Moss has only ever seen the world outside the Tower of London through iron bars. The vicarious life she lives through people she encounters leaves her feeling safer where she is, protected by the Tower’s battalion, and her father. But then, when you’re the daughter of the man who lops off the heads of the enemies of the state, it’s not as if you get to mix with the cream of society.

Yet Moss is curious about the outside world all the same. It’s a place full of secrets, including those about Moss’s own past. All she has are fragments of stories, perhaps mythical, about her dead mother, and an old curse. When she finds a secret passage that leads out of the Tower, Moss can’t resist exploring. But the kind of people who need a secret passage to get in and out of the Tower are not the sort Moss should mess with. Maybe her father was telling the truth about the world out here after all.

Despite that title, this is quite a sweet story, not dripping in blood, and more grimy than gritty. It’s full of colourful characters (not least the suitably salty orphan chancer Salter, a boy straight out a Dickens tale), and whilst the ‘is-it-real-or-is-it-imagined?’ nature of some of the more fantastical elements didn’t always work for me, it’s a fast paced and vividly told adventure, and made me want to check out the sequel.

Wildwood

Buy WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy

Prue is looking after her brother Mac when the toddler is suddenly picked up by a flock of crows, which fly off with him towards Wildwood, on the edge of Portland, Oregon. Prue heads after him, joined by her nosey friend Curtis. Curtis promptly gets lost in the woods, but Prue can’t spend too much time worrying about that, especially when she is picked up by a shotgun-wielding postman and taken to a palace full of talking beasts.

There she learns how she should never have been able to cross over from the rainy normal world into this odd, odd realm. Magic should have protected the place from Outsiders like Prue and Curtis, ensuring anyone who wandered in would always walk straight back out again – even if they didn’t realise they had turned around – and enabling Wildwood’s inhabitants to live side by side with a town full of non-magical Americans. Prue is viewed with plenty of suspicion for having been able to unwittingly ignore this protective magic, and when she receives a warning message from the leader of the man-sized talking owls, she makes a run for it.

The story starts off a bit like the film Labyrinth, but quickly develops a distinct Narnian flavour. Curtis reminded me very much of Edmund when he falls under the sway of a mysterious woman who commands an army of armoured talking coyotes. The book is definitely darker than any of the Narnia books (even The Last Battle), however – Curtis doesn’t know it, but that woman once reanimated the soul of her dead son in a wooden toy version of him that contained only his teeth, and her latest scheme is even more diabolical. The world Colin Meloy has created has a timeless feel to it, but with apparently anachronistic little details to remind us this is simply a more magical version of the modern day.

Wildwood is an epic, slightly episodic novel, maybe a little self-indulgent in places, but it is also a busy story with lots going on and a large cast of distinctive characters, all well developed regardless of how small a role they play. It touches on politics, bureaucracy, nationalism and war, all with a fantastical (sometimes even bonkers) twist, but it did make me wonder if it had been written consciously with the crossover market in mind. Whilst superficially it’s just a great fantasy adventure, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface that I think would go over the heads of many kids.

Murder Most Unladylike

Buy MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE by Robin Stevens

When I was younger I was a big fan of books where people my own age started their own detective agencies. My favourites were the Three Investigator books, which remained a mainstay of my reading into my teens, even when the rest of my tastes were getting decidedly more blood-soaked. I wanted to live in a junkyard and have a secret office hidden by a pile of junk. Their plots were a little safer (missing objects, etc) than the storyline of the first Wells and Wong mystery, which starts with the murder of a teacher at the Deepdean girls’ boarding school.

Hazel Wong finds the body of Miss Bell spread-eagled on the floor of the gym. She runs to get help, not least from Daisy Wells (President of the Detective Society, for which Hazel is Secretary – though really there are just the two of them anyway). When students and staffs descend on the gym, however, the body is gone. As Daisy and Hazel deduce, it can’t have been an accident (or suicide), because someone has obviously tried to cover it up. With a mysterious resignation note showing up, nobody else believes Miss Bell is even dead, let alone murdered, so it’s down to Daisy and Hazel to solve the crime on their own.

The story is set in that timeless version of quintessential England that probably didn’t even exist in the early 1930s, but it offers Robin Stevens the chance to affectionately pastiche Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. There are a few herrings so red they are practically neon as Daisy and Hazel work their way through the teaching staff, establishing who has motive and who is protected by an alibi. At one point things seem to be getting all Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone – perhaps even a couple of students – having a possible reason to want to snuff out Miss Bell.

Daisy and Hazel are a teenaged Holmes and Watson, with Hazel writing up the case and Daisy hanging over her shoulder, improving the text from off the page. They bicker, they fall out, they realise they need each other to solve the case. It’s a sparkling relationship that pushes the book onto another level. This is the first in a series and I’ll certainly be checking out the others.

