A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. Continue reading “A fine weird imagination”

Outsiders and Samaritans

SS Normandie 1932-46
A passenger liner The Samaritan features in Jon Walter’s novel Close to the Wind (photo shows SS Normandie, 1932-46)

Jon Walter Close to the Wind
David Fickling Books 2015 (2014)

Dominating this book — on its cover and in the text — is an ocean liner. The first part narrates the hopes and fears attending her boarding, the second part narrates the trip and the third the aftermath. As a metaphor for refugees in transit it has taken on added resonance these days, what with the crises over migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the Channel Tunnel from France and through Turkey into Europe from Syria (and we mustn’t ignore other international situations, such as the boat people struggling to get to Australia). In truth of course the situation with regard to refugees is that — as with the poor in the Gospel accounts — they are always with us: to humankind’s perpetual shame there will always be migrants (whether branded as economic or illegal) as also asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war in hopes of a safe haven.

The refugees in this story are fleeing a volatile situation in an unnamed country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the Balkans (maybe somewhere like Albania), at an unspecified period but in relatively recent times (perhaps the 1990s). The narration largely focuses on Malik Kusak (with his mix of Arab and Polish names) and, for a while, his grandfather (whom he calls Papa, perhaps because that’s what Malik’s mother called him). They have fled from home to a sea port; here they are hoping to meet up with Malik’s mother and travel to safety on board the last humanitarian ship to leave the country, fittingly called The Samaritan. But as is the way of things — especially during conflicts — not all goes according to plan, and Malik finds he is sailing dangerously close to the wind even before he sets foot on deck.

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Secrets galore

via occulta
Directions for the Secret Way

Enid Blyton Five Go Adventuring Again
Illustrated by Eileen A Soper
Hodder Children’s Books 1997 (1943)

The second in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Five Go Adventuring Again as before features siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), together with their eleven-year-old cousin Georgina– hereinafter George — and her dog Timothy (also variously referred to as Tim, Timmy and a ‘peculiar-looking’ and ‘terrible mongrel’). Published the year after Five on a Treasure Island but set during the Christmas holidays of the same year, this outing for the quintet also involves intrepid youngsters, unbelieving grown-ups and a few dastardly villains.

Circumstances dictate that the trio again spend time at Kirrin Cottage by the sea where, not unexpectedly, trouble finds them. In 1943 Britain was still at war, though you’ll find no reference to the conflict bar the fact that a secret formula is close to being stolen by enemies of the state. Continue reading “Secrets galore”

Slight but entertaining

sea waves

Benjamin Lee The Frog Report Puffin Books 1978 (1974)

Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.

This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this? Continue reading “Slight but entertaining”

A Cinderella in Brazil

 

Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil
Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil

Eva Ibbotson Journey to the River Sea
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Eva Ibbotson, if still with us, would have been celebrating her 90th birthday this month, but sadly she died in 2010. Born in Vienna, she had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted  — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea. Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced some of this, while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives. On the banks of the Amazon. Continue reading “A Cinderella in Brazil”

African heirs and graces

elmo1
Elmo Lincoln in Tarzan of the Apes (1918) giving his famous “cry of a great bull ape who has made a kill”; unfortunately this was a silent film so the cry has to be imagined…

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes
Introduction by Gore Vidal, afterword by Michael Meyer
Signet Classics 2008 (1914)

Everyone must have their vision of Tarzan, whether courtesy of the two feature length animations, comics, book covers or the numerous celluloid stars who have strapped on the loincloth, from Elmo Lincoln through Johnny Weissmuller (who, when he got too old and fat, became Jungle Jim in a TV series), Gordon Scott (“my” Tarzan), Jock Mahoney, Ron Ely (TV and feature film) and Christophe Lambert (an appropriate choice as French is Tarzan’s first spoken human language). Or maybe you’ve come across him in the parody George of the Jungle, an animated TV series which aired in the 60s, spawned a feature film and now a remake to coincide with the centenary of Tarzan of the Apes first book publication. Until lack of height, physique and any practical sense told me otherwise, I’m sure I was not alone in fantasising life as an ape-man, despite the absence of a convenient jungle.

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