Is by Joan Aiken

IS & COLD SHOULDER ROAD

Joan Aiken’s Wolves chronicles are set in a Dickensianesque,  England, in which the Stuarts had repelled a Hanoverian takeover of the monarchy.

The series started with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and continued in Black Hearts in Battersea. The second of those books introduced Dido Twite who becomes the main character in the series until this book.

Dido’s younger sister Isabettecommonly known as Is, was introduced in Dido and Pa. She now  gets a story of her own. in which she shows the same kind of resourcefulness previously demonstrated by her older sister Dido.

The inventive language of Aiken’s characters is a joy to read. The Twite girls’ unique vocabulary is a highlight of the books and adds the authenticity of a world not quite our own, stemming from an alternate history.

After promising her dying uncle that she’ll go to London to find her missing cousin, Is becomes aware that throughout the city, children have been disappearing, and she takes on the task of finding out what is happening to them, hoping to find her  cousin in the process.

One thing struck her at once, and this was how very few children there were to be seen, in comparison with the days when she had lived in London. She recalled then, that on her household errands through the streets, children had been everywhere, swarming like ants: ragged sharp-eyed brats, the active ones earning pennies by holding horses, or sweeping the mud from street crossings, running messages, picking pockets, shouting their small shabby wares, bundles of matches or bunches of cress; and sick, shrunken, starved ones sitting listlessly on doorsteps or curled under bridges, waiting for death to come and solve their problems.

But now all these seemed to have vanished  altogether. In London there were hardly any children visible; the hurrying crowds in the streets were all adults, going about their adult affairs.

Croopus, where have all the kinchins got to? Is asked herself. It sure is a mystery! Funny no one’s wondered about it sooner. Nobody cares above half, I reckon. Streets look tidier without kids all about. Some folks likes it better that way, I daresay.

Is finds herself uniquely placed to investigate the mystery of disappearing children by joining their ranks, accepting an invitation to board a monthly train to “Playland”, with over two hundred other children trying to escape the hardship and poverty of their lives in London.

The train takes them into the new northern kingdom of Humberland ruled over by Gold Kingy where play will be the last thing its young cargo will experience.

 

 

For more about Aiken and her work:
https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/

 

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2 + 2 = Variety

Two books plus two films, a diversity of genres and forms, with little in common: all in a weekend’s “work”.

caedmonOn Saturday I finished the last 30 or 40 pages of Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song.
Kirsten is making her way home after celebrating the completion of her studies at a northern university. She wakes in hospital after suffering a horrific attack.
As the months pass, during her slow recovery, several young students are murdered, presumably by the same attacker.
There is pressure to break through the suppression of her memories of her own attack, in the hope of identifying the man and bring his killing to an end.

Alongside Kirsten’s story the book also follows Martha Browne, visiting the northern coastal town of Whitby, claiming to be researching a book, but keen to keep to herself as she plans for some kind of mission aided by her “spirit guides”.

Robinson said that the book was partly inspired by the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, and the question of how a surviving victim of a serial killer might respond to their survival and recovery.

lady Later on Saturday I started reading Lady in Waiting another book that alternates between two stories. In the present day Jane Lindsay is struggling with the seeming breakdown of her marriage, when her husband takes a job in a another city.
In the past there is the story of Lucy Day, a young seamstress working for Lady Jane Grey.

The two stories are brought together by the discovery of a ring hidden in the spine of a centuries old prayer book bought as stock for Jane’s antique shop.
The title “Lady in Waiting”, could be applied to Jane Lindsay, waiting for her husband’s return to the marriage; to Lucy Day, waiting on her Lady Jane; or to Lady Jane herself, waiting to find out the future planned for her by her family.

I’ve had a five decade interest in Lady Jane Grey since I read or heard about her as a pre-teen in the late 1960s. She is the forgotten first Queen of England, whose reign lasted just over a week.
She was the chosen successor of the Protestant Edward VI who wanted to deny his Roman Catholic sister Mary from taking the throne after his death. Jane, Edward’s cousin, was an educated and devout Christian in regular correspondence with leading protestant theologians in Europe.

