Monday, July 24, 2017

'The Phantom of the Opera' by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera is a riveting story that revolves around the young, Swedish Christine Daaé. Her father, a famous musician, dies, and she is raised in the Paris Opera House with his dying promise of a protective angel of music to guide her. After a time at the opera house, she begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine's childhood friend Raoul comes to visit his parents, who are patrons of the opera, and he sees Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. 

This is my choice for a classic in translation, in the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge.. It's a famous French story set mostly within the walls of the Paris Opera House. I'd never come across the original version, or Gaston Leroux, until I picked this up at a second hand shop. To be honest, if anyone had asked me who wrote Phantom of the Opera, I would have guessed Andrew Lloyd Webber. So it was very interesting to read about the charismatic French author in the foreword. Did I like his story though? Hmmm, well, it started off promising but went downhill quickly.

Basically, it was written as a supernatural thriller. A ghost is rumoured to haunt the Opera House. The chief scene shifter, who claims to have seen him, is found hanging dead from the rafters. And rumours that the ghost looks hideous are circulating. The theatre's ex-managers have resigned because they're spooked, but their replacements aren't warned what to expect until the night of the swap-over. They treat the haunting like a big joke, at least to begin with.

It turns out to be a bossy, tyrannical type of ghost who wants to run the whole show. When people ignore his demands, he makes sure something terrible happens. He wants a specific theatre box permanently reserved just for himself, and a regular sum of cash left for him in an envelope. Why would a ghost need money? You may well ask. All of his aggressive notes are signed O.G. for Opera Ghost.

His biggest agenda seems to be to advance the career of a young singer named Christine Daae, who believes he's the Angel of Music. While still alive, her deceased father promised to send him to her, a bit like a muse. At first, Christine laps up the ghost's personal attention and dreads the thought of ever losing it, but she comes to learn the spine-chilling cost of being his favourite. Especially since he's the jealous type and she's fallen in love with an old friend from her childhood; a young man named Raoul.

The sinister theme is the best thing the story has going for it. An innocent person is seduced by somebody who initially comes across like an angel, but when they find out he's the opposite, it seems too late to escape the fix they're in. How easily a well-meaning person like Christine can open themselves up to disaster and calamity, when they welcome with open arms something bad, because they believe it's good. Although I appreciated this, I was still getting tired of the novel toward the end.

First, it would have been nice if the story's hero had been a worthy contrast to the phantom, but Raoul is a spoiled brat. He's gullible and believes everything he's told. He overreacts with hissy fits whenever Christine is about to tell him something important, pays her out with cranky remarks, and rushes in whenever he loses his temper, without a thought of treading carefully. He doesn't hesitate to use emotional blackmail by bursting into tears because he's not getting his own way. And he asks the same, self-focused questions as the phantom. Raoul's first thought is always something like, 'If he were handsome, would you still love me?'

 Raoul and the phantom come across like temperamental twins to me, yet Raoul's lucky enough to be the better looking of the two. In fact, since the phantom has the whole tragic, 'I just want someone to love me for myself' thing going, a bit like Frankenstein's monster, some may even think that gives him a bit of an edge. (But come on dude, do you think being ugly is really a reasonable excuse for killing innocent people who have never hurt you?) Christine could have done very well without either of them. They're a pair of male drama queens and prima donnas, but since it's set in the opera house, I guess that makes sense.

Although this has nothing to do with the actual story, the blurb on my dust jacket was a great disappointment, because it gave a major plot spoiler, revealing the ghost's identity! Whoever wrote it must have assumed we're all familiar with the story by now, but I'd never seen it on stage, and if I'd seen the movie, my memory was sketchy. I can overlook honest spoiler mistakes from reviewers like myself, but coming from a professional blurb writer, it's a bit hard to swallow.

I would've preferred to see the stage version than read this book. I'm even humming 'The Music of the Night' as I type. Some of the unfolding explanations for the plot events seem way over-the-top and melodramatic to take seriously in a novel, yet they'd work if we've paid money to be thrilled with stunning stage effects and brilliant music. I noticed Leroux wrote other books too, with titles such as 'The Perfume of the Lady in Black' and 'The Man who came back from the Dead.' Based on this one, I'm happy to give them a miss. I read somewhere that even Andrew Lloyd Webber thought this novel a promising story, with a terrible execution.

I often like to add a good quote or two from whichever book I'm reviewing. Okay, this one made me grin. 'They felt the sort of dismay which men would have felt if they had witnessed the catastrophe that broke the arms of the Venus de Milo.' An extravagant, arty quote from an extravagant, arty book. I think I'll send it back to the goodwill shop where it came from.

2.5 stars

Friday, July 21, 2017

'Flaneuse' by Lauren Elkin


'Flâneuse [flanne-euhze], noun, from the French. Feminine form of flâneur [flanne-euhr], an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.

That is an imaginary definition.'

If the word flâneur conjures up visions of Baudelaire, boulevards and bohemia – then what exactly is a flâneuse?

In this gloriously provocative and celebratory book, Lauren Elkin defines her as ‘a determined resourceful woman keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk’. Part cultural meander, part memoir, Flâneuse traces the relationship between the city and creativity through a journey that begins in New York and moves us to Paris, via Venice, Tokyo and London, exploring along the way the paths taken by the flâneuses who have lived and walked in those cities.

From nineteenth-century novelist George Sand to artist Sophie Calle, from war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to film-maker Agnes Varda, Flâneuse considers what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city and changes her life, one step at a time.

First off, I found the title and cover very misleading. I'd expected this book to help get us in the frame of mind for walking and exploring, and give us tips for noticing things along the way and maximising our experiences. I guess I thought it would be more of a hobby guide, so to speak. Instead, it turns out to be a re-telling of the lives of different academic women throughout history, majoring on their social and feminist agendas. One thing they had in common is that they liked to walk the streets of their big cities, yet the book doesn't say all that much about their walking at all, considering the title.

I think the author meant to tie it all together. At the start she mentions how the flaneur (or male aimless pleasure walker) got a bit of attention and recognition in the nineteenth century, but not his female counterpart, because many people denied the existence of such a thing as a flaneuse. Lauren Elkin set out to show that although they were hidden, they really were there. At this stage it seemed the book would turn out to be a bit like a thesis or doctorate; an intellectual social commentary about walking, rather than a book encouraging us all to get out and walk more. I was still OK with that. But then as I said, it diverged in all sorts of different directions unrelated to walking at all.

The small snippets Elkin did say about the subject were great. It can be considered mapping an area with our feet, and we notice that the names a city bestows on its streets and landmarks reflects the values it holds. She also says that walking reminds her of reading, because we feel as if we're temporarily a part of lives and conversations that are unrelated to us, and form a sort of unspoken comradeship with a wider whole. I like that sort of reflection, but there weren't enough of them.

If you're looking for a text book on the lives of Jean Rhys, George Sands, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gelhorn and Agnes Varda, this might fit the bill. Yet if you want a book focused of walking, well, this is not so much. I found it hard to hold my attention several times.

Overall, it's a dense book with hours of hard work crammed into it, and plenty to reflect on, but it wasn't what I thought I was ordering. In this case, I didn't want heavy and rich, but light and easy to digest. It was like having the wrong dish from the kitchen placed in front of me, and I'm going to rank it as such :(

Thanks to Net Galley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for my review copy

2.5 stars

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Did Charles Dickens write the first Choose your own Adventure novel?

