Tag Archives: Joan Aiken

Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur

I’ve come to the end of Joan Aiken’s short books about Mortimer, the slightly naughty raven, and his Arabel Jones. As I have probably said before, these books are a lovely piece of time travel, back to that underestimated period that was the 1970s. It shows that anything you write about ‘now’ will one day mean travelling back in history, if you are only truthful enough about what it’s like now.

I suppose the title gives it away somewhat, but this is a story with an Arthurian flavour. Mortimer shows an unsuitable amount of enthusiasm for the neighbour’s lawnmower, and that is pretty much it. I can see where Arabel’s mother, Mrs Jones, gets annoyed with the family’s pet raven.

Arabel herself is being ‘threatened’ with a new dress. Pink. What’s so fascinating about that is that this is how it was; the making your own clothes, and how you made them, showing Joan Aiken knew a bit about dressmaking, which is now rather a lost art.

As for that sword, well…

(Mortimer-ish illustrations by Quentin Blake)


National Bookshop Day

Every day should be bookshop day. But that’s not how it is, so after the surge of new books on Super Thursday two days ago, our bookshops are celebrating being bookshops today.

I’ve known a lot of bookshops in my life, but the one that stepped forward when I thought how the best thing would be if books came a bit more evenly distributed, was Waterstones in Altrincham. It used to be semi-local to me, although not terribly close.

This is going back almost twenty years, but when we were Christmas shopping in Wilmslow en famille – which is a most uncharacteristic thing for the Witch family  to be doing – the Resident IT Consultant found a copy of Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I didn’t know it, but he remembered it from a long time before.

So we bought it. I think as a present for all of us. He read it again, and I read it, and Son read it. The following year I had cause to go to Altrincham, where I visited the High Street bookshop. Because you have to. Not looking for anything special, I found Black Hearts in Battersea. I bought it. It felt like it was meant. Besides, it also turned out to be what I consider the best in the whole Willoughby Chase series.

As I said, I had cause to go to Altrincham, and on my subsequent regular visits, I always popped into Waterstones, where they always had the next Joan Aiken book. It felt weird, because the shops closer to us didn’t seem to have any, and it was always the one I needed next that I found. I don’t believe I was ever disappointed.

And it’s not as if I had to wait for a new book to be published. It’s more that they didn’t seem to have all of the books at the same time, which they could have had.

The Willoughby Chase books are special to me primarily because they are very, very good  books. But also for the way I was able to buy them, one after the other.

I was about to say I couldn’t recall what the [first] shop in Wilmslow was, but Ottakar’s just popped into my mind.

Yesterday The i published an article about authors’ favourite bookshops. Toppings does well, and Hatchards. Bath in general seems to be good for books. And of course there is a difference between where authors might go to shop, and where they enjoy doing events.

As this old blog post of mine shows, there are other reasons for shopping – or not – in certain bookshops. Pushchairs and no [working] lifts would be one of them.

That’s funny

Much as I don’t enjoy the trend of famous comedians suddenly discovering that they need to write a children’s book, and doing very well and getting plenty of publisher attention for their efforts, it has caused one improvement to the state of things. Humour is now seen as something worth considering.

I have always liked humorous fiction. I have long felt there’s not enough of it, and also that it’s been so wrong to look down on it. As though humorous fiction is to children’s fiction as children’s fiction is to Booker prize type fiction; i.e. inferior.

It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that just like writing for children requires more skill, and not less, to write good humour means you have to be really excellent at what you do. Not everyone can do it, or do it well, but when they can, the results can be spectacular.

A couple of weeks ago Adrian McKinty blogged about his twenty funniest novels and it’s an interesting list. I agree with his choice, about the ones I’ve read. I might have picked others, and it could be Adrian doesn’t find them funny, or that he’s not read the same books I have. These things happen.

I do agree with him about this, though: ‘It’s got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim for example just doesn’t cut it. I’m also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn’t or perhaps used to be funny but isn’t anymore. I’ve read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare’s comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny.’

There’s a lot in life that’s not funny. But there’s also a lot that is. And yes, I hated Lucky Jim the first time I read it. Loved it on the second read. But Adrian is right; one funny scene isn’t enough. (Apart from The Vicar Of Nibbleswicke, I don’t reckon Roald Dahl is funny. Not in that way.)

I’ve not thought this through enough so I can give you my own list, but Terry Pratchett is obviously on it. Would be, I mean, if there was a list. And even if I stick to children’s books, I reckon Douglas Adams has to be on it. From there it is a quick jump to Eoin Colfer and from him to many other Irish authors (it must be the water?), and then jump again, to Frank Cottrell Boyce, Joan Aiken, Morris Gleitzman, Debi Gliori, Barry Hutchison, Hilary McKay, Andy Mulligan, Kate DiCamillo. And last but not least, my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff. She doesn’t only kill goats.

My apologies to anyone not mentioned. I didn’t go about this scientifically, but merely wanted to mention that being funny is a good thing. A good read is good for your wellbeing, and a funny read is even better. Go on, find something to make you laugh! Preferably until you cry. The hankies are on me.

The Spiral Stair

I’m eking these books out, very slowly. I love Joan Aiken’s short Arabel books, from across a distance of over 35 years. I’m all ready to read the next one, but might just be able to contain myself. Not sure, though.

The Spiral Stair is all about when Arabel and her raven Mortimer went to stay with Uncle Urk and Aunt Effie, because her father was having his various veins seen to. Her mother put her on the train, after checking with the bowler-hatted gentlemen in her compartment that they’d see her off safely at the stop for Lord Donisthorpe’s zoo. The way you did in those days. Leave your child in the care of two zoo thieves.

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, The Spiral Stair

Because that’s what they were, and it’s lucky that Arabel and Mortimer were staying at the zoo, and could keep most of the animals safe, with the help of Noah the Boa.

The doughnut machine was useful too, as was Lord Donisthorpe himself. The archetypal, elderly and lordly gent with an adventurous sense of humour.

And I imagine that Arabel’s dad’s veryclose veins were all the better for her little absence.

(There’s something so reassuringly, slightly crazy about Quentin Blake’s illustrations.)

Another wolf

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

I won’t say that this is the coolest cover ever of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It is very cool, though, and I like it a lot, and it makes me want to read the book.

Which I don’t ‘have to do’ as I have already read it, many covers ago. Not that it isn’t a book you could read many times. It is. It’s the first part of one of the best children’s series in the world, with the best of girl characters. (And Dido Twite isn’t even in the first book.)

So whenever there has been a revamp and I see a new Wolves cover I just want to read it again. I hope the cover has the same effect on readers who don’t know Joan Aiken’s books. I envy them the opportunity of starting their friendship with Dido and Simon.

Arabel’s Raven

I’m so old I have actually experienced the period in which Joan Aiken’s little book is set. And that’s really quite nice, because I almost felt that it was so lovely that it was all fiction. But it truly was that idyllic once upon a time. (Wasn’t it?)

The kind of time when ravens come and sort your life out. Become your pet, and generally cause mayhem. (Why do ravens feature in fiction more than other birds?) When there were actual unions for people who work, odd – but kind – policemen and children could be independent, thinking creatures.

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Arabel's Raven

Arabel is a very young girl, whose taxi-driver dad brings home Mortimer one late night. Well, he didn’t know it was Mortimer (but Arabel could tell when she saw him that he was a Mortimer), and he was so tired he forgot all about the bird. I believe the bird might have been a wee bit tipsy, due to some unorthodox reviving done by Arabel’s dad.

Anyway, this short book is about more than slightly drunk birds in taxis. It’s a crime story, because someone is going round stealing stuff, and it’s not Mortimer. If anyone can solve the mystery it’s Arabel, who is able to walk all the way where she needs to go on just the one pavement and not cross any roads because small girls aren’t allowed to on their own.

Mansfield Revisited

I can’t but believe that Jane Austen would wholeheartedly have approved of what her colleague Joan Aiken did to her Mansfield Park characters. This reissued sequel is exactly what the doctor ordered for people who loved Fanny Price. I was one of them, because she was such an ordinary heroine, while also being so very extraordinary in her own way.

Joan removes Fanny and Edmund and sends them on a long journey, because we don’t need more from them. Instead we have Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who is now 18 and doing just fine with Lady Bertram. With the whole of Mansfield, in fact, apart from her cousin Julia who will never be pleased by anything.

Add a few new characters, such as the Rev Wadham and his sister Mrs Osborne, who stay in the vicarage while Edmund and Fanny are away. A serpent is also needed, so please welcome back Mary and Henry Crawford! Stir well, and you have yourself a book worthy of Miss Austen herself.

Joan Aiken, Mansfield Revisited

What I admire so much is the way Joan Aiken has adopted what to my untrained eye looks like the true language of the Austen era. It does not feel like a poor modern cousin. I’m sure Joan and Jane would have got on at least as famously as Susan and Mary Crawford do…

Now, it was hard to guess whether Mary was there to be redeemed, or to take up where she left off four years earlier. Plenty of possible future husbands for Susan. The Rev Wadham? Cousin Tom? Henry Crawford? Or someone else entirely? Or will Julia’s scheming for her horrible sister-in-law thwart any dreams she might  nurture? Perhaps Mary Crawford has her eyes set on one of the available men? There’s an interesting symmetry where things appear to mirror what happened four years ago.

Joan kept me guessing. This was a most enjoyable return to Mansfield, and although short, the book contains more than one romance.

The Felix trilogy

Should publishers keep re-issuing old books? Are they trying to make easy money, or are they catering to a need for classic stories?

Joan Aiken’s Felix trilogy is definitely the kind of reading material you can never have enough of. It’s got everything; adventure of almost every kind you could dream of, friendship, romance, history, travel. Ten years ago when I’d worked my way through the Willoughby Chase novels, one by one, I was desperate for more Joan Aiken, so happily moved on to Felix when I noticed him on the shelves.

How lucky I was to have found that branch of the well known chain that actually stocked these books. So many shops didn’t. Yes, you could order the books, but first you’d need to know of their existence.

Joan Aiken, Go Saddle the Sea

Go Saddle the Sea, Bridle the Wind, and The Teeth of the Gale have recently been re-issued, with great new covers that I hope will appeal to new readers, or to those older people (although old people could obviously also enjoy them) who buy books for young readers.

Joan Aiken, Bridle the Wind

To me these books are timeless, and every generation needs them. Joan wrote them over a period of ten years (actually I don’t know that. They were originally published over ten years, though) and looking at it from the future, where no waiting is necessary, I can’t help but feel it might be better that way. It’s the constant push for sequels every year that could sometimes make for less than perfect books.

I don’t know. But perhaps a good story needs maturing?

Joan Aiken, The Teeth of the Gale

Anyway, this isn’t a review as such. I only want to get more people interested in Felix, who like many other heroes is an orphan, poor, treated cruelly, and who travels from Spain to England to find his ‘family and background’, has good and bad things happen to him, after which there is more travelling, incarceration, love, and a return of sorts to his roots. He grows up, and so do we.

It’s lovely.

Bookwitch bites #101

Who wants books when they can have videos? You do?

OK, I will let you have book related video clips, then. With real live authors. Who to start with? I know it’s usually ladies first, but let’s get the boys out of the way. Just to get them out of the way.

That Lemony Snicket chap hasn’t given up yet. He has more weird books coming our way, and someone is about to tell you as little as possible about the next one. It’s what’s known as a leak. (No, not that kind of leak!)


Our second boy is less secretive. We can actually see what Neil Gaiman looks like as he talks about his new book (October in this case) Fortunately, The Milk… which is a book about milk, as well as many other silly things. Third boy, Chris Riddell, is doing wonderful illustrations of interstellar dinosaurs to go with the milk.

Moving on to the girls, we have Julia Skott, who will have her first book published later this year (and it has just struck me I don’t know in what language…). It’s non-fiction and it’s about bodies and health. Julia is the daughter of a Swedish journalist and a Russian academic, which is why she sounds like this when she speaks:


Someone who sounds pretty English and also pretty involved with saving libraries, is Fiona Dunbar, being grilled by someone on Sky News (who seems a little anti-library). Very brave of Fiona to venture into a television studio like this. Some of us would have seized up completely…

Finally to our last girls, who are not on video. There is a brand new blog featuring the life and works of Joan Aiken, run by her daughter Lizza. I wasn’t surprised to find a very early story by Joan on there, in facsimile. She clearly had the story-telling gene working right from the start. It’s about a teapot, and Satan. Obvious choice, really.

Joan also has a facebook page now. Please like!

Lady Catherine’s Necklace

I can’t say I was ever desperate to know what became of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Good riddance, might more appropriately describe my feelings. She was needed to get Darcy to see sense (or was that Elizabeth Bennet?) and then she could do as she liked. I never felt sorry for her daughter Anne, who didn’t need or deserve Darcy.

Joan Aiken, Lady Catherine's Necklace

But, now that I have read Joan Aiken’s sequel, Lady Catherine’s Necklace, I am much more interested in what happened. Sadly, Mr Bennet has died. That means Mr Collins needs to go away to sort things out with his inheritance. Lady Catherine is not keen to be without him, whereas Mrs Collins doesn’t mind in the least…

Life at Rosings Park becomes more interesting with the arrival of a brother and sister who have had an accident nearby, and who impress Lady Catherine so much that she invites them to stay.

It’s a quiet sort of story, although at times it becomes fairly dramatic. We meet various people in and near Rosings, and we see much more of Anne. There was a reason for her lack of character in Pride and Prejudice. She is now engaged to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who in turn loves someone else.

There is a hilarious adventure awaiting Lady Catherine, and she almost redeems herself. Anne develops plenty of character, and there are two gay lovers, as well as dead and lost offspring.

Lady Catherine’s Necklace is a book for young readers, and I’d like to think that those who don’t know Pride and Prejudice at all, or who have only seen the film or television series, will want to pick up the Jane Austen novel after reading this one. And for anyone who found P & P too difficult to read, it will be a pleasant little story to start with.

Darcy and Elizabeth are only mentioned in passing, and the same goes for Jane and her Bingham. But it’s nice to feel they are almost part of the story. To me, Joan Aiken seems to have captured just the right style, making this book feel almost like the real thing.