Monday 30 May 2011

Cold Light, Jenn Ashworth

jenn-ashworth-cold-lightTen years ago, fourteen-year-old Chloe and her older boyfriend Carl drowned in what seemed to be a suicide pact between young lovers thwarted by meddlesome adults. The tragedy came at the end of a time when their northern town was terrorised by a spree of crime, and after the mysterious disappearance of the main suspect. Ten years on, Chloe’s friends Lola and Emma are still troubled by what had happened, and a grisly discover at a memorial service, prompts the girls – now young women – to reassess what had happened to their friend.

The main events of Cold Light take place in the late 1990s, and Jenn Ashworth captured perfectly what it was like to be a teenager at that time, taking my right back to the nostalgia – or not! – of my early high school days. Although we don’t notice the world changing much at the time, I was surprised to see how different the late ‘90s and early ‘00s feel compared with today, in the details of Lola typing up her father’s project on her school computer, of mobile phones being a novelty and shoplifting from Woolworths.

The novel is a gritty picture of poisonous teen friendship and loss of innocence. Although too explicit for a Young Adult novel, it is far from being out of the realms of teen conversation and behaviour. The girls act older than they ought, confident to the point of arrogance in their own maturity, but ultimately out of their depth. I vividly remembered the cruelty of so-called friends, the conflict between fitting in and being true to ones self, and the horrible feelings of being ugly, hideous, greasy and a no-hoper.

Cold Light also explores the role of the media in piecing together the “truth” in a mystery with many gaps in what is known. We see the local media stirring sensation, subtly influencing people’s beliefs until theories become facts, and the story of Chloe and Carl becomes a Romeo and Juliet tragedy that everybody wants a piece of.

And then, with a subtle twist, you are forced to re-examine what you think you know. Along with the standard thriller plot, in which facts slowly emerge, one detail turns the story on its head. We knew all along what was going on – but then we look at it from another angle and it becomes much more sinister. Cold Light is a gloomy book, but despite this an excellent, atmospheric thriller and a fascinating examination of the dark side of being caught between childhood and adulthood.

I received Cold Light  from the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton

You may also enjoy:

Sugar Rush – Julie Burchill
Hold Still – Nina LaCour
Eve Green – Susan Fletcher

Friday 27 May 2011

Theatre: Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndham's)

much ado

Preview showing.

One cold day in January I was mooching around my room, probably reading or using my laptop, when all of a sudden my ears tuned into the radio news: “David Tennant and Catherine Tate are to be reunited on stage, playing sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing…” I confess, I actually squealed and did a little happydance. Much Ado About Nothing wasn’t a Shakespeare play I’d seen or read before, but I’d heard a little about it. When I told my dad, who had studied the play at O-Level, he knew immediately which roles they had been cast in. The characters seemed to have been written for the duo. (Perhaps they were…)

shakespeare code
Now, we know he's met Shakespeare when travelling
with Martha Jones. Maybe he popped back to see
his old mate with Donna Noble one time...?
But, strange as it seemed, it didn’t occur to me for a few hours that I could actually see the play. Once that lightbulb lit up, I was on the internet, but so was everyone else, so I tried the phones. Lots of twinkly music later, I decided to give myself another two minutes. Two minutes passed, and then… a person! And I had tickets! And I was one excited bunny.

After many months of waiting, the day came around. My best friend and I had decided to wear nice dresses and stay in a hotel overnight – but just before we got to the hotel, the heavens opened! It looked like we would have to reconsider. My shoes were little more than ballet slippers, not good for splashing through puddles. With a few minutes to go, the rain stopped and we decided to risk it. But as we stood on the station platform, it seemed we had made a bad choice. Rain emptied down once more, and the sky exploded into a thunderstorm. Oh dear. Instead of heading to Foyle’s – the wonderful bookshop up the road from the Wyndham’s Theatre, and grabbing a bite to eat in Leicester Square, we grabbed some food at the station and took the tube straight to the station. We arrived with about ten minutes to go before the doors opened, just enough time to eat our food. And then – we were there!

26-5 Much Ado About Nothing,The Wyndham's Theatre

I had been worrying that something would go wrong - surely it was too good to be true? - but we were ushered in without a problem, and made our way into the stalls. Entering the theatre, I was shocked that it was a lot smaller than I had been expecting. We were six rows back from the stage, and on the end of the row – but the rows were fairly short meaning we got a fantastic view.

