Thursday, December 28, 2017

'How to Stop Time' by Matt Haig

"The first rule is that you don't fall in love, ' he said... 'There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.'" 

A love story across the ages - and for the ages - about a man lost in time, the woman who could save him, and the lifetimes it can take to learn how to live

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. Tom has lived history--performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life.

I got a lot of good points from Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive, about his personal journey through deep depression. I've discussed it in this article about Reading with Depression. So I picked this novel up with great curiosity, wondering how he'd make his wisdom shine through his fiction, as I was sure it would.

The theory behind the hero's plight actually comes across sounding quite plausible. I'm sure we've all seen true stories about children with a condition called progeria, who age rapidly. Well, Tom Hazard has the opposite condition, 'anageria'. He ages incredibly slowly, at a ratio of one year for every 15, which manifested in puberty. So although he was born in 1581, he only appears to be in his early forties. Tom is about to begin a new job as a High School history teacher, although nobody could possibly guess that he's witnessed many of the events he teaches.

35411685It's all kept strictly hush hush, especially by the Albatross Society headed by Hendrich, who's probably the world's oldest man. They're concerned for their own safety and their loved ones, as history hasn't always been kind to them. Anyone who comes clean, to use Tom's own words, 'is either locked away in a madhouse, pursued and imprisoned in the name of science, or murdered by the servants of superstition.' They refer to themselves as 'albas' after albatrosses, which are very long-lived birds. Normal people are 'mayflies' because our lifespan of 70 to 100 years is over in a flash.

Tom's personal background is extremely varied, and he's rubbed shoulders with many long-passed celebrities. He did a gig with the Lord Chamberlain's men playing the lute for Shakespeare's new play, As You Like It. And there was the time he joined a ship's crew for bit of colonisation, also attended by Captain James Cook.

As you can imagine, Tom considers his condition to be more of a curse than a blessing. There's the horror of always outliving people he cares for by several centuries, and he grapples with grief over human nature in general. Tom has witnessed many horrible mistakes made by mayflies who never live long enough to learn for themselves. He's seen several facts proved, disproved, and then re-proved. And every eight years, he has to completely re-vamp his own identity, as that's about the length of time it takes for others to twig that he never seems to age. What an incentive not to get hung up over yourself and your achievements.

One of Hendrich's main rules is that falling in love is strictly taboo for albas. But of course Tom does, not once but twice. First to his childhood sweetheart Rose, in the Elizabethan era, and about 400 years later, to Camille, a fellow teacher at the school where he works. There's a fair bit of glossing over, owing to the sheer scope of Tom's life, which is compressed into 325 pages. All the jumping around makes the plot feel a bit disjointed and the characterisation shallow at times. I can't shake off the feeling that the story sometimes just skims the surface of what his life would have been like, but it's all in good fun.

I had one main question. Could Matt Haig, a mere mayfly like the rest of us, pull off a character like Tom Hazard, who has centuries of experiential wisdom under his belt? It was an ambitious project, but his knowledge of history and empathetic heart helped him manage it. (At least I trust they did. A real alba might say, 'It wasn't like that at all back in the 1500s,' but I doubt Haig will be challenged.) Tom's a lot like any of us in many ways, reacting with spontaneous jealousy, annoyance or lust, as the case may be. Still, I guess we've all known 80-year-olds who react like 20-year-olds, or even 4-year-olds, so why not a 439-year-old?

He drops some intriguing lines, such as his rationale for choosing to teach history. 'It isn't something you need to bring alive, because it already is alive. Everything we say, do and see is only because of what has gone before.' Tom has more than his fair share of thumping headaches and spaced-out moments, which are side-effects of his longevity. Sometimes I thought his complaints dragged on a little too long. Come on man, we get the picture. Haven't you been around long enough to learn a little fortitude?

He makes some beautiful, lyrical reflections about the nature of music. 'It uncovers emotions that were already there, that you didn't know you had.' In his lifetime, Tom has learned to play guitar, piano, violin, lute, mandolin, cittern and tin pipe.

