Saturday, December 16, 2006

Here, There Be Dragons - James A Owen

James A Owen's Here, There Be Dragons, subtitled The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica, has an interesting idea at its heart - that there exists an Atlas of all the Imaginary Lands ever created by authors. Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to its promise for this reader.

The story opens with three Oxford men who are brought in for questioning as the result of a Professor's death in London in March 1917. As a result they become companions on a voyage through the Archipelago of Dreams, after one of the men is named as the Caretaker Principia for the Imaginarium Geographica. During their journey they defeat the usurper to the Silver Throne, and restore the rightful king. The three men are Jack, John and Charles. Their exact identities aren't revealed until the end of the book (although I'd already found it out by accident), along with the premise that their journey later became the germ of their subsequent fiction. The men are C S Lewis (Jack), Charles Williams and J R R Tolkien. And right there is where I hit a problem with this book. I am a huge fan of Tolkien's works and I know a good deal about his life as well as his books, and he was never, ever called "John". As a boy he was known as "Ronald" (his second name) and as a man he was known as "Tolkien" (or "Tollers" to his friends). There is the fact that Tolkien, Lewis and Williams never met until after the First World War - and the fact that Owen's "Jack" talks of considering joining up, but by March 1917, Lewis was already a member of the Malvern Contingent of the Oxford University OTC, with the intention of doing his "bit" in the War.

One of the other things that I found massively irritating was that "John", who was being trained up for his role as a Caretaker by Professor Sigurdsson, claimed that he hadn't been getting on with his studies, because it didn't seem important: "Ancient languages that no one else could read..." (p. 70) - that is just so antithetical to the real life Tolkien, who adored languages, old and new, and invented so many of his own as well. He spent hours learning ancient languages (such as Gothic) when he should have been getting on with his assigned studies, that his assigned studies suffered. It was at this point that I almost abandoned this book.

I think this book might have worked better if Owen had created three entirely fictional characters for his main protagonists, rather than using three real life authors, two of whom are very well known indeed. I was puzzled by the fact that whilst "John" is the Caretaker Principia, his character is never very well developed, and certainly not as well developed as that of "Jack". And I found Owen's remarks about J M Barrie (who was supposedly an earlier Caretaker Principia) distasteful. All in all, I found this to be a reasonably good idea that was disappointingly executed. Here, There Be Dragons is also available from

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Septimus Heap: Flyte - Angie Sage

I had hoped that Angie Sage's Flyte, the second book in the Septimus Heap series (and a Cybils nomination), would be a bit better than the first. Less of a Harry Potter-clone and more 3-D characters. Unfortunately this wasn't the case.

It's been a year since Septimus Heap discovered his real family and his true destiny to be a Wizard. As Apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, he is learning the fine arts of Magyk, whilst his adopted sister, Jenna, is adapting to life as the Princess and enjoying the freedom of the Castle. But before they can get really settled into their new lives, the evil Necromancer DomDaniel, whom they had thought had been disposed of, is still affecting their lives and something Darke is stirring. A Shadow pursues the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, following her every move and affecting her concentration as it grows stronger every day. Then Jenna is snatched taken by a rather unlikely kidnapper, his eldest brother Simon. And when I say, unlikely, I do mean unlikely. Simon is little more than a cipher - he's a very one dimensional version of Percy Weasley, who goes over to the Darke side, not because he's ambitious, but because he's jealous of Septimus' place in his family and he's been thwarted in his supposed love affair with a most unsuitable young woman named Lucy Gringe (who, by the way, has a brother named Rupert Gringe, whom I kept thinking of as "Rupert Grint" thanks the intense Harry Potterism of this book !)

This book was as big a disappointment as the first one. The set up is really good and I really liked some of the characters: Jenna is a no-nonsense girl and both Aunt Zelda and Marcia Overstrand are strong females, but the business of Simon's kidnapping of Jenna was unconvincing - and Jenna's escape from Simon Heap was equally unconvincing and relied far too heavily on coincidence, as did just about everything else in this book. I kept hoping the book would get better, but it just didn't happen. I hate writing negative reviews, but I can't, in all honesty, find much that's positive to say about this book or its predecessor.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Septimus Heap: Magyk - Angie Sage

Angie Sage's Magyk is the first book of a series about a young wizard called Septimus Heap, who is born the seventh son of a seventh son and apparently died shortly after birth. The very fact that the series is named after a supposedly dead character gives away the "secret" that he's not dead, only stolen away. And it feels as if the book went downhill from there onwards. Septimus is born to a family of Wizards and there was no telling what he might have become, since his lineage as a seventh son would have made him unbelievably Magykal. On the winter night when Septimus apparently died, his father, Silas, found another newborn child in the forest. He and his wife named her Jenna, and she grew up thinking that she was the daughter of Silas and Sarah Heap, and the sister of six older brothers - Simon, Sam, Edd and Erik the twins, Nicko, and Jo-Jo. It doesn't take Sarah Heap long to realise that Jenna is really the daughter of the murdered Queen.

