Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Ratastrophe Catastrophe - David Lee Stone

David Lee Stone's The Ratastrophe Catastrophe is the first in a projected series of books known as the Illmoor Chronicles. For the author, comparisons with the work of Terry Pratchett are inevitable. Pratchett is the leading comic fantasy writer in the UK, and he's a hard act to follow. It doesn't help that Pratchett has already done a very funny re-telling of the Pied Piper tale, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, of which I'm very fond. However, I decided to give The Illmoor Chronicles a read.

The Duke of Dullitch, capital city of Illmoor, is in some distress as reports are coming in that the city is being over-run by a plague of rats, and although he has killed off all witnesses, the problem is daily becoming more obvious. Unfortunately, His corrupt council, led by the ex-sorcerer Tambor Forestall, can offer no solutions to the problem, so Duke Modeset sends for mercenaries to rid the city of the rodent plague. Heralds are sent out into the countryside from every gate, each one hoping to bring back the saviour of the city. One of them discovers the flute-playing Diek Wustapha, who is a Charmer. Wustapha has recently been unwittingly inhabited by some wild magic and found himself inexplicably irresistible to girls, sheep - and various other animals. So Diek sets off for Dullitch to fulfil his task of charming away the rat plague. He's promised 1000 crowns for his troubles, but once the rats have gone, the council refuse to pay him because their Treasury is empty of anything except coal. Angry and still inhabited by the wild magic, Diek takes his revenge by charming the children of Dullitch out of the city, playing on his flute, and disappears with them into the mountains. The Duke finds himself facing a lot of angry parents, and Jimmy Quickstint, part-time herald, full-time thief, and inept grandson of Tambor is sent after Groan Teethgrit, a barbarian mercenary, and his partner Gordo Goldeaxe, a dwarf mercenary, with whom his grandfather has teamed up, to see if they can bring the children back.

The characters in The Ratastrophe Catastrophe were reasonably likeable, although I would have liked to see more development of them and I did feel that, after his initial introduction, the character of Diek was largely ignored and left to linger in the background; he didn't really do anything, and the concept of him struggling with the wild magic that inhabiting him was never developed.

As a first novel, this isn't a bad start, but Pratchett fans will probably view Dullitch as a poor-man's Ankh-Morpork, and Duke Modeset has nothing on the cunning Patrician who rules over Ankh-Morpork with great dexterity. However, I've hopes that the ideas behind the Illmoor Chronicles will be developed further as the series progresses - and I've the rest of the books in the series-so-far waiting to be read.

You can find out more about the Illmoor Chronicles on the website and David Lee Stone has recently begun his own Blog.

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There's a review of Diana Wynne Jones' Black Maria over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Carnival of Children's Literature Reminder

Just a reminder that submissions for the next Carnival of Children's Literature are due on October 15 and can be emailed directly to me or can be submitted via the Carnival Site.

The theme is Halloween. I've had a couple of submissions so far that aren't even vaguely on the topic - please folks, I do want submissions that are at least within cackling distance of the theme of Halloween, otherwise I'm afraid I won't be using your submission.

Poetry Friday 20

Although we're having an unseasonably warm September, we've also been having a lot rain and high winds here in the UK - courtesy of the tail end of one of the last hurricanes of the season, therefore this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow seems the most apt as my favourite month of the year is blown away !


Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,
With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,
Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,
And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!
Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,
Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand
Outstretched with benedictions o'er the land,
Blessing the farms through all thy vast domain!
Thy shield is the red harvest moon, suspended
So long beneath the heaven's o'er-hanging eaves;
Thy steps are by the farmer's prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Darkwater Hall - Catherine Fisher

Having enjoyed Catherine Fisher's Darkhenge and Corbenic, when I spotted Fisher's Darkwater Hall on the library shelf, I didn't hesitate to pick it up.

This story is set at the end of the 19th century. Sarah Trevelyan and her dispossessed father live with Martha, a former servant, in her rundown cottage in a Cornish village. Whilst Sarah is forever grateful for Martha's kindness, her father bemoans his lost inheritance, Darkwater Hall and its estate, which was gambled away by his father fifteen years earlier. In the meantime, Sarah earns a pittance working as a pupil-teacher under the schoolmistress Mrs Hubbard. Sarah is frequently humiliated by the cruel Mrs Hubbard, but accepts it for the sake of the small wage she earns and access to the school's few books. One day, however, she finds herself unable to watch Mrs Hubbard caning little Emmeline Rowney, and Sarah challenges the bullying teacher; she accepts Emmeline's punishment in her place, after refusing to cane Emmeline in place of Mrs Hubbard. She then tells Mrs Hubbard that she can "keep her situation." However, the mysterious Lord Azrael, who is the current owner of Darkwater Hall, is visiting the school with a group of village "worthies", and observing the whole scene, gives Sarah his card, telling her to come and see him.

Now that she's without a job, Sarah fears she will no longer be able to pay the rent for herself and her sick father to lodge with Martha, but when she finally swallows her pride and goes to see Azrael, he offers her a job cataloguing the vast numbers of books in the library at her old home. Sarah returns to the house she barely remembers and learns a little of her ancestry. The Trevelyans were harsh landlords and unbending employers, hardly one of the benevolent philanthropist families of the parish. But Sarah wants her home back and also to atone for the wrongs done by her forefathers. She is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and sells her soul to Azrael for the return of her home and fortune. He agrees and says he will return in 100 years to claim his payment. The second part of the story introduces the reader to Tom, a 20th century boy whose mother is a cleaner at Darkwater Hall, which is now an exclusive private school. Tom has his own modern "demon" to beat and a battle ensues between good and evil, and past and present, but things are not always what they seem.

Fisher's transition from the Victorian era to the late 20th century is achieved successfully by a series of references: Emmeline Downey is Tom's great-grandmother, whilst Tom and his mother live in a renovated property called "Martha’s Cottage". This is a supernatural story involving alchemy, fallen angels, and a "Great Work", and is one of those hard-to-put-down books.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Green Boy - Susan Cooper

I am continuing my quest to read as many of Penelope Lively's, Alan Garner's, Diana Wynne Jones' and Susan Cooper's books as possible, to accompany my reading of Charles Butler's Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper.

With that in mind, I have just read Susan Cooper's Green Boy which, unusually for Cooper, isn't set in the British countryside. Long Pond Cay is in the Bahamas; it's a magical white-sand island which 12 year old Trey (who is a writer) and 7 year old Lou (who is a mute, but the doctors do not know why) love to visit in its loneliness. But then one day they learn that developers want to turn into Sapphire Island Resort. At the same time Lou and Trey get pulled into another world, which is noisy, polluted and overcrowded, "paved over" in fact. There a group known as the Underground hail little Lou not as a mute Bahamian boy but as the mythic hero Lugh, who was born to bring terrible destruction and renewal to their world, Pangaia. The two children find themselves carried between their world and that of Pangaia, and they must risk their lives not only to save the alien world, but also to stop the development of Long Pond Cay. Finally, in awesome climax, the forces of Myth and Nature explode together in an unstoppable way.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Happy Kid! - Gail Gauthier

I've had a copy of Gail Gauthier's Happy Kid! sitting on my TBR for a little while (thanks to Jen Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page who kindly loaned me her ARC), but have been busy trying to read my way through the entire output of Susan Cooper and Penelope Lively (or such of it as I can get my hands on), but so many people nominated it as one of their Books of 2006 at MotherReader's Blog, that I decided to move it off the pile and into my hands ! I'm glad that I did as it's a terrific story !

To Kyle Rideau, Bert P. Trotts Middle School is "the gateway to hell." He just wants is to get through seventh grade without being noticed since he's infamous for an incident involving a screwdriver on the school bus at the end of his sixth grade year, an incident that got blown way out of proportion by the school administration and the local media. In addition, he's taking accelerated classes for English and Social Studies (but believes this to be a mistake) and he has lost contact with all of his friends. Then the night before the new school year starts, his mother gives him a book to help him counteract his negativity, claiming that Happy Kid: A Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy and Meaning-filled Life just screamed his name to her when she saw it. Kyle is absolutely horrified that his own mother (who is a counsellor) believes he needs a self-help book and agrees only reluctantly to read it when she promises to pay him a dollar for every chapter. However, the book seems to have a plan of its own and falls open to the chapters that are most pertinent to the different situations that Kyle finds himself in, although sometimes the chapter offers advice that makes his life more complicated.

Gauthier's rapid-fire humour, one-liners and sharp ear for dialogue make this a quick and funny read that's very hard to put down. Kyle is a fairly self-absorbed pre-teen at the start of the book, but he's still likeable - I even felt sorry for him a few times when he found himself in a tough situation and the book seemed to be giving him less-than-helpful advice. If you haven't read this book yet, do find a copy - it's definitely one of the best books I've read this year !

(Happy Kid! is, of course, available in the US as well !)

Firefly Quote of the Week

River Tam: Little soul, big world. Eat, sleep and eat. Many souls.
Mal (to Jayne): Cattle on the ship three weeks, she don't go near 'em. Suddenly we're on Jiangyin, and she's got a driving need to commune with the beasts.
River Tam: They weren't cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see the sky, and they remember what they are.
Mal (to Jayne): Is it bad that what she said made perfect sense to me?

("Safe", Season 1)

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Boggart; The Boggart and the Monster - Susan Cooper

To Harry Potter fans unfamiliar with Celtic mythology, a Boggart is a shape-shifter that takes on the form of its intended victim's worst fear. Generally it likes to hide in dark, enclosed places, such as in cupboards, under beds, or in hollow trees. Those who are familiar with Celtic mythology will be aware that a boggart (or bogart, bogan, bogle or boggle - the name and spelling varies depending where you are) is a household spirit that's generally mischievous, but never malicious. In Susan Cooper's The Boggart and its sequel, The Boggart and the Monster, the eponymous Boggart has lived in a Scottish castle for centuries, harmlessly making mischief (stealing apples or ice cream) and shape-shifting into different forms (such as a seal). However, when old Devon MacDevon dies at the age of 102, the castle is inherited by the Volnik family, modern Canadians who know nothing about boggarts and their ways. They travel to Scotland to inspect their rather decrepit property and whilst they're there, the Boggart decides to take a nap inside a roll-top desk, which young Emily Volnik has fallen in love with, right before the desk is shipped back to Toronto.

When the desk arrives at the Volnik family home, the Boggart begins his usual tricks and games, stealing slices of pizza, finishing glasses of milk, moving objects around the house, until each member of the family (Emily has a 10 year old brother named Jessup) is blaming the others for what is going on. The children eventually discover who the culprit is, thanks to Willie Walker, a Scottish actor who performs at the children's father's Toronto theatre. Willie knows all about boggarts and he tells Emily about theirs. Unfortunately, the Boggart's mischievous tricks soon spin out of control and become dangerous when he throws some of the furniture around in Emily's mother's antique shop (in front of a psychiatrist) and then plays with the electricity controlling the traffic lights and Emily gets knocked down by a car. The psychiatrist is convinced that Emily's is causing furniture to fly around as a result of telekinesis, caused by her teenage anger (even though Emily is a cheerful girl) and wants to take her to his psychiatric unit to observe her. Fortunately her parents reject this suggestion, at least temporarily and Emily goes back home. Jessup rings Tommy Cameron, the Scottish lad who was friendly with Devon MacDevon (and whose mother runs the only shop near the MacDevon Castle) to ask if it's possible to get rid of the Boggart, which Tommy says is impossible, but fortunately the Boggart himself decides that he wants to go home, communicating this to Emily and Jessup through Jessup's computer. However, it's not easy to send a Boggart back to Scotland, but they manage to hit on a solution.

My only problem with this book is that Jessup is supposedly a computer whizzkid, but Cooper clearly knew little about computers when she wrote the book and although she acknowledges the help of her son Jonathan and one Michael Wishan with the "computalk", the computer-related elements of the story are shaky, at best !

In the sequel, The Boggart and the Monster, which is set back in the Highlands of Scotland, the Boggart of MacDevon Castle, has been spending his days happily playing tricks on the new owner of the castle, old Devon MacDevon's lawyer, Mr Maconochie, who bought Castle Keep from Emily and Jessup's father. Emily's father decides to spend some of the money he got from Mr Maconochie on a trip to Scotland so that he can visit the Edinburgh Festival. His wife goes with him, but Emily and Jessup go off to stay at Castle Keep, and reacquaint themselves with the Boggart. On the flight over from Toronto, Jessup makes friends with Professor Harold Pindle who has written a book about the Loch Ness Monster. Harold is flying over to head up a scientific exploration of Loch Ness using Remotely Operated Vehicles equipped with all sorts of technology that will allow him and his team to see just what is in the Loch.

Mr Maconochie offers to take Emily and Jessup, and Tommy Cameron, on a camping trip, and Jessup begs him to take them to Loch Ness. Unbeknownst to them all, the Boggart gets packed in with the camping gear and goes on the trip too. He discovers his cousin, Nessie, whom he hasn't seen for centuries, sleeping miles down in the murky waters of Loch Ness. The Boggart wants Nessie to move to Castle Keep with him, since the Urquhart (pronounced Erkut) family no longer live at Castle Urquhart (and haven't done since the English blew it up in a dispute with the Scots). He finds he must enlist the help of a few human friends to get Nessie back to his beloved Castle Keep. Unfortunately Harold Pindle and his team of scientists are hot on their trail, after Nessie reveals himself in his gigantic Monster form, and getting Nessie back to Castle Keep is not an easy task.

The Edge of the Forest - September edition

The new edition of The Edge of the Forest is now up, thanks to the incredible hard work of editor, Kelly of Big A, little a. There's a fantastic interview with Rick Riordan which Camille of Bookmoot got to do (and I'm not a bit jealous, honest !); Pam of Mother Reader shares her experiences of booktalking to teens; Allie of Bildungsroman/Slayground discusses The Eternal Little Boy - specifically Peter Pan prequels and sequels; Kim Winters of Kat's Eye interviews children's writer, Carmela Martino, for A Day in the Life, and much, much more (including lots of book reviews). Talking of Book Reviews, there's now a Review Archive and it's possible now to subscribe to receive notification of when a new issue of The Edge of the Forest is available. Make yourself a cup of your favourite beverage and head on over there for a lengthy reading session !

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Ogre Downstairs - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' The Ogre Downstairs is an interesting book. The Ogre is Casper, Johnny and Gwinny's new stepfather whom their mother Sally has recently married. He is a large, stern man who is not at all interested in children, despite having two sons of his own: Douglas and Malcolm. His first wife left him years before - and Sally's children aren't at all surprised to learn this. The five children and two adults are living together in the same house, but uncomfortably because a four room house isn't really big enough for 7 people. One day, however, the Ogre brings home two chemistry sets, one each for Malcolm and Johnny. That's when the fun begins, as each side of the family discovers that these are no ordinary chemistry sets. The second layer of chemicals in the box contain various powders and potions that give the "users" the power to fly, become invisible, shrink, or change colours, and one turns inanimate objects into animate ones - with quite startling consequences. The experiments have other side effects too, quite unexpected side effects that are positive rather than negative. I don't want to say any more as I'd rather not spoil the entertainment that can be drawn from this is a clever and funny book. Suffice it to say that I recommend it.

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As you will have noticed from my post on Friday, the Blogger Beta team and I resolved the issue of posting pictures on my Blog - which is a definite plus, and the thumbnail that you're shown of the picture that you're posting is very helpful, especially if you forget to save a picture with an obvious filename !

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters - Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters is the best-selling sequel to The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians (which I reviewed last week).

