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REVIEW: Pull Out All the Stops by Geraldine McCaughrean

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pull Out All the Stops
by Geraldine McCaughrean

The Blurb:

There isn't much drama in Olive Town. The highlight of Cissy Sissney's days are the letters from her old schoolteacher, Miss Loucien, describing her adventures on board an old showboat with the Bright Lights Theatre Company. If only life were full of such adventure for Cissy too. 

But then diphtheria breaks out in Olive town, a silo crushes Cissy's home and Miss May March agrees to take Cissy and classmates, Kookie and Tibbie, to stay with Miss Loucien until Olive town is safe again. The ramshackle crew on board the Sunshine Queen sail along the 'shoals and shimmer of the Numchuck River,' performing plays for the towns scattered along the shore. Cissy and her friends have a whole host of adventures beating hustlers at their own game, catching criminals, and embarking on a daring rescue mission. They must use all their wits to survive. 

As their journey along the river comes to an end, Cissy must put in one last performance and this time the stakes are higher than mere applause. The award-winning author, Geraldine McCaughrean, captures the spirit of adventure and the power of imagination in this rip-roaring read.

What I Thought:

Geraldine McCaughrean is one of Great Britain’s most celebrated children’s authors. She is probably best-known for Peter Pan in Scarlet, the brilliant “official” sequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous story of the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up. I love her work, and am trying to slowly read my way through all 150 of her books. This one is a rambunctious adventure story set in a steamboat on the Missouri River. It features a cast of lovable, oddball characters, a lot of slapstick humour, a dash of poignancy, and a whole lot of heart. 


SPOTLIGHT: The history & meaning of 'Beauty & the Beast'

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Beauty & the Beast" is one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales. It is also thought to be one of the oldest. It has its roots in a story called ‘Cupid & Psyche’ which was included in the collection of stories known as Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD by Apuleius. That is more than two thousand years ago ... and there are more than one thousand different variants of this tale, in cultures all over the world. 

In many versions, the monstrous bridegroom is a serpent. In the Norwegian version ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, he is a bear. In the Grimm brothers’ version, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is a lion, and in the English variant, he is a dog. 

* ‘Cupid & Psyche’-type tales usually feature three sisters. The youngest is the most beautiful. She must marry (or live with) a monster, beast, or animal, usually as penance for some kind of theft or misbehavior. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’, she was so beautiful that people began to worship her instead of Venus. In ‘Beauty & the Beast’, her father steals a rose. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the father tries to catch the beast’s pet lark. 

* The Beast comes to her bed at night in the form of a man, but she must not see him.

* The Beauty betrays the Beast somehow. In ‘Cupid & Psyche’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, her dangerous curiosity leads her to light a lamp so she can see who her bridegroom is. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, she allows light to fall upon him. 

* He is revealed to be a beautiful man - a prince or a god. But since she has seen him, and was forbidden not to, he must leave. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, he is transformed into a dove.

She searches for him, sometimes having to complete many difficult tasks in order to find him. Her journey is to the underworld and back, seeking redemption.

In 1740, a French writer called Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve took the well-known ‘Animal Bridegroom’ tale and rewrote it as ‘The Story of the Beauty & the Beast’. Being over 100 pages long, this is the first time a fairy tale was retold in novel form. Villeneuve’s version was dark, complex, and sensual. In her tale, the danger is very real – the Beast is fierce and wild, and must be tamed by the girl. As Terri Windling has written ‘(in Villeneuve’s story) the Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur … The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere.’ 

Sixteen years later Mademoiselle Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, took Villeneuve's story and cut it to the bone, removing much of the latent eroticism and complex back-story. She published her simpler version in a magazine for young ladies. In Beaumont’s story, the monstrous shape of the Beast is a kind of furry costume that he wears, hiding the good and noble man within. 

The story was therefore no longer about the Beast's need for transformation, but instead focuses on the heroine’s need to learn to look beneath the surface. So Beaumont’s story is closer to the original ‘Cupid & Psyche’ tale, in which the heroine must undergo a series of trials and tests before she is worthy of her divine lover.

Beaumont’s version of the tale has now been retold so many times it has its own sub-category in the folkloric classification system – Tale Type 425C ‘Beauty & the Beast’. 

