Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What Children Should Read

There's a story in today's The Herald which reports that J K Rowling, Philip Pullman, Ben Okri and Andrew Motion, amongst others, have each compiled a list of 10 books every child should read for the Royal Society of Literature's magazine. The Guardian also reports this story and gives Rowling's, Motion's and Pullman's lists (see below); the latter includes Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding. Motion chose Homer's Odyssey, and Coleridge & Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Motion's list is by far the most advanced, and would be appropriate for teens. The Guardian reports that although it wasn't on his list Pullman also recommends the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

"for the wonderful rhythms and rhymes and the muscular strength of the language. You don't understand everything as a child but you love the sound of it. Children respond very immediately to the musical rhythmic effects of language."

The recommendations were sought by the Royal Society of Literature's Anthony Gardner following a discussion between the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the RSL about the teaching of English in schools.

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Animal Farm - George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice - Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger
Hamlet - William Shakespeare

Finn Family Moomintroll - Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives - Erich Kästner
The Magic Pudding - Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairytales

The Odyssey - Homer
Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet - William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost - John Milton
Lyrical Ballads - Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady - Henry James
Ulysses - James Joyce
The Waste Land - T S Eliot

I confess I feel better than I thought I might, seeing Motion's list. I've still not managed Paradise Lost, I've not read Don Quixote yet (but it's on my "one day" list), I've read other books by both Joyce and James, and everything else I have read... So what do readers think; which 10 books would you encourage every child to read (or indeed anyone at all) ?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The White Darkness - Geraldine McCaughrean

Before I review this book, I'm going to briefly talk about Buffy for a moment (as a spoiler space for at least one of my readers whom I know is waiting to read this book !). I've just started watching season 3 - which is a relief since I hate the second half of season 2 (insofar as I hate what Angelus does !). I had forgotten, though, just how much humour there is in Buffy. Giles' shocked reaction to Ghost-Willow walking through the wall in "Halloween" for example (all his catalogue cards flying in the air). Giles' comment to Buffy in "Phases": "Let's not jump to any conclusions" and Buffy's, "I didn't jump. I took a tiny step and there conclusions were."

One thing I noticed in "Phases" which annoys me every single time I watch it - Buffy and Giles are in the library where Giles is loading up the tranquiliser gun and when the camera is looking at Giles from one angle he has his glasses off still (having just taken them off), but from the other camera angle he has them on ! What's that all about ? The other thing I've noticed in the Angel/Buffy sword fight at the end of "Becoming Part 2" is that it's quite clear that David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar are not fighting in the distance shots - it's particularly noticeable in the case of David Boreanaz because his stunt double has his hair styled very differently !

* * * * * *

You may remember that in December I shared Brandon Robshaw's review of Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness, which is the story of Symone Wates, a 14-year-old girl, who is regarded as a dork at school, and whose best friend is the long-dead Captain Oates. She goes on a trip to Paris with her "Uncle" Victor (Victor is in fact her father's business partner) and then he takes her off on a madcap expedition to the South Pole, and it seems likely she'll share the fate of Oates and his comrades. This is very much a thriller and throughout McCaughrean gives clues to events in Sym's past that she recalls, clues that prove that Sym's recollections are not always accurate.

McCaughrean's writing is every bit as intense and insistent as Robshaw reported, and the book is definitely a page-turner, but as the conditions in which Sym finds herself grow worse, I found myself turning the pages with a sense of dreadful expectation of the worst happening, even though the tale is told from Sym's point of view. Robshaw wrote that "The White Darkness is as good as it gets" and he didn't lie ! I was completely gripped and I defy you to read it without also being gripped by the suspense.

* * * * * *
There is a spoilerish review of The White Darkness over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Robin Hobb

It's been a while since I reviewed any actual books here because I've been working my way through three Robin Hobb trilogies: the Farseer trilogy, the Liveships trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy. I finally finished the 800+ pages of my hardback edition of Fool's Fate over breakfast this morning with a sigh of pleasure but also pain - it's over: I have no more tales of FitzChivalry Farseer and his friend, the Fool, to delight me. (By the way, anyone who bitches about the size of the Harry Potter books should try lugging this one around with them - it's huge !)

