Wednesday, December 7, 2016

'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott

Following the lives of four sisters on a journey out of adolescence, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women explores the difficulties associated with gender roles in a Post-Civil War America.

Genre: Young adult, classics, family stories.

This review is of the first installment of Little Women. It was eventually pulled into one volume with its follow-on sequel, which was initially called 'Good Wives' but I'll review that one separately, since I own distinct old volumes. And I think you'll agree this review is long enough. 

This is a beautiful, ever-lasting memorial to the lifestyle the author lived with her sisters well over a century ago, while many men were off serving in the Civil War. I think it's a great book to pull us out of a bad mood. The March sisters all had their cranky moments, but used the attitude tools their parents showed them to move through.

Marmee comes across as the wise, loving mentor they all considered her to be. 'The girls thought the grey cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world.' What an awesome introduction and tribute. I noticed something interesting this time round, when she spoke to Jo about overcoming her bad temper. I'd always remembered it wrongly, thinking Mrs March had managed to pull off a total personality transformation. But what she actually said was, 'I've been trying to cure it for 40 years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it.' Wow, that's different from what I'd thought. Maybe we're being unrealistic whenever we set about trying to change ourselves into someone else. Perhaps our weaknesses are just part of our fabric, and we need to focus on managing them rather than eliminating them altogether.

'Little Women' does get me thinking about the nature or nurture debate. At first sight it seems nature has its way, since the four sisters are so different from one another. Yet it can't be denied that birth order may have a bit of bearing on their family. Beth and Amy were treated a little more leniently and indulgently than Meg and Jo. Those two were referred to often as 'the children' even though there was only four years between all of them. Would Amy have still tried to impress people with her ridiculous, mixed-up words if she'd been born first? Or would Meg have felt the need to deliver quite so many lectures to the others, if she'd been youngest? Interesting to ponder.

I'll be glad to move on to the next book, when Amy's vocabulary blunders have finished. It reached the point where she was coming out with one every time she opened her little mouth, and then like a Pavlovian dog reaction, Jo would always make some snarky, superior correction. I felt like saying, 'Come on dudes, can't you both stop?' When quirkiness moves into predictability, it's not so cute anymore. However, I do remember that on my first reading of Little Women, when I was very young, the comedy was all completely lost on me, since I didn't know the meanings of the real words or Amy's wild guesses either.

It's handy to be familiar with some of the older books the girls refer to all the way through, since they impacted their lives in such a good way. For example, Pilgrim's Progress and Pickwick Papers become the basis for all sorts of games and leisure. It's good to see how the girls used other people's writing to shape their own characters. They didn't even realise they were doing this, since it was all in the name of having fun. So Bunyan and Dickens did for them just what Louisa May Alcott herself does for us. I love this pay-it-forward aspect of a good story.

This time around, I felt my heart leaning more toward Meg than ever before. I remembered her as the know-it-all big sister who seemed to have it all together, but she drops some of the most touching quotes which could come from someone straight out of the twenty-first century. 'I shall have to toil and moil all my days, with only little bits of fun now and then, and get old and ugly and sour because I can't enjoy my life as other girls do.' She also says, 'We go grubbing along, day after day, without a bit of change and very little fun. We might as well be in a treadmill.' My own teenage daughter has said similar things, in different words, and I totally get them.

For a girl who appreciates luxury and leisure as Meg does, her choice of fiance seems sort of counter-intuitive. She knows that agreeing to marry a modest, hard-worker like John Brooke will keep her doing the same things she's always done. If she really wanted the riches and pretty things she admired so much, she might have done better to have chosen the stylish Ned Moffat after all. But common sense and true love win out, and we've got to love her and her choice.

That brings me to Jo's situation, which is my biggest gripe. The first part of the story ends with Meg's engagement and Mr March's return. If I was a fresh reader, I'd be anticipating the budding romance of Jo and Laurie in the follow-up. I'd be assuming Alcott was clearly heading in that direction. That pair had common interests crying out to be noticed. They were both fun-loving with a penchant for generous gestures, a tendency to be impulsive and a love of simple mischief and cheek. They shared a mutual disregard for some of society's more nitpicky maxims and always managed to calm each other down when necessary. Jo was adamant that she'd never be swept off her feet by anyone, yet yearned for 'Teddy' whenever she felt lonely. If I didn't know what was coming, I'd be expecting her to fall heavily for the boy next door. I know many people have felt ripped off over the years, thinking Alcott pulled a mean trick on us all. There's a place for platonic friendships, but these two could have been so great.

