Classic Children’s Literature Month

2015_childrens_lit_originalThe blog Simpler Pastimes is hosting a month-long Classic Children’s Literature Event. Given that I’m only reading from my TBR piles and have plenty of children’s classics, it was ideal to join in with. But which one should I read?

Should I revisit a much-loved tale that I loved as a child?  Or one that I’d missed reading before?

After some perusing of my shelves, I came up with the choice below – by an author I don’t think I ever read as a child, but whom I know is highly regarded after all the reviews of new reprints of The Runaways (formerly Linnets and Valerians) by her, not least the one in Issue 1 of Shiny New Books – always good to get a plug in! So what did I choose? …

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The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Little White HorseIt was first published in 1946, but I had bought my copy only a few years ago (with my daughter in mind I expect) because it is a film tie-in one. They had to go and change the title to ‘The Secret of Moonacre‘ too for the film for some reason. This edition also includes a section of colour stills from the film with its great British cast – Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone, Juliet Stevenson. Tim Curry and, as the young heroine, the over-named Dakota Blue Richards.

My daughter bypassed this book in the end but I kept it for a rainy day to read myself. So, what did I think?  Well, I’ll save that for after a little resumé of the story…

Maria Merryweather is newly made a poor orphan and as the book starts she is in a carriage on her way to Moonacre, where she is to live with her Uncle Benjamin as they had to sell the London house to pay off her late father’s debts. Accompanying her is her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins.

Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.

Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.

So, from page one, we know that Maria is used to the finer things in life. Miss Heliotrope is long-suffering and bookish, and we think Wiggins might be a dog – he is.

They eventually arrive in the valley of the Moonacre estate, coming through a tunnel in the hill which was opened for them.  They meet Uncle Benjamin, who is large and jovial, and are shown to their rooms in the manor-house.

No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. …

The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars.

It’s all too lovely.  A small four-poster bed, sheepskin rug, and silvery-oak chests finish off this dream interior.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

This is the 1967 cover I remember seeing in my childhood.

Everything about Moonacre seems perfect. But it isn’t long before Maria starts to find out about the legends surrounding her ancestors, who had stolen lands and sheep from the other local squire and engendered long-lasting bad relations with the fishermen in the bay. There is much talk about how Moon Princesses never stay long at Moonacre, of which of course, Maria is the latest and last of the line.

Maria being more than a little bossy sets out to put things, by which I mean everything, right, and we never doubt that she’ll succeed for a minute … and that is where my problems, reading this book as an adult, lie.

Maria is just too good!

She does have her good points though – she listens, but she uses what she hears to her advantage – she shamelessly manipulates everyone – thank goodness she only does it in their best interests. I’d hate to think what she’d be like crossed!

She and village boy Robin, do have an adventure when she goes to bargain with the wicked decendant of Black William, wronged by her own antecedent. But although chased by the men in black, you never feel that they’re in any real danger. To me, it felt as if it already had a Disney-type of gloss. Maybe the film stills insert gave me the wrong picture (it was Warner Brothers by the way). Everything was too easy for her and too obvious for me.

I did like the animals though. She rescues a hare from a trap and calls her Serena, and then she is kept safe in her escapades by Wrolf, who is essentially a lion pretending to be a giant hound. Trusty little steed Periwinkle the pony, and of course, Wiggins the spaniel complete the menagerie.

Underneath the sweetness of the narrative are themes of atonement, redemption, and a strong reminder that pride is a sin and will do its best to get in the way of true love (nearly made me choke saying that), and they all lived happily every after. To saccharine for me, however, it’s perfect fun for eight-year old girls who like a fairy-tale adventure. (6/10)

Am I being too harsh?
Have you seen the film?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon (via affiliate links), please click below:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Lion books paperback, 224 pages.
The Secret Of Moonacre [DVD] [2008]

John Buchan meets Umberto Eco via Dan Brown

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

P1010976 OK – so I put Dan Brown into the title of this post to grab your attention!

While I totally agree with the rest of the world that the Da Vinci Code is not great literature, there is no denying that however silly the whole thing is, it is a rollicking fun adventure. I will nail my colours to the mast and say that, back in the day when I read it on holiday in the sunshine on the stoop of a New England clap-board cottage on Cape Cod – I enjoyed it a lot.

The reason I mention it, is that Antal Szerb’s 1934 novel, The Pendragon Legend, does share that definite sense of fun, and also has a plot that goes at breakneck speed involving manuscripts and ancient rituals etc.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar in London who is on the search for a new project. When he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd at a salon, he finds a fellow scholar with a large library of rare manuscripts in the family mansion in Wales and an invitation to visit follows. Tagging along is Maloney, an Irishman, whom Bátky met in the British Library, who turns out to be a friend of the Earl’s nephew Osborne.