Over the next ten years, Darknesse comes to the Castle and the Ramblings, the area where the Heaps live. The Supreme Custodian, along with his willing servants, ban Magyk and end the happiness the Queen's people knew before her death. As the Heap family attempts to ride out this time of Darknesse, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, learns of a plot to kill the Princess as she is the only Major Obstacle preventing DomDaniel, a terrible Necromancer, from returning to the Castle. Jenna, Nicko, Silas, the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Maxie (the Heaps' wolfhound) and a Young Army recruit known only as Boy 412 escape to the Marram Marshes, where they hope the Heaps' Aunt Zelda, a White Witch, will be able to keep them from harm. As DomDaniel does everything within his power to track down the girl standing between him and a ruling Darknesse, the Heap family have to do everything within their means to stop him - and at the same time stay alive.

So much for the plot. What really bothered me about the book was the number of similarities between this and the Harry Potter series. The Heaps are clearly poor relations to the Weasleys (Jenna even sounds a bit like Ginny, there are seven children in the family, including twin boys). It was quite obvious at a very early stage after his introduction that Boy 412 was really Septimus Heap, despite the red herring of DomDaniel's Apprentice claiming to be Septimus. Septimus discovers that he is Magykal (he also discovers a magical ring in a dark tunnel - shades of The Hobbit !), but cannot believe or accept it initially, and he even has green eyes. I won't bore you with a complete list of the similarities, but I can't help feeling there are too many for comfort.

The premise of this book is good - Sage has an interesting set up with the Magyk and the opposing Darknesse, and some of the characters are intriguing, although others are so one dimensional as to be mere ciphers.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Midnighters: Blue Noon - Scott Westerfeld

I read and reviewed the first two books in the Midnighters trilogy, Midnighters: The Secret Hour and Midnighters: Touching Darkness back in August after Touching Darkness came out. The third book, Blue Noon came out this week from Atom and I couldn't wait to read it immediately.

This review is over here because those who haven't read Touching Darkness yet, won't know what happened to Rex in that book, and that event is pivotal to events in this book. In Touching Darkness Rex the Seer of the Midnighters group was kidnapped by a group who support the Darklings who want to control Bixby, Oklahoma and he was transformed into a half human/half Darkling being. As the third book opens, he's still learning to live with the consequences of this transformation and although he looks human, he senses have been magnified and at times his Darkling self takes over from the human self.

The secret hour still arrives every midnight but something new has begun happening: the blue time is appearing randomly during the day. Rex and his four friends know that this is a dangerous situation as "regular" humans make become trapped in the midnight hour. Whilst they try to figure out what might be causing this aberration, they must deal with personal issues and relationships. Jessica (the Flame Bringer) and Jonathan (Flyboy), Melissa (the mindreader), and the brilliant Dess, who works on the numerical calculations and weapons used against the Darklings, find themselves thrown into a frantic race against time. According to Dess' calculations, it will be only a matter of a few weeks before the world as they all know it will end as the "Rip" that has developed, allowing the blue time to arrive during the day, begins to expand. Once the Rip expands far enough, the Darklings will take over Bixby and the blue time will envelop them all.

One of the many things complicating their attempts to investigate the Rip is Jessica's very nosy and interfering little sister, Beth, who wants to know why Jessica keeps disappearing around midnight, and how she can get involved in the great adventure. Jessica wants to protect Beth, but even she is unable to prevent Beth from finding out the truth in a frightening way.

As the barrier between the secret hour and normal time becomes weaker, other mysteries must be resolved. Just what are the connections between the Grayfoot family and the Darklings ? How can Rex and his friends stop the Darklings from destroying Bixby ? And is there a specific reason why they hate and fear Jessica Day more than any other Midnighter ? Does Jessica have more power than she realises ?

This is an interesting and intriguing finale to the Midnighters series, and although there were a couple of things that I didn't feel were resolved quite as well as they might have been, I think Westerfeld has done a good job of tying up the series.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Vanquish Vendetta - David Lee Stone

The fifth book in the Illmoor Chronicles is The Vanquish Vendetta which is a direct sequel to The Dwellings Debacle (which I reviewed yesterday over on the Scholar's Blog) and is the middle book in a three book story arc.

In The Dwellings Debacle, Viscount Curfew was kidnapped and, after spending some time as a prisoner, was brutally murdered. But no one in Dullitch is aware of this face because the impostor who took his place looks exactly like him, thanks to some complicated dark magic. The impostor, Sorrell Diveal, is both ruthless and power-mad; he'll do anything to sustain his disguise, but one or two people start noticing and decide to challenge him, mostly with fatal consequences ! Diveal, however, is the pawn of a much darker force that's older than Illmoor itself.

In the meantime, King Groan Teethgrit, his half-brother Gape, and the dwarf Gordo Goldeaxe have discovered an ancient and valuable hammer which they take back to Dullitch, hoping to trade it to Viscount Curfew, little knowing that they've just unearthed a very crucial - and dangerous - part of Dullitch's past.

