Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reading is Virtual Tourism

I once read a long essay by Anna Quindlen entitled, How Reading Changed my Life. She described her childhood, when she had no means of getting anywhere new or different, and curling up in a chair with a good book made her feel like a world class traveller. Years later, when she became a successful author with many opportunities to travel widely, she figured out something surprising. It turns out she enjoyed the actual experience no more than the virtual travel she took from her armchair when she was young. 

My favourite quote from that essay is, "I went to Tara and Manderley and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read Gone with the Wind, Rebecca and Jane Eyre." (You may also like my thoughts about literary houses that perish.)

I get what she meant. When I visited England in my youth, seeing the wonderful spread of London's buildings from the air as we approached Heathrow airport felt surreal. It seemed like a homecoming, even though I'd never been there. At the time, I wondered if the British blood of my ancestors was stirred by the sight. But in retrospect, I think it seemed so familiar already because I knew the sights through reading books. They looked like the streets where Wendy and her brothers lived in Peter Pan, or Michael and Jane in Mary Poppins. And I was to find that boarding the underground tube trains was like entering a Monopoly game or classic novel.

That strange sense of recognition has occurred at other times too, with places there is no way I could possibly have any blood ties with. Mere words on a page seem to have wedged them into my psyche. To mention just a few, there was a fantasy trilogy which reminded me first of Spain and later the Middle East, which I've never visited. There was also a story about a brother and sister who travelled from New Jersey, on the east coast of the United States, to Portland on the west. I recognised the changing features of different states they passed through, purely from reading, hearsay and television. I've never been to America for real, and probably never will.

With all this in mind, I came across an article entitled, 'Your Brain on Books.' It tells us that reading about a place or incident is almost the same as living it. Our brains actually believe they have experienced the things we read about. They make no distinction between reading about something and actually living it. In fact, whether you are reading about a place or standing there in the flesh, the same neurological regions of the brain light up when examined. Wow, that's pretty convincing proof that the worlds of novels can enter our thoughts and feelings so that they become part of us.

I've got to admit that given the choice, I'd still rather visit fantastic, exotic, far-away places than just read about them. I'd pack up a suitcase and leave in flash if I could. However, since that's unlikely to happen, I'm glad it's been shown that reading is a far, far better substitute than I'd ever imagined. Experts tell us to write about what we know. And it turns out that each of us, especially if we're readers, may know far more than we ever thought.

It's very cool. The quote that says, 'I read not because I don't have a life but because I choose to have many' may be truer than we think. And Emily Dickinson, who lived for years as a recluse in her own house, wrote, 'There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands away, nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry.' I'm sure she knew that very well through personal experience. And as for the places in the signpost above, the fact that our imaginations can whiz us straight to them is stunning. The signpost is in the bookshop of my new local shopping centre, and I thought how great it is that I can say I've been to many of those places. (You may also like A Good Story Belongs to Everyone.) 

Where are some of the best places you've visited through the pages of a book? 

Monday, November 20, 2017

'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio

I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

I've been slow to jump aboard this runaway bestseller, but now that the movie is soon to hit cinemas, my curiosity got the better of me at last.

Basically it's a very simple plot. Young August Pullman was born with a serious facial abnormality. He's undergone several remedial surgeries in his short life, and after years of homeschooling, he's about to start middle school. While some fellow students are willing to get to know the person behind his shocking exterior, others respond with fear or cruelty. The story is written in sections with different points of view, so we can also delve into what his friends and family are thinking and feeling.

If you really want to pick the plot apart, not a lot happens, but it's powered by high octane honesty and emotion from start to finish. Auggie is a very endearing main character who knows that he's as 'ordinary' as everyone else in every respect but the appearance of his face. And he knows that because of the face he presents, this will never dawn easily on anyone else.

I was pleased to see other characters treated with sensitivity as well as just August. He understands that an initial, split-second double-take is a natural reaction and doesn't take offence. In fact, he gets tired of how people's glances quickly slide away, as if they assume it's the tactful response. He would like to tell them, 'It's OK. I understand why you want to stare.' That sort of detail is among the strengths of the story.

But is the writing always perfectly executed? Well, I have to say not really. For a start, the humour is applied pretty thickly at times. To take one just one example, how much mileage can you get out of poor Mr Tushman's name? This is the book equivalent of one of those studio audience placards demanding that the audience laugh. Readers keep running into the message, 'In case you haven't twigged, this is a joke.' I prefer a more subtle humour that individuals can choose to take or leave. Anything that's so clearly explained is not as funny. In a similar way, small talk tends to drag on at times. This heavy-handedness is not really a feature you'd expect from bestsellers, but just shows how much may be forgiven and overlooked if only a story has heart.

Auggie's relationship with his sister Olivia, a.k.a Via, really touched my heart. There is potential for sibling resentment on both sides, and they both know it. She's the one with the attractive face, and he's the one whose needs have always had first priority. Via knows that she tends to be defined by who her brother is, and he's sensitive to her moods. But when it comes to the crunch, none of this really matters, because they're right on the same page, as loving family members should be.

After receiving the heady joy of a standing ovation, August decides everyone should receive one at least once in their lives. But there's a type of hero that never get their standing ovation, and I think part of their heroism is that they don't even expect to. Some of the excellence of this book for me was identifying these hidden heroes. There's August's non-academic friend Jack Will, who doesn't get an award at the ceremony like the smart kids, yet displays a lot of superior character traits that went under the radar.

Most of all, there's Isabel and Nate, August and Via's parents. I loved these guys. The fact that their son has tapped into inner strength, kindness and wisdom instead of bitterness and fear is greatly because of their influence, without a doubt. They were as unforgettable as August himself, proving that our input in just one life can make us heroes. They deal with carer's exhaustion, trying to spread themselves thin and often being in the firing line from both their kids. But even though Via criticises them at times, they are perfect role models. And because of them, August has the security of knowing that whatever he faces during the day, there will be nothing but love and support behind his own doors. That's worth a standing ovation for sure.

So when it comes to ranking, it's one of those stories that makes you think hard. Although I felt it was far from perfect in the ways I've mentioned, I still think it deserves almost full marks because of the strength of the impression it left.

4.5 stars

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

'Matthew Flinders' Cat' by Bryce Courtenay

Billy O'Shannessy, once a prominent barrister, is now on the street where he sleeps on a bench outside the State Library. Above him on the window sill rests a bronze statue of Matthew Flinders' cat, Trim. Ryan is a ten-year-old, a near street kid heading for all the usual trouble. The two meet and form an unlikely friendship. Appealing to the boy's imagination by telling him the story of the circumnavigation of Australia as seen through Trim's eyes, Billy is drawn deeply into Ryan's life and into the Sydney underworld. Over several months the two begin the mutual process of rehabilitation. Matthew Flinders' Cat is a modern-day story of a city, its crime, the plight of the homeless and the politics of greed and perversion. It is also a story of the human heart, with an enchanting glimpse into our past from the viewpoint of a famous cat.

After reading several British and American books this year, I felt a craving for something completely Australian, which is just what this is. I picked it up at a second hand shop.

Billy O'Shannessy is a drunken ex-barrister who has become a street bum. He still keeps an eye on the world around him and writes letters to the Sydney Morning Herald, because he believes 'alcoholism and writing have a long history together.' He wants to write convincing essays about Australian history and ecology, but never stays sober long enough. However, he does try to do his bit for our country by culling the pesky mynah birds which have overrun and threatened the native species. He has a past which partially explains his dramatic lifestyle change, but desperately tries not to think about it.

