Archives for category: Children’s Books

Timeless Classic is an overused phrase but it genuinely applies to this week’s choice – “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. This American children’s story was first published in 1961 with quirky black and white illustrations by Jules Feiffer. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. “The Phantom Tollbooth” is available as an ebook but I’d particularly recommend the HarperCollins Essential Modern Classics paperback which has a lovely introduction by the much-missed Diana Wynne Jones.

This is a story about a bored boy called Milo. Nothing really interests him and he regards “the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.” One day an unexpected package is delivered. It contains a purple tollbooth, some coins to put in it, a rule book and a map of places that Milo has never heard of. Milo decides that he might as well play at driving his small electric car past the tollbooth. When he does, Milo finds himself on an unfamiliar country road which takes him to a place called Expectations. After a baffling chat with the Whether Man, Milo plans to reach the city of Dictionopolis but gets lost in the Doldrums.

Milo is rescued by a Watchdog called Tock (who goes tick) and reaches Dictionopolis, the city of words, where he meets a loud-mouthed insect-man known as the Humbug. During a stay in the palace dungeons, Milo learns that the Kingdom of Wisdom is ruled by two brothers: Azaz the Unabridged, who founded Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician who founded Digitopolis. The brothers keep quarreling about whether words or numbers are more important and little has gone right since they banished their twin sisters, the peacemaking Princesses of Pure Reason and Sweet Rhyme.

Milo volunteers to retrieve the princesses from the Castle in the Air, which hovers over the Mountains of Ignorance. He sets out on his quest with brave Tock and the Humbug, who rarely does or says the right thing. Milo meets some extraordinary people during his journey, including Alec Bings who “sees through things”, the smallest giant in the world, Chroma, the conductor of colour, the Awful Dynne and .58 of a boy. He faces obstacles such as an unexpected detour to the barren Island of Conclusions, the Silent Valley and, worst of all, the terrible demons who haunt the Mountains of Ignorance. Can Milo and his friends defeat the “Unwelcoming Committee” and restore Rhyme and Reason to the Kingdom of Wisdom?

If you’re American, you can skip this recommendation because you probably already love “The Phantom Tollbooth” but it isn’t as well known as it should be in the rest of the world. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy as a child by an American aunt. It made me laugh and think and became one of my favourite books. Now I often give “The Phantom Tollbooth” to parents to read aloud to their children. A chapter per night is just perfect because this deceptively simple story is packed with complex ideas. Architect Norton Juster apparently wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth” when he should have been working on a book about Urban planning and it was illustrated by his flatmate. As a child, I preferred more colourful and detailed types of illustration but now I can appreciate the brilliance of Feiffer’s minimalist style. He could draw even the most grotesque (e.g. a mountain-sized Gelatinous Giant) or extraordinary (e.g. a twelve-faced Dodecahedron) creatures of Juster’s imagination.

I’m sure it’s clear from my synopsis that “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a Fable rather than a realist novel.  I could use the term Allegory but that might imply something archaic and worthy and there is nothing stuffy about this fast-paced and often hilarious story. Milo is accompanied by two archetypal figures: the steadfast companion (Tock), who makes young readers feel safe, and the unreliable adult (the Humbug), who makes young readers feel superior. Milo himself is an every-child figure. A child of any age, gender or race could easily identify with Milo because what Juster is mainly depicting is a state of mind. Milo is someone who isn’t fully engaged with the world he lives in. He doesn’t notice the marvels all around him, he doesn’t give much thought to anything (which is why he ends up in the Doldrums) and he’s reluctant to try anything difficult. Milo is far from alone in these faults. During his journey he passes through a whole city which has become invisible because its inhabitants are too busy to see its “wonders and beauties”.  And this is fifty years before smart-phone addiction… “The Phantom Tollbooth” seems even more relevant today than when it was first written.

At this point I must issue a heath warning – this novel might do you good. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Both Alice and Milo endure a series of encounters with bizarre beings but only Milo is transformed by his journey. Carroll refused to make Alice’s adventures into the kind of morality tale his Victorian readers expected. “The Phantom Tollbooth” reads like a story written for fun but it does have things to say about the pains and joys of getting an education. Juster never seems preachy, just warm and wise. When Milo complains that everything in Digitopolis is too difficult for him, he’s gently told by the Mathemagician “that the only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that’s hardly worth the effort.” Colourful characters and startling events provoke Milo into using his brains and senses to their full capacity.

Juster is a wonderful teacher. I learned more about arithmetic from Milo’s problems with Subtraction Stew (the more you eat, the hungrier you get) and Division Dumplings than I ever did at school. The Mathemagician is my husband’s favourite Fantasy character but then he did grow up to be a mathematician.  I always preferred Dictionopolis where you can buy “fancy, best-quality words” such as “quagmire, flabbergast and upholstery” and letters have distinct tastes – Cs are crisp and crunchy but Zs are “very dry and sawdusty”.  Like Milo, I need to be reminded not to leap to Conclusions (it’s a difficult place to get back from) and I’m still sometimes ensnared by Juster’s demons of modern life. If you spend way too much time filling in endless forms or doing pointless repetitive tasks, then you’ve already met the Senses Taker and the Terrible Trivium. Don’t worry. Reading “The Phantom Tollbooth” will help you to escape them and get excited all over again about the possibilities life offers. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

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For my first post of 2018 I’m recommending a novel by K.M.Briggs based on the British Fairy Tale known as “Kate Crackernuts”. The unusual thing about this story is that “ugly stepsister”, Kate, is the main heroine. In case you’re wondering, Kate’s nickname is due to her habit of hoarding nuts like a squirrel. The novel “Kate Crackernuts” was published in 1963 and reprinted in the Faber Finds Series in 2009. Katharine May Briggs (1898-1980) was an expert on the Folklore and Fairy Tales of the British Isles. The story of “Kate Crackernuts” probably originated in Scotland but was also known in the north of England. You can find a version of it in Dr Briggs’ wonderful scholarly book “A Dictionary of Fairies” (1976).