Review may contain spoilers.

MuchAdoAboutNothing_852Much Ado About Nothing is the tale of two couples: young Claudio and Hero, whose love is tested by the evil Don John’s lies, and the older Benedick and Beatrice whose relationship consists of trading insults, and whose friends think it would be a laugh if they could be persuaded to fall in love with each other.

This production was updated to a 1980s setting, with its location Messina being translated to being a bit of a party island. Lyrics from Shakespeare’s songs – not only from this play – were set to a variety of ‘80s-style pop and rock arrangements, for both drama and soundtrack. I've had the finale number, "Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More," in my head all day.

Though perhaps Claudio and Hero are supposed to be the “main” couple and provide the most drama, it is the older couple who are the real stars. It seems that Benedick fancies himself as a wit, and a bit of a ladies’ man, but the sharp-tongued Beatrice is more than a match for him. Catherine Tate plays the role pretty much as her fans expect: tomboyish and mouthy and seemingly with more anger in her words than the smart-ass of a Benedick. Seeing her in the role makes you aware of what a modern, interesting character Beatrice is, and I had the impression that she was bitter about the expectations of her sex, battling with her tongue when denied a sword. Tate and Tennant’s banter was perfect, a sort of verbal Wimbledon Final match between pros, although the dialogue was not always audible over the audience’s laughter.

Need I point out that David Tennant was superb? Such a versatile actor, hilarious both in his delivery of his lines, and in his unspoken acting, quietly frightening when angry – I would not want to be on the receiving end of that stony glare – and charming when Benedick finally confesses his love for Beatrice. And, worryingly, he looks better in a mini-skirt and lace tights than I ever would. Perhaps.

Hero was played by West End newcomer Sarah Macrae, who did a great job of playing the pretty, innocent love interest caught in the middle of Don John’s scheming. As the drama came to a head at their wedding ceremony, I found myself glowering at the unkind Claudio, and most of Hero’s friends-and-relations who were so quick to condemn her. Still, Tom Bateman managed to evoke a little sympathy for Claudio in times, once he’d realised his mistake – although shame on Hero for taking him back without question!

The best scenes for me were without doubt those in which Benedick, and later Beatrice, overhear their friends discussing the other’s love for them. After some brilliantly staged slapstick moments, Tennant ended up with paint all over his face, and Tate found herself dangling from the ceiling, trying to assault the gossipers. Benedick's attempts at songwriting with the aid of a little plastic keyboard were brilliant, as was his lack of control over said instrument when interrupted mid-ballad. Hero’s wedding dress also amused me - being set in the 1980s, it was of course a Princess Diana-inspired beast with a ridiculous train, which Beatrice proceeded to wrap herself up in when suffering from a mysterious disease causing her to sneeze at the word “Benedick.” The dress also gave a double meaning to the comparison of Hero with “Diane in her orb.”

Note also needs to be made of John Ramm as the watchman Dogberry, who reminded me very much of Sergeant Colon of Ankh-Morpork, and let me not forget to note that he is an ass!

When I was at school, first studying Shakespeare, I was informed that his comedies are defined by ending in weddings, and the tragedies by ending with a stage full of corpses, but it took quite some time to understand that Shakespeare’s comedies are actually funny! This production made no doubts about that, with a superb cast delivering a witty script so as to cause louder laughter than you may expect if you expect Shakespeare to be “boring, cultural stuff that no one actually understands.” Yet I was drawn emotionally into the play too, feeling anger and pity for those wronged by the villain Don John and rejoicing in a happy – if contrived – ending (if happy it can be for poor Hero marrying the awful Claudio.) The play received a standing ovation, and the cast seemed to really enjoy performing it.

After the show, I took a detour round the back of the theatre “just in case” any of the cast decided to make an appearance at the stage door – which they did. Although not as big a crowd of fangirls – for most people I saw were female and between about 16 and 25! – as I could have predicted, I didn’t manage to speak to Mr Tennant or Ms Tate, or get an autograph. It would have been nice, of course, but it was too busy for an autograph to be more than a squiggle on a programme anyway. I didn’t want to be a demanding fangirl shouting “David! Over here! Catherine! Sign this!” But I’d have liked to thank them personally - and say, "Nice tights!" Still, I saw them up close, close enough to touch if it weren’t for the crowd. Miss Tate has glorious hair. In the flesh, Mr Tennant is very tall and very skinny but looks remarkably ordinary - if a rather eye-pleasing ordinary who looks like David Tennant!

