Thursday, 18 October 2012

My Life in Books...

Most people remember their favourite kid's books pretty vividly.  I suppose it's the time in a person's life when they are most likely to read or get read to.  Hopefully.  The ages of 1-10 is definitely the time that most people use public libraries.  They kind of drop off after that.

So these are some of the ones that I remember the most from having stories read to me as a kid.  My mum used to make stories up herself, which was pretty cool.  Or at least we think they were made up.  They could've been partially remembered from somewhere else and embellished.  Some of them went on for weeks too.  My dad always did voices and stuff whenever he read to me & my sister, which was pretty often, considering he worked nights a lot at that time.

This one, The Happy Hedgehog Band, I must have had out of Sutton Library about 30 times.  It had loads of noises in it that you could make a right racket with.
The Happy Hedgehog Band
The hedgehogs start a band.  Apparently hedgehogs are lacking in meaningful activity.  Gradually as word gets around, all the other forest creatures want in, providing their own instrument and vocals/noises to contribute to the band.  This is way before the days of Britain's Got Talent too.  I think everyone gets into the massive ensemble.  I also remember a dog "who was lost in the woods" that just dances.  Like a furry Bez.  

My sister was only about two when we first heard this story, and she christened hedgehogs "Tat-tat-boom"s. We still call them that, despite being in our twenties :)

Blossom Loving Mole
This one I cannot for the life of me remember the name of.
It involved a mole, who was obsessed with blossom.  He finds a 5-pound-note down a drain when wandering around one day, but all the blossom is gone.  He rips it up into little pieces and shouts "Blossom!!" and that's how it ends.  

Nail Soup
I don't know if Nail Soup, is an actual fairytale, or a filler story that just sort of bumped up the page count a bit.  This was my absolute favourite as a kid.  Probably because it was a story almost entirely about food. 
Taken from this bumper book of stories.  I think this was
re-cycled after my aunty's sons got too old for it...
Basically, an old woman takes a tramp in for the night.  Your typical handkerchief-on-a-stick, top hat that's been opened with a can-opener type jolly hermit.  He suggests he makes his special soup as a thank-you for her kindness, using only a nail and hot water.

Intrigued, she agrees.  She tells him she's not very well off and there's no food in the house to eat as an alternative.  The tramp lobs his nail in the pot and waits a bit.  He starts off by saying little suggestions, like "Ooo, have you got some salt & pepper?".  Gradually that becomes "Y'know what would really make this nice?  A couple of onion..."  The woman keeps popping off to the pantry and bringing back increasingly numerous ingredients.  Eventually, you've got a full blown meat & vegetable stew going on, with warm bread and fresh butter and all of the best china and cutlery.  The tramp fishes the nail out and pockets it with a chuckle.

They sit down to eat their Nail Soup.  Naturally, the woman is stunned!  She can't believe that a soup made out of a single nail is so tasty and so filling.  She wants the recipe from the tramp, but he's not sharing.  This isn't  Come Dine With Me.  

Most fairytales have some sort of moral message.  I'm not sure what that is supposed to convey.  Elderly women lie about their financial situations?  The homeless are wiley conmen?  DIY supplies make excellent stocks and sauces?

Famous Five
I know they're not that popular anymore...I guess they're not that relevant.  Who'd let kids as young as 9 run around outsmarting smugglers?  Sleep outside in piles of heather?  Drink milk that has not been consistently refrigerated?  The thing is though, they were as irrelevant and ridiculous in 1995 as they are now, and that did not stop me from loving these stories.  Once I finished number 21, I'd start on number 1 again immediately after.  

For the uninitiated Julian, Dick and Ann, pictures of 1950s rural health and wholesomeness, are siblings.  One summer they go to stay with their Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin, and meet their cousin, Georgina, for the first time.  Georgina is George, she looks, acts and thinks like a boy and insists on being treated like one. She also has a pretty awesome dog called Timmy.  That's your Five right there.  They basically run around idyllic rural England toting picnics, wearing sandles and being quaint.  I'm not sure if the phase "lashings of ginger beer" ever actually appears in the books but as a phrase, it sets the tone.

