Review: ‘Amari and the Night Brothers’, by B.B. Alston

The latest President of the United States was only just sworn in this week, but I was delighted to see him make a cameo appearance in the pages of this new kids’ book; a headline in ‘Rumours & Whispers’ magazine reading, “Newly elected US President faints at first Supernatural Affairs briefing”. Perhaps that means Amari and the Night Brothers is taking place now, in January 2021, the very month it’s being published. It really wouldn’t come as a surprise: this is a good old-fashioned slice of escapism, but it also feels decidedly contemporary.

In that case, somewhere out in the Rosewood Projects, Amari lives an unassuming life with her nursing assistant mother, and Quinton, the older brother she hero-worships. Except when the novel begins, Quinton’s already been missing for six months – perhaps because of some mysterious business he’s been involved with – and Amari is probably the only person who still believes he’s alive. She’s getting bullied at school for being a Scholarship kid with a difficult home life. But one day she gets an invitation – to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs…

Unlike Joe Biden, Amari doesn’t faint on discovering the strange things going on behind the scenes of the modern world. She doesn’t really have time to: it feels like a fresh invention arrives on nearly every page. It’s not exactly a new trope in town, the secret ‘World Around the Corner’ (to borrow the title of Maurice Gee’s wonderful novel of faery folk in modern New Zealand), but it’s just great fun to see B.B. Alston relishing the imaginative possibilities, with throwaway references to man-eating stalactites, person-sized trenchcoat-wearing ants, carnivorous thunderclouds and the International Railways of Atlantis.

Amari needs to learn about this world fast, because she’s trying to rescue her brother, and to do that she must become a Secret Agent for the Bureau and she’s competing against the children of ‘Legacy families’, wealthy, well-versed in the supernatural, and arrogantly entitled. Amari finds herself back in the situation she experienced at high school: stigmatised and bullied for being working-class, a ghetto kid. Not only that, but the supernatural world has its own analogue for the racial prejudice that Amari has spent her life dealing with. I won’t spoil the details of that, but it’s one reason Amari feels like more than just another ‘kid becomes magical apprentice’ novel.

Illustration by Godwin Akpan

Alston doesn’t just deploy a metaphor or two in treating this theme: he makes those difficult experiences instrumental to Amari’s character, self-deprecating and wary at first, becoming increasingly determined, confident and daring. Throughout the novel, characters try telling Amari she doesn’t belong in this realm of privilege and power, but she grows increasingly resolute. At other times – still no spoilers – she is offered power of a sort, with certain moral compromises which she refuses to make. One glorious moment has a character look deep into Amari’s ancestry, finding some who were enslaved and others who fought for universal freedoms. The emotional temperature of the book feels very contemporary: like Amari’s aura, which her best friend can innately read, it lights up the book in myriad colours.

Interestingly, I found the novel’s climax a tiny bit underwhelming – perhaps because it’s clear this is the first in a series, with more confrontations with the Night Brothers (and who knows what else) to follow – but the culmination of the book, and of Amari’s journey toward her destiny, was really exciting. The energy of Alston’s novel is really in the interactions of its characters, deftly portrayed. The secrets Amari keeps; the friends she encourages; the kids who bully her and how she responds; the Bureau agents who doubt her and those that believe in her; everything about her Mama (more of her in the next book, please). This is a big-screen, 3D, popcorn-munching romp of a novel, painted deliberately on an international canvas, but what really sets it apart are the small, closely observed gestures of its characters, and the vibrant details that build its world. It’s going to be an utter delight for readers this year, and I can’t wait to see what happens to Amari next…

Amari and the Night Brothers is out this week in hardback from Egmont: you can order it from Waterstones here, or buy it from your local independent. The World Around the Corner is out of print at the moment, but second-hand copies are out there to be had…

Review: The Hungry Ghost, by H.S. Norup

With this novel, we’re in Singapore in July, the season of the hungry ghost: a time of remembrance, burnt offerings, and maybe a little danger. It may not, in fact, be the best idea for young Freja to follow the girl in white who appears in her father’s garden, and who runs so quickly and silently to the wild grove a few streets away: a wild grove that turns out to be Bukit Brown, a vast, disused and overgrown cemetery.

