Saturday 29 January 2011

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I used to be confused and a bit annoyed when film and stage adaptations of this classic story would be titled Little Women but contain the story both of Little Women and the "sequel" Good Wives. It was not until relatively recently that I discovered that Good Wives is merely the UK title for what was originally, and still is elsewhere, the second half of Little Women itself. Upon discovering this, and not being overly fond of the twee Good Wives as a title, I determined to buy my own copy of the complete text. Previously I had never got past volume one, but having a book all-in-one would get me past the usual stopping point. It seemed that a Penguin paperback would be my best bet, but in Foyle's I found a lovely hardback for a lower price.

Little Women was never one of my absolute favourite books, although I've read it a fair few times, seen the 1990s film and a West End play. It's a strange thing, but every time I read this book I seem to come to it with a different attitude, and take different things away from the reading. As a child I viewed it as similar to What Katy Did, but a bit more grown-up - possibly because I was a bit more grown-up when I first read it. I came back to it a year or two ago, intending to read the whole series, but stopped at the end of Little Women [volume one] after feeling bogged down by all the moralising. Frustrated, I found the girls too good to be true, their faults only there to be overcome and an over-keenness to be lectured by their "Marmee."

That was just about a year ago. This time around I wondered if I was reading the same book, because Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were refreshingly real, made up not of a single fault there just to be overcome, but flesh-and-blood teenagers with understandable struggles against hot tempers, jealousy, discontent, crippling shyness among others. The girls' friendship with the boy next door, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence was refreshing for the era, a cosy, platonic companionship full of fun, games and silliness that you just don't get in Victorian literature. I noticed scenes and chapters I must have only skimmed before, because they felt quite new to me. Perhaps these were the scenes omitted from the film, of which I may have retained more memories.

That's not to say I didn't find the moralising a little heavy-handed at times. In the chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, Meg is rebuked first in the text, then by Laurie and finally by Marmee, for allowing herself to be made-over by her rich friend-of-a-friend for a party, and acting the part. Looking at it one way I felt quite cross, asking "What's wrong with dressing up once in a while?" and wondering if the moral here was that one shouldn't act above one's station, an idea that appalled the twenty-first century English girl who - until very recently - had an idea that class boundaries were fairly fluid. Looking at it the other way and I know quite well what Alcott's point was. After all, I tut when watching Grease to see Sandy dressing up in her leather catsuit and smoking cigarettes just to gain the respect of someone who isn't worth it. Here, Meg is doing just the same thing (I'm just picturing her in that tight catsuit!) by pretending to be someone who she isn't, just to try to fit in. We see the same in enough high school dramas nowadays.

Similarly, I was riled in part two when Professor Bhaer - and Miss Alcott - preach about the evils of writing and reading gothic thrillers and sensational stories. (Maybe I'm just horribly degenerate.) On the other hand, Alcott satirises Jo's attempts to write the sort of sickly, moralistic Victorian fiction that makes Little Women look positively riotous, the lesson being that Jo should write for herself, write what she knows and loves, and not merely what sells - something that still holds true for writers today.

I, as well as probably most girl readers of Little Women, and certainly Alcott herself, identify best with tomboy Jo, the independant woman, the writer with the hot temper and burning ambition. As a small girl I had some sympathy with shy Beth, but nowadays she comes across not as a human being, but that device of the sicklier Victorian literature: the good girl who essentially dies of being too angelic and insipid. I have to confess I've never liked Amy very much, finding her spoilt and a bit of a snob.
Read as Children's Classic for the
Back to the Classics Challenge
When it comes to the love stories, I'm not quite satisfied. I'm certainly not Laurie/Jo "shipper," but it seems to me that Laurie ends up with Amy simply as the next best thing, if he can't marry Jo. Jo's eventual husband Professor Bhaer is a very pleasant character, but being about twice her age, very plain and having a rather distancing title, just isn't the dashing hero I'd wish for the heroine. Meg's marriage to John Brooke, on the other hand, is portrayed very realistically with two young people as poor as the proverbial church mouse, living in the house about the size of a shoe box, madly in love, but still experiencing conflict as the honeymoon period comes to an end, with Meg accidentally neglecting her husband when being overwhelmed with coping with twins, and John happening to bring a friend home for supper on the one day Meg is having a disaster in the kitchen. Marmee steps in to offer some very wise advice, and in this context it doesn't come across as preachy, but as the calm voice of experience. Marmee is the steady force in the family, always with the right answers, but with the sympathy that comes from having been in the same fixes as her girls in her own youth.

Friday 28 January 2011

Follow Me Down, Julie Hearn

When Tom's mother is recovering from breast cancer, she takes him to London to visit his grandmother. While upstairs, Tom is aware of the tension as his mum and gran try to repair a long-damaged relationship, he finds himself called downstairs by the voices only he can hear. In the basement is a gap, which takes him back in time, when the house was home to the "freaks" and "monsters" of the Bartholomew Fair: Astra, the tiny "Changeling Child," Angel, the "Gorilla Woman," Malachi Twist the "Bendy Man" and others.

Follow Me Down is a very evocative novel, well-written and poetic, but in such a way that brings to life the murkiness of 18th century London. From the very beginning, when Tom's mother is driving around, looking for the old house, there is a sense of something not being right, in the description of the stink of Smithfield Meat Market on a hot day, while Tom's mother who "could recognise anything from gas to a bunch of flowers through several closed doors," can't smell anything. The Black Raven, the pub next door to Tom's gran is adorned with an "evil-looking bird" on its sign which appears to swing without any wind. When Tom gets taken through "the gap" back in time, we find ourselves in a dark underworld, seen through the eyes of the outsiders in the freak shows, with menacing villains in the "freaks'" masters and the grave robbers who would go to any lengths to procure bodies for experimentation. This is the nasty side of historical London. But the menace is not restricted to the past. In the present day, Tom's gran's house is haunted by the spectres of what isn't spoken. There is Tom's mum's illness, his gran's implied alcoholism and the mystery of his dead grandfather looming over like a shadowy figure that can't be seen, but neither can he be ignored.

Read as part of the Support Your
Local Library challenge
One theme I found interesting was that of memory. First of all we see Tom remembering how, as a toddler, he was fascinated by the railings outside his gran's house, "tall and sharp as spears. He had wanted one to play knights of old with; hadn't understood that you couldn't just pull one up and put it back after slaying a few imaginary dragons." But when he arrives, the railings don't fit his memory, being somewhat dulled and tarnished either by the passing years or by his growing up. When he gets into the basement and sees the gap, Tom suddenly remembers it from before, when he was just two years old. You'd think that a magical experience such as being pulled into the past would not be forgotten, but when you're two, perhaps you haven't yet worked out what the rules of the world are, and what is an unusual experience, what's just matter-of-fact. It means that when Tom is pulled into the seventeenth century, no time is wasted in telling us about him working out what's going on, but instead we are plunged straight into the story.

If you enjoyed this book, you may like

Tom's Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce
Celandine, Steve Augarde

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
The Company of Liars, Karen Maitland

Follow Me Down is published in the USA as The Sign of the Raven.

Saturday 22 January 2011

My Best Friend's Girl, Dorothy Koomson

When Kamryn Matika wakes up on her thirty-second birthday, her only plans for the day are to dress up in a spangly gold dress and high heels. One birthday present she does not expect is the responsibility for 5-year-old Tegan, the daughter of her former best friend Adele - and Kamryn's ex-fiance Nate. But Adele is dying of leukemia, and begs Kamryn to adopt her daughter. Kamryn had never intended to have children and struggles to forgive Adele and Nate for their betrayal of her, but she can't abandon Tegan to live with Adele's cruel father and stepmother.

I've always had the idea that Dorothy Koomson was a chick-lit author, which is a genre I rarely indulge in, and tend to be disappointed with when I do. Judging by the covers in pastel pinks and yellows, her books are certainly marketed as such, but reading My Best Friend's Girl got me thinking about what Chick Lit really is. Light, popular fiction by and for women? Sweet, shallow, fluffy romance? Sex and shopping in London, New York or LA, or perhaps a holiday in Paris or Venice?