The Meaning of the Tale

As always, there are multiple interpretations of the meaning of the story. As P.L. Travers said, ‘we go to fairy tales not so much for their meanings as for our meanings.’ (quoted in The Meanings of "Beauty and the Beast": A Handbook, by Jerry Griswold.)

Bruno Bettelheim looks at the symbols of the tale. For him, the stolen rose is indicative of the ‘broken flower’ of maidenhood, and so anticipates the loss of her virginity. This would make ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a story of sexual awakening, as so many fairy tales are. For Bettelheim, who was a Freudian psychoanalyst, the story is therefore one of oedipal conflict – the daughter must grow away from her childish love of her father and into a more mature love of her husband. 

Steven Swann Jones believes fairy tales are ‘symbolic depictions of social and emotional crises faced by audience members … (‘Beauty & the Beast’-type tales) dramatize the central and apparently problematic experience of coming to terms with marriage.’ 

Old school feminists might argue that – by trying to please her father by marrying the Beast - Beauty is locked into a female-reductive patriarchal society. 

However, newer feminist readings of the tale look back to its mythic roots. Psyche means the vital breath, or breath of life, and so stands for the human soul. Psyche, the heroine of the old tale, has to undergo a long journey down into the dark terror of the underworld and back up into the light, a journey of transformation, redemption and rebirth. 

This mythic reading of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale fills it power. It is the story of a woman’s journey towards true knowledge of her secret lover, and indeed of the nature of love itself (remember that a rose is often a symbol of secrets). 

Marina Warner has written: ‘The Beauty & the Beast story is a classic fairy tale of transformation, which, when told by a woman, places the male lover, the Beast, in the position of the mysterious, threatening, possibly fatal unknown, and beauty, the heroine, as the questor who discovers his true nature …by the end of the tale …. The terror has been faced and chased; the light shines in the dark places.’ 

You may also enjoy reading some of my other blogs on fairy tales:


REVIEW: Possession by A. S. Byatt

Friday, November 13, 2015

by A.S. Byatt

The Blurb:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Man Booker Prize Winner (1990)

My Thoughts:

This novel has been on my shelf for more than twenty years, and yet somehow I have never before read it. So at last I picked it up and began. Of course, I utterly adored it! For those of you who have not read it, I can really recommend it. It's a story about two English academics in the late 1980s, who get caught up in a literary mystery about the secret love affair of two Victorian writers. Their poems and stories are woven through the narrative, in one of the most dazzling ventriloquist acts I have ever seen in fiction. The pastiches are utterly pitch-perfect. The story is driven by the hunt for the truth of the Victorian love affair, which mirrors the slowly developing romance of our modern-day literary detectives. I particularly loved all the clever fairy tale allusions!  


REVIEW: Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake #6)

by C.J. Sansom

The Blurb:
As Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, an incendiary manuscript threatens to tear his court apart in the new installment of C.J. Sansom's Shardlake series.

Autumn, 1546. King Henry VIII is slowly, painfully dying. His Protestant and Catholic councillors prepare for a final and decisive power struggle; whoever wins will control the government. The Catholics decide to focus their attack on Henry's sixth wife, the Protestant Queen Catherine Parr. As Catherine begins to lose the King's favor, she turns to the shrewd, hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, to contain a potentially fatal secret.

The Queen has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, a memoir so radical that if it came to the King's attention, it could bring her and her courtly sympathizers to ruination. The London printer into whose hands she entrusted the manuscript has been murdered, the book nowhere to be found.

Shardlake's investigations take him down a trail that begins among printshops in the filthy backstreets of London, but leads him once more to the labyrinthine world of court politics, where Protestant friends can be as dangerous as Catholic enemies, and those who will support either side to further their ambition are the most dangerous of all.

What I Thought:
Lamentation is the latest in a series of utterly brilliant, devious and evocative Tudor murder mysteries by C. J. Sansom. The series features a hunchbacked young lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, in the final years of Henry VIII’s rule. The novel begins with the burning of heretics, one of them a young woman named Ann Askew. She is a true historical figure, and the only woman known to have been tortured in the Tower. Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, is under suspicion for sympathizing with the heretics, who are all Protestant. Matthew is called in to help her solve the mystery of a missing book, and the string of unexplained murders that follow. As always, the world of Tudor England is brought to vivid and putrid life, with the obese and malevolent figure of the king brooding over all. This is historical crime at its best. Start with Dissolution, the first book in the series, and read in order. 


SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 

The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.

I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 

The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 

Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 

As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.