26-5 D Tennant and C Tate26-5 Catherine Tate26-5 Best David Tennant picture

Saturday 21 May 2011

What Katie Did: a general update

What Katie Read: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.

See, there's this boy, right.
Called Skippy. He dies.
This crazy, sprawling epic is set in and around a prestigious old boys' school and follows staff, students and other local characters in the events leading up to and following the death of Daniel "Skippy" Juster. Seemingly unconnected characters all had their own stories to tell, and gradually all came to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw. Murray uses a mixture of unusual narrative techniques: alongside the ordinary third-person narration are chapters written in the second person - "you" - the first book I've read to use this, and stream-of-consciousness. Despite this, Skippy is quite intelligible, although some of the consciousnesses we see into are decidedly disturbing, horrible, twisted places. In the end, though, I couldn't be sure what to make of this book. There was so much going on, and it was so many different things: blackly comic, bleak, tragic, innocent and at the same time as obscene as only fourteen-year-old boys can be. Then, after the tragedy, shocking revelations come to light. Not shocking because of being unexpected - given the setting and date of writing, these secrets were almost inevitable - but due to the way they are handled, and because this didn't come from one man's twisted imagination but based upon reality.

I wouldn't recommend Skippy Dies to everyone, as it is horrible in places, and despite its humour in the first part, I reached the end with an impression of disgust and despair. Still, it is an interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic interesting, well-written and thought-provoking piece of work.

What Katie Watched: Glee and Doctor Who

Once again, I'm late to the party. I tried to avoid the phenomenon of being the last person to discover a new story/band/TV show, but after watching the first two episodes, predicting an adultery storyline and misinterpreting a throwaway line as being much filthier than it actually was, I wasn't too impressed. Then I tried again for season two and got myself hooked, and ended up renting series 1 from Blockbuster to catch up. I've always had a thing about school stories, and the American High School of TV and film seems such a more glamorous, story-worthy place than the bog-standard 13-18 comprehensive I attended. I guess the grass is always greener. Interesting to notice that the American preppie style of fashion seems to be the in thing at the moment. TopShop, H&M, et al are full of High school style sports jackets, short red cheerleading-type skirts and anything out of Rachel Berry's wardrobe, such as polka-dot blouses with cute little rounded collars.

The latest series of Doctor Who opened with a huge two-part story that is comparable to most seasons' finales. Ten minutes in, spmething unthinkable happened, and I was in denial. But due to the laws of timey-wimey and Steven Moffat's magnificant brain, there are still many, many unanswered questions of "what happens next?" and "what happened to lead up to this point?" Unfortunately, it's hard to follow up on such an opener, and stand-alone episodes that would be great in an ordinary season just seem to fall a bit flat, when what you really care about is the big story arc. However, last week's episode, "The Doctor's Wife" was written by Neil Gaiman, and what a cracking story it was! Full of Gaiman's trademark humour and horror, we get a new point of view on the Doctor's life story. I could tell Gaiman was a fan of both old series and new, and although some people complained that the title was "misleading" (which it was) I thought that it was perfect, its meaning perfect and in fact I had predicted the identity of "The Doctor's Wife" as a "mad crazy theory" the day before, after picking up on a clue from the previous episode.

Fangirl much?

What Katie Listened To: Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Just before Spotify changed The Rules to limit how often one can listen to music for free, I had this album pretty much on repeat, so I was thrilled to see Glee dedicating an episode to this album, causing me to buy it for myself. The album tells the real-life story of the band's relationship breakdowns - with each other! - but instead of letting their emotions break up the group, they turned them into some amazing music. Go Your Own Way, Second Hand News and Songbird are my favourites at the moment, but the other tracks follow close behind, and I'm sure they are liable to change.

What Katie Planned:

I've got a much-needed week of holiday from work, in which I intend to spend a lot of my time catching up on my reading. Since my Lent book-buying embargo, I've added some half dozen or so books to my collection as well as a few borrowings from libraries and friends.
Contrary to labelling, Catherine
Tate is the redhead and David
Tennant is the furtive-looking one
with facial hair.

Currently I'm reading The Woodcutter, a crime thriller by Reginald Hill who wrote the Dalziel and Pascoe detective novels. So far, it is remarkably different from the run-of-the-mill mystery I was expecting to read, and is the second book in a row to feature at least some second-person narration - unusual. Hodder books sent me Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth to review, so that will appear online in the next week or two, as will part two of Whitney's Tenant of Wildfell Hall read-along.

On Thursday I'm off to the theatre to watch some Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing starring the wonderful pairing of David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. I absolutely cannot wait.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Readalong: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte (i)

Readalong part one: Chapters 1-25

Although I have read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre at least three times each, I had never read anything by the third Bronte sister, Anne. I’ve had The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my to-read list for several years but it was only when Whitney suggested a read-along as part of her Bronte Sisters challenge on her blog, She Is Too Fond of Books, that I actually got around to picking it up.

Tenant begins with the arrival of a mysterious young widow at Wildfell Hall, a dilapidated old house in a small village community. Although her neighbours reach out in friendship to Mrs Graham, she is uninviting and aloof, and soon people start to suspect that she has a Past and is Not Quite Respectable. The first part of the novel is narrated by Gilbert Markham, a young farmer , who persists in his friendship with Mrs Graham – Helen – and is soon smitten, despite the malicious rumours.

classicsThe opening chapter reminded me very much of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice with its family gossip about the newcomer to the community. Unlike Mr Bingley, however, Helen Graham is almost reclusive, living in just a few rooms of the house with her small son and a single servant. I’ve discovered Jane and Charlotte Bronte’s novels to be rather dark, with a gothic edge, and Anne is no different here, with her gloomy setting of Wildfell Hall and Helen’s mysterious past.

Helen is a remarkable character, very independent and practical. Her skill for painting is more than a “feminine accomplishment,” but a way to earn her living. She seems to have become disillusioned with the world and with people, but is clearly passionate with a fierce temper. A debate about how to raise children, and whether it is right to treat boys and girls differently, reads as startlingly modern for the era.

Gilbert, on the other hand, seems more like a petulant teenage boy than a grown man of twenty four with responsibilities and who is considered the head of his household. His loyalty to Helen when everyone else disparages her is admirable, but his sulky fits and capricious nature are not, and the violence of his temper is quite shocking.

brontesThe narrative shifts part-way through, when Helen gives Gilbert the diaries of her first courtship and marriage. Her infatuation for one Mr Huntingdon mirrors Gilbert’s for her; it is rash, ill-advised and frowned upon. Helen’s keenness to overlook Mr Huntingdon’s bad character for his exterior charms are optimistic but naive, and her hopes to reform him look set to lead to misery. They give clues as to the reasons behind the transformation of the bright, romantic and moral girl of the diaries into the reserved and bitter widow that Gilbert and his community have come to know.

Thoughts on chapters 26-53 to follow on 31st May.

Saturday 14 May 2011

When God Was A Rabbit, Sarah Winman

Thursday was the big launch of the latest chapter in the Richard and Judy Book Club: 2011’s Summer Reads. The first book to be selected, When God Was a Rabbit is the first novel of new author Sarah Winman, and is already sparking a lot of interest. With its strange title and attractive cover, When God Was A Rabbit is a charming, engaging family story told in two parts: “Not really a Before and After, more as if they are bookends.” Part one is set in the 1960s and 1970s, and is more character-based than a linear plot.

The story is viewed through the eyes of Elly as a young girl, with a slightly skewed viewpoint, and Winman highlights the ways that children view the world differently to adults. Although a “real world” book, there are one or two surreal scenes that leave you wondering whether they can be explained by an overactive imagination or if there is some magic in the air. It would spoil the poetry of the novel to think too hard about the question.

Winman excels in creating believable, loveable characters and it is them who kept me turning the pages: Elly’s adored elder brother Joe, Aunt Nancy who is in love with her sister-in-law, elderly eccentric Arthur (who reminded me a little of Edward Bloom in the film Big Fish) and Elly’s best schoolfriend Jenny Penny.

Jenny Penny is a charismatic, imaginative but rather highly-strung child, and I was curious because there is a character of the same name who features in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Ingleside. Both Jenny Pennys are appealing little girls with a huge influence on their schoolfellows and with a home life that doesn’t live up to its appearance. I wondered if Jenny Penny is some sort of fairy sprite who pops up in fiction throughout space and time – an unlikely theory perhaps! Winman’s Jenny Penny is a much more rounded, sympathetic character and friend than her namesake.

