27 December, 2009

Books 35 - 40: Six (Girls Own) Geese a-layin'.

Seasons greetings! Currently I am in an awesome mood, because a. I got some seriously awesome stuff for Christmas (although sadly few books) b. I'm on holiday until January 5, which allows for some serious reading, and c. this is the view from my deck:

Awwww yeah. I currently have no plans for New Year's, either, so I'm planning on seeing in 2010 by reading as many books as I can in one night. Dorky and socially isolating, sure, but a lot less harrowing for the liver.

Title: Robins in the Abbey (1947)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham


Title: The New Abbey Girls (1923)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham


Title: Maid of the Abbey (1943)
Author: Elsie J. Oxenham

Sometimes when you begin reading a new series of books you can start anywhere and pick up what's going on and who's who. The Abbey Girls is not one such series. I started with seventh-to-last book, out of thirty-eight books, and for at least the first three chapters I had no idea what was going on. The main character, one of the titular Robins, was easy enough to grasp. She's a young heiress travelling back to Wales from New York, by ship: when she receives news that her father, also overseas, has been in an accident, she's invited home by Lady Quellyn, who lives at the Abbey.

So far so good, right? Only when she gets to the Abbey the virgin reader - ie me - is confronted with characters by the names of Joy, Jean, Joan, Jandymac and Jen, all who seem to have several pairs of twins who are all named after each other; then there's Rosamund, whose daughters are all named some variation of Rose; as well as their first names, they're all Ladies or Countesses, and Joy used to be Lady Marchwood but she's now Lady Quellyn and Jen is Lady Marchwood; oh, and then they've all got nicnames, after flowers, so they're also called Primrose or Daisy or Hyacinth or Violet and I never knew who anyone was talking about.

Even amongst all this confusion, Oxenham's strengths shone through. Of all the writer of "Girls Own" stories - a term used to describe books written exclusively for girls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - Oxenham is probably the best known, besides Enid Blyton. Her characters, although not always incredibly complex, are still human: in Robins, the female Robin is impatient and frustrated when she realises she is in love (with a man who has the same name as her) yet she can't approach him because she's a woman, and you really get a sense of how a girl in her position must have felt. Oxenham also writes beautiful, vivid descriptions of her settings, whether it's the English Abbey or Robin's home in Wales.

The New Abbey Girls cleared up a lot of my confusion. It's book 13 in the series, and although it was severely abridged I finally got a handle on who everyone was and why they were so important. Particularly of interest were the scenes where Joy - at this point, neither Lady Marchwood nor Lady Quellyn - takes her new ward, Maidlin, to various folkdancing classes. Folkdancing seems to happen in every single book - as well as the crowning of a May Queen - but here, so early in the series, it seemed a lot more interesting and was better integrated with the story. Even if I'd never heard of any of the dances, it was still fascinating to read about. Sadly, my copy of this book was severely and noticeably abridged, which made the story jump all over the place.

Maid introduces two more characters, Anne and Belinda Belanne, who also appear in Robins. A sick Anne is invited to the Abbey along with her sister, who is delighted to find her idol, the singer Maidlin, lives there. When disaster strikes the Abbey in the form of measles, Anne takes over as cook, and Belinda become a nurse-slash-governess to Joy's twin girls. Maidlin is caught up in her own romantic drama - she's being wooed by a dear friend, but she's in love with his uncle.

The books are mostly light fare, although I'm given to understand that others in the series touch on deeper subjects, such as religion, and death and illness. Fun though, and surprisingly hard to put down.

Ruey Richardson: Chaletian (1960)
Author: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Cornelia of the Chalet School (2009)
Author: Jackie Roberts

Before the Chalet School: The Bettanys of Taverton High (2008)
Author: Helen Barber

Ruey Richardson doesn't settle in easily to the Chalet School. Until recently, her and her brothers were more or less looking after themselves, and she's used to going to bed whenever she likes, doing her homework whenever she likes, and has never given much thought to the way she looks or dresses. At boarding school, things are different, and even though her idea for the school to start playing lacrosse quickly brings her new friends, she has less luck with the teachers.

This is kind of an odd book. Brent-Dyer had been writing the Chalet School series for almost forty years at the point, and she kind of makes a conscience effort to modernise her plots. Ruey and her brothers haven't just been abandoned by their father for any old reason: he's a space-mad scientist hoping to fly to the moon. I am not even kidding, it is hilarious/ridiculous. The other odd thing is the lacrosse: there is literally a chapter on lacrosse theory, and it read almost exactly like a text book on the subject. I pretty much skipped that chapter, in case you're wondering.

The other two books I read in this series were, as you can see from my handy list, not written by the original author, which is something I'm not usually super keen on. Cornelia starts off pretty badly, too - Roberts seems to be trying to ape Brent-Dyer's style, and it just feel awkward and uncomfortable to read. The writing picks up later, though, and the story becomes quite interesting - Cornelia, a former Chalet pupil, is travelling back home to America with her millionaire father, on board a ship that includes a former Nazi officer and his wife, and old school-mate of Cornelia. During the war, Brent-Dyer emphasised that just because someone was "the enemy" it didn't make them evil, and Roberts does a good job of carrying this message one. The Nazi officer openly hates Jews, but his wife confides to Cornelia that she herself would have gone to a concentration camp for helping Jewish refugees if he hadn't intervened to save her. He's undoubtedly a terrible person, and yet he is still human.

Taverton High was much more in touch with the original series as far as actual content went. It follows the school's founding family before the founding, as a poor (but not so poor they can't afford a maid!) family of siblings dealing with a lack of funds, a guardian who is kindly but out of his depths, and a very ill little sister, who is painfully close to dying. The narrative focuses both on Joey, the youngest sister who despite being constantly sick is also constantly in and out of trouble: and Madge, the eldest sister, who in the absence of her twin brother is the one who has to try and make ends meet. Among other things, it's an interesting look at English village life during the Depression that followed the World War I.

Brent-Dyer still holds a special place in my heart that Oxenham can't possibly replace, but I'm still keen to read some more of her books. I'm ridiculously close to having read every single book in the Chalet School series anyway - when I finally have, I'll have to find something else to obsess over. Oxenham may be that something!

14 December, 2009

Books 33 and 34 - Double your (mystery-solving) pleasure.

Titles: Shock Waves (1989) and Dangerous Games (1991)
Author: Carolyn Keene

Annnnyway, a while ago I read some Hardy Boys books and mentioned that Nancy Drew was about a million times cooler than they were. But! Having now read two Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Super Mysteries I can inform you that it's probably only about a hundred times when they're hanging out together. I assume Nancy's coolness rubs off on Frank and Joe.

The first thing to tell you is that both of these books have HORRENDOUS puns as their titles. Shock Waves takes place during a seaside holiday, and Dangerous Games is set (during another holiday) at some kind of international athletic competition. The second important thing is that the characters have "grown up" a bit since their earlier books. By "grown up" I mean that Joe's girlfriend (or his favourite date) Callie... died. In a terrorist bombing. And now Frank and Joe work for some mysterious international organisation where they do undercover work. In other words, you need to suspend your disbelief even further than you had to back in the 70's.

Since Nancy is a girl, her equivalent grown-upness is that she occasionally has fights and/or temporarily breaks up with her boyfriend, Ned. Perhaps the writers went to the Todd Wilkins and Elizabeth Wakefield school of relationship writing. In the course of these two books, Ned proves himself to be jealous of pretty much every guy Nancy spends time with, particularly Frank Hardy. To be fair, Nancy thinks Frank is hot like jalapeños, but she loves Ned and would never do anything to hurt him, so Ned kind of comes across as a huge dick. Since in Nancy's own books he's generally really sweet and supportive, I'm going to choose to believe he's been corrupted by the Hardys.

Anyway, in Shock Waves, Joe's dead girlfriend's ring that is the only thing he has to remember her by, (sob), gets stolen. The boys are determined to track the thief down. Nancy, meanwhile, starts to think that someone wants her new friend Buck dead when he first claims to have seen a dead body and is then attacked by poisonous jellyfish. The cases turn out to be related! I did not see that coming. Most of the plot surrounds Buck hitting on Nancy, and Nancy not noticing, and Ned getting jealous. This is actually not what I look for in a mystery, Nancy dear.

