Archive for the ‘Kidlit’ Category

One trend I haven’t really kept abrest of is that of the glut of fantasy series written for kids in the aftermath of the Potter phenomenon. I like a good adventure story with some inventive magic thrown in as much as, and perhaps even more, than the next person (I still adore Edith Nesbit, one childhood favourite I’ll never grow out of), but walking into the children’s section in book shops and seeing very little other than the fantasy authors du jour is a little tiresome. 13-year-old Cousin Kimmy had, however, suggested Jonathan Stroud, so he was on a to-read list — and the trip we took last week to Goa seemed like a great excuse to pick up the first in his Bartimaeus Trilogy. Nothing like a fat, exciting, low-stress beach read, eh?

And Stroud did deliver, with a novel that was great fun to read and has me wanting to get hold of the next in the trilogy as soon as possible. The basic premise might sound very similar to that of the Potter books — young boy, no family, being trained in magic in a world where magic coexists with ordinary life. But that’s where any semblance of similarity ends. While Harry had a definite renegade villain in the shape of Lord Voldemort, Stroud gives us a world more complex, where everyone seems to exist in a grey moral area. The magical government of Stroud’s Britain isn’t necessarily streamlined; there seem to be a variety of factions and power struggles within its hierarchies. The so-called “enemy” in fact, isn’t actually outside the system. This throws, as you can imagine, all sorts of codes of behaviour into uncertainty; and you can never tell where the next “villain” is going to come from. Perhaps, in fact, the villain is actually the one from whose eyes we peer out at this world…

We do all of this peering from two perspectives — that of Nathaniel, a young apprentice magician, and that of Bartimaeus, the djinni he summons to do his will. Ah, you’d say, he probably wants to rid his magical world of some dark menace and needs a djinni to do the work for him (in Stroud’s magical world, most magical tasks are carried out by magical beings; humans only give the orders). This is where I was first startled and intrigued; Nathaniel isn’t intent on dispelling some evil, not at all. What he’s after is revenge — he wants to get back at Simon Lovelace, a powerful senior magician, at whose hands he has suffered humiliation. It’s true that Lovelace is ruthless and attempting to wrest power for himself… but this isn’t Nathaniel’s primary concern and he only realizes it later. Something very interesting is happening here, because it really is impossible to tell what sort of magician Nathaniel is going to grow up into. There is a humanity, a capacity for caring in him, but it seems circumstantial, evident only in certain contexts, and there’s no telling what adverse circumstances could do to him and what sort of moral centre he will develop.

This dark vision of youthful magical initiative is conveyed most effectively by the use of two voices — an omnicient third-person narrative telling us the story as Nathaniel experiences it and a first-person one that is the voice of the djinni Bartimaeus. Nathaniel is a complex and enigmatic character, but it is Bartimaeus who really carries the book, with his sharp-tongued, jaded commentary and his breadth of knowledge of Nathaniel’s magical world, coming from his great age of 5000 years. The third-person parts of the story are usually full of adventure and Stroud’s own brand of highly vivid description that draws you in, but it’s Bartimaeus who is always funny and readable; I found myself perking up every time I turned a page and found him speaking on the other side.

My one serious quibble with The Amulet of Samarkand is just that it lacks a certain philosophical balance. Bartimaeus, like every other magical servant, is aware that he can’t escape human orders, even while he might have an opinion on them, and hence, tends to be detached from the moral dilemmas of the tale. This gives us only a view of an approach that is largely opportunistic, aggressive, intent on self-preservation, and even somewhat petty; there is no denying that Nathaniel lacks (in this first part of the trilogy at least) a certain morality. This is interesting, up to a point, but there is also a further point at which having some sort of contrasting vision embodied in some way and drawing Nathaniel into inner conflict would really propel this book far out of the ordinary; there’s only so much that physical chases and confrontations can do. I have my hopes that Stroud might do this in the second and third installments. For now, well, I enjoyed this; and no, it wasn’t just because I was reading it in the shade of palm trees at the beach.


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Noel Stretfeild

Noel Streatfeild (from the Lewisham Heritage collection)

One of my favourite books as a child was Noel Streatfeild’s Party Frock, inherited from my mother via my aunt, in an old hardcover edition, the pages brown with dust and age.  It was a book to ease gently into and wallow in, a book full of odd little characters trying to do something distinctly strange. It is wartime in England and a family of children is trying to put up a village pageant to give a 14-year-old cousin the chance to wear a lovely party frock sent over from America by a godmother who has no idea that such party frocks no longer have any uses in an England under rationing, where parties no longer happen on a grand style. The book is all about the details of how such a production comes to pass, no more. But it is charming and completely delightful, in an uneventful, calming sort of way, as a group of perfectly ordinary people start coming together in an effort to achieve a small success.

