Wednesday, January 25, 2017

'Thornwood House' by Anna Romer


When you're all that stands between the murderous past and the fate of those you love, how far would you go to save them?

When Audrey Kepler inherits an abandoned homestead in rural Queensland, she jumps at the chance to escape her loveless existence in the city and make a fresh start. In a dusty back room of the old house, she discovers the crumbling photo of a handsome World War II medic - Samuel Riordan, the homestead's former occupant - and soon finds herself becoming obsessed with him. But as Audrey digs deeper into Samuel's story, she discovers he was accused of bashing to death a young woman on his return from the war in 1946. When she learns about other unexplained deaths in recent years - one of them a young woman with injuries echoing those of the first victim - she begins to suspect that the killer is still very much alive. And now Audrey, thanks to her need to uncover the past, has provided him with good reason to want to kill again.


MY THOUGHTS:

I saw this book included on a list of Australia' top 100 novels, and then saw it for sale at K-Mart for a reasonable price. It was enough to get me interested to read it.

There's quite an eerie, wistful, nostalgic quality about Anna Romer's writing. So many celebrated Gothic novels belong in nineteenth century Britain or Europe, so I was really pleased to see an author make it work just as well in modern rural Australia. When the main character, Audrey, gets to Thornwood House, she reflects, 'The past seemed to ooze from the stains on the walls, to seep up through the floorboards, and whisper from the crack in the wardrobe door.' That's a nice way to set the scene.

Audrey Kepler is a young, single mother who's just heard about the death of her ex, her daughter's father Tony. He died under mysterious circumstances and willed them his ancestral family home in the Queensland bush. It's an offer too good to refuse, but Audrey soon finds herself drawn into three generations of unsolved murder mysteries.

Tony's grandfather, Samuel, was accused of brutally murdering his fiance. Audrey doesn't want to believe it, because his photograph is so handsome and compelling. And it turns out Tony had a sister who also died under tragic circumstances. Although Audrey isn't a direct descendant of the clan, her daughter Bronwyn is, which gives her the creeps.

It's obvious that if the killer spanned three generations of a family line, he'd have to have some huge vendetta and be pretty old. The big revelation is the only one which could have made sense in the time frame, but I found it impossible to accept emotionally. The murder of one victim in particular would make him a far more depraved monster than he's presented. My feelings just shut down and said, 'Nope, I can't accept that's possible,' given the relationship between the two of them. My credibility was stretched so thin it snapped.

And Audrey is so outrageously nosy! Sure, you might argue she has good reason to be, since her only child is related by blood to the scary clan and it's just her maternal instinct. I get that, but she's like a sticky beak sitcom character, sneaking around peeping into the drawers and cupboards of brand new acquaintances. 'Tony grew bored with my constant probing,' she says in one of her reflective moments, and I had to laugh. Yes, I understand why he'd want to get away from her. 'Had he known that I would, by my very nature, be curious about the past?' Whoa, curious is an understatement. You've got to read about her to believe her.

Another interesting fact is that Audrey's new boyfriend, Danny, is deaf. He rarely talks and everyone communicates with him using scribbled notes and sign language. I was expecting his deafness to become a plot device, such as having a noisy crime committed nearby, which he's unable to hear. But it turns out no, there's no literary purpose for his deafness. It's just him. Well, why not? Since people in real life have physical disabilities without any deep and meaningful thematic reason, why not fictional characters? But it got me thinking how in stories, it's easy to assume that every detail is written to be significant. I kept waiting to find out how his condition was going to matter. When it didn't matter at all, I was a bit surprised.

Overall, it was an interesting enough book to finish, and deserves its label of Gothic, but left me feeling a bit let down at the end, because there's a fair bit of long-winded detail about all sorts of things for no apparent reason. Danny's deafness is only one example. The carnivorous plants grown in Bronwyn's granny's greenhouse spring to mind too. If they weren't intended to have any bearing on the story, then why give readers an enforced horticulture lesson? There's also Audrey's weird dreams when she feels at one with Samuel's fiance, Aylish. They were confusing, and seemed ultimately pointless. Should this book be included in the list of Australia's top 100 books? I'm just not convinced it should.

