Wednesday 27 January 2010

Just a quick one...

Moss Green Children's Books is a new online children's bookshop particularly dedicated to green issues, which promises to donate 66% of its profits to children's charities.  Well worth a look, and there are lots of Author interviews, including one by me.

Friday 15 January 2010

Fairies and Faeries

Never mind vampires. Think urban faeries. American faeries. They have attitude and they are dangerous. Think streetwise fashion, romance with a distinct sado-masochistic streak, think doomed love. Think of weird little sprites doing unspeakable things to each other in corners, teenage heroines sacrificing themselves to save beautiful young men doomed to hell, or to release young summer kings from winter’s eternal grip. Think of titles like Tithe by Holly Black, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare.

I love traditional fairytales, but by an oddity of the English language, fairies as such seldom figure in them. Even in the French tales of Charles Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy, still less in Grimm’s Märchen, there are almost no fairies in fairytales at all. Far more often the stories turn upon the natural wickedness of men and women (as in The Juniper Tree), on witches (Hansel and Gretel, Jorinda and Jorindel), dwarfs (Strong Hans), mysterious old men or women met on the road (The Tinder Box), wise or magical animals, (The Goose Girl, The White Snake) haunted houses (The Boy who Didn’t Know Fear), Death, the Devil, Christ and St Peter.

It might have been better to call these stories folk-tales, but collections for children persist in calling them fairytales, probably because of the influence of Andrew Lang’s marvellous coloured fairy books. When you encounter a fairy in one of Lang’s tales, she is no diminutive flower-sprite, but an adult-sized, powerful woman – either good, with a Latinate name like Graciosa or Preciosa, or evil, with a name like Malefice or Perfidia. Her powers revolve around blessing or cursing cradles, and interfering in marriages. There are no male fairies at all.

Lang himself was a vigorous folklorist. The Grimm brothers were only a part of the great revival of interest in traditional tales that took place as an offshoot of the romantic movement and of nascent nationalism, right through the 19th century and into the 20th. Selkies stirred in the Outer Hebrides. Undines drew themselves sinuously out of German rivers. The Neckan sang mournfully on Scandinavian cliffs. Baba Yaga flew through the Russian woods in her pestle and mortar to light down at her skull-bedecked garden gate, and the Sidhe went riding from Knocknarea and over the grave of Clooth-na-bare. (However you pronounce it, it sounds wonderful.) Some of these tales, especially the Celtic ones, filtered through to children, who might read about the Children of Dana, fated to spend their lives as wild swans. The Irish always knew the dangerous side of the fairies. William Allingham’s ‘Up the Aery Mountain, Down the Rushy Glen’ with its ‘Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together, Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather’ may fleetingly sound to modern ears like Disney’s dwarfs. But Allingham knew the connection of the fairies with loss and death:

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long,
And when she came down again
Her friends were all gone.

They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead from sorrow.

Scottish J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ may include Tinkerbell, but his second take on a supernaturally extended youth is an eerie play about a girl lost to the fairies, ‘Mary Rose’; and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Despite all this, back in the first half of the 20th century, fairies in children’s books were almost synonymous with an idealised childhood – especially girlhood. Think of the Cottesloe fairies and the Flower Fairies. They were fragile little creatures who lived under toadstools and wore bluebell hats; they died if you disbelieved in them; they painted the tips of daisies pink; above all they were helpful: not for nothing did Lady Baden-Powell name her girl scout movement ‘The Brownies’ (after an earlier name ‘The Rosebuds’ proved unpopular with girls). Brownies were thought of as helpful domestic spirits, and the traditional names for the Brownie ‘sixes’ – at least when I joined briefly in the 1960’s – were Pixies, Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, Fairies and Sprites. Racism was rife – who wanted to be a gnome? – there were badges for feminine tasks such as knitting, sewing, and baking buns, and I left after a few weeks, partly because I did not believe I would ever learn to skip a hundred times backwards.

Then, in the 1960’s Alan Garner burst upon the scene, raiding Celtic and Norse legends and throwing the booty together in the most electrifying way in his first two books The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath – in which two contemporary and quite pedestrian children (who might easily in other hands have seen fairies at the bottom of the garden) are hurled into a maelstrom of ancient magic, moon goddesses, shapeless terrors and hints of deeper legends, deeper worlds. Children’s literature was changed forever.