‘Doctor, you’re a hoot. We certainly hit the jackpot when we met. But this Osborne … I’d be so happy if Pat could seduce him. These English aren’t human. Now we Irish … back home in Connemara, at his age I’d already had three sorts of venereal disease. But tell me, dear Doctor, now that we’re such good friends, what’s the real reason for your visit to Llanvygan?’
‘The Earl of Gwynedd invited me to pursue my studies in his library.’
‘Studies? But you’re already a doctor! Or is there some exam even higher than that? You’re an amazingly clever man.’
‘It’s not for an exam … just for the pleasure of it. Some things really interest me.’
‘Which you’re going to study there.’
‘Exactly.’
‘And what exactly are you going to study?’
‘Most probably the history of the Rosicrucians, with particular reference to Robert Fludd.’
‘Who are these Rosicrucians?’
‘Rosicrucians? Hm. Have you ever heard of the Freemasons?’
‘Yes. People who meet in secret … and I’ve no idea what they get up to.’
‘That’s it. The Rosicrucians were different from the Freemasons in that they met in even greater secrecy, and people knew even less about what they did.’

Bátky is beginning to feel as if Maloney is interrogating him – a feeling that won’t lessen over the days to come, as he gets an anonymous message telling him not to go.

So our scene is set for action to transfer from London to Wales.  Llanvygan, the new ancestral home of the Earls of Gwynedd, since they abandoned the nearby Pendragon Castle is a typical country house, creaking and groaning at night. Its staff have to patrol the corridors to protect the Earl – for it transpires that someone is trying to kill him.

The plot gets ever more complicated as Bátky, Osborne, and the Earl’s niece Cynthia, get involved in a old feuds between the Pendragons and the Roscoes over a legacy, plus the Rosicrucians mystic alchemy and ultimately black magic.  Add secret passages, ghostly figures and scared villagers into the mix and there’s almost too much adventure!

Bátky rather reminded me of John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps (which I reviewed here). He’s a little less dashing, but by virtue of being European, like Hannay returning from Africa, he’s an outsider in London.  Combine Hannay with the learning of Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose and you’re just about there.  Of course, Szerb may well have been familiar with Buchan’s book which was published in 1915.

This book has been on my shelves for a year or two, and I’d been putting off reading it, expecting Szerb to be another serious European author.  How wrong I was!  It was a joy to find that a rich vein of comedy runs through the entire novel, and I laughed a lot.  The swaggering Maloney was hilarious; Bátky’s statuesque German friend Lene trying to seduce the effeminate Osborne had me chortling away, and the whole bonkers plot was a running joke in itself.

However, the primary theme is that of a philosophic adventure, and adventure requires characters to be placed in danger.  That they are – it’s amazing that some of them come out alive. Yes, some, for there are deaths along the way too.  You mess with the ancestors of the Rosicrucians at your peril, as Eco fans will know.

Len Rix’s new translation for the Pushkin Press is sparkling.  Bátky of course is a delight – a European that knows English better than the English themselves. He has translated three other Szerb novels, of which I own two and won’t put off reading them now I’ve made his acquaintance. I loved it (9/10).

I read this book for Pushkin Press Fortnight, hosted by Stu of Winston’s Dad.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, published by Pushkin Press (2006), paperback 236 pages.
Also mentioned:
– The Complete Richard Hannay Stories: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep (Wordsworth Classics) by John Buchan
– The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco.
– The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

A charming adventure inside fairy tales …

goodbye yellow brick roadMost of you will know Ian Beck’s work without even realising it. He is an illustrator of renown and amongst many other things designed the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

In the early 1980s, he started to write and illustrate picture books for young children, and later moved into writing children’s novels. I read and loved his book for older children, Pastworld (reviewed here), which featured London reinvented as a Dickensian theme park.

I’d bought a copy of Tom Trueheart, his first children’s novel, back when it was published. My daughter had enjoyed many of his picture books, yet somehow it stayed on the shelf until I rediscovered it the other day …

The Secret History of Tom TrueheartBoy Adventurer by Ian Beck

Hardback

I do love it when authors find an original way of using old fairy tales and that’s just what Ian Beck has done in this charming novel for children.

Tom Trueheart is nearly twelve. He comes from a celebrated family of adventurers – he has six brothers all called Jack (or variations thereon).

