Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Little Lower than the Angels - Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean's A Little Lower than the Angels won the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 1987. The book is set in the plague years of the Middle Ages (1348-49) when the Mystery Plays were a common form of entertainment and religious instruction. Gabriel is an itinerant stonemason's apprentice; he's 11 years old and has lots of long blond hair. As a consequence his bullying master often takes the mickey out of him, describing him as looking like a girl. One day when Mason, Gabriel and his fellow apprentice, Squit, are working on a church, a group of Mystery players arrives to give a performance, and Mason and his apprentices are obliged to stop work as the play cannot be heard of the sound of their hammering; Gabriel watches the play in awe and wonder. Afterwards, the Mason decides Gabriel's hair needs cutting, and when Gabriel cries out against this, having promised his mother never to cut his hair, someone overhears and Gabriel takes advantage of the interruption to run away. Finding his way blocked by the dallying audience from the Mystery Play, he takes refuge in the pageant (the wagon that's used for performances). The Players discover him but agree to smuggle hiim away, and Gabriel finds himself in the role of the Angel Gabriel. Garvey, the leader of the Company takes full advantage of Gabriel's angelic good looks and stages a miracle. News of the miracle precedes the Company and they find themselves in receipt of great wealth, but then a new man joins the Company of Players, and Gabriel finds himself in a difficult situation.

Whilst I enjoyed this book, I didn't find it as gripping as McCaughrean's The Stones are Hatching or The White Darkness; Gabriel is a less interesting character than either Phelim Green or Sym Wates; I know Sym's a few years older than Gabriel, but Phelim is the same age. I never really felt I got to know Gabriel very well, as I did with Phelim.

Monday, February 27, 2006

MirrorMask - Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

According to Neil Gaiman's Blog, the novella of MirrorMask which is presented as if written by Helena Campbell, leaves out some things that are in the MirrorMask film, but also includes many things that aren't in the film, so if you read the book first some things will still be a surprise, and if you see the film first you'll still find some new things in the book. It's possible to read the first few pages of MirrorMask online at the HarperCollins website.

The hardback book is illustrated with drawings and photos from the film. It tells the story of Helena who wants to run away from the circus to experience real life. Her mother falls sick and is taken to hospital for an operation; Helena goes to stay with her Aunt Nan and whilst she's there she has a strange dream in which she swaps places with a girl who looks fairly like her but is a princess. She discovers that the only way that she can return to her own life is by finding and restoring the MirrorMask to the Good Queen, so she goes on a quest aided and/or hindered by an eclectic mix of people and creatures, including someone who calls himself Valentine. This is an intriguing tale that features the usual Gaiman-esque surrealism. I'm hoping to see the movie next week after it opens in the UK, and I shall be intrigued to see how it differs from the novella, and vice-versa.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ptolemy's Gate - Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud's Ptolemy's Gate is an awesome, gripping and fitting end to the Bartimaeus trilogy. The ending had me in tears: I was delighted that Nathaniel, who is now 17, has remembered once again that he was a human being not just a soulless efficient machine, which is what he'd become in The Golem's Eye !

What I find interesting and exciting is that for most of the trilogy Bartimaeus is the most sympathetic character we encounter, in spite of the fact that he's commonly referred to as a "demon". Stroud's subversiveness in this matter is endlessly fascinating to me; Bartimaeus has been routinely "employed" by his many magician masters to carry out all sorts of immoral actions, and yet I have far more sympathy with him than I do with Nathaniel.

Kitty turns out to be a very resourceful young woman - not only does she learn magic with the aid of an older magician who is not involved in the government, so that she can summon Bartimaeus to talk with him and learn more about his master Ptolemy (pronounced Toll-em-ee), whom Bartimaeus often disguises himself as when he is on Earth (a Djinni has no form at all when it is in the Other Place, which exists as a spirit dimension). Kitty senses, from the conversations/encounters she has with Bartimaeus in The Golem's Eye) that Ptolemy is important to Bartimaeus, and she wonders why he would want to appear in Ptolemy's form so often (Bartimaeus admits it's his preferred form when he's on Earth) when Djinn supposedly hate their magician masters. What she learns from Bartimaeus of Ptolemy is astonishing - and what she does with that knowledge is still more astonishing...

I think that the way Stroud ends Ptolemy's Gate is sufficiently open-ended that he could tell more stories featuring Bartimaeus, but I'm not sure that he will.

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I watched the final three episodes of Buffy's season 6 and the opening four of season 7 today. I find Willow's descent into grief and murderous magic at the end of season 6 fascinating - and her vulnerability at the start of season 7 is touching. I love it when Buffy goes to talk with her when she's trying to heal herself after her encounter with the extra-icky Gnarl, and Buffy shares/gives Willow her strength in healing herself. I love it that Dawn is no longer an annoying kid but actually scary (to Spike, at least !) and effective at research. Buffy's conversations with the different kids in "Help" are really well done - I love the way she simply sits and listens to the silence of the young man whose brother has signed up with the Marines until he's ready to tell her why he's there. Oh and Giles on horseback is SO sexy (and I'm not even that interested in horses !)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Golem's Eye - Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud's The Golem's Eye is the second in the Bartimaeus trilogy. It starts two years after The Amulet of Samarkand, and Nathaniel is now 14 years old and working in Internal Affairs, as assistant to the Head of that department. In this book Stroud splits the narrative point of view between three characters, instead of the previous two (Bartimaeus and Nathaniel), including the girl Kitty, whom both Bartimaeus and Nathaniel had both briefly encountered during the events of The Amulet of Samarkand. Nathaniel's career comes under threat again from two crises, each of which on their own would be dangerous enough. One such crisis is caused by a golem making random attacks on London, and the other crisis is caused be the raids which are being carried out by the Resistance, non-magicians who are opposed to the rule of the magicians. Kitty is a member of this Resistance and takes part in a raid on the tomb of the former Prime Minister and "Founder" of the modern magician-Parliament to retrieve various powerful magical items. Unfortunately the raid does not go according to plan, and Kitty finds herself caught up the chaos caused by the golem. During the course of events she encounters Bartimaeus, the first djinni she has ever met, and their conversation will having lasting ramifications for all three characters in Ptolemy's Gate (towards the conclusion of which I'm eagerly reading !)

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A new Blog aimed at readers of Young Adult books has been launched. I have to declare an interest in The Edge of the Forest as I'm one of the contributors (to the fantasy section) ! But don't let that put you off; I believe the Blog will become a useful resource to anyone who reads or has to recommend YA books in all genres.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Amulet of Samarkand - Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand is the first in the Bartimaeus trilogy. Bartimaeus is a fast-talking Djinni (that's pronounced "Jinnee") who is summoned from the Other Place to do the bidding of a trainee magician called Nathaniel; he sets about his given task reluctantly but with aplomb. Nathaniel is looking for revenge after being humiliated by a far more powerful magician called Simon Lovelace, his lacklustre master having failed to protect him. Nathaniel has spent all his waking hours for several years cramming knowledge of the highest magic into his head, far out-stripping what is expected of him at his age.

He charges Bartimaeus to steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Lovelace's residence, which the Djinni achieves, but not without angering a few old acquaintances from the Other Place, and not without having to spend a very long night disguised as a bird. Bartimaeus, despite being bound to Nathaniel, discovers the boy's birth-name, a fact that he can use to his own advantage, but he is constantly outwitted. Then Nathaniel and Bartimaeus discover a plot to destory the whole British government (and in Stroud's alternative version of the world, magicians govern the country), so they are forced to work together.

Stroud writes is captivatingly, his story is intelligent and gripping - a real page-turner. If you're not fond of "secondary world" fantasies, preferring your fantasy set in an approximation of the real world, then you will enjoy this book. It will also appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - although Stroud's book is a less dense read !

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The end of the book signing tour?

The Independent reports that Margaret Atwood, Canadian author of The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale, has created a machine that will allow her to autograph her books without leaving the comfort of her home, even while she is in another continent. The impending arrival of the LongPen, has prompted fears that it could kill off the traditional book-signing tour. However, the threat has led to a backlash by other authors. Jilly Cooper believes that "if the signing tour were to die off, it would be a tragedy", and D J Taylor called it "an absolutely feeble idea - another example of fatuous modern technology".

Atwood will launch the device, which has only been seen by a select few at secret testings, at the London Book Fair in early March, where publishers and authors from around the world will be given a demonstration. The writer will be in Canada but will create what is being billed as the world's first transatlantic autograph. A video screen will link Atwood with the public, allowing them to speak to her. Then, as she signs a personal message at one end, a robot arm instantly replicates the strokes in a copy of the book at the other. "You don't have to be in the same room as someone to have a meaningful exchange," she said.

Whilst that's undoubtedly true - I've had meaningful exchanges with people on other continents, I rather think she's missed the point ! Certainly all the avid book readers whom I know (myself included), go to book signings to meet the author and for a tiny bit of personal interaction, not to gaze at them on a video screen (after all, we can do that with TV interviews). If Atwood hates book signing tours so much, why doesn't she just refuse to do them - or insist that they are organised so that she doesn't have to get[...] at four in the morning to catch planes, do[...] two cities a day, eat[...] the Pringle food object out of the mini-bar at night as [she] crawled around on the hotel room floor, too tired even to phone room service ?

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I watched I Capture the Castle yesterday, but I didn't post my review last night as I was just too tired after a very busy day. I enjoyed the film but it really wasn't a patch on the book; in fact, I wished I'd watched the film before reading the book, because then I wouldn't have spent half my time wishing they'd included more of the things that were cut, eg. Cassandra's scary experience of being in the London cafe on her own and discovering she's left her purse in Rose's room; the whole discussion with the Vicar about faith; the time that Mortmain spent locked in Belmotte Tower; the trip Cassandra makes to the pub. I didn't really feel that I knew Cassandra that well from watching the film - her character was sketched rather than fleshed out as it is the book. Marc Blucas as Neil seemed a bit superficial, somehow - and isn't Thomas older in the book than the film ? Also, I know it's silly, but I was hugely disappointed that the film didn't start with the same opening line as the book !

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Stones are Hatching - Geraldine McCaughrean

After reading Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness, I wanted to read some more of her books, but I was rather daunted by the length of the list of publications she had in the OPAC, so I asked my Child_Lit colleagues for advice, and The Stones are Hatching had a double recommendation since it is set around the time of the First World War (which is my other area of literary interest). So I requested the book from another library in Oxfordshire and it arrived in time for me to collect it this week and I managed to read it yesterday in spite of watching 6 episodes of Buffy's season 5.

The book reminded me (in positive ways) of both Diana Wynne Jones (the way the folklore is fully integrated into the story) and Alan Garner (the way the landscape is hugely important to the story).

Phelim Green is 11 years old and in the care of his older sister Prudence (who is actually off-stage until the very end of the book); his mother is dead, and his father left them a few years earlier. His sister paints lead soldiers to earn a living and once a month she goes off to the toy company's headquarters to deliver the latest batch. One day, during her trip away, Phelim discovers that the "ghost cat" he thought he'd been feeding with a nightly saucer of milk is actually a Domovoy, a household spirit who protects Phee's cottage. He finds the Domovoy and the Glashans (spirits who protect the fields) in the house, and they want him to protect them and the world at large from the Hatchlings of the Stoor Worm. She is being awakened by the guns of World War One and as a consequence the stones are hatching all sorts of strange and malevolent creatures, such as dracs (large, fearsome, winged sea-serpents), the barguest (a large black dog), nuckelavee (a creature with no skin, so its yellow veins, muscle structure and sinews, can clearly be seen to be covered in a red slimy film), and other gruesome horrors, all of which are bent on destroying humanity. The Domovoy calls Phee "Jack o' the Green" and believes he will be able to save them, using his magical powers. Phee, on the other hand, believes they need his father, and he continues to resist Alexia (his Maiden), Sweeney (his Fool) and the Obby Oss (his Horse) when they tell him that he is the Green Man and only he can save the world. There is a painful undercurrent to Phee's interactions - he keeps recalling his sister's nasty names for him, and these undermine his confidence in himself and the confidence that the others have in his ability to do his task. In spite of his lack of confidence, however, Phee succeeds at his task - although there is a moment when he's carrying it out when he doubts the wisdom of his actions, and whether the Stoor Worm is really at fault. The way Phee has been treated by his sister gives him a remarkable level of sympathy with others. Phee's revenge on his sister and his discovery of his father's whereabouts are joyous closing moments in this beautiful book.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

Wow ! Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is utterly compelling reading. In describing it to my Mum today, I called it Jane Austen for the 20th century: two poor girls, two rich eligible men, one run-down and poorly furnished home... Of course, I'm a Jane Austen fan, so it would have been hard for this book not to suceed with me, but Cassandra, the youngest of the poor girls, is a totally engaging narrator, refreshingly frank and quite funny too. The book starts with a brilliantly compelling opening line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" - how could anyone not continue reading with an opening line like that ?! This book kept me reading until long past my bedtime on two nights this week - always a sure sign of a book that's hard to put down.

I found Mortmain and Topaz intriguing characters, puzzled over just what Leda Fox-Cotton was up to with Stephen, admired Thomas' astuteness, and sighed deeply over the less-than-perfect-happiness of the ending (all Jane's heroines got their man, so I wanted Cassandra to get her man too !).

