Archives for category: Children’s Books

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we are now into May, I’ve decided to recommend an almost forgotten story which begins on May Eve, traditionally the most magical night of the year. “Borrobil” by William Croft Dickinson is a kind of `missing link’ in British Fantasy. Professor Croft Dickinson was a renowned expert on Scottish history who also wrote ghost stories and Fantasy novels for children. “Borrobil” was first published in 1944 with black and white illustrations by John Morton-Sale. It was reissued as a Puffin paperback in 1964 with a wonderful cover by Pauline Baynes. Very cheap copies of this edition are quite easy to find. None of Croft Dickinson’s fiction seems to be available online but it certainly should be.

Donald and Jean are a young brother and sister spending a holiday in the British countryside. They are fascinated by the Eldritch Wood – `a dark mysterious ring on the crest of the far-off hill’. Most people avoid this wood but Donald and Jean decide to visit it one moonlit night in the hope of seeing something magical. When the children enter the wood they see two bonfires burning at the entrance to a circle of nine standing stones. After Jean impulsively leaps through the flames, the children are transported back into ancient magical times. They are greeted by a bright-eyed little man who turns out to be the good magician Borrobil. He explains that every year on Beltane/May Eve, the King of Summer must defeat the King of Winter. First though, there is going to be a dragon-fight.

The children learn from a Pictish man called Giric why the curse of a dragon descended on the land and how every seven years a brave man tries to kill this massive dragon. The coming of strange children bearing gifts (biscuits) is held to be a lucky omen so they are allowed to watch the hero Morac put Girac’s cunning plan to defeat the dragon into action. After the thrilling combat, Donald and Jean are invited to go with Morac on his journey north to bring home his promised bride, Princess Finella. It is a trip full of perils. The children and their companions face a shape-shifting sorcerer, a malignant dwarf, a brutal giant, the Fairy Queen, fierce raiders from the sea and the dangerous Blue Men who live in the sea. With Borrobil, an elderly gatekeeper, and the Princess Finella, Donald and Jean form an `army of five’ to fight unexpected enemies. Can the children get back to the Nine-Stone Ring in time for the battle between Winter and Summer, Past and Future?

Do you have a special story that you loved when you were young but have never been able to find again? I adored this book as a child but I wasn’t sure of the title and I didn’t know the author’s name. The memories all came back when I recently spotted a copy of “Borrobil”  in a charity bookshop. As soon as I saw the dragon and the dumpy man wearing a brown hat with a long white feather on the cover, I knew that this was the story I had searched for for so long.  “Borrobil” also seems to have gone missing from most histories of Children’s Literature yet Croft Dickinson deserves to be remembered as part of the distinctively British school of academics who wrote Fantasy novels in their spare time. He was a contemporary of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and like the latter he used his specialist knowledge in his fiction. I can see now that the archaeology of  Iron Age Britain was the inspiration for the strange dwellings of the characters in “Borrobil”, such as the underground earth-house of Geric the Pict, or the massive stone tower of the Men of Orc. Don’t know a broch from a crannog? You will after reading this book but it always feels more like an adventure than a history lesson.

There are many similarities between “Borrobil” and Alan Garner’s well known first novel “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, which was published in 1960. In both stories a modern brother and sister meet a benevolent wizard who introduces them to a range of figures from legend and involves them in battles between good and evil. Both books incorporate British legends, fairy tales, and folk customs (such as lighting Beltane Fires on hills) and feature ancient landmarks. Of the two, I actually prefer “Borrobil”. Garner has a more poetic imagination and provides a stronger over-arching plotline but Croft Dickinson’s work has greater warmth and humour and his child characters are more convincing – apparently he wrote this story for his two young daughters.

Jean has more personality than Donald but both siblings are easy for young readers to identify with. They are adventurous (at one point Jean is resourceful enough to rescue her own rescuer) but they don’t suddenly change into sword-wielding super heroes when they enter a Fantasy realm. Jean and Donald sometimes get frightened, cross or tired and they never do anything that a normal child couldn’t do with a little luck and courage. If the children are ordinary, the people they meet certainly aren’t. Geric is a close-mouthed deep thinker who uses Fairy Tale tricks to defeat supernatural enemies. Morac is a warrior hero with a sword-stroke powerful enough to split a giant in two and Finella is a princess as kind and brave as she is beautiful. Best of all though is the story-spinning, poem-making, riddle-solving magician Borrobil.

