Monthly Archives: October 2012

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Another children’s classic, #58 Black Beauty is available for free on Project Gutenberg. A lot of kids go through a ‘horse’ phase (see also: ‘dinosaur phase’, ‘digger phase’) and no doubt have fond memories of the book as a result. I missed out on that, and although I’m sure I read Black Beauty at least once before I was 18, I don’t remember it well.

The proper care of equines, as narrated by a horse
Early animal rights literature, Black Beauty is designed to convince middle-class children to be kind to the dumb beasts they pass every day.

Set in a world before motorcars (it was first published in 1877), the novel follows the ordinary life of a working horse. Born of good stock he is well-trained in his youth, then sold to various masters, good and bad. Each person or situation Black Beauty encounters provides the audience with a valuable lesson about how to treat horses. The lecturing is heavy handed and is only saved by the fact that I’m reading it a hundred years too late, so I don’t actually know how long cab horses work for (half a day, although the cab men do a full day) or how far you can ride in a day (32 miles is quoted as reasonable). The author also manages to squeeze in lectures about other subjects, including ‘the demon drink’ and docking dogs’ tails.

A snapshot of Victorian life
Although I wasn’t that taken with the plot of Black Beauty, like Diary of a Nobody it does show ordinary life in a way which other novels don’t. As the book is primarily about what happens to the horses, the people are more or less incidental, so someone being knocked down and killed, dying of TB or otherwise suffering from living in Victorian London isn’t really commented on. The book also fills in ordinary details like how taking a cab worked, what a day trip involved, what hired horses were like.

Horses were so fundamental to society before the car but their appearance in novels usually lacks detail – fictional cars have more personality than working horses, from the obligatory temperamental banger in PA meets billionaire romances right up to Christine.

Black Beauty was an interesting read and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is thinking of writing a historical novel – but it’s probably not much good for anyone who’s thinking of getting on a horse! Conveniently for writers, Black Beauty takes place in both Bath and London, two of the most commonly described cities in British fictional history, and covers a good swathe of the jobs horses did (I didn’t notice any pit ponies, but I may have blinked).

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.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Another Discworld book, #197 Witches Abroad follows the adventures of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat as they venture out of Lancre to the decadent city of Genua to stop a girl from marrying a prince. It’s a very good book and I do recommend it.

Myths, magic and headology
Witches Abroad is a book about stories. It deals with and confounds narrative expectation, discussing explicitly something which is a key part of many of Pratchett’s books. Like many other fantasy authors, Pratchett uses folk tales and legends as the basis for his plots and Witches Abroad confirms – for anyone left wondering – that it is deliberate, thoughtful and that yes, he is a very smart guy.

The book is also about using stories to control people and who gets to choose the story of your life. These themes are less explicit but nonetheless interesting as even in our world where one-in-a-million chances don’t come right nine times out of ten, we still run our lives as though stories are true: as though the beautiful must be virtuous, the good lucky and the bad punished. Even in Discworld it doesn’t work out quite like that.

About the reading experience
Pratchett books are a shared resource in my family, and we’ve been collecting them since at least 1995 so I was surprised to find that Witches Abroad was missing from the shelf. It’s available on Kindle, so I downloaded a copy and started reading, only to encounter one of the strangest reading experiences of my life.

Many Pratchett’s novels have been turned into audiobooks. The versions read by Tony Robinson (of Blackadder fame) are absolutely brilliant as he’s very good at bringing the characters to life. The tapes are ideal for long car journeys, and I must have heard Robinson read Witches Abroad at least 20 times. I can hear the opening in my head now, and in fact whenever I hear the phrase “Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett” my brain appends “Read by Tony Robinson.”

The only downside to the Robinson tapes is that they’re abridged. With books like Small Gods, I fill the missing jokes in as he goes along. Rereading Witches Abroad gave me the opposite experience – I know the tape so well and clearly haven’t read the full text in a decade so it was as though someone had taken a favourite story and shoehorned extra bits in. And yet, I couldn’t allow myself to get cross about it because the person who had ‘changed’ the book was the author, and the ‘changes’ were the original text. Very strange.

As a result, I don’t have much to say about the book itself – there are plenty of foreign stereotypes being played for laughs but was too bemused by the ‘extra’ bits to do much analysis.

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 Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Like The Far Pavillions, #64 The Thorn Birds had a pull-quote on the cover from the Telegraph comparing it to Gone with the Wind. It is decidedly epic: the novel spans most of the 20th century, ranges from a New Zealand sheep shearer’s cottage to the Papal palace in Rome, covers four generations of a family and tackles some big themes. It also gets kind of dull, for a book with so many juicy ideas in it.