The first installment ends this way. 'So grouped, the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it ever rises again depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama called Little Women.' Wow, what an outright pitch within the text itself! It definitely worked for Louisa May Alcott, but it would be interesting to see writers try a line like that now.

Even though the writing style may be a bit dated by modern standards, I still want to give it full marks for what it is, because Alcott wrote a fantastic girls' book for a Civil War chick, when there probably weren't all that many others around. I'll get on with 'Good Wives' which takes place three years later.

5 stars

Here is my review of March, the Pulitzer winning novel written by Geraldine Brooks about their father, and how he fared in the war.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Why don't we leave comments on blogs?

I thought I'd jump headlong into a subject which tends to be the elephant in the room. Bloggers often choose not to mention the number of comments our posts elicit, and I can think of a few reasons why. (When I use pronouns such as 'we' and 'you' in this blog post, I'm speaking generally, and not singling out individuals.)

1) We don't want to come across as needy or whiny by mentioning how few comments we receive. We don't want to be that annoying blogger who does guilt trips on all our friends.
2) We genuinely wish to convince ourselves that it makes no difference. We repeat the mantra that we love our hobby so much that lack of feedback is irrelevant. 
3) We don't want to bring our gripe to the attention of others and be known as the loser with no followers (in case they haven't already deduced this by our lack of comments). 

I wonder if I'm speaking for many of us when I explain what I've come to believe is the truth. Indeed numbers shouldn't be as important as we tend to make them, yet telling ourselves lack of feedback means nothing is just self-delusion. We should definitely strive to reach a point where our need for pats on the back isn't overwhelming, but at the same time, it's pointless to deny we are social creatures. A pastor who preaches week after week to an empty auditorium might eventually reconsider his calling and decide to stay in bed one Sunday. Just because we're talking about cyber-space here, the same thing applies to passionate bloggers. Encouragement, even from a small circle of friends, may one day make the difference between persevering or giving up.

That begs the question, well, why don't we comment more often? Whenever I look at my blog stats, the number of views is always far higher than the number of comments, sometimes like triple figures to zero. So what is it about human nature that holds us back from dropping a quick line or two, which might take a couple of seconds? I believe I've come up with three main reasons. See if any of these resonate with you.

1) We've passed saturation point.
Throughout history, information overload has never been as acute as it is for our generation. I've seen studies which cite that even our most scholarly ancestors never contended with as much information as every one of us do, often before our feet even hit the floor in the morning. Posts and articles zap around the globe and onto our screens non-stop. Annoying pop-ups vie for attention with clever, slick click-bait titles, all screaming, 'Look at me!'

Our attention is a limited resource, like precious oil, and it's easy to reach a point where there's no longer enough to spread around. I once read about a jam factory, which offered consumers so many delicious flavours to sample at a market stall, that most people couldn't make up their minds and walked away instead. In a similar manner, bloggers are lucky if we even skim their posts, let alone take time to comment!

2) We're Commitment-Phobes.
We aren't born this way, but modern western society has this effect on the best of us. There are enough things we have to do without bothering to stick out our necks and do something that's merely optional. Juggling every day bureaucratic red tape and form filling is compulsory for every one of us. How easy then, to ignore something that isn't absolutely necessary. Even if you enjoy your friend's blog enough to keep returning for more, being a lurker is far more convenient than commenting and probably frees up a couple of minutes of our day.

3) We feel shy and inadequate.
This one is possibly my biggest issue, and harks back to my Primary School days, when I used to try to make friendly gestures, which were sneered at or rejected. When you retreat back into your shell and vow never to emerge again, that instinct may still be driving you decades down the track.

We fear that our comments may appear dumb or obvious. Typing something like, 'I love your thoughts,' may come across so lame to us, we choose to say nothing at all. It's easier to wonder forever whether this witty or entertaining blogger has the potential to be a friend than risk putting out feelers and being ignored or cut down.

So here's an idea.
I'm going out on a limb a bit here. Who would be willing to be part of a small accountability group who looks after each other's blogs? I'm not talking about a blog alliance, which is something different and more formal. I consider what I'm thinking of to be more like blog caretakers. We keep a number of blogs on our radars, and without committing to comment on every single post, if we notice them looking a bit neglected over time, we leave an encouraging word or two in the comments. It may sound contrived, but since there's friendship and honesty behind it, it isn't really. If you think it sounds like a good idea, let me know in the comments, email or PM. (By the way, I'm grateful to those who do take the time to engage in my blog comments already. I know and appreciate you all.)