My Best Friend's Girl is certainly a women's book, with its emphasis on relationships between friends, family and romantic partners, but I think to class it as "chick-lit" is too simple. "Chick-lit" always has negative connotations to me, though at the same time I acknowlege this to be unfair. Books certainly shouldn't be considered inferior because they are about women's issues, while books about men's issues are just called "general fiction." Unfortunately, I've found many books in the "Chick-lit" genre to be somewhat shallow and unoriginal, though that ought to be put down to the individual writers and not a judgement on the entire genre. My Best Friend's Girl uses many of the conventions of "chick-lit," such as a pastel-coloured cover, a love triangle and an overuse of adjectives, especially describing clothes and hairstyles, but Koomson creates sympathetic, well-rounded characters and explores issues of trust, forgiveness, friendship and parenthood with tact and sensitivity. Adele is a bubbly, outgoing rich girl, genuinely kind and friendly, but whose seemingly perfect childhood was in fact one of neglect and abuse. Kamryn, on the other hand, appears to be a tough, independent woman, but is full of insecurites. After years of bullying, she refused to let people come close to her - and those who she did let in betrayed her, undoing all the hard work. Though Adele's story was more obviously tragic, I really felt for Kamryn, as I could identify first-hand with the damage caused by the more commonplace betrayal.
Read as part of the Support Your Local
Library challenge

I did, however, enjoy the first half of the book better than the second, wherein we were introduced to Kamryn's new boss, Luke. Kamryn denies that she hates him because she secretly wants to sleep with him - but from that moment on I had a good idea where the story was going. Koomson left enough twists and questions to not make the ending predictable, but the addition of romance didn't interest me as much as the story of Kamryn, Adele and Tegan.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.
From the cover of the book, I had a vague idea that it would be a literary, people- and relationship-based novel - which it is - maybe like Atonement. Which it is not. I suspect my mind remembered the last book I read with a picture of Keira Knightley on the front cover. I also expected some kind of hint at ghostly goings-on, because the picture of Knightley at the top made me think of Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights.

What I actually got was something very different - and if you want to read this book open-mindedly, I suggest you don't read past this paragraph - and whatever you do, avoid watching the movie trailers. I'm avoiding plot spoilers but will be making reference to genre and writing style. The short version of the review is: "This book is great, read that instead of the blog."

Potential spoilers below

The first thing Ishiguro tells us is that the setting is "England, late 1990s," and we meet our narrator, Kathy, who tells us a little about her position working as a carer, before sending us back in time to her childhood at Hailsham school. From the very beginning, subtle uses of language alert us to the suspicion that this is not quite the world as we know it. "Carer" doesn't seem to mean quite what we expect it to, and when Kathy describes her school life, the adults are described not as "teachers" but "guardians." A seemingly insignificant choice of word, that could just be a school breaking the trends, but nothing in Never Let Me Go is accidental. Similarly, the emphasis on what is considered important or not is ever so slightly off-kilter, such as the urgency for Hailsham students to be "creative," and the worry when one seems to have no artistic talents. Clearly Hailsham is preparing its students for something - but what?

When the "big reveal" comes, to be honest it's not much of a shock. Superficially it might seem that Ishiguro has been clumsy, leaving too many clues in the text so that that the plot twist isn't as dramatic as it should be. I realised that this, too, is no accident. Miss Lucy, the guardian who blurts out exactly what the students' future holds, tells them that they've been "told and not told," and Tommy expands on this, hypothesising that "the guardians had [...] timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand the latest piece of information. But of course we'd take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly." Like the students, when I read this book there was no one moment of realisation. When Miss Lucy made her outburst, I just realised that I'd known all along. A very, very clever piece of writing.

Alongside the "knowing all along," was a sort of anaesthetising of the horror. The narration is simple, unflowery, and very matter-of-fact. Where apparently insignificant events are elevated to importance, the destiny of Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and other students should be shocking and horrific, but the characters' unquestioning acceptance that this is just the way the world is, makes for a chillingly calm read. Never Let Me Go had a slow-burning effect on me, its impact increasing after I'd finished reading and carried on thinking about it. I was very glad not to have seen the film trailer before reading the book as it gives far too much away and would have spoiled the book, not only in plot details but in its genre and literary qualities.

I'm looking forward to seeing the film in February and would be interested in reading more of Ishiguro's work.

Monday 17 January 2011

My first blogging award - Stylish Blogger

After a weekend away from the computer, visiting friends in London, I was surprised and pleased to get home and find I had been awarded the Stylish Blogger Award by Mandy at Mandy's Escape, so thank you very much, Mandy!

