28 March, 2009

Book 5 - The Lost Staircase

I have two weaknesses when it comes to reading. One is mystery-slash-detective stories (more on that later) and the other is British children's stories written in the first half of the 20th Century. You know, The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, The Famous Five... but I have a particular fondness for books of the Girls Own variety. You know, hockey sticks, midnight feasts, students wearing gymfrocks and calling everything "frightfully smashing!" Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers and St Clare's series are both in the middle of a revival, judging by my last visit to Borders, but my favourite Girls Own author is Elinor M.Brent-Dyer, whose best-known series, the Chalet School, spanned 45 years and 58 books - and she didn't even use a ghost writer. Take that, Francine Pascal and Ann M. Martin!

I've been collecting said series since I was about eight or nine and I'm still twelve books away from completing my collection. These days, the rarest of her hardbacks can go for hundreds of dollars, and I've even seen her paperbacks being sold for $150+. Naturally, the few I have left to go just so happen to be the rarest and the most expensive books to buy, but I live in hope.

Anyway, despite my absolute dedication to the Chalet School, I've never read any of Brent-Dyer's other books, so when a copy of The Lost Staircase came up for sale on trademe at a reasonable price I nabbed it!

Title: The Lost Staircase (1946)

Author: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Why this book?
Because of my deep abiding love for Brent-Dyer (see above).

What's it about, anyway?
Sir Ambrose Gellibrand has had his share of tragedies in life, and now, at the age of eighty, he has lost not only his children but all of his grandchildren as well. Realising that he is unlikely to live many more years, he contacts his last remaining heir, who will one day inherit the Dragon House, a large estate nestled on the Welsh border, dating back to the 16th Century.

His last remaining heir turns out to be Jesanne, a fourteen year old girl who is not pleased to be summoned away from her New Zealand farm and her beloved aunt by a cold and distant relative. Incidentally, Jesanne's full name is Jesanne Loveday Balthazar Gellibrand - awesome! What with all this emphasis on people nowadays calling their kids Jermajisty or Space Shuttle or Renesme or whatever, there's not enough children given ridiculously long romantic-sounding names. If I ever have a daughter I'm going to call her Jesanne Loveday Kickass Balthazar Dangerfield so that if she grows up to be a spy she will not only have an appropriate last name - Agent Dangerfield - but she'll also be able to say "Kickass is my middle name".

Anyway, as a 'Colonial', Jesanne struggles at first with the old-world niceties she is now expected to adopt. She doesn't understand why she's supposed to wear gloves outdoors, she hates the fact that she has a maid who actually dresses her in the mornings, and the 'dignity and solemnity' of the butler at mealtimes leaves her speechless. Jesanne is strong-willed, independent and proud, and it is unsurprising that she clashes with her cousin from the very first night of her arrival.

Still, as much as Jesanne misses her own country and her aunt, she slowly learns to love the Dragon House and its grounds. When Cousin Ambrose tells her of the legendary lost staircase, a flight of stairs leading the the Gellibrand's secret chapel which seems to have all but disappeared, her curiousity is piqued. With her cousin's guidance, and the help of her new friend Lois, Jesanne is determined to find out where the staircase is - and why it was hidden in the first place.

The good and the bad:
The worst part about doing a project on the history of book-making is that when I read that the Gellibrand family "Journall" was so old that its paper had been made from rags, and that its quality was inconsistent, I was immediately filled with girlish glee. But moving on.

As a 'Colonial' myself, I find Brent-Dyer's portrait of Jesanne's struggles in the UK to be fairly realistic. New Zealand has always prided herself on being a 'classless' society - and while this is arguably untrue, we have certainly never had the kind of class system that has existed in Britain. While Cousin Ambrose is no longer lord and master of the people in the nearby village, he does still consider it his noblesse oblige to help deal with any problems they face, and in turn relies on their (manual) help at times. The class divides are very prominent and it is only natural that Jesanne will notice this and react against it - although by the end of the book she has clearly absorbed her cousin's views and is prepared to one day take over his role.

