Tuesday, May 23, 2017

'Anne with an E' - Imagination is Crucial

Rewind back to 1985. I was a fifteen-year-old waiting one night, with my hot drink, rug and pillow, for the new Anne of Green Gables mini series to begin. And was it fun! We all loved watching Megan Follows, Jonathan Crombie and Co do what they did best, and bring nineteenth century Prince Edward Island to life. I sensed a lot of curiosity, and also quite a bit of scepticism and fear, that the new Netflix production could never live up to it. So I sat down with a hot drink, rug and pillow again, with my own teenage daughter beside me. I'd decided to go in with an open mind. And what I saw blew me away.

It's definitely an edgier and darker re-telling of the classic, including flashbacks to Anne's unhappy past with the Hammonds, who treated her cruelly and made her do drudge work. Her inevitable PTSD is featured in flashbacks. It's made clear that she lived her earliest childhood years with no loving care or input from sympathetic adults. It's quite natural that Anne would have no concept of polite social mores, blurting out her observations about adult themes which landed her in a spot of trouble. Other messy aspects of life are put forward too. Anne deals with the shock of her first period, Matthew sinks into depression and considers suicide at one point when he feels rock bottom, Marilla is given more space to regret her lost love, and we even get a glimpse of a paedophile hanging out in a railway station.

I do understand why some true Anne traditionalists believe that we don't need all these extra bits. Let Anne remain an innocent and beautiful icon of our childhood, they argue. There's no need to drag the more sordid and adult facts of life into everything. Some things deserve to remain pure and sweet. Let Lucy Maud Montgomery's world stay an oasis we can escape to, where flower beds and wild fruit are everywhere. We expect sweetness and light, and shouldn't have to fear knocking into rougher aspects. Isn't there enough of that in our own daily grind? And don't our kids deserve not to grow up too soon? Being an escapist reader from way back, I do understand that line of thought. But I don't agree with it. Rather than sullying our beloved Anne stories, this series has enriched them for me, by bringing out multi-layers of hidden depth. And it  proves Anne to be an even more poignant and admirable character than she seemed before.

Her powerful imagination was always one of her trademarks. This new series shows why it was so vital to her. It was her rock and her source of strength. After all she'd been through, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert still met a generous, sweet-spirited girl whose heart responded to the beautiful and good. I'm convinced that she might have been completely different without the aid of that wonderful imagination. Anne had plenty of practice using it. Her ability to phase out of a dramatic or sordid scene to visit a place of her own wishful invention was a healthy coping tool. It wasn't denial, living in a fairy tale world or other dismissive things people say. Nor was it just a fun, quirky character trait, as we may assume if we never see beyond Anne as a sweet kids' story. Her imagination was her life-preserver, which enabled her personality to remain intact when it might otherwise have been completely broken.

The young Anne probably didn't consciously realise what a wonderful gift she possessed. When she said that she used her imagination to improve upon reality, she probably had no clue that she was speaking great wisdom. I believe she knew intuitively, since she dismissed Marilla's apparently sound advice that it's pointless to imagine that things are different to how they are. Although decades younger than Marilla, she'd already figured out through experience that the older lady's advice was limited.

People with imagination can transform what's around them, so they are actually living a more positive existence than people who refuse to see beyond what's right in front of them. Do you remember what she said about her first experience of Green Gables? 'This is the first time I've never had to imagine that things are better.' Remarks like this are one reason why Anne Shirley is on of my most admired female characters in literature.

Perhaps this series is designed to appeal to a younger generation, which is a good thing. And our younger generation strike me as a wise, insightful crowd who don't appreciate efforts to keep the world sterile anyway. My daughter laughed when she saw people refer to the 'darkness' as she considers it one of the least dark series she's watched for ages. 'Move over Game of Thrones, here's Anne with an E.' But rather than letting her finish with the last word, I'll give that honour to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, who summed up Anne's philosophy when he said, 'Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.' Hear hear.

There are also many other things I found to love in the new series. The authenticity of the time period and characterisation are spot-on. The new actress, Amybeth McNulty, seemed tailor made to fit L.M. Montgomery's century old description. Geraldine James nailed the matter-of-fact, but warm hearted character of Marilla, and Corrine Koslo gave Mrs Rachel Lynde a lovable face. And young Lucas Jade Zumann was an awesome Gilbert Blythe, with that timeless quality of fitting into the role as well as appealing to modern viewers. I know I'm really opening myself up here, but after watching it all through, I even prefer this version to Megan and Jonathan. Bring on Season 2. 

You might like this post where I road test our own Gilbert against Jane Austen's Mr Darcy. Read it here.

Or this one, where I discuss my favourite L.M. Montgomery hero.

If you've seen both TV series, which do you prefer? Or if you haven't seen this new one, do you intend to?

Monday, May 22, 2017

'The Hound of the Baskervilles' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes and Watson are faced with their most terrifying case yet. The legend of the devil-beast that haunts the moors around the Baskerville family's home warns the descendants of that ancient clan never to venture out in those dark hours when the power of evil is exalted. Now, the most recent Baskerville, Sir Charles, is dead and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Will the new heir meet the same fate?

I've chosen this title for my classic about an animal category in the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge. It can either have the name of animal in the title, or include an animal in the actual story. This one has both, and a very fierce, nasty beast it is. It's one of the longest and most famous Sherlock Holmes adventures. Many of them are short stories, but this one is novel length, and is also a movie.

The Baskerville family is rumoured to be cursed on their own turf. For generations, they've supposedly been stalked by the ghost of a huge, black, fire-breathing dog, and several of them have suffered sudden, violent deaths. The latest victim, Sir Charles Baskerville, has been discovered dead on the grounds of his estate, near a huge paw print.

Henry Baskerville is the young baronet next in line to inherit the Hall. He's been living abroad for several years and isn't up-to-date with the family legend. They've congratulated him for his good fortune, but neglected to tell him that it might turn out to be bad fortune. His friend, Dr James Mortimer, consults Holmes and Watson on Henry's behalf, just in case there are any grounds to believe the old superstition or suspect foul play in Sir Charles' death.

The story is rife with clues that there's far more to the mystery than meets the eye. Weird warning letters, inexplicable footwear theft, people being trailed, servants behaving suspiciously and women crying. The melancholic Dartmoor setting stirs up the creepy atmosphere. There's plenty of fog and gloom, and miry bog holes with the potential to suck men and beasts to their death. And every so often, the spooky hound gives a mournful howl, just to remind people that he's around.

The locals all appear friendly, but is anyone hiding anything? There's Mr Frankland, an elderly political agitator, Stapleton, the young naturalist, and his beautiful, but troubled sister. And just to add to the tension, a desperate criminal who's escaped from prison is also believed to be roaming the moors.

Sherlock Holmes has to be one of the smuggest know-it-all's in literature. All his compliments to poor Watson tend to be back-handed ones. For example, he tells him that although he's clueless, he has a happy knack of stimulating Holmes' own genius. And he never communicates his full plans to anyone until he decides the moment is right, just in case the lesser mortals stuff it up. This includes Watson, who says, 'It's very trying to those acting as his agents and assistants.' In fairness to Holmes though, Watson, who narrates the whole story, does seem to have a bull in a china shop approach to solving mysteries.

But whoa, for such a genius, Sherlock Holmes almost blows everything himself. Talk about saving the day in the nick of time! 'You'll be completely safe,' he warns somebody at one point, but what happens isn't what I'd call keeping his promise. His 'completely safe' is definitely different to my 'completely safe.' I found the plot stretched my belief at times, including the fact that the crook is able to get away with hiding some pretty big evidence.

It's a fairly easy read, and if you like it, the other Sherlock Holmes stories are much the same. They aren't what you'd call deep. I get the feeling they were the sorts of popular stories written to please the demands of an audience who knew exactly what style of dramatic twists and special effects they wanted. It's a pretty formulaic detective story, overall, and I'm sure Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have agreed, 'Yeah, isn't that great?' After all, he helped create the formula, and would have laughed all the way to the bank.

