Sunday 20 December 2009

Film: The Twilight Saga: New Moon

I deliberately waited a month after this film came out before going to see it, and even after the month passed I wasn't sure I could face it. However, being someone who doesn't like to start something and leave it unfinished, I decided to go through with it. And it was a quiet screening, with only a few couples and groups, and thankfully no screaming teenagers.

Twilight is billed as being this great, timeless, boundless romance, but that does not ring true to me. I did not sense the chemistry of "true love" between Edward and Bella, rather the rather nauseating romance of a pair of teenagers in their first romance. And for that, it is very believable. On Bella's side, it is her first love, she is head-over-heels, and she is a teenager. Edward has less of an excuse - he's about a hundred years old. Still, it is his first love too.

Early on in the film are references to Romeo and Juliet, which is what their high school literature class are studying. And certainly within this story there are parallels with that Great Romance. (Notably, that when Edward thinks Bella is dead, he attempts suicide. The difference being that Bella, unlike Juliet, gets there in time to save him. Unfortunately, the crueler critics may say.) However, call me cynical, but I see Romeo and Juliet as unconvincing a love story as I see the Twilight saga, between two naive, soppy fools.

The one act of truly sacrificial love that I see between Edward and Bella, is in Edward's decision to leave Bella, for her own protection. At that point in the film, I felt both of their pain - because I had read the books, I knew Edward meant what he said, that he wanted her to be safe. That was the only part of their relationship that stirred any emotions in me. And of course I relived the pain of having been dumped by my own vampire, almost a year ago. The scenes showing her staring out of the window as the months passed by, I confess, moved me almost to tears, even though there was a cheesy voiceover of her dictating an email to Alice exploring her feelings. (N.B. That happens a lot in that film. Show, not tell, people!) The equivelent pages in the book, with just a blank page with the month printed in the middle, moved me only to scorn. Pur-lease! And those blank pages were a very useful guide to how not to behave when you get dumped. Perhaps because of my own experiences, I felt a little more sympathy this time around - though I still found her a bit of a mopey drip. But hey, perhaps I was a mopey drip while I was getting over my ex-vampire (please don't comment.)

The central part of the film was quite watchable. Coincidentally (?) that was the part when Edward Cullen, who shall henceforth be known by the name by which my sister christened him, Mr Sparkle, was not on the screen, save as a memory. This part showed Bella discovering life again, building a close friendship, and the tentative possibility of something more, with Jacob Black. It is awkward, and uncomfortable, but it shows the natural development of someone moving on. Firstly she starts inviting danger, to maintain her link with Edward's memory (because whenever she does anything reckless, she imagines him there telling her not to, and generally coming across as an overprotective and possessive creep. But she doesn't mind, because at least, for the moment, it's like he's there.) So it starts off with Bella spending time with Jacob so that he can fix up a motorbike for her, so she can continue to chase the elusive wraith of Mr Sparkle. But she likes his company, and he really likes hers.

And then, and this is the part that I found the most painful (in an emotive way rather than the usual "this is really bad" way) Jacob starts acting strange. First he won't come out or answer the telephone, supposedly because he's too ill. But when she goes to see him, he seems fine, fit and healthy, and running around in the rain in just his shorts. But he tells her they can't be friends any more. That he's not safe to be around. She's heard that one before! But he can't keep it up, and comes back to see her, dropping hints about what he can't say out loud - that he's a werewolf. So Bella gets drawn into this new world, and though she's still sad about Edward, she seems to be living again. She's getting there. And how I wished that she'd get together with Jacob.

But then, Mr Sparkle's sister, who I will have to call Miss Sparkle, comes to call (after a run-in with some evil vampires who want to kill Bella) and whisks her off to Rome because, as I mentioned before, Mr Sparkle thinks Bella's dead and doesn't want to live any more and they have to save her!) Here, we meet real vampires who seem a lot more like the sort of vampires we know and love (ie, whose identifying feature is that they drink human blood, rather than having applied too much body glitter.) They wear fancy, old-fashioned outfits, have long hair and you think you might be in Anne Rice territory. They might sparkle in the sun, but they don't go on about it. Anyway, Mr Sparkle decides to get them to rip his head off by exposing his sparkliness to the humans, the vampires' one no-no. Bella gets there in time - although not in time to prevent him from taking his shirt off, which is not a pretty sight.

And boom! All the good work done by Jacob and the werewolves and time is undone, just like that. He declares his undying (or is that undead) love for her, she announces her wish to have undead love for him, and to be a vampire so they can live together for ever and ever and ever! Mr Sparkle, thinking that vampires have no souls, is unwilling to take her soul by making her a vampire. By the way, I do not count Bella wishing to sacrifice her soul and her humanity as a selfless sacrifice. It's not, "I'll become a vampire so that you'll never have to be without me and never have to worry about me." It's, "Pfftt... who needs a soul? I wanna be a vampire like you so I don't grow old and you don't fall out of love with me when I look like my granny and hey, it's not so bad. What do you know? You've only been a vampire ninety years. I say it'll be a doddle." She reminds me of the interviewer in Interview with the Vampire, who listens to Louis's story and dismisses it because he thinks he knows better than the person who's actually lived the life. Except, he's supposed to be an idiot. Bella's meant to be romantic.

Like Juliet.

For the review of the first two books, please click here:

Saturday 10 October 2009

Theatre: The Sound of Music: UK tour 2009

For about a year, my best friend had been promising me a trip to see The Sound of Music if we could find a localish production. I thought it unlikely because of something to do with the licence: it was being performed professionally in London's West End, so I thought amateur companies wouldn't be allowed to put it on - my dramatic society just about got away with Oliver! last year.

But we were saved a trip up to the Capital when The Sound of Music came to us, or as close to "us" as you can expect, doing a run at Southampton's Mayflower Theatre. As it was running for a month, the end of September until the end of October, I decided to make a birthday trip of it.

Before, I had only seen the film, so wasn't quite sure what to expect. The opening certainly wasn't expected - instead of Maria whirling around the hills with the title number, the nuns were wandering around the stage singing nun-ish things in latin with beautiful harmonies.

Alas, after that opening, the song, "The Sound of Music" didn't quite live up to expectations. Connie Fisher ('er off the telly) had a very sweet, pure voice, and from here on I have no problems with her, or the show at all, but after the harmonies of the nuns' song, it didn't quite seem like the big theatrical number that it is in the film. After all, it is a solo, and Connie Fisher isn't Agnes from Terry Pratchett's Maskerade - she cannot sing in harmony with herself. I also had a fear, at first, that her voice wouldn't carry over the orchestra. This was only a momentary worry, I stress, and my only other criticism of the show is that it was over too soon.

Connie is absolutely lovely as Maria. She plays the part very much like Julie Andrews in the film, with, if it's possible, more childlike energy and mischief. I found her very believable as the devout, well-meaning novice who just can't stay out of trouble.

Michael Praed played Captain Von Trapp, and to him, too, could be applied the overused adjective "lovely." There is more of "the political stuff" in the stage show than in the film, and here we really got to see the strength of Von Trapp's character as he stood up to Max and Baroness (here only called "Frau") Schraeder's advice to keep his head down, compromise and not to anger the Nazis. It is made explicit here that it is Frau Schraeder's different political views that ultimately cause Von Trapp to call off the engagement. Yet we see a vulnerability to the Captain as he debates whether to accept the commission to keep his family safe, or to stand firm in his beliefs.

There was a wonderful scene around the "Something Good" song, where Maria talks about how dancing with Von Trapp was very different from the last time she had danced, as a very little girl. Von Trapp asked her, "When you were a very little girl, did a very little boy ever kiss you?" The horror and disgust as Maria replied "Ye-es." was brilliant, before Von Trapp assured her that that was different too.

The wedding scene was beautiful. Perhaps my favourite piece of music in the entire film and show is when she walks up the aisle while the nuns sing the reprise of "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" (answer: marry her off.) Inexplicably I found tears in my eyes at that point. Perhaps it was the absolute joy of the occasion, and the knowledge of what was so shortly to come. I was glad they didn't have the changing tone of bells as in the film, for that would have finished me off.

The most powerful part of the musical, for me, was when the scene changed from the Von Trapp family demonstrating to the Nazis what they are to sing at the music festival, to the festival itself (not here the escape attempt pushing the car as in the film.) The spotlights became brighter, and the stage adorned with banners of the swastika. Being in a theatre audience in actuality brought us considerably closer than any other setting or media to tell the story.

The supporting cast were all spot-on with their portrayals of the characters. Among the children, special mention should go to the little girl who played Gretl - she could not have been more than six or seven, but she was note-perfect, and her yodelling was superb. Unfortunately, I don't know which actress performed the day I went to see the musical, as the six younger children shared the roles between three actors per role, due to the work involved for school children.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

When you read a lot of books, it is inevitable that many of them leave you disappointed. Occasionally, however, a book comes along that is close to perfect. I found that two years ago, unexpectedly, when I reached the end of A Tale of Two Cities. At the beginning of last year, Markus Zusak's The Book Thief left me speechless. And a few weeks ago, I discovered The Little Stranger (which has now been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and I will be disappointed if it doesn't win.)

The Little Stranger is a ghost story of sorts, set just after the end of the Second World War, in Hundreds Hall, an old house whose family are losing control of it. The Ayres family have the house, but not the money to run it, and strange phenomena start occurring. The narrator is one Doctor Faraday, the son of one of the former maids at Hundreds who becomes friends with the family. As he becomes more intimate with the Ayres family: the widowed Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick and daughter Caroline.

The novel reads as though it were written at the time in which it is set. Waters not only uses the vocabulary of the era, but stylistic conventions. For example certain words are not spelled out, but contain dashes. Similarly, when characters mention a recent scandal, the name is omitted.

The central character in The Little Stranger is not Doctor Faraday, or any one of the Ayres family, but Hundreds Hall itself, which takes its place in a long line of old crumbling houses in the Gothic tradition, from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto to Stephen King's Overlook Hotel. The atmosphere of the house begins as one of shabby nostalgia, a sorry memory of grander times. Waters skillfully evolves that atmosphere, through one of intrigue as Roderick starts to think that there is something wrong with the house. At first the signs are petty, seemingly harmless, such as furniture moving, and corresponding marks. These uncanny occurrences become more malevolent and when Dr Faraday notices dark marks all over the walls of Roderick's bedroom, spreading like mildew, like the "infection" Roderick feared. A creeping terror came over me as I read of those marks, which I knew corresponded with something terrible that would happen.

Sarah Waters never fully explains the "ghost," if ghost it is. Doctor Faraday, a man of science, stubbornly resists, in the face of evidence, that there is anything supernatural taking place at Hundreds Hall, and there is no moment of realisation. Traditionally in Gothic fiction, if the narrator is a scientist or a doctor, it is to add veracity to the tale - but Dr Faraday refuses to see what does not fit into his understanding. Waters through other characters suggests identities or explanations - Mrs Faraday believes the ghost of her late daughter Susan to be haunting her old house, and some of the clues seem to point to that, but others make no sense at all. Other characters suggest Roderick to be "haunting" Hundreds, or Caroline's repressed feelings. But Waters never gives an explanation. I started the novel wanting to know the answers, but when I reached the end I realised that a definite answer would be inevitably disappointing, while an open ending leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions, if they want to. Besides, I could not imagine a moment of realisation coming to Faraday - it would not fit with the novel or the character, and would be too tidy. Is "the little stranger" a straightforward ghost? Is it, like Poe's House of Usher, the house and the family, the one inextricable from the other? Is it some force influenced by one, or more, of the characters?

I read an interesting blog article by someone who goes by the name of "The Little Professor"  which suggests that the "Little Stranger" is Faraday himself. This was a possibility I had considered myself on reading the novel. After all, everything starts after Faraday starts spending time at Hundreds, and the idea of living at the Hall and restoring it to its former glory becomes an obsession with him - he becomes engaged to Caroline, but his love for her is unconvincing. It's the house he wants, not her.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Just As Long as We're Together, Judy Blume

For my twelfth birthday present, my Nanna went into her local bookshop and asked the assistant what she would recommend for me, and was directed towards the Judy Blume section. ("They're all suitable, except one," she was told.) She picked out Just as Long as We're Together, and I was introduced to the world of teenage fiction. My mum read it first though, just in case. It was probably Nanna's suggestion - she didn't want me reading something my parents wouldn't approve of, but it passed the test. I asked her what she thought, to which I remember her saying, "It's very American." I wasn't quite sure what she meant by that, and I'm still not, other than the fact that it's the setting. I think it may have been that American children's books dealt with slightly more grown-up topics than the British books I was reading - but that was probably more to do with the era of writing than anything else, as at twelve I still read the Chalet School books - though I had outgrown Enid Blyton.

I loved Just as Long as We're Together. The characters, Stephanie, Rachel and Alison were a year older than I was. Their experiences of turning thirteen in suburban America, probably in the late '70s (I'm not certain as my book has lost its cover and copyright page) seemed like a completely different world from the one I inhabited at the time.

If you asked me what it was like to be a child growing up in the 1990s, I don't think I could tell you. I did not live in the world of the time, really, until about 1997 or 1998 - about the time when I read this book. I lived in the world of the books - the 1940s, with the Famous Five, the 1920s with Jo Bettany the second half of the 19th century with Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, Katy Carr... but the world of the day did not interest me at all. As previously stated, Judy Blume's books were still a bit dated even when I encountered them - but they were more modern than the world I knew. There was television, shopping malls, denim - and sex, divorce, and adolescence, things that were hitherto unmentioned in my reading. Chalet School old girls got married to their doctors, and some time later they started knitting bootees and vests and warning people they were going to be busy soon.

