Tuesday, February 28, 2017

'The Elusive Miss Ellison' by Carolyn Miller


Pride, prejudice and forgiveness...
Hampton Hall's new owner has the villagers of St. Hampton Heath all aflutter--all except Lavinia Ellison. The reverend's daughter cares for those who are poor and sick, and the seventh Earl of Hawkesbury definitely does not meet that criteria. His refusal to take his responsibilities seriously, or even darken the door of the church, leave her convinced he is as arrogant and reckless as his brother--his brother who stole the most important person in Lavinia's world.

Nicholas Stamford is shadowed by guilt: his own, his brother's, the legacy of war. A perfunctory visit to this dreary part of Gloucestershire wasn't supposed to engage his heart, or his mind. Challenged by Miss Ellison's fascinating blend of Bluestocking opinions, hoydenish behavior, and angelic voice, he finds the impossible becoming possible--he begins to care. But Lavinia's aloof manner, society's opposition and his ancestral obligations prove most frustrating, until scandal forces them to get along. 

Can Lavinia and Nicholas look beyond painful pasts and present prejudice to see their future? And what will happen when Lavinia learns a family secret that alters everything she's ever known?

I enjoy it when modern authors who have immersed themselves in this time period choose to write Regency romance novels. Those famous authors who lived around the early 1800s made us love their work, but when we get through it, we look for more. That's why it's easy to appreciate authors like Carolyn Miller, who have taken up their mantle. She's also done something they didn't have to do, which is put in a heap of research to make her story authentic.

Miss Lavinia Ellison is the daughter of the local rector, and she carries a huge burden for the poor of their parish. Nicholas Stamford, the Earl of Hawkesbury, is a newcomer who has inherited his family's manor house, after the death of his uncle. Lavinia and Nicholas share a terrible moment from their long ago past, when a reckless action from his brother caused a terrible tragedy. Although they were both young, bad feeling has festered, and it hangs between them 15 years later, still unaddressed.

It's a novel with plenty of clever conversation, as both main characters jump to conclusions about what they believe the other thinks of them. Since we readers get the benefit of both points of view, we know how matters really stand, but the dialogue makes it clear how easy false assumptions can be latched onto.

The story often puts both heroes in the position to test their characters. Although Lavinia often feels out of her depth, she has the poise and good sense to carry herself well (and Nicholas unintentionally places her in some awkward situations). He in turn, has to figure out his true feelings toward those in supposedly inferior social positions to his own, especially when his disdainful mother arrives on the scene. He comes across with some Darcy-esque sorts of attitudes, but they're softened by the burden of grief and guilt he carries, and terrible memories from serving in the war.

The age old question of whether or not we should please people by observing all the 'right' social maxims comes up, as it's bound to in this time period. You've got to feel bad for Lavinia, whose ideas based on what she feels is noble and true in her heart are shot down by more powerful people. It's a struggle for her to decide when to capitulate and when to hold her ground. Although mean social aspersions come across quite comic to us in a witty Regency novel, we can't forget they were very meaningful and pointed at the time. Most of all I think Lavinia's struggle with the black dog of depression was written really well. Although it wasn't known by either name back in those times, it's easy to see what she's dealing with. I can't help wishing she and Nicholas had addressed that terrible incident from their past more thoroughly than we see them do, but we can imagine that it happened, as it surely must have.

If you're a lover of Regency romances, I'm sure this pretty cover holds a story you'll enjoy. The descriptions of the English countryside and estate gardens are really lovely too. I wasn't certain what a 'ha-ha' was, but when I googled it, I realised I've seen plenty of them, without ever knowing this delightful name :)

Thanks to Kregel Publications and Net Galley for my review copy.

Friday, February 24, 2017

My favourite L.M. Montgomery hero

When I saw this week's topic from the Classic Remarks meme by Pages Unbound, I looked forward to it. But as a serious LMM collector from way back, I thought I'd add my own personal stipulation that it can't be Gilbert Blythe. He's so lovable, and has been such a media darling, it's too easy for anyone to call him their favourite by default. I wanted to dig deeper. This is a good chance to give some of Montgomery's other, equally dashing heroes some exposure. I decided against the sexy, writerly types like Barney Snaith from 'The Blue Castle' or Andrew Stuart from 'Jane of Lantern Hill.' They're too similar in my mind, and I wanted to choose someone unique, and perhaps easily overlooked.

I narrowed it down to either Hilary Gordon from the Pat stories or Perry Miller from the Emily trilogy, but just couldn't decide. I resorted to a coin toss, and was quite pleased when the result was Perry, because he's possibly one of the most charismatic, but under the radar choices of all. OK, here goes.  