Ryan Sanfrancesco is a bright young boy who gets Billy talking about the statue in the library window above his park bench, which happens to be Matthew Flinders and his cat, Trim. Drawing from his knowledge of this legendary ship's cat, Billy intrigues Ryan with true stories from Flinders' own memoirs, that become inspirational to both of them.

I love how appearances can be deceiving. Billy presents the face of a hopeless alcoholic, but deep down, he's an educated, entertaining storyteller. On the surface, Ryan is a street-smart brat with a bleak future, but really he's an innocent young boy who responds to goodness and heroism when it's presented to him in legends.

Alas, there are those who are suspicious about the friendship between the pair, and even worse, the story delves into a seamy, horrific part of Sydney culture which I won't spoil by mentioning straight out. Suffice to say, it gets to a point where only deep concern for Ryan's welfare is enough to get Billy to clean up his act, since he's really the only hope the boy has. In the process, Bryce Courtenay exposes some abysmal organised crime which is shocking to read about.

Some interesting, fairly recent history is revealed in this novel too, such as the government's attempt to shift undesirables out of the city to Surfers Paradise in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics. Who would've thought? I really appreciated the glimpse into the vast goodness of charities such as the Salvation Army, in the lives of so many helpless sufferers. It's great to have their quiet heroism featured in stories, when it might otherwise slip under the radar for those of us who don't experience it directly. I felt like giving them a standing ovation.

I noticed that not all reviews of this book on Goodreads and Amazon are positive. That seems to be partly because of the disparate threads. Those interested in following Billy's journey to sobriety might find the Trim stories long and irrelevant, while people who were drawn to the title and cover might just want stories about Captain Flinders' adventures aboard the Investigator, and not care so much about the drinking and crime themes. Yet I think Courtenay really did draw them together. Even though it's a thick book, it's easy to get through the pages quickly, which is a sign of a good flow.

Examining history can reveal a lot about our own attitudes and actions, as Billy discovers when he prepares the different installments of the story for Ryan. The famous cat shows qualities he wishes he could've adopted in his own life, and becomes his inspiration. I found all the different stories interesting and well-written.

Finally, as a fellow cat lover, I love Billy and Ryan partly for their mutual affection for Trim. I quite understand why Ryan would return to the park bench for the second time, to tell Billy, 'I've come about the cat.' The cover of my copy appeals to me. Something about the memory of 200-year-old Trim overlooking the Sydney Harbour seems sort of haunting.

4 stars

To my surprise, I discovered we have our own statues of Matthew Flinders and Trim here in Adelaide. That's very fitting, since we have our share of landmarks and places named after him, both in the city and around the coast where he navigated. It includes Flinders University, and I took these photos at some remote part of the campus which I doubt I'll easily find again. 

You might also like this blog list, Books with cool literary cats.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

'Blessed are the Misfits' by Brant Hansen


In his unique style, Hansen looks to answer questions that millions of people carry with them each day:

If I don’t relate to God as emotionally as others do, is something wrong with me?
How does one approach God, and approach faith, when devoid of the “good feelings” that seem to drive so much of evangelical church culture?
How does God interact with those who seem spiritually numb?
Is the absence of faith-based emotion a sign of that God has moved on or was never there?
What if we aren’t good at talking to people about our faith, or good at talking to people at all?
What if I’m told I’m too analytical, that I “think too much”?
Where does a person who suffers from depression fit in the kingdom? Is depression a sure sign of a lack of faith?
This book is good news for people who are desperately looking for it. (And for their loved ones!)

It’s also for those who want to believe in Jesus, but inwardly fear that they don’t belong, worry that don’t have the requisite emotion-based relationship with God, and are starving for good news.

A huge thanks to Brant Hansen for writing this book, because the sort of misfits he's talking about are probably more common than any of us realise, but each keep quiet to save face. We hesitate to confess our misfit status because we may feel inferior, and imagine that we lack some sort of spiritual backbone. Even when we've prayed, striven and tried hard to fix ourselves for years, the deficiency still seems to be connected with us failing to measure up. Especially when we see our outgoing, full-on and super-spiritual friends and family doing what seems to come so naturally to them.

This book is for the sorts of Christian misfits, oddballs and introverts who often feel we don't fit into what he calls the typical American church culture (or Australian by extension, in my case). When people talk about sensing God's loving arms wrapped around us during worship... well, some people just don't. Preachers and counselors urge people to 'open up to the spirit' or 'stop leaning on our intellect' but some can't effect any change. And when they pray, it's a bit like talking into a dead walkie-talkie. Hansen is a Christian radio personality who can relate to all this, and his book convinces us to stop feeling as if we belong on the 'Island of Misfit Toys of the kingdom.' Quieter, head thinking types of Christian can honor God just as faithfully as our more emotionally switched-on friends. What a relief.

He drops the names of some surprising people who counted themselves among the unfeeling faithful. Their lives bore real fruit, which is not the same as incredible spiritual experiences, wordy prayer times or impressive ministries. It's simply love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I appreciate how Hansen gently puts to rest some issues which may have the potential to give us colossal guilt trips, such as failing to live up the the Great Commission or being unable to aspire to warrior type prayers. In a nutshell, Mark 16:15 wasn't necessarily meant the same way for everyone by Jesus, and even fumbling, ten-second prayer efforts have great potential. Reading this may be like balm to your guilt-heavy soul.

There's some lovely encouragement for the unnoticed, who may think they're consequently not worth as much as those in the spotlight. It's a reminder that we needn't look where everyone else is, because God operates a lot in the margins, and tends to nurture unobtrusive mustard seeds, sparrows and lilies of the field, while we're admiring lions and peacocks on the stage.

Lifting this weight of false guilt and unnecessary expectations off our shoulders is a great enough reason to read the book, but Brant Hansen also gives sound tips about how to face it whenever it creeps back, as it inevitably will. Developing the habit of ignoring our harsh and false inner monologue, and even challenging it as a liar, may do us a world of good. With the help of friendly books like this, I dare to believe it is possible. This is one I'll be dipping into many times.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson Publishing and Net Galley for my review copy

4.5 stars

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Famous Toy Heroes

First off, I must tell you that I had a crowd of these in my own bedroom when I was little. When my Dad used to come up to say goodnight, he would tell me stories about what my toys had been up to all day while I was at school. Dad was a toy whisperer. He'd hold their mouths to his ear, and they'd mumble things to him. Deep in my heart I guessed it was all pretend, yet the part of me that wanted to keep an open mind had a lot of fun.

It was cool to think that when they heard my bedroom door open, they'd all scurry back to their spots and freeze. Sometimes I wondered why they'd take such care to keep their lives a secret from the children who loved them so dearly, and I wasted a lot of time trying to coax their stubborn little mouths to speak back to me. It whetted my appetite for more stories about toys set in other people's houses too. Since they are made to represent living beings and be loved by kids, it easy to see why there are so many. We've probably thought how wonderful it would be if they were all true. Although there have been scores of them written over the years, here are ten of my favourites from my own past.  

1) Naughty Amelia Jane
She was the big curly-haired doll who always made a point of throwing her weight around and picking on other, more defenseless toys. But the others, led by Golly and Teddy, often paid her back in sneaky ways. And Amelia Jane wasn't so bad at heart. I used to love reading Enid Blyton's toyroom politics.

