Tag Archives: childhood

Brian Caswell: Merryll and Butterflies

I don’t know how, but I had forgotten about Brian Caswell until my sister linked My Sister Sif with Merryll of the Stones, and I realised that NO nostalgic trip to early adolescence would be complete, for me, without him.

Merryll of the Stones has time travel, romance, dragons and other mythical creatures, and Wales. Also tragedy, but romance. Old book, and romance… yeh yeh ok, I actually am a total sap. Have we not realised that yet? Whatever.

Megan’s parents are killed in a car crash; she wakes up from a coma speaking Welsh, and conveniently having to go live with relatives in Wales. She meets unpleasant school girls, a mostly sympathetic but vague set of relatives, and the odd and intense Em. She then goes back in time to a period when Wales was being all mythological and warlike, and… there’s a prophecy, and mistaken identity, and struggling to find your way physically and mentally and emotionally, and it is JUST ALL AWESOME. Megan, so far as I recall, is an immensely sympathetic and believable character – not perfect, but aiming for the right; her relationships with the girls around her really resonated with me. Plus, yes, the awkwardness of her relationship with Em had a great appeal – dealing with his intensity and oddness, his secrecy and mystery but he’s neither a vampire NOR A STALKER. Just saying. And again plus, a really cool vision of ancient Wales. I’ve always had a thing for Wales and the Celts. This was absolutely one of my go-to books as a young girl. (And I currently can’t find my copy. I think my sister has stolen it.)


Cage of Butterflies is verrrry different in theme, but equally awesome and resonant in tone and characterisation. Super intelligent teens in a ‘think tank’ educational facility discover that just over there, in the bit of the institute they shouldn’t know about, is a bunch of babies with… abilities. Who do not like being kept in the institute and experimented on.

I remember this as being a bit more plot-driven than Merryll; the lead characters, Mikki and the boy whose name I’ve forgotten, have to find out about the Babies and then have to figure out what to do with/for them and then deal with some consequences (it has a bit of ‘much later…’ as the conclusion). And I definitely remember that as being exciting and tense the first time I read it. However, as with Merryll, the real draw is the characters themselves. Perhaps this won’t surprise anyone, but I was absolutely a square at school, and the idea of a place filled with really smart kids hanging out together and, while not necessarily just sitting around talking about books all day – there are still fights and awkwardness and general teen-type things – there’s no condemnation for being smart. That was a pretty exciting thing to read about. I liked the alternating point of view – girl and boy, who by the way rather like each other, ooh er, as well as working really, really well together and complimenting each other beautifully physically (the boy has, IIRC, something wrong with his legs…) and mentally (different strengths – and genuinely different, not better/gender based. Again, IIRC… maybe I’ve got rosy glasses towards this). It was a delight in general, is what I’m getting at.

Brian Caswell, I owe you a great debt for adding lovely gentle readable and believable romance and characters and story to my life.

Investigate Your Way Through Adolescence

There was a time in my life before speculative fiction ruled. Who knew?

I read a fair bit of Nancy Drew, but it hasn’t stayed with me. I don’t think my library had any Hardy Boys; I certainly never read them. That doesn’t mean I was at a loss for teen investigations, though. Oh no.

#1. Trixie Belden

I was totally mad for Trixie Belden. I have no idea where I got them – probably an older friend of the family – but I know I read a loooot of them.

I used to imagine myself as one of their gang, and falling in love with Jim…! (or, since he was so clearly all over Trixie, I’d settle for Dan, the somewhat dour but very useful stable boy.) I loved that Trixie wasn’t the oldest, or male, but that she was clearly the leader of the group – even her older brother Brian usually followed her lead. Plus, adventures, and travelling around the country, and a cool group of friends with a variety of talents, and… yeh. Perfect. Plus plus, a lot of the investigations were actually very clever, and had neat little twists. Not that I remember very many of them, because they were a long time ago and I just read them one after another and they all blur together…

Words I would not know without Trixie Belden: jalopy. Also, that it was possible to have violet eyes (Di was not my favourite, but boy did I envy those eyes).

#2. Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

A series that I quite literally could not get my hands on enough of (because the library didn’t stock them).

I loved the three different characters who made up the team: Jupiter – smart and ‘chubby’; Pete – nervous and athletic; and Bob, the studious one. To be honest I actually don’t remember enormous details about them in any specific book, but I remember enjoying their conversations immensely and thinking that it was awesome how they were all so different but worked so well together. I liked the settings of the books – I seem to recall quite a few being set in/around carnivals – and I adored the intricacies of the mysteries they got themselves involved in. I liked that Jupiter was regularly underestimated because he was fat but that I the reader was very smug in knowing that his brains made up for any perceived deficiency – and clearly the people who thought poorly of him were villains or redshirts because everyone good knows Jupe is the leader. Duh. I really liked Jupiter. Plus, again, fun twists to the plot, some of which I even hadn’t already guessed for myself.

I’m still quite the sucker for police procedurals – also Shadow Unit – and I think I can trace that back here.

My Sister Sif

Look, I’ll just admit it up front, ok? I was not a horse-y girl. I could not understand Saddle Club; even though I wasn’t very maternal as a young girl, I still preferred Babysitters’ Club books over the horsey ones. (I also did not understand the appeal of the Gymnasts books.) But what I lacked in love for equines I more than made up for in adoration of dolphins. Yes, I was That Girl. I wanted to be a marine biologist for aaaages – until I discovered that they usually spend their time studying plankton, and only the luckiest get to swim with dolphins and make a living from it. I had (… have) dolphin jewellery, and dolphin statuettes, and… yes, you get the picture.