They are all employed by the Story Bureau who devise adventures and send the Jacks off to play the roles in ‘The Land of Stories’ and finish the tales. When it’s over the Jacks tell the Bureau what happened and they write it up into the story books that everyone reads.

The basic plots are thought up by the Story Deviser at the Bureau – Brother Ormestone, who is to present his latest ideas at their meeting:

‘If I may, Master,’ said Brother Ormestone, ‘I have been completely redrafting the ideas for the story which we discussed at our last meeting. “The Adventure of the Fair Princess Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs”.  During the second half of the story, by allowing the young Snow White to escape the hunter and his knife, she can then be found in the woods and sheltered by the seventeen dwarfs. Or she could even find them in her panic to escape. We will use the north-eastern area, the deep woods in the mountains, if our Brother Treasurer could supply a nicely turned-out bright cottage, able to house eighteen, well hidden away, for them all to live in.’

‘The cottage will not be a problem, there are several we can dress ready,’ said the treasurer, a severe bearded figure in grey, who sat at the other end of the table. ‘The seventeen dwarfs, now that is your problem: I can supply a maximum of seven for any story.’

‘Seven,’ said Brother Ormestone in his most chilling voice. ‘Seven. Dear me, dear me no. I have worked long and hard on this story and it definitely involves seventeen dwarfs of varied and, I am afraid, somewhat twisted character.’ He emphasized the word ‘twisted’ in such a way that it caused the Master’s skin to crawl, …

… ‘In any case, Ormestone, we have heard enought for now. You have, as usual lately, gone too far in the planning of these stories,’ said the Master shaking his head. ‘There is nothing left for the adventurers to actually do. Your story plans have got longer and longer. It is almost as if you are tying to get rid of the adventurers’ role altogether. You know the rules as well as the rest of us. We suggest the beginning of things only. We set things up for the adventurers, and they carry out the adventure. It is not up to us to wrap it all up for them and tie a ribbon round it with our name on it.’

Thus embarrassed again, Ormestone in his jealousy of the adventurers hatches a dastardly plan to have his vengeance on the Trueheart family.

Over the next days, one by one, the brothers Jack get sent off on new adventures, one to be Prince Charming, one a frog prince, another to rescue the sleeping princess and so on – you get the picture.  They all swear to be home in time for Tom’s twelfth birthday, the age at which he can become an apprentice adventurer – but one by one they don’t return.

Tom has to celebrate his birthday with just his mother. The next day a letter arrives for him by sprite-mail with an adventure.  As the last adventurer left, it will be Tom’s job to find his brothers and get all the tales finished.  He bravely sets off, accompanied by a talking crow called Jollity (a sprite in disguise who is to keep an eye on him).

Young Tom will have the adventure of a lifetime.

I was captivated by this story.  It touches upon all those fairy tales we know so well, but which are held in hiatus by their missing princes. Tom passes through each of the tales in turn and stops them from collapsing in on themselves, keeping them alive for the return of his brothers.

This is done with surprising subtlety and gives each of the classic tales in their basic form some added depth, as we see how the cast are actors playing parts. (At some subterranean level, I wondered whether Beck’s ‘Land of stories’ is a satire on Disneyland?’ – theme parks seem to be a fixation of Beck’s!)

Ideal for those children who aren’t quite ready for the small print of Harry Potter, they will love spotting the familiar tales, and thrill along with young Tom as he finds himself in peril from the evil machinations of Brother Ormestone. The book is also full of Beck’s lovely silhouette illustrations as on the hardback’s cover which make it a pleasure to read.

Beck has since written two more volumes of Tom Trueheart’s adventures, and I must say I’d love to read them. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck, (2007) OUP Oxford, paperback 320 pages.

A novel about men and their ‘work’ – it must be Magnus Mills!

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

explorers millsMills fifth novel is another very dark and subversive comedy about his speciality – men and their work.  This time though, it’s not about manual labourers, white van-men, bus drivers or any of their ilk; instead, he’s taking on expeditions to destinations unknown of the beginning of the last century. Mills’s satire this time initially targets the race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole – his subjects are not usually so obvious.

