Thursday, August 31, 2006

Voices - Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin's Voices is the sequel to Gifts, which I reviewed in December.

In the year in which 17 year old Memer was born, a foreign army overthrew her city's elected government, declaring the written word demonic, and destroying every book it could find. Memer is what is commonly known as a "siege-brat", her mother was raped by one of the invading Ald soldiers and she was born as a consequence of the rape. Her mother died some years later, and her home town is still "a broken city of ruins, hunger, and fear"; Memer dreams of taking revenge one day. When the story opens, the possession of books is still an offence punishable by death, and Memer and her crippled mentor the Waylord (who was tortured by the Alds), are the protectors of a hidden library and the intermediaries of an oracle hidden deep within the library. At the invitation of the head of the occupying forces, Orrec Caspro, the poet and storyteller, and his wife Gry Barre, the caller of animals (whom we met in Gifts and who are several years older now) visit the city of Ansul; their arrival, and in particular Orrec's storytelling and poetry recitations combine to start bringing about the end of the occupation by the book-hating Alds. Memer's extended family is also brought into renewed prominence, and Memer discovers that she, like her mother before her, is the Reader of the Oracle.

This book is filled with some thought-provoking parallels to our own world and is a surprisingly political tale which cleverly shows some of the pragmatic reasons why a war might end, such as growing personal connections between an occupying army and the local populace, the dimming of religious fervour within an invading nation, the expense of maintaining a distant garrison, changes in leadership both in the local garrison and the distant homeland, and the recognition by two parties of shared economic goals which are better served by cooperation than by oppression. Whilst Le Guin's prose is as simple and unadorned as ever, her narrative voice and storytelling power make even the smallest moments ring with truth, and even with beauty.

Gifts and Voices are both available in the US.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Astercote; A Stitch in Time - Penelope Lively

I'm starting to detect a trend with Penelope Lively's books: she's an author who likes to have her characters travel in time - mentally/psychologically rather than physically.


Peter and Mair Jenkins move to live in a new housing estate near the old Cotswold village of Astercote when their father becomes headmaster of the school there. They meet up with a man named Goacher, in the woods near Astercote; he is the son of the Tranter family who farm the land around and is a bit simple. Goacher keeps a chalice hidden in the woods, which the villagers believe ward off the plague by which the village of Astercote was destroyed in the Middle Ages and the ruins of which have long since been swallowed up by the woods. However, when the chalice goes missing, the villagers all believe they are contracting the plague, and barricade themselves in against outsiders. Peter and Mair, with Evadne the district nurse, try to find Goacher, believing he has moved the chalice, so that life can return to normal, but things are more complicated than they seem. And Mair is seeing and hearing things that aren't there...

A Stitch in Time

This book won the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 1976. Maria, a quiet only child, goes to spend the summer holidays with her parents in Lyme Regis. Maria is not very good at making friends, coming from a reserved family, and she much prefers talking to inanimate objects or animals. However, at the home of the lady who owns the house in which she and her parents are staying, Maria finds a sampler that was stitched by a girl named Harriet in 1865 and she finds herself seeing the house through Harriet's eyes, and hearing things (such as a garden swing and a barking dog) that are no longer there. Maria becomes convinced that a tragedy surrounds Harriet when she cannot find any photos of Harriet as a grown woman in her landlady's photo album. But what is the tragedy and what does it have to do with the barking dog ?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A New Look

You may notice some changes around here in the next few days - I've moved my Blogs over to Blogger Beta - allowing me new customised layouts, fancy admin tools and I don't know what else besides...

You'll still get the same "reviewing service" from me, though. I've got a large pile of library books, and an equally large pile of my own books to read, including the third of Joseph Delaney's Spook series, The Book Thief (thanks, Kelly !), some more titles by Penelope Lively and Helen Cresswell, a new version of the Robin Hood story (from Atom) and Gail Gauthier's Happy Kid (thanks Jen !). So whilst the look may change, the reviewing will along similar lines...

Firefly Quote of the Week

Jayne: What do you two think you're doing? Fightin' at a time like this. You'll use up all the air!

("Out of Gas", Season 1)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic

If you've ever considered reading the essay collection Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic edited by Robert Eaglestone, my advice to you is don't ! It's not often I advise people not to read a book on this Blog, but this book about which I wrote in my Why Do We Read? post two weeks ago. (For some obscure reason, the book is titled Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Trilogy in the US - which makes me mad, because Tolkien's LotR is NOT a trilogy - it's one very long book that was published in three parts at the decision of the publisher, NOT the author - but that's another rant entirely !)

So this is the book in which Barry Atkins, writing about Lord of the Rings computer games, quoted Jay Bolter [in Writing Spaces (1991)] comment that Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. [p. 11 quoted p.152, Eaglestone] Which would be a bad way to start a book, but Atkins' essay is one of the last in the book - and one of the last I read (although I didn't read the essays in order). The book's project was to produce "a better Tolkien criticism", as outlined by respected Tolkien scholar Michael Drout in his introductory essay, which I read last - what, you thought I'd read it first ? That would be obvious and boring ! Besides, it *looked* intimidating - although fortunately it was an easier read than I'd imagined.

Anyway, Drout suggests that Tolkien scholars have missed a number of opportunities because they have failed to engage with literary theory. Drout notes that just as there's a division in Tolkien scholarship between those scholars who engage in "Tolkien Studies" (ie. scholarly studies of Tolkien the author and his literary works) and those who engage in "Middle-earth Studies" (to use the term coined by John Ellison and Patricia Reynolds for scholarly studies of Tolkien's invented languages, worlds, creatures, histories, etc.), so there's also a division between Tolkien scholarship and mainstream literary (and cultural) studies. Drout implies that Tolkien scholarship of both kinds is stuck in a muddy backwater, allowing literary theorists in the mainstream to ignore Tolkien scholarship, and vice versa.

So he pleads for Tolkien scholars to use theoretical tools from literary and cultural studies in order to discuss Tolkien's work, and in this book they do just that, with the result that this book is aimed very squarely at academic readers, not ordinary Tolkien fans. Even for a reader equipped with some understanding of literary theory and its jargon (I did an English degree after all), some of the essays in this book are hard work - and very frustrating. To give you just one example, Jennifer Neville's essay, "Women", to which I turned first, having written my own paper ("The Influence of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings on Women Fantasy Authors" (Tolkien: Influenced and Influencing, Proceedings of the 17th Tolkien Society Seminar, 2005) that included a discussion of Tolkien's representation of women in The Lord of the Rings, assumes that the reader is familiar with Beowulf, and with Anglo-Saxon literature and scholarship. Now whilst I have read Seamus Heaney's interpretation of Beowulf, and even L. A. Donovan's essay, "The Valkyrie reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn and Arwen" (both of which Neville references), the many other books and essays to which Neville refers are completely unknown to me, meaning that I struggled to follow her arguments.

This didn't bode well for my reading of the other 11 essays in this book and, indeed, most of them left me frustrated, if not outright hopping mad, like Atkins' did ! Therefore I would not recommend this book to "ordinary" Tolkien fans unless they have access to a well-stocked academic library; literary theorists, on the other hand, will probably laud this book as a breakthrough in Tolkien criticism.