2) Winnie the Pooh
The toys in the 100-Acre Wood belonged to Christopher Robin, and part of their appeal way into adulthood is surely because they each have recognisable personality traits (or disorders). There's little Piglet with his anxiety issues, hyped-up Tigger, clinically depressed Eeyore and control-freak Rabbit. Not to mention Owl with his delusions of grandeur, and Pooh Bear himself, who has the most stable outlook, but still tends to be a binge eater. Someone once suggested that perhaps Christopher Robin is the most disturbed of all, for persisting in talking to them :)

3) Pinocchio
Everyone knows the little wooden marionette was made by the lonely carpenter Gepetto to stand in for a real son. Pinocchio magically comes to life and eventually achieves his dearest wish, to become a real live boy. Not only was it denied for ever so long, but his wooden nose grew longer whenever he told a lie. He was a product of the moralistic fairy tale era he was written in.

4) The Doll's House
This beautiful classic from the fifties is about Tottie and her family, who were owned by a pair of small sisters named Charlotte and Emily. The girls made them a special shoe box home, but one day a snooty celluloid doll named Marchpane is brought to live with them, which is really like putting the cat with the pigeons. The tale is a bit of a tear jerker, but very memorable. (This tale by Rumer Godden is not to be confused with 'A Doll's House' by Henrik Ibsen, which is completely different.)

5) Miss Happiness and Miss Flower
It's another offering from Rumer Godden, who must have loved toys. The title characters were two little Japanese dolls sent to England to live with Nona and her cousins. The dolls are very homesick, but that makes them the perfect gift for Nona, who is separated from her family and homesick too. While her cousin Belinda dismisses the dolls as being too boring, Nona carefully researches the features of Japanese houses, so she can construct a replica one for her dolls. This delights Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and helps Nona come out of her own shell. I loved reading this as a little girl.

6) Teddy Robinson
He was a very special teddy bear owned by a little girl named Deborah, who took him on all sorts of great adventures with her. They had a whole series of fun things happen to them, and the one that sticks in my memory is Teddy Robinson accidentally being left in the garden overnight, and getting soaked through with dew but meeting lots of interesting nocturnal critters.

7) Paddington Bear
He's one of the fictional characters who always evokes nostalgia for my long-ago trip to London. He's found by the Brown family at Paddington Station in his duffel coat and hat, sitting on his suitcase with a note saying, 'Please look after this bear.' It seems the first Paddington Bear stuffed toy was made by Mr and Mrs Clarkson in 1972 for their son Jeremy. Yep, none other than the future Top Gear host. It's amazing what bits of trivia I learn when I compile these lists.

8) The Steadfast Tin Soldier
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales were often very depressing, and this was no exception. The poor hero was maimed to start with, since he was the last of 25 soldiers to be cast. They ran out of metal, so he stood on only one leg. But he shared that in common with a paper ballerina, who he fell in love with, setting off the jealousy of the jack-in-the-box, who has the little soldier shoved out of the window. After many adventures on a scary canal, he makes his way home again, only to be thrown into the fire. But at least his true love blows in with him.

9) The Velveteen Rabbit
It's a heartwarming short classic about the nature of true love. The little stuffed bunny, forgotten by his young owner, longs to be a real rabbit instead. He later becomes the comfort toy when the boy falls sick, and needs somebody soft to cuddle. But the poor velveteen rabbit is eventually ordered by the doctor to be burned, because by then he's a major germ carrier. As the poor little bunny cries a tear of grief, a good fairy comes and turns him real, since the love of the boy, resulting in his humble shabbiness, earns him that right. Awwww.

10) Toy Story
These movies were a great feature of the nineties. Woody, the little cowboy doll, had been Andy's favourite toy until he was given the spectacular spaceman Buzz Lightyear, who did all sorts of cool things when you pushed his bells and whistles. Poor old Woody couldn't help feeling shoved aside, but their subsequent adventures together proved that there was plenty of room in their master's heart for all his toys. And I wouldn't be surprised if every kid's bedroom was filled with replica toys from Andy's toyroom for quite some time.

Can you add any of your own favourite toy heroes to my list? Did the toys in your own bedroom or toyroom used to come alive too? 

Monday, November 6, 2017

'Nothing' by Annie Barrows


Nothing ever happens to Charlotte and Frankie. Their lives are nothing like the lives of the girls they read about in their YA novels. They don’t have flowing red hair and hot romantic encounters never happen—let alone meeting a true soul mate. They just go to high school and live at home with their parents, who are pretty normal, all things considered. But when Charlotte decides to write down everything that happens during their sophomore year to prove that nothing happens and there is no plot or character development in real life, she’s surprised to find that being fifteen isn’t as boring as she thought. It’s weird, heartbreaking, silly, and complicated. And maybe, just perfect.

I was curious about the premise of this book. Two teenage friends are disenchanted with the predictability of life, and Charlotte decides to write an expose as a school assignment, to prove that it's not all it's cracked up to be. She plans to document what a typical, dull go-to-school life is really like, since there's no plot, no character development, but just a whole lot of mindless repetition. Frankie isn't sure how she'll manage to pull it off, but she's interested to find out, and so was I.

It would seem Barrows could have taken this either of two ways. a) The girls are wrong, and the title of the book will prove to be a misnomer, because there's always something interesting happening. b) The girls are right, in which case their ho-hum lives will have to be really well written to hold our attention.

I think the story was intended to be an a. We were probably meant to notice that even though their lives seem pointless, there's always enough bubbling under the surface to keep a bit of spice in them. After all, there were a few plot threads happening. Charlotte has a crush on a long-distance friend Sid, although she has no idea what he looks like because his face never shows up on social media. That's got to be rare for this day and age, when even the most camera shy among us can't escape being tagged by our friends sometimes.

And then there's Frankie, who is not just any little sister. She's the unpopular family lovechild, whose parents both split up their former marriages to start a relationship together. Frankie's older half-brothers and sisters never really let her forget it.

Unfortunately, although it sounds like the story had potential, it didn't really go places, and we ended up with more of a b. Imagine being stuck in a bus behind two fourteen-year-old girls, who gossip, giggle, make snide comments about their parents and ramble on about parties, clothes and make-up for the duration. This is the equivalent in book form. At first I wondered if it's just my age, since I'm not really the target audience, but no, there just doesn't seem to be much substance to Charlotte and Frankie. At one point, Charlotte even admits that rather than thinking for herself, she prefers to watch friends for cues as to how she's supposed to behave and react. That's presented as if it's meant to be one of the book's major revelations. Instead, we realise it's quite true, and probably the reason we're so bored after 200+ pages of seeing her herd mentality reflex in action.

Well, I guess we can't say that the cover, title, blurb and first few pages didn't warn us :) Still, it's a bit disappointing since I didn't expect it to really be about nothing. Maybe many authors have theirs hits and misses. This has to be a miss for Annie Barrows, who's also had her share of hits.

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

1 star (yes, I got to think of all the trees cut down to print this non-story)

Friday, November 3, 2017

'How to behave in a Crowd' by Camille Bordas


An absorbing, darkly comedic novel that brilliantly evokes the confusions of adolescence and marks the arrival of an extraordinary young talent.

