Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Charlotte's Web publication anniversary

It was on this date in 1952 that E B White's novel, Charlotte's Web was published. When it was published, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty said:

The book has liveliness and felicity, tenderness and unexpectedness, grace and humour and praise of life, and the good backbone of succinctness that only the most highly imaginative stories seem to grow... What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.

The novel tells the story of a spring pig, Wilbur, who has a sweet nature and trusting manner, and his friendship with Charlotte A. Cavitica, a large gray spider who likes to drink blood. The story opens with one of the most famous opening lines in children's liteature: "'Where's Papa going with that axe?'" A line that grabs the reader's attention (as of course is intended) and refuses to let go until the end of the tale is reached. I read this book only a few years ago, as part of the background reading I did for my first ever Harry Potter paper; I had more or less stopped reading children's books by the time I was in my early teens, largely because books for Young Adults didn't really exist, so I moved onto books for adults. When I read Charlotte's Web, I was charmed, moved and delighted by its tale of friendship and intelligence.

There's also a Charlotte's Web film which was made in the 1970s available, but I've not seen it, and a newer version has been made which includes the following stunning cast:

Dakota Fanning - Fern
Julia Roberts - Charlotte (voice)
Oprah Winfrey - Gussy (voice)
Steve Buscemi - Templeton (voice)
Kathy Bates - Bitsy (voice)
John Cleese - Samuel (voice)
Thomas Haden Church - Brooks (voice)
Robert Redford - Ike (voice)
Jennifer Garner - Susy (voice)

I rather think I'll be watching this one, either at the cinema or on DVD in due course !

* * * * * *

I'm off to Gloucestershire for a long weekend with my parents and brother tomorrow, leaving straight after work, so don't expect to hear from me tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar - Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl's collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more contains six short stories and the eponymous novella, which is a story within a story within a story. Henry Sugar is a vain and very wealthy man who finds a small exercise book in which a Dr Cartwright records the life story of an Indian man who practices yoga and learns to see without his eyes. Sugar decides to master this skill himself in order to learn how to "see through" playing cards so that he can cheat at card games in casinos. The novella is an interesting story of how greed can sometimes lead to charity, and Dahl keeps his readers guessing about where his story is going to lead us, and being the master of the unexpected he takes us somewhere quite different to where we thought we would go.

The other six stories in this collection share a similar theme of people who possess extraordinary powers, particularly "The Hitchhiker", "The Boy Who Talked With Animals" and "The Swan."

The first story in the collection is "The Boy Who Talked With Animals" which tells the tale of a young boy who saves an old turtle from being killed, apparently by talking to it. For me this is the most moving story in the collection.

In "The Hitchhiker" a writer gives a strange man a lift to the races. This hitchhiker possesses an incredible skill of picking pockets and puts it to use very effectively !

"The Swan" is a story about a boy who suffers at the hands of two quite appalling teenage bullies and how he manages to escape from them before being badly injured. This is quite a surreal story of "mind over matter" and is rather gruesome, something Dahl does quite well.

"The Mildenhall Treasure" is apparently a true story which deals with the idea of luck rather than strange powers, and is an intriguing study of jealousy, betrayal, and the laws of possession.

"Lucky Break" is an autobiographical tale and any reader who has read Dahl's autobiography Boy, will notice the similarities between this piece and his reminiscences of his time at Repton.

The final piece is "A Piece Of Cake", a war story with many layers, which tells the tale of a pilot who is shot down and his unconscious thoughts.

The collection is intriguing and interesting, featuring more realism, albeit of a largely supernatural nature, than pure fiction.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Robert Frost's Birthday

It would have been Robert Frost's birthday today, and since I mentioned him with reference to Edward Thomas, I thought I'd share some of Frost's poems. The first is about Thomas:

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

The second I read during a class on poetry for my English degree:

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

I'm always amused that Frost thought of Elves being responsible for the mysterious gaps in the wall. The final poem is one of Frost's most famous, the first one I ever read by Frost and a personal favourite:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I have often felt that I was taking the road "less travelled by" in my own life, so this poem has always had a personal significance for me. You can find more of Frost's poems and a biography online.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Love Libraries Campaign

I was going to report on the Government's new Love Libraries campaign when it started two days ago, but I've been engaged in a reading/proof-reading project since Wednesday and it had slipped my mind (in spite of the radio ads I've been hearing since Thursday), until I saw Kelly's post (thanks for the reminder !) on Philip Pullman's article for the Times on why he loves libraries.

Pullman writes

[...] I live in Oxford, where there are some of the greatest libraries in the world [...]. But it isn’t only the Bodleian, or the Science Library, or the Law Library, these great university institutions, that I cherish. Only a week ago I spent some time in the Oxford public library’s local history department, looking through old maps of the city for a scene in a novel I’m writing now. Everything I needed was there, and the staff were helpful and knowledgeable, and I came away, as I always do, grateful for the wise provision of an earlier generation, for a time in our history when civic leaders thought that education and knowledge were not a luxury for the idle rich, but a vital necessity if every citizen was going to live a full and decent life.

Like Philip I use the local public library in Oxford on a regular basis. I actually prefer it to the Bodleian (much as I love the Bod.), because the chairs aren't so uncomfortable and the desks are less pristine and daunting than in the Bod., so I only go to the Bodleian when I can't get a book via the public library. Many of the librarians in the public library know me by sight or voice (as I discovered recently when I rang and asked for a couple of books to be put aside for me to collect the following day and I asked the librarian "Don't you want my name?" and she replied, "It's Michele, isn't it?"), if not by name. They will go out of their way to tell me that a book in which I'm interested is on its way or unavailable, or that a book I requested is ready to collect. If I enquire about the possibility of them getting a copy of a new book, I'll often find it's been added to my reservations list, so I know my request was heeded. Only one or two of the librarians do not appear very friendly, and nearly all of them will chat to me about whatever I'm taking out on this visit (and I take books out twice a week, since I can't afford to buy books (even used ones) very often). Several have taken an interest in my writing projects when I've mentioned why I'm hording titles on certain subjects or specifying a date by which I need a particular book.

