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Archive for the ‘Children and Teens’ Category

OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)

The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.

You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts.  As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’

Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.

One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.

Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.

You can read more about Rick Riordan here.

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The Change is a trilogy of fantasy stories by Sean Williams, probably aimed at the young adult market. I’m not a young adult and I’m not usually drawn to fantasy stories, but Williams caught my interest because he is a South Australian and lives in Adelaide, as I do. It’s always good to support a local. Besides, I enjoyed the first one, so kept reading.

The first of the trilogy is The Stone Mage and the Sea (2001). Sal and his father Gershom arrive at a small town on the coast of a country ruled by the Sky Wardens. The Sky Wardens’ authority comes from magical powers and practices known collectively as ‘the Change’, aptitude for which is usually inherited, but can be learnt. Those showing ability are taken by the Sky Wardens to be further trained. Why is Sal’s father so fearful of them? What is he seeking, or what is he running from? It’s not hard to guess that Sal possesses these powers, though he isn’t yet aware of it; the ‘coming into powers’ story is a common trope of the fantasy genre. But I think it is well done, both in terms of Sal’s own development, and of the fantasy world that Williams has created – both like and unlike present times.

The second in the trilogy is The Sky Warden and the Sun (2002), and continues where the previous book left off. I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of order. Sal is now on the run from the Sky Wardens, and with a companion, Shilly. They are making for the interior, which is ruled by the Stone Mages, who also use the Change, but are not on good terms with the Sky Wardens. There he hopes to learn how to use his power, for without this knowledge, as one character explains, ‘You impose your will upon the world like a poor blacksmith wields a hammer: with unnecessary force, and at great risk to those around you.’ As in most stories built around flight and pursuit, Sal encounters both assistance and treachery, good luck and misfortune and on his journey. I found the country he travels through reminiscent of outback South Australia ‘magnificent in a bleak, time worn way.’ The writing is mostly plain and unadorned, but there are some striking images, as when someone is ‘tugging the reins and cracking the whip over the conversation until she had broken its spirit.’

The Storm Weaver and the Sand (2002) is the third and final book. Sal and Shilly find themselves in the Haunted City, the home of the Sky Wardens. The city has been built in the spaces between older skyscrapers, now the home of ghosts, that belong to a time before some undefined cataclysm. Sal and Shilly are supposed to be learning more about the ‘theory, illusion and actuality’ that underlie the Change. But they are both desperate to escape the Sky Wardens, and are prepared to invoke the power of other non-material forces – ‘fundamental properties of this world that evade definition’ – to get away from the city. But may this have unforeseen consequences? Is there such a thing as ‘fate’, Sal wonders, and if so, can you escape it? If you are prepared to suspend disbelief, Williams has created an exciting story, with interesting and likeable characters. He is also good at atmosphere, especially in creating a sense of dread: ‘In the Haunted City, humans were like rats in the walls, cowering round the base of buildings they could only marvel at, never inhabit.’ I think the resolution of the story has a touch of deus ex machina about it, but that’s something I get very picky about, and there are some markers along the way that prepare for it, so don’t let that put you off.

One of the reasons that fantasy fiction is not taken too seriously is that being able to do magic can seem like cheating – you can get away with anything in terms of plot. But the use of magic also imposes restrictions, the most important of which is that the fantasy world must be consistent. And I think that consistency is something that Williams has achieved across all three of these books. Sal and Shilly exist in a fully imagined world, which the reader can enter and enjoy. Williams is clearly a writer of some substance, having several times won an Aurealis Award for works of speculative fiction written by an Australian citizen – though not for this trilogy. Try them on the grandchildren.

Sean Williams is a prolific writer. You can read more about him here.

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When I wrote about The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, I noted that one of his characters has the same ‘comfort book’ as I do – I Capture the Castle (1948). A friend asked me what a comfort book was, and I explained that it is a book you re-read when you feel in need of cheering up. I have several, and suspect I share some of them, such as Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings, with others. But most people I know haven’t ever heard of this book (though I gather that it was voted eighty-second out of the 100 best-loved novels in the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’  in 2003 – the year the film came out – see below).

The story is set in the 1930s and is in the form of a journal written by seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain. ‘I write this,’ she beings, ‘sitting in the kitchen sink.’ She lives in a semi-ruined castle with her eccentric family. Her father is a writer suffering from chronic writer’s block, so they have almost no income; they have had progressively to sell off all their ‘good’ furniture and books. Her stepmother Topaz is a former artist’s model who plays the lute and communes with nature. Her older sister Rose is beautiful, ‘hates most things she has and envies most things she hasn’t’, and is desperate to escape their poverty. Her younger brother Thomas is all ‘appetite and homework’. And then there is Stephen, the son of their former maid who simply stayed on when she died. It is these characters Cassandra intends to ‘capture’. Enter the Cottons, two American brothers, the elder of whom has inherited the nearby Scoatney estate. ‘Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened?’ Cassandra asks Rose. ‘I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice – where Mrs Bennet says Netherfield Park is let at last.’ But things don’t turn out quite like an Austen story.