Percy Jackson is the Sea God Poseidon's 13-year-old demigod son. He is desperate for the summer term to finish so that he can return to Camp Half-Blood, even though the school year has gone swimmingly well. However, on his last day of school Percy and his friend Tyson, a gigantic homeless kid whom no one else likes, find themselves playing a game of Dodgeball with a group of very dangerous opponents. Things go badly and Percy and Tyson have to flee the school in the company of Percy's Half Blood friend Annabeth. They manage to reach Camp Half-Blood only to find it under attack and Thalia's pine tree, which usually magically protects the borders of the camp, dying. Then Percy dreams that his friend Grover the Satyr, has been captured by the bloodthirsty Cyclops Polyphemus. Percy wants to rescue him, but is forbidden to do so by Tantalus, the new Camp Activities Director. Fortunately others want Percy to go after Grover and want him to retrieve the healing Golden Fleece, which is kept on Polyphemus' island. Encouraged by the Winged Messenger of the Gods, Hermes, Percy sets off for the Bermuda Triangle anyway with his friends Annabeth and Tyson, who turns out to be Percy's half-brother and a Cyclops as well.

Once again, the chapter titles gave me the giggles: "We Hail the Taxi of Eternal Torment", Demon Pigeons Attack", "We Hitch a Ride with Dead Confederates" and "We Meet the Sheep of Doom", and once again this is a page-turning, rollicking adventure that carries the reader along on a wave of excitement !

(OK, I'm done with the puns now !)

Don't hang about - find a copy of this book and have a good giggle at a funny and intelligent re-working of the Odyssey. And don't hesitate to check out Percy Jackson's very own website and Rick Riordan's own website. I can hardly bear to wait for the third book in this series, which will be out in March 2007.

Carnival of Children's Literature

The 7th Carnival of Children's Literature, with a Harvest theme, has been ably put together and posted by Sheila of Wands and Worlds. Please go over there and have a look at what Sheila's done.

And don't forget, you can sign up for the 8th Carnival, on the theme of Halloween, which I'm hosting in October, so I invite you to think about witches, pumpkins, vampires, ghosts and ghouls, and anything else that might be related to Halloween (your latest Harry Potter theory, perhaps ?). Submissions are due on October 15 and can be emailed directly to me or submit them via the Carnival Site.

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2006

Poetry Friday 19: King of Shadows - Susan Cooper

I've not done a combined Poetry Friday/book review before but it seemed particularly apt this week. Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Susan Cooper's fabulous time-slip tale King of Shadows. The title refers to these lines of Shakespeare's:

"This is thy negligence. Still thou mistak'st,
Or else commit'st thy knaveries wilfully."
"Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook."

- Oberon and Puck, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III Scene 3

The King of Shadows is by the bestselling author of The Dark is Rising Sequence, which I confess is the only work of Cooper's I had read until now. This book tells the story of young Nat Field, an American boy actor who is visiting London with a Boy's Company to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at the newly rebuilt Globe Theatre. Only a few days after he arrives in London, Nat falls ill and is rushed to hospital apparently suffering from the Bubonic Plague. However, everything is not as it seems, for as the young actor lies in isolation in Guy's Hospital, London, another young actor is waking up in Elizabethan London. This is the young American, Nat Field, who has switched places with another young actor named Nathan Field, who is an actor from St. Paul's School and is on loan to the Lord Chamberlain's Men to play Puck in a command performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream and although the public do not know it, the Queen herself has a whim to see the new Globe in secret. And this time American Nat will be starring with William Shakespeare himself. This is Nat's thought when he's introduced to Will:

"'Greet Master Shakespeare, boy.'
It was as if he'd said, 'Say hello to God.'"

This is a daring and complex novel that is set against the background of the life of an unhappy boy who, after travelling unexpectedly through time, learns how to face his real-life troubles. Cooper's descriptive prose is combined with elegant dialogue thereby bringing her characters vividly to life. This story is beautifully crafted and Nat's situation is built up perfectly - his character's personal pain and how he copes with it, the culture shock that he experiences constantly in 1599, and the theatre and its people, then and now, are all described in detail. The book succeeds in bringing Shakespeare to life in more ways than one; it can certainly serve as an introduction to the Dream for someone who's never seen it performed (which I haven't - and I am now desperate to do), and it works as a living history of Shakespeare's time by showing London in concrete terms rather than dry statistics, and by introducing Nat to Shakespeare the person, and the other members of his company who first brought his plays to life.

But Nat is definitely a boy, not an historian, and he passes for his counterpart as well as he does only because English Nat was a sheltered educated softie by the standards of the day, on loan to a commercial theatre where he wasn't known personally. What American Nat knows about Shakespeare's time is as likely to get him into trouble as it is to help; how many people, for example, can remember which plays he'd already written by 1599 ? Or what the political troubles were at court at that time ? I can't recall - and I studied Shakespeare in both English and History for my degree.

So where does the poetry come in ? Well Nat breaks down as a result of his culture shock whilst talking with Shakespeare, and as a consequence, Will gives Nat a copy of a poem he has written:

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

I won't explain to you the exact relevance of the poem to the story, because I don't want to spoil a moving and beautiful interaction between the two characters, but it fits perfectly into the plot. I do, however, want to share a couple of other quotes from the book:

Master Shakespeare [...] looked as if he had just come back from somewhere a long long way away and left his head behind him. (p. 80)

(A perfect description of a writer who has been interrupted in the middle of creating !)

Aunt Jen's [...] a high school English teacher, and she was the one who encouraged me to start acting [...]. She understood about the comfort you can get from a small separate world, whether it's a theatre, a basketball team, or the inside of a book. (p. 153)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Uninvited Ghosts - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's Uninvited Ghosts is a collection of short stories for younger readers about strange visitors: Martians, a talking dog, a dragon, and about strange transformations. Part of its charm is the ordinary lives that are being led by the children in the stories.

One of the most unusual stories is "Uninvited Ghosts": the ghosts can only be seen by the children of the house, Marian and Simon Brown, when they move into the house. The ghosts are not really scary, but they are a terrible nuisance. The children scream when they see the first ghost, but this proves useless, because the first ghost just tells them off, and she just sits there all night, clacking her knitting needles, humming and saying how much she likes "kiddies".

Shortly afterwards another ghost, Auntie Edna, arrives. Auntie Edna likes to suck peppermints, which smell so strong that even Mrs Brown can smell them, and she grows puzzled by her children's activities. The next visitor is ghostly Uncle Charlie who brings with him his ghostly dog Jip who sends the Browns' cat off howling. Marian and Simon try to get rid of the ghosts, suggesting that they would like a ride out into the country, hoping that the ghosts will take to country life and leave the house. But the ghosts complain that the country is dull, and the ghost dog is car sick (fortunately that's ghostly too).

Things start to get desperate and the children's mother becomes so alarmed with their behaviour, and their hearing of things she cannot hear, that she takes them to the doctor, who of course could find nothing wrong with them. Fortunately however, Mrs Brown meets Mrs Walker whose twin babies fling food, pull things off tables, and generally bawl all day long. Mrs Walker brings the babies to the Brown's house and the ghosts appear just as the babies are in the midst of causing their usual mayhem. The babies are totally transfixed by the ghosts, whilst the delighted ghosts themselves coo at the twins in a very friendly fashion. The babies respond, giving their desperate mother the first peace she has enjoyed for weeks. Marian and Simon realise this is too good an opportunity to miss and spend the night talking the ghosts into moving in with the Walkers. The next day they take the ghosts to the Walkers' house where they are welcomed by the babies, who had been bawling for hours. Whilst the Browns return to normal, the ghosts entertain the babies, and settle in so well, that to the astonishment of all that can see her, the ghost dog gives birth to ghost puppies.