So here's what I have to do next:
1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post.
2. Tell us 7 things about yourself.
3. Award 15 recently discovered great bloggers.
4. Contact these bloggers and let them know they have won!
7 things about me:
  1. As well as writing and blogging I take part in some amateur dramatics and am currently in rehearsals for a double bill of Gilbert and Sullivan: Pirates of Penzance and Trial by Jury. I'm in the chorus for the first and playing a gender-swapped Counsel for the Plaintiff in the latter.
  2. I am an ice-cream fiend, and feel that a day out is incomplete without it. I love to try new flavours, but that means I don't actually eat chocolate ice cream that often.
  3. I've been designated as adopted auntie to a high school friend's 9-month-old twins, Alice and Evelyn, a duty which involves a lot of knitting.
  4. I am possibly the clumsiest person in existence, constantly walking into things, dropping things or falling over things. Yesterday, for example, I sat down on the end of the spare bed in my room - except it wasn't where I expected. It had been moved a little way down the room to make space for a bookcase - about a year or more ago! So I fell in the gap and ended up sitting in a magazine rack. Oops!
  5. As a Doctor Who fangirl, I couldn't resist getting on the phone to book tickets to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate act together on stage. They will be playing sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and what's more I actually like Shakespeare. After four years watching him in the role of the Doctor, it was seeing his performance as Hamlet (on TV) that I realised how good an actor Mr Tennant is.
  6. My bedroom wall is decorated with paintings from my Grandma's college days, around 1943. What was then an art project, pictures of everyday life, I now find a fascinating historical snapshot of Wartime Britain.
  7. I can be rather old-fashioned, and my sister thinks I would be more at home in the 1940s or 50s. Of course, had I lived back then, I would be unable to keep this blog.
15 Stylish Blogs (in no particular order)

1. Anna Reads
2. Becky's Book Reviews
3. Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing
4. GReads
5. I was a Teenage Book Geek
6. Inkcrush
7. The Bursting Bookshelf
8. What's Your Story?
9. Snowdrop Dreams of Books
10. She is too fond of books
11. The Mad Scientist
12. Steph Su Reads
13. Smash Attack Reads
14. Pink Tea and Paper
15. Southern Scrawl

Sunday 16 January 2011

Anne of Avonlea, L. M. Montgomery

At sixteen and a half, Anne Shirley has finished her own schooling at Queen's Academy, and is preparing to return to Avonlea school, this time as its teacher. Though much changed from the talkative eleven-year-old adopted by Matthew and Marilla, Anne is still full of dreams and ideals, and always on the lookout for "kindred spirits." There are several newcomers to Avonlea, from the prosaic, grouchy Mr Harrison who moves in next door with his parrot, to poetic Paul Irving, kindred spirit and Anne's favourite pupil - if teachers had favourites, which of course they don't. And Marilla, who a few years ago no one would have foreseen raising one child, has taken in two more, six-year-old twins Davy and Dora Keith. As reflected in the title, the setting of the story spreads from the grounds of Green Gables, the school and surrounding woodland, to the whole village, and we get to know more of its inhabitants. As well as the next generation of Avonlea schoolchildren, we get to see more of the elder residents of the village when Anne, Gilbert and some of their other friends set up the Village Improvement Society, and through this we get to better know assorted friends-and-relations: Andrewses, Sloanes, Pyes and more. I've read this book more times than I can remember, and still can't work out who's who in Avonlea, but it's clear that Mrs Montgomery knew them all.

While just as episodic as Green Gables, the stories told in Avonlea are slightly more grown-up in theme and perhaps overall a little more sedate. Anne at sixteen to eighteen years of age seems a good deal older than I am at twenty five! Yet she is not yet cured of landing herself in embarrassing situations, such as falling through the roof of a neighbour's duck-house, and smothering her nose in red dye instead of freckle lotion before a surprise visit from a distinguished authoress. More childish amusement comes from the Keith twins, or rather Davy who always "wants to know" - Dora might as well be a porcelain doll for all the personality she is given. Paul Irving, too, is clearly intended to be a kindred spirit, though I find him a rather soppy character for a ten-year-old boy, despite Anne's and the author's protests that he is as manly as all the other boys in his class. Clearly Paul is supposed to be a reflection of Anne, with his make-believe and quirky little thoughts, but I couldn't believe in him. To me he seemed like a prototype of Walter Blythe from the later books, but Walter is more fleshed-out and his struggles make him come alive. Paul's difficulty in eating a whole dish of porridge doesn't quite work as a character flaw.