1) He has a girl madly in love with him, and doesn't even know it.
It's not just any girl either, but the fiery, brilliant Ilse Burnley, best friend of Emily Byrd Starr. Fierce and independent from her neglected childhood, Ilse is in the habit of going straight out to get whatever she wants, but this boy is her stumbling block. There's nothing she wants more than him, but nothing seems further from her reach. For a start, he's never been shy to hide the fact that he fancies Emily. He never toys with Ilse though. His utter cluelessness about her true feelings for him makes him even more attractive to her. He believes she despises him, which is the impression she aims for, since she thinks she can't have him.

2) He's spontaneous and thinks on his feet.
During a candlelit college function, he was supposed to deliver a sensible talk on Canadian History. On the spur of the moment, he changes his mind and talks about all the candles he's seen in his life, which is so fascinating, his audience is spellbound. Wow, who can do that sort of thing off pat, with no preparation?

Mr Carpenter, the brilliant old country school teacher, actually discerned Perry's talent early on. 'Emily couldn't understand why he'd rage at Perry and denounce him as a dunce and a nincompoop by gad, because he had failed to give the proper emphasis on a certain word, or had timed his gesture a fraction of a second too soon.'

3) He's original and willing to take a chance.
Perry's instincts often don't pay off, but at least he's always ready to try something off the wall. He writes a Scripture reference at the end of his algebra exam, hoping to get a smile from the tutor, but instead, almost gets himself disqualified. He intended to write Matthew 5:7 (Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy) but accidentally wrote Matthew 7:5 (Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye, then thou shalt see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother's.) Mr Travers, who was rumoured to know much less about Mathematics than he professed, was understandably furious. That's just one example of Perry's risks which don't quite work out well. You've got to love him.

4) He manages to rise from very humble circumstances.
We first meet him as a little boy who lives with his Aunt Tom in Stovepipe Town, the slum district. Getting a hired boy job with Jimmy Murray of New Moon is the start of his plan to improve his prospects, but Perry faces contempt and prejudice for his background every day of his life. He knows he's the butt of jokes, but shrugs them off and carries on. He works hard to earn his way through college, and I'm doubtful if Emily, Ilse and Teddy ever really appreciate what a harder battle he faces. I'm not sure those three had his brand of maturity, which enabled him to not take things personally either.

Perry manages to get into Law and Politics, and we trust he'll be an honest politician.

5) He's brave and takes immediate action
In his introductory scene, he saves Emily's life from a raging bull by throwing himself in the beast's path to distract him. He sticks up for her when Miss Brownell, the nasty school teacher, makes untrue accusations, which is equally courageous in a different way. Even accepting the headmaster's formal dinner invitation, when he has no idea about table etiquette, is brave in its way. Although Emily always preferred Teddy over Perry, Teddy never really performed heroic deeds of the same calibre.

6) He's very handsome to boot.
This is clear when poor Ilse decides to poke out the eyes of the first professional photograph Perry has ever been able to afford. She can't stand the way his image looks at her, with its truculent stance, wavy hair and gorgeous face. It's the only come-back she has, in light of the fact that she still wants him so badly.

Ilse: Never had such satisfaction as boring your scissors through those conceited orbs gave me. How I hate Perry Miller.
Emily: I thought you told me you loved him.
Ilse: It's the same thing. Why can't I get that creature out of my mind? I won't say heart. It's too Victorian to say heart. I wish he had a hundred eyes so I could have bored them all out.

7) His eventual romance is a delight.
I won't divulge such a super-duper plot spoiler, but his eventual union with Ilse involves her rushing away from a significant event to be near him at a crucial moment. Although Emily and Teddy's was intended to be the chief romance of the trilogy, I honestly preferred Ilse and Perry's.

I love how she eventually changes her tune from, 'Oh well, life's good without him,' to 'If I were dead and Perry came and looked at me, I'd live again.'

Or Perry's surprise when Emily finally blurts out that Ilse has been in love with him all those years. 'I'm as tickled as a dog with two tails to think that Ilse ever thought that much of me, at any time.'

I'd recommend you read L.M. Montgomery's trilogy, comprised of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily's Quest, back to back. It's such a joy, and you'll get plenty more of these awesome characters and the ups and downs of their lives. They sure manage to twist things up before everything falls into place.

(And on the subject of L.M. Montgomery heroes, if you'd like to see my road test of how good old Gilbert stands up against Jane Austen's Mr Darcy as everyone's favourite book boyfriend, you'll find it here.)  And for lovers of L.M. Montgomery, you might like Anne with an E - Imagination is Crucial. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Is Harry Potter a Bad Dad?

This post has plot spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It's intended to be a discussion post rather than a review.

