The Dark Portal : Robin Jarvis

Dark PortalDark Portal by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m on a bit of a Robin Jarvis kick at the moment, and it was when I reread ‘The Dark Portal’ (the first in the Deptford Mice series) that I came to realise something.

I think that Jarvis taught me the concept of story, in a way. I think he taught me the concept of telling a single story within a greater whole. I am a fan of him, avowedly so, and love his work from the Whitby series to the Deptford books; from Aufwader to Green Mouse and everything in between.

His books are big books. They are unashamedly children’s books too; scary, challenging and yet accessible literature, told in a rolling style that does not dress itself up behind dense stylistic shapes. These are stories which want to be told, to be read, and when they are read, they have the curious impact of pushing themselves under your skin and settling in that odd unsure space between reality and fiction. I grew up near Whitby and could almost see Aunt Alice, cycling over the bridge and tramping the beach, Ben and Jennet at her side.

But the Deptford books, oh the bigness of these books astounds me so (and my thanks to my equally beloved Michelle Magorian for teaching me the proper way to pronounce Deptford). These books are stories which stand hugely in their own right but also layer and cut against each other, their sediment shifting and revealing more of the individual story the more you read the other. This is great and clever work and patient, too, that quiet belief in the story to happen when and how it needs to happen, that shift in perspective that comes when you read one and come back to reread another. I admire this, I admire it greatly.

And so The Dark Portal sits, as a beginning to the Deptford Mice, but as a sequel to the Deptford Histories and as a companion to the Deptford Almanac (one of my most treasured books ever). It is, nominally, the story of a group of mice and a group of rats and an evil, terrifying figure in the shadowy sewers called Jupiter. The rats serve Jupiter and the mice keep their wary distance, living above the ‘Grille’ and rarely making trips down into the sewers. But there is magic in the Grille, dark magic, and one day it makes a mouse called Arthur Brown enter the sewers and so begin a series of dark and terrifying events which could change the world forever.

It is a story which sits comfortably and superbly so within itself. The world of the rats and mice (and squirrels, and bats) is huge and layered in mythology, story and truth. There’s not one inch of this world I don’t believe, and there’s a part of me that wouldn’t be surprised, even now, to see Twit shimmy up one of the plants outside. His competency in this world, the thick, dense taste of it, is beguiling. And it is powerful, hugely so, These are books that show relatively young readers just what can be achieved in books, in story.

(Do note, that if you’re reading this with your own mouselets, there are some scary and bloody moments in it so do, as ever, read the book yourself and trust your instincts)

The Dark Portal is also a story that swells and grows, the more you read of Jarvis’ work. You learn character backstories, motives, rationale and so much more. There are things in these stories which would feed the internet for weeks, and the puzzling out of meaning, the dull suspicion of something more than coincidence, and then the bright clarity of connection , is something that will always make me relish Jarvis’ work.

Children’s literature is good, guys. It’s been good for a long while, and I think it’s in a bit of a brilliant and golden position right now with the quality of work being produced. But with every trend there are individuals who are ahead of the curve, who are producing world-changing, genre-defining books ahead of their time. Jarvis was, is, one of those authors and The Dark Portal is a wonderful introduction to his work.

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Oh, why did I go to Whitby?


Robin Jarvis joined Twitter yesterday! (@RobinJarvis1963 ) and this is a thing I wrote about how lovely his Whitby books are. Seriously, if you’ve not enjoyed them, now is the time to do just that.

Originally posted on Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?:

This post is part of the “I’m looking for a book about…” review group hosted by Playing By The Book. This months edition is focused on books about the seaside, beaches and oceans. More information and a schedule of upcoming topics is available here.

The titular quote to this post comes from Mina Harker, a character from Bram Stoker’s near-timeless classic Dracula (available in full on the awesome Project Gutenberg here). Whitby, a coastal town on the North Yorkshire Moors, has played home to many stories.

One of the most famous is Dracula but another series not many may have heard of is the Whitby Witches series by one of my all-time favourites Robin Jarvis.

The Whitby Witches is a series of three books: The Whitby Witches, A Warlock in Whitby and The Whitby Child. All of them are set in and around Whitby.