On a personal note, one of my main resolutions for 2017 will be to leave more comments than I already do, whether anyone joins me or not. The thought of commenting on new blogs always makes me nervous, but I can't help thinking it may be a risk worth taking. It may sound like a funny kind of New Year's Resolution, but here's why I think it's a good one.

1) It's a small action that can really make someone's day. Fellow bloggers, have you ever opened your inbox and had your heart leap with anticipation when you've seen a comment or two waiting? Since I've never had a talent for making big gestures, I'll go for this small one, which may well have the same effect.
2) I've convinced myself by this blog post that leaving comments is a sign of uncommon generosity. It seems from what I've said that not leaving comments is the common human reaction. If you want to be an uncommon person, this simple habit sounds like a way to raise ourselves higher than average. What's not to like?

As usual, I'd love to read your comments. That sounds like a bit of an awkward invitation considering the nature of this post, but I'll wait to see what happens, haha.  

Friday, December 2, 2016

'The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill' by Julie Klassen


First Series from Bestselling Author Julie Klassen!

On a rise overlooking the Wiltshire countryside stands the village of Ivy Hill. Its coaching inn, The Bell, is its lifeblood--along with the coach lines that stop there daily, bringing news, mail, travelers, and much-needed trade.

Jane Bell lives on the edge of the inn property. She had been a genteel lady until she married the charming innkeeper who promised she would never have to work in his family's inn. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Jane finds herself The Bell's owner, and worse, she has three months to pay a large loan or lose the place.

Feeling reluctant and ill-equipped, Jane is tempted to abandon her husband's legacy and return to her former life of ease. However, she soon realizes there is more at stake than her comfort. But who can she trust to help her? Her resentful mother-in-law? Her husband's brother, who wanted the inn for himself? Or the handsome newcomer with secret plans of his own . . . ?

With pressure mounting from the bank, Jane struggles to win over naysayers and turn the place around. Can Jane bring new life to the inn, and to her heart as well?

Genre: Historical fiction, Christian and secular, with romance and mystery.

Julie Klassen is known as a Regency romance author, but it's a stretch to call this one. It's more like a village chronicle. These can be really engaging if written well, but tend to get a bit slow and rambling if the author isn't careful. This one is terrific. Julie Klassen nailed it. I could imagine every moment playing out as one of those TV series we all look forward to relaxing in front of.

There's so much going on, but the main framework is the friction between two key characters, Jane Bell and her mother-in-law, Thora. Jane has reluctantly inherited the village Inn from her husband John, who died in a tragic accident. Thora can't help feeling resentful, since Jane was brought up as a gentlewoman, and has no business experience. She hates relinquishing the reins of her family pride to somebody who may well let everything fall apart. And Jane finds that Thora makes her edgy and nervous.

It's discovered that John had recently taken out a huge loan, but nobody can see where he poured the money, or find whatever he might have left over. (That's the mystery!) They have to pull together if they want to save the Inn, let alone live in harmony. This includes Thora's unscrupulous younger son, Patrick. And meanwhile, entrepreneur James Drake is snooping around with plans to set up a flash rival hotel nearby.

At first I thought a lot of the novel focuses on business rather than relationships, until I saw that they're so tightly woven together, the relationships wouldn't be what they were without business pressure molding them. Since there's such a large cast of characters, there are a couple of admirers for both women. They all seem like pretty worthy contenders, and I was happy just to wait for it to unfold, since romance isn't a major feature of the novel.

I love how the story shines a sort of feminist message in a really gentle and powerful way, just because of how things were back then. All the unfairness is shown and not told. Rachel Ashford is turfed out of her family home after her father's death, because properties were always entailed to distant male relatives. Thora has formed pessimistic views about marriage, some from experience, since all a woman's property would instantly become her husband's. Most revealing of all is the collective experience of Ivy Hill's business woman and knitting group. People refused to believe these skilled women were capable of producing good, marketable work, and chose the illusion that it must have been done by a man. Even Jane realised she'd unconsciously regarded members of her own gender this way, to her shock and shame.