Not my kind of book
I’m reluctant to slate this book as it’s so clearly not for me. I have little patience with people making grand sacrifices for (from my perspective) no good reason and I’m skeptical of grandiose claims of love, and visions of love as something instant and unchanging.

This book is full of both of those things, and also has an awful lot of Catholicism in it. Again, this may appeal to others, but I’ve found that my beliefs tend to be at odds with those preached and practiced by the Catholic church (for one thing, I won’t support any organization which won’t let me be a senior or speaking member because of my sex).

That said
Much of the action takes place on Droghedra, a cattle ranching station in Australia. I did very much enjoy the descriptions of the landscape, the lifestyle and how the two evolved over the decades the book covered. In some ways, it seems, that life didn’t change that much on the stations but the geographical isolation of the stations meant that although fashions like short(er) skirts and rock and roll hardly touched the people at Droghedra, improvements in communications – phones, cars, airplanes, radios… – and labour saving devices – electricity, plumbing… – had an enormous effect.

As with The Far Pavillions, I don’t know much about Australia at this time period, so I can’t say whether it’s an accurate portrayal of life on a big station. It did match with other fictional portrayals I’ve seen – the film Australia, for example, covers a similar period and has a similar setting – and the author did at least live through most of the period she’s writing about, and had lived in or visited most of the communities she discusses.

I realise this is a half-hearted recommendation, but that’s the best I can do: try it, if you like long books, family dramas, pot-boilers and let me know if you love it – as always I’m interested to hear why people like books I don’t.

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.

Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson

Lola Rose by Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson tackles several big issues in #121 Lola Rose, and does it with aplomb, as usual. I definitely recommend the book.

Running away from her abusive father, Jayni, her mother and little brother take on new names and new identities. However, even as Lola Rose Jayni finds that life hasn’t changed much and when her mother gets cancer it seems like her father will soon be back in their lives.

Spoiler alert
When writing reviews, I try to avoid giving out any spoilers or plot information which isn’t on the cover (front or back) or in the first chapter or so. One of the interesting things about Wilson’s books is that the summaries are often include spoilers – like the mention of cancer, above – for quite far into the books. I imagine this is so that responsible adults will be able to tell at a glance what kids are reading and be ready to field difficult questions.

In this specific case, I think it’s a good idea as Wilson’s books (I’m discovering) nearly always touch on serious subjects. In general, I have mixed views – on the one hand, I would quite like warnings on books so I can avoid wasting my money and time but I hate spoilers and am well aware that the warnings I’d like are implausible (“in the future, women will be in the kitchen” “space: white people only” “really badly written” “has not been copy edited”).

My favourite hero
Jayni / Lola Rose has it rough, and I was impressed throughout with how practical, sensible and brave she was. The character seemed entirely plausible, reminding me of certain friends I had at school, and I think she provides an excellent role model. I’m happy to conclude my week of heroics with a whole-hearted recommendation: this is what I think heroism is: doing what’s right as best you can, even when you’re scared or broke or small or powerless. Even when you can’t win.

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.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

In #70 The Lord of the Flies, a group of boys, age 6-15, find themselves stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The paradise soon reveals a dark side, both to the natural surroundings and the boys’ own nature.

It is a very powerful book – I wouldn’t say I loved it and would read it again, or that it was an easy or comfortable read, because it wasn’t. But I do highly recommend it and it is an excellent counterpoint to the sappy Victorian children’s literature – like Little Women, like Swiss Family Robinson, like Heidi, like (apparently) Coral Island – where everything is for the best and everyone is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Boys will be human
I’m going to be vague as it’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling it. It’s a deeply emotional book and discusses the social fallout from the crash in detail. The book is beguiling and horrifying, at once a ripping yarn and a warning that humanity is in each of us – and so is unbearable cruelty.

The cast is exclusively male – all the children stranded are boys – but (unusually) this isn’t a problem for me. British society is still very strongly gendered, even for young children, and in creating a mixed-gender group the author would have had to deal with a much wider range of issues – some of the boys are old enough to be well into puberty, for example – and the book covers enough as it is.

In many ways the book is a fable, and just as the old stories are stripped down to the essentials and told and retold without losing the message or the drama, the group of stranded children stripped of inter-gender relationships, sexual tension (a product of having imaginary 1950s adolescents, I imagine, rather than modern ones) and gender-roles are free to symbolize all humanity.