This novel is set in the mid 17th century and the story begins in a small castle in Galloway (south-west Scotland) which is the home of Andrew Lindsay, the Laird of Auchenskeoch. Andrew is a widower with one daughter, a beautiful fair-haired child called Katherine. At five years old Katherine first encounters dark-haired, green-eyed Kate, the only daughter of a haughty widow called Grizel Maxwell. The two girls seem opposites in every way but they become fast friends and see each other whenever they can. When Katherine is twelve, her beloved nurse leaves her to get married. Andrew feels that his daughter needs a minnie (mother) so he decides to marry Grizel Maxwell.

The two girls are delighted to become stepsisters but Grizel despises her meek stepdaughter. She resents the fact that Katherine has had a more luxurious upbringing than Kate and that everyone thinks the Laird’s daughter is prettier than her stepsister. Grizel is determined that the two girls shall be treated exactly alike but this only makes them happy because they love each other like real sisters. As time passes, Grizel’s obsessive hatred of Katherine increases. This frightens Kate who knows her mother’s dark secret – Grizel Maxwell is the Queen of the local witches. Grizel wants her daughter to become a witch too but Kate tries to resist the lure of the wild magic that is in her blood.

When Andrew leaves Auchenskeoch to fight for King Charles II in England, Grizel seizes her opportunity to harm her stepdaughter. She conspires with evil Henwife, Mallie Gross, to cast a cruel spell on Katherine. Can Kate help her stepsister without betraying her mother’s secret? Even when the two girls flee to England there is no escape from sorcery. Kate must defy the Seven Whistlers (the Wild Hunt) and risk entering a fairy hill in her battle to save two innocent souls from malign magic.

No 20th century scholar knew more about the Fairy Lore and Folktales of the British Isles than Katharine Briggs. She wrote a thesis on folklore in 17th century literature and published important books such as “The Anatomy of Puck”, “The Personnel of Fairyland” and her four volume “Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends”. If you can’t tell a boggart from a banshee or you want to find out about the King of the Black Art, the Gurt Vurm of Shervage Wood or the ghostly Drummer of Airlie, you need to consult Briggs’ work. She combined formidable scholarship with an easy to read style. Her reputation as a Folklorist remains high but few people remember that she also published two novels – “Hobberdy Dick”, the story of a hobgoblin who faithfully guards a manor house during the English Civil War, and “Kate Crackernuts”.

I suspect that these novels have failed to gain a wide readership because they were originally published as stories for children. When a scholar writes fiction about their academic subject there is always a danger that it may come out reading too much like a textbook. Briggs was determined to give her characters the mindsets of 17th century people and she was reluctant to simplify any aspect of their lives, even in the interests of good story-telling. Initially, “Kate Crackernuts” seems more like serious Historical Fiction than Fantasy. Children often enjoy reading about everyday life in the past (see my recent post on “A Traveller in Time”) but they’re less likely to be fascinated by a mass of detail about the history, religion and politics of 17th century Scotland. I love the use of Scots words in the dialogue (e.g. “The maid’s a silly fushionless tawpie” or “My poor wee whitterick!”) but young readers might find them baffling. So, I’m not sure that “Kate Crackernuts” works as a children’s story but it does now fit happily into a genre that hadn’t been invented in 1963 – the female-centred Young Adult novel.

“Kate Crackernuts” is a book in which the female characters are far more forceful than the males and the plot is driven by their actions. Free-spirited Kate, who loves to roam the countryside and hates being constrained by the conventions of lady-like behaviour, is a remarkably modern heroine. She has the courage and cleverness to protect her stepsister and rescue a young man who has been reduced to a helpless state by a curse. Pretty blonde Katherine gets most of the masculine attention in the story and it would have been easy to make her into an unlikable character. Briggs didn’t do that because “Kate Crackernuts” is primarily a story about female friendship. Katherine may not be feisty but she is utterly loyal to Kate and very much in charge when it comes to choosing a marriage partner.

The novel also features a difficult mother-daughter relationship. Kate and Grizel are shown as being very much alike but their wild streaks manifest in different ways. Grizel is a wicked stepmother you can admire as well as hate. She resents her poverty and despises the men around her, who are mainly much less intelligent than she is. Grizel claims to be indignant on her daughter’s behalf but seems mainly motivated by jealousy of the unbreakable bond between Kate and Katherine. Briggs makes memorable use of the wealth of 17th century material about belief in witchcraft. She weaves both humorous and horrible stories about witches into her narrative and makes you understand the attractions of witchcraft as well as its evils.

