Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ingo - Helen Dunmore

A quick comment, before I review this book (just to give those who wish to avoid potential spoilers the chance to avert their eyes !). I was going to do a round up of my reading in 2005, but I don't really have time to compile it since I'm working this weekend (Saturday to Tuesday) on writing those 9000 words on Tolkien's life in Oxford to which I keep referring, so don't be surprised if I don't post much over the next few days ! But post-Deadline Day (ie. after Jan. 15) expect a rash of reviews of books by Ursula Le Guin since I cleaned out the library of all its ULG books this morning ! (The librarian this morning commented on the large pile of pre-Xmas-reading books I returned - she said that she'd noticed I got through a lot of books and I laughed, agreed and then said, "But I do have a life outside of books - more or less !")

Happy New Year and I wish you lots of interesting reading in 2006 !

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Helen Dunmore's Ingo is incredibly compelling reading - I could hardly bear to put it down to go to sleep last night - and I raced through all 300+ pages of it in only a few hours. Ingo is the start of a trilogy for children. It describes an idyllic life growing up beside the sea, and an amazing and wonderful undersea world with equal aplomb. It isn't easy to imagine life under the waves, living and breathing amongst an ancient people without resorting to stereotypes. But Dunmore manages to pull it off.

Set in Cornwall, Ingo is the story of Sapphire and her brother Conor, and what happens to them after their father mysteriously disappears at sea. Sapphire believes her father is still alive somewhere. She remembers the stories he used to tell her about a Mer creature who fell in love with a human, but could not come to live with him in the dry air.

A year after their father disappears Sapphy follows Conor one day, after he has been gone a long time, and see him talking to a stranger, a girl. Shortly afterwards she meets Faro, who is a Merman and who introduces her to Ingo, the underwater world of the sea. Sapphire discovers that Mer blood runs in her veins and in her brother's, and it is not long before the call of that other world becomes too strong for Sapphy to resist. But Ingo is not a safe place for Air people such as Sapphy and Conor, or their mother's new man, Roger, and it seems that Sapphy will have to make a decision about whether she wants to live in Air or in Ingo.

This is an impressive and sensitive book; Dunmore portrays the Mer and the life of Ingo in a totally believable way, and there's a strong environmental message in the background of the story too.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film - reprise

I'm not sure words can express how utterly disappointed I was by the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire... I knew the story had been cut heavily, but this was a total travesty; they leapt from a scene in one chapter into the middle of a scene from another chapter, they missed HUGE chunks of very important stuff out, and I know Mike said he wanted to concentrate on Harry's story, but this was totally ridiculous... The last time I was this disappointed by a HP film was after watching CoS. To use a common phrase, I'm gutted ! This film scarcely resembled the book at all - they should really have called it Harry Potter and some bits from J K Rowling's book ! Ugh !

OK, the effects were pretty good - but as usual they sacrificed the story for the special effects. What was that dancing lesson about - and Neville waltzing around the room ?! And why the heck was Barty Crouch Jr at the Riddle mansion ? And what was the idea of the cage in the courtroom that Harry saw in Dumbledore's pensieve ? And why were all the Beauxbatons students girls, and all the Durmstrung students boys ? And what happened to Karkorov being a Death-eater and running away ? And why didn't Barty Crouch Jr get the kiss from the Dementor ? And where was Fudge not believing Voldemort was back (how are they going to explain the Ministry of Magic-led Daily Prophet "Potter is a liar" campaign in film 5 ? And what was with the dragon chasing Harry all over the school grounds ? And Moaning Myrtle trying to cuddle up to Harry in the prefects' bathroom (*shudders*) ? Where was Ludo Bagman, and where were the rest of the Weasleys (Mrs Weasley, Bill, Charlie and Percy) ? I'm very annoyed they didn't visit Harry before his third test - how are they going to explain Bill and Fleur Delacore getting together in film 6 (or will that, too, be sacrificed) ? And where was Hermione teaching Harry how to perform the Accio spell, or teaching him all those Hexes for the final task ? And where was Sirius ??!!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien

I'm currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time as preparation for (I hope) starting to write my Tolkien & Oxford piece over the forthcoming New Year weekend - and I'm now planning to re-read The Silmarillion (or some sections of it at least), and some parts of the Unfinished Tales as well. That's what I love about Tolkien's Middle-earth and what makes me return to it year after year - the fact that there's so much depth and richness to it... And that's the reason I get baffled when people say they're not interested in Tolkien since so many of his successors have done a poor job when imitating him... It seems to me that you might just as well blame the Ancient Egyptians for the fact that modern builders can't produce good copies of the Pyramids, as blame Tolkien for the lousy job his imitators have done in creating new fantasy worlds !

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Hooray, I'm off to see the wizard (HP) tomorrow ! I'll try to post my review tomorrow, but I may have to leave it until I get back to Oxford on Friday afternoon...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire film

Just a quick note to say that I'll finally be going to see this film in the period between Christmas and the New Year, thanks to the generosity of my "little" (6' 2" !) brother who's bought tickets for the two of us to go and see it ! I can hardly wait...

Hope you all are having a pleasant break and enjoying time with family/friends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider'

The last time I felt as excited about a character and its series of books was when I started reading the Harry Potter books... Now Anthony Horowitz has done something similar to me with his Alex Rider books. Spoilers follow so do not continue if you haven't read the series and don't want it spoiled for you !

The series starts with Stormbreaker and 14 year old Alex's paternal uncle has just died in an "accident"... Alex soon discovers, however, that his uncle Ian wasn't a banker, as he had been led to believe, but an MI6 agent. He visits Royal and General the "bank" where his uncle used to work, and finds instead that it's the offices of MI6, and they want to recruit him to finish the job that Ian Rider was engaged on when he was killed. Alex thus finds himself reluctantly working as a teenage spy. He is sent to Cornwall masquerading as the winner of a computer competition whose prize is to be the first person to use one of Herod Sayle's 'Stormbreaker' computers before schools up and down the country go online with Stormbreakers of their own. Herod Sayle reminded me a little of Mohammed Al Fayed, particularly as Sayle has been angling for British citizenship for years and has been promised it as a "reward" for his generosity in giving the computers to the schools. Alex, however, discovers that the computers are a deadly gift and he is forced to find a way to get to London from Cornwall in time to stop the Prime Minister from activating the Stormbreakers at a special ceremony that will be taking place at midday on April 1 at the Science Museum.

Alex's story continues in several more books, of which I've read Point Blanc and Skeleton Key so far. Horowitz has an Alex Rider website and there is going to be a Stormbreaker film out next year. The credited cast includes the following well-known names Ewan McGregor plays Ian Rider, Mickey Rourke plays Herod Sayle, Bill Nighy plays Alan Blunt (Alex's MI6 boss), Alicia Silverstone plays Jack Starbright (Alex's house-keeper), Missi Pyle plays Nadia Vole (one of Herod Sayle's allies), Robbie Coltrane plays the Prime Minister, Stephen Fry plays Mr. Smithers (Alex's MI6 gadget man) and Andy Serkis plays Mr. Grin (presumably not in a CGI suit for once !!) Relative unknown Alex Pettyfer will be playing Alex Rider.

I hear these books are quite popular with boys (unsurprisingly), but they're also pretty popular with older female readers too... I am sure the film is going to be a summer blockbuster next year.

Finale note: I'm off to Gloucestershire tomorrow for a week's Xmas break - so don't be surprised if I don't add much to my Blog before December 30. I wish you all an enjoyable and peaceful festive season.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gifts - Ursula Le Guin

Orrec is the son of the Brantor of Caspromant; Gry the daughter of the Brantors of Barre and Rodd. They have grown up together in neighbouring domains, running half-wild across the Uplands. The people of the domains are like their land: harsh and fierce and prideful; ever at war with their neighbours, raiding cattle, capturing serfs, enlarging their holdings. It is only the gifts that keep a fragile peace. The gifts are powers: the Barres can call animals. The women of Cordemant can blind or make deaf, or take away speech. Brantor Ogge of Drummant has the gift of slow wasting. But the Caspro gift is both the best and worst: it is the gift of undoing. Gry's gift runs true, but she will not use it to call animals for the hunt. Orrec too has a problem, for his gift of undoing is wild: he cannot control it - and that is the most dangerous gift of all.

Ursula Le Guin's Gifts is the first book in a new fantasy series which looks to be as gripping and page-turning as the Earthsea series has been. Orrec and Gry are sympathetic characters - and very believable. I really felt for both Gry in her dislike of calling animals to be killed by hunters and for Orrec in trying to discover how to control his gift. Like some of her earlier books, Gifts is about a slave-owning society obsessed with purity of lineage. "There are so many cultures that do that - especially when they think something special runs in the blood," she says.