These pesky kids though...they just fall into adventures wherever they go...Mysterious gypsies, smugging operations, ghostly steam-trains, ruined castles, dungeons, gold bullion, gun running,'s amazing they ever lived to see another term at boarding school.  It's basically Scooby-Doo but with bonbons and rowing boats.

As a kid, it does make you question the apparent dullness of your own school-holiday life...
Obviously anybody reading this now is too old to read them for the first time (or not, go mad, whatever) I just hope you won't rule them out for your own kids, or kids that you know.

Harry Potter, the reading epiphany
I know.  It's a depressingly obvious choice to have as a formative book.  But it is toooo important to me to not feature.  The Philosopher's Stone on my shelf is my third copy.  One fell apart, one got left on a plane...
Being the super-cool kid that I was, I was pretty determined at one point to never read HP.  When Azakban came out, I was all "pffft, what?  Another of those stupid Harry Potter books? GOD!"
But then I stopped being an idiot, read the first one in an afternoon and began a (henceforth) lifelong obsession.

Lovely, lovely Harry Potter...
I was pretty convinced for a while that Hermione was based entirely on me.  It didn't seem that crazy.  My actual Hogwarts letter might have got lost in the post, but this could be me...  Bushy brown hair?  Check.  Slightly protruding front teeth?  Check.  Marginally unhealthy attitude to academic competition and rule-following?  Check!!

I was just blown away by them.  The richness of the world, the complexities of the plot, the realistic ups-and-downs of school-mates' relationships (complete with fights, silliness and co-dependence), characters that at the time seemed to be peripheral, like Snape and Dumbledore being so 3-dimensional and so full of their own was revolutionary to a 12 year old.  It really felt that when you closed the book, Hogwarts and its inhabitants carried on with their lives and their adventures whether you were there to read about them or not.

When *THE THING* happens at the end of HBP, it's preposterous and impossible and beyond comprehension.  It.  Simply.  Cannot.  Be.  It's feels like somebody has stormed out of the page and into your life, destroyed everything that you've ever loved and left you a nasty present on your pillow.
*THE THING* was probably the thing that made me realise how powerful words on a page can be.  Despite being 17 at the time and doing A levels in Literature, I'd never been struck like that by words.  
It's happened very few times since.

Monday, 15 October 2012

When She Woke, by Hilary Jordan

This book cover will stare you out.
Hannah Payne lives in a dystopian future America. Uber-conservative Christians make the rules and convicted criminals serve their sentences out in public, melachromed for easy identification and colour coded according to the severity of their crimes. Why should honest Christians pay tax dollars to keep criminals in prison? Hannah is a murderer. She has illegally aborted her unborn child and refused to name its father, so adding years to her sentence. As punishment, she is dyed a vivid pillar-box red and ejected into the world to face the public and her family.

Had this not been the selection of a book club I attend, I would never have read it.  However the premise of an uber-conservative government with a zero tolerance stance on abortion intrigued me.  Particularly when you look at the apparent success of certain pro-life US presidential candidates and the ill-informed 12-week abortion limit witterings of out current 'Health' secretary.  Perhaps it doesn't seem as far fetched as it once might have.

What did irritate me throughout is the regurgative quality of the writing.  You can piece the plot together quite wholly using parts of other novels.  For example.
  • The relationship between Hannah and Kayla is exceptionally similar to that of Offred and Moira in the (Massively Superior) Handmaid's Tale.  One's oppressed, with the potential for uprising but needs bringing out of her shell a bit.  The other is feisty and self-sufficient, a shell-shedding catalyst.  There's also similarities in the far-right Christian extremism and associated war on women, the importance of the colour red, the gender-roles of parenthood and a bunch of other stuff beside.
  • The sadistic Christian 'retreat' that Hannah and Kayla meet in was pretty reminiscent of Jane Eyre's boarding school, complete with Evangelical, cruel patron(ess), scratchy uncomfortable uniforms and insufficient food.
  • The fact that the time spent incarcerated on the "Chrome Ward" was televised felt to me like an attempt to piggy back on the "Reality TV gone mental" aspect of The Hunger Games.  I know many novels have used this previously, but taking into account its recent success/film release...The TV aspect was never mentioned again and I didn't feel it added anything to the plot.
  • The Scarlet Letter.  That is all.
There's also a pretty misplaced lesbian episode that didn't work in the slightest.  For a person who's been raised for 20-odd years believing that homosexuality is abhorrent and ungodly, Hannah has a week living under the instruction of a feminist organisation and BOOM, she sheds 2 and a half decades of evangelist brainwashing and suddenly finds women (or A woman, at least) attractive.  It's the as-read connection between lesbianism and feminism that's a bit worrying there, like they're interchangeable or somehow inseparable.   It would have been more in-character and less ridiculous for Hannah to have just accepted homosexuality as a concept, rather than just leaping right in to her little 'affair', as she calls it.  

