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“If the Deathly Hallows really existed, and Dumbledore knew about them, knew that the person who possessed all of them would be master of Death – Harry, why wouldn’t he have told you? Why?”

He had his answer ready.

“But you said it Hermione! You’ve got to find out about them for yourself! It’s a Quest!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I am not a fan of the Harry Potter series. Perhaps that will colour everything I say in a negative light, but despite my opinions on the books I am looking forward to the concluding film. Harry Potter is indisputably a modern-day phenomenon. Any adaptation presents the collaborator with an extraordinary opportunity to tap into a massive audience and perhaps put their own unique spin on then material.

The story opens with the shocking killing of a Hogwarts staff member taken prisoner by the evil Voldemort. His followers, who call themselves Death Eaters, are cowed into submission by the demonstration. The Malfoy family in particular are coming to regret their support of the tyrant, with Lucius left broken by his master’s callousness. Voldemort has discovered that his wand cannot harm Harry Potter and takes Lucius’s to make another attempt to kill the Boy Who Lived.

An opportunity presents itself soon, during an assault on the Order of the Phoenix, whose members including Harry are among the few opponents left standing against the dark wizard. The attack leads to the death of an ally of Harry’s, convincing him that he has to undertake his quest to defeat Voldemort alone. That mission was given to the boy wizard by Dumbledore and in the wake of his death disturbing revelation have begun to shake Harry’s faith in his mentor. Why would this quest to destroy the source of Voldemort’s power, the hidden Horcruxes, be given to a teenage boy? Has he been manipulated into becoming a weapon by the kindly old man he loved so much?

There is a great deal of confusing to-ing and fro-ing in this novel. Harry’s quest serves as much to delay his final confrontation with the now revealed Voldemort as anything, with Rowling‘s introduction of the Deathly Hallows, yet another series of hidden magical items, a further digression. There is also an awful lot of exposition in this book, chiefly concerned with the deceased Dumbledore, who despite being dead persists in reappearing as a ghostly presence throughout the book.

The other point of concern, and this has been a constant for the series, is that Rowling description of Potter’s importance sometimes smacks of Marty Stu-dom. This passage in particular is galling:

Kingsley, I thought you were looking after the Muggle Priminister?” he called across the room.

“He can get along without me for one night,” said Kingsley, “You’re more important.”

It is even more distressing when the narrative’s dogged focus on Harry, who goes into hiding from Voldemort’s forces, means that several dramatic events occur off-camera due to the boy wizard camping out in forests for the best part of a year. For example Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom‘s secret Hogwarts revot sounds like a fantasy-version of Lindsay Anderson’s seminal film If…. but is only referred to in passing.

Still, despite myself I continued turning the pages, eager to learn how the story ends. Yes I find Rowling’s books frustrating to read, but they remain compelling.

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Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

They all left their umbrellas and raincoats behind, and went up into the Land of Enchantments. It wasn’t a twilight land like the Land of Secrets; it was a land of strange colours and lights and shadows. Everything shone and shimmered and moved. Nothing stayed the same for more than a moment. It was beautiful and strange.

Enid Blyton was an indelible part of childhood for decades, but I wonder how her books compete with today’s Rowlings and Dragon Ball Zs and Nintendo DSs. I also wonder if she actually liked kids, as some of the troubles she visits on her characters for such dreadful crimes as being talkative, or curious seem extreme. Of course these books were written during the era where children were to be seen and not heard. Which despite the ambient prudery, has always given the Faraway Tree books a special place in my heart. This Blyton series always seemed more unfettered and wild to me, compared to the adventures of various numerically aligned gangs of whippersnappers that she trotted out.

The Folk of the Faraway Tree is the third in the series. As such Joe, Beth and Frannie have already discovered the magical tree that lead up into the clouds, inhabited by many strange characters. There’s their friend Moon-Face, whom as the illustrations depict has a very big face, just like a moon. The fairy Silky, who is more sensible than her lunar companion. Saucepan, who walks around clanging and banging, as he has tied many pots and pans to himself. He is quite deaf as a result. The Angry Pixie, who is well named and Dame Washalot, who does just that. At the top of the tree is a ladder leading into the clouds, where visitors find a strange series of lands that rotate every once and a while. The children visit the different lands with their friends from the tree and have many adventures.

One day Joe, Beth and Frannie are told by their mother that Curious Connie is coming to stay with them. They are not very happy at the news, as they think the little girl is far too spoilt and always asking annoying questions. Determined not to let her have her way during her visit, the children decide to bring her up the Faraway Tree, which should give her a good shock and stop her nonsense. Sadly after Connie arrives only to be greeted by the sight of Moonface walking down up to the door of their house with an invitation to tea, she happens upon a neat solution to her dilemma. She refuses to believe he exists.

Even after she climbs the Faraway Tree and has a series of unfortunate encounters with the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and Little Miss Muffet’s spider, she still will not accept the evidence of her own eyes. It is all far too silly. She also makes a firm enemy in Saucepan, whose deafness has a habit of clearing up when he is being insulted by obnoxious little girls. The children are further dismayed when they lose Connie in one of the lands above the Faraway Tree after she runs away in a fit of pique. When they follow, they discover the lands have already revolved and there is no sign of their trying charge. They will need all the help they can get, including some magic beans, giant-repellant and a tricky spell that keeps trying to escape them on its little red legs.

When I spoke to my local librarian about taking this book out, her face lit up with fond memories. The Faraway Tree series can still be admired for their wild imagination and cute adventures with a strange menagerie of trolls, pixies, giants and well-known figures from childhood rhymes.

There is also a very moral element to the proceedings, with Jack, Beth and Frannie always asking permission from their bemused mother to climb the Faraway Tree and only after doing their chores. Connie is shown to be spoiled and self-centred. Her various travails in the lands above the clouds serve to teach her a series of lessons in how to behave. This is reminiscent for me of Eustace in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is transformed from a selfish brat into yet another paragon of catholic virtue by the book’s conclusion.

With rich wordplay, some lovely illustrations and a cruel sense of humour, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed atop the Faraway Tree.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

Saturday July 15

I watched the Inside Downing Street documentary tonight. What a fine figure of a man he is. He is masterful, charming, clever and has a good head of hair. He is altogether impressive. Alistair Campbell is the man I would like to be.

Right today’s is going to be a quick one, as I am due to travel to Sydney by train in…an hour. Bringing some Patricia Highsmith along for the journey. No not that one! So at any rate, I chose a book I knew I could fly through. The Adrian Moles Diaries series by Sue Townsend is like a sweet, sweet pixie stick, suck it down and ask for another. I have not read any books in the series since his ‘teenage years’, so I’ve got the Blair era to look forward to.

The book’s prologue has a note from Mole himself revealing that his diaries covering the period from the end of the Millennium to the aftermath of the 9/11 was seized by police due to his being charged under Home Secretary Blunkett’s terrorism legislation. Also that horrible Townsend woman continues to stalk him and sell fictionalized accounts of his life to the BBC!

Adrian Mole is a failed poet, failed cable television chef and failed husband, currently raising two sons from different relationships. Glenn Bott-Mole at twelve is already more confident and more capable than his father, although he has inherited his mother’s dropping of ‘aitches’. This is the era of Jaimie Oliver, so he soon takes over cooking the family’s dinners in the kitchen. Adrian’s second son William, whose mother Jo-Jo has returned to Nigeria to be remarried, is worryingly sensitive and enjoys Barbie. His own parents are once again separated, having each married Pandora Braithwaite’s father and mother. Adrian’s mother is ecstatic to finally be ‘lower-upper middle class’, and her new husband Ivan’s obsession with technology is very au courant. Meanwhile Mole senior is stuck in a house filled with Millenium Dome memorabilia, plant-life and koi fish. Pandora herself of course, Adrian’s enduring love, is a local Labour MP who yearns to escape her constituents and consults him on policy as he is the perfect representative of ‘middle England’.

Adrian strikes up a doomed relationship with his social housing officer Pamela Pigg, whom he repeatedly tries to convince to change her name by deed poll. His attempts at a novel continue, accidentally plagiarizing J. K. Rowling at one point and his epic love story set during the Stone Age before the evolution of language receiving a scornful review from his son Glenn.

Somehow Mole always manages to get it wrong, despite being, as Pandora observes, perfectly English in every way. He is also, however, gullible and entirely self-deluded, a hypochondriac who drives his local GP to distraction. Now in his thirties he has not changed so much from the pretentious teenager who used to measure his penis with a ruler. Through him the disappointments of the Blair era and the beginnings of the ‘Long War’, are observed with a wry light.

I look forward to seeing how he gets out of calamitous arrest. It’s good to be back.

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