Parts of this story are quite grim and scary but one of the reasons I enjoyed it as a child was that I never felt anything truly terrible would happen to Donald and Jean as long as smiling Borrobil was around. He practises traditional types of magic, such as rubbing snake-grease on his eyes to see things at a distance or carrying fern-seed gathered by moonlight to make himself invisible. Borrobil also uses wisdom and knowledge to defeat his enemies rather than force and he’s the embodiment of the word merry. There is real sadness at the end of the book when the children realize that they must leave the past and never see Borrobil again.

Croft Dickinson did write a sequel called “The Eildon Tree” (1947) in which a slightly older Donald and Jean meet another magical figure, Thomas the Rhymer, and are transported back to an alternative version of 13th century Scotland. Unfortunately vintage copies of this book are rare and expensive. I hope this post will help to make William Croft Dickinson’s fiction better known. I’d love to see his work back in print. Enjoy the merry month of May. Until next time…

Geraldine

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

This holiday week I’m recommending some entertaining dragons. Do you have any favourite Fantasy authors who are guaranteed to cheer you up when you are in a fit of the glooms? One of mine is E.Nesbit. She is famous for classic novels such as `The Railway Children’ and `Five Children and It’ but she also wrote delightful modern Fairy Tales. Modern in 1900 that is, which is when `The Book of Dragons’ was first published. The eight stories in this collection had previously appeared in `The Strand’ magazine, the original home of Sherlock Holmes. Cheap paperback copies of `The Book of Dragons’ are fairly easy to find or you can download the text for free on most e-readers. Better still, find a copy of `The Complete Book of Dragons’ a 1972 edition which contains an extra story `The Last of the Dragons’ and witty illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This book has also been republished under the title of `The Last of the Dragons and Some Others’.

Nesbit’s funny and fast-paced stories all feature intrepid young people who have to deal with monsters, including a clever cockatrice (in `Kind Little Edmund or the Caves and the Cockatrice’), a cat-eating manticora (in `The Book of Beasts’) and lots and lots of dragons. One story is set in Cornwall `before what you call English History began’ (The Last of the Dragons’) while two start in Victorian London (`The Deliverers of their Country’ and `The Ice Dragon or Do as You are Told’) and contrast everyday life with some very strange happenings. Others are set in invented realms, like the Kingdom of Rotundia where `all the animals were the wrong sizes’ (`Uncle James or the Purple Stranger’) or have typical Fairy Tale backgrounds with a distinctive twist or two – such as a royal pack of hippopotamuses in `The Fiery Dragon or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold’ and a griffin who does housework in `The Island of  the Nine Whirlpools’. Like traditional tales, Nesbit’s stories often claim to explain the origin of something, ranging from the English climate (`The Deliverers of the their Country’) to the first cat (`The Dragon Tamers’).

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was an unconventional woman who flouted many of the rules of Victorian morality.  She cut her hair short, earned her own living by selling her poems and stories to magazines, was a campaigning socialist and enjoyed what we might now call an `open marriage’. She had three children and also brought up her husband’s two children by their housekeeper as her own. Nesbit was too busy to be the type of ideal mother who appears in `The Railway Children’. She was sometimes neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and she herself claimed that she retained a child’s mind in a grown-up’s body. All this shows in her writing in various ways.

