Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Bad boys

The palindromic Stanley Yelnats seems to be a perennial loser- overweight, humiliated by both teachers and students at his high school and seemingly the latest victim of his family curse. Stanley is convicted of stealing a pair of baseball star Clyde "sweet feet" Livingston and offered a choice of going to jail or to Camp Green Lake in Texas. Stanley's family are poor, so he has never been to summer camp. However when he arrives there, nothing as it first appears- not least the camp, which is neither green nor on a lake.

The boys, are assigned the task of digging a hole a day in the parched, cracked desert. But like the misleading name of the camp, the task is also not all it seems: they are told they are building character by digging holes 5 ft by 5 ft, but the warden's motives are also not what they first appear.

Ironically, however, Stanley does indeed build character when he is there; he is given a new identity by the other boys, who give each other nicknames (Stanley is Caveman; his tent-mates include Armpit, X-ray and Zigzag). He learns to take responsibility for himself and for Zero, tormented for being illiterate.

There are two other stories interwoven with the Camp Green Lake thread- the story of Stanley's great- great- grandfather, who his descendents believe is the cause of the curse on his family, and that of Kissin' Kate Barlow, the bandit who stole the wealth of Stanley's only successful ancestor. There is a great deal of coincidence and serendipity in the story, but it is managed with such flair and humour that I couldn't feel cynical about it. There are themes of loyalty, justice, fairness and the power of story, for good and for ill; Stanley is not alone in accepting uncritically the story of his family. And as Sachar says of curses, but could be applied to the power of story: "A lot of people don't believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn't make a difference whether you believe in it or not."

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

What is Martin Amis reading?

On the recent Faulks on Fiction BBC TV programme, Sebastian Faulks contended that since the First World War, literary fiction has turned its back on the traditional hero, leaving him or her to "genre" fiction and children's fiction. In an odd exchange, Martin Amis, interviewed on his anti-hero John Self, announced that when asked whether he would write a children's novel, he answers: "... 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book', but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable".

Understandably a number of children's novelists and academics were annoyed about these comments. As well as those quoted in the Guardian piece linked above, academic and children's novelist Charles Butler wrote in his blog that if he cannot envisage writing for an audience of children, presumably he is denying consciously writing for adults- and specifically an audience who enjoy reading about the marital and sexual foibles of middle aged men.

In a slightly cynical Twitter conversation with the good folks of SA4QE (fellow Russell Hoban fans), we wondered firstly how well Amis's latest tome had sold, and secondly whether the enthusiastic feuder (Julian Barnes, Anna Ford, Terry Eagleton) had recently fallen out with other lit-fic stalwarts Jeanette Winterson and Salman Rushdie, who have both produced critically acclaimed children's novels without any suggestion of pandering to lesser intellects.

I was fascinated to read recently about Canadian novelist Yann Martell's What Is Stephen Harper Reading? project, where he sent 100 books to the Prime Minister, one a fortnight, after being unimpressed by Harper's reception of Canadian artists at an event to mark 50 years of the Canadian Council for the Arts, and I started to wonder which of my favourite children/ Young Adults books I would send to Amis, to convince him that simple writing need not be simplistic; that writers for children habitually do so because of the freedom of imagination that such writing affords. And I came up with the following list:

1. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I have already written about this book here, so I hope that it is obvious why I would choose this. Hoban is a widely acclaimed (although under-read) novelist who rates his children's fiction as no less important than his novels for adults, and his next novel will be a Young Adult novel, Soonchild.

2. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, the first in the Mortal Engines series, is a dystopian fantasy about the world far in the future, after a devastating war. Natural resources are at a premium, and cities have become scavengers. They are traction cities, swallowing smaller cities and taking their resources. The protagonists, Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, are thrown together to survive. I admire this series, because there is a perception (even in this BBC Open Book programme) that children's books should have a happy ending. Hester must make a decision to ensure her's and Tom's survival. However, the consequences of this decision are far reaching, and the effects of it are terrible.

3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is an example what I believe great children's books do so well- they convey a profound message in a simple way. In this novel, the message is about the importance of love in the development of children. Mary and Colin have been emotionally deprived, and this has had a dreadful effect on them; Mary is close to being completely emotionally stunted due to the neglectful behaviour of her parents. Colin is a hysterical hypochondriac, convinced that his father's inability to connect with him is because he (Colin) is about to die. The garden is both an embodiment of the children's emotional growth, and of the importance of children to connect with other children, to see the success of their own labours and follow their interests without undue interference from adults.

