Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye

I read #168 The Far Pavillions in a marathon session over the course of two days. As the book is over 1,000 pages long, that would normally be a strong recommendation but in fact it was due back at the library and I couldn’t be bothered to track it down again – my response was mixed and lukewarm at best.

Can’t avoid the word ‘epic’
The Far Pavillions isn’t just long – it’s also sweeping, grand, vast, complex and other words like that. The novel is broken into several sections which are called ‘books’, and honestly I feel the story – or at least the readers – would have been better served by breaking it up.

The novel begins with a young English woman marrying a crusty academic who is studying the languages and politics of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This would be enough plot to fill a novel, but is rattled over fairly quickly, as its the origin story for Our Hero, Ash. After a series of unfortunate deaths and the untimely intervention of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, Ash is left in the care of his nurse, a woman from the hills who treats him as her son.

The novel then shifts through a range of different genres – exotic childhood memoir; young British officer / hero of the Raj; palace intrigue; romance; spy story; war story. Each section is fairly distinct, and the change is fairly abrupt. I consider myself a skilled and experienced reader, but it did leave me scrambling to shift gears and reduced my enjoyment of the book as a whole, although most of the sections were pretty good.

White history of India
A problem I had with the book is that it is set in India, between roughly 1850 and 1880 and written by a white (as far as I can tell) woman whose ties to the country are through the Raj – several generations of her family served in the British army in India, her great-uncle wrote a book about the mutiny mentioned above, her husband’s family were also in the British army.

As I know nothing about the history of India at that period, I can’t tell if MM Kaye has written a reasonable account or if The Far Pavillions deserves the cover line “The Gone with the Wind of the North-West frontier” not just for page count and war stories but also for blatant white-washing.

What I can say is that parts of the book read like a story from Arabian nights – beautiful princesses, evil courtiers, forced marriage and murder – but there again, costumes aside, so do parts of British royal history and so do the family histories of plenty of ordinary folk.

In addition, MM Kaye co-opts actual historical characters for her novel, giving them major roles in her stories and creating backgrounds, episodes and conversations whole-cloth. The line between outright fiction and historical fact is severely blurred – as far as I can tell its as though she had added an extra character to Churchill’s war room or Elizabeth I’s inner circle and personally, I don’t like that. But books like The Other Boleyn Girl have been very popular so perhaps I’m in a minority.

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.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

I don’t understand why #71 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind is on the Big Read list. It starts out with a fairly interesting premise – that a guy is born with a phenomenal sense of smell – but the main character is (deliberately) unlikeable, and the rest of the novel is mundane or unpleasant.

The novel and the main character are deliberately grotesque, designed to repel and fascinate the reader. Although it’s not my favourite style, I have enjoyed works by other authors using a similar technique – Flannery O’Connor, for example.

Perfume didn’t work for me: I was never fascinated or attracted by the character or the story, I struggled to believe two of the Big Lies essential to the plot, and the only reason I finished the novel was to cross it off the list. Part of the turn off, for me, was the hackneyed murder – the unlikeable monster uses his superpower to commit murder motivated only by his twisted order of how the world should be. It was almost interesting except that the monster is killing young women (virgins, of course) because he wants to possess their essence.

Silent victims
I was bored with the novel before I got to the murders, but the treatment of the victims which really made me give up. Young women are murdered every day, in fiction and reality, and so rarely given a voice that I really can’t find another novel from the murderer’s point of view interesting. I don’t care about the murderer any more, and I really can’t agree that art (both the monster’s art within the novel, and the art of the novel itself) justifies the silence. None of the women killed gets a single line of dialogue – they are pursued, discussed, remembered, murdered and buried without us ever getting a glimpse of their humanity, of their selves, of their thoughts or opinions, cares or dreams.

Frankly, I found nothing new in Perfume and although some of the descriptive passages were well-wrought, that’s hardly enough to justify hundreds of pages spent dwelling with a total creep who needed (a) a slap upside the head, (b) anti-depressants and (c) to get over himself and realise he, too, is only human. And – more importantly – so are other people.

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.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

First published in 1985, #131 The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant, well-written and all too plausible account of one woman’s life in a dystopian future-USA controlled by a religious party.

It could happen to you
The scariest thing about Atwood’s book is that the future still seems plausible – and close. While many people in the USA are still hoping for and working towards and egalitarian future, there are still plenty of politicians (and others) who would view Atwood’s dystopia as a better world than the one we live in.

Which brings me to an interesting point – The Handmaid’s Tale describes a world which is very patriarchal so although it’s clearly a dystopia for the main character and most of the other women the reader encounters, most of the men are doing fine. One of the strengths of the book – without giving too much away – is that it encourages the reader to consider who benefits and who loses. As women’s power is stripped away, men gain control and obvious material benefits but they also lose something: half of the human race.

