October 2006


The Witches A witch never gets caught. Don’t forget that she has magic in her fingers and devilry dancing in her blood. She can make stones jump about like frogs and she can make tongues of flame go flickering across the surface of the water.

Following the sudden death of his parents, our hero narrator, a small boy of about seven or eight, lives with his Norwegian grandmother. Fortunately for him, in Norway witches and their child-killing ways are well known and his grandmother is a witchophile (retired) – which means that she can help him to recognise a witch and protect himself from their tricks.

Witches are hateful, horrible, wicked, frightening murderous woman-demons. And what they hate most of all is a human child. What they want most of all is to do away with any child they find… So when our protagonist finds himself faced not just with one witch but with a whole bevy of them, plotting to turn every last child in England into a mouse, you just know that something horrible is going to happen.

Dahl is a marvellously evocative writer, and he plays with words in the most fantabulous way imaginable. He is quite simply the best children’s author I could name. (I’ve already read most of his books at least once…)

Here is an Amazon link.
I have my own copy of this one.

Charlotte's Web“You mean you eat flies?” gasped Wilbur
“Certainly. Flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midgets, daddy-long-legs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets – anything that is careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I?”
“Why, yes, of course,” said Wilbur. “Do they taste good”
“Delicious. Of course, I don’t really eat them. I drink them – drink their blood. I love blood.”

Wilbur, the runt of a litter of spring pigs, is saved from the hatchet by the farmer’s small daughter Fern. Fern rears the piglet by hand and then, when he is too old to be kept in the farm kitchen any longer, sells him to her nearby Uncle to raise.

Wilbur spends many happy days in the barn with all the other farm animals, regularly visited by the loyal Fern, and his happiness seems complete when he makes a very special new best friend in Charlotte, the clever spider who lives in his corner of the barn. But calamity threatens when Wilbur learns that at Christmas time the farmer, Fern’s uncle, plans to turn him into hams and bacon. Fern has already (quite literally) rescued Wilbur from the chop once, and Charlotte is determined to do it again.

This is a lovely story, with a bittersweet ending spoiled only by the disappointing behaviour of Fern.

She, even at age eight, loses interest in “childish” pursuits such as hanging out in the barn with a lot of talking animals, in favour of hanging out with boys and, in particular, with the eminently pointless Henry Fussy. For the young female reader, Fern’s silliness in this respect will serve, I hope, as a cautionary tale and not as a model for action.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I’ve got an old copy that’s lost its dustjacket, which I’ve had since I was a child!

Mary Shelley“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”

[Right: I couldn’t find an image of the edition I actually read, so thought a portrait of the remarkable Mary Shelley would make a suitable alternative.]

Frankenstein is a driven young scientist whose thirst for knowledge useful to his fellow man, whose brilliance and whose absorbing fascination for a great mystery – the mystery of life – leads him to an astonishing discovery. He discovers how to create life.

Ambitious to carry out the most dramatic experiment that he can conceive, he attempts to make a man. The experiment is a success, and he creates a man-like creature and gives it life. But, frightened and disgusted by the creature’s gigantic size and inhuman features, he abandons it, and it must run away to fend for itself.

At first yearning for society, and for virtue and goodness, the creature learns to survive, to speak and then even to read and write – but must do all this by observation for he realises early on that his great size and hideous face make him an object of fear and disgust to the humans that he wishes to befriend. At last, the creature realises that he cannot by any means enter human society of any kind and – in rage and despair – hunts down his creator to demand a mate.

Made fiendish in his looks, and more so in his desperation and misery, he leaves Frankenstein horrorstruck, even as he manages to arouse his creator’s pity. And, if Frankenstein will not create a new creature to serve the first as a mate, perhaps an Eve to this monstrous new Adam, then the fiend will exact a terrible revenge.

This classic horror story is remarkable not so much for its writing – which is if anything a little pedestrian to the modern reader – but for the fact that a plot constructed by a young woman in the early nineteenth century could resonate so strongly even today. It is a creeping plot that gets under your skin and sets your mind onto all sorts of possibilities.

It is a message to all scientists and discoverers to think carefully and responsibly about letting genies out of bottles. The unknown is just that, unknown, and unpredictable: and when the consequences are unpredictable, it is wise to be cautious about unleashing new creations upon the world. This warning resonates particularly when we think of the phenomenal and terrible power of modern weapons technology. It strikes a clear note of caution to those who work with or make rules to govern the emerging sciences of cloning, genetic modification and the like, on the verges of creation.

These creations, these inventions, are not without risk: they might, even with the best of intentions, turn out to be a new Frankenstein’s monster. And, this time, will we have the option to deny Adam his Eve?

Here is an Amazon link.
I got my copy in a pound shop!

The Wire in the BloodThe trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars

[from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets]

This psychological crime chiller may have been written by a woman, but that doesn’t mean I was expecting it to depart significantly from the run-of-the-mill in its treatment of gender.

I was not far wrong. The people in positions of power in the novel – the hero, psychological profiler Tony Hill, the killer, and the police officers (clueless plods, but they are the clueless plods in control) heading up the “official” enquiries and refusing to take Hill seriously – are all men. The women play supporting roles. The victims are young, attractive, foolish, starstruck teenaged girls who have “something sexual” about them which is their downfall (not that we’re blaming the victim here, are we?) The women are at least real people, with three dimensions and everything. My goodness there are even some lesbians in the story. But that doesn’t rescue it from its hopelessly formulaic stereotypes and its perpetuation of the woman-in-danger-(and-it’s-her-own-fault) mindset that does us all so much harm.

It wasn’t so awful. It was, for its genre, pretty well-written and the whole tense murder hunt story is done very well. I read it to the end and even felt myself stirred by the characters’ dilemmas. It’s just so depressing that even a good woman writer like McDermid is clearly bound to these harmful stereotypes so precious to the genre. Sigh.