Review: There May Be a Castle

theremaybeacastleThere May Be a Castle hit me hard. Not since reading Watership Down or blinking through the end credits of E.T., have I been left so watery-eyed.  It may just be me, of course, and the passage of time. I used to weep on only the rarest of occasions –  funerals, the birth of my children, that kind of thing. (Although, while I’m in sharing mode, I have to declare that the final three minutes of this match prompted a full-on snotty, shoulder-shaking outpouring – and did the same when I watched it again days later.  It still chokes me now.  Tragic, I know).

But now, as I’ve tipped past forty, I find myself choking up with alarming frequency.  School plays. Watching my daughter read. The first sight of a daffodil tip, creeping out of the still cool earth. New born babies. Sad things to do with animals. They all get me a bit wobbly-lipped.

And, now, you can add There May Be a Castle to the list. Mouse Mallory, a young boy lost in a snowstorm after his family car has skidded off the road, is accompanied by a host of imagined friends as he seeks his castle, risking everything to try and find help for his stranded family. The narrative switches between Mouse’s adventure, and his sister still stuck in the car – the different parts of the story are marked by a change of font but also a more significant shift from the real to the imaginary. Mouse, as he stumbles half-dreaming, half-conscious towards his Everest, grapples with his demons – the fears and doubts that inhabit us all. His struggle becomes your own.

There will be no spoilers here. Mouse may or may not reach his castle. His sister may or may not escape the crumpled wreck of the car. What I will say is that the final pages left me gasping – an ending (like A Monster Calls) which left me stunned, flicking back a page or more to read it again, not wanting it to end, not wanting Mouse’s story to leave me.  And, of course, like E.T. and like Watership Down and – no higher praise – like Manchester United versus Bayern Munich in 1999, it won’t leave me; it’s now part of me forever.  A beauty of a book.

My height in books: an update

It’s hard to believe that a quarter of the year has passed and, as such, the pile of books outside my office should be round about 40cm high, or at least should be if I stand any chance of reading my height in books between now and the end of the year (see original post here).

I’m resisting precise measurement, partly because the books keep being snaffled by other keen readers – can’t complain – but the pile has definitely gone past the ankle and is certainly creeping up towards the knee. I’m behind schedule, no doubt, and already wondering whether my height is with or without shoe, and also how much I can compress my hair, possibly to knock a millimetre or two off the target.  To be frank, I’m banking on some intense holiday reading to keep me in reach, and then a frantic blast before Christmas.

This is what I’ve read in the past few weeks:

Sunwing by Kenneth Oppel 

SunwingFollowing Silverwing, Sunwing is the second book in the trilogy, leading on to the final book, Firewing (although, much to my delight, I’ve just discovered there is a fourth book, which serves as a prequel to the events in these three).  Like the first, it follows the young bat Shade as he searches for his father and battles to save his colony from the claws of the vampire bath, Goth, and the ravages of a Human war which threatens to envelop the bats.

What sounds like a tricky pitch – almost three hundred pages about bats – reveals itself to be a gripping, terrifying read. Oppel is a master at sustained suspense, able to keep the excitement going page after page and, just when the tension becomes unbearable, he ratchets it up a notch further.  Some of the scenes are gory and brutal; the natural world  in its unfettered reality – so definitely not one for younger readers or anyone expecting an animal story of the cute kind. The imagining of dialogue between the animals is well-done and doesn’t jar (as, in lesser hands, it sometimes can).  And by the end you’ll be rooting for young Shade and thinking long and hard about the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan 

BookwormNot a children’s book – shock, horror – but this memoir of childhood reading fits the bill perfectly.  Mangan’s writing is punchy and droll, inducing many a giggle and chuckle of recognition.  There were many familiar books described here plus plenty of new discoveries.  The stories are brought to life by Mangan’s personal and particular take on them, as well as informative asides about their history and context.

Matching her passion for certain books, is Mangan’s fearlessness in skewering others that she has little time for – Tolkein, for example (I’m with her on this) and any book involving animals (we’ll agree to differ – see above).   Her picking apart of Mr Men books was brilliantly entertaining and had my head nodding in profound agreement. (I once tried to teach a class to write their own version of the Mr Men books.  The narrative structure, or frankly lack of it, is impossible to replicate.  They are, in my humble opinion, most odd).

A very enjoyable read for anyone interested in children’s books.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone 

SkySongAnother absolute gem from Abi, who is fast becoming the master of the fantasy adventure world (I may have made that genre up, or at least conflated two of them, much to the annoyance I’m sure of fantasy aficionados and mystery buffs).  Sky Song, above all, is a ripping yarn – good versus evil on a grand, sweeping, frost-laden scale.  Her characters are ones you warm to; they combine a humanity and a vulnerability with a fierce, unstoppable courage.  This is a books to read by the fire, or snug in bed; a story for dreams, a story to inspire.

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

LettersI was led to Letters from the Lighthouse, my first Emma Carroll book, after re-reading an old favourite about the Second World War – the very brilliant Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.   Two very different books but, like Westall’s, Carroll’s book is wonderfully evocative and is guided by the certain hand of authenticity – it feels real and true.  The drama of an air raid, the searching beam of a light house at night, the clandestine cloak-and-dagger meetings and the mysterious messages, the persecution of Jews and the bravery of those who sheltered them – it’s all here and it’s all done so well.  Just about perfect for older primary children, both for those who are interested in history and for those who love a great story, brilliantly told.