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...

* * * * * *

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.

* * * * * *

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.

* * * * * *

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.

* * * * * *

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...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Neil Gaiman Live!

Neil Gaiman's reading and Q&A last night was great - albeit too short ! He read the beginning of Anansi Boys to the assembled horde (about 120 people I guess) since very few people there had already read it. It made me very eager to get hold of a copy - I shall have to badger the library for it (nicely of course !!)

For those who really liked American Gods, you may like to know there's a short story about Shadow, set 2 years after the events of AG, included in Robert Silverberg's Legends II; Neil's story is called 'Monarch of the Glen' and (logically, given the title) it's set in Scotland (and is not to be confused with the British TV show of the same name !) He said last night that he was planning to write more Shadow short stories - at least one set in London, and at least one in which Shadow finally returns to America...

Regarding Mirrormask (which Neil said is the most Frequently Asked Question at present), he said he doesn't know when we're going to get to see it in the UK (on the grounds that he's "just the writer and they don't bother telling [him]" ! It's quite possible that the American region DVD will be out in the US before the film screens in the UK, but he heartily recommended seeing it "on the big screen", because it'll be so much better. I'm quite interested in seeing it, myself - Stephen Fry (who reads the Harry Potter audiobooks) as a librarian, ought to be fun !!

He also talked about forthcoming projects for the next 12 - 18 months. He's going to do a 6-part reworking of Jack Kirby's 'Eternals' for Marvel.

He's going to do a children's book - I think he said it's called The Graveyard Book, but it's similar to Kipling's The Jungle Book, in that a child's parents die and he takes refuge in a graveyard and is brought up by the dead people, who teach him the sort of things only dead people know (!)

Neil said that he thought the Beowulf (there are some interesting actors voicing this animated feature !) and Coraline movies would be out in the second half of 2007. It's possible there will be a movie of Neverwhere, but he's retired from writing it ! He wants to write a sequel to Neverwhere, called Seven Sisters, and he also wants to write a novella about how the Marquis of Carabas got his coat back, which he said would start with a list of all the things the Marquis has in his coat pockets - and some of them are extraordinary !!

Once he'd finished taking questions, he started the book-signing - and I decamped, because the queue was going to be enormous ! Still it was a good hour and I'm glad I had the chance to attend and see Neil Gaiman live.

Friday, November 11, 2005

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

I'm off to hear Neil Gaiman at a book talk/signing at the local Borders store this evening, so I have been reading American Gods this week. It starts out a bit peculiar - I could even say it remains peculiar - but it quickly became very compelling, so I stopped noticing the peculiarity !

The story follows the adventures of ex-convict "Shadow" Moon, upon his early release from prison due to the death of his wife, Laura, in a car accident. He is hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday to act as an escort and bodyguard, and travels across America visiting Wednesday's colleagues and acquaintances. Gradually, it is revealed that Wednesday is an incarnation of Odin the All-Father, who is recruiting American manifestations of the Old Gods of ancient mythology (whose powers have waned as their believers have decreased in numbers), to participate in an epic battle against the New American Gods, manifestations of the internet, mobile phones, media, money, and modern life.

The mythological characters prominently featured in the book include Odin, Anansi, Loki, Czernobog, Thoth, Anubis and Kali. Other mythological characters are featured in the novel who are not divine, but are legendary, such as Paul Bunyan. Various real-life American towns and tourist attractions, including the House on the Rock, are featured throughout the book. Gaiman states in the introduction to the book that he has purposely obscured the precise location of some actual locales, but others can be found.

I confess I'm now eager to read Anansi Boys and hope I can get hold of a library copy soon. I shall report back on the talk by Gaiman tomorrow.



HAVE you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War's a bloody game....
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you'll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon 1919 (c) George Sassoon

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Nanny McPhee

I'm going to give you a review of Nanny McPhee, which I saw today, but first I want to mention a couple of news stories that caught my eye - and since the review will feature some spoilers, I thought I'd save that until last.

