Archives for posts with tag: Children’s Books

This week I’m recommending a captivating story about a boy who is transformed into a cat. Matt Haig’s`To Be A Cat’ was published in 2012 and has charming illustrations by Pete Williamson. It is marked on the cover as being suitable for readers of 9+. Please concentrate on the plus bit rather than the nine. Haig has written acclaimed science fiction novels for adults (`The Humans’ ) and young adults (`Echo Boy’) on the theme of what it means to be human but in my opinion `To Be A Cat’ is as good or better than both of these books. Paperback editions of `To Be A Cat’ are easy to find but if you’re embarrassed to be seen reading a children’s story, just order it on your Kindle. No-one need ever know…

In the boring town of Blandford lives a boy called Barney Willow. His parents are divorced and Barney lives with his Mum and his dog, Guster. Two hundred and eleven days before the story starts, Barney’s Dad disappeared. On his twelfth birthday, Barney is bitterly disappointed to hear nothing from his Dad and his Mum has to work. Barney’s best friend Rissa ( a very tall girl with `Hair like a pirate’) does give him a handmade card but the rest of his birthday is `Totally Terrible’. Barney is tormented at school by a gang of bullies led by Gavin Needle and he unfairly gets into trouble with the child-hating head teacher, Miss Whipmire. No wonder he detests his life and fervently wishes that he could swap places with a cat…

Barney wakes up the next day as a small black and white cat and soon realizes how wrong he was to think that cats have lovely lazy lives with no worries. He has a lot of worries. His Mum and his dog don’t recognize him. He’s thrown out of his home, while a cat in his body goes to school in his place. Barney is now a `no-hoper’, a former human trapped in a cat body. He’s pitied by `firesides’ (cats who are content living with people) and chased by the vicious street cats known as `swipers’, who fear nothing but the legendary Terrorcat. While Rissa is on the trail of Barney’s missing father, Barney is uncovering Miss Whipmire’s dark secret and learning why she wants him dead. With Rissa’s help, can Barney survive long enough to seize his only chance of being turned back into a boy?

`To Be A Cat’ is what I would call a `what if?’ fantasy. Everything stems from the one question – what if people could become cats and cats could become people? This in itself isn’t an original premise. I’ve already recommended Fantasy novels in which a cat suddenly becomes a woman (`Fudoki’, March 2014) and a boy learns important life-lessons by being transformed into a series of animals (`The Sword in the Stone’, December 2012). What makes this book different is Haig’s thinking on why cats and humans might want to change places. Humanity seems to be divided  into dog-loving people and cat-loving people. I’m a cat person. Judging from the number of adorable dogs in his books, Haig is a  dog-person but he still has a shrewd understanding of cat psychology. He knows about cats’ contempt for human rules, their single-minded devotion to their own comfort, and the fact that they will do almost anything for tinned sardines. The Siamese cat who has become Miss Whipmire has been traumatized by casual human cruelty. She wants power over her own destiny, or at least to be able to open tins herself. She’s fiercely protective of her only kitten and totally ruthless towards everyone else – a truly terrifying Fantasy villainess. As someone brought up in a house full of Siamese cats, I found her behaviour perfectly plausible.

Much of what happens to cat-Barney is very funny, especially in the Needle household, where he’s treated like a toy by Gavin’s ghastly little sister, but there is an underlying seriousness to his adventures. Barney and Rissa have both been picked on for being different but Rissa sees this as meaning that she’s special. Besides, she genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of her. Barney does not have Rissa’s self-confidence. He has a `glass half empty’ outlook and he’s inherited from his father a tendency to run away from difficulties and responsibilities. Becoming a cat, gives Barney the opportunity to find out how imperfect other people’s home lives are and learn to appreciate the good things about his own situation. In order to break the spell, Barney has to want his own life back but becoming human again means accepting an inevitable mixture of success and failure, hope and fear, happiness and sorrow.