Mary’s military support made Jane’s position untenable and Jane was executed on Mary’s orders early the following year, at the age of 16.

Swallows_and_Amazons_(2016_film)Swallows and Amazons is a classic children’s book that I’ve never had the opportunity to read.
A year or two ago I started to watch an old film version of the story, but lost interest only half an hour in.

On Saturday Gloria bought this new version on DVD, A wonderful film in which the Walker children face dangers, imagined and real, during a holiday in the Lake District of northern England.
They sail their boat “Swallow” to a an island to camp out for the night, but find the island has already been claimed by the “Amazons”, a group of locals.

As the rivalry between the Swallows and the Amazons intensifies, they find themselves being drawn to work together to face a more serious, common enemy.

Set in the 1930s, it s story that wouldn’t translate to a present day setting, where children would be discouraged from pursuing risky outdoor adventure, even if they could be torn away from the digital adventures pursued in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

 

downsizingDownsizing is another film Gloria found on Saturday morning.
I wasn’t really interested in seeing it, and almost halfway into the film I was wondering why I’d bothered.

As the human population increases the harm it does to the planet, scientists discover a way to “downsize” people and animals – basically shrink them to a fraction of their natural size.
This is seen as a potential life-saver for the planet. Reduce the population in size and reduce the consumption of resources as well as reduce the resulting waste footprint.

The major enticement to encourage potential recruits for the project is the promise of more affluent lives in custom made small communities. Current basic finances convert to the equivalent of millions of dollars in a community where a few metres of land are the equivalent of several acres when the scale difference is taken into account and the “downsized” people can live in mansions that would previously been the size of a doll house.

The first part of the film concentrates on the wonders associated with the downsizing opportunities, using some interesting special effects to show the interaction between people of vastly different scales. Downsizing is presented as a favourable option with no down-side; apart from one or two hints that its outcome may not fully be what it is presented to be.

There are occasional hints of political unrest – with questions being raised about the legal rights of downsized people. They consume so little, and therefore contribute so much less to a consumer driven society, so should they have equal voting rights?
And it becomes clear that downsizing can be misused and abused by Governments as well as by less than honourable corporate groups.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, who, along with his wife, choose to downsize. Safranek soon finds that he may have made a mistake in making that irreversible choice.

As I said, after half of the film I was wondering about the point of it all, but then the film took a significant turn. That change came about with the introduction of a Vietnamese character, Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau.
She gives the film a spark it was lacking and brings it to life, a Jesus worshipping woman devoted to serving the less fortunate.
Through her Safranek starts to see another side to the downsizing programme. Alongside the advertised affluence, there is a hidden world of poverty, making their new world no different to the one they’d chosen to leave behind, where affluence is enjoyed at the expense of many who are usually unnoticed.

It is a clear film of two halves. The second part turned it from something self-indulgently forgettable into something thought provokingly memorable. It’s something that has stayed with me since I saw it on Saturday evening.

The Hobbit: Peter Jackson vs Tolkien

hobbitMy first memories of The Hobbit come from Primary School. I recall a relief teacher reading part of it to the class.

I bought my first copy of the book about 15 years ago, a large hardcover illustrated by Alan Lee. It stayed unread on a bookshelf until a couple of weeks ago.

My neglect of the book came to an end after watching the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s film of the story. Ironically it wasn’t enjoyment of the film that led me to the book. My disappointment with the film made me want to know how much the film departed from the book, and how a book of about 300 pages could be stretched into a series of three, three hour films.

The answer to that last question seems to be: include extensive battle scenes where visual spectacle can distract the viewer from the fact that the brevity of the battles in the book helped to keep the story moving. And if you still need to stretch the film to three hours, add a battle or two not in the book and introduce parts of The Lord of the Rings book that had been omitted from the earlier films.

The book is a simple quest. Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit of the title, is recruited to join a group of dwarves who intend to reclaim treasure lost to the dragon Smaug when he drove the dwarves’ ancestors out of their kingdom. Their journey presents a continual series of obstacles and enemies that need to be overcome. The book’s climax brings together most of the journey’s adversaries (as well as a few friends) in a final battle. To me the book presented an intimate, personal story despite the epic nature of the journey and quest.

