The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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Into The Jungle: Stories for Mowgli by Katherine Rundell // an immersive re-imagining

Spoiler: this almost-reboot wins over a cynic (though to be fair it is written by one of my favourite children’s writers of all).

38812918Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Everyone knows the story of Mowgli, the wild boy who leaps from the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic The Jungle Book. But what about the stories of those around him?

What of the mother-wolf who raised Mowgli as her own? What of Bagheera, the elegant and mysterious black panther, or Baloo, the good-natured bear with a fondness for honey? What of the elephants and the shrewmice and all the creatures in between?

Mowgli is hungry for their stories, but as he listens, he learns that there has, perhaps, only been one constant in the life of the jungle: danger. There have always been animals like Shere Khan, and the great ape with red eyes who lives on the mountain…

Katherine Rundell is no stranger to the wild. She braved the Amazon rainforest to rapturous applause with Costa-winning 2017 children’s novel The Explorer. Here Rundell turns her attention to another vivid and intrepid adventure, this time set in India among some very familiar names indeed. It’s certainly a handy commission between original creations, a useful siphon for a little excess exuberance. It seems Rundell wasn’t quite done with the jungle after finishing The Explorer. 

Or perhaps the jungle simply wasn’t done with Rundell.

For the world of Into The Jungle is intoxicating and fiercely alive. In its stretch of wonder you can almost hear the rustling undergrowth, the bristling insects, the argumentative birds. There are landscapes conjured here from the rough Seoni hills to the open plains where the snake stream meets the elephant pool.

The book is framed as a series of stories being told to Mowgli. We hear that before she was wolf-mother, Raksha was a courageous pup. We meet a young Bagheera and a young Baloo. Kaa gets a human-centric escapade and even a jerboa named Jolt makes the overmighty aware of the creatures at their feet. Rather cleverly, these stories are then tied up in an overarching adventure which gives the novel a little more punch.

Into The Jungle has more time for female characters than its forebear, though it leaves any explicit criticism or acknowledgement of Kipling’s complex post-colonial reputation firmly in the author’s note. After all, this is a project set to coincide with further pop cultural versions of the 1894 original, including Disney’s live-action Jungle Book sequel and Netflix’s Mowgli. This is not a radical reinterpretation of a Victorian monument, but it is not saccharine, and it is very well-written. I am continually astonished by Rundell’s ability to immerse the reader. Her prose is expressive (“his spine rose and fell like a mountain range”; “the jungle at night shone gold and silver and deep-water blue”), and effective even in moments where you barely notice it. It’s a rare writer who can make you forget you’re only reading.

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Acclaimed children’s writer Katherine Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling in the vivid, immersive and energetic Into The Jungle. 

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The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers and adventurers. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to a sloth named Baca. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception: the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell gives each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is straightforward, expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. As Rundell invokes the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, and whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together. The writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”), and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but for young readers that’s not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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