My main disappointment with the novel is having to wait for the next one to find out what will happen now. There are so many great characters whose threads may be picked up. I hope Jane will still feature strongly in the sequel. She turned out to be one of those characters whose positive impact sticks in my mind. After all the losses she'd suffered (of which her husband's death is just one), her final, reflective attitude sits well with me. Even though nothing ended up matching the ideal plans for her life she concocted when she was a girl, she decides there's still a lot of good in her world on which to focus.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

5 stars

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

'Beyond the Orchard' by Anna Romer


A haunting story of yearning, love and betrayal from the bestselling author of Thornwood House

Lucy Briar has arrived home in turmoil after years overseas. She’s met her fiancĂ© in London and has her life mapped out, but something is holding her back.

Hoping to ground herself and find answers, Lucy settles into once familiar routines. But old tortured feelings flood Lucy’s existence when her beloved father, Ron, is hospitalised and Morgan – the man who drove her away all those years ago – seeks her out.

Worse, Ron implores Lucy to visit Bitterwood Estate, the crumbling historic family guesthouse now left to him. He needs Lucy to find something– an old photograph album, the very thing that drove Ron and his father apart.

Lucy has her own painful memories of Bitterwood, darkness that has plagued her dreams since she was young. But as Lucy searches for the album, the house begins to give up its ghosts and she is driven to put them to rest.

And there, held tightly between the house, the orchard and the soaring cliffs, Lucy uncovers a long-hidden secret that shattered a family’s bond and kept a frightened young girl in its thrall ... and Lucy discovers just how fierce the lonely heart can be.

Genre: Australian contemporary/historical thread fiction, mystery, Gothic. 

I've already come to expect dark family mysteries with dual timelines from Anna Romer.

In this one, Lucy Briar is summoned from her new home in London by her grandfather, Edwin. He promises to spill a family secret which has been concealed for many years if she'll return home to Australia. Alas, he dies before she gets there, but is her chance of learning it completely gone? The story peels back layers of the past as Lucy begins to search through Edwin's old artifacts with the help of Morgan, the man she's always been secretly in love with. Readers know it'll have something to do with the body hidden in the ice house at the beginning.

The characters through the generations take shape. Just as mystified as Lucy is her father Ron, a lovable author of twisted fairy tales who argues that bad guys never get a fair go. And appearing all through the past is the elusive Orah, a young shipwreck survivor who turns out to be a huge mystery, as nobody has a clue where she fitted in with the Briar family. Stories like this always seem to contain hope for the current generation, at the expense of heartache for their ancestors. (This one has its fair share of ladies who met horrible, watery ends. I suppose that's the treacherous southern coast of Australia for you.)

The passive, tragic figure of Edwin stayed in my mind. He was so peace-loving and affectionate, yet life seemed to have a way of trying to knock the stuffing out of him. I think part of his problem was not being forthcoming. He found it difficult to express the depths of his heart, so always opted for saying nothing. His keeping the peace policy had the opposite effect with his volatile family members. His son even cited his aloofness as the main reason for their not getting along.

Without the author needing to mention it, it's easy for readers to trace inherited traits in generations of the Briar family who have never met each other. There's Clarice and Ron's tendency to sink into depression, and Lucy sharing a habit with her grandmother of bolting at the first sign of trouble or discomfort.

I loved the beautiful little snippets of early twentieth century Australian life. They worked hard at Bitterwood, but it was meaningful, rewarding work. They kept a guesthouse, did lots of cooking and bred silkworms, all good, repetitive, worthwhile things. I might be a bit biased here because the setting holds good memories for me. I love driving along the Great South Ocean Road on summer holidays, and also seeing Australian settings brought to life so evocatively. It's been good to see the beautiful cover of this book in shops around my area recently.

Altogether, country Australia is a great setting for wistful, Gothic stories like this one.They remind me of similar novels by Kate Morton. And if anyone has read or seen the Aussie best seller The Light Between Oceans, look out for parallels. I'd be interested to discuss them with you.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster (Australia) and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Boyfriends through the Generations

Today's post is in honour of my two guests. This month they both celebrate significant milestone birthdays which include the numeral 8. My daughter turned 18 on Remembrance Day, and my mother turns 80 tomorrow. I thought I'd return to the theme of our favourite men from books, examining whether or not readers' tastes and preferences may shift with the passing years.

This is the name of the generation that was born before about 1942, and she was born in 1936. They're probably our most elderly living generation, and deserve to be listened to. Hard work was a fact of life for them, and they gave a lot without expecting an easy ride in return. Getting lost in a book was likely one of their only forms of leisure, and here are some of her favourites.

