Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature: Halloween

Welcome ghosts and ghouls, fiends and monsters (and fellow Bloggers) to the Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature.

Camille discusses Halloween costumes, with particular reference to dressing up as Native Indians, in Dress Up for Halloween at Book Moot.

Gail Gauthier offers a review of Garth Nix's excellent Sabriel at Original Content.

Sheila Ruth discusses Wands and Worlds: Mystery at Blackbeard's Cove at the suitably witchily-titled Blog Wands and Worlds !

Meanwhile, J. L. Bell presents Oz and Ends: L. Frank Baum's "Mary-Marie" at Oz and Ends and Boston 1775: Boston boys and their ghosts at Boston 1775.

Jen Robinson discusses Salem Witch: Patricia Hermes over at Jen Robinson's Book Page.

Considering the "baddies" of Halloween, and more generally children's literature, Nancy discusses The Great Antagonists of Children's Literature and then requests your votes on them here at Journey Woman.

In the meantime, Jone offers October Stories: Tales of Spooky Nights, Ghostly Sights, and Silly Frights, whilst Anne presents a review of Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses by J. Patrick Lewis; illustrated by Simon Bartram at Book Buds.

Continuing on the poetry theme, Gregory K presents an Oddaptation of Where the Wild Things Are at GottaBook.

Elizabeth Bird asks SCBWI - Good, bad, or ugly? posted at A Fuse #8 Production.

Liz B presents A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy: The New Policeman posted at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy.

Cynthia Leitich Smith offers an Author-Editor Interview: Deborah Noyes (Wayshak) on One Kingdom at Cynsations, whilst Jody DeVere presents an Interview with Stephanie Esterline - Teen Author of "This Girl's First Car" at Ask Patty.

Pam ("Mother Reader") posed some questions to John Green and here MotherReader: John Green Responds at MotherReader.

Susan reviews The Adventures of Captain Underpants posted at Chicken Spaghetti.

Kelly Herold, while waiting for the National Book Award shortlist at Big A little a, offers some comments on Book Awards. This was the post that lead directly to the creation of the CYBILS, on which you'll find more here.

And last, but not least, Josh Rosenau presents his Friday Find: Robert Frost and Fred Melcher, the creator of the Newbery and Caldecott medals at Thoughts from Kansas and The Old Coot presents a three part review of Swallows and Amazons: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Readers are invited to submit a Blog article to the next edition of the Carnival of Children's Literature using the Carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the Blog Carnival index page.

Firefly Quote of the Week

River: No power in the 'verse can stop me.

("War Stories", Season 1)

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Magician's Boy - Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper's The Magician's Boy is a great story to read-aloud to younger readers.

Once upon a time, there was a Boy who worked for a Magician. He desperately wanted to learn magic from his master, but the Magician always refused to teach him. However he does allow the Boy to manage the puppet theatre which he takes along to all his shows. One day, he and the Boy go to a children's party at a very grand house. The Magician warns the boy that everything must be perfect, so he polishes the magican's wands extra hard, shampoos the rabbits, and repaints the trees on the back wall of the model theatre. The Magician's tricks are all cheered and applauded by the children, and then comes the puppet play. The Magician narrates the tale of Saint George and the Dragon, but when the Boy reaches for the Saint George puppet, it's missing. He has forgotten to bring it ! The Magician tells the Boy he must find it and he finds himself suddenly transported to the Land of the Story, on a quest to find Saint George. The Boy's journey is full of adventures featuring lots of very familiar characters. But it's the Boy's last adventure that is the most amazing of all and which changes his life forever.

This is a fun story that's just 100 pages long and is charmingly illustrated by Serenea Riglietti. I recommend it.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Giant Under the Snow - John Gordon

I first found out about John Gordon's The Giant Under the Snow in an article from the Guardian newspaper back in April, in which Michelle Paver waxed lyrical about it. I asked the library whether they would be getting a copy - and one was duly purchased in May - but no one told me, and I only found it lurking on the shelves the week before last, at which point I pounced on it !

On a school field trip, Jonquil (known to everyone as Jonk) Winters, an independent-minded teenage girl, is attacked by a large black dog whilst exploring the nearby woods where she has found a mysterious and rather old buckle. She is rescued from the dog by a woman named Elizabeth Goodenough, who possesses some magical powers. After she goes home, Jonk is stalked by the dog and its curious stone-faced master. Jonk's friend, Bill has read of a local legend that describes how a Green Man once strode across the countryside from Wiltshire to East Anglia. Believing the legend is the key to understanding Jonk's experience in the woods, Jonk, Bill and their rather sceptical friend Arf set out to solve the riddle of the Green Man, finding themselves under attack from the minions of the stone-faced man, the rather horrible "leather men", being followed by the black dog and being given the gift of flight by Elizabeth.

This is a tense, thrilling, and fast-paced story that is almost impossible to put down. I was reminded of both Alan Garner and Charles Butler's books whilst reading this book, so if you enjoy either of them, you'll probably enjoy this too. I've already made a list of other books by Gordon that are held by the library and intend to raid their shelves in the not-too-distant future (once my library pile has gone down at least a little more !)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Waterless Sea - Kate Constable

The Waterless Sea is the second of Kate Constable's "Chanters of Tremaris" series. The story opens a year after the end of The Singer of All Songs. Tremaris is still a divided land and in one of the lands, chanter children are kidnapped or stolen by the dark sorcerers who inhabit the Black Palace. Calwyn and her friends Mica, Tonno and Hasaal travel to the Merithuran Empire in search of two such kidnapped children, orphan twins who are the responsibility of Heben, whose father has cast him off for daring to protest against their kidnap; he has cared for them for several years and cannot just let them go. Calwyn and her party must survive the vast and unforgiving desert, and the Imperial Court in the peculiar Palace of Cobwebs. Whilst there Calwyn and her friends uncover the shameful secret that binds together the whole of the Merithuran Empire. And while Calwyn and the others are attempting to rescue the missing twins, her friend Darrow has formed a shaky alliance with a group of rebels who want to overthrow the Emperor and who are marching on the Black Palace. But can Darrow be trusted given that he has the power of the great Ring of Lyonssar ? In a stunning climax to the book, Calwyn takes drastic action to prevent a major war breaking out across the Empire, but her actions have far greater consequences than she could have imagined.

The third book in the trilogy The Tenth Power is out soon in paperback, and I cannot wait to see how it turns out !

(This book was received for review from Nikki Gamble at Write Away.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Meme: The Nearest Book

I saw this on Chicken Spaghetti and thought I'd join in:

1 - Grab the nearest book.
2 - Open to page 123.
3 - Find the fifth sentence.
4 - Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
Don't you dare dig around for that "cool" or "intellectual" book on your shelves. (I know you were thinking about it.) Just pick up whatever is closest.

So here's what I found:

Were they pictures of spaceships though ? I supposed they must be: the creatures he'd drawn next to them certainly weren't human. One or two waved something rather like tentacles, but others petered out in long weedy filaments, or bubbled and frothed like cuckoo spit. Obviously they were aliens. But the cone-topped spacecraft looming at the back of every drawing - something about them was not convincing.

This is from Charles Butler's excellent The Lurkers which, coincidentally, is out today and comes highly recommended. It's also up for a CYBIL !