Two teams are involved in a race (except that it’s not a race – Oh yes it is!) to reach the ‘Agreed Furthest Point’.  One led by gentleman explorer Johns and made up of volunteers with a veritable herd of mules. They are finally ready to set off from the bunkhouse.  Scott Johns makes a speech:

 ‘Now it’s far too cold to stand her making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start. I want to say, however, that I believe you have all been well chosen. I could not wish to begin an expedition such as this with a finer set of fellows. In Chase, for instance, we have one of the best navigators of our age. As you know, his excellent guidance brought the Centurion to this forsaken shore without a single fault, and I am relying fully on his judgement over the coming weeks as we head for the interior. Likewise, I regard Scagg as a most able deputy, and if anything should happen to me he will, of course, take command. As for the rest of you, well you are competent individuals without exception. You all know where we’re going and why we are going there. It may take a good while, but I am confident that we’ll achieve our goal as long as each of us pulls in the same direction. Now Scagg, the blockhouse has been left in a fit state, I presume?’
‘Yes, Mr Johns. Everything’s in order.’
‘All right then. Lock the door will you, and we’ll go.’

The other is led by Tostig with a professional crew of five. They have just ten mules and are incredibly well organised.

‘You know, it’s marvellous the organisation that’s gone into this voyage of ours. Quite exhaustive! Every aspect was planned beforehand, right down to the finest detail. For example, how do you think the weight of a water canister compares with a tin of biscuits?’
‘No idea,’ said Snaebjorn.
‘Have a guess.’
‘I’ve just told you I don’t know.’
‘Identical,’ Thegn announced. ‘They both weigh exactly the same.’
‘Really.’
‘Within an ounce. Apparently there were such huge logistical demands to be met that for purposes of simplification all items were classified in fixed units of weight. You could substitute a folded tent, say, with a coiled rope and it would make no difference to the overall load. The exact method used is described in the Ship’s Manual, if you’re interested.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
‘Appendix B.’

Tostig’s team had arrived first, and have chosen to take a route along a dry riverbed making good progress. Johns’ team though, choose a different route entirely going over rocky scree. This terrain is monotonous and energy sapping in the extreme, yet Johns and his men manage to keep up with the others. They bicker all the way, yet that reserve of British stiff upper lip stands them in good stead.

And so it goes on. Day after boring day. They all inch towards their goal. You wonder when something is going to happen, and when it does, it comes completely out of left-field, and things turn even darker, more surreal and twisted than before. To tell you more would completely spoil the plot.

Mills’s deadpan humour is not to everyone’s taste, but if you haven’t tried one of his novels, at under two hundred pages, this is a quick read.  I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2005). Bloomsbury paperback, 192 pages.

Rediscovering Alderley Edge’s Old Magic

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen & The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner

After going to see a lecture given by Alan Garner, reported here, I naturally wanted to read more by him, and especially to (re)read the Weirdstone Trilogy. In this post, I will look at my re-reading of the first two books, I’ll deal with the third another day.

Brisingamen 1Gomrath 1The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was Garner’s first novel, published in 1960, followed in 1963 by The Moon of Gomrath.

I read them in as Puffin paperbacks in the late 1960s and can well remember the covers pictured, although my own copies are gone.

Both concern the adventures of Colin and Susan, ten-year-old twins, who have been sent to live with their mother’s old nurse while their parents are away working abroad. Bess and Gowther Mossock live on a farm near Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a large hill which is the scene of local myths and legends.

Garner starts The Weirdstone of Brisingame with an account of the legend of Alderley Edge, in which a farmer taking his white mare to sell at market sold it to a wizard who appeared on the path over the edge. The wizard took him through iron gates into a cave where sleeping knights and their white steeds lay waiting to be called in the hour of need, but were one horse short. The farmer was allowed to cram his pockets full of treasure, but of course was never to find the cave entrance again.

Susan has a bracelet with a ‘tear’ jewel on it, which had come to her as an heirloom, and unbeknownst to her – it is the missing Weirdstone stolen centuries before. When her bracelet comes to the attention of the local witch Selina Place, the children find themselves hunted by the minions of the evil Nasrond, who had been banished centuries ago.  They find all this out from Cadellin – the Wizard of the legend and his friends the dwarves, who rescue them. Cadellin is then forced to let Colin and Susan be part of the action to rid the Edge of Nasrond and his ilk once again and restore the weirdstone to Fundindelve where the sleeping knights lie.

In The Moon of Gomrath, Colin and Susan are set to have another adventure when the elves borrow Susan’s replacement bracelet.  This is a powerful amulet given to her by Angharad Goldenhand the Lady of the Lake at the end of the first book. Being without the bracelet’s protection, Susan is possessed by an evil spirit, the Brochallan, which had been released when well-workings outside the pub set it free. Colin, with the aid of the dwarves has to seek the mythical Mothan, which only flowers at moonrise on the Old Straight Track – a path of the Old Magic to cure Susan.  More Old Magic is later set free by Colin and Susan when they light a fire to keep warm on the beacon on what happens to be the night of the Moon of Gomrath. This awakens ‘The Wild Hunt’ – the mythical wild horsemen and hounds of legend. To pile on the agony, Colin is abducted by the evil Morrigan and its goblin folk. A pitched battle ensues, primarily between the elves and the Morrigan, and Colin is rescued, but the Old Magic must still be set free.

