I’m afraid I did not like this at all. In fact, it was the first FMK book that I didn’t finish—I ditched it at about the halfway mark. And it’s a very short book, too: 133 pages.

Gabriel is a mason’s apprentice in medieval England. The mason is cruel, so when a troupe of traveling Mystery players comes to town, Gabriel is delighted to briefly escape his wretched life by watching the play. Then, when the mason sadistically tries to chop off his giant mop of beautiful blonde curls that Gabriel’s lost mother told him to never cut, Gabriel flees and is taken in by the players, who whisk him away and cast him as an angel.

Gabriel assumes the man playing God is wonderful and the man playing Lucifer is terrible. But no! Garvey, who plays God, uses Gabriel to create fake, exploitative “healing” miracles which he convinces Gabriel are real. Lucie (Lucifer) is unhappy about this, but that only makes Gabriel think he must be bad.

I have no idea how old Gabriel was supposed to be. At the beginning I assumed he was around twelve, but later I decided he must be closer to ten because he was so stupid and naïve. Then he got even stupider and I wondered if he could possibly be seven or eight, or if that was way too young to be an apprentice mason. Not that young children are stupid, but the less you know about the world, the more likely you are to take everything at 100% face value, as Gabriel does.

In a totally unsurprising turn of events, Gabriel is eventually shocked to learn that people are different from the roles they play. This is exactly as anvillicious as it sounds. And while I often love books in which the reader knows more than the characters, I like it when the reason is that the characters are not privy to information or context that the reader knows, not because the characters are too stupid to pick up on incredibly obvious stuff. I don’t mean to call characters with cognitive disabilities stupid, as “intellectually disabled character fails to understand what’s going on” is a well-populated subgenre. (Which I also dislike.) I’m referring to non-disabled characters who are oblivious because they just are.

It's not that I think a child has to be stupid to be tricked by adults. Even a very bright child (or adult) could be fooled into thinking they're a miracle-worker by a clever con man. It's that the way it's written, from Gabriel's POV, makes him seem like a total idiot.

However, that’s not why I gave up on the book. The reason was the incredibly unpleasant emotional atmosphere: Gabriel smugly stupid, Garvey and the mason smugly awful, Lucie and his daughter sadly suffering (with a side of smugness, because they know the real deal.) I disliked the lot of them and did not want to be around any of them. Which is too bad, because I liked the backdrop of medieval Mystery players a lot.

The prose was good, but not good enough to make me keep reading. However, it won the Whitbread award, so my opinion may be very much in the minority.

A Little Lower Than the Angels
Poll #18480 FMK: Mostly Award-Winning British children's books
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 38


Kit's Wilderness, by David Almond. Kit's family moves to an old mining town, where he and another boy search the mines for the ghosts of their ancestors. Might be fantasy? Won the Printz Award.

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Fling
15 (44.1%)

Marry
10 (29.4%)

Kill
9 (26.5%)

Bottle Boy, by Stephen Elboz. An amnesiac boy and his brother are trapped in a life of crime. Author won the Smarties Prize but not for this book.

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Fling
10 (32.3%)

Marry
5 (16.1%)

Kill
16 (51.6%)

River Boy, by Tim Bowler. Jess's probably-dying grandfather is trying to finish one last painting; Jess meets a boy who might be the one from the painting. Possibly fantasy? Won the Carnegie Award.

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Fling
11 (36.7%)

Marry
7 (23.3%)

Kill
12 (40.0%)

Ghost in the Water, by Edward Chitham. Teresa and David find a gravestone from 1860 labeled "Innocent of all Harm" and find that the dead girl's life is mysteriously linked with theirs. Filmed by BBC.

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Fling
18 (54.5%)

Marry
7 (21.2%)

Kill
8 (24.2%)

A Little Lower Than The Angels, by Geraldine McCaughrean. A medieval boy joins a theatre troupe. Whitbread Best Book of the Year.

