The Ordinary Knight and The Invisible Princess, by H.L. Burke

September 8, 2013 at 15:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , , )




The damnable thing about the publishing industry is that it is so terribly big. An unassailable bulwark against the flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the infinite depths of would-be writers, with the carefully-patrolled floodgates channelling the cream that has risen to the top of this morass into the grateful lap of the discerning reader. Of course, it goes without saying that dreadful nonsense and tiresome rubbish end up slipping past to join the real literature; but it is a truth seldom acknowledged that the faceless might of the publishing industry really has no ready way to capture the work of truly excellent authors who find themselves without established names or careers.

The Ordinary Knight is a self-published fantasy romance; a description liable to turn absolutely no heads and several stomachs. Surprisingly, it is absolutely terrific. Competently written and finely paced, it is a fairytale adventure whose only fault is its brevity, and a sweetly imagined fantasy world that is impressionistic and pristine. There is little in the story that is subtle or particularly subversive: no neckbreaking plot twists or philosophical challenges. Only a fine old-fashioned adventure tale, with echoes of the inimitable Kate DiCamillo, and a timeless quality such as only the best fantasy authors can manage, whose work appeals both to its intended childhood demographic, and also to adults grown wistful.

“‘Percy, I can’t go back. The fairies know how to get through the doors now. The tower isn’t safe anymore…I barely escaped.'”

-The Ordinary Knight

The story is driven far more by its characters than by exposition or a detailed description of the fantastic world in which they dwell, but there are tantalising glimpses of a sugarplum world that begs to be explored in further depth. Burke can be lavish in her set-pieces and is as obvious as a Roald Dahl in where her sympathies lie: the heroes are without exception paragons of virtue, yet manage the trick of being likeable at the same time. The dialogue is clear and occasionally witty, and the conclusion manages to be truly epic without losing the childlike atmosphere so carefully cultivated throughout.

The glowing reception that The Ordinary Knight so richly deserves is offset and dimmed slightly by the second loosely-related story, The Invisible Princess. Much of the magic is lost in the sequel, and the pathos is laid on with a trowel, as moonstruck lovers bemoan in dreadful melodrama how utterly and hopelessly they yearn for each other. There is little fantastical, and almost no development, and the least said about it the better. It might be a perfectly acceptable straight romance novel, but it is emphatically not on the same level as its prequel, either in genre or in professionalism.

Nevertheless, this lapse is scarcely an excuse to smear the first of the two books. Read the first by all means, and proceed with the second only if you like that sort of thing. But for The Ordinary Knight to while away its days as just another unread vanity publication would be a travesty. An excellent book, a surprise success, and hopefully indicative of the sort of thing to come from this marvellously talented writer.

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The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

May 5, 2013 at 17:51 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )




In examining The Children of Hurin, the first question will be, “Is it any good?” while the second question will be, “Is there anything new or unique here?”

The answer to both of these questions is not all that simple. The Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion from which this story is assembled are both notorious for being difficult and labyrinthine tomes reserved exclusively for people who don’t get invited to parties. They are both very, very good, which answers the first question somewhat. Any reader who has gone through either one of those books will not find anything particularly surprising in The Children of Hurin, which answers the second question.

But there is something very valuable and very new in these pages. Christopher Tolkien (who edited together these fragments) has long been a target of scornful dismissal by many fans of his father’s work, but it is remarkable how seamlessly he has managed to collate the pieces of Hurin’s tragedy from the disparate sources available to him, and come out with something very much approximating literature.

The grandiose style that has been mistaken for unwieldiness by many readers of Tolkien’s miscellaney has been sanded and polished, and in the process of cutting Hurin’s family out from their tangled web of thousands of years of history there is much that has been either abbreviated or removed entirely. In fact, the peculiar thing about this book is that the very act of making it ‘more readable’ and ‘more accessible’ has in fact denuded it of helpful context for many readers unaware of the arcane details of Tolkien’s legends. Those deeply intimate with the history of the Noldor and Thangorodrim will find a clear and thrilling edition of a familiar story; those who have only read The Lord of the Rings will still be faced with the constant stumbling blocks of how this story fits in with the world they know. It is therefore interesting that the simplification of the books has consequently made the story more inviting for those who are already comfortable with the original versions.