We all know what poor little Harry Potter saw when he gazed into the Mirror of Erised, which reveals a person's greatest desire. It was the smiling faces of his family, who he lost as a baby. The lack of his loving parents was always his greatest heartache. Their death was what he hated Lord Voldemort for most. The thing he most envied was his friend Ron's stable family life. When Harry finally got to start a family of his own, it warmed our hearts to see him given the chance to make his greatest dream come true, after all he'd been through. Yet several readers of The Cursed Child believe he made a hash of it. Did our favourite boy wizard become a bad parent? I would never have believed it possible, but having read the play, I have to admit there's quite a bit of evidence.

1) His best efforts backfired because of his self-focus
At first I thought making his son the gift of his baby blanket was a meaningful and touching gesture. My daughter is the one who immediately got Albus' point of view. The gesture was meaningful to Harry, but not to Albus. He told his father, 'James and Lily got decent things which they both wanted. I can understand why you'd give an invisibility cloak, and fairy wings, but what makes you think I'd want this moldy old relic from your past?' Maybe Harry didn't plan his gift with the recipient in mind. He made the classic mistake of choosing a gift he would value himself, rather than one the recipient would want. Albus was being belligerent, but you have to understand the cryptic language of teenagers to know that he was really saying, 'You just don't get me, Dad!' 

2) There's that horrible thing he said!
We're all just human, but sometimes teenagers can get away with behaviour which parents can't. Albus blew up and shouted, 'Sometimes I wish you weren't my father.' Without missing a beat, Harry responded, 'Well, sometimes I wish you weren't my son!' I think there was a collective gasp of horror around the world. We all blurt things we shouldn't sometimes, but Harry, you should never say that to one of your children, not even in a spirit of impetuous retaliation. Even though he straightaway said he didn't mean it, his words set off a lot of damage, which reverberated through the rest of the play.

3) He's clueless about what's important to his son.
Harry's reactive decision earns him no fans at this point. Bane the Centaur mentions 'a dark cloud' hanging around Harry's son, and Harry instantly makes the blind assumption that Bane is referring to Albus' best (and only) friend, Scorpius. He thinks demanding an end to the boys' friendship is a wise move on his part. Harry reasons that since there are dark rumours concerning Scorpius' true parentage and his surname is Malfoy, that's all the evidence he needs. He's just protecting his family. Right?

No way, not at this stage! The boys are 14 years old, and they've been best friends since they were 11. That's three years in which Harry could have taken an interest in his son's social life, and made an effort to get to know his only friend. If he'd truly done that, he would have quickly discovered that Scorpius is warm-hearted, generous, and Albus' only positive peer group member at school. If he'd been up to date with his son's life, he would have rejected his fleeting suspicion as ridiculous. But his misguided leap to the wrong conclusion proves that he was seriously out of touch with what was happening in Albus' world. Sure, we could try to excuse Harry by reasoning that he's a busy ministry employee with a lot of other things on his mind. Well, read that sentence over again, and you'll see it's no excuse.

4) He has some of the worst, most devastating lines of the whole play.
They are all short and brutal. And they are all tied in with his misguided parenting.

'Sometimes I wish you weren't my son.'
'Well Minerva, you never had any children'
'Draco, are you sure he's really yours?'

Harry, you need to learn some people skills, seriously! 

5) He becomes an overbearing dictator for a short time.
His delusions make him do some truly horrid things. He cuts Professor McGonagall's feelings to the quick (See Number 4). Then he demands that she use the Marauder's Map as a surveillance tool to make extra certain the two boys never communicate. Even Ginny tells him he's lost the plot. And we hate him keeping the boys apart, because we have enough evidence to see things clearly. Scorpius has stolen our hearts. That plucky little optimist has had enough to contend with in his short life, after the death of his mother, on top of the vicious rumours he's faced all his life. Anyone who makes things worse for him deserves our wrath. Shame on you, Harry Potter!

And finally, just to add insult to injury ... 

6) Draco Malfoy is always around to show him up.
Draco never professes to be the perfect parent himself, but at least we see him trying and succeeding in some of those areas where Harry falls short. He comes across as more sensitive and hands-on in his parenting approach. He's open to the idea of his son forming a close bond with the son of his old enemy, if that's what it'll take to make Scorpius happy. He hates to see Scorpius in tears, and takes immediate action to confront Harry and demand why he'd keep the boys apart. (See Harry's response to him, too. 'No, I'm not keeping them apart.' That's an outright lie) Draco even seems to be in touch enough with Scorpius' social life to understand his best friend too. He grasps how Albus ticks well enough to warn Harry not to lose the boy. The two former foes always had rivalry going on, but whoever would have expected Draco to top Harry in the challenge called parenthood?

When the pair of them had a wand duel over all this, I found myself cheering whenever Draco got a stroke on Harry, just on principle. After what Harry said to set it off, (see Number 4), Draco seemed so clearly in the right. Yeah, I know. It's got to be one of the biggest role reversals I've come across in literature!