Stephanie's world became very vivid for me. For a while I was sure there was a prequel - that perhaps Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, which I had already read, came before, rather than after this book. There were enough descriptions about Stephanie and Rachel's lives before the book opens, and the characters seemed well-enough established that I found it hard to believe that this was the first time we had met them. However, when I read Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, I was very disappointed. I wanted to know what happened to Stephanie, whose point of view ...Together took, and didn't care so much for Rachel and her family. I liked them as secondary characters, but didn't get to know them as intimately as the Hirsch family, who barely appeared in the sequel. I had got to know Rachel as Stephanie's too-perfect best friend, and found her slightly annoying seen from Stephanie's point of view, and therefore found her difficult to care for as a protagonist. This probably says more about who I was at the times of reading the two books than being a comment on the writing, or even the characterisation. ...Together was my companion through the storms of adolescence. I met this book just before I started to experience things like boys, being able to go shopping on my own, arguing with my best friend for the first time, and generally being a bratty teenager. When my sister bought ...Rachel Robinson a few years later, I saw her as a bratty teenager, but I no longer was (at least, not quite so bratty!) so I could no longer really relate to her struggles.

By the way, my paperback copy of this book has lost its cover, a cover I was particularly fond of, and I can't find a picture of it anywhere online. It's a Macmillan paperback, illustrated by Richard Jones, a blue back cover, and on the front it has Stephanie in the foreground wearing dungarees, and Rachel and Alison in the background. I think Steph was standing in front of a house, but I couldn't swear to that. On the very slim chance that one of you readers have the same edition, would you be able to send me a picture, please?

Thursday 23 July 2009

Film: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I write this review in the assumption that you have read the book, and may or may not have seen the film, but don't mind hearing my thoughts on it. Then again, would you be reading this review if you wanted everything about the film to be a complete surprise?

I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday, and, being a Wednesday, the queue was very nearly out of the door, as probably most of the cinema-goers, like myself, had Orange mobile phones and were taking advantage of the two-for-one offer.

So far, I've considered the Harry Potter films to be either faithful adaptations of the books, or great films in their own right. I considered The Prisoner of Azkaban to be the most impressive visually, but that it felt very different from the book. I was a bit disappointed with Lupin (I don't know if it was his stupid little moustache or plummy voice, or his refusal to say the word, "werewolf.") And talking of werewolves, I was not very impressed with his transformation - he looked as though he got stuck half-way! I was under the impression that a werewolf looked like a wolf, not a wolf-human hybrid. A few things were cut that I thought should have been revealed - such as the identities of Wormtail, Moony, Padfoot and Prongs, that Harry knew by Order of the Phoenix.

The first two movies were very good adaptations, which brought Harry's world to life, with a real sense of atmosphere - but the script was lifted straight off the page with few additions. I think a film adaptation of a book should have enough differences to make it worthwhile to read the book and watch the film, without feeling you are having the same experience twice over, but still keep the overall story, characters, and spirit true.

The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix, I thought, were better overall: more adventurous with the script but without sacrificing the story, but not quite as impressive to look at as Azkaban, to my mind.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the most "epic" of the films. It has a feeling of decided eeriness. This is no longer the fun, Enid Blytonesque world of Hogwarts where although Harry et al get into danger, you know they will be all right. The destruction of the Millenium Bridge, a real landmark, makes you think it's not just the fictional places such as Hogwarts that are in danger but the Muggle world too. In the book, despite the reports of Dementors roaming at large and Death Eater attacks, and Harry's fears about Malfoy being a Death Eater, the story felt pretty safe, as a lot of it is taken up with teenage romantic angst and Harry learning about Voldemort from the safety of Dumbledore's office.

I became more aware of the music in this film that I had been in the others. The score is more dramatic, adding to the unsettling atmosphere, with some choral parts that remind me more of the later installments of The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The script, again, follows the story, with a few minor detours before coming back to the original material, not necessarily using the same scenes or dialogue as Rowling wrote, but serving the same purpose. There was one moment, about halfway through, however, when I did not know quite what was happening. They introduced an incident - Death Eaters attacking The Burrow - that was not in the novel. One thing I admire about Rowling's storytelling is the fact that everything happens for a reason, all the events are linked together. The Death Eater attack seemed to serve no purpose in the story other than reminding the audience of the ever-present danger. It leads nowhere - how can it, without derailing Rowling's entire plot? - and it doesn't ring true, as the Death Eaters could quite easily have killed off Harry and any of the Order, but didn't even seem to try, just taunting them and setting the Burrow alight. Then again, I spent the first minutes of that scene thinking, "what's happening here?" and not really watching as closely as usual.

I realised suddenly, that "Little Whinging, Surrey," must be pretty much where I used to live when I was in my second and third years at university, because when Dumbledore comes to take Harry away, he is hanging about Surbiton station. It was labelled as Surbiton, but it was Harry's nearest train station, so he must have lived in a village on the outskirts. Little Whinging can't have been another name for Berrylands, Tolworth or Hook, as they have their own train stations, as does Thames Ditton - but it could quite logically be another name for Long Ditton, my old home.

There was a sense of danger throughout the film that I didn't get from the book until the "Cave" chapter near the end. In the book, despite the reports of Dementors roaming at large and Death Eater attacks, and Harry's fears about Malfoy being a Death Eater, the story felt pretty safe, as a lot of it is taken up with teenage romantic angst and Harry learning about Voldemort from the safety of Dumbledore's office.

The "Cave" scene, in the book, is where I realised that this was indeed the darkest book of the series yet. In the film it wasn't such a major turning-point as the danger was always there, nearly tangible, but it still had me watching, metaphorically, through the crack in the door. The cinema - already quiet, despite the numbers in the audience - hushed until I hardly dared breathe, as Harry and Dumbledore reached the basin with the potion and the locket. The scene where Dumbledore drinks the potion is, I think, the most horrible part of the entire series, a few pages that seem to drag on forever, as the calm, wise, almost omnipotent Dumbledore, becomes a very old, frail man. The scene was mercifully brief - at least compared to how long it seems to take in the book - but just as powerful. I would even say it is distressing.

Harry enters the cave a boy and leaves a man. The Half-Blood Prince is also the coming-of-age story of his nemesis, Draco Malfoy. Before, just an arrogant, cowardly bully, Malfoy almost becomes a full-blown baddy. Yet, it is clear that he is out of his depth, charged with the task of a hardened villain, but still just a frightened boy, for all his bluster. We are shown his progress as he works on the vanishing cabinet, his tireless efforts, his despair, his emotional battles - because although Malfoy is a nasty piece of work, he is not a Death Eater at heart. Tom Felton did a wonderful job of portraying the tortured youth who is in too deep - although he is looking far older than the sixteen-year-old he is supposed to be. (In actual fact he's my sister's age.)

Recognition also must go to Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. There was something chilling about his performance in this film, as in the book. He is a double agent, spying both for Dumbledore and Voldemort - and gives no clue either way as to where his true loyalties lie. Just as in the book, Rowling gives evidence in favour of him being a good guy and a bad guy, and no definitive proof (until, it seems, the end,) Rickman keeps his face a mask, expressing nothing - and yet you can really feel his torment, at having to live so many lies - that no one can know what he is thinking or doing.

I wasn't disappointed by the final scene - on the Astronomy tower - but it wasn't how I had pictured it. I have a clear image from the book, of Snape sweeping up the stairs, through the crowd of Death Eaters, roughly pushing them aside and standing to face Dumbledore, before pointing his wand and saying the fatal words. In the film, Harry stood below the tower, and Snape saw him and shushed him before creeping up. And Dumbledore's "Severus, please" sounded too calm - it seemed too obvious what he meant, when it should seem like he was begging for mercy. Then again, reading the book, I knew what he really begging before I realised the more obvious - and wrong - meaning. I was disappointed that after Harry called Snape a coward, we didn't see Snape's mask slip for a moment and hear him cry "DON'T - CALL - ME - COWARD!" I found that a very powerful line - Snape has just done the hardest thing of his life - but I can't imagine Rickman's Snape losing his cool like that. It doesn't suit his voice.

On the subject of voices, Lupin sounded more like I thought he should this time - although he still had the posh accent, his voice sounded rougher around the edges. I was sorry not to get the bits of back story - his work for the Order among werewolves, having been bitten as a child by Fenrir Greyback, his budding and reluctant romance with Tonks. But I recognised that was not necessary to the plot, and what we did see of him was powerful. He only had a couple of lines - getting angry with Harry for being "blinded by hatred" of Snape, but we were shown that he is still finding it very difficult being a werewolf. I was also pleased to hear Tonks call him "sweetheart" at one point.

The one thing I should warn the casual watcher of this movie is that it would be wise to familiarise themselves with all of the previous films. The first two or three films can be watched as stand-alone stories, with only a little knowledge required from their predecessors. By the sixth installment of the story, however, there is so much going on that if the viewer has missed a part of the story, or has only seen the others once each, it could get confusing. There are references to earlier stories - Tom Riddle's diary, for example, from The Chamber of Secrets - and characters that we got to know a few stories back, such as Wormtail or the aforementioned Lupin, come in and do their bit without an introduction, and I can imagine that the casual viewer might get confused trying to work out who's who and what they are doing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the one I have the fondest memories of reading the first time around, and the film adaptation did very well at replicating the experience for me. Yes, there are a lot of minor differences, and it certainly will not replace the book for me, but I shall certainly go to see it again. Already I am looking forward to the DVD.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Jodi Picoult

I have recently finished reading The Tenth Circle, by Jodi Picoult. It was the seventh book that I have read by this author, and I fear that now I have read too many. The magic is wearing off; she no longer has the power to shock me, and that is a great disappointment.

The first of her books that I read was My Sister's Keeper, a Richard and Judy Book Club book, and now a film. I found myself hooked, intrigued, fascinated, unable to see how the situation - a teenage girl suing her parents for the right to refuse donations that would keep her sister alive - could possibly be resolved. It was a page-turner in the true sense of the word; I don't think I took more than a day or two to read it. When the novel started to draw to a close, Picoult succeeded in shocking me with the daughter's revelation, and shocking me again at the very end of the novel with an unforeseen turn of events.

A little later, I read Vanishing Acts. This time, it was a man being tried for the kidnap of his own daughter, who was now an adult and one of the narrators of the story. Again, when his reasons for doing so came out, they came, it seemed, out of nowhere, though there were unsuspected clues scattered throughout the narrative, so no one could accuse Picoult of cheating by withholding information.

The next book was Plain Truth. This time it was an investigation into the death of a newborn baby, but in an Amish community, and again a book that was hard to put down, but now I was starting to see aspects of the plot that seemed a little formulaic. I suspected that Picoult would surprise us once again with an unexpected twist - only, now I was expecting it, I just didn't know what that would be.

As a reader of mysteries - for each of Picoult's novels is a mystery, along with many other things - I like to try to be a step ahead. I read whodunnits as though I were playing Cluedo, attempting to work out the answer before anyone else (in the case of a book, the detective) before looking in the pack and having my answers confirmed. I usually fail. But when I found myself becoming more and more successful when reading Picoult's novels, I started to feel disappointed and dissatisfied. I realised I wanted the writer to be cleverer than me. I wanted to be surprise.

I've read seven of Jodi Picoult's books and found that as I became more familiar with her writing, the more I could work out for myself:

My Sister's Keeper - shocked
Vanishing Acts - shocked
Plain Truth - knew something was coming, didn't know what.
Second Glance - predicted certain elements of the plot
Nineteen Minutes - predicted certain elements
Salem Falls - suspected final surprise twist.
The Tenth Circle - knew final surprise twist.

Don't get me wrong, I am very impressed with Picoult's skills as a writer. She does incredible amounts of research into topics that are not mainstream or overused, giving us a full idea of a culture, belief or even scientific theory that has not been much written about, giving the impression that each one is her specific area of expertise (as I suppose it is, for the period of writing the novel.) She knows how to make us care about the characters, challenge our worldviews and want to know what happens.

However, though I can devour one of her 400-page novels in a single evening, I find myself becoming less impressed with her storytelling style. There is always a shocking twist at the end, but after having read seven of her books, I know that there is a surprise in store - therefore it is not a surprise. Now, I'm picking up on those clues that are supposed to lead the reader to a certain red-herring conclusion - but I'm learning how to look at those clues in another way, so I can deduce the other and true explanation that is intended to come as a shock in the last few pages. Now, Picoult is very clever at hiding those clues, and setting red herrings. Unfortunately, though I wouldn't presume to say I am cleverer still, but I have read enough of her work that I have learned how to find them.

When children's books were two-and-sixpence

Over breakfast I am indulging myself by allowing to read a chapter or two of our old Paddington omnibus each day. When we were little, we had a story-tape of the book, and my most vivid memory from that is the voice of the taxi-driver in the very first chapter, when they are taking Paddington home for the first time. "Bears is sixpence extra. Sticky bears is ninepence." So imagine my disgust when, at work, I discover that they have modernised the currency or taken out all references altogether! The quote is now along the lines of, "Bears is extra. Sticky bears is twice as much again." Firstly, it sounds all wrong. It doesn't scan. Secondly it is inaccurate. Now, I know that when the currency was changed back when my parents were little, it was very confusing and people would talk about sixpence actually being two and a half new pence. But ninepence is not 200% of sixpence. It is 150%. Maths isn't my best subject, never was, but I know that much.

