Category Archives: Book Reviews

Epic authors: Charles de Lint

I discovered Charles de Lint books when I really needed to.

A bookish life

It was 1995. I was an undergraduate uni student, studying librarianship and majoring in literary studies. I had never imagined going to university. No one in my family had been. I was shy and scared of people. I felt a sense of awe and terror that I was actually studying James Joyce and Chaucer in heritage listed buildings in the city. I also felt very so very out of place there. I thought someone was going to wake me up and tell me there had been an admissions mistake. I even began to have panic attacks on the way to Middle English literature tutorials because I didn’t feel good enough to be there.

Struggling financially to afford textbooks,  living at home and travelling into the city each day to study books felt like a fanciful luxury. An income would have been preferable to help our household. I needed work to stay in uni, at a time when part-time jobs were hard to find in Adelaide.

I had always dreamed of working in a bookshop.  I could be brave in writing, so I wrote to all the bookshops in the city and told them how much I wanted to work there. I received lots of rejections.

However, for one shop, the timing had been perfect. I met the bookshop owner and soon had my own set of keys to the shop in my first job! It was an hour on the bus which gave me plenty of time to read two novels a week. I had taken on an extra literature subject at uni so that I could study more genres.

Every minute of the day was about books!

The bookshop dream

The book shop I worked in itself wasn’t fancy. It had bright red carpet, trestle tables stacked with books and chipboard shelving around the edges. It was a small business in the city, run by a mother and father who had a baby daughter. It was partly a remainder book shop. The owner would sometimes travel to the UK to buy remainders and bring them back to Adelaide to sell. Our collection is what made us. If you could look beyond our lack of high-brow atmosphere, you could find sought after quirky titles, gorgeous art books and hard to find gems. We had a loyal band of customers ranging from bargain hunters, people just waiting on a bus, to those who knew what they were looking for. Our word of mouth trade was amazing.

The shop also had a few small shelves of full price novels.

Moonheart

It was at those shelves, in my first week there that Moonheart written in 1984 by Charles de Lint cast its spell. It fell onto the floor at my feet. Whilst this wasn’t unusual with our packed shelves, I still get an odd feeling when I think about that moment. As if this book actually wanted to be read. The cover art by David Bergen was undeniably part of the enchantment.

Moonheart by Charles de Lint Cover art by David Bergen, Pan Books, 1990.

Finding Charles de Lint

The funny thing about finding Charles de Lint was that in 1998, Charles de Lint was impossible to find in Adelaide in other bookshops.  I know because I tried. We stocked them even though our fantasy section was incredibly small.

I was allowed to read a little in the shop, if it was quiet. I think we sold more Charles de Lint books by having them noticed on the counter. The magic of those David Bergen covers. As I had so much other reading to do for my studies, this is how I read de Lint. In snatches of time, in the in-between places. Late night buses home.

It may have been the cover that grabbed me, but it was Charles de Lint’s writing that owned me.

The mythical and magical woods

After that one book, Charles de Lint catapulted to be being my favourite author.  I read Greenmantle, SpiritWalk, The Little Country, everything, until we ran out of de Lint paperbacks. De Lint stories taught me something that changed the way I looked at the world. I found a way to celebrate always feeling like a misfit at a time when I was in a place where I felt that I didn’t really belong.

Urban fantasy

Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy stories are rich with relatable folk musicians, bikers, creative thinkers, fringe dwellers, down to earth and relatable female characters and wild gods that walk in urban neighbourhoods. They are true-hearted everyday dreamers and artists. Urban places in countries far away are linked to the magical mythologies of others. In Moonheart, that began with modern downtown Ottawa to the wild mythology of Wales.

The sound of reading

Charles de Lint also included references to celtic folk music, a love that spawned in my 20s. Characters tapped their toes to real bands like Silly Wizard in the text. In the Author’s notes he cited other musical influences the book was written along to.

Greenmantle and Yarrow, Pan Books. Cover art David Bergen.

Those stories helped me see the magic in everyday little things, wherever I was. They also helped me overcome my shyness. At the time, I learned to value the interesting wanderers who would come into the shop on Sunday afternoons especially. Those who wanted small talk with their books. My favourite became a bearded wizardly gentleman who I secretly affectionately called ‘Merlin’. He would come in on the weekends and there would be conversations about some very esoteric philosophy. He could have walked right out of a de Lintian novel as an echo of ancient Taliesin.