3 stars

I've mentioned more about the Holmes/Watson relationship in this post about great bromances.

Friday, May 19, 2017

'Unnoticed' by Amanda Deed

Plain Jane O'Reilly is good at being unnoticed. Detested by her stepmother and teased by her stepsisters, Jane has learned the art of avoiding attention. That is until Price Moreland, an American with big dreams, arrives in her small town.

Does she dare to hope someone might notice her?

However, Price Moreland may not be the prince that the whole town thinks him to be. Was his desire to be a missionary a God-given call, or just a good excuse to run from his past?

Complete with an evil stepmother, a missing shoe and a grand ball, Unnoticed takes the time-old Cinderella fairy tale and gives it an Australian twist.

The author is one of my friends and co-authors of a novel I worked on, The Greenfield Legacy, so I was keen to start this new story.

I saved it to read as a treat, because that's what fairy tale adaptations are. Not many authors have attempted to set them in colonial Australia (well, as far as I know), but it's the perfect spot to see a familiar plot play out. Poor Miss Jane O'Reilly has lost her mother. She is shy and retiring, partly because her stepmother and stepsisters boss her around and pay her out, but mostly because she truly feels herself to be inferior. I'm sure you can guess the tale from that description.

There are all sorts of role reversals to make us smile. The 'ugly sisters' are actually quite pretty, while the poor heroine knows very well that her own nickname is 'Plain Jane.' She has such a fixed opinion about her own deficiencies, it never occurs to her that fresh eyes might regard her differently. My favourite detail is her embarrassingly huge feet, since the real Cinderella's always sounded ridiculously tiny. This version seems far more down to earth and real.

Price Moreland is the handsome American newcomer, who has set himself up as the town barber and dentist. It's reasonable that he'd attract the single women, but instead of taking the town's opinions on board, he has his own standards of what makes a girl beautiful. I'm glad he was a decent guy, because someone in his position needs lots of good character. He doesn't realise the depth of what he's taking on, since the person he falls for has such messy hang-ups after the way she's always been treated, yet it's all new to him.

In other words, Jane has baggage, and Price needs the maturity to understand and help her find a different way of seeing herself, all at the tender age of 26 (I figured out how old he was from clues in the story). Since traditional handsome princes don't always come across as sensitive, and willing to take someone else's load upon their shoulders I liked the depth it added to this story. He's more than just a dazzling smile and handsome face.

There's also some personal background of his own, since he left America to escape the racial tension of the Civil War, but finds out that it's everywhere, even on the Hay Plains. And he reflects himself on the impossible choice that faces him to either change his deepest principles or lose what he loves the most. The serious undercurrent this gives the novel seems to suit the Cinderella story.

It is quite lighthearted overall though, and I admit I sometimes begin adaptations of well known stories with a bit of trepidation. They can lose their suspense since we know what's coming. In this case though, I was interested to see how all elements could possibly come together, including the shoe, the fairy godmother, and the animal entourage. Jane's pets are actually quite a highlight of this story, headed by Moses the sulfur crested cockatoo. It's full of anticipation rather than predictability, and I'm sure anyone who appreciates the romance of fairy tales will love how it all comes together.

Finally, it's interesting to see what a visit to the dentist was like in colonial times, since I had a toothache of my own recently.

Thanks to Rhiza Press and NetGalley for my review copy.

4 stars

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Famous Grouchy Tourists

Since my marriage, one thing I missed about life with my parents was the occasional opportunity to travel to faraway places. We did a European bus tour when I was 15, taking in destinations around France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. And I was able to travel around Britain with Mum and Dad in a hired campervan the year I turned 20. I still consider it a highlight of my life. How I'd love the chance to immerse myself in castles, cathedrals and fairy tale palaces again.

When she hears me say such things, my daughter tells me off. 'At least you did some overseas travel when you were our age. The boys and I have never even had that. You can't complain.'

I give her a similar response to the one Jerry gave Elaine on an episode of Seinfeld. During a packed and stuffy economy flight, one of the gang was given the chance to move up into first class. Elaine thought it should be her, since she'd never flown first class before. But Jerry nabbed the seat instead. His reasoning went something like this. 'It'd be worse for me to stay stuck in economy, because I've had a taste of what first class is like. Since you don't know what you're missing, economy is all the same to you.' When I tell my daughter it's the same for her regarding staying in Australia, she's not impressed :)

Another way of getting around my frustrated wanderlust is to remind myself that travelling isn't a holy grail. It's not everything in the world! (Well, in a literal sense it is, but you know what I mean.) There are a number of men in history and literature who found that travelling didn't hit their sweet spot at all. If anything, it made them more gloomy and sour than they already were. They would return home with secret desperation, because rushing all around the world hadn't been the magical elixir to help them escape their cranky selves. You know there's a saying, 'Wherever you go, there you are.' Well, here are my examples.

The Secret Garden1) Archibald Craven (from The Secret Garden)
He'd lost his beloved pregnant wife in a freak accident and believed their son to be an incurable invalid. Craven couldn't stomach his Yorkshire mansion where it all took place, so left his young son with the servants and spent a fortune travelling abroad. Nobody looked forward to seeing his cantankerous face during brief visits home, which shows his attempt was unsuccessful. It seems no amount of pretty sights can change a self-focused and self-pitying attitude. It was the unexpected wisdom of three kids at home which finally achieved that. My review is here.

Jane Eyre2) Edward Fairfax Rochester (from Jane Eyre)
The hero of this masterpiece had a similar scenario playing out in his head. Why would he want to stay home at Thornfield Hall, when it was full of bad old family memories and housed his feral, deranged wife? He spent lots of time across the Channel, where he dabbled in liaisons with foreign women. But indulging in wine, women and song didn't change his cynical outlook. A fateful return home did that, when he set eyes on the fresh, intriguing face of his new governess, whose serene manner stirred something in his heart. Then he couldn't get enough of being home. Here is my review.

3) Dean Priest (from Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily's Quest)
He was a hunchback with a poor reputation among his own clan, which made him resentful and miserable, so he took off around the world. Young Emily loved receiving his exotic gifts from faraway locations. She thought Dean had everything a person could desire, but it turns out all he wanted was her. Denied the love of a young girl in his home town, all the travel meant nothing to him.

4) Laurie Lawrence (from Little Women)
Here's another lovesick gentleman who travel didn't really cure. He was pining his heart out because Jo March declined his romantic advances, so his grandfather offered to send him on a trip to Europe. Laurie knew he'd be silly to refuse such a generous offer, but Amy's sharp pencil proved that exotic places weren't the medicine the old man had intended for the boy. Her sketches showed that Laurie was still miserable over Jo. Amy's presence turned out to be what he needed, which he could have got at home. Reviews are  here and here.
The Accidental Tourist
5) Macon Leary (from The Accidental Tourist)
This Anne Tyler novel was later made into a movie, and I enjoyed both. Macon hates his job writing travel guides, even though they're tailored specifically for grouches like himself who hate travelling. But his family life has disintegrated, since he lost his teenage son and separated from his wife, so he knows he must fill his days doing something. His introduction to a quirky young woman named Muriel, who looks after his dog, provides the boost of new life he needs.

Around the World in Eighty Days (Extraordinary Voyages, #11)6) Phileas Fogg (from Around the World in 80 Days)
He deserves his place on this list because even though he set out on a lavish trip around the world, it wasn't with an excited, curious sense of wonder. He wasn't remotely interested in what it had to offer. His terse focus was entirely on winning a bet that he could circle the globe within eighty days. Sightseeing was a distraction he couldn't be bothered with, so he often closed the blinds of whatever conveyance he was in and played cards to wile away the time. My review is here.

7) Lorens Lowenhielm (from Babette's Feast)
This decorated and celebrated hero was one of the guests at a local dinner. He felt depressed and empty precisely because he'd travelled the world and nothing it offered had lifted his low spirits. Lorens thought everyone was just humouring his hostesses' maid, who was throwing the big feast. The shock and surprise of her bountiful generosity, when he realised her identity, achieved what no voyage had managed to do. It helped him understand that there was still grace and beauty in the world. And once again, it was geographically close to his starting point. Here is my review.

