The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

We all know The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’s beautiful children’s book that he wrote for his goddaughter. The book, about a magical land called Narnia, sparked a whole series, of which The Magician’s Nephew was the sixth to be published. It is, however, the series’ prequel and so it is the first story according to Narnia history. To make matters more complicated; Lewis started writing this book soon after finishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it took him five years to complete it. Whether you regard it as the first, the second or the sixth installment in the series: this is a book of beginnings.

The story starts in 1900, with two children playing in the attic of the rowhouses where they live. The attic that Digory and Polly are exploring connects all the houses in the row, so that the children can crawl from house to house. They happen upon Digory’s uncle, who is secretly a magician. As an experiment, he tricks the children into touching magical yellow rings that transport them to a strange land full of pools. The children recognise this land as an in-between place, like the attic that connects their houses back home. They call it the ‘Wood between the Worlds’, where every pool is a portal to another world.

Before they go back home, the curious Digory persuades Polly to explore one other world using the rings that his uncle gave him. Yellow rings bring you and everyone you touch to the Wood between the Worlds, while green rings enable you to jump through a pool into one of those worlds. Unfortunately, the pond they choose brings them to a desolate world from which they inadvertently bring an evil queen called Jadis back to England, who promptly goes on a rampage through London, trying to take over Earth.

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Original illustration by Pauline Baynes

Digory and Polly try to return the Queen to her own world by touching her and the rings at the same time. In the confusion, the children, Uncle Andrew the magician, the Queen, a London cab-driver and his horse called Strawberry all end up in a dark, empty world. This is a world that is not yet created. As they all watch, the lion Aslan appears and creates the world by singing. It is the start of Narnia.

As I mentioned, the story is a prequel, especially to Lewis’s first Narnia book that tells the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. Everything started when Lewis’s friends, after having read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, asked him how the Victorian lamppost that is in the middle of Narnia’s woods ended up there. Lewis, who had not originally intended to write any more Narnia stories, was intrigued by the question and wrote the answer in the form of this prequel. We also learn more about the origins of the magical wardrobe through which the Pevensies end up in Narnia, and about the mysterious Professor Kirke.

It is no secret that Lewis’s Narnia stories have strong parallels with Biblical stories, although he himself maintained that he did not intend them as such. The beginning of Narnia is reminiscent of the story of Genesis and the creation of Earth. As in Genesis, evil is brought to the world shortly upon its creation, and as in Genesis, a personification of evil tempts the protagonist to take a bite of an apple. This happens when Digory is sent by Aslan to find an apple that will keep the evil Jadis away. The Queen, who has eaten one of the apples, appears and tells Digory to take a bite to become immortal. Furthermore, he can steal an apple and bring it to his mother, who is gravely ill. But Digory is not the first man in existence: he has other people to consider, mainly his mother and what she would think of him stealing. He doesn’t make the same choice as Adam and Eve.

C.S. Lewis was a storyteller in heart and soul. He was also an English literature professor and lay theologian, after he converted to Christianity at the age of 32. He wrote and spoke extensively about all kinds of skeptical questions that he had in his years as an agnostic, prior to his conversion, and thought about still now that he called himself a Christian. As a child he was mightily fascinated by Norse mythology and created a fantasy land called Boxen, together with his elder brother. He grew up to study and teach Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. In everything he wrote (that I know of) this rich imagination plays a part, as well as the theological questions that to him were of the utmost importance. The biblical creation story shines through in The Magician’s Nephew, basically Lewis’s own mythology, as an inspiration and reminder of what was true to him. He did not mean the story to be a retelling of Genesis or to uncritically impress Christian values on young children.

Even if he did mean to do that, his books are not like some prudish, moralising children’s stories that Lewis would probably be familiar with from his own childhood. His writing is fresh and humorous, sparkling with imagination. His children are real children and not little adults, which is quite a feat. He describes countless wonders, sometimes abandoning the plot for a while to talk about a forest, or a building, or a garden at length. This doesn’t bother me, and it bothered me even less when I was little. I had a remarkable tolerance for digression back then, I remember, which enabled me to coast through books like The Secret Garden and Little House on the Prairie without getting bored. The Magician’s Nephew however has tons of adventure and threatening antagonists to keep you interested when you’re not eight years old and a day-dreamer. Lewis is the all-knowing narrator who tells the story like a grandfather telling a bedtime story:

“I wonder what Polly’s doing?” thought Digory. He wondered about this a good deal as the first slow half-hour ticked on. But you need not wonder, for I am going to tell you. She had got home late for her dinner, with her shoes and stockings very wet. And when they asked her where she had been and what on earth she had been doing, she said she had been out with Digory Kirke. Under further questioning she said she had got her feet wet in a pool of water, and that the pool was in a wood. (…) As a result she was told that she had been very naughty indeed and that she wouldn’t be allowed to play with ‘that Kirke boy’ any more if anything of the sort ever happened again. Then she was given dinner with all the nice parts left out and sent to bed for two solid hours. It was a thing that happened to one quite often in those days.”

I’ve loved the Narnia Chronicles ever since I first read them, although The Magician’s Nephew was my least favourite. The reason for this is very simple: I wanted to be in the world of Narnia, and a big part of the prequel doesn’t even take place there. My favourite was The Horse and its Boy, the only book that doesn’t have a protagonist from this world. Still, the least favourite book in a favourite series is also well-loved. It’s just ironic that the young me escaped to a fictional world through a story, that, upon reflection, continuously points to our own world.

Mirror Award for making a cockney cab-driver the king and a magician the jester

C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London, 1955)

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Jo Robin

 

 

Tank Girl (Tank Girl #1) by Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett

Usually, Bella is the one reviewing the graphic novels on this site. I do the classics and a few young adult books. Jo does children’s books and also some classics. It seems almost like we’ve divided the categories. But I recently started to think: I can do what I want! I read all kinds of books and I’m all for having no shame about anything in your library, as long as you enjoy it. In fact, I do read some comics and it only made sense for me to review one of my favourite graphic novels. This series has made me think, made me laugh out loud and spit out my beer, brought me to many a protest, while also making me care just a little bit less about things. It has also made me permanently confused, because none of these stories actually make sense, but I‘ll get to that later. I hereby present the hero we never wanted but all need (whether we like it or not): Tank Girl!

How to possibly tell you what this graphic novel is all about, because these novels have no regard for plot or narrative whatsoever. But at the centre is always our Tank Girl, or Rebbecca Buck as she is later revealed to be called. The stories take place in Australia, after some natural/nuclear disaster, which has left the entire continent a desert. In the post-apocalyptic world, kangaroo mutants run wild and all the water is private property. It seems a desolate and desperate place to live in and most people would just give up. But not Tank Girl, who manages to see the humour in every situation and is ready to kick at authority at any chance she gets. I’ll let her describe what happens in the first few issues of Volume 1 of this series: “In issue one I bagged off with a kangaroo. In issue two I made President Hogan sh*t his pants. In issue three I’m hunted by some of Australia’s nastiest bounty hunters!” Just another few examples are when in one issue Tank Girl barges into a warehouse to save her favourite brand of beer and another where she meets the lovely Jet Girl and yet another where she forces her kangaroo boyfriend Booga to box. Again, one doesn’t really read these comics for the plot, but for the simple explosive bad-assery.

The only stable element in these stories is Tank Girl and the fact that she doesn’t listen to anyone. Apart from that, literally anything can happen, and it does. Tank Girl started off as a bounty hunter, but after a few mistakes, she is an outlaw. She does everything she does in a tank, which she has rebuilt for her own dodgy purposes and which she frequently drives off cliffs (and she’s okay every single time!). Tank Girl is loud, filthy, always spitting and smoking and very impulsive. She enjoys random acts of violence and sex. She doesn’t think anything through, which means you never know what is going to happen next. The amount of enemies she has is astounding and you keep wondering how she survives all the time. The answer is simple: people that insane never die. Also, she has a tank. It makes very little sense, but you’ll never be bored while reading: it’s absolutely action-packed from beginning to end, commented on by the most unreliable and cynical narrator on the planet: Tank Girl herself.

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Tank Girl is first and foremost a punk. Her look is nothing less than a true inspiration of mismatched skimpy clothing and her partially coloured hair and shaved scalp. Always a beer in hand and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of her. Her entire look is the product of skinhead culture, moshpits full of combat boots summers and raging teenage hormones. Here, have a picture of this gorgeous human being.

I got into the punk culture in London, when I was only a little girl myself. My parents aren’t exactly punk and actually kind of posh. But I heard the music, saw the people and I was sold. There was a kind of freedom and acceptance to them that I just wanted to have as well. I have never fitted in and I’ve always been judged anyways, so I didn’t have much to lose. Pretty soon I discovered one of these graphic novels, bought it, hid it from my parents and I had a new hero.
This is probably what I love most about Tank Girl. She’s a superhero but she’s not pretty or epic or exceptionally strong. There’s no real message to her stories, or so it seems, she’s just running around crazy. Except there is a message: trust your own instincts, distrust authority and never tone yourself down for anyone. As a ten-year-old street rat, I really needed to hear that.

This graphic novel doesn’t just have a punk protagonist; it has its roots in punk culture. The British comic book was first published in 1988, an era of many troubles in England, which in turn caused a reaction on all levels and in all subcultures. Punk visual art is a style of artwork that came to be from the punk culture. It has graced many an album cover and it is often bold, colourful and shocking. This is the entire idea behind this form of art: it makes a point, it often creates a feeling of revulsion and there’s some form of sarcastic humour involved.
The graphic novels of Tank Girl fit right into this genre, because they are disorganised, absurd and often psychedelic. It is anarchy on paper, because it criticizes and vocalises everything wrong with society, which other people simply don’t have the balls to say out loud. One of the most striking examples in this story specifically is how all the water is owned by a company: Shocking? Yes. Unlikely that we’re headed there? No. 

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Even the technique of collage-style and graffiti drawings remind us of the punk visual art movement. And although the story is set in futuristic Australia, any punk will find that these stories are heavily influenced by the British punk scene at that time.

 

Both the writer and the illustrator live up to all of my expectations. Writer Alan Martin went to art school, wrote these wonderful stories, lived in a few hippie communes and has a son named after 70’s series The Professional’s character Bodie. His written dialogue is always quick, critical of everything and street-smart, just like Tank Girl herself. Illustrator Jamie Hewlett got his inspiration from the punk group The Undertones. If you’ve never heard of them: shame on you and look it up. Inspired by both punk culture and the Looney Tunes, he went to art school. His style is like nothing I have seen before. It’s wild and crazy, big and bold, but so detailed! Check this out: 

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One day, I came across something that was kind of similar to the art of Tank Girl and I got really excited. Remember the band Gorillaz? It’s sort of the same style of art. So I read up on that and guess what Jamie Hewlett did after Tank Girl? Yes, he created Gorillaz.

If you think this review didn’t make much sense, yay! You have just gotten a taste of the Tank Girl universe, where nothing makes sense, everything is rude and crude, but you’re strangely attracted to it anyways. Trying to be a responsible adult here for a second: this might not be a great book for children, as it is mostly mayhem, booze and bodycounts. To be fair, this is a niche-book in general, because many will not understand the strange British references, cannot appreciate the self-deprecating humour and do not adhere to the call to overthrow the system. But to all those other unwanted shitty little kids out there: this is the comic book for you. It will teach you all you need to know and if you do it right, you will not want to be like Tank Girl, but you’ll want to be you, because you’ve now adopted the right mind-set and you no longer really care what anyone thinks. Smash the patriarchy, take no shit and stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything!
UP THE PUNX!

Don’t let the bastards get you down Award: Because life’s too bloody short

Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl (Tank Girl #1), (London, 1988)

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Thura Nightingale 

The Quilter’s Legacy by Jennifer Chiaverini (Elm Creek Quilters #5)

I am a quiltmaker. I also love the history behind each quilt made and the meaning people give to them. Especially quilts which are sewn for a special occasion such as a wedding or birth. Giving quilts for special occasions is a  common thing to do now and in the past. I am telling you all this because the book I review here, The Quilter’s legacy, is part five of a twenty-part series about the lives and history of a fictional group of quilters called the Elm Creek Quilters. Their stories are told through the quilts they make. Sylvia Compson is one of the main characters in the books. This particular book is about five lost quilts, ‘the legacy’,  Sylvia’s mother made to commemorate her wedding, anniversary and her journey towards motherhood.

All the books in this series can be read separately. That is also why I review the fifth part – The spoilers don’t bother me because I read for the atmosphere of the book and not the plot. The books switch perspective between contemporary time and history. One part is the life of the Elm Creek Quilters now, and the other part tells the story of Sylvia’s family from the moment they moved to Waterford halfway the 19th century. This particular book focuses on the history of her mother, called Eleanor, who grew up in New York around the turn of the 20th century. Eleanor has a heart condition which the doctors fear will lead to an early death. Consequently, her whole family treats her as a dying small bird and the only one who treats her as a normal person is Frederick Bergstrom who sells horses to her father.  Frederick harbours a secret love for Eleanor. When Eleanor has to flee her family home in New York to avoid a forced marriage he offers to take her to Waterford. Eleanor agrees and they get married soon after.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Waterford, Sylvia is preparing for her wedding with Andrew. They are planning a road trip together to visit Andrew’s children to tell them about the engagement in person. However, they fear to bring this news, because Andrew suspects his children won’t accept their marriage. Sylvia is some years older than him (in her 70s) and had a stroke a few years back. The children fear it won’t be a marriage but more a caregiver relationship for Andrew. Meanwhile, Sylvia also decides to look for the quilts her mother made, among them her marriage quilt. Her mother is the one who taught her to quilt, so it would fit to give her wedding quilt a role in the marriage.  First, she goes to the attic of the mansion, but the quilts are not there. It turns out that Claudia, her estranged sister who lived in the mansion for years after Sylvia left, sold the quilts when she had money problems. That means the quilts can be anywhere.

Sarah, another Elm Creek Quilter, suggests putting the description of the quilts on a website dedicated to finding lost quilts. People can connect with each other through the website to share clues of the whereabouts of the quilts. A quilter’s own style is so distinctive that it is possible to find and recognize long-lost quilts. Soon the clues come in from all over the country.  Andrew and Sylvia decide to extend their road trip to investigate some of the clues they get. Some turn out fruitful, others were useless.

This search for the long-lost quilts was a great element in the story because the question whether Sylvia would find the quilts kept me reading. What I particularly liked about the quest in this book is that not all clues led closer to the quilts. Sometimes in adventure books, everything that happens to the protagonist somehow adds to solving the mystery, which is unlikely. Now, a clue was sometimes useless and some clues they got put into question the possibility of finding the quilts at all! This felt more realistic. It is possible to find a long-lost quilt, but certainly not easy. I won’t spoil whether Sylvia finds the quilts or not. I’ve read some of the other books in the series, and they are sometimes a bit long-winded. This part did not have that problem, because the search for the quilts kept it exciting and the plot moving.

What I like most in this series is the changing perspective between the contemporary and historical part of the story. Each book in the series focuses on a particular member of the Bergstrom family, so each book gives you new clues to piece together their complete family history. This also makes me interested in the other books in the series, which is a smart move by Chiaverini. Both the contemporary and historical perspective are told from the perspective of a woman. Its focus is on how the women find a place for themselves in the world and happiness at whatever time they are living. It is interesting to read how historical events and times impact that. However, some of the historical parts of the book felt unrealistic to me. The Bergstrom family seems to be caught up in ALL major events in American history. Be it the abolition movement, the Titanic, the Spanish flu or the Second World War. It was especially unrealistic because the Bergstrom family are somehow always on the ‘right side’ of history. I get that Chiaverini wants to use the family to write about American history, but I think she is too ambitious.

Despite these shortcomings, I thoroughly loved this book. I cared about the characters, and it was interesting to read about their lives, despite it being unrealistic at times. Focusing on the female perspective and quilts also adds something very wholesome to the books. Quilts are often associated with groups of women working on them in companionship. This is combined with a quiet kind of freedom because through a quilt a woman has always been able to express and explore her individual taste and personality. This is done in solidarity with other women. In these books the same kind of solidarity and warm feelings are present. This makes the books a perfect feel-good read when you need a pick-me-up.

 

Stitchers award for weaving together the lives of women through the quilts they stitch

Jennifer Chiaverini, the quilters legacy (Elm Creek Quilters #5), (New York, 2003)

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Bella G. Bear

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter

Once upon a time, a woman bought a farmhouse. This was quite remarkable, because it was 1905 and she wasn’t married. She kept on a tenant farmer to manage the business, but was keen to learn how to farm the land and even herd sheep. As she had always gotten along well with children, she told stories to the farmer’s little son and daughter. As the woman was a writer and illustrator, one of those stories was published in 1908 as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, the children and their mother appearing in the illustrations. It’s more than a century later now, but the books of Beatrix Potter are still well-loved.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck - Ralph and BetsyJemima Puddle-duck is not the cleverest of ducks. She doesn’t have enough patience to sit on her eggs until they hatch, so the farmer’s wife takes the eggs away to be brooded by hens. Jemima, determined to brood a nest of her own, decides to lay her eggs away from the farm and leaves for the woods. Arriving at a clearing, she meets an elegant gentleman with “black prick ears and sandy-coloured whiskers” and a long bushy tail. He offers her his shed full of feathers to make a nest in and the gullible Jemima accepts.

When she has laid nine eggs and announces that she will start brooding, the gentleman offers to make her dinner first, and asks her to get some onions and herbs. At the farm, unknowingly collecting the ingredients for duck stuffing, Jemima runs into the wise collie Kep. When he asks her where she’s been, she tells them the whole story. The dog, who immediately grasps what the polite gentleman in the forest is after, springs to action to help his friend Jemima, who still doesn’t have a clue.

Beatrix Potter has blended a fairytale and the place she and the children lived. She saw the story as a reimagining of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. In a way, the story is like many modern retellings of fairytales: it brings the story closer to the world that was familiar to the intended readers. Ralph and Betsy Cannon, the children of the farm, would know all about farm life and how their mother would place ducks’ eggs with chickens because they were better at brooding them. Even if you live in the city in the twenty-first century, the tale is engaging and refreshingly down to earth.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck - flyingMore than that: it is incredibly funny. The ‘elegant gentleman’ is never referred to as a fox in the story, although it is clear that he is from Beatrix Potter’s illustrations. His evil grin when Jemima’s back is turned makes his intentions with the duck abundantly clear. This tension is made even funnier by the clear, matter-of-fact language of the story, like when at some point Jemima is locked in the shed: “Jemima became much alarmed.” There is no baby-talk, but it’s still understandable for little children, even if they don’t know all the words. The pictures and text perfectly complement each other to tell a story that speaks volumes to the reader, while the protagonist is completely oblivious of the trap that is laid for her.

I read a few reviews that said the story was too harsh for kids (the ending is quite happy, but not completely so). Someone even said that it gave the wrong message: that women and poor people are fools and that decisions should be made for them, like with Jemima and her eggs. I disagree with this reading. Although the animals in the story wear clothes and talk, they are undeniably animals. Like I said, they would have been recognisable to the children on the farm all those years ago but even now, it is easy to recognise the duck’s behaviour if you’ve ever met a duck. The same goes for the fox and the dog. A fox that wants to eat a duck or eggs that become cold and don’t hatch are no shocking events in nature, and certainly don’t mean that Beatrix Potter thought taking human children from their mothers was a good idea.

I’m not opposed to looking for hidden meanings in stories, but projecting the same contemporary political issues on every story from every time period you encounter is both unnecessary and insulting to literature. In my opinion, this book is not about gender roles but about animals behaving like animals do, whether you approve of it or not. If anything it’s a cautionary tale, not classist or sexist propaganda. After all, it’s based on a fairytale, a very particular genre, centuries old and meant to teach you life’s truths. They are less moralistic than children’s stories that were common in Potter’s age and certainly less comforting than today’s bedtime stories.

Of course, not every child will like this and that’s alright. The book is so small that you can read it in a few minutes to see if it suits the child you’re planning to read this to. Just because nature is harsh doesn’t mean we should expose children to realities they’re not ready for. I just know I really want to read this to a little boy or girl, just so I can pretend that I don’t understand who the fox is either and have them explain it to me with appropriate exasperation.

Mad Hatter Award for a children’s story that ages well and of course for that stylish blue bonnet

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (London 1908)

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Jo Robin