Friday, 31 December 2010

Room, Emma Donoghue

It's Jack's birthday, and he's excited about turning five. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there's a world outside...
Told through the eyes of a five-year-old boy, at first Room seems to be a quirky family story about a family of mother and son. Their world is tiny, but to Jack, that's the way the world is. There's real, which is Room and everything in it, and then there's TV.

And then there's Old Nick, who is not Room and not TV. Upon the introduction of Old Nick, the perspective shifts and we discover what Jack hasn't realised: Room is a prison, and Ma is a young girl abducted and held captive in a soundproof shed. Once you realise this, you can't help but think of these real-life cases reported on the news that once uncovered were impossible to avoid, splashed all over the papers, monstrous crimes that must be exposed, and at the same time you step back to try to grant the victims privacy. With such subject matter, Room could so easily be unreadable, with an author trying to imagine the unimagineable, fictionalising a scenario that to its survivors were all too real for so many years, making the book feel intrusive or simply downright depressing. Donoghue manages to avoid this trap by using Jack, not Ma, as the protagonist, and for whom there is nothing sensational about his lifestyle - this is just the world.

Jack is a very bright child, yet he is only a child and he can only describe the world as he sees it. Through his limited vocabulary, describing what to him are the mundane realities of life, we get to understand the true horror Ma is concealing from him. As they plan their Great Escape I found myself getting very frustrated with Jack for his reluctance to leave and then his homesickness for Room and for saying or doing things that upset Ma, his mother who has been through so much trauma trying to protect him. But he is only five and this is the only world he knows.

The driving force of Room which keeps it from being morbid or mawkish is the love Ma has for her son, and her courage in trying to bring him up to the best of her ability, making a routine and refusing to give up. Perhaps in places the story seems to be too easily resolved, but you know it will never be easy for Ma and Jack to adjust to the outside world - a world which until a few weeks ago Jack didn't even know existed. Jack is still young, still learning, but I suspected it would take a long time for Ma to recover from seven years of imprisonment. Her love for Jack is consistantly shown to be the thing that helped her survive.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

2010: a review in books.

I began the year determined that 2010 would be The Year of the Reread, (well, mainly rereads!) devoted to rediscovering all my old favourites in four different genres: Classics, Classic Kids', Gothic and Fantasy. It started well enough, but working in a bookshop it's impossible to ignore all the shiny new books that call to me up to eight hours a day, and excluding the book I'm currently reading, I got through exactly the same number of new (to me) books as last year: 82.

So how did I do?


The goal: I plan to reread all of Jane Austen's novels. Also, something by Georgette Heyer. [...] something by each of the Brontes. A Tale of Two Cities, as one of my favourite novels of all time, plus a new Dickens that I've not yet read.

The reality: I got through two Austens: Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, two Heyers (so at least I'm in credit there: Frederica and The Masqueraders) but failed completely with the Brontes. I didn't read A Tale of Two Cities, but reread Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. My new Dickens was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, if that counts, being unfinished, and I also read Hamlet and three Sherlock Holmeses.

Children's Classics

The goal: I won't list them all here, but I planned to reread all the books that really summed up childhood for me, the books I lived more than merely read.

The reality: I didn't even get started on my L. M. Montgomery collection, except a new one for me: Pat of Silver Bush. Ditto my Katys or my Little House. I did manage to read a fair few school stories in the Chalet School and Trebizon series, and the complete set of a series I used to get only from the library: Penny by A. Stephen Tring. I reread Alice, A Little Princess, Heidi, The Railway Children and those Chronicles of Narnia I hadn't read in December 2009.


The goal: basically my reading list for my university Gothic Fiction novel, and other books that I felt ought to be in the canon.

The reality: In fact I had grown so tired of vampires and the like that I only bothered with Carmilla and Dracula before putting that part of the challenge on hold. I read a few modern teen gothic novels later in the year, but nothing classic.


The goal: David Eddings' Elenium, Julia Gray's The Guardian Cycle, everything by Robin Hobb and Cecelia Dart-Thornton, a Lord of the Rings reread, and some Pratchetts.

The reality: I got quite a decent amount of fantasy read this year, but with the exception of Lord of the Rings, and a couple of others, they were all by Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman. Or both.
Three Books I've Been Meaning To Read For Ages

These were the aforementioned Gaiman's Neverwhere - and once I read this one I had to see what else he had done. Definitely worth the wait! - Middlemarch by George Eliot and the Gormanghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I am still plodding through Middlemarch in between lighter works, but have not yet touched Gormanghast.
Wider Reading

Non-fiction: Three biographies: one on Giacomo Casanova, a wartime memoir and Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab is my Washpot.
Genre Fiction: six crime novels and three romances.
Set abroad: Australia - Pink by Lili Wilkinson
New Zealand - The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Canada - Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
Ireland - The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O'Shea. Part Ireland, part fairyland.
Europe - No and Me by Delphine De Vigan
Africa - two books from the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series.
Historical USA - The Help by Kathryn Stockett
At the end of September, I fortuitously stumbled into Speak Loudly, a campaign amongst book bloggers to prevent censorship of books in schools. I stopped being a lonely person sat at a computer sending the occasion review into the ether to be possibly read, possibly not, by about five people, and became a Book Blogger. Because of the nature of the campaign, most of the reviewers whose blogs I found myself following focused on teen and young adult books, and I was reminded that there is some good stuff out there for that age group - it's not all trash, and even the trash can be enjoyable.