The library copy of this book had a film tie-in cover - and I was surprised to discover that Marc Blucas (Riley Finn from Buffy's seasons 4 and 5) was in it; since I was intrigued to know how they would reproduce Cassandra's narration, knowing that the first person narration of About a Boy didn't work very well for me in the film compared with the book, I've borrowed the film from the library to watch on Tuesday after I get back from the Bod. (as I'll be watching the final few episodes of Buffy's season 5 tomorrow). So expect a review of the film next week.

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Season 5 of Buffy is my absolute favourite - despite the significant deaths in it. I particularly like Buffy getting the upper hand over the Watchers' Council in "Checkpoint" - especially when she throws the Knight's sword at the council guy when he interrupts her ! The look of utter astonishment on the faces of the Council members is brilliant - and the look of pride on Giles' face is very enjoyable indeed.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Aardman Animation Magic; Terry Pratchett

Aardman Animation studios has released two images from its first full-length computer-generated film, Flushed Away. The film is about an upper-crust rat's adventures in an underground rodent metropolis and is being produced at the Dreamworks studios in California. The animal characters were moulded in Plasticine, then scanned in 3-D and recreated as computerised images. Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis and Sir Ian McKellen amongst others are supplying voices for the movie which will be released in December. An Aardman spokesman said it had no plans to drop the plasticine animation used in the Wallace and Gromit films. However, he said computer animation was "a natural progression for the studio". "Another reason we are making this film in CG is water," he continued. "The sewers of London are full of water, which is almost impossible using traditional 3-D animation."
The pictures from the film are online at the BBC website. This film's on my "to see" film list for this year - it sounds like it'll be the usual Aardman fun...

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Terry Pratchett fans will be interested in the following news:

Wintersmith contracted to appear by March 2006 (don't take any notice of the Amazon.co.uk publication date of October - Terry's last two children's books, published in this series appeared in March). Tiffany Aching is a trainee witch - now working for the seriously scary Miss Treason. But when Tiffany witnesses the Dark Dance - the crossover from summer to winter - she does what none has ever done before and leaps into the dance, into the oldest story there ever is, and draws the attention of the wintersmith himself... As Tiffany-shaped snowflakes hammer down on the land, can Tiffany deal with the consequences of her actions? Even with the help of Granny Weatherwax and the Nac Mac Feegle - the fightin', thievin' pictsies who are prepared to lay down their lives for their 'big wee hag'... (There could be a fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series too - a little more information is available at The L-Space Web.)

2007 Discworld Diary: The Ankh-Morpork Post Office Handbook due out on 17 August 2006. This is the latest in a long line of Diaries relating to Discworld characters/places. it will contain the rules and regulations of the Post Office as well as a history of the service. Co-written by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, and illustrated by Paul Kidby.

The Unseen University Cut Out Book due out on 1 October 2006. This is a cut-out book for adults, which in an extraordinary feat of paper engineering reveals a detailed 3-D model of the Unseen University - the most ancient and complex building on Discworld. Colourful and intricate, this paper sculpture will provide hours of fun for the true "Discworld" fan (or at least those who are not mechanical idiots, like me !)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Moominland Tales

Finn Family Moomintroll

Yesterday I finished reading the three Moominland books which I had borrowed from the library, and great fun they are too ! I didn't remember anything from Comet in Moominland, so it's possible I hadn't read that one before, but I remembered snippets of Finn Family Moomintroll and more of Moominland Midwinter. Comet in Moominland centres around a comet ("the star with a tail" as many of the characters call it) and Moomintroll's trip with his friend Snufkin and Sniff to find out more about it, when it will arrive and whether it will hit the Earth. On the way they meet the Snork and his sister the Snork Maiden, with whom Moomintroll is very taken ! I enjoyed Moomintroll Midwinter the best, because Moomintroll's experience of his first ever winter (Moomins usually hibernate) was fascinating. These books are gentle, light-hearted and good-humoured explorations of the idea of lots of different people (creatures) all being friends, in spite of their differences, which is a message that will never go out of date. I will have to see if the library has any more Moominland tales.

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I've just received my assignments for the Women in Science Fiction and Fantsay Encyclopaedia which I mentioned last month. I've been invited to write on Quest Fantasy (1500 words) and Norse Mythology (500) - payment will be a copy of the two volume Encyclopaedia (not to be sneezed at as American scholarly books are generally expensive !) So that's me busy until the Autumn !

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jan Siegel - Reprise

I first read Jan Siegel's trilogy (Prospero's Children, The Dragon-Charmer and Witch's Honour) in July 2005, when I expressed my disappointment with the way in which Witch's Honour ends and I noted that there were some Tolkienian themes in the books. Since then I've discussed the ending of the third book with others online and re-read the series, and I realised that in fact, Fern's decision to bargain with Azmordis that she will drink from the waters of Lethe, thereby forgetting not only the events of the past 14 years, but also all that she has learnt since she came into her Gift, thereby buying safety from Azmordis for herself, her family and her friends, is the only option open to someone who isn't totally heartless. Like Frodo, she knows she can never be at peace in this world and, since she cares too much about her family and friends to want them to be at further risk from Azmordis' desire for vengeance, forgetfulness is the only option left to her. Fern first tried to deny her Gift (in Prospero's Children) until she was forced to go back in time to Atlantis to stop the mad witch Zohrane. Then she tried to live with her Gift, but Morgus kidnapped her spirit in The Dragon-Charmer and she was forced to live outside Time under the Tree until she could escape to deal with a renegade Dragon-Charmer who was threatening her brother Will and her friend Gaynor. So finally, after facing and killing Morgus (in Witch's Honour), who has wanted revenge for what Fern did to her when she escaped the Tree, she bargains with Azmordis and forgets her Gift.

On re-reading this trilogy I noticed more Tolkienian themes than I did on the first reading; I put this down to the fact that I've been reading a lot Tolkien-related books (again) since September whilst researching and writing my pieces for the Tolkien Encyclopaedia. Besides the Sam-like encounter with the giant spider guardian of Morgus' sapling from the original Tree which I mentioned before, and the whole issue of the drowning of Atlantis (recreated by Tolkien as the Drowning of Numenor); there is the fact that Fern deliberately misquotes Gandalf's remark to Frodo "Many that live deserve death."; there is also Ragginbone's claim that he gave one of his names (Gabbandolfo) to a man he used to meet "in a pub in Oxford, many years ago. He was an academic, a scholar of ancient languages. I remember he wanted to create a mythology for Britain. [...] He struck me as intelligent and imaginative, a Catholic as I once was. [...] I believe he was a genius, in his way." Clearly Ragginbone is referring to Tolkien and saying that Tolkien got Gandalf's name from a corruption of Ragginbone's name; something I find quite bizarre given that anyone who knows anything about Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth, knows that he found Gandalf's name in the Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress) of the Elder/Poetic Edda, where he also found the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit. I find Siegel's claim for her character to be rather odd.

