Thursday, March 30, 2017

'The Yellow Envelope' by Kim Dinan


After Kim and her husband decide to quit their jobs to travel around the world, they’re given a yellow envelope containing a check and instructions to give the money away. The only three rules for the envelope: Don’t overthink it; share your experiences; don’t feel pressured to give it all away.

Through Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, and beyond, Kim and Brian face obstacles, including major challenges to their relationship. As she distributes the gift to people she encounters along the way she learns that money does not have a thing to do with the capacity to give, but that giving—of ourselves—is transformational.

Kim Dinan is a freelance writers and blogger, whose travel blog, So Many Places, receives over 200,000 unique visitors per year and was selected by USA Today as one of the 2014 Best Hiking and Outdoor Travel blogs. Her writing has appeared in OnTrak Magazine and Northwest Travel Magazine, among others, and she was on a speaking tour for Backpacker Magazine.

Kim Dinan tells the story of her own true adventure. She and her husband Brian decided to leave the rat race and set out on a journey around the world. They had to sell everything, and sacrifice their lifestyles in order to do so. It's a pipe dream for many of us, so since these guys were prepared to make such a hardcore decision for real, I was happy to grab the book and live vicariously through their experiences.

The yellow envelope was given to them by their friends Michele and Glenn, who wanted to make a tangible gesture toward the trip. They presented the envelope, full of cash, to be distributed along the way to worthy recipients as Kim and Brian felt led.

Whew, the first part wasn't at all like I expected, and I found myself getting irritated by Kim's impossible-to-please attitude toward Brian. The travelogue took the back-burner to whether or not their marriage could be salvaged. She convinced him to quit a job he liked to jump on board with her idea, then decided that maybe what she really wanted was just to be alone, because being regarded as one half of a whole cramped her style! The theme of that chunk of pages was, 'I want to figure out who I am without being defined by you. Just sit in this corner and give me space until I figure it out.'

At that stage, she gave me the picture of a totally self-focused person. Kim does whatever Kim wants to do, and Brian learns that even when he gives up everything and lets her call all the shots, she's still not happy. Whenever she expressed puzzlement over not having as much fun and joy as she expected, I remembered the old saying, 'Wherever you go, there you are.' I think her spiritual crisis was the type we westerners have. From what I've observed, Easterners just seem to get on with their lives, knowing deep in their hearts that there's no point in buying into all the angst about finding ourselves, since we're all part of something larger anyway.

Yeah, her attitude drove me nuts at that point, and all that kept me reading was the fact that she wrote Brian's point of view with sensitivity and understanding too. It gave me hope that she'd discover a new way of looking at things, which is what did happen. She experienced a revelation about the misguided focus of her attitude which revolutionised her way of seeing things and saved their marriage. The second part, when they set out as best friends on the same page, is far nicer to read.

The descriptions of the places they visited were great, although there wasn't enough of them compared to the emotional angst. I love their initial plan, which was to have no plan. The book introduces snippets of the lifestyles of people who are living lives poles apart from most of us, with several interesting culture shock moments. Even day to day greetings show the different mindsets. While Americans and Aussies may ask, 'What do you do?' people in India naturally ask, 'What's your concept of God?'

When they bump into other first world tourists along the way, Kim and Brian figure out the difference between tourists and true travellers. Tourists never actually leave home in their hearts, and demand their usual comforts wherever they are, whereas travellers are driven by a true desire to enter other worlds to the extent that this is possible. It's what Kim and Brian felt they achieved after the experiences of this book take them through Ecuador, Peru, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam and Mexico.

I do like how she says she found what she was looking for, even though it didn't look like she expected it to. That's something that tends to happen even to those of us who don't travel the globe.

Thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks for my review copy.

3 stars.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tales of Unrequited Love

Today I'm sharing some examples of a romantic literary trope we all know well. I went for just these few, but of course there are many more.

 Unrequited love is such a heart-breaking, cringe-worthy, face-palmy and awkward theme, why has it always enjoyed such popularity in stories? Could it be partly because most of us have experienced it, to some extent? In classrooms of 20+ schoolkids all about the same age, Cupid's arrows tend to fly madly in all directions. And does it hurt! Getting immersed in someone else's equally embarrassing fixes can be therapeutic. 

I'll begin with a couple of poor, innocent girls who were struck with terrible cases, and didn't know what to do.  
Sense and Sensibility
Marianne Dashwood
The second sister in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility breaks her heart over the thoughtless fortune hunter John Willoughby, to the point where she makes herself sick and almost dies of grief. She's the one who represents 'sensibility' or letting her emotions rule her. The guy she ends up with is arguably not as tantalising as Willoughby, but far more stable, and most importantly, genuinely in love with her.

ShirleyCaroline Helstone
This sensitive teenage heroine from Charlotte Bronte's lesser known classic Shirley tries all she knows to get over it, but her heart just won't let her. Her intense love for the young mill owner, Robert Moore is strong enough to consume her, body, spirit and soul. Her love is unrequited by his choice, since he manages to switch off his attraction to her, choosing to focus on his business, believing it's all he has room for in his heart. (My review is here.)

Les Misérables
I saw Les Miserables live at the Festival Theatre when it was on tour. This poor little street waif sung her heart out for love of Marius, the honourable revolutionary soldier. There was no way her romantic dream could ever come true for her in that time and place, but at least she achieved her perfect death scene, in his strong arms (sigh).

EmmaHarriet Smith
Her mentor Emma Woodhouse convinces her to fall in love with the local clergyman Mr Elton, who has been particularly attentive to her. However, Elton has ulterior motives for his polite behaviour which takes both girls by complete surprise. Luckily Harriet has the emotional resilience to fall back in love with her former crush, honest farmer Robert Martin.

Scarlett O'Hara
While this Southern belle stomped over the hearts of a long line of men, she really hankered for years after one in particular, Ashley Wilkes, who could never be hers.

Some lovelorn ladies try to force their dreams to happen, and get downright nasty when it comes to unrequited love. They gotta learn, a man's heart just can't be controlled. And you have to wonder whether the fellows concerned are not better off without them.

Potiphar's Wife
She decides that if she can't get her husband's hunky man-servant Joseph to fancy her, or at least to jump into bed with her, she'll have to settle for having him thrown into prison on false charges and doing her very best to ruin his life.

Great ExpectationsMiss Havisham
This old dame is possibly the biggest villain of Great Expectations. Jilted at the altar by a man she adored, she chooses to spend the remainder of her life wallowing in her grief, wearing her mildewing wedding clothes and staring at her moldy wedding cake. She decides to engineer another unrequited love affair, anxious to mess up Pip's and Estella's lives too, even though they had nothing to do with her plight. Her only reason seems to be that misery loves company. (My review is here.)

Lucy van Pelt
Bossy and used to getting what she wants, she does her best to win the love of her friend Schroeder, but who can compete with Beethoven? She had a go (or several) at destroying his piano. Perhaps that's not the best way to win the heart of a budding musical protege. This girl has a lot to learn.

Just to prove it's not just a girl thing, here are some males who find themselves victims of Cupid's bow too.

King Arthur
He cherishes his wife, Queen Guinevere, but his downfall turns out to be keeping such a dishy right hand man as Sir Lancelot close by him most of the time. Poor Arthur was the powerful ruler of all he surveyed, but her genuine affection was the one thing he couldn't have. I'm sure Guinevere would have given it, if she felt she could. It would have made her life easier too.

John Pendleton
This man presents himself as the town grouch. Sunny young Pollyanna discovers the reason why Pendleton remained grouchy for decades. He'd been madly in love with Pollyanna's mother, Jennie, who married Pollyanna's father instead. Some people just can't move on easily. (My review is here.)

Little Women (Little Women, #1)Theodore (Laurie) Laurence
Madly in love with his best friend Jo March, he does everything in his power to make her return his affection, including sulking and sobbing, but to no avail. She never viewed him in a romantic light at all, and made that clear long before she even met the man who did end up stealing her heart. Laurie just has to face the fact that his money and cuteness can't buy him everything. (My reviews are here and here.)

Severus Snape
His love for Lily Evans Potter blooms (or festers) for decades, including the long years after her death, (which he unintentionally helped to cause). To add insult to injury, the man she fell in love with was his old school bully. So Severus ends up taking his grief out on their poor son, who has the misfortune to look like his father, and be stuck in Snape's Potions class. A bad combination for poor Harry. (You might also like Is Severus Snape a good person?)

Emily of New Moon (Emily, #1)Dean Priest
He's a cynical, hunch-backed wanderer who loves Emily of New Moon to such an extent that he tries to sabotage her confidence in her writing ability. He honestly believes her literary aspirations will always be his only rival. Alas for him, she realises she's in love with her old school friend Teddy. Dean can't fix that one so easily.

But here's my favourite of all, the ultimate example of handling unrequited love. I can't think of anyone who dealt with it a sweeter way than this gentleman.

Mr Farebrother
Middlemarch He's a kindly chap from George Eliot's Middlemarch, who adores Mary Garth, but knows her heart belongs to the youthful and unreliable Fred Vincy. Instead of getting angry and setting out to win her for himself, Farebrother values Mary's happiness enough to take a different course. He never mentions his own feelings, but concentrates on helping young Fred become the sort of man Mary can be proud of. Who makes gestures this generous? Severus Snape, eat your heart out! (My review is here.)

If you have a favourite of your own, for I know they're everywhere, please share it in the comments. Or if you're feeling brave enough, and have a personal unrequited love story you'd be willing to share, go for it! What do you think of unrequited love stories? Cathartic or cringe-worthy? (If you enjoyed this, you might like my related post, Ships that never sailed, or in other words, possible literary romances that never took off. I also had a lot of fun with Literature's most awkward marriage proposals.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Jules Verne

"To go around the such a short time and with the means of transport currently available, was not only impossible, it was madness"

One ill-fated evening at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg rashly bets his companions £20,000 that he can travel around the entire globe in just eighty days - and he is determined not to lose. Breaking the well-establised routine of his daily life, the reserved Englishman immediately sets off for Dover, accompanied by his hot-blooded French manservant Passepartout. Travelling by train, steamship, sailing boat, sledge and even elephant, they must overcome storms, kidnappings, natural disasters, Sioux attacks and the dogged Inspector Fix of Scotland Yard - who believes that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England - to win the extraordinary wager. Around the World in Eighty Days gripped audiences on its publication and remains hugely popular, combining exploration, adventure and a thrilling race against time.


I'm so glad I've got this classic off my TBR list at last. It's my choice in the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge for a book with a number in the title.

The year is 1872, and the mathematically minded Phileas Fogg is indignant when his friends laugh off his claim that a man can circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. They offer him £20 000 to prove them wrong, and he accepts the wager, deciding to set off that very night. His new man-servant, Passepartout, is astounded when Fogg arrives home and tells him to pack their bags within ten minutes.

I would have sided with the majority, who believed there was no way Fogg could plan a trip which had to account for every minute, when so much could potentially go wrong. And for these travellers, that turns out to be more than just inclement weather and transport hold-ups (although they have their share of those). They are being trailed by stubborn Detective Fix, who is living under the delusion that Fogg robbed the Bank of England. They also pause to save the life of a young Indian woman, Auoda, who's about to become a human sacrifice. That's just the start of their escapades.

My main issue is that I just couldn't warm to the main man, although I admired aspects of his personality. There's too much Dr Sheldon Cooper in Fogg. Not only are such characters set in their ways, but so full of themselves they insist on forcing their crazy standards on others. At times I try to demand that my kids tidy their bedrooms, but at least that's achievable for mere mortals.

 Fogg is overly-inscrutable too. I think Jules Verne intended to keep an aura of mystery about him, because he never shared a glimpse from Fogg's point of view, even though he's supposed to be the hero. We only see him through the impressions of others, such as Passepartout, Fix and Auoda. All we get is his cool, unflappable exterior. And we never have a clue where his vast wealth comes from. He flaps bank note bribes under the noses of people all through the story, but is it earned through work, a family inheritance, or something else?

 It's hard to muster much sympathy for a main character we only know from the outside and not the inside. Maybe his surname, 'Fogg' is chosen on purpose, because the connotations are very apt. I watched two movies based on this book, and didn't mind Phileas Fogg as he was portrayed by David Niven in 1956 and Steve Koogan in 2004. But the book Fogg leaves me cold.

What annoys me most though, is that he's too disdainful to do a little sightseeing. He's so set on mechanically carrying out his challenge, he can't even be bothered looking out the window. What sort of boring waste of oxygen gets to see the wonders of the world firsthand, but chooses to draw the blinds and play whist? Verne makes it clear that Phileas Fogg is 'not travelling, but only describing a circumference.' He also points out that he's 'one of those Englishmen who are wont to see foreign countries through the eyes of their domestics.' Give me the train and boat tickets instead, please :)

Sir Francis Cromarty, a passing character, questioned himself as to 'whether a human heart really beat beneath Fogg's cold exterior, and whether he had any sense of the beauties of nature.' I'd answer no to both.

Passepartout is the more likeable character, even though we don't get much of his background either. But he's intrigued by the sights he sees, he's volatile and good natured, and can't help showing his enthusiasm. He's loyal and principled too, refusing to turn on his master, even when he wonders for a while if Fix is right. I wonder whether Passepartout was Verne's favourite character too, because he shared his nationality. It seems like such a British book, beginning as it does with Fogg and his Reform Club cronies in London, so comes as a bit of a shock whenever we remember that Jules Verne was actually a Frenchman.