This is a quintessential coming of age novel in which Cassandra learns to think differently about herself and all her family. This is reflected in her attitude to her writing. ’How arrogant I used to be,’ she says. ‘I remember writing in this journal that I would capture father later – I meant to do a brilliant character sketch. Capture father! Why, I don’t know anything about anyone.’ At the end: ‘I don’t intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself.’ And she comes to understand how difficult it is to explain ‘how the image and the reality merge, and how they somehow extend and beatify each other’. And as events play out, Cassandra learns a stern lesson about love and life, and ‘the game of second best we have all been playing.’

Why do I enjoy the book so much? I think it’s mainly because I really like the way Cassandra looks at the world. Smith has captured the enthusiasm and buoyancy of youth, even if Cassandra is, as one character suggests, a bit ‘consciously naive’. She is observant; she notices, for example, how when her father is asked what he is working on, he ‘somehow deflated’: ‘the carriage of his head changed, and his shoulders sagged.’ Her judgements aren’t always correct though. She has a good sense of humour, and can laugh at the family’s misfortunes. She and Topaz are trying to work out how to return the Cotton’s hospitality when they don’t have any dining room furniture. Lacking chairs, Topaz wonders if they could sit on cushions on the floor. “‘We certainly don’t have enough chairs.” “We haven’t enough cushions, either,” Cassandra replies. “All we really have enough of is floor.” We laughed until the candle wax ran down onto our hands. After that we felt better.’  She takes an infectious pleasure in the simple things around her –drinking cocoa, hearing school children singing, looking at the light on the castle walls. Despite periods of misery, she ultimately has a refreshingly optimistic outlook on life.

If I’m honest I also have to admit that there is a degree of nostalgia in my pleasure. Smith wrote the story when she was living in America and feeling homesick for England; this has no doubt produced a romanticised view. But more important, this closed little domain, with its unquestioned attitudes to class and sex, untouched by the realities of the Great Depression, or the rise of Fascism in Europe, is amazingly restful. Cassandra and her problems exist in a more comfortable world.

While relatively few people seem to know this novel, most will have heard of another of Dodie Smith’s books – The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956).  This became even better known after the 1961 Disney film. Disney also bought the rights to I Capture the Castle, but nothing came of this until Smith’s literary executor – none other than Julian Barnes – bought them back, and the story was filmed in 2003. I enjoyed it, but it couldn’t match the magic I find in the novel.

I came across another of Smith’s books – It Ends with Revelations (1967). I thought it was awful. That’s the way it goes.

You can read more about Dodie Smith here, and about her status as a ‘forgotten author’ here

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I am not a very successful gardener at the best of times, so it was incredibly frustrating for me to come out one morning recently to find that overnight, something had eaten all my ripening tomatoes and the only two red peppers. ‘Rats,’ said a knowledgeable neighbour. ‘You’ll either have to poison them or set traps.’ But I just can’t bring myself to do it. And the rats of NIMH are to blame.

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a children’s story published in 1971. It won the Newbury Medal for the best American children’s book for 1972 – the same year the better known Watership Down by Richard Adams won the Carnegie prize for the best British children’s story – and in plenty of time for us to read it to our children before they grew out of bedtime stories. And it has left an indelible mark on me as well.

Mrs Frisby is a field mouse who winters in a cement block that will be moved once the farmer begins spring ploughing. But she can’t relocate her family as she usually does because her delicate son Timothy is sick. She must make the dangerous journey to visit another mouse, Mr Ages, for medicine for him. In the course of her journey she meets the rats who live under the rose bush in the farmyard. But these are no ordinary rats; they have escaped from NIMH – the National Institute of Medical Health, where experiments on them have made them smart and strong. But why should they help Mrs Frisby?

It is interesting that two books which anthropomorphize animals – and ‘vermin’ at that – appeared so close together, just at a time when there was a resurgence of interest in animal rights, ecology and the preservation of flora and fauna. It is easy to write off such stories as being merely sentimental; of course animals don’t have human desires and feelings (which is not to say they have no desires or feelings). Watership Down is probably a more thoughtful, even adult book than The Rats of NIMH; the characters of the rabbits in it are more finely drawn, they are more true to the nature of animals and Adams raises more profound problems about freedom, authority, art and culture. But O’Brien’s book isn’t sentimental. The birds and animals are variously wise, brave, kind or cruel in part by choice and in part by nature; they have human feelings but are clearly not human. The book’s main attraction is that it is an exciting story. Who can resist courage in the face of adversity? But there are more serious issues. The moral compass in the interaction of humans and animals, once so emphatically weighted in favour of the humans, has now swung back a little. Why should humans have it all their way? Surely the rats have a right to live free of them?