Favourite reads of 2010

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I had been told to read this fantasy story of London Below about five years ago, and this year I finally discovered why. The London you might think you know is brought to life in a brand-new mythology in which there really is an Earl who holds court on an underground carriage, an Angel called Islington and Black Friars. A dark story packed full of imagination.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
This is one I was just drawn to in Foyle's bookshop in London (London Above, that is!) and on the strength of the cover I was determined to read. An impulse-buy, but well worth it.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The tale of three women in the Deep South at the time of the Civil Rights movement. One of the few multi-narrator books where I care for all three characters equally, touching, tragic and infuriating, but with a great heart and sense of humour.

Least favourite reads of 2010

One Day At A Time by Danielle Steel.
I wasn't expecting quality literature with this book, but I wanted to throw it across the room on average about once per page! Steel's writing style goes against everything I've been told in every creative writing lesson I've had since schooldays. She never shows if she can tell, and what she tells goes against the evidence of what little showing she does. And she repeats this telling incessantly. I mildly cared about the characters and their situations, but I couldn't get past the atrocious writing style.
This Time For Keeps by Dee Williams.
Ditto. Perhaps it's the romance genre - but light and fluffy doesn't need to equal bad writing.
Fallen by Lauren Kate and Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick.
Two Fallen Angel romances with drippy heroines. Fallen had some very good writing in it, but I found the relationship, if it can be called such, to be insubstatial and unrealistic. Crescendo was a sequel to Hush, Hush, which I found to be average but enjoyable, but with book two I was just relieved when it was all over.
So in conclusion: I may have failed miserably in my challenge this year, but I think I can be pleased with myself. In new reads and rereads I've managed to get through 131 books, not including the two I'm still reading. I went from blogging a couple of times every couple of months to updating several times a week, and from 5 followers (most of whom I knew anyway) to 64. In my turn, I discovered dozens of like-minded bookworms from all over the world, and enjoy swopping recommendations and making new discoveries through the book blogging community.

Happy New Year, and may 2011 bring you lots of joy (and many great new books!)

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Liar, Justine Larbalestier

Hi everyone! Sorry about the lack of updates in the last week or so. Life has been so busy in the run-up to Christmas that I haven't even had much time for reading. There have been carol services, Christmas parties, musical rehearsals and a heap of overtime at work that have kept me from my beloved books. But I aten't dead* - although for the second Christmas in a row I've had my worst cold of the year - and hopefully there will be regular updates again from now on. I've also merged this blog with my film and TV review site, because I didn't update that one often enough to justify having a separate blog.

I preordered the paperback of Liar on Amazon a couple of months ago, and it turned up at home on Christmas Eve, by which time I'd all but forgotten about it, so it really was a surprise Christmas present from myself to me.

Micah is a compulsive liar, always has been. When she started high school she passed for a boy for a little while, with a boy's name, short hair and underdeveloped figure. Lies lead to more lies until no one knows what to believe about her. But when her sort-of boyfriend dies suddenly, it is time for her to tell her story. The truth. Or at least her truth.

The clue is there in the title: Liar. Micah vows again and again to tell the truth in her story, and then contradicts herself: okay, that was a lie but everything I say from here on is true. Well... except that bit. Oh, and that.
I wanted to see if you would buy it. And you did.
You buy everything, don't you?
You make it too easy.
You find yourself wondering what, if anything, you have been told is the "truth" - and what, after all is the true version of a work of fiction? The narrator's account, even if she is a pathological liar? After all, Micah is the only narrator we have. Are we supposed to read between the lines to understand what the author wants us to believe really happened? Many works of literature give you clues towards an alternative interpretation, but Larbalestier doesn't give us anything to go by except Micah's words, and as we have established, these can't be trusted. Instead, the reader has to draw their own conclusions, so that the book has as many meanings as it has readers.