The Singer of All Songs - Kate Constable

Kate Constable's The Singer of All Songs is the first in a secondary-world fantasy series. In the world of Tremaris, magic is fading away. From the ice wall of Antaris, to the forests of Spiridrell and the hostile streets of Mithates, and even beyond, Tremaris is a land divided. 16 year old Calwyn knows nothing of the world beyond Antaris, however. She lives in Antaris, tending the bees and learning the chantment of the ice-call, albeit restlessly. But one day, as Calwyn is engaged, with her sister priestesses, in singing the chantment that strengthens the ice wall that surrounds them, she discovers a wounded man inside the wall. Darrow tells terrible stories of fear and hatred in the Outlands, where chanters are persecuted and magic is a dying art. When Darrow's enemy, the sorcerer Samis, comes looking for him in Antaris, Calwyn and Darrow set out on a journey through the wide lands of Tremaris, endeavouring to find other Chanters with whom they might work against Samis, in order to prevent him becoming the Singer Of All Songs.

This series was recommended to me some time ago, but it's only just become available in the UK, and I'm pleased to see it lives up to the strong recommendation that I was given.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Write Away website

The newly revamped Write Away website, for which I've recently begun reviewing fantasy books, has been launched today. Edited by Nikki Gamble, the site is a book review/news/interview resource for teachers and librarians in the UK. I'm enjoying being a reviewer for Write Away - I've been reading my current selection this week...

Poetry Thursday 3

Having been given the rather urgent assignment of interviewing one of my favourite authors of fantasy-for-adults this afternoon, I haven't yet finished reading my current book, so I've decided to offer you a Poetry Thursday this week. Part of this poem by Andrew Marvell is recited by Abel Darkwater in Jeanette Winterson's Tanglewreck which I reviewed yesterday. Darkwater repeats the following lines to Silver:

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

And I thought I would share the entire poem with you.

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Andrew Marvell

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Edge of the Forest - October issue

Good news ! The October edition of The Edge of the Forest is up! There are many exciting features for you, as well as interviews, reviews, and much, much more.

Pam Coughlan continues her series on funny books for kids with Bring on the Funny II. This month she recommends hilarious books for children ages 8-12.

Allie gets personal with What the BSC Means to Me.

Adrienne Furness profiles writer/illustrator Judith Byron Schachner, author of the Skippyjon Jones series.

Kim Winters contributes two interviews this month, speaking to library associate, Barbara Crispin (Crofton Branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library, Crofton, Maryland) for What's in their Backpacks and children's writer, Patricia Malone, for A Day in the Life

There are reviews in all categories — from Picture book to Young Adult.

Kid Picks is back and Jen Robinson talks with a girl scout troop in Austin, Texas.

And I confess, I'm quite proud of my interview with author Charles Butler.

Don't forget to subscribe to The Edge of the Forest with our new Subscribe feature. Just enter your name and e-mail address and you'll receive notification when each new issue is published. (If you subscribed last month and do not receive an e-mail later today, then please resubscribe as some attempts have been unsuccessful.)

The Edge of the Forest will return November 22. If you're interested in submitting an article or review, please check out the About Us page for details.

Tanglewreck - Jeanette Winterson

I confess that I approached Jeanette Winterson's Tanglewreck with a mixture of caution and curiosity. A YA book from an author who's better known for Sexing the Cherry and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was a rather novel idea. I'm pleased to be able to say, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed this Science Fiction tale.

In a house called Tanglewreck lives an 11 year old girl named Silver River. She lives with her detestable guardian Mrs Rokabye, who claims to be her missing father's sister. Silver does not know it but hidden somewhere there is a family treasure, a 17th century watch called the Timekeeper, which holds the key to the mysterious and frightening changes in time that have been occurring lately. Nobody seems to know what to do when the Time Tornadoes start. Some days are long, and others are short. Time stops for long periods, then jerks forward very fast. People are getting caught in Time Traps - finding themselves locked in the past, or pushed into the future, disappearing without trace.

The sinister Abel Darkwater arrives at Tanglewreck, searching for the watch. He persuades Mrs Rokabye to bring Silver to see him in London, intending to question her on the whereabouts of the missing Timekeeper, which he has wanted for many years, and which Silver's father had refused to sell to Darkwater. Eventually Silver finds that she must begin a journey through Time and Space to search for the Timekeeper. During her journey she meets up with a loyal boy named Gabriel, who is a Throwback to a previous century. Together they attempt to reach the Sands of Time where they believe the Timekeeper will be found. Ranged against them are Abel Darkwater and a mysterious, coldly beautiful woman named Regalia Mason, who also wants the Timekeeper.

There is quite a lot of science in this book: time travel, quantum physics/mechanics, Schrodinger's famous Cat, Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Fortunately Winterson presents the science in a readable way so that even a non-scientist like me doesn't feel too much at sea !

(This book was received for review from Nikki Gamble at Write Away.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The "Corydon" books - Tobias Druitt

Tobias Druitt isn't a real person; instead Tobias Druitt is a pseudonym for mother-and-son writing team Diane Purkiss and 11 year old Michael Dowling. Diane is an Oxford Don and the first member of the English Faculty since Tolkien and Lewis to publish a children's book. It's not often I read multi-authored books (I think the only other one I've ever read is the very funny and clever Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, whose narrative is seamless insofar as it's completely impossible to tell who wrote what (and in fact neither author can remember who wrote what as they both amended each others' words). And the narrative in these two books is also fairly seamless, but there are occasional jarring moments when the voice suddenly changes for a sentence or two before reverting back, which I found rather disconcerting.

The first book in the series is Corydon and the Island of Monsters. Corydon is a boy who was thrown out of his village for being born with a goat's leg. He is made the pharmakos (literally the scapegoat) and even his own mother turns against him. He lives for several years as a shepherd, using all his thief's skills to steal sheep from other shepherds on his island in order to build up his own flock. This peaceful way of life is suddenly and dramatically changed when he is captured by some pirates and put into their travelling freak show with other monsters, such as the Minotaur, Medusa the Gorgon, a hydra, a Sphinx and various other "monsters". However, he manages to free the monsters with the aid of a Staff which the pirate captain had used to control the monsters. He leads the group into the mountains. Corydon and Medusa find shelter with two other gorgons, the 10 foot tall bronze-winged bird women, Sthenno and Euryale, who are sisters. But Zeus, king of the classical gods, is alerted to their escape and forces his son, Perseus, to raise an army of heroes to pursue and kill them. When Medusa's baby son is stolen from her by Perseus, the battle becomes personal. Then they find themselves not only facing a devastating army, but they must also try to rescue Medusa's baby. Before they can do so, though, Corydon must travel deep into the Underworld to uncover the secrets of the staff he has.

In the second book, Corydon and the Fall of Atlantis time has passed and life has been fairly peaceful for Corydon and the other monsters since their great battle with the heroes. But then the Minotaur is kidnapped and Corydon and his friends are faced the task of mounting a rescue mission which will lead them on a dangerous voyage across the ocean, all the way to the fabled city of Atlantis. Atlantis is a city divided by a war between the gods that threatens to tear it apart. Poseidon, who is the father of the Medusa's baby, Gorgos, and Athene are fighting for control of Atlantis, and their worshippers are engaged not only in a deadly civil war but also a deadly dangerous sport, katabathos (which is a sort of extreme version of water polo), and at which Gorgos becomes a star player. Somehow Corydon and his friends must survive in the divided city and discover the whereabouts of their friend the Minotaur so that they can rescue him.

I was strongly reminded of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books (which I reviewed here and here) when reading these books, although Jackson's books are funnier and faster-moving. The Corydon books take the idea of semi-divine children of the Greek Gods and stands it on its head, however, since Corydon and Gorgos are both monsters, rather than humans like Percy and his Camp Half-Blood friends. However, the books don't really stand up to comparisons with Riordan's books. I missed Riordan's humour in the Corydon books.

Firefly Quote of the Week

River: Played with Kaylee. Sun came out, and I walked on my feet and heard with my ears. I ate the bits, the bits stayed down, and I work. I function like I'm a girl. I hate it because I know it'll go away. The sun goes dark and chaos has come again. Bits. Fluids. What am I?!
Simon: You are my beautiful sister.
River: I threw up on your bed.
Simon: Yep. Definitely my sister.

("War Stories", Season 1)

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Secret of the Sirens - Julia Golding

Julia Golding's The Secret of the Sirens is the first in a series of four books, the Companions Quartet.

When 10 year old Connie is sent to live with her aunt Evelyn, shes convinces this is going to be just one more place where she doesn't fit in. However she soon discovers she's wrong as the seaside town of Hescombe is full of adults and children who have strange links to creatures and animals, just as Connie does. She learns that Hescombe is the heart of a secret Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures, a group of people who have sworn to ensure that mythical beasts such as dragons, Pegasi, water sprites, etc., are kept safe. Normally the creatures and their chosen humans (Companions) work in harmony. But something abnormal has been happening in Hescombe. The Sirens, who have kept their deadly song to themselves for generations, are once again luring humans to their deaths. It doesn't take long for Connie to realise that the victims are oil workers at the new Axoil refinery. The Sirens are fed-up with their seas being polluted, but should the Society protect the Sirens or the men working for the oil refinery ? Connie doesn't think she has a role to play, until it becomes clear that she's a Universal Companion - the first in over a century, a Companion who can communicate with every type of beast on earth, in the water or in the air. Her power is immense. Unfortunately though, her power makes her more susceptible to the power of another Universal Companion who went to the "dark side" and he's heard about Connie, so he's coming back to Hescombe. And he'll use any means he can, be it violence or the power of the terrifying Storm Giants, to turn Connie to the dark side with him.

This book is somewhat more didactic and less assured than Golding's first novel, The Diamond of Drury Lane (which I reviewed here).

Julia Golding has her own website, which includes a non-interactive (ie. you can't leave comments) Blog.

Meme: Five little known things about me

I've been tagged by Kelly over at Big A, little a to share 5 Little Known Things About Me, so here goes:

1 - When I was 2, I stuck my finger in a live electric socket - some of my friends will tell you this explains a lot about me !

2 - I lived in Hong Kong for nearly 2 years because my Dad was stationed there when he was in the Army.

3 - I love mint and orange flavoured chocolate (separately, not together !)

4 - I can't see a World War One Roll of Honour/memorial without reading *every single name* on it - it's an act of Remembrance on my part. Those men gave their lives for me, the least I can do is give a few minutes of my time to remember them by reading their names.

5 - I founded the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship in 2002 and was its President for 2 years. (I'm now an honorary Life Member.)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy is the story of 12 year old Lucy who returns to Hagworthy after a five year absence to stay with her aunt for the summer. She becomes reacquainted with her old friends Caroline and Louise, who've turned horse-mad, and with Kester, who now goes to the local grammar school and is considered a misfit by many of the villagers. The vicar and Mrs Norton-Standen, the mother of Louise and Caroline are organising a Fete for the church restoration fund. The vicar wants to revive the ancient Horn Dance, despite opposition from some of the older village men. He and Mrs N-S get a dozen of the teenagers involved, but the Horn Dance is a dangerous rite and it invokes the mythical Wild Hunt which then possesses the teenage boys. They then hunt Kester, whom they don't like very much because he's so clever, and in doing so they bring Kester to the attention of the Wild Hunt. It's up to Lucy to try to save Kester, but can she reach him in time ? And does he want to be saved ?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Poetry Friday 21

I've got two poems by Edward Thomas for you this week:


Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.


The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, --
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds' the squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, -- who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

Edward Thomas

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Floodland - Marcus Sedgwick

Marcus Sedgwick's Floodland is his gripping first novel.

The dramatic opening:

Zoe ran. Harder than she had ever run in her life. Her feet pounded through the deserted streets of derelict buildings. Somewhere, not far behind, she could hear the gang coming after her. It felt as if her heart would burst but she didn't slow down. She'd been planning to leave the island for a long time but had been putting it off. It was a big decision to set out to sea in a tiny rowing boat. Now she had no choice.

Sets the scene remarkably well. This tale is set some time in the not-too-distant future in an England that has been almost wholly reclaimed by the sea. Young Zoe last saw her father and sick mother as they sailed away on the last boat from Norwich, leaving Zoe to face the future alone. one day, though, she finds a small rowing boat, and after some labour she manages to get it seaworthy and to find some oars (in a pub) with which to leave Norwich. She makes her way to Eel Island (Ely Cathedral and its immediate environs), a place where a strange boy named Dooby rules, despite his youth, and an old man named William tells mystifying stories, including a half remembered tale about a Doctor who went somewhere and stepped in a puddle and never went there again. William's actually half-remembering this rhyme:

Doctor Foster
Went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again.

He also vaguely remembers the story of Noah and his Ark, and he tells Zoe of the days before England and the world was flooded, when it was possible to drive from Norwich to Ely Cathedral. This is a world that Zoe knows nothing about and can scarcely believe in.

Unfortunately for Zoe, Dooby wants Zoe to take him away from Eel Island in her boat and he hides it from her, or rather his chief henchmen, Sprat and Munchkin, hide it somewhere. Dooby fits an outboard motor to it and plans that they will go off together in the next few days. Before Dooby can carry out his plan, however, a boy from a mob on some nearby island is discovered spying on the Eels. Dooby discovers that the boy's mob, the Cats, intend to invade Eel Island. When the invasion begins, he insists that Zoe help him escape. Unfortunately for Dooby, he failed to realise that outboard motors require petrol to function, and he also failed to discover the whole of the Cats' invasion plans. In the end, Zoe makes good her escape, not with Dooby, but with Munchkin, whom she had befriended whilst trying to find out where Dooby had hidden her boat. Despite almost drowning, the pair manage to reach the mainland of England, or what's left of it by now, and they go in search of Zoe's parents, although Zoe knows they may not have survived the journey, especially when her mother was sick.

The Boy Without a Name - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The Boy Without a Name is a short tale illustrated by Ann Dalton, about a young boy who, in the middle of the 17th century, makes his way across thirty miles of English countryside to the village of Swinfield where he was born around a decade or so earlier. In Burcombe he had been the miller's apprentice, but he had not enjoyed the job. Arriving in Swinfield he encounters the parish priest who takes him to the Poor House; the overseer then takes him to find some employment, intending the boy to work for the miller in Swinfield, but on the way they pass a quarry where men are digging out stone and the boy decides he would rather be apprenticed to the mason. In the process he acquires first a forename, and then a surname, so that by the end of the tale he has a full name, a job, a home and friends.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Cybils

The nominating and judging committees for the first ever Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards, the CYBILS (yes I know the acronym doesn't fit the letters, just don't blame me !) are being formed. If you want to volunteer, hop over to the site.

In the meantime, here are the Rules:

1. The book must be published in 2006 in English. Translations and bilingual books are okay too.

2. You can be anybody. You don't have to be a blogger to nominate a book. You can even be the author, the editor, the publicist, the next-door neighbor or best friend or just a random Googler.