However, I still thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy, in particular the characters of Fern and her friend Gaynor.

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There was an interesting review in the Guardian on Saturday of David Crystal's How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die (Penguin) which Ian Sansom describes as "the perfect one-volume introduction to the study of language." It is a 73 chapter discourse which, Sansom says, explodes in chapter 69 'How not to look after languages', with Crystal "at first merely grumbling about amateurs muscling in on the work of professional linguists - people 'without any training at all'", such as broadcasters, bishops and civil servants. These amateurs, says Crystal "Believing in the inviolability of the small set of rules that they have managed themselves to acquire, [...] condemn others from a different dialect background, or who have not had the same educational opportunities as themselves, for not following those same rules." Sansom notes that Crystal argues that "Language change is inevitable, continuous, universal and multidirectional. Languages do not get better or worse when they change. They just - change." Sansom, however, argues in his turn that "languages do get better or worse", and "that a coarsening of language, for example, can lead to a corrupting of human concepts and feelings, and that the more people alert to these changes, even if they are merely amateurs or people off the radio or the telly, the better." To support his argument Sansom quotes Victor Klemperer, a Jewish Professor of Romance Studies in Dresden who was compulsorily dismissed by the Nazis in 1935.

"What was the most powerful Hitlerian propaganda tool?" asked Klemperer in LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen (The Language of the Third Reich (trans. Martin Brady, 2000). "Was it the individual speeches of Hitler and Goebbels ... their rabble-rousing against the Jews, against Bolshevism? ... Certainly not ... Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously ... Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all."

Anyone who's been bullied verbally will agree with the idea that words can be like small doses of poison; the old saw "Sticks and stones break my bones but words cannot harm me" has always seemed to me to be entirely wrong. I would rather have someone break my bones, which will heal if treated promptly, than drip poison into my mind with their words.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Oxford Literary Festival

Each year, the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival gives readers the chance to enjoy a cultural spring break in one of the most beautiful and historic cities in Britain, but this year, they're going 2up market": the festival will take place at Christ Church College, a spectacular college in the heart of Oxford which was founded by Henry VIII back in 1525, and made famous by Alice in Wonderland, and (to a lesser extent) by the Harry Potter films. This will be the first time a literary festival has ever taken place in an Oxford college.

The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival from March 24th - 29th and whilst the full programme of events, readings, panels, talks, etc., is still being finalized, over 200 speakers will be appearing at the 2006 Festival, including:

Kate Adie; John Berendt; John Carey; Wendy Cope; Candida Crew; Francis Fukuyama; A. C. Grayling; Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time); Adam Hart Davis; Charlie Higson (Young Bond); Bettany Hughes; Clive James; P. D. James; Simon Jenkins; Miles Kington; Doris Lessing; John McGahern; Christopher Meyer; Princess Michael of Kent; Bel Mooney; Michael Morpurgo (former Children's Laureate); Chris Patten; Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials and others); Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines and others); Claudia Roden; Michael Rosen (Michael Rosen's Sad Book; Prunella Scales; Francesca Simon; Colin Thubron; Joanna Trollope; Arnold Wesker; Robert Winston.

The talks that interest me include:

Melvyn Bragg - Twelve Books that Changed the World
March 24; 6 pm; £7.00 - Christ Church
When we consider of great events in the history of the world, we tend to think of wars, revolutions and natural catastrophes. But throughout history there have been moments of vital importance brought about by the written word. Melvyn Bragg presents a vivid reminder of the book as agent of social, political and personal revolution. "Twelve Books that Changed the World" presents a rich variety of human endeavour and a great diversity of characters. Come and listen to Melvyn Bragg discuss his choice — and decide what yours would have been.

Brian Aldiss, John Carey, Maggie Gee and Philip Pullman - Science in Fiction
March 25; 12 pm; £8.00; Newman Rooms
Does the science in fiction have to be accurate? Many fiction authors now research a breadth of topics, from neuroscience to psychiatric disorders, before embarking on a novel. Does this authenticity matter? Have the borders between the scientific and the artistic imagination been breached by scientists? The science writer Brian Aldiss is Britain’s most illustrious SF writer, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is rooted in scientific truth and John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford and editor of The Faber Book of Science, has examined the writings of both fiction authors and scientists. Maggie Gee chairs what is certain to be a fascinating discussion.

Colin Dexter - Inspiring Books
March 25; 6 pm; £7.00; Newman Rooms
In this series of conversations at the Festival, we invite a major writer to talk about the five books that have most influenced them. Colin Dexter is the creator of probably the most famous fictional character to emerge in Oxfordshire in the last century; the stories that he wrote about Inspector Morse spawned one of the most successful television series ever. He presents his choice of "inspiring books" in conversation with an unconmfirmed speaker, with extracts read by an unconfirmed reader.

Colin Duriez - A Field Guide to Narnia
March 26; 10 am; £6.00; Christ Church (Family event)
With the release a new Disney film version of C. S. Lewis' timeless classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Narnia's popularity is again renewed. This new book by Colin Duriez provides a perfect accompaniment to this wonderful world in A Field Guide to Narnia, revealing the influences that shaped Lewis' thinking, the rich web of interconnections within the Chronicles and the real events, places, objects and people that found their way into the books—including his grandfather’s hand-carved oak wardrobe.

Robert Segal - Very Short Introduction Soapbox: Myth
March 28; 4 pm; Free; Festival Bookshop, Christ Church
Join Robert Segal as he briefly explores the past 300 years of theorizing on myth, from all of the major disciplines, including science, religion, philosophy, literature and psychology.

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The second half of Buffy's season 4 holds some real gems: "Hush" (the nearly dialogue-free episode), "Superstar" (featuring Jonathan as the coolest guy on the planet - love the way they edited the opening titles to include him !); "New Moon Rising" (in which Oz returns from his travels apparently in control of his werewolf side). There's also the thought-provoking (at least to me !) second half of the "Faith wakes up from her coma" double episode, in which she uses a magical device to switch her body with Buffy's. What I find thought-provoking is Faith-as-Buffy's decision to miss her flight out of Sunnydale for the sake of going to the church where three vamps are holding several parishoners hostage at the start of Sunday service. There's no doubt that her action is something that Buffy would have done without hesitation, but why would Faith do it ? After all, she's the rogue Slayer, the one who joined the Big Bad's team in season 3 after accidentally killing the Mayor's deputy, Alan Finch, in "Bad Girls". Faith is the Slayer who said, "Nobody's gonna cry over some random bystander who got caught in the crossfire." - which says a good deal about Faith, while Buffy's response, "I am", says a good deal about Buffy. Faith's decision to go to the church makes me wonder if being in Buffy's body is starting to affect her and make her think like Buffy. Whether, by pretending so hard to be Buffy, she starts to find herself adopting Buffy's values, attitudes and perspective. Her reaction to Forrest's sarcastic comment: "Yeah, you're a killer." "I'm a Slayer, not a killer!" also interests me, since Faith actually is a killer, and whilst Buffy thought she'd killed a man in "Ted", it turned out that he was a serial-killer robot.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tove Jansson's Moomintrolls