8) King Solomon
He was perhaps the ultimate discontented wanderer, and spilled his disillusionment out in the Book of Proverbs. It took sampling all the world's bounty to prove that it couldn't fill an empty spot deep inside. Only one thing could, which he came to see was available to anyone, anywhere. And people have been quoting his discovery for centuries.

So there we have them. In one sense, you may feel like shaking some gratitude into their heads and saying, 'Give me the opportunity to be where you've been instead!' But they're refreshing in their own way, because through them, we understand that we really don't have to travel far from home for what matters most. And that's wonderful news for those of us who can't afford to travel far from home. Perhaps they can help shake gratitude into our heads. You could read their stories in a marathon 'grouchy tourist' session, if you can stand their morose company for that long.

While I compiled this list, I also noticed the opposite side of the coin, Contented Prisoners. They are the people who are trapped in a very small location and can't go anywhere, but haven't let it hurt their good spirits. Look out for it soon. Taken both together, I've found the characters have a lot to teach us.

Monday, May 15, 2017

'The Spirituality of Jane Austen' by Paula Hollingsworth

Best known for her novels Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityMansfield Park, and Emma, published anonymously, Jane Austen commented, critiqued, and illuminated the life of the British gentry at the end of the 18th century. But did Jane’s writings highlight anything about her own spirituality?  In this celebratory book, Paula Hollingsworth explores Jane Austen's gentle but strong faith and the effect it had both on her life and her writing.

This book delves into the personal faith of one of the world's most beloved British novelists, drawing from her own correspondence and personal writing. It also examines the deeper mindsets and attitudes of characters in her novels for clues of what their creator really felt.

Jane's own faith is an interesting question, considering her cheeky portrayal of clergymen in her novels, such as the pompous, servile Mr Collins, and the snobby, social climbing Mr Elton. We can't help wondering whether they were proof that she deplored the Christian faith, or if she simply considered that they represented a different brand of Christianity to hers.

Jane Austen's fondness for reading printed sermons, and some of her own written prayers indicate that she was a devout believer in her own quiet way. So do the guiding principles of her main characters. For example, I love the idea that the retiring Fanny Price actually serves the role of Old Testament prophet or seer in the novel 'Mansfield Park.'

It's revealed in these pages that Jane didn't appreciate the evangelical movement or the behaviour of its spearheads, such as John and Charles Wesley. It seems she objected to their emphasis on dramatic conversion experiences, and the sense of superiority it seemed to suggest. For Jane Austen, matters of faith should be strictly between the individual and God. She didn't think highly of the evangelical novelists of her day. In her opinion the Christianity they presented in their stories was too showy and in-your-face, although she used less modern expressions. It's all very interesting, and makes me pretty sure that if she'd been born in our time, she'd probably choose to write for the secular market, just as she did in her own.

I like the glimpse of the popular novels of her Regency time period. They tended to be either Gothic or Romantic Sentimental, neither of which was approved reading for young ladies. They were regarded as frivolous and even dangerous, but the Reverend George Austen gave his daughters uncensored access to his personal library of over 500 volumes, which did include recent hyped-up best sellers.

These days, Austen fans tend to think of him as a good dad, but back then, the majority might have thought differently. I couldn't help comparing his situation to a current question I've seen often going around, of whether conscientious parents should put filters on their kids' internet, or even forbid it altogether. I've come across parents who do either one or the other, although we never did either in our household. It makes me think we were following in the footsteps of the Austens. I love how they were self-proclaimed, unashamed novel readers, in their day and age. Jane has her 'Northanger Abbey' hero Henry Tilney declare, 'The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.'

Altogether, if you don't mind a fair bit of her plots being re-told, this is a good read with some interesting detail for any fan. Not only does it give another good glimpse into Jane Austen's family life, but gets us reconsidering our own attitudes alongside those of Jane and her family.

Thanks to NetGalley and Lion Hudson for my review copy.

4 stars

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mothers - The Secret Weapon in Harry Potter

It's always fun to honour beloved fictional or historical characters in the lead-up to Mother's Day. This year I've decided to go no further than some of the mothers featured in the Harry Potter series, because their love is shown to be an underestimated force that packs a powerful punch. I'd go so far as to call it the unintentional secret weapon in the war against Voldemort. It's awesome, because this trio of ladies never put their heads together and made a plan of action. They were each acting spontaneously at a particular moment, with nothing but love for their children as their motivation. The fact that Voldemort's cause suffered fatal blows was just a wonderful bonus.

Lily Potter
We know the premise of the whole series. Not only did her immense love shield and protect her baby boy, but physically decimated Lord Voldemort and kept him out of action for several years. His struggle to restore some semblance of a body from which to operate was a long, drawn-out process. And it was all because of her willingness to slip in front of her son and take the Avada Kedavra that was meant for him. When Voldemort did kill Lily and turned to finish off the innocent baby next, he got what was coming to him! It was such poetic justice, since the force that rebounded on him was the one thing he had no understanding of, so didn't think to factor in to his game plan. The strength of a mother's love! Do you think he learned his lesson?

Molly Weasley
She was Harry's wonderful surrogate mother, since his own mother died a hero's death saving him. Although Molly had seven children of her own, she had an endless reservoir of mother's love to draw from. It was powerful enough to be both her Achilles heel and super power. Do you remember what Molly's boggart was? The sight of Ron and the twins, lying helpless and bleeding to death. It would seem the simple 'Ridikulous' spell failed her at such a terrible sight. But before we deem her mother's love a weakness, don't forget it was the same power that later enabled her to slay one of Voldemort's greatest forces for evil.

Bellatrix Lestrange threatened Ginny, on the heels of murdering Fred. That was enough for this middle-aged housewife to take on an evil warrior woman in her prime. The loss of Bellatrix was a serious blow to the dark side. You only need to tally the number of deaths she'd inflicted just since her escape from Azkaban. Her blind adoration of old Voldy made her truly dangerous, but Molly got rid of her, spurred on by the power of her great love for her kids.

Narcissa Malfoy

This is such terrific irony, showing how dense Voldemort was, to make the same crucial mistake twice. He didn't have a clue! Who did he choose from his own ranks to check that Harry Potter, his nemesis, was truly dead?  Another anxious and loving mother, who automatically made the safety of her child priority one. Her mother's heart came way ahead of her supposed allegiance to her 'team'. She took the enormous risk of betraying the Dark Lord by telling him a bold faced lie, for at this stage, she'd do anything to get to her son. If that includes lying so you can get to Hogwarts as part of the vanquishing army when it isn't strictly true, then that's what needs to be done. Narcissa wasn't the nicest person, but she was a great mum. And the answer to my earlier question, (did Voldemort learn his lesson?), turns out to be no. I love it! He fought his way back to power, and a mother's love got him again. It was more indirect this time, but definitely part of the lead up to his final demise.

So Mum power helps beat the Dark Lord and his supporters time and again! And they aren't showy about it either. A true mother's love is  a simple, true and elemental thing. With three short lines from these three loving mothers, the death knells for Voldemort's cause are struck.

'No, please not Harry!'
'Not my daughter, you bitch!'
'Is Draco still alive?'

Happy Mother's Day for Sunday, everyone. The Harry Potter mums are grand, but I believe they only echo the sentiments and feelings of millions of mums everywhere. Because if you'd been in Lily's, Molly's or Narcissa's positions, wouldn't you have done the exact same thing? As far as I can see it, they made tough calls, but really had no choice. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'A Piece of the World' by Christina Baker Kline

To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.

As she did in her beloved smash bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America’s history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, she vividly imagines the life of a woman with a complicated relationship to her family and her past, and a special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.

I loved this book. It's a fictionalised account of the life of Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth's famous American painting 'Christina's World.' I'd seen images of this for years before I realised the subject suffered from a degenerative muscle condition which prevented her from walking properly. This story rings so true, I was willing to be drawn into its authenticity.