4. Skellig by David Almond. Again, I have written about it before. It is a rich, layered novel, written in simple, clear prose, drawing on a range of literary sources to tell a truly beautiful story.

5. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer- a sort of ghost story, or a time switch novel about which I intend to write more fully in the future. It can be seen as the disintegration and re-integration of a personality, but it is much more than that. It rejects simple classifications. I would try to send Amis the pre-1980s edition, as the ending is far better! Edit: since posting this last night I've been hearing Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure in my head!

6. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, another that I have already written about. I would hope that Amis would be impressed by Paver's creation of an imaginary world; something that children's writers do so well. In my opinion, outside genre fiction many adult writers do this less than successfully; perhaps why many of them write about marital difficulties in North London or New York?

7. The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff, part of the Eagle of the Ninth series. This is a perennial favourite, from the 1950s/ 1960s era of children's fiction from which I could have chosen any number of fantastic authors- Phillipa Pearce, Alan Garner, Henry Treece, as well as Penelope Farmer above. This novel examines the invasion of Britannia by the Saxons, and the conflicts between duty, family loyalty and the bitterness, estrangement and a desire for revenge that Aquila, the protagonist of the novels, experiences when the two areas collide. Like Wolf Brother, Amis might be impressed by the recreation of a world, but the recognisable conflicts that Aquila experiences.

8. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. I very nearly chose The Ruby in the Dust from Pullman's earlier quartet about Sally Lockhart, an unconventional nineteenth century orphaned 16 year old, who may be lacking in knowledge or art, music, languages and history, but is an excellent shot with a gun, expert military tactician and highly successful stockbroker, who gets involved with City corruption and the Opium trade, but instead I thought that there can be no other example of the incredible creativity, depth and breadth of vision and the richness of a masterpiece of children's fiction. The story of Lyra and her daemon (the physical embodiment of her soul) and their adventure to the North to rescue the children stolen by the General Oblation Board on behalf of the Magisterium, the theocratic government system of Lyra's world. Drawing on Milton, Blake and often seen as a rebuttal to CS Lewis' Narnia series, I can't believe that anyone could read this book and believe that good children's literature is lacking in serious intent.

9. Maus by Art Spiegelmann is arguably one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. It is the story of Spiegelmann's father's survival of the Holocaust, with the Jews portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats (the Katzies). Vladek's survival is interwoven with his son coming to terms with his family's tragic story, and his family's survivor's guilt. It shows unflinchingly that suffering extreme trauma does not make us a better, more likeable person; in fact the direct opposite.

10. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It has won the Hugo, Newbery and Carnegie awards. The story of Bod, the boy who survives the murder of his family and is brought up in a graveyard by the dead who live there. It is inspired by Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books, and to some extent is Gaiman's re-writing of them. Again, I hope to write on this novel at a later date. The book is illustrated by Dave McKean, the illustrator of Wolves in the Wall, which I wrote about here along with Coraline), and the illustrations are as worthwhile as the prose. Ultimately, it is a story about finding love, security and acceptance in a world where there are many dangers, but also the sad truth that to grow up, we must leave behind some of the security of childhood, however odd it must be.

I hope that on reading these books, Amis would have a little more respect for the power and creativity of good quality children's literature. Perhaps he and Jonathan Myerson could share the books?

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Wild Boys

I feel slightly uncomfortable with the concept of "boys' books" and "girls' books". Now that marketing is such a huge part of the publishing world, it seems to me that there is a preponderance of texts aimed at girls (pink covers with pictures of cheerleaders, puppies or romantic vampires, depending on the age range- something else I'm uncomfortable with) or boys (blue, black or green covers featuring dinosaurs, footballers or gory vampires). The Boys into Books project (part of the 2008 Year of Reading) lists books that may be popular with boys- and lo and behold, they are in general simply good and exciting books that any reader would enjoy.

The cover of Jackdaw Summer (2008) by David Almond, whose Skellig I wrote about here, is a case in point.  The protagonist, and narrator, 14 year old Liam Lynch, is stranded between childhood and adolescence. His best friend, Max, is maturing: he has a girlfriend and is considering his future career, while Liam still fantasises about death and killing, and glories in dirt and savagery.

At the beginning of the novel the boys are walking in the countryside near their village in Northumbria. Max, who was born and brought up in the village, spots a jackdaw, and tells Liam of the theory that they can be imprinted by humans, if they see the human before they see their mother. They follow the jackdaw into a ruined building, where they find a recently abandoned baby.