Still, Paul's presence in Avonlea brings about the last section of the novel, where it stops being so anecdotal and has an ongoing story. Anne befriends a charming old maid named Miss Lavendar Lewis, who lives alone in a quaint, fairy-like house with a young maid who she calls Charlotta the Fourth. Miss Lavendar seems to epitomise all that a child would think good about being grown-up and independent: having the freedom to do what you want, when you want, stay up all night and eat nothing but cake if you so desire! But Miss Lavendar has a history of romance with Paul Irving's father - who is now a widower. In the Anne books there are a lot of stories where Anne plays matchmaker or meddles in other people's relationships for better or worse, and in most cases I find these stories leave me cold. But the romance of Miss Lavendar and Stephen Irving is the first and the best, as we've spent plenty of time getting to know and love these characters and to wish them happiness. And although Anne is oblivious, or as good as, there are hints and suggestions of romance in her own not-too-distant future.

Thursday 13 January 2011

The Postmistress, Sarah Blake

I've always been interested in the Second World War, since I studied it in middle school. I've read plenty of books set during that era, (Goodnight Mister Tom, The Book Thief, Atonement, to name but a few) but on opening The Postmistress, I realised that I had a very Eurocentric perspective of it. Some of my reading and watching dealt with the attitudes of the British people towards America at the time, both rather grudging if not outright hostile ("late for every war," "overpaid, oversexed and over here") and admiring of the glamour of the GIs, but I realised that I'd read nothing from the point of view of American characters between 1939 and 1941, not directly involved - yet - but seeing the devastation and wondering if and how they should get involved.

 The Postmistress begins at the end of 1940, the height of the Blitz in London and other major cities, but before the USA had joined in the war. The story follows three American women: Frankie, the brave, impulsive, passionate young radio journalist who reports home what she sees in London. Back home, in the village of Franklin, Cape Cod, we have Iris, a slightly eccentric but efficient spinster who is the postmistress of the title (although she prefers the title postmaster) and Emma, young, insecure wife of the village doctor who has left her alone and pregnant, to "do his bit" helping the wounded of the Blitz after hearing Frankie's broadcasts.

Although the book is called The Postmistress, the main character is undoubtedly Frankie, caught in the middle of the war, seeing what is happening in Europe and filled with the urgency to convey this to her countrymen, to stir them to do something, make a difference. Infuriated by what she sees as other people's indifference, she is desperate to make her mark, feeling that she is shouting into the wind but keeps going because "whatever is coming does not just come [..] it's helped by people wilfully looking away." Her nationality allows her into occupied France and Germany where she finds herself on trains of Jewish refugees, daring to report on what she found, what people didn't want to see. Frankie's determination, stubbornness and sometimes recklessness make her come to life as a character. Sometimes in conversation she comes across as ruthless or arrogant, but this is because she cares so much and is frustrated by perceived indifference from those who haven't been where she's been or seen what she's seen. But ultimately she realises that she can't make a neat little story of people's suffering, with a beginning and an end. She can tell what she's seen, but "the story just whispers off in the dark." It isn't until she arrives back in the USA that she discovers what an impact her reports make to those at home, that maybe she can help to make a difference after all.

Iris and Emma's stories are entwined with Frankie's, but they are secondary characters in comparison, and I never felt that I knew them as people. I found myself wondering why the book was named after Iris instead of Frankie, and concluded that it is because of the power of the postmistress, whose role, though superficially a little one, ensures that letters go directly from sender to receiver. Although this is relevant to one of the main story threads, I think that the postmistress of the title is a symbol of each character's place in a chain of events, rather than specifically describing Iris's role in the book.

If you liked this you might enjoy:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

Sunday 9 January 2011

A Gate At The Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin yearns to escape her provincial home. She moves to the college town of Troy to start university and takes a job as a part-time nanny to a glamorous couple. Tassie is drawn into their life and that of their newly adopted toddler. As the household reveals its complications, Tassie is forced out of her naivety, and the past and the future burst forth in dramatic and shocking ways.
I’d had my eye on this book for quite a while, after seeing it on a display stand for some literary award or other. I’d read passages at random, and was intrigued enough to eventually buy a copy. The reviews on the front and back covers declared it to be “the novel of the year” and the author to be “one of the very best American writers working today.” Sometimes you read a popular book and disagree with the general consensus. For me, A Gate at the Stairs left me wondering not only whether I was reading the same book as the blurb-writers and award panel, but whether I was reading the same book every time I picked it up.