1) Mr Darcy
My Mum doesn't remember names easily, but his identity was clear from her description. 'That lovely chap who realised how snobby he was being and changed his ways, because he loved his lady so much. And he was also very handsome in that TV show.' I think Colin Firth had as much weight on her choice as Jane Austen, but it's easy to imagine the author had just such a face as his in mind for her main man when she wrote the story in the Regency Era.

2) Edward Rochester
I remember reading her this story in my teens, when I went through my Bronte phase. Every couple of lines she'd stopped to rhapsodise about how wonderful the leading man was. He'd been knocked around by life, turned cynical, but still had the warm heart to fall for the modest charms of a no-frills little heroine like Jane. Even when he made grouchy remarks, Mum loved him, so when he gave his famous declarations of undying love, she responded just how we're supposed to.

3) Gilbert Blythe
This was clear way back in my childhood, because my mother was the person who strongly recommended the Anne series to start with, and this boy was one of the reasons why. 'There was a lovely lad called Gilbert who teased her once, and she hated that, but she ended up marrying him.' Mum wasn't ever careful about hiding plot spoilers. That was something I had to learn on my own down the track.

Incidentally, I feature two from her list in the battle of the book boyfriends.  
It just goes to show that some charm is timeless.

I'm one of those people who can remember being tiny in the 1970s. Scarier still, I attended High School in the 80s! I felt like a goldfish in a pool of sharks, and doubt I managed to make it out unscathed. Those felt like cutthroat times. As I often say, at least I had my books. Here are my favourite book boyfriends growing up.

1) Almanzo Wilder
The Little House on the Prairie TV series with Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon was popular all through my growing years, but I loved the books most of all, devouring them time after time. Almanzo stole my heart when I was about 12. What's not to like about a cute, hard-working farmer boy who knew how to be romantic, although it wouldn't have been among the survival tips his father taught him. He set the bar high for future book boyfriends because you can't beat strong, thoughtful and sweet.

I remember a certain blistering heatwave when I visited the Flinders Ranges with my parents. I sat in the back of the car reading that episode from 'The Long Winter' when Almanzo and his best friend Cap dodged between dangerous blizzards, risking their lives to fetch the wheat that stopped the town from starving. I appreciated their heroics but also wished they could send a bit of ice and snow our way.

2) Hareton Earnshaw
I latched onto 'Wuthering Heights' when I was 15, but the person who intrigued me most was not Heathcliff but his rough-around-the-edges sort-of-adopted son. Although Heathcliff vowed that he'd bring the boy up the same harsh way he'd been treated to spite his old enemy, it really ticked all my boxes to see Hareton retain some generosity and compassion. It was as if Heathcliff was proving himself wrong with every demeaning trick he tried. As well as loving Hareton himself, I appreciated the irony of that.

3) Mart Belden
Don't laugh, but yes, I had a crush on Trixie Belden's teasing, goofy brother. I thought he was so smart, with his long words and provoking sense of humour. I probably started rubbed my hands together with anticipation whenever he walked into a scene. In later years when I revisited the Trixie Belden mysteries, Mart came off as an annoying, attention seeking show-off. But hey, he worked for me in my tweens.

There's a sort of overlap with Gen Y, but being born in 1998, she fits both. This generation comes across a bit intimidating to mine at times, as they seem to be born both tech-savvy and decisive. They make quick judgments about matters of taste, and back them up with complete confidence in their own discernment. Here are some of her favourites.  

1) Jon Snow
This 'Game of Thrones' hero is her clear winner, which says a lot for him since her walls and shelves are covered with fandom from far and wide. When I ask why she'd place him so high, she rattles off a list of instant praise. He's brave, caring, strong, considers underdogs, and is ruggedly handsome to boot. He also had an unfortunate start as a baby, so is himself an underdog in many ways. All of this refutes argument. This man is the total package for her.

2) Peeta Mellark
The modest, unassuming young hero from 'The Hunger Games' also makes it on my daughter's list. There's something about quiet devotion and a sacrificial nature which appeals to the young women the series was aimed for. I once commented that perhaps Peeta's rival in the romance stakes, Gale Hawthorne, is arguably the nicer looking of the pair (being a Hemsworth). Was I cut down to size! 'I'm glad I'm not as shallow as you are, Mum,' Okay, it's good to see that character is still a major priority for this generation.