The Whitby Witches (Whitby series)

As people who…

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Tribes, reading and the nature of identity (and a lot about horses)

I don’t understand you.

I don’t. I can’t. Your experience is not mine, mine is not yours. I can gain empathy with you. I can share common ground. But I can never, ever fully understand the experience that is your life.

I don’t understand your childhood.

I understand my childhood, I understand spending every Saturday morning at the riding stables and learning the intricate joys of measuring stirrup leathers against your arm and somehow having them fit your legs as a result of this. I understand ginger cats, and paddling through streams. I understand my mum baking bread on a snowy day and the rest of us eating it all before it got cold.

That’s my childhood. That’s the shape of what made me. It’s not the shape of what made my brother, my sister, my parents, my best friend, you. It’s the shape of what made me.

Books are like that, I think, they are shapers and moulders but resolutely personal in their actions. They are powerful, powerful things but they are your thing, the effect (affect?) they have on you is yours because this dynamic you have, between you and the book, that’s yours. That’s all yours.

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Nuts in Space : Elys Dolan

Before we start, I think you need to know two things.

1.  I think I’m a little bit in love with what Nosy Crow do with their picture books.

2. I am very much a fan of what Elys Dolan does. I loved Weasels and when I saw Nuts In Space, I shrieked and leapt across the library with joy.

I had high hopes for Nuts In Space, and it delivered. It delivered best, I think, at 4.30pm this afternoon, when I was having another look at Nuts In Space and figuring out what I wanted to say about it because it was at this point that I saw the little detail on the ship in the bottom right hand corner of the title spread. (fig 1).

And when I saw that Nosy Crow number plate (space plate?), I thought – well, I’m in love. Continue reading

Three Indian Goddesses : Jamila Gavin

Three Indian Goddesses. Jamila GavinThree Indian Goddesses. Jamila Gavin by Jamila Gavin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really love Jamila Gavin. I love the elegance of her writing, the quiet subtlety of it and the way she tells rich and layered stories that never quite do what you expect them to do.

This slim compilation of three stories, each inspired by a different story of Hindu mythology, are intensely diverse, somewhat scary at times, vividly scenic, and all full of an almost aural texture that made me delight in them. I wanted these read out loud. I kept pausing to read them to myself, to taste the words and revel in her precision, her lovely lovely precision as a writer.

Basically, I wanted more of them than I had here but I think I get greedy with Gavin because what she does is so good, and so I hope you forgive me for that because this whole review will be shot through with that sentiment.

The first story is about Shanta and the Goddess Kali. It’s gorgeous, eloquently told as ever, but with a twist that made me pause and realise the power at the heart of these stories. The same can be said for Amrita and the Goddess Lakshmi, where we see star-crossed lovers, galaxy wide fights, and the wars that occur in the night sky. The final story, about Anil, Kiki and the Goddess Durga is perhaps on a smaller scale but still rather gorgeously intense, taking place in the domestic sphere and featuring bullying.

I think, maybe, intense is the right way to describe these stories. They’re so brief but rather wonderful, like flashes of fireworks in the night sky. They flare, brilliant, bright, before fading away.

I would like them to not fade away, but I am thankful for what we have. Everything from Gavin is a joy. This collection is no exception.
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The Bunker Diary : Kevin Brooks

The Bunker DiaryThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bunker Diary won the Carnegie this year, and, almost immediately, got a lot of less than favourable media coverage. Articles ranged from calling The Bunker Diary‘vile and dangerous’, through to other critics ‘refusing to review it’. Vulpes Libris have an excellent round up of articles on the subject and a thoughtful review here.

So what do you do about a book when you come to it in, perhaps, a shaded light of expectation?

You read the book. You should always read the book. You can never judge nor understand nor talk about nor work with a book when you’ve not read it and reflected upon that reading.

And so I have.

The Bunker Diary is the story of Linus who has been caught by an un-named figure, and placed into an underground bunker. He’s slowly but surely joined by a cast of characters who are then under the mercy of their captor who begins to play mind games with them of a vicious and increasingly dark nature.

It is not an easy book.