It weaves back and forth between the two world wars. There are flashbacks from Christina's youth in World War One, along with middle aged moments from the 1940s when she was friends with Andy Wyeth.

On the surface, the characters are nobody special. Just a family of battlers living a tough farming life in a cold climate, under fairly primitive conditions. But the young artist Wyeth recognised the austere beauty they embodied, and devoted a lot of time to bringing it forth in his canvases. I anticipated that the magic he saw would flow from the pages, and it sure did.

Christina's own voice, always in present tense, tells of the childhood illness her body never recovered from, her one experience of falling deeply in love, and her attitude toward her family and home. I like the snippy approach she uses with her brothers, although she loved them dearly. I found her so inspirational, because she never had aspirations to be famous or make a name for herself. Christina's idea of success was simply forcing her painful body to do what needed to be done around the house. The rare occasions when she allowed herself to dream other dreams (a teaching career and marriage) ended in disappointment. Yet still she carried on, noticing joy in small moments, shrugging off pity and doing her best with what she had. It's refreshing to have this sort of heroine, who simply reminds us to appreciate the basic goodness in our lives.

Her whole family is so vividly written, I could imagine them clearly. Although the stoic Christina was my inspiration, she wasn't quite my favourite character. That was her brother Alvaro, whose part of the story takes being taken for granted to a whole new level! He had such a warm heart, and just gave and gave. He was forced to relinquish dreams as much as his sister. Even more in a way, since he had the sound body to have followed his seafaring heart, if only he'd been free to do so. I'd recommend all ladies to read this book, to remind ourselves that there really are guys like him around. I wanted the best for him all the way through.

Christina comes across a bit prickly and cynical at times, but that's got to be a coping tool. She makes frequent wry observations that their whole lifestyle is one of privation and hardship. There's the fact that the whole family bathes on the 3rd Monday of each month, in the same water in the kitchen! Whoa, these guys sure didn't live sedentary lives, so you must've smelled them coming, even though the climate was chilly. She observes that when you live on a farm, everyone is uncomfortable for much of the time, and as for her own condition, 'The pain has become part of me. Just something I live with.'

I always jot down quotes that strike me as worth recording, and this book had several contenders for best.
Andy: Interesting, isn't it, what the mind is capable of? How the body can adapt if your mind refuses to be bowed.
Mamey (her grandmother): People have maladies of all kinds, and if they have any sense, they don't waste time whining about them.
Christina: No matter how long I hold a stick with fluttering rags above my head, no trawlers in the distance will be coming to my rescue.

But the winner is the good teacher, Mrs Crowley, who had this to say when Christina was forced to refuse her offer of further education.
Mrs Crowley: Your mind, your curiosity, will be your comfort.
I love that, because it's a good line for any one of us readers too.  

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins Australia for my review copy.

5 stars.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Stories deep within stories

To understand the heartbeat of a culture and what makes its people tick, we should study their stories and folklore, their myths and legends. I've heard the term 'fairy tales' spoken with disdain. It gets trivialised and dismissed as the sort of pointless, untrue little yarns we make up to amuse kids. What a shortsighted view that is!

I believe there's a difference between true wisdom and mere sophistication. Wisdom is innate truth about life which is sensed with the heart and soul, and is often possessed by children. Sophistication, on the other hand, is more of a lofty, down the nose attitude, often assumed by people who consider themselves older in years, more prolific in text book learning and too smart to bother with made-up fiction such as fairy tales. But they don't realise that they might be brushing off something unique which could help them build a sound concept of the world and its people.

Our imagination, which we use to create those stories, is the thing that sets humans apart and makes us like our Creator. Those seemingly whimsical, arbitrary tales that get made up and handed down through generations become the building blocks in how a culture defines itself and behaves toward the rest of the world. While the morals and viewpoints put forward in folktales and fairy tales do amuse us when we're young, they also weave the fabric of our self-concept, and how we view ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. If a geographical group seems gregarious or sober, hostile or happy, we might do well to study their stories to help us figure out why.

It's tickled my fancy recently to see a new trend. The story worlds I've been immersing myself in have produced their own sets of fairy tales as companion books. On my shelf, I now have Tales of Beedle the Bard from the Harry Potter series, and Tales of the Peculiar from Ransom Riggs' Peculiar Children series. What a fantastic gift for fans who want to return to those awesome alternate universes once we've finished reading the adventures we love.

Here's why I love this idea.

1) These books are presented straight from their world.

Tales of Beedle the Bard was ostensibly translated from the original runes by none other than Hermione Granger. Who better to take on the job, considering this little book was willed to her to Professor Dumbledore? She includes additional footnotes written by Dumbledore himself during his lifetime. For true Potterheads like me, these turn out to be as much fun as the stories themselves, since he makes references to characters we love or hate.

Tales of the Peculiar was compiled by Millard Nullings. If you've read the trilogy, you'll know this invisible boy was particularly fascinated by record keeping and the secret knowledge contained in fairy tales. So Millard has selected his favourite stories from a long Peculiar tradition to include in this book. He's also written the foreword and frequent editor notes.

2) They feature the same fairy tales mentioned in the books.

In Tales of Beedle the Bard, you'll find the Tale of the Three Brothers, among others. Remember how it helped Harry, Ron and Hermione understand the Deathly Hallows, and the history of the Peverell brothers who originally owned the Invisibility Cloak, Resurrection Stone and Elder Wand? Ron was so surprised to discover it wasn't merely legend, since unlike Harry and Hermione, he grew up hearing it from his parents' knees as a bedtime story.

In the Peculiar Children trilogy, strong girl Bronwyn carried around an earlier version of their tales to read to the smaller children at night. Some turned out to have surprising accuracy in helping the gang pinpoint the location of obscure loops, especially The Tale of Cuthbert and The Pigeons of Saint Paul's, which are both in Millard's new anthology. You can't read it without remembering all this and grinning to yourself.

3) We can benefit from sound morals.

That's what I love about a good fairy tale. I'll just single out my personal favourite from each book as an example.

Tales of Beedle the Bard includes The Fountain of Fair Fortune, which shows that even when we're on a quest, what we end up with may be even better than what we hoped for in the first place. And The Splendid Cannibals in the Peculiar Tales shows that greed, appearances, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses can lead to ridiculous situations.

These stories within stories are well worth a read, especially if you appreciate the book series from which they came.

I think it's appropriate to finish off with this quote from Millard in Hollow City, since he did such a lot of work compiling Tales of the Peculiar :)

Millard: To think I once dismissed these as just stories for children. They are, in fact, extraordinarily complex, cunning even, in the way they conceal information about Peculiardom. It would take me years to decode them all.

And he's done a pretty decent job.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Famous Apples

The apple used to come across as a fairly ordinary fruit to me. Whenever I found one in my school lunch box, I'd grumble because my mother couldn't think of anything better. But is the humble apple really so humble? I've been wondering because we've had plenty just recently. The apple crumble in the photo is something I cooked. I also noticed that National Apple Pie Day is coming up in the USA. Has any other fruit been so immortalised in stories and legends? They keep popping up in history and literature, so I set myself the challenge of creating an Apple Hall of Fame. There are no animated characters on my list, but actual real apples, which just happened to become famous. I set myself the goal of coming up with ten. Here goes.  

The Garden of Eden
We all know what happened here. This was the object the crafty serpent used to plunge the human race into a state of sin. He tempted Eve to take a bite, she caved in and gave some to her husband too, even though God had ordered them not to touch it. It was a significant piece of fruit indeed. The Bible doesn't specifically call it an apple, and theories abound that it was more likely to be something else. Some people guess pomegranate, apricot or date, but I'm going with western European tradition here.

Sir Isaac Newton
The legend goes that he was snoozing beneath his mother's apple tree when one fell down and hit him on the head. In a flash of brilliance, young Isaac came up with the theory of gravity. 'Hmmm, now why didn't that fly to the side or up in the air? I reckon there must be some sort of drawing power in the earth's matter.' That might sound like an obvious conclusion to us, but the famous apple earned its place in science.

