Monday 28 July 2014

How To Build A Girl readalong: Part three

Chapters 11-15

This readalong is hosted by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (and Reads.)

When we last saw Johanna Morrigan, AKA Dolly Wilde, she had just been assigned an interview with musician John Kite, all expenses paid, in Dublin. This is her first time on a plane, first time out of the country, and she loves it. She meets Kite and finds him a real kindred spirit, someone who she can really relax around, have fun with, and she ends up besotted. John Kite seems charming enough, in a drunken-rock-star sort of way, but I don't trust him. I don't trust him at all. I feel sure that he's going to betray "Dolly" in some way and break her heart, turn out not to be the person she thinks he is.

Back in England, disaster strikes when her father receives an ominous brown envelope informing him that his claim for disability benefit is being investigated, and the family get a reduction of 11% in their income. 11% may not sound like the end of the world, but for a family with five children who have no luxuries, no savings, they just can't spare that money! "Dolly's" payment for her writing is slow to arrive, and after her first major feature turned out to be a page of gushing fangirling, the work dries up.

Her father makes another attempt at getting his music noticed, but I can't help but feel that if he is too sick to work a regular job - even a part-time one - would he be able to deal with the demands of working as a musician? I think he views "being a rock star" as an easy way out of his desperate situation, without thinking through the reality of the hard work required. Johanna is the only earner of the family: what about the mother, or the eldest brother? But it is easy to say "get a job!" yet last week we saw the extended family all made redundant by Mrs Thatcher's slashing of British industry. Just like today, the jobs just aren't there! 

Still, "Dolly" eventually gets another phone call from the magazine and she goes back to London for some more work, where she gets some gentle pointers as to where she went wrong with the Kite article. She despairs for a moment when her teenage years of musical education just don't seem to be enough, and timidly asks if she can claim expenses for borrowing CDs for the library at 20p per time.

In reply she is told that all she has to do is phone up the record companies and get as much music as a person can handle for free, and even sell the CDs on afterwards: a tidy business plan that could solve all the family's troubles - or at least help a little. Then, on to her first music-industry party, where she pulls out all the stops in making herself seem as fun and quirky and loud as possible. I was cringing on her behalf at times - there is nothing less British than obviously trying too hard.

Still, her colleagues seem to find her amusing rather than embarrassment, and as she got into the character I found myself laughing aloud. I loved the scene with her carefully calculating how to not look like a pig at the buffet table, making up a fictional friend who liked different food from herself, then leaving the loathed scotch eggs in the ladies' room with an explanation that they were dragon eggs, about to hatch! (Query: is what she did really that different from pretending you're not home alone when you order a massive pizza and lots of sides from Domino's? I suspect it isn't.)

Key Quotes:
I don't want anyone watching me change. I will do all my changing in private. In public, I am, always, the finished thing. The right thing, for the right place. A chrysalis is hung in the dark.
I am getting incredibly high on a single, astounding fact: that it's always sunny above the clouds. Always. That every day on Earth - every day I have ever had - was, secretly, sunny, after all.
The house is too small, and nothing happens, and I will never be older than twelve here.

(Minor grumble: in typing up these quotes, I found myself wondering whether Moran really needs all those commas.)

Monday 21 July 2014

How To Build A Girl readalong: Part two

Chapters 5-10

This readalong has been organised by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (and Reads.)

Part one of How To Build A Girl ends on a very melodramatic note. After embarrassing herself on live TV, Johanna Morrigan dolefully concludes: "There are no two ways about it: I am going to have to die." Dun dun DAAAH! In part two, she is swift to clarify matters. She's not actually going to commit suicide. "I don't want to not live. I just don't want to be me any more. Everything I am is not working."

Oh man! As fiction it reads quite lightly, an amusing anti-climax: okay, I said I'm going to die but I don't actually mean die. However, it speaks to a feeling that comes right from the gut, a dissatisfaction I know all too well, and I am twice Johanna's age.

Instead, Johanna goes about reinventing her image as the dark and mysterious Dolly Wilde, named after a scandalous niece of Oscar. I'm not sure how one can use the name Dolly nowadays without bringing to mind a very specific Dolly! But Johanna, or Dolly, takes this transformation very seriously, and I really enjoyed reading about her inspiration collage on her wall. It's the sort of thing I'd have done at that age, though I was always dissatisfied with the results - they never looked as cool as the things my friends from real life, film and TV would come up with. "Dolly" is a very deliberate, studied effort at constructing a new personality, as the book's title implies. I think we all do that to a certain extent, according to where we are. Am I the earnest book-lover on a quest for knowledge, or the out-and-out geek girl? Yes.

So Johanna decides to become a music journalist - only problem being that she doesn't know a thing about music. Not that this stops her! I felt her awkwardness as she tried to get into her goth cousin's group, or browse a non-HMV record shop which seems as girl-friendly as the comic book store of The Big Bang Theory. I remember how as a teenager, your music tastes defined you, marked you out as cool or not. (Confession: I was obsessed with Boyzone.) Actually, in my experience I felt far more accepted among the goths and skaters than I did among the "ordinary" kids at school, even at fourteen, and the Hobbit in Southampton was the first pub I ever felt comfortable in.

Still, Johanna is nothing if not determined, and builds up her music knowledge with records ordered from the library and listening to John Peel on the radio, and eventually walks into the coveted job at the age of sixteen, with no qualifications.

We finally find out about Johanna's dad's disability - he was seriously injured in his work as a fireman. I wonder if Moran deliberately delayed telling us the details to challenge our reactions: though I fought against it, I did catch a treacherous thought crossing my mind: "so he's heroically disabled, that's all right then." PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, PEOPLE! How does one earn one's right to be "deserving" poor, anyway? (Possibly not through drink-driving. These scenes made me very nervous.)

Johanna began her writing career as a means to "save" her family from poverty and disrepute, and yet even this early on I can see her getting caught up in her work and losing sight of her noble aims. Perhaps it's not surprising - she is sixteen, and probably every sixteen-year-old wants to put distance between themselves and their parents. I was cringing on her behalf when her drunken father came backstage to meet the Smashing Pumpkins with her. But I can see this independence becoming a huge source of conflict later on.

Key Quotes:

I am my own imaginary friend.
 Sometimes, and suddenly, these barrages of me-excluding noise part to reveal things I find astonishingly beautiful, and useful to me and my heart, in their current position.
We are not just poor people who have not yet evolved into something else: i.e.: people with money. We are something else - just as we are.
I can see where I have drawn Dolly Wilde on top of my own face - the two uneasily co-existing - but perhaps others can't.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Sunday Summary: Pratchett and Presents

Hello to you all. I hope all of you who are enduring unusual heat and humidity are finding ways to deal with the weather. (I will not complain. I complain when it is cold and grey and dreary. I will not complain about the sunshine. The air conditioning timer at work apparently being set for Sunday trading hours on Saturdays - that I will complain about.) I had been very worried about some changes at work, but so far - so far - it is all going quite smoothly and I'm still enjoying my work for the most part.

I spent my days off this week at the beach and in the sea - it is absolutely gorgeous swimming now, and I found a new favourite beach, the morbidly-named Small Hope beach in Shanklin. My seaside reading has been Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. I have certain favourite books which I read and reread on a semi-regular basis (the Watch books, the Witches books, Going Postal, Monstrous Regiment) but I've decided this week to go back to the start and fill in all the gaps. ("You mean there are Discworld books you haven't read?!" has been the response of everyone I've told about this plan. I suspect this was partially influenced by blogger Mark Oshiro's latest mammoth project which is the entire Discworld series from start to finish. (He is also watching Star Trek, and posted his first entry, I believe, a year to the day after I first started watching the original series DVDs.) If you're not familiar with Mark, I urge you to check out his sites, in which he reads and watches favourite books, films and TV shows in a state of complete ignorance, and is utterly adorable. It's the closest thing to discovering a new story for the very first time, all over again.

I was often advised to start my Discworld reading with Mort, which was "where it gets good." The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are interesting to read which a good knowledge of Pratchett's later books, seeing how things have changed. The style of the first book, in particular, is more openly parodying the tropes of the fantasy genre (I saw definite nods to H. P. Lovecraft and the Dragonriders of Pern books,) when later on he uses the fantasy setting to comment on the real world. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the world-building, whereas later, when readers are familiar with the setting, the focus shifts to the characters and a depth of message beneath the humour and the puns. Oh, the puns!
Exhibit A: They had dined on horse meat, horse cheese, horse black pudding, horse d'oeuvres and a thin beer that Rincewind didn't want to speculate about.
Exhibit B: "Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open, there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?"
 "Yeah," said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. "Luters, I expect."

I received my Ninja Book Swap parcel a couple of weeks ago, from Sophie: The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer, whose name I keep on misreading as Nathan Fillion. I've had my eye on that since it was first published, picked it up and started reading it at work a few times *whistles innocently* but never got around to buying it, despite it being on various different special offers at different times. She also sent me a brilliant card and an adorable wooden postcard of Alice in Wonderland and a bar of Lindt Lindor, which sadly has long since ceased to exist. That is my favourite chocolate out of all the many kinds of chocolate I love, but it wasn't going to last very long in the July heat, so I put it out of its misery sharpish. So thank you, Sophie!

Monday 14 July 2014

How to Build A Girl readalong: Part one

So, today marks the first update post for the How To Build A Girl readalong! Hello to you all.

The novel starts memorably, to say the least! I read Part One on the train, and found myself glancing behind me to check no curious fellow passengers were reading over my shoulder.

Moran writes about young female sexuality in as frank and unabashed a manner as I don't, and shames me a bit for blushing. The subject is tackled in a very matter-of-fact way, not to shock or titillate or giggle, but simply to challenge taboos or double standards. So go Caitlin.

So our heroine, Johanna, is fourteen years old and part of a big, dysfunctional family. Her mum is suffering from post-natal depression after the birth of "Unexpected Twins," and the father receives disability benefits and is convinced he's going to be the next great rock star. It seems quite clear that his idea of his own talent is somewhat delusional - the description of his demo cassette makes it sound arty and weird and terrible.

When Johanna accidentally lets slip to an elderly neighbour that her dad receives benefits, the sniffy reaction - very much a "he doesn't look like there's anything wrong with him... why, I saw him cleaning his car just last week" - makes her terrified that the neighbour will report the family and all the family's support will be taken away. A child should not have to worry about this sort of thing. This novel may be set at the back end of the Thatcher years, and yet nothing has changed. There is a passage describing how Johanna's father will play up his disability because "people have different perceptions of what disability is." A cursory glance at Caitlin Moran's Twitter feed will show how this is a subject close to her heart, with statistics of thousands of people dying after being declared "fit for work." She treats the subject with elements of humour, but underneath it is a real sadness and anger that the most vulnerable members of society are those hit the hardest.

After her gaffe and weeks of terror, Johanna tries to make some money with her writing, enters and wins a poetry competition. As well as the prize money, she appears on live TV and, as one might expect, proceeds to humiliate herself with a Scooby-Doo impression. It makes sense in context... but is by no means anything resembling a good idea in anyone's mind ever. Oh, the awkwardness of being a teenager, of saying something that seems funny at the time. (If only it was limited to the teenage years!) Moran captures that embarrassment so well, that feeling that the whole world is pointing and laughing and will never grow tired of doing so.

Key Quotes:

He didn't look like the future. He looked like 1984. In 1990, that was an ancient thing to be - even in Wolverhampton.

"We lie in the shallow depression her ghost left behind," I sometimes think, in my more maudlin moments. "I am born into a nest of death."

Today, like every other day, I'm going to bed still a fat virgin who writes their diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables."*

*Of course any Anne references count as key quotes.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Readalong: How to Build A Girl - intro post.

Hello all! Caitlin Moran's shiny new green novel was published in the UK last week, and after dithering about whether or not to buy a copy, I read about four different posts from my favourite bloggers all signing up for a readalong, organised by Emily at As The Crowe Flies (And Reads), which will take place over the next few weeks. The next day the book somehow fell off the shelves at work and came home with me. Curious!

For those of you who are new to me and my blog: hello! I am a twentymumble-year-old geek girl living on the Isle of Wight, and I work in a bookshop, which is awfully convenient for my book addiction and not terribly good for my bank account. I'm sure my employers are supposed to be giving me money rather than the other way round.

I've taken part in a couple of readalongs before, most recently The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which was great fun, and I really enjoyed sharing thoughts with my fellow bloggers at various stages of the book, although my posts were sadly gif-less. I shall make up for this oversight with plenty of nerdy gifs for How To Build A Girl, I promise.

I confess I'm not what you'd call a fan of Caitlin Moran. It's not that I'm not a fan, so much as that she's someone whose awesomeness I know from everyone else. I enjoyed her books - How To Be A Woman, which made me giggle embarrassingly in public places - but haven't had much to do with her as a public figure. (Cue everyone descending on me to tell me what I'm missing.) Judging from her non-fiction work, I'm expecting How to Build A Girl to be outrageously funny, sarcastic and passionately feminist. I also suspect it will be difficult to limit myself to reading just a few chapters per week.

The Schedule:

July 7th (or 9th in my case): Introductions
July 14: Part 1
July 21: Part 2 - chapters 5-10
July 28: Part 2 - chapters 11-15
Aug 4:  Part 2 -chapters 16-20)

Aug 11: Part 3 and wrap-up

Let the readalong commence!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Fringe: Season 2

After season one's breathtaking finale, in which Agent Olivia Dunham was whisked into a parallel universe to come face to face with the mysterious William Bell in a still-standing World Trade Center, we return to the original universe where the Fringe team are trying to piece together the mystery of what happened to her. Olivia is little help. Returned unconscious to her own world, her memories are vague and formless, returning gradually over the course of several episodes. The series goes back primarily to its former weirdness-of-the-week format, with a side plot involving shape shifters from the parallel universe, and while in equal measures compelling and ridiculous, I found myself impatiently wanting to know more about the bigger picture.

Season two goes into detail about the characters' backstory to reveal a devastating secret about Peter Bishop, who is not from this world at all! In a poignant and powerful flashback episode (with its credit sequence and other graphics redone '80s-style) we learn what had been previously hinted. Our Walter Bishop's son died from a childhood illness, but our mad scientist discovered belatedly how to save him and stepped into the other world to do for his counterpart's son what he could not do for his own. Only, he could not let this other Peter go back to his old life, but kept him and brought him up as his own child.

Oh dear, I thought. If our Walter has spent seventeen years in a mental institution, what effect would the loss of his son have on the other Walter (which he nicknamed "Walternate." Because of course.) The answer was not what I had expected. This other Walter has risen to a power, possibly taking the Bell role as the authority in this slightly but significantly different reality. (That world's Bell died in a car crash as a young man, a point that strikes me as suspicious.)

The season's grand finale sees Walter joining forces with his old mad-science pal-turned-enemy, Dr Bell, when our heroes cross over to the other side in an attempt to bring Peter back, but ends on another beauty of a cliffhanger when the wrong Olivia Dunham makes the return, leaving our protagonist stranded on the other side.

Best episodes:*

10. Grey Matters. Some of the reason for Walter's madness and loss of memory becomes clear. This episode is not to be compared to a previous time when Leonard Nimoy and ridiculous science-fiction brain surgery were in the same episode.
14. The Bishop Revival. A Nazi serial-killer has links with Walter's family history.
15. Jacksonville. Two buildings from different universes vie to occupy the same space, with gruesome results. Olivia's journey back into the nightmares of her childhood reveal some surprising results.
16. Peter. Fringe, 1985. Backstory galore, best episode yet.
22-23. Over There. The season finale: we meet the Fringe team's other-world counterparts, and discover that despite his dodgy ethics, Dr Bell has been, and always shall be Walter's friend.
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