The other story that I found really interesting was "Time Trouble", in which a boy is offered the chance to relive a miserable afternoon - and the offer comes from the grandfather clock in his hall. He rashly agrees to the deal that he can have that afternoon over again and the clock will have the following Wednesday afternoon instead. Unfortunately the miserable afternoon doesn't work out any better, and the Wednesday afternoon he gives up involves a trip to the cinema, a meal out at the local burger bar and an illicit afternoon off school, all courtesy of his uncle. Dismayed at having lost such a fabulous afternoon, the unnamed boy makes another deal with the clock to have the missing Wednesday afternoon back, and in return the clock will have two weeks worth of wasted time. The boy should have learnt by his first mistake as the afternoon out with his uncle isn't quite as enjoyable since he knows what's going to happen, and the two weeks in which all his wasted time is taken away turn out to be utterly exhausting...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Spook's Secret - Joseph Delaney

The Spook's Secret is the third book in Joseph Delaney's series. As the story opens the nights are drawing in and the Spook decides it's soon going to be time for him and his apprentice Tom to move to his winter house in Anglezarke. Before they do so, however, a stranger arrives at the summer house with a letter for the Spook, and a bad attitude. He is dressed like a Spook, but Tom has never met him before.

Tom has heard that the house at Anglezarke is a sinister and menacing place, but nothing he's heard can fully prepare him for what he finds there because this house, and the whole of Anglezarke Moor, is full of surprises. Tom discovers that there is a huge cellar beneath the house and in it are kept bound boggarts and witches, both live and dead. One of those live witches is Meg Skelton, about whom Tom has heard a few things, and read more in one of the Spook's journals.

Before Tom and his master have been at Anglezarke for long they are called out to deal with a more dangerous than usual type of Boggart, a stone-chucker, which has crushed a shepherd to death by chucking a huge boulder on top of the man. They succeed in dealing with it temporarily, but then it turns up at the farm where the young witch Alice, whom Tom likes, is boarding. When Tom and the Spook go to deal with it a second time, it injures the Spook quite badly. Whilst Tom is trying to nurse the Spook back to health the mysterious man who left the letter for Tom's master at the start of the story, turns up again. His name is Morgan and he's a former apprentice of the Spook's, but a failed one; he claims that the Spook has something that belongs to him. Morgan tries to bully the Spook into giving back what he holds, and then he starts to threaten Tom. Things go from bad to worse, and Tom finds himself in very grave danger, and not only Tom, but the whole County as well, when Morgan tries to call forth one of the old gods.

As with the two preceding books (The Spook's Apprentice and The Spook's Curse) The Spook's Secret is a gripping tale that will keep the reader on the edge of their seat. And it should NOT be read by sensitive readers !

Harry Potter book 7 - long wait ?

It is alleged that J K Rowling is not yet even half way through the final Harry Potter book, so fans will have a long wait for the last book in the series. However, J K Rowling has dismssed claims, via her website that she told party-goers at the Premiere for the new Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley)/Julie Walters (Molly Weasley) film, Driving Lessons, that she is only halfway through the book after writing 750 pages.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Darkhenge - Catherine Fisher

Catherine Fisher's Darkhenge is part of the Definitions series, meaning it's a book that can be read on two levels, like Fisher's Corbenic and Jonathan Stroud's The Leap. 14 year old Chloe has grown up in the shadow of her older, artistically-talented brother Rob. Her attempts to become a writer have gone largely unnoticed and Chloe has become quite resentful of the attention that Rob gets. Then one day, as she's out riding along the Ridgeway, Chloe has an accident near Falkener's Circle and as a result she has been in a coma for three months when the story opens. Chloe's mother, a BAFTA-winning actress is turning down work in order to keep a bedside vigil, leaving Rob and his theatre-manager father to the mercies of the Italian daily help.

One day Rob finds Chloe's diary and discovers something of the depth of her resentment of him. At more or less the same time, he gets caught up in a ritual at the Avebury Stone Circle, where a New Age group, the Cauldron Tribe, are trying to invoke the presence of a poet-shaman; he arrives, apparently from another world, in animal form and shape shifts several times until he takes human form, and Rob hauls him out of a flood ditch. He tells them to call him Vetch and as Rob gets to know him, Vetch tells Rob that he can help Chloe. He also reveals that the archaeological dig, on which Rob is being employed to draw their finds, is actually a portal to an underworld in which Chloe has become lost, having been taken there by the King of the Unworld, who wears seven masks made from the same materials as the seven Caers (castles) that protect the Unworld. Vetch offers to guide Rob through the Unworld, which they will enter via the Darkhenge portal by climbing down the inverted oak tree that is at its centre, enclosed by a ring of wooden posts.

Initially this story is told from the Rob's point of view (but in the third person), with Chloe's coma-thoughts appearing as first person dream-like prologues to each chapter. However, once Rob and Vetch enter the Unworld, the PoV switches between Chloe and Rob, and the chapter prologues focus on Father Mac, Rob's godfather and the family's spiritual advisor.

Vetches recognises that the Unworld they have entered is closely related to Chloe, the knowledge, memories and symbols which occupy her Unconscious, and in this world the trees of the surrounding forest are partially sentient, attacking each Caer, causing Chloe and the King to flee deeper into the Unworld.

When Rob and Vetch finally catch up with Chloe at the final Caer, he gets a shock. She doesn't want to be rescued, she wants to sit on the throne of Ceridwen at its centre, becoming Queen of the Unworld. But if she does so, her physical body will die. Rob, Vetch, Vetch's nemesis, Ceridwen, and even Father Mac do their utmost to talk her out of sitting on the throne; Father Mac appears in the Unworld in spirit form to talk to Chloe. Eventually Chloe agrees that Ceridwen can resume her role as Queen of the Unworld, and Vetch gives Chloe his crane-skin bag, containing his Ogham sticks, thereby equipping her to be a powerful writer.

Tolkien News

Today's Guardian reports that an unfinished tale abandoned by J R R Tolkien in 1918 has been completed by his son and will be published next spring, it was announced yesterday. Christopher Tolkien has worked for 30 years on an edited version of The Children of Hurin, a story set in the legendary land of elves, hobbits and dwarves depicted by his father in the epic trilogy The Lord Of The Rings. In a statement issued through the publishers Houghton Mifflin in the US and HarperCollins in the UK, he said: "It has seemed to me for a long time that there was a good case for presenting my father's long version of the legend of the children of Hurin as an independent work, between its own covers."

A version of The Children of Hurin, "Narn I Hin Hurin" is included in the collection Unfinished Tales - and I note there's a new Unfinished Tales Anniversary edition which has got a new cover that looks as if it may be a painting by JRRT himself (and if Blogger had got the stupid picture posting error sorted out (there's no Done button !), I'd post it here, but I'm afraid you'll just have to follow the link to see it !).

Firefly Quote of the Week

River Tam: The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds given adequate vacuuming systems.
Mal: See, morbid and creepifying, I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like.

("Safe", Season 1)

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Driftway - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The Driftway is a story in which not a lot appears to happen. Paul (whose age is never specified, but I'd guess he's about 10) and his younger sister Sandra (who's 7) spend most of the book travelling to their grandmother's house, but the journey has a profound significance for Paul. Paul and Sandra's father has recently re-married after being a widower for several years, and Paul resents the intrusion of Christine, whom he normally calls "Her", into their lives.

The story opens with Paul and Sandra visiting a local shop with the intention of buying a milk jug; Paul has been spending his pocket money on various items so that he and Sandra can eat up in their room rather than with Christine. He discovers he doesn't have sufficient money for a jug and having been interrogated by the young woman on the china counter, he and Sandra start looking at padlocks and chains for Paul's bedroom door, so that Christine cannot enter his room. He picks up a padlock and gives it to Sandra to hold, then starts looking at chains. He drops one and absent-mindedly puts it into his pocket whilst he looks at screw drivers. Sandra gets fidgety so they leave the shop, but the girl from the china counter has been watching them and has noticed that Paul still has the chain in his pocket, and Sandra is still carrying the padlock; the store detective therefore follows them and then drags them back inside to see the manager. Paul refuses to tell him who they are or to offer any explanation of what has happened, so the manager calls the police. A policewoman comes to the shop and tries to talk to Paul, but he still won't talk, although Sandra does. She offers to give the two of them a ride home in the police car, but Paul thinks it's just a ploy to get them away from the shop. When the policewoman answers the phone in the manager's office, Paul decides to make a run for it, and he and Sandra dash out of the shop. They hurry off down the street, then hitch a ride in a car, but Paul is convinced the police are after them, so when the driver stops to get cigarettes, they get out of the car and set off walking again. Whilst they were in the car, though, something strange happened: Paul thought he saw a cow crossing onto the road, but after shouting out a warning to the driver, he sees there's no cow there.