The first news story I actually caught on the radio initially - and my immediate reaction was that the English government, or its Education Department at least, has run completely mad. A rather scary notion, but I didn't know what else to conclude when I heard that Whitehall have suggested a National Curriculum for under-5s ! As if children in England weren't already tested nearly to death (and certainly to boredom !) already. The poor beggars are already given SATs at 7, 11 and 14, then they take GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18 - not to mention the fact that if they decide to risk the debt burden, they get tested every year of an undergraduate degree ! Geez am I glad I'm not a parent ! The government seems to have this twisted idea that testing kids to boredom actually promotes learning, but in my limited experience, it's doing quite the opposite. I help to moderate a discussion forum on World War One poetry, and we regularly get students coming along asking us either "What does poem X mean" or quoting an essay title and expecting us to give them the answers. And when those of us who are regulars (and I freely admit to being the biggest culprit in this) demur, we get abused and accused of being arrogant (and that's the repeatable repsonses). I was frankly astonished, too, when I was doing my undergraduate English & History degree just a few years ago, to find that students fresh out of A-level studies regularly asked lecturers if such-and-such would be in the exam. After the first couple of times, I asked one of my tutors why the students were asking this (to me) bizarre question and was told that they "learn to test", in other words they won't bother reading or studying something if it's not going to come up in their exams. The concept of learning something for the sheer joy of learning is, apparently, dead for the vast majority of students - and what a crying shame that is. We are raising a generation of children and young adults who do not take any pleasure in learning for the sake of expanding not only their own knowledge, but the sum total of humanity's knownledge. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm appalled and worried by this attitude because it's going to mean a diminishing number of scholars - and that will mean the dumbing down of society and the watering down of culture.

The other news story that caught my eye was in yesterday's Guardian: "Children's authors don't want their books used for joyless comprehension tests" - and who can blame them ? Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Jamila Gavin, Michael Rosen, Jacqueline Wilson and Bernard Ashley have outlined their fears about the National Literacy Strategy in a collection of essays called Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: Beyond Bog-standard Literacy which was published this week by the National Centre for Language and Literacy (NCLL). The authors protest about their books being used as texts for language and comprehension exercises, rather than simply being enjoyed. This next comment struck me very forcefully when I read it: "What we object to is having our books treated as if they are frogs ready for dissection, when actually they are live frogs," says the illustrator Quentin Blake, who was children's laureate from 1999-2001. Bernard Ashley agrees: "I don't allow my books to be used for comprehension exercises, and I haven't for 30 years. I write to entertain, and I won't have any kid sweat over something I wrote to delight." And Michael Rosen says: "The literacy hour doesn't encourage the idea that books are for you, that they are yours. It says that they are texts which can be quizzed." Now, I've no objection to "quizzing" a book that I've enjoyed - that's what I do when I write the essays I write. But my first and foremost qualification is that I won't write about a book/series if I haven't enjoyed it. Since I now write essays for myself, not for a qualification, I'm blowed if I'll spend hours reading, researching and writing about something that I don't love.

Anyway, I'll get off my soap box, and rave, instead, about Emma Thompson's fabulous film Nanny McPhee. I haven't yet read Christianna Brand's Nurse Matilda books - I was loaned them yesterday and I decided that in fairness to the film, I would watch the film first, otherwise I know I would have spent the entire film in muttering to myself "They changed that" - which would annoy me. There's no doubt that Thompson's screenplay is pure fairy tale. Emma Thompson plays the eponymous Nanny with the aid of some stunning prosthetics and a marvellous twinkle in her eye. Colin Firth as the harrassed Mr Brown, father to 7 very clever and quite monstrous children, seemed to spend most of the film in a state of near-terminal bewilderment. Thomas Sangster (of Love Actually fame) was the perfect roguish elder child who is craving the closeness he used to share with his father before their mother died.