Dangerous Games is so much more awesome. Nancy and the boys are both seperately called to investigate when an international sporting star starts getting threatening notes, and everyone, including Nancy's friends Bess and George (yay!) go undercover. George (who's the sporty one) turns out to be so good at swimming that she considers taking it up professionally, and the sporting star's sister is totally hot for her. This is awesome, because usually it's Bess (the pretty, girly one) that all the guys want. Sorry, did I say I don't want to read about relationships in my mysteries? I meant I don't want to read about melodramatic relationships in my mysteries. Meanwhile Nancy and the Hardys realise that the threat has something to do with a drugs scandal that happened five years before, and I totally called who the bad guy was going to be ages before any of them did. Clearly I would make a much better teen detective than the Hardy Boys! But not Nancy. Her and I would just hang out with George and Bess and solve mysteries and be BFFs for ever and ever and ever.

Sometimes I guess we'd let the Hardy Boys join us and, IDK, fight vampires or something.

In conclusion: I need to get my hands on some more of these books.

One last thing - I know I'm late posting again! But here's why:

His name is Frosting. Frosting the Snowman. He took a while to make.

02 December, 2009

Book 32 - Chanel: Her Life, Her World, the Woman behind the Legend

First of all, man I'm behind! I've read at least ten books that I haven't written up yet, so I'll probably do a couple of multiple-book posts soon for series and/or books that other people are unlikely to be interested in.

Secondly, it's December already! You may have noticed by the intensification of seasonal decorations around your village, town, or city, and/or by the fact that shops have started playing cheerful Christmas music incessantly. Good times.

Seasonal link of the day: Reindeer Training School.

And now, on to our feature presentation.

Title: Chanel: Her Life, Her World, the Woman behind the Legend (2009)

Author: Edmonde Charles-Roux

Why this book?
After watching Coco avant Chanel ("Coco before Chanel") I wanted to find a more, you know, accurate portrayal of the designer's life. This book was in fact the inspiration behind the film, which means that someone read this book, then got drunk and wrote a script which bares a kind of passing resemblance to a book which must have taken several years of pain-staking research.

So what's it all about anyway?
As I've probably mentioned before, it's kind of hard to give a plot summary of a biography, ("She was born, um, and then some stuff happens... and then she dies") but I will attempt to do so anyhow! Chanel's rather villainous peasant father abandons her and her brothers and sisters at quite a young age, leaving Chanel at a charity school run by a religious order. When she's old enough to leave, Chanel and her aunt (who is about the same age as her) become dressmakers' assistants in a town full of cavalrymen. Chanel soon finds she has a passion for horses, and strikes up relationship with the upper-class, horse-owning Balsan.

Chanel is desperate to make a name for herself somehow, and just as desperate to leave her peasant roots behind her. She starts designing hats as a hobby, then, with financial backing from her new lover Arthur 'Boy' Capel, opens a shop in Paris. With help from her aunt and her younger sister, Chanel manages to open several new stores during the First World War, when exiled Russian aristocrats and the French elite still wished to shop and dress to impress. Chanel's empire slowly grows, and Chanel has a string of affairs - her lovers are mostly from either the French and English elite, or the extended group of artists, musicians, dancers and writers she spent her time with.

Chanel's story is not exactly a happy one, despite her success. Her cynicism makes her a good businesswoman, but also allows her to see all-too-clearly the realities of her own life: that the men she love most will never marry her, that she cannot afford to be anything other than completely independent, that she can never let the media know the truth of her origins. She gives the impression of always looking over her shoulder, waiting for someone to take away everything she has built for herself.

The Good and the Bad:
You don't really have to be incredibly knowledgeable about fashion to enjoy this book. Everything I know about fashion comes from Project Runway, and at no point did Coco Channel have to design a red-carpet gown entirely out of dead insects in order to win a trip for two to New York Fashion week. On the other hand, Charles-Roux spends a lot of time going off into tangents about the celebrities and aristocrats that Chanel hung out with, and the political and social trends and events of the time. You certainly couldn't write a biography of Chanel without placing her firmly in the socio-political context she was living and designing in, but it can be pretty heavy going reading about the political machinations of French and Bristish industrialists who only have very tentative connections with her. Then again, we also get details about Picasso and the great choreographer Diaghelev, and many other artists and artistes that Chanel hung out with, which I found far more fascinating, so perhaps it's only a question of taste.

So, should I read it or what?

Like I said, you don't need to be knowledgeable to read this book, but you do at least need to be a little bit interested in fashion history. Chanel was, after all, one of the driving forces behind such innovations as MAKING DRESSES THAT DON'T HAVE WAISTS. Thank God for Chanel. And yeah, you should totally read it.

17 November, 2009

Book 31 - Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, or: "'I wonder why things have to change,' mumured Piglet."

When books like the (apparently) long-awaited sequel to the original Winnie-the-Pooh books are announced, I always hear a little tinkly bell in the air. Well, less of a tinkle, and more like the CHA-CHING of a cash register. The House at Pooh Corner ends with Pooh and Christopher Robin coming to realise the Christopher Robin is going to have to leave the wood: he's going away to school. It's a poignant moment, a goodbye to childhood, an excellent end to a sweet, funny and imaginative story. So why does there need to be another sequel by someone who isn't even the original author?

Because people will buy it, of course.

Title: Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (2009)

Author: David Benedictus

Why this book?
A Winnie-the-Pooh sequel! I couldn't not read it, no matter how cynical I was.

So what's it all about anyway?
Christopher Robin is home for the holidays, which kick off with a Welcum Back feast for him in the Hundred Acre Woods. There are various adventures with those old familiar characters: Owl gives a Spelling Bee, Rabbit conducts a Census, Piglet goes down a well during a drought, and Pooh goes on a search for honey (of course). There's also a new animal in the wood, an otter named Lottie who fancies herself to be bit above the others, but nevertheless joins in their adventures. Also she plays the mouth organ, which is kind of cool.

The Good and the Bad
I think I can best explain the Bad by quoting one review I read of the book:

"...this isn't more of the same, this is less. ... Although not as poetic or as heroic, lacking sharp wit or the real emotions of love and regret of the originals, this faint shadow will sell thousands of copies because today we always want more."
- Kerry White, 2009. 'In which a reader gets a bit hot and bothered'. Magpies, Vol. 24

And the Good? Well, it's not Disney. Can I just go off on a slight tangent here and say fuck you, Disney, Heffalumps are not meant to be real what the actual fuck is wrong with you. David Benedicus at least understands that much.

So, should I read it or what?
For kids who love Winnie-the-Pooh, this book gets a pass. For adults looking to reminisce, I'd say stick to the originals.

11 November, 2009

Book 30: Fables, Legends in Exile, or: "You look out of breath, Jack. Been climbing beanstalks again?"

Title: Fables: Legends in Exile (2003)

Author: Bill Willingham

Why this book?
I was doing quality control for my mother - she buys graphic novels, I have the arduous task of reading them and deciding if they're appropriate for impressionable young women.

So what's it all about anyway?
After their various homelands and kingdoms were attacked by a mysterious and powerful evil, known only as "the Adversary", many fairytale creatures and mythological figures were forced to find refuge somewhere else entirely - in New York, in a part of the city which becomes known as Fabletown.

The Big Bad Wolf - aka Bigby - acts as Fabletown's sheriff, so when the infamous Jack discovers Rose Red's apartment trashed and covered in blood, it falls on him to find the culprit behind the vicious attack - and to discover what has happened to Rose. Has someone discovered the truth of the Fablefolks origins? Or is the person behind it a little closer to home? Rose Red's sister, the intelligent and capable Snow White, has never quite forgiven her sister for sleeping with her husband. Then there's Jack, who had a recent and very public break-up with Rose; and Bluebear, her current squeeze, used to have the happy little habit of cutting off his wives' heads. And what, exactly, is Prince Charming doing back in town...?

