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Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Impossible Inventions: Ideas That Shouldn’t Work by Matgorzata Mycielska, Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

Impossible InventionsOne of my favourite Homer Simpson lines is: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Impossible Inventions is a fabulous non-fiction book that explores inventions which are sometimes crazy, sometimes inspired and sometimes just plain weird, but what they have in common is that they all failed. The point is that they are all somewhere on the path to real discovery and invention, even if the road is rather long and winding. And some of the historical inventions featured were thought up by historical figures (Da Vinci, Tesla) who we know and recognise for inventions that did work.

The book features such weird and wacky inventions as a concentration helmet, a transport cloud, a steam horse and a bubble messenger. Each invention is afforded a double page, with full-colour illustrations and accompanying text and captions, and then a second double page with a large cartoon exploring the practicality of the invention, with cartoon bubble speech. It’s both funny and informative.

The illustrations complement the wackiness of the ideas, not only in their cartoon-like style but in the bold block colours and strong outlines, which feel both fresh and creative, and are drawn with a unique quirkiness that we’ve come to expect from Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski of Maps fame.

The book introduces the concept of invention and innovation, describing that all inventions begin with a dream or a need, and each invention takes imagination, commitment and courage. Mycielska talks about the point of patents too, and sets out the limitlessness of possibility. This book points to the power of the imagination, and the understanding that what may seem challenging or even downright peculiar at one time, may turn out to be useful and necessary – sometimes many years later.

The inventions are shown in a random order – in actual fact the contents are at the back of the book, and the placement of each invention plays to the randomness of ideas. Imagination doesn’t necessarily work in a linear fashion.

This is a wonderfully fascinating and humorous book, which teaches a great lesson in engineering and science – that not everybody will succeed every time, but each step is part of the learning process. And if you don’t try, you definitely won’t succeed. You can buy it here.

All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins and Tom Adams, illustrated by Tom Clohoshy-Cole

The first thing that grabs the reader is that the whole book looks like a movie. From the first page, a night-time scene of a train on a platform, which introduces the characters who steer the reader through the book, to the final farewell: an air shot of a plane flying above a train on a bridge, a landscape of sailing boats on rivers, and vast plains spread out below. For this is no ordinary fact book about transport – this combines superior graphics, a mystery to solve, and time travel, all wrapped up in an information book that imparts knowledge on transport firsts, transport inventors, the mechanics of pedals, the Panama Canal, steam trains, steam boats, motorcars, hot air balloons and much more.

On the first page, the reader is invited to board the train, but also learns that the expedition’s leader has mysteriously vanished. The idea is to solve the mystery of his disappearance whilst learning about the history of vehicles.

Each spread depicts a different visually cinematic scene, with paragraphs to explain concepts and to further the mystery, as well as information illuminating the science behind the concept in small text or diagrams underneath flaps, which lift to give an extra dimension to the main scene. There are also clues to solve, such as riddles and codes. The first page introduces the invention of the wheel, by diagrams as well as text, and a rhyme to solve. There are tips given in tiny print, upside down, to help the reader. A map illuminates first vehicles around the world. What’s clever is that the reader becomes immersed in the scene depicted, which looks just very visual, but behind the flaps is an enormous amount of information (but all in bitesize chunks).

The overall effect is one of great excitement, as the momentum builds to show how humans have wanted to travel faster and further over time. The book incorporates engineering within the excitement of the transport race, and, as with the best books, communicates knowledge without it once feeling like a chore to learn. The execution is great, but the illustrations are stunning. Timeless, with a light effect that highlights the mysterious nature of the journey, whilst allowing cracks of realism through – the shadows cast by the vehicles themselves, the light from the coal fire on the steam train, the reflections on the window of the submarine.

The only (minor) flaw is the size of the print. In order to fit so much information behind the tabs, some of the typeface is really quite tiny, which makes it difficult to read. However, if the reader is willing to see this as one of the challenges to overcome in solving a mystery, then they’ll be richly rewarded by the end result. Overall, a triumph. Quality information and simply mesmerising to look at. Come aboard here.