3 stars


Monday, January 23, 2017

Fictional Bridges - Cross them if you can!




For obvious reasons, bridges are symbols of crossing over from one state of being to another. If you're crossing of your own volition, the destination is presumably more desirable. And often you'll find literary bridges are a person's last hope. Perhaps that's why impediments are such an incredibly common feature in stories. They represent the obstacles we all may face when we make a decision to change our way of life. How often do we find that when one character tries to cross a bridge, an opposing character or force attempts to stop him?

1) Robin Hood
The legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest and a strapping man named John Little were both attempting to cross a narrow bridge from opposite directions, and refused to back down and give ground to the other. Fighting a duel was the best solution they could think of. The big guy vanquished Robin and sent him for an unintentional swim. He was given the ironic name reversal 'Little John' and became one of the staunchest members of the band. Those were obviously the days when men were taught to value brute force over simple good manners. Neither of them dreamed of saying, 'You can pass first.'

2) The Billy Goats Gruff
A nasty troll chose to set up house beneath a rickety bridge, just so he could stop harmless passers-by, because trolls love making life harder for others. The only way for the hungry goats to reach a greener pasture was over that bridge, but they were challenged by the troll who wanted them for his lunch.  His scare tactics were enough to traumatise the two smaller goats, but their big buddy was brave enough to charge at the troll and teach him a lesson.

3) Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail
Remember the formidable looking keeper of the bridge? 'Who must cross the bridge of death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he sees.' If you get one of his daunting questions wrong, you're cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. Brave Lancelot gets an easy run, giving his companions false confidence. Robin and Galahad come to grief, then King Arthur has one of those serendipitous strokes of luck, enabling them to deal very nicely with that annoying bridge keeper.

4) Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children
In Library of Souls, the third book of the trilogy, Jacob, Emma and Addison the dog are anxious to cross the bridge which leads to the wights' tower headquarters, where their friends are imprisoned. At first it seems too easy. The only opposition comes from a group of dismembered heads on pikes, who suddenly realise that they're in no position to do anything but call down menacing threats. Alas, the wights have their fortress too carefully guarded to just walk up to after all. That bridge contains hidden perils which send the heroes back the way they came, to the amusement of the drug addicts who are always loitering around the foot of it.

5) Lord of the Rings
'You cannot pass!' Remember the treacherous Bridge of Khazad-dum, with no rails which could only be crossed in single file? While the Fellowship were being pursued by Orcs and a Balrog of Morgoth, Gandalf stood in the middle of the bridge forbidding the Balrog to pass, and buying the others time. The intensity of their fight broke the bridge and sent them both plummeting in a dramatic scene.

6) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
In this macabre American folk tale, the bridge is said to mark the spot where the headless spectre must always disappear. The terrified hero, Ichabod Crane, makes it across on his reluctant horse, but the pursuing ghost has one more ace up his sleeve. He picks up his head, which he carries on top of his saddle, and hurls it at Ichabod, knocking him off his horse. The poor young school teacher is never seen again. It's one of those stories where the protagonist comes to a sad end.

The superstitions involved with bridge building throughout the years show the respect people have for their possible dangerous nature. In some places, it was believed that the devil would carry off the first soul to cross the bridge, so an animal was always herded over first. And sometimes, brass coins and keys were cemented into the mortar, as a sign of good luck for travellers. In some cities, real-life heroes have set up their homes near bridges, so they can minister to poor, desperate souls who are sitting on the edge, contemplating suicide.

7) Little House on the Prairie
In By the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the story of when she almost drowned as a little girl. She was standing on a small footbridge after a raging storm, and simply wanted to dip her feet into the swirling froth. The strong current sucked her right in, and she had to cling to the bridge for dear life, finally managing to heave herself back up.

8) Emily of New Moon
Perhaps the danger was only to your reputation. In the second book of the series, the heroine and her best friend Ilse Burnley were having an evening walk and met their two friends, Teddy Kent and Perry Miller, also out for a stroll. They happened to be right by a bridge, so crossed over together before going their separate ways. But next day, the rumour was spreading all through town that Emily and Ilse had been hanging out shamelessly with two boys all night.

