“The Butterfly Picnic” – A perfect holiday read?

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     Joan Aiken writing at her cheerful best was a perfect reader’s companion. Well travelled, cultured, with a wealth of personal experience, she also had the ability not just to tell a gripping story, but to draw the reader in to the enjoyment of the writing process.   What she loved was to hold her audience in a juggling act of belief and disbelief, caught up in the whirl of the dance as she hurtled through her plots, at the full stretch of her imagination, while inviting you to share in the full enjoyment of her talents.

The ideal read on holiday then (or even a substitute for one?) would be her fantastic romp of a novel, The Butterfly Picnic   (in the US known as A Cluster of Separate Sparks.)   In one perfect package, as in the novels of her equally readable predecessor Mary Stewart, she gives you a thriller and a trip to a Greek island!

Imagine for example, your much needed siesta on a camp bed in a cool, black and white cobbled courtyard, with a canopy of scented jasmine and grape vines growing up from scarlet painted bomb cases, populated by wiry and warring skinny cats and a scolding old granny, just as likely to give you a warm hug as lecture you about your sunburn.  Joan Aiken reminds you of the the agonising pain and delirium of that sunburn, but also allows you the heavenly delight of a life-saving ice cream bought with your last five Greek drachmae:

‘a kind of custard ice, rather solid, with bits of plain hard chocolate and candied orange peel scattered about its interior’ – which of course comes with ‘a big beautiful glass of water, dripping with condensation.’

     And this is only the background for an absurd amount of plot to keep you turning the pages. To quote one jacket blurb:

“Georgia Marsh comes to the island of Dendros to forget her dead lover and in search of a job. Within hours she has witnessed the murder of her beautiful cousin, been kidnapped by Arab guerrillas, and finds herself involved in an international conspiracy in the mountain-top fortress cum experimental school run by a powerful millionaire known as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. Only after a series of harrowing brushes with death and a climactic confrontation in a cloud of butterflies does she…”

Well I’m not going to give away the entire plot as they do, but even so, there is an enormous amount more!

     Added to this are discussions about the transmigration of souls (with one of the kidnappers), the invention of an entire philosophy known as the Muddle Principle, expounded by a Swedish instructor called Ole Sodso: ‘the human race prefers muddle and will get into one if it possibly can’ (which could be a comment on our times), her own wonderfully inventive creation of a therapeutic school for the care of traumatised children,  and then throughout it all, the fully conscious exposé of the method of narration that  she is using in her novel as she writes it… sounds crazy? It is, but provides excellent food for thought as you lie idly on your beach…

For example our heroine engages (with a murderer…) in  a comparison of the narrative methods of various authors such as Charles Dickens or Tolstoy, and then of unlovable characters in fiction, together with the possibility that their faults were unsuspected by their creators – such as Jane Austen’s prissy Fanny Price in  Mansfield Park.

(Spoiler alert!!! But don’t worry there is so much more…)

He (the possible/ would-be murderer) and Georgia are both reading Dickens’ Bleak House, and so Joan Aiken has her heroine brood about her situation in a playful comparison with that novel’s horribly perfect, but sadly plain protagonist, Esther Summerson.  To distract herself from her troubles (broke, tired and hungry, waiting in vain in a searingly hot harbour-side cafe on an unknown island for the arrival of her cousin) she wonders how Esther would have coped. How would it be, she wonders (the ultimate unreliable narrator!) if she was the heroine of a novel?

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

ButterflyPicnic full quote

  (And no, we never do discover what Georgia looks like!)

 In short, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and like the very best kind of holiday,  leaves you feeling you have had the perfect escape…with the most delightfully entertaining travelling companion…

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

PS. That should be Mr Guppy of course, shameful editor’s slip  for an Aikenesque name she would have admired and not misquoted.

 

The Butterfly Picnic (aka: A Cluster of Separate Sparks in the USA )

Now out as an EBook 

Read more about Joan Aiken’s Modern novels now out as EBooks

 

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The best stories of Joan Aiken – The People in the Castle wins five stars!

People paperback

Now out in paperback, this ‘haunting and wondrous book’ has stories drawn from Joan Aiken’s entire career; from the fantastic to the funny, these stories show her gift for mixing the everyday and the magical, the spooky and the  surreal. If you haven’t discovered Joan Aiken yet, this is the perfect place to begin…

Here are some readers responses:

“To read the stories in this most recent collection is like coming home to my quirky ancestral mansion and spending time exploring the trunks in the attic. There are dark corners and sunbeams shining through the dust motes. Faint fragrances evoke memories and emotions long forgotten.” OverReader: Amazon review

“Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.”
Joel Cunningham Barnes & Noble: 7 Essential New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Story Collections

“For readers unfamiliar with Aiken’s work, its ice-and-stars clarity, naturalism, and unerring dialogue can be described as hypnotic: “Empty and peaceful the old house dreamed, with sunlight shifting from room to room and no sound to break the silence, save in one place, where the voices of children could be heard faintly above the rustling of a tree.” [from “A Room Full of Leaves.”] William Grabowski,  See the Elephant

“Fans of Wolves will recognize the honorable orphans and cruel guardians who populate these tales. Typically the wicked meet with fitting fates and the innocent triumph, though for Aiken, a good death counts as a happy ending. She plays with the contrast between the eldritch and modern culture and technology: ghosts and dead kings out of legend who contact the living by telephone, a doctor who writes prescriptions for fairies, a fairy princess who’s fond of Westerns. Her metaphors and similes surprise and delight: “the August night was as gentle and full as a bucket of new milk”; “He was tall and pale, with a bony righteous face and eyes like faded olives”; across a field, “lambs [followed] their mothers like iron filings drawn to a magnet in regular converging lines.” Sprightly but brooding, with well-defined plots, twists, and punch lines, these stories deserve a place on the shelf with the fantasies of Saki (H.H. Munro), Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Susanna Clarke.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s so much to love about this slender collection… The juxtaposition of mundane and magical…feels effortless and fresh. The language is simply splendid, so evocative, as though the stories were actually very dense poems. And it brilliantly showcases Aiken’s affectionate, humorous, deft portrayals of female characters… Aiken’s prose is extraordinary, impossible to do justice to in this small space. Her skill with the language of folk tales—specifically the oral storytelling native to the British Isles—is unparalleled… These stories both feel very 20th century and somehow timeless.”
— Publishers Weekly Rose Fox, Senior Reviews Editor

*****

Read the title story here, and the introduction by Kelly Link, Pulitzer Prize nominated short story writer and half of the publishing team at Small Beer Press

Read the introduction to Joan Aiken’s Strange stories by daughter Lizza Aiken

 

 

 

Wilful Obscurity and other Aiken Fun!

Wild Animalsrotate

Creating her own period of alternate history gave Joan Aiken the freedom to exercise her wild imagination, and also provided her with the opportunity to use a  vast array of stored knowledge from her wide reading and her life-long fascination with history, mythology, the natural sciences, and stories of travel to far away lands.  Use of these elements,  combined with a riotous ear for dialogue and a facility for creating eccentric characters meant she could fill her invented worlds with a wonderful variety of bizarre detail, which, in her fast moving and free wheeling plots could be employed pretty much to her heart’s content.

But sometimes she did go rather over the top…!

Her general ebullience and the enjoyment of her own creative powers perhaps reached its peak in The Whispering Mountain, a  prequel to the Wolves Chronicles series of books, set in Wales, and making use of a good deal of Welsh language and colloquial expression.  The story also contains characters as varied as The Seljuk of Rum – a foreign potentate who speaks in a language (tongue, talk, dialect, parlance!) of his own taken straight from Roget’s Thesaurus – and a Prince of Wales with a list of Christian names that covers almost all periods of the English Monarchy, but who speaks broad Scots.  On top of this there are a pair of dastardly villains who speak in their own Victorian underground language – known as Thieves Cant – a pair of peevy coves who mizzle at the first sign of trouble.