I do not like it, I think (and should people ‘like’ books that they read? Should every book be ‘likeable’? There’s a whole separate question). I think, rather, that I admire it. That’s an interesting dichotomy and one which reflects equally upon myself as reader as well as the book. No book is whole without being read, and when it is read, each reader gives it a slightly different story. And so when it comes to reading, it is vital to remember the part you play in the process. You’re in the story, whether you like it or not, and you have power over this text, and to not acknowledge that is to do both yourself and the book a disservice.

And this idea of reading, this idea of reading as power and control, is, I think, something which plays curious relevance to The Bunker Diary and is one which still leaves me a little bit unsure, a little bit wary, a little bit intrigued by this dark, bold book.

Brooks does not hold back. It’s quite rightly been described as a hybrid of Room and Lord of The Flies, but I think there’s something more with The Bunker Diary. It’s a book that feels like it’s been held tightly, a pigeon between hands for years, before being thrown into the world and let fly. There’s such a compression about the text, such a sharp, pained compression and brevity, that it’s almost about reading the white space around the words rather than the words themselves.

And yet, I think, I keep coming back to questioning myself on it, and as I said on Twitter, isn’t that the big thing about literature? Isn’t that what it’s “meant” to do? Isn’t it “meant” to make us ask questions about ourselves and what we’d do and who we are?

The Bunker Diary does this, and it does it without mercy. It’s hard to read, but it’s hard to put down. It’s not ‘nice’ but again – should they be? Should books always be positive and everything in the garden is rosy? Darkness isn’t something new in children’s literature, and it’s there for a reason. The real thing is how we react to that darkness and how we understand it and what we do about it, and how we acknowledge the presence of ourselves in the reading of said darkness.

I keep coming back to the reading of this book, rather than the book itself. I think, maybe, that’s because The Bunker Diary is good. Great, really, the stylistics of what Brooks does border on avant-garde at times, and I welcome that. I want that. I want books that push at the edge of what makes them books, and carve out their own space.

But what else do I want from books? Do I want happiness? Joy? Truth?

I don’t know. But what I know is that The Bunker Diary is making me think, perhaps more than any other book I’ve read this year, and that is something I welcome and admire and thank it for. And maybe, just maybe, that might be something that’s not unique to my reading experience. Maybe the lasting impact of The Bunker Diary and its tight darkness (and the brief, wonderful flashes of hope and warmth) will be to make its readers question who and what they are and what they will be.

And maybe, maybe, that’s what I want from young adult literature right there.

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Eleanor & Park : Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I’m going to have to redefine how I approach a Rainbow Rowell book. There are some authors I come to when I’m in the need of something short, satisfying – brief, almost. When I know I need to fix something in my soul and I need that to last a certain period of time and then I’m good to go. There are others that I brush with again and again when I want to fall into their worlds and remind myself of how good story telling can be.

And then there’s Rainbow Rowell, who is, I think, one of the few authors that I will read and never let go.

I read Eleanor & Park last night. I want to reread it now, right now, and I’m going to. The moment I finish this review, I’m going to sink straight back into it. It’s something which happened with Landline, and with Fangirl, and it’s something that’s happened with Eleanor & Park. I don’t want to let this book go. I don’t, I won’t.

Eleanor & Park is the story of the relationship between Eleanor, the new girl in town with the red hair and the crazy clothes, and Park, the quiet boy on the bus. One thing to note is that this book does contain some dark themes and language so do have a read of it yourself beforehand if working with it in a formal context or wanting to check it for your kids.

Eleanor & Park is also a very wonderful, wonderful thing. This is a book of aching, soft, painful, vivid love. Rowell has this awfully wondrous gift of being able to let her characters breathe within her pages – it’s something that’s done by a very few select (intensely brilliant)

When you read, sometimes I think, you’re conscious very much ‘of’ the book. You’re conscious of the fact that these characters are within the confines of the book, that they are in the paper, and the text, and that they will end. That you’ll come to the end of the book and it’ll be done. It’ll be over, and you’ll move on.

I don’t think you move on from this book. I finished it and stared at the back cover, and I felt like Eleanor and Park were out there. No. It was more than that. They’re out there. They’re living their lives. And we just got to watch for a little bit of it.

But oh, but oh, it was good.

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