In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.

As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here

I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.

One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!

Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 

And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


REVIEW: Holloway by Robert McFarlane

Friday, November 06, 2015

by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards, Stanley Donwood (Illustrations)

The Blurb:
Holloway - a hollow way, a sunken path. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock.

In July 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin travelled to explore the holloways of South Dorset's sandstone. They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness.

Six years later, after Deakin's early death, Macfarlane returned to the holloway with the artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards. The book is about those journeys and that landscape.

My Thoughts:

It is difficult to know how to describe this exquisite little book. It is only 33 pages long, and some of those pages are filled with delicate black-and-white drawings of trees. It’s a memoir of a camping trip inspired by a book I’ve never heard of, it’s a extended poem about the sunken holloways of Dorset – those deep, mysterious tunnels between tree-roots that were once roads, goat-tracks, and field-paths – and it's a celebration of nature, friendship, and language. I’ve read it three times now, and find new delights each time. It was so beautiful, so marvellous, I have gone and bought several more of Robert Macfarlane’s books since, hoping for more enchantment.


REVIEW: The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel 
by Anthony Horowitz

The Blurb

In freezing London, November 1890, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson receive a man unnerved by a scarred-face stalker with piercing eyes. A conspiracy reaches to the Boston criminal underworld. The whispered phrase 'the House of Silk' hints at a deadly foe. Authorized by Doyle's estate.

What I Thought

Anthony Horowitz is a big favourite in our family. My sons love his Diamond Brothers and Alex Rider books, my husband read and enjoyed his James Bond novel, and I am madly in love with the TV series he’s worked on, particularly Foyle’s War. And I’ve read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So of course I grabbed this book as soon as I saw it on the shelves. I enjoyed it immensely. I really liked how faithful Anthony Horowitz was to the original feel and flavor of the books. “Pitch-perfect” was how I described it on twitter.


THE 50/50 PROJECT: My new red convertible!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Next year I have a significant birthday, and so I have drawn up a list of fifty dreams, ambitions and desires that I call THE 50/50 PROJECT (I guess that gives away what kind of significant birthday I am facing!)

The list is not static - as I think of new things I badly want to do, I add it to the list (though this means I have to remove something else.)

However, right from the start I've had on my list:


And now that particular dream has come true. Here I am in my new, very cute, very red Mini S Cooper convertible.

Red lipstick mandatory.


You can see the whole list of dreams and ambitions at THE 50/50 PROJECT (as I continually reassure my husband, I know some of these are highly unlikely to ever be achieved).

What about you? What are your hopes and dreams (improbably or otherwise)? What should I add to my 50/50 list?


THE SEAFORTH DOOM: A true Scottish curse which helped inspire my novel THE PUZZLE RING

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Yesterday was Halloween - a time that has its roots in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-un), and was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland. 

Earlier this week I wrote about THE PUZZLE RING, my children's time travel adventure set in Scotland, as it has a great deal in it about the old Celtic festival of Samhain (I think of it as the perfect Halloween read!)  THE PUZZLE RING tell the story of Hannah Rose Brown, who was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed …

I thought I'd share with you my strange and magical inspirations for this novel:

People always ask me where I get my ideas from.

Llike most writers, I find this a difficult question to give an easy answer to. You need lots and lots of ideas to create something as complex and sophisticated as a novel.  Some ideas just come like a flash of lightning. Other ideas you have to find with a whole lot of digging, like a miner scrounging in the dirt for opals. 

I normally need two or three strong ideas before I know I’ve got a novel on my hands. I start with one, which can come from anywhere – an overheard conversation, something I read about in a book, a stray thought that pops into my head while I’m doing the washing up – and then I think about it for a while. I might put it together with a few other ideas I’ve had and see if they seem to belong together. 

The very first idea for this novel came when I was waiting bored in a doctor’s surgery.  Unusually for me, I hadn’t brought a book to read and so I flicked through a few gossip magazines, then picked up a jewellery catalogue. It was mainly pictures and not much text, but on the back page it had a very brief history of the puzzle ring, which I found fascinating.

Basically, the article said that the puzzle ring was first invented by an Arabian king who was mad with jealousy over his young and beautiful wife. He challenged a jeweller to make a wedding ring that would show if the ring was ever taken off his wife’s finger. After many attempts, the jeweller invented a ring that would fall apart into separate loops if removed from the finger, and could only be put back together again if you knew the secret of the puzzle. Of course, the wife did take the ring off one day ... and was promptly killed by her furious husband. 

