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.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Moominland Midwinter

This year, it has been unusually snowy in London. Londoners are not equipped for snow, and indeed, we have had probably almost a decade without much snow, so we don't have snow ploughs or shovels ready to clear the snow away. I think we also have a quite unreasonable assumption that we don't really need to change our behaviour in any way because of weather; an attitude that Northern European or Scandanavian friends don't share. (We seem to assume that the rest of Europe does much better in snow than we do; but schools were closed in Germany the week before Christmas holidays; thousands were without electricity and public transport ground to a halt in Poland, both countries that regularly have far colder winters and heavier snow than South East England does).

We tend to marvel at the beauty of snow. Newspapers and social networking sites were full of photos showing how the most humdrum of landscapes can be changed by a snowfall; it is almost magical. However, it is also threatening, malevolent and alienating- after all, snow and ice can be deathly (as it is to The Squirrel with the Marvelous Tail in Moominland Midwinter), and the late sunrise, early sunset and lack of natural light can be depressing for some people. So in Finland, where much of the land is in the Arctic circle, the effect of no sunlight at all in the midwinter must be profoundly unsettling.

This is the premise of Moominland Midwinter by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson. Moominland Midwinter is the sixth book in the series. In it, Moomintroll wakes up in the middle of winter (Moominmamma, Moominpappa and the Snork Maiden are all still hibernating, as trolls should). Moomintroll is initially threatened by the snowy landscape- after all, his friends and family are mostly either asleep or, like Snufkin the poet-philospher-adventurer, have gone south for the summer. He is lonely and afraid, winding the clocks and setting them at different times for the companionable sounds. Throughout the story Moomintroll learns to not only survive and cope by himself, but also to look after the other inhabitants of Moomin Valley who are suffering in the cold. He does this with the help of the Too-Ticky, the indomitable fisherwoman, and with the example of Little My he even learns to enjoy some things about winter- for example, he learns to ski.

Moominland Midwinter has in my opinion been wrongly  characterised as cute, cosy or whimsical- perhaps because it was animated we think of it as being for small children. However, there is something uncanny and unsettling about much of the book. For example, the Ancestor and The Creature Under The Sink taking up residence in Moomintroll's house- their motivations and characters are still ambivilant at the end of the story. or when the squirrel is touched by the icy Grote and freezes. We meet another squirrel with a marvelous tail at the end of the book, but it is not clear if this is the same squirrel who survived or another one. Little My wants to take his tail as a muff. Moomintroll is very upset by the apparent death and is surprised that she isn't. "No," she says, "I can't. I'm always either glad or angry." What are we to make of this? It passes without comment, and Little My doesn't become more empathic during the course of the story. Little My is one of the worst offenders for purloining Moomintroll's family's belongings to help her enjoy the snow: Moominmamma's best silver tray as a sledge, for example, and she isn't punished for it.

In the earlier books, the female characters were a little simplistic and stereotypical- the vain and silly Snork Maiden, and Moominmamma, the perfect mother, always cleaning and cooking and making everything better with coffee and pies. But I adore Little My- she reminds me of another Scandinavian heroine:
 Pippi Longstocking, the strongest girl in the world. 

Too-Ticky is another interesting female character. Tove Jansson has stated that she was based on her partner, Tuulikki Pietila, a graphic artist, who helped Jansson when she was overworked and depressed, and Too-Ticky's practicality, resourcefulness and ability to accept the Moominvalley inhabitants for what they are (for example, the flute-playing shrews who are so shy that they have become invisible) are invaluable to Moomintroll's family. She is a practical person: she fishes in the ice hole, and encourages Moomintroll to help the others; by doing so he becomes less fearful and starts to enjoy himself.

An odd aspect of the novel is the acceptance that sometimes life cannot be explained, and that there are not always pat answers to life's problems, but that that is one of the enjoyable things about it. For example, Sorry-oo the little dog who enjoys going out to howl with the wolves and fantasises about them coming to find him, knowing full well that if they do, he'll be wolf dinner. As Too-Ticky says, "All things are so very uncertain, and that's exactly what makes me feel reassured."

Bjork has recorded Comet Song for the forthcoming Moomin film. I think she captures the uncanniness of the stories beautifully.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Bookgifting- slightly off topic...