Right from the start I found it difficult to concentrate on this book for more than a few pages. Maybe it didn’t help that I came to this book with its six long chapters stuffed with description, from Poppy Shakespeare which was written in London colloquial language, quickly-flowing with chapters of only a few pages. But what really kept me from enjoying the book was its incessantly bleak atmosphere. First of all I likened the writing style to that of Dickens, where you really felt the griminess. There was a sense of foreboding from the start, where little things that weren’t quite right, like the absence of the adoptive father through many important processes, or Tassie’s college roommate who seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. Tassie’s employer Sarah seemed a very unlikely adoptive mother. Like a wealthy Victorian mother, it seemed as though she employed Tassie in order to ensure that she saw as little of the child, Mary-Emma better known as Emmie, as possible, which led to me wondering why she was adopting at all.

But there wasn’t the natural humour of Dickens. Moore attempted regular jokes and wordplay, but they felt forced and uncomfortable. A writer, especially a literary author, sets the work’s tone by the description. Moore, through her narrator Tassie, regularly commented on the ugliness of nature, or neutral nature in ugly terms, with special mentions of dead birds and squirrels, and the amount of mould throughout the novel verged on the ridiculous. Added to this, I never sensed I could know the characters. Not only did Moore emphasise the “phoniness” of people, but they seemed to change, not by character development, but as if they were arbitrarily replaced by people with the same name and different personality. All in all, I found that a sense of depression and hopelessness pervaded the novel, and did not want to live in Tassie’s world. To quote my sister when describing a gloomy train guard, Tassie’s world sounded like “the worst place imaginable, where the sun never shines and everyone is dead.”

Not a lot happened, plot-wise, for the first two thirds of the novel, and when plot did begin, it was very disjointed and unlikely. One criticism you can’t make of this book is predictability. Of the three major, dramatic plot twists, two came without any warning, out of the blue and then ended just as abruptly. The third involved Tassie’s family, who were featured briefly at the beginning and then, again briefly, about halfway through, as if Moore had forgotten all about them, before playing their crucial part in the last few pages of the book. And when the story happened, it happened all at once and was so melodramatic and relentlessly miserable that I revised my description of the work from "Dickens without the natural humour" to "Hardy - Jude The Obscure era."

Aside from the story, it also felt as though Moore was trying to tackle some major issues: race, parenting, family, identity and politics, but despite sometimes almost putting in arrows to say “Look! This is an important issue!” and having some scenes of unlabelled dialogue reeling off snippets of opinion, these were never really explored enough to call them “themes.” I found myself at a loss as to what Moore was trying to say, which wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if this was a story-based book. But story, here, takes a back seat amongst the issue-highlighting and the mould.

Friday 7 January 2011

Book Blogger Hop and Coming Soon, 7/1/11

The Book Blogger Hop:

Book Blogger Hop

hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books.

It's been a few weeks since I've taken part in the Book Blogger Hop, thanks to working overtime and then Jennifer quite rightly taking a two week holiday over Christmas and New Year.

This week's question:
"What book influenced or changed your life? How did it influence/change you?"
Wow, it's so difficult to narrow it down to just one. I think, at the risk of repeating myself, I will say Anne of Green Gables, because Anne Shirley was probably the most real heroine I had encountered in fiction at that point in my life. Imaginative, scatty and impulsive, she was a real "kindred spirit." I think that reading about her from a young age, learning from her mistakes and watching her mature, helped to shape my personality to make me the person I am now. At different points in my life I kept returning to the Anne books and every time a different part of her story spoke to me in my own situations: an outsider, a dreamer and later on as a student caught between calling two places "home."
Coming Soon
(Because I don't have a mailbox.)
I'm afraid I've gone rather overboard on my book-buying since Christmas.
It started off quite reasonably. Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey was the Times book of the week, so I got it for £2.99 with a paper. Then, on the New Year bank holiday, Waterstone's were open later than we were at W.H. Smith, and the two books I'd been looking at which weren't on special offer (then) with us, were on a 3 for 2 offer there. So I had to buy a third.
A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
South Riding - Winifred Holtby

And then... I felt I ought to sign up for the Support Your Local Library challenge, because the council recently announced that all but the two biggest libraries on the Island will be closing soon - a real tragedy. So I checked out three books, two of which I still have waiting to be read.
The Outlander - Gil Adamson
My Best Friend's Girl - Dorothy Koomson

