sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-07-24 06:25 am

The apple fell apart in my hand like a sticky golden star

I do not think after all that I have read Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Apple-Stone (1965); I think I have just read a lot of E. Nesbit, Mary Norton, and Edward Eager, all of whom are obviously in the DNA of a novel about five children—the English narrator and his two sisters plus their Scottish cousins who are known collectively as "the Clans"—who find a strange, ancient, sentient power that brings magic into their lives for about a week and then moves on, leaving mostly memories and just a few things changed for good.

"One touch from me animates the inanimate," boasts the Apple-Stone, the "small, bright, golden ball, about the size of a marble" that assisted in the birth of the universe and gave rise to the myth of the Golden Apples of the Sun; the children find it on the highest bough in the orchard, like a Sappho fragment come to life, and they make enlightening, foolish, dangerous, and kind use of it over the next twelve chapters until it returns to the earth to sleep and restore its power and find another apple tree to bloom from, decades or centuries hence. Most of their adventures have a comic slant, as when they animate the decrepit hearthrug to settle a bet over what kind of animal it came from and never find out because they spend the day having confused their "Lambie" with an actual escaped leopard prowling the moors, or have to play detectives for a lost glove weeping bitterly over being separated from its beloved right hand ("I'm deeply attached to it. I love it"), or create an intelligent, talkative, opera-loving sheep about twice the size of a Great Dane for reasons that make sense at the time. Sometimes the comedy turns spooky, as when they accidentally animate a feather boa and get Quetzalcoatl, who not unreasonably expects a sacrifice for incarnating when called, or an episode with a formerly model rocket triggers an international incident and science fiction, or the narrator discovers an unexpected and unwanted affinity for night flight on a witch's broom. An interlude with an effigy of a Crusader constitutes the kind of history lesson that would fit right into Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), as some of the children have their romantic illusions punctured and some come away with an interest in astrology and medicinal plants. And the two weirdest, most numinous chapters are the reason I can't be one hundred percent sure that I didn't read this book a long, long time ago: the life and death of the Bonfire Night guy that is partly the sad, passionate ghost of Guy Fawkes and partly a pyromaniac patchwork of the five children whose castoffs and imagination gave it form (as it explains in one of its more lucid moments, "Everyone is a mixture, you know, and I'm more so than most") and the introduction of new magic when the weeping gargoyle off a nearby church turns out to be the stone-trapped form of a medieval demon named "Little Tom," a wild, ragged, not quite human child in tricksterish and forlorn search of a witch to be familiar to. Both of them gave me the same half-echo as Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew (1953), again without any of the language coming back to me. I might run it by my mother to see if she remembers bringing it home when I was small. On the other hand, it might just be that I know [personal profile] ashlyme and [personal profile] nineweaving.

The Apple-Stone is the second book I've read by Gray and The Seventh Swan (1962) almost doesn't count, since I know I read it in elementary school and all I can remember is that it upset me more than the original fairy tale, which I suspect means I should re-read it. I like this one a lot, non-magical parts included. We learn early on that the parents of the English family are the puppeteers behind the popular TV show Ben and Bet Bun and absolutely none of their children think once of bringing the Buns or the Foxies to life because they find the whole thing desperately embarrassing. (The Clans' parents are rocket scientists and the narrator envies them deeply. "We're fond of our Mum and Dad, and hope they may grow out of it in time.") The children as a group are a believable, likeable mix of traits and alliances, differentiated well beyond obvious tags like Jo's academic crazes or Nigel's artistic talent or Douglas' belligerence or Jemima's imperiousness or Jeremy's daydreaming. They fight almost constantly with one another—the Clans especially, being composed of one Campbell and one Macdonald, are engaged in the kind of dramatic ongoing feud that is half performance art and half really blowing off steam—but close ranks immediately against outsiders, even supernatural ones:

"But I must tell you straight, gentles, that I can't do much of the true Black Art," said the gargoyle. "I'm not one of the great ones. I was never aught but a very little 'un. Horrid tricks I can manage," it added, boastfully, "like makin' folks squint, or muddling their minds, or twisting their tongues so that they stammers and stutters—"

"I c-can do that without your help!" snapped Nigel, going red.

"And I'm muddleheaded enough for everyone," I said, quickly.

"No, you're not!" said Jo, fiercely. "And Nigel only stutters when he's away from his home." Then she turned on the gargoyle. "You'll do no horrid tricks, do you hear? We're not sorcerers. We brought you here to help you."

The creature was still changing during all of this . . . Its hair was long and black, and tangled. Its ears were still pointed, though not as huge and batlike as before. It gave us a scornful grin, and said, "Many sorcerers don't care to admit to it."

If you have not read this novel, you can probably tell by now if you're going to like it. The Nesbit it reminds me of most is The Enchanted Castle (1907), but it feels like itself and it feels like its own time, which is equally important. I am actively sad that the near-fine UK first edition I saw at Readercon cost sticker shock—the library copy I just finished reading is the American first edition and the illustrations really didn't work for me. (I'm sorry, Charles Keeping! Your work for Alan Garner, Mollie Hunter, and Rosemary Sutcliff was great!) Maybe sometime I'll get lucky at the Strand. In any case, the text is what matters most and that I recommend. It is good at the strangeness of things that are not human and it never risks making even the cute ones twee. It's good at children's priorities and the ways that not being an adult doesn't mean not seeing the world. I didn't quote much of a descriptive passage, but I like its language. Anyone with other favorite novels by Nicholas Stuart Gray, please let me know.
the_rck: (Default)

[personal profile] the_rck 2017-07-24 11:16 am (UTC)(link)
Most of the other Gray I've read is short story collections. I particularly love Grimbold's Other World which had a paperback re-release in either the late 80s or early to mid-90s. I'd expect that edition to be easier to find (and cheaper!) than the old hardcover.

