Friday, June 30, 2006

Poetry Friday 7

I'd like to offer you three poems this week - they're not particularly related, except by my liking them !

The Listeners

'IS there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor.
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Walter de la Mare

The Blackbird

THE nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark's is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute,
But I love him best of all.

For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We two have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together.

William Ernest Henley

The Spires of Oxford

I SAW the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The grey spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-grey sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.

The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.

The left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod -
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.

God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.

Winifred Letts

This last poem is about the men of Oxford who went to fight in the First World War; it seemed appropriate to offer at least one poem to commemorate the fact that tomorrow is the 90th anniversary of the start of the first Battle of the Somme, especially as the literature and history of the First World War is my other interest.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Wand in the Word - Leonard S Marcus

First a confession - I kept calling Leonard S Marcus' book The Wand in the WORLD, until I started to read it. Apparently I'm not the only one who's mistaken the title of The Wand in the Word in this way. My second confession is that I somehow expected the pieces in this book to be weightier. I think I had the idea that they were essays edited by Marcus, rather than interviews with the 13 authors which were conducted and transcribed by Marcus.

Of the 13 writers whom Marcus interviewed there was only one (Franny Billingsley) of whom I had never heard. Of the remaining dozen, I have never read books by Madeleine L'Engle, Brian Jacques, Tamora Pierce or Jane Yolen. Of the other half dozen, I've read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (but I've added more of his books to my "Want to Read" list), Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence, Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, many of Diana Wynne Jones' books, all of Ursula K Le Guin's fantasy books (except the sequel to Gifts), and almost everything written by Garth Nix, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman.

The interviews cover broadly the same questions: what was the author like as a child, were there any storytellers amongst the adults they knew, did they use the local library, why/how did they start writing, why do they write fantasy and what role did the World War have in their lives. I was particularly interested in the last question. Tom Shippey, in his biography J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century, discusses the fact that many of the fantasy authors of the mid-20th century (Tolkien, Orwell, Golding and Vonnegut in particular) were caught up in the First World War, and that this led them into writing fantasy as a means of commenting on the horrors of war. Marcus finds a similar link for most of the 13 authors he interviewed as all but one of them were born around the time of one of the World Wars: Garth Nix was born in 1963, so he missed even the rationing that followed the Second World War; Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L'Engle were born around the time of the First World War; the others were all born a few years before, during, or a few years after, the Second World War. Diana Wynne Jones comments on this: The two World Wars were the worst kind of madness. Fantasy helps you think more clearly when things are mad. (p. 85) Something I believe still holds true today.
Lloyd Alexander explains why he writes fantasy:

Because, paradoxically, fantasy is a good way to show the world as it is. Fantasy can show us the truth about human relationships and moral dilemmas because it works on our emotions on a deeper, symbolic level than realistic fiction. It has the same emotional power as dreams. (p. 13)

Franny Billingsley says that
Fantasy allows you to step outside our world and look at it with a little bit of perspective. It can take something in our world, for instance, "identity", which has only an abstract reality, and it can make it palpable. (p. 26)

Terry Pratchett says:
Fantasy is like an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it does exercise the muscles that will. (p. 159)

This book is full of similar thoughtful comments on both fantasy and writing (Brian Jacques refers to words being "as wild as rocky peaks [...] as smooth as a millpond and as sunny as a day in a meadow", p. 74). I also liked the "Reader" that's provided for each author, although none of them are extensive (Terry Pratchett's was oddly short, referring to only two of the three Johnny Maxwell books). I certainly added some new titles to my "WtR" pile as a result of reading this book !

I've also started making a list of authors I wish Marcus had interviewed - so far I've got Robin Hobb, Geraldine McCaughrean, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip and Juliet McKenna.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Great Good Thing; Into the Labyrinth - Roderick Townley

Roderick Townley has written an entertaining trilogy that is akin to Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series. In The Great Good Thing the Princess Sylvie is eternally twelve years old and has been a princess for more than 80 years, ever since the novel in which she lives was first published. She longs to break free of the never-ending quest on which her character goes. It's not that she doesn't like her story - she does - she's the heroine and it's full of excitement, but it's always exciting in the same way, and although Sylvie loves her storybook friends and family, she's getting bored. Then one day, after many, many years of neglect, the book is opened and, as a new reader gazes down into Chapter One, Sylvie breaks the most important rule for all storybook characters - she looks up at the Reader. Even worse, she gets to know the Reader, a shy young girl called Claire, and when Claire falls asleep with the book open, Sylvie is able to enter her dreams, discovering a new and exciting world. A world where adventures are rewritten daily, and dark, unpredictable dangers lie in wait - and where Sylvie must achieve one great, good thing to save the lives of everyone she loves.

The sequel to The Great Good Thing is Into The Labyrinth. Sylvie's storybook (The Great Good Thing) is republished one and the characters who live inside it suddenly discover that they have Readers again - lots of them. And the number increases after the book is uploaded onto the Internet. The endless reading exhausts the characters (who are forced to perform the story (much like actors performing a play) for each individual Reader. However, this is nothing compared to the problems they face when strange things start happening: words get changed around, scenes disappear - and Sylvie and her friends find they must enter the labyrinth of cyberspace in order to confront a twenty-first century evil that threatens to destroy their world.

When I was looking up the Amazon links for these two titles, I found that Townley published a third book, The Constellation of Sylvie earlier this year. The synopsis from Amazon tells us that a copy of The Great Good Thing is sent out into real space - in a space shuttle that is embarking on a four-year mission to Jupiter ! I've reserved a copy of the book and look forward to reading it in due course.

There's a spoilerish review of the first two books over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Book News

Following on from yesterday's post about Harry Potter, the Guardian's Phil Maynard discusses why Harry Potter must die; I am quite unconvinced by his argument.

There's an interview with one of the picture book world's favourite illustrators Alan Ahlberg also in the Guardian.

There's an interesting article in the Guardian's Blog about whether or not Enid Blyton's books should be updated. Apparently Blyton's biographer, Barbara Stoney, has objected loudly, but Guy Dammann thinks the changes are necessary. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

How will Lord Voldemort die ?

Following on from the frankly unsurprising news that J K Rowling has announced that at least two major characters will die in the final Harry Potter book, I have been discussing with other HP readers, whether or not Harry can actually kill Lord Voldemort - which then led into a conversation about the death of Quirrell. One of those with whom I was discussing the issue, believes that Harry is the one who killed Quirrell, even if he's not morally responsible (like a patient who's weak dying of a cure, which means the doctor is not morally responsible for the patient's death). I don't agree with this view and looked to see just what J K Rowling wrote in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Quirrell rolled off him, his face blistering too, and then Harry knew: Quirrell couldn't touch his bare skin, not without suffering terrible pain - his only chance was to keep hold of Quirrell, keep him in enough pain to stop him doing the curse.
Harry jumped to his feet, caught Quirrell by the arm and hung on as tight as he could. Quirrell screamed and tried to throw Harry off - the pain in Harry's head was building - he couldn't see - he could only hear Quirrell's terrible shrieks and Voldemort's yells of 'KILL HIM ! KILL HIM !' and other voices, maybe in Harry's own head, crying, 'Harry! Harry!'
He felt Quirrell's arm wrenched from his grasp, knew all was lost, and fell into blackness, down ... down ... down ... (Chapter 17)

I read this as Quirrell still being alive when Harry blacks out - which is at the same time that Dumbledore pulls Harry and Quirrell apart: Harry can still hear Quirrell's shrieks in the moments before he passes out (I'm fairly sure that at least one of the voices he hears saying his name is Dumbledore), which suggests to me that Quirrell didn't die until after Harry blacked out. Of course, he may have died from the effects of Harry hanging on to Quirrell's arm, but I have always interpreted Dumbledore's comment that Voldemort left Quirrell to die as Dumbledore glossing over the fact that Voldemort actually killed Quirrell when he detached his essence from Quirrell's; I've always assumed, knowing that Voldemort was scared of Dumbledore and that Voldemort at that point is very weak, that Voldemort abruptly fled from Dumbledore and in doing so, Quirrell died of shock. Does anyone interpret events differently ?

Firefly Quote of the Week

Mal: "Were there monkeys ? Some terrifying Space Monkeys maybe got loose ?"

("The Train Job", Season 1)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone Update

I've added some spoilerish comments about Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord to the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

* * * * * *

Look out for a review of Leonard Marcus' essay collection The Wand in the Word soon as I got a copy today. (For some reason I always want to call this book "The Wand in the World" - I have no idea why, though !)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Time Machine - H G Wells

Since Wells' The Time Machine is included in the Masterworks edition of The War of the Worlds, and the story is astonishingly short (a mere 90 pages in this edition), I decided to read it this morning before re-reading The Thief Lord (expect a spoilerish review of this either tomorrow or Tuesday depending on how tired I am from travelling back to Oxford).

A Victorian scientist propels himself into the year 802,701 AD and is initially delighted to find that suffering has apparently been replaced by beauty, peace and contentment. At first he is entranced by the Eloi, an elfin species descended from humanity, but he soon realises that this beautiful people are simply the remnants of a once-great culture, who are now weak and childishly afraid of the dark. However, he then discovers that they have every reason to be afraid: in deep tunnels beneath their paradise lurks another race, also descended from humanity, the sinister ape-like Morlocks. They hijack his time machine and it becomes clear that he will have to search the tunnels if he is ever to return to his own era.

Wells' novels seem quite depressing on the subject of humanity's future prospects (both The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are quite scathing about the divisions between the aristocracy and the workers), but they are still gripping books.

The Princess stories - George MacDonald

I've just re-read George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie for the first time since I started writing about children's literature. Unfortunately, I could only get hold of the second book by borrowing a copy from the library, and I didn't know (until the book arrived) that it was an abridged version. Apparently, all the "moral homilies" had been left out because "modern" children won't accept them !

If anyone wants to read the full text, you'll find them at the excellent Page By Page Books website that offers hundreds of classic books free of charge: The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie.

The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Princess Irene and a miner boy named Curdie, and their adventures with the goblins. It is actually two stories with narratives that cross every now and then. Princess Irene's adventures include the discovery that she has a great-great-grandmother living in the secluded house on the mountain where her father, the King, has sent her. One evening she meets Curdie when she and her nurse Lootie are out too late on their walk and find themselves chased by goblins. Curdie scares them away with a rhyme (since the goblins hate verse), and in return Irene promises him a kiss, but Lootie will not let her kiss a mere miner boy. Later Irene meets her great-great-grandmother several times and on one occasions she is given a very special ring. Curdie's adventures, in the meantime, involve the discovery of the goblins' plot to get rid of all the people who live above ground. He has many adventures and misadventures in the tunnels under the mountain and learns much important information.

Following on from The Princess and the Goblin is The Princess and Curdie in which Curdie is sent (by Irene's great-great-grandmother) to Gwyntystorm, the city i n which Irene now lives with her father. He is given the task of dealing with whatever he finds in the capital city, and is given a most unusual magical power to help him in this task; however he is told he may never use the power in his own self-interest. During his journey to Gwyntystorm he meets a number of ugly and fearful monster-beasts who become his companions and help him in his task.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Poetry Saturday

Being in Gloucestershire this weekend, I thought I would make my belated Poetry selection from the work of Gloucestershire poet and composer, Ivor Gurney (about whom you can learn a bit more from my "other" website).

To His Love

He's gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.
You would not know him now.
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon.'
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

The Love Song

Out of the blackthorn edges
I caught a tune
And before it could vanish, seized
It, wrote it down.

Gave to a girl, so praising
Her eyes, lips and hair
She had little knowing, it was only thorn
Had dreamed of a girl there.

Prettily she thanked me, and never
Guessed any of my deceit…
But O Earth is this the only way
Man may conquer, a girl surrender her sweet?

Up There

On Cotswold edge there is a field and that
Grows thick with corn and speedwell and the mat
Of thistles, of the tall kind; Rome lived there,
Some hurt centurion got his grant or tenure,
Built farm with fowls and pigsties and wood-piles,
Waited for service custom between whiles.
The farmer ploughs up coins in the wet-earth time,
He sees them on the topple of crests gleam,
Or run down furrow; and halts and does let them lie
Like a small black island in brown immensity,
Till his wonder is ceased,
and his great hand picks up the penny.
Red pottery easy discovered, no searching needed…
One wonders what farms were like,
no searching needed,
As now the single kite hovering still
By the coppice there, level with the flat of the hill.


To me the A Major Concerto* has been dearer
Than ever before, because I saw one weave
Wonderful patterns of bright green, never clearer
Of April; whose hand nothing at all did deceive
Of laying right
The stakes bright
Green lopped-off spear-shaped,
                  and stuck notched, crooked-up;
Wonder was quickened at workman’s craftsmanship
But clumsy were the efforts of my stiff body
To help him in the laying of bramble, ready
Of mind, but clumsy of muscle in helping; rip
Of clothes unheeded, torn hands.
                  And his quick moving
Was never broken by any danger, his loving
Use of the bill or scythe was most deft, and clear—
Had my piano-playing or counterpoint
Been so without fear
Then indeed fame had been mine
                  of most bright outshining;
But never had I known singer or piano-player
So quick and sure in movement as this hedge-layer
This gap-mender, of quiet courage unhastening.