Quite apart from the pure fairy tale ending which sees Mr Brown marry young Evangeline, who despite her rather aristocratic name, is "only" a scullery maid, but who loves the children, unlike Celia Imrie's appalling, money-grabbing Selma Quickly, who reveals her true colours at the wedding ceremony - the thing that most appealed to me was Nanny McPhee's transformation from the warty, snaggled-toothed, lined, big-nosed (believe me, Nicole Kidman's hooter in The Hours could not compare !), old woman, to a rather charming, twinkling middle-aged woman. Each time one of Nanny McPhee's five lessons (not all of which had to be learnt by the children, I might add) was mastered, her appearance altered, until at the end of the film she was clearly recognisable as Emma Thompson. If you get the chance, go and see this film. The strongly British cast - apart from Firth, Thompson and Irmie, it features Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Derek Jacobi (I, Claudiaus and Brother Cadfael), Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) - appealed to me a good deal - and it's clear that although the period is unspecified, it is set in Britain, rather than Hollywood !

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Talking Books

Two related news stories today. The first comes from today's Guardian:

It was a little-noticed anniversary but talking books were started 70 years ago yesterday with the publication of Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Joseph Conrad's Typhoon. Since then, more than 75m audio books have been published. Although their main benefit, then and now, is to enable blind and partially sighted people to enjoy the pleasure of books they are rapidly attracting a universal audience. This is thanks to the digital revolution and the spread of iPods and similar devices making it easy to download whole books from the internet and then play them back as you walk.
Seventy years ago the first books were recorded on to 12in discs with a speed of 24 revs a minute. The Royal National Institute for the Blind, which started the service, also pioneered long-playing records in the 1920s before the music industry cottoned on. Talking books have survived revolutions though none has offered the potential of digitisation.

And the BBC reports that the RNIB, which developed the Talking Book Service for the thousands of servicemen who were blinded in the trenches of the First World War, is seeking, with the support of leading writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, funds from the British government to make a greater proportion of books available as Talking Books. RNIB spokeswoman Ciara Smyth says they want support from the government so that they can work in partnership with publishers and other organisations to produce more books, because 96% of books are not produced in accessible formats.

Personally I've never taken to audiobooks - I'm so used to reading or doing other things whilst listening to the radio, that I cannot break the habit of tuning out whatever I'm listening to so that it becomes aural wallpaper whilst I read or work... But I wholeheartedly support the work of the RNIB, because it may be me, one day, who needs talking books...

So please, if you have some spare funds, make a donation to the RNIB, or your local equivalent, and enrich the life of less well-sighted booklovers. Thank you.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire Film

Last night saw the British premiere of the fourth Harry Potter film - and the media has now gone Potter Premiere Potty (!) - unsurprisingly. The BBC has a couple of stories, one on the Premiere itself, and the other (and to me more interesting) one on the fact that Harry Potter has been named the greatest screen fantasy hero of all time in a poll. Apparently the UK Sci-Fi Channel polled 1500 people and Rowling's boy wizard came in far ahead of the cyborg star of Terminator 2 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Clearly they didn't ask me !) The poll was commissioned to mark the 10th birthday of the UK Sci-Fi Channel on Tuesday. (I didn't know it had started on *my* birthday !) Other heroes on the list included Spiderman, Batman, Doctor Who, Han Solo, Neo from The Matrix, and Yoda (Yoda ?!) I'm surprised no one mentioned Superman - I'd say that lack of a mention doesn't bode well for Brandon Routh (who will be playing the latest incarnation of Superman) and Warner Brothers (although will they care with HP raking in so much money for them ?) with regard to their 2006 outing Superman Returns.

Oh, and if you want to see how much the child stars of the Harry Potter films have changed, in 5 years, check out the photo pop-up on the BBC website !