If Bigby doesn't solve the case, and quickly, it might just be the beginning of the end of Fabletown. He's sure there's more going on than meets the eye - but who's lying, and why? And hey - if he does solve it, it might just be that he gets his very own Happily Every After.

The Good and the Bad
It'll probably come as no surprise to you that I loved this graphic novel to pieces. It had my two favourite things: a murder mystery, and fairytale characters! That is pretty much the literary equivalent of a peanut butter and jam sandwich. And for a change, I have nothing bad at all to say about it.

Which isn't to say that it's perfect, but its biggest fault is that it's the first story arc in an ongoing series, so while it is a complete story, there are loose ends - the biggest being we have no real idea who the Adversary is, or why he or she forced the Fables into exile. Still, that didn't actually bother me: Legends in Exile was a full enough story that I didn't even feel the need to rush out and buy the next story arc to find out what happens next.

The way the various characters have been interpreted is definitely one of the book's highlights. Prince Charming was particularly fun, as a womaniser who has managed to schmooze his way across most of Europe. The illustrations were perfect, too - "gritty" and realistic, but not what I'd call ugly. As for the writing - it was dark without being angsty, funny without being silly, and noir-ish without being forced. In conclusion: Awesome.

So, should I read it or what?
Highly recommended.

Some time this century: The biography of a fashion icon, the lacklustre return of Winnie-the-Pooh, and Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter. That is seriously the name of a book. I'm pretty excited.

03 November, 2009

Books 28 and 29: "There was nothing the two brothers liked more than tackling a tough case."

Do you know what teenagers love doing best? No, it's not drugs. No, it's not groping each other in their parents' cars. No, it's not dressing all in black and talking about how anti-establishment they are. Teenagers love solving mysteries! And I know what I'm talking about, because I spent about two hours last week hangin' out with the Hardy Boys.

Titles: The Flickering Torch Mystery (1971 revised edition)
The Secret of the Old Mill (1972 revised edition)

Author: Franklin W. Dixon, although he's not actually an actual person as far as I know.

Why these books?
Well... I found them at a flea market. And they were cheap! And they reminded me of my childhood! I couldn't resist.

So what's it all about anyway?
OK, I'm going to do my best to remember the actual plots of these books, but they are honestly so convoluted I can barely separate the two.

In Flickering Torch, the Hardy's detective father is busy on a case involving the constant theft of government property, so he fobs off a new client on to Frank and Joe. Needless to say the client is unimpressed that this famous detective is telling him that his teenage sons will take his case. But! Frank and Joe are used to being treated like this, because it is hard to believe they're so brilliant! The mystery has something to do with silkworms being stolen, and the brothers start working on the farm next door to the silk-worm farm, where they talk like the inbred country bumpkins so no one will actually know their true identities. For some reason, this actually works. Then, um, I guess there's a whole lot of detecting that goes on, mostly at night, and there's flickering torches involved somehow, and the boys' case improbably has something to do with their father's, and there's illegal mining involved? I don't even know.

The Old Mill was less confusing. There is money forging going on, and... you know what? It's not less confusing. The counterfeiting is somehow inexplicably tied to this new technology company that has just moved into Bayport, which keeps having its projects sabotaged. For some reason the criminals behind this scheme set their base in the titular mill, which is far less exciting than, say, an underground lair inside a hollowed out volcano. But! Frank and Joe nevertheless solve the mystery! Oh, and I just remembered there was some kind of motor-boat shenanigans in there. The Hardy's boat is called the Sleuth, just in case you were wondering.

The Good and the Bad
Man, these books are hilarious. Frank and Joe are pretty much indistinguishable, except that Joe is slightly more impulsive because he's a whole year younger than Frank (he was the one I had a crush on when I was a kid, incidentally). Neither of them have actual personalities, though. You can tell their best friend Chet Morton is comic relief because not only is he Fat, but he also isn't Super Keen About Mysteries! He is a Reluctant Mystery Solver! Is there anything more hilarious than that? Chet's hobbies involve eating, and also getting a new hobby every book (hilarious!) Alos, you can tell that this is a book for boys, because unlike Nancy Drew, who has a boyfriend she spends quite a lot of time with, Frank and Joe just have "favourite dates", both of whom are not only pretty, but also excellent cooks. That's what every boy wants in a favourite date!

So yeah, really, really outdated. Everything is "swell", everyone is a stereotype, and each page is so dripping with wholesomeness that it is difficult not to choke on it. These books were written at a time when children's books had Bad Guys and Good Guys and zero moral uncertainty. I mean, the Hardys are so amazing that they can tell who the bad guys are just at looking at them. This because bad guys are Surly and Unpleasant, whereas good guys have Honest Faces! Oh Hardys. If only it were really that easy.

Relatedly: You might want to check out Kate Beaton's comic about Mystery Solving Teens. I found it amusing and accurate!

So, should I read it or what?
Ahahahahahaha... hahahaha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Do yourself a favour and don't ruin your childhood.

Later this week, probably: Fairytale characters that are alive! And, in some cases, dead.

27 October, 2009

Book 27 - The reformed vampire support group, or: "Being stuck indoors with the flu watching daytime television, forever and ever"

Vampires! They are pretty popular at the moment. Everywhere you go (if by "everywhere" you mean "the Young Adult section of bookstores") there they are, hangin' out, all, "Look how cool I am, I could drink your blood if I wanted to but I'm too cool for that! PS: I'm pretty sexy, unlike you. God, when did you last even wash your hair?" I may be projecting slightly.

I have to admit that I've never really got the whole vampire thing. That's not just a reaction to the recent surge in popularity, either; when I was thirteen or so I remember my friends reading a vampire series by Christopher Pike and being equally bemused. There are some exceptions: I loved the over-the-top pseudo-horror mess that was the Underworld movie. I also love Terry Pratchett's satirical take on vampires, who are far more style than substance and prefer to give up drinking blood for other, cleaner ways of gaining power of people. But when I saw this book I was immediately interested, since Catherine Jinks is a pretty talented author.

Title: The Reformed Vampire Support Group (2009)

Author: Catherine Jinks

Why this book?
Jinks wrote the amazing Pagan Chronicles, which was my sole food intake for like a year. She also wrote the pretty excellent Witch Bank. I was interested to see her take on vampires!

So what's it all about anyway?
Nina writes a popular vampire series, about the beautiful Zadia Bloodstone, crime-fighter extraordinaire. Secretly, Nina wishes she was just like Zadia Bloodstone, but she knows that it really is just a story. Real vampires aren't beautiful and strong: they're fragile, weak-willed, constantly sick and anti-social. Nina knows, because for the past thirty years she's been a vampire. And being stuck as a teenager forever isn't exactly fun.

Nina doesn't drink blood, either (at least, not human blood). She, along with the other members of Father Ramon's Reformed Vampire Support Group, have found other methods of coping with their problems. No attacking humans, that's one of their rules. So is not telling anyone what they are, because humans can be a bit - well - scared of vampires (although vampires are for the most part far more scared of them). But one member of their group isn't quite as dedicated to the cause as the others. That becomes apparent when they find him staked to death in his home.

Nina knows there is a slayer out there. And the group is sure that if they just talk to him (or her), he'll come to understand that vampires pose no real threat. But things are never quite that simple, and Nina and her friends suddenly find themselves in a world of underground werewolf fighting, deranged slayers, and vampires who really do think they can act like Zadia Bloodstone...

The Good and the Bad
This book should have been great - but I just couldn't get into it. The characters weren't quite engaging enough, the plot wasn't quite interesting enough, the pacing wasn't quite right - all in all, just not quite good enough. I actually really liked Nina, but since she was narrating the book it lost a lot of its suspense - you know the whole time nothing terrible is going to happen to her, because she's still alive (well, undead) at the end of the story to tell it, and I just couldn't work up enough enthusiasm about the other characters to care if any of them exploded in the sun or were eaten by werewolves or what have you. A disappointing read, overall.

So, should I read it or what?
It's pretty hard to make a story about people who eat hamsters bland, but somehow Catherine Jinks managed it. Not recommended.

Later this week, probably: Teen detectives, 70's style!

Link of the day: Top Ten 15 Saved By the Bell moments, because the 90's haven't really died yet.

21 October, 2009

Book 26 - A pocket full of rye, or: "I simply can't swallow this nursery rhyme business."

I'm so sorry! I have spent the last three weeks working on a research proposal, which left me with very little time for doing any non-research-proposal-related writing. Actually, I spent about two weeks doing the proposal, and one week doing a different assignment that I didn't have time to do because of the time I was spending on the proposal. That's the magic of university!

BUT I am all done with due date now until next February, which leaves me plenty more brain-room for books, and the reviewing of. Today we have the promised Agatha Christie write-up! It's only short, because I'm only just getting back into the swing of things, and my brain still feels a little bit like a lump of cottonwool.

Title: A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

Author: Agatha Christie

Why this book?
Yes, it's another Agatha Christie. Yes, I'm now a Christie addict. Don't judge me.

So what's it all about anyway? When Mr Fortescue dies horribly after drinking a cup of tea, foul play is immediately suspected - especially after his pocket is found to be full of rye. Someone has poisoned him - but who? There's certainly plenty of suspects. There's his wife, who's having an affair; his two sons, who he constantly played off against each other; and his daughter, who he refused to let marry the man she was in love with. And if that wasn't complicated enough, then the Fortescue's maid is found dead in the garden - with her nose cut off. Inspector Neele does his best to sort through the lies and motives, but he is more than happy to accept the help of Miss Marple when she arrives on the scene. What do these murders have to do with a children's rhyme? Or is this about something else entirely?

The Good and the Bad Sadly, Miss Marple takes away more from this mystery than she gives to it. Inspector Neele, we're told from the beginning, looks completely uninspiring but is in fact a fairly astute detective. He proves to be a very good detective, but not quite capable of the leaps of logic that is required of any truly excellent mystery solver in Christie's world - that's where Miss Marple comes in, of course. Unfortunately in this case, what that means is that we see Neele's thought process, we get to know him, and then every time he hits a dead end Miss Marple pops up to give him a clue, and then fades into the background again. Her place in the book is more like that of a plot device than an actual character, and it's exceedingly annoying.

One thing I did like about this book was that for once everything wasn't tied up all neatly at the end. Oh, sure, you find out whodunnit and why, but Inspector Neele doesn't have enough evidence to put the murderer away for it - yet. It's going to take time, and a lot more hard work. The ending is also pretty sad - it's obvious that no surviving members of the Fortescue family are going to lead very happy lives, even after the murder has been solved.

So, should I read it or what? Despite my dislike for the story's style, I nevertheless enjoyed the actual mystery. I definitely wouldn't recommend it for a Christie newbie, but for the experienced Marple reader it's still worth a go.

Later this week, probably: vampires (and no mention of the T-word, I promise)

Link of the day: Upside down dogs. Oh internet, you really do have everything a girl could ever want (and more!)

25 September, 2009

Friday Babble: M is for Manga

Yeah, I'm a total dork (as if you couldn't already pick that from the fact that I write a blog about the books I read). Not only do I read books, but I also read graphic novels, comics, and manga. A lot of people spend a lot of time debating the differences between those three terms, but those are clearly people with nothing better to do.

I, on the other hand, have something much better to do: recommend some awesome manga to you! In case you're unfamiliar with the word, manga are comics originating in Japan that use a particular type of stylised drawing. You may be more familiar with anime, the Japanese cartoons which are often based on a manga story. A lot of people still think that comics and cartoons are for kids, but in Japan a wider audience is acknowledged than that in the West, and there's a lot of stories aimed at teens, dealing with the normal teen dramas of school and relationships. There's also sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries - basically, any genre you can think of, all in delicious manga form.

Like any form of media, there's good and bad manga. The good is well-drawn, has character development, intelligent plots, interesting themes. The bad is - well, recently I tried to read Okane Ga Nai. It's about a guy who buys another guy as a sex slave. That's all I'm sayin'. In order to try and help you separate the good from the bad, what follows is a small, detailed list of manga I'm currently reading, including excerpts and links to website where you can read them online. (The pages read from right to left, by the way! And if you are having trouble reading them you can click on them for a bigger image :))

Title: Chi's Sweet Home
Mangaka: Konami Kanata
110 chapter, ongoing
FACT: If you are not saddened by a lost kitten there is something wrong with you.

This isn't exactly a hugely taxing story to read, but it is so ridiculously cute and sweet that I dare you to try and stop reading once you've started. Chi's Sweet Home is the story of a kitten who loses her mother and is adopted by a young family. A lot of the first arc of the story relates to the fact that the family aren't allowed to keep a cat in their apartment, and try to keep Chi hidden - while Chi, of course, doesn't understand and keeps risking discovery.

Not convinced? Watch this:

If you are still not convinced, I shudder to think what kind of terrifying, hard-hearted monster you are.

Title: Fruits Basket
Mangaka: Natsuki Takaya
Status: 136 chapters, complete
Turning into a rat every time a girl hugs you really puts a damper on your love life.

Details: Since the death of her mother, high school student Tohru has been living in a tent in the forest, and working a night cleaning-job to earn enough money to stay in school. Her hard lifestyle pushes her to the limit, and one night she collapses, sick from not looking after herself properly. Luckily, she's rescued by two cousins - Shigure Sohma, and Tohru's classmate Yuki. There's something mysterious about the Sohmas, and Tohru soon finds out what - they're both cursed to turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac, as are ten other members of their family. But there's more to the Sohma Clan than a secret curse - they're also controlled by the manipulative and selfish Akito. Akito slowly becomes convinced that Tohru is a threat to her power over the other Sohmas - and she's prepared to do anything it takes to see that nothing changes.

Title: Rin-ne
Mangaka: Rumiko Takahashi
Status: 21 chapters, ongoing
Haunted phones seem less scary here than in The Ring.

This manga is still pretty new, so it's kind of hard to see where the story's going so far! But Takahashi is a prolific writer and artist - her work includes my all-time favourite, Ranma 1/2, and the more recent Inu-Yasha. Rin-ne is about a young girl who can see ghosts - some of whom are incredibly annoying - and her new classmate who turns out to be a shinigami, a death-god. Together, they do their best to exorcise the ghosts they find - a process hampered by Rinne's constant lack of money and his long-term rivalry with a demon. Despite the subject matter, it's a pretty light-hearted story, at least so far!

Title: Ouran High School Host Club
Mangaka: Bisco Hatori
Status: 74 chapters, ongoing

...he asks, after he's developed a crush on her.

Can you say gender-bending romcom? Yes you can! When scholarship student Haruhi breaks an extremely expensive vase, he's offered a way to repay it - by joining the school's host club, and earning money by entertaining the rich female students. There's only one problem - Haruhi's really a girl. Wacky hijinks ensue! You can probably guess where this is going! My favourite storyline is where an unpopular student discovers Haruhi's identity, starts spending time with her, and gains instant popularity when all the girls decide he must be gay.

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist
Mangaka: Hiromu Arakawa
Status: 99 chapters, ongoing

Details: All the manga I've listed are good, but Fullmetal Alchemist is brilliant.

Turning stones into gold is, of course, strictly forbidden (which is why Ed
totally didn't do it.)

Ed has a metal arm and leg, and his brother Alphonse is nothing but a soul attached to an empty suit of armour - punishment, of a kind, for breaking one of the strictest rules of alchemy. The brothers are travelling the land, dodging in and out of trouble, and trying to find a philosopher's stone that will help them return to their original bodies. As they inch closer to their goal, they and their friends discover that they are not the only ones searching for the philosopher's stone; there are other creatures, creatures that may have once been human, who are doing everything within their power to gain immortality. Ed and Al unravel a conspiracy that runs through the army and the government, and leads all the way back to their country's founding. Just who, exactly, is pulling the strings, and what does it have to do with Ed and Al's own father...? (God, I just reread this, but I find all those cliches and mixed metaphors hysterical and am going to leave them in. Bed time for me, obviously.)

If you're going to read just one manga based on what I've rec'd, it should be this one. It has all those qualities I listed at the start, and something more - that indefinable quality which makes a story impossible to let go. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

22 September, 2009

Book 25 - Night Singing, or: "Who was that crazy person? Did you know her?"

This may not come as a surprise to anyone who has heard My Thoughts On Twilight, but I continue to wonder how it is that authors who can not actually write to save their lives become so popular! Twilight, for example, is pretty much pure cat dirt, and yet there is something about it which makes it pretty difficult to put down. Luckily I was mostly immune to its sensual charms, and after the ten millionth time Bella complained about how her life sucked soooooo much I finally threw it across the room and out of my life. Sadly, as I was reading it on my laptop, this dramatic gesture turned out to be quite expensive.

You know who else write a lot of dross? Dan Brown! I actually kind of enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, and I thought the movie was better than the book (possibly because I grew up on a diet of B-grade action/suspense movies) but Angels and Demons made me absolutely livid in ways that I can't even describe and will have to explain instead through the magic of MS Paint.

You tell 'em, Badly Drawn Hulk! Anyway, the only reason I bring up the subject of Authors Who Can't Actually Write is because of my incredibly awesome Link of the Day: Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences. I particularly enjoyed all the angry comments down the bottom.

Someone who can actually write to save her life is Kierin Meehan!

Title: Night Singing (2003)

Author: Kierin Meehan

Why this book?
Because I absolutely adored her first book, Hannah's Winter - and Night Singing did not disappoint!

So what's it all about anyway?
Josh has broken his leg and is bored stiff at home, unable to go to school - or even leave the house much. Then Isabelle, a girl from the circus, comes crashing into his life, and things start to get interesting. For one thing, Isabelle has offered him six tickets to the circus; and for another, she doesn't see other people in quite the same way as Josh does.

Josh is horrified when Isabelle starts bringing around kids from his class - not Josh's friends, but the loser kids, like quiet Reesie, Tim (who's actually in the choir), and Arundel, who everyone knows is trouble. And when Isabelle announces her intention of winning this year's Christmas Concert Josh knows she won't - after all, the resident bully Nasty Natalie dances to victory every single year.

Then Mr Vas, a clown in Isabelle's circus, tells her a story about the Moon Rabbit, and a terrible tragedy that destroyed the world. The story is perfect for the concert - but to Josh there seems to be something more to it. His neighbour, the elderly Mrs Murakami, often tells stories about the Moon Rabbit; and the same pattern that appears in her sketch book turns up in Mr Vas' paintings. What great tragedy lies in their past - and what does it have to do with Isabelle's play...?

The Good and the Bad
There were a few loose threads at the end of the book which irritated me a little - Meehan leaves the reader knowing the shape of things, but without giving us the actual details, which was kind of unsatisfying - what happens to Arundel, who has been abandoned by his family? Is he really related to circus folk? Does Natalie get her comeuppance? Does Isabelle actually win the concert competition?

I also imagine reading this as an adult is quite a different experience to reading it as a child; it was obvious to me right from the start that Mrs Murakami had lost her family to the Hiroshima explosion (although exactly how Mr Vas fitted in to the picture was a little beyond my ken!) Still, that didn't ruin it for me - there was still plenty to enjoy in Josh's slowly developing appreciation for the 'losers', and his gentle friendship with Arundel.

I haven't mentioned Josh's little brother, but he's also an important player in the story and he's utterly delightful. He's very much a little kid without coming across as either twee or monstrous, which so often seems to happen in books. Josh's parents are wonderful too - very loving but very human; Meehan portray's Josh's mother's frustration over his brother's refusal to learn to read very well, without demonising her at all.

So, should I read it or what?
I definitely loved it! It is a children's book, so I flipped through it pretty quickly, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Recommended!

Next up: Um, I've just read another Agatha Christie, and I think I'll also do a companion post for this one on Hannah's Winter since it would be kind of interesting to compare them! Also, probably this week: A Friday Babble, topic yet unknown!

17 September, 2009

Book 24 - A Rose for the Anzac Boys, or: "There's nothing worse than ill-fitting socks!"

A Rose for the Anzac Boys (2008)

Author: Jackie French

Why this book?
Because when I was at school we learned about the battle at Gallipoli every Anzac Day, every year, and that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of WWI and thought I should correct that ASAP - through the power of fiction! Also, I like Jackie French - she wrote one of my favourite fantasy books, Tajore Arkle, as the wonderful but sad Hitler's Daughter.

What's it all about anyway?
When the war starts, New Zealander Midge is a long way from home - in a boarding school in England, in fact, where she is learning frightfully important things like deportment and posture. Her twin brother, Tim, has lied about his age and joined up, and she's really proud of him - he's fighting for King and country, and besides, everyone knows the war won't take that long to win.

Then Midge gets a telegraph saying Tim is missing, and everything changes for her. She knows he can't really be dead - he must've been taken prisoner by the Turks - but suddenly, the war seems real. She doesn't want to just sit around knitting socks and putting together trifles to send to the soldier. That's when Ethel, daughter of a nouveau riche grocer, has an idea - why don't they start a canteen for the soliders? They won't be in any danger themselves, and with her father's help they can provide food and a hot drink for soldier leaving for and returning from the battlefield. Along with their friend the Honourable Anne, they set out for France.

Midge works harder than she has ever worked in her life; one night the girls and their helpers actually serve over ten thousand soldiers. She sees countless soldiers returning missing arms and legs, some shellshocked, others already dead. When a friendly ambulance driver is taken off the job due to septic wounds in her hands, Midge offers to take her place; and from there, somehow, she manages to meet her aunt - a nurse - and is pressed into duty in the big hospital tents where there are too many injured and not enough supplies, and where even the chaplain has been pressed into duty as a surgeon.

And through it all, two things keep her going: one, the drive to find her brother; and the other, the memory of the sheepfarm back home, the place she yearns to be more than anywhere. She meets a young Aussie soldier, a fellow sheepfarmer who knows exactly how she feels, and who gives her a rose on her birthday...

As destructive and terrifying as the war is, Midge revels in the freedom her work has given her. Can things really ever go back to how they were before the war?

The Good and the Bad
This book was kind of amazing. It's not at all subtle - Midge's naivety, the snobbery of the army officers, the pure idiocy of many of the armies' campaigns, they're all painted with a thick brush. But the boldness of French's writing makes this a very readable story - it unfolds quickly, and you can get a grasp on what's going on very quickly. The descriptions of the wounded are stomach-churning at times, but accurate - French based them on descriptions in real letters and diaries.

Midge is a great character. She's not out to change the world; at the very bottom she simply wants to help her own family, but in her love for them lies the strength to do a great many things that a great many people wouldn't. Anne and Ethel are both equally strong, and I was sad to see them drift out of the story as Midge's choices took her further away from them. Anne in particular interested me; the daughter of a Duke who clearly had no interest in being married off to the first suitable suitor who came along, but who didn't seem to have any great argument against it, either; who rebelled in quiet ways, like making friends with Ethel, even as she tried her best to get rid of her pimples to please her mother.

What I did feel weakened the story was framing it against the recent Iraq War. French's message seemed to be that ultimately, it's the soldiers who get screwed over, no matter what the circumstances, and that's true enough! But to me modern wars are a world away from those that happened almost a century ago. We no longer have the belief that this war will be the last; we've long since lost that innocence. Besides - it seemed a little odd having a whole book about women in wartime, the invisible heroes, and ending with a message about male soldiers. I don't know; it really just seemed to take something away from the book, to me. Or perhaps it was my own feelings on the Iraq War that just jolted me out of the story.

So should I read this book or what?
I'd definitely recommend it, although I was pretty much sold as soon as I knew it was about a New Zealand girl in WWI. I'd actually recommend anything by Jackie French though - she really is great!

Link of the day: I mean to pimp this earlier, but since it's still going - check out the Agatha Christie Blog Tour! Awesome.

09 September, 2009

Book 23 - To the Hermitage, or: "Erotics Adventures!! Brand New Positions!!! Please keep the sound low and try not to disturb your neighbours."

When you were a young warthog (sorry, caught part of The Lion King on tv the other day and that song's been stuck in my head ever since) did you ever read those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories? I remember them being all the rage at school and I remember hating them, because I could never get the 'good' ending. I'd always end up dying of starvation or being eaten by the monster or what have you.

Anyway, the other day when I was browsing the Young Adult section of Borders... I found some of them. Not the adventure-laden choose-your-owns of my youth, though; know, the point of these books were to make the right choices in order to... end up with the right guy. You stay classy, young adult lit. OK, I admit it, I read a couple of them, but they frustrated me to no end - for the same reason they did when I was a kid: I'd get to the end of the page, read my two choices, and think, "But I wouldn't do either of these things. These are both equally terrible choices. Why would I do either of these things? Why would my attractive but angst-ridden avatar do either of these things? What kind of the moron is she?"

In conclusion: Choose Your Own Adventure stories are one thing that I just never understood.

Today's novel is not, in fact, a book with a choose-your-own ending, but when I was trying to come up with a way of introducing it my brain suddenly spazzed out and couldn't remember if the correct phrase was "without further ado" or, "without further adieu". So, dear read-

If you would like to continue reading without further ado,
turn to page 19
If you would like to start reading without further adieu,
turn to page 67

Title: To the Hermitage (2000)

Malcolm Bradbury

Why this book?
Rec'd by a work colleague.

What's it all about, anyway?
To the Hermitage is written in two part: THEN and NOW.

THEN describes the time that French philosopher Denis Diderot spent in the court of Catherine the Great. Catherine was a great admirer of his; when she heard he was seriously short on money, she bought his entire library but allowed him to keep it until his own death. For some years she pressured him to come to Russia, and eventually he was no longer able to tell her 'no' - not least because other European rulers were starting to take a dislike to him.

Diderot is - perhaps typically for a philosopher - interested in everything, and his own great work is an Encyclopédie which he hopes will one day contain everything. He is uninterested in court intrigues, perhaps even to the extent that he will not even sleep with Catherine herself - but he does have grand plans for Russia, and grand ideas about how she should be - could be - ruled; and he has to do his best to convince Catherine of his ideas' merits before she transfers her admiration of him on to somebody else.

In the NOW, a novelist who is also a great admirer of Diderot's has been summoned to Sweden by an old friend to take part in a pilgrimage of sorts - a trip to Russia as part of the Diderot Project. The actual purpose of the Project itself is ambiguous at best; the other members include carpenters, opera singers, university lecturers, some of whom have never even heard of Diderot before now. But as the others gradually lose interest in the Project, our novelist pushes on - after all, great mystery surrounds the fate of Diderot's library, and it's not impossible that he might himself discover a book or a manuscript of Diderot's which has not seen the light of day for hundreds of years...

The Good and the Bad
This is one of those books which is pretty hard to describe; because while there is a plot of sorts it's not a story you're reading for its page-turning action sequences. It's Bradbury's words, the dialogue and the descriptions, which make this book so brilliant. A book which is essentially about a philosopher and a boat trip could be so very dry; but Bradbury's writing is lively and humorous and really, just beautiful. I can't pay it any compliment higher than that.

It begins with the lines,
"This is (I suppose) a story. It draws a great deal on history, but as history is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past I have improved it where necessary."
That should really tell you everything you need to know about this book.

It also took me an extraordinarily long time to read - I'd usually devour a book this size in maybe three days, tops - but it was just so dense, in terms of information. I spent a hell of a lot of time with my good friend Wikipedia looking up places and people. Actually, saying that will probably turn most people of reading it so I guess if history and geography and philosophy and political theory don't excite you this might not be the book for you.

But if history and geography and philosophy and political theory do excite you than hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen.

So should I read this book or what?

26 August, 2009

Book 22 - The Bride's Farewell, or: You can run (from your past) but you can't hide...

This week's excuse for belated blog posting: I have been off on a skiing holiday! I have returned with a father with a broken shoulder and a crush on my very nice and Scottish ski instructor. Also, with two more books under my belt! Not literally though, my belts don't stretch that far.

Title: The Bride's Farewell (2009)

Author: Meg Rosoff

Why this book?
Saw the review of it over at My Favourite Books and thought it sounded interesting, and needed something to read at the airport on Friday so when I saw it for sale I grabbed it.

What's it all about anyway?
Pell Ridley cares for the man she is supposed to marry, and she loves her brother and sisters, but she knows if she becomes Birdie's wife and stays in her village she has nothing to look forward to but drudgery and misery. The night before her wedding she decides to leave with her horse, Jack, and look for work, as far a way from home as she can get. Her plans are immediately interrupted when her younger brother Bean decides to join her, and it's not long before everything has gone horribly wrong and she's lost both her brother and her horse.

With no money, and no friends, Pell is nevertheless determined to find them again. Her gift with horses finds her both friends and enemies, as does her own unwillingness to compromise her own happiness for anyone else. Strangers both help and hinder her journey, sometimes giving her food and shelter, sometimes using her for their own profit. Eventually, the trail left by Jack and Bean runs cold, and Pell returns to her village, only to find that her escape had devastating consequences for the people she loved. She does her best to make things right, and fortune finally favours her in the shape of a an excellent job with an understanding boss - but she knows she can never be happy until she finds her brother and her horse, and no matter how much she's enjoying her new life, she can't forget the one she left behind...

The Good and the Bad
OK, so I made this book sound far more depressing than it actually is. I mean, it is depressing in the sense that it is pretty historically accurate, but it's not a wrist-slitting tragedy. It was a light read - I'd almost finished it even before my plane took off - but it's a gripping read, too, and Rosoff's language is simple but evocative.

What I really loved about The Bride's Farewell was that it had all the elements of a clichéd historical novel without ever becoming one. Pell is a talented, intelligent young woman in a world where women are supposed to be neither, but she's not fighting for women's rights - she accepts that that's the way things are. She's a strong, determined character, but she makes plenty of mistakes, is at times too naive and at others too untrusting. Without spoiling too much, I also liked that Pell's story was part of a bigger picture, one which the reader is allowed to see but Pell never realises (although I think perhaps Rosoff spelled things out to the reader so obviously that it was almost disappointing the Pell never figured out the truth).

I liked that the ending didn't tie everything up neatly with a great big ribbon. You're not sure if Pell is going to be happy with the life she's chosen, or how things are going to work out between her and her lover and her sister, but at the same time you do know that Pell is strong enough to handle whatever challenges life throws at her. In the end, this isn't really a book about finding happiness - it's a book about simply finding a place where you can be yourself, and be content.

So should I read this book or what?
If you're looking for something light without the saccharine toothache that is chick lit, this is the book for you!

I guess kind of related link of the day since Pell's father is a preacher: 10 Gruesome Bible Scenes Recreated in Lego! I can't even remember where I got this link from, but it is pretty lulzy.

12 August, 2009

Book 21 - Rosanna joins the Wells, or: Poor people are more interesting when they're foreign

Have I mentioned before that I love book series? I'm pretty sure I have, but just in case I haven't: I love book series. Particularly the one that just go on and on getting more ridiculous as they go. The other day I saw an interview with one of the actors from the tv show Hercules, who said that once you get to the episode where you're playing your own evil twin it's time to get a new job because the fat lady is singing - there's no more new plots to be had. Perhaps Francine Pascal could have taken some advice from him.

Anyway, one of the many series I read as a kid was the Sadler's Wells series, which is pretty much about girls who love ballet and grow up to be famous ballerinas. Why this appealed to me, someone who can't even point her feet, and often resembles a dancing hippopotamus, is something that I will never understand

nevertheless, they were actually pretty cool books, covering themes of selfishness versus dedication, women choosing between career and marriage, and the early books had lots of beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. I'm still trying to collect all the books in the series.

Title: Rosanna joins the Wells (1956)

Author: Lorna Hill

Why this book?
Like I said - I collect the series!

