Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Great Good Thing; Into the Labyrinth - Roderick Townley

What particularly interested me about Roderick Townley's The Great Good Thing and Into The Labyrinth, and what differentiates them from Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series (aside from the obvious fact that Townley's books are aimed squarely at children), is the fact that Townley's characters interact with their environment: for example, they have to dodge illustrations; Sylvie goes to sleep in the margin of the book, leaning her head on the word "grandiloquent" (p. 8). And they respond to someone reading the story aloud - which makes it harder for them to concentrate on the story. For a Reader to read the entire story from beginning to end (as Claire does at one stage) is the equivalent to a non-stop performance of a play for a theatre company: exhausting.

It's also interesting that Sylvie (for example) doesn't comprehend the concept of scaring oneself for pleasure - although she doesn't realise that Readers who like to re-read the scary parts of her story are going to be less scared than Sylvie herself, to whom the events are happening.

I found Townley's conception of Internet cookies producing actual (inedible) cookies/biscuits amusing; as was the idea of the characters having to learn to step down lines of text when the story is being read on (and scrolled up) a screen, instead of in a book. I also liked the way that changing the words, affected the characters: thus Pingree the annoying and scheming jester, was transformed into a "greenpig" (which is very nearly an anagram of his name) when he falls into a "soft patch" in the text. A "soft patch" is an area of the story that's been affected by a virus which is created by Claire's brother Ricky's grandson, who is also called Ricky and who is as destructive as his grandfather was, but where his grandfather set fire to the original (and only) copy of The Great Good Thing, Ricky creates a virus to damage/destroy the text.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord is my favourite of all of her books which I have read (I confess I've not got hold of a copy of Inkspell the sequel to Inkheart yet as I didn't much enjoy the first book.)

Two orphaned boys are hiding out in Venice, having run away from their aunt who wants to send 12 year old Prosper away to a boarding school, and to take custody of 5 year old Boniface (Bo to everyone). At the start of the tale the two boys have travelled from their grandfather's home in Hamburg to Venice, the magical city about which they heard so much from their mother who died three months previously. When they arrived in Venice they were befriended by a gang of four children: Riccio, who is a pickpocket; Mosca, who loves boats; Hornet, who loves books and whose real name is Caterina; and Scipio, who is the eponymous Thief Lord. Unfortunately for Prosper and Bo, their Aunt Esther has tracked them down to Venice and she employs a tortoise-loving detective named Victor Getz to locate them. Fortunately Victor is too sympathetic towards the boys to be a villain, and he gets entangled in the adventures of the gang, and ends up helping Bo and Prosper instead of handing them over to Esther and her horrible husband.

Things I like about this book include Victor's vanity: he's so absorbed in admiring his reflection of himself with his new fake walrus moustache that he doesn't even hear the Hartliebs coming up the stairs, and he assumes they're admiring his "handsome" nameplate when they don't immediately knock on his door; and Hornet's passion for books.

I have to confess that I wondered all over again, just why Max and Esther Hartlieb even want to adopt Bo, given their clear dislike of children (Max Hartlieb complains that they are "fidgety and loud, and often quite dirty", and have "no idea what's really important" !)

I must also confess that I was quite convinced, on my first reading, that Prosper would also use the magical roundabout to age himself just a few years so that he could become Bo's legal guardian.

I did a quick Google search to discover who was "the book man" (ie. Nicolo Tommaseo, whose statue is a meeting place in the book). It turns out he was a 19th century Dalmatian scholar who fought against Austrian domination in 1848. Annoyingly I couldn't find a photo of his statue that actually shows the books !

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The White Darkness - Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness is the story of Symone Wates, a deaf 14-year-old girl, who is a complete misfit at her school, and whose best friend is the long-dead Captain Titus Oates. Her "Uncle" Victor (who is in fact her father's business partner) takes her to Paris; initially Sym's mum is going with them, but Victor pockets her mother's passport. Once in Paris, however, Victor suggests that they go to the South Pole instead as he believes in the 1818 theory of John Cleves Symmes, of a Hollow Earth (which envisions the Earth as a shell about 800 miles thick, with openings at both poles about 1400 miles across. Symmes believed there were four inner shells also open at the poles), and he wants Sym (who discovers that she is named after Symmes) to help him discover Symmes' Hole, as the entrance is known. Sym also discovers that her father, before his death, had stopped believing the theory and that Victor murdered her father with the supposedly healing herbal teas he had been giving Sym's father. Sym has believed for a long time that her father didn't love her and was disappointed in her, but Victor's revelations of her father's murder (so that he could cash in Mr Wates' life insurance and cover up the fact that he has been robbing Sym's family blind for years) cause her to rethink her view of her relationship to her father.