Isidore Mazal is eleven years old, the youngest of six siblings living in a small French town. He doesn't quite fit in. Berenice, Aurore, and Leonard are on track to have doctorates by age twenty-four. Jeremie performs with a symphony, and Simone, older than Isidore by eighteen months, expects a great career as a novelist--she's already put Isidore to work on her biography. The only time they leave their rooms is to gather on the old, stained couch and dissect prime-time television dramas in light of Aristotle's Poetics.

Isidore has never skipped a grade or written a dissertation. But he notices things the others don't, and asks questions they fear to ask. So when tragedy strikes the Mazal family, Isidore is the only one to recognize how everyone is struggling with their grief, and perhaps the only one who can help them if he doesn't run away from home first.

Poor Isidore Mazal is the youngest of six siblings, and the only one who isn't an academic genius. Berenice, Aurore and Leonard are on track for PhDs in their early twenties, Jeremie is a musical virtuoso who plays cello in a symphony, and Simone has been accepted into an elite private college, with aspirations to be a famous novelist. It's hard enough being the youngest, but especially when you haven't lived up to the family tradition and skipped even one grade. What's more, they keep patronising him and calling him Dory, when he'd rather be called Izzie.

This is a character driven novel, and the narrator himself makes it a 5-star read. If it was told by the voice of any other boy I might have put it down, but Dory is a delight. Although he contends with the natural pressure to consider himself inferior to the others, he has something his older siblings lack, which helps him keep his spirits and self-esteem intact. But he doesn't even realise it.

While the other five tend to be stuck in their own brilliant head spaces, Isidore is more outward looking. He notices small nuances about others which his brothers and sisters are too preoccupied to see, giving him empathy and warmth. On the surface, his skill seems unremarkable in the shadow of their mighty brain power. 'I didn't think it meant I cared, remembering all those details about other people. But maybe it did.'

The others may think they're treating him with the condescension older siblings always give, but they're drawn to his perception and interest, even if they don't realise it themselves.

Even though the main character is between the ages of 11 and 14 for the time period of this story, it's not just a book for young adults. There are some adult themes, as he begins to be more aware of his own sexuality. There is a lot of philosophical food for thought for any age group. For example, the small town includes Daphne, the oldest woman in the country at 111. She has some real perspective to tell Dory about the apparent privilege of outliving your loved ones, and even your usefulness.

I love the closeness of the Mazal family, even though they consider themselves aloof entities just going about their own work. When they do venture out into the world, it becomes clear to each of them that blood is thicker than water, as they're the only ones on each others' wavelengths.

The story suggests that the world is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be, even for highly intelligent people, who may appear to have every possible option in the world at their fingertips for the rest of their lives. But where do you turn after the completion of an extremely narrow focused doctorate? What if nobody really gets you anyway? Dory's two oldest sisters go through grief and existential crises which are easy to understand. And I love Dory's relationship with the superior second youngest, Simone, who decides on a very specific future occupation for him. He can be her biographer, because she's bound to become famous.

Finally, a big cheer for their mother, who holds the home front together as well as she can after her husband's death. We can't help getting the feeling that she's more of a 'normal' person, like Isidore, while the others must have got their brilliance from their father. She's well aware of everyone's strengths and weaknesses, including her youngest son's, who she says is perfect just as he is.

Altogether, it's the sort of book which may leave readers asking more of the big questions about life, rather than having any answered. I can see why some reviewers might find that unsatisfying, but maybe it shows they're not as far developed in their maturity as Isidore, who understands that there will always be unanswered questions. I can't help hoping there might be a sequel someday, because I'd be happy reading more of his experiences and thoughts for as long as he cared to share them. Whether or not that will happen, I think his humour, common sense and recognition of goodness where he finds it will always pull him through whatever life throws at him.

Thanks to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for my review copy through Edelweiss.

5 stars

For other books with child prodigies I've read, you might enjoy my reviews of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Franny and Zooey. But I've got to say, How to Behave in a Crowd is my favourite.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Trouble with Social Media Stats

Yet another blog I enjoyed reading has recently been discontinued. Sadly, I've seen it happen far more than just once. Enthusiastic bloggers and Instagrammers who seem to be going great suddenly announce their farewell. The main reason they give often amounts to the fact that they don't have as many followers as they'd like, no matter how hard they try to raise their numbers. So they can't see much point in continuing to flog a dead horse. Especially when there are always others with huge followings to compare themselves to. Oh man, I so get where they're coming from, I'm writing this blog post to convince myself as well as everyone else.

Life is too short to get hung up over the sight of numerals beside our names on a screen, because they distort our thinking and make us form crazy priorities. It's all because of what they seem to signify. When we see a tally of likes beside a social media post, it's easy to invest that number with personality or character. Here's an example to show what I mean.

5000 is like a VIP or member of royalty awarding you a knighthood.

500 is like proud parents giving you a thumbs up. You're gratified, although you wish more people would jump on board.

50 is like Oliver Twist. 'Please Sir, can I have some more?'

And 5 is like an arid landscape. Those few must surely be desert animals who don't really count. They are relegated to the 'nobody' we think of when we declare, 'Nobody reads my blog.'

This is disturbing on so many levels. To start with, it's all completely arbitrary and relative, varying from one individual to another. Some celebrity would most likely consider 5000 their Oliver Twist, while it looms as my unattainable award. (Just imagine 5000 followers or likes!!) However many likes we get, it'll always be easy to find somebody with more, keeping our discontentment stoked high. Whenever we get more likes, we probably crank our 'enough' level higher too. It's so easy to distort the sight of a numeral into something that reflects our worth, and forget that it simply indicates random individuals, many of them strangers to us, making clicks that take a second. Why are we inclined to let the sight of these numbers make or break our day?

There's the old lie that the more attention we and our contributions receive from others, the more valuable we must be. No way, the world is full of hidden gems, and that's what keeps it so interesting. (See this post about books and doughnuts) Besides, if we love the content we're sharing, that's the main thing, and any other attention is just a bonus.

I think I'm happier when I remind myself to keep things in perspective. We've got to challenge ourselves, 'Am I so easily crushed just because people I barely know don't see my feed or decide not to click a button? Or am I so easily elated when they do?' Why waste all this angst when we have real people in our lives; spouses, kids, parents, siblings and friends, to spend time with and rack up actual experiences? It's time to stop diminishing our true lives, or taking genuine loved ones for granted, while we let button-clicking strangers determine our worth. Sure, it's nice to get online recognition, but honestly, if we deleted all our social media accounts, for how long would these followers and fans care? The real people who matter are the ones who would come and cry at our funerals, or at least pay their genuine respects :)

The lady who pulled the plug on her blog and social media accounts had a most understandable reason. We book bloggers put so much passion and time into maintaining them, for so little return. And what's more, we provide this service for free, and it's so disheartening to get nowhere. A giver can only give so much. Yes, I can feel and echo her pain! (And I must add, the number of comments her goodbye post received indicated that she probably had more followers than I do.)

But do you think this sort of heartfelt statement reveals our own skewed priorities to us, at least on some level? Why do we do what we do? Is it for financial return, notoriety, recognition, or just having fun? I've worked on my blog with the 'What am I getting back from others?' attitude. It makes me feel really depressed. When we say, 'I do so much for little return,' the best solution may be to change what we consider our return.