In typical novels there's character development, but is Tom still young enough to have anything left to learn? The answer turns out to be yes. One of his epiphanies is that the way to stop time is to treat the present as the only moment, and quit fearing the future. For someone like me, whose biggest anxieties have stemmed from dreaded anticipation, that's sound advice. Rumour has it this will be a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom, and I'll look forward to that.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

I'll be back soon

I possibly won't be blogging anymore until the new year, because the remainder of December is full of different things which will be taking a lot of attention. We will be visiting Sydney for a week, getting our house ready for open inspections, and preparing to move in 2018.

I look forward to returning with my reviews, lists, discussion points and other bookish fun very soon.

Meanwhile, here is a book Christmas tree. I saw this one in a shop window.

And here's our gingerbread carousel and Harry Potter collection, a festive combination of excellent things. 

Christmas season is the time to bring out the traditional books. This is one of my favourite pictures drawn by my daughter, who is now 19, when she was only 8 or 9. Some things are worth holding on to. It's an age when we may attempt to draw subjects such as donkeys and actually pull it off. 

And finally, we don't forget the reason for the season. From our family to yours, have a blessed and merry Christmas 2017. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

'The Manse' by Meredith Resce


Kate has a secret she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially the new minister – the man who has taken her father’s position. 

John Laslett has just arrived in Green Valley in his very first appointment as the new parish minister. He has been employed by the patron lady, Vera Wallace, and she has seen to his every need. But there is something strange about the housekeeper she has sent. 
Kathryn is an efficient housekeeper, but John cannot seem to break through the cold exterior. Something is wrong, he is sure, but he doesn’t know what… 

Historical romance set in colonial Australia 

This version of Meredith Resce's first novel has been completely re-written to coincide with its twentieth anniversary, and better suit the tastes of more modern readers. First off, I've known the author for several years. She was the first person I asked for publishing advice, and since then I've even worked on a collaboration with her. I was pleased to be offered the chance to read and review this new version, since 1997 was a long time ago. I wondered how it would shape up with my memory, and it turns out to have several of the same features as the many novels she's written since.

For the first time in his life, 24-year-old John Laslett has defied his controlling mother. He's accepted the post as minister at Green Valley, a small rural parish, rather than a more prestigious position in Melbourne she would have preferred for him. But being pushed around by bossy females seems to be his lot in life. John's autocratic patron, Lady Vera Wallace, wants to control him to the nth degree. And his haughty new housekeeper has a chip on her shoulder he can't understand.

Kate is the daughter of the former minister, who's been dismissed in disgrace. (You have to read a fair way in to find out why.) Since he's far from home at the time, she's all alone when she's evicted from the manse. Being homeless long before the days of government support is terrifying for a young woman, so she decides to set herself up as a servant at her own former residence. Kate can't help resenting her father's replacement, who appears to be Lady Vera's puppet.

We wonder how these two can possibly be drawn together, when they have such good reason to misunderstand each other. The story switches back and forth so we can clearly see both points of view. My main thought this time through is how John and Kate are the first in a long line of heroes and heroines readers have enjoyed. It's easy to see why this story has endured for twenty years. When you add plot elements such as hidden identities and secret scandals to the colonial era, it's a good combination. Back in 1997, Meredith Resce noticed a gap in the market for Australian female readers who like solid, clean romances with the promised hook of a happy ending, and she set out to fill it.

If you like this style of uplifting love story, give it a go, and you may find yourself wanting to read the rest of the Heart of Green Valley series too.

I have to say re-reading Kate's plight at this time is significant, since recent circumstances have forced us to look for a new home too. That's one of the great things about reading, when it shows that someone else's situation is always more extreme. I'm looking forward to reading Green Valley, the second in the series, before too long.

Thanks to the author for my review copy.

You may also like the background of how we four authors collaborated on The Greenfield Legacy.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

One Lovely Blog Award

One lovely blog award PIC

Here's a bit of fun. I was nominated by Trix Wilkins from Much Ado About Little Women for the One Lovely Blog Award. Exploring her blog is a treat, since it has a specific focus on Little Women and all things Louisa May Alcott. I love those stories, and Trix has written extensively about them herself. She is definitely the 'go to' person for more on Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

Trying to think of 7 interesting facts of my own turned out to be a bit of a challenge, and I decided to keep them book and travel related as much as I could. So here goes.  