After they arrive in Antarctica, Victor reveals the supposed existence of Symmes' Hole to Sym, and introduces his fellow believes, Manfred Bruch, a film producer and his "son" Sigurd, who are not related and are not really from Norway either. Bruch tries to con Victor out of the finances Victor has given him for the documentary film Bruch was supposed to be making about Victor's "Great Discovery", but Victor is too good at deceiving others to be deceived himself. The bankers' draft that Bruch holds is worthless, and Victor prevents Manfred and Sigured from flying away by blowing up the weekly plane that has come to the Camp. He has also given everyone except himself, Sym, Manfred and Sigurd one of his herbal concoctions, leaving them to sleep so that the four of them can go off with the big Hagglund truck in search of the portal. Manfred reveals his attempt to con Victor, but Victor has suspected him all along and has been giving Bruch his special "teas" since they left camp, and he eventually abandons Bruch out on The Ice, once the latter asks that they turn back to the camp.

Victor reveals his intention that Sym and Sigurd meet the aliens whom he believes to be living inside the earth and that they will be the outside world's ambassadors (and that they will have children to maintain the line of contact). Sym has been having grave doubts about Victor before he reveals that he was responsible for her father's death, and then she realises that Victor was also responsible for Sym going deaf, when he is supposedly "training" Sym for the role he has planned and gives her strong antibiotics that cause her to go deaf. She and Sigurd consider killing Victor and driving the Hagglund back to the Camp, but they decide they cannot kill Victor. However, when they stop for a refueling break, Sigurd goes off, supposedly to go to the toilet, but instead he pretends to have found Symmes' Hole. He fools Victor who clambers down into an ice hole and becomes trapped there, whilst Sigurd goes off with the Hagglund. Sym finds herself alone on The Ice, and attempts to retrace their path back to the Camp. Eventually she catches up with Sigurd, who has stalled the Hagglund and then caused the engine to overheat so that it melts (a fact Sym finds irresistibly funny, given their location). Sym is convinced they will die, but one of the women from the tourist group at the Camp finds a postcard that Sym had left with her for her mother and people are sent in search of the four missing persons, arriving just in the nick of time to save Sym and Sigurd at least.

Throughout the book, Sym talks frequently to Titus Oates with whom she believes she is in love, even though he's 90 years dead and only exists in her head. She has regular conversations with Titus, and after Sigurd has abandoned her and Victor, and she (in turn) has left Victor behind, she gives him her pain to carry, believing she can see him pulling it on a sled as he walks alongside her and encourages her to keep moving.

This is a fabulous book about the dangers of obsession (whether with a crackpot pseudo-scientific theory, or with a long dead polar explorer), and a coming-of-age story too (there is no doubt that Sym matures a great deal during her experiences). It's also a gripping, tense thriller that keeps the reader turning the pages.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Leap - Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud's The Leap is an intense and thought-provoking book about a girl who sees her best friend drown, but believes that he was actually taken by women who live in a parallel reality to ours. Charlie visits the Mill Pond with Max and watches him climb up into a plum tree. He eats a lot of plums himself and throws some to Charlie, then she notices that he is sitting gazing down into the pond, his concentration utterly fixed; when she calls out to him, he ignores her, and then he suddenly throws himself from the tree into the pond. Charlie dives in after him, even though she’s not a good swimmer, and finds (or appears to find) several long haired, green eyed women, who have taken Max into their arms and are taking him away from Charlie. Charlie then proceeds to dream about following Max wherever he goes, starting at a sea shore, travelling across a desert and into a massive forest.