A few days ago I asked users in an online discussion forum what they couldn't live without - and the library was the first of the three things I listed - so thank you, David Lammy, but I don't need your prompting to Love Libraries... Mine is an essential part of my life !

Friday, March 24, 2006

Adlestrop - Edward Thomas

Borrowing the idea of Kelly at Big A, little a of a poetry Friday (which will not necessarily become a regular occurence here, although I've shared poems here before), I want to share one of my favourite of Edward Thomas' poems with you.


Yes, I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop-only the name.

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still or lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him , mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I remember looking for Adlestrop on a large map of Oxfordshire (which also showed the Gloucestershire border) in the early hours of the morning back in 1989 or 1990. I was doing my computing degree here in Oxford and my landlady had been taken ill in the middle of the night; there was an ambulance strike on, so we were rushed to the local hospital in a large police van (rather surreal). Whilst I waited for some news of Miss Clarke, I wandered randomly up and down the corridor (not having had time to pick up a book before rushing out of the house). I spotted the map of Oxfordshire and was reminded of Thomas' poem, so I spent a heedless ten minutes or so searching up and down the border between Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire until I found Adlestrop. Then I recited the poem to myself under my breath...

Thomas was a friend of Robert Frost and was encouraged by Frost to move to America with him; the pair were living in Dymock, a small Gloucestershire village made famous by the group known as the Dymock Poets, who lived there... In December 1914, encouraged by Frost, Thomas began writing poetry; the following June he enlisted in the army, after turning down Frost's invitation to move to America. On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras opened with a huge artillery bombardment. At 7.30 am, Edward Thomas, who was standing at the Beaurains Observation Post, was killed by the blast of a shell which exploded nearby. His body was found to be unmarked when it was recovered.

Thomas' poetry was the first by a poet of the First World War that I ever read. Having lived most of my life in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire, and loving Oxfordshire as well, Adlestrop is particularly special for me.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Boy Who Lost His Face - Louis Sachar

I happened to spot Louis Sachar's The Boy Who Lost His Face on the shelves of the children's library as I was looking for Jonathan Stroud's The Last Siege (which I did find).

The Boy Who Lost His Face is a supernatural tale, rather than the more straight forward realism of Holes. David Ballinger is just trying to be cool when he helps some other boys to steal an old lady's cane. But when the plan backfires, he is the one whom she curses and now David can't seem to do anything right. The cool kids taunt him and his only friends are the weirdest kids in the school: Larry, who always wears sunglassses, and Maureen (Mo), of whom even the boys are afraid. He even walks into his Spanish class one day with his fly unzipped, and when he finally gets up the nerve to ask out a cute girl that he fancies, his trousers fall down ! But is this the curse at work or is David simply turning into a total loser ? Larry, one of his friends, suggests that every time David fails to stand up to the boys who stole the old lady's cane, he loses face. But how can David regain face, when even his little brother hates him now ?

I liked this book - there was just enough of the supernatural element in it to keep me guessing and wondering whether David really is cursed or merely unlucky, without me feeling too unnerved to finish it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Philosophical Question

What do you do when you discover that the belief system you've had all your life no longer has meaning for you ? Juliet E McKenna's Aldabreshin Compass series poses this very interesting question. McKenna's protagonist, Kheda, as the Warlord of an Aldabreshin domain, is expected to read the portents relating to the various events and endeavours of the domain, but he no longer believes in the truth of the portents he reads. In part, this is the result of the magic he's been subborning since the events in the latter half of Southern Fire. When mages and savage warriors invade the Chazen domain, the nearest neighbour of Daish Kheda, he goes north through the Aldabreshin Archipelago, hunting for some lore with which to defeat the invaders and to protect his domain. What he finds is Dev, a northern wizard (from the "barbarian unbroken lands"). He half-bribes, half-bullies Dev into assisting him, thus subborning magic - something that any Aldabreshin knows is punishable by a hideous death. Fortunately, Kheda instead finds himself Warlord of the suddenly masterless Chazen domain (having already allowed his son, Daish Sirket, to claim the Daish domain when he fakedshis death to go in search of the lore to defeat the invading mages). He is shaken by the events that have led him to this point, but he'd already been shaken by doubts about the value of his belief in portents and omens, when the mages and savage warriors invaded the Chazen domain; there had been no warning of the invasion beforehand. So he increasingly finds himself doubting the wisdom he shares, thus undermining his own role as Warlord. The final book of the Aldabreshin Compass series (Eastern Tide) isn't out until October, but it should prove interesting reading as it will finally resolve Kheda's dilemma (I hope !)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Anatopsis - Chris Abouzeid

Chris Abouzeid's Anatopsis is his first novel for children, although he's previously published both poetry and short stories. The tale of Anatopsis was actually begun 20 years ago, but it has only just been published by Dutton (New York).

The Princess Anatopsis Solomon wants to be a knight-errant, like her part-mortal father Sir Christopher. Her Immortal mother, however, who is the Chairwoman of Amalgamated Witchcraft Corporation, intends her immortal daughter to take over the family business. To this end, the Queen hires a new tutor, the demigod Mr. Pound, to help Ana prepare for her Bacchanalian exams that she will take in a year's time when she is 14. Unfortunately Mr. Pound’s plans for Ana go far beyond the mere completion of her education. He is searching for the mysterious and powerful Os Divinitas, and if he finds it, nothing will survive. Ana, her mortal friend Clarissa, Prince Barnaby Georges (the son of her mother's enemy King Georges), and Barnaby's companion Uno (who is the last dog in the Universe), must do all they can to prevent Mr Pound from finding the remains of the Os Divinitas. Barnaby has a talent for building mechanical things (which is just as well since his magical talents are negligible); Uno can talk; Clarissa has a thirst for knowledge that's fuelled by all the books available in Ana's mother's library; and Ana has far greater magical powers than even she realises. They join forces with some of the last few mortals on Earth to locate Prometheus' gift to Man - not merely fire, this time, but the mysterious power of the Gods, without which the Gods have perished, and which has given mortals the power to create and imagine.