The descriptions of the different places, which we see mainly from Passepartout's lively point of view, are great. Verne even pokes a bit of fun at the different nationalities through his pointed observations. I wonder how a modern author might handle a similar story, in our politically correct era. Jules Verne might have considered his story an up-to-date tourist guide, but for us, it's a charming old vintage relic from Victorian times. The Afterword in my volume points out that Fogg was a symbol of the scientific optimism that was rife through Europe and America in the second part of the nineteenth century, and I believe that's what provides the good steampunk feeling I enjoyed.

It's fun to read about the food. Phileas Fogg found that the 'native rabbit' he was served in Bombay was far from palatable, but when he tried to pin down the waiters to find out exactly what it was, they eluded direct questions. 'Rabbit from the jungle' was the best he could get out of them. Fogg's normal breakfast in England didn't sound half bad. 'Broiled fish with Reading sauce, a scarlet slice of roast beef garnished with mushroom, rhubarb and gooseberry tart and a morsel of Cheshire cheese.'

I was keeping an eye on all of Fogg's outlay, as he often had to spend big money to get places in the nick of time. It's pretty clear early on that by the time he arrives home, he'll have spent so much money that winning the wager would barely cover costs. However, there is also a good twist or two. It's worth a read, just because it's so famous, and for the sake of Passepartout. But as for Phileas Fogg, I think the man who wrote the Afterword in my book summed it up best. He wrote, 'If it is true that Jules Verne never saw most of the places he described but only imagined them, then it's entirely appropriate that Verne's hero does not see them either.'  

Jules VerneSome good quotes

Passepartout: Alas! In my hurry, I, I forgot...
Fogg: What?
Passepartout: To turn off the gas in my room.
Fogg: Very well, young man. It will burn at your expense.

Detective Fix: Great robbers always resemble honest folks. Fellows who have rascally faces have only one recourse to take, and that's to remain honest. Otherwise they'd be arrested off hand.

Sir Francis: (surprised) Why, you are a man of heart.
Fogg: Sometimes, when I have the time.

A great smoker can smoke as many as eight pipes a day; but he dies in five years. (In the opium den in Hong Kong.)

It may be taken for granted that, rash as the Americans usually are, when they are prudent, there is good reason for it. (When they're wondering how to cross a rickety old railway bridge.)

Fix: Good, India! We own that! (At one stage when he discovers their whereabouts.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

'The Kindness Challenge' by Shaunti Feldhahn


One month to a great relationship…with anyone!

Think of your toughest relationship. Think of a relationship that is good but could be great. Think of a group of people that drives you nuts. You want to show more kindness and generosity, but sometimes you’re just tired, stretched, and frustrated. Besides, would small actions make that big a difference? Yes!

After years of extensive research, Shaunti Feldhahn has concluded that kindness is a superpower. It can change any relationship, make your life easier and better, and transform our culture. But how does it work? And how can you show kindness when you don’t feel like it?

This is just what the title says it is, a 30-Day Kindness Challenge, if you want it to be. And if you don't want to take part in anything quite that formal (I'm not a one-size-fits-all sort of person myself), there are tips, anecdotes, suggestions and stats all through the book which you can pick and choose from. I'll just mention some of the ones which stuck out most to me.

One of the most common themes of my reading lately is that we have to watch our thought lives. It's what you put into your mind and focus on that will come out of your mouth. This book is no exception.

It seems many of us might live under the delusion that we are kinder people than we actually are. I can buy that. A few interesting stories indicate that we tend to be more reactive and irritable than we think we are. I'm probably guilty of that around my place at times (very rarely, lol), since family members may pick up on my grouchiness quicker than I even acknowledge it to myself.

Feldhahn talks about the argument that we may need to vent our spleen to let off steam. I'm sure we're all familiar with the line of reasoning. What's inside has to come out, or it festers and swells, and the person eventually bursts with all their repressed annoyances and complaints. That always sounded fair enough to me, but it does seem to contradict the idea that we should always make kindness a habit. I wondered how Shaunti Feldhahn would tackle it. Well, she believes that giving the grumbles head space in the first place is the main problem. Anything we choose to just shrug off and refuse to acknowledge doesn't grow bigger, but withers up and dies for lack of being fed. In other words, when it comes to kindness, 'Fake it til you make it' is a more suitable motto than, 'Better out than in.' It's an interesting view that I quite like.

She addresses the subject of sarcasm, and I was pleased that she distinguished between what she calls good-natured trash talk, and truly ill-natured remarks designed to hurt. It was more realistic sounding than advice to avoid sarcasm at all costs would have been, which I have come across before. My family would suffer if we were never allowed to use sarcasm. I've heard it called the lowest form of wit, but it does cheer us up at times, and defuse tense situations.

Now, can you criticise a book about kindness kindly? The thing with book reviewers is that we're open to finding new ways of not coming down too hard, but I did have a couple of gripes. My first is that are bullet points everywhere. I think there are even bullet points within bullet points. I actually like lists, but they get to a point where they lose their effectiveness and stop being memory tools, when we're inundated with them. And you don't necessarily even need them all. Some self-help books slide into condescension, and this had moments of heading in that direction. For example, do we really need a list of possible ways of giving praise to family members? Surely we know our own spouses and kids better than she does, and have enough imagination to come up with our own praise points.

Some of her points about praise were good though. Some people believe we shouldn't bother saying thanks to a person for things they're supposed to do, because it's their job. But I agree with Feldhahn, that when we do, it's like filling a fuel tank, and prevents those people feeling like they're being taken for granted. It's this sort of small consideration which might actually turn out to make an enormous difference. Overall, it's not a bad read which may make us realise we're not as kind as we thought we were, and offer tips to give us an edge in the art of kindness.

Thanks to Waterbrook Press and Blogging for Books for giving me a review copy through NetGalley

3.5 stars

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Special Gallery for International Read to Me Day.

Today, March 19th, is International Read to Me Day. All the photos I've featured here are of my dad, reading books with his grandchildren, on various occasions.

One of my very earliest memories, at the age of 2 or 3, was lying on the couch while he read with me. Mum would say, 'She's too little to pick it up. You're teaching her too early.' And he'd reply, 'No, she's doing good.'

I clearly remember being able to read the words of stories when nobody knew I could. Dad would read out loud, and I'd skim my eyes down, seeing what was coming. The knack of reading must have snapped into place for me some time when he still didn't realise I'd picked it up. That memory has taught me never to assume I can guess the extent of what any young child will understand.

Many people agree Dad was onto a good thing. Some even read aloud to their unborn babies, propping the books on their big, pregnant bellies. There's no harm getting them used to the soothing meter of your voice, and the flow of a good story. Even if you think those parents are a bit too eager to start, it's better than erring the opposite way. A Primary School teacher once told me that some children come into her classroom not even knowing what a book is, or how to turn pages.