There was an interesting interview with Le Guin in the Guardian on Saturday, which I recommend. Of fantasy she says:

"Writing fantasy isn't writing for children, but it erases the distinctions; it's inherently a crossover genre," she says. Much of fantasy writing, she adds, is "about power - just look at Tolkien. It's a means to examine what it does to the person who has it, and to others."

The interview reports that
Le Guin found much of C S Lewis "simply Christian apologia, full of hatred and contempt for people who didn't agree. The division into good and evil was different from Tolkien, where evil beings are only a metaphor for the evil in our lives; he never casts people into the outer darkness as Lewis enjoyed doing." Though fantasy is often miscast as escapist, for Le Guin, it is the natural language of the "spiritual journey and the struggles of good and evil in the soul". It begins to resemble dream, she says, "and the symbols seem to be near universal and accessible to all. They're the same through the ages: we read the Epic of Gilgamesh and get it. The symbolic language is basic but not primitive or childish; it's a deep grammar of understanding."

Between reading Gifts this week, and The Wind's Twelve Quarters last week, not to mention the Guardian interview, I've now conceived a plan to read as many of Le Guin's novels as possible (I'm already a fan of the Earthsea books) once "D-Day" has passed... (In the meantime I've become hooked on Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider' series which is causing me the same kind of excitment that the Harry Potter books caused six years ago ! More on this tomorrow !)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas Books

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure, his previous novel (Martin Chuzzlewit) having flopped, and he was suddenly desperate for money. Martin Chuzzlewit was satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He got the idea for the book, the story of the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge, who has so little Christmas spirit that he wants his assistant Bob Cratchit to work on Christmas Day, in late October of 1843.

Dickens struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. Since he no longer had a publisher he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages, and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in the hope of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling 6000 copies in the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went into second and third editions. Dickens's novel reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, of cooking a feast, of spending time with the family, and of spreading warmth and cheer. His novel helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none have endured as well as A Christmas Carol.

I've loved reading A Christmas Carol for many years - it was the first Dickens novel I ever read. But a book that I anticipate becoming as fond of is written by my favourite author, J R R Tolkien, although it wasn't written as a book originally. Every December, when Tolkien's children were small, an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive addressed to them. Inside would be a letter in strange spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or some sketches; the letters were from Father Christmas. They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how one year, the accident-prone Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas' house into the dining-room; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath his house. Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script. The letters continued to arrive and the older children, by mutual consent, kept the secret of the author of the letters from the younger ones.

After Tolkien's death the letters were collected together and published as The Father Christmas Letters. A few weeks ago I finally got around to reading the volume at the Oxfordshire Studies Centre, and was totally enchanted. Now there is a new edition available: the complete hardback collection of Tolkien's illustrated letters together with an unabridged multi-voiced double CD that also features music. One of the narrators on the CD is the wonderful Sir Derek Jacobi, known to millions from I, Claudius and the television adaptations of Ellis Peters' 'Cadfael' stories. This collection is now on my Amazon wishlist as the idea of having the CD as well as the book is very appealing to me.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gideon Defoe and Tim Burton

I have got into the habit, when in the library, of randomly picking up books by authors of whom I've not heard, as a way of finding new reading material. Yesterday I picked up film director Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other stories, a small collection of brief verse stories illustrated by Burton. The book immediately reminded me of the work of American artist, Edward Gorey, of which my late friend Margo was a fan. There are 23 verse stories in the colllection all of which centre on a child with a surreal deformity, the eponymous 'Oyster Boy', 'Junk Girl', 'Robot Boy', 'The Boy with Nails in his Eyes', 'Stain Boy' and 'The Pin Cushion Queen' amongst them. The stories are quite disturbing, as befits the creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and the recent Corpse Bride. Burton's premise is the fact that all children are outcasts in the adult world, and their ideas about what is important, frightening or odd, are often quite different to ours. This book is definitely not for the faint-hearted !

My other random pick yesterday was Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists which Amazon have classed as historical fiction, but I would class with Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' books as comic alternate history/fantasy. The book appears, initially, to be a children's or, at least, a teen's book, but it's been marketed to adults. It reads like a Monty Python episode at sea combined with an Enid Blyton story, and features lots of footnotes, some of which make serious points. Few of the characters, aside from Charles Darwin, have names; rather they are differentiated by their descriptions, thus the Priate Captain, the pirate with a scarf, the pirate with an accordion, etc. Apparently Defoe wrote the book to impress a girl, which didn't work, but he published it anyway. There is a sequel available as well: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Eight Days of Luke - Diana Wynne Jones

It's turned into something of a Norse year, between Neil Gaiman's American Gods,(1) Katherine Langrish's Troll Fell and Troll Mill, Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, and now Diana Wynne Jones' Eight Days of Luke, which I hadn't realised was a re-working of a Norse myth until part way through the book. What really baffled me, though, was the sense of déjà vu I had in reading this book, much as I had with her Archer's Goon. I felt I'd read, or possibly seen, parts of the story before (and not just because it's a re-working of a Norse myth), although I had never, that I could recall, read any of DWJ's books before this year. Very strange !

David Allder is an orphan and he live with his Uncle Bernard and Aunt Dot, Cousin Astrid and her husband Ronald, none of whom like him very much. The book opens with David making his way home from boarding school for the summer holiday and dreading his arrival. Usually he is sent on an educational camp or tour during the summer as his relatives don't want him at home, but this year nothing has been organised as Cousin Ronald mistook the date when the summer holiday would begin. David is not looking forward to a miserable two months with his relations, being expected to be grateful for their lack of kindness or interest in him as a person.(2) The day after his return home, David's relations tell him that they're going to send him to a mathetmatics tutor for the holdiay so that they can go away to Scarborough as planned. David is annoyed (he came third in his form for mathematics this year) and decides that he is going to curse his relations. He decides that he can't curse them in English as that would not be likely to work very well, so he works out a form of words that he thinks sound impressive and declaims them to the sky. To his astonishment a minor earthquake seems to take place and snakes start erupting from the ground. He is helped to beat them back by another boy who introduces himself as "Luke" and thanks David for freeing him from prison.

During the course of the next week David discovers that knowing Luke isn't necessarily going to lead to a peaceful life, and that not all his relations hate him absolutely. He also makes friends with Alan, a local boy, with whom he plays cricket, and who joins him in part of his quest to keep Luke from being returned to his prison. The book has a definite happy-ever-after feeling to its ending, but in a good way. I imagine this book would appeal to boys (especially cricket-loving ones !) as much as Dogsbody will appeal to girls. Not that boys would necessarily not enjoy Dogsbody, or girls Eight Days of Luke !

(1) - Interestingly, Neil Gaiman planned a book very like Eight Days of Luke, until he remembered Diana Wynne Jones had written the same story ! So he wrote American Gods instead.
(2) - Some of this is going to sound very familiar to readers of the adventures of a certain young wizard, but the orphan-mistreated-by-his/her-relations, has been with us for a long time: Cinderella anyone ?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Dogsbody - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody is a relatively straight-forward tale (for a DWJ book, at any rate) about what happens when hot-tempered Sirius, the immortal Lord of the Dog Star, wrongly accused of murder is banished and sent to live on Earth in the body of a new-born puppy with the instruction to find a means of clearing his name before the dog dies. At first Sirius does not recall his former life and concentrates only on surviving, a task made harder when the owner of his dog mother is advised to drown the puppies because they are mongrels.

Sirius is rescued by an unhappy little Irish girl called Kathleen who is living with her paternal uncle and his family in England whilst her father is in prison (the book was first published during The Troubles when the IRA was very active). Kathleen is bullied by her aunt and to a lesser extent her eldest cousin, and Sirius the puppy offers the hope of friendship that Kathleen otherwise lacks. As time passes and Sirius (or Leo as Kathleen names him) grows he begins to recall his former life and realises his has to find a way to clear his name or he will die when his dog body dies. Sirius is helped by Sol, the Lord of the Sun, and by both the Moon and the Earth; but he's also helped by his brothers and sister (the four other puppies who survived the attempted drowning), the household cats (who initially hated him) and by various humans who take a liking to him. Unfortunately, Sirius is in danger from the New-Sirius and his former Companion, the inhabitant of the white dwarf that circled his star, as well as humans like Kathleen's aunt Duffie.

