North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Sometimes, not often, you come across an adaptation or BBC miniseries that is so great that it actually probes you to read the book. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell was adapted into a brilliant miniseries by the BBC in 2004 and I saw that before I’d actually read the book, which doesn’t happen often. Of course, some things have been altered for the adaptation, which is the reason why many lovers of the book dislike the series. In the same way, the book does offer more than the series does, but that’s always the case. This is a strange way to start off a book review, but I do want to mention that this is one of those rare occasions where I think the BBC did a magnificent job, by creating a series practically as good as the book and because it caused me to read Gaskell’s magnificent Victorian work on class-structures and the Industrialisation.

Margaret Hale is the young daughter of a simple village clergyman. Up until her eighteenth birthday, she has lived in London for years with her aunt and cousin, who are far more wealthy than Margaret’s family is and where she has received her education. When her cousin Edith marries a Captain Lennox, Margaret moves back into her childhood home in the rural village of Helstone. Margaret is glad to be back at home again, at paradise as she calls it, but their life is rudely interrupted when her father confesses to her that he has to leave the Church of England on a matter of conscience. Because they have very little money and a part of it is always sent to Margaret’s brother Frederick, who is abroad and is surrounded by great mystery for the first half of the book, they can’t afford to stay anywhere apart from the industrial town of Milton-Northern.

After Margaret has told her mother that they have to go, because her father can’t bring himself to tell her, they leave for the dirty and smoky town of Milton. Mr Bell, an old friend of her father’s from Oxford, owns property in Milton and manages to arrange everything needed for the Hale family. In their new surroundings, Margaret’s father takes up a teaching position and his first pupil is a Mr Thornton, who is an influential manufacturer and the master of Marlborough Mills. When Margaret and Mr Thornton meet, he thinks she is a beauty, but a woman with too many ‘airs and graces’. She thinks of him as hard and unfeeling, though she does admire his climb from poverty. After a few months in Milton, Margaret is struck by the poverty she encounters, the harshness of life in a town filled with cotton-factories, and she feels lonely. At the same time, her mother withers away in the smog-filled town and suffers increasingly of low spirits.

Through Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy, Margaret first becomes acquainted with the large group of workers at the town. Nicholas Higgins is a proud and suspicious man and Bessy is terminally ill because of all the fluff she has swallowed while working at the mill. Then the tension between masters and workers comes to a boiling point and the workers go on a strike. Margaret, at this point, has learned the workers’ point of view and tries to defend them to Mr Thornton. But when the workers are at the door and the situation turns potentially violent, Margaret rushes to Thornton’s aid and is struck down by a stone. This in turn leads to Thornton believing that Margaret cares for him and he proposes to her, but she refuses his offer. The second part of the book is all about Margaret and Thornton as opposites, as are the masters and workers, the north and the south, until opposites slowly start to move towards each other.

Without wanting to give away too many spoilers, I ended my summary by saying that this book is all about opposites eventually coming together. This isn’t quite true for all of them, but it certainly is for Margaret and Mr Thornton. This entire novel is about opposing forces, clashing and occasionally meeting in the middle, if only for a few seconds. There is the striking theme of the innovation of machinery, modernity if you like, opposite traditional ways of living. In the book we see this reflected in the modern North, where life is fast-paced, cold-hearted according to some, but you have to remember that England at that time was watched by the world because of its trade and machinery. Mass-production of cotton was just one of the trades, and it all started in dirty, smoky towns like the fictional Milton. On the other hand there is the South, which Margaret tends to romanticize in the beginning of the book, where the days are slow and gentle and where her family was once respected as country gentry. Here the roles are set, but in the North, however harsh, one can work his way up in the world, like Mr Thornton has. When the danger of the upcoming strike begins to take shape in the book, the subject of rebellion and authority takes shape. This has everything to do with the question of what is fair and the right thing to do; a subject that reappears in the novel when Frederick’s past is explained. But there is so much more I could talk about: dreams versus reality, rural versus urban areas, male versus female roles. Interestingly enough, I’d say this book is also about the reversal of these roles, especially when it comes to male and female gender roles.

Much to my dismay, I’ve read many reviews of people complaining about the character of Margaret and how they had expected her to be so much more feisty, but were disappointed when they actually read the book. I love Margaret and I don’t agree that it takes her half the book to find her backbone. Please keep in mind that this is a Victorian novel and women fist fighting their way through a crowd is something we simply can’t hope for, but a woman taking charge of a family moving because the father can’t bring himself to do it or a woman jumping in front of an angry mob out of sheer worry and little care for her own safety, now that’s the true Victorian heroine I’ve been waiting for. I highly enjoyed reading about Mr Thornton as well, because course and harsh as he seems, he is capable of change, but the women especially are interesting to me, because you so often find that they are merely two-dimensional background-filling creatures in these classics. I think my absolutely favourite is Mrs Thornton, the mother made of iron and smoke, who seems to be the epitome of all that a place like Milton can offer. She is unbelievably hard and worn by life, though never gloomy or passive, and when she speaks of how a woman grown up in Milton will soon know whether she is a coward or not, I started jumping up and down with my book in hand because of the excitement I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad she’s not my mother-in-law, but on paper she is a true role model.