William Tell
He was a Swiss national folk hero from the early 1300s. As a political protester, Tell was sentenced to execution for refusing to support the Habsburg Empire. He was told he could avoid his fate by passing a cruel test. He could go free if he could shoot an apple off the top of his son's head in the very first attempt. Tell was up for the challenge, and split that apple neatly in half. That must be one of the best sliced apples in history.

(To my surprise, there's actually a Wiki entry entitled 'Shooting an apple off one's child's head'. Apparently the feat occurs in a number of Germanic legends. It's even named 'The Apple Shot.' William Tell simply made it most famous.)

Prince Caspian
On the subject of excellent marksmen, a great archery contest took place in Narnia between Queen Susan and Trumpkin the Dwarf. He'd been looking down his nose at the four children, so they decided to teach him a lesson. Susan chose the target. It was a distant apple hanging over a wall, which poor Trumpkin thought looked more like a cherry from so far away. Nevertheless, he gave it his best shot and got the leaves shaking. Then Susan straightaway pierced right through its middle, knocking it to the ground. And talking of Narnian apples, the Pevensie siblings relied on them a lot during this story for their staple diet. I would have found it a bit monotonous.

Snow White
Her wicked stepmother chose her apple seller's disguise with great cunning. She predicted the young girl's weakness for the shiny, crisp, juicy fruit, and decided to choose a real beauty. And all so that she could knock out her rival and be the fairest in the land. It turned out to be a very easy lure indeed. Luckily for Snow White, the poison in that apple was no match for true love's kiss.

Emily of New Moon
Talking about poisoned apples, this young heroine was duped by a nasty next door neighbour. Emily had just finished eating a delicious apple from Lofty John's barn, when he arrived home and told her he'd poisoned it for the rats! Not a nice trick to play on a sensitive young girl. Poor Emily suffered a lot over that apple.

The Story Girl
Lucy Maud Montgomery must have liked her apples. In this novel, the gang of cousins have a competition with sour apples from a particular tree. The winner is the person who manages to eat one down to its core without pulling a face, but Peter and Felix get a bit too intense. These are funny stories and well worth a read.

The Arabian Nights
In the story entitled Prince Ahmed and the Fairy, the young man is given the chance to purchase a remarkable apple with amazing healing powers. Anybody close to death may be instantly cured by a mere sniff of the apple. You don't even need to take a bite. It's quite the opposite to the poisoned apple stories.

Little Women
Apples seemed to be the favourite fruit of many literary minded young heroines. Jo March liked to take a pan of russets up to the garret with her and chomp through them while she was writing stories. She had the company of Scrabble the rat, to whom she fed the cores. Sounds like a good arrangement.

Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children
This was an interesting apple, because it first alerted Jacob Portman that something odd was happening with the time loop at Cairngorm House. One night, Emma Bloom gave him a delicious, rosy apple, which he decided to save by the side of his bed. But when he woke up in the morning, a shrunken, withered husk waited for him. She'd given him the apple in her time, which was September 3rd, 1940. Jacob had on his hands a 75-year-old apple.

Harry Potter series
I couldn't help laughing when I came across this Popsugar link to Drapple, the only Harry Potter romantic pairing some people claim they will ship. If you want a bit of a giggle or groan, check it out. But seriously, Draco does appear with an apple in a couple of scenes, including an important one in which he's trying to repair the Vanishing Cabinet at Hogwarts, to enable the Death Eaters to enter the premises from the twin cabinet at Borgin and Burkes. Even though he succeeds, you can't help feeling very sorry for him at this point, for the way he was forced into making it happen.

Hooray, I made it over ten, and they come from sources far and wide. That's not even counting apples from famous sayings (He's the apple of my eye, An apple a day keeps the doctor away, The apple never falls far from the tree.) And it doesn't count more modern success stories, such as the apple Steve Jobs was munching when he got the inspiration for his company's name. Even though other fruits may seem to be showier with higher profiles, I guess that when it comes to stories, the modest apple will always sneak to the top. I guess that's appropriate, since bookworms are said to live in apples. 

And now that I've thought of all these, I'll extend my usual invitation, of course. If you can think of any others, do mention them in the comments.    

Monday, May 1, 2017

'The Fountain Overflows' by Rebecca West

In The Fountain Overflows, a 1957 best seller, Rebecca West transmuted her own volatile childhood into enduring art. This is an unvarnished but affectionate picture of an extraordinary family, in which a remarkable stylist and powerful intelligence surveys the elusive boundaries of childhood and adulthood, freedom and dependency, the ordinary and the occult. 

Books like this make me rejoice that I'm doing the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. So far this choice for the Classic by a woman category is among my favourites, and I'm expecting it will be hard to top. It's eccentric, original, quirky and delightful. So British, so Edwardian, and so brutal in pointing out the silliness of adults. And it's all about clearly seeing people's faults, because we can't help it, but loving them in spite of it.

The Fountain Overflows is a modern classic about the Aubrey family, who lived a poverty stricken life in Edwardian London. The story is narrated by one of the daughters, Rose, and I wanted to read it slowly to savour every word, since there was such a lot to ponder and reflect. Don't pay attention to any reviewer who writes, 'Nothing really happens.' That's the shortsighted view. The best response is, 'Wow, there's so much psychology underlying even the smallest aspects of life.' I was jotting down quotes and notes all the time, and for a book with seemingly not much action, I've got plenty to say, so I'll start with an overview of the family members, and finish with some broader aspects of living in the Edwardian era.

The father, Piers.
He's a controversial writer who edits a small, independent newspaper. Friends think he's a genius until he alienates them, but there's always another set of admirers ready to latch onto him. He's capable of burning himself out with zeal for unpopular causes, but his family, much as they love him, have to accept that his energy doesn't extend to them. He's capricious, unreliable, and likely to gamble every spare cent they have.

Rose: There was no stopping Papa when he was engaged in a crusade which would bring him no benefit.
Mama: It's a pity we do not live in a country where clever men are honoured.
Papa: Many people read me and seem to think well of my writing, but almost nobody credits a word I say. I'm like a ghost before my death.

The mother, Clare.
She was once a renowned concert pianist, but marriage to Piers has reduced her to a life of rags and hopeful dreams of better things for her children. At first I thought she was a pathetic figure, always pasting on a fake happy smile, keeping up appearances and denying the obvious. Her daughter Rose called her 'an emaciated, shabby and nerve-jacked woman.' To all appearances, Clare's life was a humiliating flop and she never lived up to expectations. But we get to see that maintaining her stubborn optimism worked its magic on her too.

Before long, she was one of my favourite characters. Clare singlehandedly makes the dingy home a haven for her children, and bursts with love for each in them, in this era when many other parents chose to be distant and autocratic. I think her downward spiral from an up-and-coming celebrity made her something even better, a true unsung hero. One of her favourite indulgences is being able to make a payment before it's due and prevent it becoming a debt. If her life had progressed the way she'd imagined when she was young, she might never have developed half the character she showed.

Mr Pennington: This is hardly the stuff to amuse ladies.
Mamma: Ladies are more accustomed to not being amused than gentlemen seem to realise. Please go on.

Cordelia, the oldest sister.
My heart went out to this girl. She was the only Aubrey child with no exceptional talent for music, but didn't realise it, because her misguided music teacher thought she was brilliant and kept encouraging her to perform at concerts. While she poured her heart and soul into her passion, her family quietly deplored her lack of talent behind her back (over, and over, and over again!) and made fun of her.

The Aubrey family were musical snobs, and I have a hunch Rebecca West probably was too, for writing them as she did. She'd have us believe that if you can't be absolutely top of your game, you might as well give up. Cordelia was proficient enough to please several crowds, since she spent so much time on her craft and received encores. The world is full of amateurs having fun, which doesn't take away from the brilliance of the truly greats, so why not live and let live? I'd hate to stop writing just because I'm not J.K. Rowling or Virginia Woolf. Cordelia's family do however, come to appreciate her beauty and way of carrying herself.

