Sunday, 28 August 2011

A Little Stranger - Candia McWilliam

When Daisy needs a nanny for her toddler son, she thinks 22-year-old Margaret Pride is perfect: sensible if a little old-fashioned and reserved, firm but immediately beloved by the child. Yet as the new nanny becomes established in the household, her behaviour doesn't always quite add up, and it becomes apparent that Margaret is not all she seems.

Perhaps I was influenced by having read the back blurb of the book, but from the very first pages I did not trust Margaret. Although narrator Daisy describes her in positive terms: "pretty," "warm," "eager to please," Margaret's own actions and words come across as stiff, stuffy and unnatural. Her first words are a firm triple negative: "No. Never. Not at all." She says "I am," and "I do not" instead of the more natural-sounding "I'm" and "I don't," and her emphasis on neatness - wanting to wear a uniform to work, shunning jeans - makes her seem much older than her young age. These small details, though subtle, put a distance between Margaret and the reader. She never quite seems comfortable, and as such, I never felt comfortable around her. As the book progresses, Margaret's behaviour seems strange, sometimes suspicious, but Daisy seems completely oblivious. I found myself wanting to shout at the narrator for not seeing through her nanny's facade.

McWilliam sets many parallels between the two women. Daisy, after all, used to be used as a nickname for Margaret, and as Margaret weasels her way into the heart of the household, Daisy retreats from the family. Margaret takes on a role as substitute mother for John, and mistress of the house. And it's not only Margaret who isn't all she seems. Daisy, in her seeming oblivion, is an unreliable narrator, and we learn more from what she shows, rather than what she tells us.

A Little Stranger is an intriguing book with a menacing atmosphere. At 145 pages, it is more of a novella than a novel, yet it still took me a while to read. It is long enough for Daisy to spend chapters navel-gazing, reflecting upon her past, and much of the prose is heavily tinted in purple. I felt at times that McWilliam tried too hard to be "literary." Daisy's world seems very old-fashioned, set in an upper middle-class home with nannies and other servants. Except for a few references to (for example) cassette tapes, I would have place this story in the early 20th century, between the wars.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesdays: Unreviewed books

I've kept this blog for three years now, but only in the last year have I been updating it regularly, posting reviews of most of my reading material - but not all. If I don't review a book, it doesn't necessarily mean that I didn't like it; on the contrary, there are several books I've loved so much that I just haven't been able to do them justice. In other cases, I feel that a review would be just an inferior rehash of the book's synopsis and a "This is great! Read it!"

Top Ten Tuesdays are a weekly blog feature held at The Broke and the Bookish, and this week the challenge is to list ten of the books we'd love to share with other bibliophiles, but which for one reason or another we haven't reviewed.

1. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak. The story of a little girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Narrated by Death. Beautiful, eye-opening and heartbreaking.

2. The Help - Kathryn Stockett. This novel has recently been turned into a film which is now (USA) or soon (UK) showing in cinemas. Three women in 1960s Mississippi unite to challenge people not just to accept "the way things are" but to really think about their attitudes towards race, primarily, as well as class and gender.

3. Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A Cult classic, written by two great names in modern fantasy, before they were really famous, Good Omens shows the bumbling efforts of Aziraphale (angel) and Crowley (an angel who did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards) to prevent Armageddon. Hilarious and quotable, with a brilliant cast of characters, Good Omens is fun to play "guess-who-wrote-which-bit" with. (Apparently even they aren't quite sure.)

4. Fingersmith - Sarah Waters. With deliberate parallels to Oliver Twist, this page-turner keeps you guessing and brings to life the murky underworld of Victorian England.

5. The Earth Hums in B Flat - Mari Strachan. A quirky family story set in 1950s Wales, told by an imaginative 12-year-old who takes it upon herself to investigate the disappearance of a local man, opening up more cans of worms than anyone could have foreseen.

6. Crow Lake - Mary Lawson. Another family story, this time Canadian. Not a lot really happens, to be honest, but it's a story with characterisation strong enough for that not to matter. A short read, maybe 200 pages or so, but one which really draws you into the family's world.

7. The Tales of Beedle the Bard - J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter fans will know of at least one of the fairy tales, as it is a critical part of the final novel. There are five fairy tales in all, simple but flawless - and one rather gruesome one! The book is enhanced by explanatory notes on each tale from Professor Albus Dumbledore himself, and his musings are typically whimsical yet philosophical.

8. The Company of Liars - Karen Maitland. The year is 1348, and a band of misfits travel across England, trying to avoid the Black Plague. Many are on the run, all have strange tales to tell, but can they trust each other? This book ended on a twist which led me to want to read it all over again, to see if the new knowledge would change the way I read it.

9. The Distant Hours - Kate Morton. Ms Morton has written three novels now, and has pretty well established a recogniseable pattern of family tales, linked through the generations. This doesn't mean her stories are formulaic, though. Far from it! The Distant Hours is a modern gothic tale with all the best parts of such a story: an old house, mysterious sisters bound together by their past, and at the heart of it all, another story.

10. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series - Alexander McCall Smith. This is a lovely, cosy series of books set in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe's cases may not be dramatic compared to a New York detective, but every one is taken seriously, because every case is important to the person who is asking for help. McCall Smith writes which such a love for the country and characters, and the series has a gentle, innocent feel to it that is hard to find in adult fiction nowadays. This is a series I go to for a light, feel-good read, and can easily get through one book in an afternoon or evening.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Annotated Alice - Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner

I've always had a faint, guilty suspicion that I don't like Alice in Wonderland quite as much as I ought. Even as a little girl I felt that that, as a story, it didn't quite work, didn't flow right, that there must be some deeper layers of meaning just out of my reach - not that I would have phrased it like that in those days. If asked, I'd probably have shrugged and muttered something about it being "a bit weird" or even "boring." I liked the Disney film well enough, although it wasn't my favourite, but the book didn't seem like a children's book. Whatever the reason, somehow I didn't quite get it. Coming back to the book as an adult last year (in preparation for watching Tim Burton's Johnny Depp in Wonderland) and reading it with my book-clevers, I didn't like not understanding.

By this point, I'd twigged that Wonderland was a dream story with cards thrown in, and that Through The Looking Glass was either a metaphor or a novelisation of a chess game - again, in a dream. But even so, I often had the feeling that Lewis Carroll was cross-referencing other works, Victorian culture and in-jokes, but  I didn't know what and couldn't quite work it out for myself. And I couldn't be havin' with that. Enter The Annotated Alice, a work which strives to unlock some of the mysteries under the surface of what cannot be denied is a very surreal story.

Now, I have to point out that The Annotated Alice is not for everyone. I know many who love the story uncomplicated by analysis or explanation, and that to look below the surface would spoil the magic. I have full sympathy for that! My brain, though, is cursed with an ardent curiosity and "wanting to know," probably as a result of my years of literary studies. I refused to study the Children's Literature module at university because insider information hinted that the class had the potential destroy books that have been part of me from childhood, going for shock over believable interpretations. And the notes for The Annotated Alice are not entirely free from fanciful speculation - did Carroll really intend the word "little" to be a pun on "Liddell"? (the real Alice's surname.) I'm inclined to believe he chose it because he meant "small" when he wanted to say something that meant "small." The annotator overuses the words "possibly," and "maybe" and "Carroll could be referring to..." Some of these links are tenuous to say the least, although there are lots of interesting snatches of information that make sense of the odd line here or there.

However, Martin Gardner, the annotator, also explains mathematical, political and scientific references that I wouldn't have otherwise understood, and draws attention to the patterns within the story. Reading Alice more closely, I came to realise just how the stories work with dream-logic. "She woke up to find it had all been a dream," is one of the big no-nos of storytelling these days, but Alice is the exception in being a very realistic portrayal of how dreams work - with things changing from one thing to another and this not seeming strange at all. Through the Looking Glass is much  more sophisticated than Wonderland, with its logic conforming very closely to chess rules - kings moving one step at a time, knights being a little wobbly, queens rushing about all the time, and at the same time portraying a back-to-front world as it might well work the other side of a mirror. The cake must be passed around before it can be cut, the White Queen screams in pain until she jabs herself with a pin, and then is quite calm because "I've done all the screaming already [...] What would be the good of having it all over again?"

My other edition of the Alice books isn't illustrated, but The Annotated Alice contains the original drawings by John Tenniel, and Gardner points out the little details in these pictures which show how closely the author and illustrator worked together. Note the illustration of the shop Alice visits: it is based upon a real shop on St Aldate's, Oxford (which I visited earlier this week) but Tenniel has been careful to reverse the image, if you see the position of the window and door, this really is the Looking Glass version of the shop. (The counter, too, is the other way round in the real shop.)

I don't expect The Annotated Alice will by my usual reading copy, but I'm glad to have read it, and it really did make more sense of the books by drawing my attention to details I'd never noticed before. Chances are that most people have figured out a lot without help from annotations. Other people, as I've said before, are quite happy with the book as a dreamlike nonsense fantasy without needing the details spelled out for them. I wouldn't recommend this book for everyone, but if the mysteries of Alice are frustratingly elusive, it's worth looking into.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

A small and humble tribute to Neil Gaiman

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
- Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll

Neil, I wish I had your words.

I wish I could make words do for me what they do for you.
Words dance for you and come alive for you;
they become the right words by simply passing through your hands.
Your words defy the plain ink-and-paper they're typed on, to glitter crimson gold against the deepest night.
You get inside our heads, and slowly it dawns on us that the world didn't quite make sense before. Until.

And we close the book and lay it down,
but your words, once freed, won't be tidied away.
They creep behind us on softly silent soles and whisper so suggestive;

those ticking, tickling troublesome shadows around the corners of our minds.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Considine Curse, Gareth P, Jones

I don't often buy books on impulse, and I rarely buy books from the 9-12 age group, but in Waterstone's the other day I made an exception for The Considine Curse. The story of a "very normal" Australian teenager who goes to visit her strange cousins in England after the death of their grandmother, it looked like a cross between the Addams family and the Lemony Snicket books. Mariel's cousins are very close, many of them hostile to outsiders, and although they share the same grandmother, they don't consider Mariel to be one of them. Mariel's mother didn't even tell her she had any family, and as she gets to know them, Mariel can see why! Only now her mother wants to take her away from her home, school and friends. Mariel does not approve.

The Considine cousins are certainly a strange bunch, each with their own characteristics. Lily and Amelia are strange but seem friendly enough, but Oberon is threatening, and eight-year-old Elspeth is one of the creepiest children I've come across in fiction, oozing malevolence and speaking only in sinister rhyme, hinting at a terrible fate in store for Mariel. I guessed at the family's secret early on, but this did not spoil the story for me, although one piece of foreshadowing came across as too heavy-handed and unnecessary. The story is a great mix of a page-turning family mystery and a gothic undercurrent that gets darker and more dangerous as the story goes along.

I was quite shocked at the level of bloodthirstiness for a book aimed at pre-teens, but what I found more disturbing was the ending. I think it was supposed to be a happy ending, but it was rather bittersweet and a somewhat morally dubious. Although as an adult I don't mind stories with "untidy" conclusions, if I had read this book when I was ten or eleven, I would have been concerned about the decisions Mariel took. Her story may have ended pretty well, but I would have been - and was, a bit - troubled about the wider-reaching consequences for the family and community. Perhaps I think too much. Still, The Considine Curse is an enjoyable, intriguing and creepy read.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Villette, Charlotte Bronte

I first encountered Charlotte Bronte as a pre-teen, when for some reason or other I watched the Lowood scenes in rehearsal at the local theatre. Being at the time fascinated with boarding school stories, the play encouraged me to try out the novel, but it was only on my fourth attempt when I was about fourteen that I actually read past Jane's childhood and onto the end. This novel has been described as an essential part of any girl's journey to womanhood, but little is known about Charlotte Bronte's other works. As part of the Bronte Sisters challenge, I decided to read Villette, a novel I knew little about other than it was supposed to be Charlotte's best work.

The novel follows the fortunes of Lucy Snowe, a young woman with no money and no family. What Lucy does have by the bucketload is resilience, strength of character, and courage, possibly to the point of recklessness. A Victorian young lady leaves England for the fictional city of Villette, unaccompanied, with no knowledge of French and no job, friends or relations when she gets there (as far as she knows.) Is she insane? Nevertheless, she quickly finds herself a position at a private school, first teaching the younger girls, then becoming English teacher for the whole school.

Lucy is a fascinating, but not always likable protagonist. It took me a good part of the book to be able to establish what her character is; she is quiet but forceful, often compared to a shadow. She is secretive even from the reader, more than once knowing more than she lets on until she decides to make a revelation. Lucy takes no nonsense and very sure of her own rightness. Her attitudes can come across as arrogant and judgemental, and she is particularly anti-Catholic which adds to her isolation as the only Protestant in the school.

Despite it being quite a challenging read, I got through Villette quickly. It is full of complex characters: the vain, coquettish Ginevra Fanshawe - who, despite all her faults, one can't quite bring oneself to dislike - sweet, precocious Polly and the devious, underhanded headmistress Madame Beck. There are two potential love interests in Lucy's life. Dr John, AKA Graham Bretton, son of Lucy's godmother, is the more conventional romantic hero: handsome, charming, friendly and generally decent. His relationship with his mother is heartwarming and amusing, full of good-natured banter. The other is M. Paul Emmanuel, a far more complex character: quick-tempered, passionate, opinionated and frequently rude, but he is full of compassion for the poor, the lowly, the underdog. He and Lucy clash frequently, but she is his equal and won't let him walk over her. He is a good character, yet I found his rudeness quite shocking, especially when I tried to imagine his modern-day equivalent. If he sees Lucy talking to another man, or dressing prettily - read, in a pale pink dress, rather than grey - he calls her all sorts of names, flirt, coquette, vain - Lucy Snowe, one of the most puritanical characters in literature! Imagine how well that would go down in real life, today. It would be considered abusive rather than eccentric foreign outspokenness, surely?

The book is quite hard-going, not least because there are large portions of untranslated French dialogue. I studied the language until I was 18, so I could follow most of it, but it might be better to read a Penguin or Oxford World Classics edition, as these tend to have footnotes or endnotes. It is a somewhat melancholy book, a tale of loneliness, disappointment and hope, and Victorian repression. Charlotte Bronte vividly describes the workings of a mind under attack from depression, of the physical pain from emotional turmoil, and the scenes in which Lucy ventures out at night after being drugged with opiates take on a surreal, fairylike tone, in which which her senses are intensified until everything seems brighter and more real than day-to-day life. Quite apart from subplot about a local ghost story that seems to fit better into an Ann Radcliffe romancethe narration is filled with the borderline-gothic atmosphere that is characteristic of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Take this scene in which Lucy reflects upon a former unrequited love:
"Was this feeling dead? I do not know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb unquiet, and dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin-chinks."
Read for the Bronte Sisters challenge
Villette's ending is ambiguous and comes upon the reader suddenly and hard. Once more, Lucy Snowe conceals the full story from the reader, leaving it open to interpretation whether it she has her happy-ever-after or not. I've a pretty good idea which is the true ending, but either way, it seems quite a let-down to have followed this character from childhood, through 650 pages of hardship, happiness, despair and hard-earned reward, only to have this ending withheld, and wrapped up in a handful of sentences. Yet, it seems a remarkably modern conclusion, and not actually out of place in this clever, thoughtful piece of literature. If Jane Eyre has been helping girls to come of age, Villette is its sadder, wiser and more mature sister.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Trends


I love lists, and the ladies at The Broke and the Bookish offer the perfect opportunity to put on my list-making hat and ponder important matters related to all things bookish with their feature: Top Ten Tuesdays. Today they invite us to think about the trends in publishing that we’d like to see less or more of:

  1. Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creatures. The vampire who falls in love with a high school girl. Or the werewolf who falls in love with a high school girl. Or the fallen angel, or faery, or ghost, or zombie… you get the picture.
  2. Misery Memoirs. I’m sure it’s cathartic to write about an awful childhood, and am outraged by some of the things people get away with,  but I hate the emotionally manipulative way these books are marketed, deliberately tugging at the heartstrings with pictures of sad-eyed children, titles that all contain “Mummy” and “Daddy” and taglines about “helpless little boy/girl.”I feel this approach cheapens the very real experiences of those who wrote the books, and I also find it quite disturbing that people bulk-buy true stories about child abuse.
  3. Decidedly Dubious Mills and Boon titles. Things like The Greek Tycoon’s Reluctant Mistress, or The Spanish Billionaire’s Bought Bride, or Wedded for Revenge, or Blackmailed Into His Bed. I don’t read the books myself, but these titles don’t suggest healthy male-female relationships!
  4. Celebrity “auto”biographies and ghostwritten novels. If You Only Live Once as Katie Price suggests, why is this her fourth life story?
  5. Love Triangles. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that if it’s not obvious which of two suitors you want to spend your life with, are you really committed enough to either?

I find it harder to think about what trends I’d like to see more of, because the best book are those that are original and stand out from the crowd. That being said, I’d like to see:
  1. Amazing story-telling. J. K. Rowling always amazes me by he complete mastery of her story world, her complex plot strands that she never dropped even a minor subplot.
  2. Dark, mysterious stories that aren’t specifically fantastical, but aren’t easily explained away either.  (For example, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.)
  3. Non-romance-based stories in which the protagonist is either single all the way through, or happily settled all the way through the story.
  4. Page-turning adventures and mysteries. When you have no idea what is going to happen next, but just have to read “one more chapter” to find out.
  5. Strong, stand-alone stories. I do like some series, but many stories go on too long. I’d rather reach the end and wish for more, than get more and be disappointed or bored.
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