E is for Enthralling: The Fantasy and Sci-Fi Books that Got Me Hooked

The inspiration for today’s post comes from the ‘chat’ (i.e. blog comment exchange) I had yesterday with Roland Clarke, fellow writer, A to Zer and 100kin100days member (you could visit his blog next…). I mused about fantasy and sci-fi – about how I’d loved it but then spent a long period avoiding it, because everything I picked up seemed derivative; same old, same old. But it was the genre that inspired a devotion which carried me through to my teens and beyond, long after other genres (school, pony and mystery stories) had been left behind.To discover where this love started, we’re going back, back… no, I mean we’re REALLY going back..

Blyton blue plaque.jpg
Plaque near Dulwich library

Enid Blyton: The Far-Away Tree series
Three children climbed a huge tree inhabited by a host of fascinating, vaguely humanoid creatures – Saucepan Man, Moonface and Silky the Fairy. Were there others? There was a helter-skelter that went right down through the middle of the tree, AND different magical lands were on a rota to appear at the top of the tree. Some lands were fun, some were scary (to someone of 6 or 7). What’s not to love?

C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia
I get twitchy when people refer to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the ‘first’ Narnia book. It was written first, but please don’t give it to anyone to read first; in the Chronicles it’s book 2. The confusion comes from Lewis’ writing order (2,4,5,6,3,1,7), but if you don’t read the Magician’s Nephew first, you’ll never discover how Narnia came into being – or where the wardrobe came from in the first place.

  1. The Magician’s Nephew
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  3. The Horse and his Boy
  4. Prince Caspian
  5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  6. The Silver Chair
  7. The Last Battle

Despite – or as well as, depending on your leaning – being Christian allegory, the Chronicles are a darn good read. Yes, the language and mannerisms are dated now, but for the time, the girls are portrayed as relatively strong characters who do not stay out of the fighting. Battles, magic, rescues, betrayal, super-villains, loveable animal comrades that  talk, the notion of a different world just round the corner from ours and the heady idea that one day I might be called upon, just as Peter, Edward, Susan and Lucy were, to go and ‘make a difference: marvellous!
The Horse and His Boy is hard-going and a little lacking in Lewis magic. It only really relates to The Last Battle,  and can be left out altogether without much impact. As for The Last Battle – by now I was 8 or 9 and had already lost two of the three grandparents I started with. It made me cry.

Lloyd Alexander.jpg
Lloyd Alexander

Lloyd Alexander: The Chronicles of Prydain
They’re brilliant, and based on Welsh mythology. Never heard of them? Er… ever heard of the Disney film, The Black Cauldron? That’s not that surprising either. Taking its title from the 2nd book, yet loosely based on books 1 and 2, it was “the first Disney animated theatrical feature to receive a PG rating. It even had to be edited twice to avoid being released with a PG-13 or R rating” (IMDB).  It’s popularly known as ‘the film that nearly finished Disney’. I’ll explain why in my ‘U for Underrated’ blog post. That aside, the books are well worth a read. The character development is great, as are the moral dilemmas; there’s an interesting heroine and a pig-keeper who comes into his own. But as is often the case, the ending is bitter sweet. Here I am in tears again at the end of book 5: 10 years old.

  1. The Book of Three
  2. The Black Cauldron
  3. The Castle of Llyr
  4. Taran Wanderer
  5. The High King

More Fantasy talk on Monday in F is for Fascinating 🙂

D is for Disappointing: The Reply from The Book People CEO

I hadn’t even looked to see what the D adjective was today, but I came home from a work meeting to find a reply to the email that The Book People had asked me to write, regarding the #LetBooksBeBooks campaign started by @LetToysBeToys

I was going to post it on my blog anyway, as the original letter was posted on here too, but I thought I’d write my D post at the same time. When I checked, it was D for Disappointing – and as that sums up my feelings about the reply, I think my post is done for me. What a shame that as far as the CEO is concerned, if lots of people do something, that makes it right; and there’s no need for them to stand out against it or show a better example.

So here it is in its unedited entirety.

Dear Ms Runham,
I’m so sorry not to have replied sooner, I have been very busy at the children’s book fair in Bologna, reviewing, reading and buying books for the Book People.