On one level, Charlie's belief in Max being captured by the women in the Mill Pond is true and she must follow him in the parallel reality, if she is to regain her friend, but on another, more realistic level, it's quite possible that the women were just weeds and plants in the Mill Pond, and the women are Charlie's explanation for Max's apparently inexplicable act. But Stroud builds up the details of the parallel reality in which Charlie is following Max to an incredible level. The way in which Stroud builds up the suspense in the first chapter is skilful and compelling: Charlie's account of what happened (or what she believes happened) is intercut with her experience of being in the hospital after Max drowned and she nearly drowned trying to rescue him, and it's not until almost the end of the first chapter that you actually learn what happened (or what Charlie believes happened). In the second chapter Stroud switches the PoV to Charlie's older brother, James, which gives the reader an outsider’s perspective on what becomes an increasingly worrying situation – and adds to the tension.

Chapter 3 gives us the medical point of view – that Charlie nearly drowned and, in doing so, she hallucinated and "saw" the women where there were really just pond weeds. It's recommended that Charlie receive psychiatric counselling to help her come to terms with Max's death, but Charlie refuses to discuss Max after her mother reacted sceptically to Charlie's account of the women in the pond. This means that Charlie gets sucked into her dreams of the parallel reality, and her experiences as she begins to follow Max are described in an almost hypnotic fashion. After several weeks of dream travel she encounters someone in the great forest and she refers to him as "the only living creature [she] had seen in all [her] weeks of travel"; this seems significant – as if Charlie does know, sub/unconsciously that Max really is dead, but she cannot admit it yet.

Stroud’s use of descriptive language adds to the intensity of this book; there's a description of Charlie’s encounter with hundreds of birds in the forest: "Down and down they came, and now the air was rushing with the noise, the astounding ear-convulsing quivering and sighing of a million feathers on the wing." The "ear-convulsing" is a particularly strong adjectival phrase: I know that I have experienced noise so loud it seemed to cause convulsions in my ears ! The other intensifier is the way in which Stroud rapidly intercuts Charlie's and James' PoV in the final chapter – the rapid switching between the two ratchets up the already tense situation even further. In the end, Charlie realises that Max isn't in a parallel reality, and that he is actually dead, but she makes the realisation on the very brink of plunging into a quarry – and it's only the voice of James calling her name that saves her from the plunge that would otherwise have killed her.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Gift Boat - Peter Dickinson

In Peter Dickinson’s The Gift Boat 10 year old Gavin lives with his mother and grandparents. His father is often away at sea for long periods, and his elder brother is in Edinburgh training to be a doctor. Since his mother and grandmother both have jobs, Gavin is looked after by his Granddad, and the two are very close. Granddad makes astonishingly detailed model boats which he sells, but the boat on which he’s currently working will be a gift for Gavin’s forthcoming 11th birthday. The story opens just over a month before Gavin’s birthday when Gavin and his Granddad, fishing in the harbour, see a seal who seems very tame. Granddad says it’s probably a Selkie, a seal person and explains to Gavin that Selkies often turn up in sailing families. Gavin wonders if there are any Selkies in his family since all the men in his family have had sea-related jobs. The next morning, Gavin is doing his homework in his Granddad’s room, so that he can have the rest of the weekend free. Granddad asks Gavin if he’s thought of a name for the boat yet, and Gavin suggests Selkie. Granddad tells him that he’d better ask the Selkies if it’s OK to name the boat that way, and then he abruptly collapses to the floor. Gavin thinks he’s having a heartattack and runs downstairs from the attic to ring for an ambulance. He rings and leaves messages for his mother and grandmother before he goes off to the hospital in the ambulance.

Granddad is taken to another hospital with a purpose-built stroke unit, since it was a stroke, not a heartattack that he had suffered. Gavin and his mother drive to the hospital in Aberdeen whilst Gavin’s grandmother goes in the ambulance. Gavin’s mother stops en route to pick up a pizza for them to eat since she’s not sure what the hospital will have, but unfortunately, Gavin drops the pizza box when he’s drenched by a passing vehicle. Gavin’s mother is talking to the doctor and his grandmother, who has been sitting with her husband goes to the toilet, so Gavin takes over sitting with him and holding Granddad’s hand. However, he faints from a lack of food and shock, but he is convinced Granddad had responded to Gavin, by squeezing his hand. As a result, Gavin persuades his mother to allow him to visit his Granddad every day; however, the trips after school and the worrying are wearing Gavin out, so his mother insists he can only go to the hospital three days a week, and the rest of the time he must try to live a normal life since, as his mother points out, he’s not the only one who might be able to reach Granddad through the stroke.