Guidelines for the One Lovely Blog Award

* Thank the person who nominated you and link their blog in your post.
* Include the rules and add the blog award badge as an image.
* Add 7 facts about yourself.
* Nominate between 3 and 15 blogs for the award.

1) I nearly slid off the Leaning Tower of Pisa
When I was a teenager, I did a brief bus trip through some European countries with my parents. The sky was teeming when we reached the famous landmark, but that wasn't going to stop me and my Dad from the once in a lifetime opportunity. I was wearing a slippery pair of shoes, which isn't a good idea when the arches plunge straight to the ground, even if the building isn't on a tilt. On one of the upper stories, I felt my feet beginning to slide near the window, and stepped back just in time. I'd be willing to bet it's far safer these days than those slapdash old 1980s, when everyone had to look out for themselves.

2) I played Maria in West Side Story
That sounds like a fantastic claim to make, but it was a High School production of a few selected scenes, and I was only 14 years old. The teacher encouraged us to try to use Puerto Rican accents as best we could, and even though I had no idea what Puerto-Ricans sounded like, I made an effort. My parents said the weird fake accent slid away during the night, and returned at moments when I remembered. Mine wasn't a singing role (thankfully) but the boy who played Tony had a lovely soprano voice, which hadn't broken yet. We didn't speak one single word to each other during all the rehearsals.

3) I achieved top marks in Year 12 English
After a lot of hard work all year, I was one of the students who got full marks in the English exams, and still have the newspaper list containing my name, along with hundreds of others. I thought University English would be a cinch after the great feedback I always got from school, but I was in for a shock. For my first assignment, I received 64%, and was so heartbroken, I went to query the professor about it. He tried to assure me that it wasn't a bad grade, and I hated him! Throughout my three years there, I never did become a straight Distinction student. Promising starts sometimes fizzle out. In retrospect it's not really a big deal anymore, but at the time I had a real identity crisis.

4) I read the Harry Potter books in top secret
It was the early 2000s, and I was caught in the outcry of well-meaning Christians calling these books the devil's work, and warning us not to let our little angels be corrupted by reading them. My eldest son was 5, and I remember the social occasion when one of the other Reception mums said the warnings were a load of rubbish. She thought the books were great, and 'may even become classics'. Knowing her to be a very devout woman, I got hold of the books (only four at the time), and the rest is history. What a valuable lesson to never rely on hearsay. Letting others make decisions for us may rob us of terrific experiences. I've long since lost touch with that other school mother, but still think of her with gratitude, for speaking out an opinion which she knew was unpopular at the time.

5) I thought I saw the ghost of Branwell Bronte 
During my international holiday, we were walking one of the city walls somewhere in Yorkshire, and passed a cute, other-worldly looking young man with bright red hair, painting on an easel. When we said, 'Excuse me,' he just smiled and bowed without making a sound. I whispered to my parents and sister that he looked like the brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Then I peered back to have another look, and he'd disappeared! As it was a high city wall and there was nowhere he could have gone, it gave me a thrill up my spine :) By the time we got to the bottom of the steps, he was back again. The others said he'd probably bent over to pick up his brush, but I preferred to think it really was not just some nineteenth century specter but Branwell himself.

6) I've written nine novels which have been published 
 This was a labour of love over many years. What more can I say? When my older son was at kindy and my daughter was sound asleep in her capsule at the back of the car, I'd park somewhere and write. I was happy to do the work of editing and re-editing until I pretty well knew each line that was coming by heart. I looked forward to seeing how thick those computer pages would turn out to be in book forms. And I would dream about my characters, and hum bars of music which reminded me of them. Those were good times.

7) We were homeless with 3 kids, including a new born baby
 Back in 2004 when we sold our house, we decided to take a great homeschooling journey up the centre of Australia and back down the coast, with our caravan. We had no idea where we'd settle down once we returned to Adelaide, but trusted it'd work out when the time came. It was a great holiday, although there were some awkward moments, such as the time we were pulled over for a routine car check one night by a cop in Toowoomba. He gave us a funny look when he asked our residential address and we told him we didn't have one. It must have looked unconventional, with a 9-year-old, 5-year-old and 2 month-old blinking at him from the back seat. 

