Letters from the Lighthouse

Historical fiction done well has a timeless quality to it, and Letters from the Lighthouse is an excellent case in point. It doesn’t feel as if it was written decades ago, but that will invariably still be true twenty or thirty years after its 2017 publication date too.

A trip to the cinema shouldn’t be the start of a rollercoaster adventure, but Sukie is taking her younger sister Olive and their baby brother Cliff to the cinema in London in 1941, so there’s always the risk something exciting or terrifying might happen. It’s both. Just after Sukie leaves Olive and Cliff for a moment, the Luftwaffe put in an unwelcome appearance. In the midst of a chaotic air raid, Olive is pretty sure she sees Sukie talking to a strange man. The next thing Olive is aware of, she’s waking up in hospital and nobody has seen Sukie since.

Olive and Cliff are evacuated to the Devon coast to stay with someone who is supposedly Sukie’s penpal, but the woman doesn’t seem to know Sukie at all. Though Olive feared she was being sent too far from the site of Sukie’s disappearance to investigate, she quickly realises the mystery might be solved right here. First she has to decode a strange message found in Sukie’s coat before she left, and investigate what that has to do with a lighthouse and the odd secretive behaviour of so many people in the village.

This isn’t an adventure in the sense that it’s full of daring escapades (though there is a quicksand scene), but more that secrets pile in on lies and nobody knows who to trust. There are baddies aplenty, but not all of them are Luftwaffe pilots. Some of them are the most common sorts – those inclined towards petty meanness for its own sake. Yet not everybody who seems to be a villain is one, and to get to the bottom of the Sukie mystery, Olive has to work out which is which.

The Second World War is well trod ground and stories based around evacuees risk comparison to some genuine children’s classics, but Emma Carroll stakes out her own turf with a mystery thriller that’s all about the people – and ultimately the smallest and most vulnerable of them. There’s some cracking humour too, including a wonderful riff on an “I’m Spartacus” moment where everyone’s true colours are finally revealed.

The Umbrella Mouse

When you’re a mouse, you can get away with living pretty anywhere and most of the human world won’t even notice. Pip has a happy life living inside an umbrella in a shop that sells pretty much only those, but their home is always safe from sale thanks to the owner’s kindly son. The human world is about to catch up with Pip, however, and a bomb throws her right into the middle of it, quite literally. After all, this is 1944 and the humans are fighting a war – a war that claims two more casualties in Pip’s parents.

Rescued by a dog, Pip encounters other animals who have to survive on their own, including plenty of pets who have lost their owners in air raids. She wants their help to get to Italy, where her mother has family, and she herself might find a new home. But Italy is still a warzone, and the only animals that are heading towards continental Europe are members of the animal Resistance – codenamed Noah’s Ark. Pip joins them as a means to an end, but when she sees the work they’re doing, and the dangers they put themselves in, she realises she needs to help. Perhaps family isn’t all about blood and a home isn’t just a building after all.

This is a lovely story that manages to meld sweetness with darkness – and it does get surprisingly dark by the time Pip joins Noah’s Ark’s final mission, going into territory you wouldn’t necessarily expect for the story of an innocent mouse looking for family. Pip’s been sheltered from the worst of the war until the story begins, and slowly comes to see her suffering as not a lonely experience but one she shares with many others – animal and human alike.

No matter how dark it gets in places (and not always simply by implication), this is still a fun story full of jokes at the expense of humans. I love the idea that the agents sending coded messages via Morse code to the Allies in London are actually animals, but that the British are entirely unaware who is feeding them aerial reconnaissance, or how. There aren’t many Resistance spies who can offer a pigeon-eye view of France, of course…

It’s not spoiling anything to say the ending is sufficiently open for there to be plenty of scope for more adventures featuring Pip and her new brothers- and sisters-in-arms, and that would certainly be something to look forward to.

The House with Chicken Legs

Marinka lives in a house that has legs. And not just any old legs – chicken legs. Every now and then, almost without warning, it gets up and walks to where it – and its inhabitants: Marinka, her grandmother and their pet jackdaw Jack – are needed most.

I was given a most insistent personal recommendation for this one, so came to it with few preconceptions. I thought the title cute and expected a story to match. Instead I got a book ringing with genuine pathos, beautifully and wittily written, that finds the humanity inside the magic, and which had a couple of shock turns in the middle that demanded a pause in reading to process.

That’s because the places where Marinka’s grandmother is needed, the places where the house with chicken legs takes them, are places where the souls of the recently dead need to be tended to, listened to and ultimately encouraged to accept that it is time to move on to the next stage in their existence.

Naturally this doesn’t give Marinka many opportunities to make real human friends. The house either doesn’t stay in the same place long enough, or it does, but the local children Marinka’s age are scared off by apparently witchy goings on. That leaves the dead for Marinka to try to befriend, but her attempt at doing so changes everything.

Drawing on Slavic folklore, the novel will be read by some children as a fun adventure. And by others as a poignant story about coming to terms with death, and an exploration of how love and friendship are never possessive, but often sacrificial. Not bad for a book with such a cute title.

Mold and the Poison Plot

Buy MOLD AND THE POISON PLOT by Lorraine Gregory

Mold has a nose that is the envy of nobody. He personally is entirely unfussed by the size of it, but secretly he wonders whether it was part of the reason his birth mother abandoned him as a baby. Not that he has particularly suffered for that, because his adoptive mother Aggy has given him a wonderful life, even if her healing tonics aren’t as highly regarded as she thinks they are and she drinks too much.

She’s no royal assassin, however, so it’s a shock to both of them when she’s arrested for trying to kill the king with poison disguised as a tonic. Suddenly Mold’s nose is not just an expansive sunshade for his lip, it’s the key to saving Aggy’s life. Naturally with such great nostrils comes an almost superhuman sense of smell. That means if Mold can get close enough to the comatose king, he might be able to smell what was used to poison him, and then maybe just perhaps he will be able to sniff out a cure in time to save not only the king, but his falsely-accused assassin too.

Mold’s adventure is packed with heroes and villains aplenty, but it is the nasally-blessed one himself who stands out, and not just because of that hooter. The story is told entirely through his wonderful first-person voice, an instantly convincing working-class vernacular that puts a fresh new spin on what is at heart a traditional story about fairness and friendship.

Lorraine Gregory doesn’t shy away from hints of a world that is riddled with injustice, suffering and violence, but these things give Mold’s quest agency, and don’t make the story any less rip-roaring and fun. Obviously a story about a boy with a big nose is going to involve some deliciously revolting details, most of which actually come thanks to a couple of trips through the ever-useful abandoned passages that are the sewers beneath the king’s castle.

Without giving anything at all away, come the end of the book it seems ripe (if you’ll excuse the semi-pun) for a sequel. Forgoing that, perhaps a movie adaptation by Terry Gilliam.

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.