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Fling
18 (52.9%)

Marry
13 (38.2%)

Kill
3 (8.8%)

Stone Cold, by Robert Swindells. A homeless boy in London gets caught up in a mystery of disappearing street kids. Carnegie Medal

View Answers

Fling
15 (46.9%)

Marry
8 (25.0%)

Kill
9 (28.1%)



I have never read anything by any of these authors, and in most cases have only heard of them in the sense that I own one of their books. Anyone familiar with any of them?
The winner of FMK # 1! Alas, I did not fall madly in love with it, but I did enjoy it. FMK is definitely off to a good start, because God knows how long that book has languished unread on my shelves. I'm pretty sure at least five years and possibly ten. But I'm very glad I finally got to it.

Twelve-year-old Lucy returns to the small English village of Hagworthy, which she hasn’t visited since she was seven. There she stays with her aunt, reconnects with some childhood friends and finds that both she and they have changed, and looks on in growing alarm as the well-meaning but ignorant new vicar resurrects the ancient tradition of the Horn Dance, which is connected to the Wild Hunt.

The premise plus the opening sentences probably tell you everything you need to know about the book:

The train had stopped in a cutting, so steep that Lucy, staring through the window, could see the grassy slopes beyond captured in intense detail only a yard or two away: flowers, insects, patches of vivid red earth. She became intimate with this miniature landscape, alone with it in a sudden silence, and then the train jolted, oozed steam from somewhere beneath, and moved on between shoulders of Somerset hillside.

This is one of my favorite genres which sadly does not seem to exist any more, the subset of British children’s fantasy, usually set in small towns or villages, which focuses on atmosphere, beautiful prose, and capturing delicate moments in time. Character is secondary, plot is tertiary, and there may be very little action (though some have a lot); the magical aspects are often connected to folklore or ancient traditions, and may be subtle or questionable until the end.

You can see all those elements in those two sentences I quoted; the entire subgenre consists of inviting the reader to become intimate with minature landscapes.

This is obviously subjective and debatable, but I think of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper (especially Greenwitch), and Robert Westall as writers with books in this subgenre, but not Diana Wynne Jones. The settings are the sort parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. Hagworthy is full of darkly muttering villagers who kept making me think, “Beware, Robert Poste’s child!”

In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Lucy’s parents are divorced, and her mother is now living in another country with a baby brother Lucy has never met. This is mentioned maybe two or three times, very briefly, which is interesting because so many books would make a much bigger deal of it. Lucy returns to Hagworthy for a vacation with her aunt, a botanist.

Of her childhood friends, the two girls have become horse-mad and have nothing in common with Lucy. The boy, Kester, is now a moody misfit teenager, and Lucy, who is also a bit of a moody misfit, becomes friends with him all over again. They wander around the countryside, fossil-hunting and stag-watching, periodically getting in fights over Kester’s refusal to discuss the thing hanging over the story, which is the new vicar’s revival of the Horn Dance to fundraise at a fete. This is very obviously going to awaken the Wild Hunt, and Kester has clearly been mystically targeted as its victim. Though there is a ton of dark muttering about what a bad idea this is, no one does anything about this until nearly the end, when Lucy finally makes first a misfired attempt to stop the Horn Dance, then a successful one to save Kester.

The atmosphere and prose is lovely, and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this book. Even for a book that isn’t really about the plot, the plot had problems. One was the total failure of any adult to even try to do anything sensible ever, for absolutely no reason, until Lucy finally manages to ask the right person the right question. This could have been explained as some magical thing preventing them from acting, but it wasn’t.

The other problem I had was that nothing unpredictable ever happens. Everyone is exactly what they seem: the blacksmith has mystical knowledge, the vicar is an innocent in over his head, the horse-mad girls have nothing in their heads but horses, and so forth. I kept expecting something to be slightly less obvious—for the vicar to know exactly what he’s doing and have a nefarious purpose, for the horse-mad girls to not be as dumb as they seem or to have their horsey skills play a role in saving Kester, for Lucy’s aunt to know more about magic than the blacksmith, etc—but no.