3. If a book you love has already been nominated by someone else, you don't need to second it. We're pretty smart. We'll see it. Promise.

4. Please, pretty please, only nominate one book per category.

We fear editors submitting their entire lists, publicists under pressure from clients to nominate them all or indecisive types like yours truly who have 584 "favorite" books.

We're trying hard to not have any more rules, but if we cannot help ourselves, we will alert you at once.

The Wee Free Men; A Hat Full of Sky - Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is spotted as a potential witch at the age of 9, by Miss Tick, a Witch-Finder (that is, a witch who finds girls with Witch potential), who sees to it that Tiffany begins her magical education, not at a Hogwarts-style school, but by becoming an apprentice to different individual witches for a period of time. She is the kind of child who, after reading in her book of stories that Jenny Greenteeth has eyes the size of soup plates, measures a soup plate to check the size; she knows the meanings of lots of words since no one has ever told her that you’re not meant to read the dictionary like a novel. She’s also the kind of child who, hearing stories about the "wicked old witch", wonders "Where’s the evidence?"

In The Wee Free Men Tiffany encounters the fairy tale monster, Jenny Greenteeth, whom she wallops with a cast-iron frying pan, and sends on her way, because a monster has no business being in her river. She then meets Miss Tick, who tells Tiffany that "an incursion of major proportions" is about to take place; in other words the Queen of the Faerie is about to invade Tiffany's world. This being Terry Pratchett, we’re not talking about Tinkerbell fairies, so Miss Tick sets off to fetch help as she does not believe that either of them are capable of dealing with the Queen. Unfortunately, Tiffany's three year old brother, Wentworth, is kidnapped by the Queen, who takes him back to Fairyland. Fortunately, Tiffany finds herself some indomitable allies when she is temporarily made the Kelda (leader) of the Wee Free Men (aka the Nac Mac Feegle), a clan of 4 inch high blue men with an over-aggressive attitude (they love fighting, stealing and drinking, preferably all at once), but astonishing loyalty. They assist Tiffany in entering Fairyland and in her encounter with the Queen.

In the sequel, A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany goes off into the mountains to stay with Miss Level to be her apprentice so she can learn to be a witch. Unfortunately, just before she leaves the Chalk (where she lives), she attracts the attention of a "hiver", a bodiless creature that likes to inhabit minds until the owners of those minds go mad and die. Despite the fact that she's no longer their Kelda, several of the Nac Mac Feegle go after Tiffany, disguising themselves as a human by dressing up in stolen clothes (and a stolen beard) so that they can get the stagecoach up into the mountains. However, the hiver has already possessed Tiffany's mind and they find themselves forced to go after Tiffany (being otherworldly creatures, they're able to enter Tiffany's mind via her dreams). Tiffany manages to free her mind from the hiver, but it hangs around, wanting her power for itself. I'm not going to tell just how Tiffany chooses to deal with this frightening and threatening creature, except to say that she does so in a remarkably mature and unselfish manner. A Hat Full of Sky is a compelling look at the power of storytelling, a topic to which Pratchett returns again and again in his books.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Sixpenny Debt and other Oxford stories

The Sixpenny Debt and other Oxford stories is a rather mixed collection of short stories from the OxPens writing group. The title story, "The Sixpenny Debt" by Jane Stemp, is by far the best of the 16 stories in the collection. 13 year old Barty Lambert is an impoverished scholar at Oxford University, whose friend and protector Giles has died of a fever. He has been struggling to survive without starving until two people step into his life to assist him. Gina Claye's, "The Window", is a brief snapshot of a moment in a young woman's life, told from an intriguing point of view. Jane Gordon-Cumming's "Education in Action" was an amusing tale apart from the slightly snide tone of the ending. Lorna Pearson's "Cross Purposes" seemed to be at cross purposes with itself and I found it irritating, even though I'm not a big fan of Lewis Carroll ! Linora Lawrence's "The Tortoises of Turl Street" was disappointingly long-winded and her tortoises so anthropomorphised they might as well have been men, not tortoises.

There are several murder stories in the collection, unsurprisingly it seems to me, given the number of crime writers that have lived in or near Oxford, including, of course, Colin Dexter of Inspector Morse fame. Colin attended the launch party for the collection, and he was as charming and courteous as he always is at book events.

Firefly Quote of the Week

Kaylee: Oh, hey, there, Inara. How was your check-up?
Inara: Same as last year... What's going on here?
Kaylee: Oh, let's see.. We killed Simon and River... ...Stole a bunch of medicine, and now Zoe and the Captain are off springing the others that got snatched by the feds. Oh, here they are now.

("Ariel", Season 1)

Monday, October 16, 2006

The First Annual Children’s Book Awards, Blog Edition

News from Kelly at Big A, little a

This month we’ve seen a spate of book awards, some of which have left us wondering: couldn’t we, the intelligent, savvy members of the kidlitosphere do better? Or, at least, differently?
So, we’re inaugurating our own book awards, honoring books published in English for children in 2006. Anne Boles Levy, of Book Buds, will launch a site this week and administer the awards process. What we need first is a name for this award, so we can get the award site up asap. One suggested name is The Belugas. Okay, that was my suggestion, but I suspect it’s a little weird. Anyone have a better idea? Head on over to Book Buds and make your contest name suggestion.

How will these awards work?

Nominations for the best books of 2006 will be accepted until November 20, 2006. Books will be judged in the following categories:

Picture Book, Middle Grade Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy/SF, Picture Book Non Fiction, Non Fiction (Middle Grade/Young Adult), Graphic Novel, Poetry.

Nominating committees of five members from the children’s literature blogs* will narrow the recommendations down to a shortlist of five books per category. The shortlists will be announced January 1, 2007.

Committees of five members, different from those serving on the nominating committees, will decide which title per category will win the Children’s Book Award, Blog edition. The winners will be announced January 15, 2007.

This is meant to be as democratic and open a process as possible. Ask any questions you may have.

What does this mean for me?

If you run a blog about children’s literature* and would like to serve on a nominating committee or on a judging committee, then head on over to an administrating blog (organised by category and listed below) and nominate yourself.

Consider nominating yourself in two different genres, so that if the committee for one of your favorites fills up, you'll have a back-up option. Suggest a name by heading over to Book Buds. As soon as we have a name and committees, we can begin soliciting nominations.

Administrating Blogs

  • Picture Books, Big A little a (e-mail)

  • Middle Grade Fiction, A Fuse #8 Production (e-mail)

  • Young Adult Fiction, Jen Robinson’s Book Page (e-mail)

  • Fantasy/SF, Wands and Worlds (e-mail)

  • Non Fiction (Picture Book), Bartography (e-mail)

  • Non Fiction (MG/YA), propernoun.net (e-mail)

  • Graphic Novel, A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy (e-mail)

  • Poetry, Chicken Spaghetti (e-mail)

  • *Children’s writers who blog, or bloggers who run general literature blogs are also eligible to serve on either committee.

    If you want to participate, you know where to head !!

    The Elements of His Dark Materials - Laurie Frost

    I had the good fortune to receive a copy of Laurie Frost's The Elements of His Dark Materials today. It's a 560-page encyclopedia-style guide to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The Elements of His Dark Materials will do away with the tedious hunt for passages relating to a particular character, thing, or place. It contains page references to both the British and American editions, and to the special 10th anniversary edition of HDM that Philip Pullman has produced. And the book comes with an endorsement from Philip himself: "I can't recommend it too highly to the reader who's found anything interesting or enjoyable in this story of mine. I know I've turned to it frequently during the writing of the book I'm doing now, and I know I'll continue to do so."