Once I've finished re-reading Jan Siegel's "Prospero's Children" trilogy, I'm going to hark back to my childhood and read Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland and Moominland Winter. Philip Pullman and the Guardian are responsible in almost equal measure for this reversion to my childhood: Pullman for mentioning Finn Family Moomintroll in his "what children should read" list as I reported last month, and the Guardian for their world literature tour about which I was reading this week. Of course, I'm not ungrateful for the reminder about these books - in fact, it's so long since I read them that I can barely recall doing so, which means I'm looking forward to re-reading them with quiet anticipation. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading my childhood favourites, The Phantom Tollbooth and A Dog So Small last year.

Talking of children's book, I had to pick up Geraldine McCaughrean's A Pack of Lies from the library today (after requesting, and being happily inundated with, further reading suggestions for this author's books from Child_Lit subscribers). As usual, I temporarily forgot this was going to be over in the children's section of the library, not the adult section, so I asked the librarian for the book that was waiting for me behind the counter and of course, she couldn't find it. I apologised, saying that I never distinguish between children's and adults' books since a good story is a good story whomever it's aimed at, and got a rather sour look in response, so I beat a hasty retreat. Am I wrong to think that the target audience for a book shouldn't prejudice one against it ? I can't imagine many of my readers will agree with that statement !

Friday, February 10, 2006

UK Library users turn to crime

The latest Public Lending Right statistics are in and it appears that Britain has abandoned its love of romance for crime.

The forensic novels of American writers such as James Pattersson and Patricia Cornwell have gained popularity in British libraries, compared with previous years when romantic fiction dominated the charts. More than half of the most popular titles borrowed in the year to June 2005 were crime tales or thrillers.

The most borrowed adult fiction book last year was Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell, the 12th in the series featuring Kay Scarpetta, who is now a private forensic consultant.

The list of the top 10 most borrowed authors still has its love interests, with titles from the likes of Josephine Cox and Joanna Trollope, but figures indicate a major shift towards crime and thrillers compared with five or 10 years ago, when Catherine Cookson ruled supreme.

The current Children's Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, remains the most borrowed author in UK libraries for the third year running. She was the only British writer to have more than two million loans. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J K Rowling was the most borrowed children's fiction title - which I find surprising given how many copies have been sold since it came out !

The Public Lending Right, which was established in 1979, pays authors when their books are borrowed from libraries. This year authors are receiving a record payment of 5.57p per loan. (I like that "record" - as if it was £5000 not a mere £5 !!)

* * * * * *

Funny Books

Because my parents had denied
me comic books as sordid and
salacious, I would sneak a look
at those of friends, the bold and bright
slick covers, pages rough as news
and inked in pinks and greens and blues
as cowboys shouted in balloons
and Indian yells were printed on
the clouds. I borrowed books and hid
them in the crib and under shoes
and under bed. The glories of
those hyperbolic zaps and screams
were my illuminated texts,
the chapbook prophets of forbidden
and secret art, the narratives
of quest and conquest in the West,
of Superman and Lash Larue.
The print and pictures cruder than
the catalog were sweeter than
the cake at Bible School. I crouched
in almost dark and swilled the words
that soared in their balloons and bulbs
of grainy breath into my pulse,
into the stratosphere of my
imagination, reaching Mach
and orbit speed, escape velocity
just at the edge of Sputnik's age,
in stained glass windows of the page.

Robert Morgan from The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press.

This poem was in my "Writer's Almanac" email today and I thought I would share it because it speaks of a child's visceral enjoyment of reading, a sensation that I remember well from my own childhood, and still often feel as an adult when my "inner six year old" gets hold of a gripping book and reads it fast, wanting to know "what happens next". For me this feeling is strongest with the Harry Potter books - hence I read The Half Blood Prince in 6 hours flat, but other books and authors bring it out too.

* * * * * *
Another Book Meme (what can I say, I can't resist them !) My friends Kelly at Big A, little a and Susan at Chicken Spaghetti have already done this.

What are your three favourite children's series?

1 - Harry Potter - J K Rowling
2 - His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
3 - The Old Kingdom (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen) - Garth Nix
Bonus: The Keys to the Kingdom - Garth Nix

What are your three favourite non-series children's books?

1 - The White Darkness - Geraldine MacCaughrean
2 - Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate Di Camillo
3 - The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
Bonus: Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

Who are your three favourite children's book characters?

1 - Bilbo & Frodo Baggins (I know, The Lord of the Rings isn't a children's book, strictly speaking - so sue me ! :-D)
2 - Lirael
3 - Matilda

Susan then added the following bonus rounds:

Bonus Round 1:

Q. Who wrote your least favourite childhood books?
A. I don't think I can answer that ! I don't recall disliking any books that much when I was a child !

Bonus Round 2:

Q. What was the saddest moment in your childhood reading?
A. This required some thought, but I'm going to have to go with two moments - in the same book: when Ben discovers his grandparents have sent him a picture of a dog instead of the longed-for puppy for his birthday, and when he loses his imaginary dog Chiquitito - A Dog so Small - Philippa Pearce

Bonus Round 3:

Q. Which children's book scared the bejeezus out of you?
A. The Owl Service - Alan Garner

(Confession: I amended the last one, as Susan had "adult book", but no adult book has ever scared me as much as The Owl Service scared me when I was a child !)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Pratchett on film, Tolkien books

Terry Pratchett's novel Hogfather is being made into a 2-part, 4-hour film which will be shown on Sky One, the British cable channel at Christmas. This will be the first time that any of Pratchett's hugely successful Discworld books (which have sold more than 45 million copies and made the author a triple millionaire (at the last count), have been brought to life on the screen by real actors. David Jason will lead the cast as Albert, Death's assistant, a grumpy 65-year-old wizard.

When he was asked why it had taken so long for one of his novels to be filmed, Pratchett admitted:

"I'm not a very easy person to negotiate with. The books make me a lot of money and I have very much enjoyed writing them. You have to give up a lot of control for the movies and I can't quite bring myself to do it. TV is more fun than movies, because you can get involved more, because these people are close at hand."

Ian Richardson, who starred in the Andrew Davies TV adaptation of Michael Dobbs's book House of Cards, will provide the voice of Death, a regular character in Pratchett's books, although an unnamed 6ft 7in Dutchman will play Death in person.