And I got to thinking of the tendency to update classic books, a practice that I find abhorent, unless it is necessary. For example, some old books contain careless, throwaway phrases that are nowadays unacceptable and offensive, and I think it is quite right to remove them. But unless that is the case I think books should be left as they were.

Enid Blyton is another author whose novels are updated. Sometimes, such as in modern editions of The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four, even the characters' names are modernised, and in almost all her books the currency is changed from shillings and sixpences to pounds and fifty pences. I had a copy of The Naughtiest Girl Again where the childrens' weekly pocket money was 20p, instead of the original two shillings. Two shillings in old money was a sensible amount of pocket money for children of that age; in new money, 20p won't buy a packet of polos. There was a scene where four children were asked to pay for a broken window out of their combined 80p pocket money. Good luck to them!

But even when there is a decent exchange rate, it is rather insulting to the reader - and it gives the whole book a feeling of inconsistency. Enid Blyton's books are very much of their time, so to give them modern names, modern pocket money, modern clothing, etc, doesn't fit in with that (although I've a nasty suspicion even the slang has changed in some versions: "I say!" to "Wow!" One wonders where it will stop. Will future editions of the Famous Five replace their lashings of ginger beer and new-made bread with Coca-Cola and happy meals? Will things stop being "jolly good" and "horrid" and start being [unrepeatable]?)

Children aren't stupid - at least, they wouldn't be if adults didn't dumb their books down for them. They are quite capable of understanding that a shilling was the currency of the time the book was written, and what "smashing" means. I'm just glad that my copies of these books were, for the most part, untainted by modernisations - but I do wonder if I should buy second-hand copies now, for the benefit of my unborn children, in case they are no longer available in their original text if and when they come into the world.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Film: Anne of Green Gables (1985 adaptation)

Kevin Sullivan's adaptation of the first of L.M.Montgomery's classic novels is, in the words of Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way." Filmed on location on Prince Edward Island, the novel comes to life, filling in those scenes I couldn't quite visualise from reading the book, and rarely, if ever, "getting it wrong," where I had preconcieved ideas. Watching the film makes me want to catch the next flight to Canada - preferably P.E.Island - and hunt down my very own Gilbert Blythe.

The characters, too, are cast perfectly. Megan Follows is adorable as the precocious red-headed orphan - her eyes alive with wonder and curiosity and spirit, with such a sweet voice (and the pretty nose Anne is so proud of.) Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe - why, no one else could be Gilbert. In my DVD of the sequel two books, which we will come to at a later date, Gilbert looks like a lesser-known Austen hero - Edmund Bertram, perhaps, or Captain Wentworth - but Crombie stands out from the rest. Mischief, strength of character and decency are written all over his face - and one can see glimpses of the man he will grow up to be, Doctor Blythe, if Sullivan's series would allow it.

I could go on in this way describing every main character. Rachel Lynde - though she could be a little fatter - speaks in just the right voice with, what I, for lack of better knowledge, call a "scoldy Canadian accent," Shy Matthew, though he lacks the beard that does not match his hair, makes up for it letting his eyes, supplemented by a few words, say as much as Anne does with all her chatter. Marilla's outwardly stern demeanor is softened by a twinkle in her eye and the very same "something about her mouth which, if it had been ever so slightly developed, might have been considered indicative of a sense of humour" that Montgomery gave her.

As - despite the attempts of our local newspaper's theatre reviews to prove otherwise - there are only so many ways one can say "this was good, that was good," in one place, I will go onto those few things that bother me slightly about Sullivan's adaptation, that prove that he never was a little girl who was more than half Anne. And yes, this is a bit nit-picky, but one must be fussy if there's nothing greater to find fault with.

The romantic tension between Anne and Gilbert is given a little too much emphasis, which changes the feel of the film from how I approach the book. Yes, it is clear from the very beginning that Anne and Gilbert are made for each other - but Anne really is oblivious to the fact. There is a scene at the "ball" (in the book Anne and Diana attend a concert) when Anne claims that she has the power to make Gilbert do whatever she wants. See, the book Anne, 1. just hated Gilbert at this and refused to acknowledge his existance, 2. had no idea Gilbert liked her, and 3. wasn't the sort of girl who would abuse that power she had over a boy. Similarly, towards the end, Anne realises that Diana is "interested in Gilbert," but said nothing because she thought Anne was in love with him. Again - the girls aren't at that point in their lives. Ruby Gillis is "interested in boys," from an early age and is considered terribly fast and not very nice.

See, for me, Anne of Green Gables isn't a romance. It is a story of girlhood, a pre-romance, if you like. About a child finding her place in the world, getting in and out of scrapes and shaping her character. There are hints of romance to come towards the end of Anne of Avonlea, but that is the future. And though the references in Sullivan's film are subtle, they are not quite subtle enough stand out glaringly to me as a modern insertion.

Other than that, however, my only criticisms are tiny indeed: Sullivan's changing, or more likely missing the significance of, a very very minor character's name. Moody Spurgeon McPherson loses the McPherson and is given Spurgeon as a family name. But in the books, Anne reports that "Moody Spurgeon is going to be a minister. Mrs. Lynde says he couldn't be anything else with a name like that to live up to. " Moody and Spurgeon both being famous preachers, it seems the poor lad was destined for the clergy from birth. And indeed, I cannot think of Moody without Spurgeon nowadays, or Spurgeon without Moody, or either without McPherson.

What Katy Did at School, Susan Coolidge

I know I already named the Malory Towers series as my introduction to school stories, but What Katy Did at School preceded it - I just didn't know that the "school story" was a sub-genre of children's fiction.

What Katy Did at School takes place shortly after the close of What Katy Did, when Katy is recovered from her accident. She is now sixteen, and a very serious, grown-up, responsible young person. Too grown up, her father thinks - she is more like a thirty-five-year-old than a teenager. He decides to send her, with her sister Clover, away to boarding school, in order to remind her what it is to be young, (perhaps Coolidge, too, noticed that Katy had been over-improved by the end of the preceding book.)

Certainly it's not possible for Katy to stay altogether solemn and serious at Hillsover school - or "The Nunnery" as its scholars call it - after meeting the girl in the next bedroom. Rosamund Redding - more commonly known as Rose Red - is full of fun and mischief, one the most irrepressible girls of girls' literature. On walking down to the bath-house, she wears her towel, sponge and soap in a manner that defies my imagination: "There, to be sure, was the long towel, hanging down behind like a veil, while the sponge was fastened on one side like a great cockade, and in front appeared a cake of pink soap, neatly pinned into the middle of a black velvet bow." She is inclined to be melodramatic, writing little notes to Katy and Clover after getting into trouble for some escapade or other, that are hilarious in their tragedy: "My heart is broken," after a severe scolding. But it's impossible to put Rose down for long, and she falls out of one scrape into another.