Bologna is my favourite book fair, not just because its backdrop is Italy in springtime but because it is full of brilliant publishers, fiercely proud agents, talented authors and illustrators and the fair’s packed halls are heaving with a dynamic mix of experts and enthusiasts, all brought together by the common purpose of championing children’s books.  Meanwhile, our social media team, back at HQ, were nagging me from afar, worried that your open email might quickly escalate into cyber bullying and that they must respond to you quickly for fear that our good name would be besmirched through my less than prompt response.

I was more relaxed than they were because I am very proud of the integrity with which we select books and I do not think there is anything we should change, nor do I believe there is anything within our editorial stance for which we should be apologetic.  Every book we offer has been hand picked by us and we are proud of all the books we sell.  Of course, the books we select are intended to reach a very wide audience but, essentially, we are proud to put books into the hands of people and we are proud of our ability to make books both affordable and accessible.  More than anything, however, I respect our customers who we know are discerning and adventurous, loyal and outspoken and will quickly tell us when they think we’ve got it wrong. They have the habit of surprising us in their choices, too, which contributes to the endless enjoyment of our role as curators.

You’ll be saddened but not at all surprised to learn that one of our most common search terms is “books for boys” followed closely by “books for girls”.  This doesn’t, however, sadden me. I believe that a customer who reaches out for help and advice when choosing a book when there are so many other options available, is something to be celebrated.  Parents, grandparents and all book givers, demonstrate to us on a daily basis that they want as much guidance as possible and want books accurately prescribed to them.  Signposting helps and it is our duty (and pleasure) to make this choice as easy as possible.  I, like you, am not comfortable with gender stereotyping, but I have confidence in our customers that they will buy the books that suit their own children, knowing them and knowing what they like and knowing what they are most likely to respond to.  Giving a child a book is very rarely a bad thing.

I understand that you have had considerable impact on the publishing industry and I admire your tenacity and commitment to your cause.  Publishers are already altering the way that they approach this subject and I suspect that as a result of your campaign we will be offered fewer and fewer gender specific books in the future.  It is interesting to note, however, that if we sell a cookbook for girls next to a cookbook for boys, the combined sales of both will be considerably higher than the sales of a single gender-neutral cookbook.  I don’t believe that this is because parents are trying to influence their childrens’ behaviour, I believe this is because they know what their children will respond to and as far as I am concerned, the more children learning to cook while they learn to read, the better!

We have such a very long way to go, as a nation, to ensure that every home is book-rich and that all children can not just access books but exercise some choice over the books they access.  Over the last quarter of a century the Book People has been involved in an astonishing number of projects, from sponsoring the Imagine Children’s Festival to working with Booked Up, Booktrust, Beanstalk and many other initiatives that share our commitment to reading for pleasure.  But despite all of our best efforts, books are still not an integral part of every childhood.  Let’s all continue to work together to ensure we make book gifting a comfortable, pleasant, fulfilling experience but also let’s do our very best to make it as easy as possible for those people for whom buying a book is not yet habitual or instinctive.  From observing the habits of readers over a very long period of time my firm belief is that the only way to create a reader for life, is to ensure they get their hands on books they enjoy.
Yours sincerely

Seni Glaister
CEO, the Book People

C is for Cool: Competitions, Evolution, Bono, Penguins & Positive Productivity!

I have the same problem with Cool as I did with Boring yesterday. So many things are cool – where would I begin? People with enquiring, open minds; people who aren’t scared to speak up against prejudice, even when it doesn’t affect them; parents who encourage their children to make decisions for themselves, instead of dictating their beliefs and aspirations – and provide them with the tools to do so. All very Cool.

Penguins, of course, live in cool places and are also inherently cool. Some have funky hairstyles, the Dad does his share of parenting and contrary to urban myth, they do not become so fixated on aeroplanes in the Falkland Islands that they fall over backwards while watching them, because they are far too cool for that.

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With all this abundance of coolness, I decided to simply share three of my Google Alerts that struck me as cool.

1) Competitions

Interesting creative writing competitions for children, particularly with good prizes, are relatively rare – but this one qualifies. Stroud Library are running a competition to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Laurie Lee, most famous for Cider with Rosie. I recommend Laurie Lee; if you haven’t read any of his work, shuffle off to the library right now. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is a favourite of mine.

Laurie Lee

The theme of the competition is Legends set somewhere in the Five Valleys, where many of Laurie’s stories originated, and where he lived in the village of Slad.

