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 jalapeƱos, 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.