9) The Middle
In my favourite sitcom, the parents, Frankie and Mike Heck, are trying some tough love on their youngest son, Brick. He is terrified whenever they cross a bridge in the car, because he's read all about collapsing bridge incidents. It's got to the point where every drive is annoying, and they are determined to prove he has nothing to fear. However, he holds his ground, and it doesn't end as smoothly as they hoped.

10) The Willow Platter story
Many people have this china design on their plates and bowls. You can see the bridge in the picture, with the soldiers in pursuit of the star-crossed lovers. In this Chinese legend, Koong-se was a beautiful girl who was meant to marry a powerful Duke, but she was in love with her father's humble accountant, Chang. The lovers assumed a disguise and managed to escape over a bridge to safety, and lived happily together for many years before discovery. The were eventually executed, and assumed the form of a pair of cooing doves.

But there's always an exception to any rule. The next bridge story has a completely different vibe. No menacing sense of danger, no threats of death or submersion. Just a peaceful day of relaxing and improvising your own fun as you go. It comes from a well-known, cuddly hero who's an expert at taking life easy and not following the crowd.

11) Winnie the Pooh
Pooh Bear was crossing a small bridge with his best mate, Piglet, and decided to make up his own game. 'What if we both throw a twig over this side, then hurry to the other to see whose will float through first?' It turned out to be such fun the others got suckered in to playing too - including the readers. Be honest, who hasn't ever played Pooh Sticks?

12) The Ultimate Bridge Analogy
This one has brought countless thousands of people hope and comfort over many centuries. It's found within the pages of Scripture, where we're told that Jesus is the only bridge between a holy God and his earthy human creations. This is possibly the ultimate reason why so many architects, engineers and designers throughout history have felt a passion to make their creations things of grace, beauty and grandeur.

I thought this might be a good list for the beginning of a new year, to help us identify the metaphorical bridges in our own lives, and encourage us to keep plowing through any hindrances, if we think reaching the other side is truly worth it. I hope you enjoyed crossing all these story bridges. In fact, I like to think that bloggers and reviewers like me are like bridges between books and readers.
(BTW, this is an enormous mosaic of Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge built of Lego tiles. Next best thing to crossing it for real, which we got to do back in 2004.)


Friday, January 20, 2017

'The Pickwick Papers' by Charles Dickens



Few first novels have created as much popular excitement as The Pickwick Papers–-a comic masterpiece that catapulted its 24-year-old author to immediate fame. Readers were captivated by the adventures of the poet Snodgrass, the lover Tupman, the sportsman Winkle &, above all, by that quintessentially English Quixote, Mr Pickwick, & his cockney Sancho Panza, Sam Weller. From the hallowed turf of Dingley Dell Cricket Club to the unholy fracas of the Eatanswill election, via the Fleet debtor’s prison, characters & incidents sprang to life from Dickens’s pen, to form an enduringly popular work of ebullient humour & literary invention. 

MY THOUGHTS:
Since this book was just shy of 900 pages, there's so much to say, which I'll try to condense. Here's a quick summary. Mr Pickwick is the kindly, middle-aged leader of a gentlemen's club that bears his name. He and three followers decide to journey to remote towns from London to record their observations. There's Mr Tracy Tupman, a chubby, middle-aged man who loves pretty ladies; Augustus Snodgrass, who fancies himself a poet, although we never see any of his poetry; and Nathaniel Winkle, a young man who wants to give the impression that he's a terrific sportsman, although his bluffing often endangers lives. They're joined by Samuel Weller, a sharp-witted and cheery young Cockney who becomes Mr Pickwick's man servant.

I chose this book for my nineteenth century classic because the March sisters in 'Little Women' valued it highly, as did Anne of Green Gables and her friends. It turns out to be the very best of Victorian fun. There's lots of energy, partying and travel, and not so much of the simmering anger about social injustices that fuel Dickens' later works (although there is still some). I was well into it before I googled the background, and discovered that it was his very first work, at the tender age of 24. So the author wasn't yet the scholarly, bearded Charles Dickens we often see in photos, but more of a young lad named Charlie. I'd been getting the feeling that it was written by a younger person, so that made a whole lot of sense.
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The story was serialised in a newspaper throughout 1836 and 1837. It would have been their version of our long running TV series, and explains the episodic sort of structure, especially toward the start. But there are a couple of major themes running through the book.