The spell placed on Katherine – which makes her believe that she is monstrously ugly – is truly chilling. Sadly it has a modern equivalent in the cruel bullying of young women which often takes places on social media. I wouldn’t be recommending “Kate Crackernuts” as my first book of the new year of it didn’t have a positive message about the power of female solidarity to defeat malice. This is a novel which deserves to win a new generation of readers. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

My seasonal recommendation this year is a time-slip story which ends with Christmas celebrations in two different eras. “A Traveller in Time” by Alison Uttley is a very English Children’s Classic which was first published in 1939. I don’t think it has ever been out of print so there are numerous editions out there. This novel has been illustrated by many different artists but I like the detailed drawings of Faith Jaques (1977). You can also get “A Traveller in Time” as an ebook or an audio book and a BBC television dramatization from the 1970s is now available on DVD.

“I, Penelope Taberner Cameron, tell this story of happenings when I was a young girl.” Penelope begins by looking back to her childhood in the early 20th century when she lived in London with her parents and her older brother and sister. This sickly and imaginative child alarms her mother with stories about people no-one else can see. All three siblings are sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Cicely (Tissie) and Great-Uncle Barnabas Taberner in rural Derbyshire. The Taberners live at Thackers Farm, an ancient building which was once part of a grand manor house belonging to the Babington family. The children enjoy learning about old-fashioned country ways and helping their great-uncle with his farm-work.

Penelope is the only one to discover “the secret of Thackers”. She glimpses a strange girl in her bedroom mirror and when she opens an upstairs door she encounters four women in elaborate period dress playing a game with ivory counters. Penelope is convinced that the women were real and that they could see her too. Great-Aunt Tissie tells her that some females in the Taberner family are able to see and interact with people who lived at Thackers in past centuries. From time to time, Penelope finds herself slipping back into the 16th century. She meets various members of the Babington family and their housekeeper, Dame Cicely, who is the image of Great-Aunt Tissie. Penelope is accepted as a niece of Dame Cicely, who occasionally visits from London.

Though she cannot control her travels in time and fears being trapped in the past, Penelope becomes deeply involved in the lives of the Babingtons and their devoted servants. The Babington family are Papists (Roman Catholics) living under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. They are forced to practice their religion in secret. The head of the family, Anthony Babington, is a courtier of Queen Elizabeth but his true loyalty is to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots. Anthony risks the safety of everyone at Thackers by plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Penelope becomes a witness to a daring plan to free Mary Queen of Scots from nearby Wingfield Castle. As the year 1584 draws to a close, the Babingtons are in danger of being arrested for treason and Penelope herself is at risk from an accusation of sorcery….

When you were a small child, did your parents read you any of Alison Uttley’s “Little Grey Rabbit” books? Mine did and I adored these gentle stories – the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket. Later, I identified strongly with the heroine of Uttley’s “A Country Child”, a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up on a farm. Most of all though I loved “A Traveller in Time”, a book I borrowed over and over again from my school library. Until recently I’d never known much about Uttley herself. When I looked up accounts of her life, including one on the website of the Alison Uttley Society (www.alisonuttley.co.uk) I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her character.

She was brought up in a Derbyshire village and remembered every detail of her rural childhood with astonishing clarity. Uttley seems to have clung to country ways, such as belief in the existence of fairies, yet her passion was science. In 1906 she was one of the first women to get a Physics degree from Manchester University and she became a science teacher. Uttley married and had a son but her husband’s mental health never recovered from his experiences fighting in the First World War. After he committed suicide, Uttley started writing children’s books to support herself and her son. Much of her fiction is sweet and tranquil but she had the reputation of being a difficult woman to get on with. I like difficult women.

Knowing something about Uttley’s life has helped me to understand why I have always found “A Traveller in Time”  so convincing. Uttley spent her early years on a farm close to the manor house which she calls Thackers and she grew up hearing stories about “the Babington Plot”. She gives Penelope a childhood similar to her own and the domestic details of country life are lovingly described. Penelope may be frail and bookish but she enjoys feeding chickens and pigs and helping with the haymaking. Uttley’s account of everyday life in the 16th century manor house rings just as true. She is particularly good at gardens – “Pale lilies-of-the-valley and blood-red primulas were out with bees hovering round them from the straw skeps perched on stone stools” and food – “ham baked in honey syrup and spiked with cloves, and brawn and pigs’ pettitoes soused, and tansy puddings.” Uttley makes her readers into time-travellers by transporting us back to the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the 16th century.

In her preface to “A Traveller in Time”, Uttley made the startling claim that, “Many of the incidents in the story are based on my dreams” in which she “talked with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence.” Many of the time-slip episodes do have a dream-like quality, especially when Penelope sees people from different eras occupying the same space – “Each set of figures kept distinct, neither was aware of the other, and the farmer walked through them as if they were films of smoke”. However, it’s also clear that this story has been influenced by scientific theories about time and space which Uttley must have studied as part of her Physics course. Time travel isn’t just a plot device in this novel and the heroine isn’t just a plucky girl who has adventures in a more exciting era than her own. Penelope thinks very hard about what is happening to her and what it might tell her about the nature of reality.