* Mozart: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K.488

I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

The War of the Worlds - H G Wells

I've never read H G Wells' The War of the Worlds before, although I have read Mr Brightling Sees It Through (his novel of the First World War period) before. Nor have I seen either of the film versions of Wells' classic novel.

Wells' story is told by an unnamed narrator, who is essentially a fictionalized version of Wells himself, who witnesses the aftermath of a meteor landing on Horsell Common, near London. However, it is quickly revealed that the meteor is no meteor at all, but a space-going cylinder launched from the planet Mars. Attempts to communicate with the octopus-like inhabitants of the ship prove not only fruitless but ultimately fatal, as the would-be communicators are incinerated by a laser-like Heat-Ray which is projected from the ship's impact crater. The Martians then assemble enormous three-legged "fighting machines" which go out into the surrounding human communities armed with both the heat-ray and a chemical weapon which creates the deadly "Black Smoke", and wreak havoc and murder. More capsules land in the English countryside around London and the invasion spreads. A frantic mass evacuation of London begins; amongst the fleeing swarms of humanity is the narrator's brother, who eventually escapes across the English Channel to France. One of the tripods is destroyed in Shepperton by an artillery battery, and two more are brought down in the Tillingham Bay by the torpedo-ram HMS Thunder Child before the vessel is sunk, but soon all organized resistance has been beaten down and the Martians hold sway over much of southern England.

The narrator finds himself unexpectedly trapped in a house after another of the Martian capsules lands in its garden and partially destroys the house. He is able to secretly watch the Martians at close quarters, including their use of captured humans as a food supply through the direct transplanting of their blood. The narrator is not alone however; he is in the company of a curate whose intellect has been damaged by the trauma he experienced during the attacks, and whose irrational behaviour finally causes him to be discovered and dragged away by the Martians. The narrator narrowly avoids the same fate, and the Martians eventually abandon their encampment. The narrator then travels into the largely deserted London where he discovers that the invaders have abruptly succumbed to terrestrial disease-causing microbes, to which they have no immunity.

For those interested in discovering more about Wells' story, a collection of essays:
The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives on the H G Wells Classic is available (the book also contains the complete text of Wells' novel).

Stig of the Dump - Clive King

In Clive King’s Stig of the Dump eight year old Barney has been warned many times not to go too near the edge of the Chalk Pit that is near his home in case the ground gives way. One day, however, when he is bored, he sets off to look down into the Pit, to see what people have dumped there and he discovers the truth of the many warnings he has received when the ground gives way and drops him through the roof of a den created by a caveman whom Barney names Stig. The two of them become firm friends, in spite of the fact that neither one can speak the other’s language, and they share several adventures together, including going hunting. In some of these adventures Barney’s older sister, Lou, gets caught up, although she thinks that Stig is an imaginary friend, not a real person. Barney’s final adventure with Stig, and Lou, involves Barney and Lou time-travelling back to Stig’s own era on Mid Summer’s Day. Barney finds himself getting involved with raising the final standing stone of a group that still lies near Barney’s home today.

This book was another re-read after many years absence, and it was interesting to see how well it's aged - which is quite well, considering how times have moved on.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Edge of the Forest - June/July issue

There is a new double issue of The Edge of the Forest online right now - and with a fabulous new header from Camille of Book Moot too ! Please go over there and check it out.

No Poetry offering today, sorry - I'm just too weary to think of anything - tomorrow hopefully (plus two book reviews as well !)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone Update

I've just added a spoilerish review of Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness to the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone. I hope it's not complete gibberish - I'm exhausted and I've still got to finish my packing for the long weekend with my parents and brother, so I apologise for any infelicities in it !

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Brief personal news - update

I've spoken to my Mum in the last half an hour - she's now home from hospital. The good news is that they got all of the tumour out and that it was a grade 2 (therefore benign). She will have to have follow up scans to ensure no cells got left behind and are growing again, but the prognosis is generally good. Now we just have the long process of healing and recovery. I will be going down to Gloucestershire on Thursday after work to spend the weekend with my Mum (and my Dad and brother).

Firefly Quote of the Week

Simon: Can you move your feet? Kaylee. Stay with me. Can you move your feet?
Kaylee: Are you asking me to dance... ?

("Serenity", Season 1)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Revisiting Childhood Favourites

Last year I reported that I had re-read Norton Juster's wonderful
The Phantom Tollbooth and Philippa Pearce's A Dog So Small, two favourite books from my childhood. This week I am going to re-read Clive King's Stig of the Dump for the first time in years, and I’ve got Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams on my reservations list too. Interestingly enough, the other day someone posted a link to the Child_Lit discussion list, of Peter Sagal's own account of reading The Phantom Tollbooth to his children and how much he enjoyed/hated it (he experienced both emotions). And I wondered whether anyone else had re-read any favourite childhood books recently, and how you got on ?

* * * *
There’s a spoilerish review of Jonathan Stroud’s The Leap over on the Scholar'’s Blog Spoiler Zone.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Secret of Platform 13 - Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 has been mentioned as an influence on J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, so it was with that thought in mind that I picked it up in the library this week. I will talk more about this aspect of the book once I’ve reviewed it.

There is an Island, which some call Avalon, and others call St Martin’s Land, and others know it by other names; once the Island was a part of our mainland, but it broke off and gradually floated away, and now it can only be accessed via a special portal, called a Gump, which in England is located on platform 13 of King’s Cross station (there are portals in other countries as well). The Gump only opens once every nine years, but it remains open for nine days. The King and Queen of the Island have a son and he is looked after by his three nurses, triplets who are human and used to live in our world before they went to the Island. When the Prince is three months old, the Gump opens and the nurses, who have been feeling homesick, beg permission to visit the Secret Cove, where arrivals and departures for the Gump take place. The Queen gives permission reluctantly for the nurses to go and for them to take the Prince too. Unfortunately when the nurses are in the Cove, they smell fish and chips, so they decide to ascend to the station (via the usual “wind basket”) taking the Prince with them, and whilst they are there, the Prince is kidnapped by one Mrs Trottle, a rich and pampered woman who has everything money can buy, but no child of her own.

Thanks to one of the ghosts who inhabit King’s Cross station, the kidnapping is observed and he is able to find out who holds the Prince and by what name the Prince is known. The ghost passes through the Gump which, although it has closed for another nine years, can be traversed by a ghost. In due course a rescue plan is devised for the next opening of the Gump, and the chosen rescuers, the wizard Cornelius, a one-eyed ogre named Hans, a fey named Gurkintrude and the young hag named Odge, enter King’s Cross station. They are guided to “Trottle Towers” as the Trottle’s home is known (although it is nothing like a castle or a tower), and they see a boy who cleans shoes, mops the floor and takes a cup of tea to someone whom they assume to be Mrs Trottle. When he carries out the rubbish, the boy sees the rescuers and goes over to talk to them. They tell him they’ve come for Raymond Trottle, and the boy reveals that his name is Ben, not Raymond, as they had supposed. Raymond, they discover is a fat, spoilt brat, whose mother dotes on him and indulges his every whim. Ben is disappointed to find that the rescuers haven’t come for him, but he agrees to help them make contact with Raymond so that they can take him back to the Island.

