Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ingo - Helen Dunmore

A quick comment, before I review this book (just to give those who wish to avoid potential spoilers the chance to avert their eyes !). I was going to do a round up of my reading in 2005, but I don't really have time to compile it since I'm working this weekend (Saturday to Tuesday) on writing those 9000 words on Tolkien's life in Oxford to which I keep referring, so don't be surprised if I don't post much over the next few days ! But post-Deadline Day (ie. after Jan. 15) expect a rash of reviews of books by Ursula Le Guin since I cleaned out the library of all its ULG books this morning ! (The librarian this morning commented on the large pile of pre-Xmas-reading books I returned - she said that she'd noticed I got through a lot of books and I laughed, agreed and then said, "But I do have a life outside of books - more or less !")

Happy New Year and I wish you lots of interesting reading in 2006 !

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Helen Dunmore's Ingo is incredibly compelling reading - I could hardly bear to put it down to go to sleep last night - and I raced through all 300+ pages of it in only a few hours. Ingo is the start of a trilogy for children. It describes an idyllic life growing up beside the sea, and an amazing and wonderful undersea world with equal aplomb. It isn't easy to imagine life under the waves, living and breathing amongst an ancient people without resorting to stereotypes. But Dunmore manages to pull it off.

Set in Cornwall, Ingo is the story of Sapphire and her brother Conor, and what happens to them after their father mysteriously disappears at sea. Sapphire believes her father is still alive somewhere. She remembers the stories he used to tell her about a Mer creature who fell in love with a human, but could not come to live with him in the dry air.

A year after their father disappears Sapphy follows Conor one day, after he has been gone a long time, and see him talking to a stranger, a girl. Shortly afterwards she meets Faro, who is a Merman and who introduces her to Ingo, the underwater world of the sea. Sapphire discovers that Mer blood runs in her veins and in her brother's, and it is not long before the call of that other world becomes too strong for Sapphy to resist. But Ingo is not a safe place for Air people such as Sapphy and Conor, or their mother's new man, Roger, and it seems that Sapphy will have to make a decision about whether she wants to live in Air or in Ingo.

This is an impressive and sensitive book; Dunmore portrays the Mer and the life of Ingo in a totally believable way, and there's a strong environmental message in the background of the story too.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film - reprise

I'm not sure words can express how utterly disappointed I was by the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire... I knew the story had been cut heavily, but this was a total travesty; they leapt from a scene in one chapter into the middle of a scene from another chapter, they missed HUGE chunks of very important stuff out, and I know Mike said he wanted to concentrate on Harry's story, but this was totally ridiculous... The last time I was this disappointed by a HP film was after watching CoS. To use a common phrase, I'm gutted ! This film scarcely resembled the book at all - they should really have called it Harry Potter and some bits from J K Rowling's book ! Ugh !

OK, the effects were pretty good - but as usual they sacrificed the story for the special effects. What was that dancing lesson about - and Neville waltzing around the room ?! And why the heck was Barty Crouch Jr at the Riddle mansion ? And what was the idea of the cage in the courtroom that Harry saw in Dumbledore's pensieve ? And why were all the Beauxbatons students girls, and all the Durmstrung students boys ? And what happened to Karkorov being a Death-eater and running away ? And why didn't Barty Crouch Jr get the kiss from the Dementor ? And where was Fudge not believing Voldemort was back (how are they going to explain the Ministry of Magic-led Daily Prophet "Potter is a liar" campaign in film 5 ? And what was with the dragon chasing Harry all over the school grounds ? And Moaning Myrtle trying to cuddle up to Harry in the prefects' bathroom (*shudders*) ? Where was Ludo Bagman, and where were the rest of the Weasleys (Mrs Weasley, Bill, Charlie and Percy) ? I'm very annoyed they didn't visit Harry before his third test - how are they going to explain Bill and Fleur Delacore getting together in film 6 (or will that, too, be sacrificed) ? And where was Hermione teaching Harry how to perform the Accio spell, or teaching him all those Hexes for the final task ? And where was Sirius ??!!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien

I'm currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time as preparation for (I hope) starting to write my Tolkien & Oxford piece over the forthcoming New Year weekend - and I'm now planning to re-read The Silmarillion (or some sections of it at least), and some parts of the Unfinished Tales as well. That's what I love about Tolkien's Middle-earth and what makes me return to it year after year - the fact that there's so much depth and richness to it... And that's the reason I get baffled when people say they're not interested in Tolkien since so many of his successors have done a poor job when imitating him... It seems to me that you might just as well blame the Ancient Egyptians for the fact that modern builders can't produce good copies of the Pyramids, as blame Tolkien for the lousy job his imitators have done in creating new fantasy worlds !

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Hooray, I'm off to see the wizard (HP) tomorrow ! I'll try to post my review tomorrow, but I may have to leave it until I get back to Oxford on Friday afternoon...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire film

Just a quick note to say that I'll finally be going to see this film in the period between Christmas and the New Year, thanks to the generosity of my "little" (6' 2" !) brother who's bought tickets for the two of us to go and see it ! I can hardly wait...