“‘The shadow of my purpose lies upon Arda, and all that is in it bends slowly and surely to my will. But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair.'”

-The Children of Hurin

The most noticeable artefact from The Silmarillion stylistically speaking, is the rather grim absence of levity or mirth. This is a much harder story than Tolkien’s more famous works, and while that does not make it worse at all, it does make it different, and it will doubtless unsettle many readers. This setting also allowed Tolkien to explore more adult themes, and his characters here are much more driven by fear and by jealousy, by pride and by vengeance and by honour. Turin and Morwen, Beleg and Glaurung, are much more human and much less fantastical than the array of hobbits and men seen elsewhere; which is again a comment, and neither criticism nor praise. There is some difficulty in finding the focus of the story–for the grand millennial struggle against Morgoth is a background theme, and incidental to the plot. But in that, the smaller details and choices assume a wider significance than in the original editions, and a warmth which is difficult to set upon initially is brought out.

It is incredibly difficult to consider this book apart from the other forms in which it has already been published. Most readers who come across it will come across it because of their admiration for these other works. But those others who will have to painstakingly arrange the context (or do away with it entirely) will find a bitter but enticing fantasy story, expertly written and without any of the baggy and painful luggage that so much modern fantasy is encumbered with. Surprisingly satisfying to read, and one that even committed Tolkien-devotees might find themselves reaching for more often than they think.

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Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

March 31, 2013 at 17:58 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , , )


This book was a difficult one to rate. Ultimately, it was more exciting and action-packed than either of its predacessors. Unfortunately, even well-written action and adventure cannot compensate for a poor story, and in spite of a fast pace and some magnificent set-pieces, it was simply not as good.

There are some books that fall apart on one terrible issue that the author cannot get his head around: a devastatingly anticlimactic ending, or a limp and flat character inexplicably placed in the centre of everything. But Peter and the Secret of Rundoon dies a death of a thousand pinpricks. Popped seams and stretched plausibility from the earlier books — repairable mistakes left for a moment too long — combine to create an ultimately negative impression. Errors that ought to have been corrected by now, by a competent editor at least–or by an excellent writer–finally come of age and somewhat capsize this venture.

“The figure stepped into the torchlight. Again Molly fought back a scream. A long black moustache slashed across a familiar hatchet-thin face.

-Peter and the Secret of Rundoon

Molly has always been rather desperately pushed forward by the authors as a strong female character, usually comedically contrasted with Tinkerbell’s jealous sniping and grousing. She has never been a tiresome nag or a helpless idiot, but the feeling has always hung heavy that Tinkerbell is actually right, and that all of the jokes have contained a serious edge. Molly has several very uncomfortable and grown-up fights with several of the characters at a couple of different points, and this does an enormous amount of damage to the painstakingly cultivated character that Barry and Pearson nurtured over two other books.

The decision is finally made for the ghastly and mysterious Lord Ombra to come clean about his origins and his goals: which ultimately proves to be a disastrous choice. There is a bleak and surprisingly atheistic rant that comes out of nowhere, and the villains become considerably more prosaic and less impressive as a result. Indeed, the story loses much of the magic and fairytale beauty that it had managed to create in a surprisingly short time. Coupled with some bewilderingly anachronistic inventions that are shoehorned into the story seemingly to lazily patch plot holes, and any reader might be forgiven for wondering if the burst of enthusiasm with which this series began, has…run out of pixie dust?

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )


A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

November 4, 2012 at 23:04 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )


The startling success enjoyed by Barry and Pearson in their striking debut, Peter and the Starcatchers is not, strictly speaking, quite so startling as to compell doubt in their ability to repeat it. As noted in the review of that book, they neither set out nor managed to write great and towering literature (in spite of very deliberately dangling their toes into that hazardous pool), but found themselves with a very successful and modest adventure story.