*    *    *

So sadly, I have to agree that the people who think Harry became a bad dad do have a case to back up their statement. I was sad to have my rosy picture of the boy who lived tarnished like this, but I could also see these glitches are consistent with character traits he displayed in his youth. Back then, Harry's impetuous streak, quick assumptions and hot way of bursting out before he thought were endearing at times. But as a parent, they cause problems for him, at least where Albus is concerned.

But the best features of Harry's character are also present in the play. He's not too proud to feel sorry and back down when he sees he's been mistaken. (I was wrong to keep you away from Scorpius.) Any father who can make an apology deserves a pat on the back. He can recognise good advice and take it on board, even when it comes from his former enemy. (You may also enjoy Can Sworn Enemies ever become Friends?) And best of all, he genuinely loves his middle child dearly, and is willing to do whatever it takes to bridge the gap between them, when he finally wakes up enough to see it's become a problem. Overall, aren't these the sorts of traits which actually make a parent good? Maybe it's not such a terrible thing to show that even heroes may have feet of clay. And how encouraging for any parent who's ever done silly things (and who hasn't?) to see that even heroes may relate to us.

In the face of all this, I still love you, Harry. You're a bad parent, but at the same time, you're also a very good parent. And doesn't that describe many of us. What better incentive to just keep doing our best, because tomorrow is always a brand new day.

Monday, February 20, 2017

'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway

It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.


I choose this for the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge, in the category of a twentieth century classic.

It's is actually quite a short novella. Have a look at the close-up picture on the front of my copy? That's the crux of the whole plot. Now you don't need to read it.

Just kidding. Here's a summary, and I won't worry about avoiding plot spoilers for something as short and famous as this. Santiago is an elderly Cuban fisherman who's considered bad luck because he's had no catch for 84 days. The parents of his young helper, Manolin, have ordered their son to join a luckier boat instead. One day out on the sea alone, the old man manages to hook a mighty, 18-foot long marlin who defies getting reeled in and drags him way out to sea. Neither man nor fish are willing to give in, but finally Santiago manages to kill the beast. On the way home with his prize, sharks pick up the scent and rip its bones clean. That's it, folk.

I could get away with a one sentence review. 'What a bummer!'

Naw, since this little tale won the Pulitzer Prize of 1953, I'll thresh it out a bit. Critics say you have to 'delve beneath the surface' to get the most from this book, which I guess is an apt analogy considering it's set on the sea. You'll find many educational websites attempting to convince us all how brilliantly multi-layered this story is. Smart people think it's a wonderful fable or allegory, where everything represents something deeper and more profound. But then I stumbled across a quote by Ernest Hemingway himself, claiming that this is a load of bunk. 'The sea is the sea, the old man is an old man, the sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is s**t.' (The link is here if you are interested.) Okay, since he's the author, I'm more than happy to believe him.

Maybe my main impressions were about other readers' impressions. There's a lot of animosity on Goodreads reviews! A couple of people wrote something like, 'Just cut the line, why don't you? Put us all out of our misery.' Then angry fans ticked them off in the comments for being so flippant about such a magnificent book, yada, yada, yada. 'It's people like you who make the world such a shallow place' (Another sea analogy, whether or not they realised it).

I understand the 'cut the line' mentality. In our times, we're saturated with messages to chase our dreams and refuse to settle for less than the very best. It causes a lot of prolonged stress and suffering when perhaps we really should give up. But cutting the line never once crossed Santiago's mind. He lived in a simple culture and had the fatalistic belief that he was born to be a fisherman, like most of his neighbours. Often we sense when to quit, but if passion or enthusiasm for anything still drives you, then Santiago proves that you may always have more reserves of strength up your sleeve than you think. But having said that, I'm happy to live in a place and time where we can decide to cut the line in our own ways without losing face or self-esteem.

A few reviewers wrote, 'I was forced to read this for school. It sucked.' That makes me sad about educational curricula. Making teenagers read and write about characters whose mindsets are poles apart from their own often ends up stirring nothing but resentment. Sure, bureaucratic book choices are meant to encourage students to feel empathy for different people, but it often backfires and gives them the impression that they 'hate' a particular author, who they just weren't ready for.

I clearly remember the 16-year-old I used to be, and know I would have hated this book too. Back then, I wanted to read about cheerful things like romance and relationships, and not the melancholy musings of lonely old men floating on the sea. I wanted to focus on ways we could find happiness and fulfillment. I didn't want to hear that adversity is the flip side of the coin and just as likely to be in store for us. Now that I'm middle-aged, I don't mind reading about people making peace with adversity, because I've experienced more ebbs and flows of life first hand (hey look, I made an unintentional sea analogy too). But boy, when I was 16, Santiago's story would have seemed like a waste of a couple of days, both for him and me. I think it's time we stopped trying to fire poor kids up about certain stories way before they're ready to hear them, and then adding insult to injury by abusing them for giving their honest impressions.