The plot's pacey enough and is roughly divided into three parts: adjusting to life as a Chrome, life in the Christian organisation and the fight from assassination cult "The Fist of Christ".  The first part is probably where the most interesting ideas emerge as Hannah has to come to terms with the stares, the discrimination and the loss of friends and family.  It also doesn't feature as much of the annoyingly pious and fabulously forbidden walking piece of God-fodder Rev. Aidan Dale.  We hear about him.  A LOT.

We get it.  Religious fundamentalism, bad.  Women's rights, good.  Adultery, can of worms.
It's not awful, but there's certainly better.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Hunger Games

Firstly, can I just bask for a second in the rare and amazing glow that the these books provided.  It made me remember why I read and it's just impossible to communicate how strange a feeling it is to finish a book that you absolutely loved- it's that sort of panicky reel, when you go up the stairs in the dark and you think there's another stair when there isn't...

I imagine most people have heard of the Hunger Games: in a bleak dystopian country that used to be the USA, the 12 districts of Panem are forced every year to sacrifice two of its children to The Hunger Games, a vicious reality TV game show. For the indulgent, obscene residents of the comfortable Capitol, this represents the height of entertainment and the pinnacle of the city's social schedule. For 23 of the contestants it means a very brutal and very public death.

It's got to be said that I really did enjoy this series a lot, I read the whole trilogy in 5 days. It's so easy to read, the language flows quickly, it's unfussy, but at the same time is really compelling. Katniss Everdene, district 12's girl tribute makes for an honest and likeable narrator; she's funny, smart and the reader is treated to every thought that goes through her head- we see through her eyes, which can be unreliable, so some characters are possibly presented a little unsympathetically at times (Looking at you, Haymitch love). We see how fear, her values and love affect her decisions and we see how much she punishes herself for giving in to what she perceives as her own weaknesses.  I've read other reviews that have found her trust issues to be irritating, or found her a bit thick, or that she grates after a while.  I honestly didn't find this to be the case.  She does have problems deciding who to trust, she changes her mind a lot, she's sort of unstable.  But at the age of 16, what girl is a beacon of composure, stability and sense?  The criticism of Katniss perhaps becomes more applicable to the 2nd and 3rd books, but when you've become the symbol of a revolution you really had no idea you'd started, you're going to be a bit moody and a bit conflicted about your mandatory involvement.

Getting back to the first book.  It's been so long since I got properly drawn into a Universe like this. The compartmentalisation of the USA into food/resource producing districts for the Capitalist Capitol seems far fetched, but when you think about it, it's not that dissimilar from the real world.  New Zealand as the lamb district.  China the Fishing District and so on.  When you draw contrasts between how the Capitol population exploits the poor, numerous populations for its own comfort and gain it all seems a bit closer to home.

It's a testament to how much the human spirit can endure, what can be survived (physically and emotionally) and how when you think you've given everything to a cause, there's always that little bit of strength to pull out of the bag that you never knew you had.  Brace yourselves, though for what may be the human equivalent of the "Mufasa moment".  Ohmygod, that bit will stab you right in the soul.