1) Pickwick and Co attempt to expose a con man named Alfred Jingle and his equally shifty servant, Job Trotter. Jingle preys on single ladies who have a bit of money, anxious to get his hands on it. He enchants them into thinking he's some sort of VIP, instead of an itinerant actor.
2) Pickwick's landlady, Mrs Bardell, jumps to the conclusion that he's proposing to her, while he's really talking about hiring a servant. She sues him for breach of promise and drags him through court. He's determined to face debtor's prison on principle, rather than pay the costs for damages which he so rightfully shouldn't.
3)Pickwick's followers, especially the younger ones, wish to make marriages of love rather than necessity, and are sometimes forced to go about it in desperate ways.

In L.M. Montgomery's 'Anne of the Island' there's a scene where Anne tells her friend Philippa Gordon that she's reading Pickwick, to which Phil replies that Pickwick always makes her hungry, because they often seem to be nibbling nice things. I think there is a still life painting sort of quality about the food the characters eat. Normal fare includes broiled fowl, pigeon pie, veal, ham, lobsters, anchovy sandwiches, saveloys and devilled kidneys. At one point, a couple of characters observed that 'poverty goes along with oysters and pickled salmon'. What would they think if they knew that in the future, that food would be indulged in mostly by the wealthy?

What stood out most to me though, was the dominance of meat in their diet. Even breakfast was likely to be something like 'a cold round of beef.' Sam Weller tells a terrible tale about a cat owner who substituted kitten meat for veal in his famous pies. But honestly, those Victorians seemed to love a variety of meat so much, half of them probably wouldn't even mind if they thought it tasted good! And sure enough, non-meat eaters turned out to be a source of mirth. At one point, the text refers to 'an elderly, pimply-faced, vegetable diet sort of man.'

But what I noticed even more than the food was all the drinking! I'm amazed that the March (and Alcott) families, who never let a drop pass their lips, loved this book so much. Fairly early on, I thought, 'I'll bet the scenes where someone has a drink are more than the scenes without.' A little further, I changed my mind again, to, 'Is there ever a scene where nobody has a drink?' Even though the book was 900 pages long, I doubt it. Getting tipsy or downright drunk seemed to be all in a day's work. The characters in favour of moderation or abstinence were gently poked fun at, or exposed as hypocrites like Mr Stibbins, the 'false shepherd' who loved his pineapple rum.

Mr Perker, the lawyer, asks his clerk, Mr Lowten, 'Will you take a glass of wine?'
'No thank you, sir.'
'You mean yes, I think,' said the little man, turning for a decanter and glasses.
Since it's The Pickwick Papers, of course Lowten did mean yes.

Even though it's a fun story, the harsh realities of the Victorian era can't be denied. Back then, if you didn't find some way of looking out for yourself and planning for your future, you starved. People made such a big deal out of money because it was a big deal. There was no such thing as welfare payments or government support. Poorhouses and debtor's prisons were places of nightmares. It's easy enough for us to sit back and judge Jingle and Job as villains, but when you look at where they find themselves throughout the course of the story, you can see why they'd do the deeds they did. I'm sure it was the same need that drove lots of boys to become bushrangers in colonial Australia. It's easy to choose to be honest when you don't face a slow, agonising death.

It strengthens my opinion that you can't ever really get a feel for times portrayed in novels without reading one by an author who actually lived in them. There's all sorts of slang, trivia, and lost details which are explained in the notes at the back of the book. For example, at one stage it says, 'the windows were looked out of often enough to justify the imposition of an additional duty.' I flip to the back where I find out that there was actually a window tax in Victorian England. Well, whoever would've thought? My advice is to read a paperback copy with three bookmarks, as I did. One for the character list at the front, one to mark where you're up to in the story, and one for those interesting, educational footnotes at the back. It comes across as a daunting prospect at the start, but so worth it, just for the experience of Mr Pickwick, who's such a genuine jolly fellow, and Sam, who's brilliant enough to deserve a blog post of his own. (Keep a look out, because it'll be coming up very soon. I invested too many hours in this book to brush off with just a one-post review.)



Wednesday, January 18, 2017

'The Chocolate Tin' by Fiona McIntosh



30328638The highly anticipated, sensuous new blockbuster by the beloved, bestselling author of The Perfumer's Secret.

Alexandra Frobisher is a modern-thinking woman with hopes of a career in England's famous chocolate-making town of York. She has received several proposals of marriage, although none of them promises that elusive extra – love.

Matthew Britten-Jones is a man of charm and strong social standing. He impresses Alex and her parents with his wit and intelligence, but would an amicable union be enough for a fulfilling life together?

At the end of the war, Captain Harry Blakeney discovers a dead soldier in a trench in France. In the man's possession is a secret love note, tucked inside a tin of chocolate that had been sent to the soldiers as a gift from the people back home.

In pursuit of the author of this mysterious message, Harry travels to Rowntree's chocolate factory in England's north, where his life becomes inextricably bound with Alexandra and Matthew's. Only together will they be able to unlock secrets of the past and offer each other the greatest gift for the future.

From the battlefields of northern France to the medieval city of York, this is a heartbreaking tale about a triangle of love in all its forms and a story about the bittersweet taste of life . . . and of chocolate.
 

MY THOUGHTS:
I went to hear the author, Fiona MacIntosh talk about the writing of this novel at our local library just before Christmas, and bought a copy. I couldn't wait to get stuck into it. Sadly, I struggled to keep my interest level up enough to finish it, and I'll try to explain why.

In Britain, the Rowntree family organised a shipment of King's Chocolate tins as Christmas gifts for soldiers in the trenches to keep up their morale. Alexandra Frobisher and Matthew Britten-Jones have agreed on a marriage of convenience to get their nagging parents off their backs, and she volunteers as a tour guide and packer at the Rowntree factory in her spare time. One day, Alex makes an impulsive, random addition to one of the tins, which comes back to bite her a few years later.

I really wanted to enjoy this, but the whole romantic element moved way too fast for my sympathy and interest level to keep up with. Harry and Alex seemed to be devoted to each other within a twenty-four hour period. No, actually it was within the one hour period in which she guided him through the factory. That kept the whole thing a bit shallow. I think was meant to come across as intense and romantic, but the whizzing time frame just made them seem reckless and impulsive.

As for the main men themselves - I dunno. Harry made a great initial impression on me, being so thoughtful of others, but then undid it by flirting so blatantly with a married woman the day he met her. That's not even good taste in our time, let alone the prim and proper World War One era. And Matthew seemed to pop in and out of the story like a ghost. Now you see him, now you don't. Sadly, I found the man with the most potential was Tom, who was killed after just a couple of pages.

It is an easy, flowing read, the sort of book where you can get through 100 pages in half an hour, then look at the chunk and wonder, 'What actually happened?' There's a fair bit of sparkling small talk and waffling descriptions about history.

What I did find quite interesting is the description of the Rowntree factory. Any chocolate making I do in my kitchen involves melting down a packet of Nestle or Cadbury buttons, so it was enjoyable to read about the whole process starting with the cocoa beans. I think it would have been nice to have a photo of the actual tin somewhere on the cover, since it was the crux of the whole story. There are still some around, since McIntosh saw one as her inspiration.

Altogether, although this story did make me feel like chocolate, it was disappointingly not my cup of tea, even though I enjoyed Fiona McIntosh's presentation immensely.

Monday, January 16, 2017

'Good Wives' by Louisa May Alcott

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NOTE: Little Women is sometimes published in two volumes, entitled Little Women and Good Wives.

Amy looked relieved, but naughty Jo took her at her word, for during the first call she sat with every limb gracefully composed, every fold correctly draped, calm as a summer sea, cool as a snowbank, and as silent as the sphinx. In vain Mrs. Chester alluded to her 'charming novel', and the Misses Chester introduced parties, picnics, the opera, and the fashions. Each and all were answered by a smile, a bow, and a demure "Yes" or "No" with the chill on.


