Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Review: MAGGOT MOON, by Sally Gardner

I've just finished reading Sally Gardner's new novel Maggot Moon (Sept. 2012 Hot Key Books (UK)/Feb. 2013 Candlewick Press (US)) and I need to tell you about it.  If you like young adult fiction, you should do yourself a favour and read this novel as soon as you can.  It's amazing.

I figured it would be very good, because I really loved Gardner's first novel, I, Coriander (2005), set after the English Civil War and complete with evil step-mothers, fairy worlds, and witch hunts.  (You can see how this became an influence on my own work-in-progress novel).  Plus, Gardner writes beautiful, rich, original prose.

She has also written three other YA novels, two of which I own but shamefully haven't read yet: The Red Necklace (2007) and The Silver Blade (2009) (both set around the French Revolution, with automata!) and The Double Shadow (2011), in which a teenage girl is placed in an alternate world created by her father for her safety in the lead up to World War Two.  She's also writing a mystery series for young children called Wings & Co.

So, there's a great backlist for you to dig into if you get hooked on Gardner's writing.

My second inkling that Maggot Moon was going to be amazing came when Meg Rosoff tweeted that she thought this book would win next year's Carnegie Medal.  High praise indeed.  (And the novel has indeed been long-listed for the prize; it has also been short-listed for the Costa Children's Book Award).

Onto the book itself.  I'll quote the flap copy because I don't want to give away too much of the plot, as this book is structured in large part on flashbacks and the carefully paced revelations Gardner allows the reader.
When his best friend Hector is suddenly taken away, Standish Treadwell realises that it is up to him, his grandfather and a small band of rebels to confront and defeat the ever present oppressive forces of The Motherland. 
Friendship and trust inspire Standish to rise up against an oppressive regime and expose the truth about a planned moon landing in this original and spellbinding book.
This novel reminded me, at different times, of Nineteen Eighty-Four (in terms of the people who are disappeared, the constant surveillance, the dictatorial government), The Hunger Games (Zone 7, where undesirables seem to live reminded me of Katniss's District 12), The Book Thief (as Standish's Motherland in 1956 looks a lot like a possible alternate history, if the Nazis had indeed taken over Britain - plus another important element that I won't mention for fear of spoilers), and Code Name Verity, which I blogged about earlier this year (because the book is focused on the joy that Hector brings to Standish's life, giving him self-esteem, helping him to dream of a better life, standing up to his bullies, and also because Standish will do anything to help his best friend).

Despite these comparisons, the book very much stands out as an original, especially if you compare it to other YA dystopian novels out there at the moment.  It takes place in 1956, as the authoritarian Motherland plans to make a moon landing in order to prove its superiority to the Enemy Nations.  It involves a secret, friendship, family, bravery, and sacrifice.  Our extremely likeable narrator Standish is dyslexic and has eyes of two different colours.  He is an outcast and under threat in this society which values "purity" but he will dare all for his best friend.  Standish and Hector together imagine a world like the one they see on their illegal television - something like a version of the 1950s American dream - Cadillacs, ice cream, croca cola, Technicolor.  All the things they are denied in Zone 7.  They also dream of space travel, of escape to the imaginary planet Juniper and the better world it represents.

One slightly spoilery thing that broke my heart: the Motherland has created a twisted version of Blake's hymn "Jerusalem" for propaganda purposes.  Watch for a Casablanca moment involving this song.  (Some of you will get the reference, I hope).

And keep tissues handy!

Some notes on the book as a physical object:

Hot Key Books has produced a lovely hardback, with illustrations in each chapter of a fly, a rat, and many maggots.  See if you can figure out the significance behind this (rather macabre) progression of illustrations.  I have my own theory.  But, hurrah for illustrations, above all else!  I'm so happy to see illustration becoming an element of more books, at all age levels.

Hot Key Books also characterises the content of each of its novels.  On a wheel on the back of the book jacket, the reader learns that this book contains 50% friendship, plus danger, rebellion, and a conspiracy theory (making up the other 50%).  What a clever way to communicate themes and content!

One other indicator of content had me slightly more concerned, however.  There is also a warning: "Contains some strong language".  This is true.  I suppose I can also see why this warning might be useful to parents in selecting books for their children to read.  But to me it also smacks of the controversy surrounding the option of age-banding books for children, which has been recurring issue in the news in the UK.  Authors have consistently come out against this, because it seems to dogmatise what is appropriate for readers based solely on their age, a dodgy business at best.

Standish swear a lot.  Sometimes rather imaginatively.  But I suspect if you were a teenager living under these circumstances, you'd probably find a lot to swear about as well.  And it's an integral part of his narrating voice.  Is it necessary to warn parents about this?  My theory has been a) that words are just words and b) that if teenagers swear/have sex/drink,etc., there isn't much point in protecting teens from things that already occur within their age group.  So that's my take on the language warning.  You may well disagree with me.


 The last stop on our trip was Bruges, which was already delightfully Christmassy looking, with decorations and lights up.  This was by far the most tourist-packed city we visited during the trip.  Bruges also seems to have its tourists figured out - I'd never seen so many chocolate, lace, and beer shops before!  Thankfully, they were almost all well-presented, not tacky.

City hall on Burg Square.  The next day we visisted the Gothic Hall inside, which was redone beautifully by the Victorians.  Beside this is the romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood.  We visited the upper chapel (also redecorated marvellousely in the 19th century) where they hold the supposed relic.

 Tim grabs his first round of frites (with a curry mustard sauce) from a stand recommended by trusty Rick Steves and located at the base of this building...

 The Belfort, Bruges's medieval bell tower on the Grote Markt.  (Very busy and looked like they were setting up their Christmas market).  You can apparently get a great view if you go up the 300+ steps of the tower, but we passed.

 One of the lovely canals.

 The courtyard outside the Gruuthuse Museum, a mansion belonging to 16th-century burghers.

 Cathedral of Our Lady, featuring a Michelangelo Madonna and Child statue, as well as other art.  Just across the street from the cathedral is the Memling Museum, housed in what used to be a medieval hospital (of the good intentions-primitive medicine variety).  Lots of medieval art, but we liked the hospital and medical history best.  (Tim's not so keen on pre-Renaissance art.)

 Swans and a canal by the Begijnhof (a word I'm sure I never pronounced correctly during the trip.)

Our favourite Dutch word was the famously not-quite-translateable gezellig, which seems to mean "coziness".  We had a very gezellig time in our accomodation, which was a newly renovated 16th-century house with this delightful gas fireplace.  I spent a great deal of my time in Bruges in an armchair by this fire, racing through to the conclusion of Laini Taylor's Days of Blood and Starlight, which was amazing.

Then after two days in Bruges, we finished our remarkably fun, stress-free trip and took the Eurostar back to London and the train back to Oxford.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


 In my last post, I mentioned the threat a rail strike posed to our being able to get to Amsterdam as planned.

It ended up being rather anticlimactic, for us anyway.

The TGV and the Thalys (a high-speed line that runs through Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and maybe somewhere in Germany) were shut down and replaced with inter-city trains.  We took the inter-city train we had originally planned on and faced no delays at all.  Hurray.

Above are the buildings over the Herengracht canal from the apartment where we stayed, which fronted onto a wee canal that runs perpendicular to the Herengracht and the Singel.  That row of delightfully cute buildings housed Baton, a fabulous cafe, and 't Arendsnest, a great pub.

Basically the first thing we did in Amsterdam was tour the Anne Frank House.  It was an amazing experience.  I've never read Anne Frank's diary but I know the story and I have a pretty good imagination.  For these reasons, I found myself very choked up on going through, knowing that the secret annex kept eight people hidden away for two years, that Anne's family and others could not go outside, that they had to be so quiet during the day, and that they were betrayed and taken out of that hiding place and shipped off to the death camps.  That they would have been dragged out of the door hidden behind the bookcase that is still there, that every visitor walks by.  The museum is very well done and was set up according to Otto Frank's specifications.  If you are ever in Amsterdam, I recommend you go.

This is the Westerkerk, just down the block from the house.  Apparently Anne could hear the bells ring in the secret annex and they reminded her of the world going on outside.

 The royal palace, formerly city hall, on Dam Square.

A church on a canal.

 Gorgeous mansions near the Rijksmuseum.

 The Rijksmuseum itself.  It's huge!  But we didn't get to go into the museum proper, which is closed for renovations until 2017 (!).  Instead, we toured the Philips Wing, which is sort of a greatest hits version of Dutch art, including things like giant, incredibly expensive doll houses and an awesome model ship.

 The sides of the museum are adorned with great mosaics.

After this, we went to the Hermitage Amsterdam, which is a satellite museum of the actual Hermitage Museum in Russia.  They had an exhibition on the Impressionists on (I do love my Impressionists), plus a Van Gogh exhibition, as the Van Gogh Museum is also closed at the moment.

And after all the art, we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum, which was absolutely fascinating and covered the myriad and inventive ways that the Dutch resisted Nazi occupation from home-made radios for picking up BBC and Radio Orange (broadcasted from London by the government-in-exile) to falsified identification to printing presses for underground newspapers.  It was a proud thing to see Canada's old flag hanging alongside those of the others countries which helped to liberate the Netherlands.

Here is Tim at 't Arendsnest, sampling Dutch beer very happily.

Next, our last stop - Bruges!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


 After two lovely days in Brussels, it was off to Antwerp, once a big commercial power and still one of the biggest players in the diamond industry.  The whole reason we were going to Antwerp, on this trip really, was because on November 13th, Within Temptation - one of my favourite bands ever - was having its 15th anniversary concert at Antwerp's Sportpaleis.  Otherwise, I didn't know that much about Antwerp but we really enjoyed ourselves.

We especially enjoyed the gorgeous Art Nouveau entrance hall of the train station.  The rest of the station is modernized, with train platforms on three levels, but this hall and the main facade were wonderful.  Probably the nicest train station of the entire trip.

 We stayed in a four-level house filled with rental apartments a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Grote Markt, home to the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is currently filled with a number of Dutch religious paintings, including four or so by Reubens, as Antwerp's art museum is closed until next year, I think.  It was really nice to see these paintings in a cathedral setting, especially the Reubens ones, as most of them were painted specifically to be displayed in this building.

 Another beautiful city hall, also in the Grote Markt.

 On day two, our full day in Antwerp, we headed south to take in the St. Andries district which is described as trendy and is quite a fashion district.  There were many interesting clothing stores and restaurants in this area, all in lovely old buildings.  It was a nice neighbourhood to explore at random.

 Right by St. Andries is the Plantin-Moretus House, a printing museum.  This was possibly our favourite museum of the trip - printing, books, engraving, atlases, libraries, and even a 17th century bookstore, pictured above.  We were in bibliophile heaven.  (Christophe Plantin was the first industrial printer in the Low Countries, or was it in Europe?  Hugely important, in any case.  Moretus was his assistant and then son-in-law and the Moretus's continued the printing business successfully into the 18th century.  The museum is in the family home.)

 Here you can see any printer's most valuable possessions - his type.  Type was very expensive, so generally you kept as little on hand as you could get away with.  Some of it is still in its original packaging; some is packaged in old printed sheets, probably ones with errors that couldn't be used.

The printing workshop.  So many printing presses!

 And cases upon cases of type.

 Me, with one of two of the oldest printing presses in the world.  The other one is on my other side.

 And, as might be expected from a successful printer, a fabulous humanist library, complete with globes and busts.  This is the Large Library.  There is also a Small Library.

And my one, terribly fuzzy photo from the Within Temptation concert, which was fabulous, especially as you can see pictured behind Sharon den Adel and the band the orchestra and choir.  I think I took this during "Ice Queen".  Everyone who was staying in our building (except for Tim, but including our very friendly landlady) ended up going to the concert.  I think all the hotels in Antwerp were filled with metal fans that night.  I ended up riding the tram to the venue with some friendly Norwegians, one of whom had been to Saskatchewan and tried to convince his friends it was even flatter than the Netherlands and Belgium.

We were a bit concerned about how we would get to our next stop, Amsterdam, as there were reports that the socialist rail union in Belgium was going to go on strike the next day, in solidarity with countries dealing with austerity measures.  Did we make it to Amsterdam or not?  Find out in the next installment.  :)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Chapter-Writing Survival Kit: Chapter Three Edition

You can find my must-haves for chapters one and two if you follow the links.

1.  Notebooks!  I've been keeping a small notebook with me for the last year or so to write down my daily to-do lists, track my hours, jot down ideas or library call numbers but all of sudden, I've become a notebook fiend.  I've been using medium soft-cover Moleskines for the last couple months to jot down ideas, brainstorming, lists of books to read, rough paragraphs, lists of quotations and page references - all the messy-ish work that goes into writing a chapter.  I used to do this on loose leaf but I think that began to feel too serious or formal or finished.  If it goes in a notebook, I have permission to do unfinished writing and thinking.  Also, they're fun to carry around.  I like the feeling of them.  I like the heft of a nice black Bic pen in my hand.

Please don't mock my terrible penmanship.  I can handwrite quickly but only I can usually read the scrawl.  This is something I wrote up two days ago, outlining my thoughts for Chapter Four.  This excercise, helped by multiple colours of pens, helped me to realize that I had a much better idea of what I wanted to cover in this chapter than I thought I did.  So, hurrah to notebooks!

2.  CBC Radio.  This is also a weird one.  For years, I've enjoyed listening to music while I worked - school-work, novel-writing.  I can happily listen to music with English lyrics; I know some people can't. I think Philip Pullman has said in interviews he can't listen to music at all, because it throws off the rhythms in his head.  But writing this chapter, for some reason talk radio was my go-to for a background track to run through my head.  I'm not sure how much radio I actually absorbed, but I learned some interesting things from the many episodes of As It Happens, Ideas, Quirks and Quarks, and The Sunday Edition I listened to.  I think it also made me feel not quite so far from home and, when Tim is at work, less all alone in the flat (?)  Hard to say.

3.  This isn't to say that music didn't help me a great deal.  It did.  I listened to and enjoyed the new Kamelot album, Silverthorn, towards the end of this chapter, plus the usual mix of Florence + the Machine and classic rock.

4.  In the beverage department - hot chocolate and chai.  Hot drinks make writing so much more fun.

5.  Also, going down the road to our local Costa for coffee after Tim is done work.  Sometimes it's just really nice to have a change of scene, a place that feels less like "work".

(I think I had ten things in my survival kit for each of the last two posts in this series.  I can't think of ten this time.  Alas.)


I've been a bit radio silent on the blog lately, haven't I?  First I was busy writing up my third thesis chapter and for the last weekish Tim and I were off in the Low Countries.  Expect trip posts, Chapter Three and thesis-writing posts, and a couple book reviews in the coming days.  I can think of many things to blog about but today I want to talk about the two days we spent in Brussels.

We took the train to London and the Eurostar to Brussels, which I think took just over two hours.  Not bad at all.  Just about that first thing we saw at Brussel's Midi/Zuid Station was this rendering of Tin-Tin.  Tin-Tin seems to be Belgium's favourite fictional son.  We saw those books everywhere, in many languages.  The next thing we did was get lost on the metro (my fault - I sent us in the wrong direction!)

We stayed just outside the main tourist zone on a residential street near the EU area.  Walking around Brussels felt a bit like being in Ottawa.  We constantly saw the offices of international organizations.  Plus, all the signs were bilingual, something we have a great familiarity with in Canada, where a lot of labelling and, in some places, signage appears in English and French.  Pictured below is Tim with some street signs in French and Flemish, languages which are so different from each other that street names often don't resemble themselves when translated from one language to the next.

Another couple notes on language.  I thought I might need to exercise my French a bit more on this trip and maybe learn some Dutch.  Nope.  Everyone had fantastic English, ranging from slightly strained and accented to near-perfect fluency.  (I include in that category the train manager on the way to Amsterdam who referred to his portable debit/credit machine as "invidious", a word that really deserves to be used more often).  Also, at most of the museums, explanations were given in four languages!  French, Dutch/Flemish, German, and English.

We discovered some interesting statues on our way through the parc which boasts the Palais de la Nation at one end and the Palais Royale at the other.  

 A mussel and a brussel sprout.  There were also frites, a chocolate bar, and a glass of beer.  You know you're in a great country when they flaunt their national symbols this proudly.

 Brussels has a ridge that runs through it, separating the lower city (the older, more medievalish bit with twisty lanes and tourists) and the upper city (more nineteenth-century and Parisian looking).  The Grand-Place (or, in Flemish, Grote Markt) is in the lower city, which you can reach in many cases by going down stairs.  We saw the spire on the building pictured above when we first looked out over the lower city and were convinced it must belong to a cathedral - nope, city hall.  All the cities we visited had fabulous historic markets with guild halls and city hall, all done up with great pomp and attesting to the very great commercial wealth of the 16th and 17th century Dutch golden age.

 More buildings in the Grote Markt.  I quite like the tastefully done guilded detail.

 Looking the Musee des Beaux Arts, which we couldn't go into since this was Remembrance Sunday and most of the museums were closed.  It was fine though - we ended up seeing a lot of art in Amsterdam and Bruges, but more on that later.  We did go to the BELvue museum, which is a wing of the royal palace and covers Belgian history from independence in 1830 to the present.  It was really fascinating to see how political (liberal, socialist, etc.), religious (Protestant/Catholic), and ethnic (French/Flemish/German) tensions have shaped modern-day Belgium.  Most interesting was the constant fight on the part of the Flemish to have their language used and recognized, which reminded me of the language laws in place in Quebec today to keep French from being pushed out by English.  Also, there was a set of letters written by King Albert I of Belgium, George V of England, Kaiser Wilhem of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia around the time of World War I.  All these men were related to each other (through Queen Victoria and her brood of ten children, who intermarried with most of the royal families in Europe) and wrote variously to each other in English, French, and German (I think).

On a Bronte-related note, apparently one of the buildings that houses the Musee des Beaux Arts is currently located on (maybe above?) the site where the Pensionnat Heger was located.  Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily came to Brussels in 1842 to improve their knowledge of French, with the ultimate goal of setting up their own school with Anne (still governessing in England).  Charlotte stayed for almost two years and probably fell madly in love with her French teacher, M. Constantin Heger.  It was nice to be able to walk about the lower city and the area about the royal palace, which is about all that's left of the Brussels Charlotte Bronte knew.  The area has sadly been modernised since, so that even street levels are often different than they were in the mid-nineteenth century.

We ended the day with a tour of some of the beautiful parks in the EU quarter with a friend of ours from home who is currently based in Brussels.  This is the triumphal arch of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium's independent existense.  Very grand, purposefully Parisian.  In fact, quite a bit of Brussels reminded of Paris, but in a more down-to-earth way.  A great city to visit for a few days.

And then it was off to Antwerp and a long-awaited concert...

Friday, 2 November 2012

Seven Things I Learned from Sarah Stickney Ellis

Sarah Stickney Ellis was a Quaker turned Congregationalist who wrote numerous conduct books for women during the Victorian period (as well as other educational works).  I'm currently skimming through the sections on education and training for boys in her 1843 book The Mothers of England.  Some of her points are rather amusing, so I'm going to summarize the best ones here.

(I'm reading parts of this book because I'm writing about contemporary expectations concerning the raising and education of boys during the early Victorian period.  I'm writing about this in Chapter Three of my thesis, on Charlotte Bronte's The Professor, but will be revisiting this material when I write about Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.)

1.  Not everyone who praises your child is sincere.  "One-half of those apparently interested inquirers [...] would say pretty much the same, if the heir of the house should appear toothless, bald, shrivelled, and with every feature of his face distorted."

2. Why mothers are better teachers for their children than paid governesses or tutors: a mother's love "might weight in the balance against a little extra Latin and Greek".

3.  On choosing a school, one must remember that aim of education "should be to dignify the sphere of life to which they belong [ie: the middle class], not to creep up into another."  My, my.

4.  If your husband is "deficient in religious knowledge", children should be sent to school for a proper religious education.

5.  In opposition to the writers who claim that men and women "have equal powers, and are fitted for the same field of action", Ellis asks, don't women have "at present enough to do in their accustomed and familiar place?"  The spectre of separate spheres rises once more, but with a twist.  If women want to become members of parliament, an equal number of men must stay home and "darn stockings" or there will be a loss of "useful exertion in that department where it cannot well be spared".  Funny to think these are issues we are still dealing with today, vis a vis women's representation in the highest levels of politics, academia, and management, as well as the issue of men's place in raising children, etc.

6.  "In the first place, let it be remembered, that boys must be humoured to a certain extent.  Boys and men require this and have a right to expect it from women."  *rolls eyes*

7.  Tyranny in boys may begin "with the little boy in the nursery, when he snatches up his sister's kitten, and throws it into the nearest pond".  GASP!  Who does this?  Did little boys do this in 1843?  Yikes!  (I love, love, love cats for the record).  This energy and love of power should instead "be so directed  as to find an appropriate and delightful use in the feeling that he is the natural protector of his sisters."  Somehow, that doesn't seem quite as dramatic as throwing poor, innocent kittens into ponds.