Elizabeth Gaskell sometimes appeared to be the forgotten writer of the Victorian age, which is a shame! She has written wonderful books on all walks of Victorian life. To me it seems she pays more attention to the very poorest than any other writer, except maybe Dickens. In fact, there are quite a few similarities to be found to Dickens’ style of writing. The one that struck me was in the character of Bessy Higgins, the sickly girl who hasn’t got long to live because of her harsh life at the mills. She mentions a few times how she would welcome death when it comes, so all in all she appears to be nothing less than a depressing character. But she does have a function in the story, much like Tiny Tim has in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, because out of frustration Bessy calls out: “All I’ve been born for is just to work my heart and my life away, and to sicken i’ this dree place, wi’ them mill-noises in my ears forever.” Bessy doesn’t die without pointing the attention to the bad working conditions of that time and the hard rise of capitalism caring little for human life. I wondered if in that moment we actually hear Elizabeth Gaskell speaking, full of indignation and anger about the age she lived in. Either way, this is just one example of the social issues that Gaskell brings to light in her novel and of how the language she uses draws you in and makes it impossible to put down the book.

Now I can’t end my review without saying something about the love story. But there is a reason for my putting it off for so long because for me it is not the most important thing of the book. It does seem natural, good and exciting, but it’s not needed. I put it like this, because it has everything to do with the male and female role reversal I mentioned before. Margaret grows from a young country daughter into a strong woman of property and influence. Mr Thornton has had a difficult childhood and has worked all his life, which has made him cold and unfeeling, or so it seems. But when he learns to understand others, Margaret, but also Nicholas Higgins, he changes as a person. When Margaret learns to let go of some of her prejudices and Mr Thornton learns to open up, these two opposites meet in the middle. And here we come to one of my favourite details of the book! They meet in London to discuss business, literally meeting half-way, and that is when they stay together. I loved how there was no damsel in distress, no condescending man and no overly romantic proposal. It just happens between two equals. What a thoroughly modern woman Elizabeth Gaskell must have been!

I know the opinions of the BBC miniseries are very much divided: some love it, some hate it. The reason I love it has to do with two elements of the series. Firstly, the characters of Mr Thornton and his mother were perfectly casted. They are exactly how I imagine them when I’m reading the book. Secondly, the entire atmosphere of industrialised England is fantastically filmed. The drive of innovation on the one hand and the extreme poverty and hopelessness that came with it on the other hand: in just a few shots the series manages to convey this complex history. Someone on Goodreads mentioned that this book is basically Pride and Prejudice for socialists. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Either way, it’s a brilliant book, giving you a window into history unlike anything I’ve ever read, with a great and unique love story to match!

Working Class Heroes Award: For the actual working class heroes

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (London, 1854)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

 

 

 

 

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis #1-4)

One of the reasons that books are important is that they teach us about other people or events in history. Books can help us to understand people from different cultures, or they help to understand the different ways people experienced historical events. With that I don’t only mean history books, but also fiction books, be it comic books, children books, young adult books or books for adults. There is a big sub-genre in comic books doing exactly that, and Persepolis is a good example. Persepolis tells the story of Marjane Satrapi (1969) who grew up during the Iranian Revolution. Her story tells us how normal people living in Iran dealt with the revolution and the consecutive Islamic regime.

This book is a memoir of Satrapi’s life from when she was about 10 until about 25. At 25 she left Iran and moved to France and she hasn’t been back in Iran. In between, she lived in Vienna for a while to attend high school, where her parents hoped she’d find more freedom. However, in Vienna, she finds loneliness and alienation and she returns to Iran. Eventually, she decided to leave Iran as well, because she cannot deal with the restrictive regime anymore. She moved to France and she hasn’t been back to Iran since then. Satrapi writes the book from the perspective of herself, which means that when she is ten the book is told from her perspective as a ten-year-old, and when she is fourteen from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old and so on. In this way, at the beginning of the book, we learn to make sense of the sudden changes in Satrapi’s world, just as she has to do as a child. One way this is done is when Satrapi asks her grandparents about the history of Iran, giving us as readers important background information as well. When Satrapi grows older her frustration with the regime grows and we as readers are frustrated with her because we both know more about the regime.

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This story has two main storylines: The first one is the Iranian revolution which started in 1978 and culminated in the Islamic theocracy in Iran up to this day. The other storyline is the coming-of-age story of Marjane Satrapi during the revolution. Throughout the book, her life, and that of her parents changes dramatically. Bit by bit the freedom they were used to disappeared. Freedom of opinion, the choice to wear what one wants, the ability to drink and to have social gatherings with men and women together. Not all people disagree with the new laws though and tension grows between the more modern Iranians and the ones adhering to traditional religious rule. The easiest way to explain this contrast is comparing ‘modern’ with a Western way of living, and religious as following rules from the Koran and against everything Western. The reality is more complex, but for that, I advise you to read the book.