Gavin takes his Granddad’s latest copy of Model Boats to read to him and printouts of the emails Granddad’s friends have sent. He also takes his homework to do whilst the physio is working with Granddad. However he soon takes over doing the exercises with Granddad, allowing the physio to work with another patient. Whilst Gavin is doing the exercises with Granddad and talking to him, Gavin mentions the Selkie they both saw and he notices that Granddad responds by holding Gavin’s hand. The physio says that this is good, but it’s not enough; Granddad needs to respond in a more obvious and noticeable way if he’s to remain in the stroke unit once a month has passed since he was brought in, otherwise Granddad will be transferred back to the local hospital in Stonehaven, which does not have a specialised stroke unit. In desperation he decides to finish the model boat that his Granddad was to give him for his birthday, and he will take it into the hospital and put into his Granddad’s hands to give to him. This doesn’t prompt any response, so Gavin does the only other thing he can think of – he takes the model boat down to the harbour early the morning following his birthday, and sets it sailing and tells the Selkie it is his most precious gift and he wants his Granddad back more than he wants the boat. The day after that when he visits again, he spends time alone with his Granddad and he invokes the Selkie’s aid; suddenly Gavin finds himself in a strange place where he seems to have no body of his own but where he keeps seeing flashes of pictures. Eventually he realises that the Selkie has allowed his spirit to enter Granddad’s body so that he can find his Granddad’s spirit and help him to gain control of his body again. Gavin is worried, however, that one of the nurses or his mother will find him, with his body slumped over his Granddad’s, clutching his Granddad’s hand and pull them apart, because he knows that if the physical contact is broken, so will the spirit contact. Fortunately Gavin’s mother comes in and when she sees Gavin, she thinks he’s fainted again, as he did on the day that Granddad was admitted, and she stops the nurses from immediately pulling the two apart, so that Gavin has enough time to help his Granddad’s spirit to find his body again and regain at least some control. It’s enough to persuade the consultant to keep Granddad in the stroke unit, and although Gavin understands that his Granddad may never be back to his old self, he will at least regain some use of his body. The next day, he goes down to the harbour and his boat comes sailing back on the tide, and he knows that his “pact” with the Selkie is over.

I found this book incredibly moving, which may just have been my personal circumstances (I understood the intense emotional pressure that Gavin feels when he’s willing on his Granddad’s recovery), but I think it’s actually a tribute to Dickinson’s evocative writing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate DiCamillo

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog.

This, the opening to Kate DiCamillo's beautiful Because of Winn-Dixie, has to be one of the most attention-grabbing openings to a children's books. The reader immediately wants to know why and how Opal went home with a dog instead of the required groceries.

Opal, as everyone calls her, is a sad, lonely 10 year old whose mother left home when Opal was just three; her father is the newly arrived preacher at the Open Arms Baptist Church of Naomi, Florida. He spends so much of his time in preaching, thinking about preaching or preparing to preach that Opal thinks of him as "the preacher" rather than "Daddy".

This is a wonderful book about how a lovable stray dog transforms the lives of Opal and her father, and helps Opal to make friends with a variety of people in the neighbourhood, from Miss Franny Block, the little old lady who is the librarian and mistakes Winn-Dixie for a bear, to Otis, the man who runs the local pet store and agrees to let Opal work at the store, keeping it clean and tidy, in order to pay for a dog collar and leash. Then there's Sweetie Pie Thomas, a 5 year old, who invites Opal to her 6th birthday party in September after falling in love with Winn-Dixie, and Gloria Dump, the old woman with a wild backyard, whom the neighbourhood boys Stevie and Dunlap, believe to be a witch.