I can easily imagine this book being popular with dog-loving children, especially girls.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones

Here I go again - reviewing another Diana Wynne Jones book ! Howl's Moving Castle was recently made into an animated film and now I'm quite desperate to see it, but unfortunately it's not out in the UK until next March (probably because the film didn't open here until September anyway). However, I enjoyed the book - Sophie is an interesting character, convinced that because she is the eldest born of three children, she has no hope of making her fortune, because everyone in Ingary knows that the eldest of three children will fail at whatever they set out to do. It appears that everyone is correct when the Witch of the Waste puts Sophie under a spell, after mistaking Sophie for one of her other sisters. Convinced that she now has nothing to lose, she approaches Howl's moving castle. The Wizard Howl is known to a wicked sorcerer who steals girls' hearts and eats them. However, Wynne Jones delights in turning beliefs upside down, and neither Sophie's fortune or the truth about Howl turns out to be what everyone believes or expects.

I have to confess I love the idea of the moving castle with a magical door that, according to which way the knob above it is turned, opens onto different places, one of which is Wales, where Howl has a sister, a nephew and a niece ! I am also intrigued by the idea of the Fire Demon, Calcifer, who is responsible for providing the motive power for the castle, who has to be persuaded to bend down his head so that meals can be cooked, and has entered into a pact with Howl which some of Howl's friends are convinced is bad for both Howl and Calcifer.

Howl's young apprentice Michael is a nice lad, far nicer than you might expect, having Howl for a Master (he often spends 2 or 3 hours in the bathroom before going out - I know women (me included) who spend less time than that on getting ready to go out !) Sophie's sisters are nice, if rather headstrong, girls, and Sophie's stepmother Fanny breaks the tradition of stepmothers everywhere taking advantage of their step-daughters.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Oxford and fantasy

There was an interesting article in The Weekend Australian last weekend which my friend Jane W pointed out to me had been Blogged by Judith over at Misrule. In the article Felicity Carter discusses the prevalence of fantasy authors who hail from Oxford saying that many of the greatest English children's writers of the past century or so have studied or taught at Oxford, among them Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman. Carter notes that few other places appear to have made as significant an impact on children's fantasy literature as Oxford. And I would add that some adults' fantasy writers also hail from Oxford since my own favourte author, Juliet E McKenna, studied at Oxford University and still lives in the county.

In the article, Julia Cresswell, who tutors in children's literature at the summer school at Christ Church college, suggests that part of the reason for Oxford producing so many fantasy writers is that Tolkien and Lewis had a large role in developing much of the English syllabus which was in place at Oxford until the '70s. Their syllabus put a lot of emphasis on philology and medieval literature. Meanwhile, Dianne Purkiss, who is a fellow at Keble College and researches children's literature and fairytales, suggests that Oxford itself is an inspiration, partly because of the concentration of brilliant people in the University, but also in part because of the University's architecture which "points to the heavens", and she notes the number of gates that bar the way into the colleges, behind which can be seen glimpses of "another world."

It would be interesting to know if there are any other cities in the world that have produced a high number of fantasy writers. And of course I should note that crime fiction is often set in Oxford, Inspector Morse being the most famous, but by no means the only, detective to haunt the city !

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Reprise

There are some really thought-provoking stories in Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters. I particularly liked 'April in Paris', which involves using a magic spell to bring four people together, two from the past and one from the future of the character to whom we're first introduced. The four of them discover they have something in common and it is this characteristic which allows the spell to bring them together.

Also interesting, and intriguing, is 'Nine Lives' about a man who is one of ten clones of a scientist. They are sent far out into space to work on Libra, but there is an earthquake and 9 of the 10 clones are killed. The one remaining clone has to learn to live without his "siblings" with the two men whom he and the clones were sent to assist.

'Things' is something of an apocolypse story - and also about hope and daring to dream... 'Darkness Box' and 'Winter's King' were puzzling, and the latter quite confusing as it features Kings who are female.

Finally, the two stories set in Earthsea, 'The Word of Unbinding' is about doing one's duty whatever the consequences, and 'The Rule of Names' shows that appearances can be *very* deceiving !

I shall have to add this book to my wishlist, along with Le Guin's Changing Planes which I read earlier in the year.

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A bit of fun for Harry Potter fans: see who your HP alter ego is with this quiz - unsurprisingly, I'm 85% like Hermione (and I'm 80% like Dumbledore and 75% like Harry Potter - which I like !) Is anyone willing to confess to being most like Voldemort ?!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula Le Guin

I have been wanting to read Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters for some time because it contains two stories set in Earthsea, but also because I have heard quite a bit about the story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James), which Le Guin, in the introduction, calls a psychomyth. If you're unfamiliar with Le Guin's story, you may want to use the link above to read it before you go any further.

"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat," writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James' The Moral Philosoper and the Moral Life, it was with a shock of recognition." Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on reading a road sign for Salem, Oregon, backwards. She says that people ask her "Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?" and she answers "From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"

In this story, Omelas is a utopian city of joy and happiness, whose inhabitants are intelligent, refined and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of its happiness: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single child be kept in filth, misery and darkness, and that all the citizens are told of this when they come of age. Many are very upset by the information, but they reason away their pain at the news, and in time they forget about the child's presence in their city. But some citizens cannot, and they are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I had heard from various quarters that this was a very moving story, and I was not misinformed. It is also, of course, very thought-provoking.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mistress Masham's Repose - T H White

Some of us on a discussion forum recently got talking about sequels to famous books written by other authors, and one of the titles that was mentioned was T H White's Mistress Masham's Repose, the sequel to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Despite the fact that I hated the abridged version of Gulliver's Travels that I read a as child, and I didn't much enjoy the full version I read whilst doing my degree a few years ago, I had heard enough people talking positively about Mistress Masham's Repose (particularly on the Child_Lit list) that I decided to try reading it. I quite enjoyed it - the Lilliputians, without Gulliver seemed more interesting somehow, and Maria, the 10 year old orphaned protagonist of the story is definitely more interesting than Gulliver ! The one thing I did find irritating about the book was the Professor, whom I found to be too stereotypically absent-minded, poverty-stricken and book-obessed !

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Having mentioned Milton and his Paradise Lost yesterday, someone today mentioned the new OUP edition of the poem with the introduction by Philip Pullman. I looked at it when it first came out and thought it was a rather nice edition and once Deadline Day has passed, I shall think about borrowing it from the library. I've never yet managed to read it, but I'm thinking of taking the advice of my friend Jameela, who's a Milton scholar, of getting together a group of people to read it aloud with me (much as Tolkien gathered a group of people, that included Lewis, to read aloud the Norse sagas). It could be more productive than struggling to read it by myself - especially as I love reading poetry aloud !

Whilst I'm on the subject of poetry, the Writer's Alamanac email today tells me that it's the birthday of Emily Dickinson today, and shared the following poem, which it seems appropriate to share here:


He ate and drank the precious Words --
His Spirit grew robust --
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust --

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book -- What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings --

I'm not very familiar with many of the American poets, never having found time to read much of their work, but one of the few American poets whose work has come my way quite often is Dickinson. Her poems often have a simplicity to them that disguises their profundity. I offer respectful birthday greetings, Ms Dickinson.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Lewis; Milton; Disney

It's not often that anyone sees those three names in combination, but I have three short items to share today.

I finished reading C S Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet last night, and I'm sorry to say that I found it a tedious and didactic book. I certainly won't be reading the other two books in the trilogy. Lewis seemed to flag up the action rather a lot - even if I hadn't already known in advance of reading the book that Ransom was kidnapped by Weston and Devine, I'd have known as soon as Ransom was taken into their house because Lewis was waving warning flags. Ransom was a fairly likeable character I suppose, but a bit vulgar - I hope Tolkien wasn't too insulted by him (Lewis, apparently based Ransom on Tolkien).

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Of rather more interest is the fact that it's the birthday of the great English poet John Milton, who was born in London in 1608. He's probably best known for his epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), but he spent twenty years of his life writing almost nothing but essays on political and religious topics. Milton was one of the early crusaders against the English government's censorship of books and pamphlets. He argued that no one group should control the number of available opinions from which an individual can choose, and he wrote, "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself." It seems to me that these are wise words and worth remembering.

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Finally, and depressingly, the BBC reports that after 80 years in the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh is to get a female friend, who will replace Christopher Robin. Apparently Disney has decided to pair Pooh up with a red-haired six-year-old tomboy for its 2007 series. This has caused no small amount of horror all round, and Neil Gaiman's reponse is typically satirical.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Who are Google kidding ?

I saw this article by Nikesh Arora, who is vice-president of European operations for Google, on the site and nearly hit the roof; goodness knows what librarians (and indeed readers) will make of the following comment:

The challenge is that most of the information in the world is not yet online, which makes it impossible to find unless you know exactly what to look for - and where. In this process, Google accepts that what its partners and customers see as opportunities, critics might see as threats.

Take, for example, Google's new book search service. Millions of out-of-print and out-of-copyright books are gathering dust in libraries everywhere.