And then! The Richard and Judy Book Club made a comeback, exclusive to W.H. Smith. I decided I would be failing in my duties as a bookseller if I didn't read at least some of the books that we're promoting, so I can recommend titles from personal experience. Besides, not only were the eight shortlisted titles and some other "If you enjoyed X, then you'll love Y" books on a Buy One Get One Free offer, (I bought four!) but Smith's employees were given a voucher for a free copy of the first review title: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

The Postmistress - Sarah Blake
This Perfect World - Suzanne Bugler
Hothouse Flower - Lucinda Riley
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson
Mr Rosenblum's List - Natasha Solomons

Look out for reviews of some of these titles over the next few weeks. Also to come, I have still some unread books left over from last year (and the years before that! Ahem.) and the first of my Back To The Classics selection will be reviewed soon. On that note, I ought to stop blogging and start reading before my to-read pile gets any bigger and topples over.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Torment, Lauren Kate

Daniel has whisked Luce away from her old reform school, Sword and Cross, and hidden her at Shoreline, a new boarding school in California which couldn’t be more unlike the last. Where Sword and Cross was bleak, grey and miserable, Shoreline is more like a summer holiday resort, fresh and modern and sunny. There are special classes for those students descended from angels – a sort of celestial Hogwarts! – while to the unknowing it is simply a very exclusive private school. I found the strong point of Fallen to be the school-story scene setting, the friendships and the gothic atmosphere. Although less memorable than Sword and Cross, I enjoyed reading more of the set-up and meeting new characters, especially Luce’s roommate, the irritable Shelby. On the other hand, Luce’s other new girl friends, Dawn and Jasmine, who swoon over her as though she were a celebrity, almost gave me a headache with their shrill hysteria, and this was from reading about them on the page!

After reading Hush, Hush and Crescendo, which I found to be somewhat insipid, I’m glad to see that Lauren Kate’s mythology has something behind it to identify it as being about angels and demons (rather than Interchangeable Magic Boyfriend Creature whose defining feature is that "wings are a neat idea.") Although it isn’t consistent with my understanding which is that there are either angels which are good, demons which are the same as fallen angels, no middle ground, this is Lauren Kate’s story, not mine, and she’s clearly put a lot of work into establishing a fantastical world. All the same, there seem to be a few inconsistencies or things that just feel like cheating. For one thing, there is the whole “You and I aren’t so different after all,” message between angel and demon which goes against their being the forces of good and evil – a conflict which indicates that Lauren Kate has drawn inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost. "Or at least the CliffsNotes."

We see a return of the shadows which have plagued Luce since her childhood, which have been revealed to be messengers for dark forces, called Announcers. Now, it seems that if you can hold onto them and stretch them about, they become magic TV screen/crystal balls which show you scenes from the past, which also double as a kind of spatio-temporal hyperlink.* I was reminded of my own juvenile attempts at writing fantasy where I made the rules up as I went along.

In Fallen, I found myself irritated by Luce’s insistence of her twoo wuv for Daniel which seemed to be without any foundation except the discovery that she is his reincarnated soul mate, and that they always end up together (before she dies.) I put enough distance between me and Fallen to forget the details of why their “inexplicable connection” and subsequent “relationship” annoyed me, and this time around was able to take Luce’s word for it. They’re in love, they’re soul mates, yeah, whatever, if you say so. I still wasn’t convinced, but this time around at least Kate didn’t constantly rub my face in it.

Torment is that obligatory Volume Two of many Magic Boyfriend Creature romances where the couple are parted – for the girl’s own good, of course – and the boy acts mysterious and won’t tell the girl anything. It happened in the Twilight books and Crescendo, and here it happens again. I was glad to see that Luce didn’t waste too much time moping, however, but was proactive, questioning what she’s been told by Daniel about their past together, and trying to find out the truth for herself instead of blindly accepting everything he has to say.  Also, by this time some of the initial dizziness of first romance - at least, Luce’s first romance where the boyfriend didn’t spontaneously combust on their first kiss! – has worn off, we find Luce identifying some of the traits of the modern YA Interchangeable Magic Boyfriend Creature (IMBC) Romance genre which are so worrying as a relationship model for teenagers: that the IMBC boyfriend has to know and control his girlfriend’s every move, but keeps his own a secret. Luce even finds herself wishing that Daniel is more like her new crush Miles (Yes, here goes another love triangle! Make up your mind, girl!)
“This was exactly the kind of goofy, teasing rapport she would love to have with Daniel. If only he weren’t so brooding all the time. If he were actually around.”
If, in short, he wasn’t Daniel at all. For a moment, I wondered if this would be the IMBC romance where the girl might realise that she’s in love with the idea of the IMBC more than the guy himself, and make her choice based on reasons other than fate/inexplicable connection/magic/he wants my blood [delete as appropriate.] Just for a moment.