I love reading to anyone who will listen, so my children were fair game. I found it gave me a great, early indication of the ways their characters would develop. My elder son is a witty person who can wield irony and sarcasm like weapons, and he used to chuckle at funny or snarky comments delivered by his favourite characters. My daughter is a hands-on person who always wanted me to read her a particular picture book with actions of different family members doing things around the house. And they both thought it was hilarious when their baby brother would request, 'It's Not Easy being a Bunny' for the thousandth time, until we all knew it by heart and groaned at the sight of it.

There's a bit of self-indulgence in reading aloud for me. I used to enjoy acting on the stage in school drama lessons, so having the chance to assume the different characters' voices and mannerisms is the next best thing. It's such fun when I know a good part is coming, but they have no idea, and I get to anticipate their reactions. That's one of the best rewards for taking the time to read out loud to your kids.

I highly recommend reading to the children in your life whenever you can. It's such an easy thing to do, and there's no bonding experience quite like it. You don't need to spend time and money searching for different components. I went through a stage in homeschooling when I spent hours planning lessons someone else had designed, racing around to shops looking for objects which might work as props, making myself stressed. And so often, all that effort to create fancy memories fell flat, or got laughed at. The best memories turned out to be our reading times, and all we needed was a book! The benefits are huge, carrying on years later. People who are read to learn about the world without leaving their seats, and learn to use their imaginations to put themselves in other people's places. It's a bit like borrowing someone else's brains and becoming a virtual traveller.  Even now that my older children are young adults, we still reminisce about the characters we enjoyed several years ago.

If you assume you need to wait until they're older, or until you decide their understanding capacity has developed to certain standard, the small of gap of time you're looking for may pass so quickly, you blink and miss it. Then it may be too easy to decide they're too old to be read aloud to after all. Or when you do try, it may feel too weird all round, if you've never done it before. The time to begin is when they're young enough to make story time second nature for all of you. I still read to my youngest son, who is almost thirteen. Although he's been old enough to read to himself for years, it's still the best way of sharing a story. And not long ago, even my eighteen year old daughter got tired eyes from trying to read a book quickly, and asked me if I'd read some to her for a bit.

Dad died just last month. While sorting through photos to put together a slide show for his funeral, we noticed this wonderful thing I'm showing you now. His habit of reading to young children, which started with his own kids, carried through to the next generation. These photos were all taken at different times, spread throughout the months and years. We never set out to take photos of him reading to the kids. It just worked out that way, because that's how they all loved to spend time with their Papa. There was no way we could miss the theme, since the evidence was scattered all through the albums.

 So I've made this picture tribute with two purposes. As well as observing International Read to Me Day, the photos you see in this blog post are a tribute to a loving and involved Papa, featuring four of his six grandchildren, Jarrad, Travis, Logan and Emma. I'm at the stage where the initial shock of his passing is over, and we're all doing life as normal, enjoying the good parts, as he would have liked. But at frequent moments, I'm almost bowled over by waves of sadness as it sinks in afresh that I'll never see him again in this lifetime. But then we remind ourselves how lucky we are to have so many memories like these to draw back on.

Also see related posts, Writers living with kids and kids living with writers.
And of course, there's this post about reading out loud.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Can sworn enemies ever become friends?

Whether or not you love or hate 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child', one of my favourite lines is 'Draco looks at Harry and for the first time - at the bottom of this dreadful pit - they look at each other as friends.' 

Becoming friends is a natural progression for these two former enemies, since saving their sons' lives depends on their teamwork. But will it last? Some people say there's too much bad history between them to ever bury the hatchet. Others believe it's an unlikely prospect because they don't have enough in common to ever be friends. I couldn't disagree more. These two are incredibly alike in so many ways, which may be part of the reason for their bad start. I'd love to see them cement the tentative friendship they started to form in Cursed Child. I imagine this list would give them enough common ground to talk about for years. 

1) Voldemort wanted them both dead.
For Harry, his reasons were obvious, and their history went way back. Lord Voldemort was certain that Harry Potter was the baby of Sybil Trelawney's prophecy, and after killing both parents, he intended to take care of the infant threat with one quick 'Avada Kedavra.' That's when all his personal problems started, as the spell backfired on him, leaving Harry with nothing but a lightning shaped scar on his forehead. With Draco, Voldemort planned to give him a suicide mission to teach his father, Lucius, a strong lesson for stuffing up. So he set Draco a task he shouldn't have survived, and certainly wouldn't have without some intervention from other sources.

2) Dumbledore and Snape saved both their necks.
Dumbledore was always looking out for Harry, and his words and actions on the astronomy tower just before his own death prove that he was looking out for Draco too. Convinced that there was still good in the Malfoy boy, the old headmaster didn't want to damage his soul by allowing him to commit murder. Snape saved both boys too (for more details, I wrote a whole post about Snape's actions.)

3) Both probably suffered undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Survivor's Guilt.
I'm not sure St Mungo's Hospital would have included psychologists on their staff list, but it stands to reason these two bore emotional scars. Harry was restless, afraid of small spaces, and found it hard to relax. He also declared that he felt guilty for being alive since so many good folk had died for the cause which he headed. And Draco had his world turned upside down, as his family went from being admired as aristocratic purebloods to being shunned for being on the wrong side, along with all the cruel things he was forced to witness and take part in as a teenager. All of this was partly what caused him to draw his little family out of the spotlight, which led to problems of its own.

Harry: Love blinds. We have both tried to give our sons not what they needed, but what we needed. We've been so busy trying to rewrite our own pasts, we've blighted their present.

4) They saved each others' necks.
During their capture in Malfoy Manor, Draco bought the golden trio a little time by his spur of the moment decision not to identify them. Then Harry later rescued him from the burning Room of Requirement, risking his own life in the process. I like the domino effect of this sort of thing. In the next generation, Draco's son Scorpius helps save his best friend, Harry's son Albus, who puts himself at risk of never being born after meddling around with a time turner. This history alone should be enough to form a bond between the Potters and Malfoys.
(For more on this theme, you might enjoy my post, Bad Boys with Depth.)

5) They were always fairly evenly balanced in skill levels.
This just added to the tension of their antagonism. One might surpass the other in some area, but it evened out overall. Reading between the lines, I get the feeling Harry may have been superior with Quidditch talent, flying and Defence against the Dark Arts, but Draco probably had the upper hand with Potions, general academic proficiency and Occlumency. And as an adult, he dabbles in Alchemy just for fun. Both were very talented young wizards in their own ways.

6) Both experienced disillusionment with their fathers.
The rosy picture Harry had formed of his father, James, is slightly shattered when he discovers the horrible way he bullied Snape during their youth. And Draco's hero worship and illusions about his father, Lucius, all come crashing down when dramatic circumstances reveal him to be a weak, misguided bigot who was always on the wrong side. In fact, we're told Draco's grief continued when Lucius opposed his marriage to the girl he loved, and the way they chose to bring up their son. Both had adults who let them down.