Matt Haig is an author who has suffered from severe depression himself. He `wrote himself out of depression’ by creating stories about people who find reasons to go on living, however bleak things may seem. His books celebrate the often taken for granted pleasures of friendship and family life and the amazing capacity of humans to love one another. So, why read `To Be A Cat’, rather than Haig’s novels for older readers? For a start, the conventions of children’s fiction allow Haig to insert a delightful version of himself into the narrative. As `the author’  he addresses the reader directly  – `…stories aren’t always lies. They are things stored in all our imaginations’ – and keeps interrupting the story to point out the important bits, even though he has promised not to – `I’m not good with promises, they make me itchy’.

The book still has a strong plot (there’s a brilliant twist concerning the Terrorcat) and a fast pace. Children’s authors have to condense their ideas until they can be expressed in the very bones of the story and that often makes them come across more strongly. You can’t get away with sloppy story-telling when writing for children and you must never, ever be boring. Another thing you can’t get away with is sentimentality. Some people find Haig’s adult novels a bit sugary and sentimental. `To Be A Cat’ has a pleasing sharpness about it. The plot may be fantastical but the human and animal characters are presented with realistic flaws. Consequently there cannot be a simplistic family-reunited happy ending. `But that’s what life is like sometimes. It has bits of sadness in it, splinters in the happiness.’

If I still haven’t convinced you to try `To Be A Cat’, go to Haig’s excellent website (www.matthaig.com) and look at his `10 reasons why it is okay to read YA’. He makes a strong argument for the value of Children’s and Young Adult literature. Until next time…

Geraldine

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

P.S. I think I may have changed places with my Birman cat years ago. It explains a lot.

 

 

 

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After two rather serious choices in a row, this week I’m recommending something lighter -`Comet in Moominland’.  This was written and illustrated by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson. 2014 is the centenary of her birth, so you’ll be hearing a lot about Jansson this year. `Comet in Moominland’, which came out in 1946, was the second of her children’s novels about the Moomintroll family and the one which made her famous. It is easy to get in paperback, ebook or audio editions but bear in mind that the illustrations are a very important part of the book. Trolls don’t generally get a good press in Fantasy Fiction but Jansson’s Moomintrolls are friendly creatures who resemble upright white hippopotamuses. Jansson wrote and illustrated eight novels and a number of comic-strips about the inhabitants of Moominland. If you weren’t lucky enough to read these stories as a child (or have them read to you), they still have much to offer adult readers.

Young Moomintroll lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpapa, and his friend Sniff in a blue house in a peaceful valley. One morning excitable kangeroo-like Sniff finds a new path to the sea and a splendid cave. The same night, a philosophical muskrat takes refuge with the Moomintrolls, saying he has forebodings that `something  is going to happen’. Possibly something awful. Sniff and Moomintroll keep noticing a sign like a star with a tail marked in all kinds of places. Uncle Muskrat warns them this means that a fiery comet is on the way. The only people who might know more about the comet are the Professors in the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains, so Moomintroll and Sniff set out by raft on an expedition to find the Observatory.

Sniff hopes for `small adventures. Just the right size,’ but he gets more than he bargained for. Their journey takes them down a waterfall, through a dark cavern and up a mountain and involves dangers such as an angry lizard, hungry crocodiles, a giant eagle and a very aggressive bush. On the way, they make a new friend, the tramp Snufkin, and search for a lost Snork Maiden after finding her gold bracelet half-way down a cliff.  Sniff’s acquisitive nature frequently gets him into trouble and Moomintroll suffers the pangs of first love. As the comet comes closer and closer to earth ominous things begin to happen. The sun goes pale, the birds stop singing, and the sea dries up. Can Moomintroll get home in time to save his family?

`Comet in Moominland’ is a very funny book with an under-layer of sadness and anxiety. It’s rather like an angst-ridden version of `Winnie the Pooh’. Some of the humour comes from the contrast between the traditional quest plot, with its numerous dangers, and the homelier elements of the story. Moomintroll and Sniff must be among the best equipped adventurers in Fantasy fiction, since Moominmamma insists that they pack sleeping bags, a frying pan, tummy powder, an umbrella, woolly stockings and trousers (which come in very handy for distracting crocodiles) and lots of sandwiches. Their adventures are `Just the right size’ for children – short and exciting but not too scary – and the chapters have enticing titles such as `Chapter 10 Which is about a Hemulen’s stamp-collection, a swarm of grass-hoppers and a horrible tornado’.  

As a child, I adored many of the characters, especially calm and caring Moominmamma who makes delicious pear jam and always knows what to do; timid, lemonade-guzzling Sniff who invariably manages to do the wrong thing; free-spirit Snufkin, who plays the mouth-organ, hates new clothes and can walk on stilts, and the sassy Snork Maiden who changes colour at moments of high emotion and saves Moomintroll from a giant octopus by quick-thinking.  As an adult, I can now see that Jansson was having fun at the expense of gloomy philosophers (Uncle Muskrat likes to `sit and think about how unnecessary everthing is’), procedure-loving bureaucrats (the Snork is always trying to hold committee meetings about the comet) and obsessive collectors (the Hemulen is more bothered by his stamps getting out of order than by the prospect of the end of the world). The dialogue between all these eccentric characters can be surprisingly sharp.

Jansson does borrow some elements from Scandinavian folklore but the inhabitants of  Moominland are very much her own creations. Many of them seem to have evolved from an initial drawing.  Jansson was the daughter of a sculptor and an illustrator and she was a notable artist in her own right.  You may have been wondering what a Hemulen is but I can only refer you to Jansson’s wonderfully lugubrious picture of the long-nosed Hemulen sitting `with his feet in the water, sighing to himself’. At one point in the story the little band of adventurers attend a moonlit dance in the woods. I defy anyone not to smile at Jannson’s drawing of mismatched pairs of dancers, including an embarrassed Snork clutched by a much taller water-spook with sea-weed in her hair. I can now see that some of the illustrations in `Comet in Moominland’  reference the work of famous painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau. Others are stunning, almost abstract, works of  art. Jansson’s picture of the dried-up sea bed in the `dim eerie light’ of the comet is particularly memorable.

While many of the adventures in `Comet in Moominland’ are clearly put in to entertain, the threat that the fiery comet will `hit the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42 p.m.’  is taken seriously throughout the book. Moomintroll thinks about `how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her’ and is `very,very sad’ at the thought that the seas and forests of  his beloved homeland are going to be destroyed. Jansson’s own homeland had suffered during World War II and `Comet in Moominland’ was written in the early years of the Cold War when everyone was beginning to fear nuclear destruction. One of the lessons of this and most of Jansson’s books is to appreciate the small pleasures of life – such as a dance, a flower or a cup of coffee – while you still have them. Moomintroll contradicts Uncle Muskrat by claiming, `There are hardly any unnecessary things, I think. Only eating porridge, and washing…’ In the course of the story, Snufkin shows Moomintroll and Sniff that even the desolate parts of the earth are beautiful but warns against trying to possess and exploit the earth’s treasures. This message, delivered with wit and charm, seems even more relevant today than when `Comet in Moominland’ was first published. Until next time…..

Geraldine

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

 

P.S.  I’m sorry that due to a technical glitch this post is a week late

 

 

Before there was `Toy Story’  there was `The Mouse and his Child’. This week I’m recommending an early novel by Russell Hoban, an American author who spent the second half of his life in England.  `The Mouse and his Child’ was published in 1967, with illustrations by Lillian Hoban. It’s easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. An animated film `The Extraordinary Adventures of the Mouse and his Child’ came out in 1977 and Hoban himself helped to turn the novel into a play. Like most of Hoban’s work, this multi-layered book is hard to classify. It was originally published for children but much of the satire it contains is aimed at adults. Hoban was inspired to write this story by a friend’s collection of clockwork toys, which were only taken out of their boxes for a few days each year at Christmas time.

In a toy shop live a group of wind-ups (clockwork toys) who are allowed to speak to each other between midnight and dawn. There is a proud elephant, who regards the magnificent dolls’ house on the shop counter as her own, a seal who balances a ball on her nose, and a mouse and his little son who are joined by the hands and do a circular dance.  Just before Christmas, the mouse and his child are sold to a family. For five years they are brought out each Christmas to perform their dance. After the mouse-child breaks one of  the rules of clockwork by crying while `on the job’, the toy is damaged and thrown away. A tramp rescues the toy and mends it so that the father-mouse can walk forward when wound up. The mouse and his child don’t get far before they are captured by a rat called Manny and forced to join his work-gang of salvaged wind-ups.

They manage to escape with the help of a prophetic bull-frog, who warns them that they have a long hard road ahead of them and that, `The enemy you flee at the beginning awaits you at the end.’   They venture into the wild woods, with the angry Manny in pursuit. Father-mouse is determined to gain independence by becoming `self-winding’ while the mouse-child longs to be part of a family again, with the elephant as his mother and the seal as his sister, and to live in the beautiful dolls’ house he remembers. During their journey, the mouse and his child are threatened by warriors and hunters, become part of a bizarre theatrical troupe, and meet two very different thinkers. They endure many trials and encounter old friends and enemies. Even when a happy ending seems in sight, there is still danger…

Hoban spent over three years writing and re-writing `The Mouse and his Child’. It shows in the meticulously researched and crafted world inhabited by his toy and animal characters, which exists un-noticed alongside the ordinary human world. From his lair in an old television set, Manny dominates a `city of rats and other vermin’ at the local dump, where market traders offer `Fancy moulds – green, white and black!’ or `Bacon grease, guaranteed two months old..’; gambling dens and taverns are `crudely built of scraps of wood and cardboard boxes’, and dancehalls are filled with the sounds of `tin-can drums, reed pipes, and matchbox banjos’. I’m particularly fond of the `Meadow Mutual Hoard and Trust Company’, a bank made of actual earth where chipmunk tellers count sunflower seeds and the vaults are full of valuable treacle toffee. If you think that makes the book sound twee, you’ll get a shock when you read the bank-robbing scene. This is a brutal eat or be eaten society, where animals fight over tiny territories until bigger predators come along. `The Mouse and His Child’ is a lot darker in tone than classic animal fantasies such as `The Wind in Willows’ or `Charlotte’s Web’.

This book reminds me of one of those Charles Dickens novels in which an innocent young hero learns how to survive in a dangerous world, but with animals and clockwork toys instead of people. As in Dickens, there is a mingling of the grotesque and the beautiful, startling leaps from comedy to tragedy, and a large cast of eccentric characters. Among the most memorable are Manny Rat, the Fagin-like villain who is plagued by self-doubt, Uncle Frog, a dealer in potions and prophecies who wears a tattered glove as a coat and is not quite the fraud he thinks himself to be; playwright C.Serpentina, a snapping turtle who contemplates infinity with the aid of a can of dog-food,  and the dignified she-elephant who endures cruelty and humiliation because `deep within her tin there blazed a spirit that would not be quenched.’

The clockwork mouse and his child complain of `the futility of dancing in an endless circle that led nowhere’, and anyone who feels unable to control their own destiny will sympathise with them. When the mice do break free, they have to keep moving forward with faith and courage to find the place where they will ‘ feel all safe and strong’ . There prove to be many obstacles in their path. They seek advice about becoming self-winding from `wise’ animals who are based on absurdist writers and existentialist philosophers, but get little practical help. At this point, the story is in danger of becoming merely a clever allegory.