Hope you all are having a pleasant break and enjoying time with family/friends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider'

The last time I felt as excited about a character and its series of books was when I started reading the Harry Potter books... Now Anthony Horowitz has done something similar to me with his Alex Rider books. Spoilers follow so do not continue if you haven't read the series and don't want it spoiled for you !

The series starts with Stormbreaker and 14 year old Alex's paternal uncle has just died in an "accident"... Alex soon discovers, however, that his uncle Ian wasn't a banker, as he had been led to believe, but an MI6 agent. He visits Royal and General the "bank" where his uncle used to work, and finds instead that it's the offices of MI6, and they want to recruit him to finish the job that Ian Rider was engaged on when he was killed. Alex thus finds himself reluctantly working as a teenage spy. He is sent to Cornwall masquerading as the winner of a computer competition whose prize is to be the first person to use one of Herod Sayle's 'Stormbreaker' computers before schools up and down the country go online with Stormbreakers of their own. Herod Sayle reminded me a little of Mohammed Al Fayed, particularly as Sayle has been angling for British citizenship for years and has been promised it as a "reward" for his generosity in giving the computers to the schools. Alex, however, discovers that the computers are a deadly gift and he is forced to find a way to get to London from Cornwall in time to stop the Prime Minister from activating the Stormbreakers at a special ceremony that will be taking place at midday on April 1 at the Science Museum.

Alex's story continues in several more books, of which I've read Point Blanc and Skeleton Key so far. Horowitz has an Alex Rider website and there is going to be a Stormbreaker film out next year. The credited cast includes the following well-known names Ewan McGregor plays Ian Rider, Mickey Rourke plays Herod Sayle, Bill Nighy plays Alan Blunt (Alex's MI6 boss), Alicia Silverstone plays Jack Starbright (Alex's house-keeper), Missi Pyle plays Nadia Vole (one of Herod Sayle's allies), Robbie Coltrane plays the Prime Minister, Stephen Fry plays Mr. Smithers (Alex's MI6 gadget man) and Andy Serkis plays Mr. Grin (presumably not in a CGI suit for once !!) Relative unknown Alex Pettyfer will be playing Alex Rider.

I hear these books are quite popular with boys (unsurprisingly), but they're also pretty popular with older female readers too... I am sure the film is going to be a summer blockbuster next year.

Finale note: I'm off to Gloucestershire tomorrow for a week's Xmas break - so don't be surprised if I don't add much to my Blog before December 30. I wish you all an enjoyable and peaceful festive season.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gifts - Ursula Le Guin

Orrec is the son of the Brantor of Caspromant; Gry the daughter of the Brantors of Barre and Rodd. They have grown up together in neighbouring domains, running half-wild across the Uplands. The people of the domains are like their land: harsh and fierce and prideful; ever at war with their neighbours, raiding cattle, capturing serfs, enlarging their holdings. It is only the gifts that keep a fragile peace. The gifts are powers: the Barres can call animals. The women of Cordemant can blind or make deaf, or take away speech. Brantor Ogge of Drummant has the gift of slow wasting. But the Caspro gift is both the best and worst: it is the gift of undoing. Gry's gift runs true, but she will not use it to call animals for the hunt. Orrec too has a problem, for his gift of undoing is wild: he cannot control it - and that is the most dangerous gift of all.

Ursula Le Guin's Gifts is the first book in a new fantasy series which looks to be as gripping and page-turning as the Earthsea series has been. Orrec and Gry are sympathetic characters - and very believable. I really felt for both Gry in her dislike of calling animals to be killed by hunters and for Orrec in trying to discover how to control his gift. Like some of her earlier books, Gifts is about a slave-owning society obsessed with purity of lineage. "There are so many cultures that do that - especially when they think something special runs in the blood," she says.

There was an interesting interview with Le Guin in the Guardian on Saturday, which I recommend. Of fantasy she says:

"Writing fantasy isn't writing for children, but it erases the distinctions; it's inherently a crossover genre," she says. Much of fantasy writing, she adds, is "about power - just look at Tolkien. It's a means to examine what it does to the person who has it, and to others."

The interview reports that
Le Guin found much of C S Lewis "simply Christian apologia, full of hatred and contempt for people who didn't agree. The division into good and evil was different from Tolkien, where evil beings are only a metaphor for the evil in our lives; he never casts people into the outer darkness as Lewis enjoyed doing." Though fantasy is often miscast as escapist, for Le Guin, it is the natural language of the "spiritual journey and the struggles of good and evil in the soul". It begins to resemble dream, she says, "and the symbols seem to be near universal and accessible to all. They're the same through the ages: we read the Epic of Gilgamesh and get it. The symbolic language is basic but not primitive or childish; it's a deep grammar of understanding."

Between reading Gifts this week, and The Wind's Twelve Quarters last week, not to mention the Guardian interview, I've now conceived a plan to read as many of Le Guin's novels as possible (I'm already a fan of the Earthsea books) once "D-Day" has passed... (In the meantime I've become hooked on Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider' series which is causing me the same kind of excitment that the Harry Potter books caused six years ago ! More on this tomorrow !)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas Books

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure, his previous novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) having flopped, and he was suddenly desperate for money. Martin Chuzzlewit was satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He got the idea for the book, the story of the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge, who has so little Christmas spirit that he wants his assistant Bob Cratchit to work on Christmas Day, in late October of 1843.

Dickens struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. Since he no longer had a publisher he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages, and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in the hope of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling 6000 copies in the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went into second and third editions. Dickens's novel reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, of cooking a feast, of spending time with the family, and of spreading warmth and cheer. His novel helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none have endured as well as A Christmas Carol.

I've loved reading A Christmas Carol for many years - it was the first Dickens novel I ever read. But a book that I anticipate becoming as fond of is written by my favourite author, J R R Tolkien, although it wasn't written as a book originally. Every December, when Tolkien's children were small, an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive addressed to them. Inside would be a letter in strange spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or some sketches; the letters were from Father Christmas. They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how one year, the accident-prone Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas' house into the dining-room; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath his house. Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script. The letters continued to arrive and the older children, by mutual consent, kept the secret of the author of the letters from the younger ones.

After Tolkien's death the letters were collected together and published as The Father Christmas Letters. A few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the volume at the Oxfordshire Studies Centre, and was totally enchanted. Now there is a new edition available: the complete hardback collection of Tolkien's illustrated letters together with an unabridged multi-voiced double CD that also features music. One of the narrators on the CD is the wonderful Sir Derek Jacobi, known to millions from I, Claudius and the television adaptations of Ellis Peters' 'Cadfael' stories. This collection is now on my Amazon wishlist as the idea of having the CD as well as the book is very appealing to me.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gideon Defoe and Tim Burton

I have got into the habit, when in the library, of randomly picking up books by authors of whom I've not heard, as a way of finding new reading material. Yesterday I picked up film director Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other stories, a small collection of brief verse stories illustrated by Burton. The book immediately reminded me of the work of American artist, Edward Gorey, of which my late friend Margo was a fan. There are 23 verse stories in the colllection all of which centre on a child with a surreal deformity, the eponymous 'Oyster Boy', 'Junk Girl', 'Robot Boy', 'The Boy with Nails in his Eyes', 'Stain Boy' and 'The Pin Cushion Queen' amongst them. The stories are quite disturbing, as befits the creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and the recent Corpse Bride. Burton's premise is the fact that all children are outcasts in the adult world, and their ideas about what is important, frightening or odd, are often quite different to ours. This book is definitely not for the faint-hearted !

My other random pick yesterday was Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists which Amazon have classed as historical fiction, but I would class with Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' books as comic alternate history/fantasy. The book appears, initially, to be a children's or, at least, a teen's book, but it's been marketed to adults. It reads like a Monty Python episode at sea combined with an Enid Blyton story, and features lots of footnotes, some of which make serious points. Few of the characters, aside from Charles Darwin, have names; rather they are differentiated by their descriptions, thus the Priate Captain, the pirate with a scarf, the pirate with an accordion, etc. Apparently Defoe wrote the book to impress a girl, which didn't work, but he published it anyway. There is a sequel available as well: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Eight Days of Luke - Diana Wynne Jones

It's turned into something of a Norse year, between Neil Gaiman's American Gods,(1) Katherine Langrish's Troll Fell and Troll Mill, Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, and now Diana Wynne Jones' Eight Days of Luke, which I hadn't realised was a re-working of a Norse myth until part way through the book. What really baffled me, though, was the sense of déjà vu I had in reading this book, much as I had with her Archer's Goon. I felt I'd read, or possibly seen, parts of the story before (and not just because it's a re-working of a Norse myth), although I had never, that I could recall, read any of DWJ's books before this year. Very strange !

David Allder is an orphan and he live with his Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot, Cousin Astrid and her husband Ronald, none of whom like him very much. The book opens with David making his way home from boarding school for the summer holiday and dreading his arrival. Usually he is sent on an educational camp or tour during the summer as his relatives don't want him at home, but this year nothing has been organised as Cousin Ronald mistook the date when the summer holiday would begin. David is not looking forward to a miserable two months with his relations, being expected to be grateful for their lack of kindness or interest in him as a person.(2) The day after his return home, David's relations tell him that they're going to send him to a mathetmatics tutor for the holdiay so that they can go away to Scarborough as planned. David is annoyed (he came third in his form for mathematics this year) and decides that he is going to curse his relations. He decides that he can't curse them in English as that would not be likely to work very well, so he works out a form of words that he thinks sound impressive and declaims them to the sky. To his astonishment a minor earthquake seems to take place and snakes start erupting from the ground. He is helped to beat them back by another boy who introduces himself as "Luke" and thanks David for freeing him from prison.

During the course of the next week David discovers that knowing Luke isn't necessarily going to lead to a peaceful life, and that not all his relations hate him absolutely. He also makes friends with Alan, a local boy, with whom he plays cricket, and who joins him in part of his quest to keep Luke from being returned to his prison. The book has a definite happy-ever-after feeling to its ending, but in a good way. I imagine this book would appeal to boys (especially cricket-loving ones !) as much as Dogsbody will appeal to girls. Not that boys would necessarily not enjoy Dogsbody, or girls Eight Days of Luke !

(1) - Interestingly, Neil Gaiman planned a book very like Eight Days of Luke, until he remembered Diana Wynne Jones had written the same story ! So he wrote American Gods instead.
(2) - Some of this is going to sound very familiar to readers of the adventures of a certain young wizard, but the orphan-mistreated-by-his/her-relations, has been with us for a long time: Cinderella anyone ?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Dogsbody - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody is a relatively straight-forward tale (for a DWJ book, at any rate) about what happens when hot-tempered Sirius, the immortal Lord of the Dog Star, wrongly accused of murder is banished and sent to live on Earth in the body of a new-born puppy with the instruction to find a means of clearing his name before the dog dies. At first Sirius does not recall his former life and concentrates only on surviving, a task made harder when the owner of his dog mother is advised to drown the puppies because they are mongrels.

Sirius is rescued by an unhappy little Irish girl called Kathleen who is living with her paternal uncle and his family in England whilst her father is in prison (the book was first published during The Troubles when the IRA was very active). Kathleen is bullied by her aunt and to a lesser extent her eldest cousin, and Sirius the puppy offers the hope of friendship that Kathleen otherwise lacks. As time passes and Sirius (or Leo as Kathleen names him) grows he begins to recall his former life and realises his has to find a way to clear his name or he will die when his dog body dies. Sirius is helped by Sol, the Lord of the Sun, and by both the Moon and the Earth; but he's also helped by his brothers and sister (the four other puppies who survived the attempted drowning), the household cats (who initially hated him) and by various humans who take a liking to him. Unfortunately, Sirius is in danger from the New-Sirius and his former Companion, the inhabitant of the white dwarf that circled his star, as well as humans like Kathleen's aunt Duffie.

I can easily imagine this book being popular with dog-loving children, especially girls.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones

Here I go again - reviewing another Diana Wynne Jones book ! Howl's Moving Castle was recently made into an animated film and now I'm quite desperate to see it, but unfortunately it's not out in the UK until next March (probably because the film didn't open here until September anyway). However, I enjoyed the book - Sophie is an interesting character, convinced that because she is the eldest born of three children, she has no hope of making her fortune, because everyone in Ingary knows that the eldest of three children will fail at whatever they set out to do. It appears that everyone is correct when the Witch of the Waste puts Sophie under a spell, after mistaking Sophie for one of her other sisters. Convinced that she now has nothing to lose, she approaches Howl's moving castle. The Wizard Howl is known to a wicked sorcerer who steals girls' hearts and eats them. However, Wynne Jones delights in turning beliefs upside down, and neither Sophie's fortune or the truth about Howl turns out to be what everyone believes or expects.

I have to confess I love the idea of the moving castle with a magical door that, according to which way the knob above it is turned, opens onto different places, one of which is Wales, where Howl has a sister, a nephew and a niece ! I am also intrigued by the idea of the Fire Demon, Calcifer, who is responsible for providing the motive power for the castle, who has to be persuaded to bend down his head so that meals can be cooked, and has entered into a pact with Howl which some of Howl's friends are convinced is bad for both Howl and Calcifer.

Howl's young apprentice Michael is a nice lad, far nicer than you might expect, having Howl for a Master (he often spends 2 or 3 hours in the bathroom before going out - I know women (me included) who spend less time than that on getting ready to go out !) Sophie's sisters are nice, if rather headstrong, girls, and Sophie's stepmother Fanny breaks the tradition of stepmothers everywhere taking advantage of their step-daughters.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Oxford and fantasy

There was an interesting article in The Weekend Australian last weekend which my friend Jane W pointed out to me had been Blogged by Judith over at Misrule. In the article Felicity Carter discusses the prevalence of fantasy authors who hail from Oxford saying that many of the greatest English children's writers of the past century or so have studied or taught at Oxford, among them Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman. Carter notes that few other places appear to have made as significant an impact on children's fantasy literature as Oxford. And I would add that some adults' fantasy writers also hail from Oxford since my own favourte author, Juliet E McKenna, studied at Oxford University and still lives in the county.

In the article, Julia Cresswell, who tutors in children's literature at the summer school at Christ Church college, suggests that part of the reason for Oxford producing so many fantasy writers is that Tolkien and Lewis had a large role in developing much of the English syllabus which was in place at Oxford until the '70s. Their syllabus put a lot of emphasis on philology and medieval literature. Meanwhile, Dianne Purkiss, who is a fellow at Keble College and researches children's literature and fairytales, suggests that Oxford itself is an inspiration, partly because of the concentration of brilliant people in the University, but also in part because of the University's architecture which "points to the heavens", and she notes the number of gates that bar the way into the colleges, behind which can be seen glimpses of "another world."

It would be interesting to know if there are any other cities in the world that have produced a high number of fantasy writers. And of course I should note that crime fiction is often set in Oxford, Inspector Morse being the most famous, but by no means the only, detective to haunt the city !

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Reprise

There are some really thought-provoking stories in Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters. I particularly liked 'April in Paris', which involves using a magic spell to bring four people together, two from the past and one from the future of the character to whom we're first introduced. The four of them discover they have something in common and it is this characteristic which allows the spell to bring them together.

Also interesting, and intriguing, is 'Nine Lives' about a man who is one of ten clones of a scientist. They are sent far out into space to work on Libra, but there is an earthquake and 9 of the 10 clones are killed. The one remaining clone has to learn to live without his "siblings" with the two men whom he and the clones were sent to assist.

'Things' is something of an apocolypse story - and also about hope and daring to dream... 'Darkness Box' and 'Winter's King' were puzzling, and the latter quite confusing as it features Kings who are female.

Finally, the two stories set in Earthsea, 'The Word of Unbinding' is about doing one's duty whatever the consequences, and 'The Rule of Names' shows that appearances can be *very* deceiving !

I shall have to add this book to my wishlist, along with Le Guin's Changing Planes which I read earlier in the year.

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A bit of fun for Harry Potter fans: see who your HP alter ego is with this quiz - unsurprisingly, I'm 85% like Hermione (and I'm 80% like Dumbledore and 75% like Harry Potter - which I like !) Is anyone willing to confess to being most like Voldemort ?!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula Le Guin

I have been wanting to read Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters for some time because it contains two stories set in Earthsea, but also because I have heard quite a bit about the story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James), which Le Guin, in the introduction, calls a psychomyth. If you're unfamiliar with Le Guin's story, you may want to use the link above to read it before you go any further.

"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat," writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James' The Moral Philosoper and the Moral Life, it was with a shock of recognition." Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on reading a road sign for Salem, Oregon, backwards. She says that people ask her "Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?" and she answers "From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"

In this story, Omelas is a utopian city of joy and happiness, whose inhabitants are intelligent, refined and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of its happiness: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single child be kept in filth, misery and darkness, and that all the citizens are told of this when they come of age. Many are very upset by the information, but they reason away their pain at the news, and in time they forget about the child's presence in their city. But some citizens cannot, and they are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I had heard from various quarters that this was a very moving story, and I was not misinformed. It is also, of course, very thought-provoking.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mistress Masham's Repose - T H White

Some of us on a discussion forum recently got talking about sequels to famous books written by other authors, and one of the titles that was mentioned was T H White's Mistress Masham's Repose, the sequel to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Despite the fact that I hated the abridged version of Gulliver's Travels that I read a as child, and I didn't much enjoy the full version I read whilst doing my degree a few years ago, I had heard enough people talking positively about Mistress Masham's Repose (particularly on the Child_Lit list) that I decided to try reading it. I quite enjoyed it - the Lilliputians, without Gulliver seemed more interesting somehow, and Maria, the 10 year old orphaned protagonist of the story is definitely more interesting than Gulliver ! The one thing I did find irritating about the book was the Professor, whom I found to be too stereotypically absent-minded, poverty-stricken and book-obessed !

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Having mentioned Milton and his Paradise Lost yesterday, someone today mentioned the new OUP edition of the poem with the introduction by Philip Pullman. I looked at it when it first came out and thought it was a rather nice edition and once Deadline Day has passed, I shall think about borrowing it from the library. I've never yet managed to read it, but I'm thinking of taking the advice of my friend Jameela, who's a Milton scholar, of getting together a group of people to read it aloud with me (much as Tolkien gathered a group of people, that included Lewis, to read aloud the Norse sagas). It could be more productive than struggling to read it by myself - especially as I love reading poetry aloud !

Whilst I'm on the subject of poetry, the Writer's Alamanac email today tells me that it's the birthday of Emily Dickinson today, and shared the following poem, which it seems appropriate to share here:


He ate and drank the precious Words --
His Spirit grew robust --
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust --

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book -- What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings --

I'm not very familiar with many of the American poets, never having found time to read much of their work, but one of the few American poets whose work has come my way quite often is Dickinson. Her poems often have a simplicity to them that disguises their profundity. I offer respectful birthday greetings, Ms Dickinson.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Lewis; Milton; Disney

It's not often that anyone sees those three names in combination, but I have three short items to share today.

I finished reading C S Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet last night, and I'm sorry to say that I found it a tedious and didactic book. I certainly won't be reading the other two books in the trilogy. Lewis seemed to flag up the action rather a lot - even if I hadn't already known in advance of reading the book that Ransom was kidnapped by Weston and Devine, I'd have known as soon as Ransom was taken into their house because Lewis was waving warning flags. Ransom was a fairly likeable character I suppose, but a bit vulgar - I hope Tolkien wasn't too insulted by him (Lewis, apparently based Ransom on Tolkien).

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Of rather more interest is the fact that it's the birthday of the great English poet John Milton, who was born in London in 1608. He's probably best known for his epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), but he spent twenty years of his life writing almost nothing but essays on political and religious topics. Milton was one of the early crusaders against the English government's censorship of books and pamphlets. He argued that no one group should control the number of available opinions from which an individual can choose, and he wrote, "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself." It seems to me that these are wise words and worth remembering.

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Finally, and depressingly, the BBC reports that after 80 years in the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh is to get a female friend, who will replace Christopher Robin. Apparently Disney has decided to pair Pooh up with a red-haired six-year-old tomboy for its 2007 series. This has caused no small amount of horror all round, and Neil Gaiman's reponse is typically satirical.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Who are Google kidding ?

I saw this article by Nikesh Arora, who is vice-president of European operations for Google, on the site and nearly hit the roof; goodness knows what librarians (and indeed readers) will make of the following comment:

The challenge is that most of the information in the world is not yet online, which makes it impossible to find unless you know exactly what to look for - and where. In this process, Google accepts that what its partners and customers see as opportunities, critics might see as threats.

Take, for example, Google's new book search service. Millions of out-of-print and out-of-copyright books are gathering dust in libraries everywhere.

Information is "impossible to find" ? What are libraries there for - oh yes, for books to gather dust in, apparently... I must say that I find such a casual dismissal of a valuable and well-established profession totally insulting ! Were I a librarian, I would be spitting feathers right now. Clearly Nikesh Arora has never been near a library, or s/he would know that librarians are the best starting point for finding all sorts of information, and that librarians are knowledgeable and (for the most part) very friendly people who will go out of their way to assist their readers ! The number of messages that appear on Child_Lit each week from librarians asking if anyone can remember or identify a book for which a reader is searching attests to the effort that these lovely folk put in on their readers' behalf.

I have to say that I've never seen any books gathering dust in either the public library or the Bodleian Library here in Oxford. Both are extremely well used, and the public library service as a whole in Oxford looks (from this reader's point of view) to be very well used. I often have to reserve a book I want to read because it is out on loan - and I'm not talking about the sole copy of a title, either - these are titles of which there are often multiple copies of which many are out on loan.

Google offers a pretty good search service - it's certainly the only search engine I use, and some of their other services are also good (I am using their Blog service, after all), but this obsession with books is starting to grate on my nerves more than a little. I do hope that someone points out to them that they don't OWN the world's knowledge !

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Darwin's Watch: Science of Discworld III

I finished Darwin's Watch this morning. It has to be said that the subtitle "Science of Discworld" is a complete misnomer as the books are very much about the science of "Roundworld" (Earth), not the Discworld.

I thoroughly enjoyed Darwin's Watch; I suspect that I found the science more accessible than The Globe, because I already had some knowledge of Darwin and his The Origin of the Species. I read it several years ago in a fit of self-improvement relating to science books (I also read, as I recall, Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem and Dava Sobell's Longitude). Unfortunately, despite my background in computers, most science sails straight over my head - I don't seem to have the right kind of mental attitude or something, to understand much science or mathematics-related material. Therefore, if I recommend a book like Darwin's Watch, you can guarantee that as a Humanities person, I find it fairly accessible. Of course, the accompanying misadventures of Terry Pratchett's wizards is a definite bonus: poor old Ponder, who despairs of getting Ridcully and co. to understand him; Ridcully, who's a lot brighter than he appears under all that shouting and heartiness; wimpish Rincewind, who runs away from everything (which is nevertheless a fairly sensible action on many occasions !); and of course, the fantastic Librarian, who is easily my favourite character from the Unseen University.

"Science of" books about fictional universes are becoming very popular - I've also got Henry Gee's The Science of Middle-earth is also lurking on my pending pile (on loan from the same friend who has loaned me Darwin's Watch), and I read The Science of His Dark Materials last year (also loaned by the same generous friend, for which my thanks go to JEM). Roger Highfield has also produced The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works - which I have not seen as yet. I think these books are a good idea - I know that I often read that too few children are going into the sciences these days, so hopefully such books as these will spark interest in a few more children and lead them into the sciences.

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Jeremy Mercer has given the Guardian a list of his 10 favourite bookshops. It makes interesting reading, and apparently he's written a book (Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs) about them:

"Bookstores are sanctuaries. Places to lose yourself, escape the harsh demands of daily life, find new ways to dream and new sources of inspiration. I love all booksellers; anybody who helps spread the word is doing noble work. But my favourite bookstores are the small eccentric independents run by passionate and usually slightly mad book lovers. These are some of the best."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Books News

Since I still have another six chapters of Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's Darwin's Watch: Science of Discworld III to read, I bring you some book news and reviews from others, instead of a book review from me. (I'm pleased to say I've skipped very little of the science chapters in this book; I ended up skipping almost all of the science in The Globe: Science of Discworld II because it just went straight over my head, unfortunately, so I just read the Discworld chapters by Terry instead ! I did persevere through most of the science in The Science of Discworld though !)

Anyway, the best news I've had today is that the proposed HMV buyout of Ottakers has been referred by the Office of Fair Trading to the Competition Commission. Apparently the OFT's chief executive John Fingleton said the two book retailers competed closely on a number of non-price factors such as range and variety of books. "In particular, our economic analysis shows that Ottakar's competes harder on non-price factors when a Waterstone's is nearby," he said. "The unusually high level of consumer complaints to the OFT shows that UK book-buyers value the fruits of this competition, which the merger would eliminate." Hooray for consumer complaints !!

In other news, Jim Dale has allegedly said that he believes JKR will kill off Harry Potter in the final book (this is reported in one of the downmarket UK tabloids, so if anyone has seen anything to back this up, please let me know !)

Finally there are some reviews of books for teens in the Independent by Brandon Robshaw, some of which have clearly gone down better than others ! I have to say, though, that this sentence "Carl Hiaasen is better-known as a writer of adult crime fiction" made me laugh; I'd never heard of Hiaasaen until he started writing books for teens - and I'm not exactly a stranger to crime fiction !

However, Robshaw liked Melvin Burgess's Bloodsong which is "a re-telling of the Norse Volsunga saga, set in a post-apocalyptic Britain of the future, and chronicles the monster-slaying exploits of young Sigurd." Apparently it's calculated to appeal to teenage boys - I clearly don't have an inner boy, because it doesn't sound at all appealing to me (I'll stick to the original Norse saga, I think !)

He also liked Helen Dunmore's Ingo, of which he says "has masses of girl-appeal - and clearly I have an inner girl, for it appealed to me. [...] It's all wildly implausible, but so gracefully written that one suspends disbelief not just willingly but eagerly. Put it in the Christmas stocking of the teenage girl in your life - or a teenage boy who is in touch with his feminine side. And it's the first book of a trilogy. Hooray!"

But Adèle Geras' re-telling of the Odyssey from the point of view of those at home didn't appeal to Robshaw who says of Ithaka, "It seems an extraordinary achievement to make the Odyssey boring, but Geras has done exactly that. There are long, long passages where nothing much happens: endless speculations about whether Odysseus will ever come back, strangely inconsequential visits of the gods, interminable conversations where the characters tell each other things the reader already knows. It's written in the drearily elevated diction often thought suitable for historical novels: months are "moons", a lot is "many", crying is "weeping", everybody is "all" and so on."

Finally, Robshaw mentions Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness which he also enjoyed. "It's the story of Sym, a 14-year-old girl, regarded as a dork at school, whose best friend is the long-dead Captain Oates, with whom she conducts long and entertaining conversations in her head. Her Uncle Victor drags her away on a madcap expedition to the South Pole, and it seems likely she'll share the fate of Oates and his comrades. The writing is intense, insistent - it's a page-turner, but as the tension rises, and conditions grow more and more desperate, one turns the pages with dread. [...] This is a literary novel of superb technique, and has more real excitement than any amount of shoot-'em-up action stories. The White Darkness is as good as it gets."

No wonder my friend Kelly, over at Big A, little a is keen to read Ingo and The White Darkness ! I shall be hunting for them in the library myself after D-day (Deadline Day, that is, not June 6 !)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Mr Bliss - J R R Tolkien

Mr Bliss

Since I'm currently reading just about everything Tolkien-related on which I can get my hands, I borrowed J R R Tolkien's Mr Bliss from the Bodleian Library's bookstacks on Wednesday to read. It is a small book, illustrated with Tolkien's own colour pictures about a man called Mr Bliss who wears very tall hats and who goes out one day to buy himself a bright yellow car for 5 shillings. A series of adventures follow this - initiated by the fact that Mr Bliss is a poor driver, rather as Tolkien was on his first car journey ! In fact, Tolkien and Siegfried Sassoon have this in common - both drove badly (although I'm not sure Sassoon's driving ever really improved !)

This is a lovely little book and would make a wonderful gift - I'm surprised that HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin in the US haven't yet seen fit to re-issue it, as they have almost everything else fictional that Tolkien wrote. If you come across a copy of this book, do read it, as it's charming and good fun.

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News on the continuing "war" for bookbuyers comes from the Telegraph, whilst this article from the Independent discusses the consequences of the HMV group taking over Ottakers. I really hope that the buyout gets referred to the Office of Fair Trading. I've nothing against Waterstones per se, it's just that I want Ottakers to stay independent !