Now that it's come to the nomination part, I'm not really much of a pass on the baton type of person, but will try to come up some of my favourite blogs, who I'll contact personally. Meanwhile, if you'd like to give this a go anyway, I'd love to see 7 interesting facts. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

'An Unnecessary Woman' by Rabih Alameddine

One of Beirut’s most celebrated voices, Rabih Alameddine follows his international bestseller, The Hakawati, with a heartrending novel that celebrates the singular life of an obsessive introvert, revealing Beirut’s beauties and horrors along the way.

Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, divorced, and childless, Aaliya is her family’s "unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated have never been read—by anyone. 

In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Insightful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.

A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of a single woman's reclusive life in the Middle East.

I saw this book recommended by a couple of other readers on Instagram, and found it at one of my local libraries.

It's a stream of consciousness sort of novel. Aaliya is a Lebanese woman in her seventies who lives alone, and has never had any children. Her strong introvert nature guarantees that others don't really get to know her, let alone tap into her fertile inner world. Aaliya has a secret she's kept to herself for over fifty years. At the start of each year, she begins a huge project of translating a beloved classic or philosophy book into her own native language, Arabic.

At the end of each project, she boxes it and moves on with the next, because Aaliya believes that publication is an implausible dream. She has two very good reasons for thinking so.

a) There would surely never be enough demand for such translations to make them worth a publisher's while. In other words, there's no market for what she does.
b) She's only translating from former translations anyway, since her other languages are English and French. This makes her work one extra step removed from the originals which include Russian and German. So her philosophy is 'create and crate,' and the satisfaction it brings is her main spur for continuing year after year. 'Through no effort of my own, I'm visited by bliss.'

She also says, 'I'll be sitting at my desk and suddenly I don't wish my life to be any different. I am where I need to be. My heart distends with delight. I feel sacred.' Is this a good enough reason to plod on with something that is totally unknown to others? I think so. Does it give us permission to persevere with quiet occupations of our own for the same reason? Sure, why not!

An Unnecessary WomanThroughout the book, Aaliya name drops for the best of reasons. It's never in an artificial way to let others know how learned she is, since she rarely speaks to her neighbours. Her musing about the works of great authors is always internal, and she never sets out to impress anyone. Even though she carries the hidden burden of being worthless and superfluous, the authors' words bring her comfort and joy. Her life really shows that one of the best perks about being a bookworm is being able to take on great thoughts and ideas and make them our own, a bit like hydrangea petals taking on blue dye.

It's an eye-opener too. I consider myself to be fairly well read, but I'd never heard of several of the wise sages she mentions. From a quick look at Goodreads, it would appear I share this with many other reviewers, and even characters in the book. (Slight spoiler here, I'm thinking of her neighbour Joumana picking up 'Anna Karenina' and saying, 'Thank goodness I've heard of this one.') But it's evident from the influence which some fairly obscure writers have on Aaliya that you don't have to be well known to be meaningful.

Take this example from one of her philosopher heroes, Fernando Pessoa. 'The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognises as useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.' Hmm, I might look up more of this guy.

There's such a lot to delve into which I haven't even mentioned, such as history, living in Beirut, war and family dynamics. The story is both simple and complex, one and the same. An interesting side plot is the plight of Hannah, the only friend Aaliya ever truly bonded with. Her story from the past gets us thinking about the nature of self-delusion and fool's paradise, and whether the real truth should make any difference, if you are living a happy life. Very interesting stuff.

Overall, I love the theme of Aaliya's life, that to be meaningful isn't synonymous with being influential. I do understand why we make that assumption. Our reasoning probably goes something like this. If we're here to help others, then we're surely fulfilling our purpose best when we are an actual benefit to them, and when people are talking about us, which won't happen if we stick our work in boxes. But this story encourages us to broaden our definition of meaningful. I followed Aaliya's own example of looking to others and flicked back to Victor Frankl, who's an expert on the subject if anyone is. He declared that we derive meaning from a) our love, b) our work, and c) our suffering. Aaliya's passion for her translations ticks all these boxes, and nowhere does Frankl say that others have to buy into the discoveries we make.

Aaliya is a living epiphany, although she paradoxically hates epiphanies. To her mind, they are sentimental and boring. 'Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn't as clear and concise as your stories.' So even though she comes across a bit cantankerous and cynical at times, she has become one of my personal heroines and role models. From now on when I'm working at my own computer, I'll remember Aaliya, sitting in her spartan apartment, hard at work on her translations. Her non-impact is very impacting to me. Whoever would have thought personal satisfaction could be enough in our day and age to justify the good work we choose to do, but perhaps it really is.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ships that never sailed

I'm talking about ships in the romantic sense here. In case you're unfamiliar with the term, I'll explain. Not so long ago, I was confused if people asked, 'Who do you ship in such and such a story?' I asked my eldest son, who always seems to know a lot about current jargon, but he was baffled too. 'Huh, shipping? It's all about imports and exports as far as I know.' 

My daughter, who overheard, said she couldn't believe how naive we both were. 'It's all about predicting which couples you think ought to end up together. That's all there is to it.' So I learned something new, and it's become part of my bookish vocabulary. In fact, I'd been shipping for years, without being aware of the term. 

One of the first things I learned about shipping is that it's often based on speculation, and readers have the potential to be disappointed as often as not. Authors have their own plans, which don't always match ours. I'll take you for a quick tour through several ships which might have had the potential to be grand vessels, but ended up either grounded or sinking. These are some of my favourite barques which got nowhere. Keep in mind that there'll be plot spoilers, owing to the nature of this list. 

Good Wives1) Jo and Laurie
Louisa May Alcott left many fans devastated when her beloved literary tomboy Jo friend zoned everyone's favourite boy next door, Theodore (Laurie) Lawrence. Especially since she arguably seemed to have been setting them up for a future together from the moment they met. (See my thoughts on what did happen. I've also reviewed Little Women and Good Wives.)

2) Fanny Price and Henry Crawford
The bashful and highly principled Mansfield Park heroine was a prime catch for any man. She ended up with her staid cousin Edmund, but several readers would have preferred her to marry the dashing Henry Crawford, who vowed to win her heart if it was the last thing he ever did. (My review is here. You might also enjoy my thoughts about Fanny's ultimate choice in The Day I was rebuked by Jane Austen.)

3) Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby
These two were going great together, until he decided to look after his future and propose to a rich heiress. But Willoughby was so heartbroken and remorseful by his own decision, many fans might have wished him a second chance. After all, Colonel Brandon was a bit old, plain and fatherly for the excitable, emotional Marianne, wasn't he? Can you really imagine her happy with him over the long term?

4) Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw
These two are often hailed as one of the greatest romances of all time, to the point where she thinks of him as an extension of herself. (Remember the famous line, 'Nelly, I am Heathcliff') But Cathy chooses the refined Edgar Linton of all people, based on money and social prestige. And then Heathcliff fights dirty by seducing her innocent sister-in-law Isabella, to prove that two can play at that game. How off course can it get, even though Emily Bronte hinted that the ship sailed in the next life? (My review is here.)

5) Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate
A canny reader of George Eliot's Middlemarch might be forgiven for anticipating that the author might be blowing the course of the ship in this direction. Both these main characters had high ideals, great intelligence, and disastrous first marriages. Surely ending up together might have been great for the pair of them, and warmed our romantic hearts too? But no, Eliot had other, arguably better plans. (My review is here.)
Great Expectations
6) Pip and Biddy
Charles Dickens could so easily have pulled off our own great expectations, to many readers' satisfaction. Pip was enthralled by the haughty beauty of the aloof Estella, but wise village girl Biddy always had his back and gave him great advice, even though he sometimes took his frustration out on her. We always get the feeling she'll accept him as soon as he comes to his senses. But when that finally happens, Pip rocks up in town to find Biddy on the point of marrying Joe Gargery. Oh Dickens, why would you do that? He's old enough to be her father. (See here for my review. You may also like my article about a time when one of Dickens' best friends rebuked him for disappointing many shippers.)

7) Marion Halcombe and Walter Hartwright
The Woman in White was a hit of the nineteenth century, and these two characters worked so well together, solving a creepy mystery and holding each other in high esteem. But Walter falls for Marian's half sister, the helpless and hysterical Laura Fairlie. He doesn't seem to twig that beauty is more than skin deep. Drats, he and Marian could have made such a power couple.(See here for my review.)

8) Ivanhoe and Rebecca
IvanhoeThis was a popular ship with a medieval setting. A brave and self-sacrificing young Jewish girl named Rebecca is in love with Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the gallant knight. She nurses him through major wounds sustained in a tournament, and he becomes her hero when she's accused of witchcraft. But Ivanhoe marries his father's beautiful ward, Lady Rowena, who comes across as another of those one-dimensional, damsels in distress. Many readers sigh, not that we have anything against Rowena, but because we can't imagine she could possibly love Ivanhoe more than the unforgettable Rebecca did. Apparently Sir Walter Scott knew he was getting flak from readers, and defended himself by insisting that a marriage between Ivanhoe and Rebecca would have been totally unrealistic for the era. Still, that's no excuse, mate! You're the author!

9) Scarlett and Rhett
An American Civil War setting for this ship. The handsome and self-assured Mr Butler has his sights set on the flighty Miss O'Hara, while she flirts with every other man in their vicinity. Her own heart is stubbornly fixed on married man Ashley Wilkes for a very long time. Even when she marries Rhett, her attitude makes things rocky. By the time Scarlett comes to her senses, Rhett has moved on. 'Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.'

10) Marius and Eponine
This one's a ship from the French Revolution. Les Miserables is such a long story, there's bound to be a heartbreaking romantic dilemma or two. Marius is a young revolutionary who's in love with Cosette, Jean Valjean's innocent ward. But Eponine, the daughter of a no-good innkeeper, also loves him, to the point where he becomes her guiding light. She's even willing to take a bullet for him. Once again, sweet and innocent seems to trump heart and soul. Oh, why do these nineteenth century authors keep doing this to us?
The Great Gatsby
11) Gatsby and Daisy
This American classic has been a beached ship for many readers. Poor Jay Gatsby does everything in his power to reunite himself with his lost love, including becoming filthy rich and throwing super duper parties. It's easy to back these two just because he's put in so much effort, and her husband Tom is a big old, cheating thug. But it's not to be.

12) Luna and Neville
This one might have been sweet for Harry Potter fans. Awkward young Gryffindor hero who's convinced he doesn't have what it takes, and eccentric loner with the ability to see right to the heart of everyone. They each find their inner compass at the same time, while fighting for the same worthy cause. They might've been so great together. As for their future spouses, we simply don't know enough about Hannah or Rolf to sweeten the blow.

The rest of my Harry Potter ships involve just one young lady, Hermione Granger. Wow, this girl was a magnet for romantic speculations.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)13) Hermione and Victor Krumm
This had serious potential. Even my own daughter wouldn't have minded seeing it happen, at least for a little while. While Ron's busy trying to work out (or deny) his feelings, the studious and taciturn young Durmstrang student is quietly charming the girl in her own territory, the library. While most people's focus is too shallow to see him as anything other than a famous quidditch champion, she has the depth to fathom the deeper man within. And the irony is, she cares least about what he's renowned for. Nice one, J.K. Rowling. But it was not to be.

14) Hermione and Draco Malfoy
This one still has a major following, to the point where some shippers refuse to let go, and they keep their illusions alive in fan fiction. I guess I can understand the appeal. Imagine Draco telling his bigoted, Death Eater father that he's fallen for a Mudblood. But seriously, I could never back this one in a million years. There was never a spark of interest from either side, they were poles apart in their world outlooks and we were never given a hint that it might happen. But it does prove how great a shipper's imagination might be. (You might like my article on bad boys with depth.)

15) Hermione and Harry
Many people might have expected that this was where the series was headed from the very start. Hermione was one of Harry's very best friends, devoted to his cause, and so smart and perceptive, it was impossible for those boys to get along without her. But since their platonic friendship is ideal for a future list about guys and girls who are great friends with no strings attached, I'm happy enough to let it go. In fact, I shipped both Harry and Ginny and Hermione and Ron from early on. Ships which do come to pass often make up for those which don't.

So I've shared several of mine. Do you agree with any of them, or have you any of your own to share that I haven't mentioned? In all of literature and fandom, whose failure to become a couple almost broke your heart? If you enjoyed this list, have a read of a related one, Tales of Unrequited Love. You might also like literature's most awkward marriage proposals.