Okay, now for my impressions about the actual book :) Since Hemingway himself said that symbolism was you-know-what, I won't go that way.

The question of personal drive is interesting. At one stage, Santiago can't shake a niggling feeling that killing such a noble fish was a sin. Reason tells him that of course it wasn't, since it was his livelihood. He hoped to keep himself alive and feed several people. But he can't deny the part of him that did it for pride and to make a name for himself. Given that he came to love that plucky fish and consider him a brother, it seems particularly brutal. Can one single act, such as killing a fish, be a good or bad deed depending on the motivation? No matter how good we may look to others, we know deep in our own hearts what drives us to do things.

Santiago sees the sea as a beloved feminine entity, capricious and beautiful in its apparently random giving and withholding of favours. He's old enough to have learned that although life doesn't always seem fair, grumbling about it is never, ever helpful. I think of several wise sages' advice to never let either adversity or good fortune sway our equilibrium. Keep your hearts on an even keel (hey, another one), because both good and bad come and go. Santiago suffers great exultation and great loss within the same fishing trip. If we remember that it's wise not to get too overjoyed or too depressed about our own changing times, we'll be doing well.

Finally, I guess it shows you never know how any event will look from a broader perspective. No doubt when Santiago first got back to shore, those couple of days out at sea would have seemed like a write-off. and serious lapse of judgement. In the excitement of the chase, he wasn't thinking straight. Surely he'd been around long enough to guess that tugging a bleeding marlin behind his boat would be an instant shark magnet. But hey, his story won millions of fans and a major literary prize. It would be nice if we could look back at our own most face-palming moments in a better light someday, even if it's just a lesson we learned.

Overall, it really is a quick and simple story, and anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Ernest Hemingway got an easy win, when you compare it to some of the other lofty Pulitzer Prize winners. Perhaps those fickle winds of fortune were blowing his way in 1953. But maybe he had the last word when his fellow author, William Faulkner said something disparaging about his simple style. I believe it went something like this.

Faulkner: Poor Hemingway. He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.
Hemingway: Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?

Touche! This story was made into a black and white movie in 1958, starring Spencer Tracy. Has anyone seen it? I can't imagine how they could drag this out to a movie length, and I don't think I want to find out :)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Some news from me

Here's what I shared on Facebook on Saturday morning, after we'd returned.

My dear old Dad passed away today, catching us all by surprise. He'd been in hospital following a fall and had expected to go home on Monday, but suffered a massive heart attack this morning. We were all alerted, but arrived just moments too late to say goodbye. He was 84 years old, and very much our family patriarch. We'd visited him on Tuesday, before it all happened, when he seemed the same as ever. Glad he didn't suffer, but how we're going to miss hearing his voice, and enjoying his stories. RIP Bryon Mitchell, 5.7.1932 - 11.2.2017

So that's what's happened with me.

Although I know he's peaceful now, we're all still very much in grief mode. My mind is full of memories, both long ago and recent. I'm still crying spontaneously several times a day, finding food a bit hard to swallow, and experiencing fairly restless nights. This week, I'll be helping my family plan his funeral. Although I had this week's blog posts finished and scheduled, I've decided to defer them for a week or two. Not just because I'm distracted but for a bit of space, and a mark of respect.

I'll be back before long. Meanwhile if you're a new visitor, take the chance to look around the blog at the posts under each heading. See you again soon. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Stories which feature umbrellas

I came across an interesting bit of trivia. Did you know that today, February 10th, is National Umbrella Day in the USA? Here in Australia, umbrellas are most often the last thing on our minds this time of year, but we've experienced some reasonably wet summer days, following a year of floods and deluges throughout 2016. So I thought I'd celebrate by giving this day the Vince Review treatment. 

During one of our torrential downpours when my eldest son was off to Uni, I told him to take an umbrella. He refused, because, to quote his own words, 'they look wimpy.' I wondered if others share his opinion. When I put the question out on Facebook, another young man agreed with him. 'I'd rather have a wet jacket than carry around a wet stick.'

It made me wonder whether this is the general opinion of the younger generation. After centuries of being our reliable friend, it's sad to see the humble brolly getting such a bad rap. It's time to elevate its status again. Judging from years of fiction, I'm not the only umbrella fan. They feature in stories for a variety of reasons. Maybe the classic old line, 'You'd better share my umbrella,' springs to mind first, but I'm here to prove that bringing us together by keeping us dry isn't their only purpose.

1) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1) In Lucy's first foray into Narnia, she bumps into the little faun, Mr Tumnus, and makes him drop his armload of parcels because he's also juggling an umbrella. I read that C.S. Lewis' vision for the land of Narnia was helped by a strong mental picture he had of a two-legged faun standing in the snow beneath a lamp post, carrying an umbrella.

Mr. Meddle's Mischief2) Mr Meddle
Anyone who read Enid Blyton's stories of this meddlesome chap might remember that he had a crabby Aunt Jemima, who found it hard to put up with his nonsense. She often used her umbrella to whack him with, which seemed like a pretty good purpose in her case.

3) How I met your Mother
Who watched this sitcom while it was running? Ted Mosby was telling his two teenagers rambling stories about how he met their mother, but his anecdotes always seemed to get off the track. For such a long time they never actually introduced her, but the appearance of her little yellow umbrella was always a bright indicator to viewers that she might be near.

4) Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1) This super-nanny had a magical umbrella which took her places when she gripped the handle. She'd wait until her work at a place was done, and zoom off again. She became such a legend that the sight of a little Victorian lady flying through the sky beneath the canopy of her brolly evokes warm feelings in many hearts.

5) Harry Potter
Talking about magic, remember Hagrid's giant pink umbrella? It was actually a contraband wand, because he wasn't officially meant to carry one. Since he'd been expelled from Hogwarts, he'd forfeited his right to wield a wand. It turned out to be a pretty nifty disguise.

Good Wives (Little Women, #1.5)6) The Umbrella Man
This is one of Roald Dahl's lesser known stories. A little girl and her mother came across a man who'd built himself a sneaky but successful business by stealing umbrellas, then selling them to poor soaking suckers who were caught without. As the mother says, 'I'll bet he looks forward to rainy days.'

7) Little Women/Good Wives
I want to finish with one which does serves a traditional role (bringing people together by keeping them dry). This is arguably the cutest and best of all. Jo March and Professor Bhaer first declare their affection for each other beneath his umbrella in the driving rain. Both were laden with parcels, splattered with mud, and knew there was a long way home ahead of them. But to them, the situation was perfect.

 I hope my list may convince anyone who might feel inclined to grumble about umbrellas that they are great things to own. They've been weapons, magical devices, clues in mysteries, fashion statements, and modes of transport too. 

However, do you think an umbrella would be any good against hailstones of this caliber? We didn't put it to the test, but this photo was taken during a freak storm in my parents' backyard. The stones dented their tin gazebo roof, so I can only imagine what they might have done to umbrella fabric. I just thought I'd share my proof that anything is possible in Adelaide.

Where do you stand on the umbrella question? Do you use them or not?

Happy Umbrella Day

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

'Alabaster' by Chris Aslan


Maryam is stuck in an abusive marriage, living with her in-laws, in a conservative, toxically religious Middle Eastern setting. A few years back, her father was given a jar of priceless perfume by a dying leper and it seemed as if their fortunes would improve, but then Maryam’s father contracted leprosy and was exiled by the village. Maryam and her brother, Eleazar, and sister, Marta, experience the shame and ostracism this brings. The precious jar that was meant to bring them freedom, but it only seems to have brought destruction. But rumours abound concerning a new doctor; perhaps hope is on the horizon…

I thought I'd read enough novels based on Bible stories for the time being, but this one slipped past my guard. It's sneaky, since the title, cover and blurb give no indication that that's what this is. Neither do other reviewers, so hopefully I'm not being a spoil sport, or breaking some unwritten code. But I wasn't far into the story when the identities of the two sisters and their brother dawned on me. They are none other than Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Their names have been changed slightly to Mariam, Marta and Eleazar, to reflect their ancient Hebrew roots, but it's them alright.

There was a point around the 80% mark when I lost my impetus just a little. Since there were only a couple of Bible incidents about this family that hadn't been covered yet, I could predict what was coming. That's why I was having a break from biblical retellings in the first place. They're not necessarily page turners, but I was happy enough to pick this one back up in my own time.

It's not a total rehash of what we know already. This novel presents several possible scenarios of its own, including how such a lavish alabaster jar came to such a humble family in the first place. That really highlighted how special it was, and what a huge sacrifice the girls made when they decided what to do with it. There's also Mariam's marriage, their father's plight, and Eleazar's attitude before he thought things through.

The harsh New Testament times are really brought to life. A neighbour's bad fortune leads inevitably to nasty gossip and speculations, as people generally wonder if they've sinned. It's sad to read how the townsfolk use their interpretations of the Holy Scriptures as weapons to justify their mean spirited attitudes. It also highlights the immense desperation sufferers must have felt for their prayers to be answered. On top of whatever grief they were already going through, they had the added pressure of knowing that if no evident relief was forthcoming, they'd look like unworthy sinners. The time was surely ripe for the arrival of Jesus, with his message of grace and his new example of being God's hands and feet. (He was never called by name in Mariam's narrative. It was always just 'the Teacher' or 'the Doctor')

It was nice to see the two sisters depicted as close. I've seen other stories which give the impression that Mary and Martha might have been at loggerheads all the time. This one shows them generally on very loving terms, but Martha's nerves snapped because of the pressure of an unusual day. I like to think that's closer to the truth.

