North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler, 272pp, RL 4
I am embarrassed to say that the only books by Liz Kessler that I have read are her stand alones, like A Year without Autumn and here newest book, North of Nowhere. This is despite the fact that, when I was a bookseller, I watched hugely successful series, Emily Windsnap, about a girl who accidentally learns she is a mermaid during a swimming lesson, and her Philippa Fisher Trilogy about an ordinary girl who discovers that the new girl at school, Daisy, is actually her fairy godmother - or godsister, since they are the same age, fly off the shelves. Believe me, these books are on my to-be-read pile. But, until I get to them, I am thoroughly enjoying everything else that Liz Kessler writes! Based on A Year without Autumn and North of Nowhere, I'd say that Kessler has a distinct gift for writing fantasy that is squarely grounded in the real world. By that I mean that she creates rounded characters with a depth of details, like the quiet, order-loving, responsible Jenni Green, who face hurdles that are the result of wrinkles, glitches or warps (as in Eoin Colfer's superb new W.A.R.P series) in time. As the main character in A Year without Autumn, Jenni may not seem like typical protagonist, but in the challenges she faces when she takes a rickety old elevator that puts her a year and a day in the future, the brains she uses to figure out what's going on and the efforts she has to make to get her life and the lives of her family and her best friend Autumn's family from derailing are gripping and, despite the fantasy aspect, feel real - like how a real twelve year old would realistically be able to handle this kind of unrealistic situation.
Kessler weaves the same kind of magic into North of Nowhere, playing with time and putting a normal kid in the center of a desperate situation that she has to first figure out, then figure out how to fix. Eighth grader Amelia, who secretly still nurtures her childhood love of animals, is excited for the start of Spring Break, looking forward to going to movies, hanging out at the mall and reading about celebrities in trashy magazines with her friends. Plans change drastically when her beloved Grandfather disappears. Amelia's Gran and Grandad are both from the tiny town of Porthaven where they run the only pub, a pub that was owned by Gran's father. Porthaven exists in a pocket from the past, with no "cell-phone signal. No public transportation. No satellite TV" and barely any regular TV due to poor reception. Amelia's Gran thinks that "broadband" is a wide piece of elastic, but her Grandad is different. He takes an interest in Amelia's world, asking her if she's seen anything good on YouTube, even though she's sure he has no idea what it is. Despite her frustration and disappointment, Amelia keeps it to herself and goes with her mother to Porthaven to comfort Gran, look for Grandad and help run the pub. While walking the dog (named Flake, which is a scrumptious British chocolate bar and great name for a dog) Amelia, who goes by Mia, discovers a boat docked at an old jetty, reached by passing under three arches, that hasn't been used in decades. Flake jumps onto the boat, interested in crab pots, and Mia chases after him. On the boat, she uncovers a beautiful diary that "felt like something from an ancient magician's study." Knowing she shouldn't, she opens it and begins to read. There, she finds the thoughts of a girl just like her - frustrated by having to do what her mother tells her, lonely because she lives on an island off the coast and can only go to school and be with her friends when the weather allows her fisherman father to ferry her there. As she reads on, Mia begins to think that this girl, who signs off as "D," might be someone she can be friends with during her exile in Porthaven. Mia takes a bold chance and writes a note to D in her diary then tucks it back in the locker on the boat. Over the course of a few days, the girls exchange messages in the diary, whenever the Mia finds the boat at the jetty. They plan to meet in town after the fish auction, but D never shows up and Mia finds out that the auction isn't even happening. Confused and a bit mystified, Mia hatches a plan with Peter, a boy a bit older than her who is vacationing in Porthaven where is is thrilled to be learning how to fish and captain a boat. At the last minute Mia decides she can't go through with the plan, unaware that Peter ha gone through with it on his own. When Peter goes missing, Mia confides in his younger sister Sal and the two try to unravel the mystery on together.
What they do and what they find will have you reading feverishly and breathlessly through to the ending. As with A Year without Autumn, Kessler figures out how to write time travel that doesn't have loopholes that give you pause while reading. You never find yourself saying, "Well, why doesn't she just..." or, "If she can do that, then why doesn't she..." In part, this is because Mia (along with the reader) is unraveling the mystery as it happens. Kessler also skillfully explains the mystery, in the voice of her characters, so that the reader can fully grasp what as happened, complex as it may be. My favorite book in the JK Rowling's series is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and my favorite moment in the book comes when, traveling back in time, Harry realizes he is the wizard who cast the spell that sends the stag patronus charging at the dementors, saving his life, among others. Without giving too much away, there is a similar situation in North of Nowhere that leads to a truly amazing moment that I guarantee will give you goosebumps. In many ways, North of Nowhere is really a quiet book about families and generations. Even without the twist of time travel, I'd want to read about Amelia and her Gran and Grandad and their pub in Porthaven. But, that extra, magical layer to the story adds a "wow factor" that will make you turn back to page one and begin reading all over again. North of Nowhere is definitely a stand-out book, one that you will remember for a long time.
Other books by Liz Kessler:
The Emily Windsnap Series
The Philippa Fisher Trilogy
Poppy the Pirate Dog for early readers
review coming VERY soon!