Part one is an anecdotal story that doesn’t seem to join together, rather like real life. Elly’s is a family with their quirks, ups and downs and guilty secrets, but who love each other above all. The story is fresh, magical and rather innocent, despite some of the themes and events. Powerful characterisation and poetic writing helps to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Part Two deliberately skips forward fifteen years, showing how people change when you’re not watching. In a more conventional novel, time may pass in smaller gaps with gradual characterisation, but here we see how different an old friend can be when you haven’t seen them for so long. Elly – and the reader – gains a new knowledge and understanding of what might have been going on in the lives of others, that as a child you saw very differently or didn’t see at all.

There is more of a linear plotline in the second half. Little insignificant or disconnected parts of childhood memories come to have more meaning and connection to each other. In childhood, one’s priorities can be mixed up, and factors that didn’t even merit a mention in part one, because they seemed to be just part of everyday life, are revealed to be far more significant and sinister.

And then, Elly receives a chilling message from Jenny Penny – a tarot card – that meant little to her but any reader would immediately interpret. I checked the date of Jenny’s letter. Yes.  At this point, the book becomes something else again. The strength of the characterisation and the reader’s own memories bring back to life the moment when everything changed. Recent history becomes real once more, and it is devastating.

When God Was a Rabbit has everything needed for a great read: beautiful writing, quirky but real characters who make you love them. I laughed and cried, and even when the plot didn’t seem to be going anywhere, Winham drew me into her world and I didn’t want to leave.

If you liked this, you may enjoy:

The Earth Hums in B Flat – Mari Strachan
Diamond Star Halo –
Tiffany Murray
Eve Green – Susan Fletcher

Richard and Judy Summer Reads 2011

As with the last R&J book clubs, I’ll aim to read and review at least three more of the selected titles, which are listed below:

26th May: The Confession of Katherine Howard, Suzannah Dunn
9th June: The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld
23rd June: The Novel in the Viola, Natasha Solomons
7th July: The Poison Tree, Erin Kelly
21st July: The Return of Captain John Emmett, Elizabeth Speller
4th August: Every Last One, Anna Quindler
18th August: The Summer of the Bear, Bella Pollen

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Top Ten Tuesday (Customised)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by the girls at The Broke and the Bookish blog, for those literary list-lovers out there. This week's subject is The Ten Biggest Jerks In Literature: bloggers' most hated male characters, whether designated villains or anti-heroes. I missed the female equivalent a week or two back, so instead I'm listing the five male and five female characters I think would most benefit from a good smack.

May contains spoilers


5: Bob Ewell - To Kill A Mockingbird. Ewell is a disgusting piece of work; an abusive, cowardly slob of a man who covers up violence with lies, threats and more violence. He is the catalyst for the major events of the novel, going after the helpless and innocent because he is too afraid to challenge those who can protect themselves.

4. Mr Casaubon - Middlemarch. Mr Casaubon marries Dorothea Brooke early on in the novel, attracted by her beauty and intelligence, then spends the rest of his life grudging the virtues that first caught his attention. He can't stand that she might disagree with him, and is fiercely jealous of any other man who might look her way. Even after his death, he stands between his wife and happiness.

3. General Tilney - Northanger Abbey. What a snob General Tilney is! He is keen for his son to marry young, innocent Catherine when he believes her to be an heiress to a fortune, but the minute he discovers that he has been deceived, he practically throws her out of his door, sending her home unaccompanied, without money or chaperone with no concerns for her safety. Catherine concludes that, though she may have let her imagination get carried away with her about Tilney's dark and secret past, "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character or magnified his cruelty."

2. Edward Cullen - Twilight. Edward, Edward, Edward, what do the girls see in you! Sneaking into a girl's room to watch her sleep without her knowledge is not romantic, it is creepy! Does the word "stalker" mean anything to you? That's just the tip of the iceberg, but what makes it more worrying is the number of girls - and grown women - who claim that the sparkly vampire has spoiled real men for them.

1. Angel Clare - Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Although Angel isn't the real villain of Thomas Hardy's novel, he provokes more anger in me than the smarmy Alec D'Urberville for his sheer hypocrisy. You do not confess your guilty secret to your new wife and let her forgive you, then abandon her when she admits the exact same thing. Slimeball.