My only complaint about this book is that the story isn't sewn up at the end of The Vanquish Vendetta and the final part of this three-book story arc, The Coldstone Conflict, isn't due out until January 2007 !

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' Black Maria is a rather chilling tale. Everyone has an older relative who disapproves of you unless you do what they want and isn't nearly as nice as they pretend to be. But Aunt Maria turns out to be even worse than your average nasty relative. Take the most irritating old lady you can imagine - and then give her evil magic powers, and you've got Aunt Maria, who lives in Cranbury-on-Sea and is only an Aunt by marriage to Chris and Mig's mother. Chris and Mig's father was apparently killed in a car accident, plunging over a cliff on the way to visit his Aunt Maria. Mig and her family go to spend their Easter holiday with their Aunt mainly because Mig's mother feels guilty about Aunt Maria being on her own. However, Aunt Maria is a very prim and proper old lady who's not half as incapable as she likes to pretend, and who makes a point of guilt-tripping people into doing exactly what she wants. Life in Cranbury revolves around Aunt Maria's tea parties, to which only women are invited (the Mrs Urs as Chris and Mig term them). Meanwhile the men of the town act like zombies and the children, who are kept at an orphanage, are like clones.

Mig and her brother Chris hate it in Cranbury, in spite of the sorrowful ghost who appears in Chris's room, but then they start to suspect that magic may be at work in the town, and that Aunt Maria may be at the center of the magic. Then one day Chris annoys Aunt Maria so much that she transforms him into a wolf and it's up to Mig to uncover the magical plot which stretches back over several decades - and is the key to dethroning Aunt Maria.

It's hard enough dealing with elderly, sickly-sweet relatives if they are normal, so imagine what it must be like if they're cold-hearted witches who will turn their own daughters into wolves, as Aunt Maria does to her daughter Naomi (after whom Mig is named, Mig being her preferred nickname). Jones paints a chilling picture of Cranbury as a sort of a "Stepford Wives" situation, except that it's really "Stepford Husbands and Children", who are all slaves to the stifling sweetness of Aunt Maria. Mig is a likeable character, although her rebellious brother Chris is rather more engaging, and I wanted to shake their meek, submissive mother (although she does develop a bit more spunk towards the end of the book). Aunt Maria is frighteningly real: she has strong but outdated opinions - she's horrified at girls wearing trousers, at people eating fish and chips for dinner, and favours boys over girls. But even worse is the fact that she genuinely believes that she is a wonderful person and her magical manipulation of everyone, including Mig and Chris' father is horrifying.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Eastern Tide - Juliet E McKenna

Eastern Tide (Orbit) is the final book and satisfying conclusion to Juliet E McKenna's Aldabreshin Compass quartet (the preceding three are reviewed over on the Scholar's Blog: Southern Fire, Northern Storm and Western Shore.) It's now ten years since McKenna wrote her first book, The Thief's Gamble, and in those ten years her writing style has matured considerably, until the reader is presented with Eastern Tide.

The Aldabreshin Archipelago continues to be plagued by dragons and its people live in terror of the coming of the dragons to their island homes. Chazen Kheda, along with the poet Risala and the Northern mage Velindre, are chasing rumours of a water dragon, since they are the only ones who know the secrets of how to repel these fearsome beasts. In spite of the fact that they have saved hundreds of lives since the first dragon invaded the Chazen domain, they are forced to travel incognito, putting their lives at risk with their masquerade of the poet (Risala) and the zamorin scholar (Velindre disguised as a eunuch), and their slave (Kheda, who is really a warlord).

The ever-changing political balance between the island Warlords is teetering as various rival factions seek to gain advantage over their neighbours and warfare is threatened. Kheda finds himself reluctantly drawn into the rivalries as his fame as a dragon-fighter become more widely known. His apparent skill in defeating dragons is a powerful political tool and various Warlords seek to bribe, seduce (via their wives) or threaten Kheda into sharing his knowledge; but the one thing Kheda cannot do is reveal the source of his apparent power over dragons because then the lives of he and his companions will be at risk for they are tainted by forbidden magic from the Northern lands. If anyone was to uncover Velindre's true identity as a powerful mage from the feared island of Hadrumal, they would all be killed outright.

Unfortunately for Kheda, his contact with Northern magic has caused him to have doubts about the very foundations of his people's ancient beliefs in the reading of omens, which places his future as the Chazen Warlord in doubt and threatens the future health and happiness of his wife Itrac Chazen and their twin baby daughters.

To add to Kheda's woes, Velindre is forced to enlist the aid of another mage, Sirince; they discover there are more dragons in the Archipelago than they had guessed or believed; two of Kheda's former Daish wives have married out of the domain, leaving his unmarried son Daish Sirket in charge of the domain with only the support of Kheda's timid third ex-wife; Orhan, the son of Kheda's hated rival, Ulla Safar, is leading an uprising against his father - and he's proposing to marry Kheda's eldest daughter of the Daish domain !

This is a tense, thrilling, moving and thought-provoking finale to a fascinating series. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Eastern Tide is out on October 5.

