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!

06 July, 2009

Book 17 - Destination Unknown, or: All redheads look the same to me

So this month is my favourite month of the year - the month that the International Film Festival hits town! Which includes the movie version of Coraline which has been out everywhere else since forever. This may cut into my reading time, though, since I'm planning on seeing at least nine movies over the next three weeks, and class starts up again on the 14th. Still, it's not like one update a week is totally arduous, so I'll do my best to keep to schedule! Meanwhile, I bring you another Agatha Christie - enjoy!

Title: Destination Unknown (1955)

Author: Agatha Christie

Why this book?
I went to the library to pick up a couple of books I wanted only to discover that none of them were readily available, which was kind of irritating. My back-up plan was to take out a couple of murder mysteries, and this was the only Christie on the shelf.

What's it all about anyway?
Hillary Craven has flown to Casablanca to kill herself. Her daughter has died, and her husband has left her, and she doesn't see that there's anything worth living for. But before she can take the large dose of sleeping pills she has collected, she is interrupted by a Mr Jessop. He tells her that if she's really so keen on killing herself, he's got a much better way.

Recently, it seems, a lot of Western scientists have been going missing - it's assumed that they've been defecting to the Soviet Union. The wife of one of the scientists, a Mrs Betterton, is suspected to have been flying out to join her husband; the plane she was on crashed, and she is now dying. Jessop wants Hillary to impersonate Mrs Betterton in order to find out what is really going on; they two both have the same mop of red hair, which is as much as she needs to pass for the other woman. What's more, she will almost certainly be killed during the mission if she accepts it. Hillary does; after all, one death is just as good as another.

Under her new identity as Mrs Betterton, Hillary meets her Soviet contact and finds herself on board a plane with a group of scientists who are preparing to defect from the West. But Hillary can't understand how a group of people with such different motives - fascism, money, communism - can all be going to create the same ideal world. Things only get stranger when she arrives at a hospital for lepers, and finds that Mr Betterton is prepared to pretend that she's his wife... there's definitely more going on than meets the eye.

Hillary realises that she no longer wants to die - but she might not even survive long enough to discover the truth, let alone to escape...

The Good and the Bad
First of all, I can't say the title of this book without breaking in to the second verse of OMC's How Bizarre. But that's probably just me.

This isn't the kind of book one usually associates with Christie - it's more thriller than murder mystery, and more adventure story than thriller. It's not nearly as strong as her murder mysteries, either, but her writing is as excellent as ever. She shows Hillary to be a strong, intellegent women, who is able to fight her way back, metaphorically, from the very pits of despair and find a whole new lease on life. Andy Peters, Hillary's love interest, has enough darkness to him that he's not too good to be true, but is good enough that we hope that whatever secrets he's hiding won't ruin his relationship with Hillary. And there's the usual satirical character descriptions:
"In an uncomfortable Empire-type chair, Miss Hetherington, who again could not have been mistaken for anything but travelling English, was knitting one of those melancholy shapeless-looking garments that English ladies of middle age always seem to be knitting. Miss Hetherington was tall and thin, with a scraggy neck badly arranged hair, and a general expression of moral disappointment in the universe."

The let-down of the book was really that Christie relied too much on the big reveal twist ending. Given some of the issues the book had touched on - charismatic leaders, ideals being hijacked by the power-hungry, and the East/West divide, it felt pretty weak. Without giving too much away, there is only one thing which isn't neatly tied up by the end, and it really felt like there should have been a lot more to it than that.

So should I read it or what?
The end was a bit of a let-down, but only because the rest of the book was so strong. This is definitely in the "I Couldn't Put It Down" category, and is therefore highly recommended!