A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

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A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett is the thirty-second book in the Discworld series, and the second to feature the witch of the chalk, Tiffany Aching. It is also the third book which was published ostensibly as one for children (The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men being the first two).  It is also my favourite of the entire Discworld series.

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This book follows on from the action in The Wee Free Men. There is a brief recap to set the scene, and then we are thrown into Tiffany’s training as a witch and her run in with a creature called a Hiver, something which strikes fear into the hearts of even the Nac Mac Feegle themselves. Granny Weatherwax has a small, but significant role here, and this book is the one that establishes Tiffany as joining the sub-set of books about the witches.

For me, A Hat Full of Sky is so special because it shows Pratchett’s commitment to his theories of what magic is in a non-magical world. It’s where everything he’s been hinting at gets spelled out for those at the back. It’s him, doubling down on what it means to be a witch and what magic really is, and what that means for those of us stuck on a round world where witches don’t exist any more, except that for Pratchett they very much do. It’s the most humane, passionate and angry of his books and every time I read it, or in this case, have it read to me by my son, it makes me cry.

Oscar loved it too, almost certainly for different reasons. He’s an eleven year old boy. He’s got the joy I had of reading Pratchett the first time at a young age, and loving the story, and the funny bits, and then reading it again and again as he grows and seeing the layers, the cleverness, the wisdom and the complexity of the books that will make them endure long after other more ‘worthy’ tomes have fallen by the wayside.

I wrote about it on my main blog a few weeks ago, so I will finish with what I wrote there.

It’s my favourite of the Discworld books. Possibly one of my favourite books ever. There are many reasons to love it, tough, brilliant women characters for a start. It’s funny, and clever and sad and brilliant and it’s all about what it is to be human. And the magic? Well, the magic is in being human too. Here’s my favourite part. Here’s what Granny Weatherwax has to say about magic, and she is right.

‘She cares about ’em. Even the stupid, mean, dribbling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of servant. Now that’s what I call magic – seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ’em safely on their way…and then cleanin’ ’em up, layin’ ’em out, making ’em neat for the funeral and helpin’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets – which is, let me tell you, no job for the faint-hearted – and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin before the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes bangin’ on your door ‘cos his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again…We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and centre of witchcraft that is. The soul and centre!’  Mistress Weatherwax smacked her fist into her hand, hammering out her words. ‘The…soul…and…centre!’

Echoes came back from the trees in the sudden silence. Even the grasshoppers by the side of the track had stopped sizzling.

‘And Mrs Earwig,’ said Mistress Weatherwax, her voice sinking to a growl, ‘Mrs Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colours and wands and…toys, nothing but toys!’ She sniffed. ‘Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.’

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Aunt Sass, Christmas Stories by P L Travers

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P L Travers was the creator of the classic children’s books about Mary Poppins, the stern yet magical nanny that had a truck full of sayings for every occasions and a mysterious flying umbrella with the head of a parrot.

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I grew up reading and re-reading the Mary Poppins books as a child, and loved them. When the film came to our local cinema I must have been about ten, and my parents graciously took my brother and I to see it. Neither of them were big fans of the cinema, so it was a proper treat.

I am ashamed to say that I did not love it. I was, truth be told, wildly upset by the film and have loathed it ever since. I hid my disappointment because I didn’t want to spoil the treat, but to me that film was totally, totally wrong. Years and years later, I read that P L Travers herself, also hated the film, and for much the same reasons I did. I would like to say that had I met her, this meant we would have got on, except that I don’t think she really got on with anyone much.

The thing about the Mary Poppins’ books is that yes, they are magical, and yes at times they are funny, but that is just the very surface of the books. They are so very, very sad you see. They are also incredibly dark. They talk about life and death, and loss and being lost and difficult, terrible feelings that are all there in children’s lives, but which a lot of adults, particularly then, did not really want to acknowledge. They preferred, like the film to believe that children’s lives can be one, long round of magical experiences and fun, and only touch on sadness and loss when it is absolutely unavoidable, and only then for a moment.

Travers knew, from her own childhood experiences, about loss and what it does to children, and she never shied away from the awfulness of it, while also acknowledging the world could be magical and mysterious and joyful, and it is this balance which makes the books so very special, and which the film completely missed out.