3) Spiderman
She makes it clear that she's talking specifically about the version played by Andrew Garfield. It seems this young actor added a certain flair to the role, in her opinion. He wasn't just the standard, perfect super hero. He was funny, and also the type of person who makes nerdiness cool. And the romance in the movie was just the right amount.

So what are we to make of all this? Do fashions in book boyfriends change or not? On the strength of this, I really don't think they do. Their faces change, but the attributes which make our heroes lovable remain constant. People from earlier generations didn't have characters like Jon and Peeta, but when you compare them to those who were around, like Gilbert or Almanzo, they were similar types of fellows.

I know you'd have to ask more than three people for a complete study, but here are some findings which stand out to me. To qualify as a book boyfriend, a fictional character ought to be thoughtful toward others, and possess a certain amount of altruism. Being in the powerful position to be able to act on his good-hearted urges ranks high. Other traits which help include funniness, smartness, fairness and quick wits. They often display a redemptive arc during the story. And although good looks do earn ticks, a quick glance down this list shows that they aren't absolutely necessary. I'm sure those still to come in future generations will fit into the mold.

Have you any favourites of your own who may deserve to be added to this list of nine?
If you'd like more, see my earlier list of true heroes.
Or if you're a fan of enigmatic villains and redemptive arcs, you might like bad boys with depth.

Friday, November 25, 2016

'Hollow City' by Ransom Riggs


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was the surprise best seller of 2011—an unprecedented mix of YA fantasy and vintage photography that enthralled readers and critics alike. Publishers Weekly called it “an enjoyable, eccentric read, distinguished by well-developed characters, a believable Welsh setting, and some very creepy monsters.”

This second novel begins in 1940, immediately after the first book ended. Having escaped Miss Peregrine’s island by the skin of their teeth, Jacob and his new friends must journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. Along the way, they encounter new allies, a menagerie of peculiar animals, and other unexpected surprises.

Complete with dozens of newly discovered (and thoroughly mesmerizing) vintage photographs, this new adventure will delight readers of all ages.

Genre: YA fantasy, history, bestsellers. 

I love this novel! Basically it's a mad race against time, and the company of these delightful kids makes it a super quirky read. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who loves The Amazing Race and other quest scenarios.

You must read Book 1 of the series first. The peculiar kids from Cairnholm Island are back again, still without a clue what they ought to do when their time loop is destroyed, and now a ticking time bomb factor is added to the mix. If they don't hurry to find another ymbryne to help Miss Peregrine, she'll be stuck in her bird form forevermore. Not to mention wights and hollowgasts are on their trail every step of the way. I'll say no more about the twists of this plot, except that they cross different places and times.

On one level, the whole story is really crazy. It reminds me of a creative writing exercise where the teacher asks you to write a story based on random photos plucked from a hat. It's obvious that's pretty close to what Ransom Riggs does, but his cool writing style manages to pull them all together. I was even getting interested in the science concerning hollows and wights, and had to remind myself, 'Hey, this isn't really true,' several times.

Jacob Portman's reflections are still just as good as before. There is always tension between what he knows the others expect from him, and what he feels himself to be deep down, which is a bit of a try-hard and fall-short. He comes to see that peculiar qualities are not a deficiency, as the rest of the world would have them believe, but normalcy is. It's a great story for readers whose peculiarities are not as startling as theirs, yet may still tend to make us feel self-conscious and inferior. What an indulgence for anyone who admires eccentricity.

Jacob's friends steal the show for me. The only people I love as much as the girls, Emma, Bronwyn, Olive, Fiona and Claire, are the boys, Millard, Horace, Enoch and Hugh. What a gang! They come across so innocent and vulnerable, in spite of their great powers. The sarcastic humour and droll understatements keep flying non-stop. I wonder what the subjects of the original photos would think of the characters inspired by their poses.

Sometimes, I just stopped to admire the craftsmanship of the sentences. For example, there's this observation Jacob made as they walked through the war ravaged London of 1940. 'Through a bombed cemetery, long forgotten Londoners unearthed and flung into trees, grinning in rotted formal wear.' These touches of Halloween macabre are delivered in his matter-of-fact way. And I love how he mentions, 'a steady drip of adrenaline, keeping my exhaustion at bay.' You just can't predict what will happen next, and now I'm intrigued to find out how the final book of the trilogy will wrap up these incredible adventures.

