Witch Week Day 1: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines


We’re excited to have this guest post from Marlyn Beebe, a west-coast (USA) librarian with Canadian roots. We thought a librarian would know of some fantasy books that would be new to us, and she did. With her permission, we’ve added two books to her suggestions, to make this a perfect Top-Ten list. Interesting side-note: these are all first books in series. No doubt about it, readers love a good series.

Marlyn grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies. Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, Tod, and their cat, Puck. She works part-time at multiple libraries and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games. Marlyn reviews books for School Library Journal, as well as for her blog Stuff and Nonsense. Head over to her blog to see what else she enjoys reading.

About her list, Marlyn writes:

I’ve always loved literature about strong women, whether realistic or speculative fiction, historical or contemporary. By the time the books below were published (yes, even the ones from the last century!), I was already an adult, and wished passionately that I could have experienced them as a child or teen. I’m grateful that these books, and so many more like them, are available for me to share with today’s young people!

Just to make things interesting, we (Lizzie, Chris and Marlyn) have added a tiny spin to this list. Way back in 2009, The Alan Review published “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer”, an article analyzing female fantasy protagonists.¹ The authors argue that when fantasy writers give their female protagonists active roles (as opposed to waiting to be rescued by and then married to the hero), the characters tend to take one of two roles: Dragon-Slayer (basically the heroine acts just like a hero, using a sword to “overpower and conquer” villains) or Dragon-Sayer (the heroine uses feminine skills to nurture and take care of the villains’ needs, thereby de-fanging the villain). Marlyn, Lizzie and Chris have identified where we think all but two of the heroines fall within this (imperfect) dichotomy. If you disagree, let us know! And if you can decide about the two we didn’t identify, let us know that as well.

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Witch Week Master Post

… Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen…

— from Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to the fifth annual Witch Week, an opportunity to celebrate our favourite fantasy books and authors. The inestimable Lory of Emerald City Book Review initiated this in 2014, inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’ book called, naturally, Witch Week. This is a fantasy set between Halloween and November 5th, Bonfire Night, marking the day in 1604 when Guy Fawkes was caught preparing to blow up Parliament.

Lizzie Ross and I have volunteered to co-host the event this year, and therefore posts will be appearing on both our sites; you may comment on either or both blogs. This year we’re focusing on Feminism+Fantasy, in honour of the late Ursula K Le Guin, and we hope you might feel inspired to join in by linking up your own posts about books related to this theme.

The goddesses of publishing have joined the celebration, for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition (Saga Press 2018, illustrations by Charles Vess) goes on sale today in the US; it was October 25th in the UK. We both may need to replace our well-worn 1980s Earthsea paperbacks; Lizzie’s rewarding herself with a visit to her nearest bookstore to grab a copy before they disappear.

You may also wish to join in the readalong of Le Guin’s final Earthsea novel The Other Wind; or comment on posts in response to points raised; or simply enjoy the reviews and posts.

Here’s what we’ve planned:

Wednesday October 31st, Day 1: Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines by Marlyn Beebe
Thursday November 1st, Day 2: Sword-for-hire by Lizzie Ross
Friday November 2nd, Day 3: The Women of Witcher by Piotrek and Ola
Saturday November 3rd, Day 4: A Famous Witch by Lory Widmer Hess
Sunday November 4th, Day 5: discussion of Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind
Monday November 5th, Day 6: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin by Tanya Manning-Yarde
Tuesday November 6th, Day 7: Wrap-up and looking ahead to next year

Do please add your comments below and any links to your reviews on this theme — we’d very much like to see what you’ve all been reading — and feel free to respond to guest posts. However you participate, we hope you enjoy the week as much as we have putting it together!

Bly spirits

The figure on the tower at Bly, Essex: a contemporary illustration to The Turn of the Screw

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
in Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw
Penguin English Library 2012

Here is the ideal kind of story to read as autumn sets in, the nights get longer and our wilder imaginations take hold. Or perhaps not, if we are of a nervous disposition or cursed with an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began this. A ghost story, certainly, set in an old country house, mysterious goings-on, and two children under the supervision of a governess with issues of her own. What would I encounter? Poltergeists? Subterfuge? A storm in a teacup? None of these, it turns out, and to some extent I’m as mystified as before though, I have to admit, in different ways.

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Word hoards

A collocation of dictionaries

I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.

I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)

And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?

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Sense and sensitivity

Book title image generated by https://t2i.cvalenzuelab.com/

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

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A week to go to Witch Week

One week from today, Lizzie Ross and I will be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and feminism. If you haven’t already, do look back at my announcement post or at Lizzie’s post here. Then come back here and/or to Lizzie’s blog on October 30 for a preview, a schedule, a readalong and more before the fun really starts on Halloween, continuing until Bonfire Night on November 5th, followed by a wrap-up post. Do join us!

Incidentally, the Witch Week 2018 logo features a detail from The Little Foot Page (1905), a painting by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. This shows Burd Helen, a tragic Scottish heroine who dressed as a page boy to follow her cruel lover barefoot while he rode on horseback. The painting shows her dressing as a boy and cutting her long hair. (After this painting was exhibited we’re told that female art students started cutting their hair in page boy style, possibly inspired by this image.)

An old Scottish ballad in Francis James Child’s 19th-century collection gives a flavour of her awful treatment by the lover who’d made her pregnant.

‘And ever I pray you, Child Waters,
Your foot page let me be!’

‘If you will my foot page be, Ellen,
As you do tell it me,
Then you must cut your gown of green
An inch above your knee.

