Monthly Archives: October 2013

Top Five Witches in Fiction

Happy Halloween, in celebration of one of my favourite days of the year I thought I would share my favourite fictional witches with you. When I told my boyfriend I was doing a post on fictional witches he told me that all witches are fictional, he told me that all witches are fictional. That’s what he wants to think, he’ll be laughing on the other side of his face when I turn him into a toad…. but I digress. Some are entered as collectives (covens if you will…), some are wicked while some are just tricksey,and I’ve no doubt that some of the additions will be as controversial as one of my major omissions…

1)The Lancre Witches in The Discworld Series

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

“I’m not superstitious. I’m a witch. Witches aren’t superstitious. We are what people are superstitious of.” Wintersmith

 

I love the Lancre witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. After Death they are my favourite characters. They are quietly powerful, not engaging to hierarchical nonsense to the extent of wizards and have tongues as sharp as their minds. They are hilarious when they interact as a community, and the way they drop in on each other to check that no one is at risk of cackling is brilliant, you get the sense that they are half hoping that they will find each other lapsing. I love all the witches from Tiffany Aching with her mishaps in the recent books, to the hearty Nanny Ogg, but grumpy Granny Weatherwax is almost certainly my favourite of them all:

“Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered in one of her strong points. Genuine anger was one of the world greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn’t mean you let it trickle away. it meant you damned it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.”  Wyrd Sisters

 2) Jadis/The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia

Jadis, The White Witch, as played by Tilda Swinton in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Part Snow Queen, part especially corrupted Eve, The White Witch is witchy in the wreak-evil-and-rule-the-world sense. In fact, she may well be the wickedest witch on this list. Having wiped out all life on the world of Charn, she escapes to London and tries to take over Earth before returning to Narnia and plunging the land into an eternal winter, turning people to stone, seducing children with enchanted Turkish Delight and killing Aslan. As a child, she was a character I loved to hate.

 ‘”The White Witch?” said Edmund; “who’s she?”

“She is a perfectly terrible person,” said Lucy. “She calls herself the Queen of Narnia thought she has no right to be queen at all, and all the Fauns and Dryands and Naiads and Dwarfs and Animals—at least all the good ones—simply hate her. And she can turn people into stone and do all kinds of horrible things. And she has made a magic so that it is always winter in Narnia—always winter, but it never gets to Christmas. And she drives about on a sledge, drawn by reindeer, with her wand in her hand and a crown on her head.”

Edmund was already feeling uncomfortable from having eaten too many sweets, and when he heard that the Lady he had made friends with was a dangerous witch he felt even more uncomfortable. But he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight more than he wanted anything else.’

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

 3) The Grand High Witch in The Witches

The Witches by Roald Dahl, iconic cover image by Quentin Blake

Another scary childhood witch, perhaps made worse by the fact that witches could be anyone, anywhere. Perhaps even your school teacher. You had to be especially vigilant to be sure you weren’t accidentally talking to a witch- watch out for claw like hands, fiery pupils, bald heads and a limp.

 

“She might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look carefully at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don’t let that put you off. It could be part of cleverness.
I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But–here comes the big “but”–not impossible.”

Roald Dahl, The Witches

 4) The Wicked Witch of The West/Elphaba from The Oz Stories

The Wicked Witch of The West threatens Dorothy

I think that this is the image that jumps into your mind whenever you get asked to picture a witch- a green-skinned woman in a tall black hat as suggested by The Oz stories and Wicked. I have included these as one character because I love the juxtaposition between the books. In the Baum books she is the power obsessed antagonist who represents all that is evil, in Wicked she is a tender-hearted heroine whose memory will ultimately be slandered by The Wizard to create the propagandist portrayal we see in The Wizard of Oz.  I love her in both.

“One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her-is it ever the right choice? Does the devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil?”

Wicked, Gregory Maguire

 5) Minerva McGonagall of Harry Potter Fame

Prof Minerva McGonagall

This is the controversial choice that I was referring to, but for me Minerva McGonagall is the best witch in the Harry Potter books. A talented witch with a steely exterior, she has her heart firmly in the right place and I defy anyone to read the scene in The Order of The Phoenix where she stands up for Harry against Umbridge without cheering inside. She’s a damn site cooler than Hermione, though Molly Weasley has to come a close second. Did I mention that she has a mischievous side as well?

 

 “Harry witnessed Professor McGonagall walking right past Peeves who was determinedly loosening a crystal chandelier and could have sworn he heard her tell the poltergeist out of the corner of her mouth ‘It unscrews the other way.”