This book, whilst it features some good humoured moments, is completely gripping and offers yet another fascinating take on the idea that Humanity's gifts of knowledge and imagination were not intended for us (much as Philip Pullman suggests in the His Dark Materials trilogy - which is not to suggest Abouzeid got the idea from Pullman). The story also takes a sideways look at how those same gifts are now blighting the Earth: much as pollution has damaged the atmosphere, causing global warming, the side effects of the many spells cast by witches and warlocks in Anatopsis' world have choked much of the Earth, and mortals are forced to live in an area known as the Grotto, which is rotten with the after-effects of spells (particularly curses) and nearly uninhabitable.

I look forward to further books from Chris Abouzeid: his characters are well drawn, lively and very human, even the Immortal ones ! If you're interested in learning more about Chris, check out his website.

The Edge of the Forest - March issue

The March issue of the YA eJournal The Edge of the Forest is now online. Do pop over and check out the news, reviews and interviews !

Monday, March 20, 2006

Poet Laureate calls for change to English exams

The BBC reports from the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders, that Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has called for the English literature curriculum to be updated,saying that books like Lord of the Flies appear on the exam syllabus year after year, when other books, such as Monica Ali's Brick Lane, could be used in English lessons to reflect the diversity of today's society. He also noted that when he was studying for A-level English, his teacher encouraged students to read widely around the set texts but he has noticed in his visits to schools, that such wide-ranging reading is no longer happening. He says that "Pupils are being taught in a 'boxy' way - it's a means to an end to pass [exams]."

This is something I noticed when I did my English degree a few years ago; I found that because I hadn't come straight GCSEs and A Levels, I had read far more widely than the 18 and 19 year olds in my group. Before I started my degree I had expected to be at a disadvantage as I had been reading whatever I fancied of plays, poetry, novels and essays for the preceding 6 years, but the exact opposite was true. I hope that the exam boards and schools' leaders take notice of Motion's remarks, because I don't think we're doing students any favours by depriving them of the chance to read widely.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Rats of NIMH sequels

Jane Leslie Conly produced two sequels to her father Robert O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - Racso and the Rats of NIMH (which I confess I can't stop calling "Rasco and...", because my brain refuses to process Racso, even though I know it's an anagram of Oscar !) and RT, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH. The first book follows up the story of Mrs Frisby, with the rats of NIMH now settled in Thorn Valley where they are now running a school, to which Timothy Frisby (the youngest of Mrs Frisby's children) goes for 9 months of the year. This is the third year that Timothy has gone to the school, and normally the Frisbys' crow friend, Jeremy takes Timothy, but this year he's forced to walk the many miles as Jeremy must stay home and look after his mother who broke her wing. En route to Thorn Valley Timothy starts to notice signs that someone is following the same trail as him, but whomever is ahead of him on the trail seems to have no idea about how to behave in the countryside as they leave a campfire still burning and leave clear indications that they are following the trail. Eventually Timothy discovers that the culprit is Racso the rat, who has heard of the rats of NIMH and their colony and decides he wants to attend the school there so he can learn to read and write, and become a scientist. After some misadventures on the way, the two arrive at Thorn Valley to discover it is no longer the safe haven it had been; humans are building a dam upriver which is causing the river to rise rapidly and threatens to flood the entire valley. Even the Frisbys aren't safe as the humans plan to buy up the farms around the area of Thorn Valley to build roads, car parks and tourist facilities. The rats come up with a plan to sabotage the dam and the computer that will control the dam, and teach themselves computer programming in order to achieve that goal. Eventually the dam project is abandoned by the humans and Thorn Valley is saved.

RT, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH is set two years after Racso joins the colony in Thorn Valley. Arthur (usually known as Artie or RT) and his sister Margaret are camping with their parents in Thorn Valley, some distance from the rats' colony. Margaret and Artie (who apparently can't talk and suffers from asthma) go for a walk one day and on the way back to their campsite meet a bear. They flee in terror, losing themselves in the process. They shelter in a cave that is near the rats' colony and when Racso has an argument with his friend Christopher, the latter runs away to the cave where the children are sheltering. Christopher befriends Artie and brings him food, and later a herbal potion to ease his asthma. Unfortunately, Margaret catches Christopher and when he reveals there are more rats nearby, she holds him hostage. Eventually Nicodemus who, despite his great age, still leads the colony agrees to giving Artie and Margaret shelter, at least temporarily. During the summer weeks both children become a part of the community, but both Margaret and the rats realise that the children cannot remain with them during the winter months because there is insufficient shelter available for them. Nicodemus volunteers to guide them back to human civilisation - he wants to try to reach the sea before he dies. The children had been given up for dead since the helicopter and search parties could not locate them. When they turn up not only alive but quite well, Artie's asthma having been cured by the rats' herbal medicine, Margaret is interviewed by Lindsey Scott, the same reporter who had covered the Thorn Valley dam project two years before. Lindsey is a little suspicious of Margaret's account of their survival, as is Margaret's best friend, Leon. Eventually, after a visit from Racso and Christopher, Margaret reveals the truth to Lindsey when she wants the latter's help in stopping Leon from visiting Thorn Valley (he believes the rats are aliens in disguise). Margaret agrees to take Lindsey and Leon to Thorn Valley to meet the rats, with her father, Artie and Lindsey's boss in tow, but when they get there, all signs of the rats' colony are gone.

Whilst it was interesting to find out how the rats got on after they fled from Mr Fitzgibbon's farm, I didn't feel Conly's sequels worked quite as well as her father's original story. Strangely, I don't think I ever realised before that Robert O'Brien wrote both "Mrs Frisby" and Z for Zachariah, the post-nuclear holocaust novel which I read a few years after I read "Mrs Frisby".

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Order of the Phoenix film news

The film magazine Empire has exclusive news on their website about the fifth Harry Potter movie for which filming is now under way (use the link above to access the full story). Daniel Radcliffe says of David Yates: "The new director’s fantastic. I've never been quite this pushed before, so regularly. He's really pushing Harry's emotional and psychological journey. But he also seems to have an incredible eye for sets and shots and things."