'Cordelia had not given these people music, but she'd given them something that refreshes the eye, like water, trees and flowers.'
'We now knew that if she could not play the violin, she had another attribute that was rare and splendid.'

Mary and Rose
The younger sisters really do have the potential to get far with their piano playing. I understand their point of view too. It would have to be frustrating when you're taking the time needed to maximise your skill, then someone without your talent merrily goes off to perform to the public, believing herself better or at least as good, and receives accolades and pats on the back. They were kids, so course they'd feel annoyed. It set the stage for some interesting family dynamics though.

'We said goodbye forever to praise, which is the prerogative of the amateur.'

The little brother, Richard Quin
He was deliciously gorgeous, both as a toddler at the start and a young teen at the end. He's clearly the family pet, and I love how the girls accept it without question. 'Of course he's the favourite, why wouldn't he be? We all adore him to pieces.' But he's one of those hard to spoil kids who is interested in others, born with natural tact, and finds empathy comes easy. Throughout the story, his natural wit develops in a great way. Everyone he comes across finds his charm impossible to resist, including renowned grouches. And although he has the potential to go as far with his music as Mary and Rose, he just can't be bothered putting in the effort it would take, when he simply wants to be easy-going and enjoy the world. It's a valid attitude, so good for him. He's one of the best young boys I've come across in literature, and brightened up the story just by being in it.

Cousin Rosamund
This young lady deserves a mention too, since she exerts a powerful influence over the Aubrey kids, and they can't pinpoint why. On the surface she's vacant and undemanding, quick to call herself an ordinary person who's nothing special. But every so often, Rosamund makes some pointed observation that proves she might be more perceptive than anyone except Richard Quin, with whom she forms a special bond.

*    *    *

The food of the times makes me curious. There are things like 'lardy cakes' and discussions about how to make them. One character, Aunt Lily, makes a wonderful pork pie which was constructed as much like a work of art as a food, and required exotic ingredients like conger eel. And when children wanted a sweet treat, you piled up bread and butter with brown sugar. Imagine the raised eyebrows in our day.

The story also presents plenty of philosophical truths about childhood. Rose considered herself a representative of kids everywhere. I used to wonder (and still do sometimes) why some people grow up, seem to forget everything that used to irritate them as children, and begin treating young people as inferior citizens. Rose appreciates that her mother understood children and knew they were 'adults handicapped by a humiliating disguise, and had their adult qualities within them.' Rose was admittedly a precocious kid, but her words ring true. She and her sisters, cousin and brother do a lot of make-believe and pretending, but it comes across as something the adults were unwise to give up.

I think maybe her narrative shows that kids have a certain blunt simplicity which adults train themselves out of. Take Rose's views of marriage, for example. 'I thought it was all quite simple. If you were nice looking, men wanted to marry you, and if you were not, you saw it for yourself in the mirror and decided to do something else.' Throughout much of the story, her views about the opposite gender are not flattering. 'A train puffed through the cutting... Two boys hanging out of a carriage window waved at us, but we took no notice, though we would have waved back if they'd been girls.'

You can't review this book without giving a mention to the supernatural. Second sight seems to be a gift which ran in the family, but was downplayed by characters rather than highlighted. There's even a poltergeist. I thought there would be some twist in the story, but no, it was a genuine disruptive, pot and pan flinging poltergeist. Weird, but interesting. Claire's opinion was probably the author's too. She instructs her children never to pry into hidden things, because the supernatural is very murky and dodgy. And since there's a wall separating present and future, you've got to assume it's there for a reason and not attempt to pull it down. Sounds sensible to me.

Toward the end, their mother informs them sadly that they had a dreadful childhood. Well, since they enjoyed it so much on the whole, you've got to question whether her words were true, or whether she did what she thought was the impossible, and gave them a wonderful childhood, in spite of what she thought. I think the title refers to the fact that character attributes of parents make their way into the children, without much conscious effort.

Overall, apart from Claire herself, I was intrigued by Richard Quin and Rosamund, and like their family, the reason eluded me for awhile. I got it in a flash toward the end. While everyone was getting tied in knots trying to work out their future, Mamma said, 'What a delight it is to have Richard Quin and Rosamund, who do not seem to want anything much.' Eureka, that's it! The others were all bogged down with ambitions, judgments, hopes, plans, and an agenda of some sort. These two grew on me because it's so rare, then and now, to come across people who aren't needy, or not aiming for any sort of validation, recognition or feedback so they can feel good about themselves. They're simply content to take each day as it comes, milking the simple little moments for all they're worth.

There were so many fantastic quotes all the way through, but one of the simplest and best comes from Clare. 'You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.' I believe that's what kept her going.

5 stars.

Friday, April 28, 2017

'The Five Thieves of Happiness' by John Izzo


Stop Seeking Happiness; Just Get Out of Its Way! 
Happiness is our natural state, for each of us and for humanity as a whole, argues John Izzo. But that happiness is being stolen by insidious mental patterns that he depicts as thieves: the thief of control, the thief of conceit, the thief of coveting, the thief of consumption, and the thief of comfort. 

I enjoy the occasional books on happiness theory. They are quite often mood lifting, even if there aren't many fresh insights (because to be fair, if you've read a few, how much new material can there be?) This book stands up pretty well in the crowd, focusing on what I've come to know is probably the key factor, our thought life. Izzo's points even fitted perfectly with a random quote that popped up on Facebook, something like, 'Depression may be a sign that instead of controlling your thoughts, your thoughts are controlling you.'

He identifies five mindsets which he calls happiness thieves, and for memory convenience, he's made them all start with the letter C. Then he points out that they're shifty little sneaks, because they all disguise themselves to look like friends who are looking out for us, and want the best for us. Here they are. I think they overlap a bit, but it's good to have them all set out.

1) Control.
It occurs when we keep trying to force life to turn out the way we want it to, instead of accepting it as it comes. We're far more carefree when we give up caring so much about outcomes and results, before we allow ourselves to relax and enjoy peace of mind.

2) Conceit.
This is otherwise known as ego. We tend to overemphasise our own personal significance, and feel a great need to distinguish and set ourselves apart from others. It keeps us constantly measuring our rank, obsessing about where we fit in the world, checking our stats and wanting our personal footprints to be distinct. He challenges us instead to regard ourselves as small components of a significant whole. We've been brainwashed by a world which is all about 'finding ourselves'. Perhaps ancient tribal peoples who didn't place emphasis on self discovery for the individual were onto a better thing.

3) Coveting.
It's disguised as helpful ambition, and could even be called comparison or competition. We tend to convince ourselves that we live in a place of lack, and badly crave something someone else has got. That's a certain recipe for disappointment and envy. The great challenge is to develop our internal compass so we know what truly makes us content, instead of being dragged along by what matters to others. And we must remind ourselves frequently that life is a journey and not a contest.

4) Consumption.
This is not merely purchasing things but buying into the whole idea that happiness is to be found somewhere 'out there'. It's believing the insidious lie, 'I'll be happy when I have X.' He reminds us that the root of the word 'happiness' is misleading itself, since it's based on what's happening. If we forget all that and choose contentment, we'll be better off. This is purely a choice of our mind, and nothing to do with what's taking place.

5) Comfort.
He urges us to change our habits and reactions from time to time, rather than letting autopilot ones from our long-ago past cruise us through our lives.

So once we've trained ourselves to be on the lookout for each of these, the 3-step process he recommends is simply notice, stop and replace. It's all deceptively simple sounding, but I reckon if we follow his advice instead of just moving on to the next book on our list, it'll help us achieve what he promises. That's not necessarily our burning ambitions, but daily contentment. And I've been reflecting lately that life passes so quickly, that's what we're really looking for.  

4.5 stars

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why bother reading books?

Reading books is like my bone marrow, something that runs deep in me which I'm pretty sure I'd be unable to live without. I've never tried stopping anyway. Perhaps I could pause for a fixed period of time, if someone offered me a huge sum of money, but I'd be counting down the days until I could start again. Lucky for me, reading is a good addiction to have. Whenever I hear people say they never read, I wonder what replacement could offer so much pleasure and so many benefits?

If they asked me in turn, 'What's the big deal about reading?' I have some answers prepared. In the past I might have replied, 'I dunno, I just love it.' But I get frustrated with that sort of answer. Although it's true that pure enjoyment is all the justification we need, it may come across as evasive, unhelpful and a bit lazy to people who may be really interested. My reasons below paint a more complete picture about the joy which comes from books. 

1) Reading enables me to empathise with others who are nothing like me on the surface. It broadens my concept of our world, and helps me see that essentially we are all the same where it counts.
That sentence explains enough, but this blog post elaborates even more.

2) It gives me fuel for reflection and discussion. Without ideas from books to mull over, my tank would be empty.
I'm an introvert who frequently finds myself with a blank mind and tied tongue around others. For those moments when I'm able to engage in a fun conversation, I usually have some idea from a book to thank. Talking about something that grips my mind from stories is far easier than other small talk. I love debates and heated discussions when they're focused around fictional characters and their choices. If I didn't keep this tank topped up, I'd be very boring indeed, and wouldn't even be able to maintain this blog. (When my nephew was staying with us over the Christmas holidays, he said, 'I've never known anyone who could get so excited over fictional characters as you guys.' He meant it as a compliment and I took it as one.)

3) It provides fodder for my favourite happy pastime, daydreaming.
There are all sorts of seemingly pointless things which brighten our days. One of mine is daydreaming about fictional characters, imagining extra scenes for them, and holding further dialogues and interactions. I might be walking along, inventing many ways in which one of the characters perceives another, that might not have come out in the author's original story. People who write fan fiction do the exact same thing, but I've never been brave enough to actually put mine out into the world, and nor would I want to. My own private conjectures might not gel with others, least of all the original creator, but they amuse me no end. And they draw me out of my own head into those of others, so I feel like I'm getting a holiday from myself.

Once years ago, a friend of mine was describing how she felt challenged to give up anything related to her own fertile imagination, because she thought it was infiltrating the rest of her life like some pernicious creeper. She said, 'I make sure never to imagine anything anymore. I only live in the current moment, and focus on what's directly before me.' That astounded me. I sat there thinking, 'There's no way I could ever renounce my entire imagination.' I couldn't help thinking she was throwing the baby out with the bath water and closing up a God-given gift, but that's the subject of another reflection some other day.

4) Reading gives me flashes of truth. An author might express something in such a way that resonates with what I know in my own heart but haven't formed into an opinion yet.
Those moments are like mental High Fives with the author, who may even be long passed away. They're heady enough to make me grasp things like universal consciousness, great minds thinking alike and truth being self-evident. And without reading, I'd miss so many of these moments. Some of them are strong enough to make me say, 'Wow, yes!' out loud. 

5) Reading stories is the closest thing to magic and alchemy we've got.
I wrote a blog post about that here, so won't elaborate any further in this post.

6) Reading enables us to multiply the pleasure we get from our own life's events.
Here's a specific example to show what I mean. When I was a little girl, I loved everything to do with the Christmas season. Making tinsel wreaths at school, riding on Nipper and Nimble in the John Martins' toy department, singing Christmas carols, going to the Adelaide Christmas Pageant and meditating on the original Christmas story. You might think that would be enough for any young child, right? 

At the age of eight or nine, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'By the Banks of Plum Creek' for the first time, and toward the end I reached a chapter where there was a surprise meeting one winter night in the church. Laura, Mary and Carrie had no idea what to expect, but Pa and Ma were smiling and winking, as were the other adults hitching up their horses and crunching over the snow. As I read, I found myself on the edge of my seat, just as anxious to find out what was going on as Laura. It turned out to be an extravagant event with a decorated Christmas tree, which the girls had never seen before. Each branch was covered with gifts for the town's children. I loved seeing it unfold, sharing the moment of pleasure that happened about 100 years earlier. It made me so cheerful, I might as well have been there.

So my point is this. Was my own Christmas good? The answer is yes, of course. Did reading about Laura and Mary's Christmas make it even better? Absolutely, because I got to rejoice over the stroke of joy that happened to them. I felt they really deserved it. In any lifetime, moments of personal joy are lovely, but limited. And since joy is such a nice thing to experience, we might as well take the chance to add somebody else's to ours. And the most reliable way of doing this at short notice is through a book. To me, it will always be one of the best ways to multiply and our joy and lift our moods.

So those are my reasons for the endless appeal of books, which I'll never grow tired of. If you're a fellow reader, do my reasons match yours? And what do you say if people ask you? 

Monday, April 24, 2017

'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins’s spellbinding tale of romance, theft, and murder inspired a hugely popular genre–the detective mystery. Hinging on the theft of an enormous diamond originally stolen from an Indian shrine, this riveting novel features the innovative Sergeant Cuff, the hilarious house steward Gabriel Betteredge, a lovesick housemaid, and a mysterious band of Indian jugglers.

I choose this for my Gothic novel category in the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge. It's a super-duper page turner which has been said to be the first ever detective story. It's fast moving with changing narrators, and the spooky gem at the centre of the plot comes across creepier than any character could possibly be.

Rachel Verinder is given a priceless Indian diamond on her 18th birthday, but it vanishes from her cabinet overnight. Everyone assumes a trio of loitering Indians must have broken in, until police prove that the theft was surely an inside job. Yet the only people who spent the night under the roof, apart from Rachel, her mother and the servants, were two male cousins. And Rachel is acting very odd, as if something constrains her not to reveal as much about the loss as she knows.

The moonstone itself totally deserves its title honour. Inanimate objects that supposedly have the power to influence human affairs are such stuff as Gothic tales are made of. It's a lavish but very sinister stone which is rumoured to bring evil luck to its possessor. Some people believe the wicked old uncle had a shady ulterior motive in willing it to his niece. Neither the thief nor the reader knows what they're getting themselves in for. Wilkie Collins keeps us wondering whether the atmosphere of heaviness is caused by the gem itself, or by the depravity it draws out of characters' secret hearts.

The characters are all fascinating, multi-faceted, and not always what they seem. I really want to do them justice, yet not at the expense of giving too much away. I'll just give a brief overview, as everyone should be regarded as suspects at the outset (or not, as the case may be).

Rachel herself. Everyone who knows her best can vouch for her unimpeachable character and generosity. Yet they agree she's a girl who's secret, self-willed, odd and wild.

The Servants. To mention the longest and shortest serving, Gabriel Betteredge is the lovable old head of staff who has served the family for decades. He has a quirky habit of using the novel 'Robinson Crusoe' as if it's his Bible or oracle. And poor Rosanna Spearman is a hunchbacked former thief, who's been given the chance to start anew. It seems her past history makes her a prime suspect, but is that worry all she has on her mind?

The cousins. It's the era when cousins used to marry each other, and both young man have designs on Rachel. Godfrey Ablewhite is a beloved humanitarian who focuses on ladies' charities. He's a sweet-tempered, nice guy. Franklin Blake is more of a black sheep. He's been educated overseas and has a way of letting money trickle through his fingers. He's more the irresponsible, witty brand of nice guy who could never live up to Godfrey. Yet at least two women are madly in love with him.

The Professionals. There's Sergeant Cuff the renowned detective, who's looking forward to retirement so he can devote his time to growing roses. And Mr Candy, the tubby little doctor who loves jokes but tends to be a bit tactless. He has a mysterious assistant, Ezra Jennings, who turns people off by his odd appearance. And then there's Mr Bruff, the loyal and sensible family lawyer. He becomes a barometer for the story's dramatic quality. If Mr Bruff can be astounded and amazed, surely any reader can be.

The solution had me riveted, especially the painstaking and dramatic way it was proven. I have to hold my tongue here, but if you've read the book, I'd love to know what you thought of it. Seriously, you can send me a private message. I wouldn't have predicted the truth in my wildest dreams, yet the story has a thick trail of clues that all slot into place when we look back in hindsight. Absolutely mind blowing in my opinion.