I nearly recommended this book during “Ghost Month” (October) on Fantasy Reads because, essentially. “A Traveller in Time” is a reverse ghost story. Modern girl Penelope is haunting the 16th century characters, sometimes frightening them with glimpses of their future. In the most poignant scene in the book, Penelope tries to warn doomed Mary Queen of Scots against agreeing to Anthony Babbington’s plan but Mary only sees her as a sorrowful phantom and complains that, “The world is full of ghosts for me. There is no peace or happiness left.” The more time Penelope spends in the past, the harder she finds it to remember her knowledge of the future. This seems logical and adds tension to the story. When she is in the 16th century, Penelope is charmed by the captive queen and it almost seems as if history can be altered but when she returns to her present, Penelope is reminded of the terrible consequences of Mary’s reckless behaviour.

Penelope’s account of her childhood experiences is tinged with sadness – she cannot stay in the past with people she has come to love and she cannot change their ultimate fate – but this isn’t a depressing book. The story leaves the Babbingtons enjoying their last “glorious Christmas”, complete with Yule Log, garlands of fir, holly and bay, a Wassail Cup, a Boar’s Head and a model of Thackers made out of marchpane (marzipan). History remembers the Babbingtons as wicked or tragic but Penelope has shared their hopes and joys. The novel suggests that somewhere in the layers of time these golden moments continue to exist. Penelope comes back from the past able to live more intensely because she has learned that life itself has “a power behind it that carries folk on to struggle and not give in.”  If you are looking for a beautiful and thought-provoking Christmas read, “A Traveller in Time” may be the book for you.

My treat this Christmas will be reading a new time-travel story in Jodi Taylor’s delightful “Chronicles of St Mary’s” series. Whatever you are doing over the holiday season, I wish you many golden moments.

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending a cool, watery book to read during hot weather. “Ingo” (2005) is the first of a five-volume Fantasy series for children by versatile British writer, Helen Dunmore, whose recent death has saddened her many readers. It is set in the beautiful county of Cornwall (as seen in “Poldark”) and in the undersea realm of Ingo. There is an attractive box-set of the five “Chronicles of Ingo” but each volume is also available individually in paperback or ebook form.

“Ingo” is the story of Sapphire (Sapphy) Trewhella and her brother, Conor. They live with their parents in a small village on the Cornish coast. The Trewhellas seem a happy family but one issue divides them. Sapphy and her Dad, Mathew, are passionate about the sea but Mum, Jennie, hates and fears it. One summer evening, Mathew slips away to the nearby cove and takes his boat out. He never comes back. The wreckage of his boat is eventually found but there is no sign of Mathew. He is presumed drowned but his children refuse to give up hope.

The story continues thirteen months later. Jennie is now supporting her family by working as a waitress in a nearby town. She has begun to “move on” and has met a new man – a professional diver called Roger. This, coupled with unkind gossip about her father’s disappearance, makes Sapphy very unhappy. She is haunted by the song that Mathew used to sing to her – “I wish I was away in Ingo, Far across the briny sea…”  Sensible Conor is the one person Sapphy relies on but suddenly he starts disappearing for hours on end. She sees him in the cove talking to a strange girl far out on the rocks. Conor won’t tell her what is going on but when Sapphy feels compelled to go down to the cove at night, she meets Faro who seems to be half-boy, half-seal.

Faro takes Sapphy into the captivating underwater realm of Ingo, challenging everything she thought she knew about the world and her own nature. Once in Ingo, it is hard for Sapphy to remember her life and family “in the Air” but concerns about Conor draw her back to the surface. She longs to explore Ingo but time and truth are different there and she isn’t sure how far she can trust Faro. Sapphy seeks answers to the mystery of her father’s disappearance from the elusive Faro and from local Wise Woman, Granny Carne. Cornish legends may hold a clue but Sapphy and Conor are confronted with a more immediate problem. They must risk their lives to prevent a deadly clash between people from the Air and the guardians of Ingo.

Helen Dunmore (1952-2017) was a hard author to pin down. She was a prize-winning poet, novelist and literary critic. Her fiction for adults ranged from contemporary and historical novels to ghost stories. When a highly regarded literary author also writes for younger readers, it’s often assumed that these children’s books will be inferior to their usual work and unworthy of adult attention. This ignores the fact that writing for children requires even more care and discipline than writing for adults. I believe that you can appreciate the true essence of a writer in their work for children because they have to pare everything down to essentials. In my view, “The Ingo Chronicles” are timeless children’s Classics which will be an important part of Dunmore’s literary legacy.

“Ingo” was inspired by Dunmore’s love of Cornwall, where she had a house for 40 years. The Trewhellas’ cottage and the nearby cliffs and cove come across as real places and brought back happy memories for me of childhood beach holidays in Cornwall. “The Ingo Chronicles” draw on the fascinating folklore of the South-West of England, like several other books I’ve recommended (e.g. “Diving Belles”, January 2015 and “An English Ghost Story”, October 2015). Cornwall is particularly rich in legends about mermaids, some of which include details of an imagined life under the sea and information about how mer-people view the “forked” creatures who dwell on land. Dunmore uses these legends but also subverts them as Faro mocks traditional human ideas about mermaids and allows Sapphy tantalising glimpses of life in Ingo. Dunmore only reveals her invented undersea world a little at a time. I’d advise reading “Ingo” and its first sequel “The Tide Knot” together to get a fuller picture.  Volume One is a tense read because you are never sure whether Conor and Sapphy are being offered a marvellous adventure or being cruelly lured away from home and family.