Information is "impossible to find" ? What are libraries there for - oh yes, for books to gather dust in, apparently... I must say that I find such a casual dismissal of a valuable and well-established profession totally insulting ! Were I a librarian, I would be spitting feathers right now. Clearly Nikesh Arora has never been near a library, or s/he would know that librarians are the best starting point for finding all sorts of information, and that librarians are knowledgeable and (for the most part) very friendly people who will go out of their way to assist their readers ! The number of messages that appear on Child_Lit each week from librarians asking if anyone can remember or identify a book for which a reader is searching attests to the effort that these lovely folk put in on their readers' behalf.

I have to say that I've never seen any books gathering dust in either the public library or the Bodleian Library here in Oxford. Both are extremely well used, and the public library service as a whole in Oxford looks (from this reader's point of view) to be very well used. I often have to reserve a book I want to read because it is out on loan - and I'm not talking about the sole copy of a title, either - these are titles of which there are often multiple copies of which many are out on loan.

Google offers a pretty good search service - it's certainly the only search engine I use, and some of their other services are also good (I am using their Blog service, after all), but this obsession with books is starting to grate on my nerves more than a little. I do hope that someone points out to them that they don't OWN the world's knowledge !

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Darwin's Watch: Science of Discworld III

I finished Darwin's Watch this morning. It has to be said that the subtitle "Science of Discworld" is a complete misnomer as the books are very much about the science of "Roundworld" (Earth), not the Discworld.

I thoroughly enjoyed Darwin's Watch; I suspect that I found the science more accessible than The Globe, because I already had some knowledge of Darwin and his The Origin of the Species. I read it several years ago in a fit of self-improvement relating to science books (I also read, as I recall, Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem and Dava Sobell's Longitude). Unfortunately, despite my background in computers, most science sails straight over my head - I don't seem to have the right kind of mental attitude or something, to understand much science or mathematics-related material. Therefore, if I recommend a book like Darwin's Watch, you can guarantee that as a Humanities person, I find it fairly accessible. Of course, the accompanying misadventures of Terry Pratchett's wizards is a definite bonus: poor old Ponder, who despairs of getting Ridcully and co. to understand him; Ridcully, who's a lot brighter than he appears under all that shouting and heartiness; wimpish Rincewind, who runs away from everything (which is nevertheless a fairly sensible action on many occasions !); and of course, the fantastic Librarian, who is easily my favourite character from the Unseen University.

"Science of" books about fictional universes are becoming very popular - I've also got Henry Gee's The Science of Middle-earth is also lurking on my pending pile (on loan from the same friend who has loaned me Darwin's Watch), and I read The Science of His Dark Materials last year (also loaned by the same generous friend, for which my thanks go to JEM). Roger Highfield has also produced The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works - which I have not seen as yet. I think these books are a good idea - I know that I often read that too few children are going into the sciences these days, so hopefully such books as these will spark interest in a few more children and lead them into the sciences.

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Jeremy Mercer has given the Guardian a list of his 10 favourite bookshops. It makes interesting reading, and apparently he's written a book (Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs) about them:

"Bookstores are sanctuaries. Places to lose yourself, escape the harsh demands of daily life, find new ways to dream and new sources of inspiration. I love all booksellers; anybody who helps spread the word is doing noble work. But my favourite bookstores are the small eccentric independents run by passionate and usually slightly mad book lovers. These are some of the best."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Books News

Since I still have another six chapters of Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's Darwin's Watch: Science of Discworld III to read, I bring you some book news and reviews from others, instead of a book review from me. (I'm pleased to say I've skipped very little of the science chapters in this book; I ended up skipping almost all of the science in The Globe: Science of Discworld II because it just went straight over my head, unfortunately, so I just read the Discworld chapters by Terry instead ! I did persevere through most of the science in The Science of Discworld though !)

Anyway, the best news I've had today is that the proposed HMV buyout of Ottakers has been referred by the Office of Fair Trading to the Competition Commission. Apparently the OFT's chief executive John Fingleton said the two book retailers competed closely on a number of non-price factors such as range and variety of books. "In particular, our economic analysis shows that Ottakar's competes harder on non-price factors when a Waterstone's is nearby," he said. "The unusually high level of consumer complaints to the OFT shows that UK book-buyers value the fruits of this competition, which the merger would eliminate." Hooray for consumer complaints !!

In other news, Jim Dale has allegedly said that he believes JKR will kill off Harry Potter in the final book (this is reported in one of the downmarket UK tabloids, so if anyone has seen anything to back this up, please let me know !)

Finally there are some reviews of books for teens in the Independent by Brandon Robshaw, some of which have clearly gone down better than others ! I have to say, though, that this sentence "Carl Hiaasen is better-known as a writer of adult crime fiction" made me laugh; I'd never heard of Hiaasaen until he started writing books for teens - and I'm not exactly a stranger to crime fiction !

However, Robshaw liked Melvin Burgess's Bloodsong which is "a re-telling of the Norse Volsunga saga, set in a post-apocalyptic Britain of the future, and chronicles the monster-slaying exploits of young Sigurd." Apparently it's calculated to appeal to teenage boys - I clearly don't have an inner boy, because it doesn't sound at all appealing to me (I'll stick to the original Norse saga, I think !)

He also liked Helen Dunmore's Ingo, of which he says "has masses of girl-appeal - and clearly I have an inner girl, for it appealed to me. [...] It's all wildly implausible, but so gracefully written that one suspends disbelief not just willingly but eagerly. Put it in the Christmas stocking of the teenage girl in your life - or a teenage boy who is in touch with his feminine side. And it's the first book of a trilogy. Hooray!"

But Adèle Geras' re-telling of the Odyssey from the point of view of those at home didn't appeal to Robshaw who says of Ithaka, "It seems an extraordinary achievement to make the Odyssey boring, but Geras has done exactly that. There are long, long passages where nothing much happens: endless speculations about whether Odysseus will ever come back, strangely inconsequential visits of the gods, interminable conversations where the characters tell each other things the reader already knows. It's written in the drearily elevated diction often thought suitable for historical novels: months are "moons", a lot is "many", crying is "weeping", everybody is "all" and so on."

Finally, Robshaw mentions Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness which he also enjoyed. "It's the story of Sym, a 14-year-old girl, regarded as a dork at school, whose best friend is the long-dead Captain Oates, with whom she conducts long and entertaining conversations in her head. Her Uncle Victor drags her away on a madcap expedition to the South Pole, and it seems likely she'll share the fate of Oates and his comrades. The writing is intense, insistent - it's a page-turner, but as the tension rises, and conditions grow more and more desperate, one turns the pages with dread. [...] This is a literary novel of superb technique, and has more real excitement than any amount of shoot-'em-up action stories. The White Darkness is as good as it gets."

No wonder my friend Kelly, over at Big A, little a is keen to read Ingo and The White Darkness ! I shall be hunting for them in the library myself after D-day (Deadline Day, that is, not June 6 !)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Mr Bliss - J R R Tolkien

Mr Bliss

Since I'm currently reading just about everything Tolkien-related on which I can get my hands, I borrowed J R R Tolkien's Mr Bliss from the Bodleian Library's bookstacks on Wednesday to read. It is a small book, illustrated with Tolkien's own colour pictures about a man called Mr Bliss who wears very tall hats and who goes out one day to buy himself a bright yellow car for 5 shillings. A series of adventures follow this - initiated by the fact that Mr Bliss is a poor driver, rather as Tolkien was on his first car journey ! In fact, Tolkien and Siegfried Sassoon have this in common - both drove badly (although I'm not sure Sassoon's driving ever really improved !)

This is a lovely little book and would make a wonderful gift - I'm surprised that HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin in the US haven't yet seen fit to re-issue it, as they have almost everything else fictional that Tolkien wrote. If you come across a copy of this book, do read it, as it's charming and good fun.

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News on the continuing "war" for bookbuyers comes from the Telegraph, whilst this article from the Independent discusses the consequences of the HMV group taking over Ottakers. I really hope that the buyout gets referred to the Office of Fair Trading. I've nothing against Waterstones per se, it's just that I want Ottakers to stay independent !

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde

I'm currently re-reading Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. What has particularly struck me on this reading is the cleverness of the idea of book characters having a life of their own outside that prescribed by the text of the book. Just as in the Toy Story(1) and Toy Story 2 films, where Andy's toys have a life of their own when he's not playing with them, so too the characters of various books in Fforde's universe have a life of their own that is not seen by their readers. This is a very imaginative concept in terms of books, and I confess that I rather like the idea of specially trained people (called Jurisfiction Agents) being able to read themselves into books in order to fix plot holes, have conversations with characters or even change the ending as Thursday Next did to Jane Eyre in Fforde's first book, The Eyre Affair. According to Fforde, the book originally ended with Jane marrying St. John Rivers, instead of racing off to find Rochester and marrying him; remember the mysterious voice which Jane suddenly heard calling her name ? According to Fforde that was the voice of his character, Thursday. In The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday fixes the ending of Enid Blyton's Shadow the Sheepdog so that he recovers his sight after being blinded during the course of the story.