3151994I don't want to stop rambling on about this story yet, so I'll mention a few little observations about life in the Victorian era.

1) The dangers of smoking were not known. Rachel convinced her cousin Franklin to quit cigars cold turkey not because she was concerned for his health but because she was tired of the odour in his clothes. And smoking was such a popular social pastime that a good host would offer each of his guests a fresh pipe.
2) The addictive quality of common household medicine was unknown. Instead of popping a Paracetemol or Ibuprofen for a headache or cramp, they'd take a few drops of opium, with no idea they might become hooked.
3) Religious zealots were pretty much the same. Miss Clack, the fanatical evangelistic relative, was obviously meant to be a bit of a caricature, but I've come across some modern Miss Clacks. She keeps trying to palm off religious tracts with titles such as 'Satan in your hairbrush.' I've been at the end of similar fervour from well-meaning folk! Like the lady who got concerned at the sight of my kids' toys and tried to convince me to read a book called, 'Turmoil in the Toybox.' The type who hunt for demons and heresies behind every bush are still alive and well.
4) Although the English thought they ruled the roost, strict adherers to the Hindu faith and its superstitions are not to be trifled with. Those who tried regretted it. When you get to the end, you can take the example of the thief.

Because I still don't want to stop talking, I'll finish off with a few quotes.

Godfrey (on the subject of the diamond): Carbon, Betteredge. Mere carbon, my good friend, after all. (What a guy.)
Sergeant Cuff: I haven't much time to be fond of anything, but when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, the roses get it. (What a guy.)
Sergeant Cuff again (on the same subject): If you look about you, you will see that the nature of a man's taste is most times as opposite as possible to the nature of a man's business. (Hmm, maybe.)
Miss Clack: Let your faith be as your stockings and your stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless and ready to put on at a moment's notice. (Lol.)
Franklin: The exquisite freshness of the air made the mere act of living and breathing a luxury. (What a guy.)
Rosanna: Goodbye to the world which has grudged me the happiness it gave others. (You'll have to read it to see what becomes of her.)

5 stars

Friday, April 21, 2017

Evergreen Kids

For those of us who have reached adulthood, I'm sure we can remember moments when our childhood seemed to drag on forever. But then we get to a stage when we realise it flew by like the wind, and wish it hadn't been so fleeting. Those of us with kids of our own definitely have nostalgic moments of wishing they'd stayed little and cute for longer. In J.K. Rowling's novel 'The Casual Vacancy', the character Tessa reflects, 'How awful it was, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart. They could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.' Maybe you have to be a parent to get where she's coming from.

There seems to come a point when we realise that we'd taken all the good parts of childhood for granted. We blinked and missed the wonder and joy, while the restless discontent and urge to grow up filled our thoughts. I'm sure we share moments of longing to turn back the clock and have another crack at it, this time with the benefit of hindsight. I think these are all powerful reasons why several stories tend to introduce people I've called 'Evergreen Kids.' These are characters who never grow up. Readers can return to them time and again, knowing they'll be there for us. Just because time doesn't stand still for us, at least we can rely on some of our favourite characters remaining static.

I think there are two distinct categories of Evergreen Kids in our stories. I'll discuss them each in turn.

The evergreen kids who theoretically age at the same rate as the rest of us, but really don't.

These kids remain the same age for year after year, because we love them that way. Ash Ketchum has been a 10-year-old Pokemon trainer since the early 1990s. Bart Simpson is also perpetually 10 years old, making his same wise cracks and being a nuisance to the adults. And his sister Lisa will always be a child genius, because she'll never grow any older than 8.

My kids and I used to love watching the cartoon series 'Arthur' because the main family in it was a dead ringer for ours. But at this point in time Logan and Emma are 22 and 18, while Arthur and his little sister D.W. have remained 8 and 4.

The evergreen kid phenomenon is evident in mystery series too. In my early teens, I used to devour Trixie Belden novels. One day it dawned on me that for the girl detective to have solved that many mysteries at the age of 14, the year would have to contain far more than 52 weeks. Sometimes, I wish my time could expand like a sponge in a similar way.

Other kids in this category include such characters as Dennis the Menace, Ginger Meggs, Pippi Longstocking and Milly Molly Mandy. They need to stay the same age to please us readers and viewers, because if it's impossible for us to be immortal, at least someone can do it. There's no identity crises for these kids. They could truly make A.A. Milne's little poem their life motto.

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six
now and forever.

But now I'll get on to the second category of ageless kids, who bring out the more sinister side.

The true evergreen kids who remain stuck at the same age, for whatever reason.

1) Miss Peregrine's Household
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1) These lovable peculiar children have been living in a loop of the same day since the second world war. Although their ages evidently range between about 8 and 17, if you ask them, they may reply something like, 'I'm 86 and he's 92 and she's over 100.' They've lived the correct number of days to make them elderly, but since the current one is always September 3rd, 1940, they never age. If Miss Peregrine hadn't created the time loop, they would have been destroyed by a bomb that very night.
This makes them weird and wise in many ways. When their friend Jacob joins them from the 21st century, he's regarded as a bit of an oddity, because he's really 16.

2) Moaning Myrtle
 This poor girl never grows older because she's a ghost. Myrtle was killed by accidentally coming face to face with a basilisk in 1943, and she's haunted that toilet block in Hogwarts ever since. She's perpetually crying, feeling sorry for herself, getting prickly when she hears her nickname, and checking out cute boys. Even as late as the events in The Cursed Child, she's willing to flirt with Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy because she was partial to their fathers. Then when the two dads rush in, she attempts to pick up where she left off with her former crushes too. No doubt she'll be doing the same for generations to come.

Tuck Everlasting3) Jesse Tuck
This young man's situation really creeps me out. He and his family unintentionally attained immortality by drinking from a supernatural water stream. Now they never age, and cannot die. They make this discovery accidentally, when they survive several disasters which would have proven fatal under normal circumstances. But it proves to be a high price to pay, when Jesse's young girlfriend, Winnie, sensibly decides to refrain from drinking the water, opting to grow old and die instead. The final glimpse of Jesse in the story Tuck Everlasting is of a lonely teenager who forever outlives everyone he grows fond of, and is denied the final rest of death.

4) Chip
He's the cute little enchanted cup from Beauty and Beast, who goes along with his mother, Mrs Potts, the teapot. They, and several other castle staff, have been put under a spell by the same enchantress who turned the arrogant young prince into a monstrous beast. When the spell gets broken, he becomes a little boy again, and presumably grows up the same as any other child.

5) Peter Pan
Peter Pan The ultimate evergreen kid, he's the boy who never grows up. Along with his band of followers, or 'lost boys', they live in Neverland where children stay forever young. Wendy Darling and her brothers, John and Michael, can't resist his allure, especially when they learn to fly. Peter remains adamant that his carefree attitude trumps the care and responsibility that goes with adulthood. His biggest dread is that they'll 'catch him and make him become a man.' Haven't we all come across guys with Peter Pan syndrome? (Some might even call it a feature of the whole Millenial generation, lol.) Yet even though the Darling kids love his lifestyle at first, they come to miss their old lives with their family and understand that the adult lives which await them in the future may have benefits of their own. (Wendy wants to be a real mother, and John would like to work in his father's business.)

*    *    *

So although the characters in Group 1 may make us envy their perpetual youth, those in Group 2 show the down side. We can't avoid aging. That's the bottom line, and it has to be a good thing. Maybe the best thing we can do is maintain a youthful heart in our older bodies. I like to think I've achieved that to some extent, because I feel essentially the same in my 40s as I was in my 20s, and even my teens (add some kilograms). It never stops surprising me, especially when I remember how staid and plodding my friends' middle aged parents used to seem, not to mention my own. I've reached the age where I'm willing to concede that perhaps that was just on the outside.

Have you experienced something similar, no matter what age you are now? Do you have a favourite evergreen kid of your own, either from my list or someone I've forgotten?