The best thing which Winn-Dixie does, however, is to break down the barrier that's grown up between Opal and her father. Opal and Gloria decide to hold a party in her backyard and Opal invites all her new friends, her father, and just as the party is getting started, a thunderstorm begins; in the rush to get the food and decorations inside, Opal forgets to keep an eye on Winn-Dixie, who has a pathological fear of thunderstorms. Believing he has run away, Opal and her father go in search of him throughout the town. When her father suggests that they head back to Gloria's after they fail to find Winn-Dixie, Opal confronts him and he reveals that he misses Opal's mother as much as she does, but he doesn't believe she will come back. She used to drink a lot and hated people judging her just because she was the preacher's wife. Winn-Dixie's fear of thunderstorms acts as a catalyst, allowing Opal and her father to reconnect with each other. Afterwards Opal refers to her father as "Daddy", not "the preacher". When they get back to Gloria's house, they discover Winn-Dixie had been there throughout the thunderstorm, hiding under the bed !

The Because of Winn-Dixie movie was released last year, but I have yet to get hold of it, to see just what the film-makers did with it.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Wicked Women of Children's Literature

On Tuesday I posed the question "How many other Wicked Women, who aren't Witches or Fairies, are there in children's literature ?" I said I could really only think of Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange (and yes, I know they're both witches, but I was thinking of fairy-tale wiches when I said "wicked women who aren't Witches or Fairies". I've had a few suggestions so far:

Achren - Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" (Me)

Kissin' Kate Barlow - Louis Sachar's Holes (Me)

Mrs Bloodvessel - Joan Aiken's Dido and Pa (Hallie, So Many Books...)

Mrs Coulter - Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy ("Mrs Coulter", The Republic of Heaven)

Jane Farrer - Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (Hallie)

Queen Ginevra, Mrs Morgan and Mrs Vavasour - Joan Aiken's The Stolen Lake (Hallie)

Lady of the People of the Hill - Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard (Hallie)

Laurel - Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock (Hallie)

Bellatrix Lestrange - J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix & Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Me)

Mrs. Rachel Lynde - L M Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (ThursdayNext, Eyre Affairs

Miss Minchin - Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess (heather)

Mrs Mumm/The Mayor of Uraniborg - Charles Butler's The Fetch of Mardy Watt (Me)

Mrs Palk - Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone (Hallie)

Pamela - Jane Mendelsohn's Innocence (little willow, Slayground)

Grandmother Patience - Jennifer Holm's Our Only May Amelia (Camille, Bookmoot

The Queen of Hearts - Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (heather)

Blodwen Rowland - Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree (Hallie)

Tante Sannie and Mrs Lubbage - Joan Aiken 's The Cuckoo Tree (Hallie)

Mrs Scratcherd - Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (Krista, Musings of a Lady)

Ms Slighcarp - Joan Aiken's Night Birds on Nantucket (Krista)

Esme Squalor - Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (Krista)

Frau Edeltraut von Tannenberg - Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan (Hallie)

Dolores Umbridge - J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Me)

Ms Walker the Camp Green Lake Warden - Louis Sachar's Holes (Me)

But there must surely be rather more than these few I've just listed, so I invite you to name names; remember this is a Spoiler Zone, so spoiler-ish details can be shared, not that giving the names of Wicked Women in particular books should be too spoiler-ish ! I will post an updated version of the list in due course.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Shakespeare's Secret - Elise Broach

Elise Broach's book, Shakespeare's Secret, is a great contemporary mystery novel with an historical element. I found the interweaving of Hero's everyday life, with the misery of always being teased when she starts a new school, and the solving of the mystery of just where Mr Murphy hid the diamond from his wife's heirloom necklace to be well done. I also liked the way that the finding of the diamond coincided with Mrs Roth's discovery that Danny, the son of the local policeman and the boy who does yard work for her, is actually her grandson. Hero's gradual acceptance of her identity as the girl with the "weird" Shakespearean name, who is honourable like her namesake, is convincing. She slowly (and somewhat reluctantly on occasion) realises that people will like her if she gives them a chance: it's Danny who notices that Hero walks around looking like she expects everyone to pick on her, which then encourages people to do so. He tells her (in a roundabout manner) that she needs to have a little more confidence in herself and then people will come to like her; as he says, Hero's sister Beatrice expects people to like her, and they do, and this is the key to Beatrice's apparently instant popularity at each new school they attend.