* * * * * *

On a happier note, I've acquired another reviewing job. This is for Write Away a book review resource for teachers and librarians in the UK. They'll shortly be upgrading/refurbishing their website and as a consequence are taking on more reviewers, and I just happened to hear about it and volunteered, and was accepted with alacrity. Reviews are about 300 words and I'll be reviewing 2 or 3 fantasy books a month - which will mean my library TBR pile will go down ! One of the first books I'll be receiving from them will be Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, which is officially published in October. When I read that bit of news, I did the Dance of Reviewing Joy !

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Diamond of Drury Lane - Julia Golding

Julia Golding's debut novel, The Diamond of Drury Lane was the winner of the Ottaker's Children's Book Prize 2006, and it seems to be well deserved.

The book's protagonist is Catherine (Cat to her friends) Royal who lives and works at Mr Sheridan's Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London around 1790. As a baby Cat was abandoned on the doorstep of the theatre and Mr Sheridan adopted her; Cat has grown up backstage amidst the exotic artistes, the hammy actors, the musicians, scenery and backdrops of the theatre, avoiding its riotous audiences. The performers and stagehands make up her family and friends; her education was undertaken by the stage prompt, who has recently retired.

The book opens with Cat overhearing a conversation between Mr Sheridan and another man about a diamond that Mr Sheridan is going to hide somewhere in the theatre. She agrees to look after the treasure for Mr Sheridan when he catches her eavesdropping. Shortly afterwards, a talented young violinist named Pedro, who is a former slave, joins the company orchestra, hoping to earn enough money to become truly free. Her new teacher is the new stage prompt, a young man named Johnny, who seems to have a mysterious background.

Golding's narrative is set wholly in London and includes the rival street gangs of Covent Garden; boxing matches between her friend Syd the Butcher (head of one the Covent Garden gangs) and a youth intimidatingly named "The Camden Crusher"; a riotous theatre audience; a spectacular stage production that includes a hot air balloon; and encounters with young nobles such as Lady Elizabeth and her irrepressible brother. And all the time, there are people looking for the diamond that's hidden in the theatre, hoping that if they can find it, it will make them rich.

This was a fun and enjoyable book that was hard to put down. The historical setting is very well researched as Golding used material from her post-doctorate on the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to create an authentic setting.

The sequel, Cat Among the Pigeons came out earlier this month and I must check the library for this one !

Saturday, August 26, 2006

How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff

I have Kelly, of Big A, little a, to thank for having Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now to read.

This book was the winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2004 and the Michael L Printz Book Award in America.

The story begins in modern day London or thereabouts (the time period isn't specified but cell phones and emails are mentioned). The protagonist is a 15 year old New Yorker named Daisy. She’s come to England to live after having major problems with her father and her (pregnant) stepmother. Daisy is picked up at the airport by her 14 year old English cousin, Edmond, who drives a jeep and chain-smokes (both illegal under current English law!). She meets her Aunt Penn and her other cousins: Isaac (Edmond's twin), her older cousin Osbert and her younger cousin Piper. Her Aunt Penn goes away almost immediately to Oslo as part of her work for a peace project, as there is potentially a World War brewing. Daisy’s cousins appear to have a telepathic bond, and Daisy finds that they can tell what she is thinking too. This will have a significant part to play in future events, although I won't tell you why as that would spoil the story.

The cousins live in a blissful idyll, with Daisy and Edmond falling in love, but then their world changes when an unspecified aggressor starts blowing things up in England and America. Daisy finds herself parted from Edmond when soldiers take over Aunt Penn's home (Aunt Penn is unable to come back home because the borders have been closed), and Daisy and Piper are sent to work on a farm in one part of the country, whilst Edmond and Isaac are sent to another farm. Osbert, meanwhile, has joined the military. They are forced to live through the occupation and some quite dreadful things happen to the people around them.

Rosoff’s writing style is both good and frustrating. Her descriptions and ability to portray the emotions of the characters are wonderful. But the total lack of speech marks for dialogue is rather exhausting, and Daisy habit of talking in Headlines With Words Capitalised is also tiring (and eventually somewhat tiresome). Despite that and its claustrophobic air, the book is gripping and difficult to put down. This book is not really suitable for younger teens or sensitive older teens. But put simply, this is an extraordinary book.

The Edge of the Forest - August issue

The Edge of the Forest is back from its summer break, and the August issue is now online. You'll find the usual reviews of Picture books, Middle grade fiction, Young Adult and Fantasy (the latter courtesy of me !).

There's also the Blogging Writer Interview with Melissa Wiley conducted by Kelly Herold of Big A, little a. Kelly also interviews Linda Sue Park, whilst Pam Coughlan defends Junie B. Jones with Plus Also, She's Funny. Allie meanwhile recommends books starring her favorite furry friends - cats. Adrienne Furness takes a closer look at funny books on a very serious topic in The Lighter Side of Death and Betsy Bird, Children's Librarian at the Donnell Children's Room in New York City (and prolific Fuse #8 Production Blogger) talks books and more in What's in Their Backpacks.

Don't just sit there then - go and check it out (please !)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Poetry Friday 15

This week I'd like offer a poem which I find picturesque - I can visualise the scene described in this poem.

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William Wordsworth

I love the way Wordsworth describes the city as wearing the dawn as if it was a person wrapped in bright clothing, and I can sense the stillness of the city, with the only movement being the river gliding gently beneath the bridge upon which the poet stands.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Live Chat with Garth Nix

The Live Chat with Garth Nix is taking place as I type this, and I got permission from Garth to share the following with you.

Lady Friday (the next book in the "Keys to the Kingdom" series) will be published simultaneously in the UK/US/Australia, in either March or April 2007.

Garth shared this anecdote of how he got the idea for Shade's Children:

SHADE'S CHILDREN began because the house I was living in at the time suddenly shook one morning and eventually it transpired there was a railway tunnel underneath it that was hardly ever used. I went and found where the tunnel came out about a kilometre away and while I was staring into the darkness, I realised that I couldn't hear any of the usual city noises: no cars, no aircraft overhead, no people. That made me think "What if almost everybody vanished instantly, leaving just a few people behind?" That was the start of what would become SHADE'S CHILDREN . . .

He was asked by a couple of people, including me, whether he will continue the Old Kingdom books and where the inspiration for the series came from:
Maybe. I have notes for two novels that occur in the Old Kingdom/Ancelstierre. One is about Chlorr of the Mask, the other set about 5 years after ABHORSEN.

There were many inspirations for the OLD KINGDOM books. Lots and lots of ideas, many of which didn't even make it into the novels. But I can pinpoint one catalyst for one of the ideas. I saw a photo of Hadrian's Wall that had a green field on the southern side and snowy hills on the other. It looked like one side was summer and the other winter, and that's where the Wall and the division of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom came from.

And several people asked about the names, particularly in the Old Kingdom series and he said:
I spend a lot of time on names. Basically I combine elements to get something that looks and sounds right. So I make long lists playing with bits and pieces of words and sounds until I get one that evokes what I want it to. I sit at my desk saying them aloud, which is probably better than walking around mumbling them and making people worry.