Nesbit is the most unstuffy of Victorian authors and her stories are seldom preachy. She knew what children liked, so there are never any boring bits in her Fairy Tales and the plots get underway very quickly. For example, in `The Book of Beasts’ a little boy unexpectedly becomes king of his country on the very first page. Nesbit remembered how children think and feel – especially the kind of children who frequently get into trouble. The behaviour and motivation of her young characters is always convincing, even in her Fantasy stories, so you’ll believe that the bizarre things which happen to `Kind Little Edmund’ are due to his laudable desire to `find out new things that nobody has thought of but me’. Above all, like the writers of many of Pixar’s films, Nesbit has a sense of humour which appeals to both children and adults.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am keen on dragon-centred Fantasy. I particularly admire the variety of Nesbit’s dragons. They can be clever or stupid, gentle or ferocious, huge or tiny. There is a dragon made of ice, and a dragon that sets everything on fire, a smooth-talking purple dragon, a rapacious red dragon and a giant yellow dragon who turns out to be a devoted mother. In `The Deliverers of their Country’ an `Alarming Plague of Dragons’ begins with a dragon small enough to get in a little girl’s eye and swiftly progresses to people finding earwig-sized dragons in their soap and butter, dog-sized dragons steaming in their baths and sheep-sized dragons scorching their bedsheets. Nesbit, who also wrote Horror stories, isn’t afraid to make her bigger dragons scary. There are jaunty descriptions of these monsters gobbling up animals, people, and in one case an entire football match `players, umpires, goal-posts, football and all’ (`The Book of Beasts’).  A major function of dragons in literature (and of dinosaurs in movies) is to eat the bad guys before being defeated by the good guys. Nesbit has her dragons munch on the kinds of people she disliked, such as greedy politicians, arrogant aristocrats and big-game hunters. Who would you put on the dragon-food list?

There is a two-headed dragon that only eats kings and queens in a story called `Billy the King’ which you can find in another collection called `E.Nesbit Fairy Stories’, which was published in 1977 and edited by Naomi Lewis.  I wouldn’t put Nesbit in the very first rank of Fairy Tale writers. Her stories are always witty and charming but they lack the poignancy and the haunting qualities of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my `Snow Queen’ post of January 2013) or Oscar Wilde (see post of November 2013). Where Nesbit does score highly is with her female characters. They are not just there to cast evil spells or to look pretty and be rescued. In most of her stories, the girls are as smart, brave and resourceful as the boys. As plucky Jane says to her brother in `The Ice Dragon’, `I’m not so stupid as you think, George’. If you believe that Feminist Fairy Tales are a recent development try `The Last of the Dragons’ which features `the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe’. She won’t tolerate being rescued from a dragon by a prince in the traditional manner. The princess persuades her weedy but nice prince that they should tackle the dragon together. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to seek out the treasure that is E.Nesbit’s dragon stories. Happy Easter.

Geraldine

 

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

 

 

 

This week I’m recommending `The Sleeping Army’ – a children’s story which contains more interesting ideas than many Fantasy novels published for adults. In 2011 British author Francesca Simon took a well-earned break from her wildly popular Horrid Henry series to write a story inspired by a famous hoard of 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces from Norway found buried on the Scottish island of Lewis. Most of the `Lewis Chess Set’ is now on display in the British Museum. You can see drawings of some of the pieces on the hardback cover of `The Sleeping Army’. This book, and its 2013 sequel `The Lost Gods’, are also available in paperback and as ebooks.

`The Sleeping Army’ is a `what if’ story. In this case – `What if people still worshipped the old Norse and Anglo-Saxon Gods…’  Twelve year-old Freya Raven-Gislason lives in modern London with her mother, Clare, who is a priestess of Woden. Freya’ parents are acrimoniously divorced but her father Bob gets to look after her once a week. One Thorsday night Bob has to take Freya into work with him at the British Museum. Bored at being left alone in a gallery `dedicated to exploring the spread of Wodenism as a major religion throughout Europe’, Freya can’t resist blowing a silver horn displayed next to the Lewis Chessmen. The sound of the horn brings some of the chess pieces to life and Freya is sucked into a vortex with them.

A king and queen from the chess set have turned into a boy and girl called Alfi and Roskva, and a knight has split into a berserker warrior called Snot and an eight-legged horse.  Alfi and Roskva tell Freya that they are human bond-servants of Thor and hustle her onto the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard, the home of the Norse Gods. Freya is excited by the idea of meeting her gods but when they reach Asgard it seems derelict. Alfi and Roskva realize that they must have been away `sleeping’ as ivory chess pieces for a very long time. When the gods and goddesses do appear, they are shadows of their former selves. A doddery Woden/Odin is pleased that a hero has at last sounded the Horn of Heimdall and woken his Sleeping Army, until he realizes that the `hero’ is a whiny girl and that only three of the army are awake.