Boy in the Tower

Buy BOY IN THE TOWER by Polly Ho-Yen

Strange things are afoot in South London. First it rains non-stop for weeks. Then buildings start to collapse of their own accord. And then odd blue flowers begin to grow amidst the debris. Everyone starts calling them Bluchers.

Ade only half notices this happening, despite having a splendid view of the city from the balcony of the tower block where he lives. His mum recently suffered a brutal attack near to where she worked and has become increasingly more reclusive, to the extent where Ade has to go out and buy food for them both. But he can’t ignore what’s going on when everyone else in the block decides to leave. Ade’s mum won’t leave her bed, though, so Ade stays behind with her. Except, as he soon discovers, he’s not the only one left behind.

There are all sorts of things going on here. Ade’s life hasn’t really changed all that much. He was just as lonely before the Bluchers appeared. His experience of this apocalypse comes down to missing going to school and not being able to spend time with his one friend, Gaia. His home is a place where hundreds of people are all living on top of each other, but his world is one of alienation and isolation. It takes calamity to change that.

Ade is the sort of innocent, sensitive and kind character that makes for an instantly familiar and likeable narrator, his only flaw his slight naivety. Whilst he’s never passive, it’s only towards the end of the book that his true strength emerges.

Any story about killer plants is obviously going to draw comparisons to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Even though the Bluchers aren’t walking around the place, that doesn’t make them any less menacing. Their level of sentience is left rather vague, which doesn’t help. You’d like to believe they are actually quite innocuous, only killing us all by accident. And perhaps that’s they way they like it.

Knightley & Son: K9

Buy KNIGHTLEY & SON: K9 by Rohan Gavin

Dogs have been disappearing all over London. Meanwhile something is stalking the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath each full moon, leaving grisly animal carcasses and what appear to be unbelievably large paw-prints.

Young sleuth Darkus Knightley, who has left the shadow of his famous detective father following the events of the first Knightley & Son book, is soon investigating. Unfortunately he has competition from a nosey wannabe student journalist, the police, his potential stepsister Tilly, and an uneasy alliance of despicable chaps who only want to discredit Darkus and his dad. There is of course a connection between the disappearing dogs and the beast on the Heath, but things are a lot more complicated than any of the above realised.

Obviously there’s a big element of homage to The Hound of the Baskervilles running through this book. However, despite a splash of fantasy requiring some suspension of disbelief, it’s actually a bit less silly than the Sherlock version. There’s the same zany humour as in the first book, though balanced this time by some surprisingly violent scenes in its more action-led moments.

The book ends not so much on a cliffhanger as a sharp poke to read the next book in the series. Some untied bows are unravelled at the last moment, but the characters are quite penned in by their development during the course of this book. Knightley Snr slips into a convenient catatonic state (again) partway through the story, a contrivance to allow Darkus to come to the fore once more. But he would do that anyway, having overtaken his dad in sleuthing abilities. Plus the truth is, the stories are always more interesting when he isn’t around, when Darkus is more or less alone, in danger, and can’t rely on dad showing up with the car to save the day.

The Imaginary

Buy THE IMAGINARY by A F Harrold

Rudger may be imaginary but his friendship with Amanda Shuffleup is entirely real. That she first meets him in a cupboard is irrelevant. That her mum can’t see or hear him doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Together Amanda and Rudger get up to all the things normal friends get up to, like fending off aliens in the back garden or exploring a cavern under the stairs.

But then Mr Bunting starts sniffing around. Despite appearing middle aged, Mr Bunting still has an imaginary friend. He can see everyone else’s too. Which is handy for him, seeing as he eats them. Or, more accurately, drinks them. He’s not really middle aged, of course. Like a demonic Dorian Gray, Mr Bunting has been prolonging his life by lapping up the fruits of the imaginations of children for a century.

Amanda knows she has to keep away from Mr Bunting so that he doesn’t swallow Rudger too, but when fleeing from his clutches she ends up running in front of a car and being knocked into a coma. This is the story of what Rudger does next, alone, and with nobody to believe in him.

A F Harrold’s Fizzlebert Stump (The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (And Joined the Library)) was like a slightly zanier Roald Dahl. The Imaginary is zanier still, especially when Rudger finds out what other lonely imaginary friends get up to when they’re left on their own. However, the story remains rooted in a real, believable world visited by darkness and tinged by sadness but which is made all the nicer to live in thanks to the imaginations of its inhabitants.

It also has a perfect ending, for reasons I couldn’t explain without spoiling it. So I won’t do either.

The grown-up in me can see this is a book about the power of imagination, the importance of libraries, and about how growing up invariably involves saying a few final goodbyes (even if you don’t realise they were the last ones until afterwards). But at the same time the little boy in me can see this book as a vindication – Jimmy really did exist, and he really did live somewhere near Grandma (and whilst Jimmy’s best friend Ponk probably was imaginary, he was obviously a product of Jimmy’s imagination rather than mine).