The whole sky ablaze

The Tulip Touch
by Anne Fine,
Puffin Books 1997 (1996)

Everyone thinks they can see things when they look back. It’s nonsense, really, I expect.

This award-winning teenage novel — it was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 1996 — is a hard-hitting psychological portrayal of an abusive friendship which poses the eternal question, are people ever born evil? It also asks whether it is enough for people to shake their heads and pass judgement while assuming it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with the root causes of antisocial behaviour.

But it wouldn’t be enough for a work of fiction to be preachy, it has to engage the reader in personal stories and relationships, and to put that reader in the position of thinking, would I behave like this or act like that, especially if they were an impressionable youngster like the narrator.

And adult readers may also pause to consider how even grown-ups can be powerless to change situations, either because of their own inadequacies or because systems aren’t in place to allow justice to be done. Through moral ambiguities, challenges and personal courage we are led along the narrative path this novel hastens to take us.

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A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

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Wise as a serpent

dragon

Rachel Hartman Seraphina Ember 2014 (2012)

In Hebrew and Christian tradition a seraph (plural seraphim) is a winged celestial being, sometimes imagined sometimes as an angel (from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger’), sometimes as a serpent. It mayn’t come as a surprise, then, to find that this fantasy’s protagonist, Seraphina, partakes of a little of each of these attributes — as author Rachel Hartman, with a degree in Comparative Literature, will surely have known. Young Seraphina often acts as go-between as well as having an affinity for those mythical winged serpents called dragons; and fittingly she is, as St Matthew has it, as wise as a serpent (though not necessarily as harmless as a dove).

In Goredd and its surrounding states humans have kept a truce with the ancient dragon species for many year, thanks to the foresightedness and bravery of its aged queen. But dragons, as we mostly see them, have developed a particular ability over a millennium: they are able to transform into the semblance of humans, though sharing human emotions is not something that comes easily to these reptilian creatures.
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The reliability of reality

Forest-Path

While skimming through Zoe Brooks’ online feed of articles about the genre of magic realism (or magical realism) — where Zoe had kindly referenced my post on Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop  — I came across an interesting if perhaps contentious article. Colleen Gillard dared to tell us ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories’ in The Atlantic (January 6th) by claiming that British history has encouraged fantastical myths and legends while American tales, coming from a Protestant tradition which saw itself as escaping from insular superstition, tended to focus on moral realism.

The article lines up an impressive array of examples from both sides of the divide. On the one hand you have The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and on the other you have classics like The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, The Little Engine That Could, even The Wizard of Oz and The Cat in the Hat.

From my point of view I can see exceptions, especially in British children’s fiction.

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On being a literary omnivore

books.png

Maybe you’re a bit like me — given a cereal packet, a receipt, a magazine, a leaflet, a poster, a road sign, I’ll start reading and instantly lose myself. During everyday conversations my eyes soon start drifting around, looking for literary matter. Faced with bookshelves my head twists to one side to scan the titles (which, thankfully, these days mostly read vertically one way — unless they’re fat textbooks or foreign language titles). Maybe you’re even trying to scan the book titles in the illustration heading this post.

In addition you may have noticed Continue reading “On being a literary omnivore”