Newford and Tamson House

A series of Charles de Lint books is known as The Newford series. They are all set in a fictional version of Ottawa which straddles the Otherworld, with characters that return throughout the series.

Newford, although fictional became part of my inner cache of imaginary geography. Tamson House, an immense artist share-house with three towers and a “sense of Gothic” still feels like a real place years after reading these books. I would love to wander in the four acre wild garden in the middle, filled with fruit trees, ivy, birch and oak trees and vegetable beds accessed by cobblestone paths.

I’m wasn’t alone in my enchantment with Tamson House. 1998 was the dawn of the graphical web. I found other fans running a mailing list based on the fictional house in the books, Tamson House mailing list (viewable but most hyperlinks are dead)

Someone has now even mapped the theoretical location of Tamson House in Google Maps.

De Lint taught me that hectic urban everyday environments, have their own gentle undercurrent of magic and mystery. You just need to notice it. Sometimes I would even imagine that our humble shop might also magically straddle the Otherworld too. Perhaps the shop would lead right into the Merry Dancers Old Bookshop and Emporium from de Lint’s books. Charles Vess has created a very beautiful illustration of that shop it in the 20th anniversary illustrated edition of Moonheart. One day, I hope a copy falls at my feet in a bookshop.

Some twenty years later

Ouch, that’s a lot of time. In 1998 you couldn’t just order books online easily. I couldn’t find them in my local library either, so it would be a few years before I moved to the UK and had enough disposable income to continue to explore Charle de Lint’s incredible output.

Now I have a modest shelf of Charles de Lint books, including some special editions I have bought over the years. How I see the world is still influenced every day by these stories that showed me the wonder and wild of everyday magic. A reminder that there is always some way of belonging exactly where you are.


The Wild Wood Charles de Lint. Cover art Stephen T. Johnson Orb Books, 1994.

 

Seven Wild Sisters by Charles de Lint. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Little, Brown and Company. 2014.

 

Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint. Cover art Mike Dringenberg. Subterranean Press, 2009.

 

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint. Illustrated by Charles Vess. Little, Brown and Company. 2013.

 

Charles de Lint has given readers decades of stories that have a power far beyond what he might have ever intended to send out into the world. They reached a young girl, living in a council house with her mum and brother and stepfather in the suburban outskirts of a city in Australia. They made the feeling of being an outsider, that feeling of being from the wrong side of the tracks, something to be proud of. I learned to tap deeply into those dream trees growing all around me. I understood how to grow other people through writing.

If I ever met Charles de Lint, I would try feebly to say how lucky I am that those stories came to me in my 20s. I would not be a wisp of the person I am today, without them.

Find out more about Charles de Lint’s magical writing at charlesdelint.com

Book Review: A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1) by S. A. Patrick


This is a personal unsolicited review of a public library copy of S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

What sorcery is this?

I first stumbled upon A Darkness of Dragons by S. A. Patrick through the Waterstones Book of the Month list for November 2018. The stunning cover illustration by artist George Ermos was part of an instant appeal to seek out this book. It’s a truly magical looking paperback and I’ve found a new fantasy illustrator to follow. A Darkness of Dragons went straight onto my list of books that my eleven-year-old dragon-mad daughter might want to read. She is an avid reader of Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series.

We walked into our tiny local library on Christmas Eve, and in a serendipity that felt magical in itself, there, on full display on top the children’s shelf, was A Darkness of Dragons! As my daughter had a huge tower of books, I begged her to let me read this first while I had a gap between deadlines for reviews of other books…

Be still my heart, this is one of the most achingly engaging fantasy adventures I have recently read.

Although I am supposed to be purchasing fewer books, I’m afraid this is going straight to my must- purchase pile after reading it.

Sincerely this:- if you love tales of fantasy adventure, this book should be your next read.

I’m sorry that my review of this book is quite long, but I need to say all of this, even if it is just for me to capture the feeling of reading it for the first time. If you are short on time, don’t waste time reading my words, just go out and read this book now!

However, if you need convincing, I’m going to try and write clearly and sensibly…actually…nope… I’m not, this is going to come right from the heart…

Conjuring echoes

In A Darkness of Dragons, S. A. Patrick takes me back to the feeling I got when I began reading some of my most loved series. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter,  Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Most recently, the same with Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. This story has a dark edge a bit like Alan Garner’s books. A spookiness of Robert Holdstock. A darkness of Susan Cooper. Within a few chapters A Darkness of Dragons earned a permanent place in my inner cache of imagined fantasy literary worlds that I can call on when doing mundane tasks like hanging washing. (I hope everyone has one of these inner caches, otherwise forget I just mentioned this!)