'Sabriel' for instance grew out of my playing about with the heraldic term for black, which is 'sable' and the '-iel' and '-ael' endings as in angel's (Hebrew) names. I was looking for something dark and powerful and this seemed to work.

'Abhorsen' on the other hand I stole from Shakespeare. I was looking for the names of executioners in various old literature and 'Abhorson' is an executioner in 'Measure for Measure'. It sounded right so just as Shakespeare used to do from older writers, I nicked it from him and just slightly changed the spelling.

Garth was at the World Science Fiction Convention in LA, but he was able to spend almost 2 hours taking questions from eager fans worldwide (we had questions from Brits, Americans, Australians and a lady in Israel). If you want to see the whole conversation, it can be viewed (without registration) on the SFX Forum.

The Night-Watchmen - Helen Cresswell

Having enjoyed Helen Cresswell's Stonestruck, which I reviewed 2 weeks ago, I've been on the look out for further Cresswell titles at the library, and last week I picked up The Night-Watchmen.

Henry Crane is recovering from an unspecified illness that has kept him in bed for a month. The story opens with Henry waiting impatiently for the arrival of the doctor to discover whether or not he can get up today. Fortunately for Henry's peace of mind, his request is granted and the doctor says he can get up for a few hours each day, and he is to get plenty of fresh air. A week after he gets up for the first time, Henry ventures into the town of Mandover and goes to the park. In the park he meets a tramped named Josh, and his brother Caleb. They call themselves Night Watchmen and they travel around to "get the ticking of" towns across the country. They travel by a special steam train, the Night Train.

They set up a workman's tent under the railway bridge, beside a hole that they've dug specially for the purpose of providing an ostensible reason for their presence. The tent is remarkably well equipped and Caleb, who is a dedicated cook, delights in preparing elaborate meals on his surprisingly modern stove. Josh, meanwhile, is a writer; he compiles the information he gathers about each town the pair visit, and he often visits local schools to meet the children (he visits Henry's school whilst they're in Mandover, although Henry misses the visit of course).

Josh is the friendliest of the brothers; Caleb tends to reserve judgement, although Henry's successful food shopping trip and sincere appreciation of the meal that Caleb cooks for the three of them as a result, considerably softens his manner towards Henry. The moment when the three of them reach a harmonious friendship comes after that meal when

All three of them sat there looking out past the glow of the fire to the blackness beyond. It was a comfortable feeling. Josh and Caleb were evidently used to such silences, and Henry, listening to the soft stirrings of coals in the brazier and the soughing of the wind under stone arches, was for the first time conscious of the charms of the life of a night-watchman. He rested his arms on his legs as Josh and Caleb did and sat there taking it all in.

Their friendly accord is broken up by the arrival of the Greeneyes (named for their bright green eyes that allow them to see as clearly at night as normal people see by day), the arch-enemies of the Night-Watchmen. An air of menace enters Mandover with their arrival, and although Josh and Caleb relocate themselves in a field near Henry's home, near the second railway line that passes the town, it soon becomes clear that they will not be able to stay, and Caleb whistles up the Night Train to take them out of reach of the Greeneyes. Henry goes back home knowing his life will never be quite the same for having met Josh and Caleb, and that he'll think of them whenever he eats roast chicken or lemon meringue pie (both were part of that wonderful meal he shared with Josh and Caleb) or whenever he hears the dawn chorus (since he went out at dawn one morning to meet up with them and heard the exhilarating dawn chorus for the first time). This is a gorgeous book - not a lot happens, but it's written in beautiful language that describes things in minute detail, that it's a pleasure to read without a gripping storyline.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Shade's Children - Garth Nix

Garth Nix's Shade's Children is something of a departure for him, as it's a Science Fiction novel, not a Fantasy one. In Nix's dystopian future everyone over the age of 14 disappears abruptly and without warning one morning, leaving empty cars, trains, buildings, etc. apart from the children under 14. The majority of the children were then rounded up and taken to Dorms where they are fed, clothed and educated until their 14th birthday. On that day, known as their Sad Birthday, the Overlords (humanoids from a parallel dimension who were responsible for effecting the Change) arrange for the children to be taken to the Meat Factory where their brains and muscles are removed for use in creating their Creatures. There are several types of creatures: Screamers, which work alone and can scream so loudly, the scream is overpowering; Trackers, who work in teams of three; Ferrets, who have blood-draining fangs, are considerably larger than normal ferrets, and work in groups of five; Myrmidions, who are the most humanoid in appearance and work in teams (called maniples) of seven; and Wingers, who (unsurprisingly) are winged creatures who work in teams of nine. Overseeing these creatures are the Myrmidion Masters and they report to the Overlords, of which there are seven: Red Diamond, Black Banner, Gold Claw, Grey Crescent, Blue Star, Emerald Crown and Silver Sun.

Nix's story opens with a boy called Gold-Eye (whose eyes are gold) being chased by Trackers and Myrmidions. He's trying to hide in a train but is found. He runs from the Trackers and Myrmidions and just as he's about to get caught, three children appear; two girls (Ella and Ninde) and a boy (Drum). They are Shade's Children. Shade is a hologram (like the Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager) of a scientist named Robert Ingman. He oversees a large group of children who live in a submarine and who are helping him to gather data and equipment in order to discover how the Change was effected, in the hope that it can be reversed.

Each child has a "Change Talent", something that they've only discovered they can do since the Change took place: Gold-Eye has premonitions of the future, what he calls "soon-to-be-now visions"; Ella can create objects apparently out of thin air - she envisages something she has seen (a razorblade, a hand grenade, gas masks) and it appears in her hands; Ninde can hear the thoughts of the Overlords' Creatures; Drum has telekinetic power.

Shade eventually establishes that the Change was effected by means of a Grand Projector of a kind of radiation that is not normally found in our reality. He builds himself a mobile holographic emitter, housed in a robotic spider, and he and the four children set out to destroy the Grand Projector which is in a tower on the top of nearby Mount Silverstone. Shade believes that once the Projector is destroyed, the Overlords will be forcibly returned to their own dimension, and everyone who has disappeared will be restored.

* * * * * *

Garth Nix fans might be interested to know that the British Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine SFX is hosting an Online Chat with Garth Nix on Wednesday August 23 at 8 pm (BST). If you're interested in reading people's comments and questions to Garth, and his replies, you can use the link above. If you want to post any comments or questions of your own, you'll need to register as a member of the forum - it only takes a few minutes and you don't have to fill out masses of forms. I'll be there myself - my username is Sass1.

Firefly Quote of the Week

River: You're afraid we're going to run out of air. That we'll die gasping. But we won't. That's not going to happen. We'll freeze to death first.