Paul and Sandra are heading from Banbury out towards Northampton as their Gran lives in a village out towards Northampton. Whilst they're walking again Paul sees a boy on a pony; the boy looks frightened, hunted even, and Paul wonders what has terrified him. The two of them stop for a while as Sandra's legs are aching and she's tired. Moments later a horse and cart, with two donkeys hitched behind, come into view. The driver is "Old Bill", a man who travels from Yorkshire to Cornwall, although he mostly stays around the Midlands area, travelling on the Driftways, the ancient roadways of England. Paul asks him if he saw the boy on the pony, and Bill tells him that the road is up to its tricks again. He explains to Paul that the Driftway they're currently travelling is ancient and has experienced many strong emotions, good and bad, from travellers who've used it. He suggests that because Paul is in an over-wrought state, running away from the police and from home, he is attuned to the "messages" which the Driftway may "send" to those who are receptive. As Bill and the two children travel the ten miles or so from the outskirts of Banbury to Cold Higham, where the children's Gran lives, Paul receives several such "messages" - he hears the accounts of several individuals who travelled the Driftway in a state of heightened emotion. Bill, who talks to Paul as if he's an adult rather than a small boy, points out that a great many people live their whole lives with little concern for others outside their immediate circle of family and a handful of friends, but other people are "the same as you and me" (p. 28), and if someone is in a receptive state, they can learn of others' joys and sorrows, and in doing so, become a better person themselves. Thus, when Bill and the children stop for a cup of tea, Paul notices the boy he'd seen earlier, lying under a nearby thorn bush:

the distance between them was of a different order, awesome and mysterious. He was here, and yet so far away that to hold him was an effort of concentration, an effort to focus on the one spot of grass and shadow. And as Paul watched, motionless because somehow he could not move - it was though he were held where he was, with the mug of tea in his hand, halfway to his lips [...] (p. 32)

This is a beautiful book containing some fascinating ideas and gorgeous language, such as this comment of Bill's on hitch-hikers:
"Real travelling's crawling your way over the country like a fly on a wall, hedge by hedge and hill by hill and village by village. From river to river and town to town. That way you feel the bones of the place, see? You see the way the land goes, and why they grow corn here and why they graze cattle there, and why there's cities where there are, and why there's a lot of people in one place and not so many in another. You see the way the shape of a country's made the people in it, and you see the way they've written themselves all over it, too, people who're dead and gone now. In the way the fields go, and the roads, and the things they've built, and the bits they've dug up or cut down or flooded or drained or not been able to find a use for at all." (p. 71)

There speaks a character created by author who is an historian and has a passionate interest in the English landscape, which she has studied in detail.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone Update

There's an advanced (therefore spoilerish) review of Juliet E McKenna's Eastern Tide over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Blogger Beta Update

I've just been taking a look at the Known Issue for Blogger Beta blog and note that they report that users who are seeing errors when posting comments with current Blogger accounts to blogs on the new version of Blogger in beta should preview the comment before publishing. You only need to preview once per account.

Apparently they've released an additional change to the Blogger beta which shows users thumbnails of photos after they've been uploaded. And it looks terrific - but when I just tried adding a photo to this post, I discovered there's no "Done" button on which to click so that the photo will upload !! I'm hoping they'll have fixed this issue before Halloween as I've some graphics I want to use for the Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature !

One good thing about the new Beta version of Blogger is that it will notify you if your links aren't correct - and actually highlight the incomplete link IN the post so you don't have to go looking for it ! So it's not all bad news - thankfully. But I still wouldn't recommend anyone to switch to Beta just yet...

The Whispering Road - Livi Michael

Livi Michael's The Whispering Road is an historical novel, set in the mid-19th century, with a fantastical element. It tells a moving and powerful story about a brother and sister, Joe and Annie, who flee from their pitiful existences as servants on a farm. The story is told from Joe's point of view and recounts how they embark on a difficult, even perilous, journey to Manchester from a farm out in the remote countryside. Joe and Annie are searching for their mother who, years earlier, had been forced to leave them at a workhouse. The fantastical element of this story is that Annie is a medium, she is in contact with spirits, and can reproduce their voices when channelling them.

After running away from Bent Edge Farm, Joe and Annie encounter Travis, a tramp, who tells them stories, including one about a group of angels who, having come down to earth to foretell the birth of Christ, refuse to return to Heaven. They gain bodies and remain on the earth as tramps; but one does not become a full human, instead she is a Dog-Woman - she can speak but she lives with a pack of wolves and dogs in a forest near where Travis, Joe and Annie are sheltering in a cave. Travis teaches Joe how to hunt using a sling (just like David in one of Joe's favourite stories); he also makes rough shoes and fur garments for Joe and Annie, before setting them on the Road. They make their way to the Forest and, sure enough, they encounter the Dog-Woman who feeds them, protects them with the pack and then leads them through the Forest to a town on the other side. They find a pub where Joe tells a story about Jack the Giant Killer, in the hope of earning a meal, but his former employer is amongst the audience, and a fight ensues from which Joe and Annie barely escape. They fall in with a man named Barney who takes them to a market and tries to sell them. Escaping from Barney, they next fall in with a travelling circus. Annie's abilities as a medium are revealed and Honest Bob, the fair owner, offers to buy Annie from Joe so that Joe can go off and do whatever suits him, and Annie can become the new star act.

Once free of his sister, Joe falls in with a gang of children called the Little Angels and Joe, who rarely tells anyone his real name, becomes known as Dodger. He thoroughly enjoys life on the streets of Manchester, stealing food from stall-owners, and valuables from passers-by, but two of the children in the gang drink dirty water and develop cholera. Lookout, one of the boys, dies, but Pigeon survives for a while. When Joe realises that Pigeon will die too, he goes in search of a doctor to treat her. None will, but one housekeeper tells him of the nearby hospital where they will take in someone like Pigeon. Joe and two of the other boys get Pigeon to the hospital, but when Joe goes back to see the doctor the following day he collapses from malnutrition. He's taken in by Mr Sheridan Mosley, the fictional cousin of Sir Oswald Mosley, 4th Baronet (not the Oswald Mosley who founded the British Union of Fascists, but his father). He's cared for whilst he's ill, fed, clothed and taught to read by a Sunday School teacher, who treats Joe as an idiot, much to his annoyance. One day Joe gets into an argument with Mr Mosley and attacks him with his cane. Leaving him bleeding on the street, he runs off to Abel Heywood, whom he has previously met, for help. Abel Heywood writes and prints The Poor Man's Guardian, a cheap, illegal, newspaper for the poor. He gives Joe somewhere to live and a job delivering copies of the newspaper around Manchester to groups of workers and poor people. One day, however, Joe realises he needs to find Annie again, and a search for Honest Bob and his fair ensues. Eventually they discover Annie in Ancoats Hospital, where she has been in a catatonic state almost since Joe left her with Honest Bob. Joe feels enormous guilt for what he's done and sets about trying to bring Annie back to herself.

I strongly recommend Livi Michael's The Whispering Road.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Mortal Ghost: Chapter 9

Don't forget to pop over to L Lee Lowe's Mortal Ghost blog for the latest chapter in this fantasy tale for Young Adults.

Poetry Friday 18

Last week's Poetry Friday offering elicited a comment about Gerard Manley Hopkins, and as a consequence I thought I would share with you this poem:

Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)

MY aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
     Of a fresh and following folded rank
           Not spared, not one
           That dandled a sandalled
     Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
     When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
     Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
           To mend her we end her,
     When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
     Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc únselve
           The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Bisney is a small village in Oxfordshire.