'Druid's_Circle'_The_Edge,_Alderley_Edge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_43508Garner lives and breathes the landscape, mythology and history of Alderley Edge. All the places named in the book exist – like the Druid’s Circle, (which he claims was created by one of his forebears – a mason), and the Wizard pub.  It was rich mining area for metals, so the hills are dotted with tunnels. Now run by the National Trust, you can walk the trails and see magnificent views from the top of the escarpment.

Traditional Celtic folklore provides the basis of all the fantasy elements of the novels, and after the MoG, Garner explains where some of this comes from and gives some references including The White Goddess by Robert Graves. The spells are all from real texts – but are incomplete, he adds – just in case.

Around all the mythology is woven the adventures of Colin and Susan, a plucky twosome whose idea of fun is to go out roaming and exploring the edge all day every day.  They were obviously fit and healthy and thought nothing of walking or running miles at a time. Gowther and Bess give them this total freedom, with just little admonitions to come home for supper, or don’t go roaming on the Edge without a torch in the dark. Gowther and Bess understand the power of the place.

Reading these two books as an adult, it’s the mythological content I concentrated on, but as a child – they were such great adventures; grittier and more real than the world of Narnia. By letting the old worlds of magic and the modern age collide, the peril is much greater – there is no option of going back through the wardrobe.

Of the two, The Moon of Gomrath is the more accomplished and, the need for scene-setting over, there is more space for fantasy. The Elves, or lios-alfar, are particularly tricky folk – Albanac, a human who dwells with the Wizard Cadellin explains:

Remember, too, that no elf has a natural love of men; for it is the dirt and ugliness and unclean air that men have worshipped these two hundred years that have driven the lios-alfar to the trackless places and the broken lands. You should see the smoke-sickness in the elves of Talebolion and Sinadon. You should hear it in their lungs. That is what men have done.

What price progress, eh?  Cadellin, a couple of pages on, explains more about how the worlds of humans and magic have diverged:

“Why do you think men know us only in legend?” said Cadellin. “We do not have to avoid you for our safety, as elves must, but rather for your own. It has not always been so. Once we were close; but some little time before the elves were driven away, a change came over you. You found the world easier to master by hands alone: things became more than thoughts with you, and  you called it an Age of Reason.

“Now with us, the opposite holds true, so that in our affairs you are the weakest where you should be strong, and there is danger for you not only from evil, but from other matters  we touch upon. These may not be evil, but they are wild forces, which could destroy one not well acquainted with such things.

“For these reasons we withdrew from mankind, and became a memory, and, with the years, a superstition, ghosts and terrors for a winter’s night, and later a mockery and a disbelief” .

I like Garner’s explanation very much – and wish it were so in a way. The rationalist in me can’t believe in magical worlds, but I do love to let my imagination soar by reading books where magic is allowed to live in our world.

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 288 pages.
The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner, Harper Collins paperback, 224 pages.
Boneland (Weirdstone Trilogy 3) by Alan Garner, pub 2013, Fourth estate paperback, 160 pages.
The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth by Robert Graves, Faber paperback.

Gothic with a twist

Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson

isabel's skinPeter Benson is one of those underrated British authors that never write the same book twice. Each novel is different. I’ve only read one of his before: that was Odo’s Hanging about the commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry published in the mid 1990s. Lately he’s been best known for Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, a contemporary novel about lads and weed. With Isabel’s Skin, he’s doing something different again – a gothic tale set in Edwardian England.

The story is narrated by David Morris, a quiet man who describes himself thus:

I used to be a book valuer. I was employed by an auction house. I was trusted, respected and pleased. I lived in London in comfortable rooms, and I had money in the bank. I lived alone, and although I had friends and acquaintances, I was not close to any of them. I had brown hair and blue eyes. … My rooms were on the top floor of a house close by Highbury Fields. Beyond, to the north and west, spread the swelling slums of the city and their cloaks and dresses of smoke and filth. I did not know these places, and I tried to keep them at a distance. I confess my ignorance, though my ignorance was not bred of disinterest. I believed the ragged should live in the minds of the fortunate, but I was still – and thought I would always be – a top-floor man.