The novel turned my expectations on their heads. This is not the search for the baby's identity and parentage that I expected- although Liam's dad creates his own narrative around it. The novel explores the violence and savagery that Almond seems to be suggesting is a part of the human condition. Liam's dad is anti-Iraq war; as the planes from the local army base fly overhead, he shouts that they should go and bomb Blair. His mother photographs the scabs, scars and bruises left by the untamed play of his last boyhood summer.  Liam's former friend Graham Natress is staging and filming mock executions. The village was formerly the home of the Reivers, involved in centuries of guerilla warfare between Scotland and England before James 1's accession to the throne united the countries. Violence is deep in the history of the place.

Into this environment comes Crystal, a self harming foster child, and Oliver, a refugee boy from Liberia, both of whom are troubled by their own violent pasts and imprinted, like the jackdaw, by their early childhood experiences. At the end of the unusually hot summer, modern warfare, Nattress' fascination with torture and executions, Oliver's childhood experiences in Liberia and Liam's own fascination with warfare, knives and violence all come together in the novel's denouement.

Like Skellig, the prose is lyrical, beautiful and deceptively simple. This is not the gadget- heavy, thrills and spills book that many publishers think boys want, and it lacks the fantastical element of Skellig, but I think it is a powerful and magical read.

Recording and images of jackdaws can be found at the RSPB website, and the School Library Association has pulled together information on boys and reading here.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Curiouser and curiouser

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) was not the first children's fantasy novel (that is generally held to be F. Paget's The Hope of the Katzenkopfs), but it is arguably the most influential. The story of Alice, falling asleep then following a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and pocket watch down a rabbit hole to a magical land full of bizarre creatures needs no introduction. However I think what is often lost on modern readers is Carroll's radical departure in tone from previous fantasy. Alison Lurie has characterised novels such as Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863) and George Macdonald's The Light Princess (1864) as resembling "...a kind lady or gentleman delivering a delightfully disguised sermon".  Carroll's story is groundbreaking in that Alice is not being gently (or less than gently) chided for her faults by a creature resembling an adult, being shown the error of her ways and becoming a better and wiser girl. She is in general the voice of reason in a confusing world, who is protesting at the absurdity of adult authority figures such as the Duchess, the Queen of Hearts and the Caterpillar. The characters who do try to chide her are ridiculed for doing so, and at the end of the novel Alice defies them all: "Who cares for you?... Why, you're nothing but a pack of cards!"

The Alice books were extremely influential on children's novelists from the late nineteenth century onwards. Texts which obviously follow Carroll's pairing of adventures in fantasy landscapes with nonsense include GE Farrow's The Wallypug of Why (1898) and Mary Louisa Molesworth 's The Cuckoo Clock (1877), the latter combining the nonsense with a moral tale.  As I commented in an earlier post, China Mieville has noted Carroll's influence on his work.

One of the strangest may be Speaking Likenesses by Christina Rossetti (1875). It is three tales-within-tales; an aunt is telling the stories to her little nieces. The first is the story of Flora, whose discontent at her own birthday party leads her to a strange house, where there is another party going on. The guests are monstrous children whose bodies exhibit the unpleasant character traits that Flora's guests have been exhibiting (slipperiness, selfishness, prickliness, angularity and roughness). After some frightening and unpleasant experiences Flora finds her way home, where she finds that she has fallen asleep, apologises for her bad behaviour and is forgiven.

The final story is that of Maggie, who in contrast to Flora, who lives in a large house with extensive grounds, is the orphan grandaughter of Dame Margaret who keeps a toyshop. Just before Christmas Maggie goes on an errand for her grandmother, and slips and bangs her head on the way. She is teased and frightened by similar monstrous children, including a greedy boy whose only facial feature is a huge mouth, who demands the chocolate she is to deliver:

Unlike Flora, Maggie defies the terrors she faces, and delivers her basket. However she is not rewarded at the end of her journey, and, hungry, cold and frightened, she must walk home again. On her return journey she fills her basket with a freezing pigeon and an abandoned kitten and puppy, and is rewarded by knowing that she has carried out a good deed, and by tea and buttered toast with her grandmother.

This is a very strange little book (it is not in print; my copy is a facimile of the American edition, thankfully with Arthur Hughes' illustrations, from the University of Michigan Library), not least because of the insistance on bodily, emotional or social discomfort for the good of children's characters. As I have said, it is a tale within a tale; the framing device of an adult telling a child a story is not unusual, but there are regular interjections by the children, allowing the aunt to point a moral, or explain a word or phrase. Of course nineteenth century readers were still accustomed to read epistolary or multi modal novels with a strong narrative voice, such as Wuthering Heights, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, or Samuel Richardson's Pamela. It is interesting to read not only in the light of Rossetti's poetry (the consumption and denial of food is reminiscent of her poem Goblin Market), but also in relation to Alice in Wonderland and other nineteenth century fantasy.