I’m talking about this because Aunt Sass, a short book of three of the standalone stories that Travers sent to people as Christmas gifts, really gets to the heart of what her writing is about. None of the stories feature Mary Poppins, yet all are infused with the same spirit and themes that make Poppins so enduring. Interestingly, not all the stories in the Mary Poppins books feature Mary either, or only as book ends to the main themes, and these are in that tradition. They come closest to being autobiographical, dealing as they do with Travers’ Australian childhood.

So, if you’re expecting cutesy magic, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting the raw, unexpurgated Travers, you’ll be delighted. They’re not really stories for young children, not nowadays anyway. They have more in common with Jane Eyre, for example than they do with Captain Underpants, but for older children, they’re perfect.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

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Monstrous Regiment is the thirty first novel in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. It’s one of the few standalone novels in the series, although there are minor characters in it who appear in other books.

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It tells the story of Polly Perks, a young woman living in the small, war torn country of Borogravia. In Borogravia, women are most definitely second class citizens. In Borogravia, everyone pays fealty to the Duchess, and to the God Nuggan. Between them, the Duchess and Nuggan have got the country by the short and curlies, fighting endless wars and avoiding all the things which are an abomination unto Nuggan, which include everything from jigsaws to everything that everyone who isn’t from Borogravia does.

Polly’s brother, Paul has gone off to fight, and she decides to bring him home. The only way she can do this is by pretending to be a boy, because girls can’t join the army. She is recruited by the alarming sergeant Jackrum and joins the ‘ins and outs’. Gradually she discovers that all her fellow recruits are also women, and that the war is not going quite as successfully as official sources would have everyone think.

This is a deeply bleak and satirical look at both the effects and damage of war and pre-conceived ideas about gender. There are some laughs here, but they’re bleak ones. Pratchett skewers his points home relentlessly in this novel, and you can really see the anger bubbling close to the surface here.

I recall when I first read it, many years ago, that I didn’t really like it much. I longed for the comfort of the softer, safer Discworld I was used to, and this was jarring and unfamiliar. Reading it again now, with my son, particularly at a time when gender issues are never far from the news, it had a completely different impact on me. I wanted to send it to everyone I know and force them to read it.

I was surprised at how much Oscar enjoyed this. In fact, he told me it is his favourite book of the series so far. When he had finished it he was genuinely disappointed it was over, and even more disappointed to find that Polly and her mates don’t feature in any more of the books.

The Iron Tonic by Edward Gorey

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I’m never quite sure where to put Edward Gorey when it comes to books. Is he for children? Is he for grown ups? Is he for grown ups who still want to be children? I wrestled with this for a while and then decided that it didn’t really matter as long as you love him, and it seems a shame for children or adults not to get a go at reading him, so I’m reviewing him here and on my grown ups blog for good measure. You can never get enough Gorey is the moral.

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The Iron Tonic is a strange one. Unlike The Gashlycrumb Tinies it doesn’t really have a theme or a narrative. It’s just a collection of macabre drawings and odd ideas all stuck together under a title that doesn’t really throw any light on the subject. It doesn’t really matter, just like it doesn’t really matter who he writes for. What matters is that Gorey is absolutely glorious and every, single opportunity you get to experience him, you should seize with both hands.

My sadness is that I didn’t discover him until I was grown up. I know that if my parents had had this book kicking around on their shelves, I would have become totally obsessed with it, for I was a morbid infant who loved looking at troubling pictures and reading sad tales, as I amply illustrated in my previous blog post about Red Riding Hood.

I think books like this are fun to share with kids initially. There’s so much detail in these pictures and looking at them together and talking about what might be happening and what there is to see is brilliant fun, and also great training for small children in key reading skills. Once you’ve shared them, and if your child loves them, let them pore over them for themselves. This kind of book is always more alluring to children if you make a big show of telling them that you’re not sure if they’ll get it, and that it really is for grown ups but you think you might just let them have a look. It could be the beginning of a grand obsession.

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray

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There are numerous re-writings of Red Riding Hood, from adult versions by Tanith Lee to rhyming versions by Roald Dahl and whole books based on it like the remarkably funny Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr. There is something endlessly fascinating to people about this story in particular, although these days, so many traditional tales are getting a make over. I have to confess that as a small child, I was obsessed by the Ladybird Picture Book version of this tale and used to read and re-read it to myself to scare myself witless. I did it so successfully that my mum hid the book in the end. I think she’d have been much happier if I’d been reading this version, Little Red Hood, by Marjolaine Leray.

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This version is not scary. This version is gloriously funny. It’s really simple. It’s really clever. It consists of Leray’s tremendous illustrations which look scribbled and rushed until you see the details unfurling of the scruffy wolf with his snaggle teeth and sharp claws, and the dense blur of scarlet anarchy that is Little Red Hood herself.

I love this book. There’s so much to discover in its deceptively sparse pages and it would be a worthy addition to any child’s book case.

Oh No, George by Chris Haughton

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I don’t read many picture books these days. My children are too grown up for them now, and as I am an ex-school librarian, I tend to have let keeping up with picture books slide off my radar, which is a shame, because there are some wonderful books out there I know I’m missing out on. To be honest, I feel like that about almost every kind of book I read, that there are wonderful things I am missing out on, so something has to give.

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As I fossick about second hand book shops, which I do every week, the odd picture book will catch my eye, however, and the next few reviews are things I have caught up on in the idle days of feasting over Christmas.

Oh No, George, is a wonderfully funny book by Chris Haughton about a naughty dog called George. George doesn’t want to be a naughty dog. He hopes that he won’t be, but sometimes, as happens to the best of us, the temptation to do something he shouldn’t, cannot be denied.

The book follows George’s disastrous morning when his owner goes out and leaves him with the stricture to be good. The second half is George going to the park with his owner in an attempt to redeem his terrible behaviour at home.

It’s really simply written, and beautifully illustrated in bold, block colours and dynamic lines, and is full of energy and humour. It’s great, great fun, and one of those books that can stand to be read and re-read without getting old.

The Story of The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

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I read and re-read E. Nesbit’s work as a child, with the exception of The Railway Children, which I only read once. It is probably the book she is most well known for, thanks to the film, but also the one least like her other work. The Story of The Treasure Seekers is the first in a series about the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of six children, called the Bastables. It is narrated by Oswald Bastable, the second oldest child, and oldest son of the family. It tells of the children’s attempts to restore the fortunes of the House of Bastable, after the death of their mother, and their father’s loss of wealth in a way we are never specifically told.

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It may sound grim, and old fashioned (it was published in the Eighteen Nineties), but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, this book is so fresh and funny, that in some places, even after a gap of thirty years, and it really not being written for a middle-aged lady, I was crying with laughter as I read. I thought it might be because classic books tend to be easier to read and better appreciated by adults, but when my children asked what I was laughing about and I read it out to them, they loved it, and I read half the book out loud in one day of our holidays.

Nesbit is brilliant at writing for children, about children and in a way that is totally relatable by children, no matter when they’re reading. The children’s adventures are timeless, and their views on the world are easily understood by modern children, despite some of the language being a little outdated.

The book is available in various formats, but the version I read is published by Dover as part of their Children’s Evergreen Classics series, and was sent to me by Netgalley. It will be available from January 2018.

The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris

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The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris was sent to me by the Amazon Vine review programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Neil Patrick Harris is probably best known by adults as the actor who played Doogie Howser M.D. and he continues to act in films and on t.v. This book is a new project, and the first of a series of tales featuring The Magic Misfits.

I’m always a bit cautious about books written by people who are not actually authors. Particularly so in this case as it seems to have been co-written by Alec Azam. I have to say, the style is rather clunky and it’s clear to me, as an adult reader, that this is not great fiction. Having said that, if I were a child reader, I would absolutely love this. In fact, if I had had this as a child I’d have been mildly obsessed with it.

Firstly, it’s simple to read with a really page turning adventure at its heart. I loved mystery stories as a child, and the gaping holes in this one wouldn’t have bothered me in the slightest. Secondly, the characters are sympathetic. Carter, the hero of the piece, is a boy down on his luck, living with a con artist uncle, forced to do magic tricks to make ends meet. When his uncle tries to entice him into crime, Carter runs away and discovers a magical place like no other.

There are great, cartoon like illustrations throughout that work perfectly with the story and help to immerse the reader in the world the author has created. What would have sold it to me, and will sell it to countless children now, is that there are secret codes, letters to the reader, and a whole heap of ‘how to’ magic trick explanations in the book that you, as the reader can practice, so that you can become part of the Magic Misfits gang yourself.

It’s really fun. I recommend it to readers, both boys and girls (it’s got an impressive, and not entirely unexpectedly diverse group of characters in it in terms of race, gender and orientation – without pushing any agenda either, I might add) aged six to ten.

Christmas With The Savages by Mary Clive

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Christmas With The Savages by Mary Clive has been on my to read list forever. It’s right up my street and having devoured it in a day, I am wondering why it took me so long to read it, and already on the look out for other work by her.

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It is largely marketed as a children’s book these days, and I can kind of see where they’re coming from here. During my childhood, I inherited books from my mum’s childhood, and bought whatever looked child friendly from rummage sales and charity shops and read through all the library shelves. I was a voracious reader and there were simply not a lot of children’s books out there. The boom in children’s publishing is really down to the popularity of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. These days you have whole floors of children’s fiction. In the Seventies you were lucky to get a stack, and a lot of what was published tended to be older, classics.  I was used to old fashioned language and reading about children whose supposedly ‘normal’ childhoods were nothing like my own. I treated these books a bit like modern readers would treat fantasy or science fiction books. There was a willing suspension of disbelief.

So, Christmas With The Savages is this kind of book. It is old fashioned because it is old. Mary Clive grew up at the tag end of a Victorian era, into a wealthy, aristocratic family, with everything that entailed. Her story is of her own childhood Christmases, which I believe are rolled into one and turned into one particular Christmas where she stayed in a stately home (which was someone’s actual home) with a whole bunch of children who she had never met before. In the story, her father is ill in hospital and her mother is with him, so she travels alone, with her ‘useless’ French nursemaid, and is dumped into the hurly burly of another family’s Christmas.

I loved it. It’s funny and sharp and in places very poignant. It’s completely alien to life now, and rather like being reader as anthropologist. Some of the stories of what the children get up to are very Just William and laugh out loud funny. Whether you’d actually get a modern child to read it however, is debatable. If you have a child who is patient at waiting for stories to develop, who already reads classics and who likes old fashioned tales, this will be perfect. Otherwise I think a child reading alone will struggle. It would be a great read out loud story for a class doing a project on the Victorians or how Christmas has changed over the years, and I think, once a child is used to the rhythm and cadence of this, and is hooked by what is largely a very funny story, they might be persuaded to go it alone, but it’s a reach.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

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The Wee Free Men is the thirtieth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and the second book which was marketed as a children’s novel. Much like the first one, The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents, the only thing that makes it more child friendly than the rest of the series is the lack of innuendo. Otherwise it’s business as usual and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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This book sees the introduction of a new, and key character to the series, the child witch, Tiffany Aching.  It also sees the reintroduction of the rest of the witches, albeit in this book, in a brief cameo. I have a great fondness for this book because Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax are my favourite Discworld characters, and in this subset of books I believe that Pratchett came to the peak of his power as a writer. Nowhere does his love and also criticism of humanity shine as fiercely for me as it does in these novels.

Regular readers will know that my eleven year old son is reading these books to me, and he loved this. We have briefly met the Nac Mac Feegle in a previous Discworld novel (Carpe Jugulum), but here they really come into their own. I thought he would struggle with their language, but reading aloud really helped him understand what they were saying, and after an initial bit of difficulty, he really began to enjoy speaking their characters.

Tiffany lives on the chalk downs, and it’s a very different place to the rest of the Discworld. It’s farming country. It’s no nonsense, sheep rearing, cheese making and butter making for Tiffany. There is not supposed to be any magic on the chalk, except, Tiffany finds that there is, and only she can deal with it, from leading the Wee Free Men, to banishing the fairy queen, to understanding what it is to be a witch of the chalk, and to coming to terms with the loss of her beloved granny. This is a job for an Aching, and Tiffany is more than up for it.

This has broad comic moments that made Oscar and I laugh out loud. He particularly loved the character of Tiffany’s brother, Wentworth, and I have always had a soft spot for the Nac Mac Feegle and their lawless ways. I love the message of this book which is basically that it doesn’t stop being magic, just because you’ve figured out how it’s done.