Monday, December 16, 2013

MMGM: A trip to Wales

Entering read-a-thons is probably not a good idea for me. It's not like I need any more encouragement to spend all my waking hours with my nose in a book!

I've now finished the five books of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence (for the umpteenth time, I might add), and I can confidently recommend them to anyone with an interest in High Magic and the ancient battle between Light and Dark. If you like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Philip Pullman, Madeleine L'Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin--Susan Cooper stands right up there with them, weaving bits of Welsh and Arthurian myth with her own version of the eternal struggle, all planted firmly in real landscapes of the British Isles. (My last post has more descriptions of the five books of the series.)

I had the additional fun on this read-through of using Google Earth to trace the protagonists' journeys through Wales. Search for Aberdovey, Wales, when you're reading Silver on the Tree, for example, and you can find the Bearded Lake on the hillside above it (follow Panorama Walk). You can even use Streetview to see the view of Happy Valley that Jane, Simon and Barnaby saw, and get some images of the estuary at the mouth of the river, where Will and Bran come back from the Lost Land.

I also have some pictures from my own trip to Wales several years ago (which unfortunately wasn't long enough for me to visit all the places Cooper mentions). There are three pics in my previous post, and here are two more. This is Llyn Mwyngil, the 'pleasant lake' where the Sleepers lie in The Grey King. The first picture is looking across the lake at the slopes of Cader Idris; Will Stanton stood somewhere up there to play the harp that woke the Sleepers. The second picture is looking down the lake toward Tal-y-Lyn pass (green slopes of Cader Idris on the left)(and I'm sure that's one of the Light's swans):

If you're enamoured of all things Welsh, you can round out your reading experience with another classic kids' fantasy series: Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. Based on the tales of the Mabinogion, the five short novels tell the story of Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and his motley group of friends who must fight against Arawn, Lord of Death. I adored these books when I was a kid. Taran is one of the most accessible epic heroes: he tries so hard and falls flat on his face so often! (I think I found him a true kindred spirit.) I haven't reread these in a while; think they might be my next readathon.

If the Hobbit movie has got you in an epic fantasy mood, Cooper and Alexander are some of the originals of the genre. (I find it funny that people say Alexander was ripping off Tolkien: truth is they were both ripping off mythology!)

For more great Middle-grade picks, check out Shannon Messenger's slate of marvelous bloggers.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Dark Is Rising 40th Anniversary Readathon

Well, this one is a no-brainer for me! Thanks to Kristen over at We Be Reading for pointing me toward Danny Whittaker's Readathon. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence is an old favourite. I've reread it multiple times, but it's been a few years. (40th anniversary, huh? I'm not going to say that I'm starting to feel old, but . . .)

I'm a few days late for the start, but I'm sure I can catch up! If any of you have missed out on this seminal fantasy series, now's a great time to amend that distressing gap in your reading history. (There are a number of different editions, and I can't say I love any of the covers, but I have a particular fondness for the Penguin Over Sea, Under Stone and the Collier Greenwich, illustrated below. I think they captured Merriman and the Greenwitch particularly well.)

First, you'll meet Simon, Jane, and Barnaby Drew, children on vacation in a Cornwall village with their Great Uncle Merriman Lyon. They discover an old map in the attic, and it soon becomes apparent that this map leads to something of great importance, if they can only decipher it . . . That's Over Sea, Under Stone.

Then in The Dark is Rising you'll meet Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son. And you'll find out who Merriman Lyon really is.

Don't worry, the Drew children come back in the third book, Greenwitch, and show up for the climax of the battle between Light and Dark in Silver on the Tree, along with the mysterious boy Bran, whom Will meets in The Grey King. There may or may not be references to King Arthur, here and there about the series, and lots of real places in Britain and Wales with real historical or mythical associations.

Here, for example, is Cader Idris, home of the Grey King:

And nestled at its feet (you can sort of see the lake in the picture above, if you look closely) is Llyn Cau:

And this is the breath of the Grey King: a sudden fog rushing up the mountainside. She did not make this up:

When I found out these were real places, I rearranged my trip to Wales so that I could hike up and take these photos. Just for you!

Now you have to go read the books!

(Okay, I hadn't actually started blogging when I went to Wales. So maybe I didn't take the pictures just for you. But now you have them! So you still have to read the books.)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Northward to the Moon, by Polly Horvath

I've been a Polly Horvath fan since I picked up Everything on a Waffle purely for its title and fell in love with her quirky characters, deadpan humour and off-the-wall philosophy. Northward to the Moon is a sequel to My One Hundred Adventures (my review here).  Adventures is a complete story unto itself, but now we get to find out what happened next to Jane and her unusual family.

Jane's dreamy poet of a mother has never identified the fathers of her four children; she may not even know who they are; but Ned is a definite possibility for at least one of them, and at the end of My One Hundred Adventures he has decided to take responsibility for the family. They move to Saskatchewan where Ned takes up a position teaching French. At the beginning of Northward to the Moon we learn:
Our family lasted almost one year in Saskatchewan. It took the town that long to figure out that Ned didn't speak any French.
Jane is thrilled to be on the road again seeking adventures. Ned takes her and her mother and siblings along a trail of clues from Ned's past to northern BC, Las Vegas and a horse ranch in Nevada.
It occurs to me how Ned and I wanted to be outlaws and here we are, in the American West, in the high desert. We are escaping who knows what with a bunch of money from who knows where. Do things happen because you want them to? Can you create your life and adventures by imagining them?
Ned ends up with a bag of possibly ill-gotten cash from his brother that he doesn't know what to do with. He is reunited with his mother and sisters and gets stuck caring for his mother when she gets injured. Jane is tangled up in these adult affairs and yet powerless to affect them. She gets a crush on a ranch hand and tries to figure out why her sister is so depressed. She thinks adventure and excitement are everything she wants from life, but maybe it would be nice just to go home.

Jane as the innocent narrator has a hilariously accurate perception of the adults around her. I found myself laughing with Jane at the same time as I felt horrified by how irresponsible everyone was. Northward to the Moon is more bittersweet than One Hundred Adventures: it's an elegy about families and how they fail. It's also about how they succeed despite all the ways they fail. Jane has a resilient spirit, and people do come through for each other. I found this book less funny and more troubling than the first one, but I never wanted to put it down. And I really, really hope there is a sequel.

For fans of Sharon Creech, Katherine Paterson and Kit Pearson. Cornbread with maple syrup. Or with baked beans. Or both.

For more Middle-Grade reads, check out Shannon Messenger's great weekly meme, Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday. And for more Canadian books, head over to John Mutford's blog.