David is asked to go to rural Somerset to value the library of a recently deceased book collector. From the moment he gets off the train and finds a ride to get to the remote village of Ashbrittle, you know that we are in Gothic spine-chiller territory. It happens every time someone comes from the city to the country in this type of novel.

Abandoned by the carter, he’s warned by an urchin not to go to Ashbrittle, but finally reaches Belmont House, now closed up with just the housekeeper in residence. He discovers the library is full of rare books of great value, but must do his cataloguing in gloom – Lord Buff-Orpington never opened the window shutters.  This doesn’t bother David, for he is soon in reveries over the volumes in the collection. So we’ve added the house and house-keeper to the Gothic equation. Where’s the ghost, or prisoner in the attic?  Benson is not going to be that obvious.

It’s not until David goes out for a walk, (inexorably drawn in the wrong direction of course), that things happen.  He meets Professor Hunt who lives close by, and they have a civil conversation. Morris asks the Professor what he does.

‘I do not do, young man. I work. I create.’
‘My apologies. What do you create, Prefessor Hunt?’
‘I would not tell you, even if I could. But siffice to say it is a marvel.’ I thought he was going to continue, but he stopped suddenly, looked straight into my eyes and shool his head.
‘I see,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘you do not. How could you?’
‘I …’
‘How could you even begin to see?’
‘I didn’t mean to imply…’
‘I am sure you didn’t.’
‘… that I know…’
‘Of course you didn’t,’ he said and he turned, bowed politely, took a couple of steps back, and before I had the chance to ask him anything else, he signalled the end of the meeting with a raised hand and said ‘It was very interesting to meet you. It’s good to talk to someone with something to say. Too many of the people round here are idiots. Idiots and fools. You cannot talk to any of them…’ And then he was gone and I was left standing alone.

Morris finds the Professor has dropped his tiepin. Given the excuse to visit him, he sets out after dinner – and this is when he hears a woman screaming in the Professor’s house…

I’ll keep the suspense and won’t tell you any more of substance. You’ll have worked out for yourself already that the Professor is mad, and it goes without saying that Morris will feel compelled to rescue the screaming woman, and the chase will be on – will he fall in love too? …

Morris wasn’t looking for adventure, but when it found him, he rather relished it. If you swap mad professors for spies – you’d have a character in the mould of Buchan’s Richard Hannay (my review of The 39 Steps here), but slightly toned down. Morris’s adventure also causes him to review his relationship with his father, and his own lonely existence. His thoughts are introspective, but suited to the expanse of the landscape that Benson creates.

Isabel’s skin is a quietly affecting gothic tale, it contains all the elements you expect, but is put together in a slightly different way.  The prologue has Morris setting the scene of where he ends up before launching into the story of his adventure, beginning with the first passage quoted above.  It does take itself a tad seriously, but I rather enjoyed it. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson, pub Sept 2013, Alma books paperback, 250 pages.

The Glass Books Trilogy – an awfully fun adventure!

The Glass Books Trilogy by G W Dahlquist

Bantam in the USA, reputedly paid début novelist Dahlquist an advance of $2,000,000 for the first two installments in this series. Although the first was well received, apparently they lost shedloads of money on the deal. Penguin, the books’ publisher in the UK, also published the first volume with a big fanfare.

Initially it was only available on subscription, in ten limited edition weekly installments – the covers of which got darker in hue as the story progressed. The last one arrived just in time for Christmas together with a special sheet of wrapping paper. A standard hardback followed, but no prizes for guessing that I discovered it in time to get the installments! (See below).

The third volume is just out in hardback, and I’ve been immersing myself in it and its companions this summer. Having read the first when it came out, I just reminded myself of the names and places of it and how it ended. The three together total over 1900 pages of tremendous adventure and fun.

So what are the books all about?

I shall attempt to concentrate on themes and character rather than give too much of the plot away. One note before I start, despite the assertion that you can read the volumes out of order (there is a too short synopsis at the beginning of the third), you should only read them in the published order, especially to experience the adventure as our heroine Miss Celeste Temple does…

The era is Victorian, the location is an unnamed city – much like London, but in a continental sort of way – a bit Dutch, Danish, Germanic too. The story opens at the Boniface Hotel where a young plantation heiress, Miss Temple, is recently arrived pending her marriage to Roger Bascombe. When the engagement is ended with no reason given, Celeste feels the need to investigate, and ere long she gets herself into a bad crowd of debauched aristos which the boring Roger had been drawn into, known as the Cabal.