Gerard Hopkins was born July 28 1844, the first of nine children. His parents were High Church Anglicans and his father, a marine insurance adjuster, had just published a volume of poetry the year before his son's birth. At grammar school in Highgate GHM won the poetry prize for "The Escorial" and a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford; his tutors there included Walter Pater and Benjamin Jowett. At one time GMH wanted to be a painter-poet like D. G. Rossetti, and he was strongly influenced by the aesthetic theories of Pater and John Ruskin, and by the poetry of the devout Anglicans George Herbert and Christina Rossetti. However, even more insistent was his search for a religion which could speak with true authority; whilst at Oxford, he came under the influence of John Henry Newman, who had converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and provided GMH with the example he was seeking. In 1866, therefore, he was received by Newman into the Catholic Church. In 1867 he won First-Class degrees in Classics and "Greats" (achieving a rare "double-first") and was considered by Jowett to be the star of Balliol.

GMH had felt that the practice of poetry was too individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest who was committed to the deliberate sacrifice of personal ambition, so he burned his early poems. But when he was studying the writings of Duns Scotus in 1872, he decided that his poetry might not necessarily conflict with Jesuit principles. Scotus was a medieval Catholic thinker who argued that individual and particular objects in this world were the only things that man could know directly, and only through the haecceitas ("thisness") of each object. Hopkins' independently-arrived at idea of "inscape" was thus bolstered by Scotus and he was able to begin writing again.

In 1874, whilst studying theology in North Wales, he learned Welsh and was later to adapt the rhythms of Welsh poetry to his own verse, inventing what he called "sprung rhythm." The event that startled him into speech was the sinking of the Deutschland, whose passengers included five Catholic nuns exiled from Germany. His poem The Wreck of the Deutschland is considered a tour de force and contains most of the devices he had been working out in theory for the preceding few years, but it was too radical in style to be printed at the time.

Sprung Rhythm is GMH's term for a complex and very technically involved system of metrics, derived partly from his knowledge of Welsh poetry. It is specifically opposed to "running" or "common" rhythm, and provides for poetic feet of lengths varying from one syllable to four, with either "rising" or "falling" rhythm. Inscape can be considered as an individual distinctive beauty.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians - Rick Riordan

I can't remember on which kidslit Blog I read a rave review of Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which is hardly surprising as it's a very popular, often talked about, book, but if you know it was you (because I posted a comment about looking for it), my thanks ! This is such a funny and clever book; it more than made up for the slog that was Hood !

Percy Jackson is a 6th grader who's been to 6 schools in 6 years. He suffers from dyslexia and ADHD. But he doesn't know that he's something special. He also doesn't know, yet, that the Olympian Gods are alive and well and living in 21st century America. And they still fall in love with mortals and have children with them, who might or might not become great heroes. Unfortunately most of these children meet horrible fates at the hands of monsters by the time they're twelve. Percy's age. Only a few of the demigods or Half-Bloods survive to learn the truth of their identity and make it to the summer camp on Half Blood Hill, Long Island. The camp is dedicated to training young demigods. Percy Jackson survives, just, and then is sent on a quest to help his real father to avert a war among the gods. His friend Grover (who is a satyr) from Yancy Academy (the last school Percy attended) and Annabeth, who's the daughter of Athena, join him in a journey across the United States to catch the thief who has stolen the original Weapon of Mass Destruction: Zeus' master lightning bolt. Along the way, the three encounter a host of mythological enemies who are determined to stop them.

It's impossible not to like this book - from chapter titles that include "I accidentally vapourise my Maths teacher", "The old ladies knit the Socks of Death" (a very Pratchettian chapter title, if ever there was one !), to "A God buys us cheeseburgers" and "We take a Zebra to Vegas" - to exchanges such as:

"Annabeth, I'm sorry about the toilets."
"It wasn't my fault."
She looked at me sceptically, and I realised it was my fault. I'd made water shoot out of the bathroom fixtures. I didn't understand how. But the toilets had responded to me. I had become one with the plumbing. (p. 93)

I laughed often whilst reading this book - and I've already reserved a copy of the sequel, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters at the library !

Interview with Terry Pratchett about "Wintersmith"

I use the HarperCollins Author Tracker facility from their website and today I got an email about Wintersmith (which I've already read and reviewed, having had an ARC !), but the email interested me because it also included an interview with Terry Pratchett about the Tiffany Aching series, which doesn't appear to be on the HC website. I've "snipped" the following bits which I found the most interesting from the interview:

Tiffany read the dictionary straight through because no one had told her she wasn’t supposed to. Did you ever read the dictionary straight through?

TP: Ha! Yes, I did it when I was a kid. I read dictionaries all the way through: dictionaries, thesauruses, dictionaries of slang, all that sort of thing, for the sheer fun of doing it. I think I was a rather weird kid, to be frank.

The landscape Tiffany grew up in is clearly based on the English chalk country—you’ve said there is amazingly little you had to make up about her home. What can you tell us about this part of England?

TP: A large area of southern England is on the chalk; in fact, the White Cliffs of Dover are chalk. I live on the chalk, about twelve miles from Stonehenge. I even own about forty acres of the chalk. You always to see sheep on the chalk, it tends to be very high country, and you don’t see too many trees. It’s really the center of all our mythologies in England. There’s Stonehenge there, and strange ancient carvings, and the burial mounds of dead chieftains. Back in the days when the valleys were just all flooded and swampy, the chalk uplands were how people moved around, and, in the heart of it all, was Stonehenge.

Is Tiffany’s family in any way based on your own?

TP: Well, I grew up on the chalk. I was born in the Chiltern Hills, which is another chalk outcrop. And a lot of the things that Tiffany thinks and sees, in fact, I thought and saw when I was her age; a lot of the way Tiffany comprehends the landscape is based on my own experiences. I don’t come from a farming family, but I spent a lot of time among farmers and their families when I was a kid. I’m the actual archetypal example of an only child, so I had plenty of time to myself. My paternal grandmother has a very special place in my heart, just as Tiffany’s grandmother, does, because when I was a kid I was allowed to read from her bookshelf. It was a very short bookshelf, but it contained every book you really ought to read, like the complete short stories of H. G. Wells, and the complete short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I just worked my way along my granny’s bookshelf and didn’t realize that I was getting an education.

In Tiffany’s world, being a witch means, in part, to have certain duties and responsibilities. How did you decide to include these obligations as part of your definition of witchcraft?

TP: Certainly witchcraft for Tiffany has very little to do with magic as people generally understand it. It has an awful lot to do with taking responsibility for yourself and taking responsibility also for the less able people and, up to a certain point, guarding your society. This is based on how witchcraft really was, I suspect. The witch was the village herbalist, the midwife, the person who knew things. She would sit up with the dying, lay out the corpses, deliver the newborn. Witches tended to be needed when human beings were meeting the dangerous edges of their lives, the places where there is no map. They don’t mess around with tinkly spells; they get their hands dirty.

And then there are the Nac Mac Feegle. They’re the most feared of all the fairy races, and yet they’re also loyal, strong, and very funny. How did you come up with the Nac Mac Feegle?

TP: I thought it very strange, and very sad that the fairy kingdom largely appears to be English. I thought it was time for some regional representation. And the Nac Mac Feegle are, well, they’re like tiny little Scottish Smurfs who have seen Braveheart altogether too many times. They speak a mixture of Gaelic, Old Scots, Glaswegian and gibberish. And they’re extremely brave, and they’re extremely small, and extremely strong, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of them, and they just are automatically funny. You can’t help but love them, at a distance.

Do you know where a story is going when you start writing, or do you let the story take control and see where it takes you?

TP: This answer deserves one sentence or an essay! I’ll try to summarize it like this: writing, for me, is a little like wood carving. You find the lump of tree (the big central theme that gets you started) and you start cutting the shape that you think you want it to be. But you find, if you do it right, that the wood has a grain of its own (characters develop and present new insights, concentrated thinking about the story opens new avenues). If you’re sensible, you work with the grain and, if you come across a knot hole, you incorporate that into the design. This is not the same as “making it up as you go along”; it’s a very careful process of control.

The fantasy genre is often thought of as escapism, but is it escapism with a firm root in reality?

TP: Fantasy IS escapism, but wait... why is this wrong? What are you escaping from, and where are you escaping to? Is the story opening windows or slamming doors? The British author G. K. Chesterton summarized the role of fantasy very well. He said its purpose was to take the everyday, commonplace world and lift it up and turn it around and show it to us from a different perspective, so that once again we see it for the first time and realize how marvelous it is. Fantasy—the ability to envisage this world in many different ways—is one of the skills that makes us human.

Your Discworld novels are fantastically successful. Now you’re writing Discworld novels specifically for younger readers. Why?

TP: I think my heart has always been in writing for children. My first book was written for children, and a few years ago I realized that if I wrote a few books for younger readers I could approach Discworld in a different way. There’s a lot of difference between writing for children and writing for adults, and it’s almost impossible to tell you what it is, but I know it when I’m doing it. You have more fun, and I have to say, it’s a little bit harder, especially if you do it right.

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In other news, the BBC website reports that American airport staff almost stopped J K Rowling from boarding a flight home after her recent New York appearances, because she did not want to part with the manuscript for the final book. JKR wasn't prepared to put her top secret notes for book number seven in her check-in baggage when she flew back to the UK in August (and I, for one, do not blame her !). She was eventually allowed to take them on the flight, after they were bound in elastic bands.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hood - Stephen R Lawhead

Stephen R Lawhead's Hood (Atom, August 2006) is the first in the King Raven trilogy.

The Norman conquest of England is more or less complete, but for one young Welshman the battle is only just beginning. When the father of Bran ap Brychan is murdered by Norman soldiers, he rides to London to seeking justice from King William the Red. The journey is long and hard, and the suffering of the British people whom he sees on the way fuels his anger. When Bran's demands are dismissed by the King's Cardinal and he is told he will have to buy back his father's Welsh kingdom, Bran has no choice but to return home, but an even worse fate awaits him there, when Bran and his 3 companions are arrested by the detested Normans and one companion is murdered. Bran is taken to Count de Braose and offers to ransom himself, but before he can do so, he is tracked into the forest and attacked whilst trying to flee for his life. He is very badly injured and believed to be dead, but appearances can be deceiving as the Normans will find out... And who is the Raven King ? A creature of myth and magic born of the darkest shadows in the forest ? Or a living being ?

I confess this book took me nearly 3 days to read because Lawhead's characters did not interest me until I was nearly half way through the book - which is rather depressing, especially from a long-established author. I also struggled for some time with my annoyance at the fact that Lawhead has seen fit to relocate the Robin Hood legend to Wales; he explains his reasoning in a note at the back of the book and whilst I can see where his argument is coming from, I was still annoyed that an English legend had been appropriated to the Welsh when they've lots of legends of their own ! And I'm not even a patriot or a nationalist - it's just that Robin Hood has always been English as far as I've been taught since childhood. In fact, what Lawhead has done was interesting once I was able to sympathise with the characters, and I will read the sequels to this book - but I still struggled with both Lawhead's premise and with the less-than-charming main characters ! If I was to give this book a points rating (which I never do as a rule), I'd have to say 6 out of 10, could have done much better !

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Roald Dahl Day Tomorrow

All those Roald Dahl fans out there who are planning to celebrate what would have been his 90th birthday tomorrow, might like to take a look at the official Roald Dahl Day website, in particular, the Challenge page, which offers such wonderful challenges as:

* Wear one or more items of clothing backwards.
* Drop "gobblefunk"* into your conversations (the unique language created by Roald and most commonly used by the BFG).
* Swap a Roald Dahl book with a friend.
* Talk backwards.
* Give someone a treat – Roald was a great believer in treats, whether it was a bar of chocolate or a lovely surprise.

amongst the 10 challenges ! You'll also find an activities page.

And Dahl fans may be interested in the new The Dahlmanac. This is an almanac with a difference, it's a fun-filled compendium bursting with jokes, activities, fun facts and extracts from Roald Dahl's own letters. Split into different months, following the school year from September to August, this is the perfect book for all kids to dip into and pick up a funny/extraordinary/unbelievable fact.

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For those interested in British children's book news, you might like to sign up at the Children's Books UK info website, where apparently the only information you'll need to give them is an active email address. The site also provides book reviews as well as book news, homework help, author information and rather a lot more.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Animated movies

I have to confess to a not-so-secret passion - I love animated films, whether they're created using stop motion such as Tim Burton deploys in The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride, or the "claymation" used by Aardman Animations in the short Wallace and Gromit: Three Cracking Adventures films, Chicken Run and the Oscar-winning big screen feature Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, or the amazing Computer Generated Images films created by Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, such as The Incredibles or Ice Age: The Meltdown.

Recently I went to see Monster House at the cinema. Monster House is slightly different to most CGI films, in that the film makers used a technique known as performance capture, wherein the performance by the actor is interactive and the film makers capture the body, the hands and facial expression all at the same time (as opposed to capturing data for reference motion and editing the motions together later, as was done with Andy Serkis' performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films). It's effectively a digital replacement for the furry or latex rubber costume, thereby allowing the actor to give the performance without wearing a heavy latex suit. (The performance capture technique was used to great effect in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie for Davy Jones and his crew.) The technique was first used in The actor usually interacts with models of the objects in the scene. The recorded performance data can be used to animate different actors. In The Polar Express, the first CGI film to extensively use performance capture Tom Hanks played five roles - an 8-year old boy, his father, the train's conductor, a hobo, and Santa Claus.

The story of Monster House revolves around teenage boy DJ who is convinced that there is something very strange going on in the house opposite his. The house in question is well known by the local children as the house to avoid at all costs. It's owned by a crotchety old man named Nebbercracker, who is infamous for seizing anything that lands on his property, particularly children's toys. DJ's parents leave town for the weekend to attend a dental convention, leaving him in the care of his apathetic Goth babysitter, Elizabeth, who refuses to be referred to as anything other than "Zee". Zee's boyfriend Bones is lured into the house to retrieve a kite taken from him as a boy — and is promptly swallowed up by it.

DJ's best friend is Chowder (an unfortunately fat boy - why the film makers did this, I don't know !); he's been saving up all his money to buy a basketball, and he decides to break in his new basketball with DJ. Whilst the two boys are playing basketball, the ball bounces away and lands on Nebbercracker's lawn. When DJ tries to recover the ball Nebbercracker suddenly appears and grabs DJ, lifting him off the ground and screaming at DJ, until his own face goes white and he collapses on top of DJ. Nebbercracker appears to have died and DJ feels responsible for the old man's death, even though no one likes him. Soon afterwards DJ notices that the house seems to be taking on the characteristics of Nebbercracker's behaviour, seizing and concealing everything that approaches it. DJ recruits Chowder to help him uncover the secrets of Nebbercraker's house. They then recruit an intelligent schoolgirl from Westbrook Academy named Jenny, who has come round selling candy to householders for them to give out to the trick-or-treating children who will be arriving.

I won't tell you the rest of what happens, as that would spoil the film for you. Suffice it to say that the animation is awesome, and the ending is satisfying.

This weekend I watched another CGI film, the incredibly detailed Robots which features characters voiced by Robin Williams, Halle Berry and Ewan McGregor. There's a totally awesome scene in the film featuring dominoes, which, in my view, makes the entire movie worth watching for the sake of seeing that one scene !

And I confess, I'm excited about the forthcoming Aardman Animations/DreamWorks film, Flushed Away, which features a pet rat who is literally flushed away by a sewer rat: with stars such as Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy voicing some of the characters this sounds as if it will be as stunning as anything else Aardman have produced. Unusually for Aardman, it's a CGI film, because they quickly decided that the complexity of moving water is impossible to recreate using claymation !

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Winter of the Birds - Helen Cresswell

Helen Cresswell's The Winter of the Birds is a beautiful story which explores the transformation of a small community as seen through the eyes of young resident, Edward Flack. The community has a self-appointed guardian, the solitary Mr. Rudge, who has discovered a secret menace to the area: every night, steel birds fly through the sky on wires, and they seem to be growing more numerous even as the real birds are disappearing. Everyone in the street is afraid of Mr. Rudge - many of the local children and some of the adults claim he is mad, because he sits up all night watching the sky, but Edward dares to befriend him. Edward is very fond of hero tales (especially classical ones) and is undergoing hero training that he has devised himself; part of it includes committing himself to performing feats of daring, such as walking past the abandoned local church, St Saviours at night. One day he thinks about Mr Rudge, alone in his big empty house:

Edward felt a sudden pang. In that moment he had a strong feeling of the solitariness of that old man, of his walking about that great empty house night and day alone. Eating in silence, winding clocks in silence, mounting the stairs to the top room in silence. He lived and moved in silence as though it were an element, or a new dimension. (p.21)

and he dares himself to go and see Mr Rudge. Because Edward isn't like other boys (none of the other local boys has ever dared to approach Mr Rudge, they prefer to shout abuse and throw stones), Mr Rudge confides in him about the steel birds. Edward doesn't know what to do with this terrifying new knowledge, but then into his life erupts Patrick Finn, driving a taxi and bringing with him Edward's uncle, whom he has saved from a suicide attempt. Finn has already transformed uncle Alfred from a drab accountant to a dreamy artist, after just 24 hours, and Edward recognises that Finn is a genuine hero; he is delighted with his good fortune in finding such a mentor, not to mention someone who can help to rid the town of the steel birds.

Everyone in the community is transformed by the arrival of Patrick Finn, a giant of an Irishman with wild red hair and beard, and between Mr Rudge and Finn, the entire community finds itself banding together to drive out the steel birds.

This book is mysterious - the existence of the steel birds remains ambiguous throughout as only Mr Rudge has ever seen them, although Edward thinks he's heard them sometimes - and beautiful; there are some gorgeous passages, including this one:
Even so, [Edward] began to see that Mister Rudge was, in a sense, not entirely flesh and blood, because he lived removed from the world outside where everyone else went about their daily business. He knew, in a way, nothing. He could not, for instance, Edward thought, know from a book how it felt to run in new snow, the soft grind under your feet and the dazzling blank ahead. Nor, for that matter, could he imagine the hot-aches that followed, the delicious yet excruciating dethawing.

This is so evocative, I can feel the snow underfoot and see the blinding whiteness and feel the ache of defrosting in a warm room...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Coming of Dragons - A J Lake

The author of The Coming of Dragons, A J Lake, is a former teacher who has a lifelong interest in the period of British History known as the Dark Ages. She has, therefore, set her story in this period. The book opens with a ship that is sailing from Noviomagus across the channel to Gaul (France as it now is); it's caught in a sudden ferocious storm and dashed against the rocks. Only two of those on board survive the wreck, a boy named Edmund and the daughter of the Captain, Elspeth. They come ashore with a mysterious trunk which Elspeth's father took on board before they set sail. An old man finds them and takes them back to his cave. He seems almost to have known they were coming and he is very interested in the trunk. At this period in history, tribe is fighting tribe, pirates hold the North Sea to ransom, a new God is usurping the older lore to which Edmund's family adheres. And in this dark and dangerous time, a man calls forth from his imprisonment, the dragon Torment. Edmund and Elspeth find themselves facing new destinies as a result of the coming of the dragon and they must master the unexpected gifts they each discover as a result of the storm.

You can read an extract of this story on the Darkest Age website. The sequel, The Book of the Sword will be out in April 2007.

Friday, September 08, 2006

British Book News

Penguin have announced that they are reviving the novel in serial form to create a buzz online before the complete work is released next year. The book is Gordon Dahlquist's "fantastical gothic mystery" Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and it will be sent to buyers in the mail in 10 weekly paperback instalments, each with a cliff-hanger ending, before publication of the full hardcover in January.
Only 5,000 editions of the serial version will be sold for £25 ($47.08), each with free delivery, and they must be purchased online directly from Penguin. The hardcover will retail for 16.99 pounds.

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It's been reported that Bloomsbury will be celebrating its 21st year of publishing with some special edition paperbacks. Following the Penguin "Sixties" and "Seventies", Bloomsbury will be publishing titles that will feature a short question-and-answer with the author, an introduction by fellow writers, and a reading guide. Thus Alexander McCall Smith sings the praises of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Malorie Blackman will introduce Louis Sachar's Holes, Adele Geras will introduce Celia Rees' Witch Child, and Audrey Niffenegger will introduce Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The full list is available by following the link.

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Waterstone's (which recently took over Ottakers) has announced a new standalone structure for children’s books. Wayne Winstone, the new Category Manager told Publisher's News: "This new structure shows how important children’s books are to Waterstone's. It's a sign of a great deal of commitment to growing the children's offering, and the scale we're now working across is fantastic, much bigger than at Ottakar's." Waterstone's has also taken on Ottakar's Children's Regional Support Managers, and will double the size of the team to mirror the new operations breakdown.

It will be interesting to see what difference this makes to Waterstone's stores.

Mortal Ghost: Chapter 8

This is just a reminder that Lee Lowe continues to post a chapter a week on her Blog of her YA novel Mortal Ghost. Do go and read it, please, she writes lyrically and movingly, especially in chapter 8 (posted today).

Poetry Friday 17

Three weeks ago, I offered you a poem by Ted Hughes called Hawk Roosting, and Lee suggested to me that I read the final chapter in Hughes' book Poetry in the Making. I picked it up from the library last week, but I've only just got around to reading the suggested paragraph (I read the entire essay in fact, but more on that in a moment) and I want to quote a part of that paragraph to you:

[...] it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will [...] express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. [...] And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that same moment make out of it all the vital signature of a human being - not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or a heap of lenses - but a human being, we call it poetry. (p. 124)

This is a fantastically poetic piece of prose - I've actually left out some of the best of it because I couldn't really quote the whole lot - but I heartily endorse Lee's recommendation to read this paragraph - in fact the whole essay "Words and Experience" is utterly fascinating. Hughes is talking about the difficulty of using words to convey our experiences of our lives:
It is when we set out to find words for some seemingly quite simple experience [he gives the examples of as seeing a crow flying across the sky, or a tramp walking away] that we begin to realise what a huge gap there is between our understanding of what happens around us and inside us, and the words we have at our command to say something about it. (p. 119)

And this is from a man who was a Poet Laureate ! Hughes goes on to talk about how one might describe the flight of a crow:
There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive. But the ominous thing in the crow's flight, the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstroke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness [...] And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying. (pp. 119-20)

Such descriptions may be rubbish compared to watching the crow fly, but aren't they beautiful without the crow's flight to watch ? Don't they manage to convey the crowiness of the crow ? (I love that word !)

Lest you think I've forgotten about the poetry itself, here is a poem called Winter-Piece by Charles Tomlinson which Hughes includes elsewhere in Poetry in the Making:


You wake, all windows blind - embattled sprays
grained on the mediaeval glass.
Gates snap like gunshot
as you handle them. Five-barred fragility
sets flying fifteen rooks who go together
silently ravenous above this winter-piece
that will not feed them. They alight
beyond, scavenging, missing everything
but the bladed atmosphere, the white resistance.
Ruts with iron flanges track
through a hard decay
where you discern once more
oak-leaf by hawthorn, for the frost
rewhets their edges. In a perfect web
blanched along each spoke
and circle of its woven wheel,
the spider hangs, grasp unbroken
and death-masked in cold. Returning
you see the house glint-out behind
its holed and ragged glaze,
frost-fronds all streaming.

I picked this poem from the many that Hughes included in the book, because for me it conveys exactly the wintriness of winter, just as Hughes' earlier phrases conveyed the crowiness of the crow: "the bladed atmosphere" - where the wind is as cold as a very sharp knife; "ruts with iron flanges" - the ground is so frozen it could be made of iron, not earth; "in a perfect web,/blanched along each spoke/and circle of its woven wheel" - I can picture the frost-laden spider's web clearly in my mind's eye.