I really wish novels came with fragrance. The description of the spikenard once the jar was opened sounded sublime, and I badly wanted a sniff! Who remembers the old scratch and smell books for children? A story like this makes me want something similar for novels, since there's no way we can indulge our curiosity by going to buy spikenard from the local shop, if we could even afford it. Someone make scratch and smell books for adults, please :)

Thanks to Lion Hudson and Net Galley for my review copy.

3.5 stars

If you like to compare and contrast, I've reviewed another retelling of this story here.
And here are more thoughts about novel ways of retelling the same story.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Why is a Reader like a Pickled Onion?

Just before Christmas, I was invited to visit our local Waldorf School, to speak a few words at their end of year assembly. I also got to shake hands with the students who'd completed the Premier's Reading Challenge and present their awards. I have nothing to do with the Challenge, but on the spur of the moment, the teachers thought it would be nice to have a guest from outside, instead of their normal, familiar faces. Being a bit of a rush job, I was the quickest person they could find. The teacher who contacted me expressed sadness in her email that few of her students read for fun anymore, since their attention automatically turns to digital games and social media for entertainment. She wanted me to inspire them to see reading as cool, if I could. I was a bit nervous, but willing to take up the challenge. 

I remembered a blog post I'd shared quite a long time ago on Christian Writers Downunder, about readers being like pickled onions. It gave me an idea to raid my kitchen and take along a couple of props (as you see above) to make my point. When I asked for a show of hands who likes pickled onions, there were only six or so across the whole auditorium, so it became a challenge to get them interested in different foods as well as reading :) Here is the gist of what I said.

*   *   *   * 

If you're an avid reader, you're probably a pickled onion. That's meant to be a compliment. The longer we've been reading, the more pickled we are. Let me explain.

You peel your raw onions and soak them in a delicious, briny solution that you've made up with yummy ingredients such as vinegar, brown sugar and spices. Eventually, a chemical reaction takes place. The onions you take out are nothing like the hard onions you put in. They are soft enough to bite chunks straight out of in a way you'd never manage with the original raw onions. Some people think they are a delicious treat. Whether you like them or not, one thing is clear. They can never go back to being the same hard, raw onion they started as. They've been changed to the core.

Books are like the delicious brine and readers are like the onions. We get to soak in stories, biographies, reflections, inspired thoughts and knowledge. These are the ingredients that make up the brine. We come out better and different. We're spicier people with softer hearts. We can have more interesting conversations. We're more creative than we would have been, more clued-up about the world, more empathetic, less inclined to be self-focused.

From the time we were young, the brine has been working its special chemical reaction on us. We get to wonder, 'Would I have succumbed to the White Witch's turkish delight if I had been Edmund?' We see Milly Molly Mandy living with all her relatives in that thatched roof cottage, loving their simple lifestyles even though they had hardly any money. Like Beauty, we grow to understand the Beast's many great qualities, fall for him too, and realise that judgment based on first impressions is limited. We follow the whole process of the work on Marilla Cuthbert's heart until she decides to keep Anne at Green Gables. And how could Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy end up together after the bad start they had?

We're pickled onions, and we wouldn't have it any other way. We have softer hearts. We've been given insight into human nature which makes us more understanding than we might otherwise have been. We're simply nicer people, based on our reading history. And those of us who are also writers have the fun of making up our own special brine recipes to help pickle more onions. 

Do you think you can overdo it at times, though? What can happen if you stay soaking in the brine for too long? Find out here.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Meet a forgotten heartthrob from 1836

As I promised when I reviewed The Pickwick Papers, I'm going to give this young man his own feature post. Although his name was on everyone's lips back in the day, most modern readers probably don't recognise the name Sam Weller. Even Dickens' biggest fans probably have the names of other characters spring to mind. But since he's said to be the character who first made Charles Dickens famous, Sam deserves more of the limelight than he's getting. Plus, he's really delightful.

I'm surprised, in a way, that he was such a huge hit in his time, considering his position in society was lower than several of his readers. He has a way of highlighting some of the silliest aspects of life in the Victorian era in a very good-humoured way, without appearing that he's teasing. I have to wonder if the readers realised they were the butts of subtle jokes, or did they know in their secret hearts that their society really did have laughable characteristics? Sam's popularity might have been owing a bit to what I like to call 'The Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome.' Nobody wanted to admit the drawbacks of their social system for fear of being labelled eccentric, but they could air their grievances through a proxy. 'I didn't say it, Sam Weller did.'

Maybe he offered free-thinkers a chance to admit what they really thought, without owning it outright. That's the beautiful power of stories. If enough people love a character like Sam Weller, then a gentle revolution of greater humour and tolerance in the world may take place over time.