No fairy, of course, would get a look-in to any of Garner’s books; but it’s worth noting that no faeries get in either. The male supernaturals are wizards, a few rather stiff and chilly male elves, and dwarves. The females – Angharad Goldenhand and her obverse the Morrigan – are variants of the triple moon goddess or witch queen. But Garner released a rush of legend and folklore into children’s and young adult fiction. And fairies in folklore have always been connected with sex as well as death:

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said
‘Harp and carp along with me,
And if you dare to kiss my lips.
Sure of your body I will be.’

So Thomas the Rhymer kissed the Queen of Elphame under the Eildon Tree and rode away with her through the river of blood into elfland. Wild Edric lost his fairy wife and rides for ever on the Shropshire hills (pictured above) with his Hunt, searching for her. Fairy wives often symbolize the dead. (I modelled parts of my book ‘Dark Angels’ on some of these legends.) As for the sexy, beautiful, dangerous male faeries of the modern teen novels, with their nod to James Fraser’s dying god the Corn King, what about the Irish ‘Love-Talker’, a beautiful fairy youth who waylays young girls in the gloaming and makes them so love-sick for him that they pine away and die?

I can’t begin to say all I want to say about fairies and faeries in a short (or even a rather long) blog post. But fairies, faeries, elves, whatever you like to call them, symbolise the supernatural Other in all its manifestations: the threat of illness, bereavement and death as well as the lure of love and beauty. That’s surely why in the 16th century the ‘high’fairies were rationalised into two ‘courts’: the ‘Seelie Court’ and the ‘Unseelie Court’, representing their benevolent and harmful aspects. Love and death, beauty and cruelty, good and evil – the European faerie culture is rich and complex. No wonder so many modern fantasy writers want to plunder it.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Delicious Food

My younger daughter tells me she looks for two things in a book: a mischievous, iconoclastic hero or heroine – and descriptions of wonderful food.

She eats like a bird, so I can only assume this is wish-fulfilment.

Anyway, tonight I happen to be cooking that old British favourite, sausages with bubble-and-squeak.  (Recipe attached, see foot of post!)  It’s cold weather food.  And following on from my blogs about books to read in snowy weather, I thought it might be warming to remind ourselves of comfort food in books.

I was pretty sure that bubble and squeak makes an appearance in “The Wind In The Willows”, and so it does.  The jailer’s daughter, pitying poor Toad, in jail, brings him: “bubble and squeak, between two plates.”  This alone is not enough to rouse Toad from his misery, however, and she has recourse to:

“…a tray, with a cup of hot tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb.  The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad…”

As well it might.  Anyone rushing off for a piece of toast, yet?  Stay a while…

I read John Masefield’s “The Box of Delights” to both my daughters when they were small.  There’s a point when the hero, Kay, despairs of ever managing to get through to the warm-hearted but slow Inspector (who breeds Belgian hares) that his friends are in danger, and that the villain (and wizard) Abner Brown is masquerading as the principal of a nearby religious college.  The Inspector attempts to reassure him:

‘You get that good guardian of yours to see you take a strong posset every night.  But you young folks in this generation, you don’t know what a posset is. Well, a posset,’ said the Inspector, ‘is a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ‘em well up and then you take ‘em down hot.  And a posset like that, taken overnight, will make a new man of you, Master Kay, while now you’re all worn down with learning.’

Both daughters immediately insisted that I make it.  I did: and it’s delicious: and they had it often over the years of their ‘school learning’…  Try it yourselves!  For treacle, I’ve always used what in England is termed ‘Golden Syrup’; not molasses.

What about other books?  My husband insists that the bear steaks with apples that the children eat in ‘Prince Caspian’ sounds pretty good to him:

“Each apple was wrapped up in bear’s meat … and spiked on a sharp stick and then roasted.  And the juice of the apple worked all through the meat, like apple sauce with roast pork…”

I’m not quite convinced.   To me, C.S. Lewis actually manages to make the earth, which the trees eat at the banquet in the same book, sound much more delicious:

“They began with a rich brown loam that looked almost exactly like chocolate…When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger, the trees turned to earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink.  They said it was lighter and sweeter.  At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand.”

I was with him through most of that, but he lost me at the gravels.

Here’s the recipe for Bubble and Squeak:

450g/1lb potatoes, peeled and diced
salt and pepper
70g/1 ½ oz butter
250g/8oz cabbage, shredded
3-4 tbsp oil
1 onion, diced

Cook the potatoes in salted water till done, then mash with 2oz of the butter.  Season with salt and pepper.

Melt the remaining butter in a large saucepan with 2 tablespoons of water and add the shredded cabbage.  Cook gently for 10 minutes until tender.  Drain, and mix the cabbage and mashed potato together.  Season to taste ( I like to add a grating of nutmeg).

Heat half the oil in a frying pan.  Add the onion and cook, stirring, till softened.  Add the potato and cabbage mix, pressing down with a wooden spoon to make a flat, even cake.  Cook over medium heat for 15 mins till golden brown on the underside, and place on a large plate.  Add the remaining oil and cook again on the other side till golden brown.  Cut into wedges (or scoops) and serve.

Happy eating!  Any more delicious book food you can remember?

Quick Post for Blog Awards

Thank you so much to Mary Hoffman ( Book Maven) and Candy Gourlay (Notes From The Slush Pile) for  awarding the me the One Lovely Blog Award!  Now I must pass the awards on. I'm new at this business and sure to duplicate other people's awards, but here are some other lovely blogs which I enjoy:

The Drawing Board

Letters From A Hill Farm

A Garden Carried in the Pocket

Reclusive Muse

Almost True

Help! I Need A Publisher

Fiona Dunbar

Oh!  And how could I forget -

The Awfully Big Blog Adventure

Monday 11 January 2010

And the Snow Keeps Falling...

And clearly you've all had time to read all the books listed in my last post - and I've been reminded of even more wonderful snowy reads by some of your comments - so here's another list!

"Moominland Midwinter" by Tove Janssen.  I've just finished re-reading this for the nth time, and was yet again entranced.   Moomintroll inexplicably wakes up during his family's long winter hibernation, and he can't get back to sleep.  All alone in the dark, snow-covered house, he encounters the mysteries and terrors of winter, including the taciturn Dweller Under the Sink, the sadly ditzy Squirrel with the Marvellous Tail, and the frighteningly beautiful Lady of the Cold.  To say nothing of the brash Hemulen in the ski jumper.  And how wonderful are the pictures!

"The Hawk of May" by Ann Lawrence.  I've never met anyone else who seems to have read this book, so here's an opportunity to find out if any of you are fans?   It was published in 1980 by Macmillan, and the plot blends "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" with the story from "The Wife of Bath's Tale":  it tells of Gawain's arduous winter journey, on pain of beheading, to find the answer to the question 'What do women want?'  The book is half Dark Ages realism, and half fantasy: a sort of mixture of T.H.White and Rosemary Sutcliff with a touch of Katherine Briggs.  It deserves to be better known. I wanted to find out more about Ann Lawrence - who also wrote another damn good book called "The Good Little Devil" - and then by coincidence discovered that my husband plays tennis with her widower...

A lot of people reminded me of "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper - a majestic blend of Celtic mythology in a modern setting as young Will struggles against the forces of the Dark.  There is indeed a magnificent snowstorm in this book.  And "The Once And Future King" by T.H. White; and indeed why not Thomas Malory himself with "Le Morte D'Arthur"?  If you skip all the stuff about the Roman Wars (the 'battling averages' as White called them, with all that repetitive stuff about how Sir X 'rode a great wallop' at Sir Y and unhorsed him) the book is very readable.  I first came across the real thing in an extract published in a BBC Radio schools programme magazine when I was about 8 years old.  It was all about young Gareth coming to fight the Red Knight of the Red Launds, and I thought it was wonderful.

The "Ghost" trilogy by Susan Price should actually have made it to my earlier list.  "The Ghost Drum",  "Ghost Song" and "Ghost Dance" are some of the snowiest and most atmospheric books I have ever read, and perhaps the ones I would most like to have written myself... set in the far north of a Czarist Russia-that-never-was, full of shaman magic, wolves, crows, beauty and cruelty - and if the frozen steppes aren't chilling enough, just wait until you get to the Iron Wood...

And how could I have forgotten Joan Aiken?  "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase", and perhaps even better, "Dido and Pa", with the wolves running over frozen Hampstead Heath, and Hanoverian villainy afoot?

Snow seems to go well with fantasy: I see that all the books I've mentioned here are fantasies, and I rather like using the stuff myself: there's snow in all but one of my four books. and I think the snowiest one of all of them is "Troll Blood", where my hero Peer has to combat  the iciest-hearted of villains as well as the legendary 'jenu', the fearsome ice-giant in the snows of Vinland.

Perhaps fictional snow is better than the real thing?

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Wintry Books For Curling up With

It's snowing!

I know this may be unexciting news for anyone much north of Oxford, but although it's been freezing here since Christmas, these stray flakes are the first for me.  So I'm inspired to recommend my favourite wintery children's books to curl up with - if you can - ideally on a deep window seat with the dusk falling and a real fire flickering in the room, watching the world outside turn white.

My first is John Masefield's 'The Box of Delights', given me as a present when I was seven, and re-read constantly ever since.  It's a wonderful, exuberent mixture.  Young Kay Harker, coming home for the Christmas holidays to his rambling old house of 'Seekings' encounters a mysterious Punch and Judy man who tells him, 'the Wolves are running'. From then on it's a mixture of magic, ancient history and modern villains as the wizard Abner Brown, in charge of a band of international jewel thieves, serially kidnaps the Dean, Bishop and entire chapter of Tatchester Cathedral in an attempt to capture the marvellous Box of Delights.  Snow, firelight, winged taxis, Arthurian camps and utter magic!

My second comfort read would be Alan Garner's 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' - especially the part where the children, Gowther and the dwarves are fleeing through the Cheshire landscape pursued by the terrifying mara, while their supernatural enemies call up the unnatural Fimbulwinter.   There's a brilliant description of the discomforts of clambering through rhodedendrons: and the final stand on Shuttlingslow is terrific.

My third - all these are books I adored as a child and still love - is 'The Silver Chair' by C.S. Lewis.  My favourite of the Narnia stories, and perhaps the least problematic, it too has wonderful descriptions of a cold and miserable journey over snowy moors, and then the children and Puddleglum arrive at the deceptive comfort and security of the giant's castle at Harfang.  I always wanted to try a giant bath large enough to swim in, and to get dry by 'rolling around' on giant towels in front of a fire large enough to burn a young oak tree.

On the same lines, I'd recommend the attempted journey over Caradhras in The Fellowship of the Ring'.  Nothing like reading about avalanches to make you feel cosy, curled up in a warm armchair: and you can follow the Fellowship on into the dark halls of Moria...

Coming more up to date, Garth Nix's 'Sabriel' is great for - again - atmospheric and arduous journeys through the dangerous death-haunted snows of the Old Kingdom: and if you haven't read his account of the nine other-worldly river gates leading into Death, do go and find it.  Nix writes amazingly well and his monsters are unusual and convincing.

B.B.'s 'Brendon Chase' is a charming book about three boys living wild in the woods, and the writer was a naturalist and can transport you outdoors into the snow or the summer with the utmost ease.

Finally, 'Jane Eyre' is another comfort book - Jane's privations at Lowood Academy, the Gothic darkness at Thornwood Hall, the meeting with Mr Rochester and his black dog on the icy road, her flight across the moors - what are you waiting for?

Let the snow fall!  Happy reading!

Sunday 3 January 2010

Ring Out the Old

Happy New Year!

The Roman god Janus, who gives his name to January, looks both ways, fowards into the future and backwards into the past.   He is the gatekeeper of the year: and television and newspapers over New Year still honour him by the custom of examining the past and trying to figure out the future. As this is my first post of 2010, I too will start by looking back before setting out across the threshold of the year.

When I was a child, my parents would send my dark-haired elder brother outside just before midnight on New Year's Eve, armed with a small piece of coal, a coin and a branch of greenery, so he could come in on the last stroke of twelve bearing the gifts of fuel and prosperity.  He couldn't let himself in; he had to ring the doorbell and be formally admitted.  The 'first footer' over the threshold had to be a dark man, for what reason I don't know.  The piece of coal would be wrapped in cotton wool and kept all year.

How old these customs are, who knows?  According to Ovid, the Romans gave away little presents of 'white honey' and a small coin at New Year.  During the medieval period, New Year's gifts were more common than Christmas gifts.  In the wonderful medieval poem 'Gawaine and the Green Knight,' Arthur's courtiers are busy exchanging New Year's gifts and waiting for a 'marvel' to occur before they can dine, when in rides the Green Knight, the mysterious stranger who crosses Arthur's threshold bearing a green branch: 'a holly bob/ That is greatest in green when groves are bare'.  The Green Knight appears menacing: perhaps one of the things he represents is the mystery and challenge of the unknown year ahead.

Another New Year custom was to open all the doors of the house 'to let the old year out'.  And in many parts of Britain it was considered unlucky to throw anything out on New Year's Day: even the ashes from the fire, or vegetable peelings, had to be kept indoors.  And making a very loud noise at midnight on New Year was traditional: the ringing of church bells might also be accompanied by shouting, banging of dustbin lids and the hooting of factory sirens.  Nobody washed clothes at New Year, as superstition held that 'if you wash on New Year you wash for the dead.'  And it was of course unlucky in the extreme to work on New Year's Day.

Which is (of course) why this, my New Year's Day post, comes three days late...  If anyone else remembers any New Year's customs, I'd love to hear them.