There are two age categories for the competition:

  • Under 7s : 50-500 words
  • 8-12 years: 300-1,000 words

For each category the 1st prize will be £25 and a bundle of books and the 2nd prize will be £15, which is great, so if you know any young budding writers, point them in the direction of this page, where they can download an application form. The competition opens on 5th April and closes on the 31st May, and the webpage also has details of a workshop children can attend to help them get started on their masterpiece.


Scientists have been looking afresh at the Permian-Triassic extinction that occurred around 252 million years ago . While they know that this event, which destroyed 90% percent of marine life and 70 % of terrestrial life, was caused by a disruption to the carbon cycle, the cause of the disruption has always been a mystery – although they knew that something ’caused a burst of carbon to come out of storage’, turning seas to acid and raising temperatures.

According to the Smithsonian website, geophysicist  Daniel Rothman and his team have noticed that the carbon cycle disruption  wasn’t typical of a geological event like a meteorite strike or volcano, where it would peak then taper off; instead the disruption seemed to grow at an increasing rate over time. So they’re hypothesising that microbes may be to blame – pesky microbes that may have traded genes. They believe that Methanosarcina gained two genes from a bacteria that gave them the ability to eat organic waste (with its stored carbon) from the sea floor, causing them to pump out methane and push carbon back into the water. You can read the full article here.


It makes you wonder what else microbes may have been responsible for…

3) Bono

Bono is (arguably) cool, but apparently the poor lad has writer’s block – which is seriously delaying progress on U2’s planned new album and follow up tour. CBC books thoughtfully provided 5 brief writing tips from authors that might help him on his way. You can read them all if you want, but I wanted to share  my favourite one:

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Mark Twain

Not only is this true, but it’s also the essence of a handy book by Simon Whaley, called The Positively Productive Writer, which explains in detail exactly how to  ‘break your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks’ and provides a host of useful and inspiring tips to get you started.

If you’re a writer who needs a constructive kick up the butt and a Plan, then read all about it here before hopping off and buying (or downloading) it. Perhaps I should send a link to Bono, too…

B is for Boring: ‘Documentaries’, Prejudice, Perthshire and Oregon

Before anyone gets upset, I’m not declaring Perthshire (in Scotland, for non-UK visitors) or Oregon, USA boring. But when I was thinking about what I find boring this morning, I was concerned that this could turn into a whinge post. I looked up the word boring on Google to find if it had any alternative/ancient/quirky meanings I could work on, but had barely got past ‘not interesting; tedious’ when I spotted Boring in Oregon in the sidebar. So I clicked to see results for that instead – and came across the kind of quirky stuff that I love.

It seems the people of Boring in Oregon have trouble persuading people that it’s a great place to visit. So when the inhabitants of Dull in Perthshire (well, the members of the women’s book club, actually) approached them with the idea of twinning up for the sake of a laugh and good publicity in 2012, they voted yes.

The idea for a partnership came from a Dull resident who stumbled on Boring during a trip from Flagstaff, Arizona to Seattle. A church in Dull is pictured.
Dull, a hamlet in Perthshire, Scotland

Apparently the two places can’t be official twins because they’re too different (who knew there were RULES for that kind of thing??). Boring is a town with over 12,000 people and Dull is a tiny village with just 84 residents (although obviously big enough to have a single sex book club? Don’t even get me started on the equality issue…). So they’ve gone for a ‘declaration of pairing’ – sounds as bizarre as Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ to me!

Boring has fewer than 7,500 residents and Dull has only about 80. Both are farming communities.

Dull (Gaelic derivation: may come from snare, meadow or coffin strap) and Boring (named after William H Boring, an early homesteader in the area), have really got into it. Dull got a new sign and marked the initial announcement with a street party in June that year, while inn Boring, they have a Dull and Boring Day on August 9th. There are bagpipes and ice-cream, apparently. Blimey!

And now the Australian town of Bland is keen to join. Well, they can’t use a ‘declaration of pairing’, can they. There’s three of them. It’s bad English.

So there you go – quirky and a lot more interesting than boring things. I find too many things to mention exceedingly boring indeed, but chief gripes would be people regurgitating prejudices they’ve grown up with and have never analysed for themselves – you know the ones. “Gypsies are thieves” (oh, do you know several hundred then, so you can at least make a judgment with some kind of actual basis, flawed though that may be?). “Homosexuals shouldn’t get married because marriage is for procreation” (where shall we start? There’s no marriage service in the bible, it’s been made up by ordinary common-or-garden humans; marriage didn’t exist in the way we think of it until a few hundred years ago; marriage doesn’t need to be just a Christian concept; if marriage is for procreation, let’s not let infertile impostors or women over 55 through that door with their wedding gear on, then. How dare they wish to get married when they’re obviously not doing so to produce children. Begone, elderly couple who just want to be together and young couple praying the IVF will work before they run out of cash).

My second most boring thing would be the increasing number of ‘documentaries’, many on supposedly ‘documentary’ channels, that are not documentaries at all but just a group of people with anger management issues posturing, arguing and generally acting up for the camera. From which I lean zilch, other than that the USA seems to love putting people on TV who show them in the worst possible light as a country. Thank heavens I don’t judge any country by a handful of its inhabitants…

A is for Amazing: The Shell Grotto in Margate

Luckily, I didn’t need to rack my brains too hard for something amazing, because I came across something that fits the description just two days ago.

On Sunday myself, Mr IT, ArtyDaughter, ConstructoBoy and my Mum celebrated Mother’s Day with a trip to The Shell Grotto in Margate, Kent. It’s been on TV a few times and you may have seen it on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces programme. It was featured in the 2012 Christmas Special which you can watch here on the Channel 4 website. So why does it qualify as Amazing?


Photo: Isobel Runham
Photo: Isobel Runham

Firstly, there’s the sheer scale of the achievement. The Grotto is 104ft long with a rotunda, a dome and a passage leading to a room nicknamed the altar chamber (sadly a WW2 bomb partially destroyed this area). As for the time it must have taken; wow. Every surface apart from the floor is covered with a variety of shells in intricate patterns, and there are a staggering 4.6 million shells remaining in situ, although some have become detached over time or have been stolen by souvenir hunters. The floor, which may have been decorated too and/or made of marble, has been removed at some stage and this has damaged the bottom of the walls.

Grotto section

Some sections have also been renovated over the years, though when and to what extent is unknown – which leads us to the second ‘Amazing’ qualification.

Nobody knows when, why or how the Grotto was constructed, or who by. Notice I don’t say ‘nobody knows for definite’, because researchers aren’t even anywhere near a definitive answer; the evidence is too scarce. There are a number of hypotheses, but the one that seems most likely is the one that’s probably hardest to prove.

The Grotto is Grade 1 listed and has been open to the public since 1838; restorations done before its opening and for many years after were poorly recorded or not noted at all. It was supposedly discovered in 1835, although even that date – and the circumstances of its discovery – aren’t rock solid. Was the Grotto discovered when house foundations were being dug? Was a small boy sent down the hole to investigate?

Grotto Altar Room

Before 1838 there are no recorded mentions, documents or maps relating to the Grotto. An 1821 map of Margate shows that the area above the Grotto as an open field, but not far from building expansion. Had people have been constructing something on this scale around this time (not to mention importing millions of diverse shells), surely someone would have noticed. It would have taken months, if not years, of work.

Was it built by the Knights Templar? Did a local aristocrat order it built? In a field they didn’t own, telling nobody and leaving no documentation behind? Did someone go to such extreme lengths to build it merely as a Victorian tourist attraction – and not bother to generate any publicity about it during construction? And if it had been recently constructed when it was (re)discovered, why did the people responsible not come forward and take the credit for a remarkable achievement? The iconography of the Grotto is also completely incompatible with Victorian follies and continental shell grottoes of the period.

After our visit – which filled my head with many more questions than answers! – I picked up a copy of ‘The Enigma of the Margate Shell Grotto’ in the gift shop. Published in 2011 by  Martyrs Field Publications, this is the most recent examination of the evidence. Patricia Jane Marsh discusses each of the Grotto construction theories, analysing them against a specific set of criteria. She makes no judgements herself, but her analysis does point to the Phoenicians as the most likely builders. The Phoenician Goddess Tanit may have given the Isle of Thanet its name, and the Phoenician God of the Underworld, Melqart, may have given Margate its name.

Patricia is a historian and linguist. Her discussion is enlightening and rigorous but also an accessible, fascinating read and I highly recommend it if you want to find out more. You can buy it directly from the publisher here.