In conclusion, the Hunger Games is full of suspense, impeccable, true to life characters and a world that seems both far-fetched, but is just real enough (and grim and heartless enough) to be conceivable   If you liked the film, read the book.  It is immensely better.  Though it does have the disadvantage of no Jennifer Lawrence.  Who, along with Tina Fay, is my lady hero. 

Banned Books Week

This post is brought to you slightly late, on the Thursday of banned books week, so sorry about that!

Banning books.  I've always though the practice to be kind of crazy for several reasons.  Banning anything because somebody is offended/upset/confused by it is ridiculous.  People think and believe all sorts of things, so it's pretty safe to say that if you looked hard enough, you could find somebody to object to almost everything.  A government or an organisation banning a book, film or game wants to stop its people from seeing something. Why? What is it that they object to? It doesn't trust you to understand something or thinks it knows what's best for you.

When To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by the Hanover County School Board's for immoral content in 1966, the author wrote to the censors with a bit of a zinger:

"Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read."
Surely there is no better novel to promote kindness, equality and a sensible moral code than this one.  Herper Lee was pretty bang on with her wonderings.

Also, there is probably nothing more effective at shifting copies of a book than to ban it.  Mark Twain seems to have cottoned on to this early enough, saying 
"Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!"

Modern-day controversy surrounding Huck & Tom Sawyer tends to focus on the representation and treatments of African-Americans and slaves and the frequent use of what are now racial slurs.   Contemporary objections were to the mischievous, unruly and parental-authority-ignoring  behaviour of the boys.  What people object to will change, but they will always find something.

The reasons for imposing bans seem to be various, but the full list (of the American Library Association, at least) is Anti-Ethnic, Anti-Family, Drugs, Insensitivity, Nudity, Occult/Satanic, Offensive Language, Racism, Religious Viewpoint, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group and Violence.  Essentially Sex, Religion or Politics.

I challenge anybody to name a decent book, one that held your attention and made you think or feel things that hadn't occurred to you before, that doesn't touch on at least three of the above.  Unsuited to age group is one that baffles me particularly.  Many objections to adult books seem to be their potential damaging effects on children...

Books that are deemed racist/violent/sexist often draw attention to the issue of racism/violence/sexism.  Characters' words and behaviour aren't necessarily the actual, real-life thoughts of the author, they don't want you to repeat them.  They want you to see their effect in a fictional world, so it doesn't happen in the real one.

Read as many banned books as you can, not just this week.  Censors seem to be under the impression that reading a novel where unjust, sadistic or unpleasant events/people occur results in people adopting and acting out these themes.  Because everybody is just that corruptible and insane.  American Psycho does not make you go out and kill people.  It makes you wonder what the hell Patrick Bateman's problem is, and whether he's a massive crazy or a massive liar.  You think "This guy's a dick, 1980s New York sounds like a dump".  If something makes you queasy, contravenes your world view or just generally disagrees with you, you can do one of two things.  Put the book down, move away from it and pick another, or persevere and see what happens.

Reading a couple of top 10 banned lists this week, I've found a couple of interesting bits that I thought I'd share...

Green Eggs and Ham - Dr. Seuss' whimsical rhyme-fest was banned in China between 1965 and 1991 because it apparently portrayed early Marxism.  There really aren't many lines to read between, but that's what was dredged up by important Chinese readers...
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? - An unfortunate and obscure Marxist namesake on the part of the author meant that Brown Bear was banned by the Texan Education Board in 2010.  Most of these bans come from the 1930s and 1960, so they seem pretty ridiculous and archaic now.  But this was 2 years ago.  Pretty depressing. 
In present day Australia, restricted print publications are sold to over-18s only, shrink wrapped and labelled with this sticker. Things are submitted for restriction classification if they " are likely to cause offence to a reasonable adult to the extent that the publication should not be sold or displayed as an unrestricted publication; or are unsuitable for a minor to see or read."  Not all books are classified, but ones that are submitted for classification are considered then either made restricted or deemed to be OK.  I've read that American Psycho is still sold like this.

You can find a full list of all the books that have ever been banned in the UK here on BannedBooks.Org.  Pick one, read it and find out what's so utterly, world-endingly terrible about it.