Everyday hero
Clearly the situation the boys face on the island is extreme, but the heroism of Ralph, Piggy and friends is not the brash, physical courage we discussed in Stormbreaker but the more ordinary courage required to uphold one’s beliefs in fairness, freedom, society and other human inventions when it’s easier to let them go. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in this way, but it may be the kind of courage, of steadfastness, which is easiest to put into practice. You don’t need to leap (off) tall buildings, but simply to trust another human being. To believe that the beggar knows their own priorities best, and will spend your money wisely (even if that’s on drugs). To believe the stranger on the internet is honest – whether honestly hurt, honestly naive or honestly deluded – and offer sympathy not scorn. To keep an eye on kids playing in the street, just in case, or the couple arguing in their car.

And yet – as Lord of the Flies shows – it’s hard to be civilised (whatever you, personally, mean by that word) when all about you encourages chaos. And it’s easy for people to get hurt, to protect that soft centre by shutting out the world.

In the last few months I’ve been going back and forth between London (where making eye-contact is seen as a sign of aggression or panhandling) and rural Switzerland (where you say hello to everyone, even strangers, even if you see them eight times in a day). The barrage of good wishes can feel like an intrusion, but it’s also a clear sign that the social contract is alive and well. ‘Bonjour’ says more than ‘hello’ – it says ‘I see you’.

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.

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

A spy story for kids, #107 Stormbreaker is explicitly based on, and has numerous hat-tips to, Flemming’s James Bond. After his uncle’s death, 14-year-old Alex Rider gets dragged into the shady world of international espionage.

Dream-come-true
There are a lot of similarities between The Princess Diaries and Stormbreaker. Published in 2000, both books focus on a popular, well-established and strongly gendered wish-fulfillment situation: girls want to be pretty princesses and boys want to be daring spies. It’s a false dichotomy which shows up again and again –  I remember it from the Happy Meal toys of my childhood and saw it in the toy aisle just last week.

Both characters are dragged into their adventure unwillingly, thanks to information which their parent/guardian has hidden from them. While Mia’s life remains within the realm of the ordinary (if going to an exclusive school, having a body guard and etiquette lessons can be considered ordinary) Alex’s rapidly enters a dangerous adult world where being under-age might not be enough to keep you from being killed.

Physical courage
Alex’s adventure involves mainly physical rather than moral courage: he has to undergo frightening and physically grueling challenges but is pretty clear about who the bad (or at least worst) guys are. Like in the Bond films, this junior spy never has to make any tough decisions about who to save or choose between two evils. The peril is larger than life and fairly sanitized – we’re dealing with Dasterdly Plots To End The World, not child labour or famine.

Following firmly in the footsteps of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Stormbreaker is implausible, macho and features a very lucky, surprisingly well equipped spy. While I’m not inclined to consider the Bond school of amateur demolitions heroic, it would be a terrifying situation for a normal 14-year-old and Alex acquits himself with aplomb.

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 Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot

Begging for a Disney adaptation, #99 The Princess Diaries follows the transformation of an ordinary girl into a princess.

When Mia’s dad tells her she’s the heir to his tiny kingdom of Genovia, she’s not best pleased. Her friends aren’t going to believe this – and it means spending more time with her terrifying grandmother, learning to be a proper lady.

Wish fulfillment
Although Mia doesn’t want to be a princess, as Disney movies, Barbie dolls and the mass media are all fascinated with princesses, so it’s no surprise that many other little girls want to be one. The Princess Diaries follows a familiar path as a teen discovers a new, special, powerful side to themselves and – after a rocky start – learns to live with and enjoy their new talent.

Instead of a superpower, Mia got a country and instead of learning to control her magic, speak a dozen language or karate-chop villains, she’s got to focus on place settings, paperazzi and proper forms of address. It’s a raw deal, actually – I couldn’t see how Mia was any better off or happier with her new status at the end of the book, although perhaps this changes as the series progresses.

Centre of attention vs hero
Princesses are usually the centre of attention, whether that’s in a Disney movie or a Daily Mail double-page spread. And being a princess can royally suck but getting through those struggles doesn’t necessarily make one heroic. Mia’s struggles, triumphs and disasters don’t seem to touch her deeply enough, require enough fortitude, to make me call them heroic – they are too ordinary, and my definition of a hero requires a bit more.

However, The Princess Diaries does gloss over the invasive media interest – and dealing with that can be a Herculean task for young women in the spotlight. Mia gets off relatively lightly, perhaps because she is under 18, but I do wonder what the effect would be on a shy, introverted teen thrust into the world news pages.

