Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Joan Aiken”

Bothari’s #CBR4 Review #38: Cold Shoulder Road by Joan Aiken

I bought this book because Edward Gorey did the cover art. I’ve done that a handful of times before (I can spot the Gorey font from across a crowded bookstore), and sometimes the books I end up with aren’t so great. Sometimes, though, I find a treasure. This one may not be up to ‘treasure’ status, but it was a fun read.

Cousins Arun and Is Twite are searching for Arun’s mother. The story seems to take place in the real world (they talk about London and France), but there are non-real things happening (mostly a lot of telepathy). The time period is uncertain (girls aren’t supposed to wear breeches; the bicycle just got invented), and the age of the cousins isn’t specified. Arun ran away from home five years ago, and they’re old enough to travel on their own, but the villain calls them ‘the children.’ There are more books about the family, from what I can tell, so maybe there are more stories about the cousins before this one. Anyway – Arun’s unpleasant father, a member of the Silent Sect, a cult which prohibits speech, has died, and Arun’s come to look for his put-upon but hopefully-freed mother.

When they get to Folkestone, however, and return to Arun’s childhood home, there is no sign of her. Stories from the town suggest that she has fled a group of smugglers called the Merry Gentry. The ‘MGs’ have a practice of kidnapping a local child to keep the townsfolk in line (“tattle and we’ll drop her under the train”), and Arun’s mother Ruth had had enough, taken the child, and run away. Is and Arun set off to find her, encountering suspicious admirals, other relatives, the shady leader of the Silent Sect, smugglers, treasure-hunters, and more.

I enjoyed Is very much. She is the more level-headed of the pair, with Arun more likely to sit and mope when plans don’t go his way. Is is very practical, but not so much that she doesn’t enjoy their grand adventure, even when danger lurks at every corner. (I don’t quite get why her name is Is, but I got used to it.) The pair can speak to each other in thought-language, which is handy when some of the villains you run into don’t like it when you speak. They find others with the same gift, which is handy when one or both of you keep getting kidnapped and need to call for help over long distances.

Usually I get annoyed when dialogue gets too dialecty, but Aiken makes it work. It flows well and really adds to the characters. Is says things like “Queer he keeps his garden so spange when the house is such a mux. He’s a rum old cove and no mistake.” Money is mint sauce, lamps are glimmers, bad guys are wrong ‘uns and their minions are dumfoozle squareheads.

Joan Aiken writes great stories for kids and young adults, and this was another great adventure. I’ll be looking for more books about the Twite family, regardless of the cover art.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #13: A Goose on Your Grave by Joan Aiken

I have grown increasingly appreciative of the layers, tensions and humour of Joan Aiken’s YA and children’s books through the 25-odd years that I have been reading them. The couple of adult books of hers I’ve read have by contrast seemed pretty standard psychological thrillers – as if the landscapes of childhood and adolescence offered more scope for her wild, dark and lilting imagination. Her most famous series are probably the “Arabel and Mortimer” books for young readers (Mortimer is a raven who only says “nevermore” and Arabel is a spritely six-year-old) and the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (also referred to as the “Dido” books), starring the intrepid urchin Dido Twite in an alternative-history-somewhat-steampunk Regency-ish era. Dido’s adventures span the globe as she outwits various sinister governesses and kidnappers and Hanoverian plotters (in this world England is ruled by good Stuart kings) and deserve whole reviews of their awesomeness, but here I will review my rereading of A Goose on Your Grave: Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy.

The collection as a whole feels cohesive; there are recurring themes such as time travel, the capabilities of the human mind to create and accept the extraordinary, a love of animals, particularly cats, and odd things in science and nature. Motifs from Aiken’s entire YA and children’s oeuvre are touched upon, such as the problems and inadequacies of well-meaning bureaucrats when it comes to children’s welfare and different ways of escaping from and revenge on oppressive guardians (of all ages) and systems (from schools to societies). Within Goose on Your Grave, an image from one story occasionally resurfaces in another; in “The Old Poet” our suspicions as to why the rowan tree was significant for the one-eyed stranger in “Snow Horse” are confirmed. (“The Old Poet,” by the way, about a young college student encountering an unexpected element of his great-grandfather’s legacy, satirises the literary establishment with sardonic glee and contains one of the most surprising pieces of poetry criticism I’ve come across: “I did read the lyrics, on the plane going to Heathrow. They were very lyrical but quite dry–half Coke, half lemon. (71)) Mythology and modernity mingle with the Gothic and the traditionally ghostly to occasionally surreal effect. Few of the stories end happily; some end on a note of ambiguity and some downright sadly. Aiken has a bleak vision and an icy pen at times; she skewers the pretensions of the type of boys who casually torment their fellows, leaving no visible marks, in the name of good clean boyish hi-jinks in “The Blades,” for example, and excessive psychological jargon without actual insight in “Aunt Susan” (a startlingly grownup tale in the vein of Roald Dahl’s cruellest). “Potter’s Grey” subverts the idea of “rose-coloured glasses” in an extreme way, and “The Last Specimen” is delightfully English and gently sorrowful – but I can’t say why without spoilers.

I would perhaps have to say that Bundle of Nerves (which I would recommend to any fans of Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors) is my favourite from her “supernatural” story collections, but Goose on Your Grave is still very good. While the sequence shows occasional flashes of the homeliness and comfort that pervade her work for slightly younger readers (although even into these the eerie and tragic are occasionally allowed to enter), the overall sense of Goose on Your Grave is decidedly and deliciously unheimlich.
“But I hadn’t enough money to pay for the return ride, so I thanked the boatman, hoisted my pack, and set off through trees to the dimly glimpsed mansion.

As I drew near I could hear the sound of the chain saw: a malevolent, high-pitched shriek. The sound was ominous in those terribly silent woods. The trees were enormous. Under them grew a little grass, thin and moss-infested, like the sparse dandruffy hairs on an old man’s head. There was a kind of path, and then a smallish open space. Beyond it I could see a side of the house, with a terrace and a row of windows; opposite the house lay the shore of the loch, which curved round here in a small bay. On the rocky shoreline grew a huge tree: it spread out like a hand, not a single trunk but about six of them, grey and smooth fingers reaching upwards. ” (“The Old Poet,” 73).

Joan Aiken. A Goose on Your Grave. London: Lions Teen Tracks, 1987.

Note: Aiken was very prolific, and wrote for all ages. The website for her books gives some idea of which series are suitable for which age group.

Post Navigation