Monday, November 27, 2017

'The Ladies of Ivy Cottage' by Julie Klassen


Return to Ivy Hill in The Ladies of Ivy Cottage as friendships deepen, romances blossom, and mysteries unfold.

Living with the two Miss Groves in Ivy Cottage, impoverished gentlewoman Rachel Ashford is determined to earn her own livelihood . . . somehow. When the village women encourage her to open a subscription library with the many books she has inherited or acquired through donations, Rachel discovers two mysteries hidden among them. A man who once broke her heart helps her search for clues, but will both find more than they bargained for?

Rachel's friend and hostess, Mercy Grove, has given up thoughts of suitors and fills her days managing her girls' school. So when several men take an interest in Ivy Cottage, she assumes pretty Miss Ashford is the cause. Exactly what--or who--has captured each man's attention? The truth may surprise them all.

There's nothing nicer than a well-written village chronicle, and I loved The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, which started this series off. I was so keen for the chance to grab hold of this next installment, and it didn't disappoint. Julie Klassen has a way of building up our curiosity to fathom several village mysteries. It's good to catch up with many characters we came to love in the first book. Some parts of their stories were neatly tied up, but others left tantalisingly dangling. While the Bell Coaching Inn was the main setting for the first book, this time it's Ivy Cottage, where Miss Mercy Grove runs her girls' school.

Remember Miss Rachel Ashford who moves in with her? She was forced to leave her house penniless, with just the unwanted inheritance of her father's hefty book collection. Someone gives her the idea of using it as a base to begin a circulating library, to help her become financially independent. This provides plenty of scope for interesting happenings. Two anonymous donations of books become page turners (pardon the pun), and stir up a few hornets' nests too.

Mercy steps up to a bigger role in this book. Remember, she's a single woman with a maternal heart which she's poured into her little school until now. But two opportunities arise, to adopt her youngest pupil Alice, and to marry an eligible bachelor handpicked by her parents to tick all her boxes (in their opinion). The pressure is on, since it seems they'll pull the plug on her school if she decides against Mr Hollander. And for anyone who's read George Eliot's Middlemarch, he seems to want a Casaubon/Dorothea sort of arrangement, where she will help him write a great book which is no more than a concept in his mind as yet.

James Drake, the gentlemanly hotel entrepreneur is still working hard, and we get glimpses into his deeper past, revealing another reason why he chose Ivy Hill for his latest venture. That suited me, as he's a dashing and likeable character. And one of the most marginal people in the first book turns out to be most lovable in this. That's Mercy's aunt, Miss Matilda Grove. She knows full well she's regarded as one of those pointless members of society; an unmarried woman who's dependent on her relatives, but she's a kind, cheerful and fun-loving person. Her revelation to Mercy of what keeps her going impressed me a lot.

There is still plenty of my favourite mother and daughter-in-law team, Jane and Thora Bell. Jane is as sweet as ever, still dealing graciously with the disappointments in her life, and the fact that it's dealt her a different hand than she anticipated. I can personally relate to aspects of Jane's history, and understand why she'd be wary not to be hurt again, even when life beckons with its best. I'm glad her brother-in-law Patrick's story develops too, as I liked him a lot.

The cast of characters has its fair share of overbearing, autocratic mothers, including Sir Timothy's, Nicholas Ashford's, and poor Mercy's. It also has its share of ill-fated romantic liaisons. And I'd love to count the number of times something romantic or significant is on the verge of being uttered, when some third party interrupts the moment. I might've counted, if I'd guessed they would keep coming.

Ivy Hill really is a great place for lovers of Thrush Green, Middlemarch, Cranford, and other fictional English villages. I'm already looking forward to the third in this series.

As for good quotes, although Mr Hollander wasn't necessarily the most endearing character, some of the lines he spouts are great. I love his reply when someone politely asks him who his favourite author is, and it gets his hackles up. 'How can one choose a favourite from among one's very confidantes and mentors? I am not some youth with my arm slung around the shoulder of one's chum at the exclusion of others! Each suits at a different time. A different season.' Yeah, you tell 'em, Professor!

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.


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.


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.


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


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.

🌟 (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.


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.