The Aldabreshin Compass series: Southern Fire (2003), Northern Storm (2004), Western Shore (2005), Eastern Tide (2006).

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching can be described as the successor to Eskarina Smith, the young protagonist of the third of Pratchett's Discworld novels, Equal Rites (1987). Esk (as she's known) is the eighth child of an eighth son (eight being the magical number on Discworld, not seven), but the wizard Drum Billet, believing she will be born a boy (and therefore the eighth son of an eighth son and a wizard), gives the new-born Esk his staff of power, allowing her to inherit his magical power – and a host of unanticipated problems since women are not meant to be wizards, and wizard magic is quite different from witch magic. In a way, Equal Rites represents a missed opportunity for Pratchett to demonstrate the education of a young witch because Esk is taken, aged eight, to Unseen University, the premier wizarding educational establishment, in Ankh-Morpork, in order to learn (without appearing to do so since women are not admitted to the University as students) how to managed the power she has inherited.

Tiffany Aching, on the other hand, is spotted as a potential witch at the age of 9, by Miss Tick, a witch who searches out girls with the potential to become witches (a witch-finder, in other words), and ensures that they are taught to use and manage their power. Having spotted Tiffany's potential (in The Wee Free Men), she 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. Thus A Hat Full of Sky opens with Tiffany setting off to stay with Miss Level as her apprentice. She then goes on to become the apprentice of Miss Pullunder; most witches are known as "Miss", only a few witches, such as Nanny Ogg, ever marry, whilst Granny Weatherwax (as she's known to a very small number of people) is accorded a "Mistress" (or she'll want to know the reason why !). Tiffany's apprenticeship with Miss Pullunder is glossed over by Pratchett and Wintersmith opens with Tiffany having only recently been apprenticed to Miss Treason, who said she was 113.

One autumn night Miss Treason takes Tiffany into the forest to witness a very special Morris dance that is performed to welcome winter. Unfortunately Tiffany (who is usually sensible and practical) disregards Miss Treason's instructions not to move during the dance, and throws herself into the dance. This attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, an unseen elemental being, who normally dances with Lady Summer. As a result of joining in the dance, Tiffany inadvertently acquires some of the powers of the Lady Summer (such as the ability to make things grow where she walks with bare feet), and the Wintersmith becomes fascinated by her. It sets out to woo her, intending to marry her, without knowing that she is a human and therefore very different from an elemental being; it creates roses sculpted from ice, then snowflakes and icebergs that look like Tiffany, and writes her name in the frost. Then the Wintersmith tries to turn itself into a human, and Tiffany tries to learn how to cope with its attentions, and how to survive the story into which she intruded by joining in the Winter Morris.

Whatever else you can say about Tiffany (eg. that she is young and inexperienced, and occasionally foolish), she is also hard-working, caring, and not one to shirk responsibility. Thus she looks after everyone at the funeral for Miss Treason (held before Miss Treason's death, since witches know when Death is coming for them); she also teaches Annagramma (the eldest of the nearby witch apprentices) about the people who live in the area which she is inherits along with Miss Treason's cottage, so that they are not left with an arrogant, inexperienced and untrained apprentice witch. Annagramma's mentor, Mrs Earwig, is married to a former wizard and is very New-Age-ish in her magic; she believes in crystal therapy and other modern (and nonsensical) magicks instead of the older, traditional magic that is practised by most witches – and she has taught them to Annagramma, who has never been apprenticed to another witch. Thus Annagramma has to learn from Tiffany how to be a midwife, how to lay out the dead and sit up with them after they die, etc. And all the time, Tiffany is trying to cope with the attentions of the Wintersmith. But no one ever said being a witch was easy – or that life was fair.

There are some very funny moments in Wintersmith, such as when Tiffany is reading a romantic novel which Rob Anybody and the other Nac Mac Feegles have acquired for her so that she can learn about romance – and she critiques the lack of realism in the setting of a sheep farm (Tiffany being the youngest daughter of a sheep farmer) and its inhabitants. Her reaction to the novel is pure Tiffany and just what the reader expects from a character who measures soup plates in order to establish exactly how big are Jenny Greenteeth's eyes (The Wee Free Men). There is also an intertextual joke that will only be noticeable to those readers who have also read Pratchett's last Discworld novel (Thud) – at the end of the book, Rob Anybody is reading a book that is clearly Sam Vimes Jr's favourite book, Where's My Cow?.

This book also contains some beautifully evocative descriptions, such as "And then summer filled her up. It must have been for only a few seconds, but inside them it went on for much longer. She felt what it was like to be the breeze through green corn on a spring day, to ripen an apple, to make the salmon leap the rapids – the sensations came all at once and merged into one great big, glistening golden-yellow feeling of summer . . ." (ellipsis in original; p. 386) This book also contains a flashback that's 11 chapters long, so that chapter 13 starts where chapter 1 ended, the other chapters having explained the events that led up to where Tiffany is at the start of the book. Such a lengthy flashback is a first for Pratchett – and fairly unusual for a novel.