It seems straight-forward enough at first, a contemporary crime story set among New York high school students. Halfway through, there is a sudden shift in genre which led me to think, "this is ridiculous! Surely we're not meant to believe that in this story?" It seems clear, at first, when Micah is telling the truth and when she is lying, then everything is shaken up and you're not sure what's what any more. Micah argues that she lies because we wouldn't believe the truth, and "maybe I lie because the world is better the way I tell it." We're left with a choice. We can accept her final version of her story, discard the parts she's confessed to be untrue and accept her story at face value. Or we can wonder, speculate and come to our own conclusions. I think I know my version of events, but to say more would be straying into spoiler territory.

A very intelligent read that will end up asking more questions than it answers.

*Terry Pratchett

Friday, 17 December 2010

Film: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Contains spoilers

I was both wary and childishly excited to see the film version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because it has been one of my favourite books since my dad sat me down, opened a book and read: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Of course the film adaptation was never going to be the movie that has been in my head since that day, but it wasn't bad for someone else's vision.

The opening scenes, in England, set the scene for us. It seems that a few years have passed since the events of Prince Caspian. In the books it is only one year, but here it seems to be about three, to account for the aging of the child actors into teenagers. It is still wartime, a detail which is only mentioned briefly in the books, and only in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but which provides continuity, as well as a reason for Edmund and Lucy to be staying with Eustace's family. Lucy is no longer the little girl who causes a universal "awww," but a young woman. Edmund is trying to pass for eighteen to join the armed forces. After all, he has plenty of battle experience, if the sword-and-shield variety.

The dialogue starts off a little clunky in places as the film establishes how things have changed for the characters since Prince Caspian, but we are introduced to the wonderful character of Eustace Scrubb. Played by Will Poulter, Eustace is every bit as obnoxious as he is in the book, but amusingly so, full of inflated ideas of his own brilliance. In my review of the book, I wrote that Eustace is rather a caricature until his experience on Dragon Island, but that being said, he is certainly more fun as such. The events of the book are jiggled around a bit and put into a different order, but this doesn't matter as it is an episodic book, with each island holding its own adventures, in stand-alone mini-stories that make up a bigger picture.

In my review of the book, I wrote that what I liked about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was that it was an adventure for the sake of it, exploration and searching for missing family friends, but not a life-and-death, world-saving quest. Alas, that was lost in the film by the introduction of an Evil, manifested in a green mist, which is infecting Narnia and the rest of the world. For some reason, this can be banished by the swords of Caspian IX's missing friends, Lords Bern, Restimar, Rhoop and the rest. This means that the narrative is chopped up and shuffled around like a jigsaw, and some new plotlines added to make it a more linear narrative - evidently the film-makers didn't like the episodic nature of the book, or felt it wasn't quite film material. Most of the ingredients for the plotline were taken from the book, small moments taken and expanded into subplots. In the book, Lucy is tempted to recite a spell to make her beautiful, because she is jealous of Susan being "the pretty one." Here, this is taken a step further, and Aslan shows her of the consequences of her being Susan in an It's A Wonderful Life sort of scenario.

The valiant mouse warrior Reepicheep, voiced now by Simon Pegg, is a wonderful character, who has come straight from the pages of the book, fearless, pure-hearted and chivalrous, and the scenes between him and Eustace are some of the best, whether they be amusing ("Nobody. Touches. The Tail.") or heartwarming, and frequently both.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a looser adaptation of the C. S. Lewis book than Prince Caspian and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a less perfect film than Lion, at least. Still, as the credits rolled (over the original Pauline Baynes illustrations from the books, a fact that made me squeal like a preteen!) I begged, "can we see it again?" I will certainly be going to see the film again before it leaves the cinemas.

Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood, Eileen Cook

When she was in eighth grade, Helen's best friend Lauren humiliated and betrayed her in order to start high school in the popular group. Helen moved away with her family for three years, but now she's back and she wants revenge.

I started reading this book a little bit on my moral high horse: Revenge is bad, forgiveness is good, and at first that interfered a little with my enjoyment of Lauren Wood. On the other hand, there was that little dark side of me that remembered being bullied in school and appreciated seeing the nasty kid getting her comeuppance, quite safely within the pages of a book.

I wasn't quite convinced by the realism of this book. Firstly I debated whether it was believable for a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl to still be obsessing over an event that happened when she was fourteen. And it is obsession - in her three years away from her old school she stalks Lauren through her Facebook (that girl seriously needs to sort out her privacy settings on her profile page!) She is unable to put this event behind her and move on. Then again, she was fourteen, a very vulnerable age at which anything that happens is the most important thing in the world, and Lauren had been her best friend for her whole life up to that point. I know from experience that it is harder to get over trust issues caused by a supposed friend than a known enemy, because you've let that person inside the walls that keep others out, making it a more devastating sabotage to your life.