("Out of Gas", Season 1)

Monday, August 21, 2006

The House at Norham Gardens - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens is a beautiful and subtle book that is a timeslip story. 14 year old Clare lives with her two great-aunts Anne and Susan, who are both around their eighth decade, but still possess lively minds. Clare's parents died when she was eight, and she and her aunts live in a rambling old house with 19 rooms in Norham Gardens, North Oxford. The house has been in the family for several generations and one day Clare discovers an ancient wood carving in the attic. It's a symbolic shield, called a tamburan or kwoi. Clare, who has a lively imagination and a ready sympathy with the past as a result of living with her elderly aunts in such an old house, soon begins to dream about the tribe from Papua New Guinea to whom it originally belonged before her anthropologist great-grandfather acquired it for his collection. She feels that the tribe want the tamburan back, and this belief begins to haunt her waking hours. This, together with the incredibly hard winter, begins to oppress Clare's spirits and she finds it hard to concentrate on her school work.

However, she befriends an African student whom she meets in the Pitt Rivers Museum when she is looking at the Mayfield (her great-grandfather's) Collection there, and when she discovers that John's room-hunting, invites him home to tea. He meets Aunt Anne and she agrees with Clare's suggestion that John move in with them since his rent will come in useful for paying bills. Which is something that not many 14 year olds would be worrying about, but Clare, whilst very fond of her aunts, is quite aware that they're not very conversant with modern matters (even decimal coinage), and so she has learnt to worry about such things.

Clare's Cousin Margaret comes for an overnight visit from Norfolk, where Clare usually spends her summer holiday, and worries a good deal about Clare, and the fact that the aunts rely on her so much. Margaret makes an oblique suggestion to Clare that she might like to come and live with them, and makes it clear that if anything happens to her aunts (ie. they die), Clare is welcome to move to Norfolk. When Margaret suggests that life in Norham Gardens must be dull for Clare, she replies:

Actually it isn't dull at all. I like this house being cold and dusty and peculiar and I think the aunts are the most interesting people I've ever known. If they are out of touch, like you said, then I think I'd rather be too, if being in touch is what I think it is. I've always liked living with them and I wouldn't like to live anywhere else. When you talk to the aunts they listen, and I listen back at them. The only thing that's wrong is that they're old, and as a matter of fact, I don't see what's wrong with that anyway. (p. 75)

This is a beautifully written book, with some fabulous descriptions, such as
The house squatted around them, vast, empty, unnecessary and indestructible. You had to be a fat busy Victorian family to expand enough to [fill it up] [...] If you did not, if you contracted into three people without such needs, then a house like this became a dinosaur, occupying too much air and ground and demanding to be fed new sinks and drainpipes and a sea of electricity. Such a house became a fossil, stranded among neighbours long since chopped up into flats and bed-sitting rooms. (p. 5)
[Clare] caught sight of her own face in the brown-framed mirror that had certainly hung there since 1920 something. What a pity mirrors couldn't remember faces they had reflected before. There should be some way of peeling back layers - finding the aunts, years ago, great-grandmother, parlour-maids, cooks... (p. 50)

Clare goes to look at the tamburan in the Pitt Rivers Museum and remembers there were three of them; she wants to see if they're the same as the one she found in the attic:
They were the same and yet not the same. The reds and the blacks and the yellows were there, and that distortion of human form, and the sense of a language so alien as to be impenetrable. (p. 60)
I found it interesting that Clare sees the tamburan as an expression of language rather than art.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Oracle's Queen - Lynn Flewelling

The Oracle's Queen is the third and final part of Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Triad. The book opens with a member of Lhel's people, the Hill Witches, a talented male witch named Mahti, making himself a new oo'lu (a musical instrument that appears akin to a didgeridoo and is used to create magic) and preparing to embark on a long journey to help two Southlanders, a young man and a girl, the latter with both male and female shadows. Mahti begins to make his way south to Skala, guided by Lhel. Prince Tobin in the meantime has been revealed as a girl, and has chosen the name Tamir, after an ancestor who was killed by her brother. Tamir and her squire Ki are still struggling to cope with Tamir's change of gender, but Tamir still intends to fulfill the prophecy of Illior (the Lightbearer), that "Skala shall never be subjugated" as long as a daughter of the ruling line sits on the throne. Unfortunately, her cousin Korin, who is now under the wizard Niryn's influence, as was his late father Erius, is claiming the throne of Skala for himself, and civil war seems inevitable.

Whilst the new Queen of Skala is dealing with the damage done by the Plenimaran invasion, the refugees and the survivors of the plague, winning reparation from a second Plenimaran invasion fleet (whom she sees in a vision and is able to defeat resoundingly), Niryn has manipulated Prince Korin into marrying a distant female cousin, Nalia, whom Niryn saved from Erius' purge of the ruling female line, and raised in secret. Niryn wants an heir from Korin before he allows the Prince to face Tamir in battle. Whilst Niryn is plotting, Tamir and Ki are struggling with their growing feelings for each other, which are complicated by Tamir's gender change and their past friendship. Their fellow Royal Companions are also torn between their friendship and admiration for Tamir/Tobin, and their sworn loyalty to Korin. It is clearly inevitable that at least some of them will be hurt badly by their divided loyalties.

I'm sorry to say that I found this book rather disappointing. The intense focus on relationship between Tamir and Ki, in particular their strong desire to have sexual intercourse, got in the way of the rest of the story I felt. This book was rather like Robin McKinley's Sunshine, in that the focus on the desire for sex between two characters weakens the rest of the story - I got to the stage where I wished they'd just get on and "do it", and then maybe we would get the rest of the story told properly, but frustratingly, this didn't happen. This book let down the series as a whole, which is a shame, because the premise was an interesting one. I also felt that Mahti's role was underplayed - more could have been made of this musically and magically talented witch man.

The Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature: Advance Notification

I wanted to give you all an advanced warning that the Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature will hosted here at Scholar's Blog in time for Hallowe'en (October 31). I invite you to start thinking about witches, pumpkins, vampires, ghosts and ghouls, and anything else that might be related to Hallowe'en (your latest Harry Potter theory, perhaps ?). Submissions are due on October 15 and can be emailed directly to me or submit them via the Carnival Site.

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

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

And the Seventh Carnival of Children's Literature will be hosted at Wands and Worlds in September.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Mortal Ghost: Chapter 5

Just a quick reminder about L Lee Lowe's online YA novel, Mortal Ghost - chapter five is now online and it's a corker ! The story is becoming increasingly intriguing with the friendship between Jesse and Sarah on a knife-edge, and more tidbits about Jesse's past are revealed each week. I strongly recommend this story - I rush to read each week's new chapter as soon as I get home from work.

Hidden Warrior - Lynn Flewelling

Lynn Flewelling's The Hidden Warrior is the second book in the Tamir Triad. At the start of the book Tobin wakes up after discovering that he is really a girl hidden in a boy's body by the magic of Lhel, a Hill Witch (whose magic is mostly despised as necromancy by the Oreska wizards). But this boy's body is the only body Tobin has known for the last twelve years and getting used to the idea that he is actually a girl will require time. Unfortunately there is hardly any time for Tobin to consider it, because Ki, his squire and best friend, is lying severely injured, possibly dying. No one seems to be able to tell Tobin exactly how Ki was injured. Then Tobin's horrible guardian, Lord Orun, keeps writing to Tobin, telling him to come back to Ero, because he wants Tobin back under his control. To add to his stress, King Erius, his uncle whom he's never met and only seen briefly once, is on his way back from the wars against the Plenimarans. Erius is the one who ordered the deaths of all the females of his line, and Erius is the reason Tobin is disguised as a boy. The final burden that Tobin bears is Brother, the demonic ghost of his dead twin brother, who seems to be gaining powers of his own.