At a masked ball at Harschmort House, the home of the Cabal’s millionaire backer, Lord Vandaarif, Celeste meets the other key characters – both good and bad who play a huge part in her future. There’s the sensitive military doctor Abelard Svenson, personal physician to the Prince of Macklenburg and Cardinal Chang, a killer for hire with a natty fashion habit – and they’re the good guys!  The villains are even more colourful – we meet the Comte d’Orkancz – a classic mad scientist firmly in the steampunk mode, and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza, a raven-haired, lusty Venetian who is playing the Cabal at their own game; here Celeste meets the Contessa for the first time…

Miss Temple turned to see the woman in red, from Roger’s car. She no longer wore her fur-collared cloak, but she still had the lacquered cigarette holder in her hand, and her bright eyes, gazing fixedly at Miss Temple through the red leather mask, quite belied their jewelled tears. Miss Temple turned, but could not speak. The woman was astonishingly lovely – tall, strong, shapely, her powdered skin gleaming above the meager confines of the scarlet dress. Her hair was black and arranged in curls that cascaded across her bare shoulders. Miss Temple inhaled and nearly swooned from the sweet smell of frangipani flowers. She closed her mouth, swallowed, and saw the woman smile.

The Comte has invented a new drug using mineral indigo clay – something Macklenburg has in abundance. This is used to make blue glass, a means to enslave and brainwash by putting people through a alchemical Process, or via blue glass cards, which can store memories and hypnotise anyone who views them and by which you can drain memories and then someone else can experience them, and once viewed, never forgotten.

The blue glass cards are very useful to the Cabal – programmed with erotic memories, users can have an orgy in their own heads. The effects can be lasting in a receptive mind, which horrifies the prim Miss Temple when she is subjected to a card containing some of the Contessa’s erotic adventures, which adds a certain frisson to the procedures!

The Cabal are out to overthrow the existing regime, using the corrupting influence of the blue glass process and the books, sowing chaos everywhere. Celeste finds herself linking up with Svenson and Chang to stop them – three against many. Their lives changed forever, the trio embark on an adventure, which will put their lives at risk countless times and take them to the limit of their physical being.

If the first volume is about the discovery of the Cabal and their plans, the second takes them out into the wider world with the trio individually searching for the key glass book, the third finally brings them together again.

Celeste, Chang and Svenson take it in turns to tell the story. All three volumes could have done with some editing, but they certainly are pageturners – once started, I had to finish. The sheer amount of action on each page is dizzying, be it fighting, spying, scheming, and not forgetting a lot of racy moments! The plot is totally convoluted, and the cast of supporting characters so huge, that you are always in danger of totally of losing where you are. Frankly, it doesn’t matter – as long as you believe that Miss Temple, Chang and Svenson are always doing the right thing.

My favourite characters were Chang and the naughty Contessa, visualising the dandy assassin Chang as Gary Oldman, (surely a great casting suggestion). While I couldn’t see a particular actress as the resourceful Contessa, she is definitely in the mould of ‘the woman‘ from the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler.

I think I enjoyed the first book the most for its mix of sheer inventiveness and heady action. The second was naturally perhaps rather transitory but certainly darker, setting up the grand finish in volume three, for as in Harry Potter, the Dark Lord of the Cabal must be defeated.  The epilogue also leaves some intriguing possibilities open for further adventures.

If you’re tempted to embark on this journey, do start at the beginning. If you enjoy The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, you’ll likely get on with its sequels.  If you do, I hope you’ll find it as much fun as I did.

Vol 1 (8.5/10), Vol 2 (7/10), Vol 3 (8/10)

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I bought the first two, and got the third from the publisher – thank you.
To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – Penguin pbk 2006, 784 pages
The Dark Volume – Penguin pbk 2009, 528 pages
The Chemickal Marriage – pub July 2012, Viking Hardback, 528 pages

Revisiting a children’s classic from 1958

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

In the Puffin edition (left), this book was my favourite contemporary children’s novel as I was growing up.  I read it in the late 1960s, not once, not twice, but countless times.  The story of a bed-bound girl whose drawings came to life in her dreams both entranced and scared me witless (more on that later).  Luckily the illustrations by Marjorie-Ann Watts are an integral part of the story and remain with it in later editions (right).

Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will take several months to recuperate from. She starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her Grannie’s workbox.  She draws a house with a garden and a fence around it. That night, she dreams and she is at the house she drew – but she can’t get in – there’s no door handle..