But we are expected to believe that Helen has changed enough over three years to make her unrecogniseable, by losing some weight, cutting her hair and having a nose job, so that she can call herself by her middle name (Claire) and mother's maiden name. I didn't think so, but was quite willing to suspend my disbelief to watch the drama unfold. The plot was fairly predictable, and although Helen-Claire, the boy she liked, and Brenda, the friendly girl who wasn't part of the in-crowd and therefore had to be befriended in secret, were pretty well realised, Lauren could quite easily be Regina George from Mean Girls and her two closest friends, Bailey and Kyla (why are there always two cheerleader/popular girl minions?) looked in my mind like Brittany and Santana from Glee!

All in all, Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood was a trashy but enjoyable guilty-pleasure read. And it has a brilliant cover.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Pink - Lili Wilkinson
Just As Long As We're Together - Judy Blume
Film: Mean Girls

Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

At the beginning of Banned Books week in September, the Speak Loudly internet campaign reminded me that among the rubbish, there is a lot of important and good-quality young adult fiction about, and I returned to Speak, one of my favourite books when I was about sixteen. Anderson's mixture of humour and tragedy, poetry and really serious issues that made you think, and I was excited to read another of Laurie Halse Anderson's novels.

I found Wintergirls to be a much more disturbing and difficult read than Speak, full of poetic and creative imagery, but lacking the latter's humour. Its central character is Lia, an eighteen-year-old girl who is trapped in a dark, cold world of anorexia and self-harm. Cassie, the girl who was her best friend since third grade, has just died, killed by her own eating disorder, and added to Lia's troubles is the knowledge that Cassie had tried to call her that night, not once but thirty-three times.

Unlike Speak, whose sad, lonely protagonist was one I could recognise all too well in myself, I found it difficult to identify with Lia, and found myself baffled and frustrated to read her thoughts and know all too well where she's all wrong. A few years ago, I was with a friend of a friend who was stick-thin and counting calories on the back of a pot of pasta salad. I could see she had a problem, but I felt helpless, knowing that I couldn't get through to her telling her that someone of her age and size shouldn't even know what a calorie was. Reading Wintergirls provoked the same reaction, and I felt quite baffled and adrift in Lia's thoughts. It was clear from early on that her goal of losing more weight wasn't about looking slim to be pretty, but a target to aim for, and keep aiming for. When she achieves her goal of losing five pounds, she sets herself five more to lose.
"The number doesn't matter. If I got down to 070.00, I'd want 065.00. If I weighed 010.0, I wouldn't be happy until I got down to 005.00. The only number that would ever be enough would be 0. Zero pounds, zero life, size zero, double-zero, zero point. Zero in tennis is love. I finally get it."
Now, I'd always been told that "eating disorders are mental illness," and "it's not about losing weight, but control," but I'd never really been able to understand this. Books I'd read as a teen exploring the issue, tended to be rather two-dimensional: girl (because they're always girls in the books) thinks she's fat, girl goes on a diet, girl keeps pushing to lose a little more weight, family starts to worry, girl thinks they shouldn't worry, girl admits she has a problem, girl gets treatment.

Wintergirls has many more dimensions. As an outsider I found Lia difficult to fully sympathise with: she knows she's got a problem, why doesn't she want to be helped? At the same time, as an insider - reading her thoughts in first person - I found her hard to understand. Then I realised, Lia was trapped, didn't understand her own thoughts. Anderson uses a great deal of poetic imagery, which could be very effective but I couldn't always understand what she was trying to say. Again, perhaps this was a deliberate decision - to portray a messed-up mind, where madness and reality mix and mingle to create a new reality. Wintergirls evoked in me pity more than empathy, and I think I will need to read it more than once to pick up on what I missed the first time around.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis

One evening, when I was seven or eight years old, my father sat me and my sister down and told us he was going to read us a bedtime story: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We were introduced to "a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it," in one of the best opening passages of any book I'd read before or since. About a page later, my delight increased as I recognised the names of Eustace's cousins: Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, and realised that there were more Narnia stories than I had realised!

There is no doubt about it: there is no more insufferable brat than Eustace Scrubb ("His parents called him Eustace Clarence, and masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.") at least in the first half of the Dawn Treader. When he finds himself on a gorgeous ship in a magical land, he proceeds to make himself as disagreeable as possible by being selfish, lazy, greedy and a know-it-all. I can't help but think that Lewis was was  making fun of modern sensibilities of the time in the character of Eustace, whose parents were "vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes," radical in some ways and standing for no nonsense. Of course, as far as Lewis was concerned, a bit of nonsense is essential to the human existance (and I have to say I quite agree with him.) Eustace is rather a caricature at first, but after a rather traumatic experience, he shapes into a decent and fairly three-dimensional character, who reappears as a protagonist in two later Narnia books.

One of my favourite characters in the Chronicles of Narnia plays a major part in this story. Reepicheep was introduced in Prince Caspian and his character expanded here: a fearless warrior, pure of heart, full of adventure and chivalry, he contains all of the best character traits of any of King Arthur's knights. And he is a mouse.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my very favourite book of an outstanding series of children's books, for its sheer scope of adventure and imagination. In this book, Edmund, Lucy and Eustace join King Caspian X on an epic journey to explore the lands beyond the boundaries of Narnia, and to find out what has happened to Caspian's father's greatest friends who were banished from the kingdom of Narnia by his evil uncle, King Miraz. Reepicheep has an additional adventure planned: to sail to Aslan's own country or perish in the attempt. The group visit a number of very different islands and face a variety of dangers along the way. It is a rather episodic story, with self-contained adventures on each island: Dragon Island, Deathwater, and the terrifying darkness of the Island Where Dreams Come True. (Not daydreams. Nightmares.) All are brought to life in delicious detail, full of adventure and possibility. My favourite part of all is the Island of the Voices, where Lucy must go upstairs in a magician's house and perform a spell from an enormous spellbook whose magic comes not only off its own pages, but out of the novel itself.

Most of all, I love The Voyage of the Dawn Treader best because this shows Narnia in a time of peace and prosperity. This is no life-or-death race against time to save the whole world, or protect the country; this is pure adventure for the fun of it, because they can.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been made into a live action film which is showing in cinemas now. (I shall be seeing it later this week.)

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Fixing Delilah, Sarah Ockler

Fixing Delilah isn't even available to buy in the UK yet, but thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to order a US copy of the book. I commented in my review of Ockler's first novel, Twenty Boy Summer, that the US paperback has a different texture to it than a UK one. Fixing Delilah is a hardback book, but I still found enough little differences that interested me: the copyright page has more information in it. Under the heading of Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data a twitter-sized synopsis and hashtag or blog-label-style details of the book's contents, such as Secrets, Family problems and Vermont.

Delilah Hannaford is a troubled teenager who doesn't seem to know who she is any more. We get to see her inner turmoil first:
"Despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm really not the car-denting kind of girl. I'm also not the lipstick-stealing, school-skipping, off-in-the-woods-with-someone-I-barely-know kind of girl, or the kind who loses all of her dignity over a scandalous cell phone picture on a trashy blog."
Like Twenty Boy Summer, this is a holiday book, and we don't get to see Delilah at school. We get an idea of what her school life is, though, and I have an impression of a character I probably wouldn't sympathise with if I didn't get to know her from the inside out, so to speak. If portrayed through the eyes of someone else, or possibly even with a third-person narrator, I would probably see her as one of the popular kids, maybe a bit shallow, messed up, one of the cool kids who I'd probably have nothing to do with if I were in their class. But because Ockler presents Delilah as narrator, I found her, if not always likeable, identifiable. Because I know well enough what it is like to appear like one person and feel like another, to find myself doing things I really don't want to. And reading Fixing Delilah, I found myself thinking, "maybe we're not so different after all," the "cool" kids and the outsiders, the "good" girls and the "bad."

Not only does Delilah feel lost, but her relationship with her mother is a mess. Claire Hannaford sees that Delilah is "seeking attention" but won't give her any, doesn't try to understand why her daughter's gone off the rails; she is far too caught up being an efficient businesswoman, successful but stressed, to think of family. Alternatively, perhaps it is too painful - if Delilah's relationship with her mother is strained, it is nothing compared with the extended family. Eight years ago, Claire, her sister Rachel, and her mother Elizabeth had such an argument that they have never spoken since, and now Elizabeth, Delilah's grandmother is dead. Delilah, Claire and Rachel return to Red Falls, Vermont, to sort through Elizabeth's belongings and make her house ready to put on the market. While there, Delilah starts trying to find out the secrets in the family's past, secrets that appear to be focused on Claire and Rachel's youngest sister, Stephanie, who died before Delilah was born.

Family is the main theme of Fixing Delilah. There are many parallels with Delilah and her dead aunt Stephanie. They look alike, Delilah was Stephanie's middle name, Delilah was conceived not long after Stephanie was buried. Though as far as I noticed there was no hint of a throwaway remark on the subject of reincarnation, the idea flitted across my mind. More realistically, there was the threat of history repeating itself. Delilah worries that perhaps the problems with the family are inescapable, that perhaps her relationship with her mom is doomed to go the same way as Claire's with her mother. But ultimately, this is a story about reconciliation, and taking responsibility for one's own future and relationships. I didn't like all of the characters all the time, especially Delilah's mom, or the memory of her Nana, but ultimately we are presented with a story about realistic, flawed characters who, like Delilah (and like myself) aren't always the person they seem to be, despite all the evidence.

Sarah Ockler excels in setting the scene, in writing simple description that captures a scene, a sound or a moment perfectly. In Twenty Boy Summer, it is the sound of the sea: Shhh, ahhh. Shhh, ahhh. Here we have the cool, robotic voice of the Sat-Nav system: Left turn in four. Hundred. Feet. Like Twenty Boy Summer this is a holiday story, but instead of the California beaches we are treated to a trip to Red Falls, Vermont. Now, Vermont is a state I know nothing about. I imagine it cold and sweet, probably because it  is the home of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Red Falls is certainly sweet, flavoured with maple syrup candy from the trees that no doubt give the town its name. Cold - not so much. It is a summer story, after all. Reading it in a chilly English December, it took a bit of brain-adjustment to get my head around Delilah's romantic interest Patrick working on the house shirtless, or taking her kayaking and swimming on the lake. That aside, I had a vivid image of a small, rather quaint lake town that is increasingly becoming a tourist-trap in summer. I'd quite happily visit it, minus, of course, the Hannaford family troubles.

If you liked this book, you might enjoy:

Twenty Boy Summer - Sarah Ockler
The Sky is Everywhere - Jandy Nelson
Hold Still - Nina LaCour
The Book of Tomorrow - Cecelia Ahern

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis.

I can't remember a time when I didn't know the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Realistically, it probably wasn't the first book I ever read, but I have no memory of it being new to me, of not knowing this book, and then discovering it for the first time. Looking it up online, I discover that the BBC's Sunday night family drama adaptation of this book was aired in November 1988 - or just after my third birthday, and before any but my very earliest memories.

I do remember being told that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a Christian allegory and that Aslan represented Jesus in a fairy-tale setting. Being a good little Sunday School girl I just nodded and thought, "but of course!" though I don't know if I'd worked it out myself before being told, or whether it just made sense. Quite probably, the word "allegory" was not one I would have used myself at such a young age, precocious child though I may have been.

There is no doubt that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe played a crucial part in forming my love of reading. It kick-started my realisation that stories could help me to understand the world and opened up to me the world of possibilities, to the magical nature of a really good book. Like War Drobe in Spare Oom, books could take me to far away lands. I wanted so much to discover Narnia for myself. For many years the back of my own wardrobe was decorated with a childishly-drawn map of Narnia, with movable figures: a Lucy, a faun and of course the lamp post, tiny figures to give the idea of perspective, that this was a "simply enormous wardrobe" containing a whole world. Even as an adult, if I stay in a new bedroom, I have to check the wardrobe. Just in case. Four or five years ago, I went on holiday with my family to Ireland. On the first night we stayed in a wonderful guesthouse that seemed to have come straight from a children's book, with delicious food, a kitchen that seemed to belong in a Famous Five adventure, and in one of the bedrooms a magnificent wardrobe, the sort of wardrobe where Things Happen. My sister and I (aged 18 and 20 at the time) took one look at each other - and raced each other to the wardrobe. Of course, there was nothing there - but there could have been.

I have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe probably more often than any other book in my life (except perhaps Anne of Green Gables) and still it doesn't lose its charm. The details are as fresh as ever - exactly what Lucy had for tea with Mr Tumnus, and all the different varieties of toast - a detail that was not lost on the makers of the latest film adaptation. Lewis's narrative voice is another important part of the book's magic - he writes as if he were a favourite uncle, which adds a cosiness as if being read to. Indeed, I feel that this is a book meant to be read aloud, and sometimes baffle my family when they hear my voice reading aloud and they are well aware there's no one else with me. I am adopted-aunt to my friend's twin daughters and I am looking forward to the day when they are old enough for me to read this book to them. When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I feel that I am eight years old again, in an endless summer holiday, and that the door into Narnia is just a few metres away, through my very own wardrobe. This is not just a story for me, but an intrinsic part of my childhood. I am quite sure it is part of what made me who I am today.

I haven't yet found my way into Narnia through my own wardrobe, but nevertheless, the books crammed onto its top shelf open the doors into many other worlds.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Book Blogger Hop, 3/12/10

Me and Roderick the Snowman.
I take no credit for Roderick, he's
Dad's creation. I merely named him.
 It's Friday again, and here on the Isle of Wight there is a pretty thick layer of snow everywhere, very unusual indeed, and especially at this time of year. The white Christmasses you imagine while reading A Christmas Carol just don't happen. I'm bundled up in two jumpers and have purchased one of those slightly ridiculous-looking bobble hats with ear flaps - but it keeps me warm, and that's the important thing.

I'm hoping that the snow doesn't stay too long, though, because I've got three new books on order and the postman hasn't been getting through:

Fixing Delilah - Sarah Ockler
Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood - Eileen Cook
Wintergirls - Laurie Halse Anderson

The Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
Hosted by Jennifer at Crazy for Books

This week's Blog Hop question:
"What very popular and hyped book in the blogosphere did you NOT enjoy and how did you feel about posting your review?"
Anything with angels in it, but in particular Becca Fitzpatrick's Crescendo, sequel to Hush, Hush. In the first place I have a problem with the glib usage of Angels as The New Vampire, which bear no resemblance to angels as I understand them. Vampires, too, being The New Mr Darcy don't rememble vampires at all. Instead, you've got a kind of Interchangeable Dangerous Magical Boyfriend Creature. But on top of that I didn't care for the story much, or the character relationships. When I posted my review, I was apologetic that I couldn't give a positive review, mostly because I didn't want to upset the author if she stumbled on my post. But I had to be honest. A good review means nothing if you write nothing but good reviews.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

It's the beginning of December, and for the first time I can remember at this time of year, there is a thick layer of snow on the ground. A drunken-looking snowman named Roderick is staring through the dining room window with his brussels sprouts for eyes, wearing a college scarf and mittens. Yesterday I went shopping for Christmas nibbles: sugared almonds, turkish delight, chocolate mints, etc. It was the perfect time for my annual re-read of A Christmas Carol.

I'm not going to recap the story here, as we all know it, even if we've never read the book. If it's not Mickey Mouse, it's the Muppets - everyone knows at least one version of the Charles Dickens classic. After all, it is something that has helped to shape what we think of as an old-fashioned Christmas. The words Scrooge, and "Bah! Humbug!" are universally recognised and applied to anyone who expresses anything but unconditional joy in the festive season. But on this reading, I found myself thinking that it is not Scrooge's dislike of tinsel and plum pudding that is his doom, but his callousness towards his fellow man. To Dickens the social commentator, celebrating Christmas is more than a time to be jolly and eating a big meal with the family, before arguing about whether to watch the Queen's Speech or the EastEnders doom-and-gloom seasonal special on TV. It's more than pretending to be grateful for the socks and reindeer jumper knitted by Granny.* Scrooge's nephew puts it best:
"I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therfore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it."
Ross Kemp as Eddie Scrooge in a
21st century take on the tale.
Christmas is interchangeable with remembering the one who the festival is named for and showing unconditional love to everyone, friend or stranger, and especially those with nothing. This is the author of Oliver Twist, after all. It surprised me that it was the jolly giant, the Ghost of Christmas Present, who showed the harshest judgement of Scrooge's callousness, quoting his own lines about surplus population, prisons and workhouses, back at him while his heart has been touched for the first time in a cold, cruel life. It is the Ghost of Christmas Present who reveals mankind's starving children: Ignorance and Want, in a scene often left out of adaptations. After all, Ignorance and Want are subjects that need to be addressed now, in Christmas Present, not in some dim and distant future.

Michael Gambon and classical singer
Katherine Jenkins are set to star with
Matt Smith in this year's Doctor Who
Christmas Special.
There are so many adaptations of the book: animated and live-action, colour and black-and-white, period and modern-day, that it would be impossible,or at least, highly impractical, to watch them all over one year. The first I ever saw was a very short version, Mickey's Christmas Carol, and I recently saw for the first time last year's Disney animated film with the voice of Jim Carrey. I'm not usually a fan of Carrey's acting - he tends towards melodramatic overacting in my opinion - but this was a remarkable adaptation, taken almost word-for-word and scene-for-scene from the book. Most of the moments that you might think were added for effect were in fact taken directly from Dickens' own words, and it would be a good one to watch for someone put off by Dickens' wordy style. (This is, after all, the author who takes a page to establish that "Marley was dead, to begin with," a page to illustrate that the French revolution occurred at a time much like any other and that people couldn't describe if it was good or bad.) There is an excellent modern-day version starring Ross Kemp, once a Mitchell from EastEnders, and even Doctor Who appears to be getting in on the act for its Christmas Special this year. But there is one version that I have to watch every December, that Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without: The Muppet Christmas Carol.

All together now...
"There goes Mr. Humbug,
There goes Mr. Grim.
If they gave a prize for being mean,
The winner would be him..."

*Actually, if you look in the shops, there are a lot of jumpers with reindeer motifs and suchlike.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Adults, why do you read YA?

Katie as a skinny, scruffy teenager, aged about 14

After reading a blog post by Anna, I found myself wondering about my own reasons for reading young adult fiction, and came to the conclusion that there wasn't just one reason. Until fairly recently, it was a genre I hadn't read a lot of since I was a teenager, although I had never entertained the notion of being too old for children's books. I suppose I considered Young Adult to be a rather exclusive genre, for teens, about teens, and generally a bit rubbish. There were some series - Harry Potter, which started as kids' fiction and ended up quite adult - and Twilight, which were being read by everybody, but in general I considered teen fiction angst or fluff. Or angsty fluff.

Then came the start of the new school year, Banned Books Week and the Speak Loudly campaign, and I was reminded that some YA fiction books were pretty good, and others were very good indeed. Although I'd been quietly keeping the Book Blog for about two years, with maybe six followers, that was when I really became aware of the book blogging community. I decided to do a YA mini-challenge in October, but as I followed more blogs, the list of recommendations grew longer and longer, until it wouldn't fit in one month, or two. And so many bloggers are adults who read YA. Why is that?

My Answers
  1. Now that I'm out of that stage of life, and distanced from it, the teenage years make a good story. The drama, the relationships - friends and romantic - the mistakes made, lessons learned, character development - it's better than any soap opera. Even Corrie with its tram crash coming up (!) Which brings me to...
  2. I mentioned character development, and that is a crucial part of any story for me. The teenage years are when you really start to become your own person, and that is reflected in a good-quality teenage novel, that is not just for teenagers.
  3. Katie age about 18,
    less scruffy, but still skinny
    I am 25, and starting to feel like I really ought to be an adult by now. Unfortunately, the last few year haven't let me feel that way. After leaving uni with a top degree, when all my hopes were high, I found the country in recession and had to move home, where I found a job that would better suit a student. I don't feel twenty five, I feel seventeen, and many of the issues YA characters face don't seem so far from my own.
  4. Somehow it seems there are more possibilities in children's and teen fiction than in adult. Fantasy and reality can be mixed and matched, and not constrained by the rules to which mainstream adult fiction seems limited.
  5. Also, more frivolously, there are so many beautiful YA book covers. The now overused Twilight was the first, but now YA publishers seem to be moving away from the bandwagon-hopping black and red trend that had been creeping over the shelves, there are some gorgeous books that just scream out to be read.
  6. Another, even more frivolous reason is that they take less time to read than an average adult novel and with my greed to inhale as many stories as possible (and blog frequently) that is a minor bonus.

Diamond Star Halo, Tiffany Murray

On my last visit to Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I was determined to find something brand-new. A book I hadn't seen in high street shops, that jumped off the shelves and shouted "buy me!" An impulse buy. After all, there's no point making a trek all the way up to London to buy something I could have got from my workplace. On my previous visit I discovered Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver - I didn't buy it then, but I was immediately drawn to it and knew I'd like it. Then, last month, it was Diamond Star Halo.

Halo, or to give her full name, Diamond Star Halo Llewellyn, lives at an old farm that is now used as a recording studio. When she is about five years old a band called Tequila arrive; eight golden-haired, bearded brothers and Jenny, the sixteen-year-old wife of the lead singer. When a tragedy occurs, Tequila leave behind them Jenny and Abraham's baby son, Fred. The years go by and as a teenager Halo realises she is in love with Fred - but although they are not related by blood, he might as well be her brother. At seventeen Fred follows in his parents' footsteps and becomes a rock star, while the family faces further sorrow.

Diamond Star Halo is a quirky novel about family, rock'n'roll and Crazy Love. The narrative feels slightly skewed, with everything seen through rock'n'roll and myth-tinted glasses. Important family events are muddled up with big events of musical history, such as Elvis's death. Halo is named after a line in a T.Rex song. The Llewellyns, especially Nana Lew, tell colourful and improbable versions of the family history that leave you wondering what is real and what is a fabrication - rather like the stories of Edward Bloom in Big Fish. For example, the official story is that Halo's mum was born in a dressing-table drawer (placed there by her birth mother, an unwed hotel maid, during the Blitz, and found by her adoptive mother.) Halo, everybody says, was literally born to be a drummer. The narration becomes a little strange when Halo, the narrator, speaks in such great detail about the ghosts of her three great-uncles killed in the First World War, that I didn't know where the line was to be drawn. Are we expected to believe in the literal existance of these ghosts, or is her imagination working overtime? In the end, it doesn't really matter.

I found myself reminded of Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B Flat, another Welsh novel, with a child narrator who presents the world as she understands it, with truth and imagination blurred, and sometimes misunderstanding what is really going on.

I found some aspects of Halo a little uncomfortable to read. Fred is too nearly her brother for their relationship with each other not to feel wrong and a bit squeam-inducing. Characters are sexually precocious, behaving like adults while young teenagers, and teenagers when pre-teen. Conversely Halo's narration seemed to be that of a younger child until she was sixteen. Perhaps for this reason, I found the timeline a little difficult to follow, especially around the teenage section. Although Part II is subtitled 1988 (when Halo is 16) there are flashbacks to a few years previously, and I found it ambiguous whether the flashback covered a single scene or a longer passage, if the narrative hopped back a few years before hopping forward again, or shuffling gradually through the 1980s towards the "present" time.

Overall I give Halo 3 and a half stars. For personal engagement with the story, I give three - perhaps there were just too many quirks to the Llewellyn family to make them quite real - but I award an extra half star for the work's literary merits, as it is a well-written, original and intelligent novel.
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