Friday, 29 April 2011

Miscellaneous Friday Update

Hi everyone. I'm sorry for the sparseness of updates in the last few weeks. I've been spending a lot more time out of doors than usual while the weather's been good. I've even been in the sea - not to be recommended. The weather was hot, but the sea had not warmed up much, and it was painfully cold, with huge, surf-worthy waves. I've also got sunburnt shoulders - ouch!

When I wasn't on the beach or in the garden, I've been interviewed by the website Gatekeeper's Post about my reading and reviewing habits, and  have been contacted by a couple of people offering me free review copies of books. Now, I know a lot of bloggers receive free books for publicity, but until now I've only reviewed books I've bought or borrowed myself, so it's quite exciting for me.

Richard and Judy Book Club 2011 Winner:

I've been reviewing some of the Richard and Judy book club recommendations since Christmas. This book club has given a lot of publicity of many modern classics, such as My Sister's Keeper, The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveller's Wife. This year I thought the books I reviewed were a very average bunch, the only ones of note being Room by Emma Donoghue, which was also featured on the TV book club and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Yesterday the winner was announced as You're Next by Gregg Hurwitz, one of the three I haven't read. My outspoken colleague described it as "the only decent Richard and Judy book I've read, but it's a bit gruesome. Very gruesome. You might not like it." Not having read it, I wouldn't be able to say, but nevertheless, well done to Mr Hurwitz.

The books for Richard and Judy's Summer Reads have already started coming into the shop. Again, I will aim to read and review about half - especially if they are BOGOF.

My 2011 Richard and Judy Book Reviews:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 2) trailer:

Fourteen years after the publication of the first Harry Potter book, and ten years after the first movie, there is not much time left until the story is complete. The last installment of the film trilogy is to reach the cinemas in just a couple of months, and the first trailer was released yesterday. It looks terribly exciting, and I can't wait to see it, but it will be sad when there are no more installments to come. The book was published just after I finished university, but was still living in my student house, and, far away from people who might spoil the story for me, I took my time to read and savour the last chance of reading a Harry Potter book for the first time. I must remember to take tissues with me; there is one moment in the book that is so heartbreaking, that was so unexpected, that I think I can't bear to watch it. A second or two of that scene is shown in the trailer. Be warned: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is ruthless and devastating, but a wonderful piece of storytelling, and I look forward to the film adaptation. The films have been getting better and better with each chapter. Deathly Hallows part 2 should be amazing.

Listen to that music at the beginning! The theme tune that was so magical and quirky and twinkly in the first film, slowed down to something ghostly and mournful. It's hard to realise this is the same series. I could talk about this trailer scene by scene, but I shan't.

Coming Soon:

This year, after watching my to-read pile grow and grow, divide into two piles and breed, I determined to give up buying books for Lent. As well as a few rereads of Pratchett, Gaiman and Montgomery, and a couple of books borrowed from the library, I calculate that I reduced my pile by ten books during that time. Yesterday - payday - after work, I went down to the rival bookshop, the first time I'd been in there since the World Book Night event, and bought some more books to add to the pile: Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill and Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. I've also borrowed The White Queen and The Red Queen from a colleague, and am slowly working my way through Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Gray.

TGIF at GReads

Today Ginger asks: "Stand Alone vs. Series: what's your stance?"

Thinking as a writer, I prefer writing stand-alone stories. I start out with characters, a situation, write their story and solve their problem. Once I've brought them to their "happy-ever-after," (or not) I'd rather leave them there. I don't like "sequelitis," when the perfect resolution of the first story is undone to create enough plot for the second, as often happens in films and books. I say it's best to bring a story to its natural conclusion, and then stop. If you have enough story for a series, then by all means write it! I love the Harry Potter books, and Anne of Green Gables - although the later books aren't as good as the first, a combination of sequelitis and the author running out of plot and interest. But I do wonder if a lot of stories - especially fantasy and Young Adult - are being drawn out across three or four volumes for the sake of it. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is the prime example. I read up to book 5, and the story seemed no nearer a resolution than it was in the first book. Jordan died a few years ago, leaving his story to be finished by someone else, and I wonder if the end was in sight even then. I think there were originally going to be ten books in the series, then twelve, now we're on volume 13 and still not finished. I'd like to read more series of stand-alone books featuring the same characters, rather than the multi-volume sagas that are in fashion at the moment.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Girl From Away trilogy, Claire Mowat