Not perfect
Actually, it’s more than half of the human race’s talent, compassion and skills which are lost as, unsurprisingly, the leaders are not too fond of anyone who doesn’t share their religion or skin tone. But you have to read quite carefully to find out what happens to people of colour and people of other religions – this is primarily a book about white Christian men and white Christian women. While the book’s narrow focus – one woman, one story – makes it easy to read and hard to put down, the author’s neglect of other marginalised peoples is disconcerting. The main character and first person narrator has limited access to information, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily so narrow that whole swathes of the population could go missing without comment. Except maybe, the point is, that they could: as each group tries to protect their own, they all get swept away.

As you can see, the book is thought-provoking and as it’s also an excellent story, I strongly recommend you read (and reread) it.

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.

Girls in Tears by Jacqueline Wilson

Girls in Tears 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.

The final book in this series, #139 Girls in Tears follows on from Girls in Love, Girls under Pressure (not on the Big Read list) and Girls out Late. It’s probably the first book in the series which really requires you to have read the previous one.

A worthwhile read
As with the other two books in this series, I didn’t particularly enjoy it but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the other books and believe it’s a good book for teenagers to read.

Wilson seems very much aware that she is writing for a younger audience, for readers who are still forming their opinions on love, sex, friendship and big abstract concepts like fairness, justice and tolerance. Her novels are great stories and also provide examples of good behaviour in the face of bad situations. Characters do things like dumping a date who is pressuring them to have sex before they’re ready, making sure a friend is safe when meeting someone they met online and so on.

The books aren’t at all preachy, but the situations they model are very true to life, and the ‘heroic’ behaviour seems well withing one’s reach.

On the list
Girls in Tears was published in 2002, so it’s impressively high up the list. It also marks my ninth Wilson novel read for this challenge, out of 14 in total. I don’t think that this is a particularly brilliant book, but I can see why it’s popular as it focuses on quite ordinary troubles which many teens will be able to sympathize with. I’ve certainly encountered many of them myself, although perhaps not in year nine!

Each book in the series has a particular focus and shows it from at least three different angles as Ellie, Magda and Nadine are very different and approach each situation in different ways. In Girls in Tears, however, the drama is focused on the relationship between the three girls, and the pressures which their love-lives and outside interested put on the friendship. (That’s a rather po-faced way of describing it, but it’s hard to be more specific without spoilering at least one of the books.) it’s a fitting end for the series – although, honestly, I think Wilson could have taken them all the way up to university, and kids would have continued to enjoy the developing characters and challenges.

Girls out Late by Jacqueline Wilson

Girls out Late 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.

Only three out of the four books in this series are on the list, so I skipped over Girls under Pressure and went straight to #167 Girls out Late. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, Girls in Love, the series is not really to my taste, and that didn’t change with this next book.

Teenagers being teenagers
Wilson’s genius is that she brings children and their problems to life in a totally believable way. The downside for me is that now the heady hormone-fueled days are past I don’t have much patience for complex solutions to problems which quite often seem like ones which could be resolved by just talking it out sensibly. Of course, I remember enough of my own teen years – never mind more recent interactions with drama-aficandos – to realise that’s rarely possible or desired.

Parents being parents
Out Late shifts the focus to boundaries drawn by adults, and explores when they’re reasonable or not. I may be over thinking it, but I do like the fact that parents are shown to be wrong and unreasonable sometimes – they are only human after all – and so are the teenagers – ditto. I feel like the book might give both sides a glimpse into how the other half lives and what they worry about.

This is a book set in a very real world and dealing with problems which most teens will recognise. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first book.

Girls in Love by Jacqueline Wilson

Girls in Love 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.

I really felt too old for #59 Girls in Love when I was reading it – but then I think I may have felt too old for it when I was thirteen, like the girls in the book are.

Junior soap opera
Girls in Love introduces us to Ellie (our narrator), Magda and Nadine, three best friends in year nine. This is the first book in the series and it traces their tangled first romances.

The problems they face are mostly fairly sweet and light (with one notable exception which is handled with Wilson’s usual aplomb) and, like in the soaps, the drama comes from how tangled the characters can get by lying at the wrong moment, snogging the wrong guy and so on. Frankly, I don’t have much patience for the sort of plot tangle which could be sorted out by people just talking to each other either in fiction or real life, so it’s not the book for me.

Still a good book
While it’s not to my personal taste, I can imagine people enjoying this book – particularly young teens whose first relationship (holding hands! with a boy!) is still in the future. The novels – and this is the first in a series – map out what a decent relationship is by showing the characters dealing with nice guys and less savory ones, and on that basis alone I’ve got to rate it fairly highly – so many romance novels aimed at teens idealise highly dysfunctional (Twighlight, anyone?) or abusive (Wuthering Heights, e.g.) relationships that I’m glad to see one which isn’t.