The return has to be our fascination for the things we write about. If my blog isn't based on pure enjoyment, my energy for it will sap in no time. I can't be sidetracked by thoughts about money or popularity, or I'll certainly throw in the towel. I have to keep reminding myself what provides my drive. It must be the interesting nature of my reviews, lists, reflections and discussions, and the challenge of expressing them as well as I can, because that's the only true fuel to keep me going.

You might like this related post, Why don't we leave comments on blogs? which ironically got more comments than any other single blog post I've ever written.

Have you been challenged in this area of closely watching your social media stats too?

Monday, October 30, 2017

'Folly' by D.J. Blackmore

It is 1822. The colony bells of Newcastle chime for a wedding but Emma Colchester is uneasy. Her cousin is nowhere to be found. A red satin ribbon unearths the truth, and the family face their worst fears. Fingers of blame are pointed too close to home and Emma's future with Tobias threatens to unravel. The walls of The Folly standing by The Hunter River hold the clue, and Emma risks everything in finding out the truth.

This is the sequel to Charter to Redemption, returning us to the drama of colonial Newcastle with a varied cast of characters, including convicts, free men, red-coated constabulary and the handful of ladies brave enough to live among them all. There's even a brief glimpse of the natives of the land. It's always refreshing to see an Australian historical novel written by an actual Aussie. The authenticity can't be faked.

The setting reminds me of visits to tourist colonial villages, but for real with all the sensual details. It would be great to journey back in time to sample the food, including damper, treacle tart, mutton broth and saddle of beef, not to mention experiments of kangaroo meat, which the settlers decide tastes like 'a mouthful of rat.'

Tobias and Emma expected to live happily ever after, but it's never that straightforward in the colonies. Tobias is in a lot of hot water through no fault of his own, but just a lot of circumstantial evidence. Readers of the first book will remember that being a convict wasn't his fault either. Is he the unluckiest man in New South Wales? This time Tobias is heading straight for the noose unless something miraculous happens. An interesting question underlying the story is the extent to which a man's good behaviour and sound values may vouch for him when he needs them to.

The story doesn't turn a blind eye to the gruesome, seamy side of life. The town is reeling with the murder of two women, one young and one old, both strangled with their own hair. And corruption and negligence within the constabulary itself doesn't make things easy. Commander Morriset has his hands full being in charge of the rabble. Adding a bit of comic relief is Tam and his mate Jim, who has a knack of walking into scenes he wasn't supposed to see.

If I have one gripe, it's that the presentation detracts from the story at times, with several typos (such as tying the not instead of tying the knot), dialogue not always easy enough to determine who's speaking, and sentences that could use a bit of tightening. When this occurs enough that I start to notice it, I feel obliged to mention it in a review. A more thorough proofread could have made a world of difference to the overall quality. However, on the whole it flows like a very enjoyable campfire yarn with all the colourful jargon of the times. And the descriptive writing so often puts us right in the picture.

Readers of romance may be assured it's alive and well in the new colony, despite harsh living conditions. Emma's sweet cousin Phoebe and her new husband Rory are expecting a baby, and Emma never gives up hope of a future with Tobias. 'As long as there was love to keep one another warm, a pail could always be found to catch the drips from a leaky roof.'

I wonder if there will be a third to make this a trilogy.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Famous Headless People

I thought I'd challenge myself with a Halloween themed list for late October, and since this one has a macabre sort of twist, it fits the bill. For the sake of staying reasonably upbeat, I decided not to include biblical or historical deaths, such as John the Baptist, Goliath and Anne Boleyn. Too grim and sad. I'm confining it to people whose headless state doesn't prevent them going about their normal business.

When I use the word 'headless' that also extends to 'bodyless' for there are two categories of people in this list. a) Walking torsos without their heads, and b) Dismembered heads without their torsos and limbs.  

1) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy HollowIt's an American classic. The little town is said to be haunted by the ghost of a horseman whose head had been blown off by a cannon during the Revolutionary War. He kept hold of it though, to make a formidable weapon. One dark night, school master Ichabod Crane is returning home from a party, when he's confronted by the ghost, which removes its head from the saddle in front of him, and hurls it straight into Ichabod's face. Poor Ichabod is never seen again. No wonder this tale is traditionally told on Halloween night.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)
2) Nearly Headless Nick
Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is the good-natured Hogwarts ghost of Gryffindor House. His execution had been botched up, leaving his head still attached to his neck by a thin thread of sinew. This frustrates Nick no end when his application to join the Headless Hunt is denied by Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore, who will only accept contenders whose heads have been completely severed. Nicholas' 'death day' happens to be October 31st, and he invites Harry, Ron and Hermione to a sombre sort of party to celebrate it.

3) Harry Potter
There's another accidental incident, when Harry's supposedly floating head is spotted at Hogsmeade by Draco Malfoy. It gives Draco a tremendous scare, since he doesn't realise Harry is wearing his invisibility cloak. Harry's head just happens to poke out at one point during a tussle with him, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry gets in trouble with Professor Snape, but the chance to freak out Malfoy and his Slytherin cronies is almost worth it. (See here for more about these sworn enemies.)

4) Library of Souls
Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, #3)In this third volume of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, there's a row of severed heads on pikes guarding the bridge to the evil wights' headquarters. Although they appear very menacing and fierce, their limitations are clear when Jacob, Emma and Addison are brave enough to attempt to cross the bridge. The heads realise they're in no position to do anything but yell down empty threats. Nobody has ever put them to the test before. My review is here.

5) Engelbert
Talking about Ransom Riggs' quirky characters, this young man from Tales of the Peculiar has the ability to disattach his head from his neck and screw it on again whenever he pleases. He lived long ago in a band comprised of some of the very first Peculiars in history. Engelbert is so used to his special knack that he's pretty casual about it, and tends to forget that it frightens people. He has to do a lot of apologising. (See here for more about these quirky tales.)

Alice in Wonderland
6) The Cheshire Cat
He's a very cool character from Wonderland who can fade away gradually until only his head remains, and eventually nothing more than his cheesy grin. He's a puzzle to the aggressive Queen of Hearts, who orders heads to be chopped off whenever she loses her cool. The executioners try to reason that since they can't see the body the cat's head is attached to, her demand to chop it off will be hard to carry out. (See here for my review)

7) The Young Ones
This is a blast from the past for eighties kids who used to watch this program. Remember when punky Vyvyan had his head knocked off from a train window? His body goes blindly lumbering out to search for it along the track, and when he finally stumbles across it, it berates him for taking his time. That was just the sort of crazy scenario you could expect from The Young Ones. And fans kept tuning in for more. (Also see Famous Stories with Trains and Railways.)

8) Futurama
Spare for a thought for the preserved heads of famous celebrities and US Presidents in jars which belong in the Head Museum. Philip J Fry feeds them as part of his night job. On one occasion, he and the gang become drunk and accidentally ingest the heads' pickling fluid, which sends them back to the time periods in which the heads belonged. (For more about the antics on Futurama, see here.)

9) The Enchanted Head
The Brown Fairy BookThis one is the hero of an unusual romance found in Andrew Lang's Brown Fairy Book. A beautiful sultan's daughter falls in love with a head on a platter, but he's a very handsome head with all his wits about him, and he can jump, roll and dance like a pro. They are both very happy together, especially when he reveals to his bride that each night, he's allowed to get his body back. It's their special secret.