J.K. Rowling, The Order of The Phoenix

 Honourable Mention

While not making my top five, honourable mentions should go to The Three Witches in Macbeth, Mildred Hubble The Worst Witch, Lena Duchannes in Beautiful Creatures and, Bobd, Macha and Morrigan as portrayed in The Hounds of The Morrigan.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

I was really excited to receive Alexander Maksik’s new novel A Marker to Measure Drift having reviewed and loved his debut novel You Deserve Nothing. I took no time at all in reading it, but have taken for ever to review it as it left me feeling really shaken.

That’s the thing about Maksik’s writing. I don’t know how he does it, but there is something about his words that seems to directly access your emotions and twist them this way and that. Maybe it’s a feature of great writing, but there aren’t many novelists that you can honestly say manage that. The novel follows Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, as she survives living hand to mouth in an Aegean tourist trap, riddled with survivor’s guilt having escaped a tragedy which is hinted at, but not directly referred to until the end of the novel.

It’s impressive how Maksik sustains the reader’s attention in the interim, gripping them with Jacqueline’s bleak struggle for a survival she doesn’t even seem to want. His intimate narrative confidently, and more importantly, credibly creates the character of a young female refuge which really engages the reader with her plight. The trouble is, in a novel rooted in such gritty, real affairs, there can be no happy ending. When I finished the novel I felt horrified and a little bereft- a reaction to the writing, but not an emotionally easy read.

If you enjoy powerful issues based writing like J.M. Shaw’s Ten Weeks in Africa, I would definitely recommend A Marker to Measure Drift. Maksik is a powerful writer, but you need to make sure that you’re in the right place emotionally before engaging with some of the topics in this book.

Literary Pumpkins- Bookish Inspiration for Halloween

When my brother send me a picture of this pumpkin based on the one ring in Lord of The Rings, he started something of an obsession…. my heart melted a bit. All I knew was that I loved it, I wanted it, I neeeds it…. my precioussss pumpkin…

LOTR pumpkin with inscription from the one ring

I realised I needed to seek more bookish pumpkin fun and came across this brilliant post from A Book Lover’s Diary of 20 Pumpkin Carvings Inspired By Books. These have been made by grandmasters. They are not for the likes of me to try carving at home. I’ll have to cheat something like these cute (but under carved) pumpkins inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven from Country Living and Etsy

What are the best literary pumpkins you’ve come across?

Quote me on that… Sloeblack, Slow Black

Under Milk Wood

Created using photograph by José Encarnação under terms of Creative Commons license

I think that this opening to Under Milk Wood, written as a play for voices by my country man Dylan Thomas, is one of the finest pieces of description in the English language. I wish I’d had room to add the next section about “Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea.” but then I wouldn’t have been able to fit in my favourite wordplay”sloeblack, slow black” so I had to cut it.

Dylan Thomas was born today in 1914, and you have to admit, he wrote some incredibly beautiful literature in his short life.

Death by eBook… well, almost

electric ebookRecently I’ve been dabbling with eBooks. Using my boyfriend’s tablet I’ve bought a few; mostly been classics like Tender is The Night or Jamaica Inn for on location holiday reading, but I’ve bought some more recent books like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of the Lane. I wasn’t what I’d call a convert as I still infinitely prefer paper, but I was something of a reformed Luddite in that I would consider the occasional dabble. I was even thinking of buying the tablet a case. Well, no more. I am back on the paper and can’t tell you what I thought of Mr Gaiman’s latest offering.

You see something strange happened in bed last night and don’t worry, this is family friendly weirdness. I was starting to read The Ocean At The End of the Lane on the tablet and absent-mindedly started stroking my boyfriend’s back, but it was strange, as if there was an energy between us that I’d never noticed before… a spark if you will. To cut a long story short, I realised that the metal tablet casing at the back of the tablet was conducting an electric current between us as the device charged, which suggests that there is something faulty within the device. I have now had to stop using the tablet for fear of being electrocuted.

So there we have yet another reason why paper books are superior to eBooks. I’ve never heard of anyone being electrocuted by a paper book. And of course, I now have nothing to read my copy of The Ocean at The End of The Lane on, unless I read it on my phone which has a teeny screen. I thought eBooks were meant to make your life easier not harder, grr.

Morrissey’s Autobiography and the Problem With Defining A Classic…

Today my colleague sent me an interesting article from Publishing Perspectives which asked, if Morrissey is a Penguin Classic, why not Elton John?