If you’ve ever longed to be able to swim through the sea as easily as a fish does, you’ll enjoy this story. Sapphy experiences the freedom of being able to breathe underwater and ride the sea’s currents and tides. She joyfully learns to communicate and interact with dolphins and gets close to a range of marine creatures from spider-crabs to sea-horses and grey seals to purple jellyfish. Yet “Ingo” isn’t merely an escapist Fantasy. Sapphy is pressured to choose between her human and mer natures, as many young people of mixed backgrounds are pressured to choose between conflicting cultures or idealogies. The inhabitants of Ingo are angry with the Air People for all the dreadful things that we have done to the oceans, such as destroying coral reefs, polluting beaches, hunting whales and using fishing nets that trap dolphins. Righteous as this anger is, “The Ingo Chronicles” ask whether it is ever justifiable to punish innocent individuals for the harmful acts of corporations and governments.

I’ve said that “Ingo” isn’t an escapist Fantasy but it is a Fantasy novel about being tempted to escape the difficulties and tedium of daily life. The story is told from Sapphy’s point of view but right from the start Dunmore cleverly allows the reader to see that Sapphy’s adored father is the kind of man who might just abandon his responsibilities.  A few brief scenes make the fault-lines in Mathew and Jennie’s marriage obvious. Dunmore writes with compassion about a fractured family and a slow and painful recovery from grief. Stubbon, secretive Sapphy is a realistically drawn heroine though constant Conor seems a little too good to be true. Sapphy’s prickly relationship with her mother is at the heart of the story. Even though you know it’s wrong, it is hard not to sympathise with Sapphy’s anger at her mother for beginning a new relationship. Sapphy resents Roger all the more because he is annoyingly nice and the kind of reliable father-figure she has never had before. Complexities of this kind help to make “Ingo” a novel which combines the best of Fantasy and Realism. If you are looking for a high quality series which might appeal to older children or teenagers, I’d thoroughly recommend “The Ingo Chronicles”. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

I was enticed into reading this week’s recommended book by a striking cover. “Riverkeep” is a debut novel by Scottish author, Martin Stewart. This is a story about dark deeds and bright spirits set in the kind of monster-infested Fantasy realm which makes you grateful to live in the real world – even in these anxious times. It was published in 2016 and is widely available in paperback or as an ebook

In Canna Bay a massive sea-serpent known as a mormorach has been spotted for the first time in a thousand years. Whale-hunters and fishermen hasten to the area hoping to kill this fabulously valuable magical beast. Meanwhile  fifteen year-old Wulliam (Wull) and his Pappa are out on the river Danék in their rowing boat. When he reaches the age of sixteen, Wull is expected to succeed his father as Riverkeep. Wull doesn’t want this grim and lonely job, which involves keeping the river free from ice, rescuing the drowning and retrieving corpses. This winter’s night things go horribly wrong when Pappa is dragged under the water by a corpse that isn’t as dead as it should be.

Wull manages to get his Pappa back to their Boathouse but the loving father he knew is gone. Something else has taken over Pappa’s body. Wull struggles to perform the Riverkeep’s duties while his Pappa wastes away. When Wull learns that secretions from the brain of a mormorach can cure spirit-possession, he decides to row his Pappa down the Danék to the sea. Wull faces many obstacles on his urgent journey, including bandits, a crazed explorer and ferocious ursa-beasts. He also finds himself stuck with some unwanted passengers. There’s a stowaway called Mix, who is only a helpless little girl when she chooses to be, a witch called Remedie who nurses a wooden baby, and huge blue-skinned Tillinghast, who proves hard to kill because he’s never been properly alive.

Wull’s passengers are all on the run. Mix has “accidentally” stolen something from “scary people”, Remedie is fleeing from a Pastor who wants to try her for witchcraft and Tillinghast is in possession of a mandrake which some very nasty men would kill to obtain. The magic of the mormorach might help them all but even if Wull can get to Canna Bay in time, how can he compete with ruthless Captain Murdagh of The Hellsong who is determined to be the man who kills the sea-serpent?

With its icy river and forests, whale-hunters and souped-up polar bears, the geography of “Riverkeep” resembles North-West America or Canada. The period seems vaguely 19th century but with elements of  earlier magic and alchemy. We are soon told that one of the main characters – Tillinghast – is an homunculus, an artificially created man. Rather than being grown inside a glass container in the traditional way (see my review of “Goblin Moon”, September 2016), Tillinghast has been stitched together from the body-parts of various people and stuffed with straw and herbs. “Riverkeep” itself seems to have been stitched together from bits of various well-known novels, such as “Frankenstein”, “Moby-Dick” (Captain Murdagh is virtually a parody of Captain Ahab), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and even “The Wizard of Oz”.  So, is Stewart’s stuffing original enough to give this book a shape of its own? After some early doubts I was won round to the view that it is.