What's it all about anyway?
Rosanna is growing up in Spain, the daughter of a Spanish father and English mother. Her family is poor, but she's loved, and happy. Then, tragedy strikes - her parents are both killed in a landslide while she is visiting the neighbouring village. However, she is taken in by a friend of the family, and she slowly learns to cope without her parents. In her new village she also meets a ballet teacher, who catches her dancing and decides to teach her for no charge. Her teacher sees that she's brilliant, and hopes that she'll one day get a scholarship to the Wells. Then tragedy strikes - er, again. Rosanna's guardian, who was pretty old, dies, and Rosanna get sent to live with relatives in England.

Rosanna boards a ship to England. She's pretty bored, and homesick, on the ship, until she meets a rather odd (but quite handsome) young man. His behaviour is bizarre to her, but it turns out that he loves ballet too, and they strike up a friendship of sorts. Unbeknownst to Rosanna, the young man is a Prince Leopold of Slovenia (don't grab a map, it's not a real country), and he is preparing to propose to an up-and-coming ballerina, Ella Rosetti. Rosanna is simply an amusement for him while he is on the ship, and once they hit land he thinks no more of her.

Rosanna's English family, the Waybridges, are pretty awful. Her uncle, her mother's brother, is nice, but is over-awed by his class-conscious wife. Her Aunt Bessie is not happy to have Rosanna joining the family, and does not welcome Rosanna at all. Her cousins, Monica and Cyril, are both spoilt bullies who delight in making Rosanna miserable. She's treated more as a servant than a member of the family, and she hates England. Still, life isn't all bad - she makes friends with a Spanish family who, unlike her own family, welcome her with warm hearts and open arms. They also encourage her to start taking ballet lessons again, and when her aunt tells her that she can't afford lessons Rosanna sells off the few expensive clothes she has.

Rosanna becomes the star dancer at Mary Martin's ballet school, much to the chagrin of Monica and her Bessie - until Rosanna's arrival, Monica was one of the best dancers. When she gets the leading role in the school's ballet show, the two conspire to keep Rosanna out of it - by locking her in at home, so she's unable to go. Rosanna finally decides enough is enough and tries to run away back to Spain. Her escape is helped by the boy next door, but when she reaches the docks she realises she'll never be able to stow away on a ship, whatever she'd been imagining. Then she runs into someone completely unexpected (if you've never read a book before) - the Prince Leopold! He listens to her story and takes her to the ballet school himself, where she's just in time to to perform her solo and catch the eyes of Ella Rosetti and the famous Veronica Weston. Leopold also takes it upon himself to tell Rosanna's aunt exactly what he thinks of her, which was possibly the best part of the whole book.

The Good and the Bad
Lorna Hill's early heroines are great, and her early stories show a great deal of humour. First there's Veronica, who has to choose between love and ballet, grey London and beautiful Northumberland, and who has to battle with both jealous dancers and her awful cousin, Fiona, but who emerges strong and victorious through it all, purely thanks to her own determination. There's also Caroline, Veronica's cousin, who loves dancing but deals with bitter disappointment when she's told she'll never be a prima ballerina; and cousins Jane and Mariella, who swap identities so that Jane can dance and Mariella, who hates dancing, doesn't have to. They were all interesting and charistmatic characters that you really cared about.

Unfortunately, the next generation of heroines are far less interesting. In her first book, Ella is timid and poor - that's all there really is to her. Rosanna is even worse, because while you felt Ella's dedication to ballet, you don't even really get a sense of Rosanna's love for her art. Despite being treated like an indentured servant, she not only takes the abuse - which is at least kind of understandable - but she doesn't even seem to hate her abusers for it. She's so passive it's almost infuriating. You do, of course, still want her to 'win' over her awful aunt and cousins, but the tension between her aunt and Mary Martin is far more interesting than Rosanna's. And, of course, it doesn't exactly come to a surprise that at the end of the book Rosanna leaves her family and joins the Wells - it's right there in the title, Rosanna joins the Wells. You know, just in case you were hoping for any kind of dramatic tension.

Something which is almost laughable is the way that Rosanna's life in Spain is idealised. It didn't matter that she had no shoes, we're told, because it was always sunny in Spain! Well, sure, but if you're too poor to afford shoes life definitely isn't all sunshine and rainbows, no matter where you live. This attitude is especially awful when contrasted to Ella Rosetti's background - she was also a poor orphan, and taken in by family who slept three to a bed. There's this romanticism of Rosanna's peasant lifestyle, while Ella's working class family are portrayed uncultured in the extreme and cruel. Nice.

So should I read this book or what?
Needless to say I can't exactly recommend this to anyone who isn't already enamoured of the series. However, if this does sound like it could potentially be your drug of choice, I do dearly love all of the first three books in the series. A dream of Sadler's Wells tells of Veronica overcoming great difficulties just to get an audition to the famous ballet school, while Veronica at the Wells is about her rise to fame and the sacrifices she has to make to get there. My all-time favourite, though, is No castanets at the Wells, in which Caroline Scott meets the intensely sexy Spanish dancer Angelo. They're all far less melodramatic books than Rosanna, but infinitely better-written and more interesting.

Unrelated link of the day: A Very Potter Musical - watch out for Draco, who is absolutely hilarious.

02 August, 2009

Book 20 - Le Testament Francais, or: Identity theft, Soviet stylez

In the words of Granny Weatherwax, I aten't dead! Just a tad lazy.

Title: Le Testament Francais (1995)
Also known as: Dreams of My Russian Summers

Author: Andrei Makine

Why this book?
Another recommendation from my Russophile co-worker. (She's currently reading War and Peace in the original Russian. She is all kinds of amazing.)

What's it all about anyway?
The book is written by an unnamed narrator who is growing up in the Soviet Union, and is told in three broad sections. In the first, he is a young boy who spends his summers at his grandmother's house. She fills his head with stories of her own childhood in France and he begins to adopt her own French identity. This sets him apart from the other children his age, but he is content being different as he has a certain sense of superiority. In the second section of the book, he is an adolescent and rebels against his own identity. He finally joins the other kids his age, turning his back on his one former friend, another loner. He no longer wants to see his grandmother, as he knows many of the stories she told him as a child were not true. In the last section, he is an adult, living in France. He is now at peace with his dual identities - both French and Russian - and he has lived in France so long that he knows the Russia he remembers no longer exists, much like the Paris his grandmother remembers.

The Good and the Bad
I really wanted to like this book. It was a good book, beautifully written. And yet I found it almost a chore to get through (in fact, only the knowledge that I could tick another book off my list when I had finished it really kept me going.) I think it was because I just never connected with the narrator; he came across as having this really superior attitude, even as an adult. I feel like he was supposed to be looking back with nostalgia, but the tone completely missed the mark.

I was interested in the theme of cultural identity, not least because this book was in many ways the story of the author himself - Makine was Russian, possibly with a French grandmother, and was granted political asylum to stay in France after working there for some years as a teacher. Unfortunately, my dislike for the narrator tainted the entire book, so that I couldn't really enjoy his exploration of identity and belonging.

So should I read this book or what?
I pretty much hated Le Testament Francais, so I can't recommend it. However, not everyone agrees - it did win two prestigious awards, both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. I wouldn't say no to reading anything else Makine has written, either.

Lights, camera...
The Film Festival is now finished, but I do have more films to rec! As well as those listed below, I did see Coraline, but I'm hoping to do a separate post on that at a later date so I won't go into it just now.

Che comprises of two movies following the life of the revolutionary Che Guevara. The first, The Argentine, was by far superior; it was better paced and had better character development, and while it wasn't necessarily sympathetic to Castro's movement it at least showed the revolutionaries as having a strong sense of purpose. The second film, Guerilla, was pretty disappointing after that; it moved agonisingly slowly, and the entire film was overshadowed by the knowledge that it was going to end with Guevara's death.
The Strength of Water is a New Zealand film - some people describe it as a ghost story, but it's more a story that just happens to feature a ghost. A young boy loses his twin sister and has to learn to cope with life without her; her death also brings together two of the town's loners, teenagers who are trying to escape their pasts. The film moved me without me feeling like I was being emotionally manipulated, which is something that I hate.

Finally, Louise-Michel is a French film, allegedly a comedy about a male-to-female transgendered woman who hires a hitman to off the CEO of her company after her entire factory is laid off. The hitman she hires is a male-to-female transgendered man who has problems of his own to deal with. I say it's "allegedly" a comedy because it was billed as such; I think I laughed out loud maybe three times during the entire thing. Which is not to say that it wasn't a brilliant film, but it's more satire than comedy, a film which pits the illiterate and poverty-stricken Louise against a ridiculously wealthy man who thinks nothing of the lives he ruins on a daily basis. It's, well, a very French film.

And the unrelated link of the day: Awful Library Books. Which I think is a self-explanatory title.

18 July, 2009

Books 18 and 19 - The New Housemistress and Carnation of Upper Fourth, or: Jolly hockey sticks (without the hockey sticks)

A double whammy this week, since they're both short books and both by the same author (and both of a genre that few people but me are interested in...) If you don't like books of the jolly hockey sticks variety, I suggest scrolling down to where I talk about the awesome movies I've been watching at the film festival. If you don't like films then... shit. I don't know. Maybe take a look at this excerpt from my favourite computer game instead?

The New House Mistress (1928)

Author: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Why this book?
Firstly, since I have a driving passion to own hardcover copies of every book Brent-Dyer ever wrote; and secondly because it was going cheap on trademe. Oh trademe, where would I be without you?

What's it all about anyway?
The Middles at St Helen's School are very upset to hear that their beloved teacher, Miss Lessing, is leaving to get married during the half-term holidays. Lead by the charming and popular Barbara Allen, they decide to treat whoever takes her place as badly as possible, in a misguided attempt to stay loyal to her predecessor. Miss Oswald, the new house mistress, is determined to win the girls over, and almost does so when she saves one of the student's lives. However, Barbara is only more determined to show Miss Oswald she isn't wanted.

Barbara is badly shaken when she hears that her younger sister and brother, both living in India with her parents, were almost killed by a savage crocodile; only the efforts of a mysterious English girl saved their lives. Unable to sleep, she takes to the lawn in the middle of the night for a dance, where she is caught and punished by Miss Oswald. She also runs into trouble with the new teacher when she purposefully throws a tennis match in order to display her dislike for her.

In a final show of rebellion, Barbara and her friends put on a play for the rest of the Middles, the performance to be held in the middle of the night. The chosen play is based on the ballad of Barbara Allen, which, incidentally, I had never heard of before but a few different versions of it can be found here. (Warning: it is pretty dire.) The play is a success, but one of the audience members accidentally sets fire to the dormitories. Barbara finally realises how badly she's been behaving - but her realisation may have come too late, since Miss Oswald has been badly injured in the fire...

The Good and the Bad
This was a pretty quick read, which was a little disappointing since Brent-Dyer's books are usually comparatively substantial. It also meant that she had less time to develop her characters, which again was disappointing, since characterisation is really one of her strengths. As a result we really only got to know Barbara, and I kind of feel like I would have liked her more if I'd seen her before she started acting like a total brat to Miss Oswald. Miss Oswald for her part only narrowly missed being a 'plaster saint' - she wasn't completely perfect, but on the other hand, she did save a total of four lives in the story, on three different occasions, which felt a little heavy-handed (and by 'a little' I mean 'ridiculously').

Title: Carnation of the Upper Fourth (1934)

Author: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Why this book? I actually read this book online, which always ruins a little of the magic for me, but I've never ever even see a copy of it for sale, and also reading it online it was free. Sweet.

What's it all about anyway?
Carnation has been travelling the world with her artist father, and has therefore never been to school before. Her arrival on the first day of term immediately attracts the attention of Madge, the local doctor's daughter. Madge is given to running after a new girl every term but this year, for the first time, it seems that her friendship with Carnation will last. Their friendship is cemented after Carnation's father falls ill, and Carnation moves in with Madge's large, boisterous family.

At school, Carnation proves to be excellent at both tennis and French, upsetting her classmate Birdie, who was until Carnation's arrival the reigning champion at both of these. An inter-school tennis competition is coming up, and Birdie is worried that Carnation will be chosen to play - but she won't. She starts a petition to have only sixth formers play in the match, which infuriates the school prefects who see her behaviour as rude. Birdie, upset that her plan didn't work, refuses to play properly and doesn't make it into the tennis team - Carnation and Madge both do.

Birdie's friend Joan is one of her many followers. Like most of the girls at school, they're both Girl Guides, and are meant to be spending a weekend doing tracking practice. Birdie's brother offers to take them to see to a lake, if they can get permission from their Guide Leader. Birdie easily convinces Joan to join her, and doesn't bother asking for permission. Birdie also doesn't bother to tell Joan when she unexpectedly can't make it to the tracking practice. Joan takes off for the lake by herself and almost drowns before Carnation and Madge find her and save her life. Joan doesn't blame Birdie for what has happened, but when the truth comes out and Birdie gets into trouble, she blames everything on Joan and physically attacks her.

Birdie has now lost most of her friends, and she blames it all on Carnation. She is determined that Carnation won't get to play in the inter-school tennis match, and hatches a plan to lock her in an Art Room so she won't make it to the game. However, Carnation is freed in time to play her match, and Birdie decides she's better off leaving for another school.

The Good and the Bad
Despite being the titular character, Carnation wasn't really that interesting. I mean, she's basically good at everything she does, has no apparent faults, and is almost completely passive in the sense that things happen to her and she reacts to them. Yawn. Madge, on the other hand, is lovely - she's good-hearted and good-humoured, she's passionate and she doesn't really think things through; there's something about her which is very 'real', unlike Carnation. Birdie, too, is realistic - not very pleasant, but there were definitely girls like her at my school, some seventy years after this book was written! She came across as very charismatic, and it wasn't surprising that a lot of girls followed her lead, at least until the full extent of her character was exposed.

The story dragged in several places. The chapter on Carnation's father's illness was very odd; one moment I was reading a jolly school story, the next moment it was all praying to God and bedside vigils; then her father was completely out of the picture and it was back to the school story again. The tennis also went on and on and on; I mean, all I wanted to know was whether Carnation and co. made it into the school team, I didn't want a play-by-play of every single match.

So should I read these books or what?
Um. Neither of these are EBD's strongest books, although as I said, her characterisation, as always, shines through. Of the two I preferred The New House Mistress, but I'd still tell anyone who's interested to hit her Chalet School series first.

Lights, camera...
OK, so I've seen four films so far at the festival, and I can recommend three of them for you to see when they come to a Cinema Near You:

Bright Star is about Keats; or, more accurately, is about his relationship with Fanny Brawne. I'm not sure how true to life it is (and I suspect it's a lot more sympathetic to Fanny than many Keats biographies are) but it was a really beautiful film. This is coming from someone who usually hates romance in any shape or form, so the fact that I actually liked it should tell you how fantastic Bright Star really is. I think it's due for international release in about six months, so go and see it then!

The Baader Meinhof Complex, by contrast, was harrowing to watch. It is basically a potted history of the R.A.F., a left-wing terrorist group in Germany which rose out of the social protest movements of the 60's and 70's. One of the very first scenes shows police attacking peaceful student protesters, and the R.A.F. responds by blowing up a department store; the group continues to blow up buildings and execute the people it sees as fascists. Eventually the R.A.F. leaders are captured and subjected to horrific treatment in jail; but even then they have a huge following, particularly among the educated middle class. The movie does drag towards the end, but it's brilliant all the way through - and scary.

There are only two words that one can possibly use to describe Dead Snow, and those words are "Nazi" and "Zombies". Eight Norweigian university students go to a friends' isolated cabin to spend their winter break and accidentally awaken a sleeping evil from WWII. Again, can I just say Nazi zombies. Awesome.

I can't actually recommend the fourth film I've seen, as it was actually a selection of short films by the artist Len Lye. It was pretty amazing though - if you ever get a chance to check out his work, do!