10) The Blemmyes
These tribal people kept popping up in legends over the centuries. They were (or are) a strange race of headless folk with eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their chest, also known as the Ewaipanoma. Some pretty illustrious people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, were certain they existed, and a chieftain's son during the Elizabethan era claimed to have been captured by the Blemmyes and managed to escape. Apparently their lack of heads made no difference to their amazing skill with bows and clubs.

11) William Laud
He was a rather harsh Archbishop of Canterbury from the mid 1600s, who made dangerous enemies of prominent Puritans. Laud was eventually beheaded for treason, but is rumoured to haunt the library of St John's College at Oxford to this day. He supposedly appears with a candle in his hand, kicking his own head along the floor. If I happened to be a student and heard a bowling ball sound, I wouldn't hang around to investigate! In fact, I think I'd pack up my books long before dark.

Please let us know if you're fond of any of these headless folk, or their tales. And of course, tell us if there any others I've missed which might be added to the list. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins

'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

I really wanted to read this classic which shot Wilkie Collins to fame when it appeared as a serial in his friend, Charles Dickens' magazine. Does it still have the power to wow readers two centuries later? I thought I'd put it to the test. Willie Collins lived long before the era of the cinema and creepy background music, but how he would have appreciated it.

Walter Hartright is a 28-year-old drawing master who's been appointed to teach two unmarried sisters watercolour painting. The night before he sets off, he has a spooky encounter with a young woman dressed in white, who pops up from nowhere to ask directions, almost scaring him out of his wits. No sooner does Walter finish hailing her a cab, when a guy appears searching for a woman dressed in white because she's escaped from his lunatic asylum. Oh oh.

Walter discovers that one of his new pupils, Laura Fairlie, is the image of the woman in white, only more beautiful. Her half sister, Marian Halcombe, is much plainer looking but very clever, witty, loyal and energetic. Being a hot-blooded Victorian male, guess which of the pair Walter falls in love with? Yep, pretty and helpless always trumped resourceful and brave back then, for some reason.

Alas, Laura can't marry the handsome art instructor she's fallen for, because she promised her dying father she'd marry the man of his choice... ominous music... Sir Percival Glyde. Even his name sounds like a sinister, swooping bat. (In a similar manner, Walter Hartright's name gives a clue to his character. His heart is right. And apparently Percival's heart is 'as black as the night.') But who should show up in the district to sneak around, trying her best to prevent Miss Fairlie from marrying Sir Percival? It's the woman in white. There are hints that Percival has a horrible Secret (always with a capital S) which she may potentially reveal. However, the machinations have been set in place so long ago, Laura marries him anyway.

The marriage sets some wicked plans in motion, especially when the girls go to live at Sir Percival's place, Blackwater Park, where his dangerous and mesmerising friend Count Fosco is a guest. Both men need the money Laura's inheritance will bring, and will stop at nothing to get it. This part of the story really drew me in. I grew to love Marian and Laura just because they are like a pair of doves taken to live in a wolves' den. Predators are everywhere. All of us feel alone and clueless at times, with no idea where to turn. That's why the situation of these sisters is so compelling to read. The only guardian angel on their horizon, clad in white, is so frail and vulnerable compared with the two powerful men. Page-turning stuff.

I do understand why some people find the book a bit of an eye-roller though. One thing that keeps it verging on melodrama is Laura's character and plight, because she's such a prototype of a damsel in distress. Always playing the victim's role and allowing herself to be manipulated, until stronger people like Walter and Marian come to her rescue. Even these two, who love her dearly, are forever trying to withhold crucial information from Laura because they doubt her nerves will stand it. And although they're probably right, any woman with an ounce of gumption would insist on her right not to be kept in the dark. But Laura is often more like a pretty doll than a woman.

I once watched 'The Perils of Pauline', a spoof about a helpless blonde beauty who kept having terrible things happen to her. Well, Pauline has nothing on Laura, who finds herself at the complete mercy of the baddies. And what terrific baddies they are. Sir Percival is a complete cad and tool, the sort of guy audiences are trained to hiss whenever he walks on stage. But Fosco is a legend, with his charms and contradictions. It's no wonder his reputation grew as large as himself, for he's a corpulent man with beloved tiny pets, such as canaries and white mice. He's hypnotic, manipulative, and clearly the brains behind the villainous duo. He charms ladies, and apparently it even works through pages a few hundred years later, for I couldn't help liking him, even though I knew he was a crook.

At one stage, Laura takes offence when he states that some criminals are very wise, for in her simple-minded way of thinking, wisdom always goes hand-in-hand with goodness.

Laura: You will not find it easy, Count Fosco, to give me an instance of a wise man who has been a great criminal.
Fosco: Most true. The fool's crime is the crime that is found out, and the wise man's crime is the crime that is not found out. If I could give you an instance, it would not be the instance of a wise man.

This sets up the anticipation that his own downfall will be well worth waiting for. As the final showdown between Walter and Fosco approaches, it does have a sort of Harry/Voldemort vibe about it. If you love aspects of the Victorian era at all, it's well worth reading this book, which had Victorians hanging out for the next installment, and rushing to the shops to buy whatever fan merch was available back then. Three cheers for Walter, the modest art tutor turned detective, Marian, the brave heroine who'll stop at nothing to save the day, and Fosco, who played his hand superbly until the final curtain.

4.5 stars

For more on Wilkie Collins, see my review of The Moonstone

Thursday, October 19, 2017

'Unseen' by Sara Hagerty


Every heart longs to be seen and understood. Yet most of our lives are unwitnessed. We spend our days working, driving, parenting. We sometimes spend whole seasons feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. So how do we find contentment when we feel so hidden?

In Unseen, Sara Hagerty suggests that this is exactly what God intended. He is the only One who truly knows us. He is the only One who understands the value of the unseen in our lives. When this truth seeps into our souls, we realize that only when we hide ourselves in God can we give ourselves to others in true freedom—and know the joy of a deeper relationship with the God who sees us.

Our culture applauds what we can produce, what we can show, what we can upload to social media. Only when we give all of ourselves to God—unedited, abandoned, apparently wasteful in its lack of productivity—can we live out who God created us to be. As Hagerty writes, “Maybe my seemingly unproductive, looking-up-at-Him life produces awe among the angels.”

This book has a beautiful cover, matched with one of my favourite themes, the blessedness of being unseen. Sara Hagerty helps us develop a new way to approach being un-applauded, unnoticed and unrecognised. Instead of regarding it as falling short of our potential, she invites us to see that being hidden from sight is often the best place to be.

Hagerty starts off explaining how she was sucked into the trap of thinking the way society prompts us to. When a friend spotted her working in a gift shop, she felt embarrassed to be caught doing something with no scope for impact in her own opinion. Only when Hagerty stepped back to reconsider did she realise the hidden, personal growth she'd experienced in that place had been phenomenal. The quiet gift shop turned out to be the ideal hothouse to nurture her.

Our era reminds me of a garden in which every flower cranes forward for attention, notoriety and applause, and the fact that there are millions of them makes it seem crazy. Well, Hagerty reminds us that we feel this urge for light because God has made us with a desire to be seen and celebrated. We do like to hear our own names and enjoy the flush of satisfaction that follows a flash of attention. It reinforces that we matter in the grand scheme of things, so we needn't feel guilty. Trying to extinguish our desire for praise and recognition isn't the answer, because it isn't a bad thing. Where we err is most often in the direction we tend to look for praise and accolades.