* * * * * *
My thanks to Nikki Gamble of Write Away for sending me this book to review for her site.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Corbenic - Catherine Fisher

Catherine Fisher's Corbenic is part of Red Fox's Definitions series, which also includes Jonathan Stroud's The Leap, and like The Leap, Corbenic can be read on two levels, but I'll talk about that later.

Corbenic is based on Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, le Conte du Graal, in which Perceval meets the crippled Fisher King and sees the Holy Grail, but fails to ask the question that would heal the injured monarch. When he learns of his mistake, Perceval vows to find the Grail castle again and fulfill his quest. In a similar way, Cal is on his way from his home in Bangor by train to Chepstow where he's going to live with his uncle Trevor and work in his accountancy firm. Cal's father left home when Cal was two and his mother has schizophrenia and a drink problem so Cal has been bringing himself up since he was 6. As the train is making its way to Chepstow Cal falls asleep and when he wakes suddenly at a station, he thinks he heard the guard say they were at Chepstow. He jumps off the train and it pulls away before he discovers his mistake. He is at Corbenic station. He waits some time for another train then decides to look for a phone instead. Walking along a dark lane he sees two men fishing on a lake and one of them tells Cal that there is a hotel about a mile down the road. Cal finds the hotel, a luxurious affair that must have at least 4 stars, and is surprised when he's told that a room for the night will be free. Cal rings Trevor to tell him where he is, then showers and dresses for dinner. Dinner is a sumptuous affair, more of a banquet than an ordinary meal and Cal feels as if he's strayed onto a film set. He is introduced to Bron, one of the two men who were in the fishing boat, who is wheelchair bound and apparently in great pain. Cal eats heartily then Bron talks to him, asking questions about his family. Bron urges Cal to go back home, but Cal refuses, then a strange procession takes place. Bron tells Cal that he must look at the Grail, which is coming, and see it then help them. Cal sees a bleeding spear, two golden candlesticks and then a dented golden cup which shines fiercely, carried across the dining room. However, he tells Bron that he has not seen it, believing himself to be affected by the unaccustomed wine he drinks during the meal. When Cal wakes the next morning, the castle is a ruin and there is a sword through his pillow, a parting gift from Bron.

Cal arrives in Chepstow and does his best to settle into his new life, in spite of boredom and his mother's phone calls begging him to come back home. One day he takes the sword to work, intending to take it to an antique shop to sell, but on the way to the shop, Cal is set upon by muggers, and finds himself trying to use the sword to defend himself. He is injured but picked up by a man and a girl who calls themselves Hawk and Shadow respectively. They are part of an historical re-enactment group in which Cal gets involved when he learns sword fighting from Hawk. The group is led by a man named Arthur, who has a foster brother named Kai. Also in the group is an old man who is referred to as The Hermit but calls himself Merlin.

Cal promises his uncle and his mother that he'll go home for Christmas since Trevor and his girl friend are going away, but Cal chickens out and stays in Chepstow so he can take part in a mediaeval festival on Christmas Eve. He rings his mother and tells her that he'll go home for the New Year instead, but before Christmas Eve is out, Cal is told that his mother is dead of an overdose. It's unclear whether she deliberately killed herself or whether she was too drunk to realise she had already taken her pills. Cal and Trevor go to Bangor for the inquest and funeral, and to sell the house and its contents, then Cal tells Trevor he wants to stay on for a few days. In fact, he's not going to stay in Bangor but go in search of Corbenic. He encounters Merlin in his wanderings, who tells him he's been away for more than 3 days, but it's only when he visits Sophie (Shadow), who has left Arthur's group and gone back to her home in Bath after Cal turns her in (since she had run away from home), that he discovers he's been gone for 3 months and Trevor has been worried sick about him, as have Arthur's group. Cal sets off to look for Corbenic in Glastonbury, following a tip of Merlin's. He finds it and is able to drink from the Grail, healing himself and Bron, and the land, and he is able to make peace with his mother who is the Grail bearer.

This book can be read on two levels. On one level Cal is an unhappy teenager suffering guilt over leaving his mother to deal with her illness and his experience of Corbenic is illusion, delusion or hallucination. At another level, however, Cal's experiences are real and he's a reincarnation of Perceval, who helps to find the Grail and heal the Fisher King.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Piratica II: The Return to Parrot Island - Tanith Lee

I was somewhat disappointed with Tanith Lee's Piratica: Return to Parrot Island as I didn't think it was as good as Piratica. Art Blastside managed to dodge the gallows at the end of Piratica and married her true love, Felix Phoenix. However, life ashore is proving too tame for the pirate queen, and when the Government invites her to become a legal pirate (a privateer) harrying the French, who resent the fact that England is now a Free Republic and have gone to war over it), Art jumps at the chance to go back to sea again. Unfortunately, Art hasn't anticipated that Naval war is horrific, and even more worrying is the fact that Little Goldie Girl, her arch-rival for the hand of Felix Phoenix (with whom she has had a row about her desire to go back to sea) is hell-bent on revenge. To that end, Goldie Girl kidnaps Felix and takes him aboard her ship; she intends to go back to Parrot Island to collect the treasure maps which Art and her crew had dug up during the events of Piratica. Art, meanwhile, is busy fooling the French and the Franco-Spanish captains, and even manages to prise a "blueprint" for a new supership from one gullible French captain !

