welcome to my world!

This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Forthcoming reviews...

My reading is slightly outpacing my reviewing at the moment so I need to remember to review:
the Ghost Drum by Susan Price,
The Island of Dr Moreau,HG Wells
Dr Franklin's Island, Ann Halam.
Pretties, Scott Westerfield
I'll try to get them done in the next few days next to read Cliff Mc Nish The Silver Child.

Calypso Dreaming: Charles Butler

I haven't read anything by Charles Butler before and was taken aback by just how different this book is. It has an Alan Garnerish feel but the language is chewy; poetic but oddly sprung so that it doesn't hurtle forward as children's books usually do but seems to exist in a kind of a time of its own. This along with the floating omniscient viewpoint, the strange subject matter and slightly odd out of focus feel of much of it, makes for a haunting slightly hallucinatory read. I can't say I am entirely clear on the plot either.
It is set in another kind of now where there are outbreaks of leprosy in parts of the world, where there are healers and a sense that the rational world is on the cusp of breaking down.
Sweetholm an island with a tor and a long history of worship of St Brigan, once known as Brigan, is a place 'where the world is frayed'.Tansy and her parents are to stay on the island housesitting for Uncle John who is believed to have gone on a cruise. Her parents are trying to repair their marriage following her father's affair with a school friend's mother. The island is populated by locals,most notably the handyman,Davy Jones,and by a group of incomers staying at the Manor. This group includes Sophie and her strange daughter Calypso whose father transformed into a kind of a sea monster, Sal and her son Harper. Dominic, Sophie's brother is a healer priest who has come to the island to advise on Calypso, an uncanny child with almost lidless eyes who has supernatural talents and can dream things into being. Her doll, whose name is Bridget, talks to her in the night.
The story is obliquely told with much omitted. Tansy has herself dabbled in magic and for a time believes herself responsible for her father's infidelity. Her father absolves her of her guilt but her magical practise does not directly affect the plot. Dominic, urges Sophie, who is his sister to take Calypso away but she does not. He tries to smother the child as everyone on the island is infected by Calypso's Brigan influenced dreams. His sister fights him off and curses him after which he is turned into a bird and killed by gulls. Tansy and Harper get involved in trying to rescue Tansy's father who goes missing but in the end it is the sea monster father who saves everyone by destroying the Brigan's image and breaking her power. Did Calypso conjure him because Dominic gave her a box containing a flake of her father's scales?
Myth and fairy story and psychological horror are all mixed together in what is a fascinating book. Was it the dark power of Brigan herself that conspired to create Calypso? It is a book that definitely bears rereading.
Transformation seems to be a power of the old demonic forces, a way in which their power breaks through the rational, a manifestation of an older order part of the dream logic of myth and fairytale.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Radleys: Matt Haig

This book really worked for me. It is very funny and witty but manages to stay the right side of comic pastiche. It plays with the current vampire cliches in interesting ways and while being as much about adults as teens, delivers a story with enough drama and emotional content to keep the reader engaged. I was also really pleased to read something written in part from a male point of view - almost all the books I have read recently have been written exclusively from the female point of view and I've missed male voices. If I feel like this is it any wonder that boys can feel excluded? The plot is nice and tight too which is a relief and it is good to see a bit omniscient viewpoint writing for a change - present tense too and I think that all adds to the freshness of it.

