Monthly Archives: February 2010

Greek Beasts and Heroes

I like hanging out with intelligent people. Like Lucy Coats, for instance. Thank Zeus & Co for educated writers who will make things available to me in a form I can digest.

Europa och tjuren, Halmstad, by Tina Håkansson

(Photo by Tina Håkansson)

Now, take Europa and the Bull. I should know their story intimately, back-to-front and always. But I don’t/didn’t. I’m sure I have heard the tale, but managed to forget it, which is strange seeing as every child who grew up in my hometown knows Europa and the Bull. The very magnificent statue of them stands in the town’s main square and we can probably all tell you the name of the sculptor. (Carl Milles) But I can’t be alone in not knowing the story. Can I?

So, I’m very grateful to Lucy, and now I’ll endeavour to remember.

Lucy’s first four books about the Greek Beasts and Heroes are fun. Lots of the stories are well known – even to me – but are well worth retelling again. The format is based on Atticus the Storyteller who travels around and tells people stories to keep them happy or calm, or to pass the time, or in return for food or a bed for the night.

The stories are beautifully short, which means they should work well to read to a young child, or have the child read themselves, with room for a second story if required. I’m sure I remember reading some of these tales in a much longer version, and I can’t praise Lucy enough for shrinking them down to what matters. Though Zeus could do with not being quite such a ladies’ man.

Keep them coming! (I think she will, as there are another eight to go.)

Illustrations by Anthony Lewis.

A Victorian spy agency

I adore Victorian crime novels. By that I mean books set in Victorian times. Not that there is anything wrong with Wilkie Collins. There isn’t. But I quite like a little modern flavour to a Victorian plot. I’m sure Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart could not have been written in the 19th century. Having said this, I feel that there may be just a little bit too much modern thinking in The Agency; A Spy in the House by Y S Lee, which I’ve just read.

The setting is very nicely Victorian, as it should be, since Ying has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and came over from Canada to London while doing research. It shows, and maybe a little too much. I think what I mean is that there is obvious Victorian research, coupled with a very 21st century mindset in some of the characters.

But it is a really good adventure and a great read. So if you want a female Alex Rider in Victorian London, then this is for you. Once I’d disconnected the modern women from the era of Wilkie Collins, I enjoyed A Spy in the House a lot. It’s the first in a trilogy about ‘The Agency’, which seems to be a secret women’s spy organisation. Female because women don’t count, so are not noticed, which is a nice premise. Perhaps nice isn’t the right word. Handy, is more accurate.

A Spy in the House

Mary Quinn (alias Lang) is only seventeen, but seems more mature, which could have something to do with her difficult early life. Apart from her own little secret, which she has so far not shared with anyone, she is very much a cousin of Sally Lockhart’s and she encounters her ‘Fred’ while on assignment.

The adventure is rather like The Ruby in the Smoke or The Moonstone, with smuggling, sinking boats, opium and Chinamen. Like Alex Rider Mary is surprisingly capable, but that’s good in a heroine. Her spy bosses are awfully 21st century, and I’m not sure I like them so much. Did enjoy James, Mary’s ‘Fred’, though. I trust we’ll see more of him.

I somehow missed this book when it was published in Britain last year, but it’s out in the US in March, and has been given a great Victorian cover, which I suppose they like ‘over there’.

The King of Tiny Things

Some more perfect poetry from Jeanne Willis with dreamlike pictures by Gwen Millward, on a subject quite similar to Linda Newbery’s Lob the other day.

The King of Tiny Things

Here we have two small sisters visiting their grandparents and trying sleeping in a tent in the garden. That is not going to go well, what with creepy crawlies all over the place. And it’s dark.

Then they meet a small boy, the size of a beetle, whose job it is to help small creatures in the wild, because these creatures in their turn help things to grow. And then he dies. Or does he?

I really, really need a small person to read some books to. This is one such book. Jeanne’s words have a lovely rhythm, and are crying out to be read aloud. Maybe I can read to myself?


I was very surprised to find that Susan Hill blogs, but it seems she does. The surprise arose from the fact that I was under the impression she doesn’t like our lot. I must have been mistaken.

What Susan doesn’t like is Oxfam. There have been a few blogs based on her feelings, so I’m just adding mine to the pile. I’m doing so because since marrying the Resident IT Consultant at the beginning of time, I have been sort of related to Oxfam, what with the Grandmother volunteering with them for decades. She’s still going strong, and is happy with the fact that her local Oxfam turned into one of these vile bookshops.

The Stirling Oxfam is a good bookshop, in a good position, and from what I gather they do sensible things with their books and their prices. I have no idea if they’ve forced anyone out of business, but they are where they have been for a long time, next to a bus stop, and customers come in and buy while waiting for the bus.

If I have time now that I’m up in Scotland, I will pop in and examine the situation. But it stands to reason that they won’t ask prices that are so high that people won’t buy. And having once given a friend bags and bags of books to sell for a charity he supported, and finding that they went for 10p each, was a shock. I had hoped ‘my’ books would do more good than that. But had I been buying them, I’d have been pleased to pay so little.

Shows what a turncoat I am.

But, I look in all the charity shops when I’m buying. Sometimes I will do a Susan Hill and not buy from Oxfam if the price is roughly the same as the new book would be on Amazon. I prefer the cheaper shops, obviously. My experience from doing the rounds of all of them before Christmas every year is that you can’t know what you’ll find in any given charity’s shop. It’s not as if readers of certain authors’ books only give to one particular charity.

Oxfam is in business to make money. Not for shareholders, but for the recipients of various projects. It makes sense that they charge as much as they can, and that they start up new shops in places where they think they will do well. I hope that doesn’t mean that other charities are forced out.

And as the Grandmother pointed out over breakfast, people complain that the books are expensive and then they happily fork out £2 for cards. Each. Often more than one card.

Along for the Ride

I can’t help loving Sarah Dessen’s books. They’re addictive. They’re fun.

So, I went straight from Andromeda Klein to an almost Andromeda in Sarah’s Along for the Ride. They are surprisingly similar for such different stories. Auden (named after the poet) has a Dad with a penchant for weird names, which is why her newborn half sister was named Thisbe, but escaped the Andromeda. She comes to spend the summer before college with her father and his new chirpy wife and baby Thisbe. Except Dad has a novel to finish, the stepmother is anything but chirpy and Thisbe cries. All the time.

Auden herself has missed out on a normal childhood and friends, forever pushed to do well academically. At the seaside resort where her Dad lives with his new family, she makes friends with young people her age, as well as the mysterious Eli. With his help she embarks on a quest to do many of the things she missed out on as a child.

This is almost sheer escapism. Not entirely, because Sarah always gets in some worthwhile thoughts on what you can do with your life. The setting is great, the people are fun, there are rarely any money concerns and things like the baby blues and bad accidents only appear on the periphery of Auden’s summer.

I’d like to think all American teenagers live like this, but of course they don’t. I can see myself on that sunny boardwalk, although possibly not on a bike.

Greyfriars Bobby

There’s always something particularly sad about abandoned and loyal animals, isn’t there? And not much beats Greyfriars Bobby. I always feel a wee bit tearful whenever I pass his statue in Edinburgh. Silly me, but there you are.

I will be in the vicinity of little Bobby today, seeing as the Witch family is heading towards Stirling and St Andrews (yes, I know it’s hard to head in the direction of both of them at the same time…) in pursuit of education. So I’ll wave from the car at some point.

Greyfriars Bobby

Richard Brassey’s fact and picture book about Bobby is very sweet, as you’d expect. Bobby’s policeman owner dies pretty swiftly and then we get to see what happened to Bobby. There are many facts I didn’t know before, such as the stupid restaurant owner who used poor Bobby and made up stories about him. It’s the usual thing you get with celebrities; people lie and they use you, and Walt Disney comes along.

Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly, sorry John Brown, also seem to have met Bobby. And the Lord Provost was nice.


What about gay books?

‘Thank goodness we’re all heterosexuals here,’ sighs Patrick Ness in his Guardian review of Steve Augarde’s book X Isle. (Spoiler warning, in case someone reads Patrick’s review and wants to read Steve’s book later.) And he goes on to say:

‘Gay teens read books, too, having a bit more reason than most to seek a safe and private world, and how miraculous it would be for them, just once, to read a mass-market adventure story where their absence isn’t greeted with relief. —  How refreshing it would be for gay teens – and, incidentally, straight teens, too – to read a twist that reverses expectations in new ways, rather than the usual Shakespearean ones. It’s time, perhaps, for certain old plot devices to be buried with a fond, but firm, farewell.’

I have to agree. I probably wouldn’t have minded Steve’s plot device (similar to Meg Rosoff’s in What I Was), but I can see where Patrick is coming from. But then, maybe it’s not so much what Steve or anyone else might have done with their plots which matters, as the simple fact that there are not a lot of gay YA books around.

In fact, I’m struggling to come up with any at all, other than Jacqueline Wilson’s Kiss. When I read I don’t compartmentalise story lines in my mind according to sexuality or skin colour. I’m not absolutely certain how I categorise books, now that I think about it. More like I do people, I expect. Nice people, awful people, bores, etc. Things that don’t depend on them being black or white or wealthy or badly educated or anything else like that.

So, I think ‘good book’, ‘couldn’t-wait-to-put-it-down book’, ‘book of the century’ or ‘OK, I suppose’. That kind of thing. If it’s got interesting relationships or sex or whatever I’ll mentally file it away as such.

Patrick is right, though. As long as being gay is seen as a problem or as a minority thing, there will be a captive audience waiting to read about themselves. And it wouldn’t hurt for others to read about it as well. But my own experience from blogging about Aspie books in the belief that it would be useful for ‘the others’, only to find that it was the Aspie readers who were desperate to find reading suggestions, shows that you can’t necessarily predict what anyone needs. Most of us would like to find someone we can identify with in fiction, whether it’s sexuality, disability, race or just simple stuff like being fat, clever, shy or something else, which for the ‘sufferer’ takes on disproportionate dimensions.

We don’t need more books about the hardships of being rich, beautiful, popular or terrific at sports. Vampires have recently had plenty of publicity for their special handicap, so maybe it’s time to cast a wider net?

To get back to gay books; who best to write them? It’s tempting to say those who are gay, but I have no idea if that’s right, and I don’t know how many gay authors there are. And of course, if you are gay, it’s a bit boring to feel that you therefore have to sit and compose one gay book after another. But it’s the ‘write about what you know’ thing, isn’t it? On the other hand, lots of authors write excellent portraits of someone the opposite sex from themselves, and writing about something new or different is supposedly the skill of a professional writer.

The other question is; can the market cope with gay novels for young readers? I suspect the publishers would find it hard, as might the buyer from the large chain. What about the grandparents? Or the school librarian, who should know better, but who worries about upsetting the parents. But the thing is, we have a generation of quite young children who have watched Doctor Who, and perhaps even Torchwood, who know all about Captain Jack, as well as John Barrowman, and who find it totally natural.

Not all authors want to ‘come out’, and I can see that there may be special issues perceived both by authors of young fiction and their publishers, if the author makes their sexual orientation known. So, maybe not ‘write about what you know’, for fear of upsetting customers?

But then, how do we ever go forward?

(I’d like more fiction about boring, short, fat girls. Preferably with really good looking boyfriends. Or girlfriends, to be non-sexist.)