Initially Raymond is completely uninterested in leaving his home to go to a mysterious Island, so the rescuers organise a special show of magic, which all the ghosts and other magical beings attend to display their “tricks”. Raymond is distinctly unimpressed until he persuades Cornelius to create gold for him, then he agrees to go with the rescuers. The following morning he tells his mother that he won’t be going to see Mrs Frankenheimer because he’s really a prince and will be going to an Island. Mrs Trottle immediately assumes that Raymond has been drugged by a gang who want to kidnap him, and she disappears with Raymond. The rescuers mount a desperate search for Raymond because the Gump will not be open for much longer; they finally locate him and his mother who are staying at the Astor hotel. They devise a plan to get Raymond away, in spite of the two body guards his mother has employed (one of whom is known as Soft Parts Doreen, from her habit of stabbing people in their most vulnerable spots with her steel knitting needles). Unfortunately, things do not go entirely according to plan as the mistmaker (a cuddly creature which creates mist in response to hearing beautiful music) which Odge has brought as a gift for the Prince, escapes from its suitcase and gets into the hotel and finds the dining room where an orchestra is playing. It starts creating lots of mist in response to the music, and this in turns creates havoc. Doreen attempts to kill it, but Ben arrives and although he survives his encounter, he is knocked unconscious. Raymond, who had already been successfully kidnapped before the mistmaker arrived, goes back to his mother. However, the fearsome harpies of the northern part of the Island have arrived to rescue the Prince, since it’s clear that the chosen rescuers have failed to complete their task; they capture Raymond as he’s waiting for a private helicopter to arrive to take him and his mother to their home in Scotland, and take him through the Gump.

I won’t give away the ending of this story, but I have to confess that I had figured it out long beforehand !

As for the comparison between Ibbotson's book and Rowling's, it's true that there are some similarities, most notably in the descriptions of Raymond and Ben, where Ben sleeps in a cupboard and serves the Trottle family, and Raymond is a spoilt fat brat, but I don't feel the resemblance between the two books goes much further than that (except perhaps insofar as the Gump is located at King's Cross station, as is the "portal" for the Hogwarts train, but Rowling has admitted to having been mistaken about King's Cross being the station she was actually thinking about (in terms of its physical characteristics) when she came up with the idea of the Hogwarts train leaving from a London station). It's clear that Ibbotson's book has influenced the Harry Potter books, like many other children's books have done; the influence of The Lord of the Rings is particularly strong in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example.

* * * * * *

There's a review of Peter Dickinson's The Gift Boat over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone. I didn't post any part of the review here, because I felt that any detail would be spoilerish, so the whole review is over there.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Spook's Curse - Joseph Delaney

The Spook's Curse is the sequel to The Spook's Apprentice. In this second book of "The Wardstone Chronicles", six months have passed since Thomas defeated Mother Malkin the witch, and Alice has gone to live with her non-witch Aunt on the coast. Now the Spook and his apprentice have travelled to Priestown to attend the Spook's brother's funeral and to deal with some unfinished business. Deep in the catacombs of the cathedral lurks the Spook's nemesis - The Bane - a creature he has been unable to defeat. As Thomas and his master prepare for the battle of their lives it becomes clear that The Bane isn't their only enemy in town. The Quisitor has arrived, searching the county for those who meddle with the dark - witches, warlocks, and Spooks ! When the Spook is arrested and sentenced to death it's up to Thomas, with a little help from his old friend Alice, to rescue his master and save the County, if they can. But Thomas has found out that someone once put a curse on the Spook, that he will die far underground, without a friend at his side, and whilst Thomas is not quite sure yet whether the Spook is actually a friend, he cares too much about his master to want to allow the curse to come true - but preventing it from coming true means risking not only his own life, but also the possibility that the Bane will not only escape its own destruction, but will destroy the County too.

The third book in "The Wardstone Chronicles" series, The Spook's Secret, is out next month, and I shall be asking the library if they're getting a copy as this series is quite gripping. Tom Ward is a rather impetuous boy, but good-hearted and incredibly brave.

* * * * * *
I've posted a spoilerish review of Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

* * * * * *

I finally got around to watching The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe movie today, after a friend loaned it to me, and I enjoyed it. The effects were stunning, Tilda Swinton was very good as the horrible White Witch Jadis, and they seemed to get all the essentials of the story in (although I confess it's been nearly 20 years since I last read the book, so I don't recall much of the fine detail !)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Poetry Friday 6

Just this week, I was looking at a piece on a new book called The Secret Life of Birds and I discovered that my bird is the Raven. I was immediately reminded of Edgar Allen Poe's amazing poem:

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
' 'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating'
' 'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
'Sir,' said I, 'or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, 'Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, 'Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
'Surely,' said I, 'surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
'Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, 'art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as 'Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow will he leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, 'Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
'Doubtless,' said I, 'what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking 'Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
'Wretch,' I cried, 'thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'

'Prophet!' said I, 'thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'

'Prophet!' said I, 'thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'

'Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
'Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Teachers might be interested in The interactive Raven which allows students to learn the vocabulary and literary devices used in the poem.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Introduction to Terry Pratchett

A few days ago, I mentioned that I had been writing a "guest column" and I can now reveal that it was at the invitation of Susan, over at Chicken Spaghetti, and that An Introduction to Terry Pratchett (for the unitiated), has now been published. Do pop over there because Susan's Blog is always interesting reading.

The Spook's Apprentice - Joseph Delaney

Before I talk about Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice itself, I want to comment on (a) the cover image and (b) the title used by the US publisher. The American cover image and the American title (The Last Apprentice: The Revenge of the Witch) fail to give the book the same air of menace, compared to the British title and cover image. I wondered why they had been toned down (because they do appear toned down, at least to me): is "dark" fantasy not acceptable in the US ? I'm curious to know how other readers feel about the two images. As for the US title, why all the wordiness - it ruins the anticipation, in my view...

Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son and 13 years old. He is apprenticed to the local Spook, a man who deals with the Dark (specifically witches, boggarts and other nasty beings). The job is hard and the current Spook is distant and many apprentices have failed before Thomas is taken on. Somehow Thomas must learn how to contain witches, bind boggarts and exorcise ghosts. But one day when he is helped by Alice, a local girl, against a gang of village boys, he is tricked into promising that he will help her any time she needs help. Unfortunately she needs Tom's help in freeing Mother Malkin, the most evil witch in the County. And thus the horror begins...