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Gold Unicorn - Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee's Gold Unicorn is as brief as its prequel Black Unicorn. In Gold Unicorn Tanaquil is still travelling, more than a year after the events already narrated. She is visiting some nobles who have fled from a war that is now taking place, instigated by the Empress Veriam; they take her to see a local sorcerer by whom Tanaquil is unimpressed. He promises that she will have to learn some lessons, and shortly afterwards she encounters three of the Empress' soldiers who, it appears, have been on the lookout for Tanaquil. When Tanaquil meets the Empress she discovers that Veriam is someone whom she met more than a year ago. Veriam has decided to conquer to the world in order to ensure that it is properly run, and to this end some of the members of the Artisans Guild from her home town have created a gigantic unicorn of iron overlaid with gold plate. It is a mechanical monstrosity, powered by steam, and Tanaquil is required to make it work because it doesn't at present. With grave misgivings, Tanaquil acquiesces and the gold unicorn is set to work to persuade towns and cities to surrender to Veriam. Unfortunately there is something rather odd about the unicorn - people who pass under its belly disappear never to be sen again. Tanaquil discovers for herself that the gold unicorn is a portal into another world, but rather than a kind of Heaven, it leads her and her companions (including Veriam) into a kind of Hell.

I confess that I am surprised that Tanith Lee didn't just combine the three narratives of the Unicorn trilogy into one longer book. Such a longer book would still have been under 600 pages (assuming Red Unicorn is as short as its predecessors - I'm waiting to see if the Library can get hold of a copy for me).

[Apologies for the lack of a post yesterday - a migraine wiped me out and staring at PC screen was simply impossible.]

Friday, November 04, 2005

Each Little Bird That Sings - Deborah Wiles

For Comfort Snowberger, dis a way of life as her family runs a funeral parlour from their Mississippi home; motto: "We live to serve." However, when Comfort's 94-year-old Great-great-aunt Florentine Snowberger dies in the vegetable garden, she discovers that no one is ever really prepared for death, even though Florentine has been bidding "good night and good-bye" to the family at bedtime every night since her 90th birthday. For 10 year old Comfort, Florentine's death is particularly hard because the two had been very close, they even co-wrote 'Fantastic (and Fun) Funeral Food for Family and Friends'. The irritatingly over-wrought emotional displays of her young cousin, Peach Shuggars, and the sudden iciness of her former best friend, Declaration Johnson, combine with Florentine's death to send Comfort over the edge. Only her shaggy dog, Dismay, who can eradicate all bad feelings with a single slobbery lick, can save her. And then a flash flood comes to the town of Snapfinger on the day of Florentine's funeral; Comfort learns that life is full of surprises, some good and some bad, but she also learns that it's just good to be alive.

Some of the names in this book are frankly bizarre and I had to keep reminding myself (initially) that they were people and not drinks ! However I got into the book quite quickly and raced through it. I confess to being cynical at the outset - I had got the impression initially that this was some sort of dreadful "bibliotherapy" book: written specifically to give to a child who was bereaved. I was relieved to discover this was nothing of the sort, and delighted by the characters of Comfort and Dismay, and Comfort's cousin Peach (whom I confess I had expected to be a girl !)

The development of the relationship between Comfort and Peach from her utter dislike of his weeping and wailing, on to the burgeoning of his inner strength was fascinating... And I finished the book feeling that Comfort's disagreement with Declaration was not so much resolved as on hold for now.

I am not ashamed to admit that Deborah Wiles' book made me weep in several places. However, I would not give it to bereaved child - I'd give it to them before they were bereaved or long afterwards.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Batman Begins

I watched Christopher Nolan's "re-boot" of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins last weekend. I'm not a long-standing fan of Batman; I've never read the comics, nor have I ever seen the TV shows or the previous four films, but I was interested in the film because of the articles and reviews I had read in various places (most notably in SFX). Fortunately my brother kindly agreed to lend me his DVD, so I was able to watch it. It totally blew me away (OK, not as much as Serenity because the Great God Joss (TM) rocks !), but I thought it was a fantastic film. It was lovely for a newbie to the franchise to see just what led Bruce Wayne to become Batman. Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne was awesome, Michael Caine as Alfred his butler was humorous, and Gary Oldman (as Jim Gordon, the policeman) and Liam Neeson (as the dastardly Ducard) were both a revelation. Like Oliver, I must, Sirs, ask for more, please !