The Radleys are trying to live a normal life following the advice in 'the Abstainers Handbook' but are vampires, although at the beginning of the story the children don't yet know it. The daughter,Clara, is a vegan who, like all the family, battles ill health: headaches, weakness, sore eyes, skin rashes and insomnia. All is revealed when a boy who has been bullying Clara's brother Rowen, follows her after a party and tries to force himself on her. She bites him in self defence and finds she can't stop. In panic her father, Peter, calls on his brother Will, a wildly unreformed vampire, for help and dumps the body of Clara's victim at sea. The mother, Helen, is desperate for Will to stay away for reasons of her own. Just before her marriage he Will manipulated her into allowing him to 'convert' her to vampirism: he is also Rowan's father - both facts she has kept secret from her husband. Will gets Rowan drinking vampire blood and generally stirs things up. He is well known to the police anti vampire squad. For some time he had been immune from prosecution by special arrangement but his unwillingness to be discreet about his murdering has now changed that. When the body of Clara's victim is washed ashore with Clara's DNA all over it, the police promise Helen not to prosecute Clara if Helen kills Will. Her connection with her former lover and converter is too strong and she can't do it, but Rowan can and does. There is a nice oedipal echo when Rowan kills his father after, if not having sex with his mother, inadvertently drinking her blood, Will's most precious possession. (In revenge for Rowan smashing this bottle Will bites Rowan's girl friend leaving her all but dead) Rowan rushes to save his mother from Will's clutches and decapitates him. If this seems rather convoluted it makes perfect sense in the book. Rowan saves his girlfriend by making her a vampire and the story ends with the vampires choosing a third way between abstinence and murderous blood lust by electing to buy bottled vampire blood from a vampire nightclub. As no one is killed in the process this somehow still sits with Clara's ethical veganism.
What is unusual in a book for teens is that the mandatory sexual undercurrent comes not from the young people whose desires are either unformed or romantically innocent, but from the triangular relationship between Helen, Will and Peter. I suppose the idea of middle aged vampire sex is as intrinsically funny as the references to famous vampires in history and Will's enthusiasm for drinking the blood of goths, but it does anchor this otherwise whacky fantasy in something real. There is, in spite of the jokes, an emotional honesty here and the book ends with Helen and Pete having wild ( but not explicit) vampire sex. Vampires just like everyone else have to find their own way of dealing with temptation that doesn't involve the denial of their authentic selves.
I was also interested in the rather vehement denial of the efficacy of crucifixes and holy water as just catholic propaganda. Haig seems to belong to the school of 'secular vampirism' which deals with it as a polite kind of otherness, differently human perhaps, which disconnects it from its dark origins an evil alternate immortality - eternal death as opposed to christian eternal life. This approach works fantastically well in this book and to be fair Will is suitably despicable in a completely credible way, but it seems to be part of a trend which loses some of the resonance of the vampire legend by rehabilitating them or reinventing them for a more materialist age - or maybe its just funnier that way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Switchers Trilogy: Kate Thompson