MY THOUGHTS:

First, you might like to check out my review of Little Women

Okay, now for Good Wives. To start with, I could hardly figure out whether I should write a review or a blog post about author intrusion. Alcott lapses so easily into her own personal musings about her characters' strengths and weaknesses, sometimes taking up pages of text. These days, publishers and editors warn authors to cut out their subjective opinions and let readers make up their own minds. Lucky for Louisa she lived in the nineteenth century then. If she wasn't allowed to tell us how to direct our thoughts, the book would be a whole lot thinner. I honestly wonder whether she would have managed, because adding her own reflective little homilies seemed to be as natural as breathing to her. How times, and literary standards, change.

In this story, the four sisters grow up and branch out of the house, living their separate lives. Meg gets married, Amy is lucky enough to travel the continent, Jo goes to work in New York, and poor Beth faces her journey to the next world. She never recovered sufficiently from her bout of scarlet fever to regain her strength.

This is the story where those who had high hopes for a romance between Jo and Laurie get them dashed to pieces. The signs are there early on, when Mrs March says she doesn't think they are suited to each other. If any other character had said it, we might have still held hope, but we know by now that 'Marmee' is always right.  Sure enough, Jo turns out to have no romantic feelings for him, even though she compares other young men to Laurie to their detriment. Go figure. 'I couldn't fall in love with the dear old fellow merely out of gratitude, could I?' I can hear echoes of young girls throughout the centuries saying, 'Yes!'

 (I won't deny that he comes across as a bit of a spoilt brat at times though. Don't you love the cure his grandfather attempts for Laurie's lovesickness? A trip to Europe. You'd think that just might work, if anything would. But like other children of wealth and privilege we come across in stories, Laurie just seems to take it in his stride with a, 'Humph, I doubt anything will help, but if you insist, I'll go to humour you,' type of attitude.)

I think the Jo/Prof Bhaer pairing does work, although he's quite a bit older and comes across as a second father at times. He's such an absent-minded, kid-loving, academic sweetheart, it's hard to hate him for not being Laurie. And it can be argued that everything works out for good. Jo is devastated at not being offered the European trip instead of Amy, but if she had, she wouldn't have met the love of her life. And he shows her that 'character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect or beauty.' You can't argue with that.

I'm not convinced the Amy/Laurie pairing works as well. I like it in concept, but find it hard to swallow that they're as well suited as Jo thinks. Does Amy ever get to renounce her mercenary spirit, since she ends up marrying a rich boy anyway? And be honest, do you remember Laurie as the guy who marries a beautiful, artistic woman, or the guy who suffered from unrequited love? Even when he and Jo catch up with each other toward the end of the book, there are still flirty vibes flowing between them.

I've heard people pick Meg's part of this story to pieces, because she settled for being a 'frumpy housewife' and all those other things feminists say. But apart from the incident where she burns her jam, she's happy in that role, so I'd say why not live and let live? One of my favourite lines in the book happens on the heels of that disaster. 'John Brooke laughed then as he never dared laugh afterwards.' Marriage was a learning curve for both of them.

Some bits about the value of writing and stories stand out. Jo prefers her imaginary heroes to real men, because 'you can shut them in the kitchen tin till called for, while the latter are less manageable.' I wonder if that was Louisa's own opinion about males.

Finally, when Professor Bhaer gives Jo a book of Shakespeare's works, he says something rather great. 'You say often you wish a library. Here I gif you one, for between these lids (covers) is many books in one. Read him well and he will help you much, for the study of character in this book will help you to read it in the world and paint it with your pen.' That's the same reason why we read many good books. I guess my final opinion of the book echoes Professor Bhaer. 'Das ist gute.'

4 stars

Friday, January 13, 2017

What's your book of Shame?


I'm sure we've all had one or two of these over time. They're the sort of book you'd rather not admit to reading.You dip into it furtively with one eye on the story and the other toward the door, scanning for interruptions. You're prepared to slam it shut or hide it, because you imagine that if anyone finds out, the embarrassment would be too acute to bear.

Well, when it comes to books of shame, we're in good company. Here are a few others who have either been revealed or come clean.

1) In her book, Child of the Covenant, Michele Guinness tells a fascinating story of hiding the Bible from her Orthodox Jewish parents when she was a teenager. She only read it late at night and kept it stowed between her mattress and bed springs, knowing that the repercussions of discovery would be huge. Yet she couldn't bring herself to stop reading it. The New Testament rang true to Guinness, and eventually changed her life. She became a Christian, or Messianic Jew.

2) In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the concierge Renee was always anxious to conceal her highbrow reading material from the people in the building where she worked, for fear they would think she had ideas above her station. One day, the new tenant spotted a copy of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina poking out of her bag, and instantly pegged her as a potential friend despite her misgivings. My review is here.

3) Many of us will remember an episode of the sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S when Rachel attempts to hide the novel she's reading because it's a bit risque, but Joey discovers it and won't let the matter rest. She finds herself in the position of having to defend her book.

4) Book snobbery has always been alive and well. In the Australian colonial novel Clara Morison, the title character is not impressed when she discovers a cheap penny novel in the possession of her crush, Charles Reginald. She thinks, 'I don't know why I was so interested in him if he reads trash like this.' Little does she know, the novel was pushed upon him as a loan by another young lady, Minnie Hodges. My review of the book is here.

5) Other episodes of book shame pop up all through years of literature. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe generally kept their love of sensational novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho to themselves, knowing their elders and the gentlemen wouldn't necessarily share their passion. Then in Good Wives, we have Jo March scanning periodicals and magazines for stories which sell like hotcakes so she can emulate them. She keeps her reading and writing habits strictly under wraps, but her wise father eventually finds out, and gently tells her that she could aim higher. I imagine these stories to be a nineteenth century form of 50 Shades of Grey.

Anyway, why do we get embarrassed about our books? I think it's because whether we acknowledge it or not, we take on what we read so that it becomes part of us. It's similar to our choice of food, but designed for the mind and spirit instead of the body. The saying goes, 'You are what you eat.' It naturally follows, you are what you read. You might prefer not to be seen binging on chocolate and fizzy drinks. In the same way, you won't want to be seen reading..... well, you fill in the blank. People might judge you, and that would be humiliating.

I had so many books of shame in my childhood and youth that my hand was always poised to cover them up. In retrospect, many were great books too. I didn't want kids at school to see me reading classics like Anne of Green Gables, because they'd tease me for being uncool. I didn't want my mum to see me reading them either, because she'd initially recommended them and I resisted. I didn't want to prove her right and hear, 'I told you so.' For some time, anything with the distinctive Enid Blyton signature had to be sneaked around like contraband and hidden from my big brother. He didn't understand that her mysteries and school stories were much cooler than her kiddie stories like Noddy, and I didn't want to put myself in the position of trying to explain.

Some titles have become books of shame only after a period of time. I loved the characters and plot so much that I devoured the stories three or four times straight, and didn't want to hear friends and family say, 'Are you reading that again?' It was too awkward to justify, and not very pleasant to hear, 'You're such a weirdo.' Not to mention, I wanted to keep my variety of book crushes to myself.

My husband remembers reading a book with a girl protagonist which his sisters had left lying around the house. He said it was an interesting, page-turner, but he didn't want to be discovered and teased, so guarded it carefully. I'm only just revealing his secret now, although he didn't divulge the title of this fascinating story. He says he forgets, which I'll have to accept as the truth, since it was so long ago. And I remember an occasion some time ago when we were expecting the pastor and his family to come for tea, and our eldest son raced around trying to drape handkerchiefs over the spines of our Harry Potter collection, just in case our visitors were the types who disapproved of magic in story books. People used to get a bit hot under the collar back then. 'I don't want them to think bad of us,' he said.

That was about the time I decided all books of shame had to stop. I didn't mean that we should stop reading them, but that if we genuinely thought them great and not trashy, then we had to stop treating them like books of shame. Starting this book blog probably set me on the road to recovery. Not only are we making unnecessary tension for ourselves, but we're also letting down our favourite authors when we keep our admiration of their work hushed up. If we really love their books, we should be prepared to shout it from the rooftops. And if someone does question our taste, we should either have a ready answer on the tips of our tongues or be prepared to shrug it off, counting ourselves to fortunate for enjoying a treat they've obviously missed. Also, they'd be pretty rude to mention it too.

