Butchering Books… The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

There ought to be a law against it…

.

the wind in the willows

The Wind in the Willows was one of the earliest ‘proper’ books I read – probably when I was six or seven. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably the book that most influenced me towards reading what I now think of as ‘literary’ fiction – that is, beautifully written and tells the reader something about the ‘human condition’ rather than simply being a linear narrative with an exciting plot.

In fact, the stuff about Mr Toad, while fun, was not my favourite part of the book – not even close. The chapters I loved most were the ones that explored Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home. There are three standout chapters for me that I’ve never forgotten from that first read, and sometimes even if I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the whole thing again I will pick up my tattered ancient copy and read one of those chapters.

1985-wind-in-the-willows-police-chase-toad-print_700_600_U3R3

Wayfarers All tells the tale of autumn when so many of the birds and little animals prepare to follow the sun, travelling south for the winter. Ratty, already restless, meets up with a seafaring rat, who tells him tales of sun-drenched Spanish ports and the shell-fish of Marseilles, and provokes in Ratty an overwhelming feeling of wanderlust. But Mole, concerned for his friend and knowing this life wouldn’t suit him, talks in his turn of the beauties of an English autumn, with harvest giving way slowly to the festivities of winter. It ends with Mole encouraging Ratty to express his feelings and desires in poetry. The language is lush and beautiful, contrasting the glamour of exotic parts with the joys of the familiar.

Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

wayfarers all

Dulce Domum is the chapter in which Mole suddenly comes across the scents of his old home. At first, Ratty is in too much of a hurry to listen but when Mole finally breaks down in tears, kind old Ratty berates himself for his selfishness and at once devotes himself, first to finding Mole’s old home and then to turning the dark, cold house into a place full of warmth and cheer. And the chapter ends with the local young field-mice, come a-carol-singing, as they do each year. A perfect chapter.

With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

carol singing

But my favourite chapter of all is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Little Portly, Otter’s son, has been missing for some days, and Ratty and Mole set out one night to search for him. As the dawn rises, they hear the haunting music of distant pipes and are compelled towards it. When they reach the place where the music leads them, they find Portly, safely nestled at the feet of Pan, the great demi-God of the animals – a thinly disguised portrayal of Christ.

Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

This whole chapter is utterly beautiful in both its writing and its message (even to this cynical old atheist) and is the emotional heart of the book. If you haven’t read it recently, here’s a link – the chapter stands alone as a story entire in itself.

the piper at the gates of dawn

* * * * * * *

the wind in the willows 2So… imagine my delight when I was offered a new edition of the book for review via Amazon Vine UK, published by Oxford University Press and complete with new illustrations by David Roberts. The layout and illustrations are great – the book is small with clear print, and the illustrations are appropriately quirky and vibrantly coloured, ranging from double-page spreads to small running pictures round the margins and inserted into the text.

Then imagine my horror on being unable to find my favourite chapter! Unbelievably, they have cut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. There is a note on the inside in tiny print which gives a reason for the omission…

Rather than relating the ongoing adventures of Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and others, the chapter pauses the action and is largely about the god Pan from Greek mythology.

But I’m guessing the truth is that some stupid decision has been reached to omit it due to its overtly religious message. It doesn’t ‘pause the action’ any more than the chapter Dulce Domum does. It is an adventure undertaken by Ratty and Mole – a great adventure, arising out of friendship and love. The god in this book may be Pan from Greek mythology in physical appearance, but in his presence and actions, Grahame is quite clearly pointing to the Christian tradition. What are we saying – that kids can only read action? Or that they are no longer allowed to read any classic that might suggest any kind of spiritual element? Even if we assume that Pan is in fact Pan, are children no longer to be introduced to Greek and other mythologies?

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

A ridiculous decision, both to remove it and, even more, not to say clearly on the book cover or in the blurb that the text has been butchered. The Wind in the Willows is a 5-star book without question, but why give a child this one when you could give them the one Kenneth Grahame wanted them to read – the one that generations of children and adults have enjoyed. I would hate for any child to grow up thinking s/he’s read The Wind in the Willows without being aware that the emotional heart had been ripped out of the book. What’s the OUP going to do next – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without Aslan perhaps?

There ought to be a law against it…

wind in the willows battle

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis narrated by Michael York

the lion the witch and the wardrobeAlways winter, but never Christmas…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

I loved the Narnia books as a child and read them many times, especially this first one. As a child, I was completely oblivious to any religious symbolism in the book, so for me it was simply a great adventure story with a fantastic hero in Aslan. I think I was around eighteen when I last read them and, as with many childhood books, have always been a bit worried to revisit them in case my older, more cynical self has turned me into a Susan – unable to remember the magic and find my way back to Narnia. But when I came across this series on Audible, with some great narrators, I decided to take the risk.

And it was worth it. The book didn’t have quite the same effect on me as when I was seven, but it’s still a great story very well told. This time around I was obviously more aware of the parallels to the Christ story but I was intrigued to note that there are a lot of other references too – Bacchus puts in an appearance, as does Silenus, and of course all the stuff about fauns and centaurs and other creatures from folk legends and mythology. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash really but it works, and stops it from becoming overly preachy. Occasionally the messages are a little heavy-handed – about the evils of lying and so on – but this was fairly standard for children’s literature of the time from what I recall, and isn’t nearly as blatant as in some of them.

The White Witch from the 2005 movie
The White Witch from the 2005 movie

I was also much more aware of how terribly middle-class the children are, and how indoctrinated we were through the books we were reading to accept the subordinate, nurturing role of women and the heroic warrior status of boys. It’s amazing that the generation of women who grew up reading books like these, and Blyton and most of the other books I remember, managed to both love the books and rebel against the message. I did wonder if young mothers of young girls today would be quite so happy to have them reading books where girls help lay the table while boys go off in a manly way to catch fish for dinner, not to mention the girls ending up on the diplomatic marriage market when they were older. Daughters of Eve, Sons of Adam…hmm! Correct me if my knowledge of biology is a bit shaky, but my understanding is that the procreation process requires both genders to participate (or a test-tube or turkey baster at the very least). But I’d encourage young mothers not to let it put them off – my generation seemed to survive the onslaught of not-so-subliminal messages. (I also found myself thinking how little had changed in the role of women in the thousands of years between the Old Testament and this book and yet how much has changed, for those of us in the West at least, in the sixty or so years since. It rather made me proud…)

lucy and mr tumnus

But apart from all this adult over-analysis, I enjoyed the story a lot. The descriptions of the frozen world are great and the Queen is just as scary and horrible as I remember. Edmund is still a revolting little oick, Susan and Peter still badly need brought down a peg or two from their superior teenage smugness and I still identify with Lucy – youngest of four siblings, you see – even if she is a bit too sweet to be true. I loved the thaw – the way he matches the returning of life to the landscape with the returning of joy to the characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver are lovely, and poor Mr Tumnus! The bit with Aslan and the Stone Table is as moving and beautiful as ever it was and I still want to run and play with him, and put my hands in his golden mane! But why, oh why, must it end with them all having turned into stuffy, pompous adults complete with mock medieval language? I hated that bit when I was young and I hate it now – in fact, it was surprising how in tune young FF and old FF turned out to be. Perhaps my inner child isn’t so deeply buried after all…

Aslan, also from the 2005 movie
Aslan, also from the 2005 movie

Michael York’s reading is excellent. He gives all the characters distinct voices, and uses different British regional accents for the creatures. Mr Tumnus is Irish, the Beavers are some kind of rural English – Somerset-ish perhaps? – and I laughed a lot at Maugrim the wolf’s vurry, vurry Scottish accent. The children’s voices grated a bit on me – awfully posh standard English – but I did think they were right for the characters. And crucially he does Aslan’s voice (and roar) brilliantly – just the right deep tones filled with power and menace, but with a warmth beneath.

Michael York
Michael York

So overall a happy visit to my childhood and I can now look forward to enjoying the rest. Since I’m sticking with the original publication order, next up will be Prince Caspian, narrated by Lynn Redgrave. Doesn’t that sound good?

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I tried…I really tried…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the phantom tollboothMilo is an irritating kind of child – finds school boring, can’t quite see the point of learning maths, doesn’t pay attention to the things around him and is eternally bored. Irritating but normal, I’d say. Then one day he discovers a mysterious package in his bedroom which turns out to be a magical tollbooth that transports him to another world. And soon he is on a quest to return Rhyme and Reason to this strange land…

Oh, dear! I tried so hard to like this. A lot of it is quite imaginative – the conductor who plays the colours of the day, the numbers’ mine, some of the wordplay. But most of the ‘quirky’ characters are thinly-disguised teachers, banging home their unsubtle message that we must all learn how to read and count, and pay attention at school etc etc. At first, I assumed my negative reaction was because I was just too old for it (and I’m sure that is a large part of the reason). But then I remembered my childhood reaction to the dreaded The Water Babies, with its hideous pair of monstrous horrors,                                          Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – a book I thoroughly hated and despised when I was young for its preachy and patronising tone (while I’m pretty sure I missed most of the satirical elements of it). Although The Phantom Tollbooth is undoubtedly more fun, I realised it follows the same pattern of unsubtle moralising and lesson-teaching all the way through.

“That’s why you’re here. You weren’t thinking, and you weren’t paying attention either. People who don’t pay attention often get stuck in the Doldrums.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.”

“For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few [words], it is often far worse to use too many.”

the phantom tollbooth map

Then there are the bits that I’m sure grated with me far more as an adult than they would as a child. But I do feel if an author sets out to preach about how important education is, then he has some responsibility for getting his facts right, even when he’s aiming for humour – else how is a child to learn properly? (The same criticism applies to the grammatical errors in the book…)

“We offer you the hospitality of our kingdom.”
“Country,”
“Nation,”
“State,”
“Commonwealth,”
“Realm,”
“Empire,”
“Palatinate,”
“Principality,”
“Do all those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
“Of course.”
“Certainly.”
“Precisely.”
“Exactly.”
“Yes,” they replied in order.

Clever, isn’t it? Of course, it’s also completely
wrong,
misleading,
erroneous,
incorrect,
imprecise,
inaccurate,
and did I mention wrong?

 

Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching - poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage...
Rhyme and Reason practice synchronised preaching – poor Milo looks a bit like how I felt by that stage…

However, I recognise from all the comments made at the time of the poll that many people adore this book, as children and as adults, so I’ll stop criticising it now. This is one of those cases where I’m happy to admit that my reaction might be a bit unfair – I can see much to admire and enjoy in the book, but in the end it just didn’t quite work for me. There’s no doubt that some of the jokes are quite clever and it did make me laugh a few times. So I’ll end the review on a more appreciative note with one of those bits…

“Why, did you know that if a beaver two feet long with a tail a foot and a half long can build a dam twelve feet high and six feet wide in two days, all you would need to build the Kariba Dam is a beaver sixty-eight feet long with a fifty-one foot tail?”

“Where would you find a beaver as big as that?” grumbled the Humbug…

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he replied, “but if you did, you’d certainly know what to do with him.”

Thanks to all of you who voted to add this book to my TBR – I’m sorry to be so unenthusiastic about it. Better luck next time!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”

🙂 🙂 🙂

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we left Huck Finn, now comfortably well-off, being ‘sivilised’ by the Widow Douglas. But when Huck’s Pap comes back, wanting to get his hands on Huck’s new-found wealth, Huck finds himself at his father’s mercy, locked up in their shanty and subjected to beatings. So he hatches a plan to escape. Meantime, Miss Watson’s slave Jim has decided to run away because he’s overheard Miss Watson say she’s going to sell him down to Orleans. When the two meet up they decide to throw in their lots with each other and set off down the Mississippi on a raft. This is the story of their adventures. (Please note there are some spoilers in this review on the basis that almost everyone will already know the story.)

“A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I rek’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No – ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factory; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factory when he want to res’.”

There was always going to come a point at least once in the Great American Novel Quest when I would hit a book that didn’t seem to me to live up to its reputation. Sadly, this is that book. I’m quite sure that if I had read it not knowing of its status, it would never have occurred to me to rank this as anything more than a fairly enjoyable adventure yarn – showing its age, certainly, but with a fair amount of satirical humour.

However, even reviewing it as an adventure, I found it compared unfavourably to its predecessor. The few chapters at the beginning are pretty much a reprise of Tom Sawyer, with the gang again getting together to play at being robbers, and much of the humour here is simply a repeat of the first novel. The next section – Huck’s cruel treatment at the hands of his father – is treated so lightly that it didn’t generate any real emotion in me; and Huck’s pretence at having being murdered in order to escape is again very similar to what happened in the previous book.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

Once Jim and Huck get together, the story improves greatly for a while and the first section of their journey is the best bit of the book, as we see these two unlikely companions begin to form bonds of affection and loyalty. It’s here that Twain shows most clearly through Huck’s narration the acceptance of slavery as an almost unthinking norm in the society he’s portraying, and we get brief flashes of Jim as a real person when he tells about how he will be separated from his wife and children if he’s sold.

Then unfortunately the two con-artists – the Duke and the King – come on the scene and from there on the whole thing seems to lose any narrative drive. To be honest, while at first it seemed clear that Huck and Finn were heading north to the free States, after this mid-way point I had no clear idea what their plan was, if they had one. The book, like the raft, seems to drift aimlessly as we are given little humorous set-pieces at each of the towns they visit. But not humorous enough, I’m afraid, to compensate for the repetitiveness of the section nor for the overdrawn caricatures of these two characters.

twain-huck-finn-kemble-27e

“Well, some of the best authorities has done it. They couldn’t get the chain off, so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain’t necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim’s a nigger, and wouldn’t understand the reasons for it, and how it’s the custom in Europe; so we’ll let it go.”

When Tom finally re-appears, the story picks up for a bit as he and Huck each take on false identities to fool Tom’s unsuspecting aunt. But then we get to the long-drawn out and frankly tedious final section where, instead of rescuing Jim, Tom goes off into another of his fantasies and stretches the whole thing out to an extent where I found I was beginning to skim whole chapters in a desperate bid to get to the end.

So as a novel, I’m afraid this would rate no more than 3 stars for me.

* * * * * * * * *

Trying to look at it a bit more deeply as a contender for Great American Novel status, the two things that are most often mentioned are the innovative use of dialect and the satirical look at attitudes towards slavery. Certainly, the dialect is done wonderfully well – Twain never misses a beat, and makes each voice not only distinct, but an unmistakeable indicator of the different class each character occupies. So Tom’s voice clearly shows he’s of a better class and level of education than Huck, while Jim and the other slaves share a dialect all of their own – a dialect that is recognisable from most of the early Hollywood films portraying slavery, such as Gone With the Wind. This made me wonder if the dialect was authentic, or a Twain creation that influenced later culture. Either way, it’s a virtuoso performance from Twain and certainly raises the artistic level of the novel. (Honestly, though, I found it irritating after a while – frequently having to re-read Jim’s dialogue to catch the meaning. Perhaps that’s my Britishness showing through.)

kemble3

I found the slavery question more complex, oddly because Twain makes it seem so simple. He makes the tolerance of slavery a universal thing, accepted unquestioningly by everyone in the novel. I found this unconvincing – the book is set only a couple of decades before the Civil War, and surely there would have been more shades of grey over it, even in the South, by that period? Also, although he shows the basic inhumanity and emotional cruelty of one man owning another, somehow he also shows the owners as fundamentally good-natured and mostly quite kind to the slaves. I’m sure that was also true of some owners, but I’m equally sure there was a lot more physical cruelty and abuse than this novel suggests. It all seemed strangely sanitised, especially since the point was presumably to show the plain wrongness of the practice. And, while there’s no doubt every character in the book regardless of colour is displayed as, shall we say, intellectually challenged, the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result left me feeling quite uncomfortable. I really, really wanted Jim to tell Tom and Huck to grow up and stop messing him about, rather than to continue metaphorically wagging his tail at his masters, as he did even once he discovered that he had been a free man while Tom was indulging his own selfishness.

Hmm…I’m guessing you can tell I wasn’t convinced by this one…

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagBearing in mind when the book was written, and that the audience for it therefore didn’t share today’s sensibilities regarding race and equality, I’m assuming that the book perhaps did shed light on the evils of slavery for its contemporary readers, at a time when the post-war society wasn’t living up to the expectations of the proponents of the war. To be honest, I’m basing this assumption more on the book’s reputation than on anything I found in the text though. So, somewhat grudgingly – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I think the theme most definitely meets the originality test and there’s no doubt the use of dialect was innovative, so – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagOh dear – I feel I’m going to offend most of America here and quite probably the rest of the world too but…no, I didn’t find this superbly written. The dialect, while hugely skilful, detracted on the whole from my enjoyment; and the plot was too straggly and unfocussed, particularly the several chapters at the end. The humour and satire simply weren’t enough to carry it. So…not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think this is arguable. While the book concentrated very much on the South, and was of course historical even at the time of writing, it was clearly written with reference to issues in the contemporary society. It seemed to me that Twain saw the issue of equality as one for the whole of the US and in that sense, it addresses the entire ‘American experience’. But does it capture it? I’m conflicted – but on the whole no, I’m not wholly convinced by Twain’s portrayal of this society so…not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So, donning my hard hat and cowering behind the settee, I hereby declare that not only is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not The Great American Novel, but for only achieving 3 GAN flags and 3 stars, it isn’t even A Great American Novel.

Please don’t hate me! Instead, convince me that I’m wrong…

A Kingdom Far and Clear by Mark Helprin

Once upon a time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 + 😀

a kingdom far and clearWhen the old emperor dies, his young son is given over to the care of a trusted servant who is told to keep him safe from the Regent who will rule till the Prince comes of age. The Tutor outwardly shows loyalty to the cruel Regent but secretly ensures that the Prince is given all the necessary training to fight for his crown if need be when the time comes. But as the Prince becomes a man, he falls in love with a woman who will never be accepted as a suitable bride, and tragedy is certain to follow…

Three linked novellas, the book starts with a retelling of the story of Swan Lake, set into a fantasy kingdom sited primarily in and around the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this version, the Regent, soon to be known as the Usurper, murdered the parents of Odette while she was a baby, but her nurse carried her into hiding where she has been ever since, until the Prince meets her while out hunting. The first novella tells the tale of Odette and the Prince, while the second and third tell the story of their daughter, as she first tries to regain the crown from the Usurper and then defend the city against his forces.

“The bakeries are on our east wall. They are much bigger than the yam kitchens, of course. Well, naturally. And the chocolate kitchens are on the south wall. Though the chocolate kitchens have six thousand chefs and workers and we have only three thousand, they are divided by law into three sections – beverages, candy and desserts.”

Helprin’s prose is never less than flowing, often beautiful and occasionally overblown, with distinct shades of purple at points. The sadness and tragedy of the story is told against the backdrop of a fantasy world filled with inventiveness and imaginative humour, which serve to lift the reader out of the unremitting bleakness of the plot. There are satirical elements as Helprin takes sideswipes at various aspects of real world politics – the Usurper’s kingdom bears some similarity to the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th century. The role of the media as propagandists for the ruling regime is central to the story. Although wars take place over the course of the book, we don’t see them – they happen offstage during the breaks between the novellas. Instead, Helprin concentrates on the personal stories of the three different narrators of each novella and of the young daughter of the Prince, as she grows up to lead the rebellion against the Usurper.

“I had no time to reflect as I planned the defense. We could only guess when the assault would come, but were sure the usurper was saving us for last. Then the capital would be besieged by terrified armies of slaves fighting as slaves for the principle of slavery, and all in the currency of fear.”

This is fundamentally a fairy story – it doesn’t pay the reader to look too closely at the consistency of the politics or to wonder why the replacement of a totalitarian dictator by an absolute monarch is seen as a good thing by Helprin, himself a son of democratic America. There is an undercurrent of a religious theme but this is never fully developed and seemed to me to sit somewhat at odds with the overtly political and militaristic tone of the tale. And, as with many of the old fairy tales, there is no triumphant conclusion – I have seen many reviews saying the book contains an element of hope, but that wasn’t my feeling at all. It seems to me the book is filled with bleakness and despair as two power-hungry factions battle for the kingdom regardless of the suffering and death of those they rule. If there is hope, it must be in the unquestioning loyalty and acts of heroism shown by some of the characters – mistaken loyalty, perhaps, but still admirable.

“But I have not forgotten, for I believe in the unfolding of the tale, that, like water, it cannot be suppressed in its simple will to rise, if it is fed by rains and comes in abundance. The only thing that lasts is the unfolding of the tale, the only thing of which you can be sure.”

The book itself is beautifully produced with 42 full-page illustrations by Chris van Allsburg. The font is large and clear, the paper is thick enough to be almost card stock and each page has a decorative banner at the head. Physically it would make a beautiful gift for a child of about eight or nine up but, although the imaginative world and wonderful illustrations may appeal to someone of that age, I’m not sure that the bleakness of the story will, especially if they like their stories to end with a convincing ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. My own feeling is that the book is much more suited to an adult or ‘young adult’ audience.

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I freely admit that fantasy is not one of my preferred genres and my struggles with what I saw as inconsistencies in the plot and ‘message’ of this book may not bother a reader who is more willing to give herself up to the different worldview that fantasy often demands. Overall, the quality of the prose and the inventiveness outweighed the weaknesses for me, and made this an enjoyable read, greatly enhanced by the illustrations and physical quality of the book. My 5 star rating is made up of 4 for the story plus an extra 1 for the book itself.

I was inspired to read the book by this review from Professor VJ Duke. Thanks, Prof!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Smith by Leon Garfield

Stand and deliver…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A rat was like a snail beside Smith, and the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.

smith 2Smith is a twelve-year old pickpocket surviving by his wits in the London of the 18th century. But one day Smith picks the pocket of an elderly man and as he runs away, he sees the man being attacked and killed. Running for fear that he will be caught and accused of this much worse crime, Smith has to wait to find out what he managed to steal – a document, clearly official, but that’s as much as he can tell since he can’t read. But Smith knows documents are worth money and he’s determined to find out what it says…

This book is always marketed as if for children and it certainly is suitable for any child from about ten or eleven, I’d say. But it is also entirely suitable for adult consumption and very enjoyable. Who wouldn’t enjoy a story about pickpockets, highwaymen, mysterious documents and murder? Like Treasure Island or the Quatermain books, this is complex and well written enough to satisfy even a demanding adult, while having enough excitement and adventure to appeal to a younger audience. And, because of its historical setting, it hasn’t suffered from age.

Garfield’s skill is in creating an entirely believable setting and filling it with interesting characters – sympathetic good guys, villainous bad guys and several that fall somewhere between the two. Smith himself is a mixture of hard-nosed thief who will do anything to survive and soft-hearted child who can’t stop himself from helping Mr Mansfield, a blind gentleman whom he meets by accident while on his quest to learn to read. Mr Mansfield is a man who believes in law and justice but who gradually learns the meaning of trust and pity, while his daughter devotes herself to protecting him from anyone who might wish to take advantage of his blindness or good-nature. Together with Smith’s sisters and Lord Tom, the highwayman, all the characters are slightly caricatured in the way Dickens’ characters are.

Leon Garfield
Leon Garfield

And the Dickens comparison extends to the setting – this London, its streets and jails, its dirt and poverty, and the heaths around it where the highwaymen ruled could have come straight from the pages of the master himself. But, unlike Dickens’ little pickpocket Oliver Twist, Smith is not sickeningly good – he’s more of an Artful Dodger, trained by the circumstances of his life to rely on his own wits to survive. The one concession Garfield makes to a younger readership is to keep the language and sentence structure simpler than Dickens, making this an easier and shorter read, but without ever condescending or patronising the reader. And the simpler language still allows room for some great writing and imagery…

Even great ladies came and went – their huge skirts swinging and pealing down the doleful passages like so many brocaded bells, tolling:

What a pity. What a shame. Dick’s to die on Tuesday week. What a pity. What a shame. Poor Mr Mulrone.

I first read this book many years ago and am often reluctant to re-read a book that I remember with pleasure in case it doesn’t live up to my memories. In this case, I enjoyed it just as much again and look forward to reading more of Garfield’s work. Highly recommended to young and old alike.

This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYR Children’s Collection. Just to mention that this edition has Americanized spelling which, since it’s an American publisher, I’ll forgive. However, I’ve changed the spelling back to British in my quotes – nothing in the world could make me spell ‘draught’ with an ‘f’!

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Write Your Own…Mystery by Pie Corbett

write your own mysteryFun and informative…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This 48-page guide to writing your own mystery story is aimed at children – I’d guess from about age 8-12. It’s very well written, clearly laid out and not in the least patronising.

Corbett takes us through how to decide on a plot, developing the characters of villains and sleuths, evidence gathering, misdirection – all the ingredients of a classic mystery. Along the way, he gives lots of tips on the technical side of writing – using clauses effectively, simple similes and metaphors, the importance of vocabulary, sentence structure and the need to get the spelling right. But none of this is done in a preachy way; Corbett explains why these things make a story easier to read and more exciting. He gives copious examples throughout, showing how using different words or structures can enhance the story-telling experience. The book is illustrated with diagrams and some nice little pencil drawings by Peter Bailey, and contains a glossary and index at the end.

Pie Corbett
Pie Corbett

Frankly, I think I’d have loved to be given this little book when I was a child, along with a nice empty writing journal and pens. Who knows, I could have been the next Agatha Christie!?! In fact, there are many of our best-known authors who could benefit from being reminded of some of the basics included here – like making your protagonist likeable, for instance! (Or getting the book edited for grammar and spelling before publication…)

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating… so, let’s see…

Plot…hmm…sleuth…OK…suspects…no problem…red herrings…right…cliffhanger…hmm…hmm…dramatic twist…uh-huh…right…here goes…

OK, my earth-shatteringly exciting new mystery is ready for publication!!! Hold tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

The Mystery of the Mysterious Mystery

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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