Tobin eventually goes back to Ero; the capital city is increasingly beset by plagues, a consequence, so Iya, Arkoniel and other Illorians believe, of Erius' usurpation of the Skalan throne. Despite the Harriers, the band of wizards loyal to Erius and his chief wizard Niryn, who are desperate to control wizards such as Iya and other Illorians, the old magics are not only being preserved, but the wizards are aware of Iya's vision of a queen on the throne of Skala, even though they know nothing of Tobin.

Every now and again Tobin remembers that "he" is destined to be Queen, but this is not a comfortable thought, because he loves Korin, his cousin, who is heir to the throne, and he discovers that he even loves the king although sometimes the king's rages are difficult to survive. Then Ero, which is already stricken by plague, is attacked by the Plenimarans - and for Tobin, events take on a avalanche-like quality.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Poetry Friday 14

Yesterday was former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes' birthday, so I thought that this week I would give you a poem of his for Poetry Friday.

Hawk Roosting

I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

The convenience of the high trees!
The air's buoyancy and the sun's ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth's face upward for my inspection.

My feet are locked upon the rough bark.
It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads -

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Ted Hughes wrote poetry, plays and novels for children, including Collected Plays for Children, The Iron Man, The Iron Woman and Collected Poems for Children (which I really must borrow from the library at some point !).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stonestruck - Helen Cresswell

Helen Cresswell's Stonestruck is one of a handful of books I picked up second hand at the weekend. I'd never read anything by the author before. The book begins in London during the Blitz. The story centres around a girl named Jessica, who is evacuated to Welshpool when her home in London is destroyed by German bombs. The rest of her school will be following soon but, for a while at least, Jessica is sent alone down to Wales as her mother is going to the mysterious "Front" to be an ambulance driver. In the meantime, she is billeted at Powys Castle with only the housekeeper and gardener (Mr and Mrs Lockett) for company. Although Jessica soon finds that she is not as alone as she thinks and that the seemingly peaceful Welsh countryside isn't as quiet as she thought it would be.

Jessica finds herself hearing a Peacock screech and even sees it. Then she hears children's voices whispering her name. The story features a strange "Green Lady" and a group of "stonestruck" children who play an eternal game of tag; the children intend to catch Jessica and the other homesick evacuees from London who are billeted in the town. Jessica must draw on all her courage (even though she is convinced she is a coward) and use all her wits to discover what is going on, and work out how to save herself and the London children.

There is some gorgeous atmospheric writing in this book, such as:

"Jessica was in a world of mist. It seemed that she carried with her a private weather, unpredictable, strange. A mist could gather, chill and white, out of a clear blue sky. It would roll out of the dawn or float in pale wreath at twilight. And in that mist there were always children and strangest of all, those children knew her name."
Also beautifully written are the descriptions of Jessica's initial sense of loneliness in a strange country (Wales couldn't be more different to London, and she finds Welsh a strange gabble the first time she hears it). Cresswell also pays attention to the smallest of details, such as when she describes Jessica spotting her yellow toothbrush in the bombed out remains of her London home. All in all, reading this book has encouraged me to seek out more stories by Cresswell (who died last year).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Show Stopper! - Geraldine McCaughrean

Geraldine McCaughrean's World Book Day short story, Show Stopper! is a sequel to Stop the Train! (which I read and reviewed in April). The Bright Lights Theatre Company, which the former teacher Miss Loucien joined before leaving Olive Town when she married Everett Crew, arrives in Darkville (a nearby Company Town) by train at 11.28 am. Aboard the same train are the Junker brothers, four of them, who've come to rob the bank. Cissy and Kookie, former students of Miss Loucien are also in the mining town to see her perform Cleopatra at the Imperial Shakespeare Theatre. But things don't go according to plan for the children, the theatre company or the bank robbers !

* * * * * *

There's a review of Catherine Fisher's Corbenic over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Why do we read ?

I'm currently working my way through Robert Eaglestone's essay collection, Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic and came across the following quote from Jay Bolter's Writing Spaces (1991):

Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment. (11) [quoted p.152]
And my mind boggled. The primary reason that anyone reads fiction is surely for entertainment, isn't it ? Or am I, as Bolter claims, simply being naive ? Even as a "critic", the main reason I have for reading is entertainment - reading is something I really enjoy doing. Don't get me wrong, I've learned a lot over 35 years of being a reader from reading fiction (as well as from non-fiction), but that's not why I read fiction. As I tell people who ask me what I do, when I answer that I'm a writer who writes "literary criticism" (and I do put it in quotes), I am still, first and foremost, a reader and as such, I won't write about any book I didn't enjoy reading and re-reading. I'm not in college, being forced to write essays to earn course credits, therefore I can freely choose to only write about the books I've enjoyed reading and re-reading - hence, Harry Potter and Tolkien are the two subjects about which I've most often written since I graduated.

As for immersing oneself in a fictional world, why on earth would any writer go to the trouble of creating a secondary world (or recreating a historical one) if not with the intention of having their readers immerse themselves in it ? Even contemporary novels often require the reader to immerse themselves in a world with which they're unfamiliar, be that the world of high-tech crime fighting, the world of the secret agent, the world of being a teacher, or a librarian, or a housewife, or a mother, or some other world that is not the reader's world. Why would a write bother to describe their fictional world (even when it's based on a real-life one) in any detail if they did not expect their readers to immerse themselves in it ?

So am I being naive in thinking we read fiction for entertainment, first and foremost ? Why do you read ?

Firefly Quote of the Week

Jayne: Well deeply move yourself over there and blow out them candles so we can try a slice [of birthday cake].

("Out of Gas", Season 1)

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Bone Doll's Twin - Lynn Flewelling

Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin is the first in the Tamir Triad (the other two books are The Hidden Warrior and the long-awaited Oracle's Queen).

Long ago, during the dark days of the Great War with Plenimar, King Thelatimos journeyed to the Oracle of the God Illior at Afra in the hopes of discovering how to save his warn-torn kingdom. He was presented with a prophecy 'So long as a daughter of Thelatimos's line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated.' Thus the line of queens ruling over Skala was established, but as the generations passed, some of the male heirs to the throne became intensely resentful of the prophecy that emasculated their claim to power. Then one day, Queen Agnalain took the throne and the people of Skala suffered greatly under her erratic and selfish command as she suffered from madness. Prompted by the people's outcry over the mad queen, her son Prince Erius declared himself the heir and seized the throne, despite the fact that he had a sister. Unfortunately, drought, plague, and famine have spread throughout the kingdom weakening its defences and offering easy pickings to its old enemy and neighbour, Plenimar. As people start to recall the Oracle's prophecy, Erius begins quietly killing off his female relatives who pose the only threat to his rule. Constantly in fear for her life, Princess Ariani the King's sister, gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. But Ariani is married to Lord Rhius, the patron of the powerful Oreskan mage, Iya, and she has plans for the babies. She and her pupil Arkoniel find a hill-witch (who practises a different sort of magic from the Oreskan mages) named Lhel who has been expecting them, having had visions from her Moon Goddess about them. She helps them by disguising the girl baby as the boy, the intention being that she will prevent the boy baby from drawing breath as he's born. Unfortunately King Erius arrives at precisely the wrong moment and the boy does draw breath before he's killed, and his spirit continues to haunt Tobin, as the girl baby is named. Also unfortunately, Ariana heard the boy baby's cry and knows he wasn't stillborn as she is told, and she descends into a grieving madness that considerably tcomplicates Tobin's childhood.