Meanwhile Marianne is getting a little better, and starts lessons with Miss Chesterfield who is also teaching a boy called Mark who has had polio.  Marianne returns to her drawing, adds a door handle, and a boy at the upstairs window.  She dreams again, but there are no stairs in the house, so she can’t get up to him.  Rectifying this she meets the boy in the upstairs room when she dreams. He’s ill and can’t use his legs properly.

Things start to take on a creepy turn when the real-life Mark outdoes Marianne with a birthday present for their teacher. She imprisons him in her drawing and tries to scribble him out. But when she dreams she realises she has made a prison for them both – they will need to escape, but Mark can’t walk …

It was the eyes on the stones that did it for me as a kid. They’re the bookish equivalent of Dr Who’s Weeping Angels – Blink and these killer statues move superfast – and have terrified my daughter ever since she first saw them. Reading this story as a child it’s this sense of danger that takes over from the fascination that you might be able to control your dreams. From the moment the stones start watching, it becomes a race against time for Marianne and Mark to get to safety.

Reading the book as an adult, a diffrerent story emerges. We are less concerned with the stones and more concerned with the ups and downs in the children’s conditions in both real and imaginary worlds.  At one stage Mark gets an infection and ends up in hospital on an iron lung, and it’s a long road to recovery for him, in the house he doesn’t want to learn to use his legs again.  There are many other subtle parallels too.

I can’t believe those double-decker iron lungs!

This book earned its place in my Desert Island Library ages ago, and I’m glad I finally re-read it, as it’s more than just a children’s classic.  It has subtlety and depth – suitable for 8 to 80+ as they say. (10/10)

P.S. I’ve yet to see it, but a film was made of the story called Paperhouse, which concentrated on the horror aspects and made the children young teens instead of ten year olds.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, Faber paperback, 179 pages.
Paperhouse [DVD]
Doctor Who – The Complete Series 3 Box Set [DVD] [2007] (includes ‘Blink’ with the Weeping Angels)

A classic adventure

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Richard Hannay is newly returned from living in South Africa, and he’s already bored with London.  Everything seems to be happening elsewhere, especially in the Near East, and the Greek Premier, Karolides, seems to feature.  “It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”  Dinner, then the music-hall and strolling home, Hannay is still bored. “I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer.” 

He needs adventure, and is soon to get it when a neighbour, Scudder, ends up with a knife between his shoulder-blades after confiding in Hannay, who soon realises that a) he’ll be framed for Scudder’s murder and, b) the people who did for Scudder will be after him too. He borrows the milkman’s cap and coat and flees north to Scotland.

Thus begins a series of adventures for Hannay as he tries to evade the baddies, clear his name, and once he uncovers more of the dastardly plot, to bring to the attention of the right people in the Government.

It’s real boys-own stuff involving murder, chases by train, car and on foot, disguises, text-book villains, and also some kind people who help him – believing him to be an okay chap. However, it’s a small world, and the baddies are everywhere…

Many of the chapters are named ‘The adventure of …’ after the main characters he encounters: ‘the literary innkeeper’ in the Scottish wilds, who is only too happy to help, saying “It is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.” , and ‘the radical candidate’ – a local toff campaigning to be elected, who just happened to have been at college with Hannay.

At just 113 pages in my edition, the adventure sped by with no time to rest.  It was great fun, and Hannay is a real hero. At 37, he’s a man who’s seen and done many things. He’s rugged, resourceful and totally at ease with himself. You sense that he knows how to handle a gun but he’s also clever enough to decipher codes and talk at the highest level.  What a guy!

Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carrol, upon reading this book, may well say ‘Cherchez la femme’, for there are no significant female characters in the book at all, and there are many other plot changes. (The current West End stage version is based on Hitchcock’s film).  The 1978 film version starring Robert Powell was closer to Buchan’s original, but still adds a strong woman character, and goes for a different climax in the ending involving Big Ben, which I remember as being rather fab!

The plot of Buchan’s novel may have a few large holes in – Why Scotland?  Why the coincidences of meeting friends out in the wilds, and stumbling upon the chief baddie’s lair?  I’ll forgive him though, as I liked Hannay too much to wonder much about these holes.  Buchan went on to write four more Hannay adventures, none of which I’ve read, but wager will be as much fun as the first.  (7.5/10)

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To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The 39 Steps by John Buchan, paperback.
The Complete Richard Hannay: “The Thirty-Nine Steps”,”Greenmantle”,”Mr Standfast”,”The Three Hostages”,”The Island of Sheep” by John Buchan, paperback omnibus.
The 39 Steps [DVD] dir Alfred Hitchcock, starring Robert Donat.
The 39 Steps [1978] [DVD] (1978), starring Robert Powell.

I bought my copy.