I looked up Penelope Lively. It looks like her famous book is Ghost of Thomas Kempe, which I think I also own.

There’s an album of music based on the book which you can listen to online. It’s by the Heartwood Institute, and is instrumental and atmospheric.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy
[personal profile] melannen has been culling her bookshelves by playing "Fuck Marry Kill" via poll. In the interests of doing the same, and also getting back to posting more book reviews, I have decided to join her. (I am doing "fling" rather than "fuck" just because my posts get transferred to Goodreads and I don't want EVERY post of mine on there littered with fucks.)

How to play: Fling means I spend a single night of passion (or possibly passionate hatred) with the book, and write a review of it, or however much of it I managed to read. Marry means the book goes back on my shelves, to wait for me to get around to it. (That could be a very long time.) Kill means I should donate it without attempting to read it. You don't have to have read or previously heard of the books to vote on them.

Please feel free to explain your reasoning for your votes in comments. For this particular poll, I have never read anything by any of the authors (or if I did, I don't remember it) and except for Hoover and Lively, have never even heard of the authors other than that at some point I apparently thought their book sounded interesting enough to acquire.

Poll #18415 FMK: Vintage YA/children's SFF
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 50


The Spring on the Mountain, by Judy Allen. Three kids have magical, possibly Arthurian adventures on a week in the country.

View Answers

Fling
19 (48.7%)

Marry
10 (25.6%)

Kill
10 (25.6%)

The Lost Star, by H. M. Hoover. A girl who lives on another planet hears an underground cry for help (and finds chubby gray cat centaurs if the cover is accurate)

View Answers

Fling
22 (53.7%)

Marry
13 (31.7%)

Kill
6 (14.6%)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, by Penelope Lively. Lucy visits her aunt in Hagworthy and is embroiled in the ancient Horn Dance and Wild Hunt.

View Answers

Fling
27 (61.4%)

Marry
6 (13.6%)

Kill
11 (25.0%)

Carabas, by Sophie Masson. Looks like a medieval setting. A shapeshifting girl gets accused of being a witch and runs off with the miller's son.

View Answers

Fling
19 (46.3%)

Marry
12 (29.3%)

Kill
10 (24.4%)

Of Two Minds, by Carol Mates and Perry Nodelman. Princess Lenora can makes what she imagines real; Prince Coren can read minds, but everyone can read his mind. (Ouch!)

View Answers

Fling
22 (52.4%)

Marry
11 (26.2%)

Kill
9 (21.4%)

This was one of my favorite books of last year, and I have no idea how to review it.

It's best read entirely unspoiled, but it contains some elements that 1) I would normally warn people about, 2) might not be dealbreakers for people for whom they normally are, due to spoilery reasons, 3) even saying what they are is going to be either spoilery or misleading, 4) but I actually do want to warn people because they really are disturbing, but then the book goes in a completely different direction after that.

Also, most of what I liked about the book is extremely spoilery, but a lot of what made it so enjoyable was that I wasn't expecting it. I can say what happens in the first fourth or so, but again, the first fourth is really different in both tone and content from the rest of the book. ARRGH.

Okay, so, the book contains creepy body horror and a really disturbing (non-sexual) scene of a parent attempting to harm their child. There is an in-book reason for both that may or may not mean that readers who normally wouldn't touch a book containing such things would actually be OK with them in-context. The child is not actually harmed (though scared and upset) and the rest of the book is not disturbing at all, or at least it wasn't for me. Effectively, there is a genre-switch about a fourth of the way in. It starts as a mystery, quickly goes to horror, and then goes somewhere else entirely that is definitely not horror (though it has elements of… um… spookiness, I guess.) Also, it is almost entirely about women and girls and their relationships; there are important male characters, but they're secondary.

Setting is 1920s, post-WWI; I don't recall if we get an exact date, but the time period, like basically everything else in the book, initially looks like a colorful detail but turns out to be crucially important. 11-year-old Triss falls into the river and gets sick. She's sickly in general, so this isn't new; what is new is that her sister acts really weird around her, alternately angry and frightened and generally strange. And Triss herself feels changed, different, with bizarre cravings. Not for blood or flesh, but for much stranger things. Rotten, fallen apples. Doll's heads. Pincushions. And then her parents start whispering about her behind closed doors.

Triss is sure something happened to her in the fall in the river, but she doesn't remember it. Her doctor says this is normal after a shock. But she's not so sure...

And everything on out is giant spoilers for the entire rest of the book. Read more... )

Highly recommended, even in you do need to hastily skim some horrific sections near the beginning. Very vivid and original, with great characters. Definitely not a downer, despite the cover and intro.

Cuckoo Song

I feel bad for the cover artist. They went with the "creepy horror" (very off-putting to me) cover, but a more representative cover would have been spoilery. Probably something that just signaled 1920s; unsettling/non-realistic/odd would have been better.
Since I now have a substantial commute, I have been listening to audiobooks from the library. I checked out Redwall because it’s a semi-classic kids’ series which I never read when I was the right age for it.

The first book is about a peaceful abbey of mice besieged by an evil rat and his rat army. If the mice are to survive, they must find the legendary sword of the mouse hero Martin the Warrior, the founder of their order. The tone of the novel is old-school pulp adventure with pastoral atmosphere and lots of food descriptions, and reminded me a bit of Robert Louis Stevenson. Enacted by mice.

Brian Jacques has an absolutely wonderful reading voice. (He was from Liverpool.) I actually wish it wasn’t a full cast version; I’d prefer just listening to him. His descriptions of the whisker-twirling, minion-slaughtering, eeeeeeeeevil rat villain, Cluny the Scourge (or, as Jacques phrases it, “CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!”) had me in fits of laughter. And I mean that in a good way. If you’re going to have your villain be the most villainous villain who ever villained, you definitely should read about him in a manner which suits his villainy. If I was reading this book aloud to kids, I would do my best Brian Jacques imitation for the parts concerning CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE!!!!!

The actor doing CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE’S actual dialogue appears to be imitating a very angry, possibly drunk, Spanish BRIAN BLESSED. A lot of his dialogue is somewhat or completely incomprehensible, but I found that if I just mentally substitute “Arrrrr! I’m a villain!” for anything I can’t understand, the scene makes perfect sense.

(Warning to Oyce: contains villainous rats.)

The story is your basic “villain invades peaceful pastoral setting; orphan boy is somehow going to save everyone.” I’m a little bored with that story, so for me, the attraction (apart from Jacques’ voice) is that they’re all animals.

This is the book where I realized that I generally like animal stories in direct proportion to how important it is that they’re animals. One of my very favorite things about Watership Down was the rabbits’ limited understanding of the world: when one of them figures out that they can get across a river by floating on a piece of wood, it’s a genius-level conceptual breakthrough that none of the other rabbits really understand. The rats in Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents have magically-created intelligence, but still have many real-life rat behaviors, like widdling and eating their dead (except the green wobbly bit).

Jacques’ mice wear clothes, fight with swords, and are friends with predator animals. The physical scale is also non-realistic – their badger friends, while bigger and stronger than the rats, can’t just solve the entire problem by eating the rats. CLUUUUUUUUUUUUUNY the SCOOOOOOUUUUUUUURRRRRRRGE wears a mole skull as a brooch, which in real life would be the equivalent of a man wearing a human skull. One of the characters is possibly half-rat, half-weasel. And so forth.

It’s not only a suspension of disbelief problem, it’s a question of why bother making them animals at all, if you’re not taking advantage of their animal qualities. So far, this entire story could be told with humans, and nothing would change.

Redwall [Audiobook, Unabridged]
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