I was reminded of Marion St John Webb's Knock Three Times by a very dear friend recently, so I had to dig it out and re-read it. First published in 1917, it was illustrated by Margaret Tarrant, one of the best-known illustrators of the period.

Jack and Molly are twins. Their Aunt Phoebe always sends practical presents. Jack is delighted to get a box of paints. Molly is hoping for a silver bangle: instead she receives a rather ugly grey pincushion, shaped like a pumpkin. Molly is disappointed, but takes it up to her room at bed time, and, trying to convince herself that it will be useful, sticks a pin into it. That night she is awoken by a bump as the pumpkin pincushion rolls off the dressing table, falls to the floor and rolls out of the house. She and Jack follow it through the garden and into a wood, where they see it knock three times on the trunk of a tree. The tree trunk opens, leading to a forest in another world. The children learn that this world is known to its' inhabitants as the Possible World, who term Jack and Molly's world (our early 20th century world) as the Impossible World. The pumpkin is in fact the prison of an evil dwarf who has caused the King's daughter's death. Molly has accidentally broken the spell banishing it to the Impossible World, and she and Jack agree to help to return it there.

There are some Carrollian nonsensical aspects to the novel; for example Glan's explanation to Molly and Jack that they have played in the wood many times but never found their way to the Possible World because:

"There are two sides to every tree, just like there are two sides to every question. When you walk round a question, do you see both its sides? No. It is only when you go into a question that you see this side and that. Well then- when you only walked round that tree it stands to sense that you couldn't find yourself here.."

I found this an enjoyable re-read. It is eerie and exciting; the fantasy elements are well managed within the adventure, and the relationship between Molly and Jack is one of equality, which is interesting: even free-thinking feminist Edith Nesbit, a near contemporary, almost always had brothers as supervisors of their sisters. My copy is a Wordsworth Classics one, without Tarrant's illustrations, but you can get second hand copies the '30s fairly easily.

I was struck by some Alice touches (and indeed some of Rossetti's Goblin Market) in Guillermo del Toro's 2006 film, Pan's Labyrinth. There is the underground world, only accessible to a little girl, the focus on doors, doorways, key holes and other entrances to this world that are often tricky to navigate. There is dangerous food and drink (also of course present in Goblin Market), and strange creatures, some benign and some murderous. Of course Ofelia is on a quest, unlike Alice, so I will return to the film at a more appropriate time, but the image that first made me think of Alice is, I think, strikingly reminiscent both of Tenniel's illustration and Alice Liddell, the "original" Alice:

Alice Liddell:

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Tenderness of Wolf

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver were, I think, responsible for me missing my tube stop more than any other books that I read last year. Ghost Hunter, the final book in the series, won the Guardian Fiction Prize last year.

Wolf Brother, published 2004, is the first book in the series. 6000 years ago, in Scandinavia, twelve year old Torak is an outcast from Wolf Clan. In the first scene he is crouching next to his father, who has been attacked by a bear. Torak hopes to save his father, who knows he is dying and begs Torak to perform death rituals, and warns him that the bear is not an ordinary bear. It has been possessed by a demon. Fa begs Torak to head North, to the Mountain of the World Spirit, to enlist the World Spirit's help to destroy the bear before it destroys the clans and their forest. Torak agrees, and after taking his father's knife, tent and their remaining food, he leaves.

Heading North, he encounters more bear-kill, which looks strange. Bears will eat all the meat on a creature, and it's insides: this bear is not killing from hunger as it is taking no more than a bite from each animal. Scavengers and flies aren't feeding on them, and he realises that his father is right. Further up the valley, he reaches an area of flash flood. There is one survivor: a wolf cub. By this time, Torak is very hungry, but he can't bring himself to kill the cub for food. He realises that he is having visions of the death of the cub's family: in fact, he is experiencing what the cub has experienced.

Shortly after this, Torak is captured by a boy, girl and man from the Raven Clan. He is accused of stealing a roe deer from their clan territory, and taken to the clan leader, Fin-Kedinn, for judgement. After undergoing ordeal by combat with another boy, which he wins with Wolf's help, he learns that his father was once the Mage of Wolf Clan, but was killed by the bear due to his determination to destroy a group of rogue mages, known as the Soul Eaters. Fin-Kedinn and the Mage of Raven clan meet to decide whether Torak is the one that ancient prophesies say will save the clans from a great danger, or whether Fin-Kedinn should travel to the mountain. In the meantime, Renn, the girl who captured Torak, believes him and releases him. Together they continue to travel North, to the mountain, and Torak begins to realise not just his powers but also his inheritance and responsibilities.