Pratchett has been closely involved with the feature, which is being shot in Romania because of the need for vast studio space and ready access to mountain scenery. Johnny and the Bomb, a non-Discworld children's novel by Pratchett, has just been shown on BBC1; it starred Zoe Wanamaker. It followed an earlier live action adaption of Johnny and the Dead, the prequel to Johnny and the Bomb and second in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy. Previously animated versions of the Discworld novels Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters were made for Channel 4.

* * * * * *

The following fairly new books have caught my eye:

Reading "The Lord of the Rings": New Writings on Tolkien's Trilogy
edited by Robert Eaglestone (Continuum, 2005) is a serious, scholarly book which includes an introduction by Michael D C Drout (editor of the forthcoming The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment to which I have contributed); an essay called "Modernity" by Michael Moses; an essay called "Anglo-Saxon Women, Tolkien's Women" by Jennifer Neville and an essay called "After Tolkien" by Roz Kaveney (who is best known for her work on Buffy and Angel).

The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Both the authors teach at Oxford University; Stuart also instigated the Virtual Seminars on World War One Poetry and its discussion forum, whilst Elizabeth works in the Department of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library. The book takes incidents from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and matches them to incidents in Medieval Literature.

Finally, The Return of the Hero: Rowling, Tolkien and Pullman by Christopher Wrigley (Book Guild Ltd, 2005). This books has one chapter on each of the three authors. I've just added all three books to my library list (none are in stock so I shall have to request that they be ordered before i can read them.)

* * * * * *
Just spotted this on Bookmoot: The Potter Index references every single word or phrase in the Harry Potter books by book and page number, although it only refers to the US editions at present. Apparently it will also reference the UK editions by the summer.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Film and Theatre News

Anthony Hopkins told SCI FI Wire that he has recently completed work on Robert Zemeckis' upcoming computer-animated version of Beowulf, based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, and added that he found the entire process fascinating. "I play Hrothgar, king of the Danes," Hopkins said in an interview while promoting his latest film, The World's Fastest Indian. "Beowulf comes to slay the evil monster, and... I can't even remember now! See, that's how... I learn all my lines, and I forget them as soon as it's over."

In the movie, Ray Winstone plays the title character, a warrior who must face down the troll Grendel (Crispin Glover) in order to save the Danish people. Zemeckis is making Beowulf - which also stars Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn and Brendan Gleeson (recently seen playing Mad Eye Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) — with the same motion-capture animation technique he pioneered in The Polar Express.

Hopkins said that he found the process of acting in such a film fascinating if, at the end of the day, perhaps a bit unnecessary. "It was pretty strange, but it's fun," he said. "It's odd, but I enjoyed it. People say you have a lot of freedom. Well, you don't, actually. You don't wear any clothes. You wear sort of a wetsuit. You're covered in dots and all these little markers all over you. Before each scene you have to say, 'T-pose,' and you stand like [a letter T]. They photograph you for the computer, and you're taken into the computer."

Hopkins added: "You've got dots all over your eyes, [too], so they can now actually make the eye movements real. [They're] these little pearls. You know the reflectives on road signs? They're made of the same material, these little pearls, these ball bearings, whatever they are, and they're coated in this reflective thing. And, of course, they come off every so often, so you have to have a checkup. They put an infrared on you, and they say, 'A-94 is missing,' so they stick it [back] on your head. You've got about 80 or maybe 90 of these things all over your face. You have to take them off at night, and they're all sticky. Big deal. But, no, it's interesting. I don't know why they bother to do it that way. Why not just do a blue screen and photograph the actors? But this is almost photorealism. It was interesting, and I like Zemeckis very much."

Beowulf will be released on November 21, 2007. The film is not to be confused with Beowulf & Grendel, the as-yet-unreleased live-action epic starring Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler as Beowulf.

* * * * * *

CBS has struck a deal with Aardman Animations for a half-hour TV series based on the Oscar-winning short Creature Comforts, Variety has reported.

Aardman, the studio behind "Wallace & Gromit", will use its stop-motion animation style for the show, which will be produced in both the United Kingdom and Los Angeles. King of the Hill writer Kit Boss is aboard as executive producer and show runner.

The network has ordered seven episodes of Creature Comforts. Given the painstaking process of filming the show's clay-based characters, they will take a year to produce. The project is targeted for January or midseason 2007.

A British version of Creature Comforts is already a success for ITV and ran last year on BBC America. Aardman and CBS are planning a new take for the United States. But the basic format will remain the same: Audio excerpts from real-people interviews are used as the voices for a slew of animated animals, who will comment on various aspects of everyday life.

* * * * * *

The curtain rose February 4 on the multimillion-dollar stage musical version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in Toronto, the Reuters news service reported.

The production will align theater and a range of musical traditions, including work by Finnish group Varttina and Indian composer A. R. Rahman, to deliver a retelling of Tolkien's fantasy classic, producer Kevin Wallace told Reuters.

Previews begin on Saturday at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theater, ahead of a March 23 world premiere. The show boasts a 55-strong cast and three acts and will run more than three hours.

It is hoped the show will go to London next and then, if the musical proves to be a hit, to Broadway.

* * * * * *

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the stop-motion-animated film that was just nominated for an Oscar, will hit DVD and VHS on February 7 in the US and February 20 in the UK, DreamWorks Home Entertainment announced. The DVD will feature the hit movie starring the cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his ever-faithful dog, Gromit.

The DVD comes with commentary by the film's two directors, Oscar-winning "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park and Steve Box. The US edition of the DVD also includes the U. S. debut of Box's award-winning short film Stage Fright.

Other special features include behind-the-scenes footage of the stop-motion animation process, a tour of Aardman Studios and a never-before-seen sneak peek at DreamWorks Animation and Aardman's upcoming theatrical release, Flushed Away (and boy is there a great voice cast on this movie !), which hits cinemas on November 3. The UK edition of Curse of the Were-Rabbit's special features include: "A First Hand Look At The Coolest Techniques In Filmdom Including How To Build A Bunny" and smashing games including "Anti Pesto SWAT Team", "Victor Quartermaine's Guide To Cool", and "Style With Lady Tottington" ! (This is on my Amazon wishlist !)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Book Covers

I'm sure everyone knows the old adage not to judge a book by its cover, but how much does the cover art on a book influence your decision to read (or buy) it ? I ask because I recently had the fortune to have two Amazon gift certificates to spend, one for the US site and one for the UK. Initially I was only planning to spend the US one on books, so I shot over to the site and added American Gods to the shopping basket and then I was going to add Fire and Hemlock, but a second look at the cover picture put me off it. It just didn't appeal to me - and bear in mind, I'm not a very visual person, so I chose to buy the UK edition instead since its cover seemed more appropriately surreal than the US edition's cover; the latter looks too mundane somehow, given the supernatural nature of the story. Of course, the cover of the US edition would not have put me off borrowing the book to read, I just didn't want to own it. I confess that when I'm browsing the library's shelves, I usually randomly pick up books based on their titles rather than their covers since the majority of them are shelved spine out - but I do look at the cover before I read the publisher's blurb. Does cover art ever influence your decision to read or buy a book ?