Unsurprisingly, this story captured my heart and made it ache. Terribly. For many varied and heartbreaking reasons.

Riko and Sif go from Australia to their family home on a Pacific island, where it’s revealed (to the audience) that they’re related to mer-people. Who have a connection to dolphins.

There’s romance – for Sif, with a scientist, and for Riko a somewhat confused attempt from what I remember as being a not-entirely-human character, but maybe that’s my memory. There’s adventure – people doing suspicious things on their island, especially. And there’s character. Riko is wonderfully realised – rebellious, envious of her sister and desperately loving and protective of her at the same time, practical and down to earth and determined. Sif is the more fey – physically, having more of a connection to their mer-relatives, as well as personality wise; this is, I realise, something of a Jane/Lizzie Bennett pairing. Hmm. And in the end, there’s also a lesson to be learnt, which is done blatantly but also in a ‘you’ve seen all of this, isn’t it obvious?’ way: Riko goes home determined to change society, beginning with the children, to make it more like dolphins and less likely to destroy the environment… as is happening around the island, and which has helped bring about the great tragedy in her life. Which is the bit that made me cry. Which is Sif dying.

I remember incredibly evocative descriptions of the people and the places, I remember desperately wanting to BE Riko and try to save Sif, and I remember trying to swim like the mer-people are described as doing, too, to my embarrassment. On which note, this was one of the first serious attempts at explaining merfolk that I remember reading, and it still strikes me that their attempt to include their land-bound brethren is a remarkable one – developing breathing apparatus and the like. I think I still want to be Riko.

I should re-read this. I’m quite sure the power of Riko and Sif has warded off the Suck Fairy.

It’s Tansy’s fault I’m reliving these childhood memories. See this post for her love of Grange Hill…

Riddle of the Trumpalar

I mentioned in my last post that Lord of the Rings was not my first conscious experience of speculative fiction. I know that I had read some before I got to that point. The first book that I can consciously remember reading that counts as fantasy is The Riddle of the Trumpalar, by Judy Bernard-Waite (who I know now was not one but three people).

Oh how I loved this book with all my heart. I’m afraid to go back to it now, for fear of the suck fairy, but it had a powerful pull on the childhood imagination of me. Twins, living in Sydney, get sucked into a Moreton Bay fig, where they meet the Trumpalar, who is not quite your normal living-in-a-tree dryad figure… and then up end spat out in the early Sydney colony, and have to help out one of their (maybe convict? I forget. Probably Irish) ancestors.

It’s a little bit Playing Beattie Bow, really, isn’t it? I bet they all came out round about the bicentenary.

Anyway: twins! time travel! even history! (although I didn’t know I loved history at that stage.) I was living in the tropics at the time so I didn’t know Moreton Bay figs from a rose, but since moving south – as an adult! – I’ve had a bit of a Thing for them. And let’s be honest here, an enigmatic figure living in a tree rather predisposed me to fall in love with Legolas and Lothlorien. I remember really enjoying the interaction of the twins – a boy and a girl – with each other and with their ancestor. My fuzzy memory tells me that their parents were actually alive and both around, although of course they lived in the present – but their mum in particular was cool. The Trumpalar I also don’t remember very clearly, although the picture above – which was the copy that I had – also made a strong impression on me. Check out that flowing grey hair! The strength and nobility of that nose! He may have had a book-lined study inside the tree… or maybe that was just my imagination.

I blame this as the beginning of my affair with fantasy. Thanks, all three of you, Judy Bernard-Waite.

Lord of the Rings: a child’s memory

Tansy is doing a series of blog posts this week in honour of Book Week about childhood reading and everything around it, so I thought I would add a few thoughts myself. And I am starting with Lord of the Rings.

When I was 12, I was in competition with a friend: who could read the most in that year. We decided it would be on both pages read and total number of books read, but books had to have over 100 pages. Now I got my total books up fast because I was reading a lot of Babysitters Club (I know, right?). However, they were short, and I was mighty competitive back then. So I looked at my parents’ book shelves and I picked the fattest book I could. And why yes, it was LoTR.

I had read fantasy before- that’s another post- but I had definitely never read anything like this. I don’t actually rememeber whether I had read Hobbit first or not… something says not. Anyway, I was blown away. I imagined myself joining the fellowship, and Legolas was my first serious book crush. I loved it so much I read it in 20 days, which was quite quick work for 12 year old me… and important in making sure that I didn’t fall behind in the reading competition, too. I loved it so much that when I started working as a checkout chick, my first major purchase was my own, one volume, not-falling-apart copy – and that was SO exciting. I loved it so much that for a while there, I read it every year; I think I’ve got up to about a dozen or so. This is one book that has had a genuinely long-lasting impact.

Weird fact: I listened to a cassette of the Beach Boys a lot of the time while I read LoTR the first time, such that I had flashbacks to the mines of Moria and the forests of Lothlorien in response to Little Deuce Coupe and California Girls for years after.

For those who care, I don’t think my friend and I ever decided who had won our competition. I think we might have got sick of it.