Producer David Heyman reports on what they've filmed so far: "We've done a little bit of action so far. We've done some stuff involving centaurs and Grawp, who is Hagrid’s 16ft brother. The kids have to act against a lot of blue screen for characters like Grawp, but thankfully they’re used to that by now."

The fifth book is not universally popular with the cast; Emma Watson has said she "really didn’t like" it, compared to the others, but Daniel Radcliffe says "It's actually my favourite. The third and the fifth are my favourites, which is a very uncommonly held opinion." He suggests that "the problem is that Harry can be seen to come across as quite petulant in the book, and I don't actually think that's the case. I think when J K Rowling puts things in capital letters I don't think that necessarily means he's shouting. It could just refer to the sort of energy behind what he's saying. I think that's one of the things that people object to about the book, is that they don't want a manic-depressive superhero." Both Radcliffe and Heyman insist that Harry will not be just a petulant teen in the film version.

Filming is due to continue until the middle of May, after which they will take a two month break so the young actors can do their exams (GCSEs in the case of Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe). Filming will resume in July and continue until October or November, and it's expected that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will reach cinemas in November 2007.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Red Unicorn - Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee's Red Unicorn is the final book of her Unicorn trilogy. I read the first two, Black Unicorn and Gold Unicorn, back in November, but the library didn't have Red Unicorn at the time, so I requested it from them and it finally turned up last weekend. As it has been 5 months since I read the first 2 books and I've read about 150 other books and written an essay in the meantime, I decided to read the whole trilogy in one go. Fortunately the page count for the trilogy is less than 600 pages, so I managed to get through them in just two days and I found I had only forgotten a few minor details of the first two stories. Red Unicorn resolves the romantic tension in which Lee's heroine, Tanaquil, was left in at the end of Gold Unicorn. She had fallen in love with a soldier of the Empress Veriam, but Honj was betrothed to the Empress, so Tanaquil set out for home. Before she had gone far the sorcerer Worabex had revealed that he intended to visit her mother, Jaive, herself a sorceress. By the time Tanaquil arrives back at her mother's desert fort, Worabex has been there a week and has made his influence felt everywhere, from dismissing most of the human servants (replacing them with demons) and the soldiers (replacing them with magical means of protection), to altering the decor and even the locations of many of the rooms. Tanaquil is deeply unhappy, both because of her own situation and because her mother appears to be madly in love with Worabex. To make matters even worse, her familiar, the peeve, has found a mate and is losing interest in Tanaquil's company.

The only thing Tanaquil feels happy about is the fact that she is able to mend the broken heart of the Captain of Jaive's guard. He has always been in love with Jaive, but she has been unaware of it, and now she's fallen in love with Worabex. The Captain tells Tanaquil that Worabex has told them that she repaired Honj's arm after it was broken when they were in the Hell world (in Gold Unicorn) and he asks her to mend his broken heart; she is reluctant, convinced that such a thing is quite impossible, but she envisages his heart in his chest, shaped like the traditional heart symbol with a break in it, then she puts her hand on his chest and mends the break in his heart.

A couple of weeks after she gets home, Jaive announces that she and Worabex are going to marry, and that they plan to create an oasis garden in the desert near the fort. Tanaquil decides that she will go travelling again and on the day that Jaive and Worabex start work on the oasis garden, bringing an underground water source to the air, Tanaquil follows a red unicorn into another world, in which many things and people have a weird mirror version of themselves, including Tanaquil, the Empress Veriam and Honj. Tanaquil finds herself able to make herself invisible, to talk through walls or float through ceilings and do other strange things. She also discovers that her mirror-self, Tanakil is planning to murder Liliam, the mirror-Empress, so that she can marry the mirror-Honj instead of Liliam. Tanaquil finds herself trying to prevent Tanakil from committing a murder and in the process works out how to resolve her own romantic issues, as well as helping Tanakil to do the same.

This is an interesting and fitting finale to the Unicorn trilogy, and Tanaquil is a very interesting character. If you're interested in strong female heroes, I can recommend Tanith Lee's trilogy.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Holes - Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar's Holes isn't a fantasy novel, it's partly a detective novel and partly a historical novel, and wholly gripping. I've read a lot about it on the Child_Lit discussion list so when I saw it in the library on Saturday I didn't hesitate to borrow it. When Stanley Yelnats, is accused and found guilty of a crime he did not commit, he's sent to Camp Green Lake; he really doesn't think it can be too bad, certainly better than prison. Stanley and his family try to pretend that he is just going away to camp like the rich kids do, and he promises to write to them every day. But the camp is nothing like the summer camps that rich kids visit. Camp Green Lake is a juvenile detention centre where the belief is that "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy." There's no Lake and it's not Green either. The harsh realities of the camp, and the evil Warden who wears rattlesnake-venom impregnated nail polish and has her own reasons for making the boys dig so many holes, sometimes make prison seem like a great idea. Stanley Yelnats has always had bad luck and few friends, but Zero, one of the other boys at the camp, asks Stanley to teach him to read, and suddenly Stanley discovers that he is important to someone other than his parents. One day he leaves the camp to go in search of his friend Zero, who had run away a few days earlier after being mistreated. The journey of the two boys towards freedom becomes a battle with thirst, the heat and hunger in the shadow of Big Thumb - a mountain so entwined in Stanley's own family history that he knows if they can reach it they will somehow find salvation. This is a complex story which is riddled with harsh imagery and despair, yet it's also a perceptive and intricate look at family and friendship which never shies away from harsh realities, and it injects the story of a seemingly hopeless boy with a sideways sort of humour that somehow lightens the arid desert of Texas.