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stormbreaker: The movie

I've posted these comments here because some of you may be intending to see the movie and not want to know beforehand what happens in it !

Anthony Horowitz wrote the screenplay to the movie of his book, Stormbreaker, and I would say he's done the job of adapting the book for the screen pretty well. I enjoyed this movie quite a lot; I thought Horowitz got all the major plot points in and then developed it into a fast paced movie. The only thing I really disliked was the "cat fight" between Frau Vole and Jack Starbright - it was far, far too silly.

There were some excellent stunts and special effects, and I felt Alex Pettyfer did a good job of playing Alex Rider - it's just a shame he won't be working on the next film; since Alex Rider is still 14 and Alex Pettyfer is now 16, they will replace the actor in a rather Bondesque manner !

It was interesting (but unsurprising) to see Alex's games device was updated to a Nintendo DS (I believe it was a Gameboy in the book) since the boy he was supposed to be was a computer geek - therefore it made sense for him to have the very latest games device. I loved the fact that Alex got pretty much all the gadgets that were in the book (from what I recall - it's been several months since I read the book) - and his walking-down-the-wall with the aid of the yo-yo was an awesome stunt.

Andy Serkis was incredibly menacing - far scarier as Mr Grin than he was as Gollum - the very fact that he didn't have a single line of dialogue just added to the menace, I felt ! Bill Nighy was delightfully nasty and unemotional - just how I saw Alan Blunt; also totally clueless (Talking to Mrs Jones about Alex: "Take him for an ice cream. He deserves a treat" !), and Mickey Rourke was just as slimey as he should have been !

I would have liked to have seen more of the characters played by Stephen Fry and Robbie Coltrane (and Ewan McGregor if it comes to that) - just because they're great actors and watching them never seems dull !

Sabina Pleasure had very little to do, unsurprisingly since the character isn't even in the first book (but of course Alex had to have a girl, as a "junior Bond" character).

This is a stonking good film that I am sure will storm (ho, ho !) up the blockbuster charts and give Captain Jack and his Pirates a run for their money...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Forever X - Geraldine McCaughrean

What interested me the most about Geraldine McCaughrean's Forever X, is that the story is as much about Mel, as it is about Joy. It looks in detail at the reactions of a 4 year old boy suddenly confronted with a place where it is always Christmas. Mel quite happily accepts that FC is Father Christmas, even when he isn't wearing a bushy white beard. Felix Cox is quite simply the essence of Christmas at Forever Xmas, as Holly explains to Joy after Felix's death – the B&B would not have continued in business without him; indeed it does not survive after his death, since Holly's parents decide to change the name and theme of the B&B to Forever England, based on their great interest in the Second World War.

Mel's simple acceptance that Mr Angel's job and his name are the same, ie. that he is an angel in charge of Health, rather than an environmental health inspector, is also interesting – and it leads to confusion. Mel approaches Mr Angel to ask him to make FC well again, when the latter is feeling the effects of his angina. But Mr Angel misunderstands (largely because he doesn't have the patience to discover just what Mel is asking of him), and when Mel repeats FC's remark that it must be something he ate that's making him feel poorly, Mr Angel assumes the worst (food poisoning) and establishes that the turkeys are undercooked (p. 57).

The confusion caused by Mel's literal interpretation of Mr Angel's name continues when the latter, finding himself locked in his room by Joy (who believes Mel has told Mr Angel that the wanted criminal, Mr Starr, is at the B&B with his son), climbs out his window onto a tree, only to discover he cannot climb down to the ground. When Mel notices Mr Angel is in the tree, he assumes that Mr Angel has flown up there, or is resting there after flying back from seeing God. Mr Angel attempts to make Mel understand that he is stuck and Mel goes inside to tell guests that "the Angel's on the tree", but everyone assumes he's referring to the model angel on top of the Christmas tree in the dining room.

When Mel sees the police approaching the B&B shortly afterwards, he believes they have come for Mr Starr (as his sister had told him), and runs away onto the moor, not realising that the police have brought Joy back to the B&B from the seaside where she had accompanied FC as he took the Starrs to a safe haven. Mr Angel finally manages to scramble down from the tree and reveals that Mel has run up onto the moor; it is then that he discovers that Mel believed he was a literal angel and he feels the full burden of his name for the first time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom - Louis Sachar

I re-read Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom again yesterday. It's a lovely book about 5th grader Bradley Chalkers. As the book opens, everyone in his class (including the teacher) dislikes Bradley. He sits on his own in class, he doesn't pay attention in class, he doesn't do his homework, he cuts up his test papers and sticky tapes them to other bits of junk in his desk. He's aggressive and unfriendly. Then one day, two new people arrive at Bradley's school: Jeff Fishkin, a new 5th grader who is obliged to sit next to Bradley. Jeff is a friendly boy who automatically says "Hello" to people who say "Hello" to him, and he tries to befriend Bradley. The other new person in school is Carla Davis, the school counsellor. She meets with Jeff (because he's new) and with Bradley (because no one knows what to do with him). She has the best line in the book: "I won't tell you what to do. All I can do is help you to think for yourself.". Unfortunately this is going to prove to be a difficult stance for Carla to maintain after various parents misinterpret her ideas - one even tells Carla that it's not necessary to keep promises to children after Carla refuses to repeat to a parent what one of the children had told her, because she had promised she would not tell anyone else. (An attitude - the parent's, not Carla's - I found absolutely strange !)

Each time Bradley visits Carla, she greets him with the words "Hello, Bradley. It's a pleasure to see you today. I appreciate you coming to see me." Eventually, between the efforts of Carla and Jeff, Bradley starts to become both a better person and a better student. The big breakthrough comes when he and Jeff are invited to a birthday party by one of the girl's in class. Unfortunately, just before Bradley goes to the party, Carla is asked to leave the school, because of the objections parents have to her working with their children, and this causes Bradley to panic that he'll turn back into the horrible person he used to be. Carla does her best to persuade him this won't happen - and fortunately she's right.

Despite the fact that Bradley's a fairly unsympathetic character for much of the book, I did like him; I felt sorry for him and I wanted people to find the good in him, so the book was very satisfying in that respect.

I also liked Carla a lot - I loved the fact that she respects the children with whom she deals, and I really loved the way she loaned her books to children: she lends Bradley Uriah C Lasso's My Parents Didn't Steal an Elephant (which unfortunately doesn't appear to be a real book) and she lends Colleen (the girl who invites Bradley to her birthday party the very real Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J D Salinger. This books is very much a book about the power of friendship, but it's also a book about the value of reading and learning to think for oneself. I recommend it heartily.

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.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Fetch of Mardy Watt - Charles Butler

Something is haunting Mardy Watt. It's been in her room, it's fooling her friends, and it's upsetting her home life. And the trouble is, nobody realises what is happening except Mardy herself. Exactly why the Fetch is picking on her, Mardy doesn't know – but she does know that she has to find out, before it takes over and replaces her completely. But whatever spell had been put on her is growing stronger. And suddenly, rather than fear, she feels a rush of burning anger. How dare anyone do this to her ! How dare anyone steal her life !

The Fetch of Mardy Watt is a supernatural thriller; there is a mystery relating to why the Fetch is trying to take over Mardy's life, and just who or what is Rachel Fludd. It's also a race against time - can Mardy's best friend Hal help her to reclaim her life before she is trapped forever in her horrible half-life ? And just who is the mysterious Mayor ?

Charles Butler’s language and phrasing contribute much to the suspense of his novels. In The Fetch of Mardy Watt the telling comment “[Hal] was always precise about time, and kept and spent it carefully” (p. 11) tells us a lot about the logical, rational boy who is Mardy’s best friend. Similarly, the description of the Reverberant Chord which the Mayor of Uraniborg uses to ensnare Mardy, so that she can be replaced by the Fetch is chilling: “[…] over the railings tinkled a thin, beaded string of notes, plucked from an instrument that Mardy could not name. The music crept between the railings and followed her some way down the street.” (p. 7) “Finally – finally – the many stringed instrument (a harp, was it, or a mandolin ?) began drawing its threads of sound together. The tangle arpeggios became more dense and knotted. Harmonies and discords vied dangerously, and at last a vast, enmeshed chord threw a net of closely-woven sound over her head. It billowed out and settled, dissolved at its edges and tightened at its centre, and bound her hand and foot. For a few moments she was no more alive than a wax doll.” (p. 17) As a music lover whose daily life is almost constantly accompanied by music, I personally found this description very unnerving.

Mardy recognises, during the story, that her past mistakes and “pig-headed stupidities” are, to a large extent, responsible for her remaining trapped in Uraniborg whilst the Fetch is living her life. However, she is only responsible in part; her father is also partly responsible. He was an Artemisian, one of those who lives alongside the world inhabited by Mardy and Hal, but in a world of their own, Artemisia. There they have magical powers and are able to resist the Mayor and Uraniborg, but Mardy’s father left Artemisia to marry Mardy’s mother, and his children grow up with the protection of Artemisia, and find themselves susceptible to the Mayor’s power. Mardy’s brother, Alan, has already been replaced by a Fetch, three months before Mardy is captured, and Mardy finds the real Alan in Uraniborg when she is trapped there herself. In all of Butler’s books the past actions of the protagonist come back to haunt him or her.