There are some people who are, as Anne Shirley would put it, true "kindred spirits." These are the people you can travel with, go for coffee or even lunch with, and completely ignore each other while you are both engrossed in books. Most people would probably think this weird and unsociable, but my closest friends understand completely. I've known my best friend, Judith, for as long as I can remember, and like me she is a complete bookworm. We've been on holiday and on day trips up and down the country, but our favourite finds when shopping are the bookshops, from big chain stores to teeny-tiny second-hand shops. So when she recently went on holiday to Canada, it is only natural that the souvenirs she brought back for me included books. The Girl From Away trilogy was a tatty old ex-library book with stamps, old-fashioned ticket pocket and the opening times of the local swimming pool still visible in light pencil. I love a book that's picked up some history along the way, and especially one that has crossed the Atlantic.

The Girl From Away

The Girl From Away introduces Andrea, a teenage Toronto girl who pays an unwilling visit to Anderson's Arm, a small fishing community in Newfoundland, while having to come to terms with her mother's remarriage. Andrea spends the Christmas holidays with her aunt Pearl and cousins - her uncle Cyril is away working on an oil tanker, and though they remain cheerful, Pearl and her children are clearly anxious about him. The Girl From Away is a lovely portrait of a small community, where everybody knows everyone else and pulls together in a crisis. The setting came vividly to life, and felt identifiably Canadian. The three-in-one edition of the book was published in 2002, but I recognised the stories as being originally written earlier, in the 1990s. There were details that felt old-fashioned, but yet not so much so that they were strange to me. Most noticable was the personal cassette player that was Andrea's birthday present, and the story itself was reminiscent of the books I read when I was a child.

The French Isles

Book two of the trilogy sees Andrea back with her cousins, aunt and uncle - now safely home. A trip to collect Uncle Cyril's fishing boat finds Cyril, Andrea and the Cousins at St Pierre and Miquelon, islands which are located near Newfoundland but are actually French. Not French Canadian; owned by France. Andrea takes a job working at a bed-and-breakfast hotel, and befriends the owner's son, Philippe. After the drama which led Andrea and her family to St Pierre, the story is fairly gentle and uneventful, with a little hint of a youthful romance. It does help if you have a working knowledge of the French language, as there is a lot of dialogue which is left untranslated.

Last Summer in Louisbourg

Andrea is now fifteen and is vacationing in Cape Breton for the summer job to die for! She is childminding at the Fortress of Louisbourg, a job which involves dressing up in period costume and doing a fair bit of historical re-enactment. While working, she is offered a bit part in a film which is shot on location.  Again, Mowat sets the scene beautifully, and I envied Andrea her summer job. It was amusing to see how quickly the novelty of working on a movie set wore off, however, and Andrea came across as rather a sulky teenager, anxious that her costume makes her look silly, and objecting when extra filming spoiled her day's plans. I was a bit disappointed not to see the Newfoundland family this time around, or to hear anything else of Philippe, but there were some great new characters introduced: landlady Jackie and Andrea's verbose roommate Justine, as well as the cast and crew of the film, and Andrea discovers a family secret.

The Girl From Away trilogy is a lovely, easy holiday read ideal for girls aged about 9-12 years old.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Lament, Maggie Stiefvater

Lament is the first novel from Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver and its sequel Linger, but it has only been published in the UK this year. The story is familiar to a connoisseur of teen fantasy fiction. Teenage girl starts a romance with a strange and handsome boy, only to discover that there's more to her new boyfriend -and the world - than meets the eye. Her new boyfriend has a dark and dangerous past that is catching him up and the teenage girl finds that a lot of people want to kill her. Stripped down to the basic plot outline, this could be Hush, Hush, or Twilight or one of many other dark fantasy romances. It might have been vampires, or angels, or werewolves. In this case it's the fair folk - the faeries.

The power of Lament is in the details. Ms Stiefvater writes with humour and lyrical prose which is highlighted by the theme of music throughout the novel. Heroine Deirdre is a skilled harpist, and it seems that her musical genius is more than just a talent. Dee is a "cloverhand" - one who can see faeries, and who has some magical, psychic abilities of her own. Music is no earthly art here.

I found that the first half of the book read as a fairly generic teen novel with an Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creature, and the platonic childhood best friend of the opposite sex who could be the third corner of a potential love triangle. As is often the way, I felt more inclined to wish for James the Best Friend to win Dee's heart rather than the more glamorous, troubled Luke with his faerie background.

I was rather taken aback that after Dee discovered the details of Luke's terrible past, she seemed more concerned that he had expressed his love for her than that he had been sent to assassinate her! After her initial anger, I thought Dee was too forgiving too soon, but it is to Ms Stiefvater's credit that she evoked sympathy for the couple even if I rolled my eyes a little.

Despite his otherworldly ways, uncanny knowledge of Dee's life and his habit of calling her "pretty girl," Luke is - or was once - human. When we get to meet the fair folk themselves, the book seemed to shift from YA "paranormal romance" to a more traditional, mythical fantasy genre. The fair folk are not interchangeable with the un-vampiric vampires and fallen angels that are in many books; these are definitely the faeries of old: amoral and fascinated by the humans with their funny notions of good and evil. They are majestic, dangerous, very inhuman and mischievous - from an era long ago when the word "mischief" had far more sinister connotations than it does now. These faeries are of the race of Oberon and Titania, whose quarrels put nature in turmoil. When I was at university much of my creative writing was influenced by the tales of the fair folk of old - not Tinker Bell and the cute little pixies that people tend to think of when they hear the word "fairies." Maggie Stiefvater's fair folk were of the same sort, and so well-written that I half wondered if the author had faerie blood herself, or was a cloverhand like Dee. Certainly she seems to be able to create any kind of art she tries her hand at: creative writing, painting and music.

Lament is a powerful, enchanting novel that, like the four-leaf clovers that play their part in awakening Dee's powers, opens the reader's eyes to that beautiful, deadly other realm.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:
The Bitterbynde trilogy by Cecelia Dart-Thornton
Ash by Malinda Lo

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Anne of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery

Seven years has passed since the end of Anne's House of Dreams. Anne Blythe, née Shirley, is about thirty four years old, mother to five children: Jem, Walter, twins Nan and Di, and Shirley, with a sixth on the way. (Rilla.) Anne of Ingleside chronicles the adventures of the whole Blythe family across a span of six years.

Despite its title, this isn't really Anne's story any more. After a lovely nostalgic few chapters on vacation in Avonlea, where she revisits her old haunts and relives old memories with her best friend Diana, Anne fades somewhat into the background, where she is more "Mrs Doctor, dear," wise and respected wife and mother, than the impetuous girl of old.

Anne of Ingleside is the most anecdotal book of the whole series, with chapters focusing in on one family member at a time. There are enough children to ensure that there is only room for one case of matchmaking, one cantankerous, pessimistic old lady and one stream of gossip about people we don't know, but it also means that I don't really get to know any of the younger Blythes as people, except perhaps Walter. Shirley, the youngest son, doesn't get any attention at all.

I wrote in my review of Anne's House of Dreams that it ended on a melancholy note. Although the stories told in Ingleside are entertaining enough, I sense a bitter undercurrent to many of the stories. When the narrative returns to Anne's perspective in the end of the novel, she doesn't seem like the same person at all, consumed with jealousy of Gilbert's old flame, the spiteful Christine. She fears that Gilbert has fallen out of love with her and become complacent, their marriage a comfortable old habit after fifteen years.

Although Anne and Gilbert's love story has a happy ending, this is not the only troubling moment of Ingleside. In the aforementioned gossip chapter, allusions are made to a really nasty incident at the funeral of an unpleasant man. Di Blythe, aged ten, after two ill-judged friendships, vows not to trust anyone any more, because they'll only let her down. Then, finally, a throwaway line not only foreshadows a future tragedy, but tells it outright. If House of Dreams ended wistfully, Ingleside leaves me feeling like I've been kicked in the stomach. Just a  sentence or two from an omniscient narrator, in the middle of a tender scene of Anne looking in on her sleeping children, then the last page is a stunned blur.

Don't get me wrong, Anne of Ingleside is an enjoyable read, but the magic of the earlier books is missing. Reading Ingleside I could sense Montgomery's darker state of mind at the time of writing, and her weariness with the Anne series.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

2-in-1: Blog Hop & Top Ten Tuesday

It's been a long time since I've participated in any blogging memes, and today I've decided to make up for it by doing two in one post.

The Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books.

Usually a weekend thing, last week's Book Blogger Hop has been held back until today, when we are asked:

"Outside of books, what is your guilty pleasure?"

I have to confess that just lately I've been watching Glee. (I hang my head in shame.) I saw the first two episodes when it was first shown on UK TV but didn't get into it at all, but then when series 2 came on I got hooked! I usually end up shouting at the screen (usually at Rachel) and making snarky comments, but I keep coming back for another episode.

Top Ten Tuesday:

This is the first week I've taken part in the Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the girls at The Broke and the Bookish although I've been reading other people's posts regularly. I love lists.

The Top Ten Books I'd like to see made into Movies:

1. Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. The last book in the Anne of Green Gables series, this is  about Anne's six grown-up children when the First World War strikes. After the wonderful TV adaptation of Green Gables by Kevin Sullivan, the book series and the films parted company so that the film version of Anne at the time of the First World War has nothing in common with the book. Rilla of Ingleside would work quite well as a stand-alone story, because the focus is on Anne's teenage daughter Rilla, rather than Anne herself.

2. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I suspect it is only a matter of time with this one, as it is the only book by Waters not to have been adapted into a TV drama (The Night Watch will be on our screens later this year.) Done well, it would make a creepy and atmospheric historical horror film.

3. Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. As its title suggests, this is a werewolf story, the tale of the only female werewolf in the world, Elena Michaels, who just wants to live a normal life but who is drawn back to the "pack" and the former lover who betrayed her. I heard rumours of an adaptation a few years back, but nothing seemed to come of it.

4. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This is a bit of a cheat, as the story was a TV drama before it became a novel, and not a bad one for a BBC low-budget programme, but with modern special effects and a bigger budget, it could be even more amazing. But a film is nothing without its cast and I don't think anyone could replace Patterson Joseph as the Marquis de Carabas.

5. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. Sky One made such a great job of Hogfather that I would love to see them make the "Watch" books into two-part dramas to the same standard. I put Guards! Guards! down here specifically, but I would expect it to be followed up by Men at Arms, Feet of Clay...

6. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Can you see a theme developing here? And the great thing is that this one is not wishful thinking, but being adapted for a four-part TV series. Neil talks about the project here.

7. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. The Thursday Next books are a literature nerd's treat, set in a parallel world where it is possible to hop in and out of books and - if you're not careful - change what happens within the pages. In The Eyre Affair, Literary Detective Thursday has to rescue Jane Eyre, who has been kidnapped by an evil mastermind. There could be some trouble with an adaptation, however, as there are some scenes that can work only with text, such as someone communicating through footnotes. Difficult.

8. Malory Towers by Enid Blyton. I don't think these books would work very well as a film series - too episodic and not eventful enough - but it could be a nice after-school series a la Tracy Beaker or the Blyton's Famous Five that was made into a CITV series when I was about ten.

9. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. This was the big young adult novel of last year, about a girl who is killed in a car accident, before waking up to find it being the morning of the same day. A cross between Groundhog Day, The Lovely Bones and Mean Girls, Before I Fall is a wonderful book that would look great on the silver screen and appeal to teenagers and adults alike.

10. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. Although old-fashioned, the Katy series is a girls' classic to be compared with Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, but I don't think that it's ever been adapted for the screen.

Rachel's Holiday, Marian Keyes

"They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no." Amy Winehouse

Rachel's Holiday comes as a result of a mistake. Sure, Rachel Walsh takes drugs socially, but everyone does it in her circle of sophisticated friends in New York, it doesn't mean she's an addict. And yes, she understands that it looks like she attempted suicide when she had to be taken into hospital to get her stomach pumped, but really she was just buzzing and couldn't get to sleep so she just kept on taking sleeping pills to help, but not before jotting down a few ideas for poems which, okay, if you look at the notes out of context could possibly be construed as a "goodbye, cruel world" sort of message if you squint enough, but really, it's all just a huge misunderstanding and she's sure that it can all be sorted out.

But her parents send her goody-too-shoes sister Margaret over to bring her home to Ireland and check her into the Cloisters, a rehabilitation centre. Oh, well, Rachel needed a holiday anyway. She could do with a bit of aromatherapy and saunas and general pampering while everyone else got their heads sorted out. But when she gets to the Cloisters, it's not the swanky health spa she expected. Not only does she have to share a room - if you can call it that and not a broom cupboard - with an over-talkative older lady, but there are no saunas, no swimming pools, Rachel is expected to help with the housework and spend her days in group therapy having her childhood poked and picked at by an aggressive nun named Josephine. And no drugs at all. Not even for the people like Rachel who don't have any actual problems with them.

I was given Rachel's Holiday at a World Book Night, by a young lady who had "expected it to be a bit chicky, but it wasn't." It is an easy read, written in short chapters and compelling enough to ensure that I zipped through the 600+ pages in a day and a night, but it is not fluff. I realise that my understanding of "chick lit" is still a rather derogatory one of shoes, sex and shopping, no doubt influenced by Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series. Marian Keyes' Rachel's Holiday is easy to read, women's fiction but it is not fluff. There is a good mix of humour and pathos as we get to understand Rachel and the other people in the Cloisters, all going through very different situations and yet facing the same personal problems and daily temptations.

You can tell from the start that Rachel is an unreliable narrator - she doth protest too much. At first she downplays her actions, failing to mention the full extent of her drugs habit and the means she must go to in order to keep it up. We begin to learn the truth through other people's reactions, for example, Rachel describes herself as a big girl, but when she arrives back in Ireland, people remark how skinny she is - a comment that goes over Rachel's head but not the reader's. Despite her deep denial, constant shirking of all responsibility for herself or others and self-absorption, I really liked Rachel. Whether I would have liked her if the story had been told through another person's eyes, or by a third person narrator, is another matter. I suspect not. But as it was, I felt for her when it finally hits home to her how far she's fallen. As she makes the effort to get her life back on track, not always succeeding but trying again, I really feel for her and want her to succeed and make a good life for herself. An enjoyable, lightish read with plenty of substance and a decided lack of shoe shopping.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Anne's House of Dreams

After three years of waiting, Anne finally fulfils all her friends's prophecies and marries Gilbert Blythe. Gilbert is now qualified as a doctor and has taken a position sixty miles from their home town of Avonlea. The newlyweds move to a tiny village called Glen St Mary which overlooks the Four Winds Harbour, and set up their "house of dreams" in a tiny cottage with a beautiful seaview. If you think of the Anne series primarily as a romance, it makes a nice change to see the couple after the wedding, and the ups and downs of "happily ever after."

Anne's House of Dreams comes as a welcome return to the cosy, familiar Anneishness that makes the series more than just a friend but a "kindred spirit." We don't get to see much of our old friends - Marilla, Rachel Lynde and Diana - but when we do they are just as alive as ever. In Windy Willows, I realised retrospectively that the Avonlea scenes weren't quite alive, the characters described as from a distance but not captured upon the page. Though three years have passed, it picks up where Island left off, and I think it wouldn't do any harm to skip Windy Willows altogether.

It could have been all to easy to find Anne's new home to be a poor imitation of the old one, but Glen St Mary and Four Winds have their own, very distinct, feel. In Avonlea, "although [Anne] had lived in sight of the sea, it had not entered intimately into her life. In Four Winds it surrounded her and called to her constsantly." With Montgomery's word-perfect descriptions, I could almost hear the crash of the waves in the background, smell the salt in the air and feel the coolness of a sea breeze. Four Winds Harbour is a busy port, with fishermen constantly coming and going, guarded over by the lighthouse and its faithful keeper, Captain Jim Boyd. I loved Captain Jim immediately, an old sailor, rough in appearance and speech, but a true gentleman, a captivating storyteller and a hero.

Anne's House of Dreams is situated rather out of the way, just outside the village itself, and as such there are not too many new characters, meaning that each one is properly fleshed out, and that there is more of a continuous plot in this book than in its predecessors. Beside Captain Jim, we meet the stubborn and outspoken Marshall Elliot and Miss Cornelia  Bryant. If you're a Methodist or worse, a man, don't expect Miss Cornelia to have a good word for you. From tactlessness to tantrums to dying at an inopportune moment, Miss Cornelia's catchphrase is, "isn't that like a man?"

And then there is Leslie Moore. Leslie forms a strange, hostile friendship with Anne, but although Anne knows they could be "kindred spirits," there is a barrier between them. Leslie's life is like the photo-negative of Anne's, for while Anne is perfectly happy (even with her red hair) with a wonderful husband and joyful life, Leslie has experienced tragedy after tragedy, ending up trapped in a loveless marriage. The barrier between the women comes down later, but at such a cost!

Although marketed as children's books, it is clear that this is no longer a kids' series. Anne's House of Dreams is full of adult themes - unhappy marriage and the moral dilemma of whether a doctor's duty is worth heaping more suffering onto a life already full of pain. And Anne and Gilbert suffer such a heartbreak that changes their lives forever. Afterwards, "there was something in the smile that had never been in Anne's smile before and would never be absent from it again." This marks a turning-point in the tone of the series. Sorrow has touched upon a care-free, happy-go-lucky world. There can be no going back from that. The end of the book depicts Anne and Gilbert leaving their House of Dreams for a bigger house, better for raising a family in, but it happens so suddenly, in the space of a few pages, that neither the reader nor Anne is quite resigned to it. Although Anne will grow to love her new home, at the time of leaving the House of Dreams, and this volume, she hasn't yet done so, and I found it quite a melancholy note to end on.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

Dear Diary.
On Friday I had a job, a fiancee, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I've got no fiancee, no home, no job, and I'm walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly.

After stopping to help a young girl in trouble, Richard Mayhew finds to his horror that he seems to have dropped out of the world. Not only do his friends and colleagues not recognise him, but no one else seems to even see him. Cashpoints don't recognise his bank card, automatic doors can't sense him and his flat has been let out to someone else! Desperate to get his life back, Richard finds himself in another London located beneath the streets of the city we know by that name, in the sewers and disused tube stations, where all those London landmarks with strange names have a literal counterpart. An Earl has his Court on an underground train, the Night's Bridge is a deadly place, the Black Friars guard a key to release an Angel - named Islington - from his prison. London Below is where the people go who "fall through the cracks" of society, a place where rats are venerated but a human life is fragile. Richard no longer exists in London Above, but can he hope to survive long in London Below?

In Gaiman's introduction to Neverwhere, he writes that his intention was, "to write a book that would do for adults what the books I had loved when younger, books like Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia books, or the Wizard of Oz did for me as a kid." If that is so, he certainly succeeded. After just one reading, Neverwhere felt like a classic to me, like something I knew inside out because it wasn't just a book that had been written, but something organic, something that had grown naturally and that somehow, I had always known this story. It was more like a mythology than a novel. London is an old city, with so much forgotten history and so many romantic, imaginative landmarks and names that Gaiman's explanation makes sense of them all. Of course the Earl has a Court. Of course the Angel Islington is a real figure. Of course the Black Friars are a real order of monks with a mysterious purpose. In an unsettling way, Gaiman's Neverwhere comes to feel more real than the real city of London.

Neverwhere is a wonderful fantasy quest with a humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, only it takes place beneath London rather than in space. Perhaps there is some inspiration from classic Doctor Who, but Neverwhere is what alerted me to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman. True, sometimes I got so engrossed in the world of London Below that I would wonder, vaguely, what the actual plot was - what were the characters' goals. For the most part, though, I didn't wonder for long but just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

London Below has some wonderful characters: the Lady Door with a special talent for opening doors that no one else can - that no one else even knows are there. The Marquis de Carabas - named from a fairy tale - the arrogant, flamboyant rogue. And in Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar we have the creepiest villainous duo I have yet encountered, chillingly, inhumanly evil; "I suppose you could call them men, yes. Two legs, two arms, a head each." Yet alongside the shivers evoked by this terrifying duo is a lot of dark humour in their very matter-of-factness and the contrast between them. Mr Croup is smart-talking, sly and cruel. Vandemar is mentally slow and brutally honest. This combination of clever baddie and thuggish, stupid baddie is hardly an original one, but Croup and Vandemar stand out from the rest. But despite all the dangers encountered below the streets of London, the scariest moment was the "Ordeal" that Richard is tested with, a scene of psychological horror that leaves Richard - and maybe the reader too - questioning his own sanity. His hallucinations - if that's what he experiences - are terribly convincing.

I first had Neverwhere recommended to me in my first week at university, September 2004, but it took me until last spring to get around to reading it. When I did, I wondered how I could have waited so long, and why my friends had not insisted more strongly that I stop dawdling, put down everything else and read this book. Neverwhere is without doubt the best book I read in 2010, a must-read for Londoners and London-lovers with a love for a good imagination.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Anne of Windy Willows/Poplars, L. M. Montgomery

The fourth book in the Anne series is a bit of an oddity, sandwiched in between the Avonlea stories and the Blythe Family stories, covering the three years between Anne's graduation and her marriage to Gilbert Blythe. She takes a job as the principal of Sunnyside High School, but finds an obstacle in the form of the vast Pringle family and friends-and-relations. It seems that the clannish Pringles resent Anne for taking the position of principal, which the Pringles had expected to be offered to one of their own.

Like the "Patty's Place" scenes of Anne of the Island, a lot of the pleasure comes from the cosy domesticity of Anne's everyday life. In Sunnyside, she boards with two elderly widows, the austere "Aunt" Kate and timid, over-sensitive "Aunt" Chatty (Charlotte.) The workings of the household are seemingly dictated by housekeeper Rebecca Dew - a veritable Mary Quite Contrary, who is allowed to believe she is in charge by the widows, Anne and possibly even Dusty Miller, the cat, who manage Rebecca Dew by suggesting the opposite to their desired end result. Anne has an adorable little bedroom with a tower and a memorable blue cushion with an uncanny resemblance to a doughnut. Windy Willows (or Poplars, if you prefer) is as homey a house as you can hope to find.

In my opinion, Anne of Windy Willows is one of the weaker books in the series. It was written after some of the chronologically later books, and I think it shows that the author's enthusiasm was waning at the time. It suffers a little for being set in a place and with people we don't have much chance to get to know. Not too much can happen in Windy Willows because it might impact the plot of the later-set but earlier-written Anne's House of Dreams. As such, there is a lot of padding, a lot of "hello-goodbye" characters who have never been mentioned before their moment in the limelight, are never heard from again, and have little to no relevance to the main plot. I've said before that I love the Anne series for its episodic nature, but the hello-goodbye characters don't get enough development for me to care very much. Mainly they are either pessimistic, cantankerous old women who look for the worst possible outcome in every event, from weddings to weeding, or they have endless gossip of friends-and-relations we've never heard of, or they are half of a young couple waiting for Anne to help - sometimes with some hindrance along the way - to find their way to the altar. After a few such incidents, they all start to blur together.

But Anne is still the same imaginative, big-hearted girl, a little older, perhaps a little wiser. Her greatest strength is her empathy with lonely people. In Windy Willows, Anne reaches out to hostile, dowdy teacher Katherine Brooke, and to little Elizabeth Grayson, a small girl living next door to Windy Willows (or Poplars) who lives waiting for "Tomorrow" when her father will come back and take her to live with him. Anne knows what it is to be unwanted - until her adoption by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert she lived a very unhappy existance, seen as a burden by those who viewed it as their duty to bring her up. Instead of letting herself be embittered by the hardships, Anne's imagination helped her to rise above them, even as a child, but as an adult, those early experiences lend her the kind of compassion that imagination alone can't supply.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Mini-reviews 3: Toast & The Woman He Loved Before

Toast – Nigel Slater

I was given a free copy of Nigel Slater’s autobiography Toast at a book party in my local Waterstone’s store, as part of the World Book Night celebrations. World Book Night was an initiative when publishers produced a million special editions of a range of well-loved books, for book-lovers across the UK to give away to friends, family, colleagues or total strangers. My former boss was at the event handing out copies of Toast, which was recently made into a TV movie starring Freddie Highmore and Helena Bonham Carter, among others.

Nigel Slater is a well-known TV chef, and taste is one of the most evocative senses, so it makes sense that Toast is a food-based memoir. It is a quick read, written in short chapters - some more like paragraphs - each devoted to one of Slater’s childhood memories based on to some food item. Some chapters are about general family rituals based around a dish, others cover a very specific memory. The novel takes us through Slater’s childhood, the grief at his mother’s death, and the marshmallows which cannot replace a goodnight kiss. Slater describes his discomfort as his father’s remarriage to Mrs Potter, their cleaner, and his lonely teenage years living in the middle of nowhere. We follow Slater through his school days, cookery course, first jobs up until he moved to London to start his career. Toast succeeds in making me feel peckish and nostalgic for a time I never knew (1960s-70s, as far as I can tell) when British food was not as cosmopolitan as it is now – pasta, pizza, curry, now staple parts of the British menu, all being dismissed as “foreign muck.” Though at times I think the food described sounds bland at best, unappetising at worst, Slater writes with fondness and affection. But I gag in sympathy when Slater describes the various ways his father would persuade, force or fool him into eating an egg – the one food I can’t even swallow is eggs. Yuck.

The Woman He Loved Before – Dorothy Koomson

Last time I read a Dorothy Koomson novel, I dithered about whether or not it could be classed as “chick-lit,” and had to consider what I meant by the term. Despite its candy-coloured dustjacket, The Woman He Loved Before is not so much a romance novel as a thriller with ghostly undertones. With gritty, unflinching writing about a woman trapped in prostitution, and another suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it cannot be described as "fluffy" by any stretch of the imagination, although it starts off “chicky” enough, by recounting a relationship that started off as loathing-at-first-sight before turning into attraction and love. When Libby is injured in a car accident, she finds herself re-examining her relationship with her husband, who has widowed when they met, and who she suspects has never really got over the death of his first wife, Eve. Although Eve’s death was always put down to being a tragic accident, the doubt is there: was she murdered, and is Libby herself in danger? Then she finds Eve’s secret diaries which reveal a shocking past and horrific secrets about the family. The Woman He Loved Before would be a great companion novel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, exploring the unenviable role of the second wife, with themes of the importance of choices, and control – or lack thereof – over one’s own life.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Major Ernest Pettigrew is an old-fashioned gentleman living in a quiet Sussex village. On the day of his brother's death, Mrs Ali from the mini-supermarket turns up for the newspaper money, and the two begin a warm friendship. Major Pettigrew is retired from the army, a bit of a "grumpy old man" with a biting wit, but a heart of gold. Mrs Jasmina Ali is a widow of Pakistani descent, fifty eight years old and resisting her family's attempts to retire her off and pass the running of the shop onto her nephew. They share a love of literature, and meet up to discuss books and drink tea, but as their friendship turns to love, Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali have to contend with the judgements of their neighbours and families.

The village Major Pettigrew calls home, Edgecombe St Mary, is the sort of old-fashioned English community where everyone knows everyone else. A circle of gossipy ladies are the unofficial organisers of the village, as they run the social events and volunteer people to make themselves useful. Time and time again, Major Pettigrew finds himself in places and doing things he had never planned or wanted to do. Daisy the Vicar's wife and her gaggle of friends could be related to the knitting circles found in the later Anne books.

These awful women, as well as some of Major Pettigrew's relatives, can make for somewhat cringeworthy reading, with their snobbery and (perhaps) well-intentioned ignorance. Daisy et al make a career out of walking all over their neighbours and causing offense, spreading an epidemic of Foot-In-Mouth disease. While the main characters are realistic, three-dimensional people, the antagonists can verge on caricatures; surely no one can be that backward and insensitive all the time? Major Pettigrew observes the thoughtless comments towards Mrs Ali and her family, who seem to forgive and shrug it off, but careless-but-well-meant words mount up reveal a deeper prejudice, culminating in a disastrous dinner-dance.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, despite the nastiness in some people's hearts, generally a "nice" book, written in a style reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith, but with a caustic edge. It is a beautiful love story between an older man and woman, witty but sensitive, old-fashioned but still very relevant in its treatment of English society's attitudes to age, class and race.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is the last selection from the Richard and Judy Book Club for Spring 2011.

If you liked Major Pettigrew you may enjoy:
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
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