Grappling with all these characters is the sympathetic young hero – a learned, lonely small boy called Owen, who is mercilessly bullied by the other boys in his village, because as an avid reader he has too many fancy ideas and an overwhelming desire to share them… Owen is armed with a small book that has taught him all he needs to know, very like one that Joan herself had treasured from her childhood, which goes by the marvellous title:

“Arithmetic, Grammar, Botany &c; Thefe Pleafing Sciences made familiar to the Capacities of Youth”

Book of Knowledge

This and Owen’s own natural intelligence finally allow him to win round the bullies, treating  one boy’s wounds from a wolf bite with a cobweb bandage,  or making a rope from strands of “Clematis Vitalba or Virginiana” which, as he can’t resist explaining, perhaps to the bewilderment of the other boys: “is a beautiful plant covered with white bloffoms or furry fruit clufters”…   As we discover, the typeface in his little book of knowledge is so antiquated that it has ‘f’s instead of ‘s’s just to add to the general confusion and charm.

Using, among other skills learned from his precious book, this plant knowledge and his mathematical capabilities, he saves the gang of boys from a flood by building a rope swing from the Clematis vine to get them all across a gorge:

‘ “To find the strength of a rope,”‘ he informs his companions, ‘”you should square the circumference in inches and divide by three, for the breaking strain in tons.”  I am joining these two pieces together with a rolling hitch, as they are of slightly different sizes;  I shall secure one end to the tree by means of a timber hitch, thus -‘

‘Winding a spare strand of creeper round his waist, and slinging the crossbow on his back, he shinned up the tree with great agility and tied the end of his rope to a suitable branch; then he laid hold of the rope and slid down it to within four feet of the lower end.

“Letth cut the rope now, eh, Hwfa?” whispered Soth, but Hwfa, watching Owen’s actions with the utmost interest, took no notice of his henchman.

“What’ll he do now, he can never drop from there? – Ah, I see – he is going to swing!”‘

(Oh yes, and poor Soth has a lisp…!)

Joan not only gleaned her information from antiquated instruction manuals, but also from the Victorian or Edwardian children’s books her Canadian mother had brought over to England, and introduced to the family.  Particular favourites were Ernest Seton Thompson’s Two Little Savages and Wild Animals I Have Known – written from the author’s own experience of being a lonely little boy in a strange country.  He was in a fact a Scot growing up in Canada, and to escape from his bullying father, he spent much time on his own,  studying nature and Indian lore out in the wild. Joan Aiken experienced the same kind of pleasure  as a rather isolated child growing up in the freedom of the Sussex countryside, imagining herself in a far wilder landscape, surviving with these books as her guides and companions.

As an adult she created opportunities, as here in The Whispering Mountain, to share the mysterious magic of all this language, knowledge and spirit of adventure.  The exotic and obscure vocabulary that her reading offered her as a small child, although it was presumably bewildering to the children of her own home village, still fired their curiosity  and so encouraged her desire to tell wild and wonderful stories. When she did become a writer she was determined never to underestimate the ingenuity of her readers by talking down to them.  She was convinced that putting old and new ideas and imaginative language into an exciting context would help to bring her fantasy worlds to life, and communicate the ideas and customs of other times and countries to her readers.

But even she admitted that sometimes she got a bit too carried away, and possibly, in this particular story – as the Seljuk of Rum might say – became:

‘Fantastical, Rhapsodic, Whimsical, Absurd, or even Obscure….’

*****

TheWhisperingMountain_COVER REV2

The Whispering Mountain, the prequel to the Wolves Chronicles is now published as a Puffin Book, so that the whole series is now in print together for the first time.

See all the books at Joan Aiken.com

Random House/Red Fox/Penguin Children’s Books Joan Aiken page

Wolves Chronicles

To see a film of Joan talking about The Wolves Chronicles, and reading from her own copy of the little Book of Knowledge visit the website here.

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“The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters”

The Sleep of Reason

     This haunting picture, and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter Goya, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys.   Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert, moving between the news of the day, scientific discoveries that were changing the world, and the works of other artists and writers from the past and present, who influenced her own writing with their responses to the world in which they found themselves.

Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century.  Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth,  nearly twenty-five years ago. 

In her fantasy novel the dereliction of human awareness that led to this threat to life on our planet, leads to an invasion of monsters – the cockatrices of her story – who are descending on earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.

These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing  need to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies carelessly or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children.   Joan Aiken, like Goya, and a new current breed of  writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, can save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.

But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces,  in reality as much as in the imagination, falling into Goya’s Sleep of Reason – could be equally harmful.

Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:

Cockatrice Sleep of Reason

It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –

not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness

  all we have to do is stay awake….

*****

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