Instead of craving the eyes, opinions and applause of other people, she suggests we simply remember to look to God instead, who knew us from the start, and His kind eye is always upon us. The switch of focus may be enough to relieve us instantly.

But to keep the garden analogy going, Hagerty's book makes it clear that we often tend the wrong plants. We carefully watch the growth of our reputations, success and achievements, and forget about nurturing a good heart - while this, in fact, is the only shoot that really matters. It's a great reminder that God doesn't look at things humans look at, and if we nurture loving hearts, well, that's all we really need to worry about.

Sara Hagerty offers frequent botanical analogies herself, urging us to shift our attention from our showy, leafy branches, where it's so easy to focus our attention, to our hidden roots instead. In other words, we could change the emphasis from our visible work for God to our secret, unseen life in Him. And she has a number of examples where this sort of thinking has played out in own life, with her husband and several adopted children.

Overall, the book left me with the feeling that while some of us may be born to God's showpiece, others are born to be His secrets, and both are equally significant.

Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for my review copy.

4.5 stars

Monday, October 16, 2017

'The Great Divorce' by C.S. Lewis

In "The Great Divorce, " C.S. Lewis's classic vision of the Afterworld, the narrator boards a bus on a drizzly English afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell. He meets a host of supernatural beings far removed from his expectations, and comes to some significant realizations about the nature of good and evil.

This is a convicting parable about the next world, beginning with a flying bus trip.

The departure point is a huge, empty grey city that keeps spreading its borders because quarrelsome people only need to imagine a new house, and it's theirs. Some folk are happy to stay there, since they don't recognise it as a type of hell.

For those who do jump on the bus, their choice to settle in heaven depends on their willingness to give up whatever holds the greatest grip on their hearts. It's really all about our idols, and the passengers are filled with all sorts of attitudes and hang-ups which they're loath to relinquish. There's always something they insist on clutching tight, even at the price of misery.

There's 'Ikey' the businessman, who's determined to take plunder from the heavenly realm back down to the grey city, where he thinks he'll make a killing. He only manages to lift one tiny fallen apple through the sheer force of his will.

There's a pathetic society woman whose earthly finery, which she was so proud of, appeared like rags in heaven. She was devastated, because she felt it was her whole identity, which she'd devoted her life to maintaining.

There's a learned man who believes that the grey hell city could really be heaven, for its 'continual hope of morning and field for indefinite progress.' He's an ex-bishop who has written a book. In fact, libraries on earth turn out to be some of the most haunted places, filled with the ghosts of authors who keep wondering if people are still reading their books.

The plight of creative people in this story is interesting. One artist was stressed because he saw no need to paint anymore, since everything was so annoyingly perfect. It's Lewis' warning to creative folk of the trap of being sucked in to pay more attention to their own work and reputation, rather than what it's all about. 'Every poet, musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to the love of telling.' Wow, I guess our world does have a way of honouring the conduit, until it's hard for them to stay humble.

One fascinating person in the new land is Sarah Smith of Golders Green, a lady of 'unbearable beauty and grace' with a procession in her honour. The narrator is anxious to learn her identity, but she turns out to be nobody he would have ever heard of. Just a humble person faithfully doing small things in her supposedly ordinary life. But people are regarded differently in heaven to how they ever were on earth. Great news for anyone who's ever felt overworked, unnoticed and under-appreciated.

The narrator, who presumably represents Lewis himself, gets to meet his hero, George MacDonald, who becomes his guide around heaven. I knew Lewis was a fanboy of MacDonald's (see my review of Phantastes) but what a tribute this is, as he tries to find words to tell him all his writing has meant to him, since his teens.

Overall, it's a great read for anyone who'd like a bite-sized, but meaty bit of C.S. Lewis, for it's short enough to read in one day. It leaves me with the impression that I would've liked being a witness when Lewis actually did meet MacDonald.

Here are some quotes.

'What can be called 'the Sulks' in children, has 100 different names in adults, such as injured merit, self-respect, tragic greatness and proper pride.'

'There are only two kinds of people. Those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."'

'Joy on earth is defenceless against those who would rather be miserable. But in heaven, our light can swallow up your darkness, but your darkness can't affect our life.'

4.5 stars

Monday, October 9, 2017

'Strange the Dreamer' by Laini Taylor

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

I saw this lovely cover several times on my Instagram feed, and then spotted it at BigW for a great price. It's one of those times an impulse buy pays off. I'd hoped for something beautiful and surreal with such a title and cover, and that's just what I got.

The first thing I wanted to know was the sense in which the main character was a dreamer. Does the title refer to Lazlo Strange's hopes and ambitions, or his actual, nocturnal dreams when he's asleep? It turns out to include both, in a very fantastic, colourful, and eventually dangerous way.

Lazlo starts off as a war orphan in the kingdom of Zosma, who is apprenticed to work at the library. He's always been intrigued by tales of the lost city of Weep, although after two hundred years of broken contact, everyone else has dismissed the place as a legend. Lazlo is laughed at and treated like a quirky nerd, until a mighty warrior named Eril-Fane arrives, seeking recruits to help restore his city to its former glory.

He enlists mathematicians, metallurgists, engineers, an explosives handler, and Thyon Nero, the gorgeous but arrogant young alchemist. Even though structural experts seem to be in demand, bashful Lazlo is eager to get himself included in the expedition. He must find a way to convince Eril-Fane that his extensive knowledge of folklore and fairy tales might come in handy.

The quest to dismantle a menacing structure and restore daylight to the city is fraught with more peril than anyone imagined, including the offspring of former enemies who were believed purged. When recent history is revealed, it becomes more unclear whether or not Eril-Fane was a hero or a scourge, since both cases can be argued convincingly. And Lazlo meets the love of his life, who has appeared in his dreams before he even knows she exists.

Part of the plot is the most otherworldly Romeo and Juliet re-telling you could imagine. Shakespeare, eat your heart out. It's all so very romantic, and tied in with the tension between acceptance and rejection, mercy or vengeance.

Many things get turned upside down and prove to be their opposite, including Lazlo's status, since his modesty, gentleness and humility make him truly great. I really love all the scenes between him and Thyon Nero. Suspicious Thyon can't comprehend how a person could willingly offer a bully a helping hand with no strings attached. His thinking reflects our own world of ulterior motives. The young men are a fascinating study of opposites. Thyon has by far the most desirable outward appearance, but Lazlo's inner life is far more enviable. Would you rather look good to other people, or stay humble and enjoy your own good company?

A major theme is how war happens when both sides believe they are good people who were in the right. Hate happens when people close their minds and don't allow themselves to see the other side. 'Good people do the sames things bad people do, but call it justice,' says a character who's in the position to know this as fact.

The book ends at a crucial spot, and I'll be snatching up the sequel as soon as I know it's available. Talk about being backed into a corner! The concept of death was a bit disturbing at times. You seem to either dissipate into the ether or... you'll find out. But a third sort of heavenly alternative, 'Dreamer's Weep' is presented, from Lazlo's own head, and I'd love to visit it.

I hope we see more of Thyon Nero too, in the next story. He's seems to have the 'total package' that gives anti-heroes charisma. It includes looks, intelligence, a grudge, a troubled past, and lots of scope for change.

Here's some of my favourite quotes.

Lazlo Strange is referred to as 'the antidote to vile' which is a perfect tribute for a guy whose dreams become an oasis.