I gave two books this Christmas; one to a person who can read and one to a person who can't yet. I gave my dad this and my nephew (who is three, and can recognise the first letter of his name) this. A new Shirley Hughes book is such a delight that I bought it even though my sister will save it until next Christmas to read it to him.

My nephew is a lucky little boy, in terms of his reading development. He comes from an extended family that values reading. He has always been read and sung to (and since his mum, Nana and Auntie Ali are all teachers, he has people in his life who know the importance of this for his language and literacy development from birth). His dad, grandpa and his other auntie are all avid readers, talkers and all love stories and songs.

Even so, we are not experts in books for very small children (hence why I got it wrong with the Shirley Hughes book). We need advice from people who are experts in books for small children. This is why Booktrust and The Literacy Trust are so vitally important. The charity works with literacy experts and publishers, and the books are given by health visitors, not teachers or librarians. Health visitors come into the home, they have a long term, supportive relationship with the family and can talk about the importance of rhymes, reading and song to the baby's development. In addition, while poverty is most definitely an indicator that the child may struggle with reading later on (and of course the family may be poor due to the parents' poor literacy skills) there are plenty of families with a comfortable income who own very few books as well, and I have taught middle class children who had never been to a bookshop or library and chosen their own books either. In fact, I have taught children who were not allowed to touch their own books!

And if you'd like to get involved with bookgifting for adults, have a look at this! An amazing way to raise interest in reading in adults.

While this is extremely good news, pressure must be kept up on Michael Gove and the Department for Education, and the Literacy Trust and Booktrust must be supported. Please follow @savebookstart if you are on Twitter, like the Booktrust page on Facebook and write to your MP. The £13million (I believe) that Booktrust gets from DfE is a tiny amount of money to the government, but the good it does is incalculable.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas reading, Christmas joy

2010 is the 75th anniversary of a perennial Christmas favourite, The Box of Delights. It was first published in 1935, when author John Masefield was the Poet Laureate, as well as being a respected and popular novelist. (I have never read any of his novels, although I believe Sard Harker is still in print so I hope I'll get round to it some time...) The edition of The Box of Delights I have is Egmont, with colour illustrations by Quentin Blake, who was the first Children's Laureate, which seems appropriate. Blake chose The Box of Delights as one of his favourite children's books  in a poll of children's laureates to celebrate 10 years of the post.

The novel is the sequel to Masefield's 1927 children's novel, The Midnight Folk. In The Box of Delights, Kay Harker (the protagonist of both books) is now about 12, and is a public schoolboy. In the opening chapter he is on his way back from school for the Christmas holidays. He is going to Seekings, his home, and to Caroline Louisa, his governess. On the journey he is joined in his train carriage by a pair of shifty curates, who cheat him at a game of Hunt the Lady and whom he suspects of stealing his purse. He also meets an old Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, and his dog, Barney. Cole gives him a mysterious message to pass on: "the Wolves are Running". At home, he learns that the Jones children are staying for the Christmas holiday- Peter, Jemima, Susan and surely one of the best girl characters in children's fiction, Maria: "I don't know where I've been," Maria said. "I've been scrobbled like a greenhorn. I knew what it would be, not taking a pistol. Well, I pity them if I ever get near them. They won't scrobble Maria Jones again."

Cole Hawlings is not just a Punch and Judy man. At Seekings, he does real magic for the children, and gives Kay his Box of Delights, with which he can go Swift, go Small or go into the past. Kay and the Jones children have some wonderful adventures, including rescuing Caroline Louisa, Cole and the clergy and choir of the Cathedral, who are being held to ransom by the burgling gang led by the wizard Abner Brown, now married to Kay's former governess Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (his adventures leading to their downfall are told in The Midnight Folk).

This is a wonderful book, to be read aloud a chapter a night to listeners in pyjamas drinking hot chocolate before bed, on the twelve days before Christmas Eve. I should think that anyone over 7 would love it. It doesn't matter if you haven't read The Midnight Folk, as the story stands alone. I have only one quibble- the "it was all a dream" ending. The Midnight Folk was content to have magic as the logic behind the talking toys, cats, foxes, witches and Kay's ancestors from the past helping him to find treasure. However, I still love this book, 35 years after my dad first read it to me. I've even ordered the DVD of the BBC series which readers of a certain age might remember, and I am hoping that it arrives before all the snow melts!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Book meme

I've got a Christmas blog nearly written, and since University term is finally over, I have another idea brewing. So, apologies readers and followers, I may be a little prolific over the festive period! However, it would be nice to get to know you and your reading interests, so please do copy and paste this and fill it in in the comments section!