Another three-star rating, but with less polar extremes than Fallen: it isn’t as good as the best of the former, but it’s not as bad as the worst. A lot better than I had expected.

*Didn’t want to say “magic door.”

Monday 3 January 2011

Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

What better way to start a new year than to rediscover my favourite book of all time?

When old-fashioned, late-middle-aged brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert send for an orphan boy to help on their farm at Green Gables, the last person they expect to meet is the precocious, imaginative redhead Anne Shirley. At eleven Anne has never been loved or wanted, but makes up for lost time by winning the hearts of the rural community of Avonlea, winning friends - and a few enemies - with her impulsive ways.

I first read this book at the age of about seven, and immediately Anne was a true "kindred spirit." Like me, she lived more in a dream world than the real one, making up stories left, right and centre, and being remarkably scatterbrained when it came to real life. I spent hours reading and rereading about her exploits until, looking back, it feels difficult to separate the book from my own childhood. L. M. Montgomery brings Avonlea, Prince Edward Island to life by furnishing it with a cast of lovable and believable characters. As well as the irrepressible Anne, there is Mrs Rachel Lynde, who made it her business to know everyone else's, shy and softhearted Matthew who wraps his sister around his little finger without seeming to try, and Marilla who isn't half as stern as she'd have you believe. There are countless ladies who are known only as Mrs [Husband's-name Surname] - a thing that confused me no end when I was small. Then, among the younger generation who I know better than many of my own primary school classmates: pretty, jolly Diana Barry, spiteful Josie Pye and her sister Gertie, airhead Ruby Gillis, sensible Jane Andrews, pompous Charlie Sloan, the rather nerdy Moody Spurgeon McPherson and of course the rascally Gilbert Blythe, who makes his debut in the book's most infamous scene by having a slate cracked over his head after making fun of Anne's red hair.

Anne of Green Gables is a light, episodic novel, the majority of the book taking place during Anne's first couple of years at Green Gables, showing her falling from scrape to scrape, and also experiencing simple delights with such pleasure that you can't help but feel her wonder: eating ice cream for the first time at a Sunday School picnic, making friends, exploring the great outdoors and inventing histories for every place. Anne really is a story to make you appreciate the little things, and to a small girl such as Anne, everything is the most important thing in the world.

You don't really notice Anne changing much, but as the novel progresses, she grows up naturally, her excitable speeches don't sound quite so precocious and gradually she comes to keep her excitable ways under control. Almost before you know it, Anne is fifteen and heading off to Queen's Academy to work for her teacher's certificate. Although she is still very much Anne, I can't help agreeing with Marilla as she laments the loss of the funny, melodramatic little girl Anne was.

"I just couldn't help thinking of the little girl you used to be, Anne. And I was wishing you could have stayed a little girl, even with all your queer ways. You're grown up now, and you're going away; and you look so tall and stylish and so - so - different altogether in that dress..."
As if to reassure the reader as much as Marilla, Anne quickly lets us know that:
"I'm not a bit changed - not really. I'm only just pruned down and branched out."
Anne never gives up her vivid imagination, but channels it into her writing and English Literature studies, and she continues to fall in and out of trouble for several volumes to come.

Saturday 1 January 2011

2011: a look ahead

New Year's Resolutions

My first video message - thanks to my sister Jenny for being cameraperson. Sorry about the poor light quality, blame the energy-saving lightbulbs!

Reading Challenges:

After last year's big and complicated rereading extravaganza that I barely skimmed the surface of, this year I'm keeping things simple. I have signed up for the Back to the Classics challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much

I have scheduled a re-read of the Anne of Green Gables series - which I managed to get through the entire 2010 without reading, a thing which must be quickly rectified! I'm calling this my Kindred Spirit challenge; at the moment it's just for me and is all very unofficial but if anyone else is interested do let me know!

I may join other challenges as they take my fancy, but basically this year's challenge to myself is this: read lots of new books and lots of old favourites. As many as I can. And that's it.
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