Sachar has recently published a follow-up to Holes, called Small Steps which follows up the stories of Armpit and Xray, two of the minor characters from Holes. There's also a Holes movie which I've not seen, and am uncertain about watching (I vaguely remember much discussion about it on Child_Lit, but as I'd not read the book, I didn't read the movie discussion !)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Waywalkers and Timekeepers - Catherine Webb

Catherine Webb's Waywalkers and Timekeepers form a two part series centred around Sam Linnfer who works part time at a London University. He's a quiet chap with only a few friends and an amazing skill for languages, especially old and obscure ones. He's also immortal and the illegitimate Son of Time. He's also known as Lucifer or Satan. Fortunately for humanity the Bearer of Light is far from the nasty guy whom he's been portrayed as by history; with all the Gods (including Thor, Jehovah and Odin) in Heaven about to go to war. One of Sam's brothers, Seth, intends to set Cronus free - and Cronus will stop time: there will be no more death or birth, change or progress - everything will just become static, and the only one who can stop Cronus is Sam, if he releases the Light he bears. The problem is that if Sam fully discharges the Light, it will send him insane or kill him (he's not quite sure which), and with more and more of his allies being taken over by the Pandora spirits of Hatred, Suspicion and Jealousy, and more and more of his brothers selling their souls to War, Night and their co-conspirators, Sam is running out of options that will keep him alive.

These books are very good, more so because Webb wrote them whilst she was still a teenager and taking her A Levels. (Her first novels, Mirror Dreams and Mirror Wakes were published when she was just 14/15). I read the whole of Waywalkers before discovering Webb's age in the "About the Author" section at the back of the book, and I honestly could not tell that she was not in her 20s at least, since her writing style is so mature.

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Film News 1: Open auditions will be held to cast the lead for new Philip Pullman film The Golden Compass, it has been reported by the BBC. Producers will scour the UK to find a young actress to play the role of Lyra Belacqua, said Screen Daily. The casting calls will have open queues from 1000-1200 GMT and will end at 1700 GMT. The locations are Cambridge's Corn Exchange (4 April), Kendal's Castle Green Hotel (6 April), Oxford's Examination Schools (11 April), and Exeter's Great Hall at the University of Exeter (13 April).

Film News 2: Kate Kellaway in the Guardian reports on a meeting with Anthony Horowitz about the summer film of his Stormbreaker novel.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride

The Corpse Bride

I watched Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride at the weekend. It's a stop-motion animation featuring hundreds of mechanical puppets, and the voices of Johnny Depp (Victor Van Dort), Helena Bonham-Carter (Emily the Corpse Bride), Emily Watson (Victoria Everglot), Tracey Ullman (Nell Van Dort), Paul Whitehouse (William Van Dort), Joanna Lumley (Maudeline Everglot), Albert Finney (Finnis Everglot), Richard E. Grant (Barkis Bittern), Christopher Lee (Pastor Galswells), Michael Gough (Elder Gutknecht) and Jane Horrocks (Black Widow Spider).

This is a film that should really be seen on a large screen to fully appreciate the effects, but unfortunately I missed seeing it at the cinema and had to make do with seeing it on a far smaller screen. Even so, the visual effects are stunning and (as with Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit) my breath was taken away over and over again at the sheer enormity of the work that goes into animated films, be they stop-motion, claymation or CGI.

The story itself is a touching one. Two prominent families have arranged for their children to be married, the Van Dorts in order to gain social advancement, the Everglots to overcome their financial difficulties. Victor and Victoria meet for the first time the night before their wedding and although they appear to be shyly attracted to each other, the Victorian atmosphere that prevails daunts Victor. As a result, he has trouble remembering his wedding vows at the rehearsal and is sent outside by the Pastor (Lee) to practice until he knows them. Victor ends up in the dark forest near the Everglots' home where he spends some time muttering his vows to himself. Unbeknownst to him, the Corpse Bride, a young woman who had planned a rendezvous with her fiance before their wedding, but who is killed by the fiance when he arrives, lies buried near where Victor is going over his vows. She overhears the vows and when Victor places the wedding ring on what he thinks is a twig sticking out of the ground, he ends up bringing her out of the grave (the twig being her finger). Thus Victor suddenly finds himself married to another woman, a voluptuous bombshell bride who also happens to be dead and decaying. He finds himself whisked away to the Land of the Dead, where he discovers that living amongst corpses is far brighter than he'd imagined (the Land of the Dead absolutely teems with colour whilst the land of the living was largely monochromatic and dull). Victor finds himself forced to choose between his fiancee and his Corpse Bride, and not wanting either woman to be hurt.

I really enjoyed this movie, it's a lot of fun and has a typically fairy tale ending. I found myself realising that I really must try to borrow and watch Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas from the library.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last week I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Burnett also wrote The Secret Garden (which was the only book of Burnett's I'd read previously) and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I was unsurprised by the virtuous nature of Burnett's heroine Sarah Crewe; she decides that she will act like a princess even in adversity - and she does face adversity, despite starting the book as the rich daughter of a widower who buys her everything. Interestingly, Sarah isn't a spoilt brat, even when faced with her father's lavish generosity. When she is at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary, she goes out of her way to befriend the girls who are despised and looked down on, including the scullery maid, Becky. For all its Victorian didacticism, however, I found myself intrigued and in suspense over how the story would end, and I now have copies of both The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy on my library TBR (To Be Read) pile !

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH - Robert O'Brien

Robert O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was a favourite of mine as a child as I rather enjoyed books featuring talking animals, although I never knew before that it won the 1972 Newbery Medal.

Mrs Frisby is a field mouse and a widow with four children: Martin, Theresa, Cynbthia and Timothy. In winter they live in a brick in the garden of Farmer Fitzgibbon, but when spring arrives and Mr Fitzgibbon ploughs the garden for planting asparagus, beans, lettuce, potatoes, etc., they have to move out to a summer home near the stream. One year, however, Timothy falls ill with pneumonia and the spring thaw arrives early; Mrs Frisby realises that she will be unable to move her family to their summer home if Timothy is to survive the move to the stream. She goes to Mr Ages, another mouse whom her husband Jonathan knew, for medicine and on the way back she meets a young crow named Jeremy. He has caught his foot in a pieces of silver-coloured string which in turn has become entangled on a fence. Mrs Fribsy rescues Jeremy, biting through the knots, and he in turn takes her on his back to her home in order to save them both from Dragon, the farm cat. Once Mrs Frisby realises she will not be able to move her family to their summer home, she finds Jeremy to see if he knows anyone who may be able to help. He recommends going to see the owl who lives in the nearby wood, and she agrees, with some trepidation. The owl suggests that Mrs Frisby goes to talk to the rats who live inside the rosebush in Mrs Fitzgibbon's garden.