When I read Streatfeild’s most famous book, Ballet Shoes, I was a little older but not too young to realise that it was very different from Party Frock. The children of Ballet Shoes were also interested in the stage, but they were complete professionals, driven by ambition. To dance; to act; to sing;  to be the best at this and to earn money for doing it—that was what they wanted and it was a world very far from the slow village setting in which the pageant is attempted. I liked it but never loved it the way I loved Party Frock.

Streatfeild has never been easy to find, and I’ve read only a couple of her other books, also about highly ambitious little dancers and actresses. They are human, all right, but they’re all incredibly talented. And frankly, their earnestness  and drive was mildly alarming, almost an admonishment to the laidback child I was. I forgot about Streatfeild for years. Then, quite recently, I found The Painted Garden in a pile of used books being sold on the street and bought it on a whim. And this one, as stilted as it is in parts, finally takes me back in some sense to the ordinary children of Party Frock.

The Painted Garden is about Rachel, Jane, and Time Winter, who live in London but are just leaving for a trip to America; their father has been depressed after being involved in an accident that killed a child and the doctors believe that if he goes off to sunny California for the winter, he might get much better. The family is out of money, but the children’s governess (also their mother’s school chum) decides to spend all of an inheritance she has just received on their tickets. The children are reluctant to go at first; Rachel, a gifted dancer, has just got a part in a professional show, Tim, a prodigiously talented pianist, is going to be given lessons by a sought-after teacher, and Jane doesn’t want to leave her precious pet dog Chewing-gum behind. But they go, eventually. Rachel and Tim both manage to practice and learn, in some form or another, even so far away from home. But it’s Jane who is the surprise; the ordinary, untalented Jane, by a random chance, lands a leading role in a film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. She’s delighted to finally be the important one, the one who can do something as well as the other two.

But acting  isn’t easy, and nor is being good-natured enough to work with lots of other people, even those you hate.  Suffice it to say that Streatfeild, with great insight, gives us a child character who is deeply flawed and yet lovable. Jane responds as a child would to the pressures of being a professional. She has a hard time at the studio and is child enough to throw a few tantrums and sulk considerably herself. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it is entirely uncertain whether Jane will finish her film. She isn’t like a lot of Streatfeild’s other child characters–for her the pressure is not what comes in the way of her career on the stage but rather the career itself, something she may have thought would bring her to an equal footing with her brother and sister, but which actually turns out to be something she doesn’t enjoy. For once, Streatfeild’s protagonist is an ordinary child. I enjoyed this and sympathised with her. And was surprised and pleased to find that Streatfeild, even when she writes about children in show business, knows better than to think that all of them ought to be there.

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I willingly admit it–I pinch books from kids. Okay, maybe I don’t, but when a kid with well-developed tastes tells me to read something, I listen. That’s how I first considered reading The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants –my cousin Kimmy (I nearly said “little cousin”, but she’s just turned 14) left it behind on a recent trip visiting from Canada, so that my mum andI could read it.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling PantsWhich is how I sat down with it last night. It was a quick read–very quick. I must have taken not more than three hours to get through. But in those three hours, the book had me go through the whole spectrum of emotions–everything from giggling madly to having to put it down because I was in tears. A bit like being a teenager, no?

That is, of course, precisely the point, and for once, I can completely understand how this became a bestseller–it’s because it deserved to be one. Ann Brashares, a first time novelist, managed to do something that a lot of people writing for children or young adults just can’t. She remembered exactly what it was like–what it was like to be 15 and working at a first dumb job, visiting family somewhere where you’re completely a fish out of water, feeling disappointed and angry with your parents, living on all the glorious intensity of infatuation. Evoking all of those emotions in not a small feat. It’s the difference between writing for teens and successfully writing for teens.

At any rate: our protagonists are four friends, due to spend their first summer apart. Carmen is off to visit her dad in North Carolina, not aware that she’s going to find him in the throes of preparing to be married again and take on a new family. Bridget (“Bee”) is flying to football camp in Baja California, where she’s going to fall in love with one the coaches and leave common sense behind. Lena’s packing for Greece, where she’ll visit her grandparents and end up tearing the fabric of their trusting social existence in the village. And Tibby–well, Tibby’s going to stay at home and work at the supermarket, and you don’t learn anything about life or meet anyone interesting working at the supermarket, do you? (And just like that, you know that you can sometimes learn life’s most important lessons precisely because you had to work at a supermarket) They’re all apprehensive as well as excited, they’re all aware they’re going to miss each other–and that’s where the Pants come in. The Pants magically fit all of them perfectly, so they agree to share them, using them for a few days or a week and then sending them along to the next person, linking their separate summers with a pair of jeans.

I don’t want to throw in any serious plot spoilers–the surprises in the book are varied and precious. But after reading a synopsis that told me more or less what is described above, I didn’t expect a book that would successfully touch the depths in its characters and make me feel that I’d lived their summers. Such is the immediacy of Brashares’s writing and the keenness of her understanding of 15-year-olds. It is very plainly a book written for the young–the language is simple enough for that–but it’s full of feeling not entirely beyond the ken of the oldest and most jaded of readers. Other than one or two false notes in the “Lena” part of the story, this is a classic.