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.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Although it’s a modern classic, I never read #42 Watership Down when I was a kid, but I don’t think I missed much. While the novel has several  strong points, overall I don’t recommend it.

Watership Down, like Black Beauty, tries to give a human narrative to animals behaving as animals. It’s an odd genre as observed animal is given human motivations. Like The Far Pavillions, I don’t know enough about what’s real to be able to separate fact from fiction and the author doesn’t do that so I’m left with an uncomfortable collection of maybe-true tidbits.

Girls just wanna have babies
I don’t think it’s too spoilerific to mention that, eventually, in the interests of progeny, the male rabbits seek out some female rabbits. The female rabbits are a disappointment. They are largely docile, indistinguishable and only interested in babies.

Adams has written a book where male rabbits do all kinds of ‘unnatural’ things, including – in the first chapter – accurately predicting the future and yet the female rabbits are left tending the hearth. It’s something I see time and time again in speculative fiction: the author rewrites the world and some how women / people of colour / people with disabilites / foreigners / etc still get trapped in the same roles and stereotypes. I am so sick of it, and it’s particularly egregious when it’s a book about psychic talking rabbits.

Survival of the heroes
One of the strong points about Adams’ novel is that he doesn’t shy away from the gorier elements of being a prey animal. As he has an ensemble cast, the reader is never entirely sure which of the characters will survive any given encounter. It also gives the individual characters more scope to be good, bad or unhelpful on a case by case basis, as they don’t have to fight a solo battle. While classic heroes from Odysseus to James Bond are loners working for their own ends, the rabbits of Watership Down are a team, and their heroics – or lack thereof – are measured against the social good. It’s a rather refreshing change.

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.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

I didn’t enjoy #59 Artemis Fowl – in fact, I started and failed to finish it last year, so wasn’t that pleased about having to come back to it! However, my distaste stems from experience: I don’t think it’s a particularly good example of either children’s fantasy or comic fantasy.

Artemis Fowl is a boy-genius and criminal mastermind who has been solving puzzles and plotting capers for all of his short life. Age 12 he has discovered that fairies really do exist and has formed a cunning plan to kidnap one and thus restore his family’s fortunes.

Just a bit dull
Artemis Fowl isn’t badly written, crudely racist or poorly paced – it’s just not as good as Howl’s Moving Castle or even The Magic Far Away Tree. The style is similar to that of Tom “Snow White and the Seven Samurai” Holt and Robert “Armageddon: The Musical” Rankin but is squarely aimed at kids. Colfer makes heavy use of folklore and the book is packed with micro-puns (leprechaun, for example, becomes LEPrecon i.e. the fairy police recon team).

Incidentally, I don’t recommend either Rankin or Holt – I prefer my comic fantasy with more bite (a la Gaiman), wit (Pratchett) and originality (Wynne Jones)

A hero and a villain in one
Despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy Artemis Fowl, it does fit well in this series as the title character is a self-proclaimed villain. Yesterday I mentioned the Die Hard dispensation, where good guys can do more bad things than the bad guys without harming their good guy status, and that comes into play again. Artemis is willing to commit any number of crimes to accomplish his goals, yet he is clearly supposed to be a sympathetic character and one we are supposed to root for.

Artemis’s crimes aren’t victimless – kidnapping has a pretty clear victim – which is unusual for a children’s novel. I would have expected him to do a bit of white-collar fraud, stealing money from mobsters, rather than kidnapping a member of the police.

As I didn’t much care for Artemis, the novel reinforced something for me: hero is in the eye of the beholder. While I thought he probably should have been taken into care and sent to a shrink, I’m sure many other readers will have been rooting for his success!

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.

Children’s Book Week

Children’s Book Week

Running from 1-7 October 2012, the Children’s Book Week is “a celebration of reading for pleasure for children of primary school age”. It’s been running for 80 years and is generally A Good Thing.

This year the theme is ‘Heroes and Heroines’ so I’ve selected seven books from the Big Read List which are aimed at children and will be posting reviews of them over the next seven days. To tie in with the theme, I’ll spend a little more time looking at the heroes in the books and thinking about heroes in general. I should probably mention now that I don’t like pointlessly gendered words so tend to use hero for both male and female characters.

Children’s Book Week is kind of a big deal, but it’s largely run by volunteers organising local events around the country. I’ll be spending the week in Switzerland, out of the way of all the fun, but if you’re in the UK do look out for events happening near you – libraries and schools are the best place to start but some large venues are also hosting events.