Tolkien later expanded the world of his children’s book the Hobbit in his creation of the more mature Lord of the Rings, presenting a grander quest with much higher, universal outcome at stake. In tackling his films of the two stories in reverse order, it seem to me that Peter Jackson felt the need to maintain the tone created in LOTR in his version of The Hobbit, but maybe he could have done so without “needing” to make them the same length.

Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

 http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/books

Spoiled Again!!!

When is a spoiler not a spoiler?

Maybe when it’s in the title of a book?

Moving on from The Satanic Verses I’ve started reading Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera. Now THERE’S a title that gives us a very good idea of what the book is about, and I’m tempted to say it gives enough away to TECHNICALLY be a spoiler, but I have to admit it was the title that drew my attention. It suggested the book dealt with a topic that interested me.

The blurb confirms and expands upon the title – that the story is about an average teenage boy who ends up in Guantanamo Bay – prisoner of the Bush administration, after being snatched away from the other side of the world. More “spoilers”!

I have to wonder, if I’d been able to start the book with absolutely NO preconceptions, how different would the reading experience be? I suspect the whole shocking effect of the story would be increased if the boy’s kidnapping and transportation was unexpected.

But that’s the nature of the publishing beast today – and also the nature of the reader. There are so many books competing for our attention that we want to have some idea of what a book is about before we commit to it.

Where is the delicate balance between giving the consumer enough information to make them want to “invest” money and time, and literally spoiling their enjoyment by giving too much away.

Several years ago I found the the film The Sixth Sense was a big disppointment. A friend had told me how good the film was – especially the twist at the end. However, before I saw the film several things came together to spoil that ending. Firstly there was the knowledge that there WAS a twist. Secondly I read a review that described the opeining scenes of the film, but the final piece of the spoiler jigsaw was in the movie trailer’s famous line, “I see dead people”.

So even before I entered the cinema I had worked out the probable ending and everything I saw throughout the film confirmed my expectations.

But I seem to be in the minority these days.  Promoters now think nothing of giving away important plot points in their advertising and it’s becoming more and more difficult to enjoy a story (in book or film) without already knowing what to expect. See a movie trailer and you’ve more or less seen the movie. Read the blurb and you’ve read half of the book.

My Fictional Autobiography (part 2): Mostly Fantasy

My later teens are nothing to be proud about. I refused to read the required novels for my English classes in High School (but passed my final exams anyway). And I read many books of questionable taste such as Stanley Morgan’s “Russ Tobin” series, commencing with The Sewing Machine Man (gratuitous sex), and Richard Allen’s Skinhead series (gratuitous violence).
Those books are best forgotten.

I also had my first real taste of horror fiction with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. It was the first time that a book genuinely scared me – something that the film failed to do, even though the book’s literary qualities are questionable and the film is considered a classic of the genre.

elidorSome of the brighter spots in my reading diet came through my interest in fantasy and I rediscovered books by CS Lewis and Alan Garner. I had some memories of reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe years before, but I’d never moved on to the sequels. I’m not sure when I first came across Garner but his fiction seemed more grounded in “reality”. Lewis and Garner both portrayed a crossing over between real and magical worlds. Lewis took his child protagonists from their familiar circumstances and placed them in a world very different from their own, but Garner turned this around and showed the world of magic and myth crossing over to our world, bringing conflict here instead of isolating it in the relative safety of somewhere else. Garner also had less “jolly good show” about him than Lewis, portraying characters more familiar to me than those created by Lewis.

Obviously any serious follower of fantasy fiction cannot avoid Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, but I have clearly not followed seriously enough because I’ve been unable to complete this revered trilogy. I’ve made multiple attempts, but have never made it to the end. It may seem irrelevant to others, but one hindrance to my progress has been chapter length. In my earlier attempts I found the chapters far too long to be tempted to read “just one more chapter” before I put the book down for the night. It’s amazing how much reading progress can be made through the “one more chapter” approach. When I read The Wizard of Oz as a child, I read the whole book in one sitting because I wanted to keep reading “one more chapter” before I was ready to put it down.