She takes the owl's advice and she discovers an astonishingly civilised colony of rats who knew her husband. The rats, together with Jonathan Frisby and Mr Ages, are escaped lab testing animals. They are super-intelligent and long-lived as a result of the injections they were given in the NIMH lab., and can read, write and use tools and electricity. Once they learn who Mrs Frisby is, they agree to move the brick in which she lives so that it will no longer be in the path of the plough, which means she and her family will be able to stay in it until Timothy is fit to travel. The only problem that stands in the way of the rats moving the brick is Dragon, but they have a way of dealing with Dragon. Mr Ages mixes a sleeping powder which Mrs Frisby volunteers to administer to Dragon's evening meal, even though it means venturing inside the farmhouse. Things don't go quite according to plan, and she is captured by the farmer's youngest son, who wants to keep her as a pet. Whilst she is imprisoned in a bird cage she overhears some worrying news. A group of seven rats who opposed the plan of their fellow rats to abandon their life of stealing food and electricity from humans in order to create an independent farming colony in the nearby Thorn Valley, have been found dead in the hardware store of a nearby town. The local paper runs a story about the "mechanised rats" and it comes to the attention of the NIMH scientists, who plan to re-capture their escaped rats. The rats have to bring forward their planned departure, but they also have to fool the scientists into believing that the rats on the Fitzgibbons' farm were ordinary rats, not the rats of NIMH.

Robert O'Brien's daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Rasco and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH (both illustrated by Leonard Lubin). I've never read them, but I've requested both from the Oxfordshire library service as I'm curious to see what Conly did with her father's ideas.

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I also read Terry Deary's The Fire Thief this week. To be honest, I felt the book did not live up to the first chapter which I read on the Love Reading website. The story is an addition to the myth of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the human race. In order, to escape from the revenge of the gods, Prometheus travels through time to a murky city in an unnamed country. Once in Eden City, he befriends an assortment of characters and learns just what humans have done with his gift of fire. The narrator of The Fire Thief is a young orphan boy called Jim, who is an actor, an aspiring novelist, and a petty criminal, who helps his "Uncle Edward" to rob the rich. Unfortunately I found Jim to be rather irritating and juvenile; as a narrator he works far less well than Jonathan Stroud's knowing and witty Bartimaeus. I'm also getting slightly tired of stories with footnotes ! Terry Pratchett does it very well in his Discworld novels, using them relatively sparingly. Stroud's footnotes give us Bartimaeus' inner thoughts and are also funny without being too intrusive, but Deary's Jim interrupts the narrative far too often and tries far too hard to be funny; in the end I almost wanted to shout at him to shut up and just concentrate on telling the story ! Apparently this book is the first in a trilogy, but I doubt that I will bother to read the other two books when they come out.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Happy Birthday Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 8, 1859. He is best known today for the children's book The Wind in the Willows which he published in 1908, but in 1895 he published two books of stories about children: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which were very popular in England and in the United States. However, when he wrote The Wind in the
, many publishers turned it down because they found the idea of talking animals too fantastic. In the early 20th century, Victorian educators and child welfare experts believed that children should be discouraged as early as possible from pretending and daydreaming, and that letting children believe in fairy tales and myths was detrimental to their development. Grahame believed quite the opposite: he believed that because of their imaginations,
children were the only really living people. It was Teddy Roosevelt, who was a huge fan of Grahame's early work, who convinced a publisher to take on The Wind in the Willows. It became such a success that Grahame was able to retire from the Bank of England and move to the country. He lived for another twenty-five years, but he never wrote another book.

I remember that I had a copy of The Wind in the Willows as a child, but for some reason (that at this distance of time I cannot remember) I wasn't allowed to read it immediately; however, I managed to get hold of a copy of A A Milne's Toad of Toad Hall to read instead, and I remember my Dad being quite cross with me ! It has to be said, though, that I enjoyed The Wind in the Willows far better than Toad of Toad Hall. A few years ago I read William Horwood's sequels: The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant and The Willows at Christmas. Initially I was reluctant as I'd previously found sequels by other hands to be far less enjoyable than the orignal novels, however, I had enjoyed several of Horwood's other novels, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and I enjoyed them. I liked Patrick Benson's illustrations too - Shephard's illustrations always irritated me a little when I was a child because I felt the different animals should be differing heights, not all the same height (strange the things one picks up on as a child !)

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I'm currently reading Cervantes' Don Quixote - I've been meaning to read it for a while, and then just lately it's been mentioned or referenced more than once - including by Giles in Buffy's season 7 when he says "Windmills" in response to Buffy's plan to go back to the vineyward where Caleb is holed up to find whatever Caleb is guarding ("Empty Places"), so I decided to take the hint and borrowed it from the library to read - after all, when hints start to become anvil-sized they also become harder to ignore !

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Johnny and the Bomb; Lewis

Now that I've finally finished watching all seven seasons of Buffy, I've been catching up with my other viewing, and today I watched the TV adaption of Terry Pratchett's excellent book Johnny and the Bomb - the third in the excellent Johnny Maxwell series. The show stars Zoe Wannamaker (Madame Hooch in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) as the eccentric Mrs Tachyon, whose bags of Time send Johnny and his friends Kirsty, Big Mac, Wobbler and Yo-less back in time to the night of the Blackburry Blitz. One thing about this adaption which annoyed me (aside from Kirsty's insistence of doing Judo throws on nearly everyone !) was that in the book, the Blitz kills the people of Paradise Street, but in the TV version, everyone initially escapes until Johnny and his friends change history. I didn't feel this adaption was as well done as the earlier Johnny and the Dead.