* * * * * *

Talking of Diana Wynne Jones, I learnt today, via Dave (Hugo) Langford's Ansible that Jones "is overcome. 'The University of Bristol have suddenly upped and said they'll give me an honorary D.Litt. this summer! Could have knocked me down with the proverbial. This sort of thing has to go through Solemn Committees full of serious men who do not know fantasy exists, so how this happened I am at a loss to know. / Oh, and did you hear that Howl's Moving Castle is nominated for an Oscar? On the strength of it, the Japanese have sent me Sophie's walking stick and a purple plush bag to keep it in -- plus two stone of jigsaw puzzles and a tiny tiny ring.'" (The other Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature Film are Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula Le Guin

I found Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven fascinating. The story is set in the future for Le Guin at the time of writing (which is now our past/present) - although I twice checked the publication date of the book because in places it seemed spookily accurate (especially with regard to environmental pollution and the potential for an epidemic of some virulent disease !) The premise of the book is straight forward enough: George Orr is Mr Average in everything except for his dreams, and in that aspect of his life he's Mr Extraordinary. George has the facility for "effective dreams", which means that sometimes his dreams reshape reality. The first time that he becomes aware of his "talent" is when his aunt, who had been living with his family, suddenly isn't there any longer and never has been. He panics and tries to drug himself up so that he can no longer dream effectively. As a consequence of his drug abuse he's sent to see Dr Haber, a sleep specialist. Haber has an Augmentor, a specially designed machine with which he can monitor and record brainwaves during sleep. Once Haber discovers the potential power of George's dreams, he starts to use hypnotic suggestion to try to control what George dreams (although the dreams never turn out exactly as Haber intends), so that he can start changing the world. At first Haber just uses George's dreams to change life for himself (giving himself a nicer office - with a window, making himself head of a specialist institute, etc.), but then he gets carried away and starts using George's dreams to change the entire world. However, since Haber cannot precisely control George's dreams, some of his hypnotic suggestions have very drastic consequences, and George becomes increasingly worried with the way in which Haber is manipulating both reality and George himself. The book has a rather open-ended conclusion, although Haber does get his comeuppance ! This is definitely one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books by Le Guin that I've ever read (Changing Planes was the other one).

* * * * * *

Does anyone have access to the journal, The Velvet Light Trap ? I cannot get access to it, even via the Bodleian Library, and I'm after an article from the Fall 2003 issue (pages 45 - 63). It's called "Fantasy, Franchise and Frodo Baggins: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood", written by Kristin Thompson. I'm keen to read it as background to my latest writing project (the paper on wizards in the books of Juliet E McKenna and Lynn Flewelling), so if anyone can access the article and send me either an electronic or a paper copy, I'd be very grateful. (I'd be happy to pay for the cost of copying and mailing a paper copy if an electronic copy isn't possible.) Thanks in hope !

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Serenity - Keith R A DeCandido

The only other book by Keith R A DeCandido (KRAD to just about everyone) that I've read before now is his only (so far) original novel Dragon Precinct, which is a combination of high fantasy and police procedural. Serenity is his umpteenth novelisation/novel tie-in (KRAD has done novels in the Buffyverse and Star Trek universe amongst others). Strictly speaking Serenity isn't just a novelisation of the film follow up to Joss Whedon's ill-fated Firefly TV show. KRAD also fills in various bits of backstory from the TV show, and he manages to refer to almost every single one of the fifteen episodes that were filmed. This makes the novelisation more detailed than the film, if a little disconcerting on occasion. Still, I enjoyed the book - although I'd rather watch the movie again (fortunately it's out in the UK at the end of this month (and with more extras than the US edition - which makes a change !)

* * * * * *
I watched one of my favourite Season 3 episodes of Buffy today: "The Zeppo" - and discovered, to my slight dismay, that I can quote huge chunks of the dialogue ahead of the characters ! Yikes ! I also watched "Bad Girls" which contains one of my favourite scenes: Buffy enters the library to see Giles sitting on the table and a strange bespectacled man behind him.

Buffy: New Watcher ?
Giles: New Watcher.
Buffy: Is he evil ?

Classic !!

Friday, February 03, 2006

What Children Should Read - Reprise

I make no apology for coming back to this topic again as someone kindly got permission from the RSL to reproduce the article on the "children's canon" and sent it to the Child_Lit discussion list, so I am sharing it here. What particularly interested me were Ben Okri's 10 1/2 Inclinations for Reading (I especially like Inclinations 6 and 9):

1 - There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
2 - Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.
3 - Read the books your parents hate.
4 - Read the books your parents love.
5 - Have one or two authors who are important, who speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
6 - Read widely, for fun, stimulation, escape.
7 - Don't read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
8 - Read what you're not supposed to read.
9 - Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
10 - Books are like mirrors. Don't just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That's where the gods dream, where our realities are born.
10 1/2 - Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

© Ben Okri 2006. All rights reserved.

From The Royal Society of Literature Review: A Shot at a Children's Canon

What should young people in twenty-first century Britain be encouraged to read? Anthony Gardner asks a clutch of Fellows to nominate their top ten books for schoolchildren.

The question of what a child should have read before leaving school has as many answers as Watership Down has rabbit holes. For some people, indeed, it is unanswerable: when asked to nominate ten works of literature for this article, Wendy Cope replied simply, 'There are children who love reading and there are people who go right through life without ever finishing a book. I can't make a list that would be right for all of them. It depends on the individual.'

Nick Hornby was similarly pragmatic. 'I used to teach in a comprehensive school,' he wrote, 'and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. This makes the kind of list you propose impossible, because if I choose ten books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn't actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.'

Even among those who were prepared to have a stab, there was a general reluctance to be bound by the rules. 'But this is difficult,' complained Philip Pullman.'The myths and legends and fairy tales would be far better TOLD to the children by a teacher who knew them well, than read in a  book.  And there's no room for Oliver Twist, or Animal Farm, or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or... Difficult, did I say? Impossible! I can think of a hundred stories and poems and plays - a thousand - how can I possibly select? Why, I haven't mentioned this - or that - and how could I have  left out so-and-so? The first three titles [Finn Family Moomintroll, Emile and the Detectives, The Magic Pudding] are personal favourites of mine, so I suppose - reluctantly - that some other books might replace them; but... Impossible!'