The cover of “Riverkeep” is cleverly designed to avoid implying that the book is aimed at any particular age group or gender, but the note about the author reveals that Stewart wrote this novel for “younger readers”. It would be hard to guess this from his complex prose style and rich vocabulary. This novel is full of striking sentences which I wanted to read aloud, such as “Think on the respectful, dignified, hidden violence o’ the sea, all its monsters floating, graceful as angels, all those masses o’ death-bringin’ teeth and tusk as smooth in that world as heavenly bodies in the sky.”  If you dislike novels which attempt period language, “Riverkeep” may not be for you but Stewart does carry it off very well. His swaggering dialogue, with its frequent flashes of dark humour, delighted me.

There is so much explicit violence in “Riverkeep” that I would classify it as Dark Fantasy. Gruesome events, such as a fisherman being eaten alive by the mormorach, are described with horrid vivacity. Children will probably relish this more than squeamish adults like me. I’ve never enjoyed boat-trips very much and the story of Wull’s disaster-filled voyage hasn’t helped. This isn’t the kind of book which inspires you to want to spend time “messing about on the river”. Try messing about on the Danék and you’ll get your fingers bitten off – or worse.

Although two of the leading characters are youngsters, I wouldn’t call “Riverkeep” a child-centred  story. The main emphasis is on three unusual parent/child relationships – the Riverkeep and the boy he has raised alone; Clutterbuck, an alchemist/scientist and the straw-man he has created; and Remedie and the dead baby she is trying to bring back to life. The unbreakable bond between Wull and his Pappa is established in flashbacks and by the heartbreaking way that Wull continues to care for a creature who gobbles raw fish-scraps and refers to him as “It that speaks”. Tillinghast may look like Frankenstein’s monster but he’s shown as struggling to block out the memories of the bad men he was made from and find an identity and purpose of his own. The witty bickering between sharp-tongued Tillinghast and the haughty but vulnerable Remedie is one of the highlights of “Riverkeep”. I was disappointed when Remedie and the elusive Mix suddenly disappeared from the plot but this does open up the possibility of a sequel.

Apart from the richness of his language, I think that Stewart has two particular strengths as a writer – he can create characters with fascinating interior lives and he has given his voyagers a strong moral compass. Wull is presented as a fundamentally decent boy with absolutely no social skills – how could he have when he’s been brought up in isolation? His honest words and his inability to read other people both get him into trouble but Wull’s tenderness towards the father he secretly fears is already lost is extremely touching. So is Clutterbuck’s determination that the “monster” he loves like a son should live his own independent life as a unique being. Pugnacious Tillinghast believes that he is “nothin’ but a cheap trick” but Clutterbuck tells him, “Only the unloved hate:” and that Tillinghast can become human by caring about others and making good choices.

A plot full of highly dramatic events throws up many difficult choices for Wull and Tillinghast to make. Remedie argues that feeling compassion is what makes us human. Wull puts it more simply – “a real person lives a good life by livin’ for other people.” Tillinghast may not have a heart but this novel does. In spite of a deliberately grotesque cast of characters and all the cruel and sad things that happen during Wull’s journey, “Riverkeep” is a story which leaves you a little more hopeful that “life can be free and beautiful” and that “We are all of us miracles, each with a swirling universe inside his own head.” Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

As the Scots are so good at celebrating the arrival of New Year, I’m choosing a Scottish author for my first recommended Fantasy Read of 2017. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a journalist, critic, poet and novelist who is now best remembered for the twelve anthologies of Fairy Tales which he edited, starting with “The Blue Fairy Book” (1889) and ending with “The Lilac Fairy Book” (1910). Lang himself was prouder of two original  stories for children which he wrote – “Prince Prigio” (1889) and “Prince Ricardo” (1893). These two novellas, and a sequence of short stories called “Tales of a Fairy Court” (1907), are set in the invented kingdom of Pantouflia and are collectively known as “The Chronicles of Pantouflia”. You could get the two novellas under this title as a very cheap ebook or search out  an anthology called “My Own Fairy Book”, which includes all of Lang’s original Fairy Tales. Another good choice would be “Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo”, a 1961 edition which has pictures by D.Watkins-Pitchford and an excellent introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Old copies of this, and paperbacks based on it, are quite easy to find.

Lang begins with a potted history of Pantouflia, an ancient kingdom somewhere “up the Danube” and its peace-loving royal family, whose crest is a dormouse, dormant. After relating the story of the spirited founder of the dynasty, Lady Dragonissa, he skips forward to the birth of her ever so many times great-grandson, Prince Prigio. The prince’s rational mother refuses to believe in fairies, so none are invited to the christening party of her first-born son. The fairies come anyway, bringing magical gifts, but one of them puts a curse on Prigio that he “shall be too clever!” Prince Prigio grows up to be the ultimate know-all. He argues about everything and is always right – which makes everyone detest him.

The King and Queen have two ordinary younger sons, Alphonso and Enrico, who are universally liked. When a terrible Firedrake, made of red-hot iron, threatens Pantouflia, the King promises his throne to whichever of the princes succeeds in killing the monster and bringing back its horns and tail. Prigio refuses to try, because he knows that it is traditional for the eldest son to fail , and suggests that this is a job for Enrico. Both the younger princes enthusiastically go off to fight the monster but neither of them returns. Prigio is then shunned by his family and left behind in an abandoned castle, where he finds the fairy gifts and learns to use them. When Prigio falls in love with the English ambassador’s daughter, the idea of being a hero becomes more attractive. With a little magic and a lot of ingenuity, can Prigio kill the monster, save his brothers, win the right girl and make people like him?