Here's a sample of Sam-isms, and why I found myself falling victim to his charm.

He's overflowing with witty catch-phrases and taglines. 
These are all along the lines of '... as the actress said to the bishop,' but he comes up with them on the spur of the moment to suit specific circumstances and conversations. How could the young Dickens ever create a character like Sam Weller? You'd imagine that over the course of a 900 page novel, they'd dry up a bit, but he just keeps them coming.

'It's over and can't be helped, and that's one consolation, as they always say in Turkey when they cut the wrong man's head off.'
'I call that adding insult to injury, as the parrot said when they not only took him from his native land but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.'
'I on'y assisted nature ma'am, as the doctor said to the boy's mother arter he'd bled him to death.'
'If you knowed who was near sir, I rayther think you'd change your note. As the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, when he heerd the robin redbreast a singin' round the corner.'

He never pretends to be what he's not.
Mrs Craddock: Mr Weller, here's a letter for you.
Sam: Wery odd, that. I'm afeerd there must be somethin' the matter, for I don't recall any gen'l'men in my circle of acquaintances as is capable o' writing one.

He's independent enough to thrive anywhere.
'If I ever wanted anything o' my father, I always asked for it in a wery respectful, obligin' manner. If he didn't give it to me, I took it, for fear I should be led to do anythin' wrong through not having it. I saved him a world o' trouble in that way, sir.'

He's never cowed or intimidated by anyone.
Sergeant Buzfuz (during Mr Pickwick's court case): You were in the passage yet saw nothing of what was going forward? Have you a pair of eyes, Mr Weller?
Sam: Yes, I have a pair of eyes, and that's just it. If they was a pair o' patent double million magnifyin' gas microscopes of hextra power, p'raps I might be able to see through a flight o' stairs and a deal door. But bein' only eyes you see, my wision's limited.

He can put people in their place without their knowledge.
Mr Stiggins: I apprehend your nature is no softer for this chastening.
Sam: Wery kind to say so. I hope my nature is not a soft one. Much obliged for your good opinion.

He's always cheerful, no matter what his circumstance.
We first see him as the whistling boot cleaner at the White Hart Inn, who admits that he never recognises clients by their faces but rather by their footwear. It never takes much for Sam to grin and enjoy himself.

Bob Sawyer: This is pleasant! (During a drive in very rough weather.)
Sam: Wery. (Composedly)
Bob: You don't seem to mind it.
Sam: Vy, I don't exactly see no good my mindin' on it would do, sir.

He easily entertains himself.
There's always some cool, original reflection ticking over in his head. For example, he remarks that you never see dead postboys or dead donkeys lying in the street. 'Vithout going so far as to assert donkeys and postboys are immortal... I'd say wenever they feels theirselves getting stiff and past their work, they just rides off together, wot becomes of 'em nobody knows.'

Mr Pickwick: The fact is he's my servant, but I allow him to take a good many liberties, for between ourselves, I flatter myself that he's an original, and I'm rather proud of him.

He's a huge contrast to another young main character.
Mr Nathaniel Winkle is one of Mr Pickwick's personal friends. He was born to a higher social class than Sam's, but is easily confused and intimidated. He forever attempts to present himself as more confident and competent than he really is, which puts him in many awkward situations. Nothing quite beats the humiliation of a bluffer who has just been exposed as a sham. And it happens to poor Nathaniel repeatedly.

Winkle: These - these are very awkward skates, ain't they, Sam?
Sam: I'm afeerd there's on orkard gen'l'man in 'em, sir.

(I think maybe their family dynamics have something to do with it. Old Tony Weller, the coach driver, is an older, tubbier version of his son Sam, while the senior Mr Winkle comes across as a bit of a cold, family dictator who withholds his approbation unless his son jumps through his hoops.)

Modern readers might wonder, as I did, what the brilliant Sam might have made of himself if life had offered him the chance to be anything other than a servant. Being born into the gentry might have changed his character completely, but the things we appreciate most about him might never have had a chance to blossom under more favourable circumstances. And the question is whether he would even want to be elevated to a higher station if he had the chance.

I think the secret of Sam's contentment is rooted in his perceptive thought life. He's not blind to the ridiculous traits of some of his social superiors, and the impressions they attempt to convey. Maybe that's why he's so free of personal ambition. I can easily imagine him wondering who would even want to be one of them, playing their silly games. Perhaps Sam comes across like a breath of fresh air simply because he's happy being himself. He sums up his life's philosophy with only four words. 'Whatever is, is right.' What a great way of encouraging us to make peace with ourselves and our circumstances. This young man goes up on my list of people whose attitudes I most admire. If you want to make the commitment to read the whole enormous book, your reward will be getting much more of him.