Reading Fforde's books leaves the reader thinking because he challenges the accepted norms of books. The whole idea of their being a Well of Lost Plots for instance, or a Text Sea into which unpublished books are eventually cast, or a Library that contains a copy of every single book that has ever been written, is a fascinating one. Although I feel that Fforde's later books lost their edge in terms of humour, they are still a fascinating and challenging read because of the ideas he packs into them.

(1 Can you believe that Toy Story is now 10 years old ?! And did you know that Joss Whedon has a screenplay writing credit for it ?)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Harry Potter the heir to Faust?

I missed seeing A N Wilson's article in Monday's Telegraph because of the computer problems to which I referred yesterday, so some of you may have seen this already (although I've not seen any mention of it on any of the Blogs I read my way through this morning !) Wilson comments:

Many of us will have spent a few hours recently watching Lord Voldemort resume his - or Ralph Fiennes's - corporeal shape, in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I thought it was a scene so terrifying that it could hardly be watched, but after pulling myself together and realising I was responsible for the younger members of the party, I turned to the two seven-year-olds to my right and saw their faces wreathed in callous grins.

Perhaps you need to be grown-up to appreciate how frightening Voldemort is. Cyril Connolly said that Aleister Crowley was the missing link between Hitler and someone else, but I always forget who the someone else was. Voldemort is in this tradition: the mage who abuses his power, who indeed lives for power and believes, as he announces in the first of the J K Rowling books, that there is no good or evil, only power.

Magic can still be seen as the ultimate expression of this intellectually false perception, and the damage it does has been the theme of many a great book.

(I still haven't seen the fourth HP film so I still haven't seen the best acting without a nose yet - I'm hoping to get to see the film finally on Dec. 10th !)

Anyway, Wilson then goes on to discuss Faust, with regard to the books of E M Butler that were written half a century ago: The Myth of the Magus, Ritual Magic and The Fortunes of Faust. Apparently, explains Wilson, the original Faust was mostly a fraudulent trickster who combined (according to Butler) "a minimum of pharmaceutical knowledge with a maximum of malice".

This is an interesting article - and makes me curious about Faust - but that curiosity will have to wait until after January 15 to be indulged as I must concentrate as much energy as possible on finishing my Tolkien reading for the Encyclopaedia piece.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Alan Garner; Jasper Fforde; Poetry News

I've had an unintended absence from the Blogosphere this week - largely the result of recalcitrant computers (and not mine for once !). As a result I've two book reviews and a news item to share.

Red Shift - Alan Garner

Alan Garner's novel, Red Shift seems to me, to be the most complicated of his novels. It is a complex combination of three story threads: Macy, a Roman soldier in ancient Britain, has deserted and gone tribal; Thomas, lives in the violent period of the English Civil War; and in contemporary times, teenagers Tom and Jan share a troubled relationship. The three story threads are linked, overtly, by an axehead (which Thomas calls a "thunderstone") and the constellation Orion, but there are many other connections between object, place and vision.

If you've ever read the book and struggled with it, or are considering reading it, you might find Charlie Butler's article 'Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of "Tam Lim"' helpful. Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of the Children's Literature Association Quarterly it is now available on Robert Mapson's unofficial website. Also available on the site is an article on The Red Shift Code.

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The Big Over Easy - Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde's novel The Big Over Easy is the newest in the FFordean canon. It is linked to his Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots. In The Big Over Easy Fforde brings all the apparatus of the tough crime thriller to bear on nursery rhymes. Minor baronet Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III has been found dead (and in pieces) beneath a wall in a less salubrious area of Reading. The perpetrator appears to be his ex-wife, but she has killed herself. Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his colleague Mary Mary are assigned to the case, and soon find themselves knee-deep in money-laundering, bullion smuggling and a major problem with a beanstalk.

This isn't quite the same Ffordean mixture as before, although he has previously favoured a crime angle for his plots. Readers will appreciate the wordplay and witty imagination that Fforde offers here, and most readers will be more than happy to encounter detective Inspector Jack Spratt (and his contrary sidekick kick Mary Mary) again and again. The follow up novel, The Fourth Bear, will be out in July 2006.

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Poetry News

This article on the BBC News website will be of interest to poetry lovers. Historic recordings of poets such as Yeats, Tennyson, Sassoon, Kipling and Betjeman are going to be made available through a new online initiative. The Poetry Archive also aims to ensure current leading English-speaking poets are recorded reading their own work for future generations. The free archive has been created by UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and recording producer Richard Carrington. They say the website will prove invaluable for students and teachers.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Conglomerates taking over the book world ?

A couple of news stories about big companies tryng to become bigger or take over the Book world generally. First is the news that the British book chain Waterstones is going to hear the decision of the Office of Fair Trading with regard to its attempt to take over the smaller book chain Ottakers, something to which a good many British authors are fully opposed, as it will severely reduce competition, and limit the outlets where their books are sold. Given that the book stores themselves are facing stiff competition from the supermarket chains, the proposed Waterstones takeover does not bode well for readers - or authors.

Then there's the continuing problems of Google and its Google Print project. There's an interesting article in the Times about how the Google Print project could well lead to the death of academic publishing - something I'd rather not see, since that's the kind of publishing I'm interested in for my own work !

Finally, as a counter-balance to all that negativity, there's an interview with the wonderful Terry Pratchett in which he discusses his OBE, the Discworld books, especially Thud and his childhood.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld - Patricia McKillip

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Jane from the Child_Lit list, who kindly lent it to me, I have just finished reading Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Sybel is the daughter and granddaughter of wizards who lives on Eld Mountain with a menagerie of fantastic and magical beasts: the Dragon Gyld, the riddling Boar Cyrin, the black Cat Moriah, the Lyon Gules, the Black Swan of Terleth and the Falcon Ter who once killed seven men in one fight. Only the White Bird Liralen has refused to answer the telepathic call which Sybel has sent out into the world. Liralen will only come once Sybel has learnt of love and hate, hope and despair...

One day a knight named Coren comes to Sybel carrying a tiny baby, Tamlorn, son of the King of Eldwold. He asks Sybel to give the baby shelter and so she does until he is 12. Then he desires to see his father and his desire sets in train a whole series of events in which Sybel is nearly destroyed.

This book was not quite as gripping as The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, nor as supernatural as Winter Rose, but it was an interesting read. What particularly interested me was that men of power wanted to possess Sybel and her power for themselves - which reminded me of Maggie Furey's 'Artefacts of Power' series, in which men of power wanted to possess Aurian and her power, although she, like Sybel, chose as her mate men who wanted her for herself and who did not want to possess her. I found it interesting to contrast the experiences of Aurian and Sybel with the experiences of the women mages in Lynn Flewelling and Juliet E McKenna's respective series. At first I thought it was because of the way feminism has advanced in the intervening years (McKillip's 'Beasts' was published in 1974) - but Furey's series was published in the mid-1990s, and Flewelling's and McKenna's in the late-90s and early 21st century. Did feminism advance that much between the mid- and late-90s ? Or was Furey harking back to the older age ? Or is it simply that McKillip and Furey felt that it is inevitable that men of power will want to possess women of power ? Your thoughts and speculations are invited !

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Book Collector's Dilemma

There is a question which comes up with inevitable regularity on the Child_Lit list: how do you (or I) arrange my books ? And it appears that the Child_Lit subscribers are not alone in their cry; in yesterday's Guardian Susie Boyt revealed she faced the same book collector's dilemma. Her article begins:

No one in her right mind would display her wardrobe on open racks and shelves in the living room for all to see: the bad mistakes, the telling array of sizes, that dented tin of Doom to Moth, the smell of sweat deodorised. It would be more exposure than anyone could bear.
I've always felt a little like this about books too. Until now I have kept mine stowed away [...]. I've never felt books added much to any room visually, as long as you can always find one when you need one.
But recently I have had cause to revise my opinions: one of my daughter's friends asked her mother why we don't have any books in our home, and I'm not sleeping well because the stack of books next to my bed is so high that it is penetrating my dreams, where towers and precarious cliffs loom large.

In something akin to a panic, Boyt has installed 14 bookcases (I can't even imagine having enough space for 14 bookcases, never mind sufficient books to fill them !) near the front door and now she has visions of scathing analyses of their contents (and omissions therefrom):

Why the nine biographies of Judy Garland? Why every book by Henry James but not a word of Hemingway? Why four annotated Tennysons? Why no Virginia Woolf? If only I could argue that the books I have simply represent me; but in that case how to explain the glut of Dryden? And where are all the embarrassing titles? Surely when none of those are on view something in the household must be seriously amiss.