But Freja has no desire to stay at home in safety with her stepmother, Clementine, who seems to do nothing all day but post on social media. Freja misses her Dad, always on another business trip, and her Mum, in therapy back in Denmark, and she has an inclination toward wild places and dangerous adventures. Perhaps her adventure with the hungry ghost will turn out to be dangerous – it could even be frightening – but all the same, perhaps it’s not actually a bad idea. Perhaps it will even turn out to be essential.

Ghost stories have been essential for me, at least, ever since I was nine, and enjoyed a shivery summer reading The Magnet Book of Strange Tales. I can’t help feeling that there’s something of a resonance between that genre and children’s fiction: I suppose, to some extent, both of them bracket life, the start and the finish. Children’s fantasy often tells stories, like the conventional ghost story, using the rulebooks of ancient cultures and customs, as if the modern way of living was just rushed bit of improvisation, which the next generation are free to discard where appropriate. Watch closely, they both say, there is something else going on behind the scenes that even adult authority can’t control; and yet however bad it gets, both kinds of writing generally agree that where there’s life, there’s hope.

Ghost stories, too, are often about unfinished business, and that’s what children have always had to deal with: the unfinished stories of those who preceded them. (How often are child protagonists trying to sympathise with, or make reparations on behalf of the dead?) The eponymous hungry ghost, in South Asian lore, isn’t craving something creepy: they want remembrance or atonement. But what does this one need? It takes a lot of experimentation from Freja to find out, and others repeatedly warn her she’s doing it wrong: whether mystically or in terms of real, physical danger, she gets close to death more than once in the novel. There’s a threatening mood for much of H.S. Norup’s novel, enhanced by claustrophobic cloudy skies and rainy nights.

An image of Bukit Brown, by David Pierson for the LA Times

The rich, authentic folkloric encounters she experiences – even a realm of mystic balance, beyond space and time – make The Hungry Ghost sometimes feel like a cousin of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the difference being, there’s no universal enemy to overcome here, and no inheritance of wise wizards to belong to. Her quest is her own, albeit made on the behalf of another. Why has it fallen to Freja, so far from home, to unpick the mystery? At times, the novel is like a cultural initiation for this ‘ang mo’, the European child crossing boundaries in many senses (and wonderfully, the novel is full of people whose cultural backgrounds are complex and multiple – this is a truly international novel).

This isn’t a spooky tale dressed up in an othered culture: it’s rooted in that context, and its lore of Hell Gods, pontianaks and unhappy spirits are shown as enduringly relevant to the living. It strikes a clear emotional note throughout, and its final chapters, as the last pieces of mystery unlock, are delicately handled portraits of grief. (There is one potentially upsetting moment that means I would only recommend this to ten-year-olds at the youngest, although of course it always depends on the reader.) This is one novel that gives the lie to any claim that ‘issues novels’ and ‘novels of the imagination’ are in any kind of hierarchy, or even a binary: the wide-open terrain of the children’s novel allows ‘issues’ to be explored with whatever storytelling device is most effective, and most powerful.

Freja’s difficult relationship with her parents and guardians is initially background to her adventure with ghosts, becoming another element in the drama – how can she keep her cemetery visits secret from them…? In the conclusion of the novel, though, we see that this hasn’t just been about our responsibility to the dead, but to the living as well: to see each other fully, to speak openly, and to look out for one another. Atmospheric, eerie and read-past-bedtime gripping, what ultimately makes Norup’s novel so good is its attention to the human world. Nothing is incidental to its story, from the scary ghosts to the helpful new friend; in fact, as the story makes clear, the more we try to leave out a bit of the story, the more it haunts us. Hungry ghosts everywhere will agree on this.