In the sequel, some dramatic improvements and some glaring pitfalls will immediately confront the reader. It will not take readers long to realise that there really is no plot in this book that has anything to do with Never Land or the Lost Boys. This is a Peter-and-Molly adventure, and neither James nor Captain Hook are to be invited. With this established, it would have been a wise decision for the authors to abandon pretense of telling a dual narrative, the second of which is anaemic, scatterbrained, and woefully neglected.

“In the distance lay London’s familiar landmarks–the Tower, Tower Bridge, Parliament–looking majestic even in the coal-clouded air. On the right lay the vast, busy complexity of the London docks, a forest of masts rising from hundreds of ships.”

-Peter and the Shadow Thieves

Perhaps a hidden blessing in the abortive second storyline is that Barry and Pearson do realise very quickly where their strengths lie. The tantalising threads of storyline strewn through the first book are taken up again with a vengeance, and both authors set about moulding a book that is not just an origin-story for Peter Pan, but a detailed and layered foundation on which to grow their own creation.

It must also be noted that a constant annoyance has leaked over from the first book, and even grown in proportion. The narrative voice seems more than a trifle rushed, as if the authors have enthusiasm and pluck, but a dearth of real penmanship. London, a city deftly and brilliantly sketched by a hundred authors and songwriters and poets, is muzzily construed at best, with a postcard reconstruction that conjures up exactly nothing. The street urchins are halfhearted, the scrapes and japes fizzle out almost as soon as they begin, and as the characters scurry hither and yon on various brief and unfulfilling quests, there is the distinct feeling that they too are trying to pick up the pieces of a dropped story.

But in the face of this frankly disappointing canvas upon which a good half of the book is played out, there are several reassuring notes. The authors build upon the main characters they had begun, and manage to do so while re-covering precisely the right amount of ground, and unveiling precisely the right amount of mystery to encourage reticent readers to warm to and even grow excited by them. The progression of the starcatcher tale is excellently paced, and it is difficult to accuse this book of dragging its feet.

An encouraging sequel to an impressive beginning, and one that largely improves on its predacessor. Mistakes were made, and this book is far from perfect. But it is enjoyable, and enjoyable is sometimes better than perfect.

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Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

September 2, 2012 at 13:37 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fairy Tales, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , , )


Sometimes, large shoes can be filled. This is a difficult thing to do, and even authors with famous names or literary renown fall spectacularly and catastrophically short of the mark, when trying to pick up the pen of a more gifted man or woman. Neither Barry nor Pearson are novice authors, but nor could it be said that either of them are burdened with a tremendous amount of experience in children’s literature (which is harder to write than many people expect, and all the more awful when it is done badly). In Peter and the Starcatchers the authors choose an especially difficult subject, being as it is a story that has been recast and reimagined countless times by dozens of storytellers throughout the course of a century. The prospect of borrowing from other adaptations or traditions, or the wilder temptation to take the story in a totally unexpected and erratic direction, must have been frightfully difficult to resist.

“‘What’s Never Land?’ said a boynamed Prentiss, who was fairly new to the orphanage and thus did not see the fist until it hit his ear.”

-Peter and the Starcatchers

As it is, this first book has some rough edges. Barry and Pearson aim staunchly for the centre of the old adventuring tradition, and if they do not score a perfect bull’s eye, then at least they score close enough to conjure up the magic of the classics they seek to emulate. Their writing is not beautiful, and they do not demonstrate the ability to clutch a reader’s heartstrings, to cause hands to slip nerveless on pages, or a wistful sigh to punctuate the turning of the final page. But if the reader remembers that this is a tribute and an addendum to the original story and not a displacement, if the reader begins this book in a spirit of adventure and a willingness to be thrilled, then it is a very rewarding experience indeed.

There are some characters who will grow tiresome, and there are a few damp squibs, where the story builds up to a rollicking climax only to back off half apologetically and try again, but for a reader willing to forgive occasional lapses, and who is willing to become as excited by the story as the authors clearly are, then this is a book to stay up all night reading.