An epic imagined landscape

Just pines and mountains in Scotland
(or…is this resting on route to the Gemspar Mountain Range? on the edge of the Dragon Territories? or the Islands of the Eastern Seas?)

The story opens in the village of Patterfall, clad with pines, mountains, snow and forest. There is no map in the book, but there could be. (Maybe in Book #2??) The story traverses landscapes of mountains, forests, seas and vividly described vistas with names that remind me of imaginary childhood adventures, lying awake in Australia listening to the exotic names of the BBC shipping forecast at midnight on the radio and dreaming of adventures beyond my town. (Again, ignore this if it’s abnormal).  It’s difficult to describe the feeling of a new fantasy world that feels so very plausible and believable. The laws and ways things are, are unreal, but in a way that does not jar with possibility. It’s actually very hard to cast such a spell with an imagined world with so many characters this quickly, but S. A. Patrick does it. What really excites me is that it feels so very richly mythopoeic, even having its own language, Merisax. Patrick’s world of Patch Brightwater and his friends is instantly habitable, and yet it also has some incredibly biting edges too. I could feel the darkness creeping in chapter by chapter. This contributes to the absolute compulsion to carry this book everywhere with me so that I could snatch a read at any opportunity.

Kangaroo Island, South Australia (or the Dragon Wastes?)

Three friends on an adventure

Patch Brightwater is an instantly likeable, imperfect 13 year old. (Note: some descriptions say Patch is 12, but there are multiple specific references in the book to Patch being 13, the same age as his friend Wren). On the surface, his recent illegal acts make Patch a criminal. However, Patch’s compassion, acts of kindness and charity, truly challenge us to think about how the judgement of good and bad deeds are made. Patch’s friends, Barver the dracogriff (half dragon, half griffin) and Wren, a girl who is cursed by a sorcerer to live as a rat are inspiring, brave and wonderful characters. They are complex and believable as friends. I developed a soft-spot for Barver’s personality quirks. S. A. Patrick has created a believable half dragon, half griffin who interacts seamlessly with a diverse spectrum of primary and secondary characters. This isn’t easy writing territory! The dialogue emerges from diverse characters ranging from salt-of-the-earth personalities through to the cruel and deranged. We meet powerful and imposing law keepers, dragons, rats, sorcerers, witches, monks and more, all who feel so very genuine.

A dark spin on a terrifying folktale

At first, the idea of a retelling of the “fairy tale” of the Pied Piper of Hamelin didn’t immediately appeal to me. I thought I already knew how that story would go, because my own childhood had rather sugar-coated versions of this story. Although I love folklore, not knowing the depth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, I was a bit concerned that this might be tame tale territory. I urge you to let the title lead you. There is a terrible darkness in the original folklore of the Hamelin Piper, a German folk story dating back to around 1284. Various versions evolved, based on real events, twisting branches from the original story. S. A. Patrick has a gift in conjuring an ancient evil from the roots of the story. It will thrill young adults and grown-ups alike.

There be dragons…and music!

Another ancient piper .

Although Songs of Magic as a series will undoubtedly attract fans of dragon-based tales, there is another theme accompanying the fantasy. The magic of making music. S. A. Patrick’s ability to weave in the art of piping, whistling and playing music through Patch as a young piper, should pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever trembled because of a piece of music. Patch’s description of piping skills led my thoughts to the ghosts of my grandfather and those before him as traditional Scottish pipers. I remember my failed childhood attempts at trying to cast a single note on a bagpipe chanter, and then watching spellbound as my grandpa produced songs from the chanter, his fingers waving and moving as if conjuring magic. The passages describing Patch’s playing took be back to these childhood moments. For younger readers, Patch as a thirteen-year-old discovering his own music is so relevant for readers in this age group. Afer all, music is often the first time we can find a way to express the complexity of what we hold inside us, that words sometimes can’t muster.

Dragons at arm..chairs

The real magic

This is S. A. Patrick’s first novel for younger readers, but under his name as Seth Patrick, he has a series of horror for grown-ups (The Reviver trilogy) if you are so inclined.

