Archives for category: Children’s Books

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

 

 

 

 

During December I’ll be recommending two feel-good Fantasy novels for children, one fairly old and one fairly new. I’ll start with the modern one – “Flood and Fang” (2009)  by Marcus Sedgwick. On the cover this is called Goth Froth (is that a genre?) but I’m going to classify it as a Gothic Comedy. “Flood and Fang” is Book I of The Raven Mysteries and there are five volumes in the series so far. You can get “Flood and Fang” as an ebook but because the witty illustrations by Pete Williamson are such an important part of the story print copies work better. There is though a spiffing website to go with the series – http://www.ravenmysteries.co.uk

“Flood and Fang” is narrated by a raven called Edgar and set in Castle Otherhand – “home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes”. The castle is owned by Lord Valevine Otherhand and his wife Lady Euphemia, known as Minty. Valevine is an unsuccessful inventor who spends most of his time in his laboratory in the East Tower, reluctantly assisted by Flinch the butler. Minty used to be a witch who specialized in curses but now she’s obsessed with baking the perfect spongecake. The Otherhands have four children – twin toddlers, Fizz and Buzz, wimpy son Cudweed, and teenage daughter Solstice who writes gloomy poems with titles such as “Why aren’t I dead?” The wise old raven thinks that, “The Otherhands are all so very stupid, even for people,” but he does have a soft-spot for raven-haired Solstice.

The Otherhands are looked after by many servants; so many that when housemaids start disappearing it takes a while for anyone to notice. Edgar has already been alarmed by a glimpse of the huge slimy tail of a “hideous, horrible, hateful thing” in the castle gardens and has spotted what looks like a new tunnel in the rock the castle is built on. Unfortunately as none of the Otherhands speak Raven they pay no attention to his warnings. When Edgar discovers that the castle  cellars have mysteriously flooded and that the water is still rising, he has to devise a cunning plan, involving pork crackling and Cudweed’s malicious pet monkey, to get the family to notice. Even then, Solstice is the only one who really helps Edgar to investigate the horrid fate of the missing maids. As the waters keep on rising, the castle itself seems to have turned against the Otherhands putting everyone in terrible danger. Can Edgar work out what is going on before it is too late?

Marcus Sedgwick’s compelling Young Adult Fantasy novels, such as “The Book of Dead Days” or “The White Crow”, are usually described as dark, chilling or bleak – never as funny and cheerful. Sedgwick is the last author I expected to make me smile and laugh a lot, but writing for younger readers obviously brings out a different side of him. The Raven Mysteries are rather like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” played for laughs. As in Peake’s books, the castle itself almost counts as the main character. In “Flood and Fang” each decorative chapter heading contains interesting facts about the history of Castle Otherhand. There is, for example, information about the exact number of arrows fired during 32 sieges of the castle, about the legend of its Lost Jewels, and about the castle’s most terrifying inhabitant – “fearsome, foul and flatulent” Nanny Lumber. During the story, Edgar describes various parts of the architectural nightmare that is Castle Otherhand including the Great Hall, the Lost South Wing and the sinister cellars. He suspects that the castle “has its own views on things” and sometimes acts in its own defence. In “Flood and Fang” Castle Otherhand has a plan for defeating an invader. It just happens to be a stupid one…

Like the Tower of London, Castle Otherhand has Raven guardians, except that Edgar is the only one left and he is old and tired. Ravens have a strong presence in Myth and Fantasy. They can be birds of ill-omen and bringers of war, symbols of collective wisdom, Trickster gods or divine messengers. I can think of several notable ravens in children’s literature such as melancholy Marshall in “The Stone Cage” by Nicholas Stuart Gray or the anarchical Mortimer in Joan Aiken’s “Arabel and Mortimer” stories. Excitable Edgar is a welcome addition to the list of leading ravens and his peppery narration is a joy to read. He can quoth rather more than “Nevermore” but words such as rock and rack aren’t often useful in general conversation and most humans can’t interpret raven noises such RURK! “which is not as rude as FUTHORK but still a bit”. Fortunately, Edgar explains to us what he’s thinking and saying, which allows young readers to feel superior to the ignorant adults in the story – always an enjoyable experience.

Much of the humour in this book arises from the daft behaviour of the Otherhand family. Lord Valevine is wasting time and resources trying to prove that frogs cause thunder and lightning – his gruesome experiments will probably horrify older readers and delight younger ones. Lady Minty is so keen to find the right cake tin that she fails to notice the perils her adventurous twins are exposed to amongst the sharp knives and roasting pits of the castle kitchens.  Cudweed eats too much and is “…amazingly, award-winningly scared, all the time,” while Solstice loves excitement and is prone to dash into danger. Compared to the others though, Goth Princess Solstice is the smart one.

The plot of “Flood and Fang” is wonderfuly wild and absurd but clever characterization make you think of the Otherhands as a real family, not so far removed from the sort of eccentric neighbours or relatives everyone has some experience of.  A monstrous threat brings this family together in a very literal way but they are still slow to grasp Edgar’s brilliant plan to save them. At one point, exasperated Edgar considers abandoning the castle but part of him still cares about the people who live in it in spite of their foolishness. Choose to help people whether they deserve it or not seems like a good motto for the Christmas season. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk