Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Famous Contented Prisoners



I made this list to go with my earlier one of grouchy tourists. The men on that list proved that having the range of the whole earth to roam doesn't necessarily make people happy. I intended this new one to prove the opposite, that being confined to a limited space doesn't necessarily quench a person's inner spirit. But I didn't expect my heart to be as touched as it turned out to be before I started. 

Bricks and mortar may limit our physical presence, but not our souls, or our imaginations. In fact, these intangible parts of a person have been known to soar when confined within four walls. Usually I draw from works of fiction, which I expected to be the case here too. But when I brainstormed, the result surprised me. With the exception of a few down the bottom, this list is full of real, heroic folk from history, who not only bore their suffering with incredible courage, but left powerful written legacies for the rest of us, often produced from within the very walls that contained them. It took longer than several of my other lists to compile, but when I cast my eye down the names and think of the inspiration and impact these famous prisoners have made on me and many others, it's well worth it. Here they are. 

I'll start off with a couple of biblical prisoners.

1) The Apostle Paul
Scholars say there's no doubt Paul was in prison when he composed his letter to the Philippians. It might have been the Roman imprisonment at the end of Acts, or even an earlier imprisonment at Caesarea. He was no stranger to custody, and this epistle has a sense of his impending death all through. That's why it's so powerful when Paul was able to write the words we love, 'I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.' Since he made the statement, he's a good one to get the ball rolling.

2) Joseph
In the book of Genesis, this young hero was imprisoned in a dungeon for several years, for a crime he didn't commit. His employer's wife made a false accusation when he refused her advances. Joseph managed to make the best of an unfair situation. He became respected by the warden, who put him in charge of other prisoners. Joseph always tried to do whatever he could to help others, such as the baker and the cup bearer. He didn't use his time in prison sitting around and bemoaning his own fate.

Now I'll continue with other famous prisoners throughout history.


3) Sir Walter Raleigh
This famous Elizabethan gentleman politician and spy was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a couple of separate occasions. The angry Queen Bess banished him there, when he secretly married one of her ladies in waiting without her permission. (Legend has it that she fancied him herself.) Years after obtaining his release from that one, he was thrown in again after being involved in a plot against King James 1. Imprisonment was just part of life's rich tapestry for the jaunty Sir Walter, who was often seen promenading along the balcony, as dapper as ever.

4) Mary, Queen of Scots
Incarceration was a fact of life for this young Scottish monarch. When she lost the throne of Scotland and fled to throw herself on the mercy of her English cousin, Elizabeth 1, she was imprisoned instead. Cautious Elizabeth perceived her as a threat. (Yeah, she threw Sir Walter Raleigh behind bars too. That would seem one of Elizabeth's favourite ways of dealing with people she didn't want to deal with.) They were nice, elaborate prisons, being castles and manor houses, and Mary managed to keep up with her reading and handiwork. But they were prisons nonetheless, and she was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. It must have been cooked up during her captivity. Mary was executed.

5) John Bunyan
The Pilgrim's Progress He lived during the English Civil War, and spent twelve years in jail for refusing to stop preaching. Bunyan was a non-conformist, and when the monarchy was restored, they tried to curtail the freedom of such people, but he wouldn't be stopped. So using his time well, he did a lot of writing, including work on 'The Pilgrim's Progress', his famous allegory about the Christian life.

6) Emily Dickinson
She was a nineteenth century American poet who chose to live as a recluse in her family home, always wearing white and never coming out. It was a personal decision by an intensely private person. Some regard her lifestyle as a self-imposed prison, yet the volume and quality of the work Emily produced seems to prove that it suited her.

Next I have some more modern, twentieth century prisoners, who have been among the most heroic of all. In fact 'contented' doesn't seem like quite the right description for them, considering the atrocities and cruelty they lived through. But at the risk of diminishing their valiant lives by my word choice, I really want them on this list, and trust they'd understand my intention to honour them. 

Man's Search for Meaning7) Viktor Frankl
He was an Austrian physician who discovered the key to survival when he was interred in a concentration camp. Those who managed to find meaning and purpose in even the harshest life were the same people most likely to remain alive the longest. Upon release, he wrote the first draft of his famous book, 'Man's Search for Meaning' in a matter of a week or two.
The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

8) Corrie ten Boom
She was a Dutch watchmaker who helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust. When Corrie and her family were found out, they were imprisoned. Her famous book 'The Hiding Place' deals with her prison experiences and the attitude of complete love and forgiveness which helped her to survive.

9) Anne Frank
The Diary of a Young Girl As a teenage girl, she lived hidden away with her family and some friends in a few secret rooms behind a bookcase in the building where her father worked. As Jews during the German population of Amsterdam, they were forced to conceal themselves. It was there, in the Secret Annexe, where Anne kept her famous diary. They were eventually discovered by the Gestapo and taken to concentration camps, where she died. The diary shows that Anne always retained her optimism and literary ambitions, which kept her spirits up during their enforced isolation. She was an amazing young heroine.

10) Nelson Mandela
This South African hero was imprisoned for 27 years because of his strong anti-Apartheid stance. His rise from being regarded as a dangerous menace and national threat to President makes his one of the most amazing lives of modern times. He didn't waste those years in prison, but studied by correspondence and kept abreast of the news. A worthy hero for all the people.

The Truth About Peacock Blue
11) Peacock Blue (by Rosanne Hawke)
This is the first work of fiction I've referred to so far, but it's based on sad fact. It's set in Pakistan. Peacock Blue is the online name of Aster Suleiman, a teenage girl who made a mistake on a school exam that had her arrested on a charge of blasphemy. It's a powerful story, in which Aster is encouraged to cling to her love of the written word and write her own story. My review is here.

Now, just to lighten this blog post a bit, I'll finish off with a few prisoners from popular fiction who may make us smile. And on the spur of the moment, I slipped in a close-to-home example at the very end.

12) Belle
The heroine of Beauty and the Beast willingly volunteers to be the angry beast's captive in her father's place. He'd had been locked up for daring to pick a rose from the garden. Belle resigns herself to a long, lonely existence in the gloomy castle, but her sacrificial gesture leads to more happiness than she ever anticipated, since she finds true love.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)13) Sirius Black
The poor dude. Not only was he wrongfully imprisoned in Azkaban for years, but the fake story of how he betrayed Lily and James Potter was circulating all that time. When he bravely manages to escape, he finds he's regarded as the scourge of the wizarding world. He has to convince Harry Potter that rather than being a desperate criminal, he's always been his loving god-father.

14) James Mortmain
I Capture the Castle The frustrated father of 'I Capture the Castle' has kept his family in abject poverty, nursing his writer's block for several years. So two of his children, Cassandra and Thomas, take matters in their own hands with a sneaky plan to lock him up in one of the towers. They feed him delicious meals, but decide he must show them at least 50 decent pages before they let him out. And although he blustered a lot, their plan sort of worked. You have to read it to find out how. My review is here.

15) Porridge
Does anyone else remember the old TV sitcom about a group of jailbirds, starring Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale? I used to watch it when I was little, and looked forward to the entertainment. They really put a comical slant on being in prison, and I wouldn't mind watching the episodes over again.

16) My Quenarden Trilogy
The Prophecies (Quenarden, #1) Several years ago, I even had a go at writing a fantasy adventure series of my own, and I utilised the prison cell. The evil tyrant of the land had a range of dungeons in his filthy, hollowed-out mountain, where captives were kept. And his lackeys, who he allowed himself to call co-rulers of the land, kept a few of my lovely heroines imprisoned in their castle, for reasons that make perfect sense if you read the books.

So there we have them. Normally I'd say, 'Go and read the novels they're in,' but for most of the people on this list, I'll say instead, 'Go and read what they wrote.' Did you have a similar reaction of awe to mine? Or can you think of any other noteworthy or inspiring prisoners, or even funny ones?    

Monday, May 29, 2017

'Serpent's Delight' by Ruth Park



When Geraldine, youngest of the good-looking Pond sisters, announces that she has had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, her family is shot from its mundane middle-class existence into the glare of publicity. The once peaceful, closely knit family is suddenly full of mistrust and tensions.

Serpent's Delight, a story of five women, each determined to get her own way, is a tender and perceptive study that highlights the irony of the human condition.


MY THOUGHTS:
This is an intriguing Aussie story which makes us wonder if we'll ever fathom what really happened. The Pond family are respectable, middle-class Catholics in Sydney. Then one day, Geraldine, the youngest daughter, claims to have had encounters with the Virgin Mary in the corner of their loungeroom.

Simple-hearted, faithful Ma is willing to believe that her teenager is a saint, but then repercussions from the news spread out to affect all the other members of the family. There's Carrie, the business women; Ivy, the nun; Elva, the exhausted mother of a huge brood; and all their children. And poor cheery, content Pa has his world turn crazy.

I love how Ruth Park gets into the heads of each family member with great depth and understanding, right down to the oldest, youngest and in-laws. She must have been a compassionate person herself, because I get the impression that she's fond of every single character, including those presented as less savoury. You can't help finishing with the sense that if all these quirky characters have their inner beauty, then so do the people we encounter during our day to day lives.

Alternating point of view is perfect for a book like this. The only person whose head we don't get to visit is Geraldine's, which is ironic since she's the crux of the story. Ironic but appropriate, because if we did know what she's thinking, we might be able to fathom the mystery of what really happened. Did she really see the Virgin Mary or didn't she? Geraldine certainly has the mystique of a closed book.

Ruth Park is like an alchemist who brings beauty out of the old, frayed and familiar. Her novels remind me of reading poetry. For example, one scene takes place on a rocky ledge over the Sydney Harbour. How's this for a line? 'That mighty cliff, the rampart of a continent, shook with a steady beat as the breakers crashed upon it. It was like lying upon the breast of a planet and hearing its heart.' That's from the point of view of Carrie's daughter Ann, one of my favourite characters. There are many similar instances when I just wanted to pause and drink in the word pictures.

A number of interesting questions are raised beyond theological ones. Should people be free to choose a life they think is a personal fit, rather than letting some self-imposed authority figure force them to do what they think will be best? Does the herd mentality turn harmless individuals into an unreasonable mob?


Although I really wanted to find out what would happen, some of the quotes gave me pause for thought as well as the descriptions.

Father Wheelwright (a young priest): You seem so shut in, Miss Pond. It isn't healthy for a young woman to be like that.
Geraldine: You don't make allowances for character, Father.

Cliff (Carrie's estranged husband): People aren't half as shocked at the four-letter words as they are at the three-letter words. Sin and God for instance. If you mention them in an ordinary conversation, people turn away uneasily as if you've said something obscene.
(Wow, he said that in the early twentieth century. Some things never change.)

My favourite a-ha moment was sandwiched in a conversation between the two eldest sisters, Carrie and Ivy.
Carrie: Are you happy, Ivy?
Ivy: No, but I'm content. And how about you?

They go on to probe into the difference between seeking either one or the other.  One is attainable, and even imparts serenity, while the other is an exhausting treadmill that leads nowhere. The intriguing Ivy had the common sense to realise this difference from a young age. I regarded her as one of the most fascinating characters all the way through. Although that comment could easily be glossed over, it came at a moment when I thought it was her secret.

Overall, my biggest problem was that some of the more minor characters were so great, I'd love to know what became of them. I guess that's a five star problem for any book to have. And does the story come to a conclusion? Do we find out what really happened in the Ponds' loungeroom? Whoa, yeah! I'm sure it'll shock different readers in different ways, depending on our own characters.

5 stars

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

'Anne with an E' - Imagination is Crucial




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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

'Unnoticed' by Amanda Deed



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

Does she dare to hope someone might notice her?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Rhiza Press and NetGalley for my review copy.

4 stars

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Famous Grouchy Tourists


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 15, 2017

'The Spirituality of Jane Austen' by Paula Hollingsworth



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to NetGalley and Lion Hudson for my review copy.

4 stars

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mothers - The Secret Weapon in Harry Potter



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

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

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

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

Narcissa Malfoy

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


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

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

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


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

'A Piece of the World' by Christina Baker Kline



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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Stories deep within stories



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

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

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

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

Here's why I love this idea.

1) These books are presented straight from their world.

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

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

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

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

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

3) We can benefit from sound morals.

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

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

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

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

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

And he's done a pretty decent job.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Famous Apples


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

'The Fountain Overflows' by Rebecca West



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

5 stars.