Tag Archives: Sally Gardner

Book Review Saturday – ‘Tinder’

I’ve had Tinder sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, waiting for its chance to wriggle to the top of my TBR pile. If I’m being entirely honest, I let it skip a few places, just because I’m impatient when I’m waiting to read a book as beautiful as this one.

I mean, come on. Look.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The story is a retelling of the fairytale The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s not one I’m familiar with, but – as fairytales are wont – it shares roots and ingredients from other tales I do know quite well, including Aladdin and his magic lamp. Essentially, the root of the story is this: a young man with a magical object can control the comings and goings of enchanted creatures bound to do his bidding, and all manner of chaos and adventure ensues.

But, of course, Tinder is more than just that.

Beautiful cover (and stunning illustrations – thank you, David Roberts) aside, this is a story about war, and devastation, and suffering. It’s a tale of the ghosts a person carries within them when they’ve witnessed dreadful things like murder and rape and mutilation, and how they attempt to carry on while burdened with memories and guilt. Our protagonist is a young man named Otto Hundebiss (which means ‘dog’s bite’), who encounters Death before the first page of the story has even been turned. He is on a battlefield, wounded, and Death comes to him. Filled with a desire to escape, he runs, only to wake up beside a fire in the company of a strange creature who describes Otto’s memories of his murdered family, despite never having met Otto before. Nursing Otto back to life and strength, this strange creature gifts him with a pair of new boots and a set of dice, the boots to walk in and the dice to tell him which way to go.

So, his quest begins.

Soon, he meets with a young ‘boy’ in the forest, who turns out to be a beautiful girl with cascading red hair. She is Safire, a mysterious girl from the land of the werewolf whose three brothers have gone to war. She is being hunted, and she won’t explain why. She and Otto spend a night in a cave, during which time he falls in love with her, but by the morning the huntsmen are hot on her trail, and Otto’s fever (caused by his battle wounds) is raging once more. He is too ill to move, and Safire needs to run to save her life. Separated from his beloved, Otto pleads with his enchanted dice to bring him back to her once more, and carries on his quest. He comes to a castle behind tall iron gates, wherein he finds shelter, but also apparitions, frightening visions and strange servants. The price for staying in this castle is high; the lady of the house is a strange, masked individual with one long, razor-sharp fingernail, from whom Otto shrinks in horror. She asks a favour of him – to go down to her cellar and bring up her tinderbox, which she has left there in error. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem.

The story is structured, paced and told as a fairytale. There is repetition (particularly around the number three), there is magic and superstition, things occur which should be impossible. Strangely, even though I normally have endless patience when it comes to this sort of unrealistic story structure, parts of Tinder saw even my attention waver. We know, for instance, that Otto needs to try, repeatedly, to get rid of the tinderbox once he’s found it; despite my awareness of this, it did drag just a little. I also can’t say I warmed to him much as a character. Fairytales aren’t known for their in-depth characterisation, to be fair, but still. I thought it was strange that a character who has been through so much, including war (the story is set during the Thirty Years’ War), the loss of his entire family, and being forced into becoming a soldier, could leave me with a sense of dislike. I don’t even mind the fact that he and Safire fall in love instantly; this is a fairytale. I don’t mind that he has to go through his quest in a methodical manner; again, this is a fairytale. It didn’t even bother me that things which should have been obvious didn’t occur to him – it’s a fairytale. Still, I found him selfish and interested only in his own promotion. Even his ‘quest’ to save Safire isn’t really about saving her (she seems more than capable of doing that herself); it’s about him, and his desire to marry her. He doesn’t want to save Safire and allow her to do what she wants with her life – he wants her for his own. I wish that had been different.

And then, that ending. I know, I know – it’s a fairytale. And there are going to be twists. And things don’t always go the way you want. And happy endings are there to be messed with.

But I didn’t like it.

However, I did enjoy Sally Gardner’s writing, because I always do. I enjoyed the subtle humour and the descriptions and the dark, unsettling passages when we are allowed to look inside Otto’s mind and memory, learning about what he has been through. I loved the illustrations more than I can express. The whole book is beautifully presented and an absolute treasure. But will I read it again?

I’m not so sure.

This book is worth owning, in its print form, for its sheer beauty. The story is worth reading, for sure. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but I do think it’s worth checking out.

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.  Image sourced: sallygardner.net. Artist: David Roberts

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.
Image sourced: sallygardner.net.
Artist: David Roberts

The Art of Covers

Some deep part of me was thrilled last week when the cover art for Penguin’s newly released Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory caused such kerfuffle. This wasn’t because of any passionate opinion one way or the other about the cover art itself (for the record, I like it and I get what Penguin were trying to do, but it’s far from being my favourite cover and if I didn’t already own the book the new art wouldn’t entice me to pick it up), but because people were getting worked up over a book. More specifically, a book cover.

In case you missed it, here’s the ‘offending’ art:

Image: bbc.com

Image: bbc.com

Now, of course, I’m well aware that the internet can get itself worked up into a foam of outrage over the stupidest things, and that the anger over this new cover had probably dissipated before it had even built up to a head, but I still thought it was interesting. In this era of e-books, it showed we still care about how our books look, and that cover art – and how covers are designed – still counts for a lot. I think a lot of people lost sight of the fact that this was a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the book (in other words, not really an edition designed for children), and so the cover didn’t have to have swirly, kid-friendly designs or luminous font or images from the movies, or whatever – that’s all been done. Some commentators lamented the fact that the work of Sir Quentin Blake wasn’t used in the design, and that made me wonder ‘what on earth for?’ What would be the point of a new edition if the artwork from a previous edition was used? I think the new cover’s emphasis on superficial, mindless children and their equally superficial parents, plus the weirdness in the little girl’s fixed gaze, suits the darkness at the heart of the story perfectly. When you think about it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extremely dark book – which is what makes it an enduring favourite, of course, and it’s also a large part of its cultural importance – and it shows more effectively than any other book I can think of the dangers of fixing one’s gaze and effort on the wrong thing, and how damaging it can be. So, in that sense, the new cover is perfect.

I’m not an artist, and I’m certainly not a designer, and so I don’t have much idea of the thought processes or work involved in creating a cover. Nevertheless, cover art matters hugely to me. I have bought (and probably will continue to buy) books based on their covers; sometimes it works out, and sometimes it decidedly does not. I have often been seduced by a beautiful cover only to find the book inside is not so good, but somehow I don’t mind – the cover is a work of art in itself, and I admire the designers who can make the book look as good as it can while still reflecting the story in the image somehow. It’s not an easy task.

Some of my favourite covers (of books I’ve not listed before, at least) would include the following:

1. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Reif Larsen)

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

This whole book is a work of art. Not only the story, but the ‘interactive’ nature of the text itself, which is full of drawings and scribblings and notes and maps, is wonderful. The story of T.S. Spivet (a prodigiously gifted twelve-year-old from Montana) as he journeys across the US to Washington, D.C. in order to collect a prize, is a gem. The edition I have is a large, oversized hardback, a real object in the hand, a weighty and precious thing, and I love it. Even if the story inside were nonsense (which it’s not) I would enjoy this book as a thing of beauty.

2. Tinder (Sally Gardner)

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

I have to admit that I haven’t read this book yet; it’s something I’m saving up for a treat, but I already know I’m going to love it. I had the pleasure of hearing David Roberts (the creator of this fabulous image, and also the art inside the book) speak about the process of bringing this cover to life at the recent CBI Conference in Dublin, and it was a joy to watch the different sketches of the cover art and how much sheer graft it took to get it right. This reproduction does the book no justice; it’s a sleek, handsome hardback with a beautiful texture and excellent paper quality – a real treasure.

The fact that I got David Roberts to sign my edition is icing on the cake.

3. Wildwood (Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis)

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

This is a huge, thick, handsome book too (I’m seeing a bit of a trend here), and the cover art – as well as the illustrations inside – are sumptuous. Colin Meloy is the author of this book and his wife, Carson Ellis, is the illustrator, which might explain why the book and the art are in such harmony. I had problems with the story itself (it’s rather overlong and somewhat overwritten in places) but one thing’s for sure – it’s a pretty thing, and the art is amazing. It’s the sort of illustration which shows you something new every time you look at it, and I love that.

4. Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (H. P. Lovecraft)

I have the Penguin edition of Call of Cthulhu and its cover art, a ‘simple’ line drawing which reminds me of a stately, portly gentleman being slowly eaten by a strange, octopus-like creature, caught my eye when I was looking for this book. You can get cheaper editions, and you can get less ornate editions, but I wanted this one not only for the cover art (which, for some reason, my blog won’t let me insert here – clearly, the power of the Old Ones remains strong), but also because of the rough-cut edges on the pages. It’s a gorgeous edition and, even though I may never read all the stories in it, I treasure it.

5. Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (Virago)

Image: rebloggy.com

Image: rebloggy.com

The contents of this book are the real treasure, but the whole thing is just beautiful. Another sumptuous hardback, it feels beautiful and is produced to a high standard, but it’s the cover – the font, the illustrations, the design and use of space – which really drew me. The stories in this book were originally published in two separate editions – The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Book 1 and Book 2 – and I had bought Book 1 and was on the lookout for Book 2 when I came across this. Even though it meant ‘re-buying’ Book 1, I couldn’t pass it. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, in every respect.

So, there you have it. What did you think of the Charlie cover? Did it offend or horrify you – or, were you like me and quietly pleased with it? What are your thoughts on cover art in general, and do you have favourite books based on their covers and/or illustrations?



Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com


Book Review Saturday – ‘Maggot Moon’

The first thing I’m going to say about ‘Maggot Moon’ is this: Do not read it in a public place.

Perhaps I should clarify that.

Public Announcement: Do not read Sally Gardner’s award-winning novel ‘Maggot Moon’ in a public place if you’re anything like me, and you get deeply emotionally affected by the books you read, and you’re prone to showing those emotions, viz. through displays of tearfulness, wailing and/or clutching your napkin to your face and sobbing into it.

I read ‘Maggot Moon’ in a café, and I’m probably barred from it for life as a result of my reaction to this book. I wept, my friends. I wept, in public. Am I sorry? Heck, no.

Image: thebookstheartandme.wordpress.com

Image: thebookstheartandme.wordpress.com

‘Maggot Moon’ is a gutsy, unashamed, powerful novel. Its dedication reads: ‘For you the dreamers, overlooked at school, never won prizes. You who will own tomorrow,‘ and that spirit of defiance and combativeness runs through the core of the story. This is a book about those who struggle, and those who make a stand against tyranny and evil, no matter what the personal cost. This is a book about bravery, family, friendship and love – and, most importantly, how not even the most brutal regime can crush these most precious and fragile things.

The book is narrated in the voice of Standish Treadwell, a fifteen-year-old boy with the reading and writing age of a child ten years younger. He is upfront about the fact that he cannot read or spell, that he sees the written world differently from everyone else, but this is far from being a ‘handicap’, or a drawback, for him. In fact, it is one of his greatest strengths. Standish has immersed himself in language, in the spoken word, and has a natural talent for understanding coded, indirect and hidden speech, even when the words he hears are spoken in another language. In his own words:

I may not be able to spell, but I have a huge vocabulary. I collect words – they are sweets in the mouth of sound. (Maggot Moon, p. 24)

His ability to understand spoken language propels him on his journey, and even saves his life. I loved Standish – the way he thinks, the way he speaks, the depth with which he loves, the courage behind the decisions he makes, and the loyal devotion to his family and friends, all make him a memorable and deeply affecting character.

Some of the phrases in this book are pure Standish – he says things like ‘hare’s breath’ when most people would say ‘hair’s breadth’, or ‘glad drags’ when the more usual way of saying it would be ‘glad rags’; reading his unique take on language made the hairs stand up all over my body. His voice opened up language for me, creating worlds within words and making me see things in a completely different way. It’s a thrilling experience, going along with Standish on his adventure – his unique language and phraseology re-makes the world for the reader, making everything seem slightly off-kilter – and, of course, this is not just for effect. Standish navigates his own world in this same slightly off-kilter way; he is different in a world where being different is a death sentence. We feel his alienation and his sense of being oppressed through the way he uses language as much as through the way he describes his life at school, his treatment at the hands of bullies and cruel teachers, and the gradual picture he builds up for us of the country he lives in, and the regime he exists under.

Many images of oppression in this book are chillingly familiar. The story is set in 1956, but it’s not the 1956 we’re familiar with. It’s an alternative vision, a world we could have lived in. A totalitarian regime is in place, with those loyal to ‘the Motherland’ in charge; salutes and jackboots are the order of the day. Physical violence is common – not only does Standish receive beatings, but there is a terrifying – and stomach-churning – scene near the middle of the book when a teacher takes out his frustration on a student, to horrifying effect. This is not a world which rewards the weak. The Motherland is about to launch a rocket into space, designed to colonise the moon and place a weapon on its surface, from whence to launch an attack upon her enemies; the Obstructors, or underground resistance movement, are doing their best to subvert it. People who show any form of non-compliance (including Standish’s parents) are regularly ‘removed’, and anyone who does not help to spread the Motherland’s propaganda is considered a dissenter. Life struggles on in the midst of all this horror – children go to school to be taught noxious lies and to be brutalised by their instructors; adults try to scrape together a living, nobody trusting anyone else, and the Motherland pushes forward with its military regime at the cost of its citizens’ lives. The world of ‘Maggot Moon’ is not our world, but it is all too easy to imagine.

Standish lives with his grandfather, and befriends Hector Lush, a young boy who, along with his parents, moves in to the house next door. The relationship between the two boys, including their plan to build their own spaceship and discover their own planet where they can live in peace, and their attempts to find a normal space in which to live, and simply be, without fear or pain, is one of the sparks behind the story; the Motherland does not permit the sort of loyalty and affection that Standish has for Hector and the other members of his small family, and so the stage is set for a showdown. As the story progresses we learn that not only are Mr and Mrs Lush not what they seem, but neither is Gramps, Standish’s brave and resourceful grandfather, and when the boys end up embroiled in a conspiracy that goes to the heart of what the Motherland is all about, they receive help from the most unexpected places.

It’s difficult to do a review of this book without giving too much away. Suffice to say that a point is reached at which Standish has had enough of the lies he is being fed, and he makes a decision which will impact not only his own life, but the lives of everyone. He is willing to sacrifice all that he is for the sake of love and family and truth, and when you read this book you’ll know which scene tipped me over the edge into full-on blub mode. I defy anyone to read it and not weep, for the sheer beauty that is Standish Treadwell is not often found in literature, and even less in life.

This is a book to read and treasure, to recommend and pass on, to remember. It is a book to celebrate. Read it, and read it, and read it again.

Happy Saturday! What are you going to read today?