Sad to say, even at school, Katy is so terribly proper. I suppose she has to be, given the genre of moral writing for girls. Still, though I can sympathise with her frustration with the "unladylike" flirtations of her schoolmates, I can't quite see where she's coming from when she scolds Clover for the crime of sitting at the bedroom window and watching the college boys outside. That may be a sign of the times - but it seems insufferably stuffy to me. Fortunately, Rose is at hand, and when Katy declares she has "a great mind to get up a society to put down flirting," Rose hijacks the idea and makes it a lot more fun than it sounds, an excuse for girls to get together and enjoy themselves. There is a flash of the pre-accident Katy, who shows her old Carr ingenuity by introducing a game involving a random word, a question and an answer in rhyme, which is a joy to read and reminds one of the "valentines" in What Katy Did, before the accident. I once tried to introduce that game to my friends when I was little, but without the success and ingenuity of Katy and co. Perhaps now I am older I will have another go...

The other moment of note is the occasion when Katy and Clover receive Christmas boxes, a never-ending tuckbox containing enough sweets and cakes to feed the entire school. How I used to fantasise over those boxes! The item that appealed to me the most was the "jumble," which Clover, Jack Horner-like pulls out "fitting on her finger like a ring." I always had an idea that jumbles were like cinnamon doughnuts, though Jane Brocket's book Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer revealed that they were a cross between a cake and a biscuit and could be made with a number of different flavourings. I, of course, experimented with flavouring them with cinnamon. I don't know if that recreated an accurate jumble, but it certainly recreated that moment as I knew it.

Monday 18 May 2009

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge

What Katy Did was probably the first book I read that I would call "girls'" fiction. I was bought the book when I was very small because, of course, the heroine shared my name.

The book is often criticised for being too sugary-sweet and moralising, but that is an inevitable result of the time, place and audience of writing - it is similar in that respect to Little Women. I always preferred the Carr family to the Marches, however, probably because they were younger. The earlier chapters are quite simply about children playing, quarrelling and getting into trouble - and it's so vivid. Katy had such a vivid imagination, and I could just dream I was there, sitting on the roof of the ice-house, or exploring Paradise with a picnic, playing Kikeri or the river game, playing post-offices... to name but a few. There is no doubt in my mind that the first half of the novel is the most fun.

At the beginning of the novel, Katy is twelve years old, full of mischief, thoughtless, careless, untidy - for a C19th century children's novel bound for reform from the very start - but one does so much wish she wasn't. She's not always very nice, which we see in her treatment of Elsie. Elsie is very much the middle child - wants to join in with her big sisters' games, but always pushed aside and told to run along and play with the children. Yet Katy means well, and that redeems her character.

Halfway through the book, we are introduced to Cousin Helen, and this is a character that I think has changed over the last century or so. Before they meet Cousin Helen, who is an invalid, Katy predicts that she will be "something like 'Lucy' in Mrs Sherwood, I suppose*, with blue eyes, and curls, and a long, straight nose. And she'll keep her hands clasped so all the time, and wear 'frilled wrappers', and lie on the sofa perfectly still, and never smile, but just look patient

Ugh! Doesn't she sound simply ghastly? Though that is what Katy is looking forward to. Thank goodness Cousin Helen is not like that - though she's almost as bad. She is just too perfect. Unlike the imaginary Helen, she does smile, and has fun, and is never too busy for the children. She never gets cross, and when she became an invalid, broke off her engagement to the man she loved, so that he wouldn't have to be always looking after her. "[a]nd now, he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is names 'Helen'. All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of." I don't know about you, but I find that most unhealthy. More than anything, I pity Alex's wife - surely she would never be able to live up to Alex's first love who is "half an angel already."
Don't get me wrong, Helen is lovely, but she is too lovely. I notice as an adult that she is quite a two-dimensional character, a person for Katy to aspire to, and to trigger her improvement.

For improvement is what Katy is doomed to from the beginning. On a day of bad temper, Katy disobeys her Aunt Izzie's orders not to play on the new swing in the wood-shed, and it breaks and injures her spine. She is confined to bed for four years, where she learns patience and consideration for others, and later the responsibility of being the Woman of the House, after Aunt Izzie dies. She emerges from her bed at the age of sixteen, unrecogniseable from the impetuous little girl she was before - and from this point onwards the interest in the series switches from her to the next sister down, Clover.

Although Clover was much more of a good girl than Katy to begin with, she keeps her sense of humour, and her character. Alas, Katy does not. That is not to say that I don't like the series from this point on - because I do. But the focus of the story switches onto what Katy did, rather than the character of Katy herself.

*Research turns up the story "The History of Lucy Clare" by Mary Martha Sherwood, a story that makes the "moralising" in What Katy Did look simply anarchical by comparison.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe

I rarely buy DVDs I haven't watched before, but Fried Green Tomatoes was an exception to that rule. I unpacked the book at work, and on reading the blurb on the back, I remembered a friend had recommended the film to me. I went to see if it was on sale the road. It was - for £5! so I bought it.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a very American film - not in what I think of as the modern USA, full of shopping malls and big cars, but an old-fashioned America, still a new country of joy and freedom and really close-knit communities, but a lot of danger and darkness too. I'd say it was a feel-good film, which would be strange when you look at some of the things that appear in it: lots of death, racism, domestic abuse, murder - and what happens afterwards - but over all of this, it is a film about friendship.

There are two parallel stories in this film: the story of Evelyn, an unhappy housewife, with rather a Homer Simpsonish-husband. She meets Mrs Threadgoode at a nursing home who tells her the story of a girl in her family - Idgie, and her friendship with Ruth, her late brother's fiance, growing up through the '20s onwards.

Idgie is certainly the strongest character - a real tomboy, who makes me think of a C20th Calamity Jane (though that may have something to do with the show I'm currently taking part in) crossed with Robin Hood. She wears men's clothes, gambles, drinks, hangs around some rather unsavoury characters - but there is nothing she wouldn't do for her friends.

As the story progresses, Evelyn turns from a rather wet down-trodden Southern housewife to a feisty woman who knows her own mind, encouraged by Mrs Threadgoode's storytelling - though she does develop somewhat of a destructive streak along the way, "accidently" bashing the car of two bratty teenagers who steal her parking space (six times) and knocking down a wall in their house to let the light in. More importantly, she learns to stand up for herself and do what she believes to be right despite opposition - such as inviting her new friend to live with her and her husband after the old lady leaves the nursing home.

