Thursday, 30 October 2008

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Published 1999

Isn't it lovely when you find a book that you like so much that you know you'll return to it over and over? I've loved Peter S. Beagle's writing since I read The Last Unicorn in the far-distant past when it was new and I was still a schoolgirl – I devoured it alongside George MacDonald's Phantastes and William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, and it was Beagle who became my enduring favourite. A few years later I happened across A Fine and Private Place in the library, and was enchanted, but then there was a long silence. There was a showing on television of the animated version of The Last Unicorn, which I found quite charming because I knew the original, but which failed to "take" with the sons in the way that Watership Down or Charlotte's Web had done.

More recently, however, something made me search for information about Beagle – it may have been because I found my copy of The Last Unicorn on a bottom shelf and enjoyed its Thurber-esque handling of fairy tales all over again. And, joy of joys, it looked as though there might be – in a very limited output in the intervening years, what has the man been doing? – two more novels to track down via Abebooks, now that having books sent from the other side of the world has become wickedly cheap and easy. I started with The Innkeeper's Song, which looked to be the more solid read, and mentioned it briefly it here – not as good as the Unicorn, but certainly worth the trouble I'd gone to in getting it (I'm beginning to look forward to re-acquainting myself with it already). I wasn't in a hurry to read Tamsin – I thought it looked, from the descriptions, amiable but possibly slight.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Chronices of Pantouflia by Andrew Lang

I grew up with these two stories, Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo, but I mislaid my copy and this was the first time I have read them for well over 20 years. My edition is an old one, dating back to 1943, and with the original illustrations, which I like very much. The picture here is of King Prigio flying to the moon.
Although they were written in the 30s, the style is Victorian, and very much "after" Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring - we are actually told that Prigio's family is descended from the characters in that book, and this is one of the ways in which Lang creates the atmosphere of history for children, rather than fiction. He also footnotes particular terms, and comments on the motives and behaviour of his characters. There is a supposed dryness to the style, in keeping with the writing of history, but since the events are frequently farcical, the characters endowed with suitably human flaws and the story romps along at a brisk pace, the overall tone is more one of subdued hilarity.

Monday, 28 July 2008

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, 1962; A Wind in the Door, 1973; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, 1978); Many Waters, 1986; An Acceptable Time, 1989

I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was very young and it made a huge impression on me. I think it may have been the first book I read which had Science in it and one of its effects was to persuade me – hopeless as I was at science and maths at school – that these were subjects which might be interesting if only someone explained them properly. The book turned me into a lifelong reader of science fiction and a regular reader of New Scientist, although nothing has ever improved my maths. It was a book that made me confident about understanding ideas and, in that sense, I think it is probably one of the most influential I have ever read.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Published 1985

I bought this book thinking I knew what to expect. A year or two ago I read an article which discussed it, along with Elidor by Alan Garner (one of my favourite books growing up), as examples of British myths retold with a contemporary setting. I can't find the article now, but I remember it left me with an impression of a re-telling, based on the Scottish ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), that was as gritty as Garner's treatment of the Mabinogion. I was interested, but there was no sense of urgency about reading it, particularly since I couldn't find a copy for sale in the UK. The Once Upon a Time II Challenge, though, spurred me to search again and, this time, patience was rewarded and I found an affordable copy which was soon winging its way across the Atlantic (I can't imagine why it's so hard to get here).

And boy, was patience ever rewarded! Now, I readily admit to being an easy target (my second son was named for Tam Lin – a dangerous move, I realise in retrospect, you shouldn't dangle a tempting treat under Queen Mab's nose like that, and I once considered buying a dreadful house in Earlston simply because the town was the birthplace of Thomas the Rhymer) but I have found a book to enjoy re-reading for years to come.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Hardbacks versus paperbacks

It was pleasant to hear Jane from Books, Mud and Compost on the radio yesterday morning, extolling the virtues of hardback books, a subject dear to the heart of us book bloggers and always bound to provoke a range of opinion. Jane likes hardbacks for their durability, she says, as well as because those she bought as a child often contained their original illustrations. I can see her point, but she did say that she had access to good secondhand bookshops while growing up. This is something I didn't have, and jumble sales weren't a common feature, so my books had to be bought new, and we weren't well off. Not surprisingly, in the circumstances, I was a big fan of Puffin Books, and the name of Kaye Webb, their Editor from 1961, was familiar to me from the title page of most books on my shelf. Early Puffins cost a few shillings and, while I couldn't afford one every week, I could save up and get one every couple of months. 
The earliest Puffins I have were bought for me, and one of the most precious of those is Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, the story of Rosemary, who buys a witch's broom for sixpence and finds that it comes complete with cat. When Rosemary is holding the broom, she can hear the cat speak; of course, he is a Royal Cat, and persuades her not only to free him of the spell which binds him, but also to help restore him to his kingdom. Under Carbonel's somewhat irascible direction, Rosemary and her friend John gather the necessary items to break the spell and the book ends with a battle among the rooftops. Rosemary's genteel but impoverished world of make-do and mend was immediately familiar to the child of theatrical people, and I still read it, and the two books which followed, with a sense of being at home.