I recommend that you buy Batman Begins (or rent it at the very least), even if superheroes are not normally your "thing"...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Black Unicorn - Tanith Lee

I've not read any of Tanith Lee's books before, but a recent passing mention of her name by a friend caused me to seek out the library's stock. Unfortunately they only had Black Unicorn on the shelves at that point, but I borrowed it. It's Garneresque in its brevity (138 pages of an elegant, illustrated paperback), but was quite hard to put down. The protagonist is Tanaquil, a fifteen year old girl, who is bored with life in her sorceress mother's desert fortress, where no one ever comes and which she never leaves except for a Walk in the nearby desert to ease her restlessness. She finds herself adopted by a peeve (a lovely name !): a creature "about the size of a large cat with thick brown fur over a barrel shaped body and short muscular legs. It had a long dainty muzzle, a bushy tail, and ears that would go up in points." The one that adopts Tanaquil also talks (although not in complete sentences), a side effect of the magic used by Jaive in her sorcery. More annoying is the magically affected food and drink - an orange turns into a flower, and the water fountain offers sticky berry wine.

The peeve brings her a bone that looks somehow otherworldly and she discovers it has several more and knows where even more of them may be found. They go out into the desert to get them, and Tanaquil brings them back to her room where she puts together the skeleton of what turns out to be a unicorn. She fits wheels into some of its joints, hoping to make it move, but it does not, until the night of the grand dinner her mother organises (in an attempt to cheer up Tanaquil after she threatens to leave the fort). Then it turns up in the main dining hall and after being hit by a burst of her mother's magic, gains flesh. The unicorn leads Tanaquil to leave the fort and cross the desert to a large city where she meets with various adventures until the unicorn leads her, via a portal, into the perfect world that her mother has so often told her about, the world from which the unicorn originated.

I felt, when I finished reading this book, that it was begging for a sequel. Fortunately Tanith Lee appears to have felt the same way, as it has two sequels: Gold Unicorn (which the public library has and I will borrow now I've got a replacement library card) and Red Unicorn (which the library doesn't have, so goodness knows how I shall finish the series. Possibly I'll have to see if I can get it second hand.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Negative News

I consider myself a cynic and I've been accused of being a pessimist, but I would never have expected that a fellow library user would be guilty of stealing my purse ! But it happened this morning, in the public library in town, and whilst I must bear some blame (I forgot to pick my purse up from the counter at the information desk where I had momentarily laid it), I am shocked and hurt that another library user would do something so despicable...

So of course, I've had the great joy of filing theft reports both at the library (once we'd established someone had not picked it up and handed it over as lost property) and at the local police station, and of going to cancel my bank card. My only consolations (and they are small ones) are that the bank card is no use to anyone else as it's not a Debit or cheque guarantee card, it's simply an ATM card and of no use without my PIN - and that there wasn't much money in the purse, less than £20 - although I could have done without losing that as I've not much money left over from paying my rent.

The only fitting word I could come up with for such a person was "guttersnipe" !


The other negative news I have to report is that the Independent yesterday reported that second-hand bookshops in the UK are in decline. In three years, the number of second-hand bookshops in UK has dropped from 1,200 to about 600, mainly due to the rise of sales on the internet. I know that I miss Thorntons, which was a favourite haunt of mine for many years whenever I was visiting Oxford (before I became a resident again). I was particularly fond of this Broad Street shop because they always had a good stock of Tolkien-related books.