The other thing I really enjoyed about this book was Broach's painstaking historical research and the way it was conveyed to readers in a not-too-didactic manner. She makes a good case for the "real Shakespeare" being the Earl of Oxford, rather than the man from Stratford, but in the end (as Hero astutely notes), it doesn't really matter who the author was, the plays are still going to be watched, read and discussed for generations to come.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Death of a Ghost - Charles Butler

Ossian is the son of Jack Purdey, a painter; his mother left home when he was nine. Now 16, he and his father are returning to Lychfont House after an absence of seven years. Ossian and his father spent two months there the summer after Ossian's mother left. Ossian made friends with Colin, the son of Catherine Frazer, owner of Lychfont; Colin is two years older than Ossian and was the "sacrificer-in-chief" when they "sacrificed" voles and shrews on the Corn Stone, a large, flat-topped standing stone in a field near Lychfont House.

Ossian and his father are returning to Lychfont House after an 18-month visit to America, where Jack has been painting; Jack is planning to paint a landscape picture based on the landscape around Lychfont House and Jack is to be his model.

As Jack is driving the down a road towards Lychfont House, a large animal that looks vaguely like a pony, with a shaggy head and fetlocks, runs in front of the car, but then Ossian realises that ponies don't have "flame-red eyes and a mouth all dripping crimson". In trying to avoid the animal, the car is flipped off the road, over a ditch and into the same field as the Corn Stone. As it lands, Ossian's forehead smacks into the windscreen and he cuts his head open. Jack is unable to gain control of the car as it hurtles towards the Corn Stone and it appears they will crash into it.

In the meantime, the goddess Sulis' husband-to-be, Ossian, has disappeared and she is forced to call in a scryer to locate Ossian. The scryer discovers that Ossian's spirit has been split into fragments across the centuries. He tells Sulis that she will have to go after Ossian's spirit fragments, but there will be a danger that the barriers between the worlds will be weakened if she behaves in a too-obviously divine manner; at the same time, there is a danger that Sulis will forget her true nature and "turn native" in one of the time periods where Ossian's spirit fragments are, before she can retrieve the fragment. She is only vaguely reassured by the scryer's assurance that Ossian's fragmented spirit will respond to the pull of Sulis' home, Lychfont House, no matter in which century the spirit fragment is residing.

Whilst Sulis is learning this, the 21st century Ossian is getting to know Colin's sister Sue, who has noticed that Ossian attracts ghosts. Then his consciousness slips into the 15th century, and is the apprentice of a goldsmith/alchemist who also has a sideline in torture for the government of the day. We also see through the eyes of the Iron Age son of a priest of Sulis, who is due to become a priest of Sulis himself. And in each age, Sulis is there, trying to capture fragment of Ossian's spirit that is there. Eventually we learn that Jack Purdey did crash his car into the Corn Stone, that Ossian was quite badly injured, and that Colin Frazer doesn't have an older sister named Sue. Finally we learn that Ossian's spirit fragments have all been reunited and he is back with Sulis, and that Ossian will be married to Sulis the next day.

Charles Butler's weaving together of the different Ossian's experiences in the different time zones is skilful and mesmerising; the ending quite surprised me as I had not suspected that Ossian's 21st century girlfriend, Lizzy, was also Sulis, as Sue Frazer and Susannah were in the 21st and the 15th centuries respectively.

Holes - Louis Sachar

I've just re-read Loius Sachar's Holes as a consequence of watching the movie the weekend before last. Having enjoyed both the book and the movie, I've been pondering the role of the two "wicked women" in the story: Kissing Kate Barlow, the schoolteacher-turned-outlaw; and the descendant of her "enemy", Ms Walker, who is the Warden of Camp Green Lake. It occurs to me that there aren't very many ordinary wicked women in children's literature. Of course, there are the wicked witches or wicked fairies of the Fairy Tales, but I can think of very few ordinary women who are wicked - there's Bellatrix Lestrange and Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books, but most women are domestic. Would the Warden of Camp Green Lake be more or less scary if she was a man instead ? You probably would not get the issue of rattlesnake-venom based nail polish, if the Warden was a man; for me one of the most unnerving scenes in the book and the film is when the Warden strikes "Mr. Sir", poisoning him with the rattlesnake venom nail polish.

I get the feeling that Kate Barlow, even as an outlaw, wasn't really wicked so much as desperate, although she killed quite a few men when robbing them of their worldly goods. She fell in love with Sam the onion seller, and because he was black, he was killed for kissing a white woman. I get the impression that Kate was half-crazy with love and grief when she turned outlaw, and that she turned outlaw largely because the Sheriff of Green Lake wouldn't help her when the townspeople set fire to the school.

The Warden, Ms Walker, is the descendant of Charles "Trout" Walker, the man who wanted to marry Kate Barlow and was turned down. The Walkers apparently handed their grudge against Kate Barlow on to their descendants, much as Stanley's family curse was handed on to the descendants of Elya Yelnats, the "no-good-dirt-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather", the man who forgot to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain. It could be argued that Ms Walker is not really wicked either, just resentful and frustrated, but I'm not convinced. Someone who takes pleasure in wearing nail polish laced with rattlesnake venom, and who destroys Zero's files after he runs away from the Camp, so that no one will know he was there, is definitely in the "wicked women" category.

So how many other Wicked Women, who aren't Witches or Fairies, are there in children's literature ? I'd be interested to know.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Darkling - Charles Butler

One day, 15 year old Petra is asked to drop off a parcel at Century Hall during her paper round and she meets old Edmund Century for the first time (she usually just leaves the parcel in the porch). Mr Century insists on giving Petra a gift, a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which is inscribed "To Eurydice, undying love - EC." She takes it home, being incapable of refusing a gift or of keeping an object even if it is unwanted. The next day, Mr Century's housekeeper bumps into Petra in the town and, unknown to Petra, drops an earring into her pocket. Later the same day when Petra is out riding with her friend Mel, her horse is spooked by something, and then as Mel is telling Petra that her GP father has been called out to see Mr Century, Petra sees Mr Century, lying wrapped in blankets with Dr Gaspard in attendance, and she notices an alcove in the room where she had talked with Mr Century. The alcove, which had been curtained the evening before, has a number of oddly-shaped bottles on its shelves along with a wooden pipe. As Petra is seeing the alcove (despite being some distance away from Century Hall), a belt of wind runs across the field and frightens her horse so that it bolts across the field, through a wood and into the grounds of Century Hall. The horse carries her to the ruins of a stable block that was destroyed many years earlier by a fire; but Petra sees people and horses in the courtyard, and sees and hears the fire raging. As they turn the corner of the building, the people and the horses disappear again.

That evening Petra wishes that "Edmund and father would be friends" just before she falls asleep, even though the two have never met. During the night Petra wakes and finds herself unable to recall her charm against the Darkling, a make-believe creature that is created from night time shadows on the wall of her room. The Darkling speaks to her and she knows it is calling to her, yet it calls her Eurydice. It becomes clear that Petra resembles Eurydice in her looks (being small, black haired and very pale), and through the gifts that Mr Century has given her, the Darkling manages to gain a foothold in the real world in order to work its mischief. Petra begins to dream of Eurydice, who died before she was born in the fire at Century Hall. Then Mrs Campbell lives a third gift for Petra, a white bottle that appears to be made from wax and which contains a scent that at one moment smells of Jasmine and at another smells foul. That night, whilst Petra is in bed, the Darkling talks to her, telling her that no one who dies is truly gone; Petra's mother died a few years earlier, stepping off the pavement into the path of a passing car. The Darkling speaks in Mr Century's voice, pleading with Petra to give it life because she has accepted its gifts. She refuses the Darkling's request and moments later a bough from the walnut tree outside her window (the one that casts the shadows which she named "The Darkling") crashes into her room, almost crushing her. Shortly after this the Darkling possesses Petra's father and he becomes angry and indifferent to his son and daughter, until he sees Petra apparently being attacked by his new boss, Graham Cooke, who made sexual advances towards Petra the night after her mother was killed. The Darkling goes beserk and uses Petra's father's body to attack Graham Cooke, who is killed.

There are hints throughout the story that Petra is a reincarnation of Eurydice, given the things she sees which aren't actually there, and that her "seeing" is a consequence of her acceptance of Mr Century's gifts. Mr Century and the Darkling also appear to be one, and they possess Petra's father after he inhales the scent that Mrs Campbell left at their house.