Jesanne rebels against both of her authority figures, her cousin and her governess, Miss Mercier. But while Jesanne and Cousin Ambrose's relationship slowly improves to the point that they are able to love one another, Miss Mercier is never treated with much sympathy. It is obvious right from her introduction that she is meant to be an unappealing character; her voice is 'hard', her piano playing is very good, but 'mechanical' - she doesn't have the deeper level of understanding which would allow her to become a truly brilliant musician, and this same lack means she can never be anything but a passable teacher and an unsympathetic person. While Cousin Ambrose and Jesanne bond over their mutual love of the outdoors and animals, Miss Mercier think moonlight walks are silly, and is scared of all dogs, even puppies. While Cousin Ambrose is proud, even arrogant, he ultimately wants to do whatever is best for Jesanne, and is willing to adjust some of his own ideas and prejudices to do so. Miss Mercier, on the other hand, claims to be doing what is best for Jesanne when she is largely acting in her own self-interest.

What makes The Lost Staircase really stand out for me is Jesanne's family history, which is integral to unlocking the mysteries of architecture. How exactly does one misplace a stair? In the case of the Gellibrands, one does it by being Catholic during the wrong time in history - during the English Civil War - and having family members who, although fighting on opposing sides, are unwilling to betray each other. Unfortunately, this backstory is unlikely to make sense to anyone unfamiliar with the Civil War, and is probably the one thing which would make the book unreadable to modern children who would otherwise thoroughly enjoy the story.

So should I read it or what?
The Lost Staircase is very much a product of its time, with its unconscious classism and emphasised "Britishness". There is also a level of religious feeling to the book which I'm sure a lot of people would find off-putting, although as an atheist myself I had no problem with it, since Brent-Dyer's focus is always on the positive aspects of love, understanding and forgiveness. There's an almost innocent quality to the books given its fourteen-year-old protagonist; while Brent-Dyer is not shy on the subject of death, there are are no boys, no crushes, no peer pressure, and certainly no drink, drugs, sex or rock'n'roll - in short, none of the things that we would expect to be included in a book focusing on a contemporary teen heroine.

My judgement? If you know someone with a love for Girls Own, they'll love this book. Otherwise I'd save it for a bright eight- or nine-year-old who is not yet prepared for the ravages of teen angst.

25 March, 2009

Book 4 - The Graveyard Book

I've got a bit of a love-hate relationship going on with Neil Gaiman. I mean, not on a personal level. I don't know the guy, although I've heard he's followed around by screaming hordes of young, lithe women who want to have his slightly geeky literary babies. (This might be a slight exaggeration.)

No, my problem with Gaiman is that he seems to have women issues - sometimes. My two favourite books of his are both children's books, Coraline and MirrorMask, and both have the kind of capable female protaganists that I hope to offer to my future godchildren as the people they should grow up to be like. But both stories also feature mother-figure antagonists - dark parodies of the girls' real mothers - intent on keeping the girls as their own daughter-possessions. Does Mr Gaiman have mother issues? I've had some professional training in this area (at least, I once sat in on my friend's Psych 101 class) and I'm going to go ahead and say yes.

Then there's the women in his books for adults. The three most memorable women in American Gods are a goddess who works as a prostitute, Shadow's wife, who dies will giving his best friend a BJ, and Bast, who spends most of her time as a cat, only turning into a woman at night... in order to sleep with Shadow. And let's not even talk about Gaiman's short story reimagining of Narnia (I shall never think of Aslan the same way again).

For those of you playing at home, that's a tick for "sex issues" and a tick for "mother issues". Freud would be having a field day.

Despite all that, I do enjoy Gaiman's work, and considering that The Graveyard Book was about a child-orphan-protagonist I was interested to see how he'd break from his usual Oedipal mould. I'm glad that I did.

Title: The Graveyard Book (2008)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Why this book?
I got if for Christmas!

What's it about, anyway?
A baby boy's entire family is slaughtered one night but the baby boy escapes by crawling to a nearby graveyard. The people of the graveyard - its ghosts, and other members of the, uh, non-living community - adopt the baby, naming him Nobody, or Bod, for short.

Bod has a surprisingly idyllic childhood, watched over by his adoptive ghost parents and his guardians, Silas and Miss Lupescu. He makes friends with the ghost-children, and with Scarlett Perkins, one of the first live people he has contact with. As he grows, however, he struggles with the fact that as someone who is not yet dead he can not really be part of the graveyard's world; but as a human boy growing up among ghosts he can never be quite normal to those who are still alive.

Bod's adoptive family try to shield him from the harsh realities of the world, but his own curiosity drives him to try to discover who killed his parents, and why. The words "thrilling conclusion" could definitely be used here, and entirely without irony.

The good and the bad:
For the most part, this book was what I've come to expect (and love!) from Gaiman - the story is both quirky and chilling, at times light-hearted and at times pretty dark. Bod's encounter with the Sleer, an ancient underground monster, had me on the edge of my seat, as did his imprisonment by a living store-owner. All the characters were well-drawn, from Bod himself to the schoolyard bully, to Scarlett and her mother, to the Man Jack, Bod's family's murderer. Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a witch who was not buried in consecrated ground, is a particular treat.

I raced through most of the book in an ohgodwhathappensnext manner, but its conclusion stuck out rather uncomfortably for me. Scarlett, horrified at the way Bod has dealt with his family's killer, has her memories taken from her so that she will not only not remember the events that have transpired, but will forget Bod himself. This is more about Bod than it is about Scarlett - he behaves in a way that the people of the graveyard would completely condone, but which the living find positively inhuman. But the idea of taking away someone's memories is, to me, too much like assault - they're pretty much stealing part of Scarlett's self by doing so.

Then again, it could just be that I still haven't recovered from that episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor does exactly the same thing. Just thinking about it still makes me mad. >:(

So should I read it or what?
While Coraline remains my favourite Gaiman book (and probably one of my all time favourite books, period) The Graveyard Book is a fantastic read, and I didn't notice Gaiman's Oedipal complex at all. This one is definitely with a read - but don't just take my word for it! The ALA awarded it the 2009 Newbury Award, past winners of which include Louis Sachar's Holes and the excellent Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

24 March, 2009

Books 1, 2 and 3 - the Earthsea Trilogy

To start off this blog with a bang I give you not one, not two, but three books! OK, they're all part of the same series, but they still totally count.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

Why this book?
Le Guin's trilogy (OK, it's not a trilogy any more, but it began as one!) is one of the foundation stones of modern fantasy. As an avid fantasy-reader, I thought it was about time to find out what exactly it was that makes her books so good.

What's it about, anyway?
A Wizard of Earthsea kicks of the series with the story of Duny, a young boy who accidentally discovers he has a strong gift for magic. When his talents exceed those of his aunt, the local witch, he becomes apprentice to Ogion, a wizard, and gets a new name - Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk proves to be very ambitious, and leaves his master for a school for wizards, where he only becomes more arrogant. Eventually, his arrogance lets loose a spirit on the world, and kills the school's Archmage. Sparrowhawk loses his confidence entirely, but gradually comes to realise that he will have to face the spirit if he is ever to be made whole again.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, focuses on a girl, Tenar, who is named at a young age to be the reincarnation of a high priestess. Her position is a lonely one, and as she is often trying to avoid or ignore the cruel plots and cold political manoerves of the other priestesses, she has little understanding of human kindness. When she meets Ged - Sparrowhawk - at first she plans to kill him, until her own interactions with him lead her to instead contemplate leaving her lonely existence.

Finally, The Farthest Shore sees Sparrowhawk as Archmage, now a wise and mature man, who must deal with a crisis facing the whole of Earthsea - that magic is beginning to fade. Assisted by a young prince, Arren, Sparrowhawk sets out on a journey to find the source of magic's destruction. Ged's journey from boy to young man is paralleled here by Arren's, while Sparrowhawk's role is more of a mentor - like that of Ogion's. Eventually, Sparrowhawk and Arren journey right into the land of the dead to defeat their foe.

The good and the bad:
Le Guin is nothing if not a compelling story teller. All three books are beautifully written, and her world-building is superb. Her three protagonists - Ged, Tenar and Arren - are well-drawn, and their character development throughout each book is gradual and believable.

However, while I enjoyed all three books they are not without their faults. My biggest problem is with Le Guin's treatment of women. Female characters are frequently conniving, devious, power-hungry; women magic-users are seen as inferior to men. While Ged and Arren both have their 'mentors', Tenar has no similar female role model, and it is not without Ged's help that she is able to escape her fate. Having said that, this gender power imbalance is something that Le Guin herself recognises. In Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, which I have yet to read, she does her best to address the inequalities that exist in her world.

So should I read it or what?
If you're not into fantasy, then these books are definitely not for you. If you are, then I highly recommend both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. The Farthest Shore was less compelling - too similar in overall feeling to A Wizard of Earthsea for me to really enjoy it. But hey, if you read and love the first two, it's probably worth giving it a go!