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 clich├ęd 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.