Wikipedia, unfortunately, informs me that there are three more books in the series, and the plot summaries don’t make them sound promising–they seem downright soapy, in fact. But then, those are other books, not this one. And I haven’t read them, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge them too quickly. This one, I know, is to be savoured and re-read and re-read again.

As for you, not-so-little-Cousin Kimmy–I read this book on your birthday. Many hugs to you and the best year a girl could hope for.

And lady, may I just say, you have SUPERB taste.

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The Shadow Guests (Joan Aiken)

This isn’t, perhaps, the most inspiring of beginnings, but I started this blog more than a week ago and haven’t yet managed to make a single post. Procrastination is a dreadful habit. So, while this isn’t Book #1 of 2010, it is Book #1 as of this blog.

I’ve read a couple of Joan Aiken’s books before, on the insistence of a friend, though never came across any of her work as a child. Perhaps that’s why I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed by Black Hearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket, though I did enjoy The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. These books just weren’t written for adults; and while I found her details of England in a parallel ‘Victorian’ era — in which Victoria isn’t queen — remarkably inventive and delightful, the books lacked emotional depth and truly engaging characters.

That isn’t precisely the problem I had with The Shadow Guests. Set in England of the late 1970s, the story tells of Cosmo Curtois, who has had to leave Australia and join a boarding school near Oxford, spending weekends with his Cousin Eunice Doom at an ancestral property. At first, we don’t exactly understand why Cosmo’s life has been turned inside-out so peremptorily; all we know is that it has something to do with what happened to his mother and brother. It takes a chapter or so of Cosmo struggling to settle in at school and with Cousin Eunice before the story comes out; as Cosmo learns, to his horror, the family is under a curse dating from Roman Britain, under which the eldest son is always fated to die in battle and his mother in turn of grief. Cosmo’s mother and elder brother Mark have disappeared a couple of months previously; where they are and what has happened to them is a mystery. And as if it weren’t bad enough that Cosmo has to deal with his loss and his new knowledge of the curse, he’s also being shadowed by strange ghostly people who follow him about on his weekends home from school.

This could come across as daft, but it doesn’t. In itself, the plot is intriguing and the tale quite compelling. And Aiken certainly writes deftly enough of Cosmo’s anger at being singled out and bullied by his classmates and of his increasing comfort in the new country home that soothes every injury he suffers at school. It’s not a plot divorced from the realities of loss, of exile, of homecoming, of fears of the unknown, of unjust treatment, of uncertainty, despite its fantastic elements.

So it’s not with the ghost story and the curse themselves that I have problems; it’s with Aiken’s treatment of them. Ultimately, this isn’t complete fantasy. It’s a real world situation, into which certain supernatural elements intrude, disrupting real world lives and emotions. I’ve read other books of that sort–Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, for instance–and Aiken seems to break one cardinal rule. The problem is Cousin Eunice.

She’s supposed to be a mathematician (and it is telling that I automatically wrote “supposed to” there). That would imply a sense of the rational, of logic, of reason. Yet, when Cousin Eunice discusses the family curse and, in the end, Cosmo’s otherwordly visitors, she is maddeningly willing to believe anything, just about anything. There is a cursory look at how things might work in ways we don’t really understand, talking of theories and of people who are able to do things science can’t quite explain, but this doesn’t do anything to convince me of the truth of the book’s fiction; it just makes me think Cousin Eunice is dreadfully gullible and Joan Aiken in too much of a hurry to properly justify the world of the book to the reader. Because that seems to be Cousin Eunice’s function; she’s an embodiment of logic and the mouthpiece for Aiken’s fictional logic. It’s another matter that the logic of fantasy must be demonstrated, not told, to be convincing and Aiken, unlike Pearce and Farmer, doesn’t seem to fully understand this.

It may be, of course, that science, physics and mathematics in particular, in the 1970s were so woo-woo as to verge on barmy, and Cousin Eunice’s theories are representative of those going around in scientific circles at the time; but if I start believing that, I’m apologising too much for Aiken’s hurried writing.

She’s also just too detached from the situation, too stiff-upper-lip to really develop the lows of the psyche when she has to, though she lets them into this book. Death happens, but is passed over very quickly; and the joy of life, in the process, also ends up becoming merely a sort of formal pleasure.I’d like to put this grey, verging on colourless, tone down to  the chief protagonist  trying to repress all the pain he feels, but it’s difficult to assert this as valid. It just seems as if Aiken wanted to avoid discussing some things in any detail; and her rather polite prose doesn’t lend itself to such discussion anyway, though it’s perfect for recounting a rational, quiet conversation and matter-of-factly describing a scene. Unfortunately, the outlandish visions Cosmo has aren’t matter-of-fact. And neither is the haunting bare outline of this ultimately disappointing novel.

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