Paver's achievement in writing the Chronicles is remarkable. Firstly, because the books are incredibly consistent in terms of the quality of her writing. Most series have a weak book or two; this one doesn't- witness the final book winning the prize.

Secondly, the plausibility of the world Paver has created. She researched all the aspects of her book thoroughly, spending time with wolves, snow shoe walking in Scandinavia and researching the lives and beliefs of nomadic peoples. However, the proceeds of the research do not overwhelm the storytelling, but instead lend authenticity to Torak's stone age world. The clan system, their beliefs in the integrity of the natural world (wasting nothing of a kill, displaying their gratitude to nature, the pantheistic belief system), the geography of Torak's world- all are enhanced by research, but not created by it.

Thirdly, by the characters of Torak, Renn and Wolf. Due to his outcast status, Torak is slightly removed from the clan system, which enables the reader to learn about it along with him. His relationship with Wolf, and the reason that he can communicate with him, is an integral part of the story, so I will not elaborate on it too much. The vocabulary that Paver has created for Wolf (the Fast Wet for river, the Bright-Beast-that-Bites-Hot for fire) and the description of his body language and the yips, howls and barks that he and Torak communicate in lend authenticity to Torak's ability to communicate with him. Renn's characterisation grows in other books; she herself has special abilities that mean she is more than the feisty girl sidekick that many children's fantasy writers create.

Finally, the thoroughly created stone age world and belief system that Paver has created means that the horror of the Soul Eaters' plans, being so contrary to the clans' ecological way of life, is truly shocking.

The Guardian's free download audiobook is available here.  Aurora by Bjork was my accompaniment to this book.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Jam today

Today is Russell Hoban's 86th birthday. As regular readers will know, I went to hear Russell speak about Riddley Walker, arguably his most famous book, at the Guardian Bookclub event, where I met up with fellow Hoban enthusiasts. Every year on his birthday his fans celebrate by releasing Hoban quotes into the wild either physically or virtually. They're collected here at the Slickman A4 quotation event, named after Hoban's preferred writing paper; A4 yellow.

The Kraken, his fanclub, also club together to give him a present, and this year I was honoured to be asked to present it. The bottle was bought from an amazing shop, Gerry's in Soho- The Kraken rum, and a certificate of adoption for a bat family. I was very lucky to have an hour with Russell. He seemed very happy with his presents, and happily posed for photos with his rum:
He was very taken with the label, as he is fascinated by squid

I was very priviledged to be shown the proofs and a mock up cover of his next novel, to be released in March next year. It is a Young Adult novel to be published by Walker, called Soonchild. It is the story of a Shaman and his relationship with his unborn child, and it is beautifully illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Russell referred to Deacon as a "genius".

I spoke with Russell about How Tom beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen, which was a childhood family favourite (Aunt Fidget Wonkham Strong's exhortions to Tom to eat up his mutton slump and greasy bloaters have entered my family's lexicon!), and we discussed Quentin Blake's illustrations. He showed me another of his picturebook collaborations with Blake, The Twenty Elephant Restaurant. Russell told me that he often gets ideas for books after talking with his wife, Gundula. The idea for Captain Najork came from a picture in a book she showed him of a real Captain Najork in a large rowing boat. On wondering aloud who rowed it, Gundula said "Why, his hired sportsmen of course!". The Twenty Elephant Restaurant came about after Russell had made a sleeping couch for his workroom. He felt it was strong enough to hold elephants; she asked how many!

I was delighted to find that Russell was a big fan of Victorian fiction, and we discussed the awfulness of the children in Dombey and Son, our favourite Dickensian gin drinkers (his: Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzelwitt, mine: The Infant Phenomenon from Nicholas Nickleby), Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant's ghost stories and George Eliot. He also loves Chekov's short stories, as I do. He does a lot of reading at his wife's family home in Germany.

Russell very kindly signed my copies of Riddley Walker (which I keep inadvertantly donating to people; this one will not be let out of my sight), Bread and Jam for Frances


All in all, it was a lovely hour, and I was sad to draw it to a close as a photographer arrived, but it was wonderful to be able to thank him for the pleasure his books gave me as a child and continue to give me now.