This is the first novel I have read by Thompson, though she is well regarded and I can see why. The first book 'Switchers' began quite slowly but by chapter three I was hooked. It tells the story of Tess a young girl who can switch to any form of animal she chooses. She discovers an older boy, Kevin, who has the same ability and wants her help. She also learns that this ability will only last until they are fifteen, whatever form they are in when dawn breaks on their fifteenth birthday will be their final form. Kevin encourages her to take the form of a rat and she discovers the thought-language of rats. They guide the two children to Lizzie, an old lady and former switcher who tells them that the freakish weather conditions the planet is enduring are the result of the krools, vast creatures who eat by freezing and consuming everything in their path. She believes that they can prevent the krools from killing everything and so starts an adventure which has the children travel north as birds, whales, polar bears, mammoths and finally as dragons destroying the icy power of the krools through their heat. The children's story is intersected with details of governments' attempt to sort out the problem and the dragons are attacked by planes in the arctic circle who believe they and not the unseen krools are the source of the climate change. As dragons, the children ensure that the heat of the missiles hits the krools until they retreat and the climate returns to normal. On the evening of Kevin's birthday they are returning from the Arctic when he is hit by a missile and Tess returns home alone, believing him dead. It is only some months later when she sees a strange bird outside her window that she discovers the truth, the bird is Kevin, now a pheonix, risen from the ashes of his own destruction.
This rather blunt synopsis doesn't do justice do the many threads of this plot. Tess' relationship with her parents is well done, all the characters are convincingly drawn and the passages where the children talk with the rats are particularly effective: Thompson is great on conveying the sensory joy of flying, or running as a rat. The children's gift has its own kind of logic: Lizzie, Tess and Kevin are all outsiders who discover a talent Lizzie claims is innate in everyone, (though this does not seem wholly consistent with what occurs in the last book.) Lizzie herself seems rather wise by the end of the book than she appears early on, but this might reflect the characters' understanding of her.
In 'Midnight', the second book. another switcher, Martin, traumatised by the death of his father turns himself into a vampire, hoping to live for ever. When Tess asks for his help in rescuing Kevin-as-pheonix from the zoo, Martin bites her and claims that she too is now a vampire and on her death will become his. Martin has the rats searching for a crypt for them both to sleep out the days of their eternal life and, when he reveals his plan for her on the night before his fifteenth birthday, she points out that if she became a pheonix she too would be immortal. Martin sets out to prove her wrong by attempting to kill Kevin in Pheonix form. When Kevin is liberated both he and Martin grab her and she experiences their battle for her loyalty as a fight between good and evil. She finally rejects both their versions of immortality by screaming that she wants to be human. The power of this rebuttal restores both boys to their human form. Martin finally begins to grieve for his father and remains a boy on his fifteenth birthday.
This is certainly a new take on the vampire legend and Martin and Tess' relationship lacks the romance/sexual dimension that has recently swamped the fantasy genre. The existence of the pheonix, a creature of perfect goodness requires the existence of its opposite. I found this story the least satisfactory of the three, perhaps because the vampire seems a different order creature of myth from the dragon and Pheonix and the appeal of his dark world sits oddly with Tess' joy in the natural world. It also fits less well with the morally ambiguous Celtic tradition form which the stories seem to derive. The book works because Thompson is very good, but it does at times feel rather a strain.
The third book 'Wild Blood'has Tess staying with family in southern ireland, encountering her ancestors and learning the full extent of her powers. She meets her relative who chose at fifteen to become Sidhe, live for ever and retain his powers to switch. It is Kevin, who followed her to be present on her fifteenth birthday, who points out that the world needs the wisdom of the Switchers, to protect the natural world and the magical sites of the old ones. As a consequence she elects to remain human.
All three books are strongest when rooted in the natural world.
It is worth noting that in these stories the ability to switch is seen very much as a gift which bestows wisdom and, in the final book, this philosophical link with Celtic mythology is made explicit. This gives the series a kind of coherence and consistency that shape shifting fantasies can lack.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The City of Bones: Cassandra Clare

This is another first book of a hugely successful series. It was an enjoyable read and sits somewhere between Harry Potter in terms of its sprawling and not wholly convincing world building and Twilight with its love triangle and forbidden sexual attraction.
The story contains many traditional elements, the heroine Clary discovers that she can see demons, werewolves, vampires and warlocks and also those who hunt them 'Shadow hunters'.It transpires that she has always had this ability but her mother, a Shadow Hunter herself paid a warlock to regularly ensorcel her to forget what she sees. Her mother has disappeared in violent and mysterious circumstances and so gradually her natural ability reasserts itself. It is a really long book with fairly predictable twists at every turn Clary is the daughter of Valentine, an evil renegade Shadowhunter determined to destroy all non humans.So, much like Harry Potter, she turns out to be rather important without knowing it in this world under the world. There were a few things that didn't make sense. Shadow hunters are made from humans with angel's blood and their talents are inherited. Clary's best friend, Simon, who predictably enough is in love with her, starts to see these other beings just because he is made aware that they exist- an expedient solution to a plot problem that seemed unconvincing.
The book is about the search for Clary's mother and for the cup which transforms ordinary humans into Shadow Hunters, but it is the sexual tension between Clary and Jace, an apparently orphaned Shadow Hunter, who turns out to be her brother, that really drives the plot.
I don't want to be over critical - quite apart from anything else crticising a very successful book can look like sour grapes - the book has some cool ideas, magical rune tattoos which lend power while they last, vampires on specially constructed motorbikes that can fly but cease to work in the light. There is the usual focus on clothes and surfaces but the book seems to belong more to the world of film and television than literature. Everyone is gorgeous and the setting cinematic. 'It's all true' is a bit of a watch word and Clare has thrown in creatures from wildly different traditions including angels and demons, without any underlying theology or ontological rationale. The Shadow Hunters have a world of their own, Idris, which also didn't make much sense to me.
It is possible I missed something: I read it at pace because it is in its way gripping but the world building felt incoherent.
I was also interested in how little the central issue - Clary's loss of her mother drove the plot. The were wolf character was not particularly convincing and it felt as if he were a were wolf only to provide another twist and the other transformation - of Simon into a rat- felt like it had come straight from a Harry Potter book.
It won't be a hardship to read the rest of the series, it is entertaining, but Clare is obviously a competent writer and I had hoped for something with a bit more depth. It is of course quite unjust to criticise a book for being the book the writer wanted to write rather than the one the reader wanted to read. This is sassy and smart and glamorous and its success is unsurprising.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Uglies:Scott Westfield