7) Both were united in wanting their sons to be happy.
Their sons' close bond is the catalyst that forced these two in close proximity, and helped them to regard each other as friends too. In fact, it's quite moving to see Draco gradually let down his guard and become vulnerable with Harry, admitting, 'It's very lonely to be Draco Malfoy.' And I don't believe they could have stood there, witnessing the deaths of James and Lily first hand, then gone back to life as usual. Also see Is Harry Potter a Bad Dad?

Surely the friendship has got to continue. To those who say it's unbelievable, I'd say that time changes many things, and may even soften the hardest attitudes. And if you think their mutual regard was too easily won, don't forget that Cursed Child takes place when they're in their early forties. These two have been skirting around each other, just on nodding terms, for about twenty-five years. One thing I loved about Cursed Child was seeing them on the same side, at last! Given all that I mentioned above, a good friendship between them may be well overdue.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

'Shirley' by Charlotte Bronte

Following the tremendous popular success of Jane Eyre, which earned her lifelong notoriety as a moral revolutionary, Charlotte Brontë vowed to write a sweeping social chronicle that focused on "something real and unromantic as Monday morning." Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley (1849) is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention.


This is my romance choice for the 2017 Back to the Classics challenge.

Charlotte Bronte sure knew how to write a sizzling romance. There were two love stories in this novel, but you might wonder how it stands up against her more famous classic, Jane Eyre. I found my opinions fluctuating, and I'll explain why.

First a quick summary. The backdrop is the Industrial Revolution, nowhere more turbulent than in Yorkshire. Factory owners were buying newly invented machinery to save production costs, but the workers who lost their jobs were starving, angry, and resentful. The story is about Shirley Keeldar, an heiress worth thousands of pounds, and her best friend Caroline Helstone, the local minister's niece, and how they end up marrying a pair of brothers. Robert Moore is the stern young boss of a cloth mill, and his younger sibling Louis is the humble tutor of Shirley's teenage cousin.

A lot of the story was bogged down with all the ways Caroline pines her heart out for Robert, when he starts giving her the cold shoulder treatment. She resigns herself to spinsterhood, her health wastes away, she cries at the drop of a hat, and you can't help asking, 'Is Robert even worth all this?' Although I found him quite likable, he was a cold, calculating Chauvinist. He's a good-looking guy who makes cutting remarks about plain women. Not good taste in any generation. He's also the nineteenth century counterpart of those entrepreneur types who have no room in their hearts for anything but their business. He can squelch his own emotions in a flash, yet Caroline almost kills herself over him.

'Truly I ought not to have been born,' she reflects at one point. 'They should have smothered me at first cry.' Yes, she's really and truly dropping quotes comparing herself to Job because Robert doesn't love her! I wanted someone to tell her to get a grip! Maybe I wouldn't have been so impatient if her mopey ways didn't carry on for page after page after page. She's got to be one of the most needy, self-pitying, sooky characters I've come across.

I stuck with the story for Shirley's sake (who wasn't even introduced until page 190, even though she's the title character). She was a breath of fresh air compared to Caroline. Shirley seemed so appealing, yet it was more than just self-confidence and a cheerful disposition. She's so easily impressed with simple things, which others overlook. A good book, a twilight sky and a fresh breeze are all it takes to make 'earth an Eden, life a poem.' You wouldn't find Shirley contemplating suicide over any man.

The two girls are often compared with each other, although Charlotte Bronte made it clear that she wasn't setting one up as 'better' than the other. Caroline is a graceful pencil sketch while Shirley is a vivid painting. Caroline is quiet as the beauty of a ground-loving hedge flower, while Shirley is an exotic tropical flower. Caroline is a snow-white dove while Shirley is a gem-tinted bird of paradise.

When I was younger, I would have made up my mind I was going to be a Shirley. But I hate to admit history has shown me to be more of a Caroline in many respects. Although she grates on my nerves chronically, I get her. I'd be the one who'd sit up, too agitated to sleep, or who can't let go of a rogue thought, or who'd be least likely to bounce back from offence or disappointment. Now that I'm older, the story had me wondering if I have to face the fact that I'm a Caroline, whether I like it or not. Is it even possible to be a Shirley just because I want to be? When it comes to personality, are we forced to accept what we're given, or is there room for change?

I do think we can temper our knee-jerk reactions, and that's where strong fictional characters are like great friends. Deciding to recall an example like Shirley may at least help us to think things through, and modify our responses.

Her love interest wasn't introduced until page 401. The story sure picked up pace when he showed up. We have high hopes of him, because Shirley threw out the challenge early on. 'Nothing ever charms me more than when I meet my superior... what frets me is that when I try to esteem, I'm baffled.' (She's not anywhere near as big-headed as that quote makes her sound.) So Louis has a huge task ahead of him, but proves himself equal to it. I loved him. In fact, he's such a modest Prince Charming type that little birds literally swoop down from the sky when they see him coming, (I kid you not), but it's written in such a way that we just nod and believe it.

Charlotte Bronte had an ironic sense of humour. Do you want to know one of my favourite parts of the book? After Robert gets shot by a rebel protester, he's put under the care of the hard faced, cantankerous Mrs Horsfall while he recuperates, and there's not a thing he can do about it. Ha, take that, Mr Male Chauvinist! It appealed to my sense of justice.

The abundance of feminist sentiments expressed through the novel greatly surprised me. It's not just that I didn't realise Charlotte Bronte had been so outspoken for women's liberation, but the novel was published in 1849. Her opinions seem so up to date, yet standards hadn't changed greatly even one hundred years later, by the 1950s. It seems she was way ahead of her time, yet in some ways, this book contradicts itself. Why would an author who wanted to usher in social change invent a sappy character like Caroline, who allowed Robert so much power over every aspect of her life?

I can't help coming back to Caroline and Robert. I think what irritated me most is that he's depicted as the bad, heartless guy, because he chose to smother his feelings for Caroline. But what if he genuinely hadn't loved her? Caroline would have still done her pathetic, dying swan thing. Would Charlotte Bronte still expect us to blame Robert when she fell apart at the seams? That would hardly be fair. It was Caroline's own choice to have a total breakdown. No man should be held responsible for the complete well-being and happiness of any woman, no matter what his true feelings were. It's just too big a burden to put on his shoulders.  

Overall, there's plenty of great passion, Charlotte Bronte's descriptions are lyrical and second to none, and the last two hundred pages were my favourite, but you do have to get through a huge slump in the middle, which sometimes feels more like a black hole. Jane Eyre has far more movement all through it. Shirley is too stagnant in patches, yet maybe if you like plenty of in depth character analysis, you won't mind being trapped in that black hole.

Quotes from the book

To admire the great, reverence the good, and be joyous with the genial was very much the bent of Shirley's soul.