I confess that when I started re-reading this book, I wondered if I was suffering from epic-fantasy-overload as it took me a little while to get back into the story, but by the end, I was fairly hooked, then cross because I forgot to take the second book of the series away with me for the weekend !

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is best read as a collection of short pieces rather than a full-scale novel. The stories in the collection are: Rocket Summer, Ylla, The Summer Night, The Earth Men, The Tax Payer, The Third Expedition, And the Moon Be Still as Bright, The Green Morning, The Locusts, Night Meeting, The Shore, The Fire Balloons, Interim, The Musicians, Way Up in the Middle of the Air, The Naming of Names, The Old Ones, The Martian, The Luggage Store, The Off Season, The Watchers, The Silent Towns, The Long Years, There Will Come Soft Rains, The Million-Year Picnic.

One of Bradbury's goals in writing this collection was to counteract the image of a menacing Mars as first portrayed in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (which I read and reviewed couple of months ago). In Bradbury's work humans from Earth play the role of "invaders from outer space", although (spoiler warning) the Martians do get killed off in one story by a fairly common ailment (though not quite as common as the cold !). The collection was written in the 1940s and starts in the far-flung future of 1999, as expedition after expedition leaves Earth to investigate Mars. The Martians guard their mysteries well, but eventually (like so many "Colonies" discovered by Europeans) they are decimated by the diseases that arrive with the rockets. The colonists who appear mostly have ideas no more lofty than starting a hot-dog stand, and have little or no respect for the culture they've displaced.

Bradbury's quiet exploration of a future that looks very much like the past is sprinkled with some lighter pieces; in "The Silent Towns", for example, the last man on Mars hears a phone ringing and ends up on a comically horrendous blind date. But in most of his stories, Bradbury is holding up a mirror to humanity that reflects its shameful treatment of "the other" (especially in "Way Up in the Middle of the Air") and demonstrates time and again, much loneliness and isolation. However, the collection ends hopefully with a belief in renewal, as a colonist family turns away from the dead Earth towards a new future on Mars.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Poetry Saturday 2

The Ant

The ant has made herself illustrious
By constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?

This poem is by Ogden Nash - and I offer it in a spirit of amusement after going to see The Ant Bully today. Lucas Nickle is the new kid in town and the local bully, Steve, loves to torment him for it. Lucas gets so fed up with being bullied, he takes out his frustration on ants in his backyard by squirting them with the garden hose or stamping on the ant hill. The ants are understandably fed up with this - they've named him "Peanut the Destroyer" (Peanut being his mother's nickname for him). Zoc (voiced by Nicholas Cage), the ant wizard, decides to teach Lucas a lesson and uses a potion he's created to shrink him down to ant size. Lucas is sentenced to learn to become an ant and is mentored by Hova (voiced by Julia Roberts). He becomes an ant friend, but then must become an ant hero when Stan Beals, the local pest control guy (who is an even bigger bully), comes to wipe out the entire ant colony. An "ants vs pest control" battle ensues and Zoc reluctantly accepts that Lucas may be the ants' only chance of survival.

Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone Update

There's a review of Piratica: Return to Parrot Island over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone as there are spoilers for the first book involved in the review of the second book.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards 2006 Winners

You may remember that in June I reported the shortlist for the Mythopoeic Awards, well the winners were announced last weekend at Mythcon in Norman, Oklahoma, and they were Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys (for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature), Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy (for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature), Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion (for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies), and Jennifer Schacker's National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England (for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in General Myth and Fantasy Studies). Which means that two of the books/series I wanted to win did in fact do so !!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Book Meme

Shamelessly stolen from Kelly at Big A, little a (and who admits to stealing it herself !)

1. One book that changed your life?

This may come as a surprise to some people, but I shall have to say The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe because I hadn't really registered fantasy fiction before that point in time. The other book is Siegfried Sassoon's Selected Poems (as explained in my September 1st post).

2. One book you have read more than once?

The book I've re-read the most often is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

It would have to be The Lord of the Rings (or failing that a hefty Encyclopaedia - actually, can I have an eBook reader stored with 50 books ?!)

4. One book that made you laugh?

The most recent book that made me laugh is Louis Sachar's Small Steps.

5. One book that made you cry?

Again the most recent is Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Hmm, tough question... A sequel to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps (you may be detecting a theme here !)

7. One book you wish had never been written?

Oh Pamela - that book bored me stupid at college - I stopped half way through to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban !!

8. One book you are currently reading?

I'm just starting to re-read Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin now that the final part of the Tamir Triad (Oracle's Queen) is in my hot little hands - and have just finished Ray Bradbury's thoughtful The Martian Chronicles.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Well I've started it - Milton's Paradise Lost (although I confess I neglected to bring it to Gloucestershire with me !)

10. Now tag five people:

Oh anyone who reads this and wants to play !!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Alex Rider Topples Harry Potter

This story is from the Times which reports

Harry Potter has finally met his match in the hero of another children's book. Having dominated the bestsellers' charts for nine years, the boy wizard created by J. K. Rowling has been toppled by Alex Rider, a 14-year-old spy from the pen of Anthony Horowitz. Days after the release of a new film adaptation of a novel by Horowitz, Stormbreaker, the author has topped the children’s bestsellers’ charts.

The latest Booktrack figures show that Horowitz now has seven titles in the Top 20 children's bestsellers' list. He said: "I have never felt that I'm in competition with J. K. Rowling. Indeed, I don't think Stormbreaker could ever have been made into a film without the success of Harry Potter. But I can't help smiling quietly to know that Alex has seen off Harry this week."

Much as I love Harry, I can't help smiling also !!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle - Catherine Webb

Young Catherine Webb continues to prove she's not a one-book author. Her latest book is the lengthily titled The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. It's set in Victorian London at the height of the industrial revolution. The eponymous character, Horatio Lyle, is a Special Constable with a passion for science and invention. He's also an occasional, but reluctant, sleuth as he'd far rather be in his lab tinkering with dangerous chemicals and odd machinery, than running around the streets of London trying to track down stolen goods or the thieves who've removed them. However, one day, Her Majesty's Government comes calling and Horatio has to swap his microscope for a magnifying glass (not literally), fills his pockets with things that explode (very literally) and he goes off to unravel a singularly extraordinary mystery, related to a robbery at the Bank of England. Thrown together with a reformed (read: "caught" !) pickpocket named Tess, and a slightly rebellious young gentleman called Thomas, Lyle and his faithful hound, Tate, find themselves pursuing an ancient Chinese plate made of stone, and dealing with a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of polite society, plus dangerous enemies who are not even human.