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I also watched the Granada follow up to the much loved and greatly missed Inspector Morse. Called simply Lewis, I thought it was a brilliant comeback for Morse's former sergeant and now an Inspector himself, Robbie Lewis (played as marvellously as ever by Kevin Whately). The little references to Morse himself were nicely done from the Jaguar that nearly runs him down outside the airport at the start of the film, to the various characters who knew him, and the "Endeavour" music scholarship that was created as the result of an anonymous bequest (Morse's first name having been revealed to be Endeavour). The plot was very Hamlet-esque and typical of the convoluted nature of Inspector Morse, including a number of bodies which turned up in various places ! (I'm so glad that Oxford isn't really littered with so many dead bodies - I might not venture out otherwise !)

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Leap - Jonathan Stroud

I read Jonathan Stroud's The Leap at the weekend as I was curious to read his non-Bartimaeus books. It's a very intense book and one I would be wary of recommending to just anybody as its central protagonist, Charlie (Charlotte), is grieving over the death of her best friend Max whom she failed to rescue from drowning in the local Mill Pond. Charlie doesn't believe Max is dead, but that he's entered a parallel world akin to Faerie, having been invited in by the denizens of the Mill Pond. Charlie starts dreaming that she's following Max through the parallel world, and she strives to catch up with him each night as she sleeps. As a consequence of her interest in catching up with Max she shows little interest in the world around her. Neither her brother James (who provides the second point of view in the story), her mother, or even her psychologist can get through to her. I found this book quite disturbing - but also gripping - the narrative sucked me in to believing that Charlie was right, and that Max was wandering through a parallel world, but as the story built to its climax, I began to share James' anxiety about his sister and to wonder if she was going to survive the end of the book.

There is a spoilerish review of The Leap over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

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I also read Diana Wynne Jones' Minor Arcana at the weekend. It's a collection of 6 short stories and one novelette, four are fantasy stories, but two have more of an SF-bent, and the second of those two (nad and Dan adn Quaffy) seemed very akin to Ursula Le Guin. Sadly this collection is out of print, which seems a great shame as I really enjoyed some of the stories, but second hand copies are available.

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J K Rowling has revealed that she will be reading to the Queen from the final Harry Potter book at the Queen's 80th birthday party.

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At least one of the Oscars went to someone for whom I would have voted - Nick Park and Steve Box took the Academy Award for the excellent animated full length film Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit. I confess that I'm biased since I've not yet seen either Howl's Moving Castle or Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, but I think I would still have wanted Nick and Steve to win since I've long been a fan of Aardman's work. There's a nice pre-Oscars interview with Nick and Steve on the BBC website.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Quotes

I finished watching the end of season 7 of Buffy today, so I thought I would share with you some of my favourite lines and speeches from seasons 4 onwards.

Buffy to the First Slayer: I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I'm gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There's trees in the desert since you moved out and I don't sleep on a bag of bones. (Restless, Season 4)

Anya: I don't understand how this all happens, how we go through this. I mean, I know [Joyce], and then she's . . . there's just a body; I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead. It's stupid, it's mortal and stupid. Xander's crying and not talking and I was having fruit punch and I thought that Joyce would never have any more fruit punch and she'd never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain. . . . (The Body, Season 5)

Xander: First day of kindergarten you cried 'cause you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You've come pretty far; ending the world, not a terrific notion, but the thing is, yeah, I love you. I love crayon-breaking Willow, and I love scary, veiny Willow. So if I'm going out, it's here. You wanna kill the world, you start with me. I've earned that. (Grave, Season 6 - Xander saves the world with talking !)

Xander to Dawn: I saw what you did last night. Thought you were all special. Miss Sunnydale, 2003. And the minute you found you weren't, you handed the crown over without a moment's pause. You gave [away] your power. They'll never know how tough it is, Dawnie. To be the one who isn't chosen; to live so near the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realises, 'cause nobody's watching me. I saw you last night, I see you working here today. . . . You're not special. You're extraordinary. (Potential, Season 7)

Xander to the Potentials: Let me tell you something about Buffy. I've been through more battles with Buffy than you can imagine. She's stopped everything that's ever come against her. She's laid down her life - literally - to protect the people around her. This girl has died, two times, and she's still standing. You're scared ? That's smart. You got questions ? You should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy's all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I've seen her heart - this time not literally - and I'll tell you right now she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She's earned it. (Dirty Girls, Season 7)

Spike to Buffy: I've been alive a bit longer than you, and dead a lot longer than that. I've seen things you couldn't imagine, and done things I prefer you didn't. I don't exactly have a reputation for being a thinker. I follow my blood, which doesn't exactly rush in the direction of my brain. So I make a lot of mistakes, a lot of wrong bloody calls. A hundred plus years, and there's only one thing I've ever been sure of: you. Hey, look at me. I'm not asking you for anything. When I say, "I love you," it's not because I want you or because I can't have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I've seen your kindness and your strength. I've seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You're a hell of a woman. You're the one, Buffy. (Touched, Season 7)

Anya to Andrew: I was kinda new to bein' around humans before. But now I've seen a lot more, gotten to know people, seen what they're capable of, and... I guess I just amazingly screwed-up they all are. I mean really, really screwed-up in a monumental fashion. And they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around, blundering through life until they die...which they...they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They're incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane. And yet, here's the thing. When it's something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they're lame morons for fighting, but they do. They never... never quit. So I guess I will keep fighting, too. (End of Days, Season 7)

Buffy: I hate this. I hate being here. I hate that you have to be here. I hate that there's evil, and that I was chosen to fight it. I wish, a whole lot of the time, that I hadn't been. I know a lot of you wish I hadn't been either. But this isn't about wishes. This is about choices. I believe we can beat this evil. Not when it comes, not when its army is ready, now. Tomorrow morning I'm opening the seal. I'm going down into the hellmouth, and I'm finishing this once and for all. Right now you're asking yourself, "what makes this different? What makes us anything more than a bunch of girls being picked off one by one?" It's true none of you have the power that Faith and I do. So here's the part where you make a choice: What if you could have that In every generation, one slayer is born... because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman [points to Willow] is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power...should be our power. (Chosen, Season 7 - Buffy changes the rules and the world.)