    This is the table of contents:

    Characters A to Z
    Cross-Reference of Characters by World of Origin and Type

    Places and Peoples
    The Words of the Worlds
    The Worlds
    Cities, Countries, Regions, Continents, and Elements of Topography
    Structures and Streets
    The Oxfords

    Creatures, Beings, and Extraordinary Humans

    The Alethiometer, the Subtle Knife, and the Amber Spyglass

    Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology
    Multiple worlds, Prophecy, Stories
    Dust, Rusakov particles, Shadows/Shadow-particles, Sraf

    Applied Metaphysics

    Applied Sciences and Technology
    Clothing and Accessories
    Smokes and Medicinals
    Food and Drink Information Technology
    Other Crafted Goods and Materials

    The Natural Sciences
    Physical Sciences
    Animals Animals Exclusive to His Dark Materials
    Trees Exclusive to His Dark Materials
    Scientific Studies

    Social Structures of the Worlds
    Political, Military, and Others
    Juvenile Alliances

    Languages and Diction

    Religious - Biblical and Others

    Book Epigraphs
    Chapter Epigraphs

    Philip Pullman Bibliography
    HDM References
    Works Cited and Information Sources

    You can expect a review of this book in due course, but in the meantime, there are sample pages online here: Sample page 1, Sample page 2, Sample page 3. The Elements of His Dark Materials is available in the US as well.

    Sunday, October 15, 2006

    Carnival of Children's Literature - Final Chance !

    Just a quick reminder that the closing date for the 8th Carnival of Children's Literature, which I'm hosting for Halloween, is today. Submissions can be emailed directly to me or they can be made via the Carnival Site.

    The Intruders - E E Richardson

    The Intruders is E E Richardson's second novel. It is a horror story about a group of four children, siblings Joel and Cassie Demetrius, and their new stepbrothers, Tim (who's a little younger than Joel) and Damon (who's a little older than Cassie) Wilder, who move into an abandoned, rather derelict, house with their parents Amanda and Gerald (who aren't yet married) that's been empty for most of the time since it was built. It was built by a Patrick Sanderson, who became totally obsessed with building his perfect house. Whilst he's still building the house he marries a local widow, who moves in with her two sons.

    Years later, the Wilder and Demetrius families are in the process of settling down, although this isn't made easier by the fact that Cassie hates the Wilders, something that she makes very clear to all of them. She considers them intruders and doesn't want her mother to marry Gerald Wilder. However, things start to become a little weird around the house: both Joel (from whose point of view the story is told) and Tim begin experiencing nightmares, hearing voices and seeing things. Then there's the way Cassie's room is turned upside down (she automatically blames the Wilders) and the way in which the rubbish bags full of newly scraped wallpaper are slashed to bits and scattered about the huge garden. Finally Joel manages to convince Cassie that something is going on, but since neither she nor Damon are affected by the activities of the ghost(s), they don't take the younger boys very seriously. Damon and Cassie agree to hold a séance in the attic at midnight, and it goes badly, although the children learn that the ghost cannot escape from the house. Finally Amanda and Gerald go out for a meal together, and Cassie and Damon set up another séance, this time in the big main room downstairs. Unfortunately a thunderstorm arrives and the house begins to be bombarded, partly by the storm, and partly by the elemental power of the ghost. Joel and Tim have worked out that the ghost is the eldest of two boys who were trapped in the attic; they go up to the attic to speak to the ghost, but Joel is thrown bodily across the attic, and Tim falls off the ladder after the ghost knocks it down. The house is still under attack, with all the windows blown in and rain pouring through the damaged front door. Finally the four take refuge in the cellar, where they make a grisly discovery after Joel manages to work out just who the ghost is and why it is trapped in the house.

    I'm not a fan of horror books or movies, so I found this book a rather challenging read. I wouldn't recommend reading it in the dark, particularly if you've got a vivid imagination ! It's the sort of book that's best read in broad daylight, preferably outside in the sunshine.

    Saturday, October 14, 2006

    The Foreshadowing - Marcus Sedgwick

    Marcus Sedgwick's The Foreshadowing is an historical fantasy set during the First World War. 17 year old Alexandra, known to her family as Sasha, gets premonitions of the future. The first happened when she was 5 and she foresaw the death of her friend Clare, shortly before she died of TB. Sasha buries the memory of her premonition of Clare's death for 12 years until the War reignites her skill/curse. Sometimes the premonitions come in the form of dreams, as when she dreams of the death of her brother Edgar's friend, George Yates, in the War and the next morning his name is on the Roll of Honour in the Times, and sometimes they come in the form of visions when Sasha touches something or someone. Since there is no one to whom she can talk about her visions, she tries to ignore them, and continues to ask her father if she can become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse at the hospital where he works as a neurasthenia (shell-shock) specialist. He finally agrees, but Sasha finds herself having even more premonitions as she helps to nurse the soldiers being treated at the hospital.

    Sasha also continues her private tuition and is learning about Greek History when she and her tutor group begin reading the Iliad, and Sasha learns of Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, who is given the gift of Prophecy by the god Apollo, and when she does not return his love, he curses her gift so that no one will ever believe any prophecy which she makes. Sasha, like Cassandra, sees her "gift" as a curse because no one in her family will discuss it with her, not even her favourite brother Tom. Then one day Sasha dreams of Tom being shot, and she sets off to the Front with little money and some stolen papers, in an attempt to find and save her brother, despite the fact that the Western Front is a vast area and she has little idea where his battalion is stationed.

    This is a haunting and moving book that has been well researched and conveys the atmosphere and historical facts of life during World War One in a thoughtful manner. Sedgwick, in an author's note, mentions several books that he found useful in researching the book, and he has used the material well and wisely. In the 14 years that I have been interested in the First World War, I have read a number of modern novels set during this period, and The Foreshadowing is one of the most engaging of them. Sedgwick also fits in the references to Greek History and the Iliad in a seamless manner.

    The only disconcerting thing about this book, and it's only a slight thing, is that the chapters are numbered in reverse order from 101 to 1. I'm not going to explain why Sedgwick has done this as the book makes it clear.

    Friday, October 13, 2006

    Four British Fantasists - Charles Butler

    Charles Butler's Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper is a thoughtful and thought-provoking study. I have written elsewhere of the frustration of reading scholarly works that seem only to draw attention to how clever the scholar is - fortunately Butler's book does the exact opposite (although no one should doubt that Butler is clever.) Four British Fantasists draws attention to the skill of the authors about whom Butler is writing and sends the reader (back) to the books of Garner, Cooper, Jones and Lively that are being discussed.

    This study is divided into five chapters, but rather than devoting one chapter to each separate author, Butler has largely written about all four authors together in each chapter (chapter 4 is slightly different, but more on that later). The first chapter, "Contexts and Connections" introduces the reader to the links between these four, apparently disparate writers: all four began their careers during what's often referred to as the "second Golden Age" of children's literature (in the 1960s and 1970s) and they were contemporaries at Oxford University, although only Jones and Cooper read English, Lively having chosen History and Garner the Classics (although he did not complete his degree). All four also grew up during the Second World War and Butler looks at the significance of this conflict for their writing.

    Chapter two, "Applied Archaeology", looks in detail at the four related disciplines of geology, archaeology, landscape history and paleontology, and considers how these disciplines have fed the imaginations of the four fantasists, creating memorable tales that are told with confidence and a close attention to details.