What’s the first book you remember really loving?
I think it was probably the Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter. We got a cat when my sisters were very small (and the youngest was born when I was three), and I named him Samuel Whiskers after Beatrix Potter's rat in the Tale of Samuel Whiskers, which also featured Tom.




Name three authors who feature strongly in your reading history...
At the moment I'm very much on a Neil Gaiman trip. I've just finished Neverwhere and The Ananci Boys, and am about to start a collection of his short stories, Fragile Things. I think The Graveyard Book is absolutely wonderful. I probably read Jane Eyre annually, since I first read it aged 10, and I get something different from it every time I read it. My points of sympathy have changed over the 30 years from the child Jane, to the schoolgirl Jane, to Jane in love with Mr Rochester, to (at present) Blanche Ingram, without dowry and surely panicking about being left on the shelf. My MA dissertation was about the woman artist in mid Victorian fiction by women, and Jane's art was an inspiration. Diana Wynne Jones is an author I discovered all by myself in the library when I was (I think) 9 or 10. I read Charmed Life and fell head over heels with Chrestomanci, in his fancy dressing gown, and his defeat of the horrible Gwendolen.

What’s the very next book you’re going to pick off your TBR pile?
Kipling's Jungle Books. I haven't read them before; my dad read me the Just So stories, Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies, and I read Kim a few years ago, but I don't remember reading the Jungle Books. I know that the Mowgli section is quite a small part, and that they were an inspiration for Gaiman's Graveyard Book. Also a pile of literary criticism and a growing list to read in the British Library!



What’s the very next book you’re thinking of buying/borrowing?
One of
Marcus Sedgwick's, possibly the Book of Dead Days.

What’s the last book you read? What did you think?
Well, you'll have to wait for my special Christmas post to find out!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Here be dragons: Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman quotes GK Chesterton at the beginning of  Coraline: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons are real, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten". In Gaiman's books that I have been thinking this week, there are no dragons, but there are wolves, witches, murderous barons, a sinister mother, a giant, school bullies and a group of hired assassins- but he tells us that they can all be beaten- and in the main part, through intelligence and skill, rather than through the protagonists' special powers.

I first encountered Neil Gaiman through my dad. He and I have always bonded through books and reading, and while we have some difference of opinion, he first got me interested in speculative fiction, firstly through Lewis and Tolkein, then through Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Terry Pratchett. My dad passed on a copy of Good Omens, which Gaiman wrote in collaboration with Pratchett- I think either in the final year of my degree or shortly afterwards- and I still think it is one of the funniest books I have ever read.

A student introduced me last year to The Wolves in the Wall. This I find a very interesting book. It is beautifully illustrated by Dave McKean, and I find the typography very interesting too- at some points the words almost seem part of the illustrations. It is the story of a little girl, Lucy, who hears noises in the walls of her house. She knows that they are caused by wolves, but her family insists that there are mice, rats or bats causing the noise. Lucy is proved right when the wolves burst through the walls and take over the house- but she is also the one that comes up with the plan to take the house back. My student was confused by this book, because it is a picture book, which she associated with younger children. I would think that some young children may find it a little alarming- but of course, small children are the ones who are convinced that there are wolves in the wall, or bears under the bed, or (in my case) a gorilla at the end of the bed under the covers. Lucy is brave and sensible, confronts her fears and chases them away.

Coraline probably brought Gaiman to the attention of many people as a writer for children through the film adaptation. Coraline is a fascinating novel. I feel it demonstrates Neil Gaiman's respect for both the fairy tale tradition and the traditions of children's fantasy fiction, in particular Alice in Wonderland. Coraline and her parents move to an old house divided into flats. Her parents are to busy to pay her much attention. The other flats in the house are occupied by a strange old man (who turns out to be Mr Bobo, the trainer of a mouse circus) and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, retired actresses who breed Yorkshire Terriers and call her Caroline. When exploring her new home, Coraline finds a door that opens into a mirror image of her home. There she finds another mother, who seems to be a doll, who seems at first to be sweet and attentive to her, but in fact cannot look after Coraline properly because she is unable to see beyond her own needs. She wants Coraline to stay with her forever, and to be her little girl. Coraline encounters some ghost children, who tell her that when the Other Mother became bored of them she ate them and imprisoned their souls. Coraline realises that the Other Mother cannot resist games and puzzles, so challenges her. Through her intelligence, with the help of a bossy cat, she tricks the mother, and escapes back to her real house and her real parents, and at the same time releases the souls of the ghost children.