One final thing - did anyone else notice the "Cheese Guy" from the Season 4 finale Restless also appeared in Andrew and Jonathan's dreams as recalled by Andrew in the dream flashback sequence in Storyteller in Season 7 ?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Pack of Lies - Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean's A Pack of Lies contains 12 linked stories which are told by the mysterious MCC Berkshire to Ailsa, her mother, and the customers in her mother's antiques store. Ailsa met MCC at the local library when she was there for a day's work experience, and she invited him to see if her mother would give him a job. Mrs Povey reluctantly agrees when MCC says he will work for nothing and will sleep in the store at night. Each time a customer comes in, considering what to buy, MCC tells them a story about the item in which they're interested. The stories include romance, pirates, history, horror and crime (including a murder story in which a man is stabbed to death whilst he is locked inside a windowless room). Initially Ailsa mistrusts MCC - she believes all his stories are a pack of lies, but eventually he wins her trust, and then one day he has to leave. After he leaves, Mrs Povey realises who MCC Berkshire is, but she refuses to tell her daughter. Fortunately for the reader, McCaughrean reveals the mystery to the reader in the final chapter - and the solution was not the one I was imagining !

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Castle in the Air - Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones' The Castle in the Air is the sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, which I reviewed when I first read it in December. I re-read "Howl" before reading The Castle in the Air, mainly because I love "Howl", rather than because I thought I'd forgotten the story. Initially I could not work out how "Castle" could be a sequel to "Howl", given it heavily featured a young man named Abdullah in a hot desert country. However, to my relief, Sophie turned up a few chapters in - admittedly in disguise initially, as did Lettie, Wizard Suliman, Prince Justin, Calcifer and Howl (last of all) !

The story largely centres around the aforementioned Abdullah and his fantasical daydreams, in which he is really a prince (not a carpet merchant) who falls in love with a princess, and how they start coming true after someone sells him a magic carpet which only works when someone snores ! Unfortunately, just as Abdullah is about to elope with Flower-in-the-Night (the princess about whom he'd dreamed), she is kidnapped by Hasruel, a Djinn who, although he's supposed to be good, is in thrall to his weak brother Dalzel, who has stolen his life. Hasruel has kidnapped a number of princesses and other illustrious ladies for Dalzel, who wants one of them for a bride. Abdullah sets out to rescue Flower-in-the-Night with the aid of the magic carpet, a Genie (of the granting wishes kind) and a soldier whom he meets after requesting the Genie to take him to someone who can help him find Flower. It turns out that the soldier is someone else in disguise, and he picks up a black cat with strange powers and a kitten, and both of them are really humans in disguise; there's a lot of disguises in this book, but it was a good read and quite suspenseful.

I found myself wondering if Studio Ghibli would be inclined to make an anime film version of "Castle" once they've finished their Earthsea project. I believe the DVD of Howl's Moving Castle is now available, so I will rent that from my local rental store once I've finished watching Buffy's season 7 (ie. next week) and I'll report my thoughts on the film in due course.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

World Book Day 2006

Today is World Book Day (at least in the UK - I've yet to figure out why, if it's called WORLD Book Day, it isn't held on the same day in every country !), and a survey of librarians was carried out to discover which book they recommended every adult to read before they die. The survey came out in favour of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in first place, The Bible in second place, and The Lord of the Rings in third place. The international best-seller The Da Vinci Code only gained one nomination (and thank goodness ! Sorry if you're a fan, but honestly, I could nominate about a hundred books that are far better than that one !)

Lee's story of a black man being unjustly accused of raping a white girl won her the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film in 1962 starring Gregory Peck.

Other classics which feature in the rundown are Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, George Orwell's 1984, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. There were fewer new works in the chart, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebbold made the top 30.

The list in full:

1 - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2 - The Bible
3 - The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
4 - 1984 by George Orwell
5 - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
6 - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
7 - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
8 - All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
9 - His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
10 - Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
11 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
12 - The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
13 - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
14 - Tess of the D'urbevilles by Thomas Hardy
15 - Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
16 - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
17 - The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
18 - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
19 - Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
20 - The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
21 - The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
22 - The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
23 - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
24 - The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
25 - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
26 - Life of Pi by Yann Martel
27 - Middlemarch by George Eliot
28 - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
29 - A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
30 - A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

I've read 1 to 9, 14 to 17, 19, 22 and 23. I started, but couldn't get into 10 and 28, and the rest I've not read at all. I'm disappointed there aren't more children's books on the list, so as is inevitable with such lists, I was wondering what my top 5 or top 10 (if 5 is an insufficient number) books to read before you die list would be and I came up with the following (in no particular order):

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster
Richard II - William Shakespeare
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
The Stones are Hatching - Geraldine McCaughrean
The Bible *
A good collection of poetry

* Not for religious reasons, but because of the language it uses - so many common phrases spring from the Bible or Shakespeare that I feel it's important to read both. And, as usual, I've included a poetry collection - poetry is enriching, uplifting, enlightening, moving - everyone should read at least a little bit of poetry as an adult before they die. Not to find out "what it means" as children are taught, but simply for the use of language, rhythm and style.

So what books would you recommend adults to read before they die ?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Children's author supports books for the blind

Last November I reported that the RNIB was urging authors to encourage their publishers to make their books more widely available to visually impaired readers. Today the BBC reports that Children's Laureate Jacqueline Wilson is leading the initiative by the Royal National Institute of the Blind to make more books available in Braille, audio and large print formats. The RNIB says publishers should produce work in alternative formats at the same time as standard print versions come out, rather than making visually impaired readers wait weeks or months for the latest book by their favourite authors.

The RNIB is urging authors to amend their contracts to make this possible and Wilson is the first author to ask her publishers to make her work more widely available. "Reading means all the world to me and I can't imagine what it would be like to be denied this pleasure," she said. "Blind and partially sighted people should enjoy the same rich library of books as everybody else, and that is why I'm supporting the Right to Read Campaign." Wilson says she wants to work together with her fellow writers in order to "get our books out to absolutely everyone who wants to read them".