    Chapter three, "Longing and Belonging", considers the way in which the four authors present issues of authenticity, belonging and respect in the context of modern British life. Butler discusses, amongst others, Garner's Strandloper, Wynne Jones' The Homeward Bounders, Lively's The House at Norham Gardens and The Driftway, and Cooper's Mandrake. Butler also discusses the way the four fantasists represent race and culture in their novels.

    Chapter four, "Myth and Magic", discusses the authors' choice of fantasy and the supernatural as the modes within which they (mostly) write. Butler looks at their use of folk traditions and folklore, in particular their appropriation and use of myths (not all of them British myths). It is in this chapter that Butler takes the opportunity to discuss each author in a separate section as he looks at the use each one makes of magic and myth in their novels.

    Chapter five, "Conclusion: Writing for Children", considers what it means for the four fantasists to be best known as writers of children's books; in particular he looks at some of the claims made about the four fantasists by children's literature critics (especially Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children's Literature).

    This is a well-crafted, detailed study of four well-known British children's fantasy authors whose work has had a lasting impact on children's literature in Britain and elsewhere (including on Butler's own novels). It references interviews which Butler conducted with all four authors, as well current and older criticism. It was a pleasure to read, as well as an inspiration to go to the books under discussion, and it is a pleasure to recommend this book.

    Four British Fantasists is published by Scarecrow Press, with the Children's Literature Association.

    Poetry Friday 20

    It's not Halloween for a couple more weeks, but one way and another it's been a witchy week: I've just re-read the first two Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett in order to review the whole series, and I read Marcus Sedgwick's Witch Hill and Margaret Mahy's The Changeover earlier this week, so I thought I'd offer you the "Witches' Chant" from Shakespeare's Macbeth (it also serves as another reminder (see below !) for the Halloween Carnival of Children's Literature that I'll be hosting) at the end of the month.

    Witches' Chant

    Round about the cauldron go:
    In the poisones entrails throw.
    Toad, that under cold stone
    Days and nights has thirty-one
    Sweated venom sleeping got,
    Boil thou first in the charmed pot.
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Fillet of a fenny snake,
    In the cauldron boil and bake;
    Eye of newt and toe of frog,
    Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
    Adder's fork and blindworm's sting,
    Lizard's leg and howlet's wing.
    For charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
    Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
    Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
    Root of hemlock digg'd in the dark,
    Liver of blaspheming Jew;
    Gall of goat; and slips of yew
    silver'd in the moon's eclipse;
    Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips;
    Finger of birth-strangled babe
    Ditch-deliver'd by the drab, -
    Make the gruel thick and slab:
    Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
    For ingredients of our cauldron.
    Double, double toil and trouble,
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Carnival of Children's Literature Reminder

    Just a quick reminder that the closing date for the 8th Carnival of Children's Literature, which I'm hosting for Halloween, is only 2 days away. Submissions can be emailed directly to me or they can be made via the Carnival Site. The closing date is rather early as I'm going to be very busy the weekend of 21-22 October and I want time to read everyone's submissions and sort out how to present them.

    Thursday, October 12, 2006

    The Lurkers - Charles Butler

    Charles Butler's brand new book, The Lurkers (out October 27th) is a disturbing tale of a group of strange and dangerous beings who have no physical presence in our world, apart from one, named Galder, who is only half in our world. When Verity sees a weird semi-visible figure near her brother John, one day he tells her that it is a harmless Lurker. He likes Galder, who gives him everything he wants whether it's a bigger bedroom, Bristol Rovers winning a football semi-final 6 - 1 against Chelsea, or a host of school friends visiting and praising John.

    However, the Lurkers are far from harmless; they feed on the human imagination and Galder is using John's brilliant young mind to become more solid and independent. Galder and his fellow alien beings intend to take over the minds of humanity, so they starting infecting people with the belief that the End Is Nigh in order to take control of them. Only Verity can stand against the Lurkers, because she cannot lie, even to herself, as her name belies her nature. But is Verity's knowledge of what the Lurkers intend sufficient for her to save not only her brother, but everyone else as well ?

    I found this book very hard to put down - as is always the case with Butler's books. He writes totally believable characters and tense, intriguing narratives that make me want to sit and read non-stop. You can read the first chapter at the Usborne website but be warned, one chapter will not be enough...

    Wednesday, October 11, 2006

    The Changeover - Margaret Mahy

    Margaret Mahy's The Changeover is subtitled "A Supernatural Romance", and there's certainly a strong supernatural element in the book. 14 year old Laura Chant, is a New Zealand schoolgirl, living a fairly ordinary life: her parents are divorced and her mother struggles to make ends meet, working in a book shop which she isn't paid very well to manage. Laura has a 3 year old brother named Jacko. She does fairly well at school, helps out at home by taking care of Jacko when her mother has to work late, and she wonders what boys are like. However, there is something unusual about Laura: occasionally she gets premonitions about significant events that are about to happen in her life.

    One day, Laura gets such a premonition and later she meets an ancient spirit who's calling itself Carmody Braque. The spirit, which is passing itself off as a Bric-a-Brac shop owner, gains power over Jacko and begins to feed off his life force, reanimating his own non-living body in the process. Whilst Braque thrives, Jacko starts to waste away. Laura sees this happening but is powerless to stop it until, in her desperation, she calls on the aid of Sorensen Carlisle, an older boy at her school, whom she suspects of being a witch.

    It turns out that not only Sorry, but his mother (Miriam) and his grandmother (Winter) are also witches. They suggest that Laura become a witch herself: she is already half way there anyway, being a "sensitive". If she can survive undergoing a rather harrowing spiritual trial, Laura can "change over" to a witch, rousing the powers that are already half-awake in her, and then use them to stop Carmody Braque.

    After completing the changeover, Laura makes a stamp with which to curse Braque (just as he had used a stamp, featuring his own face, to curse Jacko):

    "Stamp, your name is to be Laura. I'm sharing my name with you. I'm putting my power into you and you must do my work. Don't listen to anyone but me." She thought for what seemed like a long time, though it was really only a single second, and in that time, oddly enough, the picture of the old, whistling kettle at home came into her mind. "You are to be my command laid on my enemy. You'll make a hole in him through which he'll drip away until he runs dry. As he drips out darkness, we'll smile together, me outside, you inside. We'll " (she found her voice rising higher and growing a little hysterical) " ... we'll crush him between our smiles." She looked up at the reflected witches and said nervously, "Is that enough?"
    "Quite enough," Winter said, and behind the fine lace of her age, Laura saw a reflection of Sorry's wariness.
    "Terrific!" exclaimed Sorry. "Chant, can I be on your side? I'd hate to be your enemy."

    No wonder Winter is wary of Laura, with a curse like that !

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006

    Witch Hill - Marcus Sedgwick

    Marcus Sedgwick's Witch Hill is a fascinatingly creepy, suspenseful story. Jamie initially isn't too worried about the bad dreams he's been having since coming to stay at his aunt's house; after all, most people who wake in the middle of the night to find their house burning down would probably have nightmares too. But Jamie's not dreaming about fires, but about a "horrible, scary old woman" who is coming after him at a relentless hobbling run. He's sure she wants him for some awful purpose. Although he's come to his Aunt Jane's to recover from the aftermath of the fire, he doesn't really want to bother her, or his cousin Alison, with his silly fears and dreams. He knows that they are busy with the plans for the Scouring of Crownhill, in which they will be cleaning the ancient chalk carving on the hillside that overlooks the village. But then the carving turns out to be a peculiar figure, not the expected "crown" that everyone thought was carved into the hill. Once Jamie uncovers evidence of a centuries-ago witchcraft trial in the papers brought by the English Heritage woman, he finds himself caught up in a centuries-old mystery to which he unwittingly holds the key. Just who is the old crone who is chasing him and what does she want ? Jamie needs to find out, but doing so will lead him to face his fears and his anger at being sent away instead of being allowed to remain with his family to help them.

    * * * * * *

    There's a long tradition of Scouring chalk figures in England. Thomas Hughes (author of Tom Brown's School Days) attended the Scouring of the White Horse at Uffington and wrote a novel about it. Long term readers of my Blog will know I live near the White Horse at Uffington, and that I have written about it for the J R R Tolkien Encyclopaedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (which is out tomorrow if you've got $200 to spare !)

    Firefly Quote of the Week

    Inara: Mal - you don't have to die alone.
    Mal: Everybody dies alone.

    ("Out of Gas", season 1)

    Monday, October 09, 2006

    The Peppermint Pig - Nina Bawden

    Nina Bawden's The Peppermint Pig opens with the following attention-grabbing paragraph:

    "Old Granny Greengrass had her finger chopped off in the butcher's when she was buying half a leg of lamb. She had pointed to the place where she wanted her joint to be cut but then she decided she needed a bigger piece and pointed again. Unfortunately, Mr Grummett, the butcher, was already bringing his sharp chopper down. He chopped straight through her finger and it flew like a snapped twig into a pile of sawdust in the corner of the shop. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Granny Greengrass or the butcher. But she didn't blame him. She said, 'I could never make up my mind and stick to it Mr Grummett, that's always been my trouble.'"

    This humorousness pervades Bawden's book like the "peppermint" pig himself. Johnnie was the runt of the litter, hence he's a "peppermint pig" and he comes into the lives of the four Greengrass children (George, Lily, Theo and Polly) after their own lives are turned upside. Initially they live in London with their mother, the teller of the blood curdling story with which the book opens, and their happy father who is a coach-painter by trade. One day, however, their father leaves his job, deliberately taking the blame for a theft he hasn't committed in the hope of sparing the old man who owns the coach company from discovering that his only son is a thief and a liar. Mr Greengrass goes off to America in order to join the children's Uncle Edmund and (hopefully) make his fortune. In the meantime the children (and their mother) go to stay with their Aunts Sarah and Harriet in Norfolk.

    Their mother buys Johnnie, the peppermint pig, from the local milkman for a shilling, telling the children that "Pigs are a poor man's investment", although neither Theo nor Poll have any idea what this means. All they know is that Johnnie is the best thing to have happened to them since their father left for America. Johnnie's so tiny that he can fit into a pint glass and he feels smooth if he's stroked one way, yet scratchy if he's stroked the other. Their mother tells them that "Pigs are more intelligent than any dog" and Johnnie proves her right. Under the joint care of Theo and Poll, Johnnie soon grows big and fat and strong. He comes when he's called and sits still when he's told, he'll wait outside shops for them without needing to be tied up as a dog would. He becomes quite famous as the Greengrass pet pig and even the talk of the town. One day Poll and her mother even take him to tea with Lady March, much to the amusement of her servants, who are quite disdainful of their mistress. On another occasion he causes havoc when the fair comes to town and he gets left behind at home. Lonely and miserable, he rushes after the Greengrasses, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. The Bearded Lady isn't at all impressed.

    In some ways The Peppermint Pig is rather like that American classic, Charlotte's Web, in that it demonstrates the birth, life and death cycle in a way that children can understand and come to terms with. But it's also a very different story as there's no fantasy element to Bawden's tale. The characters in this tale are well realised, especially Poll and her reactions to the half-understood conversations that take place around her and over her head; events assume an enormous significance when you're only 9 and your once happy life has been turned upside down.

    I don't often read non-fantasy books (largely because there are so many fantasy books out there that even half-keeping up is time consuming), but whenever I do, I always seem to end up reading quite brilliant books, and this is definitely one of them.

    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    The Glass Tower - Catherine Fisher

    Catherine Fisher's The Glass Tower is actually three short stories in one volume.

    The first story is The Conjuror's Game; it's a game that should never have been started. Young Alick, whose father owns a bookshop, meets a conjuror named Luke who intrigues him so much that Alick ends up following him to places he should not go. Luke must then help Alick replace the Tree game piece, which Alick had no business removing, on the central square of the game board before the Knights and Ravens bring their eternal battle rampaging through the snowbound villages of Halcombe Great Wood.

    The Candle Man is a tale set in the Severn Estuary. A fiddler named Meurig was cursed in infancy by a mysterious woman who tied his soul to a candle and swore that when it burnt away, he would die. Meurig takes a job at the Sea Wall Inn, playing live music for the customers as he resumes his inherited role as Watchman of the Sea Wall, a role held by his father and grandfather before him. It's his responsibility to maintain the sea wall and ensure it continues to protect the town from the incursions of the sea up the River Severn, incursions which Hafren, the river goddess encourages. She tries to take Meurig's candle from him, after his young friends Conor and Sara manage to recover it from their old schoolteacher Mr Caristan, into whose hands it had accidentally fallen two years earlier. Meurig and the children then find themselves engaged in a battle of wits with Hafren, with Meurig's soul as the stake.

    Young Jamie finds a mysterious magical book that talks to Jamie, via an unknown hand writing on its pages and offers to lead him to Fintan's Tower. But who are the three stranger men who pursue him and his sister Jennie ? And how can they know whom to trust when Fintan's glass tower contains unimaginable terrors and treasures, and the only time they have available to achieve a rescue is the two minutes of a total eclipse of the sun ?

    Saturday, October 07, 2006

    Carnival of Children's Literature Reminder

    This is just a reminder that you only have two weeks in which to sign up for the 8th Carnival of Children's Literature, on the theme of Halloween, which I'm hosting on October 31. I invite you to send me posts about books/films/poems about witches, pumpkins, vampires, ghosts and ghouls, and anything else that might be related to Halloween (your latest Harry Potter theory, perhaps ?). Submissions can be emailed directly to me or they can be made via the Carnival Site. Sorry I don't have a nifty clickable box over in the right-hand pane - the one thing Beta Blogger doesn't want to do is let me post such a link ! I'll try to devise an ordinary text link instead.

    If you're unfamiliar with the concept of a Blog Carnival, you might want to check out the previous Carnivals of Children's Literature which were hosted as follows:

    The First Carnival of Children's Literature was at Here in the Bonny Glen.
    The Second Carnival of Literature, A Coney Island Adventure was at Chicken Spaghetti.
    The Third Carnival of Children's Literature was at Semicolon.
    The Fourth Carnival of Literature, the Broken Toe Edition was at Here in the Bonny Glen.
    The Fifth Carnival of children's Litetature, the Witches Edition was at Big A, little a.
    The Sixth Carnival of Children's Literature was at Castle of the Immacualte.
    The Seventh Carnival of Children's Literature, the Harvest edition is at Wands and Worlds.

    Feminism Meme

    I've been tagged by L Lee Lowe of the Lowebrow Blog with a Feminism Meme. The meme asks, "What are five things that Feminism has done for you ?" I can't be as witty and succinct as Lee, but these are the five things that have had the greatest impact on me as a fantasy reader:

    1 - Female wizards/mages who are at least as powerful as their male colleagues.

    2 - Male wizards who don't have to remain celibate for fear of losing their power (which I always felt was a slap in the face to women readers everywhere, especially when said wizards are created by women writers: yes I am looking at you Ursula K Le Guin !)

    3 - Warrior women who have a feminine side and don't necessarily have to be butch lesbians, or have to disguise themselves as men in order to fight.

    4 - Strong female characters (particularly girls under 18) who aren't always princesses or in need of rescuing all the time !

    5 - Female characters who are equals with male protagonists, instead of simpering or giggly sidekicks (and I'm glad that Hermione has become less giggly over the years !)

    This might sound rather trivial to some people, but as a lifelong fantasy reader these five things are very important to me. Although I was quite capable, as a child, of identifying with male protagonists in books, I did get a bit fed up with the fact that the girls were never the equal of the boys, and screaming female companions (a la Doctor Who's Ace) are especially annoying (which is one reason I was glad Rose developed the way she did in the new Doctor Who incarnation). I'll be interested to know the thoughts of my readers.

    Influential Children's Books

    Kelly of Big A, little a reported on Thursday that Michelle Pauli had started a conversation on the Guardian's Culture Vulture Blog about children's books teaching us important life lessons. And other Kidslit Bloggers have joined in the discussion, such as Jen Robinson with two posts on her Blog (the second one is here) and Wendy at Blog from a Windowsill also has two posts (here and here), and I've no doubt there are others I've not yet tracked down.

    I'm not sure that I know what important life lessons I learned from the children's books I remember reading that I wouldn't have learnt anyway from my parents and grandparents, but I can give you a list of children's books with plots that have remained intensely alive in my head for 25 or more years:

    Robert O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Reviewed here)

    Alan Garner's The Owl Service (Reviewed here)

    Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland and Moominland Winter (Reviewed here)

    Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (Reviewed here)

    Clive King’s Stig of the Dump (Reviewed here)

    C S Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia

    Penelope Lively's The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (Reviewed here)

    Mary Norton's The Borrowers: Complete Series

    Philippa Pearce's A Dog So Small (Reviewed here)

    Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams (Reviewed here)

    J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit

    Aside from The Chronicles of Narnia, I've recently re-read all of these books and found that they are still as powerful now as they were when I first read them 25 or more years ago.

    Friday, October 06, 2006

    The Voyage of QV 66 - Penelope Lively

    Penelope Lively's The Voyage of QV 66 (now sadly out of print), is an unusual book for her as it's a dystopian which sees the whole Earth flooded (at least so the reader assumes from some newspaper headlines that are mentioned in passing: Prime Minister Assures Nation No Call For Alarm on Flood Warnings, Pope Prays for Divine Intervention, America and Russia to Organise World Evacuation to Mars) and abandoned by people.

    More importantly however, Stanley, doesn't know what sort of animal he is, so he and his friends set out on a quest to discover his identity. What follows is an adventure in which the animals - Freda the cow, Pansy the kitten, Ned the horse, Offa the pigeon, and Pal the dog (who narrates the story) - travel across England from Carlisle to London Zoo, via a number of towns and cities, where Stanley believes he will find the answer to what kind of animal he is. There is never a dull moment as they voyage south aboard the QV66, meeting various interesting characters (and sometimes some dangerous ones too) along the way. Not only do they lose Pansy the cat when she takes off in an improvised hot air balloon, they also meet a huge aristocratic eagle, a regimental parrot named Major Trumpington-Smith, and a pack of very unfriendly dogs in Manchester.

    This is a funny and touching adventure story that tells of friendship, exploration and discovery. The animals in it are portrayed with some very recognisable human characteristics (especially Stanley), and the mix of personalities provides an entertaining basis for the story. Pal's narrative has a dry, ironic tone that proves him to be a natural storyteller. The tale is somewhat reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome's famous tale of a river journey, Three Men in a Boat, but is a lot more fun.

    Thursday, October 05, 2006

    National Poetry Day

    Since it's National Poetry Day today, I thought I'd have a poetry Thursday this week. This year's theme is identity and I know of few poems that are more English than this one by Thomas Gray (1750):

    Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

    The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
    The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
    The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
    And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

    Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
    And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
    Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
    And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

    Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower,
    The moping owl does to the moon complain,
    Of such as wand'ring near her secret bower,
    Molest her ancient solitary reign.

    Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
    Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
    Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
    The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

    The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
    The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
    The cock's shrill clarion, and the echoing horn,
    No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

    For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
    Or busy housewife ply her evening care,
    No children run to lisp their Sire's return,
    Nor climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

    Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
    Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke,
    How jocund did they drive their team afield,
    How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stoke!

    Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
    Their homely joys and destiny obscure,
    Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
    The short and simple annals of the poor.

    The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
    And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
    Awaits alike th'inevitable hour,
    The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

    Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
    If mem'ry o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
    Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
    The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

    Can storied urn, or animated bust,
    Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
    Can honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
    Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?

    Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid,
    Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
    Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
    Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

    But knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
    Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll,
    Chill penury repress'd their noble rage,
    And froze the genial current of the soul.

    Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
    The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear,
    Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

    Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast,
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
    Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

    Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
    The treats of pain and ruin to despise,
    To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
    And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes.

    Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone,
    Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined:
    Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
    Or shut the gates of mercy on mankind.

    The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
    To quench the blushes of ingenious shame,
    Or heap the shrine of luxury and pride,
    With incense, kindled at the muse's flame.

    Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
    Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
    Along the cool sequester'd vale of life,
    They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

    Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect,
    Some frail memories still erected nigh,
    With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
    Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

    Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
    The place of fame and epitaph supply;
    And many a holy text around she strews,
    That teach the rustic moralists to die.

    For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
    This pleasing anxious being e'er resing'd,
    Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
    Nor cast one longing ling'ring look behind?

    On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
    Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
    Even from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
    Even in our ashes live their wonted fires.

    For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,
    Dost in these lines their artless tale relate:
    If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
    Some kindred spirit shall enquire thy fate.

    Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
    'Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn',
    'Brushing with hasty steps the dews away',
    'To meet the sun upon the upland lawn'.

    'There, at the foot of yonder nodding beech',
    'That wreaths its old fantastic roots so high',
    'His listless length at noontide would he stretch',
    'And pore upon the brook, that babbles by'.

    'Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn',
    'Muttering his wayward fancies, would he rove';
    'Now drooping, woeful-wan, like one forelorn',
    'Or crazed with care, or cross'd in hopeless love'.

    'One morn I miss'd him from the custom'd hill',
    'Along the heath, and near his fav'rite tree';
    'Another came; nor yet beside the rill',
    'Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he'.

    'The next with dirges due in sad array,'
    'Slow through the churchway path we saw him borne',
    'Approach and read, for thou cans't read, the lay',
    'Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn'.

    The Epitaph

    Here rests his head upon the lap of earth,
    A youth, to fortune and to fame unknown;
    Fair science frown'd not on his humble birth,
    And melancholy mark'd him for her own.

    Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
    Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:
    He gave to mis'ry all he had, a tear,
    He gain'd from heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

    No farther seek his merits to disclose,
    Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
    (There they alike in trembling hope repose),
    The bosom of his father, and his God.

    Some might consider writing a poem about a graveyard to be a little morbid, but this poem speaks to me of the long history of England, and how the people have shaped the land and the land has shaped the people. These two verses:

    Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
    Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
    Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
    The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

    Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast,
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
    Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

    give the reader a sense of the historical potential of this little graveyard: Hampden may not be a well known name outside of Britain, but I'm quite sure that a lot of non-Brits will be familiar with the names of Milton and Cromwell !