'The rules were different in Lazlo's mind. The truth was different. It was nicer.'

'The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.'

'Fairy tales are reflections of the people who had spun them and flecked them with little truths, intrusions of reality into fantasy, like toast crumbs on a wizard's beard.'

'The library had seemed sentient enough to love him back. It bewitched him and drew him in and gave him everything he needed to become himself.'

I once wrote that I find it hard to get into fantasy novels which are set in a different world from start to finish, but this is one of those great exceptions. I'm beginning to think there may be more than I'd imagined. Although I don't read a huge amount of fantasy, many of my favourite novels happen to be fantasies. See that post here. You might also enjoy my thoughts about stories which lie hidden deep within other stories.

5 stars       

Friday, October 6, 2017

Pyjamas in Stories

I've been a homeschooling mother for a very long time now, but still remember the great sense of relief and freedom when we first started. Sometimes friends would say, 'It would never work for us, because we're not disciplined enough. We'd probably wear our nightclothes all day.' I would reply, 'Yeah, it's great. That's one of the best things about this lifestyle.' The occasional day of not getting changed is a pleasure rather than a sign of slackness. Even now, I find it hard to think of a nicer, more refreshing treat than being able to sit in bed in my night clothes reading books past lunch time. 

If you want to give it a try, consider these stories of heroes who wore pyjamas. Some had very eventful things happen to them. One thing they didn't seem to do much of was sleep. Even though they were wearing their pyjamas, they didn't let life pass them by. Some even managed to make their pyjamas their trademark and fashion statement. If you want to be a rebel and stay in your night attire, you're in good company.  

I'll start with some kids' classics, since children probably spend longer in their pyjamas than adults. (This is no doubt because many parents send them to bed at early hours.)
Bananas In Pyjamas Bedtime Book
Bananas in Pyjamas
Any Aussie kid from the nineties would remember these two instantly. They were based on an old poem by Carey Blyton, and took on a life of their own in the form of B1 and B2, who lived on Cuddles Avenue along with their neighbours, the teddies, and Rat in a Hat. Nobody ever divulged why they chose blue and white striped pyjamas as their everyday clothes. I assume it was for comfort and style. They were certainly snazzy pieces of fruit.

Wee Willy Winky
He's an eerie little chap if ever there was one. In the old nursery rhyme written by William Miller in 1841, he runs through the town after 10 o'clock in his nightgown, tapping at the windows and crying at the locks to make sure all little children are in bed. I guess it stands to reason that he considers the nightgown his uniform, given the nature of his work.

The Night Before Christmas
The dad who narrates this famous poem from the 1820s was wearing his night attire because he'd been in bed, and sprang out in time to witness a visit from Saint Nicholas. They even wore head gear, because 'Mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap.' I'm glad we've moved on from wearing hats to bed because it sounds like a pointless exercise. One thing that hasn't changed though, is the image of jolly old Santa Claus in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Almost 200 years later, I doubt the author, Clement Moore, had a clue that his concept of Christmas Eve night would become traditional.

Peter Pan
Peter Pan The Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael, wore their nightclothes at crucial parts of the story, because darkness was when Peter Pan, the amazing magical boy, would fly through their nursery window to visit. They were supposed to be asleep. When Peter manages to convince them to fly away with him to his home in Neverland, it's a spur of the moment decision. They leave in what they're already wearing, which of course is their night clothes.
Tom's Midnight Garden
Tom's Midnight Garden
 There is a time portal in the old Victorian house where Tom is staying with his aunt and uncle, and he just happens to discover it because he's creeping around after dark. So whenever he lands himself in the Victorian era, he's always in his pyjamas, which doesn't stop him having adventures with his new friend, Hatty. In fact, since she's never seen pyjamas before, she assumes that boys from the twentieth century wear strange, stripey flannel clothes, with shirts and pants that match. My review is here.

OK, the children don't get to have all the fun. Here's some pyjama wearers who have made their way into general folklore and classics. 

The Sound of Music
It's got to be one of the twentieth century's most famous movies, and gives us one of the cosiest, loveliest pyjama scenes. When Maria first joins the VonTrapp family as their governess, the seven children are wary, stand-offish and cheeky with her. But when a loud thunderstorm scares them on her first night, they all rush into her bedroom in their nighties and pyjamas. Not only does Maria ease their fear, but also wins them over by singing, 'These are a Few of my Favourite Things.' Who can forget 'raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens'?

Harry Potter
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6) Poor Ron Weasley has a really rough day on his seventeenth birthday, all before he even changes out of his pyjamas. First, he accidentally eats a chocolate that's been filled with love potion, and intended for Harry. The antidote turns out to be laced with poison which almost kills him. Harry manages to cram a bezoar down his throat in the nick of time, and Ron ends up in hospital on what should be his special day when he comes of age. And all this accidental consumption happens before he even gets dressed. Some days are just not worth waking up.

Jasper Jones
This is a sad and eerie coming of age story, set in an Australian country town in the 1960s. Two boys, Jasper and Charlie, discover the body of one their classmates, Laura Wishart, hanging from a tree in her nightie. It's that nightie which adds the finishing touches to the horror and mystery of her death, as it seems whoever killed her managed to somehow lure her out of bed. Jasper's afraid he himself will be blamed for the crime, and the boys set out to do some quiet sleuthing of their own, to discover who really did it. My review is here.

Emily Climbs
In this charming novel by L.M. Montgomery, Emily's friend Perry decides to give her a gratitude kiss during a late night visit. At that exact moment, bossy Aunt Ruth snaps on the light and stands gaping at them in her nightgown. Emily has a lot of explaining to do, to make her suspicious aunt believe that the incident was more innocent than it looked. When Aunt Ruth finds out the wonderful things Perry had been up to that night, she's suddenly mortified that he saw her in her nightgown.

The Pickwick PapersThe Pickwick Papers
One of Mr Pickwick's young companions, poor Nathaniel Winkle, finds himself accidentally shut out of their lodging place in his nightshirt. It's not only embarrassing but dangerous, since the British winter cold has the potential to freeze anyone who isn't dressed appropriately. But Winkle, for all the impressive images he wishes to project, is accident prone, and just the person something like this would happen to. My review is here.

The Moonstone
The story is one of the great Victorian mysteries by Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder's magnificent birthday diamond has been stolen on its first night in the house, and the detective proves that the thief must surely have a bit of scuffed paint on his clothing. While he's busy demanding a look at everyone's wardrobe, the maid Rosanna Spearman hides a nightgown belonging to Mr Franklin Blake, her crush. It turns out to have the paint mark on it, but he's mystified, because he knows he's innocent, yet nobody else was wearing it! My review is here.

The Fountain OverflowsThe Fountain Overflows
This Edwardian family story takes place when fashionable men were just making the transition from nightshirts to the new fad, pyjamas. The Aubrey children visited an old lady who thought PJs were emasculating. Her opinion was shared by many others from the old school. They couldn't imagine anything sillier than fellows wearing a shirt and pants to bed, just to look trendy, when nobody would even see them. How horrified they might have been to imagine this would be more than a passing craze. My review is here.

So there you have them. If you can think of any others, please let me know, so I can add them to the list. You might also like to check out Intriguing Stories about Insomnia, since it sort of goes together with this post. Many of those characters are wearing their pyjamas too, for obvious reasons :)