The seven stories in “Tales of a Fairy Court” tell us more about the relationship between Prigio and his father King Grognio, and describe some of the adventures which Prigio fitted in before his marriage. The second novella is set 17 years later when Prigio is King of Pantouflia and he and Queen Rosalind have a son called Ricardo. Prince Ricardo is always off fighting “dragons, giants, cannibals, magicians”. He has rescued lots of princesses, including a clever one called Jaqueline, but he isn’t interested in marrying any of them. The trouble is that the quests and fights are too easy for Ricardo because he always uses his father’s fairy gifts, such as the sword of sharpness, the seven-league boots, the magic carpet and the cap of darkness. Through a spell known as Drinking the Moon, Jaqueline discovers that Prigio plans to swap the fairy gifts for ordinary objects. The princess soon has to use more of her magic to protect Ricardo when he goes up against fearsome enemies such as the evil Yellow Dwarf  and The Giant who does not Know when he has had Enough. After Jaqueline is imprisoned by a monster, Prigio goes on an extraordinary journey as part of his plan to save her.

The more I’ve read about the life of Andrew Lang, the more I feel that Prince Prigio was a self-portrait. He knew from his own experience that while the canny Scots admire cleverness, the English tend to distrust it. In one of the “Tales of a Fairy Court”, young Prigio is described as picking up every language he heard and knowing “more ancient Greek and Latin than his tutor before he was six”. Moreover, “he knew the history of everywhere, and all the fairy-stories in the whole world.” Much the same could be said about Lang. He was a Classical scholar, renowned for his translations of Homer, but he also edited the work of British poets and was an expert on Scottish history. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychic Research, wrote adult books on the interpretation of mythology and folklore and the development of religion but he thought it just as important to introduce children to the riches of traditional storytelling. Lang was a man of strong opinions whose sarcastic wit made him many enemies – just as Prigio’s conceited cleverness does. In “Prince Ricardo”, Prigio uses the weight of Stupidity (particularly the stupidity of learned writers on Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible) as a weapon to crush a monster. Lang was a life-long fighter against ignorance and stupidity.

One of his battles was against influential educators of the late 19th century who claimed that Fairy Tales were irrational, violent and bad for young minds. Does that argument sound familiar? In every age well-meaning people have wanted to ban or censor Fairy Tales but, with help of scholars like Andrew Lang and his wife Leonora, the stories survive. Lang didn’t collect directly from oral storytellers and he credited his wife with much of the work of translating and adapting stories from foreign sources. His great contribution to children’s literature was to provide easily accessible, entertaining versions of Fairy and Folk Tales from all over the world. Nobody knew more about the structure and rules of traditional tales than Lang. In his original writing he plays with those rules in what seems a very modern way. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are both enjoyable stories in their own right and amusing commentaries on the way that Fairy Tales function.

Lang hated it when other Victorian writers produced moral tales in which pretty-pretty fairies preached at children. The only preaching in his own stories is done tongue-in-cheek. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are the work of a serious scholar having fun with his own special subjects. For this reason Pantouflia is not the most consistent of Fantasy realms. Lang borrows magical objects from “The Arabian Nights”, tosses in episodes from his beloved Scottish history (Ricardo has an encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie) and provides new endings for some Fairy Tale characters.  He mocks Prigio’s scientific-minded mother for refusing to accept anything that doesn’t fit with her world-view and the very English Ricardo for treating quests as a form of big-game hunting. A scene in which Ricardo hacks up a giant but the pieces cheerily keep on fighting reminds me of the anarchic humour of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Other characters refuse to be constrained by the conventions of the Fairy Tale world – Jaqueline (who turns out to be an Inca princess) is consistently braver and smarter than her beloved Ricardo, while Prigio has no intention of being the disposable elder brother who loses out to the lucky youngest son.

Of all the Fairy Tale princes I read about when I was a child, Prigio was the only one I wanted to marry. He uses brain-power rather than force to solve problems and he doesn’t care if this approach makes people call him a coward. In fact, Prigio is an early example of the Nerd as hero. His method of dealing with the Firedrake is particularly ingenious but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Prigio does have to learn what we would now call people-skills before he can become a good ruler. In “Prince Ricardo”, King Prigio is shown as a worried father, failing to let his son make his own mistakes, but he still saves the day with panache. Lang gave Prigio his own hatred of violence and cruelty. In a new version of “The Goose Girl”, which is one of the darkest of Fairy Tales (see my March 2015 post on “Thorn”), Prigio intervenes to stop the villain being executed in a horrible way. Pantouflia represents the world as Lang would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. You might enjoy his dream-world too. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

The second of my choices for December is a haunting children’s story about a mid-winter journey by English poet and novelist, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” was published in 1910 and remains one of the best animal-based Fantasy novels ever written. The first edition, with illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop, is a stunningly beautiful book which now sells for equally stunning prices. You don’t really need illustrations because de la Mare’s word-pictures are so vivid, so you could download the original text for free from Internet Archive or go for a cheap ebook. In 1935 the novel was reissued, with new illustrations by Mildred E.Eldridge, under the title of “The Three Royal Monkeys”. Copies of this edition are much easier to find, especially after it came out as a Puffin Paperback (1979) with a charming cover by Pauline Baynes. A story about monkeys set in a strange version of East Africa may not sound very Christmassy but most of the action takes place in frosty forests and snowy mountains.