Fried Green Tomatoes has some tear-jerking moments, so be prepared and have some tissues handy - not so much at the deaths of beloved characters, I found, as when Mrs Threadgoode arrives home to find her house has been destroyed as it was unsafe to live in. The pathetic sight of her, sitting on her suitcase asking, "Who'd want to steal my house?" is unbearable.

But the film is full of funny moments too - though one or two are rather horrible at the same time. The obvious is, of course, when one realises just why no body was ever found of Ruth's abusive husband. It brought be right back to a gruesome nightmare I had about five years ago that has prevented me from being able to eat McDonald's food since...

I have to say that Fried Green Tomatoes, though they are presented as a great delicacy, don't much appeal to me (because I don't much like any kind of tomatoes.) All the same, I'd choose that over Big George's barbecue - even if it is the best in Alabama.

Saturday 16 May 2009

The Malory Towers series, Enid Blyton

When I was a little girl, a relative bought me some Secret Seven books, which got me hooked into Enid Blyton, to my mum's horror. She insisted that Blyton's books weren't actually very good, and that she overused exclamation marks, and recycled the same stories over and over. Fair point. Can't see much to argue with in that. But anyway, when I was a nine-year-old in primary school looking through the book-box for something to read, I was overjoyed to find First Term at Malory Towers, my introduction to the world of the School Story.

I was a little disorientated at first. The only boarding school book I had read before was What Katy Did At School, and I wasn't sure what to make of it. The book opens with my most hated (now) device of standing the character in front of the mirror to tell the reader exactly what she looks like (and it's nearly always a female character.) Still, it gave me a full description of the school uniform, something my later attempts of school-story writing was never without. I was also rather confused by the fact that the main character was called Darrell, though was definitely supposed to be a girl. (If I was living in C21st USA I probably would be used to that gender-swapping name phenomenon, but I was a 1990s English kid.) Still, once that confusion was cleared up, I enjoyed the book, and even bought my own copy so I could finish reading it. Even now, the characters and the events stick firmly enough in my memory to count as "classic."

As I previously mentioned, Blyton's writing is not what one would call literary, but the Malory Towers series counts as one of her best. The characters, though still not always very rounded, are more three-dimensional than her usual goodies and baddies. Most interesting of all is Alicia, the popular girl. As soon as Darrell meets her at the train station she wants to be her friend, but Alicia is not a very nice person. In fact, she's a downright bully at times, having no time for timid or stupid people, and her practical jokes sometimes go too far. That's not an unusual phenomenon if you watch high school movies nowadays - there is always the queen bee and her minions, the popular mean girls - but for Blyton, whose "good" characters have never more than a hot temper as a flaw, that is groundbreaking.

The series is also her most grown-up work. The final book in the series shows the characters at eighteen, looking forward to leaving school and going off to university, or discussing careers, rather than being caught in a time warp and not being allowed to grow past fourteen or fifteen. Of course, there's no suggestion of marriage for any of the characters. Malory Towers is an all-girls' school, and even all the staff appear to be unmarried (though that is partly because of the times - married women of that class didn't work - also there'd be nowhere onsite to put a husband and kids, I expect.) The characters mature and change throughout the series - yet not necessarily leaving school thoroughly reformed. Alicia and her best friend Betty, though the brightest girls in the class, are predicted by the head not to do that well at university because independence will go to their heads - they're the sort of people who would go out all night partying, without realising that natural talent without hard work will only get you so far.

There is even the threat of death in Last Term at Malory Towers. Gwendoline Lacey, the series's villain (though, I am in the school of thought that thinks that she never had a chance to redeem herself - the other girls and even the staff had written her off as a spoilt brat before she'd even got onto the train) spends the final term making herself insufferable, bragging about being sent to an expensive finishing school in Switzerland and how she and her mother had bullied her father into sending her. But at the end of the book, she has to leave school early because her dad is dangerously ill and not expected to survive.
Of course, being Blyton, Mr Lacey does not actually die. His illness is a device to teach a hard lesson to a girl who, though throughout the series appears to change for the better, always reverts back to her own spoilt, catty self. Nothing less than the threat of her father dying without her having the chance to make amends could affect Gwendoline for very long - and when he doesn't die, it gives her the chance to make amends. Though she is doomed to that awful fate (for a Blyton character) - of getting a job. Not a career - a job, probably in the secretarial line. Oh, the horror!

Friday 15 May 2009

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

I encountered Swallows and Amazons for the first time when I was about seven. Every night, my mum would read a chapter - or two or three if we could coax her - to me, my sister and my dad who was just as keen to listen in. I remember sitting on the big red floor cushion eager to hear the next doings of the Walker and Blackett children in the Lake District, back in the innocent days of the 1920s.

Compared with today's children's fiction, or even the later Enid Blyton adventures, Ransome's books seem fairly tame and slow. But what they manage to capture is the sheer joy of being a child playing make-believe. The Swallows and Amazons don't need kidnappers, castles or dungeons - all they need is their imagination and encouragement to use it (and a boat, some tents, etc - but that comes under the heading of "encouragement" in my book.)

Swallows and Amazons is fantasy-fulfilment to a child who played make-believe in her back garden in the early 1990s. All very well pretending one's bicycle is a ship, and a clothes-horse covered in a blanket is a tent - but the Swallows and the Amazons had real boats, a real camp, a real campfire. (I had to make do with a pile of twigs, not being allowed to use matches.) Ransome captures the child's voice and imagination without talking down. Corned-beef sandwiches become pemmican. Ginger beer becomes grog. (There is a marvellous moment, when, shopping for rope and groceries - sorry - provisions - John forgets himself and asks the grocer for four bottles of grog, before being rescued by his sister Susan.) The nearest town (Bowness-on-Windermere?) is known only as Rio. And the great thing is, the parents play along. The telegram of permission from Commander Walker, their father, reads "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN." And when their mother comes to call when Titty is playing Robinson Crusoe, minding the island all alone, she is quite content to be Man Friday.

But at the edge of their world of make-believe are hints that they are, after all, still children. Their freedom has limits. There is an awful moment of mother being more disappointed than angry after the Swallows' sailing-at-night escapade. As I return to the page as an adult, looking for the quote, I almost miss it. Mother's reaction is very understated - she is jolly decent for a grown-up - but you feel it as a child when she asks John, "Don't you think that was very nearly like being duffers?" On a lighter note, the ferocious Captain Nancy Blackett is caused to surrender to the Swallows, after they captured the Amazon, because of a dread of being late for breakfast.