I recall very little fantasy fiction available for adults in the 1970s. That may be difficult to believe for anyone used to today’s abundance of fantasy titles. Almost everything I remember was written for children or ‘Young Adults”. The exceptions were Lord of the Rings and a couple of books inspired by it, like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. Some see Brooks as being the one who inspired the rise of Fantasy fiction as a viable adult genre, being the first to break through the fear of competing with Tolkien. (see http://www.terrybrooks.net/novels/sword.html)

For some reason those first attempts to aim fantasy at the adult reader didn’t appeal to me and my own reading of fantasy remained with the books written for children and teens. To Lewis and Garner I would add Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising) and Lloyd Alexander (The Prydain Chronicles) as my favoured authors of that time. I even named my Collie, Bran, after a dog in one of Cooper’s books.
I know there were other books and other authors, but they haven’t stuck in my mind to the extent of those already named; and I’m sure that those I DO recall (Penelope Lively, George MacDonald, E Nesbit,) belong to a later part of my life in books.

My Fictional Autobiography (part 1): Childhood

In my early blogging days I wrote about the progression of my musical tastes through the different stages of my life. I have been thinking of doing the same with my literary tastes, but for some reason it doesn’t seem so easy.

One of the surprising things about considering the music in my life was how complete I was able to make the list. Of course I didn’t refer to every group, artist or recording that I liked over the years, but I was able to recall all of those who had an important influence on my tastes.

Applying the same approach to my relationship with books is much a more complicated process, but I’ll do what I can.

My mum taught me to read long before I started school. I have vague memories of two “Ladybird’ books, one about the alphabet and the other about farm animals, which must have played a part in my introduction to reading.

At school I remember Janet and John books that were used as a basic introduction to reading in class. Among the books available later were the Thomas the Tank Engine series and Topsy & Tim books.

A significant part of my reading journey began with a nose bleed that started on the way to school one day. I spent some time out of class with huge wads of cotton wool to soak up the blood. Eventually the school staff decided it would be better if I bled to death at home rather than on school premises and they contacted my mum who took me home.
I was very upset about missing class that day because I would miss the story broadcast via radio each week. As compensation my mum arranged my membership at the local library and selected a few books for me to read.

bobbsey twinsApart from those few details I have no memory of specific books in those early years, but as my time in Primary school progressed I was a keen reader of the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. I also enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books prior to the TV adaptations and Doctor Dolittle was a friend long before Rex Harrison played him in the original film.

dr dolittlePart of the problem in recalling the books of my early life is the fact that there were so many of them and their significance to this project is merely due to the fact that I can remember their titles or parts of their plot.
Dodie Smith’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians is memorable partly because of the animated Disney film and also because my family had a Dalmatian for a pet. And there are similar Disney links for Emil and the Detectives and The Incredible Journey.

In my final Primary years the class library had a series of novels about wildlife. Each book focused on a different animal, creating a storyline out of its natural day to day experiences. I don’t remember any details of authors or titles but I loved them at the time. Those stories inspired me to write my own contribution to the genre and I spent hours filling an exercise book with the improbable exploits of a wolf cub and his family. I must have included drawings to illustrate my story because I remember one of the wolf pack in a deadly fight with a herd of buffalo (though the image I recall looks more like a cow).

My early high school years brought on an obsession with James Bond and Modesty Blaise; books with content intended for readers much older than myself. Years later I wrote fan letters to Peter O’Donnell, the author of the Blaise books and was excited to receive a reply to each typed on special “Modesty Blaise” letter head. I regret not keeping them. They could have been a valuable part of my current autograph collection.

The most memorable short story I wrote in my teenage years was a James Bond tribute. After an accident my protagonist woke to find he was the “guest” of various Bond villains, and had been mistaken as Bond himself. While I regret not keeping the story, I recognise that my memory has perhaps given it qualities that I would find lacking if I had the chance to read it again. Sometimes memory might be a kinder literary critic than reality