By the edge of the Forest of Munza a lonely Fruit Monkey called Mutta-matutta lived in a hut with the skeleton of a long dead explorer for company. One day she took in a sick traveller called Seelem, who claimed to be a Mulla-Mulgar (a royal monkey), and nursed him back to health. Seelem told her that he was own brother to the Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar but he’d left his idyllic home to explore the world beyond the mountains. He and Mutta-matutta lived together for thirteen years and had three sons – Thumb, Thimble and Nod. Then grim and broody Seelem began to long for his home and decided to go on the long return journey “through dangers thick as flies” to the Valleys of Tishnar. He promised to come back for Mutta-matutta and their sons but seven years passed without any sign of him.

Mutta-matutta sickened and when she heard the voice of the goddess Tishnar calling, she knew that she was dying. She told her sons to seek the country of their father and the palace of their royal uncle. Then Mutta-Mututta gave weapons and red jackets to stout Thumb and strong Thimble but their little brother received a sheep-skin coat and his father’s milky Wonderstone because Nod was marked as a “a Nizza-neela, and has magic in him.” She warns Nod never to lose, give away or even lend the Wonderstone to anyone because if he rubs it in times of danger, Tishnar will send help.

Even after their mother’s death, the brothers are reluctant to leave the safety of their home but that changes when Nod accidentally burns down the hut. The three monkey-princes enter the frosted forest. On this first stage of their epic journey they face greedy pigs, prowling leopards, speckled tree-spiders, a mighty bull-Ephelanto, a gigantic Gunga-Mulgar and the even more dangerous flesh-eating Minimuls. When Nod is separated from his brothers he is snared by a lone Oomgar (a man) whom he helps to protect against Immanala – the Wandering Shadow. Once the monkey-princes are reunited they face even greater challenges as they try to cross the Peak of Tishnar with the aid of the agile monkeys known as the Men of the Mountains. Perils and enchantments lie ahead. Even with the help of the Wonderstone, can Nod and his brothers ever reach the fabled Valleys of Tishnar and be reunited with their father?

Walter de la Mare is now best remembered for volumes of poetry such as “Songs of Childhood” and “Peacock Pie” which capture the imaginative worlds of children. His most famous poem “The Listeners” (“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door…) can, like most of his work, be summed up by two words – magical and eerie. As a young reader I was quite traumatized by some of the sinister imagery in “Songs of Childhood”, such as John Mouldy sitting in his cellar “Smiling there alone” while rats creep over him. Less well known are de la Mare’s ghost and horror stories and his quirky Fantasy novels for adults and children. Each of these novels is very different but for me “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his masterpiece. Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down”, has been quoted as saying that “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his favourite book and I think I can detect its influence on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.

I love the beauty and inventiveness of  de la Mare’s language. His sentences shimmer and dance  -“Away went the three travellers, bundle and cudgel, rags and sheep’s coat, helter-skelter, between the silver breaks of the trees, scampering faster than any Mulgar, Mulla, or Munza had ever run before.” Characters often break into lively verse, sometimes in invented animal-languages, and the text features many familiar words twisted into strangeness, such as Zevveras for zebras or Babbabooma for Baboon (be warned that in one case de la Mare adapted a word which is no longer acceptable). The book is full of lovingly described animals, birds and plants. Some are real species; others are imaginary. Among my favourites are the birds who talk with tree-spirits “the tiny Telateuties, blood-red as lady-birds, that ran chittering up the trees” and the sad-faced, silken-haired Men of the Mountains who form living chains which look “like a long black-and-white caterpillar, clinging to the precipice with tiny tufts waving in the air.” Africa is used as a distant place which could contain anything that de la Mare wanted, including a wise Witch Hare and a dark-eyed, flaxen-haired water nymph.

The world of this novel is a frightening and melancholy one. The only human in the story, a lost English sailor who comes to like and respect Nod, is almost certainly doomed to die alone and a very long way from home. The various monkey tribes represent many of the vices and virtues of humanity. Some are cruel, greedy and violent; others are capable of kindness, courage and unselfishness. The three monkey-princes themselves are far from heroic. They try to follow their mother’s instructions never to taste blood, walk on all fours, or climb trees, but there are constant quarrels and mistakes. Thumb and Thimble are often proud and foolish and sweet friendly Nod is hopeless at keeping hold of the vital Wonderstone.

Yet Nod does have faith in Tishnar -who is not just a goddess but “that which cannot be thought in words, or told, or expressed.” In the most magical scene in the book, he uses the Wonderstone to allow the weary band of travellers to enjoy a heavenly feast in a scented meadow. This is a quest story which doesn’t have a conventional ending. Whether the brothers survive their journey over and under the mountains is a matter of interpretation and what they will find in the beautiful Valleys of Tishnar is mainly left to the individual reader’s imagination. I promised to recommend another “feelgood” novel before Christmas. “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” isn’t sentimental or cheery but it may make you feel braver and more hopeful about what Walter de la Mare called “the journey that has no end.”  I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a happy Holiday Season. Until next year…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk