When the trip to see Grandma goes horribly wrong… (FGM & Forced Marriage)

Posted on February 7th, 2014

Travel isn’t all fun and games – not by a long stretch.

In today’s world, lots of us live far from our places of origin. Actually, that’s not so new, but thanks to the speed of travel, nothing could be more natural and desirable than trips back ‘home’. It’s a chance to catch up with loved ones and share our roots with our children.

Unfortunately, one of the most challenging aspects of multiculturalism in Britain today is the reliance of some families on their cultures of origin in carrying out practices which are illegal here. All too often, these involve horrific infringements of their daughters’ rights and bodily autonomy: FGM, or forced marriages which can leave young women permanently exiled in conditions of domestic and sexual slavery.

This post will be updated with news items on these subjects as they come along.

5 Feb 2014 – End FGMThe Guardian’s home page for their campaign to End FGM in Britain especially as a ‘feature’ of girls’ summer holidays abroad. It contains a great deal of information.

I’ll be starting a bookshelf of books and other media related to FGM here. Please let me know in the comment thread if you know of any.

 Possessing the secret of joyPossessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker (written in 1992, set in 1950-60?)- I remember the end of The Color Purple, in which Adam, an American, marries Tashi, an Olinka girl. They return to America but not before Tashi undergoes FGM, out of loyalty to her culture which she perceives as being under threat. I haven’t read Possessing the Secret of Joy but I understand it’s the story of Tashi’s struggles with the aftermath, therapy in the US and eventually, a return to Liberia where she plans to take revenge. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
 Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (published in 2010, set in post-apocalyptic future Africa) – This is a fantasy book for young adults which has been on my reading list for some time, so expect a review shortly. Onyesonwu, the central character is destined to end the genocide of her people, though her powers are happened by the ritual of genital mutilation. I believe this is not a central aspect of the book and Okorafor’s handling of it has received mixed reviews. She discusses the issue a little at the start of this interview. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
 Silent Scream by Integrate Bristol – This is a short film (10 minutes) made by young people in Bristol, UK in 2011.  The question of Yasmin’s younger sister’s ‘circumcision’ has come up and Yasmin is trying to persuade her mother not to go ahead with the procedure. The film is being promoted by the Guardian’s campaign as suitable for the classroom. (Free to watch here)

The Jumblies

Posted on February 6th, 2014

Jumblies titleThey went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And everyone cried, You’ll all be drowned!
They cried aloud, Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Jumblies colourThey sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband, by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Jumblies shopping 2The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

And all night long they sailed away;
And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.
O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a Sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
In the shade of the mountains brown!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Jumblies at seaThey sailed to the Western sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Jumblie shoppingAnd in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Terrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

by Edward Lear

How to get your child to read ~ From the YA Reader’s Progress Series #2

Posted on February 5th, 2014

child_reading_bookI got involved in an internet conversation the other day about the use of competition in summer reading programs and it got me thinking about the right and wrong ways to encourage kids to read. Then, yesterday, I happened across a speech Neil Gaiman gave for The Reading Agency on the same subject. Those two things together inspired me to note my own ideas. This is quite a long post, but I hope a few people find it helpful.

My qualifications in this field: I homeschooled my own child through primary education, taught her to read in two languages and encouraged her as a reader.

First, about Neil Gaiman’s speech

Neil has two main ideas about how to encourage children to read:

  1. Kids should be allowed to read whatever they like. Adults can turn them off reading by imposing high-brow literature on them ~ Very true. Also, adults can really, seriously turn kids off reading by pouring scorn and contempt on their preferred choices. You pretended to be into Sesame Street when they were three years old, didn’t you? Make an effort for Manga!
    However, as an educator as well as a parent, I sometimes (often) felt the need to introduce books my daughter might not have chosen herself. Later on, I talk about how I managed that and why it isn’t easy.
  2. Libraries are important ~ I couldn’t agree more. A proper reading habit is potentially expensive enough to exclude children from lower income families.. We need ways of getting books to children for free.

The thing I liked best about Neil’s speech was the drug metaphor he used. We’re talking here about getting our kids hooked on something like smoking – they may not like it at first, but eventually they won’t be able to stop! Prepare to be evil….

Create a habit….

  • The old ways work just fine ~ Read to them at bed time from birth onwards, until they can’t even think of getting to sleep without a story. Let the stage where they read those stories to themselves creep up gradually ~ Don’t be too quick to dump the read-aloud stage.
    Create other times in which reading is the normal and expected activity, perhaps the car, or on Saturday afternoons after lunch – whatever works for your family.
  • Help them to the ‘reading drug’ supply ~ one way or another, we have to keep up a steady supply of books, through libraries, purchases, friends, free classics… and teach our children to use those sources independently.
  • Overcome resistance and bring them to the point where they can’t stop!!! Authors know how to create page-turners for us. The key is to get started. The secret to overcoming book resistance is to read the book aloud to your child up to the point where they absolutely HAVE to know what happens next, then think of something else you needed to be doing. Cruel, maybe, but it works every time!!!

… at the expense of other habits.

  • Because it requires peace and quiet for relatively large amounts of time reading is in competition with other activities. School, I’m afraid, is not conducive to reading, because it’s noisy, busy, filled with people to talk to and very time-consuming. Some children’s spare time is so filled with social, sporting and other activities that it’s pointless to expect them to do much reading. It’s a choice.
  • Because reading requires a certain amount of autonomous mental effort, it’s in competition with activities which provide stimulation gratisThe solution is to prevent TV, computer games, etc from becoming habits in our lives. In our house, we never had regular times or days for watching TV or playing computer games but we did have them for reading – and a number of other things I thought more valuable than screen-time.

Make it look cool!

Reading is just like smoking… people start doing it because their peer group does it, the people they look up to do it, and they know they look so flash with that book under their arm!

Encourage children to exchange books, talk to them about their books, talk to them about your books, let them hear you talking to other people about books, talk about kids’ books in mixed groups of adults and children, read together, read books about books, talk about what the characters did and the places you want to see because you read about them, talk about authors and what they do, how they changed your life or your mind, talk to authors, let kids talk to authors, write stuff and read it to them, listen to the stuff they’ve written… basically, just go right ahead and brainwash them.

Above all, just because reading is something we typically do on our own, don’t let them think reading isolates them, or that they’re isolated in their reading.

Remove any negative stimuli

I am sad and astonished at this long list of realistically likely negative stimuli. When I finished writing it, I no longer wondered why some children don’t care to read. Think on these things…

  • Don’t humiliate them by telling them they’re reading garbage. Don’t worry, they’ll eventually figure it out on their own and you can listen to them pour scorn on what they liked ‘when they were little’.
  • Don’t humiliate them (really) by putting them into competitive situations they can’t do well in: e.g. competitions for who can read the mostest/hardest books over the summer. Or situations where it’s readily apparent that they don’t read as well as some of their peers, such as being forced to read aloud to a group. Remember, our status is an important matter to all of us. Competition drives children… – away from activities they know they can’t do well at, while gratifying a few at the others’ expense. If your child falls into the non-gratified group, remove them from competitive situations without a second thought.
  • Don’t insist on high-brow, demanding or ‘improving’ reads – Similarly, don’t insist on fiction if they like reading encyclopedias or vice versa. (But see further on for some ideas on challenging reading.)
  • Don’t insist on non-regressive reading at all times – Kids are as entitled to their nostalgia trips as adults are, so if they want to read Seuss when they’re twelve, let them and be sympathetic.
  • Don’t insist they finish every book they start - If they hate it, let them walk away and find one they do like as quickly as possible.
  • Make sure there is no work attached to finishing a book intended for recreational reading - I mean things like recording obligations or the need to write a book report. School work forms an exception and stickers and ‘rewards’ may be okay for some children.
  • Protect them a bit but not too much – I’m the last person to believe in censoring young people’s reading, but especially when they’re quite young or not hooked on reading, keep an eye out for books which may disturb or upset them greatly.
    I know nobody has time to read everything their kid is going to read, so accept that at some point, whatever our beliefs, our children are going to happen upon something they and we find upsetting and/or offensive. A willingness to ‘pick up the pieces’ and an expectation of having to do so are better than attempts at outright censorship which won’t work anyway.
  • Avoid ‘choice’ overload – especially with younger children. One of my friends had the very sensible idea of keeping only a few of her children’s books out at a time and rotating them. I’ve seen my own child go into a choice overload meltdown at the library. Sometimes it can be better to just bring four random books home FOR THEM and let them choose one.
  • Manage the learning-to-read phase – even if your kids are at school, you probably need to put in some work as assistant educator during this time – actually the school will probably tell you this and try to guide you according to their methods. Children at this stage need short, daily, practice sessions of reading aloud to an adult who is giving them, and only them complete attention. Some children need this more and for longer. Admit that it’s a bit tedious and hard work if it obviously is.
  • Don’t take reading difficulties lying down – it’s true that children develop at different rates and we shouldn’t push them, but sometimes they also have problems with their eyesight, tracking, or various kinds of dyslexia. If an otherwise bright child seems slow, I would say do a little research and try to get them checked out. Don’t wait for the school to tell you there’s a problem if you already think there is. Also, consider the possibility that the school has a teaching method for reading which is not suiting your child (if you don’t know already, learning-to-read methods are super-controversial).
  • If a child has a reading difficulty such as dyslexia don’t let them be confined to written literature which is developmentally too simple and immature for them. For these children, all reading falls under the head of ‘work’. So let them have the audiobooks and films, read aloud to them assiduously. Make sure they’re not cut off from all the good things reading brings us and know what they’ll be getting when their work eventually reaps rewards.

Introducing heavier literature and/or books you think your child OUGHT to read

Despite the suggestion that we should let children read whatever they like, there is no point pretending this situation won’t arise, especially since the schools quite reasonably leave us the responsibility of introducing our children to our religious/spiritual/political/ethnic and regional cultures and beliefs all by ourselves.

For me as a homeschooler it was a relatively easy task. We just kept an absolute distinction between the varied, challenging, educational ‘school’ reading chosen by me, and the vast spaces of near total freedom of choice outside of that…

Now my child is in secondary school, I realize how difficult it can be to introduce ideas or literature I think are important and know won’t be covered there. The problem is that our school-children also quite justifiably recognize the boundary between ‘work’ and ‘play’. At some point, the most studious of them feels they’ve done enough and should be allowed to kick their feet up and relax with something undemanding. I no longer have any jurisdiction over their legitimate ‘work’ hours, so what can I do?

The first answer has got to be ‘as little as possible’ but I know there are a few books I can’t let my child pass over. I really think the best bet lies in retaining that read-aloud habit for a very, very long time. Even as the home educator of a good reader, I sometimes used read-aloud to introduce books my child might have found exhausting or demanding and I can anticipate doing it again but more rarely.

Very Deep Conclusion…

We are social, status-conscious, aspiring, gratification-seeking and (ahem!) sometimes rather lazy beings! The secret to encouraging children to read (or anyone to do anything) is to remember this and work with it!

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Posted on February 4th, 2014
Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Published by Review in 2003
Pages: 370
Location: England, London
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
Under the streets of London there's a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.

*** Editorial comment: it's not actually his native city because he's a recently arrived Scot, but anyway. Oh and btw there are a number of versions of this book which is a bit frustrating ***

Verdict: totally deserves its five stars. I will definitely be reading it again.

 Read it if you love London. Read it you love a good fantasy book.

So, now I’m going to have to tell you what’s good about it. Hmmm… the strange thing is that it has quite a lot in common with American Gods which I really didn’t care for much. Somehow, I’m going to have to try to explain why I liked this one better.

First of all, the London of Neverwhere is a much more interesting place than the America of American Gods (sorry America). It’s a mix of everything that’s ‘left-over’ from London: history, legends, auras attached to names, disused tunnels and hidden spaces, abandoned buildings and people who ‘slip through the cracks’. And it’s all kind of integrated and… thriving… and more alive but less self-conscious than the mythological underworld of American Gods.

Like the central character, I wanted to be there, and now I want to go back.

Then, the thing that really put me off American Gods is that I didn’t click with the central character… or any of the characters really. Neverwhere is different. The central character, Richard Mayhew has some of Shadow’s ‘I barely exist, take no notice of me’ qualities but to a much lesser extent. It might be going too far to say he has a spine, but he seems to have prospects of developing one. But the secondary characters… oh my!!

Old Bailey and the Marquis de Carabas

I liked Door. I liked Old Bailey (left). Hunter was meh, ok. I even liked Islington and the nefarious Croup and Vandemar as characters (seen them before somewhere, in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. I wonder who borrowed from who?) But most of all I liked de Carabas (right). Now there is a guy who radiates a personality big enough to fill a whole book. And makes a huge, incredible, massive personal sacrifice on behalf of the plot which I hope, as the years wear on, will start to feel like a growth experience to him, because I’m not absolutely convinced it really changed that much of what happened!??

Anyway, just read Neverwhere! It’s very good.

I nearly forgot, it has the other advantage of being quite a bit shorter than American Gods and loses nothing by it. I must be off my rocker saying this about an established author but I feel Neil Gaiman can sometimes verge on the self-indulgent as a writer. There are times when he freely admits his editor told him to take something out but he stuffed it back in because he wanted to, and the thing is, it turns out the editor was right. He had a few ‘moments’ in Neverwhere but nowhere near so many.

 Neverwhere bbcNeverwhere BBC – this is one of those rare occasions where the tv series preceded the book. Gaiman and Lenny Henry made it for tv first, in 1996. You can get the dvd (Amazon USA, Amazon UK). Radio 4 also did a version of Neverwhere this Christmas. I don’t think you can listen to it any more, but their site has a bunch of interesting snippets, interviews and a slideshow of relevant London photos.

And now for a bit of controversy!

I know this isn’t exactly breaking news, it’s from a few months ago, October 2013, but I was astonished to learn Neverwhere had been banned (temporarily) from a school in New Mexico. I tried to remember everything I’d just read… there was no sex… I was sure at one point they were going to torture this guy to death and I’m really squeamish… well they did, but off stage, thank goodness. Plus, … oh wait, I was about to make a spoiler! I mean, The Hunger Games is less clean than this… Harry Potter is much less…

I must have somehow missed a page of smut!!! That would be terrible. The parent who complained wasn’t exactly helpful. She said “I cannot read this to you and put it on the news. It’s too inappropriate. It’s that bad.” Desperately, I trawled the internet looking for this piece of inappropriate literature which had obviously been expurgated from my Kindle version. Eventually, I discovered the complainant was referring to this inoffensive passage:

sexywhereNo sex, even, but according to Leah Schnelbach, who, like me, is trying to understand, “Their intentions are quite clear.” Well yeah….  OH–Kay. Also they used the word ‘fuck’ outside of holy matrimony. But come on… When I walk down the street with my daughter EVERYONE can tell what I’ve been up to!! Only I was a lot more dignified about it… No, really… And that complainant, she’s been at it too! Or she wouldn’t have a daughter to over-protect, would she, now?

Ah well… getting banned is so cool, it would be a shame to forget it ever happened. Right about the time this happened, Neil was making a speech on behalf of The Reading Agency, which ties in quite well with something I wanted to write about tomorrow, so I was pleased to stumble on it.

The Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton

Posted on February 3rd, 2014
The Snow Merchant by Sam GaytonThe Snow Merchant by Sam Gayton
Published by Andersen in 2011
Genres: Children
Pages: 288
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Balloon, Boat, Magical Animal
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
Lettie Peppercorn lives in a house on stilts near the wind-swept coast of Albion, with no one to talk to but Periwinkle the pigeon. Her days are filled with floor-sweeping, bed-making and soup-stirring. Her nights are filled with dreams of her mother, who vanished long ago. Nothing incredible has ever happened to Lettie, until one winter's night - the night the Snow Merchant comes.

He claims to be an alchemist - the greatest that ever lived - and in a mahogany suitcase, he carries his newest invention. It is an invention that will change Lettie's life - and the world - forever. It is an invention called snow.

The Snow Merchant is a fantasy filled with family secrets, magical transformations and wild adventure. Join Lettie on her journey to uncover the true meaning of snow, family and friendship.

Verdict: I liked it but I’m waiting to see what my kid thinks.

Why would I give a verdict like that on a book? Well, the thing is that the book is aimed squarely at the ‘older child’ bracket, 9-12 years.

Normally, if an adult reads a book like that and enjoys it, it’s a good thing. This one is filled with little twists and surprises and nicely written. But I know my daughter. The Snow Merchant has a few edges that could disturb her and cause her to reject it. It all depends on her level of maturity and sensitivities at the time.

But first, the travel!!

This book says some beautiful things about travel, right after my own heart. It’s the story of a quest and a transition, from a sedentary to a wandering lifestyle. I think that’s why I fell in love with it. Let me try to do a round-up of some of the passages which most struck me:

 At the beginning, when Lettie is unable to leave her house… I so understand how she feels – ‘She loved the Wind, she envied it: it travelled the world; it went wherever it wanted, while she was stuck inside, held prisoner by her job and Ma’s last message.‘ ==== ‘She fell quiet and gazed out of the window, to the town huddled against the Wind. A place of brine and blubber and beer. A place she had promised Da never to go. There was mystery in that town. There were ships setting off for faraway places and others coming back with wonder and miracles… but Lettie wasn’t allowed near them.
 And then there’s Noah, they boy who’s a traveller from his roots to the tips of his branches (which he has) – ‘That’s what the sea is: freedom. A million invisible roads to everywhere. Before I get planted in the ground and turn into a tree like my grandmother, I want to see the world. And the sea is the only place I know where you can’t put down roots.‘ ==== OH BOY! CAN I RELATE TO THAT ====’The only thing lonelier than travelling,’ said Noah, ‘is standing still”

By the way, The Snow Merchant also has some amazing means of transport and the illustrator, Tomislav Tomic, really let himself go depicting them.

And here’s the list of things my daughter might have found quite disturbing, at least until recently:

  • Lettie Peppercorn isn’t who she thought she was or what she thought she was to an extent that even shocked me. Her relationship with her parents isn’t what she thought. It’s a bit like finding out you’re adopted, only more so.
  • She suffers from a condition that’s potentially fatal is going to require a radically unusual lifestyle for the rest of her life. Let’s just say Lettie will never lie on a sunny beach. OK, it’s painted in fantasy terms but it’s still obvious.
  • She’s a very lonely child at the beginning and although she has a friend, a father, a mother by the end, after a fashion, it’s not clear they’re hers to ‘have and to hold’ in any way a child would consider satisfactory.

Then there’s the interesting question of the role of the mother…

Teresa has a very strong, almost dominating role. She really has a life, and she’s extremely brave, talented, capable, etc, etc… That’s nice for mothers (me). It makes a change from being a mere support structure or killed off in the early stages.

But I wonder if what children look to in stories isn’t precisely the very unrealistic level of autonomy and agency for themselves. It’s not that Lettie is helpless, by any means, but…. I mean, Teresa even chooses Lettie’s friend for her… come on!… says the woman who’s over-analysing a book to see if it would be a good match for her daughter….

Then again, you could say Teresa is just playing the role of supreme mentor and guardian, a role usually reserved for wizardly men with long white beards. Maybe I’m off my rocker wondering whether we mothers should be settling for the subservient support role? Maybe that’s not what our daughters want either? I will find out in due course.

So there you go. There’s a sense in which, while being a whimsical fantasy book, The Snow Merchant is at the cutting edge of some of the harsher issues facing children today. And it may be important in helping them process those issues… but only if they’re ready.

Alternatively, there will be some who will barely notice the issues are there.

Travels with Terry Pratchett

Posted on February 2nd, 2014

Just for fun! I’ve read very nearly every book Terry Pratchett ever wrote and thought I’d make a list of those with a travel-related theme.

The Rincewind Saga.

TP-CoM-Light-FantasticThe Colour of Magic & The Light Fantastic, Discworld #1 & #2 - Twoflower the tourist from the counterweight continent hires hapless wizard Rincewind to be his guide through the Discworld. It’s an amusingly obvious way of introducing readers to a new world. The Discworld novels became vastly more sophisticated afterwards but I still remember finding these two hilarious.  (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-EricEric, Discworld #9 - Following some unfortunate events at the end of Sourcery, Rincewind finds himself on the run through some unpleasant alternative dimensions. It can’t last because the Discworld’s greatest traveller is needed again, this time to whisk spotty teenager Eric through time and space, granting his not very imaginative wishes, and pausing only to get life started by abandoning half an egg and cress sandwich on a pristine, newly created shore at the beginning of time. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Interesting TimesInteresting Times, Discworld #17 -  Rincewind is magically ejected from a paradisical island to the Agatean Empire, a place with a surprising resemblance to China and also the home of the ever optimistic Twoflower. Inevitably, when he gets there revolutions and invasions are in progress, the latter being the work of Cohen the Barbarian and his band of geriatric heroes. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Last ContinentThe Last Continent, Discworld #22 –  No sooner has Rincewinds go things sorted out in the Agatean Empire than the wizards of Unseen University incompetently transport him to The Last Continent, Xxxx, which strikingly resembles Australia and is suffering from a terrible drought only Rincewind can end. The only redeeming feature of the situation is that Unseen University’s wizards soon find themselves on Xxxx too which serves them right.  (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Last HeroThe Last Hero, Discworld #27 -  Ultimately Rincewind ventures through The Final Frontier. In The Last Hero Lord Vetinari of Ankh Morpork needs a team of heroes to allow themselves to be slingshotted into space in a dubious contraption and hurled back round to Cori Celesti, the home of the gods where they must save the world (again). Rincewind, who is now Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography at Unseen University volunteers on the basis that if he tried to hide in a crate instead it would get loaded onto the spaceship anyway. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Other journeys through the Discworld

TP-Witches AbroadWitches Abroad, Discworld #12 -Naive, inexperienced witch, Magrat Garlick unexpectedly finds herself godmother to Emberella of Genua. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg just know that left to her own devices, the idealistic Magrat will get it all wrong and let the servant girl marry the prince.  hop on broomsticks and make for far-distant Genua to ensure the servant girl doesn’t marry the Prince. That’s why they hop on their broomsticks and travel across the continent to Genua to help her out, much to the dismay of the dwarfs, vampires, werewolves and villagers in the way.(Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Small GodsSmall Gods, Discworld #13The unfortunate Om, once almighty god of thousands of Omnian worshipers finds himself trapped in the body of a tortoise. The problem, it seems, is a lack of true belief. The only solution is a harrowing journey through the desert with his one true believer, an ignorant boy with no particular survival skills. Can Om keep him alive long enough to make a prophet of him? (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-JingoJingo, Discworld #21Throughout history, there’s always been a perfectly good reason to start a war. Never more so if it is over a ‘strategic’ piece of old rock in the middle of nowhere. Which is why, before long, half the good citizens of Ankh Morpork find themselves overseas fighting the enemy, notwithstanding their insufficient training and worse weapons. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Monstrous RegimentMonstrous Regiment, Discworld #31 - In another journey for the purposes of warfare, Polly Perks signs up for the army in the hope of finding her brother. She and her desperate fellow recruits travel across the  ruined country of Borogravia towards a hopeless siege. As the journey progresses it becomes clear that the military isn’t such a man’s world after all. This was one of Pratchett’s most moving books for me, both funny and tragic at the same time. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Raising SteamRaising Steam, Discworld #40 - To the consternation of the patrician, Lord Vetinari, a new invention has arrived in Ankh-Morpork – a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all the elements: earth, air, fire and water. This being Ankh-Morpork, it’s soon drawing astonished crowds, some of whom caught the zeitgeist early and arrive armed with notepads and very sensible rainwear. The machine soon demonstrates that the ability to get across the continent quickly is useful for more than getting fresh lobster to Ankh-Morpork. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK) — REVIEWED HERE

Journeys beyond the Discworld.

TP-StrataStrata – This is one of Pratchett’s earliest novels, a sci-fi, in which Kin Arad and a couple of colleagues travel across the galaxy to investigate rumors of a flat earth. If it exists, it may reveal uncomfortable truths about the origins of the universe. Strata’s not very well-known, but actually, it’s still one of my favorite Pratchetts. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-Dark SideThe Dark Side of the Sun - I didn’t like it as much as Strata, but Dom Salabos’ interplanetary quest to uncover the secret of his destiny and survive if at all possible is still a short, fun read. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-BromeliadsThe Bromeliad Trilogy - The Store Gnomes are shocked when a small band of outsiders arrives to announce the imminent destruction of their ancestral home. Can they escape, survive in the wild, and ultimately, find their way back to their true origins beyond the stars, all with the help of vehicles designed for people far larger than themselves. One for the kids, maybe, but also for the adults who have to do the reading aloud. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)
TP-NationNationLast but definitely not least. Nation isn’t a Discworld story and it isn’t even funny but it’s  the Pratchett that left the deepest impression on me. Alone on a desert island — everything and everyone he knows and loves has been washed away in a storm — Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s completely alone — or so he thinks until he finds Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy. Soon they are joined by a handful of other refugees from the terrible tsunami, but the group’s survival hangs in the balance. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)


Real life Life of Pi

Posted on February 2nd, 2014

The Guardian reported today on the experience of José Ivan (sic. it should be Alvarenga), a Mexican who may have drifted for several months before reaching the Marshall Islands. I bet his story, when it comes to light, is much less a voyage of spiritual discovery and more of a grueling ordeal. Apparently he survived by catching fish and turtles, and presumably hoarded sea-water. An interesting detail is the list of long term castaway survival stories at the of the article. It isn’t the first time a Mexican has drifted to the Marshall Islands – the last one survived for nine months. For every single survivor in a situation like this, there must be at least a dozen who die in horrible conditions.

mexico - marshall islands


3 Feb 2014 – Leila Haddou considers the truth value of Alvarenga’s story (note the name change?) by taking a survey of opinions amongst a selection of the island’s foreign ‘gentry’. An interesting modus operandi… If only our journalists were this cautious when it really mattered… I expect the story is verifiable at least in its broad outlines so we shall see. I was sorry to hear Alvarenga’s report that his young companion, known so far only as Ezekiel, died during their ordeal.

4 Feb 2014 – That didn’t take long. Verifications coming in from Mexico and El Salvador, with some interesting details. I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly what happened at sea, which way the boat drifted and how fast, etc..

5 Feb 2014 – Today, we have real-life expert on sea survival, Mike Tipton, weighing in on how to survive a journey like this. It’s quite interesting but takes any ridiculous, romantic notions anyone might possibly be having and replaces them with squeezing fish eyeballs down one’s throat. He’s written a book Essentials of Sea Survival (UK, USA) which I expect will find its way into one of my bookshelves at some point.

6 Feb 2014 – Preparations are made for Alvarenga to return home, depending on his health.

12 Feb 2014 – Alvarenga returns to his family in El Salvador.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

Posted on February 1st, 2014
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman RushdieLuka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010
Genres: Children
Pages: 215
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Boat, Flying Carpet
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
On a beautiful starry night in the city of Kahani in the land of Alifbay a terrible thing happened: twelve-year-old Luka's storyteller father, Rashid, fell suddenly and inexplicably into a sleep so deep that nothing and no one could rouse him. To save him from slipping away entirely, Luka must embark on a journey through the Magic World, encountering a slew of phantasmagorical obstacles along the way, to steal the Fire of Life, a seemingly impossible and exceedingly dangerous task.

I got Luka and the Fire of Life through one of those serendipitous accidents of L-Space. I really wanted to read Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence which is for adults. I kind of wanted to read Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories which is the prequel to this book. The library gave me this instead. Obviously, I nearly fell over with excitement when I saw the flying carpet.

Luka and the Fire of Life3   Luka and the Fire of Life2
Flying carpets from other edition covers.

I nearly fell over some more when I started reading. I loved everything about this book  – from the characters to the style to the storyline! All I wanted to know was where it had been all my life and why it wasn’t longer. I was on the verge of buying a copy for everyone I knew, certain they would love it as much as I did.

Then something happened and I got a bit bored. I eventually understood the problem. What I had loved was the dual presence of storyteller Rashid Khalifa the Shah of Blah, inventor of the Magic World, and his deviously sarcastic twin and nemesis, Nobodaddy. I must admit, there is no doubt in my mind that the pair of them might just as well be known by their other alias of Mr. S. Rushdie and I was loving spending time with him in this form. I never read any of his books before and I hadn’t expected him to be quite so… witty, sarcastic and fun to travel with, even in the shape of an evil nemesis! Whether we were trying to get lunch in the unpleasantly oversensitive and politically correct Respectorate or flying a carpet over the meandering tributaries of the River of Time, it was he who made the journey rock.

Then Nobodaddy disappears, nominally to gather his nefarious forces to a pinnacle of badness, really, perhaps, to let the title hero of the book have a go at doing things by himself. Rashid Khalifa had been a spent force for a while and somehow, without those two, the light just seemed to go out of the Magic World for me, pages and pages before it started officially disintegrating.

So it goes…

Verdict: I still liked the book very, very much and look forward to reading the two which were actually on my list.

Round the World in 80 Books Challenge

Posted on January 31st, 2014

On Goodreads, I found the book club of my dreams:

Around the World in 80 Books’s bookshelf
Around the World in 80 Books 5021 members Reading takes you places. Where in the world will your next book take you? If you love world literature and exploring the world through books, you have come to the right place! It all started as a challenge on TNBBC in 2009, and now we have our own group! Anyone can join and participate in the challenges at any time. Challenge participation is not a requirement of joining. Anyone who loves reading books from around the world is welcome here. The main purpose of this group is to travel the world through books, experiencing new authors and cultures along the way.

View this group on Goodreads»

So now I have a new reading challenge. Actually, there are lots of challenges to choose from on Round the World in 80 Books. It’s such a big group, it’s a bit confusing at first, but I think I picked a challenge that will work for me. It’s one of the more free and easy ones, called Circumnavigator. Mine involves reading my way around the globe from country to country and I’m trying to pick books with actual journeys in them and work my way from point A to point B through the books. I think it may get tough but I’ve figured out the first few moves in my itinerary.

A-map-for-Robur-the-Conqueror1. Robur the Conqueror by Jules Verne – from Philadelphia, USA to the Chatham Islands, New Zealand, after circumnavigating the world approximately one and a half times in an airship ~ finished 2 January 2014
 2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I’m half wondering how long it’s going to take me to get stuck and how much cheating and back-tracking I’ll have to do…

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Posted on January 30th, 2014
Stormdancer by Jay KristoffStormdancer by Jay Kristoff
Series: The Lotus Wars #1
Published by Tor UK in 2012
Pages: 451
Location: Magic World
Mode of travel: Airship, Magical Animal
Buy from Amazon USA
Buy from Amazon UK
Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Verdict: Wow, that was … fun, actually!

Here’s the thing. On the one hand, I am a bit tired of books, films, tv, everything, where the plot is basically one damn thing after another, glands on overdrive, intellect in the bottom drawer and go for the jugular. On the other hand, I’m not going to criticize a book for doing what it manifestly set out to do.

What makes one ‘one-damn-thing-after-another’ book better than another is if the damn things are original, varied, well depicted and take place against an interesting backdrop. Stormdancer has that.

But first, the journey: I sometimes feel that I’m not talking as much about the travel aspect of books as I really want to in this blog. There is a journey in Stormdancer, a long unpleasant one (for the characters) in a stinking steampunk airship. Although it’s not really central to the book it exists for two important reasons:1) to depict the ruin of Shima’s countryside and 2) because there needs to be a significant distance between the two main environments of the book: the reeking metropolis and imperial court of Kigen and the wild mountains of Iishii. It ends View Spoiler » I really liked that part, especially as it’s the only time View Spoiler ».

The interesting backdrop: is an ecological and economic disaster of a totalitarian, imperialistic state called Shima whose ancestral culture slightly resembles that of Japan. To about the same extent as Middle-earth resembles Britain. Middle-earth has kings, Shima has a shogun. On Shima, they use Kanji, on Middle-earth they use runes. People on Shima have black hair and people on Middle-earth are often blond. A few legendary beings typical of Japan and Britain appear in the respective books. That’s about as deep as it gets though.

Shima’s Kigen City seems to resemble Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam more than most other places I’ve been. It’s forests might contain nominally Japanese essences but they remind me more of New Zealand’s primeval jungle (what’s left of it). I have heard that the version of Japanese they speak in Shima is rather different to modern Japanese. Actually, if Shima really has any common ground with Japan, it’s in the rather globalized world of anime. So maybe it’s not that original after all. But still cool. It even has some cool music to go with it.

The original, varied and well-depicted damn things consist of violent conflict at various levels and of various types, between individuals and groups, across class, race and species boundaries. Almost any kind of violent conflict you can imagine. A revolution is brewing – The Lotus War of the series title. It’s an inevitable fact that all books, or at least their characters, have an ideology, and this one has some interesting ideas about political violence:

‘Sacrifices must be made,’ said Kaori. ‘The people of Shima are addicted to chi. The system will not die willingly, it must be killed. Those enslaved will adapt or perish, like any addict denied his fix. But better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’
‘… you want to start a civil war?’ … Daichi shook his head….  ‘I want chaos. Formlessness.’
No more fear. No more regrets. Not for vague ideology or someone else’s notion of what was ‘right’. For the ones she loved. For her family. … All right then. Let’s start a war.

With plans like that, I expect nothing more of #2 of The Lotus War, Kinslayer, than that it should be a full-blown bloodbath. I expect I’ll get round to reading it in due course.

ArashitoraSome funny stuff: This is one of those books very obviously written by a guy masquerading in the form of a young woman’s viewpoint. I admit the phrase ‘I want a woman who can touch her ears with her ankles, cook a decent meal, and keep her opinions to herself, but they don’t exist either’ is now permanently engraved in my memory. Also the part where two young lads are spying on Yukiko as she strips off in the bathroom and the author tenuously rescues the passage from gratuitous voyeurism by having them discover something of (non sexual) significance to the plot as they’re doing it. It’s all too obvious that Jay Kristoff doesn’t have a clue what turns women on to men and he depicts View Spoiler ». I had a good laugh about it but perhaps he was wise to stick to making Yukiko’s primary relationship a platonic one with a non-human life form. Yukiko is a Boy’s Own Fantasy Kickass Heroine, not a Girl Power one. That isn’t necessarily a criticism but it is a point worthy of awareness.