Webb's creation, Horatio Lyle, has been likened to a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Thomas Eddison, a description that seems very apt. Lyle is amusingly drawn and seems like quite a useful man to have around, so long as you're careful about what he has in his pockets (including test tubes full of chemicals, magnets, dynamos, string, wire and the new sulphur matches !). Thomas, whom Tess crushingly nicknames "Bigwig", is actually an interesting character whom I'm hoping Webb will develop more in the sequel (The Obsidian Dagger: Being the Further Extraordinary Adventures of Horatio Lyle) to this book. Tess is something of a caricature of a young Cockney thief (reminding me a little of Dickens' young thieves in Oliver Twist). However, Webb is clearly a talented young writer who is worth watching closely - and I find it interesting that she seems to prefer writing two book series, rather than trilogies or stand-alone novels; I've already read and reviewed her two-part series Waywalkers and Timekeepers, and I've got the first two-part series she wrote, Mirror Dreams and Mirror Wakes lurking on my current library TBR.

Firefly Quote of the Week

Kaylee: Oh, look at the pretties!
Wash: What am I looking at, the girls or the clothes?
Jayne: There's clothes?

("Shindig", Season 1)

Monday, August 07, 2006

A report on Lumos

There's an interesting report in yesterday's Observer about the recent Lumos 2006 Harry Potter Symposium. Carole Cadwalladr, who admits to having read only the first book and to have seen a couple of the films, seems to be fairly baffled much of the time, largely by the Harry Potter fanfic writers, although also by the fact that academics are talking seriously about Harry Potter. She notes, in particular, that

This is Harry Potter for adults. A concept that I'd always thought of as one of those minority tastes like quantum physics for children. Or Star Trek for girls. In fact, it's not such a bad comparison, because it transpires that Star Trek is to young men what Harry Potter is to middle-aged women. And young women, too, actually. It's overwhelmingly female. Eighty-five per cent of delegates are women, with an almost even split between the 16 to 24s and the 25s and older.

She quotes Dr Gwen A Tarbox, a professor of English Literature at Western Michigan University, who says: 'We need to recognise that just because something's popular doesn't mean it's bad. There's a great deal we can learn about things that are popular. And it's popular among such a diverse group of readers.' (Which, I confess, is something that fans of The Lord of the Rings have been arguing, largely in vain, for years !)

Cadwalladr also quotes two conference attendees who ask 'Isn't it so amazing that the books have inspired so much creativity?' and she says
well, actually, it is. It's all amazing. And seeing anybody, let alone 1,200 people enthused with joy about anything is really quite uplifting. And not just anything. Books! It makes my girlish, swotty heart swell with pride.

Do read the whole article, as it's interesting to see how Cadwalladr comes to a better understanding of the popularity of Harry Potter amongst academics.

Fantasy and the Eighteenth Century

Is the 18th century taking over from the mediaeval period as fantasy's favourite setting ? I ask because I'm just reading Tanith Lee's sequel to Piratica, called Piratica: Return to Parrot Island. On my To Be Read pile is Julia Golding's The Diamond of Drury Lane, which already has a sequel, Cat Among the Pigeons. In adult fantasy, there's the new series from Naomi Novik which began with Temeraire and has already been followed by Temeraire: Black Powder War. The originator of this move towards a more modern milieu for fantasy could be said to be Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, with its Jane Austen-style setting combined with magic and Faerie.

Julia Golding's books, so far as I can tell from reading synopses, appear to be more straightforwardly historical than fantastical, but Tanith Lee's and Naomi Novik's books combine fantasy and alternate history: thus Novik's books feature dragons being used during the Napoleonic War, whilst Tanith Lee's feature a teenage girl who turns herself into a notorious Pirate Captain set in an alternate historical timeline which sees the English having a Revolution akin to the real-life French Revolution of the 18th century.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen

I do not believe anyone could read Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic and not weep. I certainly couldn't make it through the book without crying...

The Devil's Arithmetic is about a 12 (almost 13) year old girl named Hannah Stern, who has become tired of being obliged to remember about the Holocaust and Passover. Then her family goes to her Grandma Belle and Grandpa Will's house for Passover, and she finds herself wishing she were somewhere else. When she's asked to open the door for the Prophet Elijah to enter, she finds herself transported to Poland in 1942 from New York. She is called Chaya(which is her Hebrew name) by a woman who says she is her Aunt Gitl and a man who says he is her Uncle Shmuel. It is the eve of Shmuel's wedding to Fayge, the rabbi's daughter, and Chaya is going to the wedding although she's only recently recovered from the serious illness which killed her parents. Gitl, Shmuel and Chaya travel to the local synagogue for the wedding with all the wedding gifts and guests in tow, but when they reach the synagogue there are big black trucks parked outside. At this point, Chaya discovers what year it is, and realises to whom the trucks belong. She tries to warn everyone about the Nazis, but they think she is crazy and do not believe her. Soldiers get out of the trucks and tell the Jews that they are being resettled and that all the other guests have gone on ahead. Everyone is forced into the trucks and locked in for days whilst they travel to the Death Camp.

Once inside the Death Camp Gitl explains "The Devil's Arithmetic": each day she remained alive, she remained alive. One plus one plus one. Chaya gets to know some of the others at the camp, including ten year old Rivka, who explains the camp rules to the children, and in particular how to protect the youngest children, since no one under the age of 14 is supposed to be at the Camp, but if the children hide in the midden pile before the Commandant arrives, he'll pretend not to know they're there. Then one day Chaya, Rivka and two friends are caught by a new guard talking instead of working and he decides that since there is room for three more to be processed. He selects three, leaving Chaya free, but she snatches Rivka's kerchief off her head and tells her to go and hide in the midden pile and to live and remember. Then she walks into "Lilith's Cave", where the ovens are, and as she goes through the door she finds herself back in New York again, where no time has passed. She then talks quietly to her favourite aunt, Eva, about what has happened.

This is a beautifully written, moving and awe-inspiring account of the Holocaust. Jane Yolen handles the timeslip into the past very deftly and it's fascinating to see Hannah becoming Chaya and forgetting her own present in remembering Chaya's past.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Star Risk - Chris Bunch

Chris Bunch used to write episodes for the popular American TV show, The A-Team, and his Star Risk series is akin to a cross between The A-Team and Star Trek.

The first Star Risk book, Star Risk (Orbit, ISBN: 1841494534) introduces the group of mercenaries of Star Risk, Ltd. They will take on any mission, no matter how dangerous, so long as the price is right. M'chel Riss spent eight years as an Alliance Marine, earning the rank of major, before she took up the life of the mercenary. She is sent to "rescue" a small girl from her estranged father by the girl's mother and during the rescue mission she encounters Frederick von Baldur, who is supposed to be the girl's bodyguard. Shortly afterwards von Baldur approaches Riss and offers here a job in a mercenary outfit he's setting up. The two are joined by a woman named Jasmine King, with a formidable talent for organisation and her friend Grok, a large furry alien who specialises in electronics. Their first mission is to spring a dangerous super-soldier, Chas Goodnight, who is being held on death row in a maximum-security prison. If they can do this, then Goodnight's brother will give them a contract that they want.

