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Serious question, of deep import, coming up.  Children's books set in Roman Britain - with the exception of those written by Rosemary Sutcliff* - seem to be universally Bad.  Sometimes entertainingly so, sometimes just unreadably so.  But why?  (Any good titles disproving this theory would be more than gratefully received, btw!) * [ETA - [livejournal.com profile] hafren  mentioned Kipling's stories as another exception, which I'd forgotten.]

Currently reading Roman Invasion (My Story) for the history project, and it's added evidence to my theory admirably.  The hero, Bran, an 11 year old "prince" of a British tribe, is given to declaiming ( a lot) about how he's a British warrior, and will NEVER submit to the Romans, but will die first.  Unfortunately, the first time his tribe finds a group of Roman soldiers small enough to take on, he, his mother (warrior Queen), his two male cousins and his 8 year old sister (brought into this battle because, as his mother says, the British LOVE their families and don't leave them behind like the Romans) are all taken uninjured.  And his mother proceeds to have a long conversation with the Roman govenor -- uh, she speaks Latin, why?  I guess there must be a translation spell floating around in the ether somewhere.

The best bit so far though, is when he's talking with the Greek surveyor working on the road the Roman army is building.  This man has his mute nephew with him and tells our Bran that the boy will have a good career as a surveyor, as he can communicate by drawing.

I said nothing to this, just ate my food, but Talos and Pentheus must have known what I was thinking.  The Romans weren't known for being caring to people with disabilities. 

FAIL.  In so many ways!

Another unintentionallly comic moment came when Bran accidentally killed a Brigantes warrior who attacked the Roman camp, while trying to protect the nephew (who had previously saved Bran's life).  Of course he'd feel bad about it, but having said a few pages before that the Brigantes were always fighting among themselves anyway, we get this drivel line:
 
 

My heart was heavy. I had committed a sin, one for which I should have died.  And yet I was still alive.  Was this to be part of my punishment: the torture of waiting? 

[next morning, in answer to being asked how he is...]

"I am cursed," I said. "I am waiting for the Goddess to send her messengers to kill me and carry my soul to hell for what I have done."

The Goddess, who's going to send him to hell (hunh?) for committing a sin (ditto), is Brigit.  Yup, a Goddess well known for killing her followers and sending their souls to -- oh, you know...  

 

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I totally jumped the Roman Britain ship on Sunday, when a headache made me feel I couldn't bear one more page of the book [personal profile] steepholm chained me to with chains of burning pain...   (Okay, he did no such thing at all, but the burning pain part is all too true.)  Honestly - the wretched book is full of scenes in which our druid wannabe feisty girl heroine says things like "Oh Goddess, I will dance this sexy dance among the sacred trees to honour you in your eco-friendliness, as I did last moon and the moon before, though I could better honour you and save our Blessed Mother Earth if my hair curled like the flaming red curls of the warrior princess Sabrina, who should really marry my lame companion (damn! - he noticed my sexy dance!) and they can ride off together on the Mare Goddess, Epona, with all of Britain riding behind them to fight the evil Romans at whom I throw rocks and deep curses like 'Bastards!', united by his sensible words about presenting a United Front and not fighting each other - well, all of Britain except his nasty betraying uncle who's a Shadow Master really, and Caligula's boot-boy (bovver!) to boot, and - wait, the Sun God is almost at his zenith and I must go use the privy first!"  BLEH. 

Where was I? Oh, right, on Sunday, read Carolyn MacCullough's Saving Henry, which I loved, as much as I loved Drawing the Ocean, instead of reading the blech book.  (Will try to say more about both, as they deserve it.) And then I got a really bad headache yesterday, and cracked out Sutcliff's Blood Feud, which is one I picked up a few years ago, rather than a childhood favourite.  There was a Thames TV production, which I'd love to get hold of and watch (or hear about, if anyone saw it.  It was called Sea Dragon, and came out in 1990, I think.)

The thing which really struck me about it was that it's in essence - if a very boiled-down essence - giving the story to Esca from Eagle of the Ninth, though over a very different landscape and about 800-some years later.  [personal profile] steepholm and I noticed on our recent Eagle reread, the total lack of the conflict one might expect Esca to feel about helping Marcus retrieve the Eagle and so prevent its ever being used against the Roman forces by the British tribes.  His one loyalty is to Marcus, as is made very clear - and being killed in helping him would not be loss because 'I have shared the hunting with my brother, and it has been a good hunting'. While Marcus is 'keeping faith' with his father, the Legion and Rome, Esca is sharing the hunting with him, and that's enough.

In Blood Feud, Jestyn (later called Jestyn Englishman) is sold into slavery (in Dublin, no less!) and bought by a Viking, Thormod, who seems to do it pretty much on a whim, although there is one moment of eye-catching like the one between Marcus and Esca at the Saturnalia Games (though not nearly as intense).  When Thormod and his ship-mates are planning to go home, Jestyn realises with desperation that he can bear being owned by Thormod, but not by anyone else.  Thormod frees him and then offers him the choice of going back with him to Denmark, and that's it.  There's quite a bit of mention of the feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder with Thormod, but essentially Jestyn follows him - back to Denmark, where they become blood brothers (in a startlingly slashy ritual), and then head off to Constantinople to fulfill the blood feud - kill or be killed by two brothers who have killed Thormod's father.  And he never really feels the fight as his own, any more than he feels the desire to become a fighter, or than he wants to worship the 'many gods' in the Norse 'god-house' with Thormod instead of his own, one God.  But he does everything without any of the conflict you'd expect him to feel about allowing Thormod's beliefs to supersede all his own.  (This doesn't cover the end of the book, btw, so no spoilers).

I found it fascinating in light of Esca, and interesting in being both a very typical Sutcliff (strong male friendship; characters displaced or with their world changing - often catastrophically - around them; someone wounded and left crippled by it; a healer;society with conflicting or clashing ideologies or peoples) and a quite different one, in only briefly - and rather vaguely - having a British setting.  This one ends in Constantinople, where Jestyn permanently settles, and although he says he remembers his childhood home, especially when spring twilights 'turn the heart homeward', definitively states that 'Home is not Place but People', which surely isn't a typical Sutcliffian sentiment?
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Cover of *Dawn Wind*

Such a great cover - it tickles me every time I look at it. The manly, manly jaw and sharp pointy object so undercut by the stance and wrist limpness... (But is the pose This dagger will be used to pick my nose if necessary - it's my compensation or the more obvious Mention my flaming campness and I'll give you a free lobotomy?

Very interesting read, too - I was babbling to [livejournal.com profile] steepholm last night about a few of its oddities, including the fact that Regina, who has 'never had a mother or father' but was owned by a nasty old woman who sent her out begging in the streets of Vinconium, speaks with the perfect, rather formal language Rosemary Sutcliff uses for People from the Past.

Mrs Darcy the second

This is the more obvious type of happiness - my second completed (all except getting Younger Daughter to choose buttons and then sewing them on) Mrs Darcy cardigan. I'm thrilled to have it off the needles, sewn up and blocked, in large part because I kept making idiotic mistakes which made me sure I need a keeper. There were attempts to get pictures of her wearing it, but she claimed they were all horrible and they were on her camera so I couldn't just ignore her.

Silly, horribly immature pleasure provided by a thread on Ravlery about a new yarn (wrote 'yearn' first time!) called Fannie's Fingering. It *is* a US company, rather than a British or Australian one, and fingering *is* a weight of yarn, but still... Yes - this remains book-related - Fanny Burney - Fanny Price - Fanny Hi... never mind.
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After grousing so much about the last two audiobooks I listened to (Austenland and The Sharing Knife: Beguilement), and being a little worried about sharing Gatty's Tale with [personal profile] steepholm, though I quite liked it, it was a bit of a relief to listen to the sample of The Foreshadowing [ETA - not sure about that link, I've tried it again.] and have no hesitation about choosing it.  I could barely make myself stop listening, and had a strong feeling that this was an almost perfect marriage of reader/narrator and book, to the extent that I suspected I might have found it less gripping had I read it instead of listening. Today I had a look to see if the reader had done any other books they had available, and realised Anna Maxwell Martin is a well-known (BAFTA-winning, indeed) actress, though I've only seen her as Bessy in the wonderful production of North and South.  Her voice -- oh, it's just so good.  And reading this spare, atmospheric, stark prose...  Listen to the sample!  It's well worth it. 

Anyway, the story is an interesting one in itself, and I think the reasons the audiobook narration works so well are also.  Sasha (Alexandra) Fox is the 17 year old daughter of an eminent doctor living in Brighton at the start of World War I. She had her first premonition - of death, always of death - at the age of five, though nobody in her family can accept her entirely unwanted ability to predict the future.  She isn't totally sure about the premonitions herself at first, but when she's finally allowed to go the the hospital her father runs as a volunteer nursing assistant, they start to get clearer and more specific and beyond any doubt.  Like hearing the voice of the person say 'I must go now.  I had a bayonet put into my back as I was doing the same to another man. I must go now. I am dead and I must go.'  (Yeah - imagine that read by someone with beautifully clear diction, and controlled emotional depth.  Chills!) Before she knows he's dead.  She can't do anything about the prophecies, but feels totally alone as nobody believes her - like Cassandra, surely one of the more heart-rending characters of literature. 

When she has a dream showing her brother Tom (just a year older than Sasha and always closer to her than the eldest, Edgar, who went off eagerly as soon as the war began, to 'do his bit') being killed, however, she knows she has time to try to do something to prevent its happening.  She manages to get herself to France, pretending to be a trained nurse and starts working in a rest station in Boulogne.  If you might get a hint just reading this that finding Tom will be a hugely difficult problem in itself, let alone preventing his getting in the way of a bullet, you're not wrong.  I've no intention of saying more about what happens, as there's such tension between the seeming inevitability of the future Sasha has seen and her absolute determination to risk and do anything to stop it happening.  And then the climax - everything goes into slow motion and the tension is even greater when you suddenly realise what's about to happen and what could result...


Now mixing reading the paperback (with flags!  and notes!) with E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which arrived the other day.  Now that is a mind-bending combo.  But the impatient wait for Frankie is being so well-rewarded.  And I've got two of Sherwood Smith's just arrived to read and Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Princess Ben is on its way, and my first Carrie Jones is here, and In the Serpent's Coils, which sartorias recommended recently is ordered, and there's a new Skulduggery Pleasant out....  Yep, I am one very happy reader.
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Short (I hope) bit of preamble, in two initially separate directions. Yesterday, March 10th, was the day on which my father died in 1966 and on which my grandfather also died, five years later. I liked them both, a lot, and more relevantly here, both were big readers, and both helped foster my early book-wormery. According to my mother, my father introduced my grandfather to Anthony Trollope, and my grandfather got my dad fascinated with the American Civil War. Trollope's not so much to the point, as I haven't done much about reading him since a bit of dipping after the BBC serializations back in the -- ? 70s? -ish, but the Civil War is. Rosemary Wells intersects with children's reading and me through some of the favourite picture books I read many, many times to my own two, including Max and Ruby's First Greek Myth, Shy Charles, Hazel's Amazing Mother, and the Bunny Planet books.  So when I heard Wells had written a book about the Civil War, I was well surprised, but knew it was a must-read. 

Red Moon at Sharpsburg is quite a short book, though it takes India Moody from just before the start of the war to just before its end.  Some of that brevity comes from jumps in action that I found a bit disconcerting at first, until I put them in place with a picture book's page-turning, scene-changing nature.  And I thought I was going to be thrown out of the book early on by reading that a neighbour boy, Emory, had 'asthma', which I was convinced was a later word (OED-online proved me very, very wrong on that one) - [personal profile] steepholm took a quick skim while he was here and thought  'white trash' was similarly a term in use only later - he was also wrong, if less dramatically so.  (The author writes in an afterword that she spent 12 years researching the era, and I can well believe it.)  I soon felt I'd fallen into the rhythm of the book, which is rather different  - generally quite spare, but with lovely passages, and a conversational feel I quickly warmed to.  In terms of the author's stated intent of writing a book about the Civil War which told stories of  people's lives and also revealed the 'profound immorality of war', in a way appropriate for younger readers, I'd say she was fully successful.  I might have criticisms - mostly minor ones- but they're out-weighed by the positives.


If some of it might be a smidge improbably forward-thinking for the time (India is determined to go to Oberlin College, to study science, and Emory teaches her science, until he goes to be a military doctor, hoping to do something to change the woefully unhygienic medical practices which killed so many), there were of course people that forward-thinking, if well-diluted among the majority.  And this is one of the big questions about historical fiction, to which I keep returning: is it a bad thing to endow your major character(s) with more enlightened views than are shared by the vast majority of the people of the time, or is it a valid technique for engaging with attitudes which the majority of present-day readers will find abhorrent?   It's probably more common to have a female protagonist who's refusing to accept the 'proper', 'natural' role of women in society, as is found here, than any other possibly anachronistic views, but that doesn't mean it has to be done clumsily.  And if it's carefully done, as here, where an ahead-of-its-time institution like Oberlin becomes a goal for a girl who can't stand the idea of becoming merely a 'proper' woman and giving up learning, then it can help readers to understand how things were for a given group of people at a given time, and especially how they might have been for the minority that couldn't live happily with the generally-accepted. (Clumsily done - well, not good.)  At least, that's my take today and after this book...
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1 slightly demented Lady-Schrapnell with serious headache

+ 1 Firefox/Bloglines crash

+ a Saturday afternoon

- food

=

Knucks-in-progress

+ 1 industrial strength headache

+



The first picture is of a rather spur-of-the-moment project cast-on, when I couldn't stand looking at the computer any more and the second represents having finished reading Linda Buckley-Archer's The Tar Man. I could just barely manage to read at first (the headache, not the book!) but it got better. It's very difficult to know how to write about this, as anyone who's read Gideon the Cutpurse will no doubt be eager to read The Tar Man, and conversely, you'd really want to read Gideon before The Tar Man. So behind the cut, a bit of discussion that's spoiler-free for The Tar Man (though it makes it even harder to say anything significant) but not for Gideon. Read more (safely)... )
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Such an unappealing title - this is the 'Special Omnibus Edition' of Mary Hooper's At the Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes, set in London in 1665 (Great Plague) and 1666 (Great Fire) respectively.

I did a very short review of At the Sign of the Sugared Plum back in August, but didn't say much about it, other than thinking that the fluffy chick-lit-esque girls => fashion+boys element in the beginning was fun enough, but didn't go well with the horrific times portrayed. I did more note-making on my copy of Petals in the Ashes, and wanted to toss around a few thoughts about it here, in hope of interesting input from my flist. This isn't a rant, btw - a few things annoyed me, some seemed silly, but it's not -- well, I've read much worse historical fiction and bits and pieces were good.

As I said about The Sugared Plum, there are a few inaccuracies, of what appear to me to be several different sorts. In many ways, the straight incorrect details are the least interesting, but one of them (linguistic) coincides with what seems to me to be an error of mindset (or two or three), so I'll consider it first. Behind a cut so as not to mess up my flist's friends' pages, but please read if you have any interest in historical fiction. It's long, but you can skim the sections about the book and just give your denomination-of-choice's worth at the end. (I'll even throw in a virtual cup of tea to anyone who reads behind the cut!)

 
* [personal profile] fjm - I couldn't find your entry about I, Coriander, and would like to give a link to it if you don't mind.
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Blowing a virtual kiss to Kevin Crossley-Holland, which is about the sum-total of my commenting ability just now.

Finished Gatty's Tale ... yesterday, I think it was. Yesterday's close enough. I went straight through the Arthur trilogy (The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March) and into Gatty, and have many Thoughts about all the books in relation to their historical 'accuracy', how history is written and read, and the Arthur trilogy's fantasy element, which I found rather variable in effectiveness, but now just a brief rave about Gatty. Or Gatty's Tale, as Gatty herself is very much alive in the Arthur trilogy.

Gatty is a 'field-girl', who was born on and lived all her life on the Caldicott manor, but is sent to the manor of her lady's sister [EDAmend to cousin, not sister], some several days journey away, to be a chamber-maid. This unexpected change is nothing to what follows, however, as Gatty is taught to read and write and taken on pilgrimage to Jerusalem - which she hadn't even known to be in another country, when Arthur tells her he's going off on crusade. Originally, Gatty's value to the pilgrim group is her amazing singing voice, which is as much charm as entertainment. But readers will know before Gatty herself does how very much else she has to offer - courage, loyalty, common-sense, and an ability to laugh at herself, all qualities which make her easy to love. And perhaps most useful to the author's intent (crossing fingers to avoid being struck down for daring to use the word) is her eagerness to learn, her observant nature and her openness to different people and ways of viewing the world. This makes for a completely gripping read, without a dull page, to my mind.

The pilgrimage starts in the year 1203, and when I put my analytical shutter back, I may have to focus rather hard on the almost across-the-board questioning of the beliefs which sent so many off on the various crusades - even those who firmly believe all Saracens (heathens) are going to hell are fairly open: Oliver, the priest at Caldicot, for example is quite sympathetic and prepared to let people of differing opinions have their say in a way that would be a huge improvement for many today. And I might have a hard look at the Christian knight married to the (gorgeous, graceful, etc, etc,) Muslim woman, and at the other rather impressivly fluid-with-respect-to-class couples. But I'm a romantic sap, and if some hard-headedness is satisfied, my heart can be melted completely, and hence the kiss blown to Kevin Crossley-Holland. (Like throwing flowers, for the last scene of the book - and a purely chivalric kiss!) (And you didn't fool me one bit, Kevin, by the misdirection!) (But no hard feelings for the effort.)

As if a genuinely nice spirit didn't shine through this book brightly enough, I found him saying this about one of my favourite books (and one which I regularly use as a comparison point of how historical fiction for children can be done brilliantly): 'But I also read historical fiction for children by living writers, and if there is one book that set me on fire and emboldened me to write in the first person, it is Karen Cushman’s wonderful Catherine, Called Birdy.' (From the Kevin Crossley-Holland website.)
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Just FYI - 'A book in the Time Runners series' - though even this isn't yet published. Does that kind of thing annoy anyone else? End of rhetorical questioning...

Picked up this ARC at the IBBY conference, and have already griped just a wee bit about the promised distribution of wristwatches to boy's magazines as part of the release publicity. But for the record, I'm just rather sour on behalf of some of my favourite authors who don't get this kind of publicity and deserve it if any book does. I was actually impressed with Simon & Schuster, as the only publisher (of fiction) to have a stand at the IBBY, with a few books fitting the theme of the conference for sale or free distribution. And the editor (of at least Gideon the Cutpurse) herself there and personning said stand. Nice!

I just wish the book had lived up to its promise a bit more. Main character initially is Jamie Grant, a normal kid with a normal family and not too many friends in his new school, who discovers he's fallen through a time break and has ceased to exist. I've no idea if it's just me, but the situation this kid faced - his gradual erasure from the memory and recognition of, and eventually even visibility to, his own family, seemed just terrifying. That aspect I found extremely gripping. And the treatment of time in general, and time travel in particular, was complex and intriguing, rather than cursory and let's-get-on-with-the-adventure-ish.

Pity about the characterisation. Or perhaps the fact that there was essentially none. Jamie was mostly irritating - rejecting the explanations and help offered by Anna (a girl who was lost decades before) as just her being a stupid and annoying girl, Anna was mostly a 'sad smile', and even the villain rather boringly villainous. That last was more frustrating than the others in a way, because the Baddies (Undoers, I think) were given interestingly possibilities: some of them were said to be prepared to accept the erasing of individuals in order to prevent some huge tragedy of history, like a war. But the individual Baddie with whom Jamie and Anna struggled, Darkling Midnight, just wants to end human history for the sake of it. Yawn.

I also wondered whether one of the rules of time travel in the book - that nobody could return to the same time in the past more than once - wasn't broken. Anna couldn't go back to a day she'd already visited in order to sort things out, but Jamie visited the same day several times - though maybe there's an escape-clause in its not being the exact same minute he visited each time.

Perhaps it's naive to hope that subsequent books might do more with the characters involved - like give them a touch of personality - but I can easily see myself reading to find out. Especially as the next, Rewind Assassain, (out this summer) takes Jamie and Anna back to 1596. And even more likely if they provide a free copy (with or without wrist-watch) along with my boys' magazine....
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Overdue enough that I'm in danger of forgetting anything I thought about it, other than a grunt of 'good'. Gideon (by Linda Buckley-Archer) apparently came out in June, but first I noticed of it was the rave by Gail Gauthier, followed by the chance to hear the author at the IBBY conference (which I wrote up here), followed by the book's nomination for the Cybils' Fantasy/Sci Fi award, and Michele's review . I'd better not try to link to all reviews of it, or will never get to saying anything myself.

I like historical fiction, like time travel, liked Linda Buckley-Archer and everything she had to say, so was pretty sure I'd like the book when I finally got around to reading it, which I did, very much. The beginning, with 12-year-old Peter let down by his workaholic/ambitious/neglectful father and taken by the au-pair to visit the much closer (as well as bigger) Dyer family, dragged a bit, but I had a feeling the action would pick up when Peter and Kate ended up accidentally transported to 1763. And it did - but only after they met Gideon and were taken by him to an aristocratic family who turn out to live in the building which houses Kate's school in 2006. Having the children - stunned, confused, often terrified, but sometimes just amused - to mediate the differences as well as the similarities of life a couple of hundred years earlier - works extremely well. (I think I may have stolen [livejournal.com profile] steepholm's phrasing for this benefit of time travel as opposed to 'straight' historical fiction here.) Peter especially develops from a rather one-dimensional, somewhat self-centred (if understandably so) boy, to a bright and open-minded one, who is thrown back and forth realistically between his appreciation of life in 1763 and shock and repulsion at the injustices experienced by so many then. The book is especially vivid and gripping when the children and Gideon arrive in London - and the sequel, The Tar Man, will be following the villainous Tar Man in 21st century London, which should be amazing. The appearance of historical characters was generally a lot of fun, there was serious talk (when the scenes shifted back to the children's parents, the scientists involved in the antigravity project on which Kate's father had been working, and the police investigating the children's disappearance) about the ethics and scientific results of time travel, and few characters were just saintly good or horribly nasty-without-some-cause, after some initial appearances in those guises.

So, was there anything I wasn't mad about? (Or should I say, am I picky enough to find fault with a book this much fun?) Yes. Pickiness behind a cut )
Quibbles quibbled, I'll be eagerly getting the sequel as soon as I can get my hands on it, as this was overall tremendously enjoyable. And now off to read Farah's report on Inter-galactic Playground...
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Been doing a few flocked entries, with (extremely boring) comments about my study programme which I didn't really want public, but hopefully the need for such has passed for the moment.


One more for the history project - *Matilda Bone*, by Karen Cushman )
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One old - Simon, by Rosemary Sutcliff, one newer, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, by Karen Cushman. With a little blathering about Karen Cushman's others thrown in for whatever kind of measure.


More on Simon )

Lucy (and other girls) )
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Just finished this today, and going to postpone writing about Shug and Dairy Queen yet again, as I want to get some thoughts jotted down before they all jumble too much. (Thinking about this one in light of Charlie's next project, on the historical in children's lit. )

I'd seen this in bookshops and been attracted by the cover (while also regularly confusing it with the equally attractive Celandine), and had thought it was a purely historical, rather than a historical-cum-fantasy or vice versa. It won the gold award in the Nestlé Children's Book Prize - though why the fact that Sally Gardner overcame dyslexia should seem the most important thing about the book I find hard to understand - and came full of glowing reviews, which I won't bother to quote. And this seemed as if it was a book I should love: set in London during the 1640s to 50s, with a trip to Faerie (and back again), a heroine determined to save her love, evil stepmothers - oh wait. That's part of what I don't love, but how to organise this, I'm not so sure. I kept thinking about the comment (quoted by Charlie in a recent talk) of Alan Garner's about the 'what if corral', as he (C.) put it - 'the idea that in fantasy, as in all fiction, there must be coherence to whatever rules you have set in place'. And I thought this 'corral' had gaps in the fantastic, in the relation of the supernatural to the realist (or historical) and in the realist strand. And possibly even more worryingly - there's a three-fold parallel in the story, which seems to me to lead to a rather unpleasant ideological end-place. I'm putting this behind a cut, as it's really not a review of any kind, but more a look at a book that was of interest for very particular reasons, through a very particular lens. And it's 100% spoiler, too, so this may be for an audience of - well, one.

Read (a lot) more, if you wish )
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