What I found rather creepy about the book is that on the surface, Coraline's parents may appear to neglect her: they are busy working and can't amuse her when she wants to be amused, and that leads initially to her becoming trapped by the Other Mother. However, Gaiman seems to be telling us that indulgent parents are equally dangerous, particularly those who are unable to see beyond their own desires when it comes to their children. Coraline is safe at the end of the story, having learnt how to face things that are frightening, like murderous mothers and the first day of school, and she tells us "when you're scared and you still do it anyway, that's brave". I've always been a sucker for brave girls in fiction, and these two are wonderful. I'll write another post about Gaiman's Graveyard Book and it's inspiration, the Jungle Books, in a couple of weeks- I'm feeling a Christmas delve into seasonal reading coming on!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Deeba's Adventures in Un Lun Dun

I love fantasy fiction because it does what recent literary fiction in my opinion doesn't do very well at the moment- it discusses the big issues. Much literary fiction seems to be to a miniature portrait of a particularly urban existance- and really, how many novels about the mid-life crises of well heeled urbanites can we read without throwing them out of the window? I imagine that there will be a slew of novels about the trials of former employees of Lehmans or Goldman Sachs within the next year or so, down to their last Ozwald Boateng suit and bottle of Chateauneuf.

As Amanda Craig wrote a year ago, recent novels with a broad sweep that have attracted praise recently seem to be historical novels. However my argument unsurprisingly would be that fantasy novels, or at least well written ones, contain the wealth of characterisation, and the big ideas, that Craig and others have praised in the work of Sarah Walters, Sebastian Faulks and AS Byatt. Since fantasy and speculative fiction is not depicting a familiar world, it must, in order to be convincing, portray a range of characters that are compelling yet believeable. Since it is creating an alternate world, successful fantasy/ speculative fiction must create a whole society, so the characters must represent all strata of that society. Fantasy and Sci Fi tends to put it's new worlds in peril, so speculative fiction deals with the big ideas: destiny, our place in the world, the future of humanity, the viability of the planet to sustain life (whether the planet is ours or not).

China Mieville is an awardwinning fantasy/ speculative fiction author. I have been reading his breathtaking existential crime novel The City & The City, about the investigation into the murder of a young girl in a Balkan city in a formerly repressive country. However, this novel explores String Theory: the idea that two objects can coexist in a single physical space. So while Inspector Borlu is investigating a crime in the city of Beszel, he must negotiate around the city of Ul Qoma which inhabits the same geography, but it is illegal for the citizens of the two cities to acknowledge each other, and to ignore the separation, or Breach, is akin to treason. It is a fascinating novel, leading me to consider the ways that in our cities, different people experience physical space in completely different ways.

During the summer I read Mieville's Un Lun Dun. It is the story of two girls who live on a London housing estate. Strance things begin to happen to the girls, Zanna and Deeba, and their friends, and they find their way into Un Lun Dun (Un-London), where all the rubbish and broken appliances thrown away in London end up. In Un-London, the girls discover that Zanna is the Shwazzy, the Chosen One who must defeat the Smog threatening to engulf the city.

Mieville has acknowledged the influence of Lewis Carroll in an interview; the inventive language and the fantastic characters Deeba and Zanna encounter (a sentient diving suit, a man with a birdcage for a head, a ghost boy), and the familiar inverted- evil flesh eating giraffes, houses and even Westminster Abbey becomes Webminster Abbey, with Black Windows that seek to destroy the group on their quest.

It was an enjoyable read, challenging and absorbing, but somehow it didn't quite work for me. Mieville has stated that he set himself some challenges for this novel: to liberate the sidekick, who in fact turns out to have the heroic qualities required to save the city, and to make an animal universally considered cute into a baddie. Maybe this is what jarred for me: I couldn't quite buy into his world; it didn't seem to me that Mieville fully believed in it himself. In addition, I couldn't properly visualise Zanna or Deeba, so it was difficult for me to become emotionally involved in their quest. It feels at time as though Mieville is winking at the adult over the child reader's head. A successful fantasy novelist for adults (such as Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman) seems to me to have far more respect for their child readers of their juvenile fiction.