And then there's the big dilemma of how to arrange them:

An alphabetical arrangement, especially for poetry, seems unsatisfactory. [...] I recall a good conversation I had with my father about Whitman and D H Lawrence, so I put these two next to each other. I remember a wonderful essay by John Bayley comparing The Eve of Saint Agnes with The Dead, so I put Joyce and Keats side by side.

I have to confess my books are shelved fairly haphazardly, for the simple reason that my tiny attic only has space for two small bookcases which are packed with books. The ones I use most often (Tolkien and FWW poetry) are in the bookcase that's alongside my left arm even as I type, and the remainder are in or piled on top of the second bookcase just inside the door. I wish I had the luxury of sufficient space to have bookcases all over the place ! It is my most recurrent fantasy to have a house big enough for an actual library (such as the well-off had in the 18th and 19th centuries). If I ever buy that winning Lotto ticket...

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Talking of the First World War, I only found out today that Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful has won the Blue Peter book award. Michelle Pauli reports on the award in the Guardian and notes Morpurgo's response: "To win a prize is always encouraging to a writer. To win a prize judged by your readers is something very special indeed."

I haven't read it yet, it's on my "to be borrowed at some stage" list for the library. Right now I'm reading Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which a friend kindly loaned to me - and tomorrow I'm finally picking up Alan Garner's Red Shift from the library - hooray !

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Finally ! As promised, a review of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. There's far more comedy in Anansi Boys than in American Gods, and I found it far easier to identify with Fat Charlie Nancy, than I did with Shadow. I liked American Gods a great deal, but I think I prefer Anansi Boys... The story of Charlie Nancy's development from loser-doormat into a man of power and potential was fascinating. He learns early in the book that his father "Mr Nancy" is the spider-god Anansi. He doesn't believe this since he knows that he doesn't have any divine powers, but then he discovers that his brother Spider (whose existence he did not know about) got all the divine powers. The book opens with Charlie preparing to marry Rosie and arguing about whether he's going to invite his father, who has always embarrassed him throughout his life, to the wedding. Before this argument can cause a rift between Charlie and Rosie, however, Charlie discovers that his father has died (in what Charlie considers to be hugely embarassing circumstances). He sets off to Florida for the funeral and it is after the funeral that he discovers his father's divinity and his brother's existence. The tale then takes on a slightly surreal hue, and follows rather a lot of twists and turns before reaching its conclusion - which I found to be deeply satisfying...

I loved the fact that Neil and his publisher have included various "extras" with his book - a deleted scene which he felt would have slowed down the chapter had it been included, reproductions of various pages from his notebook in which he wrote Anansi Boys, an interview, and (sign of the times) discussion questions for a reading group !!

Even if you didn't enjoy American Gods (and perhaps especially if you didn't enjoy it), do read Anansi Boys because it's very entertaining and marvellously written, and it's probably my favourite of Gaiman's books (that I've read so far).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Book news

As I haven't quite finished reading Anansi Boys (sometimes life - and research - can get in the way of reading), I'm going to share some recent book news with you - and you'll get book review tomorrow...

Giles Tremlett reports that a Madrid taxi driver has won a competition to be paid to read Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Apparently he has to read sitting in front of a webcam and answer daily questions from internet users. You can see him at The grant that Mr Carretero has won is part of a campaign to get more Spaniards reading.

* * * * * *

Stephen Moss offers a brief history of plagiarism; Oscar Wilde, T S Eliot, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were all accused of borrowing heavily, if not outright plagiarism.

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Finally, I missed this article from Saturday's Guardian in which Philip Pullman asks if the new legislation to curb incitement to religious hatred will distinguish between a rational analysis of theology and a call for violence, whilst Philip Hensher, Salman Rushdie and Monica Ali consider the threat to free speech.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What use is poetry ?

There was a really fascinating article by George Szirtes in yesterday's Guardian in response to a letter in an unnamed "serious newspaper" which asked "If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?" Szirtes notes that this question is

a bit Gradgrindish in nature. What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change. There have been poems that worked towards such change. Pope and Swift wrote politically. Thomas Hood's The Song of the Shirt was about the exploitation of seamstresses. Shelley, who argued that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world", addressed the subject of the Peterloo massacre in The Mask of Anarchy. The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear.

He goes on to observe that
The sweetest sound in all the world, said Finn MacCool of Irish legend, was the music of what happens. [...] The human mind encounters and accommodates all this. But the encounter is inchoate until it enters language. Language looks solid, but is endlessly provisional, slippery, thin and treacherous. It shines and gathers light like ice, but is fragile and likely to melt, dropping us into the inchoate world of one damn thing after another. It orders as best it can. It names, combines, suggests and sparkles but is never to be entirely trusted.

And Szirtes offers two propositions:

1. Poets are ordinary people with a special love and distrust of language.
2. Poetry is not a pretty way of saying something straight, but the straightest way of saying something complex.

Szirtes believes that for poets it is "vital to love and distrust language. It is absolutely vital to tell truths that catch something of the complex polyphonic music of what happens. Someone has got to do it."

The First World War poets, whose work I have studied and written about so often in the past, attempted to do just this: to tell truths of the events through which they lived whilst they lived. But of course poets are not alone in attempting to tell truths about events - novelists try to do it too, albeit (often) in more subtle ways. I know people who are decent, hardworking and caring, who nevertheless disdain the study of either poetry or novels, believing it to be a waste of time and money, but I feel they are wrong. Reading/studying and writing about novels and poetry enable the reader to find ways of arriving at the truths that the writer has presented in their work. Hopefully understanding such truths make us as individuals better, and therefore the world as a whole, a better place.

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I finally picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys from the library today - it's next on my to-read pile once I finish Emma (or possibly before then !)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Smith of Wootton Major edited Verlyn Flieger

As I mentioned that I was fortunate enough on Saturday to pick up the library's copy of the new "extended edition" (which makes it sound like a DVD !) of Smith of Wootton Major edited by Verlyn Flieger. This little hardback not only contains Tolkien's final story, but also Pauline Baynes' original illustrations. In addition to this Flieger has included her own Afterword, the "Genesis of the story" (Tolkien's note to Clyde Kilby), Tolkien's draft introduction to The Golden Key (from which the story's idea sprang), a Time Scheme and list of Characters, Tolkien's Suggestions for the ending of the story, his Smith of Wootton Major essay, a reproduction of the Hybrid (part typescript, part manuscript) and a transcription of 'The Great Cake' (as the original story was called), the Lake of Tears drafts and transcriptions, and finally explanatory Notes on the text.

All this for a mere £14.99 and with an attractive Pauline Baynes dust jacket too. I can recommend this edition; The Smith of Wootton Major story itself always moves me when I read it, and the extra are a real bonus, particularly Tolkien's essay on the story.

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I'm a member of a forum where discussion of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has been raging - and people keep saying that Harry is a Horcrux, which is why he has to die (according to Trelawney's prophecy). Someone even suggested this is how Harry got the powers that he shares with Voldemort...

But I refute this...

As Dumbledore explains in Half-Blood Prince, one makes a Horcrux after a murder has been committed (using a very specific spell) and since Voldemort was rendered very insubstantial by the rebounding Avada Kedavra spell, he was in no shape to make Harry into a Horcrux... Although Dumbledore believes that Voldemort planned to use Harry's murder to make a final Horcrux, there is no implication in the text that he was going to use Harry AS a Horcrux... (I've literally just re-read the book, finishing it Saturday, so all this is fresh in my mind.) Dumbledore suggests that Voldemort used Nagini (the snake) to make his final Horcrux once he'd killed Frank, the gardener who looked after the Riddle House, at the start of GoF; but Dumbledore believes it was a very dangerous thing to do, given that Nagini can think and move for herself, since there is always the possibility of the snake leaving Voldemort, or indeed of her being killed. Yes there's the possibility of Horcruxes being destroyed, but one needs to know what object is the Horcrux and where it is before one can destroy - and since Voldemort believes he's the only one who knows of his creation of them, inanimate objects are much safer repositories for the pieces of his soul, and less likely to be accidentally destroyed...

Harry's sharing of Voldemort's powers are the result of the failed Avada Kedavra spell - normally the AK leaves a person unmarked (see the opening chapter of Goblet of Fire on this one - when the three Riddles are found) - but because of Lily's sacrifice for Harry, an ancient magic was invoked which protected Harry from the spell's full effects. It gave him the scar, through which some of Voldemort's powers were passed: ie. Parseltongue (the ability to speak to snakes) and Legilimency (the power to enter another's mind).

But Harry is not a Horcrux !!