Warning: Plot spoilers for Great Expectations

I ask this question in case you ever wonder what's up with the ending of Great Expectations. You might find yourself asking, 'Hey, does Pip actually marry Estella?' Because it's a bit ambiguous, and you might assume a brilliant author like Dickens could've been clearer, especially so close to the end of his career. I believe it was his last novel.

If you've read the book and would like a quick recap, here it is. After all that went down in the story, eleven years passed. Pip and Estella accidentally chose the same evening to revisit creepy old Satis House, now a deserted husk. She has been softened by her sorrow. It wasn't easy being married to mean Bentley Drummle. Estella earnestly asks Pip to consider her his friend, even though they're about to part ways again. As they stroll out of the gates together, he reflects to himself that he 'sees no shadow of further parting from her.' And then it ends. Is that sentence enough for us to assume that they tie the knot, or is Pip still jumping to conclusions as he did in their youth? If Dickens was still alive, I'd be among those fans requesting more information.

Wait, there is more though. The afterword at the back of my novel told me that he'd once written a completely different ending, and a Google search confirmed it. In Dickens' original draft, Estella had married a country doctor after her disastrous marriage to Drummle was behind her. One day, she happened to pass the time of day with Pip on the street before they went their separate ways. And Pip thought, 'She looks pleasanter than she used to. Perhaps time has softened her attitude.'

I like that ending even less, and thankfully Dickens was talked into changing it. He went to stay a few nights with his good friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, also a well-known Victorian novelist. Dickens showed him the rough draft, and Bulwer-Lytton complained that the ending would be far too disappointing and anti-climactic for fans, especially after all they'd been through with Pip. He was a wise man. So Dickens scribbled out the last few pages and re-wrote them. He posted Bulwer-Lytton the new ending to see what he thought. It evidently got a nod of approval, because it's the ending we have now.

But you might say we still don't know for sure. Did they marry or not? I think Dickens was telling his friend in effect, 'Now I've worked it so everyone'll be happy. Sentimentalists like you can cling to the hope that Pip and Estella do get married. But at the same time, realists and pragmatists don't have to buy into it, if they choose not to. A good solution for everyone all round.'

What do you think? Was that clever of him or what? Dickens really did come up with a 'choose your own adventure' scenario, over a century before the concept took off. The netflix series I watched recently clearly went for the marriage option, and I was happy to go along with it.

 I think Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the real hero of this true anecdote, and I'll always be grateful to him for his bit of proof-reading. A bit more research on him shows that we owe this guy even more than you might think. He turns out to be one of those writers we often quote without even knowing it. The phrase, 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' was first coined by Bulwer-Lytton, although I might have guessed Shakespeare. He also came up with 'in pursuit of the almighty dollar' and 'dweller on the threshold.' But perhaps his biggest claim to fame (or infamy) might be his immortal opening line, 'It was a dark and stormy night.' He might have been happy enough to let his ownership of that one slip into obscurity :)

Here's my review of Great Expectations.
I've also written this rave about Pip.

Which of the alternate endings of Great Expectations do you prefer? 

Monday, July 17, 2017

'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson

Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

This 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner was one of the books I picked up during a recent second hand shop trip. Probably one of the prizes of the haul.

77-year-old Reverend John Ames has been told by his doctor that his days are surely numbered due to a congenital heart defect. The old minister had married late in life, and has a much younger wife and 7-year-old boy. He decides to spend part of his remaining days writing down all the important things he believes he won't be around to tell his son as he grows up. So this book is like a stream of consciousness, or long letter written to the future young man. At least this way the boy will inherit something of his father's heart. And needless to say, a book with this intention is bound to be honest and selective about what the author chooses to share.

John's mind frequently wanders to the men of his own family, who were also pastors. He grandfather was a supposed visionary with a stern, Old Testament outlook and passion for the notion of purging war. Yet his son (John's father) was a pacifist whose ideas about grace were quite different. And then there was John's smart older brother Edward, who received a collection from the congregation to send him to a seminary in Germany. Yet he returned home an atheist. And interestingly, their collective generational experiences crossed three wars, starting with the Civil War and ending with World War Two.

John's childhood stories may appear a bit meandering and random on the surface, but there's always a sense that if they've stuck in his memory all those years, there's no doubt some significance for us too. It's a bit like listening to your own grandfather reminisce, and hopefully inspires readers who still have the opportunity to do so in reality. Hey, anyone who still has a grandfather or elderly father, go and visit him!

It's not all a hodge-podge of memories. There's a gentle plot brewing as well, especially when John reflects on current town events. His godson and namesake, Jack Boughton, is back after years of making mischief and breaking hearts. Why does old John Ames, who has shown himself to be broad-minded, kind and tolerant, have trouble forgiving Jack for something from the past which we don't know? It seems to verge on personal, and he admits he has trouble thinking charitable thoughts about him. We want to know why. It's the sort of book that can stir our nosy human nature for a bit of juicy gossip.

Jack is one of my favourite characters. The story makes us feel empathy for him, all the while we're reading disapproving words. I think it's partly because deep down, we get the feeling John cares deeply for him too. And reformed bad boys with mysterious secrets make intriguing characters. Jack's behaviour is often too quiet and dignified, and sort of weary and sad for a person who is presented as mean all through from his childhood. And he drops lines like, 'I always seem to give offence. I don't always intend to.' And we do eventually discover those bits of his background.

The way matters of faith come across in this novel really impressed me. It's not technically a Christian novel, yet John's words about his personal faith make it more convicting to me than many I've come across that are. He never writes or speaks as if he has an agenda to preach or proselytise. It's simply the justification of his life's work in his own mind, at a crucial time of his life. There are several quote-worthy lines, so I'll finish off with some of the ones which stuck out to me.

His reasons for writing. By the time you read this, I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

Further thoughts about what heaven will be like. I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculation on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.

On being awakened accidentally from a sound sleep (by poor Jack, of course). I felt just as I imagine the shade of poor old Samuel must have felt when the witch dragged him up from Sheol.

On seeking proof. My advice is this. Don't look for proofs. They are never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. (Wow, if only we remembered that one more often.)

On being unable to find the right words. My failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone.

On changing times. The same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome and meaningless in the next.

On keeping resentments and grudges. It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.

And my favourite quote of all. The Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than I seem to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.

5 stars

Friday, July 14, 2017

'Blood Crystal' by Jeanette O'Hagan


There's something very special about today's review, because it's part of a blog tour. It was started off by the author, Jeanette O'Hagan on her own blog here. Over the next couple of weeks, Blood Crystal will be featured on a variety of different blogs. There will be interviews, reflections and competitions. My stop is the second in line, with this review. At the end, have a look down the bottom of this blog post for Scavenger Hunt details and next blog on the list. 


This novella is the sequel to Heart of the Mountain, which I also enjoyed. It takes off right where that story ends. The area in which the action takes place reminds me of a microcosm of our world. Racial differences and tensions between the cave dwellers and above grounders are intense and fun to explore. In each case, it's easy for readers to immerse ourselves in their contrasting customs and attitudes, putting us in a position where we can easily understand both mindsets. That's an interesting place to be, since they're opposite in many ways.

This time, twins Delvina and Retza discover that the future of their people is at risk, since the crystal heart technology which gives them light, warmth and life is losing its strength. There are some ancient instructions but they're too cryptic to fathom. In the face of this calamity, Delvina remembers their new friend Zadeki, who has come through for them before.

He in turn struggles with being a junior member of his own tribe and family, especially when he knows he's capable of giving so much more than they're willing to acknowledge from him. Perhaps the urgent challenge from his new friends will help him raise his status. But they have to find him first.

It was great to return to another story of these guys. I especially love the twins. Their character differences make for some entertaining dialogue, just like before. Delvina is the more idealistic of the pair, while her brother is more cautious and tentative. You trust they'll always end up on the same page, but sometimes wonder how. Once again, the possible necessity for a blood sacrifice seems to be required, making it vital for everyone to search their deepest consciences. It's another blend of intense action and heart-searching from Jeanette O'Hagan.

Oh, and this introduces some new characters to the mix, with an agenda of their own, who I trust we'll see more of down the track.


Blood Crystal Scavenger Hunt will run throughout the  Blood Crystal Blog Tour.  Each blog will have a reflection or memory related to themes within Blood Crystal – and a related question. The first person to answer all NINE questions  right will win a $50 Amazon voucher. The runner up will receive copies of both Heart of the Mountain and the sequel Blood Crystal.
Follow each post on the blog tour to find the questions & list your answers in the comments on the final blog post of the tour on 28 July. 
OK, for my part of the Scavenger Hunt, I thought I'd keep going with the underground theme. In 2009, I had a novel published named 'A Design of Gold'. It's a contemporary drama set around parts of my own environment, the Adelaide Hills. Stranded on the outskirts of the country town of Callington, my two young heroes plunge suddenly into a deep, dark hole. It turns out to be an old, abandoned mine shaft, because it was once a copper area. But this shaft was overlooked and nobody is even aware of its existence. Since the two young men are miles from anywhere, and they haven't mentioned their whereabouts to anybody, they're in a nasty fix. Hunger, thirst, exposure and injuries are beginning to get the better of them. How can they save themselves from certain death, when they've never been in a more seemingly hopeless situation?
My question for the Scavenger Hunt is 'What mineral used to be mined in the Adelaide Hills town of Callington?  
The next stop on this tour will be the blog of Aussie YA fiction author Lynne Stringer, which you can check out here. I encourage anyone to follow the rest of the blog tour, and also read both Heart of the Mountain and Blood Crystal, which won't take you very long and will intrigue you for more. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Books to read in the bathtub

The bathtub has always been a favourite spot of mine to take a book, for excellent reasons. It's one of the few places I'm sure I won't be interrupted in the middle of a good story. We're forcing ourselves to be a captive audience for the time we've put aside. It's a bit sad that we need to use the word 'force' in a sentence about having fun times, but sometimes that's what it takes. Add some bubble bath, essential oils, a warm drink and perhaps a snack, and you're all set. And make sure you lock the door.

I thought I'd base this list of suggestions on one criteria. They all involve characters having baths, or at least washing. A very cool fact jumped out at me. There is more depth to bathtub stories than mere relaxation. (No, I won't apologise for that pun.) I noticed a cleansing theme. Sometimes, people are washing away more than just surface grime. The author is also making statements about the state of their hearts and attitudes. And there's a vulnerability aspect, for obvious reasons. Nowhere is a person more his honest self than in the bathtub. And understandably so. If you're not safe and sound in your own bathroom, where can you be? And finally, can you believe taking baths could be a competitive act? Well, sometimes that's the case. Without further ado, here they all are.       

1) Franny and Zooey
 Since a fair chunk of this classic novella takes place from the bathtub, it seems like a good idea to begin the list with it. The young hero Zooey is trying to enjoy a relaxing bath when his mother, Bessie, bursts in, as she's anxious about Franny and wants his help. The conversation goes on and on, and although he snaps at her for invading his privacy, she won't take the hint. At least he has the bath curtain drawn across. Even so, I suspect if I tried to burst in on either of my sons while they were taking a bath, I'd end up soaking wet. My review is here.

I Capture the Castle2) I Capture the Castle
The 17-year-old heroine Cassandra also has her bath interrupted, this time by a sudden visit from handsome neighbours on a dark and stormy night. It's one of those heavy, portable old metal tubs which the family use for multiple purposes, and earlier that day, it had contained green dye. Her luxurious soak is awkwardly cut short, and she ends up with a weird tinge on her skin to greet their guests. Cassandra loves her warm soaks enough to make an excellent observation, 'Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.' My review is here.

3) Farmer Boy
Laura Ingalls Wilder gives a detailed description of Almanzo's family taking their Saturday night baths. Everyone uses the same water, from the parents down to the youngest child, who happened to be him. Almanzo wasn't a big fan of the whole process, which included getting his front roasted by the fire while his back was freezing cold. I don't think I would enjoyed baths much in those conditions either.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)4) Harry Potter 
I would have loved the chance to be a prefect at Hogwarts, just to experience their bathroom. Remember when Cedric Diggory gives Harry a mysterious hint to have a bath, to help him figure out the riddle of the dragon's egg in the Tri-Wizard tournament? The bathroom turns out to have a tub the size of a swimming pool, candlelit chandeliers, marble fixtures, and hundreds of golden taps with different scented bubble bath. That's worth the occasional visit from Moaning Myrtle.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #3)5) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
One of the most painful, but necessary baths surely took place in Narnia. Poor Eustace Scrubb has spent weeks in the form of a dragon, after he tried to remove a magical bracelet from their deserted lair. He's desperate to become a boy again, and at last Aslan instructs him to take a bath in which he peels off several layers of his dragon skin, even when Eustace is certain there's no more left. But his former baths turn out to have been quite superficial. This is a healing soak in which he makes a new friend and learns a great lesson.

The Sultan's Bath6) The Sultan's Bath
It's one of the story books from my husband's childhood, based on an old folk tale. The Middle East is in drought conditions, and the sultan claims every drop of precious water for his leisurely bath, but a thief has been stealing it. It turns out to be the palace gardener, who is punished accordingly. But the sultan re-thinks his decision, when his lush garden starts wilting.

7) Bathsheba
She's the beautiful woman in the Old Testament book of 1Samuel, who was taking a cyclical purifying bath on her roof top, after her time of the month. However, there happened to be a witness. It was King David, who wasn't out fighting with his army, for whatever reason. Instantly infatuated with the beautiful woman, he'll stop at nothing to have her all to himself, even when he finds out that she's married to one of his brave soldiers, Uriah. Did Bathsheba come to regret that particular bath? There aren't many details to help us answer that question, so we can only imagine.

Have you been wondering about the baths for competitions I mentioned? Here they are.
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)
8) The Hunger Games
As one of the preliminary lead-ups to the games, contestants must all go through extreme cleansing ceremonies in which they're thoroughly washed, shaved and sterilised. Katniss Everdeen, coming as she does from a country region, is thoroughly bemused by the whole thing. I can't blame her. Why do they need to be groomed so thoroughly to be unleashed in the wilderness to kill each other? Of course it's all for the hype and cameras.

9) Queen Esther
She was the humble Hebrew maiden who became Queen of Israel. The former Queen Vashti had refused King Xerxe's demand to come and put herself on display for his guests, so he de-throned her and set out to find a more obedient queen. All the candidates had to spend months having beauty treatments, which included many baths in special perfumes. He sure had tickets on himself, that King Xerxes.

And although the final three don't actually take place in the bathtub, they do involve the action of washing and serve the same purpose.

Great Expectations10) Great Expectations
The hard-nosed lawyer Jaggers has a ritual of his own, just before he steps from his office onto the street. He washes his hands thoroughly with strong perfumed soap, to symbolise that he won't pay any more attention to work-related issues until his return. His followers and clients have learned to feel disappointment when they smell the flowery scent, because they've learned through experience that they'll get nothing out of him but snubs. My review is here.

11) Pontius Pilate
Here's another example of a man who made a symbolic gesture out of washing his hands. He believed in his own heart that the prisoner, Jesus, who stood before him, was innocent of the insurrection the angry mob accused him of. Pilate's wife even had a prophetic dream, and warned her husband to have nothing to do with the innocent man. But he finally gives in to the unrelenting demands of the crowd, and indicates by his action that he's finished with the subject, they can do as they please, and he wants nothing more to do with it.

12) The Last Supper
Jesus is well aware of the power struggles his disciples feel. None of them want to be the guy who stoops low enough to offer the demeaning task of washing the dust off the others' feet, before they share their meal. It's usually a job for a menial or a servant. By seizing the towel and foot bath himself, Jesus demonstrates that he wants his followers to reverse their thinking patterns, and understand that carrying out helpful acts of service on behalf of others is, in fact, a noble thing to do.

So there we are. Makes me feel like grabbing a pile of books and hopping into a steaming hot bath right now. The only two drawbacks I've had in recent years were never an issue in the past. First, you can't take e-readers in there, because steam and condensation may muck up the inner workings. I used to put my old kindle in a sealed sandwich bag, but only a few times because it felt a bit risky. Secondly, I need reading glasses now, and they always fog up a bit to start with, preventing me from seeing the pages. Are you a bathtub reader yourself?   

Monday, July 10, 2017

'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce

Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn't exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

A Carnegie-Medal-winning modern classic that's magically timeless.

I chose this title as my Award winning Classic category in the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. It won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's and young adult's books in 1958. That's a British literary award that recognises outstanding contributions, and is named after philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who founded almost 3000 libraries. So on with the book.

Tom thinks he's in for a long, boring holiday. He's sent to stay with a childless aunt and uncle while his brother recuperates from the measles. One sleepless night, Tom creeps through the back door into a wonderful garden the adults hadn't mentioned. Before long, he figures out that it doesn't exist in his time period at all. It's a garden from the past, as are the people he sees in it. Tom seems to leave no trace or footprint on the old world, and it appears the only person who can see him is his new friend, Hatty.

The two kids argue over which of them is a ghost. They are each certain it isn't them. Even though they are both right, I think Hatty has the stronger case in a way, since they're hanging out together in her time period. Tom hasn't officially been born yet, which surely makes him a ghost from the future just as much as any spirit from the past whose life has ended :) It's quite interesting, when the main character is the odd one out. If it had been written from Hatty's point of view, it would have been a completely different tale.

Is it as timeless a classic as the blurb would have us believe? No, in all honesty, I have to call it a dated one. Tom's time period is meant to be modern, yet I'm sure young readers would agree it's just a more recent version of old fashioned than Hatty's. Twenty-first century kids would have to laugh when they see the way he sets about researching the Victorian era, by turning to old encyclopaedias, which are now as rare as hen's teeth. Sure enough, the book was first published in 1958, so Tom's time has plenty of its own relics, the same as Hatty's time. But maybe that ironically reinforces the main theme, that time is a continuous flow that can't be stopped, however much we might want to make a dam and keep it stable. As the older Harriet says, the only place time can stand still is in our memories.

The story is a bit vague with a few questions we might have, such as what criteria do those who manage to see Tom happen to possess? It's not strictly youthfulness, since Hatty's three boy cousins never see him, yet Abel the gardener does. It would appear to be a sort of simplicity of heart, because the farm animals do too. Maybe leaving readers free to make our own conjectures isn't a bad thing.

The adults come across as real people. Aunt Gwen wants to win Tom's heart by feeding him nice things to eat. And Uncle Alan is strict, yet willing to have intense discussions bordering on science and metaphysics. I've got to say, their advice for dealing with insomnia is terrible! In effect, they tell him, 'These are the ten hours you have to spend in bed, so lie there until you fall asleep and don't bother us.' It brought back a few memories of my own childhood. I kept thinking of sleepovers at my grandmother's place, when my cousins had already fallen asleep but I kept hearing her cuckoo clock calling out every half hour, and lay there getting desperate.

The garden itself in this book is one of those lovely old Victorian ones with aviary, topiary, orchard, flower beds, lawn, greenhouse, and kitchen gardens. The story was written in a more leisurely time when kids' books could meander a bit, instead of getting stuck straight into the action as they tend to do now. I wonder whether modern kids would love it as much as kids fifty or sixty years ago did, making it a prize-winning classic. The fact that it's on my library shelf makes me wonder how often it's checked out.

Overall, it's sort of haunting in the nostalgic way that time slip stories often are. It's lovely to see two lonely kids in the same house, both longing for company, being able to bridge the gap of time that separates them. But it left me feeling that there still could have been something more. Maybe the shortness of their deep friendship was unsatisfying. Another reviewer mentioned that it might have been nice to see it extended into a series, as they both grow up. Perhaps she was right.

3 stars

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Why we love this flawed hero

Warning: Plot Spoilers 

Great Expectations is one of my favourite Dickens' stories, and Pip is one of my favourite young Victorian gentlemen. The main reason why we cheer for him from page one is pretty obvious.

He's an optimist and a survivor. We love him from the start because he manages to keep thriving in very harsh conditions. The boy himself shows us how guilty he was made to feel for his very existence. Five baby brothers didn't survive infancy, and his adult sister pays him out for being an extra mouth to feed, using physical punishment to emphasise her frustration. Pip reflects, 'I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, morality, and against the dissauding argument of my best friends.' His forlorn existence makes us want to shout out, 'Yeah, you go, boy!'

But as Pip grows older, Dickens brings out some not so nice aspects of his character. To me, these just add to the reasons why he's so easy to empathise with. Pip is not only to be pitied, he's also flawed and relatable.

He's suggestible. From the day he first meets Estella, Pip lets her shape his self-concept. He falls into the old trap of letting others determine how he sees himself. On their first day together, Estella calls him uncouth and backward, so young Pip immediately accepts that it must be true. He doesn't stop to gauge whether or not she's a sound judge of character. He doesn't consider her critical nature in pointing out his supposed defects with such contempt. He doesn't reason that the things she mentions have nothing whatsoever to do with his worth or character. So what does he do? He goes off crying and feeling terrible, because he has coarse hands and thick boots! But I understand him. Even adults have trouble not getting upset at mean jibes, and Pip was just a kid.

He cares about appearances. For the first chunk of the story, Pip is in no position to be an actual snob, but he's a wannabe snob. He assumes that changing his circumstances to win the approval of the world will boost his personal satisfaction. He admits as much to Biddy, who he's always open with. 'I never can or shall be happy and comfortable unless I lead a very different life from now.' 'Great expectations' is another, more old fashioned way of saying he got a lucky break. Imagine Pip's story being cast in the twenty-first century. I doubt 'The Lucky Break' would have quite the same ring. But sentiments never change from one generation to the next. He wants to stop being a nobody, so maybe then Estella will admire him.

He fools himself into believing his murky motives are noble. Pip learns that we can deceive even ourselves with our selfish decisions. When he visits his old town to see Estella, he decides not to return home to stay with Joe for all sorts of decent sounding reasons. It would be too unexpected, they'd have to find clean sheets and make their food stretch, it'd be better for them if he stayed away. He convinces himself that it's all true, and what a nice, thoughtful guy he is. But deep in his heart, Pip knows the truth. He wants to distance himself from Joe and the old life of drudgery, not to mention it's plain embarrassing to be seen with him. People like Bentley Drummle would sneer at him forevermore. That's another of Pip's revelations. We shun our true friends for the sake of impressing our enemies. It's refreshing to see that one of my favourite characters shares the parts of my human nature I'd rather keep hidden. I love Pip because he allows us to acknowledge our own shadow sides, and that's such a relief.

Of course the best thing about fictional heroes is that they often learn their lesson. They do heroic stuff, and prove that difficult experiences are never wasted. 

He gets an epiphany when he believes it's all over for him. Pip is tied up in the bleak marshes on a lonely night, looking down the barrel of Orlick's gun. He sees no hope for himself, and in a flash, he sees clearly what's been most important to him all along. It's his unassuming loved ones, like his dear old brother-in-law Joe Gargery, his BFF Herbert Pocket, and faithful old Abel Magwitch, who Pip now understands was more of a true friend to him than he himself was to Joe. Basically, Pip has a desperate revelation along the lines of, 'My intentions really were all the best, but everything went pear shaped, and it's all my own fault.' I honour him for saying so, especially at such a desperate moment.

His overall character development is so satisfying. That's what I love about coming of age novels. We know there'll be character development because that's the nature of growing up. Pip's takes more of a circular than a linear movement, which I really like. He starts off as a kind, small and humble seven year old. Later he decides he hates being small and humble, so sets out to be worthwhile and noteworthy instead. And he comes to see that his social progression has come at a cost. Keeping up appearances has rubbed the edge off what's really important. So by the end of his story, he's come full circle, content to be obscure, hardworking, humble and kind. I love his gracious response to the penitent Miss Havisham, who really did set out especially to ruin his life.

So hooray Charles Dickens, for creating a hero like Pip. It makes me convinced that he was essentially a decent type of bloke himself, or he could never have pulled it off. If you haven't read it and would like a good classic to get stuck into, I'd recommend it. 


Monday, July 3, 2017

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens

In what may be Dickens's best novel, humble, orphaned Pip is apprenticed to the dirty work of the forge but dares to dream of becoming a gentleman — and one day, under sudden and enigmatic circumstances, he finds himself in possession of "great expectations." In this gripping tale of crime and guilt, revenge and reward, the compelling characters include Magwitch, the fearful and fearsome convict; Estella, whose beauty is excelled only by her haughtiness; and the embittered Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride.

This is one of my favourite Dickens tales, and coming of age stories. There's so much to say about the main character Pip, I'll be sharing a separate post soon just to ramble on about him. For a lot of book, he isn't actually a snob, yet he is a wannabe snob, which is a step in that direction. But more on that later. For now, I'll start with a quick summary.

As a small boy, Pip has forced encounters with a couple of scary people. He's frightened by an escaped convict on the bleak marshes, who demands food and a file for his chains, or threatens dire peril. Pip is also enlisted as a sort of companion to eccentric recluse Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. He's supposed to 'play' there, whatever that's meant to mean. He grows up longing for a lucky break where he's in charge of his own destiny, and one day in his late teens, a mysterious benefactor offers him the chance to begin anew as a fashionable gentleman in London. One of the only conditions is that Pip makes no attempt to discover their identity. Happy not to look a gift horse in the mouth, our hero sets off to where the action is.

Pip's such a great character, but they're all described in a  way that makes them live and breathe through the pages. Miss Havisham first strikes Pip as a person who might disintegrate to dust if she's exposed to daylight, like some sort of mummified freak, so that's how we picture her from then on. There's Jaggers, the intimidating lawyer, and his reliable clerk Wemmick, who has a completely different persona at home to the one he adopts at work. And always in the back of Pip's mind is the haughty and beautiful Estella, who he'd give anything in the world to impress. There are also excellent cameo characters like Trabb's boy, who works for the haberdasherer. What a legend!

The story is intriguing for the historical and cultural insights it gives us. I love how Pip and his best friend Herbert get along together. My eldest son and his friends are a similar age to them, so it's fun to see their counterparts in the 1800s, going out to the theatre, trying to manage their finances, and cooking their Victorian dude food. (I've included these lads from Great Expectations on my list of best bromances.)

I can see that if I'd lived back then, following the installments in the magazine, I would have been amazed and astounded by the sudden revelations and all the irony and action. It's the type of story that prompts us to examine where our allegiances lie, and to question where they should lie. Some stories are obviously better being told in first person, despite the limitations of time and place, and this is one of them. I'm glad Dickens opted to have Pip telling his own story, because it's an unforgettable ride.

5 stars

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A list of Jolly Poor Families

For the past 13 years or so, we've sometimes been seriously strapped for cash. That was about the time my youngest son was born, my husband became a student and I became a homeschooling mum. I've shared some of the challenging times here.

Once at the shops, I told my kids I couldn't afford something they badly wanted. I said, 'I'm not saying this to be mean. We just don't have the money.' And another lady standing nearby gave me the sort of sympathetic smile that said louder than words, 'I know what you're talking about.' Her little gesture encouraged me not to let my spirits get too low. Knowing that we're not alone helps big time.

So I've made a list of families who have struggled with poverty but kept their contentment levels reasonably high. They're not just poor families but 'jolly' poor families. It's a double meaning. Firstly, many of them lived in places and time periods that make our brand of poverty look pretty good. But also, I call them jolly because that's exactly what they were. It's my way of acknowledging their happy tendencies, and their potential to lift our own spirits. Here goes.  

The March Family
Little Women (Little Women, #1) The four sisters begin their story one Christmas Eve, complaining how dreadful it is to be so poor they'll have no lovely presents or food the following day. Their saintly mother arrives home to set their attitudes straight, which includes donating their meager lunch to an even poorer family, for it's more blessed to give than receive. Throughout the book, Louisa May Alcott manages to convince us that their youth, energy, imagination and senses of humour are better prizes than the wealth they used to own. (It would've been nice if they'd kept that too. Especially when we discover that their beloved father lost their fortune through his 'philanthropic acts'. Reading between the lines, he invested it in foolish deals which turned bad, if we take the life of Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott as the real story.) My review is here.

The Cratchit Family
A Christmas Carol Their story also takes place in the Christmas season. The father, Bob, is unlucky enough to work for grouchy tightwad Ebenezer Scrooge, who gets a glimpse of their merry festivities courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Even though the angelic youngest boy, Tiny Tim, is close to death's door, they're determined to enjoy the holiday to the utmost. This includes plenty of snarky comments about Scrooge himself, who they believe is more to be pitied than they are, despite all his dough. Little do they know, these digs hit their mark.

I Capture the CastleThe Mortmain Family
They're living a life of shabby, genteel poverty in an old castle they rent. Their father, who used to be a famous author, hasn't written a word in years. Although the oldest sister Rose vows she'd sell her soul to be financially secure, Cassandra, who tells the story, has a wiser way of looking at it. She comes to see that great wealth may take the edge off the simple pleasures she enjoys so much. And through Cassandra, we see that the best things in life are indeed free. She relishes what life has to offer in a way which is wonderful to read. My review is here.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)The Weasley Family
I guess having seven children kept Molly and Arthur close to the breadline. Poor Ron is always embarrassed about his shabby, homemade clothes, modest packed lunches and ramshackle house, especially when rich git Draco Malfoy rubs it in. But dear little Harry has had enough hard knocks in his short life to see that what Ron has is priceless. Even though Harry has inherited quite a fortune in the wizarding world, he wouldn't pass up school holidays at the Burrow for all the world. Neither would I, if I had the chance.

The Ingalls Family
Little House on the Prairie (Little House, #2) Wherever they happen to build their little houses, Pa and Ma and the girls have to struggle for every cent they earn. It's almost as if the land wants to hold back its bounty. Especially when unforeseen disasters like fires, Indian raids and grasshopper plagues strike them. And doesn't posh little Nelly Oleson criticise them, because her Pa is a storekeeper. But Laura, Mary, Carrie and Grace have Pa's good stories, his excellent fiddle playing and the great outdoors to keep them happy. Who needs more than a tin cup, a corncob doll and a candy cane at Christmas time anyway?

Great ExpectationsThe Gargery Family
Pip would have done anything to change his life while he was a blacksmith's apprentice to dear old Joe. At last a secret benefactor offers him the chance to wear fancy clothes, thumb up his nose and become a 'gentleman' in London. But Pip learns through experience that what Joe and Biddy have at home in the forge is pretty special after all. There's genuine love, lack of pretension, and the satisfaction of earning a wage through honest labour. Review is here.

The Fountain OverflowsThe Aubrey Family
The father is big with lofty, philosophical ideas but no good with money, and the mother thinks that being able to pay a bill in time is a huge achievement. Her major regret is that her children had such a hard childhood, but that's news to them. With their music practise, pretend horses, adorable little brother and in-house jokes, they've grown up feeling as fortunate as any kids could be. My review is here.

The Nolan Family
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Young Francie has an affinity with the tree which grows outside her window, for it manages to thrive regardless of poor water and soil quality. Although immigrant Irish families like her own have to struggle hard in early twentieth century America, she reads her books, makes observations, learns as much as she can, and never loses her optimistic attitude.

The Darcy Family
The Harp in the South These folk add a distinctly Australian flavour to this list. They lived in Sydney's Surrey Hills, a typical slum district, during the depression era. It seemed that once anyone made their home there, it was practically impossible to work their way out. The youngest daughter, Dolour, almost managed, with an excellent academic record, but then her eyes started playing up, so she had to quit the books. In spite of all their hardships, the Darcys kept a buoyant attitude, spurred on by their affection for each other and determination to make the best of things. During a trip to Sydney with my husband and kids, I was surprised to find that Surrey Hills is now the opposite to Ruth Park's depiction, being a desirable residential area for the rich and prosperous. How times change.

The Bucket Family
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1) If anyone lived off the smell of an oily rag, it was these folk. The dad was a low paid worker who screwed caps on toothpaste tubes for a living, and that had to support his whole family, including his bed-ridden parents and parents-in-law. Needless to say, it didn't stretch far. It was a miracle that young Charlie was lucky enough to get hold of one of the chocolate bars that contained a ticket to Wonka's factory. Even though they loved each other dearly and sang plenty of songs together, it was time this family had a lucky break.

Ramona the Pest (Ramona, #2)
The Quimby Family
Many us probably loved these tales by Beverly Cleary about Ramona, her big sister Beezus, their hard-working parents and new baby sister. For such a chunk of the series, they suffer quite severe financial straits, because the father, Robert, has lost his job, and no amount of job seeking seems to help. The mother, Dorothy, must take upon herself a part time job as a doctor's receptionist, forcing her to adjust the girls' timetables. It's clear that every dollar matters, and there's a lot of month left over at the end of the money. Yet they still had their awesome times together, which make the books so charming to read.

The Heck Family
They belong in a sitcom and not a book, but I'm going to round off my list with these guys from The Middle, since they're definitely one of my favourite poor families. Watching an episode is weirdly like looking into a mirror for me. Mike and Frankie Heck (played by Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton) find suburban life is as much of a financial struggle as we do. Their three kids have the same sequence (boy, girl, boy) and age gaps as ours. And since each season covers a year in their lives, they've grown at the same rate, living similar milestones. Watching Frankie's homespun wisdom and decisions to make the best of things has boosted my spirits a lot over the years. Best of all, more episodes are still being made.

So there are my picks. Getting hold of a copy of each of these and having a binge reading or viewing session would have to make you feel brighter, especially if you're financially challenged as we are. I'm so glad we can pay virtual visits to families in similar straights whenever we choose to, because they always make me feel better. If you feel like you need a dose of them too, I encourage you to do so. And if you can suggest any others, please do.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why I'm like Philip J Fry

Anyone who has ever watched animated sitcoms, or even had them running in the background, may remember our hero's position at the start of the Futurama series. Fry was a disillusioned pizza delivery boy in NYC who accidentally tumbled into a cryogenics tub and got himself frozen for about 1000 years. He wakes up in the thirtieth century, ecstatic to think that his past is now ten centuries behind him. He believes he won't have to return to his life of drudgery, and that the world is his oyster.

However, he soon discovers that in the 30th century, citizens are analysed with career chips for suitable job allocations. It's mandated by law and protesters are labelled 'job deserters' and treated as outlaws. To his frustration, Fry's verdict turns out to be... you guessed it... delivery boy. He ends up working at Planet Express for his descendant, Professor Hubert Farnsworth. It's an inter-planetary delivery company, but when all is said and done, still the same gig. It seems that even by jumping ten centuries, Fry couldn't escape his destiny.

This month, I'm acknowledging my first anniversary as a part time domestic cleaner with VIP. It's something I did way back in my old days as a teenage Uni student (same suburb too). Back then, I used to be on call to clean rooms at a local touristy guest house. I regarded it as a bit of independence and pocket money for a short period of time, because it definitely wasn't my long term goal.

I thought my English degree was meant to be my cryogenics tank. I assumed my future would involve a career in writing, in some capacity. I've actually had a good chance to indulge in my love of the written word, writing several novels while homeschooling my three kids. They've also received some kind feedback from publishers, editors and readers alike. But I was never earning anything like a regular wage. Getting the occasional financial boost from selling books was nice, but it was unpredictable, and sales is not my strong point anyway.

We all know times change, and as the kids grew older, it became clear that we couldn't really make ends meet without an extra regular income of some sort. An opportunity came my way to join the ranks of a local VIP franchiser, so now I'm going out for a few hours on two or three days each week, cleaning homes for regular clients. The money is most welcome and I'm grateful to be able to earn it. But every so often, I can't help thinking, 'This is a lot like the old days.' And like poor old Fry, I sometimes wonder if cleaning was my true destiny all along, and it's caught up with me.

But really when it's all boiled down, it's not so bad. There are a few reasons I hadn't really figured out when I was nineteen or twenty.

These days it may be even more satisfying to leave behind a gleaming sink and spot free carpet than it ever used to be. Back in those days, I hadn't really experienced first hand what a powerful boost to the morale a clean house can be. I was still living with my parents, where my mum was in charge of that area of life, and any efforts to get me involved came across like nagging. It takes being in charge of a house of your own to realise that cleanliness adds so hugely to comfort and satisfaction. One of my clients says that the day I come is her favourite day of the week. It gives me a buzz to hear that.

This sort of work isn't a bad break for the brain. I've spent years writing, thinking hard, editing, scrubbing stuff out, and generally playing around with words on pages. With cleaning, I can switch off that sort of rumination for a while and just focus on things like crumbs, cobwebs, toothpaste globs and skid marks. It's helped highlight the difference between physical and mental fatigue for me.

It relieves a lot of pressure when your passion doesn't have to be your meal ticket. A career doing what you love sounds like the ideal life. Yet when you put yourself in the position where it has to pay your bills, and the money doesn't seem to be stretching that far, that's a stressful way to reduce your passion!

In her book 'Big Magic' Elizabeth Gilbert talks about that very thing, so I'll borrow a few of her wise lines. 'I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life... I've watched many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills... It's cruel to your creativity, to demand a regular paycheck from it... financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of imagination... so many times I've longed to say to stressed-out, financially strapped artists, "Just take the pressure off yourself dude, and get a job"... you can always make art on the side of your bread and butter job.'

That's all so true. The house cleaning helps pay the basic bills so that I can enjoy the time I have reading, blogging and writing. Those things are my favourites, of course, but if I had to rely on them to earn money, whoa. We'd be in trouble.

So delivery boy, cleaner, what does it really matter, if you're taking care to be a good one, and you can fit your more enjoyable interests into your spare time? It's been quite a productive year, with some fun things that have happened on the job. I've met some lovely pets, enjoyed some fantastic views from windows that aren't my own, and made some nice friends in my clients. And sometimes I even hum on the job. Hey, if lots of cleaning happened to be my destiny, I might as well :)

If you'd like some encouragement for your own cleaning, here's a list of books to help our frame of mind.. I wrote this one before I even thought about getting a job with VIP.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

'The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte' by Lesley Truffle


Revenge, redemption ... and pastry. In the winter of 1912 on the wild West Coast of Tasmania, Wolfftown's most notorious heiress and murderess, Sasha Torte, tells the tale of her own spectacular downfall.

Forsaken by her parents and raised by criminals and reprobates, Sasha becomes a world-famous pastry chef at the tender age of seventeen. Entanglement with the disreputable Dasher brothers leads to love, but also to a dangerous addiction.

Behind bars in Wolfftown's gaol, Sasha sips premium champagne as she recalls a life of seduction, betrayal, ghosts, opium and an indiscreet quantity of confectionary - and plots her escape.

The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte: revenge, redemption and pastry, is a novel of dastardly deeds, intrepid protagonists, dark villains, wild gangs, luxurious hotels … and murder.

During the nineties, I used to watch a TV cartoon called 'Horrible Histories', which was a satirical look at world events for kids. This novel is a little like an adult version of the program for romance readers. It's full of risque innuendo, but we're warned about this from the outset if we want to cut and run. The story takes place in Tasmania in 1912, when the 22-year-old heroine begins her memoir which sets out to explain why she's been wrongfully imprisoned on a murder charge in the old town gaol.

The rollicking story takes place in flashbacks, which brings us to Sasha's present, including how she happened to become a world class patissiere. With a play on words name like Sasha Torte, we can predict it's bound to be light-hearted on the whole, but Sasha doesn't gloss over her darker times. In her family background alone, there's a history of bipolar disorder in the women of her mother's side. Of course they never called it that back then, but although it wasn't a recognised condition, they still had to deal with the huge swings between euphoria and crashing depression.

To compress so many genre elements within the one story, it has to be fast moving. There are good guys and bad guys, all larger than life. There's mystery and romance, adventure and history, and even bits of natural history. The quiet appearance of a strange creature which turns out to be a Tasmanian Tiger is up there among my favourite moments.

On the whole, it got a bit too cute and quirky for me at times, yet I found myself wondering if it was just the sassy writing style that I found a bit much in such a big dose. I'd be interested to see how I'd compare the two mediums if I were to see the same story on the screen.

Thanks to Harper Collins Australia and Net Galley for my review copy.

3 stars

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I loved the 'Peculiar Children' series

Warning, a few plot spoilers.

One thing I love about fiction is that we sometimes learn some pretty decent lessons by osmosis. Maybe we can get the same from studying text books, but I prefer a great story. It's like being offered a healthy vitamin. We can choose whether to take it as a bitter pill or a tasty chocolate bar. This series, full of creepy old vintage photos, is presented as nothing more than a funny, fast-paced, often sensational story, yet does it work on our emotions, and maybe even our characters. Here's some of the reasons I recommend these books with the freaky covers, for what they show us. 

1) We can try to let go of unhelpful tension.
Until a pivotal moment, the hero Jacob Portman has been gritting his teeth with panic and desperately trying to force himself to face the terrifying hollowgasts. The people he loves are certain fighting the beasts must be his destiny, but he hasn't convinced himself to agree with them in either practice or theory. (Jacob reasons that becoming adept at anything requires practise, but failing at this particular skill even once will result in instant death.) The turning point comes at a critical moment where he believes he's lost all hope. A hollowgast is towering over him with all five tongues lolling, and he accepts that he's done for. Suddenly, Jacob relaxes into it, and finds strange new words and commands flowing to his tongue which immobilise the beast. Jacob is amazed. He knows while he's on edge, using every nerve to figure out what to do next, problems pile up, and he finds himself beaten around by circumstances. Perhaps we readers can use the storybook analogy to help face our own monsters, whether they be depression, panic attacks, fear, or anything else.

2) We mustn't be quick to write anything off as impossible.
In other words, keep an open mind.
I love how Enoch and Hugh start scoffing at the plausibility of what they assume is a very tall tale. Bronwyn has been reading the younger children a story from 'Tales of the Peculiar'. They instantly state how ridiculous and impossible it is to believe. Then Jacob says in effect, 'Come on guys, just a few weeks ago, I thought the exact same thing about the existence of people like you.' They can't help grinning when they get what he means. We should keep our minds open. Only foolish people who believe they're wise are quick to instantly dismiss new ideas as implausible.

3) We should aim to understand what drives us.
Don't go the opposite extreme and believe everything you hear either.
Miss Peregrine's brother Caul, the ultimate villain, is hugely ambitious. He seeks power, reversal of age, immortality, fame and adoration. Yet he presents himself to his followers as a good guy, an underdog fighting valiantly to 'wrest the control of our society from the infantilising influence of ymbrynes.' What's more, he seems to have convinced himself to believe his own words. Poisonous envy of his sister has inspired him to brainwash and inflame others, but they don't even realise it, and neither does he. If something is worth fighting for, we must make every effort to thoroughly understand what we're supporting. Getting educated about what's going on around us is always worthwhile.

4) We should cling to faith and optimism.
Emma Bloom tries to encourage Jacob by saying, 'Doubt is the pinprick in the lifeboat.' She is an admirable character who depends on her inner strength, and trusts that her attitude will always be strong enough to see her through. I've recorded another quote from her. 'There's a pain sensor inside me that's not switched on. I can block out awful things and get on with it.' That's something I'd like to be able to echo, and perhaps we can, when we remember characters like Emma and follow her example by choosing to let go of feelings, resentments and hurts which aren't helping us, but may in fact be bogging us down. Focusing on positive, helpful things may enable us to just get on with what needs to be done.

5) The world around us helps to shape our gifts and talents
This is a theory put forward by Mother Dust, an enigmatic healer who has a heart to help others, but physically wears herself away to powder whenever she's doing what she does best. In the scope of this story her words apply particularly to peculiars, but the principle applies to any one of us. She believes that early in our development, we easily identify basic skills, interests and passions in ourselves. The directions they take are shaped to an extent by our environment, because when we believe we see a need, we focus on developing the necessary talents to fulfill it, to the exclusion of others. It's not that nothing else is possible for us, but nothing else is nurtured. Sounds like how we may come to identify our callings.

6) We should never be ashamed of attributes that set us apart.

Miss Peregrine always makes it clear, 'Nobody under this roof is ashamed of their gift.'

Over again, we see peculiars in these stories being shunned and marginalised by the 'normals' of our society, because majority rules. Rather than being admired, differences tend to be made fun of. But the shortsighted attitude is shown to be ridiculous, since peculiar attributes are harmless at least, and vital weapons at best. It's so easy to own the shame as our own when people pick on us, without ever questioning the validity of what they say. For years as a school kid, others teased me for having a 'big head'. I used to get very upset, but never once did it occur to me to question, 'So what?' Why should the size of my cranium have any bearing on the sort of person I am? Hopefully, these books will help make readers bully-proof, all the while they're enjoying the action.

Has anyone else read them? Or have I convinced you to give them a go some day?
I've reviewed each of the three books individually, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenHollow City and Library of Souls.

Monday, June 19, 2017

'The Brothers Karamazov' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The murder of brutal landowner Fyodor Karamazov changes the lives of his sons irrevocably; Mitya, the sensualist, whose bitter rivalry with his father immediately places him under suspicion for parricide; Ivan, the intellectual, whose mental tortures drive him to breakdown; the spiritual Alyosha, who tries to heal the family’s rifts; and the shadowy figure of their bastard half-brother Smerdyakov. As the ensuing investigation and trial reveal the true identity of the murderer, Dostoyevsky’s dark masterwork evokes a world where the lines between innocence and corruption, good and evil blur, and everyone’s faith in humanity is tested. 

The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

This was my choice for the Russian Classic category of the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. I was most intimidated by this category, since I assumed Russian classics are probably mostly thick-as-brick epics filled with tragic events in ice and snow, with political uprisings, tsars and serfs in the background. This book sounded interesting because the blurb said it could well be one of the greatest novels of all time, and that's a very bold claim. I was sceptical about that, but then I started, and WOW! Now I'll have to call it one of my all time favourites. As well as being quite an intense family saga, it's all about faith versus doubt, and reason versus passion. It is pretty thick, but I wanted to keep reading every chance I could.

It all takes place in a little village called 'Skotprigonyevsk.' Luckily for us, most of the time it's simply referred to as 'our little town.'

Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov is a lecherous, unpleasant old man who has three sons in their twenties from two different wives, both of whom he treated horribly. On the surface, each of the boys could be said to represent one of the three aspects of man. There's physical Dmitri, who can't master his earthly passions; intellectual Ivan, whose brain keeps torturing him; and spiritual Alexey, who feels called to enter a monastery as a novice, aged twenty. If you think this makes them sound like cardboard, one-sided characters, no way! They are all deep and complex enough to make us love them.

Oh, and there's also Smerdyakov, Fyodor's young servant. Although it's never been openly acknowledged, everyone is 99.9% certain that he is actually his illegitimate son, since Fyodor was rumoured to have raped 'Stinking Lizaveta' the mute village vagrant who gave birth in his garden. Although Smerdyakov knows better than to ever acknowledge his half brothers as such, there's a major chip on his shoulder as he hangs creepily in the background. Dmitri calls him, 'the epitome of all the cowards in the world on two legs, with no character to speak of.'

One night, old Fyodor gets what many believe was probably coming to him. Someone smashes the back of his skull and kills him, and it was most likely one of his sons, who have a swarm of motives between them.

It's easy for everyone to pin the blame on Dmitri, whose name is shortened quite often to Mitya. An impulsive guy who'll wear his heart on his sleeve, he always speaks (or punches) before he thinks. He made no secret that he wanted to kill the old man, who has not only withheld Dmitri's inheritance from his mother, but is also trying to use it to seduce Grushenka, the girl Dmitri loves. But undercurrents are bubbling away elsewhere too, so is it really that clear cut?

The brilliant Ivan, the middle brother, is a scholar with a major existential crisis. He can't dismiss the idea that man invented God to suit himself, rather than vice versa. I came to really appreciate the raw and honest young atheist whose huge intellect and photographic memory become burdens rather than gifts. His flippant approach conceals his desperation, giving me the impression that he's so open with his youngest brother because he'd love to be convinced out of cynicism into faith. And Ivan's madly in love with Katerina, the fiance Dmitri dumped so he could pursue Grushenka. So their eldest brother is not Ivan's favourite person.

The youngest is also known as Alyosha, which seems to be a derivative of Alexey. He's the mortar that pulls the whole story together. He loves unconditionally, never finds fault, and often becomes our lens. I doubt I would have loved Dmitri and Ivan so much if I didn't see them through Alyosha's eyes. Perhaps most importantly, he makes me think of Jesus' commission for his friends to be his hands and feet. Ivan spends so much time griping about the lack of proof of God's existence, but I think his smartness just caused him to search in the wrong places. He need look no further than his kid brother to see concrete proof that the spirit of God exists, through the lives of his followers. Even the omniscient narrator refers to Alyosha at one point as, 'the young hero I love so much.'

So there's the scenario. Even though we get to love each of the brothers heaps, at the same time, we can't help wondering which of them may be tied up with the murder, and how. Or was it a combination crime? And the solution is all tied with blackmail, psychological twists that do your head in, and arguably justice. Before I get too carried away, I'll give some quotes from the story. Needless to say, a book this thick is full of them, but the following are a few of my favourites.


Father Zossima, the old man who was Alexey's mentor and hero, has some good things to say for a start. He also predicts that his young follower will, 'bless life, and make others bless it.' 

1) Men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, "I am doing the will of God."

2) Precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.

3) If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.

4) Love the animals. God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled.

Ivan Karamozov's thoughts are possibly poles apart from Father Zossima's, but maybe equally worthy of thought.

1) I don't understand how anyone can love one's neighbour. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone. One can love one's neighbour in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters, it's almost impossible. (Yeah, he's a cynical dude.)

2) People sometimes speak of bestial cruelty, but that's a great insult and injustice to beasts. A beast can never be so artistically cruel as a man.

(At one point, Ivan has a conversation with the devil, who's sitting on his couch during a time when he's sick. The doctors warned Ivan that he may be subject to hallucinations, but he wouldn't listen. It's a very interesting chapter, with some fascinating dialogue.)

Ivan (trying to disprove the hallucination): You're just an incarnation of myself, but only one side of my thoughts and feelings. Only the nastiest and stupidest of them.
Satan: If I'm like you in my way of thinking, it's all to my credit.

Satan: From the vehemence with which you deny my existence, I'm convinced that you believe in me.
Ivan: Not in the slightest. I haven't a hundredth part of a grain of faith in you.
Satan: But you have the thousandth of a grain. Homeopathic doses perhaps are strongest.

But one of the book's best quotes was by Dmitri. He's a guy who normally drops lines such as, 'On the way here it seemed alright, and now it's nothing but nonsense.' The narrator says that at one point, 'an absurd, chaotic confusion followed, but Mitya was in his natural element and the more foolish it became, the more his spirits rose.' So this heartfelt quote by him is a great place to wrap up this review.

Dmitri: It's God that's worrying me. What if he doesn't exist? Then man is the chief of all the earth, the universe. Magnificent. Only how is he going to be good without God? I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn?

Sometimes I wondered just what the women in Fyodor Dostoevsky's life must have been like, because I doubt there's one female character who didn't have a hysterical fit at some point in the story. They grew on me though, just like the guys. I really liked Grushenka by the end, and Katerina made me grin when she called Alyosha a 'religious little idiot' just because he hit a bit too close to home at one time. Feisty ladies indeed.

Altogether, this has to be one of the books of the year for me. And since there's probably no way I'd ever have read it if I hadn't been doing this reading challenge, you can consider this blog post a great shout out for reading challenges too.

5 stars