I also had a moment of enlightenment on reading that Seth Patrick has a game programming and mathematics background. This makes a lot of sense! I can begin to understand where his power as a writer and scaffolder of imagined worlds emerges from. In A Darkness of Dragons, Patrick is beautifully demonstrating my belief that computer coding and computational thinking have elements transferable to creative writing. I wonder if this is the secret ingredient that I can’t quite explain as to why this imagined world works its enchantment so quickly. Patch’s world unfolds with a structural efficiency, a necessary underlying logic and a sequence needed to lay good strong foundations for a first-in-series fantasy novel. Yet, whilst staying true to the conventions and rules of a novel, there are still so many surprises, unexpected results and lingering questions for our minds to ponder. Although there is structure, there is space made for big hearts to feel things keenly, and amusing comments and asides to explain context so that everything feels naturally unfolding. There is a perfect tension of order and chaos, compiled with enough complexity to keep you turning pages.

Songs of Magic – the series

I truly can’t wait for Patch Brightwater’s next adventure with his friends. I hope some small snippet of my raving enthusiasm encourages you to read it and also purchase this novel to support an incredible author of young adult stories, S. A. Patrick.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in need of friendship, magic and courage, head to the Usborne website, there is a Song of Magic for recorder that you can listen to and learn to play.

S. A. Patrick, A Darkness of Dragons (Songs of Magic #1), Usborne, November 2018, ISBN 9781474945677 

And finally, just because reading the book conjured a song for me…

If this book was a song!

Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness illustrated by Jim Kay

This is an unsolicited and personal review of Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

I’m not sure how long I spent imprisoned in an ancient twisted yew tree back in 2016, but clearly it was long enough to have have missed the existence of both the book and film of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I arrived at this book after recently reviewing the paperback release of Jim Kay’s illustrated version of J K Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  This is part of why I love the partnership of authors and illustrators, as illustrators sometimes wander you off your usual garden path, into the words of a wonderful author.

After reading this book, I probably won’t be taking tree photographs like this
again when camping – too spooky now!

I have wanted to read the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, but it has been a while since I’ve felt able to find the emotional space for a dystopian series, so I’ve waited. I wondered if A Monster Calls was going to be terrifying and I steeled myself. The cover of the special collectors edition that I bought and the amazing ink-black illustrations by Jim Kay were definitely pointing to things crawling out from nightmares.

The light and dark of trees

This is a darkly spooky tale, but within it, is the most moving story. Conor is haunted by a monster. From the cover, there is no mistaking that the monster is a terrifying tree beast. This constant haunting is entwined with the story of how Conor deals with the cancer that his mother is fighting. Instead of being spooked by this story, I found myself in tears, but also still spooked because the monster is unavoidably confronting and so raw and wild in its pursuit of what it wants from Conor.

Patrick Ness has won a range of awards for this story, and although primarily dealing with grief and bravery, if you are interested in wild nature mythology and the folklore of trees there is enough fantasy and nature mythology to root this firmly in the fantasy genre. Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, dark, inky and shadowy enable the twisted-limbed monster to skulk through every page, looming around the text or imposing its fear in double-page spreads that made this feel as luxurious as a graphic novel.

Patrick Ness completed this story for another author, Siobhan Dowd who passed away before she could take her concept further. This additional layer of poignancy is so powerful because the circumstances and story around this are explained up front.

At the time, I thought this tree was reaching out for a friendly hug.
On reflection, perhaps it was haunting me!

The collectors edition contains the novel, plus additional material the background story of the book and the making of the film. A truly beautiful book to be revered, particularly because it is printed onto the very paper soul of a tree that once stood in the earth.

Never lie to a tree. They are much bigger than us.

This was a heartbreaking and beautiful read, suitable for young adults and adults.

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

Book Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

Best read with a cup of tea and a storm rattling the windows

Catherine Doyle, The Storm Keeper’s Island, Bloomsbury Childrens Books, 2018. ISBN 9781408896877.

This is an unsolicited and personal review.

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle is a luminous flame of a story! Smouldering in the pages mingle the wild, ancient strengths of nature and family love.


The story is set on Arranmore Island, a real island , Árainn Mhór off the west coast of Ireland. Fionn and his sister Tara have come to the island to stay with their grandfather, who is candlemaker. Malachy seems grown from the island and part of the ebbing tides of sea and the cycles of island folklore.


As Fionn and Tara try to settle into island life, the wellspring of ancient island magic stirs. It calls for the powers of the Storm Keeper of Arranmore. There are signs that times must change forever. New friendships must be forged and old ones mended. Finn must survive betrayals and peril, to quell an ancient evil that is rising to destroy the island.


This story is a wonderful read for middle-grades to young adult. It tackles the complexity and frailty of memory and time, as well as family relationships.


Wildly enchanting, there is also a bright light flickering on the horizon! This isn’t the end of Fionn’s story!

The next book in the series is due out in July 2019.

Teaching notes

The Storm Keeper’s Island teaching guide is available from Bloomsbury.

Maker/digital technology project ideas

craft: scented candle-making

technology: interactive candles

Book Review: Unpacking Harper Holt by Di Walker

You can read my full review of Unpacking Harper Holt on Reading Time  (Children’s Book Council of Australia)


“Unpacking Harper Holt follows high school student Harper, as she navigates a shifting sense of what normal life is.   For Harper, it’s normal to move into another new house, as her family frequently relocate due to her parents work.  Having recently moved to a suburb of coastal Melbourne, Harper’s pragmatic approach to finding her way around the neighbourhood is equalled by her approach to the almost predictable social challenges of starting yet another new school. Change and transience is part of life as usual for Harper.”

Read more Book Reviews on this site.

Book Review: The Happiness Quest by Richard Yaxley


“Dazzled by a cheery sunshine yellow cover, Yaxley’s tenderly observant prose quickly lands you in a pit of shadows, as fifteen year old Tillie Bassett tries to make sense of her inexplicable sadness. Set within suburban Brisbane, Tillie’s heart weighs heavily, feeling the world at a distance as she struggles to pass each day in the clutches of a lingering depression.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

Book Review: Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl


“As a fan of classic sci-fi, having read my way through the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, before moving into fantasy for many years, Enchantress from the Stars has made me fall in love with science-fiction all over again. Although perhaps already hinted at in the critical acclaim and awards cited on the cover, Engdahl’s writing and how she expresses the inner thoughts of her characters is compelling from the outset.  In the prologue I could already sense a clear potential to hook those who believe that science-fiction isn’t a genre they enjoy.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

Book Review: Blade of Shattered Hope (The 13th Reality #3) by James Dashner


“Dashner’s epic face-off in this ‘good kids versus evil grown up’ adventure has plenty of nightmarish mutant monsters and downright creepy scenarios faced by a likeable gang of young human characters.  The story builds into what becomes a terrifying page turner.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

Book Review: The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid  by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 Available September 2018.

 

9781523503544_3D
Cover image: Worman Publishing

Here is an incredibly beautiful book aimed at young adventurers, or even young adventurers at heart. It’s the sort of book that you will want to read with a torch under the bed covers, sprawled out in a treehouse, curled up in a window seat on a winter’s afternoon or on the grass underneath the shade of a tree.

 

 

But, don’t wait for the right place. You are in the right place! This book should be read wherever you find yourself right now, at a bus stop, in the schoolyard or even at the kitchen table.

The text, beautifully written by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco unfurls your imagination over 100 pages of quirky, curious places and facts hidden in the nooks and crannies of our amazing planet. At times achingly poetic descriptions of watching sunsets rise over distant forests, or lowering yourself into the centre of the earth, sits alongside thoughtful questions to ponder alongside scientific facts and details.

You navigate country to country on a global romp, magically illustrated with sketches and some beautiful coloured artwork that bring an element of comic and manga epic-ness to real places, through illustrator Joy Ang.

You are encouraged to emerge from the pages with eyes wide open to the possibility of discovering this fascination around you. Be prepared to find your own way! Reading this book reminds me of the thrill of the first time reading a choose your own adventure book when I was a child.

For me, what makes this book stand out, is that as readers, we are challenged to find and connect the elements of wonder in the places around us now. Although the book contains just snippets of the world found in the borders and margins of places, the writers demonstrate that any two places in the world can be connected, so that you can traverse in thought from place to place.

There are no photographs of the destinations included, but with the related Atlas Obscura website to explore, photographs really aren’t needed in the book.

This is a book to read if you are a kid, aimed at ages 8-12, but also a book to read if you forgot or refused to grow up.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 (Available September 2018)


A digital review copy was provided to me by the publisher and this review is also published on Netgalley.