The bit about "Neither can live whilst the other survives" merely relates to the fact that Voldemort wants Harry dead, fearing him as a rival, and Harry wants Voldemort dead by way of revenge. Quite clearly it's NOT literally true, or one of them would be dead by now - Harry's almost 17 by the end of HBP, and clearly still alive, as is Voldemort... And as J K Rowling has pointed out, the prophecy is only relevant because they are making it relevant. If both of them chose to ignore it, they could go their own ways without one of them having to die. But Voldemort is incapable of ignoring the one he believes to be a rival, and as a consequence Harry cannot ignore the prophecy because Voldemort won't rest until Harry is dead or he himself has been killed.

Oh, and to all the doubters Dumbledore is dead ! Much as I loved Dumbledore, we just have to accept the fact that all the adults who stood between Harry and danger are gone. He has to be a man now. (The weirdest theory I've heard of late is that Dumbledore is an unregistered Animagus and his animal form is a Phoenix... I think not !)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Legends II edited by Robert Silverberg

I borrowed Legends II (edited by Robert Silverberg) from the library for the sake of Neil Gaiman's short story, 'The Monarch of the Glen', which is a sequel to his novel American Gods. I wasn't disappointed by Gaiman's tale, which sees Shadow once again at the mercy of people who want to use him for their own purposes. He is stayed in a remote hotel on the north coast of Scotland when he is hired as a bouncer for a private party. Jennie, a local girl who is originally from Norway, and works in the hotel bar tells him not to go because he'll be killed, but he decides to take the job. We learn, for the first time, that Shadow's real first name is Balder (which makes it quite ironic that his nickname is Shadow, since Balder/Baldur was the Norse god of light). Shadow finds that he has been set up, as he had begun to suspect from the time of his arrival at the house where the party is being held, and it is touch and go whether he will survive, but he calls on Jennie to help him - since she is not all she appears.

As is so often the case with short stories, I finished this and wanted more. I hope the library can get Anansi Boys for me soon - and I hope that Neil writes the rest of Shadow's story soon, too, as I like the character a great deal.

I was pleased to discover that there is also a short story by Robin Hobb 'Homecoming' in the collection (which is set in the area of the Rain Wilds, near Bingtown - the location of the Liveships Trilogy), and a story by George R. R. Martin, whose work has been mentioned to me several times of late, but I have yet to read it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Language Matters

I think this is becoming something of a hobby-horse or a soapbox issue with me this week... I had a conversation with someone in my office this week about whether or not "focus" should have an extra "s" before the "-ed" is added. I said it should not, but the print dictionary that was consulted had both spellings (ie. "focused" and "focussed"), so the person in question decided they would go with the double "ss" they had used, rather than re-print the paperwork. I gave them a brief explanation of the grammar rules about when to double the final consonant on a word before adding "-ed" and got back the response "How do you know this stuff?" To which I was tempted to reply "How do you not?" One of my other colleagues then asked if I had done an English degree, and I said, "Yes but I didn't learn about this doing my degree, I learn it at school." From the ages of 11 to 17, I went to what has become a rare entity in England, a grammar school. There I studied Latin to the age of 16, and I also learnt much about English grammar in my English classes. This has been a great boon - and probably explains my obsession with English language usage, but it also means that people say to me "How do you know this stuff?" when I explain a point of grammar, spelling or punctuation, and I am often perplexed that others do not know it.

This morning I went to the library to borrow (amongst other books) Herodotus' Histories (this is what comes of reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods !). Two of the library's copies were out on loan, and the only copy in the store was volume one of two, and they did not have volume two. The librarian looked on the catalogue to establish whether or not there was a copy of the complete Histories available in a branch library, and he found one that had been translated in the early part of the 20th century and extensively revised just two years ago. He suggested that the translation would be "modern" and "easy to read", as if this was a bonus, and I was forced to disabuse him of the idea. I pointed out my appreciation of the King James Version of the Bible, the fact that I had learnt Latin at school, and that I enjoyed reading Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale in the original "untranslated" English. The librarian looked a little dumbfounded and I said that I wanted a translation that retained some of the poetry and music of the original Greek; I didn't tell him that I had spent some time, as a 12 year old, translating Vergil's Aenied into English poetry for a Latin class. I could see he already thought I was a little strange ! But then I wondered why this was strange - Oxford is a University town, educated people abound, so why is it that someone who wants a copy of a book that, although it has been translated, retains some of the music and poetry of the original language, is considered odd ? Is it really that odd ? Would a librarian in the Bodleian have been less fazed by my request than the librarian at the public library ? I don't know, but it does puzzle me. When he told me the book would not be in until the end of the month, I said that was OK as I had plenty of other books to be going on with, and he looked at the small pile on the counter between us and shrugged. Perhaps he was wondering what the link was between Verlyn Flieger's new edition of Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major (which I'm desperate to own but cannot afford yet), Jane Austen's Emma, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and George Bernard Shaw's Back to the Methuselah ? I did not choose to enlighten him because I wasn't sure it was worth it. (I have eclectic reading tastes and every now and again I decide to read something other than fantasy fiction, something which I've heard about or seen mentioned somewhere.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

News Items: Film and Books

Three news items today. The first is the excellent film news that Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit had made it onto the best animated feature Oscar long list ! The long list also includes Valiant (featuring the voices of Ricky Gervais and Ewan McGregor), Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Howl's Moving Castle (based on Diana Wynne Jones' book) and Chicken Little.

* * * * * *

In book-related news, and linking back to my post Lovely Language, the BBC has run a news story that masterpieces of English literature are condensed into a few lines of text message to aid student revision. Personally I see no point in this - at least given the examples given on the BBC website; I cannot see what use there is in the following which is Pride and Prejudice in the form of a text message summary:

5Sistrs WntngHsbnds. NwMeninTwn-Bingly&Darcy. Fit&Loadd.BigSis Jane Fals 4B,2ndSisLiz H8s D Coz Hes Proud. Slimy Soljr Wikam Sys DHs Shady Past.Trns Out Hes Actuly ARlyNysGuy &RlyFancysLiz. She Decyds She Lyks Him.Evry1 Gts Maryd.

Admittedly if you haven't read the book, it tells you a bare outline - but what use is that for answering exam questions ? As it happens, I've just re-read Pride and Prejudice and this text message summary conveys nothing of the lengthy inner battle that Elizabeth Bennet fights against her prejudice, or indeed Darcy's slow realisation that she is the woman for him. It conveys none of the tension surrounding Jane's partiality for Mr Bingley and none of the foolishness of Lydia's elopement with Wickham. It certainly doesn't give anyone any idea of the inanity of Mrs Bennet's discourse ! I despair...

* * * * * *

Finally, on a rather more intriguing - and certainly less blood-pressure raising note - is the following Independent news item:

Whenever I've bought books, for myself or other people, I have relied on serendipity. Hours spent in second-hand stores, charity shops and junk warehouses would, I always believed, yield the right results if I spent long enough in there. Coupled with a tendency to indecision and a belief in never spending more money than absolutely necessary, this means I have spent a large proportion of my life on the Charing Cross Road with my head at an awkward angle reading the spines of books I was never likely to buy.

Well, it's time to uncrick my neck and stride purposefully into the exciting modern world of the book business, courtesy of an invitation from Waterstone's. At their Oxford Street branch I met Cathy Waterhouse, the "personal shopper" the store had allocated me to showcase a more rational, up-to-date approach to book purchasing.

The idea is that you tell the personal shopper about the people you're buying for - age, tastes, eccentricities - and then they use their skill to pick the perfect books for them. I brought with me some pen portraits of people I knew to test Cathy's abilities.

Personally I'm not sure I'd be prepared to rely on someone else's judgement, and a personal shopper for books seems even more pretentious than a personal shopper for clothes, but perhaps some people are just clueless when it comes to buying books for others ?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Winter Rose - Patricia McKillip

I happened to spot Patricia McKillip's Winter Rose in a freestanding book display at the library the other day, and having only read McKillip's The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy so far, I took the opportunity to grab it.

I can't now recall whether it was mentioned in the Child_Lit discussion of Tam Lin that took place earlier in the year, but there's a definite Tam Lin feeling to it - even down to one of the characters being called Tearle Lynn (shades of Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock there, with her hero Tom Lynn !); it's interesting how many writers have been captivated by that ballad and have subsequently re-worked it as a novel.

Winter Rose begins in a fairly unreal manner and more or less stays there ! Faerie and the human world are interwoven throughout the book; Rois, the central protagonist, is a child of the wilds - she loves to roam barefoot through woods, and hates to be confined indoors during the winter months. Her sister Laurel appears to be the polar opposite, and yet both of them fall for the mysterious Corbett Lynn (Tearle's son) when he appears one day, apparently out of thin air, with the intention of reclaiming the derelict Lynn Hall. Neither have much luck in persuading him to explain his family's secrets, but Rois proves to see further than most...