Is it greener living in a caravan?

Is it greener living in a caravan?

To be clear, I’m not talking about holidaying in a caravan – I’m talking about living in a caravan full-time, either on one site (as we did in Cambridge) or touring (as we are now). And I’m comparing our caravan life to our previous life – one car, commuting by bike or public transport, etc – not some mythical ‘typical’ life or the national average. I haven’t got an internet connection right now, so I can’t do the research to find that out anyway.

Where we started from
K and I are not super-green, but we try to make environmentally sound choices. All else being equal, we pick the greener option – but all else is rarely equal, so the environment has to face off against fair trade, convenient, cheaper, tastier and the rest of the ‘all else’.

Water – we use less now
In the house we had a dishwasher, showers every day, water on tap (literally) to wash up. Now, every drop of water we use in the van has to be carried to the van by us. And although refilling the water tank is not a big chore, it’s still a chore and we’d rather play Transport Tycoon or read a book or blog. So we’re careful when we wash up and are adept at washing up in a small amount of water.

We also shower less (sorry, strangers on the train) as there’s a choice between paying 50p for a shower in the shower block or hauling water for a wash in the van, so if we’re going to the pool or gym, for example, we’ll wait and shower there, rather than showering twice in one day.

Electricity - we use less now
We’ve gotten rid of most of our appliances – no TV, microwave, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, tumble drier. We still have the laptop – as evidenced by this post! – and a few other gadgets, like phones and our electric toothbrush. We haven’t switched the hot water heater on yet, and the water pump only uses a tiny amount. And as we’ve only got one room, we usually only need one light on at a time – having two on seems decadent!

The first site we stayed at was metered, so we had to buy top up cards, which made us very aware of how many pennies worth of electricity we used. We spent £15 in six weeks, and had to be frugal for the last few days as we were down to our last pound on the meter.

Gas – about the same, maybe more
It’s summer so we weren’t heating the house and we’re not heating the van. We still cook with gas, but as we only have two pans we can’t make terribly elaborate meals, so we’re probably using a little less on that front too. However, we’re no longer sharing our cooking with 3 other people, so per person we may be using the same or slightly more for cooking.

Petrol – we’re using more
Towing the van takes more petrol than not towing the van, obviously, but even while we were static we were using more petrol. We parked up at a lovely site where K could cycle to the station to go to work, but there wasn’t much else nearby. We drove to visit friends, to get groceries, to get to the library – all things we usually did by bike before.

Other travel – probably less
We’re taking public transport less, obviously, than when I was commuting to London, and we don’t expect to fly anywhere on holiday or to visit family in the next few months, but we’re still using buses and trains to get around the local area.

Waste – more per person
We’ve gone from living in a shared house, buying in bulk, cooking in bulk, to living in a van with limited storage space and only two people to cook for so we’ve got more packaging per person to throw away.

Household chemicals - about the same
While we’ve got less to clean, we no longer have access to mainline clean water and sewage pipes, so we’ve got more chemicals to deal with keeping things sanitary.

Personal consumption - less!
As we’ve got less space, we’re shopping less and we’re more likely to wear things out, repair things and use them up to the full as we won’t necessarily be able to replace them immediately and don’t have any spares.

Out-sourced consumption - lots more!
When we lived in the house, we had our own WiFi, used our own shower and toilet most of the time, our own landline phone. We had friends on-site so didn’t have to drive to meet them, and had people over rather than eating out at a restaurant.

Now, as our space and resources are limited (and with the upheaval of the move) we’ve been eating out more, showering at the gym or pool, using the WiFi at coffee shops and friend’s houses.

Borrowing or buying these extra resources makes it hard to figure out how much we’re using – we’ve refilled the 40L water tank twice, so used less than 120L of water at the van in 6 weeks, but that doesn’t count flushing the toilet in the toilet block, showers at the gym, or even drinking water, as we fill that up separately. Sometimes we even wash up at the site taps, so the 120L is a really woolly and useless number – if it doesn’t seem like much, it’s because it’s missing a lot of things.

Set-up costs – much less
The cost to the environment of building a caravan is much less than building a house. Of course, we were living in a hundred-year-old house and bought a fifteen-year-old caravan, but the point still stands. Sort of.

Greener over all
On balance, I think we’re having a lower impact on the environment – particularly when you factor in the alternative travel costs. Last week we visited Belgium and Luxembourg for the first time, and next week we’re going to to Lichtenstein and Italy – all without a single flight. We’d struggle to do that – and enjoy it – by train or with just a tent. For a one thing, K’s car is only little so once you’ve put the tent and sleeping bags in the boot, there really isn’t much room for yarn!