I find Fitz, Nighteyes, the Fool, Burrich, Verity, Kettricken and Patience utterly fascinating and very sympathetic... I hate Regal with a fiery passion - and feel he deserved far worse than he got ! Had his comedownance been in my hands, I would have wreaked bloody havoc on his head (although his end was fairly bloody in Hobb's hands !)

I'm not so fond of the Liveships trilogy, although Wintrow, Althea, Vivacia, Malta and Selden, and Paragon all interest me, and Amber fascinates me (especially given what we discover about her in The Golden Fool, the second book of the Tawny Man trilogy).

Hobb has created a well-realised world. It doesn't have the depth of Middle-earth since the languages are only vaguely hinted at, and there's only a little bit of history included (although Hobb has written 'Realm of the Elderlings', a short story that appears in Legends II), but the characters in the Fitz trilogies are very well developed and the two very fascinating kinds of magic (the Skill and the Wit) have clearly been given a lot of thought. (I wrote about Hobb's Skill in my essay 'The Influence of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings on women writers of fantasy fiction' for the 2004 annual Tolkien Society Seminar.)

I highly recommend Hobb's three trilogies, espcially if you are not fond of fantasy featuring Elves, Dwarves and the like (as I recently reported).

In the meantime I shall try not to lose myself amidst the snow and ice of Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness !

Friday, January 27, 2006

Birthday boys

January 27 is the birthday of two famous men. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756. A child prodigy, he toured Germany at the age of six, and at the age of seven his father Leopold (a music teacher) took the young Wolfgang and his older sister on a three-year tour of Europe's royal courts. Mozart once said, "People err who think my art comes easily to me." He died at the age of 35, but during his short lifetime he composed 40 concertos, 49 symphonies, and a wide range of other works, including operas such as The Marriage of Figaro (1784) and The Magic Flute (1791). Mozart once wrote: "Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius."

My favourite pieces by Mozart include his Flute and Harp Concerto, his Clarinet Concerto in A Major, and his Piano Concertos 20 - 23. I listened to a lot of Mozart's music whilst writing my Tolkien paper earlier this month. If you're interested in learning more about Mozart, I recommend The Classic FM Friendly Guide to Mozart, which comes with a CD of excerpts from his 20 "greatest hits". Tim Lihoreau used to present a Saturday morning show on Classic FM with two colleagues and I am sure his sense of humour and enjoyment of music will be evident in this book that he has co-authored with Darren Henley.

The man who shares his birthday with Mozart is well known to even those with little interest in either children's literature or fantasy. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who is better known as Lewis Carroll, was born in Daresbury, Cheshire on January 27th, 1832. He was a mathematician and taught at the University of Oxford. One day, he took the three young daughters of Henry Liddell, who was the Dean of Christ Church College (Dodgson's college) on a boat trip up the Thames for a picnic. Dodgson told them a fantastic story about a girl named Alice and "Her Adventures Underground." The girls, Alice, Lorina and Edith, begged him to write the story down for them and he did. The story was subsequently published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, and a second book, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, was published in 1871. They went on to become two of the most popular books in the world. There has been much controversy over Dodgson's relationship with Alice Liddell, but whatever the truth (and I don't pretend to know the truth), the books are fun, inspirational and challenging. I particularly like this poem:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

If the Jabberwocky baffles you rather than causing you to rejoice in its wonderful nonsensical rhymes, you may be interested in the site Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Book Meme

Bold the books you have read. Italicise the books you might read. Cross out the books you probably won't read. Underline the books you have on your shelf to read or have started reading. Pass it on.
(NB. Since I can't cross out text on this Blog, books I won't read have asterisks before and after them.)

**The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown**
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Great Gatsby - F.Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling
Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story - George Orwell
**Catch-22 - Joseph Heller**
The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
**Lord of the Flies - William Golding**
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
1984 - George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
**Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden**
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
**Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut**
**Angels and Demons - Dan Brown**
**Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk**
Neuromancer - William Gibson
Cryptonomicon - Neal Stephenson
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
**A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess**
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Atonement - Ian McEwan
The Shadow Of The Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
**The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway**
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Dune - Frank Herbert

Nice to know that there are very few on that list that I won't read, and many that I might (although not for quite some time !) And lost of brilliant books on there that I have read !

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I have received permission from the editor of Vector to reproduce my essay "The Picaresque in The Tales of Einarinn" and I've now posted it here on my Blog. Since it is rather long, I've split it into two parts: The Picaresque in the Tales of Einarinn 1 and The Picaresque in the Tales of Einarinn 2. Please note it contains spoilers since I assume the reader is familiar with Juliet E McKenna's books. Readers' comments will be welcomed.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Library Cuts

Sometimes, this country really drives me crazy - and today is one of those days thanks to a story in today's Daily Telegraph which explains that approximately fifty libraries in at least six different counties are likely to close in the next few months and most of the closures will be in small and sometimes isolated communities. Apparently David Lammy, the culture minister, is going to write to every local council to urge it not to close any libraries as part of its budget measures. What makes this story even more sickening is that figures released this month show that the number of people visiting English and Welsh libraries increased last year for the third year in a row !

David Lammy ought to be doing more than merely urging the councils not to close libraries ! This Government is so keen on "lifelong learning" and on getting at least 50% of 18 year olds into universities - how do they think people who can't afford books are going to learn without libraries ? Even those who can afford to buy books, still use libraries. I feel like writing to David Lammy myself and "urging" him to get his rear in gear and do more than merely urge the local councils not to close libraries. Library provision should be mandatory and should come very high up the list of essential services that local councils provide to local residents. Grr !

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Terry Pratchett Encyclopaedia

Andrew Butler is editing a volume entitled A Fan's Companion to Terry Pratchett for publication in 2007 by Greenwood Press. This book will be aimed both at readers who are only just beginning to read Pratchett's fiction, and those who are familiar with the whole oeuvre. It will obviously cover all of the Discworld series, but it will also examine his children's fiction and early novels. There will be entries on all of the novels, as well as entries on adaptations, major characters, collaborators, locations, sources/parallels/influences, themes/threads and organisations. It is hoped that the book will help readers find their way around the works, and that we can include enough information that even the most avid reader will discover something they didn't know.

Regular readers of my Blog will know that I'm a fan of the books of Pratchett (see, for example, the following Blog entries: The Matter of Elves, Dragons and Turtles: Myth and Fantasy, Living in a fantasy land and Personal isn't the same as important) and of the work of Butler on Pratchett, but I won't be volunteering for any of the entries in this encyclopaedia - partly because I've already got a lot of work lined up for this year, but also in part because the three entries I would have liked to do (on The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and the heroine of both, Tiffany) have already been taken. Still, I look forward to borrowing this one from the library in due course !

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Robin Hobb converts reluctant readers

There's an interesting article in today's Guardian, in which Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame) discusses finally allowing her 16 year old son to persuade her to read Robin Hobb. She admits

"I'm biased. I hate fantasy. All those adjectives and elves and weird names. The moment someone says fantasy, I know I'm in for "The three blood-red moons rose over the dusty sand plains of Ut-Tajik as the bald jackal priest of Sidt placed the sacred silver urn of Caldon on the broken altar of the blind god Fifff." I got bored halfway through The Lord of the Rings; why should I endure Tolkien's imitators?"

(Reading that description, I'd say Simon is about 40 years out of date !)

She goes on
"Why, I ask Josh, does he love fantasy so much? "Because they're the most enthralling stories," he says. Well, one person's enthralling is another's big yawn. But as I'm always telling people to read the books their kids love, I can put off the evil moment no longer.

Oh God, I'm trapped. Just me and the adjectives. I pick up Josh's tattered copy of Assassin's Apprentice. It's 480 pages long. The typeface is tiny. I delay opening the book as long as I can. Then finally, I start to read.

And I am hooked. Hobb is a remarkable storyteller. There are no elves. Fitz, the assassin's apprentice and the king's bastard son, has quite a good name. Hobb even keeps her adjectives on a tight lead. (Adverbs are more frolicsome.) What particularly gripped me was her exploration of the consequences of magical powers. Fitz's powerful connection with his wolf Nighteyes means that he becomes increasingly dehumanised while the wolf becomes more human, with the result that both are isolated and their nature warped. A really interesting idea, and wonderfully well imagined.

I can't help wondering how much Josh identifies with Fitz and his struggle to survive in a hostile kingdom, or whether his enjoyment is simply the fun of escaping into a thrilling new world. (The latter, Josh assures me.) After all, who wouldn't rather be on a quest than stuck in school taking endless exams?

So I was wrong. Josh isn't crazy. All fantasy can't be lumped into a stodgy heap and dismissed. I confess I've already finished books 2 and 3 of the Farseer Trilogy.

I confess, I'm overjoyed ! I'm a big fan of Hobb's work (I except Shaman's Crossing, which did nothing for me, sadly). I particularly enjoy The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy (the latter of which I'm currently half way through). Fitz and his wolf Nighteyes, and his friend the Fool, are fascinating and endearing.

Interestingly Simon persuaded her son to try reading her favourite author, Anthony Trollope - with rather less success, as he recounts in the remainder of the article !

* * * * * *

I've just finished watching the last five episodes of Buffy's season 1 - favourite quotes from "Prophecy Girl", the season finale:

Xander (of Giles): Calm may work for Locutus of the Borg here, but I'm freaked and I intend to stay that way.

The Master: You're dead
Buffy: I may be dead, but I'm still pretty, which is more than can be said for you.

Buffy: You have fruit punch mouth (right before she punches The Master in the mouth !)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Peter Pan Sequel

Oxford University Press has announced that Geraldine McCaughrean's sequel to Peter Pan will be called Peter Pan in Scarlet and that it is due to be published on October 5, 2006. Apparently the story is set in the 1930s, when Barrie's Wendy would be old enough to be a grandmother.

* * * * * *

Buffy reprise: I watched my least favourite season one episode of Buffy today - "The Pack"; boy does that episode make me squirm ! Not only do the hyena-possessed kids get up to some totally gross things, but the change that comes over Xander is scary ! I love Xander - he's such a decent guy usually - very definitely the heart of the Scooby Gang (as is in season four's "Primeval"). He cares so much, which is his only real "power", but he goes on caring for Buffy and his friends through some extraordinary events. "The Pack", though, shows his "dark side" - and I don't like it !

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Two New Peter Pan Stories

According to an article in today's Independent, there are going to be two new books about J M Barrie's Peter Pan. One is the officially sanctioned as-yet-unnamed (the title is due to be revealed tomorrow) sequel written by the award-winning children's author Geraldine (White Darkness) McCaughrean, who was selected to write the sequel as the result of an international competition. The sequel will be published later this year to raise new funds for Great Ormond Street, the famous children's hospital in London, to which Barrie bequeathed the rights to his famous tale of the boy who never grew up.

The second book is a a prequel to the story which has already been published in America, has sold 500,000 copies and has spent weeks in The New York Times bestseller list. This prequel, Peter and the Starcatchers, will be published here in the UK in February, with a second story, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, ready to follow it, and a third in the pipeline. The new titles, by Ridley Pearson, a crime writer and his friend, Dave Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, have been snapped up by Disney. Disney will be starting a new series of computer-generated Peter Pan animations based on the books.

Unfortunately, the American publications are not covered by Barrie's bequest, so the hospital has not earned any royalties from the copies sold there. A Great Ormond Street hospital spokeswoman has pointed out that the unnamed book by McCaughrean is the only officially sanctioned title. "We urge anybody who's interested in reading a good book to buy our sequel," she said. The two men, who belong to a band with fellow writers Amy Tan, Scott Turow and Stephen King, have promised to bring the band to the UK to give a fund-raising concert for the hospital.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Short Story

Catherine Gander, in an article in the Guardian, suggests that Britain does not give enough honour to the short story format, unlike our friends across the Atlantic. Her comments come in the wake of the Golden Globes success for Ang Lee's film of E. Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain.

Gander reports that the

Irish short fiction writer Frank O'Connor once noted that the difference between the short story and the novel is "the difference between pure and applied storytelling". The short story is the adaptation of the primitive art of communicating experience by telling a tale.

And she goes on to note that
Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, lamented the fall in value of experience, attributing it to dependence upon information as communication. Information, he says, "doesn't survive the moment in which it was new". Narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks: it can live forever.

Gander believes that the reason why the short story is nearly dead in England is because it is mis-marketed, if it is marketed at all. Publishers pitch the short story as "bite-size literature", something that is ideal for modern readers busy with lives, but, suggests Gander, in doing this publishers are missing the point, which is that good short fiction actually requires the reader's time and attention since it asks for interpretation, rather than relying on explanation as a novel does. Gander feels that short fiction "conveys the narrative qualities of our existence by embracing the past, present and future." The short story demands a commitment from its readers because you cannot leave and come back to a short story in the same way that you can an epic, multiple-viewpoint narrative novel such as The Lord of the Rings, or "His Dark Materials".

My own preference in fantasy is for the epic narrative novel, but I've learned to appreciate the skill required of a writer of shorter fiction. In the past year I've read Ursula Le Guin's Changing Planes and The Wind's Twelve Quarters, Neil Gamiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Juliet E McKenna's Turns and Chances and Mark Chadbourn's The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, and I have seen for myself the skill they have each deployed in telling a tale and telling it well in a shorter form. I agree with Gander, and with Benjamin and O'Connor before her, that the shorter fiction is a thing of beauty and deserves to be recognised as such in this country, and marketed better than is currently the case.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The future of books

This weekend there was an article in the Guardian about the future of electronic books. Robert McCrum observes that "the world of publishing stands on the cusp of the greatest innovation since Gutenberg. With cheap, portable electronic readers just around the corner, what is the future of the printed book?" and notes that "not since Gutenberg has technology so transformed the way we receive the written word. Text has already become electronic in so many ways: email, websites, blogs, CD-Roms and text messaging."

One likely element of new e-reading devices however, is E-Ink, which works by arranging thousands of tiny black and white capsules to form characters that look almost as sharp as a printed page. They appear on bendable, paper-thin screens which are not back-lit, so they use less power and do not flicker, which helps the user to avoid eye strain. You can find out more at the Guardian.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I should probably put a spoiler warning on this for anyone who's not a Buffy fan but might be considering watching the series.

Buffy Logo

So far I've not really talked much about my addiction to Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, largely because it's been so long since I watched any seasons of the series. However I started back at the beginning of season 1 today, watching "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "The Harvest", and I reminded afresh of just how subversive is Whedon's series. The teaser for the first episode featuring a boy and girl breaking into a school - and you immediately assume that the girl's going to be the victim - until Joss proves you wrong ! Then there's Buffy, the blonde girl who talks California-teen-speak, but is actually intelligent and reasonably capable; I love it when she hides from Angel in the alley - and she's supporting herself upside down from that metal bar - the first time I saw that I gasped with surprise, even though I came to "Buffy" knowing that Buffy herself was not a useless blonde...

Then there's the fact that one of the first teenagers you meet, Jesse, is turned into a vamp and killed in the second episode ! That's subversive too, because you see Buffy making friends with him, Xander and Willow, and assume he's going to be a part of the Scooby Gang...

I confess, though, that every time I watch the first season, I cringe at the American teen-speak, some of which I didn't understand the first time around (I have enough trouble understanding British teen-speak !) - I was relieved when Joss and his writers toned it down, otherwise I don't think I would have coped with such incomprehensible dialogue.

And my favourite character ? Giles - without a shadow of a doubt ! His own incomprehension of the teen-speak, his dry wit and sense of humour, his tendency to get knocked about, and (of course) his sheer love of books, make him hugely appealing to me (plus Anthony Stewart Head is lovely !)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Giants of the Frost - Kim Wilkins

I promised a review of Kim Wilkins' Giants of the Frost at the start of the year. But first, a quick word to say that at 4 pm (GMT), I hit the "send" button with a big sigh of relief as my Tolkien essay went whizzing off to America... So that's that done - and never again will I agree to research and write a 9000 word article in the space of 3.5 months, whilst working 30 hours a week at a "day job" ! I'm going to enjoy the two weeks' R&R I've promised myself...

Victoria Scott, the heroine of Giants of the Frost is a scientist, insomniac and a hardened sceptic who accepts a job at an isolated weather station on an island in the Norwegian Sea. She's running away from two broken engagements and the certain knowledge that love is a lie. But there are strange shadows outside her cabin window, a hag who visits in her in her nightmares - and a disturbing sense of familiarity in the forest. Meanwhile, in Asgard, the world of the old gods, Odin's son Vidar has exiled himself from his cruel family to await the reincarnation of his beloved: a Midgard woman whom his father murdered a thousand years before. And deep in the black, twisted roots of the World Tree, the three Norns spin and weave the fates of everyone. Vidar must escape his destiny, but the price may be more than anyone will be prepared to pay.

This is a very gripping book - akin to Neil Gaiman's American Gods in the way that Victoria and Shadow respectively deal with the old gods and the supernatural when they encounter in their every day lives. I find it interesting that more and more fantasy writers are turning to Norse mythology for their stories: Neil Gaiman, Kim Wilkins, Nancy Farmer and Katherine Langrish have all published books in the last few years. And of course, Tolkien took much of his inspiration from Icelandic mythology (the Norse sagas and the Finnish Kalevala).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Finnish Fantasy and Mozart

A review of The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo from The Independent caught my eye. The reviewer notes that

the stories have two common denominators: nature and war. As editor Sinisalo explains, Finland is a sparsely populated country with enough room for its citizens to form close ties with nature; and, throughout its history, the country has been torn between the empires of Sweden and Russia, both of which took their turn to dictate the language in which fiction was written. "Wolf Bride", by Aino Kallas, is set in the mid-17th century. Aalo, a woodsman's wife, hears someone call to her while she is watching a wolf hunt. Later, she can't resist an urge to join the wolves in the forest and becomes a werewolf. At night she runs with wolves, by day she plays the part of a devoted wife. It's an eerie tale with an unexpected ending.

Tove Jansson is best known for her Moomintroll stories, but her piece here is definitely for adults. Following an unspecified disaster, a wife "shops" for her injured husband by climbing through shattered windows and looking for food among the wreckage inside. When her husband complains that he is not able to protect them, she rounds on him: "Did it ever occur to you that in my whole
life I've never been able to take care of matters and make decisions about things that are important?" The editor's own offering, "Transit", tells how a young autistic girl speaks for the first time in 14 years and persuades a drunken hellraiser to help her steal some dolphins. These excellent stories share an edginess that's quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.

The library doesn't have this on its shelves yet, so I shall be going in on Saturday to request it from them as it sounds like an interesting collection.

* * * * * *

In other news the BBC reports that a digital version of Mozart's musical diary has been put online by the British Library to help celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. The digitised diary allows users of the Turning Pages project to click on and hear music from the opening bars of many of the works it mentions.

I confess it's taken years of listening to Mozart's music on Classic FM for me to come to an appreciation of his music, and this aspect of the Turning Pages project sounds as exciting to me as "The Original Alice" must do to fans of Lewis Carroll !

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Rowling; Pratchett; Pullman

I have various items of children's literature news to share today - mostly it's about books being made into films (now there's a new trend... !)

First though, the latest issue of The Tatler magazine has an exclusive interview with J K Rowling. You'll find more at the Daily Telegraph website. CBBC reports that Rowling has also written a new children's book about a monster, and a number of short stories. Kelly over at Big A, little a shares this article from the Washington Post about the questions raised by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Kelly.

Meanwhile, CBBC also reports that Billie Piper (late of Doctor Who fame) is to star in the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke as Sally Lockhart. Filming starts in May. They also intend to film The Shadow in the North immediately afterwards (and presumably if one or both of those goes down well, they'll film the final two books in the quartet ?)

Finally (and to my personal surprise) it's been reported that Terry Pratchett's excellent The Wee Free Men will be made into a film, directed by Spiderman's Sam Raimi. Apparently Sony Pictures Entertainment has acquired the book and set Pamela Pettler (of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride) to write the script. The trade magazine Variety reports that says the studio is aiming to develop an event-sized live-action family film. My surprise is that Terry Pratchett has agreed to the book being filmed, since he said, as recently as Spring 2005 (at the Oxford Festival of Literature) that he was not particularly interested in films being made of his books because they were never good enough, script-wise. Still, if it means we'll get to see a film version of A Hat Full of Sky (which I love and think is one of the best books ever written about the power of storytelling), I'll be happy to see The Wee Free Men on the big screen.

On a personal note, I'm hoping to update my Blog regularly again now that my Tolkien paper is done (I've still got to proof read it, but the writing is finished.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Women in SF&F Encyclopaedia

Yesterday I received an invitation to contribute to a new 2 volume illustrated encyclopaedia about Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy which is scheduled to be published by Greenwood Press in 2007.  

The focus for the Encyclopaedia will be primarily, but not exclusively, on work in English from the 19th century to the present, covering fiction, nonfiction, film, television, art, comics, graphic novels, music and poetry. 

Volume I will consist of essays which will provide socio-historical context, analysis, and background information on key themes that cross genre boundaries. Two possible schemas are being considered for this volume. The final editorial choice will depend to some extent on the scholarship and interests of the chosen contributors. One approach is multi-genre essays, tightly focused in period. An alternate approach is single-genre essays covering larger historical periods.  

Volume II will consist of the A-Z component. These alphabetically
organized entries will focus narrowly on key figures and issues. Categories, which can apply to any of the media covered by the work, will include (but are not limited to): single entries on significant writers/artists/composers (primarily women but some men); group and background entries on a range of writers/artists/composers not covered in single entries; and single and group entries on characters and character types, genres, historical periods, national traditions, and major themes.

I have volunteered for single entries on J R R Tolkien, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, J K Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Buffy/Angel (Whedon), Fantasy, Quest Fantasy, and Children's/YA Literature, and one essay on Children's/YA: Girls and the Fantastic - I wouldn't have time to do more than one 5000 word essay before the September 1st deadline since I'm working 30 hours a week and whilst this is another paying writing project, I can't afford to give up work to write unless I get paid in advance (which isn't going to happen).

I'll let you know which topics I'm selected to do when I hear back from the editor. I am, of course, delighted (and flattered) to be asked to participate as it sounds like a fascinating project.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Forthcoming in 2006

I lift my head above the parapet built of Tolkien books and my notes to apologise for my absence and to say that I've so far written (and typed up) just over 5500 of the 9000 words of my biographical analysis of Tolkien's time in Oxford. I hope to write the remainder tomorrow (barring further migraine activity !), and then to finish typing it on Tuesday. Then I will have to print it off and proof-read/edit it. Whilst it's been an absolutely fascinating project, it's also been a bit of a killer in that I've never had to produce so lengthy a work in such a short space of time (I had six months for my dissertation, which was the same length). Three and a half months is a short period in which to research, study and understand the adult life of anyone, let alone someone like Tolkien, for whom Oxford meant so much !

In the meantime, I've begun re-reading (purely for pleasure) Robin Hobb's three trilogies: the Farseer trilogy, the Liveships trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy. I will review them by trilogy once I've read them. I also have an outstanding review for Kim Wilkin's excellent Giants of the Frost, which I borrowed from the library before Christmas and read last week. I've just discovered it's the second volume in the non-traditional "Europa Suite" trilogy. (It's non-traditional insofar as each volume can be read alone.) I will have to see if the library has the first volume, The Autumn Castle.

Also forthcoming in the next few weeks, will be reviews of Anthony Horowitz's Eagle Strike and Scorpia both of which feature further adventures of teen spy, Alex Rider, after I managed to pick up used copies of both this morning for less than the cost of either one of them new.

I've also got a large pile of Ursula Le Guin novels for which I hijacked the library just before the New Year. I've read all of Le Guin's Earthsea novels, but none of her SF books, and I've decided to redress the balance in the coming months.

In addition to all of the above, this week I finally received the copies of Dragonology, Wizardology and Egyptology which I won in the Guardian competition late last year.

When I'm not reading, post-Deadline Day, I shall be unashamedly re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time in over a year.

Of course, in addition to all of the above reading, I shall also be starting to research and read for my paper on western wizards (for which I will be re-reading the novels of Lynn Flewelling and Juliet E McKenna). Since the deadline for that is mid-October, I have 9 months in which to research and read, so I feel no qualms about taking a break after my Tolkien paper is done. My brain undoubtedly needs the rest !

Addendum: I forgot that today I picked up from the library the third and final part of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy: Ptolemy's Gate (I've been waiting for this to turn up since before the book was published several months ago !) The front cover proudly announces "Over one million copies sold worldwide1" which is good news. Unfortunately I've only a dim recollection of what took place in the second book (The Golem's Eye, so I will have to get hold of a copy, and read the entire trilogy again (fortunately I have The Amulet of Samarkand on my shelves already). So look out for a review of the entire trilogy in a few weeks time also.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Firefly Fans

This is a bit of fun for you Firefly fans out there - a personality quiz to see which Firefly crew member you are most like. Apparently I'm 66% Zoe ! Have fun... :-D