Art by Mary Clare Cole
Published October 2015 by Simon & Schuster UK
Summary from Publisher’s website
When a mysterious stranger and his brown bear show up on the same day that Axel and Tess's father dies in an accident, Axel fears he might be going crazy, especially as only he can see them. However, the strange duo are quickly forgotten when Axel and Tess are shipped off to Finland to stay with grandparents that they've never met. But when they arrive in Finland, Axel is stunned when the stranger and his bear reappear. More incredibly, the stranger tells him that his parents are lost and need help. Desperate to see his father again, and actually meet his mother, Axel follows the man and his bear, disappearing deep into the frozen wilds of northern Finland.
When Tess realises that her brother has vanished she's distraught. And so begins the frantic search across snow and ice into the dark forest. But as the hours creep by and with no sign of Axel, Tess begins to wonder if her brother has ventured onto a path that she cannot follow.
An odd place to start but one thing in particular intrigues me about the publishers Simon & Schuster: why is The Winter Place recommended for 14 years and up on the US site – but for 10 and up in the UK? Are British children tougher? Do American kids have to be protected from Finnish mythology?
Whatever the reason, this tale of grief and love is appropriate for anyone with imagination, and confidence in their reading. It is genuine magical realism: it can be understood and experienced in many ways. It can be read literally, as a sequence of psychological insights, as a fable – or as a wonderful blend of all three.
Tess and Axel are a brother and sister you utterly believe in and care for. It’s both funny and clever in that American definition of ‘smart’. It does need experienced readers to get the best out of it, though. It doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence and shifts deliberately between characters, places and times. It is also long: 448 pages. But it doesn’t feel that way because you have to read on.
Throughout there is a fabulous sense of place – in different and distinct locations. It can be quite disconcerting – and sometimes I found myself stop to admire how thoughtful and well-written it is. I’d have a ponder about the ideas raised – and then plunge back in, eager to find out what happened next.
There are plenty of twists and turns along the way – like paths in the forest. Alexander Yates has not made it an easy or a cosy read – but it is both moving and finally satisfying. A distinctive book – the Finnish elements give it a special flavour you will either savour or dislike.
In short, a powerful immersive read with family at its heart that readers of Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Holly Black or Sally Gardner might well enjoy.
K. M. Lockwood lives by the sea in Sussex - see the pics on Instagram. She fills jars with sea-glass, writes on a very old desk and reads way past her bedtime. Her tiny bed-and-breakfast is stuffed full of books - and even the breakfasts are named after writers. You're always welcome to chat stories with @lockwoodwriter on Twitter.