The Scoundrel Worlds (Orbit, ISBN: 1841494542) sees the members of Star Risk, Ltd. hired to complete two missions. The first involves the most popular and dangerous game in the solar system, Skyball. The referees who are overseeing matches between two planets have been threatened (one has even been killed) and the Star Risk team are hired to ensure that things stay fair and that the referees stay alive. The second mission is slightly more complicated: Maen Sufyerd, head of the Strategic Intelligence Division has been tried and convicted of treason for selling sensitive secrets to his world's greatest enemy. Jen Reynold, former premier and friend of Sufyerd, is certain he's innocent, so he hires Star Risk to find out who really sold the secrets and why, preferably before Sufyerd is executed. Unfortunately, the world's different factions all have their own idea about what should be done, forcing Star Risk not to just do some pretty tricky detective work, but to deflect these factions long enough to stay alive.

In The Doublecross Program (Orbit, ISBN: 1841494550) M'chel Riss and the Star Risk, team are given a rather strange assignment: a staged bank robbery that involves putting money back, not stealing it ! Their second mission sees them caught up in a war over an addictive new consumer product and the mercenaries find themselves relying on every resource available in order to make some money out of the mission, and to stay alive.

I have to say that I didn't enjoy these books a huge amount as I didn't find the characters very well drawn, and the intense military/space setting is not the sort of setting I enjoy. However, I can see that they would appeal to young men and to those who enjoy war films and/or space stories.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Poetry Friday 12

This poem is a stark warning:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that
mocked them and the heart that fed.
And the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Today is the birthday of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose poem this is.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Fire Star - Chris d'Lacey

Chris d'Lacey's Fire Star, the third final installment in his dragon trilogy, should really come with a health warning - it's not for the faint-hearted as the ending is quite traumatic.

The book opens with Geography student David Rain in the Arctic, on a research trip with his girlfriend Zanna and the mysterious Professor Bergstrom (the lecturer who set him the task of proving the existence of dragons). Gwilanna, the evil sibyl of Icefire is back; this time she has even grander plans - she wants to resurrect a real dragon, Gawain, who lies buried in the ice of the island known as the Tooth of Ragnar. In order to awaken Gawain, Gwilanna needs three things: Gawain's fire tear, the blood of one of Liz Pennykettle's dragons, called Grockle, and a special alignment of the planets which will bring the Fire Star to shine on the Tooth. David and his friends find themselves pitted against Gwilanna, but stopping her will require a high price of many of those who oppose Gwilanna.

The end of the story upset me - I'm not going to say why because that would be a spoiler, but I had grown so attached to these characters that I was shocked by how Chris d'Lacey chose to end the book.

* * * * * *

On a totally unrelated note, John Irving and Stephen King have begged J K Rowling not to kill off Harry Potter ! (Thanks to Kelly of Big A, little a for the link for this.) I'm convinced he'll survive, although if she pulls an LotR ending (turning Harry into a Muggle, having saved the Wizarding World from Voldemort), I will tear up my copy of book 7 and mail it to Bloomsbury for JKR's attention !! (I fully expect Harry to have to pay a price for saving the Wizarding World, but I hope it won't be that price.)

For what it's worth (bearing in mind I did actually correctly identify the Half Blood Prince a year before book 6 came out), I think that Voldemort, Molly Weasley and Neville Longbottom should avoid taking out any life insurance policies. I don't believe Harry, Ron or Hermione will die (Ron's too obvious, and Hermione's just too clever to go that way - plus Hermione is essential to Harry's success in defeating Voldemort). I expect there to be more than 3 casualties. I think Snape might be one of them (I think he might die protecting Harry). I don't believe we'll see any more of Sirius (although I do wonder about that broken 2-way mirror he gave to Harry). I hope Harry will go and have a chat with Dumbledore's portrait, to find out how to detect the "vibes" given off by a Horcrux object (since Dumbledore knew how to detect such objects and Harry doesn't) - and I hope that will happen at the start of book 7 since Harry was still at Hogwarts at the close of book 6 - the first time JKR hasn't completed the full cycle of starting in Privet Drive, sending Harry to Hogwarts and then returning him to London again. I think that one of the Horcrux objects is hidden in the Room Of Requirement - and I do NOT believe that Harry's scar is a Horcrux (that's another plot point that will result in a torn up book if JKR pulls it off !)

Come back in a year's time (assuming the book is out next July) and see if I was right !

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Reading "Paradise Lost"

It's my not-so-secret shame that despite being an English Literature student, I've never yet managed to read Milton's Paradise Lost, although I've tried three times over the past 15 years ! I happened to mention this last year and was advised by a friend, who's also a Milton scholar, to try either reading it aloud as part of a group, or reading it along with listening to an audio version. Now as a rule, audio books are wasted on me - I'm far too used to tuning out the radio or CDs whilst I read, write or Blog, treating it as aural wallpaper to help me concentrate without distracting me. However, I picked up a second hand copy of Paradise Lost recently (not the glossy OUP edition with the introduction and comments from Philip Pullman, just a cheap Penguin edition), so I decided to make another attempt. I therefore borrowed the Anton Lesser Paradise Lost Audio Book from the library on Saturday, and this afternoon (very shortly) I shall try reading book one whilst listening to Lesser reading it - I may even read it aloud along with Lesser. The plan is that I'll read one book of PL on my afternoon off and on Sunday afternoons (thereby reading 2 books a week, taking 6 weeks to read the whole epic). Perhaps I can finally spare my blushes and say that I have read one of the greatest works of English Literature, the next time it gets mentioned !

(US readers who don't already own it and are fans of "His Dark Materials", may want to buy the OUP edition of Paradise Lost with Pullman's commentary.)

Firefly Quote of the Week

Mal: Jayne?
Jayne: Yeah?
Mal: You want to tell me how come there's a statue of you here looking at me like I owe him something?
Jayne: Wishing I could, Captain.
Mal: No, seriously, Jayne, you want to tell me?
Jayne: Look, Mal, I got no ruttin' idea. I was here a few years back, like I said. Pulled a second-story, stole a lot of scratch from the magistrate up on the hill. But things went way South. I had to hightail it. They don't... put you on a pedestal in town square for that.
Mal: Yeah, except I'm looking at some fair compelling evidence says they do.
Simon: This must be what going mad feels like.
Jayne: Can't be a statue of me. No reason for it. Flies in the face of every kind of sense.
Mal: Won't argue with that.

("Jaynestown", Season 1)

His Dark Materials film news

The Guardian reports that Nicole Kidman will be playing Mrs Coulter in the first of the "His Dark Materials" films. New Line announced in June that Lyra will be played by unknown Dakota Blue Richards, aged 12. Meanwhile Paul Bettany, is said to be in talks to play Lord Asriel, Lyra's guardian. The film has a tentative release date of November 2007.