Another treasure was Finn Family Moomintroll, and I am fascinated by the recent "discovery" of Tove Jansson, a writer whose poignant stories have been with me most of my life. The Moomins and their extended family and friends live in a valley in Finland, and the first of a series of delightful books tells the story of the finding of the Hobgoblin's hat, which has all sorts of amusing – and scary – repercussions. Jansson wasn't afraid to bring more the more difficult emotions to her whimsical stories, and they address loneliness and disappointment, as well as the warmth and comfort of family life. 

Sadly the box with my Puffin collection (and most of my other childhood books) seems to have disappeared somewhere between Scotland and Northumberland (perhaps a casualty of a removal van which broke down halfway!) and many precious books are gone. Clearing out my stepbrother's house after his death reinstated a few of the best, notably C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, and it was wonderful to see familiar covers again (I am particularly fond of the Pauline Baynes' illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles). I'm gradually replacing some of the others, and was delighted last year to find a copy of Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White. Like the Andrew Lang stories I wrote about recently, I can't imagine modern children taking instantly to the story of a little girl who finds a settlement of Lilliputians living on an island in the garden. The lonely Maria, convinced that such tiny people must be in need of advice and management, interferes with disastrous results, and the ensuing story is pure delight, and would be enjoyed by anyone who loved The Sword in the Stone, as Maria shares the Wart's qualities of curiosity and contrariness. 

That last trait leads me straight to a pair of books: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, which everyone knows, and its lesser-known companion by Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden, in which an English child plays Mary in a Hollywood version of the classic. Jane, every bit as plain, disagreeable and contrary as the Mary she plays, and appalled to find herself uprooted from her English home and transported to the USA, makes life a misery for herself and everyone else on set, and her gradual redemption mirrors Mary's in a way I found very satisfying. My copy was enhanced by lovely illustrations by Shirley Hughes. 

I can't leave the subject of my childhood paperback buying, without mentioning another publisher, Armada Books. They published the Chalet School Stories on which I was hooked, and, I think, many of the pony books I liked. Best of those was Riding with the Lyntons, by Diana Pullein-Thompson, and the Punchbowl Farm series by Monica Edwards. I don't know who published the latter, but I bought them in paperback, and my friend Anne and I devoured them – for anyone who needs a reminder, Jane lists them all her on website, to which I've added a link on the sidebar, because I quite often pop over their to remind myself about books long forgotten.

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

Published 2007

Other nations had dark gods and wild-eyed prophets that demanded obedience, child mutilation, slavery, and poverty for the people while wealth flowed to an all-powerful priest class. Jackals had its deity-free Circlist philosphy, quiet meditations and a wide network of oratories. A Circlist parson might drop round and request a quick brew of caffeel, but never call for the beating heart of the family's firstborn to be ripped out of its chest.
This is a book to linger over. Two young orphans, Oliver and Molly, are being hunted by ruthless assassins, apparently for who they are, although neither of them knows why. Help on their separate journeys comes from those on the fringes of society, outlaws, thieves, and exiles and steammen, mechanised and manufactured creatures which come in many forms, yet which have a soul. The young heroes are intelligent and thoughtful – Molly has been raised in a poorhouse by a Circlist who believed in education, Oliver has been forced by isolation to be bookish. These are qualities which are often ignored by novelists of late, apparently in the belief that young people are characterised by being difficult and sulky, kicking against duty and responsibility. These orphans accept the roles which seem to have been thrust upon them, their only reluctance born of their uncertainty that they might be unequal to their tasks.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Melisande by E. Nesbit (short story)

A short story published in 1900

When Princess Melisande was born, her mother, the Queen, wished to have a christening party, but the King put his foot down, and said he would not have it.
"I've seen too much trouble come of christening parties," said he. "However carefully you keep your visiting book, some fairy or other is sure to get left out, and you know what that leads to. Why, even in my own family the most shocking things have occurred. The Fairy Malevola was not asked to my great-grandmother's christening – and you know all about the spindle and the hundred years' sleep."
This is a lovely subversive fairytale, written by Edith Nesbit, author of Five Children and It, and several other magical children's stories set in Victorian London. She is probably most famous for The Railway Children, but all her stories are full of wonderfully pragmatic characters and in this one, subtitled "Long and Short Division", the royal parents are no exception.