Out of the realm of the ordinary

15th September 2000 at 01:00
THE ORCHARD BOOK OF EGYPTIAN GODS AND PHARAOHS. By Robert Swindells. Illustrated by Stephen Lambert. THE ORCHARD BOOK OF GHOSTLY STORIES. By Martin Waddell. Illustrated by Sophy Williams. THE ORCHARD BOOK OF LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Jane Ray. Orchard Books pound;12.99 each.

The gods of ancient Egypt are not as familiar as those of the Greeks or the Vikings. Swindells has told Viking tales of the latter in another Orchard collection, and now turns his attention to Osiris, Isis, Anubis with his jackal's head and many others whose existence we know about from the Rosetta Stone and deciphered hieroglyphics. The language Swindells uses is very modern and straightforward and there's nothing about it to put readers off. Just occasionally, something strikes a strange note - exclamations like "Wow" are a little too up to date - but for the most part, the tone is just right. There are jokes in plenty, even when the most chilling events are taking place. When Osiris is tricked into stepping into what is actually a coffin, the slogan that persuades everyone to try the beautiful box for size is: "He who fits it, gits it". Stephen Lambert's illustrations capture very well both the colours of the desert landscape and the slightly ponderous mystery that hovers over the tales. This is just the book to accompany How to Read Hieroglyphs, one of several children's titles from the British Museum Press that covers this field.

Martin Waddell, in the introduction to his own ghostly tales, gathers us round his very own fire. The cover image shows an old man with an audience sitting spellbound around him. Throughout we are conscious of the narrative voice speaking to us in a particularly Irish way - including us, making us laugh, and spicing up the baldest of stories with a mixture of poetry and magic. There are some real gems here. My favourite is called "he Hunger", a horrid tale about what happens to someone who thinks only of herself. There are also fairies and tinkers, and farmyard animals, and a cast of characters whom Waddell obviously knows and loves. Everyone will want to hear more from this narrator. Sophy Williams has given these tales exactly the right visual equivalent, and there's a singularly Irish green here and there that seems to vibrate off the page. Her painting of the child taken by the fairies is haunting, and the handsome tinker is exactly the sort of plausible young man to turn a woman's head.

Geraldine McCaughrean is more than the Queen of Retellings. She's the one and only Supreme Empress. In this latest collection, the stories range from the extremely well-known (Romeo and Juliet; Tristan and Iseult) to the more obscure (Hero and Leander; Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot). From the China of the willow-pattern plates, to Wales for the tale of Gelert and to India to tell of the Taj Mahal, McCaughrean travels the globe without putting a foot wrong stylistically.

Her prose is energetic, full of poetic touches, simple when it needs to be and yet not afraid of difficulty. It's sometimes just the odd word that lifts it out of the realm of the ordinary. For instance: "And what with children and grandchildren, younglings and babies, the world filled up in no time, no time at all." It's that "younglings" and the repetition which make us listen and wonder at her skill. Her verbal magic is perfectly matched by Jane Ray's beautiful artwork. The almost completely white painting which illustrates "Unforgivable", the story about Gelert, has a chill about it that rises from the page. Throughout the book, the artwork is exquisite, and the colours sing. These stories will be pored over by readers of all ages. Perhaps Orchard could treat us to a set of prints to go with the book.

Adele Geras

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