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Who is Maleficent, anyway?

Maleficent promotional poster

Maleficent promotional poster

Disney’s newest feature, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is Maleficent. It’s unlikely this has escaped your attention. The internet has been abuzz with news of the project since before production began, with early photographs of Jolie on set released to the Daily Mail in June 2012 fueling the fire. The character has captured our imaginations.  Maleficent t-shirts, posters and Barbie-esque dolls, an addictive appthe Disney Marketing Machine is at peak output, with merchandise not just on shops but out in the wild too. People are buying Maleficent plush toys (though I can’t think of a character less suited to such a medium), jewellery and nail polish. MAC has a Maleficent make up collection (and did I mention it was my birthday soon?). She’s everywhere. And we’re lapping it up.

Sleeping beauty has a 400 year plus history. It feels like Maleficent has always been a part of that. In fact, she’s less than 60 years old.

The oldest known variant* of the Sleeping Beauty story is ‘Sole, Luna, e Talia’ (Sun, Moon and Talia). Written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, it tells the tale of  Talia, a baby princess prophesied by astrologers to be grievously  imperilled by a splinter of flax at some point in her life. Though her step-mother does plan to cook and eat her, which is probably worse, there is no wicked woman to endanger the princess.

The beginnings of Maleficent as a character can be found in ‘La Belle au bois dormant’ (from Perreault’s 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé). Here a nameless wicked fairy godmother curses the young princess to prick her finger on a spindle and in Grimm’s ‘Little Briar Rose’ (from Kinder- und Hausmärchen [1812]) it is the same. Grimm’s version of the tale is much gentler than Perrault and Basile’s efforts, ending with the kiss that awakes the princess from her sleep and cutting out the rape, childbirth, ogres and cannibalism. Read the rest of this entry

Books we read as children: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

Set in an alternate version of history in which James II was not deposed in the Glorious Revolution,  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) imagines an England roamed by wolves that have migrated through mainland Europe from Russia through a pre-Eurotunnel undersea excavation. This is not as outlandish as it may seem; a tunnel under the English Channel was first proposed in 1802, and in the 1830s geo- and hydrographical surveys were performed with a view to making the proposal a reality.

The book is the first in a series of 12 novels alternatively called the Wolves Chronicles and James III Series. It was adapted to film in 1989. My copy, a Red Fox edition published in 1992, soft spined and fluffy from having been read too often in a bath not been picked up for at least 15 years, so I’ve only a vague memory of it. No details of the plot remain, only the tone has stayed with me. Joan Aiken is a beloved author for emerging and middle readers and a doyenne of juvenile fiction. It is a scandal that I have ignored her for so long.

The story begins with a treacherous train journey north from London for Sylvia, our orphaned protagonist, who is to join her cousin Bonnie at the family seat, Willoughby Chase, a grand Medieval hall that sits at the centre of a wold occupied by half-starved wolves. They are to be educated by the new governess Miss Slighcarp who will be acting in loco parentis while patriarch Sir Willoughby and his wife Lady Green are away travelling. She is given complete control of the estate.

Miss Slighcarp instantly shows her colours. She dismisses most of the estates large staff and starts wearing Lady Green’s expensive gowns. She orders the girls must clean their own bedrooms – a fate worse than death to the average ten-year-old – and eat only plain food. She locks Bonnie in a cupboard, and, with the help of the mysterious Mr Grimshaw, begins a systematic assault on the Willoughby fortune.

To call a the characters of a novel tightly archetypal would generally be to disparage the text. Aiken’s female characters are just that: primary antagonist Miss Slighcarp (it is she pictured in the cover art above) could be swapped out for potions teacher Miss Hardbroom in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series. She’s a callous and conniving maiden aunt, gaunt and balding under her wig, who beats servants with a marble hairbrush and demands respect while doing nothing to deserve it. She is the wicked stepmother archetype incarnate; cruel, ruthless, and entirely self-serving. When the girls are shipped off to an orphanage they encounter the equally cruel Mrs Brisket, quite opposite to Miss Slighcarp in appearance but almost identical in character.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott's 1962 illustrations.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott’s 1962 illustrations.

By contrast, Pattern embodies another archetype. She’s a fairy godmother,  a caregiver and guiding hand. She coddles the girls, showering them with love and risking her self to take care of her charges. When Syliva and Bonnie make their escape from the orphanage Pattern provides them with warm disguises and food, nurturing them even from afar.

Even Sylvia and Bonnie occupy an archetypal dichotomy: one scrappy and firey tempered, one sedate; one polite and delicate, one boistrous and tomboyish. As a team they work together to represent the uplifting heart of the text. They’re resourseful and boundlessly optimistic, showing courage in the face of significant adversity.

You can get away with resorting to caricature when your prose is as fine as Aiken’s. The  writing is sumptuous and flowing. It is perfectly pitched for the emerging lone reader,  but with a breadth of language – pages 14/15 alone provides chatelaine, oubliette, commodious and portico – to challenge and enrich the young reader’s vocabulary. Contextual clues often define these unexpected words, as when Miss Slighcarp wishes her belongings to be moved:

“You Sir! Do not stand there smirking and dawdling, but see that my valises are carried at once to my apartments, and that my maid is immediately in attendance to help me.”

The average 21st century  tween cannot be expected to have come across the word ‘valise’ before but can probably surmise that it is an item of luggage, and probably a specialised one*.

The overarching themes of the novel are as Dickensian as the racing episodic plot. Hypocrisy, disguised identity, social-climbing and abused children feature heavily and  lend a Victorian mien to the text (though it’s set in the years we’d call Georgian) and go part way to explaining why I recalled the tone of the novel with such lucidity. It’s a riveting read, full of adventure and peril. Though the eponymous wolves provide little to the plot, they contribute to the air of menace that Aiken evokes vividly. The book does not feel dated, either, despite its vintage. Aiken truly knows how to write for  children. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase thoroughly deserves its grand reputation.



*Miss Slighcarp arrives with a dressing case and nine walrus hide portmanteaux as well as the valise. She does not travel light.

Review: SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

Published by Medina, RRP £9.95. Appropriate for ages 9-15

From the cover:

“The mysterious black C-Bean is a remarkable device which, as Alice and her classmates discovered in Sea BEAN [the first book in the SeaBEAN trilogy], knows just about everything and can take them anywhere in the world.

But now it’s broken and stranded on the rocks on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. When Karla Ingermann, the C-Bean’s designer, turns up from Germany to try to fix it, they perform a factory reset, which accidentally sends it back in time and Alice’s world is thrown into disarray.

Chased by Victorian police, attacked by an enemy submarine, imprisoned with a madwoman, summoned to rescue a dying pilot and fired at by government agents, Alice together with her parrot, her dog and her new wartime companions, embarks on a journey through time, uncovering dark secrets from St Kilda’s past and safeguarding the future before it’s too late.


SeaWAR is Part 2 of the SeaBEAN trilogy


Read the TreasuryIslands review of Part 1:  SeaBEAN.


Since reviewing SeaBean Part 1 back in November I have failed to blog even once. My WordPress dashboard is crammed with draft posts, some almost complete, some just one line, but all unfinished. I have been despondent, wavering and unsure. SeaWAR has pulled me out of my funk. When I opened the unexpected package that thunked through my front door last week to find a new shiny copy of SeaWAR, spine unbroken and smelling strongly of  factory fresh paper and ink, I knew I had only one course ahead of me: a deep bubbly bath in which I could read until my toes wrinkled, and then a bit more.

The second instalment of Sarah Holding’s SeaBEAN trilogy finds protagonist Alice on a quest through history on her island home. The C-Bean’s newfound ability to travel through time as well as space is the driving force of SeaWAR. Mixing the real history of the small archipelago of St Kilda with an imagined future creates a rich and compelling narrative of intrigue and revelation.

The mysterious near-future technology of the C-BEAN is explored further in SeaWAR, but more questions are raised than are answered. Just who built the C-Bean? Why? Even when is suddenly under question. The marvel of technological advancement that is represented by the C-Bean is a nice juxtaposition against the environmentalism that it at the heart of the novel. It is technology that has brought Alice and her family to the island, but has the same scientific quest played a hand in evacuating St Kilda in the first place? At what cost comes knowledge? Each landmark of the island has a personal history to it, too, and Alice is drawn into these stories as she travels throughout the 20th century.

Alice continues to be a wonderful protagonist for young readers. She’s upbeat and likeable, broadly enough drawn that readers can easily place themselves in her shoes but  with a strong and consistent voice  that helps her jump from the page. Though her schoolmates play a smaller role than in SeaBEAN, her new acquaintances more than fill the void. There’s the curious figure of lady Grange, imprisoned on the island in the early decades of the 20th century, the equally curious Karla Ingermann, the children and adults of St Kilda’s past add a depth of perspective to the narration.

SeaWAR is just as compelling as its predecessor and just as quickly paced. In short it’s a cracking read. The settings are distant but familiar, with always a foothold available for young readers. There’s plenty to get your teeth into, with perilous missions, acts of heroism and  With the final part of the trilogy, SeaRISE not yet available, a second read of SeaWAR is definitely warranted; there is bound to be more to discover.  SeaWAR absolutely deserves 8 out of 10.

With thanks to Medina Publishing for the review copy.

Review: SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

Published by Medina, RRP £9.95. Appropriate for ages 9-15

From the cover:

“On her 11th birthday in 2018, Alice finds a mysterious black box on the beach. She discovers it’s called a C-Bean and imagines it belongs to her. Together with her five schoolmates – the only children on the newly re-inhabited remote island of St. Kilda – they soon realise it has extraordinary powers and can transport them anywhere in the world. Before long, Alice and her friends find themselves immersed in all sorts of thrilling adventures, from Central Park to the Amazonian rainforest to the backstreets of Hong Kong, as they uncover danger and subterfuge threatening the worlds eco-sytems. With a stray dog and a garrulous parrot they seem to have acquired along the way, they overcome their fears as the C-Bean helps them unravel the mysteries of time and tides, understand the interconnectedness of all things and, in a race against the clock, succeed in safeguarding the future of their tiny Scottish island.

SeaBEAN is Part 1 of the SeaBEAN Trilogy.”

SeaBEAN, the debut from former architect and urban development consultant Sarah Holding, is a near-future environmental adventure set mainly on the (currently) uninhabited archipelago of St Kilda (warning: irritating auto-play sound FX lurk beyond the link).

I’ll be honest: when my copy of SeaBEAN arrived I was not filled with must-read excitement. I’m not particularly a science fiction fan and I tend to fear the worst when ever the word ‘environmental’ is bandied about,  but we do not judge a book by the cover – even if it is thermochromic –  and so in I dove.

And I’m glad I did.

Part third person narration and part epistolary, SeaBEAN is a real corker of a novel, suitable for reading aloud from the age of eight or nine and lone-reading from around ten. Written with an economy of language that belies its debut status, Holding captures the character of her 11-year-old protagonist and focalsing agent Alice beautifully and creates a compelling narrative on a complex topic without condescending to her young audience. She’s straightforward without being obvious, addressing  important contemporary issues without being preachy. This is a rare talent indeed.

At the core of the primary plot is a machine called the C-Bean, a sort of internet-enabled matter transporter  that is part classroom, part TARDIS, part iPad; a black box that can take the children inside it anywhere in the world. Alice and her friends visit New York, Australia, Hong Kong and the Amazonian rainforest, in each location learning a little more about the interconnectedness of things and the unconsidered consequences of our actions, even when we’re acting in good faith. Despite the brisk pace each landscape is superbly captured as Holding sketches an impression of each new location, before throwing her characters into it and seeing how they react.

As is often the case with tightly packed narratives, it’s difficult to discuss the book without giving too much of the game away, so I’ll try to stick to wider themes. The primary motif in SeaBEAN is,  predictably, given the name of the book and of the  futuristic portakabin at its heart, is the sea bean or drift seed, an organic flotsam in the form of plant seeds that travel many miles over the ocean as part of their not-becoming-extinct strategy that there’s probably a proper botanical word for. Just as the seed of a plant rooted in one continent can affect the environment of another, so can our actions and some of those actions can ben devastating.

Thanks in part to a prologue that suggests there’s more to C-Bean than meets the eye, I look forward to part two of the trilogy, SeaWAR, which sees the C-Bean turn time machine as well as matter transporter. SeaWAR is available from March 2014.

For its  exciting adventure and accessible prose that will delight loves of Secret Seven and Famous Five books, SeaBEAN deserves a hearty 9 out of 10.

With thanks to Guy and Shelley at Medina Publishing for the review copy.

Origins: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Bonfire_11Remember, remember the fifth of November!
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
There is no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot. 

This short rhyme, often recited at this time of year, is part of a longer verse appearing in Notes and Queries in 1857. A similarversion, differing by a few lines, can be found in English Folk-rhymes: A Collection of Traditional Verses Relating to Places and Persons, Customs, Superstitions, Etc. (1892):

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot:
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy, ’tis our intent.
To blow up the king and his parliament.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s providence he got catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
A stick and a stake
For King George’s sake!
And a rope and a cart
To hang Bonyparte!
Pope, Pope, Spanish Pope!
Nobody’s  coming to town.
A halfpenny loaf to feed old Pope,
And a penn ‘orth of cheese to choke him;
A pint of beer to drink his health,
And a twopenny faggot to burn (qu. smoke) him;
Burn his body from his head,
And then we’ll say, “Old Pope is dead.”
Holla, boys, holla, make your voices ring!
Holla, boys, holla, God save the King!
Hip, hip, hoorr-r-r-ray!

‘Remember, Remember’ is one of the few rhymes around whose legend matches its origin; the events described in the additional stanzas really did happen. Read the rest of this entry

Review: The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

Published by Ransom, August 2013. RRP £6.99. Appropriate for ages 7-12.

From the cover:

‘In the attic of his house, Sam finds a leather case that belonged to his great great grandfather, Freddy Ovel. The case contained a diary, and as Sam begins to read it, he is taken right back to just before the First World War, when Freddy was a boy. Sam also finds a photograph an discovers that at his age, Freddy was his exact double. 

The diary unlock more than just the events of the war, however. Sam discovers there is much more to ‘Freddy’ than meets the eye – not only heroic wartime deeds and terrible injuries, but also some very dark secrets indeed.’

Ransom specialises in books and resources for young readers with specific requirements, such as reluctant readers and those for whom reading is particularly difficult. Their  Cold Fusion series, from which The Secret Message is taken, aims to develop the skills of advanced readers, offering stories that require a little more concentration, cognitive ability and critical thinking in the context of plots and subject matter appropriate for middle-grade children. Precocious kids are notoriously difficult to buy for, so this series has the potential to address a real gap in the market. Read the rest of this entry

Exploring the classics: The Outsiders, SE Hinton

1967 cover art for The Outsiders

The Outsiders

Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:

One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.

Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.

SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least  blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.

Read the rest of this entry