The article makes some interesting points about devaluing a respected brand to soothe a celebrity’s ego and you do have to wonder what the editor was thinking. Did Morrissey demand to have his autobiography published in the Penguin Classics series? Is the publication of Morrissey’s biography in the Penguin Classics some kind of stunt? Does it matter anyway?

Neither my colleague or I have read the Morrissey autobiography but it did lead to an interesting discussion about what can be considered a classic. I argued that a classic has to have gained some sort of critical praise from readers across a significant period of time, it’s not a label which can be instantly applied- in the same way that you can’t call a book which has yet to be released a bestseller. But that’s a pretty vague and fuzzy definition in itself.

What makes a book a classic for you?

 

The Book Thief Movie Trailer

Words cannot express how excited I am about seeing this trailer for The Book Thief movie…

It’s giving me actual shivers of anticipation. Doesn’t it look amazing? And I don’t normally say that when I see the trailer for a book I love. Sophie Nelisse is such a pretty girl but has an air of mischief which I think will be perfect for Liesel. The only problem is that while the US release date for The Book Thief is November 8th 2013 I have to wait until January 31st 2014 to see it in the UK. So frustrating, I feel like I’m having to patiently wait for everything at the moment!

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

benedick and beatriceThis week I’ve been spending a lot of time lying on my sofa recovering from my operation and have been too tired to do anything, including read. After dozing through way too much daytime TV my soul was beginning to feel rotten so I decided to see if there were any films I wanted to see via the Virgin Box, and lo and behold, there was Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (my absolute favourite Shakespeare play, seriously, I can recite almost all of it with a bit of prompting) which I’ve been wanting to watch for ages.

I’m a bit of a Whedon geek, though I didn’t realise exactly how much until I watched this film (hello Wesley, hello Fred, hello Agent Coulson) and I was initially concerned that I was too familiar with the actors’ other work with Whedon to really believe in their portrayals of the characters I know and love but my fears proved unfounded and I thought it was amazing.

The first thing that really impressed me was that from the very beginning of the film Whedon did something that most director’s don’t and made the hints that Beatrice gives about her previous romantic relationship with Benedick explicit for the modern audience. For example, the film starts with Benedick sneaking out of bed as Beatrice sleeps, clearly some time in the past, and foreshadows Beatrice’s line “You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old” beautifully. Having said that, portraying it as an overtly sexual relationship makes it harder for the viewer to accept Claudio’s reaction to the “reveal” of Hero’s “disloyalty” later in the film, so this divergent approach is a little problematic but, regardless of that, kudos for highlighting this- it’s something a lot of directors seem to disregard and I think it’s crucial to the audience’s understanding of the root of their “merry war”, which is obviously anything but.

I hate the moment in which Hero is disgraced in Much Ado so much it feels like I’m going to break out in hives, but I admired the way Whedon had Leonarto, played by Agent Coulson Clark Gregg, portray this moments with shades of grey- obvious tenderness for his daughter among the shock and horrific lines that his character speaks. This is a really problematic moment in any modern adaptation of Shakespeare, but I think they handled it as well as they possibly could have done given that it’s a feminist’s nightmare and I like to think that Whedon would have given this due consideration. He is, after all the guy who gave Buffy this kick ass line

In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be *our* power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

I digress. The thing that really gets me through Hero’s first wedding is the character of Dogberry, played to absolute perfection by that creepy priest Caleb Nathan Fillion who absolutely stole the show with his acting. I was really impressed by how convincingly the Watch could be played as a modern American cop drama scenario without it seeming jarring or incredibly anachronistic. In fact, for me, this was the most impressive moment in the film. See a snippet of Dogberry and co. here:

I was surprised when reading the trivia section on IMDB that apart from the abridgments (which sadly saw Beatrice’s line about being “overmaster’d with a piece of valiant dust?” being cut) Joss Whedon had changed only one line in the play which was from “if I do not love her, I am a Jew” to “if I do not love her, I am a fool.” On the one hand, I can completely understand why he did this, but I did think it was strange that he let this line lie but retained Claudio’s “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.” Shakespeare is full of huge amounts of language and Elizabethan attitudes which are totally appalling to a modern-day audience, but by changing a line to avoid antisemitism, and letting an explicitly racist line lie I think that you create a problematic environment in which you either need to be totally true to the text or clean up the play completely.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes Shakespeare and any Whedon fans who have yet to whole heartedly embrace the bard. The official trailer is below.