The Norse Gods have lost their eternal youth because the goddess Idunn, who keeps the Apples of Immortality, has been imprisoned by the giant Thjazi. Loki the Trickster was sent to bring her back but, contrary to the legend Freya has been taught, he never returned with the lost goddess. Freya is told that she must go to the realm of the giants, with Alfi, Roskva and Snot in order to rescue Idunn. If they don’t succeed within nine nights, Freya will join the others as an ivory chess piece and sleep with the magical army until another hero blows the horn. On her terrifying journey to Hel and back, Freya will encounter a giant eagle, wolves, a dragon, the Queen of the Dead and deceitful Loki, the most dangerous deity of them all…

I’ve had replicas of several of the Lewis Chessmen sitting on my book-shelves for years. I always wondered why their faces looked so glum and now I know. Alfi tells Freya about being `frozen in that place of dead things for years and years and years…Listening and waiting….’, though it does mean that he’s learned to speak English and knows how to ask `Where are the toilets?’ in dozens of languages. Simon’s publishers obviously think of her as a comic writer, so the covers of all her books are designed to make them look like jolly romps. In the case of `The Sleeping Army’ this is misleading since the story is rather a sombre one, filled with genuinely frightening episodes. There are passages of broad humour based on the original myths, such as Freya nearly drowning in the piss of an angry giantess, but many of the jokes are of the grim kind that the Norsemen themselves would have appreciated. Snot’s idea of a cheerful poem is one in which an enemy is hacked to pieces `Ready for the eagle’s snack’. There is even a joke about my favourite Viking, the murderous poet Egil Skallagrimsson (see my January 2015 post on `Egil’s Saga’).

Elements of the plot of `The Sleeping Army’ are taken directly from Norse mythology and in an afterword Simon recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s `brilliant, poetic re-telling’ in `The Penguin Book of Norse Myths’. Plenty of modern Fantasy authors have drawn on Norse myth. What makes Simon unusual is that she tries – very successfully – to convey the mindset behind the myths. Her ancient characters do not have modern attitudes and one of the main differences is that they don’t expect life to be easy or fair. Norsemen and women believed that Fate was stronger even than the gods. Bickering brother and sister, Alfi and Roskva, have suffered the harsh fate of being taken from their family to become the permanent slaves of quick-tempered Thor, while Snot has been separated from a beloved wife and forced into an eternal cycle of violent death and resurrection as a warrior of Woden. As Roskva says, `The Gods do what they like. We mortals live with the consequences’. Very reluctant heroine, Freya, constantly moans about how hard her own fate is. She gets sternly told to accept her fate with courage and hope to be remembered for her noble deeds. It’s not the kind of advice that you find in most modern children’s books.

The idea of putting Norse deities into the modern world is not an original one but Simon stands out by refusing to make her deities likeable. They are arrogant and cruel and show little but contempt for the beings they have created. Her repulsive Loki is nothing like the Wrong but Romantic figure so dashingly played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Thor and Avengers films. The only deity treated with sympathy is Loki’s daughter Hel, who has been sent to rule the unheroic dead. She is shown as part monster, part lonely girl. Freya may not be obvious heroine material (she hates nature and any form of outdoor activity) but when she succeeds it is because of human qualities such as the cunning of the oppressed, the courage of the desperate and the ability to show compassion.

Another unusual feature of `The Sleeping Army’ novels is that Simon has imagined what the old Norse religion would be like in an era and culture in which most people are not at all religious. Priestess Clare’s `throng’ mainly consists of a few old ladies and her ex-husband has become an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ `The Gods Delusion’. In `The Lost Gods’ there is some particularly sharp writing about trendy clergy like Clare who don’t really believe in their own deities and wouldn’t recognize them if they turned up in her own living room (as they do). The second book contains more humour and satire than the first but it also explores the difference between ancient and modern ideas of fame. So, don’t be put off by the covers or the fact that the leading character is a twelve year old school girl who wants to rid the world of `war, hunger, football and beetroot’. This is a series worth trying whatever your age may be. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

My Christmas curiosity is a Fairy Tale novel by a remarkable 19th century Irish-woman, Frances Browne (1816-1879).`Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was first published in 1856 and seems to have been in print ever since. It is sometimes  known by the longer titles of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and its Tales of Fairy Times’ or `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and the Tales it Told’. To add to the confusion,`Secret Garden’ author Frances Hodgson Burnett introduced a reprint called `Stories from the Lost Fairy Book’. I found a vintage copy on a charity bookstall but you can get `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as a very cheap ebook or even download it for free. Be wary though, some of the ebook versions leave out much of the delightful framing story about a little girl called Snowflower and her grandmother’s magical chair.

`In an old time, long ago, when the fairies were in the world’ orphan Snowflower lives with her stern grandmother, Dame Frostyface. The only good piece of furniture in their tiny cottage is a `great armchair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.’ When Dame Frostyface has to visit her cross aunt, she leaves Snowflower alone in the cottage but tells her that if she wants company, the armchair will tell her one story a day and if she needs to go anywhere, the armchair will take her. Snowflower enjoys the stories told to her by `a clear voice from under the velvet cushion’ but after a few weeks she runs out of food. So she asks the chair to take her the way her grandmother went.

During the journey, Snowflower stops at the palace of King Winwealth and Queen Wantall who are celebrating the birthday of their daughter Princess Greedalind with a seven day feast. The kingdom was a happy place when it was jointly governed by Winwealth and his brother Wisewit but one midsummer day the good prince disappeared in the forest. Now the King is depressed and everyone in the capital city seems greedy and discontented. The courtiers and the palace servants treat Snowflower with disdain but Winwealth thinks it might be amusing to see the moving chair and find out if it can really speak. On each of the seven evenings of the feast, the chair tells a story at Snowflower’s bidding. When Wantall and Greedalind try to steal the wonderful chair, its secret is finally revealed.

After reading this book, I wanted to find out more about the author. I was shocked to discover that Frances Browne was blinded by smallpox when she was only 18 months old. She was the seventh of twelve children in a Donegal family that had fallen on hard times. Apparently she used to bribe her siblings to read books to her by doing their share of the housework. Frances soon began composing poems and short stories, which she dictated to one of her sisters. As a young woman, Frances intrepidly moved to Edinburgh and later to London, where she supported herself by her writing. I would never have guessed that `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was written by a blind person. This book glows with light and colour and is full of excellent descriptive detail. The `Blind Poetess of Ulster’ seems to have lived in the beautiful world of her imagination.

The last paragraph of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ acknowledges the influence of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’) but Frances Browne was one of the earliest British writers to make up new Fairy Tales. The seven stories told by the chair feature kings and princesses, fairies, merpeople and magical animals and birds but they aren’t retellings of traditional folk tales. The plots are original and full of striking incidents, such as a shepherd being forced to shear a pack of shaggy wolves by moonlight (`The Greedy Shepherd’) or two children having to rescue their fathers from a fairy spell which has condemned them to plant acorns all day and all night (`The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’). There is a great deal of humour in these gentle stories which often comes out in character-names  – like King Stiff-step of Stumpinghame, who rules a kingdom where large feet are admired (`The Story of Fairyfoot’).

The seven tales are cleverly integrated into the framing story. Some of them turn out to be the stories of guests at the royal feast, while Queen Wantall and her dreadful daughter miss the moral of the tale every time and covet the treasures won by virtuous behaviour. Yes, some of the tales do have a moral but is that a bad thing if they encourage children to be content with what they have, polite to everyone they meet (even fish) and kind to old people (even grumpy ones)? Frances Browne was no Puritan. Her good characters make other people happy and are merry themselves, as in the story of a fiddler called Merrymind who brings joy back into the lives of Dame Dreary and her people. This book shows great sympathy for poor children who suffer hardship and humiliation, presumably because the author had experienced real poverty herself. There is also nostalgia for rural life in a pre-industrial age before `the hum of schools’ and `the din of factories’ frightened the fairies away.

I’ve chosen `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as my Christmas book because in three of the stories wonderful things happen at Christmas – a young girl returns home from fairyland in a chariot drawn by six white horses (`The Story of Childe Charity’);  the seapeople sleep for the only time in the year, allowing two of their captives to plan an escape (`Sour and Civil’); and a magical cuckoo brings leaves from the two trees that grow at the end of the world (`The Christmas Cuckoo’). The leaves of the Golden Tree bring riches but the leaves of the Merry Tree give happiness. Which would you choose? I wish all my readers a joyful Christmas or Holiday season. Until next year…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk