Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Hobo Journeys to Unknown Destinations

On Monday 22nd November, I went to The Guardian bookclub to hear the great Russell Hoban speak about his novel Riddley Walker. He was witty, pithy, interesting and although clearly physically frail (he is hard of hearing and needed some help to get to the stage) he is still inventive and playful with language and still has an urge to write. It was a joy to be there and to meet up with other Hoban enthusiasts, and while it can sometimes be disappointing to hear writers talk about their work, on this occasion it was illuminating.

Re-reading Riddley Walker, I thought about other Hoban novels I have read (or had read to me) over the years. The absolutely delightful Frances books, especially Bread And Jam For Frances, are great fun for adults and children to read together, with rhymes and songs that Frances sings and beautifully observes egoccentrism of small children. But I felt that many of the themes and images in Riddley Walker are preceded in The Mouse And His Child.

The novel was first published in the States in 1967, and in the UK by Faber & Faber in 1969. My Puffin edition was published in 1976. It is the story of a clockwork toy, a mouse holding the hands of a child mouse. When their clockwork is wound up the larger mouse turns in a circle, lifting the smaller mouse up and down. When the novel starts, they are living in a toy shop with other clockwork toys: a rather snooty elephant and a seal. The child longs to live in a very superior dolls house in the shop with the elephant as his mother and the seal as his sister.

The Mouse and Child are bought as a Christmas decoration, and for some years they are packed away for most of the year and come out for Christmas. The children of the house are not allowed to touch the clockwork toys, which begs the question: are they toys if they are not played with? and what is their purpose? However, the toys are broken and thrown away. They are rescued by a tramp, who tries to repair them. He leaves out some cogs and wheels, so the Mouse is now walking forward, pushing the Child backwards in front of him. The Tramp winds them up and sets them off on their journey. On leaving them, he bids them "Be Tramps".

The Mouse and his Child suffer a series of misadventures, including rusting apart, but eventually achieve their heart's desire- to be self winding, and to have a home and a family. Along the way, with their allies, they defeat the tyrannical Manny Rat. At the end of the novel, the Tramp peers at them in their home and bids them to "Be happy".

There are several themes in the Mouse and His Child that I feel are also present in Riddley Walker. Firstly, prophesies. Lorna, the Tel Woman in Riddley Walker, prophesies "the old going out and the new coming in", the moves to reclaim the lost "clevverness" that created the "1 big 1" that lead to the great explosion that destroyed civilisation. The Frog in The Mouse and His Child is in fact a fraud, but he prophesies that "a Rat shall fall and a Dog shall rise", which is how the defeat of Manny Rat comes about.

In both novels, Hoban makes use of rhyme, drama and story. The dramatisation of the Eusa tale in Riddley Walker leads to Riddley leaving his home, and sets him on his way to Cambry. The discovery of the Punch puppet puts him at odds with authority. In the Mouse and His Child, the encounter with the Caws of Art theatre group enables the Mose and His Child to make their first defeat of Manny Rat. Both novels have songs and rhymes running throughout, which both further the narrative and comment upon it.

Finally, both novels have protagonists who are searching for their place in the world. Riddley is a 12 year old boy who loses his father very shortly after his "naming day", which in Riddley's world is an entrance to adulthood. So he is both officially and practically independent, but he is still an adolescent. He is in Hoban's words, "looking for his space in the cosmos". His journey is both a spiritual and a material quest. The Mouse and his Child are similarly escaping from a life of gruelling hardship (they are put to work for Manny Rat in a dump; Riddley works with his father at the diggings, on a treadmill) and are also looking for their place in the world, their own "territory": a home and a family.

Riddley Walker is an incredibly challenging read. Hoban created a new language- a post-apocalyptic English- to write in. But I feel it is well worth the effort, and I recommend reading the novels in tandem.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

I don't remember much about learning to read at school. The mid to late 1970s was apparently a time of great innovation in Primary education. Radical teaching methods bypassed my Home Counties small-town Primary; my mum assures me that we learnt through the Phonic method- learning letter sounds and then building them in words, but I don't remember much about my first years at school except the home corner and fancying a boy called Paul Madison, because he had long hair and wore elasticated plimsolls.

I do remember Janet and John books. I'm not sure if they were the main reading scheme books we used- but I remember thinking they were boring and it was a lot of effort to sound out those words under the bland pictures, only to find out that Janet was helping mummy (Good girl, Janet!). Besides, my dad was reading me the Narnia books at home; they were exciting, full of plot and my dad is a brilliant reader-aloud, so I thought I wouldn't bother finding out whether Janet and John ever swapped roles, with John helping mummy (Good boy, John!) and I wasn't even motivated by their dog Darky (Look, Janet! See the dog run!)

Reading didn't make sense to me until I was nearly 7. I remember that it was wet play, and I was looking for something to do, and for some reason I went to the book corner. I hadn't gone there much because the book corner was two bookshelves, jointed in the middle. They joined together and could be locked, and were only used by the teacher and the "free readers" who no longer had to read Janet and John and the other more interesting reading scheme books for children who weren't "slow readers". I picked up a Through The Rainbow Silver reader. I remember it had a story about Robin Hood in it, and had very detailed coloured pictures. I could read it! When she came back from her break, I convinced my teacher to let me read it to her- and low and behold, I went from Slow Reader to Free Reader!

My strongest memories of reading at Primary school are in fact being read to. My teacher in 3rd and 4th year Juniors was called Mrs Stowell, and she read some great books to us. I have very strong memories of The Dark Is Rising, the second in the Dark Is Rising sequence. We were in a mobile classroom not far from Buckinghamshire, where Susan Cooper set the novel, although I can't say if that was why the book resonated so strongly with me: in fact, until I reread it I forgot it was set not far from where my aunt and uncle live. But the sense of place in the novel is extremely powerful. The fourth chapter, The Walker on the Old Way has a description which is so vivid I was convinced that the novel had been dramatised on children's television in the late 70s. Will Stanton, an eleven year old boy who is the seventh son of a seventh son, has discovered that he is one of the Old Ones, the defenders of the Light, who are striving to defeat the rising power of the Dark. Will has just discovered his power, but doesn't yet know how to use it, and on his way home after Christmas shopping, he decides to instruct a fallen branch to burn:
"And there on the snow, a the fallen arm of the tree burst into flame. Every inch of it, from the thich rotted base to the smallest twig, blazed with licking yellow fire. There was a hissing sound, and a tall shaft of brilliance rose from the fire like a pillar. No smoke came from the burning, and the flames were steady; twigs that should have blazed and crackled briefly and then fallen into ash burned continuously, as if fed with other fire within."
Will's impulsivity has a consequence of course: it attracts the Dark to him, but it also convinces the Walker, who has been doomed to carry the second Sign of Power for centuries, to give it up to him.

I read the whole of the Dark is Rising sequence because Mrs Stowell read to us. I think I bought Over Sea, Under Stone, Cooper's first children's novel. I vividly remember reading Greenwitch, where Will meets Simon, Jane and Barney Drew in Trewissick, Cornwall. The section where Jane joins the local women in building the Greenwitch, a pre-Christian fertility figure, has stayed with me for thirty years. (Thankfully Jane's character is much developed from the Anne from the Famous Five crossed with Susan from Swallows and Amazons in the earlier work). I look forward to re-reading the rest of the sequence: The Grey King and Silver on the Tree.




Monday, 15 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower

This is not the post I was intending to write. I've been reading The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, revelling in her descriptions of the Home Counties in winter, and reliving my memories of sitting in a temporary classroom at the age of 10 while my teacher, Mrs Stowell, read it to my class.More of that anon.

I am listening to Richard Bacon on BBC 5 Live. He is debating adults reading Harry Potter with screenwriter Charlie Fletcher, and Jonathan Myerson, lecturer in Creative Writing at City University. Jonathan Myerson wrote this in 2001. His premise is that adults reading Harry Potter are missing out on complexity of character- that in adult fiction no character is wholly bad or wholly good; that characters in adult fiction do go out to take over the world. Clearly, the man needs to spend some quality time with Ian Fleming. He also disliked Harry Potter as it is about wizards and magic, and not the "real world".

Charlie Fletcher disagreed. He is also the author of the Stoneheart trilogy, which I have added to my ever- lengthening list of books to read. (Please let me know what you think if you've read it!) He made the point that in Angela Carter novels and South American magical realism, magic does happen in the "real world", it is not only a metaphor: think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, where magic and haunting are treated both as "real" phenomena, depicting the Buendia family's fate to relive their lives, literally haunted by the mistakes they have made,  and as a device for portraying the history of Columbia.

Clearly a 24 minute debate, with two guests with such polarised views, is not the forum for considered academic debate. However, I was astonished to learn that Myerson has not in fact read a Harry Potter book (or indeed, it seemed, Philip Pullman, surely a writer that even the snootiest Creative Writing lecturer cannot deny writes novels of astonishing complexity). The reason that he felt qualified to comment on what he assumes is the simplistic world view of Harry Potter is that he has seen his children reading them. I found this  astonishing. This is akin to me going on national BBC radio to debate Homeric odes on the basis that I know that my dad studied classics at university. But also, how profoundly depressing that Myerson does not feel it important as an academic that he should test his theory by actually reading some popular children's literature. Maybe he should contact me; I'd be happy to guide his reading.

Friday, 12 November 2010

It's all the rage these days...

I've been reading the amazing Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins recently. It is for my PhD research, but I like to think that I would read it anyway. Collins has stated in interviews that she was inspired to write it after flicking between a reality TV show and the Iraq war on TV, and it has certainly made me think a lot about media control, totalitarian states and our seeming preoccupation with undeserved celebrity status.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog. I have found myself defending the subject of my research to fellow academics on a couple of occasions recently. There are those who don't see the relevance or importance of literature research at all. The PhD student who expressed this point in an extremely, let's say, robust fashion (not from my University, I hasten to add!) is a scientist. He seemed to value only empirical research, and really couldn't see the contribution to knowledge that my PhD can make.

What I find more odd is the attitude of some fellow literature researchers. Children's literature does not seem to be valued in the way that literature for adults is. Even some literature researchers have expected me to be looking at the literature from a purely utilitarian perspective, in order to teach children to read, or as a tool for developing their social values. Some expected me to be looking at "classic" children's literature. Interestingly, even some cultural studies colleagues (who one might expect to be more open minded since their areas of academic interest are frequently dismissed as ephemera) found it difficult to understand my preoccupation with fantasy literature and with texts aimed at 10-16 year olds.

I will blog about novels that particularly interest me. I hope to interact with fellow fantasy fans, and am always interested in recommendations!