Calypso Dreaming - Charles Butler

In Charles Butler’s Calypso Dreaming Tansy’s experiments in magic have made her more aware of and sensitive to the supernatural; she sees Calypso in the back of Dominic’s van when her mother does not. Calypso is a selkie, a seal child, and she has the power of making her dreams come true. Tansy sees her astral body in Dominic’s van, rather than the four year old herself, as Calypso is sleeping up at the Manor house, where she and her mother, Dominic’s sister, live. Dominic has powers of his own, however; he is a member of the order of Asklepius and has the gift of healing. But even Dominic’s power is insufficient against Calypso’s, whose dreams have become possessed by a spirit that inhabits the island of Sweetholm. He wakes up and finds himself on the edge of a transformation – there are wisps of feathers growing from each of his knuckles, his fingernails have become claws and his hearing has sharpened. He realises that everyone is in danger and tries to asphyxiate Calypso with a pillow in order to stop her dreams. However, his sister Sophie, catches him in the act and attacks him with a log from the fireplace. She screams “Anathema. Anathema maranatha” at Dominic, cursing him and he flees from Sophie and the Manor, and as he flees he transforms fully into a heron which, as it flies away, is then mobbed and killed by seagulls.

Tansy’s father Geoff is luckier than Dominic. Davy Jones, Sweetholm’s general handyman, is obsessed with St Brigan and he creates a shrine to her and an idol of her in a cave under the Tor on Sweetholm. He intends to sacrifice Geoff Robinson to St Brigan as he has already sacrificed Geoff’s brother John, in whose home Tansy and her parents have been staying on Sweetholm. Geoff manages to escape his intended fate, mostly due to Davy Jones killing himself instead, but he is trapped in the cave under the Tor and that is flooding. To make matters worse, Tansy’s mother believes Davy Jones’ story that Geoff has gone back to the mainland and his mistress, but Tansy does not. She and her friend Harper, a boy about her own age, set off for the Tor to see if they can find her father. Fortunately they discover Geoff, but are nearly killed in the cave when it floods. They are rescued, after a fashion, by Calypso’s seal father, who destroys the idol, releasing the spirit that had been controlling Calypso’s dreams. Tansy and Geoff return to the mainland, leaving Tansy’s mother on Sweetholm. Calypso and Sophie also leave under a cloud of suspicion as Calypso is believed, by the islanders, to be a witch.

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

What intrigues me about the Nextian world Jasper Fforde has created, is how seriously books are taken in The Eyre Affair. The fact that Thursday is a LiteraTec (a Literary Detective) – someone who deals with crimes against literature – whether that’s the theft of original manuscripts such as Martin Chuzzlewit or Jane Eyre; the sale of “bootleg” versions of the verses of Poe, Keats and Byron; or unauthorised performances of plays. Then there are the Henry Fielding fanatics who swap bubble-gum cards of Fielding’s characters, much as people in our world swap bubble-gum cards of baseball players. There are also the amazing Will-Speak machines (properly known as the Shakespeare Soliloquy Vending Automatons) into which one inserts a coin and then listens to a brief Shakespearean soliloquy (depending on whether the machine offers Hamlet or Richard III, for example). There is an annual John Milton Conference, at which many of the attendees are named John Milton; changing one’s name to that of a favourite author seems fairly common – Thursday encounters a hotel receptionist named Liz Barrett-Browning, for example, and overhears a conversation in which a John Milton is reporting being mugged by a Percy Shelley. All the hotel rooms have an obligatory copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, in addition to various religious works. Just as we have Jehovah’s Witnesses going door-to-door, trying to persuade us to sign up, so the Nextian world has people who go door-to-door, trying to persuade people that William Shakespeare wasn’t the true author of his plays. Then again, Thursday attends a performance of Richard III that is performed by the audience; those who wish to perform arrive at the theatre in costume, and audience participation is expected (half the audience at the performance that Thursday attends, ends up on stage for the Battle of Bosworth).There is the Verse Metre Analyser, a room-sized machine reminiscent of the early computers, which “breaks down any prose or poem into its components – words, punctuation, grammar, and so forth – then compares that literary signature with a specimen of the target writer in its own memory.” (Chapter 12, The Eyre Affair) Apparently it’s 89% accurate and used to find forged copies of literary texts.

On top of this, is the concept that Nextian characters and literary characters can occasionally enter or leave a literary work, and their presence can affect the narrative; thus Thursday changes the plot of Jane Eyre so that it no longer ends as it does in the Nextian universe with Jane going to India as St John Rivers’ assistance, but instead she marries Mr Rochester (something that is contrived by Thursday).

Friday, May 26, 2006

Welcome to the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone

I have tried to avoid spoilers in my book reviews at Scholar's Blog wherever possible, but this has led to frustration as there have been occasions when I have wanted to talk in detail about a specific part of a book but have not wanted to spoil the story for those who dislike spoilers. Therefore, since Blogger doesn't allow users to hide things under Cuts, as LiveJournal does, I decided to create the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone. Any book which I have reviewws or am going to review that I want to talk about in the kind of detail that makes spoilers inevitable will therefore have a 2-part review. The spoiler-free part will be over on Scholar's Blog, but the part with spoilers in will be linked here.