Louis Moore was used to a quiet life. Having a large world of his own in his own head and heart, he tolerated confinement to a small, still corner of the real world very patiently.

Louis (to the dog): The autumn sun shines as pleasantly on us as on the fairest and richest. This garden is none of ours, but we enjoy its greenness and perfume, don't we?

Joe Scott: Adam was not deceived but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
Shirley: More shame to Adam, to sin with his eyes open.

Mrs Yorke: Every sister with an eligible brother is considered most kind by her spinster friends. (I wonder if Charlotte Bronte was aware of Jane Austen's famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, or if the similarity was a complete coincidence.)

Here I am at the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth, during my holiday to England aged 20. At one point, Shirley remarks that she's impervious to cold. That impresses me a lot, since I've always remembered Haworth as one of the most freezing places I've ever visited on the face of the earth. 

If you want to compare them, here's my review of Jane Eyre.

Friday, March 10, 2017

'The Illusionist's Apprentice' by Kristy Cambron


Harry Houdini’s one-time apprentice holds fantastic secrets about the greatest illusionist in the world. But someone wants to claim them . . . or silence her before she can reveal them on her own.

Boston, 1926. Jenny “Wren” Lockhart is a bold eccentric—even for a female vaudevillian. As notorious for her inherited wealth and gentleman’s dress as she is for her unsavory upbringing in the back halls of a vaudeville theater, Wren lives in a world that challenges all manner of conventions.

In the months following Houdini’s death, Wren is drawn into a web of mystery surrounding a spiritualist by the name of Horace Stapleton, a man defamed by Houdini’s ardent debunking of fraudulent mystics in the years leading up to his death. But in a public illusion that goes terribly wrong, one man is dead and another stands charged with his murder. Though he’s known as one of her teacher’s greatest critics, Wren must decide to become the one thing she never wanted to be: Stapleton’s defender.

Forced to team up with the newly formed FBI, Wren races against time and an unknown enemy, all to prove the innocence of a hated man. In a world of illusion, of the vaudeville halls that showcase the flamboyant and the strange, Wren’s carefully constructed world threatens to collapse around her.

Layered with mystery, illusion, and the artistry of the Jazz Age’s bygone vaudeville era, The Illusionist’s Apprentice is a journey through love and loss and the underpinnings of faith on each life’s stage.


The cover and blurb of this new story really drew me in to give it a try.

Elliot Matthews and Connor Finnegan are FBI agents investigating claims of fraud. Spiritualist Horace Stapleton supposedly raises the corpse of Victor Peale, who'd been dead for twenty years. The man who emerges from the coffin falls dead in front of the crowd. The public believe his body was indeed raised for a few moments. But the less gullible can't dismiss the murder of his impersonator. Because as Harry Houdini famously said, 'Returning from the dead is humanly impossible.'

Wren Lockhart is Houdini's former apprentice, whose name was found in Peale's coat pocket. A well known illusionist herself, she's pressed by the agents to help them get to the bottom of the incident, since suspicion of Stapleton will extend to anyone involved in her line of work. Until the matter is cleared, she's guilty by association. Agent Matthews never expects to lose his heart to the stand-offish young woman. And she certainly never intends to let her guard down for long enough to let him grow on her.

The theme of spiritualism permeates the story. The main characters all make it clear that they can't stand seeing people who have lost loved ones getting their emotions manipulated. Houdini always sought to expose these charlatans, and his apprentice inherited his same spirit. She makes it clear that she prefers to be known as an illusionist rather than a magician, because the truth is evident in the titles.

I think the best part of the book is not the plot, but Wren's character. She's a person with interesting contradictions. She's flamboyant enough to stand out wherever she goes, yet on the other hand she's an intensely private person who shuns the spotlight whenever she can. It turns out her public persona is a mask for the softness and vulnerability she conceals. A series of flashbacks from her past, when she was simply Jennifer Charles, help us understand her better, especially when it comes to the choice of her stage name, Wren. As Elliot discovers, like that little bird, it's all to do with waiting for her to trust another person enough to open up when she's ready.

The revelations coming forth in the romance seemed a bit one-sided at times. We get unfolding insight into Wren's former life, but not so much about Elliot's. Although likeable, for the most part he remains just a handsome, perceptive FBI agent with not many glimpses into his past to show what makes him tick. Since his background isn't part of this particular story line I can see why the author chose not to go there, but it still felt like something was missing, and I was glad when he did reveal something significant at one stage. It just helped to humanise him.

The colourful 1920s background was fun, although maybe the overall effect wasn't quite as sensational and hair-raising as I expected from the blurb. It was a quirky twist that they were trying to prove Stapleton's innocence even though he didn't want to proven innocent, because it would debunk his supernatural claims. He didn't really come into the story as a character to the extent that I expected. For anyone disappointed to discover that Houdini had already been dead for a few years at the start, don't worry, he appears in some of the flashbacks. My favourite takeaway is that Jenny/Wren's real skill is in making beauty grow out of nothing, something you don't have to be a true illusionist to practice.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I'm now on Bloglovin'

Hi everyone, this is a quick post to let you know I'm now on Bloglovin'. It looks like an easy way to never miss blog posts from other blogs I love. Hopefully I'll gain some more followers of The Vince Review too. If you're on Bloglovin', or would like to start as I just did, I'd love it if you'd follow me. Follow my blog with Bloglovin

A dozen literary rodents

The Broke and the Bookish have offered a freebie Top Ten Tuesday, so I'll take it, although I've extended mine to a dozen.

Today's list is a request. I've done dogs, cats and even bigger cats, so my younger son challenged me to write a blog post about literary rodents, especially since we've been plagued by an influx of mice recently. Well, we've caught nine. My husband has been moving things around in the garage, and they've been slipping beneath the door which separates it from the house. I haven't seen any for a few days, but I'm still creeping around on eggshells, because I hate having my personal space invaded by such unwelcome visitors that make my skin crawl. Especially when I see them dart out suddenly. 

But here's a true story to show that maybe my phobia is a bit superficial. Once I was feeding possums with my family, at the bottom of Umpherston Sinkhole, Mt Gambier, and noticed that one was quite a lot smaller than the others, but just as eager for food. He had a little twitchy nose and whiskers, although his face was slightly pointier than his friends', and he kept trying to edge his way to the front. I said, 'That one must be a baby. Look how cute he is.' Then suddenly he turned, and I saw a long, hairless, whip-like tail behind him. Instantly I realised that I wasn't looking at a baby possum, but a very large rat! 

I tell you, it changed the game for me in a flash! Imagine reverting from, 'How adorable,' to 'How hideous' in a second. But my husband and kids said, 'Hey, he hasn't changed from who he was just a second ago when you were loving him. You're rejecting him now, just because you have some extra information about him. That's not fair, is it?' I had to admit there may be a glimmer of truth in that.  Perhaps making this list may be a therapeutic thing to do, to prove there are some rodents I can stand.   