The stories in that are linked in that they're all the adventures of a boy dealing with creatures from an otherworldly realm (something of the Fair Folk) in his normal life and occasionally crossing over in the other direction himself. Reading all of the stories in that book adds up to a novel story arc, but the individual stories can still stand alone.

The other two I've read-- which are very definitely collections of disparate short stories-- are Mainly in Moonlight and Wind from Nowhere. One of those two has a story that focuses on the main character from Grimbold's Other World, and according to GoodReads I preferred Mainly in Moonlight just a bit over Wind from Nowhere.

Most of Gray's other books are out of print and have often been purged from library collections as too old, and many are expensive used (I just checked Amazon. There's one I'd love to read called The Stone Cage, but it's $704 and so not happening unless I can get it through ILL). He did some translations (at least, there's an edition of Gawain and the Green Knight on which he has a translation credit) and some plays (mostly fairy tales. I haven't read any or seen any performed). I think that it's largely that those books never got reprinted which is a pity.

I don't think he published more than about two dozen books, and that only if one includes the plays.
Edited (To correct book title I'd gotten wrong.) 2017-07-24 12:02 (UTC)
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-07-24 11:40 am (UTC)(link)
This sound *fabulous*. I'm going to find it and read it. I hope [personal profile] osprey_archer does too--she always has excellent takes on books, and this sounds up her alley.
asakiyume: (Em reading)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-07-24 10:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I ordered a cheap used copy, as my library network didn't have it. It's already shipped!
osprey_archer: (Default)

[personal profile] osprey_archer 2017-07-26 01:04 am (UTC)(link)
I have added it to my list! Which is five million books long, so it may be some time, but I'm already on a Nesbitish kick so...
sartorias: (Default)

[personal profile] sartorias 2017-07-24 01:22 pm (UTC)(link)
OMG I remember this! I remember it, and never saw it again . . . it must be in that category, like Doris Sutcliff Adams' stuff (especially No Man's Son) in which no one wants to let their copy go.
yatima: (Default)

[personal profile] yatima 2017-07-24 01:27 pm (UTC)(link)
The Stone Cage is my favorite version of Rapunzel, and the ending stayed with me for thirty years.
yatima: (Default)

[personal profile] yatima 2017-07-25 02:39 am (UTC)(link)
It's told from the POV of the witch's asshole cat, and now that I think about it, "told from the POV of the villain's asshole cat" should be a Trope.
shewhomust: (puffin)

[personal profile] shewhomust 2017-07-24 01:32 pm (UTC)(link)
This sounds interesting, and I'm wondering why the name is just completely unfamiliar to me. As a child, I might have bounced off the 'riffing on fairy tales' element, but if they'd been in the library I'd probably have given them a try... Your summary also reminds me of Edward Eager - there's a sort of Half Magic flavour to the talisman that does a very specific kind of magic.

Talking of books that remind us of E. Nesbit, I've just finished Frances Hardinge's Verdigris Deep...
isis: (Default)

[personal profile] isis 2017-07-24 03:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Your summary also reminds me of Edward Eager - there's a sort of Half Magic flavour to the talisman that does a very specific kind of magic.

I was going to say just this. I think I might try to track it down!
shewhomust: (puffin)

[personal profile] shewhomust 2017-07-25 08:44 am (UTC)(link)
It flirts with a kind of tension that I don't enjoy: I think of it not as fear but as dread, something awful is going to happen... which can spoil a book for me, even if I know it's going to turn out all right. Once I'd got a grip on the tone of Verdigris Deep, the way it combines humour and seriousness with some genuine horror, I enjoyed it quite a lot. But I still didn't love it the way I did Fly be Night.

What was it that reminded you of Diana Wynne Jones? One of the things I liked about it was the treatment of the adults, which is completely unDWJ!

cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)

[personal profile] cyphomandra 2017-07-24 08:27 pm (UTC)(link)
I do love the Clans. The Seventh Swan is probably my favourite of what I've read, but I also have The Applestone, A Wind from Nowhere (short story collection) and The Wardens of the Weir (novel, great - opening line "My father came into the room briskly and asked if I'd murdered the Tonkins children."). I have copies of two of his plays, The Princess and the Swineherd and New Clothes for the Emperor, both illustrated by Joan Jefferson Farjeon, but although I've looked through them I haven't read them. And I think I've read Down in the Cellar, but my memories are mainly of the Edward Ardizzone illustrations!

After I read The Seventh Swan in the mid 1990s I asked my local bookshop to track down more, and they got me Applestone and Wardens direct from the publisher, both 70s hardcovers but still (bizarrely) in print. I have just looked up the publishers (Dennis Dobson, no longer operative) and been tickled to discover that they bought a castle to store their stock in when the lease on their London property ran out.
skygiants: Na Yeo Kyeung, from Capital Scandal, giving a big thumbs-up (seal of approval)

[personal profile] skygiants 2017-07-25 01:22 am (UTC)(link)
If you have not read this novel, you can probably tell by now if you're going to like it -- I could! :D