You can order The Hungry Ghost, published by Pushkin Children’s, from Waterstones here, or support your local independent bookshop. I’d also like to recommend a novel I loved last summer, but didn’t have the energy to write about at the time: When Secrets Set Sail by Sita Brahmachari, another children’s ghost story of sorts, but not at all scary, and this time driven by an amazing, politically charged story about migrant experience and disinheritance.

Book review: The Valley of Lost Secrets, by Lesley Parr

Covert art by David Dean

Here’s a new release I’d be talking about if I was able to do my bookseller thing at the moment: in fact, I snagged a proof before going on furlough because it’s the Waterstones kids’ Book of the Month for January. It’s a debut novel from Lesley Parr, but told with quiet confidence, combining page-turning mystery with tender human drama. Twelve-year-old Jimmy and his little brother Ronnie are evacuated to the Welsh mining village of Llanbryn at the start of the Second World War. Why are there whispers in the village about the couple they’re billeted with? And what has happened to Duff, Jimmy’s only friend from home?

At the heart of the novel’s mystery is an image potent enough to be macabre: a lone skull in the hollow beneath a tree. Does the quiet village harbor a murderer? Could it be, as I imagined (given my taste in children’s fiction) an accidental bit of archaeology? But whilst uncovered bones will snare readers’ attention, the tone of the novel is far from gratuitous, moving to a bittersweet redemption that I liked a great deal. The consequences reach into the village community, recalling, in fact, last year’s When Life Gives You Mangoes. Perhaps that’s a marker of contemporary children’s fiction that it explores the fault-lines left by secrets buried by adults, as much as the adventures of children, finding and mending them.

Resolution is needed by those children too. Children’s fiction seems to have an affinity for stories of evacuation; after all, half its stories begin with a separation from parents and being thrown into a new landscape. There is something distinct about World War II evacuation’s necessity and inexorability that gives an extra, strange charge: most famously in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but in Carrie’s War and Goodnight Mr Tom too. Most recently, David Montgomery sent an evacuee on a quest back to London with his Midnight Guardians, connecting national angst symbolically with folkloric magic, dark as midwinter.

Parr’s story focuses on her young protagonists’ adjustment to a new life far from home. Perhaps that will speak to young readers, currently adjusting to a national ‘new normal’ that has adults feeling anything but. Young Ronnie, trusting and friendly, is open to the transition; Jimmy bitterly resents it, refusing to call their billeting with Mr and Mrs Thomas ‘home’. At one point, Ronnie’s wish to see fox cubs in the springtime touches a raw nerve in the older boy: “Don’t you know its wicked to want a war to keep happening just so you can see a flaming baby fox?’ Such bitterness is out of character for Jimmy, who spends the book protecting his younger brother, but that’s part of its force. Flaming evacuation, he thinks later, Flaming Wales. Making me say things I’d never normally say. Making me change.

The opportunity for change is relished by Florence, a girl from Jimmy’s old neighbourhood, belonging the notorious Campbell family (no relation) with their reputation for violence and petty crime. In another country, another world, Florence takes the chance to invent a new identity. Jimmy is disorientated by this at first; especially since his best friend also seems to have changed in this new setting, and not for the better. Bit by bit, and entirely naturally, Jimmy falls in with Florence and they solve the mystery of the skull together.

Interestingly, Parr gives the whole mystery to the evacuees, keeping the village children of Llanbryn, both friends and bullies, at a remove. This is a story about the contribution of outsiders to a community. It concludes, not on a return to London, but with a feeling of belonging in a place that previously felt, and regarded them as, alien. Jimmy, Ronnie and Florence have been inducted into the history of the place, and the community has widened to include them: though the setting seems distant in history, this emphasis of Parr’s makes her novel all the more timely for readers of 2021. Touching and entertaining, this book is not one to be kept secret!

You can order a copy of The Valley of Lost Secrets from Waterstones here, or of course support your local independent bookshop. Meanwhile, Nina Bawden’s exquisite novel Carrie’s War is available as a free audiobook from the BBC, here.