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The Pearls of Lutra, by Brian Jacques

May 20, 2012 at 18:40 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )


In this excellent novel Brian Jacques served up a very different flavour of Redwall book, demonstrating that the winning formula he devised was robust enough to experiment with. Gone is the usual vermin horde pressing hungrily around the sandstone abbey walls; and instead piracy, desertion, tropical tyrants, and exotic heroes and villains alike. At the same time, The Pearls of Lutra maintains enough of Redwall’s classic hallmarks, with one of Jacques’ best-written riddle quests, his best female protagonist since Mariel, and a truly excellent pair of buddy-adventurers in Clecky and Gerul.

“Far across the heaving deeps of restless ocean, some say even beyond the place where the sun sinks in the west, there lies the Isle of Sampetra…rotten as a flyblown carcass…haven to the flotsam of the high seas.”

-The Pearls of Lutra

Brian Jacques has always been willing to sacrifice even beloved characters on the altar of emotive storytelling (some extreme examples include Martin the Warrior and The Outcast of Redwall), and without needlessly elaborating,The Pearls of Lutra contains some of his thickest pathos of all, with some parts truly harrowing.

There is something fresh in the storytelling that has only a little to do with the novelty of the creatures and locations in this book, and something more akin to the swashbuckling adventures of Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers; a feeling that Jacques is perhaps for the first time writing really good children’s literature. There is a real sense of setting off into the unknown, and the freedom and danger that entails. This book demonstrates the best of Brian Jacques, without necessarily seeming like Brian Jacques.

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Knight’s Fee, by Rosemary Sutcliff

May 12, 2012 at 08:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )


The old stories retold are always the best, and just as Sutcliff turned her hand to the magnificent retelling of the legend of Tristan and Iseult, so now she turns to a recasting that is mostly David and Jonathan, and partly Roland and Oliver. Leaving behind her beloved Roman Britain, there is nonetheless a golden thread wending its way from The Eagle of the Ninth, following the emerald ring through Marcus’ family and into the Arthur legend and The Shield Ring; and now, by virtue of a Saxon protagonist being remade amongst the Normans into an Englishman, landing solidly in the Middle Ages.

Almost certainly because of the sudden abundance of historical record from which to draw on, this novel will appeal to the serious historian much more than the fantastical Eagle of the Ninth; its verisimilitude is infinitely more convincing, and there begins to be something recognisably English in her peerless and intimately warm reconstruction of the south of Britain. Probably partly due to this new commitment to historical accuracy, the first few chapters are unfortunately a little dull. Now, Sutcliff has always been an author to take her time in the stories she is telling. Spurning the traditional story arc of equalibrium shattered by crisis quest, followed by failure, followed by success, she tends always to begin with a rambling and intertwined mixture of equalibrium mixed with tragic failure, before beginning on the pith of her story as late as halfway through the book. Almost all of her characters suffer this lingering doom early in their stories: Marcus has his wound, Phaedrus his death sentence, Aquila his slavery, Justin and his cousin their disgrace. Knight’s Fee is much the same, but unlike some of her other books its brevity does call into question the wisdom of lingering so long in the passing of seasons and the building of two young men.

“‘Checkmate, Sir Thiebaut’…’No, only stalemate,’ he said, very, very gently. ‘And I think that one day you shall weep blood for this day’s work, my kennel-bred squire.'”

-Knight’s Fee

In fact, Sutcliff might well be accused here of writing not an adventure novel, but a character study. Certainly Bevis and Randal are two of the strongest and most appealing characters she has written, and her writing has not suffered for an abrupt switch of era. Although shocking twists have never been a trademark of her books, it is a little disappointing that the chapter headings themselves give away so much of the plot, and a discerning reader will avoid them inasmuch as this is possible.

A careful verdict will hardly judge this brief story as among Sutcliff’s best, but it does show her perhaps at her most mature, and is a thrilling look at an era of history that those who tire of King Arthur or terrible Tudors will devour gladly. There is a slight feel of artificial sanitisation about Sutcliff’s Norman writing, but not enough to taint the beauty and fragility of the story. To borrow her style, it is a precious and slight thing, that might be cupped in one’s hands to preserve it. A story that one will look back at the end of with fond nostalgia. Those are the very best kinds of stories.