So let's give a shout out to all those books which have succeeded in holding our attention and keeping us spellbound, no matter what anybody else may say. Now I'll invite comments the same as usual. I've dropped lots of names of books of shame either from myself or others, so I'm sure you'll guess the question that's coming. What is yours? Are you game to share? 

For more about the close connection between food and books, click here. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'The Silent Songbird' by Melanie Dickerson



29492072Evangeline longs to be free, to live in the world outside the castle walls. But freedom comes at a cost.

Evangeline is the ward and cousin of King Richard II, and yet she dreams of a life outside of Berkhamsted Castle, where she might be free to marry for love and not politics. But the young king betroths her to his closest advisor, Lord Shiveley, a man twice as old as Evangeline. Desperate to escape a life married to a man she finds revolting, Evangeline runs away from the king and joins a small band of servants on their way back to their home village.

To keep her identity a secret, Evangeline pretends to be mute. Evangeline soon regrets the charade as she gets to know Westley, the handsome young leader of the servants, whom she later discovers is the son of a wealthy lord. But she cannot reveal her true identity for fear she will be forced to return to King Richard and her arranged marriage.

Westley le Wyse is intrigued by the beautiful new servant girl. When he learns that she lost her voice from a beating by a cruel former master, he is outraged. But his anger is soon redirected when he learns she has been lying to him. Not only is she not mute, but she isn't even a servant.

Weighed down by remorse for deceiving Westley, Evangeline fears no one will ever love her. But her future is not the only thing at stake, as she finds herself embroiled in a tangled web that threatens England's monarchy. Should she give herself up to save the only person who cares about her? If she does, who will save the king from a plot to steal his throne?


MY THOUGHTS:
The story begins at Berkhamsted Castle in the year 1384. Evangeline is the ward of the young King Richard, and he's just arranged for her to marry a close adviser of his, the middle-aged and odious Lord Shiveley. Although her companion Muriel advises her to make the best of it, Evangeline decides to make a run for it instead. Posing as a peasant and seeking hard manual labour seems a far better fate, and on the spur of the moment, Muriel decides to go along for the ride. As part of her disguise, Evangeline pretends to have lost her voice.

Lord Westley leWyse is the young nobleman whose family they end up working for. Although he ponders the identity of a girl with a beautiful singing voice he once caught sight of at the castle, he also finds himself intrigued by the mysterious, mute 'Eva'. Little does he know they are one and the same person.

Melanie Dickerson writes fairy tale adaptations, and this one is based on The Little Mermaid. Evangeline has Ariel's bright red hair, and I guess her uncommon tallness somehow stands in for a tail. Luckily for Dickerson's readers who love happy endings, she follows the Disney adaptation rather than Hans Christian Andersen's original, in which the little mermaid's fate was far bleaker :)

This tale reminds me of the Barbie princess movies my daughter used to own, since Evangeline and Westley have a real Barbie and Ken quality. He's handsome and just while she's kind and sweet (and tall and willowy to boot). The setting is all pastoral and lovely. She messes up every chore she attempts to undertake since she's never been taught how to do these things, but she isn't dismissed from service because she's so cute and willing. And when she really puts her mind to learning something, she's brilliant.

I found suspension of disbelief is called for a bit too often. Evangeline's ruse of being unable to speak didn't seem strictly necessary from the start. There was no real reason why she couldn't have posed as a peasant if she could talk. She didn't have to sing, after all. And Muriel carried it off OK. All Evangeline seemed to achieve was to make it annoying for herself to remember to keep up the pointless pretense. It was necessary for one reason alone, which was to jam this story into the Little Mermaid mould, and I think it showed.

And however much of a heartthrob Westley is reported to be, he comes across a bit slow on the uptake. The king's guards are searching specifically for a tall redhead, Eva turns pale and stoops on the spot, yet he still chooses to believe the lie he was told about her origins. Still, I guess he's no thicker than the guards who glance at her, shrug their shoulders when they fail to catch her eye and walk straight past. This story doesn't speak much for the common sense of men in the 1300's.

Since I'm getting to parts where plot spoilers might be an issue, I'll stop. Overall, if you're looking for a feel-good, romantic, historical HEA, this fits the bill, although I've got to warn you I did a fair bit of eye rolling.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

2.5 stars