I don't want to say any more - partly because it's difficult to put into words the intense, Otherworldly feeling that this book holds. It's as gripping as Jones' Fire and Hemlock, and both young protagonists risk a great deal in order to set free the Tam Lin character. If you enjoy Fire and Hemlock, you'll probably enjoy Winter Rose too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Whitbread Prizes

They announced the shortlist for the Whitbread Prizes today, as follows:

Novel shortlist

Nick Hornby - A Long Way Down
Salman Rushdie - Shalimar The Clown
Ali Smith - The Accidental
Christopher Wilson - The Ballad of Lee Cotton

First novel shortlist

Tash Aw - The Harmony Silk Factory
Diana Evans - 26a
Peter Hobbs -The Short Day Dying
Rachel Zadok - Gem Squash Tokoloshe

Biography shortlist

Nigel Farndale - Haw-Haw
Richard Mabey - Nature Cure
Alexander Masters - Stuart: A Life Backwards
Hilary Spurling - Matisse The Master

Poetry shortlist

David Harsent - Legion
Christopher Logue - Cold Calls
Jane Yeh - Marabou
Richard Price - Lucky Day

Children's book shortlist

Frank Cottrell Boyce - Framed
Geraldine McCaughrean - The White Darkness
Hilary McKay - Permanent Rose
Kate Thompson - The New Policeman

All the various category winners plus the overall Book of the Year selection will be announced on 4 January. Apparently this year's awards had 476 entries, which is the highest ever number of entries for the Whitbread. Of course, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass won not only the children's prize, but also the Book of the Year a couple of years ago, and I don't doubt that children's authors (and their fans) will be hoping that one of the children's books wins again this year. I've not read any of them as yet, but I've heard a lot about both Permanent Rose and The White Darkness.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Dragonology, Egyptology and Wiazrdology

I had a major surprise today when I had an email from the Guardian to tell me I'd won copies of Dragonology, Egyptology and Wizardology ! I entered a competition on the Guardian website - and then promptly forgot all about it until the email came today, so picture me reading the email in astonishment. The last time I won something was when I won the boxed set of Indiana Jones DVDs from Classic FM last year - and that was another instance where I entered the competition then promptly forgot about it, and was quite astonished a few days later, to find a rather frantic message on my mobile phone asking for my address, so they could be sent to me !

I shall await the arrival of the trio of books with interest... And report back in due course !

Monday, November 14, 2005

Lovely Language

Various book-related news items caught my eye again today. First of all is this news item from the BBC's website that "the Royal Shakespeare Company is to increase its efforts to boost the teaching of the Bard's work in schools. The company will go into schools and encourage teachers to get children to study Shakespeare by performing his works rather than just reading them. The project is part of a year-long festival in which every play, sonnet and long poem written by Shakespeare will be staged. It covers both primary and secondary schools across the UK. 'The Royal Shakespeare Company believes that Shakespeare should be taught standing up and saying and with children moving around rather than sitting down', a spokeswoman said. The year-long festival, called The Complete Works, will be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon from April next year. Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen are among those taking part alongside theatre groups from around the world."

This project sounds really exciting and I wish I could participate in a theatre group with Dame Judi and/or Sir Ian ! I clearly remember the one and only live theatre performance of Shakespeare that I've witnessed. My O-level year (15 or 16 year olds) was taking to see the RSC perform Richard II at the Theatre Royal in Bath. That's now more than 20 years ago, but the experience is a vivid now as ever. I can clearly recall John of Gaunt giving his speech about "This Sceptr'd Isle"; the scene in which various nobleman challenge each other by flinging their gauntlets down onto the ground (stage); and Richard's pitiful speech in prison. I think that if I had acted out parts of it myself my recollection of it would be even more vivid ! Given that Orson Welles once said "Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations.", which is probably true for a lot of people now, I think this is a fantastic project. Just for once, I even schoolchildren in England !


In other news, John Masefield's Sea Fever has been voted the Nation's favourite sea poem. I love this poem ! I learnt it by heart when I was in my 20s and once declaimed it in the middle of a bookshop where I was working, not realising that there were two customers out of my line of sight behind bookcases who gave me a resounding round of applause when I finished...

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

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

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

If you read it aloud or recite it, you can hear the rhythm of the sea in the words... Gorgeous.


There was a lengthy article in yesterday's Observer by Peter Conrad suggesting that "A boiled-down Bible, the Odyssey in haiku, terse txting... If we're not careful, our obsession with making all things small could obliterate our capacity for complex thought and even our cultural past." He comments:

Broadsheet newspapers go tabloid, recognising the scarce elbowroom available to crushed commuters. The stories in the papers implode too, contracting into weblinks: everything we don't have room for is banished to the vacuous attic of cyberspace. In our impatience, we disemvowel language when we transmit terse txt msgs to our m8s, using punctuation marks and parentheses to semaphore our moods. We live in a culture suicidally intent on abbreviation.

Once upon a time, our planet looked immense. When Adam and Eve leave Eden in Milton's
Paradise Lost, they confront a world that is 'all before them'. Its scope is panoramic, because it consists of things that have not yet happened, choices they have yet to make. A few brief centuries later, the world is all behind us.

Thank goodness for the pleasures of long books like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, of long poems like Milton's Paradise Lost, of plays like Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

How can anyone not love that ? Not for the nationalistic fervour (goodness knows, I'm not that much of a patriot !) - it's the sheer beauty of the language, the phrasing and structure of the phrases that I love. I'm shuddering at the thought of reducing that to a TXT MSG !

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Nurse Matilda - Christianna Brand

I have now read the Nurse Matilda books, on which Emma Thompson's screenplay for Nanny McPhee is based, and I am very glad that I waited until I had seen the film before reading the books, otherwise I think I might have been put off watching the film ! The volume I was loaned contains three stories, "Nurse Matilda", "Nurse Matilda Goes to Town" and "Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital", which were written and published in the 1960s and 1970s, but have a definite Victorian feel to them. I quite enjoyed the first story, but the other two were far too similar to the first to be as enjoyable, although I could pick out the bits of the second book that Emma Thompson had incorporated into the film. I was very glad that she reduced the number of children from the unmanageable, unspecified large numbers of them in the books, to a mere seven for the film (keeping an eye on seven children, plus the various adults, was quite enough !) Interestingly, Mrs Brown is still alive in the books - and I wondered whether Emma Thompson had killed her off in the film, in part, to prevent objections to a character whom I found quite difficult to like. Mrs Brown is totally blind to her children's misbehaviour and doesn't appear to care at all that they regularly wreak absolute havoc ! She also seems totally unaware of the folly of having so many children - and has adopted a number of others by the second book. I could feel myself becoming very disapproving at that point ! To have so many children of your own and then be indifferent to their bad behaviour is one thing, but then to adopt a good many more of them and then treat them with the same indifference just made me cross !

I also read E Nesbit's The Magic City this week. Published in 1910, it has more of an excuse for appearing Victorian. When 10 year old Philip's older sister Helen marries a widowed man with a daughter named Lucy, he is hurt. Whilst Helen and her new husband are on their honeymoon, Lucy goes away to stay with her aunt and Philip is left with servants in a strange house. One day when he's feeling bored, he builds a huge city using various of Lucy's toys and other objects (chess pieces, books, candlesticks, etc.) Lucy's nurse (who is far nastier than Nurse Matilda) is very annoyed and promises to pull it down. However, before she does so, Philip goes to look at his city in the moonlight, and then finds himself inside it. To his irritation, Lucy shows up too. At first Philip and Lucy are placed under arrest by some of the soldiers, but then they escape, only for Philip to discover Lucy has been left behind in the magic city. He goes back to rescue here and is hailed as a Deliverer" and told he must carry out seven tasks to free the magic city from its enchantment. The tasks include, amongst other things, killing a dragon (which is really just a wind-up lizard that has become gigantic), unravelling the Mazy Carpet without cutting it (the Mazy Carpet is actually a giant crocheted mat that Lucy had made and Philip had added into the city), and freeing the Dwellers by the Sea from their great (it turns out that they're afraid of the sea, not unreasonably, given that they live in a gigantic sandcastle !) As Philip and Lucy go about the tasks, they are pursued by a pushy, arrogant lady in a motorveil who claims that she is the Deliverer, but until Philip has completed, or failed, the seven tasks, she is known as the Pretenderette. This book is quite charming, although very much of its time, and it contains a stark warning for the future that is being proved even now. Anyone who wishes for a machine in the magic city must go on using it forever. Many of our modern machines seem to have the same "spell" on them...