‘So must you do your yellow locks,
Another inch above your eye;
You must tell no man what is my name;
My foot page then you shall be.’

All this long day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot by his side;
Yet was he never so courteous a knight
To say, Ellen, will you ride?

But all this day Child Waters rode,
She ran barefoot through the broom;
Yet he was never so courteous a knight
As to say, Put on your shoon.

When feminism combines with fantasy, female characters are more likely to ride, and to wear shoes — as we’ll learn during Witch Week. Past conventions required women to sacrifice quite a bit — the fates of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other heroines — exactly what Le Guin was fighting against in her re-visioning of Earthsea and as we hope to explore further!

Mission statement

Here’s a bit of fun, a change from my usual wittering. Via Joseph at Implied Spaces I was introduced to a text to image app, http://t2i.cvalenzuelab.com, created by Cris Valenzuela.

In t2i you input text and an image is generated, and I can more or less guarantee you will be intrigued by the results.

For demonstration purposes I’ve used Calmgrove’s mission statement, Exploring the world of ideas through books. Above and below are screenshots of a couple of resulting images. Freaky looking, no?

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Totems on Nantucket

Common Loon or Great Northern Diver

Otto Coontz: The Shapeshifters
First published as Isle of the Shapeshifters
Magnet/Methuen Teens 1988 (1983)

The Great Northern Diver, also known as the Common Loon, has a piercing call rather like a crazed laugh, which has given rise to the saying as crazy as a loon. It’s also a creature of three elements — water, earth and sky — while a distinctive band around its neck gave rise to the Native American legend of the Loon’s Necklace made of shells. The Loon even features on Canda’s dollar coin. All of which helps to explain why this diving bird holds great significance in this fantasy set on Nantucket Island off mainland Massachusetts.

Theda Benedict’s father and stepmother are involved in a popular tv series — he’s the scriptwriter, she the principal star — and they have been invited to Nantucket during June to meet some fans. Theda (‘Theo’ to her friends) has begun her holidays and so is able to travel with them to the island, only to discover that she feels a connection with the place even though she’s never been there before.

The invitation, it turns out, is anything but fortuitous, and is merely a prelude to conflict and disturbances that will affect everyone living on the island. Issues surrounding corporate development, environmental concerns and past injustices build gradually to a climax that almost everyone is unprepared for: for Theo, this appears to be connected with the well in Witch Wood, for everyone else all four elements seem to conspire against them.

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Literary Rye

Mermaid Street, Rye

We’ve visited Rye in East Sussex before on this blog, looking at Lamb House which was associated with various literary figures, including Henry James and Rumer Godden.

Let’s now see a selection of who else with bookish leanings found so much to inspire them in this picturesque and historic town.

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In praise of innocence

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

Henry James: Daisy Miller: A Study.
An International Episode. Four Meetings.
Penguin English Library 2012 (1879)

First published in magazine form in 1878, Daisy Miller is a novella that must strike modern readers very differently from their counterparts a hundred and forty years ago. Now, the very idea of a young lady seeking the company of pleasant young men seems unremarkable in Western society, but then for one such as Daisy to do so unchaperoned, and especially against all advice and convention, would have been regarded as not only unrespectable but also reprehensible.

In the outraged reactions of those who observed Daisy’s unconventionality James may have expressed closet anxieties over his own acceptance as an American in Europe, for he had only recently settled in England; his many extended stays in Europe — which included Switzerland and Italy — had given him plenty of opportunity for observing how New World visitors were received in the Old World. But of course Daisy Miller is much more than autobiography dressed up as fiction.

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Literary bookshelves

Lamb House bookshelves

You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).

I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.

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Touching base

Crickhowell Literary Festival (http://cricklitfest.co.uk) 2018

Just touching base (and touching bass too, as it were) after a busy week of books and music has meant fewer blog posts than usual here.

As you can see from the header photo Crickhowell in southeast Wales has just had its fourth literary festival over the last week and a bit, and I’ve been involved stewarding a few of the events. These included authors as diverse as comic fantasy writer Jasper Fforde, debut novelist Katy Mahood (whom I used to teach music in Bristol) and stand-up comedian and broadcaster Robin Ince, as well as subjects ranging from Frankenstein to dry-stone walling and poetry featuring historic characters associated with a short stretch of our local canal.

I’ve also sung in an ensemble which took part in Open Day events marking the re-opening of a 15th-century Welsh farmhouse, singing medieval songs, madrigals and commissioned choral pieces within an ambient soundscape. Refined techniques involving dendrochronology established that Llwyn Celyn‘s framework came from trees first felled in 1420, with significant additions documented around 1690; the last owners only vacated the property recently so the range of music reflected its long history. The choral singing combined with homemade instruments and the ambient sounds of sheep, birds retiring for the night and high-flying aircraft to echo round the valleys in the Black Mountains of the Welsh borders as dusk fell.

Llwyn Celyn’s medieval farmhouse
Visitors to Llwyn Celyn

Other literary matters haven’t been neglected though. I’ve completed some books which are awaiting reviews — these include Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Gail Honeyman’s bestseller Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — and, in concert with Lizzie Ross, I’ve been helping prepare for this year’s Witch Week which this year has Feminism+Fantasy as it’s theme: look out for at least one more advance notice in the days to come!

Pre-owned, pre-loved

Display in The Rye Bookshop, East Sussex

Inverted Commas 4: Used Books

I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?

Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.

The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.

For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.

The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.

I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.

I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.

Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”

Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?

Another book display, The Rye Bookshop

Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

Continue reading “Something witchy this way comes”