I thought at once, in an idle sort of a way, what a great thematic device this would be for a quest story ... a desperate search for a puzzle ring that had fallen apart. When I got home, I wrote it down in my ideas book but that was all I did with the idea for quite a long time, as I was very busy writing my historical adventure novel THE GYPSY CROWN ‘The Gypsy Crown’. Every now and then, though, I’d wonder ... WHO would be searching for a puzzle ring? WHY?

Then one day I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore and discovered an old book called ‘The Book of Curses’. When I sat down to look through it, the page fell open, of its own volition, at a chapter about the famous Scottish curse ‘The Seaforth Doom’. 

This is a very chilling and creepy story about a warlock called Kenneth the Enchanter who was burnt to death in the 16th century by a jealous and vengeful woman, Isabella, the Countess of Seaforth. 

Kenneth had a magical fairy stone, or hag-stone, and the countess had asked him to look through his hag-stone and tell him what her husband was doing. Kenneth had laughed, and then told her "Fear not for your lord, he is safe and sound, well and hearty, merry and happy". Angrily she demanded to know why he had laughed, and when he would not tell her, threatened him with a terrible death. At last he confessed he had seen her husband on his knees before another woman, kissing her hand. The countess was so furious that she ordered Kenneth to be thrust headfirst into a barrel of boiling tar. As he was led out to his execution, the warlock lifted his hag-stone to his eye and cast a terrible curse on the Mackenzies of Seaforth. 

This is what he said:

‘I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and in sorrow. 
I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished forever, and that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule ...  the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-hooded lassie from the East, and she is to kill her sister. 

And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds ... one shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. 
(They) shall be the allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth; and when he looks around him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death ... and that his race shall come to an end.’

Kenneth the Enchanter then threw away his magical hag-stone and was cruelly killed.

The curse had been cast against the wife of the third Earl of Seaforth. Apparently she only laughed at Kenneth’s words and micked him. For several generations all seemed well. 

Then the ninth Earl of Seaforth, called Francis Humberton Mackenzie, was born in 1794. An attack of scarlet fever when he has twelve left him deaf, but he still married and in time had four sons and two daughters. Among his friends and neighbours were four great lords, one of which was buck-toothed, one had a cleft palate, another stammered and the fourth, unfortunately, was not very bright. 
One by one his sons died, and in his grief the Earl turned his face to the wall and would not speak. He died soon afterwards, leaving only his two daughters. The elder, Mary Mackenzie, had married a man called Sir Samuel Hood who lived in the East Indies. Recently widowed, she returned from the East to take possession of the estate wearing her widows’ weeds – a black dress and white cap – and named Lady Hood, an uncanny fulfilment of the prophecy. Some time later, while driving her sister out in her carriage, the ponies took fright and both sisters were thrown out. The younger sister was killed.
So did the Seaforth Doom come at last to pass. 

As soon as I read this story, which is very famous indeed in Scotland, I was electrified. What must it have been like, I thought, to be Francis Humberton Mackenzie, living out his life with that shadow hanging over him? Having four sons and hoping the curse could not be true. Imagine what it must have been like to be those two sisters, knowing one must kill the other. I bought the book, and as I walked back to my car, my brain was on fire. I saw the whole story unfolding in my mind’s eye ... a jealous husband, a puzzle ring, a faithful wife tricked into taking the ring off, the curse she casts on the castle as she dies ... and then generations later, a girl who decides she must break the curse and sets out on a perilous quest to find the four lost loops of the puzzle ring ...

And that is how I came to write THE PUZZLE RING.

You can buy THE PUZZLE RING at BooktopiaDymocksCollinsAngus & Robertson Bookworld, or read it on your Kindle


SPOTLIGHT:The True History of Halloween

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A True History of Halloween

‘I know it’s a bit American,’ a mother apologised to me yesterday, when inviting my daughter to a Halloween party. 

‘Not at all,’ I replied. ‘Halloween is older than America, or its culture anyway. It’s even older than Christianity.’

‘Really?’ she asked. 

‘Yes, Halloween is at least 2,000 years old,’ I told her. ‘It has its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic festival. And since most of us here have Celtic blood, it’s entirely appropriate for us to celebrate it.’

‘I never knew that,’ she said. ‘You should write something about it.’

So, never one to refuse an opportunity to write about a subject I find fascinating, here is my True History of Halloween:

Halloween was once one of the two most important religious rites of the Celtic calender (the other being six months later, on May Day). 

Long before Christianity reached the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic people who lived there used to hold a festival celebrating the end of the year. Their New Year was November 1, and this festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-un).
Samhain means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival signalled the end of the harvest season, and the turning of the year towards the long, cold, darkness of winter. 

For the Celtics, Samhain was one of the two hinges of the year, a time when the door between the worlds was opened. Since it was also a time when the world began turning towards darkness, the fields lay fallow, and the small, weak and old might die, Samhain is also a celebration of death and the dark mysteries. 

For many, it was thought to be a time to communicate with the dead, or with the gods. For others, it was a time to protect oneself against the mischief and malice of the unrestful dead, or the fairy creatures of the Otherworld. People used to leave out offerings of food and drink to appease any who were roaming the countryside. Anyone who fed the fairies would be rewarded, and anyone who failed to do so would be punished. 

People also used to carve fearsome faces into turnips to scare away malevolent spirits (carved pumpkins are a much later tradition, and, yes, come from America). People used to dress up, and play tricks, and beat pots and pans, all in an attempt to confuse and frighten the dead away.

Another key tradition was the lighting of sacred bonfires to honour the Celtic gods. Everyone would extinguish their own fire, and relight it from the one lit on the nearest hill or in the village square. Afterwards, the ashes of the fire would be sprinkled on the winter fields, blessing them and fertilising them for the next year. 

As Christianity began to spread into the Celtic lands, the Roman Catholic Church took over the old festivals and incorporated them into their own calendars. In 835 A.D., Pope Gregory IV re-named Samhain ‘All Saints’ Day’. All Saints Day was also known as Hallowmas, or All Hallows Eve, which gradually became pronounced Halloween. 

As the old pagan rituals persisted, despite all the attempts of the priests, the church decided to simply adopt them as Catholic rites. It became usual to light candles for the dead, for example, instead of sacred bonfires.

Instead of leaving out food for the fairies, the church set up a tradition whereby poor would ‘go a-souling’, walking from door to door asking for food and, in return, praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives. It was widely believed at the time that the souls of the dead would wait in purgatory till enough people had prayed for their souls. The poor would be given ‘soul cakes’ to eat, sometimes in return for a performance or song. As time went on, it became the practise for poor children to ‘go a-souling’, and so the ‘trick-and-treat’ tradition was born. 

Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” (1593), when a man is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” Puling means to whimper or whine. 

In the 1500s, the Reformation brought in the Protestant religions, many of which did not allow for any saints or religious celebrations. Even Christmas and Easter were not permitted.

However, the old practices persisted, simply finding new names and new forms. Since Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in early November, 1606, Samhain became known as Guy Fawkes Day, with bonfires, dressing up, parades, and other celebrations. Children would to go from door to door, asking for a ‘penny for Guy’, so they could make an effigy to burn on the bonfire. 

In the New World, the colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day for a while, but as the colonies became the United States of America, Guy Fawkes Day fell by the wayside. Halloween was certainly not a popular festival day, as most of the early settlers were Protestant and so disapproved of what was clearly seen as a remnant of pagan culture. 

By the mid 1800s, however, many Irish Catholics fled the potato famine in Ireland by immigrating to the USA. They brought with them their old Halloween traditions, which caught the imagination of the public. Halloween is now one of the most popular festivals in the USA and, increasingly, the Western world. 

In Australia, we should properly celebrate Samhain on the 1st May and May Day on 31st October, as our seasons are back to front … but the festivities are much the same – the lighting of candles and bonfires, the feasting and playing, the thinking on the meaning of the turning of the seasons.

So Happy Halloween, everyone … and here’s a beautiful old Irish Samhain poem to help you get in the mood:

My tidings for you: the stag bells,
Winter snows, Summer is gone.
Wind high and cold, low the sun,
Short his course, sea running high.
Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone,
The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.
Cold has caught the wings of birds.
Season of ice – these are my tidings.

Translated by Caitlin Matthews

And for those of you who like to celebrate the old ways, here is a beautiful Samhain prayer:

This is a vintage post which I have resurrected for your reading pleasure - it was first posted in 2011!


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