1) Remy from Ratatouille
This classy gastronome has faced discrimination and prejudice. He instinctively understands fine food and would love to be an award-winning chef but can't get into the industry for one reason alone, he's a rat. Prospective employers don't just politely turn him away, but forcefully chase him out of their kitchens and treat like a filthy menace! Remy ends up befriending a young apprentice chef, Linguini, and creates wonderful dishes by directing the youth from beneath his puffy chef's hat. Hey, if others won't accept you for who you are, you do what you can, even if the credit goes to someone else.

Stuart Little2) Stuart Little
Eleanor and Frederick Little wish to adopt a child. They return from the orphanage with a talking mouse named Stuart. I totally get why their son George would insist, 'He's not my brother!' I'd react the same way in his shoes. Since when have orphanages become pet shops? But Stuart can talk, and he's pretty smart and resourceful, with cute, wistful, beady eyes. No doubt his Michael J Fox charm would rub off on me in the end too.

3) Despereaux
He's the plucky, brave-hearted little mouse from the tale that bears his name. Far more interested in reading books than chewing them up like his family members, he learns about history and stops a dirty rat's conspiracy to harm the princess.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
4) Rat, from Fantastic Mr Fox
He's the security guard of Farmer Bean, one of the locals whose poultry and produce Mr Fox and his friends like to raid. The poor fellow dies of electrocution after being pushed into a generator by Mr Fox, but has a few poignant lines indicating how hard it is to be a rat.

5) Rat in a Hat
Fellow Australians who watched children's TV in the nineties will surely remember this guy from Bananas in Pyjamas, who ran the local shop in Cuddles Avenue. The bananas and teddies all considered him a good friend, although he tended to play sneaky, greedy tricks on them. They were always gullible enough to fall for his line, 'Trust me, I'm a rat!' long after they should have wised up. You may also remember his catch cry, 'Cheese and Whiskers.'

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)6) Scabbers from Harry Potter
All through the first two books, we think he's simply the anxious, long-lived pet of the Weasley family, handed down through the brothers until poor Ron ends up with him. Near the end of 'The Prisoner of Azkaban' his true identity as traitor and turncoat animagus Peter Pettigrew is revealed. He was the former friend responsible for betraying James and Lily Potter, and has lived in disguise, in fear of retribution. With the return of the Dark Lord, his nasty ways come to the fore again. Despicable and cowardly all through, he pleads with Ron, 'Wasn't I a good pet?' and Sirius Black retorts, 'I wouldn't boast about being a better rat than a human, Peter.'

7) Mr Ratburn, from the Arthur TV series
He's on my list of best teachers ever, where I've given him a good wrap-up. Anyone was lucky who found themselves in his class.
The Wind in the Willows
8) Ratty from Wind in the Willows
He's actually a water vole who loves spending his days on the river, and taking his friend Mole for rides in his boat. 'If you believe me, my young friend, there is simply nothing half so worth doing as simply messing about in boats,' he says. What a life for a rat.

9) Mickey Mouse
This Disney mascot has been hanging out with his other anthropomorphic friends for several decades. He's been the star of movies, ranging from black and white to colour, TV series, and more recently, video games. I believe kids from the 50s and 60s idolised him to the extent of wearing black, round look-alike ears and becoming members of a special Mickey Mouse Club.

10) Scrabble
He made cameo appearances in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women stories. Jo March used to enjoy writing stories in the garret, with a pail of apples to munch. She always fed the cores to her friend Scrabble, the resident rat. He started off wild, but came to consider her a good friend, and no wonder. I would have set traps long before getting personally acquainted.

11) Pikachu 
This little yellow Pokemon wouldn't have occurred to me, but while I was trying to draw this list out to 12, my son reminded me that he is actually a thunder mouse. Being Ash Ketchum's original Pokemon, he always holds a special place in his heart. I've sometimes been surprised to see young fans loving Pikachu plush toys even when they're not familiar with Pokemon and don't have a clue who he is. I suppose it's his friendly, lovable appearance and little pink cheeks that wins them over.

And now for my favourite

12) Reepicheep! 
Lovers of C.S. Lewis know him as one of Narnia's most fearless warriors. The chief of the mouse army, he is always ready to move in and attack the enemy, even when bigger men falter. Sometimes others laugh at his super-confidence and try to protect him from his own good intentions.

Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia, #4) One of my favourite rodent scenes in literature takes place at the end of 'Prince Caspian.' The brave Reepicheep has been brought back from the brink of death with the aid of Queen Lucy's healing cordial, but laments the loss of his long tail, which has been completely severed. Since it's the honour and glory of a Mouse, he's terribly upset. Aslan believes Reepicheep thinks too much of his honour, but then the rest of the mice draw their swords and prepare to cut theirs off too, rather than bear a privilege denied to their chief.

'You've conquered me,' roars Aslan. 'You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love between you and your people, and the kindness your people showed me long ago on the Stone Table, you shall have your tail again.'

So although real ones still make me cringe, I grudgingly admit literary rodents do have a way of stealing my heart. They convict me for making snap judgements about people I don't even know because of their background (or in their case, species). And they show me that everyone might have admirable features if we're prepared to delve deeply enough. It's not so difficult in their case, since story rodents are generally intended to be cute and lovable. Scabbers is probably the worst on the list, and even he shows us not to underestimate the people we think we know. 

Be honest, what do you think of mice and rats?


Monday, March 6, 2017

'The Dangers of Truffle Hunting' by Sunni Overend


True desires will be unearthed … For readers of Zoe Foster-Blake, Candace Bushnell and Gourmet Traveller, a delightful sexy story that spans the Australian wine country, the French provinces and hip bars of Melbourne.

Is life too short to play it safe?

Kit Gossard's life is neatly mapped out. A secure photographic job. A partner ready to commit. A wedding in the family vineyard for her mother to preside over. So why the apprehension? Why a hunger for something ... more? 

Then someone new appears. Earthy, reserved, magnetic, this new man brings out feelings she has long suppressed, and suddenly Kit can't contain her simmering discontent. Black truffle hunting, illicit pastry lessons, vine fruit on flesh - Kit is seduced. It feels right. Before it all goes wrong.

This is a bit like the book form of an Epicurean feast. The main theme is that life is too short for self-denial, when it comes to those sensual things that make it worth living - and that obeying social cues isn't always as sensible as it may sound.

Kit Gossard's pressure to conform comes from all areas of her life, work, family and romantic. She's a food photographer who works for an elegant, minimalist magazine, and hides her desire to take more decadent, elemental photos. Her mother always criticises everything about her, and Kit is engaged to marry high profile furniture designer Scott Baldwin, although her heart yearns for the earthy, rugged Raph, a simple worker at her father's vineyard.