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The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters, by Enid Blyton

May 3, 2012 at 01:39 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )


The Five Find-Outers series is a light-hearted and frequently outrageously funny and slapstick mystery romp. How disturbing, then, to find elements of real tragedy within the pages. In several volumes, the villain will typically mention some misfortune or woe that mitigates his or her crimes, but in Blyton’s world of upper-middle class postwar England, things are generally very simple. Greed and cruelty are the gateway drugs to lawbreaking and gaol; and honest hardworking folk live honest and superficially trouble-free lives.

“‘There’s something wrong I once did that I’m ashamed of now, see?'”

-The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters

The Spiteful Letters of the title are startling for their sheer venom, but more so for the sudden intrusion into the lives of relative innocents. Gladys, for instance, whose crime the eponymous letters trumpet is the crime of having a difficult upbringing. The focus on bigotry and blackmail, on shame and ostracism, marks a surprisingly adult turn in these mostly carefree books.

This is not to say that children’s books ought not have tragic adult themes in them. But it is the sudden change in direction–without either warning or explanation–that makes this book less fun to read than several of the others in the series. The plot is heavily recycled in the much later Five Find-Outers book, The Mystery of the Strange Messages, which takes the poison-pen theme in a much lighter and funnier direction. Some sentences are lifted verbatim from one book to the other, so that it is impossible not to wonder whether Blyton herself wished to revisit and rewrite this darker early mystery.

The Spiteful Letters is difficult to enjoy, although Blyton’s description of idyllic village life is warm and charming as usual. As the fourth book in the series, the group’s dynamic has settled down a little (with the election of Fatty as leader in the previous book) and many of the series’ teething problems have petered out. A transitional effort, then, with the formula of the series more or less settled, but with the tone still an uncertain quantity.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage
The Mystery of Holly Lane

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Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

April 12, 2012 at 17:56 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature) (, , )


A story about horses, as told by horses? Nonsense! Surely a simpering, unbearable litany of velvet-nosed, gentle noncharacters, each more awful than the last. Puritanical preaching and a hastily scribbled version of the olden days; and certainly only elbowing its way into the “classics” collection due to a disappointing number of animal lovers prepared to accept tawdry literature and cloyingly sweet stories only because of the content, and without a care for the quality.

“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.”

-Black Beauty

It is remarkably easy to judge this book extremely quickly, and write it off as a depressing relic without real substance. It is about horses, so surely it is about nothing but horses. This expectation will not easily survive past the first few chapters (where admittedly little exciting happens). But in spite of this being a slow starter, the reader is immediately plunged into such a rich landscape with characters at once exciting and powerfully captivating, both equine and human. Perhaps that is the saving grace that opens this book up so readily: it is about horses, but not only horses. It is a thick and vivid cross-section of early Victorian life, from the grim rain-lashed cobbles of Dickensian London to Austen’s world of polite genteel society. In every sketch of life is a unique blend of tragedy and triumph; and although the story makes no secret that it is a crusade for the betterment of animals everywhere, Sewell expertly joins the fates of Beauty, Ginger and the other animals to the fates and fortunes of the full and lifelike human characters.

“One day two wild-looking young men came out of a tavern close by the stand, and called Jerry.

‘Here, cabby! look sharp, we are rather late; put on the steam, will you, and take us to the Victoria in time for the one o’clock train? You shall have a shilling extra.'”

-Black Beauty

This ultimately sets Black Beauty apart from other animal stories (even high-quality authors like Jack London). She manages a dual focus on both her sympathetic horsey heroes and on the world around them, never once forgetting who it is her heroes are, but refusing to spend her novel frolicking in grassy meadows and mossy barns. There are heroes and villains in the animal world and the human world, and both sets are given the same careful attention. A gentle book, but with clearly defined peaks and troughs, and sharp moments of crisis and climax to offset the pastoral setting. Plainly, this will not appeal to every reader (even the most tolerant). But just as plainly, there is more to this book than meets the eye. If ever there were a book more susceptible to being misjudged by its cover, this is it. Readers ought to go into Black Beauty with their eyes open as to the sort of story it is, but they should not hesitate to go into Black Beauty at all.

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