The film rights to the book have already been bought up by Hollywood. Apparently it's being produced by Alysia S Cotter, who is also producing films of two other children's books: Midnight For Charlie Bone (with Basil Iwanyk, who is co-producing The Spook's Apprentice) and Endymion Spring.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Chronicles of Prydain - Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander's five-books series, "The Chronicles of Prydain" consists of The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High King which follow the adventures of a young man named Taran, who is an Assistant Pig-Keeper at Caer Dallben, but dreams of one day being a great hero. His companions include Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam the wandering bard and king, and the hairy creature called Gurgi.

The novels were inspired by Welsh mythology, in particular the stories of the Mabinogion. Prydain is in fact the Welsh for Britain. However, the stories are not merely retellings of those myths, a point Alexander himself makes clear in an author's note, as various characters have been changed, and some stories conflated, so a student of Welsh culture should be prepared for surprises; Arawn has been made into an enemy, and Gwydion has lost all of his negative characteristics. The Horned King has his roots in Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos, but in "The Chronicles of Prydain", the Horned King is thoroughly evil and Arawn's champion.

The series was published just a decade after Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. and the first four books are fairly free of Tolkienian references (although Gurgi struck me as a more civilised, less anguished and far hairier version of Gollum. The final book, however, is astonishingly full of Tolkienian references. Princess Eilonwy is a mixture of Eowyn and Arwen (she dresses in men's clothing so that she can fight in a battle, she has sewn a banner for Taran featuring the oracular white pig, Hen Wen (the same pig to which Taran is an assistant keeper) and at the end of the book she gives up something in order to stay with Taran and marry him (I won't be explicit about just what she gives up). Taran and Eilonwy both have the opportunity to sail with many others to the "Summer Country" (which seems to be the Prydain equivalent of sailing into the West, except that here there will be no return for anyone).

Other Tolkienian references in The High King include a trip through some dwarf mines (which is abandoned and a mountain is crossed instead, in a neat reversal of events in The Fellowship of the Ring; the gates of King Math's home Caer Dathyl being battered with a large ram (and Math himself seems to resemble King Theoden whilst he was still in the clutches of Wormtongue); just as Aragorn sails up the Anduin to Minas Tirith, so too Gwydion sails to Arawn's stronghold - and Arawn bears some resemblance to Sauron; then there is the battle at Arawn's stronghold which resembles the "last stand" made by Aragorn and the Captains of the West outside the Mornannon - and the response of the Cauldron-Born to Taran's use of Dyrnwyn resembles the response of Sauron's many servants when the Ring is destroyed; and the gwythaints are akin to the Nazgul.

For all that, I enjoyed the series and can understand why it continues to be popular with children 40 years later.

For those who are interested in the author's own thoughts, there is a piece by Lloyd Alexander on Fantasy at the Children's Book Council website.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

That old TBR pile

As I have not quite finished reading Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" yet, and I've been writing a "guest column" for someone else's Blog (watch this space for more details), whilst waiting for the phone to ring, I thought I would "cheat" and give you a round up of what is lurking on my To Be Read (TBR) pile of books.

Once I've finished the Chronicles, I'll be reading Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice and The Spook's Curse. I've also got Michael Chabon's Summerland (which I've been looking at for ages on the library shelf); Peter Dickinson's The Gift Boat (which I read a preview of some time ago, but hadn't seen until now; since I enjoyed Dickinson's short stories in Elementals: Water, I thought I would try this one); I have heard that Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13 is a sort of precursor to Harry Potter so I picked that up today with The Star of Kazan which has been discussed over in the Wicked Women comments on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone; I've got three re-reads lined up to do spoiler-ish reviews for the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone: Kate diCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie (which I really want to own !), Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven and Jonathan Stroud's The Leap; I've also got Stroud's Buried Fire which has been waiting for my attention for a little while. An SF and Fantasy discussion forum to which I belong has just started a Book Club, so I'm going to be reading H G Wells' War of the Worlds with them (I've never yet read it nor seen either of the movies), and in the same volume is included The Time Machine (another book I've neither read nor seen the movie of), and I had picked up Wells' The Sleeper Awakes before I found out about the Book Club. Someone somewhere recently mentioned John Crowley's Little, Big, another "classic" I'd not read, so I picked up that at the same time as the last mentioned Wells. Finally, there's the odd sounding The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by former Dr Who star, Tom Baker (I'm fairly dubious about this one !), and Eduard Morike's Mozart's Journey to Prague, which appears to be fiction ! It caught my eye because it's Mozart's 250th birthday anniversary this year. Since the book is relatively short, I thought I'd try it and see what it was like !

Brief personal news

A brief bit of personal news to say that my mother had the operation to remove her brain tumour today, and after 4 hours of surgery (and rather more of waiting), I heard that she came through it OK, and the surgeon is very happy with the outcome. Today feels like the longest day of my life...

Firefly Quote of the Week

Zoe: Oh yeah, this is gonna go great.
Mal: If anyone gets nosy, just, you know... shoot 'em.
Zoe: Shoot 'em?
Mal: Politely.

("Serenity", Season 1)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cool Girls and Wicked Women

Jen Robinson, over at Jen Robinson's Book Page has been compiling a list of "Cool Girls" in children's/YA literature. The final list of 200 "Cool Girls" is now listed (on the link above), and is very impressive. I have a strong interest in "cool girls" myself, as a consequence of reading the Harry Potter novels and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, so the final list is full of ideas of more books to read !

Coincidentally, after watching the Holes movie and then re-reading Louis Sachar's book, I have started (with the help of readers) compiling a list of Wicked Women in children's/YA literature (that aren't fairy tale wicked witches and bad fairies because we all know they abound !). Be warned, though, that the list is taking shape over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone, which means there is likely to be spoiler-ish information in the comments. When I get the chance, I shall be putting all the different women and books together into a list in a separate post, but in the meantime, feel free to add the names and book details of any more Wicked Women you can recall encountering.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Temples of Malplaquet - Andrew Dalton

Andrew Dalton’s The Temples of Malplaquet is the first in a trilogy of sequels to T H White’s Mistress Masham's Repose, which is itself a sequel to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I have to say I am somewhat wary of sequels by other hands; sometimes they are very good, such as William Horwood’s sequels to Kenneth Graeme’s The Wind in the Willows, but sometimes they are not so good, I once began reading a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which failed so badly at capturing Austen’s tone and language that I couldn’t finish it. I thoroughly enjoyed White’s book; Maria is a lively and entertaining protagonist, and being an oppressed child, can empathise well with the Lilliputians who are hiding on the lake island. However, I didn’t feel that Dalton quite manages to pull off the same feat with his sequel. 13 year old Jamie, whom the Lilliputians and their guardian, “Granny”, believe to be the Lilliputians’ prophesied Guide, has things fairly easy; his parents give him a laptop for his 13th birthday, and “Granny” gives him a rowing boat that she has built from a kit.