Well, my rats are not living free of me, but I still don’t want to harm them. Anyway, perhaps it’s not rats, but possums. Not that that would help much – Mem Fox’s Possum Magic (1983) has seen to that.

You can find out more about Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH here, about Watership Down here, and Possum Magic here.

Robert O’Brien is the pen name of Robert Conly, who was a journalist with the National Geographic Magazine. He wrote three other children’s books, the best known of which is Z for Zachariah. His daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, has written two sequels to Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

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I’ve always wanted to use the word bildungsroman, and in Jasper Jones (2009) Craig Silvey has given me the perfect opportunity. Charlie Bucktin sums up what happens to him in this story in words that could stand as the definition of a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel: ‘It’s like I’ve got to crawl out of my own eggshell and emerge … I can’t unfurl from my cocoon when I’m good and ready. I’ve been pulled out early and left in the cold’. Thanks Craig.

The year is 1965. It is a hot summer night in Corrigan, a mining town in Western Australia. Thirteen year old Charlie is reading Mark Twain when he is interrupted by Jasper Jones, a boy with a terrible reputation in the town: ‘He’s a Thief, a Liar, a Thug, a Truant’, and everything bad that happens in the town is attributed to him. Charlie hardly knows him, but thinks of him as distinctly charismatic; he can’t resist Jasper’s plea for help. However when Charlie finds out what Jasper wants to show him, and learns what help Jasper needs, he has suddenly to grow up.

Some other things happen in the story to make Charlie grow up, including problems with his parents, a racist attack on the family of his best friend Jeffrey Lu (by 1965 Australia was embroiled in the war in Vietnam), and his first kiss. But Jasper Jones is the key to his self discovery.

There are lots of things to like about this book. Charlie is a delight; happy, sad or thoughtful, he is always interesting. And his friendship with Jeffrey sparkles: ‘Chuck, I bid you a jew.’ ‘And I owe you a revoir.’ Both are bright boys in a town ‘whose social currency is sport’. Charlie is bullied for being smart, but persists with his passion for new words (even though ‘they always fail me when I need them’). ‘Every new word is like getting a punch back.’ Jeffrey is a brilliant cricketer, but prejudice keeps him out of the local team. Both Charlie and Jeffrey are able to take a satisfying measure of revenge. There is also an interesting interplay between myth and reality, between what the town believes and what is actually the case, though this reality will in time itself become myth. Silvey writes well. The hot summer landscape is vividly evoked, and the first person present tense narrative is engaging.

Then there is Jasper Jones himself. His view of growing up provides a counter-point to Charlie’s. He says it’s not a matter of how old you are: ‘Everyone ages. Everyone can learn a trade and pay taxes and have a family. But that’s not growin’ up. It’s about how you act when your shit gets shaken up, it’s about how much you see around you. That’s what makes a man.’  Silvey has an interest in American literature, and there are references to Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, all of whom have ‘coming of age’ elements in their writing. But most important is Mark Twain, and it is difficult not to see Jasper Jones as a Huckleberry Finn character, with Charlie as a Tom Sawyer. This is in itself perhaps almost enough to explain the rapport between the boys. Somewhat against the odds, I found their relationship convincing.

But somehow the central situation in the book doesn’t work for me. What Charlie learns on that first night is so devastating that I don’t think he could operate after it even as well as he does. He says he feels like there is a brick inside him permanently weighing him down, but his behaviour doesn’t convince me. I don’t find the behaviour of his girlfriend, Eliza Wishart, entirely credible either. The side story about his relationship with his mother also seems a bit off key.

On balance? Worth reading, even if not completely satisfying.

This is Craig Silvey’s second novel, the first being Rhubarb (2004). You can read more about Silvey here.

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This is the third book that I remember fondly from childhood for my personal tribute to Children’s Book Week. It is probably a book for teenagers, being about a young man finding his way in the world, rather than a story about children. However Sutcliff herself once commented that she wrote ‘for children of all ages from nine to ninety’, making the classification ‘children’s book’ satisfyingly elastic.

Sutcliff was born in 1920, and The Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954. Set in Roman Britain in the first century AD, it is the first of a loosely linked series of books that deal with the British descendents of the Roman Marcus Aquila over several hundred years. She also wrote a number of novels set in other periods of English history; for example, my second favourite after Eagle of the Ninth is Simon, a story of two friends who find themselves on different sides in the English Civil War.

This story is about Marcus Aquila, a young Roman cohort commander who comes to Britain to take charge of a garrison in the south west of the Roman province of Britain. Apart from wanting to make a career in the Legions, Marcus would like to find out what happened to his father’s Legion, which disappeared some years before in the north of Britain. His hopes are dashed, however, when he is badly injured in an attack on his garrison; what can he now do with his life? Sutcliff is above all a good story teller, and Marcus’s story is full of interest, danger and suspense. She writes with great feeling about the countryside, the seasons and the weather; it is no surprise that Marcus eventually decides to make his home in Britain. Sutcliff also deals with the relationships between Romans and the British, and through the personal experience of Marcus, throws light on the broader experience of conquest from both sides. As her Wikipedia entry notes:’Although primarily a children’s author, the quality and depth of her writing also appeals to adults’.

As far as I can tell, Sutcliff does a great job with the historical detail in the story. She never parades her historical knowledge – it’s just there is a very convincing way, whether it is the particulars of military life, Roman architecture or tribal ritual. Furthermore, the story of The Eagle of the Ninth does have some basis in fact. The Ninth Roman legion certainly disappeared sometime in the first century AD, presumably defeated in battle, and was never re-formed. At the time Sutcliff wrote, it was believed that in about 117 AD, the Ninth was sent to deal with an uprising of tribes in what is now Scotland. But the 4000 men who marched north simply vanished, no word of their fate ever returning. Some historians now question whether the Ninth was destroyed in Britain, or survived this particular clash only to be overwhelmed in some other part of the Empire. But either way, it makes a good story. Sutcliff also knew that a wingless Roman Eagle was dug up by archaeologists in a field near Silchester, and that gave her the other part of the story (though in fact it wasn’t the eagle of a Legion.)

I’m not the only one who admires this book. Film director Kevin Macdonald says it was one of his childhood favourites; his movie, The Eagle, based on the book will be released early in 2011. It will star Channing Tatum as Marcus. In the meantime, details can be found here. Further information about Rosemary Sutcliff can be found at here.

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Still on the theme of children’s books, here is another one I loved. It appears on the surface to be completely different to the gentle English country stories of Monica Edwards, but I think I was attracted to it by some of the same values I found in Edwards’s work.

Violet Needham was born in 1876. She was the daughter of an army officer who belonged to the fringes of the British nobility – he was the illegitimate son of an Irish peer, who married a rich wife and lived comfortably, (except when his gambling habit got the better of him) at his country house and in London. The family also lived abroad for a time when he was a military attaché in Rome. Violet never married, and spent her time in upper class country and family pursuits, doing the social rounds both in England and Europe. In about 1918 she started to write down the stories that she had over the years told her four nephews, but couldn’t interest a publisher in them. In the late 1930’s – when she was already over sixty – a publisher who was a family friend showed The Black Riders to his children. They loved it, and it was published in 1939. A further 18 books followed until she stopped writing in 1957. 

The Black Riders is set in an imaginary European country- or rather Empire – in a period that sounds like the years before WWI. I always imagine it to be somewhere in central Europe. The story is about a boy, Dick, who gets caught up in the shadowy activities of a group called the Confederates that is trying to challenge the autocratic power of the Emperor. It follows Dick’s adventures as a messenger for the group, and his interaction with its scholarly but charismatic leader, Far Away Moses. The Black Riders are the quasi military police who oppose the Confederates and who are objects of both fear and fascination for the boy. The story is well written and exciting. Some of the characters are only cardboard cut outs, but others, including the boy Dick, are very well drawn for a children’s story. Ms Needham has also created an interesting society and landscape, no doubt based on her European experiences, but with an element of imagination that makes it a special place for her readers.

When I was young, it was Dick’s bravery and loyalty that impressed me, along with the challenge of the Confederates to autocratic rule. Now I can see that Ms Needham’s writing reflects her privileged social position and conservative political views. Dick and Far Away both turn out to be members of the Empire’s nobility, and Far Away – or Count St Silvain – is not really interested in challenging the existing social order; he just wants a few changes at the top. Dick’s dead father was an officer of the Black Riders and friend of their feared leader. But realizing all this doesn’t make any difference to the enjoyment I remember having in the book when I was a child, and it does not sour the values of honour, loyalty and fortitude I find in it still. These are not so different from the values of Tamzin and her friends in the work of Monica Edwards. And is there not still a place for these values today?

The Black Riders is the first of a series of stories about Dick’s adventures and the affairs of the Empire. Some of the later ones are good too, but others I found virtually unreadable.

The Violet Needham Society website is here.

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