5. Luce - Fallen. Other contenders are Bella of Twilight and Nora of Hush, Hush for sheer drippiness and the "I Can't Live Without My Sparkly Boyfriend" attitude that is a brilliant checklist of How Not To Act When Dumped. But Luce is worst of all because her conviction of being "In Love" with Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creature Daniel, comes after minimal interaction with him, which is aggressive, abusive or indifferent on his part. But she "feels a connection with him." So that's all right, then.

4. Aunt Elizabeth - Emily of New Moon series. She gets better as the series goes along, but when a recently orphaned little girl comes to live with her, Elizabeth makes it is quite clear she is not wanted. And she only agrees to let Emily, a writer to her core, continue her education to High School, if Emily will refrain from writing fiction. This may not sound much, but to someone like Emily, writing is not just a hobby. It is an essential part of life.

3. Aunt Read, Jane Eyre. Another unwilling adopter of a lonely orphan, but where Elizabeth was just old-fashioned, Aunt Read is nasty. A bully, and mother to other bullies, she makes sure Jane knows that she can never be worth anything.

2. Mrs Norris, Mansfield Park. Yet another aunt of the same type, Mrs Norris puts Fanny in her place as the poor relation dependant on her wealthy family, making sure she knows she is second best, and chiding the timid, good girl for being a nuisance. A nuisance? Fanny Price? I'm sure she doesn't know the meaning of the word.

1. Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter and the Order of the  Phoenix. The Umbridge Woman makes the fifth Harry Potter book hard work to read, and is the reason that this is my least favourite book of the series. A mixture of cutesy-poo and sadistic, Umbridge sneaks her power into everything that makes the world of Harry Potter so magical, and breaks it down - or attempts to - a bit at a time. I don't even love to hate her - she is too horrible even for that.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Happy Birthday To Me: Brian Rowe

Happy_Birthday_to_meYoung adult fantasy fiction at the moment seems to be dominated by a particular type of novel: various mythical humanoid creatures in a high school, causing chaos and risking the end of life as we know it, but all this as a backdrop for a romance between a teenage girl and the ultimate bad boy. Happy Birthday To Me is an original take on the genre, plot-driven with the romance just a part of the story, rather than the main focus. Most of the recent YA books I’ve read were written by women, so it’s great to get a male perspective.

Cameron Martin seems to have the perfect life. He’s the sort of lad who is admired and envied, sometimes hated: star sportsman with a beautiful actress girlfriend and hopes of studying at Yale. Cameron is basically decent, but a rather arrogant troublemaker. But to those around him, he’s not quite good enough. His father, a cosmetic surgeon, “just” wants Cameron to be the perfect son. Sports give him more prestige than Cameron’s favourite topic, architecture; Cameron needs to be handsome, popular, cool and his father will be proud of him. Meanwhile, Cameron’s girlfriend Charisma (great name and completely inappropriate for this fickle, self-obsessed drama queen) torments him about not being “a man,” to wit: he is unable to grow a beard.

Then, after a cheeky prank upsets the wrong person, all this changes.  First comes the beard, then he puts on weight in a matter of days. Soon it is clear that this is no ordinary adolescent growth spurt: Cameron’s body is aging by a year every day. The doctors have never seen anything like it, and Cameron’s perfectionist father is mortified. Without a cure for his mysterious condition, Cameron can have only a few weeks to live.

Happy Birthday To Me is an excellent read: a unique concept, well-written with a mixture of humour and pathos. I sped through the book, just wanting to read “one more chapter” to find out what would happen next. I laughed out loud, cringed in horror at a couple of the awkward situations Cameron found himself in, and even shed a tear or two in places. There is a fairy-tale quality to the book and a satisfactory conclusion, although there are due to be two sequels, which I would be very keen to read. I highly recommend this book.

Happy Birthday To Me was sent to me for review by the author, Brian Rowe.

Thursday 5 May 2011

The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory

I was lent The White Queen and The Red Queen by a colleague, and although they work well as stand-alone novels, I think they work best when read as a pair. After following the changing fortunes and loyalties of the House of York during the Wars of the Roses, it is interesting to witness the same era from the point of view of the enemy; the house of Tudor and of Lancaster. Through her Lancastrian characters, Gregory offers alternative interpretations of events and the motivations of the players. Those people we've come to know as friends, now become enemies, traitors, whose actions and motives become suspicious when seen from a distance.

We first meet Margaret Beaufort, the narrator and titular Red Queen, as a very young child. Margaret is a precocious child, strongly religious and very self-assured, convinced that God is calling her to be a nun. Her mother, however has other plans. Margaret is to marry into the Tudor family and bear a possible heir to the throne. She is a lonely girl, married at the age of twelve, a widowed mother at thirteen, and it is made quite clear to her that she is unloved. Despite her certainty - bordering on arrogance - that she is destined for greatness, her mother makes it quite clear that the only thing that Margaret can do that is of any importance whatsoever, is to give birth to the King of England. So, once she has accepted her lot, that is what Margaret will do. Her son will be king; he must.

Philippa Gregory's novels are characterised by their depiction of strong women who have shaped history, but more often than not behind the scenes and neglected by historians. Both Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen, are fiercely committed to their cause, ruthless and ambitious to the exclusion of all other concerns, sometimes more than the men. But while Elizabeth was fiery, driven by her love of her family and her need for vengeance on those who have harmed her and hers, Margaret's nature is cold and sometimes cruel. She is driven by her certainty that the throne is hers by right and that any means are justified by the end: not just for her good, or for the good of her house or even the country, but because it is divine will. I found Margaret to be an interesting, but unlikeable person, and once again I just wanted to cry, "Stop! How can it possibly be worth all the bloodshed?"

Sunday 1 May 2011

The White Queen, Philippa Gregory

Your house's emblem should not be the white rose but the old sign of eternity [...] the snake which eats itself. The sons of York will destroy each other, one brother destroying another, uncles devouring nephews, fathers beheading sons. They are a house which has to have blood and they will shed their own if they have no other enemy.
It was interesting to read Philippa Gregory's The White Queen last week, in the run-up to the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. The White Queen also opens with a royal wedding between King Edward IV York, to Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful young widow of the opposing house of Lancaster.
Not for Edward and Elizabeth is there a carriage ride watched by billions, months of hype, houses draped in flags and bunting and a Knit Your Own Royal Wedding book published especially for the occasion. Edward and Elizabeth's marriage takes place in haste and in secrecy before the latest battle in the War of the Roses, before a handful of witnesses. After the event, Elizabeth's brother casts doubt on the validity of the marriage, witnessed by three women and a young boy, and warns her that it would be easy for the King to claim that he had never been legally married and prove it all to be a ploy to get Elizabeth into his bed.

Ms Gregory demonstrates this marriage to be a whole-family affair. There is not just a new queen, but her whole family becomes embroiled in politics at a very turbulent time. Philippa Gregory shows a different side to the story from that of the history books, focusing on the role of the women behind the scenes. From the moment of her marriage, Elizabeth has to keep her wits about her at all times, as she gets mixed up in a world of scheming and treachery, obsessive ambition and murder, in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge. Elizabeth describes how her rival, Margaret of Anjou, "will not accept her defeat, she will plot and scheme for her son, just as Edward told me, that I must plot and scheme for ours. She will never stop until she is back in England and the battle is drawn up again. She will never stop until her husband is dead, her son is dead, and she has no one left to put on the throne. This is what it means to be Queen of England in this country today." But once Margaret of Anjou has ceased to be a threat, new claimants for the throne rise. As described in the quote at the top of the page, when there are no threats to Edward's rule from outside his house, his own brothers turn against him and each other, and with each betrayal, Elizabeth vows vengeance. The book paints a bitter picture of how unforgiveness destroys and is never satisfied.

The White Queen is set earlier than Gregory's usual era (The Tudors) and I confess I have little memory of my history lessons before the resolution of the war covered in this novel - see the first episode of Blackadder to see how that might or might not have turned out. I also found it a little confusing for the sheer number of people named Edward and Richard, and the different names and titles of other characters. But once I got my head around who was who, I was fascinated by the twists and turns, the to-and--fro of the houses' fortunes, culminating in the disappearance of Elizabeth's sons to King Edward, well-known as "the Princes in the Tower." Being a historical novel based upon real people, it is difficult to work out how much of the story is true and how much is speculation, although Gregory's note at the back explains some of her decisions for the direction of the plot. With conflicting theories and sources available to her, Gregory had to choose her own theories about the most likely truth, although she does not provide any definite answer.

Philippa Gregory has written a companion novel: The Red Queen, from the perspective of the "other side:" Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor.
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