The story is fast-paced, and it actually felt too fast to me (ironically, given how fast a reader I am); I felt that there was insufficient time to get to know the characters before events overtook them. The story is also very modern (as indicated by the fact that Jamie is given a laptop), something which shows most clearly in the language in which it is written. I know I have rather an old fashioned liking for older forms of English, but anyone who is a lover of the English language, cannot fail to appreciate such phrasing as “Then [Maria] would be mad with pleasure, a sort of earnest puppy, rushing about with the slipper of her imagination, tearing the heart out of it.” (p. 10, Mistress Masham’s Repose) or “The farmer who rented the land was chasing his sheep about, with a hot-buttered face […]” (pp. 10-11). Poetic language such as that captures the reader’s imagination and feeds it; prosaic, 21st century prose does not, I feel.

The brevity of Dalton’s book also disappointed me. I felt that he might have been better publishing the trilogy as one longer story, instead of splitting it into three stories. I really wanted more time to explore the world in which the Lilliputians were now living, and to get to know the characters better. The story also lacks any real sense of threat or danger to the Lilliputian world, which its precursor had in abundance.

All in all, I felt a sense of disappointment with this story; it didn’t quite live up to its promise, which was a shame. Jonny Boatfield's illustrations, on the other hand, are charming and fit very well with the world of the Lilliputians, and are very reminiscent of Edward Ardizonne. Boatfield has created a rather good-looking picture book, The Twilight Book, for which I will have to look in the library.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reviews to come

Now that Blogger seems to have recovered itself from its temporary incapacity, I am going to be adding a review of Andrew Dalton's The Temples of Malplaquet (Lutterworth Press), which is a sequel-by-another-hand to T H White's Mistress Masham's Repose to Scholar's Blog, and spoiler-ish reviews of Elise Broach's excellent mystery story, Shakespeare's Secret, and Louis Sachar's The Boy Who Lost His Face to the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone at various points over the weekend. And please check out the rest of today's entries !

Poetry Friday 5

Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood


There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.


The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.


Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief ...


Ye blessed Creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel--I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother's arm:--
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
--But there's a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!



Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts today
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.


... I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth's poetry has long appealed to me; I appreciate his appreciation of the countryside - and I thought a poem of Wordsworth's would be appropriate for Poetry Friday.

Elementals: Water - Peter Dickinson

Elementals: Water is a collection of six short stories, three of which are by Robin McKinley and the other three are by her husband, Peter Dickinson. I've now read Peter Dickinson's three stories (having read Robin McKinley's last week). Dickinson's stories are: "Mermaid Song", "Sea Serpent" and "Kraken".

"Mermaid Song" is about a small girl, Pitiable Nasmith, whose mother died in childbirth after marrying out of her clan. She is brought up by her maternal grandparents, and is not too unhappy until her grandmother dies. Her relationship with her grandfather goes downhill after that and she fears that she may die of one of his beatings or of starvation since her grandfather is no longer sowing, growing and harvesting the usual crops. Then one day, when Pitiable and her grandfather are beachcombing, Pitiable encounters someone who has a connection to a distant ancestor on her maternal side and her life is changed.

"Sea Serpent" is a story that, like McKinley's "Water Horse" was too short ! Iril and his sons manage the estuary crossing that allows pilgrims to go up to Silverspring. He and his sons are expert at taking rafts across the rivermouth, and both Iril and his third son Jarro can "dream the wave": they can see and understand the nature of the waves that come up into the river from the sea, via both dreams and a trance state. One day a man named Mel, who is in charge of building a temple to Awod, the Fathergod, and he wants to use the standing stones from the temple to Tala, the Earthmother that is at Silverspring. Iril is reluctant to accept Mel's commission to carry the stones across the river, but Mel threatens Jarro's life, so he complies. Sirion, who is the priestess of Tala, calls upon a serpent to stop Mel from taking the stones at Silverspring, but his own beast injures the serpent. The stones are removed and taken down to the estuary crossing, and then an immense sea serpent attacks a raft as it is crossing. Iril and his sons must find a way to defeat the sea serpent if they are to meet Mel's demands, or suffer the consequences.

Finally, in "Kraken", Ailsa is skipping school on her very last day at school, to go out with her bluefin, Carn; the merpeople ride dolphins as we would ride a horse. Aisla goes a long way from home on her unsanctioned trip and encounters a ship under attack from pirates. Two of the passengers on board the ship tie themselves together with the man's sword belt and cast themselves over board rather than be captured or killed. Ailsa rescues them, but she has to dive very deep to do so, and in doing so disturbs the unknowable Kraken. It keeps the lovers in a suspended animation and Ailsa and her people are able to get them back to their home, but the Kraken is angered. The merpeople are forced to take the lovers back to the Kraken or risk having their home destroyed. Then Ailsa realises that the Kraken wants her too. She believes it will kill both the lovers and herself, and her father, the King, despairs at the possibility of losing his daughter when he has already lost her mother. But the Kraken is not all it seems and things turn out somewhat differently than anyone expects.

The Best Living British Writer Named

Readers of The Book Magazine, a quarterly online and print journal, have voted J K Rowling the Best Living British Writer. Readers were invited to vote for the best living writer and offered a list of suggestions which included several authors who have written for children: Raymond Briggs, Anne Fine, Roger McGough, Michael Morpurgo, Terry Pratchett, J K Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman. The final top 20 looks like this:

1 JK Rowling
2 Terry Pratchett
3 Ian McEwan
4 Salman Rushdie
5 Kazuo Ishiguro
6 Philip Pullman
7 Harold Pinter
8 Nick Hornby
9 AS Byatt
=10 Jonathan Coe
=10 John Le Carre
12 Doris Lessing
13 Alan Bennett
14 Iain Banks
15 Muriel Spark
16 David Mitchell
17 Martin Amis
18 Ian Rankin
=19 Pat Barker
=19 Alasdair Gray

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards 2006 Shortlist

The Mythopoeic Society has announced the shortlist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards 2006 as follows:

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (Canongate)
The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos)
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (Willow Morrow)
Metallic Love by Tanith Lee (Bantam Spectra)
The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt (Bantam Spectra)

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature

Valiant by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster)
Wizards at War by Diane Duane (Harcourt)
By These Ten Bones by Clare B. Dunkle (Henry Holt)
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, consisting of The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate, by Jonathan Stroud (Hyperion)