5 stars

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Female heads of children's homes

I recently paid a visit to the old Redruth Gaol, near the South Aussie town of Burra. It was a rainy day without another soul in sight, adding to the spooky atmosphere. I discovered that between 1897 and 1922, the place was used as a Girl's Reformatory School. The stories posted up all over the walls made a wild and wacky read. Some girls were sent there because they fell pregnant, and one tried to commit suicide with rat poison from the kitchen. One group of girls managed to climb onto the roof and perform an impromptu strip tease for passers-by. Another bunch locked themselves into a room and attempted mutiny, unless their demands for a particular member of staff to leave were met. And a couple of girls escaped for a short time, something none of the grown men in bygone years had ever managed. They posed as boys and scoured the district searching for work.

One wall was filled with extracts from letters by the female supervisor to several parents, reporting all the stress and mischief their daughters were causing. Those girls had amazing imaginations when it came to cooking up trouble, and I didn't envy that lady her job one little bit. In fact, I left the place with a new respect for the female heads of institutions. Having to be in charge of several others without losing their respect or your own control is something I'd never be able to pull off. It started me reflecting how many of these admirable women show up in the stories we love, so today's list is meant to be a sort of tribute to them.

I'll start with those who may be considered more along the lines of 'normal', and they'll gradually grow weirder. I'll stick to nice, or well-meaning examples, because it's a post with the intention to honour, so no Trunchbulls or Umbridges here. They deserve a post of their own some day. Here goes.

1) Miss Clavell
 MadelineShe was the director of the old house in Paris all covered with vines, where little Madeline and several other girls lived happily together. Since Miss Clavell was possibly more motherly and kind than several of the parents who sent them there, it's no wonder they all got along so well together. We used to watch the TV series based on the books all through the '90s. Does anybody else remember how the little girls used to chant, 'We love our bread, we love our butter, but most of all we love each other'? See my review of Madeline.

2) Jo Bhaer
Jo's Boys (Little Women #3) Did you follow the life of Jo March from Little Women through the next three books, as she got married and set up a boarding school with her husband? They named it Plumfield, and several of their students were orphaned or destitute boys. The students gave Jo and Frederick some challenges, but they weathered them and and made exemplary young men out of (almost) all of them. Louisa May Alcott made it clear that the flops weren't Jo's fault. One of the biggest themes was how the younger generation came to rely on her wisdom and sound advice. Her manner with them may come across a bit overbearing or condescending at times, but that's the nineteenth century for you.

A Home for My Heart3) Sadie Sillsby
This one is a more obscure choice. She's a young woman who was offered the job as matron of an orphan home, but it means she won't be able to marry her sweetheart. There are some good, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the skill and effort it takes to run such a place. I already knew it'd never be the job for me, but this novel just reinforced it. See my review of A Home for my Heart.

4) Miss Emma Stranje
A School for Unusual Girls (Stranje House, #1) She comes across as a tartar who promises parents that she'll soon whip their recalcitrant daughters into submission. Secretly, she intends to nurture their eccentricities, which enables them to help in the war effort against Napoleon. Each of the girls in her care grows to appreciate her and willingly go along with the ruse that they're completely under her thumb. See my review of A School for Unusual Girls

5) Professor McGonagall
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 All through the Harry Potter series, I had the impression our wise old friend Minerva would have been a great headmistress. She's totally fair and wise, balancing genuine affection for the students with a clear knowledge of their weak spots. She was clearly a better choice for the position than Umbridge, Snape or the Carrows, and I even felt she could have given Dumbledore a run for his money in many ways. It's good to see her finally get her chance in The Cursed Child. At this stage she was pretty ancient, but still proves that she has what it takes. See my review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

6) Miss Alma Peregrine
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1) This lady gave every drop of blood, sweat and tears she had for her beloved charges, prepared to do anything to keep them safe. Fortunately for them, her skill sets are astounding, to say the least. She nurtures the kids in a special time loop which protects them from the perils of bombs and bullies alike. Given the choice to sacrifice herself for their safety, she doesn't hesitate to put her life on the line. Later, she finds herself in the unenviable position of having to rely on the charges she'd always taken such good care of to rescue her. For these reasons, as well as being one of the strangest female heads, she's also one of the best. See my review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

So you see they're a motley bunch, with talents far out of my reach. The last two even have the ability to turn themselves into different animals, a cat and a bird respectively, and I can't help wondering whether pulling something like that out of the bag should be a pre-requisite for such a tough and thankless job. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts about these, or suggestions if you have any more. Or maybe you've had experience with being in charge of children yourself.