Victoria Glendinning thought it better to recommend writers rather than specific books, offering only Alice in Wonderland and Catcher in the Rye as essential titles.

Anne Fine wondered whether she was allowed to choose her own books A Shame to Miss, 1, 2 & 3 - 'Poetry collections for, respectively, younger, middle and older children, compiled by me. It seems strange and immodest, but this "should have read before they leave school" criterion is exactly why I put the three age-based collections together in the first place.'

Ben Okri took a different tack altogether, preferring to offer '10 1/2 Inclinations'. For those exercised about whether children should be pointed in the direction of characters whose backgrounds are similar to their own, or encouraged to let their imaginations roam freely, there is an unequivocal answer in his second inclination: 'Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.'

Maggie Gee chose books 'that I think would both show teenagers how wonderful writing can be and also make them think more deeply about the world they live in. I have, to a certain extent, chosen these books for subject-matter rather than just for literary duality... I chose Cat's Eye, for example, because I think it is one of the best fictional treatments of bullying, which may be a particular concern with teenagers.' But, she concluded, 'Let's be frank and say that if only all school-leavers had read ten books, more or less any ten books, from start to finish, and thought about them, we would be ahead.'

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairy tales

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stiff Upper Lip (or any other Jeeves book) by P. G. Wodehouse
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier
The Lord of the Rings by J. R .R. Tolkien
The Hound of the Baskervilles (or another Sherlock Holmes story) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
A Shame to Miss, 1, 2 & 3

The Odyssey by Homer
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Lyrical Ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley
High Windows by Philip Larkin
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Some poems by W. B. Yeats , T. S. Eliot and Philip Larkin
A novel by Ernest Hemingway
A novel by Graham Greene
A novel by J. G. Ballard
A novel by Evelyn Waugh
A novel by Martin Amis
A novel by Margaret Atwood

© The Royal Society of Literature 2006.

I like Victoria Glendinning's idea of recommending a writer rather than a specific book.

* * * * * *

I'm currently reading Serenity, Keith R A DeCandido's novelisation of the film (not quite as good as watching the film, but better than nothing !) and The Science of Middle-earth by Henry McGee, whom I heard speak on the subject at last year's Oxford Festival of Literature, thankfully he's a better writer than he is speaker ! Look out for reviews of them both soon. (Today is a day of minor importance - my Blog is now 6 months old; my thanks to everyone who's been reading it during the last 6 months.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Children and Books

The BBC news website reports that the Queen is having an 80th birthday party for children this summer and it is to be on the theme of children's literature. Someone on one of the email discussion lists to which I subscribe wondered who we would invite along to represent children's literature (aside from those who will already be going such as J K Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe), so I suggested the following people:

Cornelia Funke for The Thief Lord and Dragon Rider; Kate Di Camillo for Because of Winn-Dixie; Diana Wynne Jones for everything, especially Fire and Hemlock; Alan Garner for everything; Neil Gaiman for Coraline and Good Omens; Terry Pratchett for Good Omens, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky and Johnny and the Bomb; Nancy Farmer for The Sea of Trolls; Ursula Le Guin for A Wizard of Earthsea; Anthony Horowitz for 'Alex Rider'; Johnny Depp as J M Barrie (Finding Neverland); Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the Hobbits and Ian McKellan as Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings); Pam Ferris as Mrs Trunchball (Matilda); Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai (Whale Rider) and finally Joss Whedon for creating 'Buffy' and Anthony Stewart Head as Giles (as we've got to have at least one librarian there !)

* * * * * *

Much discussion has ensued in various places regarding those RSL lists created by Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, J K Rowling, et. al. This led me to compile my own lists; my list for older readers would include:

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Richard II - Shakespeare
The Sea of Trolls - Nancy Farmer
The Lord of the Rings - J R R Tolkien
The White Darkness - Geraldine McCaughrean
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J K Rowling
Johnny and the Bomb - Terry Pratchett
A selection of poems from World War One

I know the Pratchett is aimed more at younger readers, but I think it's a very important and interesting book, and would go well with the poetry of the First World War.

For younger readers I would recommend:

A Dog So Small - Philippa Pearce
The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster
The Hobbit - J R R Tolkien
Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate Di Camillo
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
A Hat Full of Sky - Terry Pratchett
Eight Days of Luke/Dogsbody - Diana Wynne Jones
Dragon Rider - Cornelia Funke
The Scarecrow and His Servant - Philip Pullman
Roald Dahl: Songs and Verse - ed. Quentin Blake

I thought both lists should have some poetry in them to encourage children to enjoy it early and hopefully to get them interested in language. Both lists have only a few "classic" stories in them, and that's a deliberate choice on my part - I selected books that I thought would lead the readers into other areas of interest (Norse Myth, Geography and History to name but three). I also selected books which I thought children would enjoy reading - I realise this might be a radical notion to some of our government advisors (and probably to Andrew Motion as well !), but the whole point of my lists is that the books should encourage children to find pleasure in reading so that they'll go on reading after they leave school. My lists are about making lifelong readers. I know full well there are some children in this world who won't become lifelong readers, because there are some adults who do not read much. However, if children are not encouraged to become lifelong readers, if they are in fact discouraged from reading by the soulless reading exercises that are demanded of them by teachers in literacy sessions, then they don't have a chance of learning to love books.

Oh and I suggested Eight Days of Luke as well as Dogsbody in case any boys refuse to read about a girl, or vice versa !

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Alex Rider - reprise

I bought second hand copies of Eagle Strike and Scorpia at the beginning of January, and then I managed to pick up a copy of Ark Angel in the library last week, so I had a bit of an Alex Rider reading spree from Sunday evening to yesterday evening, racing through the three books in 48 hours (I devoured Scorpia the fastest because I was so desperate to discover more about Alex's father !) I call the Alex Rider books "popcorn books" because one just isn't enough, and although they're a fun read, they're really not very filling. Don't get me wrong - everyone needs a little light reading now and again, and these books are serious page-turners: I was very glad I had Ark Angel on hand to start as soon as I finished Scorpia, because the latter ends on a cliff-hanger of breath-taking proportions ! I really pity anyone who's been reading each book as it was published and therefore had to wait a whole year to find a resolution to Scorpia's final pages ! I would have been chewing my nails and tearing out my hair in that situation !

If you want fast-paced action, snappy dialogue, danger and excitement then read Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider novels. And Bond had better watch out, because I think Alex Rider is going to give him a run for his money !

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If anyone was kind enough to buy books from Amazon via my Blog, my thanks - I got a gift certificate in payment for sales last week and splashed out on Fire and Hemlock, The Sea of Trolls and the new The Lord of the Rings Reader's Guide (all of which have appeared on my Blog if you follow the links above). I look forward to reading/re-reading them !