Saturday 14 March 2009

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, Jane Brocket

I certainly didn't think, when I started this blog, I would be writing about a cookery book, but that was before I found Jane Brocket's collection of treasures: Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer. The premise of this book is to recreate the sort of food that was eaten in the golden age of children's literature. I discovered it on the shelf at work, and its very title evoked a Famous Five adventure, with "lashings of ginger beer" (a phrase that is not actually known to appear in any of Enid Blyton's novels, but describes them perfectly.) I looked at this book, and thought, "Surely not? Surely it's just the children's literature obessive in me that makes me think it could be a book about Enid Blyton's love of describing food?" It had a lovely, old-fashioned cover, and looking closely at the illustration I thought it looked suspiciously like Milly-Molly-Mandy. Looking inside, I realised this wasn't just about Enid Blyton, but food in children's literature down the ages. Of course, the first thing I looked for was to see whether there were any recipes from Anne of Green Gables, in particular, for Raspberry Cordial. There it was: "Marilla Cuthbert's Zero-Alcohol Raspberry Cordial." Along the way, I saw recipes also from Swallows and Amazons and, of course, Enid Blyton.

At that point, I realised I was not being paid to stand around reading books all day, so put it back, but my appetite was whetted. I wanted that book so badly! It looked to me as though Ms Brocket had reached into my childhood and made an edible version of it - for the books I mention here were more than just stories I read and forgot. Sometimes, looking back, I have such nostalgia for them that it takes a bit of effort to separate what I did as a child, and what I read about. Out of curiosity, I made a list of the ten most influential childhood books and series, and checked Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer to see how many featured. I expected several. I did not expect them all. But not one of my top ten was excluded. Not one! "This," I thought to myself, "Is a woman who's read all the right books."

Anne of Green Gables, as I may have mentioned before, was the series that was most influential. I found in Anne a "kindred spirit," one who was like me in ways no one in the real world was. She was a dreamer, constantly making believe and telling stories in her mind, if not to others. I have already made the Anne recipes from Cherry Cake... two items of food and drink that involve similar mistakes on the behalf of Anne: the raspberry cordial that Anne meant to give Diana when she came to tea, and the layer cake that was unfortunately flavoured with anodyne liniment. I replaced the liniment with vanilla flavouring, however, not being quite sure what anodyne liniment was when it was at home. Googling the word implies that it is some kind of antiseptic or painkilling medicine - tasty(!) I was very happy with how that turned out. Ms Brocket's recipe was unashamedly going for recreating the childhood fancy of a "layer cake" rather than realism, which was probably nothing grander than a Victoria sandwich. The recipe here was for some kind of strawberries and cream gateau, and allowed one to double the proportions for four layers. Because we had slightly smaller tins than the recipe suggested, I made a three-layer cake, sandwiched together with strawberries and cream. I also used plain flour with baking-powder, rather than self-raising, because in Anne, the heroine at first blames the baking-powder for the disaster, to which Marilla returns, "Baking-powder, fiddlesticks!" I cannot think of the word "Baking-powder" without the word "fiddlesticks" on the end. I have to say, it was the best sponge cake I'd ever made, and it did indeed come out of the oven "as light and feathery as golden foam," thanks to mum's gluten-free flour.

Have also made raspberry cordial, a drink so sweet and indulgent that you (at least, I) wonder that it features - I tend to think of Marilla as keeping a kitchen full of plain, simple, wholesome food, whereas Raspberry Cordial (not to be mistaken for currant wine) is simply delicious! I unfortunately dropped about a quarter of the jug over the kitchen floor, and it looked rather as though I'd committed a murder.

This afternoon, I had a Swallows and Amazons themed baking session. This is the ideal holiday adventure series - not as outlandish as Enid Blyton's Famous Five series, but escapism nonetheless. The series captures a less paranoid time when children would be allowed to go sailing and camping without adult supervision, with a father who reasons that his children are "better drowned than duffers, if not duffers, won't drown." It too is a wonderful world of make-believe, with the town (I visited there when I was younger, but I can't remember what it was called,) renamed Rio, and the Old Man of Coniston (that I do remember) christened Kanchenjunga. The series is well-written because it doesn't talk down to the children, but reports the stories with the same juxtaposition of reality and fantasy as they would use, not having to explain what is "real" and what is make-believe, because we just know. The Swallows and the Amazons (and later the D's) also enjoy lashings of ginger beer, but they call it grog.

I made "Bunloaf," a nice, thick, rich fruit cake, and "Seedcake," which is a funny, old-fashioned recipe, a sponge cake with caraway seeds which I'd never used before but which have a peculiar flavour. Tasty, but a bit dry, so best eaten with plenty of grog to wash it down. Seedcake is a thing I associate with the Secret Seven as well, though I don't know whether it ever made an appearance in the Seven's clubroom. But I have clear memories of play-acting Secret Seven, and even that it was George who brought it as a meeting snack. That was before I was conscious that seed-cake really existed. It just sounded like something the Seven would eat.

The very first recipe I tried out, even before the liniment layer cake, was Debby's Jumbles from What Katy Did at School. They appear in perhaps the most evocative description of luscious food in children's literature; a chapter called "Christmas Boxes." The girls, Katy and Clover, stay at their boarding school over Christmas, but are not forgotten by their family, who send them enough cakes, fruit and sweets to feed them and all their friends. One of these cakes, which I had always wondered about, was the jumble, which was descibed as a round, crumbly cake. I had always thought of them as rather like doughnuts, but they turned out to be half-biscuitty, half-cakey, and could be flavoured with any number of things. This time I made them with lemon zest, but I wonder what they would be like with cinnamon. Hmm... perhaps next time...

In case you were wondering, the ten series to which I was referring were:
Anne of Green Gables,
What Katy Did
Little House on the Prairie (I am yet to make any of these recipes. Am tempted by cornbread but have not yet located cornmeal in Isle of Wight shops.)
Swallows and Amazons
The Chronicles of Narnia (somehow, I never really thought of these in the same category of "food" novels, probably because there was so much else going on. Sardines on toast, though, will always be associated with Mr Tumnus.)
The Chalet School (When I went to stay with my Aunt in Germany a few years back, I was pleased to discover that kaffee und kuchen really does seem to exist as a meal - so much more honest than English afternoon tea - you skip the bread and butter and go straight onto the cake.)
The Famous Five
The Secret Seven
Malory Towers

These are the books that, one way or another, I seemed to live more than just read, whether it was by writing fill-in fan-fiction in my little blue folder (none of those stories ever got further than a page or two, but the intent was there) or played make-believe (on my own, generally. My school friends, at eight, were far too sophisticated to act out these books when I wanted to, so I had to play all seven members of the Secret Seven. Or I just read them over and over until I knew them backwards, and fictional incidents seem clearer than my own memories. And for me to find a book that has found all of these and extracted the edible parts of them - why, it's almost too good to be true. It's strange to think that anyone else could have written a cookbook that was so completely and entirely targetted at me.
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