I have returned to this as part of my project on transformations. I loved this on a first reading because of the idea, though a little googling has revealed that is was inspired by an episode of the 'Twilight Zone' which was itself based on a short story as the author is gracious enough to admit http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2008/01/number-12-looks-suspiciously-familiar/
It remains a great idea - children over a certain age live in dorms until at sixteen they get to choose their appearance, become 'Pretties' and accepted into the adult world.
Racial differences, height and weight extremes are all normalised to create a society of beautiful happy party people. Unfortunately the cosmetic surgery that produces this aesthetic equality also results in brain damage, the loss of curiosity, anger, creativity so that while war and ecological destruction are avoided many of those essential qualities that characterise humanity are also destroyed.
Tally Youngblood is an ugly who is marking time before she can join her best friend, Peris, in New Pretty town until she is befriended by another ugly, Shay who is even more talented than Tally at pulling 'tricks' or breaking the rules. Shay teaches Tally to hoverboard and tells her of David an older ugly who can guide them to the Smoke, a place where people can live outside of civilisation without having the operation.
Just before her sixteenth birthday Shay leaves to find the Smoke and gives instructions that Tally could follow. Tally wants the operation but is denied it by Dr Cable, an enhanced Pretty, a Special, unless Tally follows Shay to the Smoke. Tally is given a necklace which she must use to inform the Specials when she has reached her destination.
Tally overcomes a number of obstacles to reach the Smoke and after a time falls in love with David, the leader, meets his parents and learns of the damaging effects of cosmetic surgery. She destroys the necklace but in so doing calls in the Specials who capture everyone but David and Tally. Shay is transformed into a Pretty and, though David's mother has designed a pill to counter the effects of the operation, she will not give it to Shay without her consent. Ridden with guilt, Tally decides that she must be the guineapig for the pills and gives written consent before giving herself up to the Specials to be transformed into a Pretty.

This is the first of a very successful series which is fast paced and tightly written. I was a bit disappointed by the rather two dimensional world and heavy handed ecological messages, but was suitably engaged by the story. What I found interesting was that while physical transformation results in a changed personality both occur in an almost mechanistic way. The transformation is the work of science, the lesions on the brain a by product, and while the effect of beauty on the ugly is mentioned repeatedly, there is no real opportunity to explore the impact on the individual because all are a changed and all lose themselves in the process. I don't think the message is necessarily that all people who have plastic surgery are brain damaged or that beauty must be allied with idiocy more that the pursuit of the ideal physical shape might lead to the undervaluing or even the deliberate suppression of more important qualities. The idea of becoming beautiful is however a very powerful notion and in allowing Tally and Shay to become beautiful I do feel Westerfield has his cake as well as eating it. Yes Tally becomes beautiful to save her friend and ugly David is a hero, yet not being a teenager I'm not sure if fear for the potential loss of Tally's personality overrides reader satisfaction that she will finally become beautiful.
It is an intriguing concept and a fun read but it is a book about surfaces, about appearances in a rather superficial way. It is a story about betrayal and reparation, about growth in the sense that Tally recognises that beauty is not the only important quality, but, in the end the story is less about the tyranny of aesthetics than the tyranny of the Specials and I think I wanted something a little more nuanced.