Tag Archives: siblings

A Soul Timid, but not Meek

I am frightened by the Devil,
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid…

Image: michaelyung.com

Image: michaelyung.com

Joni Mitchell is a huge hero of mine. I’ve been in love with her music for as long as I’ve had ears (so, quite a long time now), and the lyric above – from ‘A Case of You’, on the majestic album ‘Blue’ – is probably my favourite of her songs. I’m not sure, exactly, why I love this particular set of lines so much; perhaps it’s because it says, to me, that being afraid is perfectly all right – so long as you don’t lose your curiosity, too. It’s natural to be scared of some things, but shutting your mind off from those things forever, without admitting even a thought which relates to them, is bad news.


That’s the thing with song lyrics, I guess. They mean different things to different people.

I’m a fearful type, by nature. Anxious, a worrywart, ‘worst-case-scenario’. If I were a fairytale character, I’d be Chicken Little.

Image: capstoneyoungreaders.com

Image: capstoneyoungreaders.com

I’m afraid of lots of things, some of them rational and some of them (all right, most of them) not. I’m a quietly controlled hypochondriac. I have a lot of sympathy for the guys who stand on street corners wearing ‘The End is Nigh!’ sandwich boards. I’ve often wondered if it comes from my interest in the Middle Ages – those guys lived, teetering, on the edge of instant annihilation for centuries, too. They were convinced, with every passing generation, that this would be the one. This would be the era in which Christ would come again and perform the final Judgement. Millenarianism was de rigueur.

But perhaps that was hope, more than fear. I think there was a bit of both mixed up in there. And maybe that’s a defining characteristic of fear – a tiny, tiny shard of desire mixed into the terror makes it all the more terrifying.

I’m thinking about all this because a close family member is jetting off in a few days to spend several months abroad. While there she plans to gain a qualification in something she hopes will lead to an exciting career, and I’m sure she’ll be successful. As well as that, no doubt she’ll have adventures and experiences which will leave long-lasting memories, and she will do things that I would not do, and things that I could not do, because I would be far too afraid to even try.

But there’s a little spark, deep inside me, which wishes I could just get over myself for long enough to give it a go. A tiny spark, now. Barely there at all, really. But there, all the same.

This woman – the adventurer – has already had a year abroad in which she did death-defying things, with every indication that she was having the time of her life. Fear didn’t seem to come into it, for her. It was all about the exhilaration, the joy, the celebration of what her body was capable of. I have cousins who, when they were children, were like chalk and cheese when it came to facing their fears. One of them would throw herself at any challenge, totally uncaring of how much she could hurt herself if it all went wrong, and another who was stiff and awkward and afraid. The second child would give everything a try, as far as she was able, but would end up causing herself an injury because her fear would get in her way. The first child was lithe and fluid and free – due to her fearlessness, as well as a natural athleticism – and never suffered any physical damage from her exploits.

I think the second child, the fearful one, took after me. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we are both oldest children, and statistically likely to be more cautious and less adventurous than the siblings who come after us.

There are different types of fear, for sure. I have faced plenty of my own personal fears – public speaking, standing up for things I believed in even when I was sure it would spell disaster for me, tackling academic challenges that I felt sure were beyond me – and I came through them all reasonably unscathed. It’s when it comes to physical things, like sport or heights or speed, that my terror overwhelms any desire I might have to take part. Things that would horrify other people are no bother to me, and things that others would do without a second thought are so far beyond my level of ability that I can’t even imagine doing them. I have a friend who lives right by a massive motorway junction just outside Dublin, and she drives around it with carefree abandon – and she always did so, even when she was new to the area. She doesn’t drive dangerously – in fact, she drives far more safely due to the fact that this particular snarled-up collection of high-speed traffic lanes doesn’t make her blood run cold, as it would mine – and she has never come even close to having an accident, thank goodness. If I had to do that drive, I’d cause a multi-car pileup within five seconds, and I know it.

But I’d love to be able to do what she does. I admire her for it. I just know I never will.

Perhaps the world needs all types of fearlessness, both the risk-taking type and the emotional type. I have lived long enough to know who I am, and to be aware that I have limitations, and to give myself a break when it comes to respecting those limitations. I have the desire to be an adventurer, but the flesh is weak.

But I can write about those who are fearless, and use my own tiny sparks of curiosity – my own sense of ‘being drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid’ – to fill in the blanks when it comes to creating characters who aren’t fearful of heights, or the dark, or of throwing off the shackles of the everyday and setting off on an adventure across the world with no real plan of how to get home.

Perhaps my own fearfulness will lead me to create better characters, even. Let’s hope so, at least. It has to be good for something – right?

Image: hybridtechcar.com

Image: hybridtechcar.com


Book Review Saturday: ‘The Spindlers’

I hope it’s a bright and beautiful Saturday where you are; if not, then maybe this review will bring a bit of sunshine into your life.

Today, I’ll be talking about Lauren Oliver’s beautiful book ‘The Spindlers’.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Ms. Oliver is a noted author of both children’s and YA novels, though I have yet to read any of her books for older readers. I’ve been wanting to pick up some of her work for a while now, and when I saw the beautiful cover art on ‘The Spindlers’, I knew it was coming home with me. Plus, the story is about a young girl who braves the terrors of the underworld to rescue her little brother’s soul – what more could any book promise?

Lauren Oliver’s book not only promises much, but it delivers too. I really enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’, and if you sit tight and behave, I’ll tell you why.

Ready? Okay.

So. ‘The Spindlers’ introduces us to Liza Elston and her younger brother Patrick, who live with their parents in a normal house on a normal street in a normal town. Their parents are loving and kind, but also stressed and overworked and tired and have little time to play or have fun anymore. The kids’ beloved babysitter Anna has just gone off to college, and they both miss her terribly; they talk about her to one another and they remember her as being fun, a teller of great stories and an inventor of brilliant games – but, most importantly, she has always given them excellent advice about the nastier things in life, things that lurk in the dark and which want to steal away children’s souls. Following her directions to the letter, the children stay safe for a very long time, but then one day Patrick forgets to take precautions, and he’s claimed by the fearsome Spindlers… and so our tale begins.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t actually appear in the book, Anna is one of its most important characters. Her wisdom and love for Liza and Patrick shine through the whole thing, and at times of crisis Liza remembers the lessons taught to her not only by her parents but also by Anna, and it’s actually Anna, who (somehow) has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world Below who gives Liza the most help on her quest. It’s not even important that we don’t find out how, and why, Anna is so knowledgeable about the other world; she’s like a good witch, or a fairy godmother. She gives love and advice and guidance, expecting nothing in return, and even in her absence she is a force for good. Liza, too, is a wonderful character – strong and brave and intelligent, she knows straight away that her brother’s soul has been taken by the terrible Spindlers, creatures who are half-spider and half-human, and who are so awful that they’re feared even by the other creatures who live in the underworld. She is not fooled by the fact that a changeling is left in Patrick’s place, a being which moves and looks and sounds like her brother – she knows it’s not him, and she knows what she has to do to save him.

Having found the entrance to the underworld, she meets a huge variety of strange and wonderful creatures, including a rat who wears a wig (as well as rouge and lipstick) who acts as her unofficial guide; troglods, little brown, scuttling creatures who buy and sell all those objects humans ‘lose’ in the world Above and which somehow find their way Below; scawgs, shapechanging horrors who try to lure you in by tempting you with gorgeous food that makes you hungrier the more you eat of it, and the beautifully described nocturni, or dream-bringers, of which every soul has one, paired together for all eternity. The journey itself is reminiscent of a lot of quest narratives – a guide is found, trust is built up between them (but is it misplaced?), tests are encountered, terror is faced up to, threats which are mentioned in passing end up becoming horrifying reality, and the rules of the otherworld are broken by the intruding human to interesting narrative effect. The gradual building up of the relationship between Liza and Mirabella (her rouge-wearing rat guide) is wonderfully done – the initial disgust and mistrust between them slowly warming into friendship before hitting a seemingly insurmountable barrier – and the complicated feelings Liza has for her little brother are realistically, and touchingly, described. The feats of imagination on the part of the author are wonderful, particularly with regard to the nocturni, which are truly beautiful creations.

Liza must face a test near the end of the book, a test which has three parts. The last part sees her tempted by a ‘perfect’ family, one who promises to love and treasure her, to pay her attention and play with her. They tell her they’re better than her family Above, who are too busy and too stressed and preoccupied by bills and jobs and problems to take proper care of her. In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s masterful ‘Coraline’, in which the Other Mother tempts Coraline to stay with her for much the same reason; of course, our heroines in both cases see through this temptation, and realise how much they love their own families in the process. Another theme I relished in this book is one of justice vs injustice, a topic which was close to my heart as a youngster – Liza is unfairly judged by the Court of Stones on her way through the underworld, and then near the end of the book the Spindler Queen does not keep her part of a bargain – and the sense of rage and unfairness is deftly handled. Not only does it serve to underline the evil of Liza’s enemies, but it also drives the reader to empathise even more with her desperate plight.

Some of the ideas in this book will be familiar and dearly-loved territory to readers, like me, who love mythology and are interested in story structure and motifs; even if you’re not a nerd like me, though, the book is beautiful. What makes it so especially lovely is Ms. Oliver’s use of language; her imagery sparkles at times and she doesn’t dumb down her vocabulary or descriptive touches. I really like that in a children’s author – a person who’s not afraid to stretch young readers with long and delicious words is, to my mind, a good children’s author.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’ – there’s enough terror and peril there to keep even the most bloodthirsty reader happy, and there’s enough wonder and beauty there to charm the rest. As well as that, the over-arching themes – loyalty, love, bravery, facing up to challenges, digging deep within yourself for strength you didn’t even know was there – are delightful. I’d recommend this book if you know any 8/9+ readers in search of a gripping story, and I challenge you not to dip in and have a read yourself…

Happy Saturday! Enjoy, relax, put your feet up and read.

Image: learn.esu10.org

Image: learn.esu10.org

Old Haunts

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a surprise birthday party for a man who has been a loyal and affectionate friend to my parents for many years. This man, and his lovely wife, met my parents when they were all on honeymoon – the two couples happened to choose the same hotel, and bonded over their shared ‘Irish abroad’ status – and they have been inseparable friends ever since. Growing up, they seemed to my brother and I more like an extra aunt and uncle than ‘mere’ family friends, and they are a deeply loved branch of the family at this stage.

On our way to the hotel in which we were spending the night of the party, my husband and I drove through landscapes tightly woven with my memories of childhood. My brother and I spent so many summers staying with our parents’ friends and their two children, who were – more or less – the same age as we were, and all those sunny, happy days came back to me as we drove down streets that I would once have known like the back of my hand. In my first year at university, I stayed in our friends’ house, walking about two miles every morning to catch the bus to college (and, crucially, two miles back in the evening, when it was dark, or rainy, or I’d perhaps been at the student bar…); as we drove along the same road I used to walk, I could almost see myself striding along, ready to welcome my new, adult life. I wondered what the ‘me’ of my early adulthood would think of the ‘me’ of today. I hope she’d be proud.

The day after the party, we called down to our friends’ house and took a wander through their estate (or ‘neighbourhood’, I suppose, for my North American friends!) It was almost overwhelming to feel the onrush of memories, the swell of happy childhood days well spent, and the more stressful and (at times) upsetting days of my early college life. I realised how so much of what I remembered from that time has changed, while at the same time the shadows of streets and houses I remember are still there, like ghosts.

We walked through a huge field that I spent so many hours exploring with my brother and our two friends, both of whom are grown men with children of their own now; it was wonderful to be able to set foot in it again with my husband, linking the two halves of my life so neatly and securely. There used to be wonderfully exciting rock formations in that field when we were young – which, of course, became battlements and castles and forts and impregnable cliffs in our imaginations – and sadly, these have long been removed now, but the trees we used to play around are still there. I walked past a row of these huge trees, looking at the mounds of earth around their roots, up and down which I would trundle, carefully, on a borrowed and unfamiliar bike as a little girl. They seemed so huge to me then; I could step over them, now. I was so happy to see that not only are the trees, and the field, still there, but that someone has planted new trees, too – future generations of children will be able to play as we did in that very same field.

My only regret, really, from the weekend was that my brother wasn’t able to be there with me. He had to work, and I wish he’d been able to share these memories with me. But, hopefully, there’ll be another chance to do that.

I looked around at my family and friends as we celebrated together this past weekend, marking the life and birthday of a man who is so dearly loved by all of us, and realised again that ‘this is what life is all about.’ Life’s not about money, or status, or objects, or possessions, or who has the biggest car or the biggest house. Life is – or, perhaps, should be – about weekends like the one I just spent, laughing and talking and spending time with the people you love. I’m privileged to have so many people who love me, and I hope I’ll always remember how important this realisation is.

I hope you all had lovely weekends, too, and if – as is the case in Ireland – today is a day off for you, I hope you spend it well, doing something you’ll be happy to remember in years to come. Happy New Week!

Image: regreenspringfield.com

Image: regreenspringfield.com

Shall We Do a Book Review?

It’s Saturday, and it’s a wonderfully sunny day, and I’m feeling mellow. It’s the perfect day to write about some of the books I’ve read recently, I think. I haven’t managed to read as many as I’d like, but every word read is better than nothing, of course.

The other day, I read ‘The London Eye Mystery’ by the wonderful, and much missed, Siobhan Dowd. Her early death in 2007 truly robbed the world of children’s literature of one of its most talented writers. I’ve read and loved her other books (‘A Swift Pure Cry’ and ‘Bog Child’), and also ‘A Monster Calls’, written by Patrick Ness, based on an idea which Ms. Dowd had developed just before her death. I bought this latter book in hardback the second it was published, because I couldn’t possibly expect myself to wait for the paperback, and I’m so glad I made that decision. As well as being an amazing piece of writing, the book itself is a work of art.I thoroughly recommend all of Siobhan Dowd’s books, and perhaps I’ll come back to talk about them all in a future blog post.

Image: trappedbymonsters.com

Image: trappedbymonsters.com

‘The London Eye Mystery’ was a wonderful piece of storytelling. It introduces us to Ted and his sister Kat, who live in London with their parents. Kat is older than Ted, and tends to be bossy and sarcastic (as older sisters are – I am one, so I know!), but underneath all that she cares deeply about her brother and when he needs her, she’s behind him all the way. Ted, a young boy obsessed with the weather, who wants to be a meteorologist when he grows up and who listens to the shipping forecast on the radio at night when he can’t sleep, is a deeply engaging character. He is compulsive, he has rituals and routines, he thinks extremely logically, he (touchingly) describes how he can’t read facial expressions and how he struggles to understand body language and non-direct speech, and throughout he mentions his ‘syndrome’ without ever telling us exactly what it is. Of course, we don’t need to know exactly what it is; Ted is Ted, and I loved him just as he is. The family is depicted realistically, with all the stresses and strains that come with modern living; they love one another and are closely united, but their home is not always tranquil. The London in which they live is no idealised wonderland, either – the author shows us, in a clear but age-appropriate way, the issues of poverty, drug abuse, mental illness and crime that blight any big city, and in fact these themes have a central (if, perhaps, oblique) role to play in the book.

The story begins with Ted and Kat’s aunt Gloria, and her son Salim, coming to stay with the family for a few days before they emigrate to New York for Aunt Gloria’s work. Salim, who has grown up in Manchester and who has a fascination with tall buildings, has never ridden on the London Eye before, and so the family decide to bring him there to give him that opportunity. All the way through the trip to the Eye, Ted notices things that he thinks are strange, including the frequency of the phone calls Salim receives, and the secrecy with which he conducts his conversations, but he’s not sure what it all means. While the children are in the queue to buy tickets for the London Eye, they’re approached by a man who offers them one free ticket, and they decide Salim should have it. So, at just after 11.30 a.m. Salim boards the London Eye – but he doesn’t get off when the ride is over.

Using photographs, deduction and Ted’s brilliantly logical thinking, the children try to work out what happened to Salim. Ted comes up with eight (later, nine) theories, which they systematically work through, discounting them one at a time after experimentation has shown them to be false. Ted quotes Sherlock Holmes at one point: if, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth; using this logic, he eventually works out what must have happened. The author skilfully throws us a few ‘red herrings’, and even near the end when it seems as though the mystery has been unravelled, it takes Ted and another inspired leap of logic to finally bring the story to a close. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, despite the fact that I’d worked out where Salim was before it was unveiled. Despite this, I would never have worked out how he managed to go up the London Eye and not come down again – Ted left me in the shade on that score! The means Ted uses to find his cousin, the insights into his thinking process, the descriptions of the family and their interactions – particularly between Gloria and her sister Faith, who is the mother of Kat and Ted – and the growing sense of desperation as time keeps ticking by without Salim being found, mean this is a tense, tightly plotted, dynamic and exciting story with a deep emotional heart. So, it’s just like all of Dowd’s work, really. If you’ve never read Siobhan Dowd, I think you really should. Not only are the stories excellent, but the royalties from sales go towards the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which she set up in the months before her death to aid literacy among underprivileged children. What could be more meaningful than that?

So, typically, I’ve gone on so long that I have no room left to talk about the other books I’ve recently read: ‘Wildwood’ (Colin Meloy, ill. Carson Ellis), ‘Crewel’ (Gennifer Albin), ‘Level 2’ (Lenore Appelhans), ‘The Wormwood Gate’ (Katherine Farmar), and the one I’m currently reading, ‘Robopocalypse’ (Daniel H. Wilson). Thoughts on those will have to wait for another blog post!

Have a great Saturday.

The wonderful Siobhan Dowd. Image: randomhouse.com

The wonderful Siobhan Dowd.
Image: randomhouse.com