I think `The Mouse and his Child’ is saved from that dry fate by the tender way in which Hoban writes about his clockwork characters. He makes their fragile bodies and indomitable spirits seem so real that it is truly distressing when the elephant is reduced by Manny to a shabby and pathetic figure, and the mouse and his child are trapped at the bottom of a pond while their clockwork stiffens and their glass-bead eyes grow dimmer. But trust me, I wouldn’t be recommending `The Mouse and his Child’ as a Christmas treat if the story didn’t end with forgiveness, peace and goodwill. As for the identity of the mysterious tramp who appears at the beginning and end of the book – well I leave that up to you to decide. Merry Christmas to all my readers and I’ll be back with more recommended Fantasy reads in the New Year.

Geraldine

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

As Christmas approaches, I’m in the mood for something Victorian. So, let’s go back to 1877 when Mary Louisa Molesworth wrote her most famous children’s novel – `The Cuckoo Clock’. I don’t think it has ever been out of print since. Plenty of cheap but  attractive old copies are available and some of the modern paperback editions include the original illustrations by Walter Crane. You can download the whole novel for free via Project Gutenberg but the format may not be very pleasant to read.` Mrs Molesworth’ is the author name that appeared on all her children’s books, even after she separated from her violent  husband. I don’t dare drop the `Mrs’ because I just know that she wouldn’t approve if I did.

This story is set in an ancient house in an un-named English town. After her mother dies, young Griselda is sent to live with her  great-aunts in this mysterious house.  Aunt Grizzel and Aunt Tabitha are kindly old women but they don’t know much about how to treat children. Griselda is lonely and bored though she is fascinated by a cuckoo clock brought to the house by her long-dead German grandmother. The wise old servant, Dorcas, tells her that this clock is `the luck of the house’.  After damaging the clock in a fit of temper, Griselda feels horribly guilty. When she apologizes to the clock, Griselda discovers that the cuckoo which comes out to mark the hours is not a mechanical bird but a `fairyfied cuckoo’.

The sharp-tempered cuckoo tells Griselda that she has `a great deal to learn’ but promises to consider her request for someone to play with. The next night, the cuckoo takes her inside his clock and then off to `Mandarin Land’ which seems to exist within an old Chinese cabinet. In the nights that follow, the cuckoo shows Griselda scenes from her grandmother’s life, teaches her how to fly with the aid of a feather cloak, and takes her on adventures to strange and beautiful lands. Yet the cuckoo’s greatest gift to Griselda is a new friend in the ordinary world…

Some literary critics are rather sniffy about Mrs Molesworth. One complained that `her choice of words is limited and unimaginative’ but I think that Mrs Molesworth’s plain and pacy style is what makes it possible for modern children to enjoy her books. She doesn’t go in for ornate language, complicated sentence structures or lengthy descriptions and she often addresses her readers directly in chatty manner.  When Griselda is taken to the loveliest of gardens in Butterfly-Land, Mrs Molesworth claims that she’s unable to describe it all – `I must leave a good deal to your fancy’. She seems to have seen her stories as collaborations between herself and her imaginative young readers.  Mrs Molesworth can describe things with precision and a dash of charm when a bit of detail is necessary, as in the case of the paths through Butterfly-Land – `the flowers growing along their sides were not all “mixty-maxty,” but one shade after another in regular order – from the palest blush pink to the very deepest damask crimson; then, again, from the soft greenish-blue of the small grass forget-me-not to the rich warm tinge of the brilliant cornflower.’

Mrs Molesworth’s books have attracted some surprising admirers, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and  Algernon Swinburne (you may have come across the latter as a character in Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne trilogy). Swinburne pointed out that Mrs Molesworth had a remarkable gift for conveying how children think and feel. `The Cuckoo Clock’ certainly gives me the impression that she remembered very vividly what it was like to be a child, especially an unhappy one. Griselda is no soppy shrinking violet, she’s a feisty little girl because her `childhood among the troop of noisy brothers had taught her one lesson – she was afraid of nothing.’ Nor is she in the least angelic. She sometimes sulks or loses her temper or gives in to self-pity.

Mrs Molesworth apparently believed that the purpose of fairy tales was to teach children to be good. There is nothing sneaky about the moral lessons in her own tales. The fairy-cuckoo is forthright in his criticisms of Griselda and clear in his instructions for improvement but you will probably be pleased to hear that Griselda puts up a spirited fight against becoming good. She asks the cuckoo to desist from his annoying habit of telling her that she has `much to learn’ and when Dorcas compares Griselda to her saintly grandmother, she responds that, `no one would like to be told they were like their grandmother. It makes me feel as if my face must be all screwy up and wrinkly.’ The cuckoo’s insistence that children should follow the orders they are given won’t appeal to modern children, but as Griselda is rebelling against being given a proper education in subjects such as Maths and Astronomy, adults may think that the cuckoo has a point.

When I first read `The Cuckoo Clock’ as a child, I envied Griselda for her magical adventures as she danced with an Emperor or wore a dress made from living butterflies. Re-reading this novel as an adult, it seems a tougher and more poignant book than I remembered. Griselda has lost her mother and been separated from her father and brothers, but this is treated as nothing exceptional. Along with happy visions, the cuckoo chooses to show Griselda the funeral of her grandmother, who died at the age of eighteen after giving birth to Griselda’s father. Such deaths were common at this period and Mrs Molesworth didn’t flinch from writing about them in her children’s books. When Griselda finds a new purpose in life by helping to look after a younger child, it rings true. This is a story about growing up and moving on, which means that Griselda no longer needs a magical helper. The ending of `The Cuckoo Clock’ is bittersweet. If you’re willing to run the risk of becoming a better person, why not give this quaint novel a try? Until next week…

Geraldine

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

After last week’s `big read’, something short and sweet this time. Since it is my birthday tomorrow, I’m indulging myself  by recommending a favourite children’s book which may be rather hard to find. `The Moon in the Cloud’  by British author Rosemary Harris (not to be confused with the American mystery writer, Rosemary Harris, though many do)  was first published in 1968 and won the Carnegie Medal for that year. Sadly and strangely it is now out of print and doesn’t seem to be available on Kindle or any other e-reader. However, a quick search on abe.com turned up 69 second-hand copies, most of them very cheap.

`The Moon in the Cloud’ is set in the `Bible Lands’ at the time of Noah. It tells the story of Reuben, who scrapes a living as an artist, musician and animal-trainer, and his enchanting wife, Thamar. Their neighbour, the prophet Noah, is warned by the Lord God that a Great Flood is coming. He is ordered to build an Ark to save his family and two of each type of animal. Noah tells his lazy and unpleasant son Ham to find two desert lions and fetch a pair of sacred cats from Kemi – the Black Land (Ancient Egypt). Ham gets Reuben to go in his place by telling him that this is his only chance to win a place in the Ark for Thamar.  So Reuben sets out with his faithful dog, Benoni, his black cat Cefalu and his grumpy camel, Anak, for the `land of cruelty and treachery and slaves – where a man might disappear…and never be seen or heard of again’.

Reuben’s worst fears are soon realized. At an oasis, he encounters the High Priest of the lion-goddess Sekhmet, who forces Reuben to go with him to Men-nofer, the capital of Kemi. There Reuben is separated from his beloved animals and thrown into a grim prison, where he is befriended by a condemned tomb-robber. Cefalu, on the other hand, is worshipped as a sacred cat and installed in the temple of Sekhmet, where he meets Meluseth, a white cat who is convinced that she is a goddess. Meanwhile, Thamar retreats into the desert after being pestered by Ham. The corrupt High Priest of Sekhmet is out of favour at court. When he hears about Reuben’s remarkable skill at playing a reed pipe, the High Priest gives Reuben to the music-loving King of Kemi. Although Reuben is now a slave, he strikes up a friendship with the lonely young King. Life at the royal court is far from safe. Reuben makes an enemy of the powerful Vizier and finds himself caught up in a feud between two ambitious High Priests. Can Reuben, and his animal friends, escape from Kemi in time to save Thamar from drowning in the Great Flood?

It can be hard to enjoy a novel if you have specialist knowledge of the time or place in which it is set. I first read `The Moon in the Cloud’ and its two sequels before I trained to be an Egyptologist but I still love them. Harris set her story in the reign of a fictional ruler of the late Old Kingdom. Apart from a few details, such as the idea that the royal pyramids were built by slaves, the Egyptian background is pretty accurate, but this is an Egypt seen through the eyes of a foreign captive. The cruelties and inequalities of life in Old Kingdom Egypt are emphasized yet Reuben is also dazzled by the wealth and sophistication of this great civilization. As a staunch monotheist, Reuben believes that the numerous gods and goddesses of Egypt are false and finds the animal cults ridiculous, especially when they involve worshipping his own cat. Harris also treats the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood with gentle irreverence but this is part of a long tradition in Christian culture. The scene in `The Moon in the Cloud’ in which Noah’s wife attributes her husband hearing the voice of God to indigestion might have come from one of the `Mystery Plays’  performed in the streets and churches of medieval Europe. At the end of the novel, Harris fits her invented couple, Reuben and Thamar, into the Biblical narrative of the Flood in a most ingenious way.

The plot summary may make `The Moon in the Cloud’ sound a grim and scary book when in fact it is funny and charming. That’s partly due to the humorous`authorial voice’ which tells the story looking back from a modern viewpoint. This voice frequently intervenes with helpful explanations (`In Kemi one didn’t die, one politely went West’) and astute comments on characters (`he was now squashed evil rather than evil rampant’)  and events (`It was a gay crowd, for there is nothing gayer than a crowd which feels very much alive, waiting for someone who will soon be very dead’). `The Moon in the Cloud’ is Fantasy, not Historical fiction. The reader gets to overhear the conversations of angels and the voices of labourers’ bones in the desert and, like Reuben, to understand the languages spoken by all kinds of animals. The story is packed with delightful animal characters, including  Reuben’s patient dog and pessimistic camel, a Barbary ape who finds fleas good company, and Mouse, an elephant who came north `seeking for a country where no snakes fell down your neck when you were sleeping’, who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. Cats are popular in Fantasy fiction but Cefalu, a moggie suddenly elevated to divine status, is one of the best. Harris was obviously a keen observer of cat behaviour, as shown in a  delightful scene in which a whole company of Egyptians has to stay face-down in the sand until Cefalu has finished his morning `stretch and wash’. He courts beautiful but dim Meluseth by sweeping lotus leaves into a couch for her with his tail and tempting her with `fat young rats and geckos’. Meluseth is too self-absorbed to respond, until an encounter with a truly formidable feline changes her view of the world.

There are endearing comic characters among the humans too, such as Tahlevi, the kindly thief who can’t resist a rich tomb, but at the heart of the story are two good men – gentle but determined Reuben, who has little but his integrity, and King Merenkere, unhappily married to his  own sister (an Egyptian royal custom) and bullied by his ministers ( `he wished that all the great men around him didn’t look like decayed hippopotamuses’). In a key scene, Reuben risks death by refusing to worship Merenkere as a god but honours him as a great king. As you read `The Moon in the Cloud’ you can almost feel the author falling in love with Merenkere.  He dominates the sequel, which is called `The Shadow on the Sun’ and introduces a spirited heroine and a terrifying sorceress. In the third volume, `The Bright and Morning Star’ , we find out what happened to the children of Reuben and of Merenkere. So, if you manage to get hold of a copy of `The Moon in the Cloud’ and find that you enjoy it, you will have two more treats to come. I’ll be back in a fortnigh’s time…

Geraldine

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