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies

Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien's Middle-earth by Marjorie Burns (University of Toronto Press, 2005)
Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology by Verlyn Flieger (Kent State University Press, 2005)
Smith of Wootton Major: Expanded Edition by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (HarperCollins, 2005)
The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005)

Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies

The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast" by Jerry Griswold (Broadview Press, 2004)
Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction from Dorothy to Harry Potter by Deborah O'Keefe (Continuum, 2003)
The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy by David R. Loy & Linda Goodhew (Wisdom, 2004)
National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England by Jennifer Schacker (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003)

I would be quite happy to see Anansi Boys, The Bartimaeus Trilogy and Verlyn Flieger's new edition of Smith of Wootton Major win as I've read and enjoyed them all.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone Updates

Today I have posted a spoiler-ish discussion of the "wicked women" in Louis Sachar's Holes and a spoiler-ish review of Charles Butler's Death of a Ghost over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

I would be particularly interested in people's thoughts and views on "wicked women" in children's literature, so please pop over and comment.

Firefly Quote of the Week

Jayne: Captain, can you stop her from bein' cheerful, please?
Mal: I don't believe there is a power in the 'verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.

("Serenity", Season 1)

Mirrormask the Movie

I missed the limited release of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Mirrormask movie at the cinema, so I've had to wait for the DVD release. I read and reviewed the MirrorMask book back in February, and was interested to see how the book would look on the screen. The story is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; Mirrormask is a fantasy tale of an intelligent young girl on a journey through a magical world. It's also a visually pleasing film which updates the fairy-tale quest into a coming-of-age story that is imbued with dark beauty. Written by Neil Gaiman and directed by his collaborator and illustrator, Dave McKean, the film contains a mixture of live action and surrealistic animation. There are some weirdly-skewed perspectives, foggy patches, and mismatched textures which appear grandly decayed. Stephanie Leonidas plays Helena, a young girl who juggles in her father's circus, but longs for a normal life. She spends her free time drawing elaborately detailed, fantastical black-and-white pictures which cover every surface of her room. One night, after an argument with her mother (played by Gina McKee) during which Helena lets fly some rather painful pronouncements, her mother falls ill with an unspecified ailment. As the family waits for news and the circus struggles financially, Helena blames herself for her mother's illness. The night before her mother's surgery, Helena finds herself mysteriously transported to a world which bears a strong resemblance to her own drawings, and is populated by strange creatures who follow an even stranger logic. Helena and her travelling companion, a fellow juggler named Valentine (played by Jason Barry), embark on a quest to find a mysterious charm which will awaken the White Queen of the city (also played by McKee), from her deep sleep, thus defeating the forces of darkness and allowing Helena to return home.

The film's outstanding visual imagery is complemented by witty dialogue and some genuinely creepy moments: the words "Don't let them see you're afraid" when spoken of the Sphinxes owned by Mrs Bagwell, are quite chilling, as is the rather grim version of the old Bacharach and David song "(They Long To Be) Close To You" that is performed as Helena is being dressed by some clockwork jack-in-the-boxes. Leonidas' performance is likeable, charming, and fresh - and is all the more amazing considering much of it was delivered against a green screen, with her special-effect co-stars being edited in later. Interestingly, as with the movie of Holes, I found myself wanting to re-read the book again.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Spindle's End - Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley's Spindle's End is a retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. The evil fairy, Pernicia, curses the three month old princess Rosie on her name-day, the curse being that she will die by pricking her finger on a spindle. However, a young fairy called Katriona snatches the baby away from Pernicia, telling Rosie that she can have Katriona's gift, which is a baby magic (although she is no longer a baby) that allows her to speak to animals. Katriona takes Rosie to her home village of Foggy Bottom to raise her in safety, in the secrecy of ordinariness. So Rosie grows up out in the country, not knowing anything of her background, believing that Katriona and her aunt are her cousin and aunt, but with the ability to talk to all animals. In addition, she becomes friends with Narl, the taciturn Smith, and then makes a name for herself as a plain-spoken horse doctor. Until three months before her twenty-first birthday, when she is rediscovered.

The story starts out in a rather self-conscious fairy-tale style, but becomes more of a straightforward fantasy as it continues and we get to know the various characters better. It has much in common with the style of Beauty and contains some lovely images:

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic - which was what all magic was - it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on your knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody's knee and purred.

We get all the classic elements of the familiar fairy tale - the fairy godmothers, the curse, the spinning wheel, the castle surrounded by thorns, the wakening kiss - but with an unexpected twist, all told in McKinley's combination of down-to-earth characters and dreamlike prose. Therefore, in spite of it being a very well-known tale. the twists add enough complexity, uncertainty and suspense that the reader is desperate to find out how on earth it can all end happily ever after - because it is, of course, a fairy-tale in the end.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Beauty - Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley's Beauty was the 1998 Phoenix Award honour book. It's a retelling of the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. McKinley twists many of the original story's features in an interesting manner; for example, "Beauty" is actually the childhood nickname of the book-loving protagonist, who is rather plain and whose real name is Honour. And when Beauty's sisters, Hope and Grace, ask their father to bring back jewels from his trip to the city, they're only joking as they are actually both nice young women. The reader is given the story of the family's life before Beauty's father encounters the Beast, and there is enough description of the time Beauty spends with the Beast for readers to understand why/how she could have fallen in love with him. The enchanted invisible ladies-in-waiting, with their matter-of-fact meant-to-be-private-but-actually-audible-to-Beauty conversations, keep trying to force Beauty to wear far more glamorous clothes than she is used to or interested in wearing. And which book-lover would not long to visit the Beast's library, which contains all the books in the world, including the ones that haven't yet been written ! (I was strongly reminded by this of Terry Pratchett's utterly fantastic and fantastical concept of L-Space.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Robin McKinley Short Stories

The Door in the Hedge

Robin McKinley's The Door in the Hedge collection consists of four short stories: "The Stolen Princess", "The Princess and the Frog", a retelling of The Frog Prince, "The Hunting of the Hind" and "The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

"The Stolen Princess" is set in the last mortal kingdom which borders on Faerie, a place whose inhabitants live with the risk that their baby sons and late teens daughters might be stolen. Queen Alora, whose lovely twin sister Ellian was taken on their seventeenth birthday, gives birth to a daughter late in life and names her Linadel. Alora dreads her daughter's seventeenth birthday, but when the strong-willed Linadel is taken to Faerie, the "door in the hedge" is opened, and both Faerie and humankind are changed forever.

In "The Princess and the Frog", McKinley's princess is a frightened girl in a court that is being menaced by a dark sorcerer prince named Aliyander, to whom her own brother is in thrall. She finds comfort in talking to a large green frog, who seems very sympathetic to her plight and helps her to overcome Aliyander in a rather startling manner.

In "The Hunting of the Hind" a prince falls fatally sick after hunting a beautiful, yet uncanny golden hind. Fortunately, his small half-sister Korah, who has been largely ignored and neglected by everyone except her beloved big brother, rides out to the hunt, and discovers that the hind herself is under a spell. She must then find it in herself to rescue the hind in order to rescue her brother.

In "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", the hero is a soldier who has been prematurely aged by war and is "weary and sad at heart, with a sadness that had no hope in it anywhere." He has heard about the twelve princesses who dance every night until their shoes are worn out and he sets out to see if he discover the mystery. On the way to the King's city, he stops to help an old woman, hauling water from a well for her. In return she gives him a cloak that will make him invisible, and tells him not to drink the wine he will be given by one of the princesses. All he has to do is follow the princesses and bring back some evidence of where they go each night.

Elementals: Water

Elementals: Water is a collection of six short stories, three of which are by Robin McKinley and the other three are by her husband, Peter Dickinson. I have only read the three by McKinley so far: "The Sea King's Son", "Water Horse" and "A Pool in the Desert".

In "The Sea King's Son", Jenny, the only daughter of a farming family becomes engaged to a young man who turns out to be less than suitable, and when she discovers this fact, she flees from his family's farm towards home. But in her distress she forgets the prohibition on land people to use the bridge that connects the two sides of the bay, and the Sea King appears, apparently ready to drown her. She begs him to send her horse and dog home so that her parents will know what has happened to her, and he decides that he will not drown her after all. Jenny is sick for many weeks after her encounter with the Sea King, in part because he touched her in lifting her onto her horse to send her on her way. When she recovers, she goes down to the bridge across the bay, intending to apologise to and thank the Sea King. Instead, she finds his son waiting to see her and an astonishing friendship develops between them.

In "Water Horse", Tamia, the eldest daughter of an inland family, whose step father does not value her, is chosen by the Guardian of the Western Mouth to be her apprentice, to learn the water magic that protects their Island home. Tamia has never seen the sea and is quite convinced that the Guardian has made a mistake, but agrees to learn the water magic. One day, however, her mentor has a stroke and Tamia needs help, but has not yet learned how to send messages to the other Guardians around the Island's shore. She does some magic which she thinks will work, and it does, but unfortunately it also sets free a Horse of Water, which has run wild across the Island is threatening to drown the Island and everyone on it. Tamia discovers that she must be the one who attempts to set everything right again. I found myself wishing this tale was a full length novel, so engrossed did I become and so much more did I want to know about the tale's background.

McKinley's "A Pool in the Desert" disappointed me. It tries too hard to tie a tale of Damar to our world (known as the Homeland) and spoils what is an interesting idea, I feel. Another put-upon, undervalued young woman (McKinley almost seems to specialise in these !) begins dreaming of a desert place, which she slowly discovers is real. Just as she is deciding to try to visit Damar so she can meet in person the man whom she has been dreaming about, she discovers that her dreams are actually about Damar's past (set after Tor and Aerin's age in The Hero and the Crown).

* * * * * *

I added a spoiler-ish review of Charler Butler's The Darkling to the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone (Blogger was on the fritz last night or you would have had today's reviews yesterday !)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Poetry Thursday 2

I'm going to do it again, and if Kelly of Big A, little a could reach across the Ocean that separates us, I don't doubt she'd be tempted to kick my shins at least, for pre-empting the poetry party two weeks in a row ! But it's John Masefield's birthday today, and I wanted to celebrate on the day. I love his poem "Sea Fever" (it's best chanted, never mind read, aloud):


I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

The first time I ever read it after reading The Lord of the Rings, I thought of Legolas sitting up in Minas Tirish, enchanted by the Sea that he had only recently seen for the first time.

John Masefield was born in the town of Ledbury, surrounded by beautiful countryside in the region of Herefordshire, England, on June 1, 1878. The picturesque county in which he was born is located near the border of Wales (it borders with my home county of Gloucestershire), and was described by Masefield as his "Paradise". As a young boy, Masefield was able to roam the countryside, and delighted in watching the ships moving up and down the local canal; wandering alone through the meadows and woods; and taking an interest in and observing the beauty of the natural flora and fauna of the area. He suffered several tragedies in his life at an early age, losing both his parents by the age of 12. The responsibility for bringing up the orphaned Masefield children was taken on by an aunt and uncle with no experience of children and lacking the necessary finances to continue the expensive schooling John had been receiving. And to John's irritation, since by now he had become very fond of reading, his aunt scorned books and had his grandfather's library removed from her home. At the age of 13 John's aunt insisted that he be sent to the sea-cadet ship, the HMS Conway, for training for a life at sea. He spent several years aboard this training ship and whilst he initially had no desire to go there, he found that he could spend much of his time reading and writing, as well as receiving instruction in nautical subjects such as astronomy, navigation and geography. It was whilst he was on board the Conway that Masefield's love for story-telling grew. During his years on the ship spent in the company of his instructors, many of whom had years of experience at sea, he listened to many yarns that were verbally passed on about sea lore. He continued to read books with a passion, and at this early age felt that he was to become a writer and story teller himself. He was Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, and is best remembered by many as the author of the classic children's novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.

A Ballad of John Silver

We were schooner-rigged and rakish, with a long and lissome hull,
And we flew the pretty colours of the crossbones and the skull;
We'd a big black Jolly Roger flapping grimly at the fore,
And we sailed the Spanish Water in the happy days of yore.

We'd a long brass gun amidships, like a well-conducted ship,
We had each a brace of pistols and a cutlass at the hip;
It's a point which tells against us, and a fact to be deplored,
But we chased the goodly merchant-men and laid their ships aboard.

Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains,
And the paint-work all was spatter dashed with other peoples brains,
She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank.
And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.

O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop)
We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken coop;
Then, having washed the blood away, we'd little else to do
Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to.

O! the fiddle on the fo'c'sle, and the slapping naked soles,
And the genial "Down the middle, Jake, and curtsey when she rolls!"
With the silver seas around us and the pale moon overhead,
And the look-out not a-looking and his pipe-bowl glowing red.

Ah! the pig-tailed, quidding pirates and the pretty pranks we played,
All have since been put a stop to by the naughty Board of Trade;
The schooners and the merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little south the sunset in the islands of the Blest.

* * * * * *

I apologise for the shortage of book reviews so far this week. I've taken to writing them out long hand during my lunch break, but finding the energy to type them up and edit them of an evening, after 8 hours of proof-reading is not easy. I promise to make up for it at the weekend (including spoiler-ish reviews for the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone).