Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher

The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Published in the 1980s, #50 The Shell Seekers is a family saga stretching from the turn of the twentieth century to the late ’80s. The lynchpin is Penelope, whose role shifts over time from daughter to mother, cared for to carer, naive to experienced.

I remember reading Pilcher’s novels as a teenager, and was looking forward to reading The Shell Seekers. It’s a good book, on the whole, but not brilliant and not one I think I would read again.

Length and breadth
Like many of the Big Read books, The Shell Seekers is thick. It clocks in at almost 700 pages and is packed with characters – at least a dozen main characters appear and disappear as the pages turn.

Fortunately, Pilcher is a master of clarity. The book flashes back and forth from the present moment, dealing with dozens of characters and jumping from one point of their lives to another yet I found it easy to keep them all straight. I’d have to reread the novel to figure out how she did it – simply good, clear writing, I suspect – as I don’t recall any Dickensian mnemonics like ‘the man with the hunch’ or ‘her waist length strawberry hair’.

In fact, the world and the characters are mostly quite ordinary, and that’s one of its strengths. There are no heros or villains, simply people who you meet, agree with or disagree with, like or dislike, as though you’re suddenly privy to the gossip and the truth behind the gossip at work or at school, and everything is laid bare.

Another country
Written and set in the 1980s, the present of the novel felt more alien to me than the past. I’m familiar with characters talking about V2s and rationing but, being a child at the time, missed out on the power suits and gymkhanas which preoccupy the characters in the ‘present’

Britain in Pilcher’s ’80s seems like a throwback. The characters are very much focussed on marriage and respectability – more so than in the earlier years – and the world seems very small and provincial. There’s little travel, little social mixing. Everyone is white and women mostly stay at home. It’s about as modern as Jane Austen, in some ways, and I found that very odd.

As the 1940s are rather less staid, I imagine Pilcher is trying to say something with this portrayal, but I don’t understand what.

All in all, I was disappointed by The Shell Seekers. It seems to have worn badly – perhaps it needs to be put away until it’s not just the past but history, and I – or perhaps my grandchildren – can read it with fresh eyes. But then I suspect that future generations will read it even more straight facedly than I did, and miss the deeper message much as I did.

Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

I knew nothing about #83 Holes before I picked it up, which seemed like a good enough reason to try it. And I’m glad I did – I enjoyed the book a lot and will be looking out for other books by the same author.

Holes is the story of an unlucky 13-year-old called Stanley Yelnats. Accused of stealing a pair of sneakers, he’s sent to a camp for wayward youth where the primary punishment, education and pastime is digging holes. Deep ones.

Magical realism
In Holes, Sachar traces back the threads of fate which lead to Stanley digging holes in a dried-up lakebed and weaves them with Stanley’s own story. It’s a combination of magical  and mundane which is appealing and familiar – but it’s not magic in the Harry Potter style. There are no elves or vampires in this novel – this is magic in the sense of folk lore, luck and curses, of consequences and dreams, of narrativium. It’s a book about why you should always keep a promise to a witch, and where monsters live.

Sachar draws on fairy tales explicily within the story and also seems to be using them to structure the novel – Holes is, in a sense, a modern fairy tale, explaining how the world is and illustrating how it should be.

An uncommon alchemy
This intrusion of the fantastic into the everyday is a common feature of YA novels, but something about the book stands out. In some way I find hard to describe, it’s unlike anything I’ve read recently. The book I’m most inclined to compare it to is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has similar themes of family and bad luck running down the generations as well as surreal elements.

The weird shit in YA is usually more explicit – like in Stephen King novels, the magician’s curtain is whipped away to show the mechanics of the trick: there really was a monster under the bed all along. Holes doesn’t do this. It’s never quite clear whether it’s all a coincidence, choice or whether there is such a thing as fate guiding the way. As such, it’s an interesting addition to the list and I’m glad I read it.

Holes is well-crafted and intricately made. It’s never dull and Sachar drags you into Stanley’s world, from sneakers to holes and beyond. I can see why this would be a favourite book, and I enjoyed it very much.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Another book I’m surprised I never read in school, #141 All Quiet on theWestern Front is a short, intense novel describing one soldier’s experience in the trenches in the First World War. At under 200 pages, it’s a quick read, but the subject matter makes it one which is hard to pick up or put down lightly.

I’m actually suprised that this feature on the list – although it is brilliant, and engaging, and thought-provoking, it isn’t a comfortable or comforting book, and for that reason I would hesitate to say it was a favourite of mine, although I would definitely recommend it.

The other side of the war
Reading in English, being British and growing up (rather a long time) after the Second World War, I’m not accustomed to rooting for German soldiers. In all the fiction I can think of, the German army is The Enemy. Even in Warhorse, which has quite a sympathetic portrayal of all the sides, the German army is not, of itself a good thing or a force one wants to triumph.

All Quiet on the Western Front is written by a former frontline German soldier, in German, and based on his experiences fighting against French, British and American troops. It’s one of the things which makes the novel a disquieting read – at the same time as I was hoping a particular character would survive, I knew I was hoping that – even in fiction – the army he was part of would lose. As there were quite a lot of individuals I was hoping would survive, it did make me ask myself how I thought that could happen – how could all these people survive, and their army, their battalion, still be crushed? In modern trench warfare it’s just not possible and that sense of rooting for and against the characters added to the creeping terror of the novel for me.

Reading in translation
My German is barely good enough to get me to the right city, when ordering tickets at a train station, so naturally I read All Quiet in translation. The edition I’ve got is a more recent translation by Brian Murdoch and is – in one sense at least – very good as it flows well and is thorough, so there are no German words left in italics to trip up the unwary reader.

However, there are a few odd moments, when the translator seems to almost have forgotten that he’s writing about a group of German soldiers. For example, one of them refers to getting a ‘blighty’ wound, which is a wound which is severe enough to get you sent home. However, a ‘blighty’ refers, specifically, to a wound which would get you sent back to Blighty, i.e. Britain, which is not at all what a group of German infantry would have had in mind. It’s also not a common word, even in war stories, so I did wonder at its inclusion.

That said, the power of the book outweighs any minor stumbles. I find it a very hard book to describe – it’s not an adventure story, there’s no plot, in the traditional sense of things caused by actions taken, and even the character development is limited. But none of that matters because it is what it is, and what it is is excellent.

Sleepovers by Jacqueline Wilson

Sleepovers by Jacqueline Wilson

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

There are 14 Jacqueline Wilson books on the Big Read list and I don’t think I’ve read any of them. Her books still seem to be incredibly popular – my local library has a couple dozen, at least, in the catalogue and none on the shelves.

I put my name down for a couple and #140, Sleepovers was the first to arrive. It’s written for and about primary-school children, so it’s a quick read but a fun one.

Five girls are friends, and they all decide to have a sleepover for their birthday. The book takes the reader through each sleepover in turn, working through the cruelties, worries and happinesses which kids have. It’s sweet book where not much happens but it has just enough of a plot to keep things moving along.

Everyday adventures
Unlike most of the books I’ve been reading lately, Sleepovers is firmly rooted in the real world. It’s a pleasant book, too – there’s no major upheaval or trauma. Instead, the book works through the five sleepovers in turn, describing each in detail from the food to the games.

Wilson cleverly manages to make all the girls distinct and, in just 112 pages, gives each of the six girls a character, with independent interests, likes and dislikes. She manages all this without describing them physically in much detail – some have straight hair or curly hair, and one is blonde, but that’s about it. So not only could any girl slot herself in, but she avoids using looks as a measure of worth, something which is common in children’s stories, particularly fairy tales, where good and beautiful and bad and ugly go hand in hand for women.

The illustrations are charming, but do somewhat undermine this as they pin each girl to the page, giving her hair colour, face shape, skin tone and so on.

Big ideas
For a small book, Sleepovers does have some big ideas. One is about friendship – what it means to be a good friend, and what happens when someone is a bad friend – but there’s another, more unusual thread running alongside this one.

The main character, Daisy, has an older sister, Lily, who has severe physical and mental disabilities. She doesn’t teach Daisy dance steps or song lyrics like other big sisters do – she can’t talk, or walk and she’s still in nappies at eleven.

I don’t want to say that the lesson Sleepovers is teaching kids about disability is tolerance, because I think it does more than that – it shows acceptance, inclusion and love. Lily is a complete character, and Daisy has a complex relationship with her. Sometimes she’s glad that Lily is her sister and sometimes she isn’t.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this in a novel, although I’ve seen it in real life.

For showing Lily as a normal part of an ordinary family, I would recommend this book. But it’s clever, sweet and engaging, too, which definitely makes it a winner in my book.

According to Jacqueline Wilson’s website, this book is recommended for children aged 7-9 who are starting to enjoy reading by themselves. I think that’s about right, although younger children would probably enjoy having it read aloud and there are lots of pictures to look at.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

JK Rowling’s fourth book, #5 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is a top-10 finalist on the Big Read list, and is more than 15 places ahead of the first three books in the series. I find this interesting because I’m inclined to agree with the placing but it’s impossible for me to determine why the gap appeared.

A slow beginning
As in the other three books, Rowling dwells on the ordinary-extraordinary lives of the wizarding world she’s created. It’s a thick book – over 600 pages – and the tension and the peril builds slowly. In fact, there are whole chapters which could be reduced to a paragraph or a sentence to move the plot along but which are enjoyable to read and let the reader spend more time hanging out in this fantasy world.

This is my favourite book of the four, but rereading it I thought it was too long. Most of the memorable action takes place in the last few chapters, and knowing what’s coming makes it harder to settle in to watch the schoolroom dramas unfold.

That said, Goblet of Fire is a complex novel and doing some heavy lifting in setting up the final three books, so perhaps it would be harder to prune than I tend to think. The editor in me itches to try though!

Growing up
Goblet of Fire
marks the shift, to my mind, from children’s literature to young adult. The characters have grown up and the peril has grown up too.

In school terms, the fourth year is when studying begins to get serious – exams are on the horizon and students have to start making choices which will affect their future careers. In teenage terms as well, it’s a year for crushes and relationships, when friendships are tested and romances start.

Harry’s growth is mirrored by Voldemort’s, and in book four the Dark Lord is undergoing his own growing pains. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and the fact that it happens so conveniently – that Voldemort can come back with a larger threat, just as Harry is growing ready to meet it – is one of those big lies of narrative fiction you just have to live with. It’s not usually that interesting if the hero gets wiped out in the last chapter but two, even though it might be more realistic.

The second half of Goblet of Fire is quite different from the earlier books – it’s darker, more serious and deals with more complex ideas. To my mind it’s a better book – having reread the last three as well, I’d say it’s the best of the lot.

Overall, I find it hard to fault the Harry Potter books. There’s plenty of detail to complain about but the world is rich and intriguing and the stories do keep dragging you along with them, which is the most important thing, to my mind. I hadn’t really intended to reread books five through seven, but having gotten Harry and friends to the end of book four – well, I couldn’t just leave them there. And any series which holds my attention for a couple thousand extra pages is one I have to recommend.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Third in the series, #24 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes Harry and friends into their third year at Hogwarts. Although the book is still quite narrowly focussed – homework, classes and Quidditch take up a lot of the pages – the world is starting to open up, and Harry is touched by events which are happening outside the school.

Child development
Birthdays aren’t major events in the Harry Potter world, but you can see the characters getting older as you read. I think it’s very neatly done – in the first book, Harry and his friends are eleven, and they act like they’re eleven. By book three, however, you can already see them growing up a bit, growing into the teenage years and the rocky journey to adulthood.

This is mirrored, to an extent, by the widening of the plot as the series progresses – instead of the peril being purely focussed on the school, the events have a larger significance and the solutions have to, too.

Children’s literature, not yet YA
To my mind, book three is the end of the beginning of the series. It’s the last book I’d class as purely children’s literature, rather than sneeking into young adult territory.

Obviously, the dividing line between the two categories is woolly enough to outfit a Highland regiment, but in my mind at least it’s partly to do with themes and partly to do with the enemies. In kid’s books, themes like death, sex and debt are handled at arm’s length – they tend not to happen to the main characters. The enemies are clear, and the choice is not who do we fight but do we fight. In YA books, death, sex, and other messy, unpleasant adult themes have come closer – main characters are often dealing with them directly, and it’s not even the main focus of the book. The enemies are also less clear cut – the question is now more likely to be who do we fight and who does that make us? The questions are more complex, perhaps, and certainly harder to answer.

Book three is much like books one and two, and very much part of a series. I wouldn’t recommend diving in at this point, but if you’ve enjoyed the first two, you’ll probably like this one.