It's the sort of story that surprises the heroine with serendipitous twists coming from seemingly nowhere when she decides to follow her heart, even though she expects her rebellious attitude to lead to disaster. For such a free thinker, Kit actually digs her heels in and tries to cling tight to all those conventional expectations, kicking and screaming. We all know it's not strictly true that things always slot into place for anyone who chooses their own path as brilliantly as they do for Kit, yet it's an easy-reading, relaxing formula. In fact, I can imagine this story as a rom-com movie.

Scott is that successful-but-preoccupied fiance character who clearly needs to get his marching orders. Yet he's a nice guy in his own way. He's designed to cop some flak, but I often think it's probably essential for people like him to prioritise their careers, if they want to retain their illustrious reputations. Often people who have achieved any type of fame have had to make sacrifices, because there's just not enough hours in the day to dazzle fans and also give personal relationships the depth they deserve. He's the sort of person we like to admire in the media, yet sling abuse at when we find out what he's given up to achieve the notoriety. I feel sorry for him, in a way.

The family dynamics of the Gossard family is fun to read. I'm sure we've all come across eye-rolling, down-their-nose snobs like the mother, Annalese, and I wonder if they recognise themselves in books like this. I couldn't warm to her at all, even when she decided to muster a bit of kindness toward the end. But Kit's father and brother, Connor and Marc, are supportive and lovable, as is her best friend, Piper. They can always be relied upon for a bit of fun dialogue, even though the family business is shown to be stressful.

Sexual references and swearing are fairly thick throughout the book. The characters themselves even discuss their fondness for the F-bomb, and spread it around with a shovel. I don't think I'm a prude, but I get bored with any word which is used whenever characters open their mouths. If there has to be swearing, I like it best when characters do it sparsely and under great provocation rather than all the (beep)ing time. Readers who hate swearing would certainly have issues with the quantity in this book, but surely those who don't mind wouldn't ever complain that a novel didn't have enough swearing! For that reason, I think Sunni Overend overdid it a bit, but you do get used to it (which isn't necessarily a good thing.)

Overall, it's not a bad read, with some thought-provoking quotes. 'Scott sensed that Kit didn't like what she did, and thought the solution was what he did. His success was, by default, hers.' This sort of relationship clearly won't cut it. Not when you compare it to Raph's, 'I came seeking nothing, but found everything.'

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

3.5 stars.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Should Classics be adapted for Young Readers?

The question is this week's topic from Pages Unbound, in their Classic Remarks meme. I'd never considered it much before, but I can see some wisdom in adapting classics. Some people might prefer to enjoy the stories of Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare without getting bogged down in ancient Chaucerian or Shakespearean English. We no longer live in Medieval or Elizabethan times, yet their tales are certainly entertaining enough to be retold in language twenty-first century readers can understand. When you look at it this way, it's not all that different from translating stories from foreign languages. 

A friend of mine remarked on the difference between abridged and adapted classics. In the first case, the book is simply shortened, and in the second, the story could be changed to the extent that it takes place in a different time or place which is easier for the reader to relate to, although the plots points are still adhered to (sometimes loosely). 

Yet it all involves making amendments to what the author originally planned, and I have reservations in endorsing either abridged versions or adaptations at all times, just to make the reading experience easier. Before saying, 'Yeah, anyone should just go for it,' I'd want to be sure the following conditions are considered. Here are five times when maybe classics shouldn't be altered to suit young people. 

1) Not at the expense of not having the original volume available at all. 
Journalist Rebecca Mead was researching the life of George Eliot, who wrote her favourite classic, Middlemarch. During a visit to the book stores of Coventry, where Eliot spent a great part of her life, Mead could not find a single, unabridged copy of Middlemarch in the whole city! There were several different shortened versions, but not the masterpiece Eliot wrote. Rebecca Mead sadly guessed that in our fast-moving modern times, readers simply won't sit down to a book the size of Middlemarch. Shops don't supply it, because there's no market for it.

 Since Middlemarch is sometimes considered the greatest British novel of all times, I think it a shame that twenty-first century readers just can't be bothered with it. Sure, let's offer abridged versions, but don't take opportunities away from anyone who wants to get exactly what the author intended, no more, no less.

That anecdote, and many others, are in this book which I reviewed here.

2) Not if you don't make it clear that this is what you're doing.
Perhaps I should've been more alert after the first couple of times this happened to me, but I've sometimes finished reading a classic from cover to cover and thought, 'I didn't realise it would be this simple and short.' Only then do I notice some fine print in an obscure corner of a front or back page, saying, 'This is an abridged version, adapted by So-and-So.' That's incredibly annoying, when I pick up a book in good faith expecting the complete, original story. Publishers, if you're going to do this, please make it clear with decent sized print in a noticeable place that this is a shortened or adapted version.

3) Not if someone goes too wild with the pruning shears. 
I sometimes wonder whether adaptors get too heavy-handed and cull parts which the author might have considered most meaningful. Since the stories have been around for long enough to be considered classics, in many cases the writers have passed away, and we can no longer run questions past them. But you'd expect that anything in the original was put there for a good reason. Trimming bits away, or changing them, to provide a shorter, easier read should be a delicate operation. Editing lengthy descriptions or excessive background dumps is one thing, but at times I've asked young readers, 'What did you think of the part where the main character did such-and-such?' and they reply, 'He didn't do that in my version. Wow, that's wild!' Or, 'In the book I had, they wrote it this way instead.' I've come across too many adaptors who behave more like wrecking balls than precision surgeons. These people should be kept well away from great old stories.

4) Not if they're really not designed to be read by a younger audience.
Maybe some classics are just not the sorts of material children need to be getting their heads around. I'm not saying this in a condescending way at all, since I believe kids' minds are as retentive and intelligent as adults'. It's just that there's a stage of life when innocence and simplicity should be treasured, and minds needn't be bogged down with themes like cruelty, misogyny, horror, terrorism and the like. These will certainly be brought to their attention down the track, so we don't necessarily need to rush the process by introducing certain books in ways younger folk can easier grasp, just because they're classics.

5) Not if readers are likely to say, 'Now I know the story, I don't need to read the longer version.'
Publishers may have good intentions of offering these changed versions to whet young readers' appetites for the real thing, but there's no plot spoiler quite like an abridged story. I hate this sort of comment as much as I hate hearing, 'Now that I've seen the movie, I don't need to read the book.' No, no, no, you think you can discuss all the features of this book, but you've no idea! You haven't necessarily experienced the beauty of the original author's prose, or delved into the characters' psyches, or seen the extra atmosphere the setting may add. The sad thing is, you truly think you have.

So even though I can see the benefits of abridged or adapted classics sometimes, and I'm not totally opposed to them, I think I've just convinced myself that in many cases, I'm not really a great fan. Maybe that's why we don't have all that many on our bookshelves, and also why I haven't encouraged my kids to read abridged classics. In general, when I love a classic, I tend to wait until I consider the kids old enough to get the most out of the original versions, and then recommend them with all my might.