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde

I'm currently re-reading Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. What has particularly struck me on this reading is the cleverness of the idea of book characters having a life of their own outside that prescribed by the text of the book. Just as in the Toy Story(1) and Toy Story 2 films, where Andy's toys have a life of their own when he's not playing with them, so too the characters of various books in Fforde's universe have a life of their own that is not seen by their readers. This is a very imaginative concept in terms of books, and I confess that I rather like the idea of specially trained people (called Jurisfiction Agents) being able to read themselves into books in order to fix plot holes, have conversations with characters or even change the ending as Thursday Next did to Jane Eyre in Fforde's first book, The Eyre Affair. According to Fforde, the book originally ended with Jane marrying St. John Rivers, instead of racing off to find Rochester and marrying him; remember the mysterious voice which Jane suddenly heard calling her name ? According to Fforde that was the voice of his character, Thursday. In The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday fixes the ending of Enid Blyton's Shadow the Sheepdog so that he recovers his sight after being blinded during the course of the story.

Reading Fforde's books leaves the reader thinking because he challenges the accepted norms of books. The whole idea of their being a Well of Lost Plots for instance, or a Text Sea into which unpublished books are eventually cast, or a Library that contains a copy of every single book that has ever been written, is a fascinating one. Although I feel that Fforde's later books lost their edge in terms of humour, they are still a fascinating and challenging read because of the ideas he packs into them.

(1 Can you believe that Toy Story is now 10 years old ?! And did you know that Joss Whedon has a screenplay writing credit for it ?)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Harry Potter the heir to Faust?

I missed seeing A N Wilson's article in Monday's Telegraph because of the computer problems to which I referred yesterday, so some of you may have seen this already (although I've not seen any mention of it on any of the Blogs I read my way through this morning !) Wilson comments:

Many of us will have spent a few hours recently watching Lord Voldemort resume his - or Ralph Fiennes's - corporeal shape, in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I thought it was a scene so terrifying that it could hardly be watched, but after pulling myself together and realising I was responsible for the younger members of the party, I turned to the two seven-year-olds to my right and saw their faces wreathed in callous grins.

Perhaps you need to be grown-up to appreciate how frightening Voldemort is. Cyril Connolly said that Aleister Crowley was the missing link between Hitler and someone else, but I always forget who the someone else was. Voldemort is in this tradition: the mage who abuses his power, who indeed lives for power and believes, as he announces in the first of the J K Rowling books, that there is no good or evil, only power.

Magic can still be seen as the ultimate expression of this intellectually false perception, and the damage it does has been the theme of many a great book.

(I still haven't seen the fourth HP film so I still haven't seen the best acting without a nose yet - I'm hoping to get to see the film finally on Dec. 10th !)

Anyway, Wilson then goes on to discuss Faust, with regard to the books of E M Butler that were written half a century ago: The Myth of the Magus, Ritual Magic and The Fortunes of Faust. Apparently, explains Wilson, the original Faust was mostly a fraudulent trickster who combined (according to Butler) "a minimum of pharmaceutical knowledge with a maximum of malice".

This is an interesting article - and makes me curious about Faust - but that curiosity will have to wait until after January 15 to be indulged as I must concentrate as much energy as possible on finishing my Tolkien reading for the Encyclopaedia piece.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Alan Garner; Jasper Fforde; Poetry News

I've had an unintended absence from the Blogosphere this week - largely the result of recalcitrant computers (and not mine for once !). As a result I've two book reviews and a news item to share.

Red Shift - Alan Garner

Alan Garner's novel, Red Shift seems to me, to be the most complicated of his novels. It is a complex combination of three story threads: Macy, a Roman soldier in ancient Britain, has deserted and gone tribal; Thomas, lives in the violent period of the English Civil War; and in contemporary times, teenagers Tom and Jan share a troubled relationship. The three story threads are linked, overtly, by an axehead (which Thomas calls a "thunderstone") and the constellation Orion, but there are many other connections between object, place and vision.

If you've ever read the book and struggled with it, or are considering reading it, you might find Charlie Butler's article 'Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of "Tam Lim"' helpful. Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly it is now available on Robert Mapson's unofficial website. Also available on the site is an article on The Red Shift Code.

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The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde's novel The Big Over Easy is the newest in the FFordean canon. It is linked to his Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots. In The Big Over Easy Fforde brings all the apparatus of the tough crime thriller to bear on nursery rhymes. Minor baronet Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III has been found dead (and in pieces) beneath a wall in a less salubrious area of Reading. The perpetrator appears to be his ex-wife, but she has killed herself. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his colleague Mary Mary are assigned to the case, and soon find themselves knee-deep in money-laundering, bullion smuggling and a major problem with a beanstalk.

This isn't quite the same Ffordean mixture as before, although he has previously favoured a crime angle for his plots. Readers will appreciate the wordplay and witty imagination that Fforde offers here, and most readers will be more than happy to encounter detective Inspector Jack Spratt (and his contrary sidekick kick Mary Mary) again and again. The follow up novel, The Fourth Bear, will be out in July 2006.

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Poetry News

This article on the BBC News website will be of interest to poetry lovers. Historic recordings of poets such as Yeats, Tennyson, Sassoon, Kipling and Betjeman are going to be made available through a new online initiative. The Poetry Archive also aims to ensure current leading English-speaking poets are recorded reading their own work for future generations. The free archive has been created by UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and recording producer Richard Carrington. They say the website will prove invaluable for students and teachers.