Satrapi was a passionate child with a large sense of right and wrong. Also, her parents were progressive thinkers and adhered to some Marxist ideas. They motivated Satrapi to read a lot of books and to develop an independent mind. However, an independent mind is dangerous in the new regime. Her parents struggled to make her heed the new laws imposed by the revolution. Satrapi is too young at the beginning to fully understand how dangerous the country is becoming. When her parents get a call from Satrapi’s school because she is talking back to the teachers they tell her the story of a girl who got raped and murdered by the police. There are many stories like that and Satrapi learned to be more careful. She is not giving up rebellion completely though. She tries to bend the new laws as much as possible by wearing lipstick, having illegal posters in her room and asking her parents to smuggle punk music into the country when they go on a holiday. And there are many people like her doing the same things.

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The book isn’t only about Satrapi’s life though, it also tells us the history of Iran and especially about Reza Shah and the new government led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. This was very helpful to put the events of the story into context and to get the different opinions of all the characters in the book. However, different opinions became dangerous after the revolution when life became more restricted. One example of that is the institution of the ‘Morality police’, whose job it is to check people’s adherence to Islamic law. They dress like normal people and you can never know which neighbour or schoolmate is checking on your movements. Satrapi and her friends tried to defy those rules as much as possible but also lived in fear of that police. A simple trip to the grocery store could become dangerous if one of the dress codes is not followed. Something that can happen by accident, because at school, they dress in a headscarf, but at home or at friends places they dress however they want. A mistake is easy to make when the Western clothing is not hidden before going out. Satrapi and her friends and family are living a double life, not willing to give up the way of life they would choose for themselves.

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The best thing about this book is that it tells the story of Iran from the Iranian’s perspective. It shows that not the entire country is full of religious extremists, but that there are also a lot of people who just try to live their life as peaceful as possible. However, when you only focus on the news or certain information sources it is easy to see the entire country in the light of the bad things you hear about it. Books like this, which show the reality of a country or culture of everyday people, are important because it creates understanding and empathy. When you read stories like this it turned out that people from a different country are not scary, and it shows that those people are a lot like yourself. Satrapi, like many children, needs her freedom to explore her own identity but is restricted. She struggles a lot to cope with that and that struggle makes her decide to leave Iran for Paris in the end. However, now she is an activist and most of her work is centred around Iran. Her parents raised her to love Iran and love of the culture is very clear in the book. The message of Satrapi’s book seems to be: Iran is my home and a beautiful country except for the current regime.

All of this doesn’t make this book sound like an easy or fun read, but it is. However, the book has an abstract comic style which makes it easy to read the story. There is nothing in the drawings that isn’t relevant to the story and distracts from the storylines. Also, the drawing style makes the tough parts of the book easier to cope with, without taking away from its seriousness. The style reminds of those funny comics you see in newspapers – ‘cartoons’. I liked that style because it will make it easy for new comic-book readers to get into the story. And most importantly: this book is also very funny. Humour in a book about revolution, torture and oppression sounds strange, however, Satrapi says herself that you can only complain so much about the horror in one’s life. At some point, the only thing you can do is laugh. Her family laughs a lot about the antics of the Islamic government because it is the only way they can cope and keep their spirit intact.

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It is clear by now that I am a fan of this book. I am a fan of any book that helps people to connect with persons from other cultures. Especially when those people are rarely portrayed in a positive light in the media. And because of the accessible drawing style and humour, this book is suitable for teenagers and adults alike. It is the perfect book to read for anyone who wants to know a bit more about the history and the life of other people without relying on the media only. Also, it is suitable for people who don’t feel like reading complex history books to understand a bit better what’s going on in this world. There is no excuse to not read this book and broaden your mind.

Princess Frog award for teaching us to think with our heart and not with the preconceptions we have from the media and other sources.

 

Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis (New York, 2003)

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Bella G. Bear

Hanna’s Daughters (Anna, Hanna och Johanna) by Marianne Fredriksson

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already reviewed this book. I talked about Simon and the Oaks earlier, which you can read here. That book started off my fascination with Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson and I immediately moved on to Hanna’s Daughters. Like Simon and the Oaks, this book is an honest story about a family against the backdrop of Swedish history. Unlike Simon and the Oaks, this story focusses completely on women’s perspectives. Three of them, as is visible in the Swedish title: Anna, Hanna och Johanna. Three generations put next and across from each other through the bulk of the twentieth century.

Anna’s mother Johanna is on the brink of dying. She is very old and her memory and speech have gone. Anna, a middle-aged Swedish writer, tries to deal with the imminent loss of her mother. She still has so many questions she wants to ask her. About the village Johanna was born in, for instance: her mother was the daughter of a miller near the southernmost part of the border between Sweden and Norway. Johanna always told her daughter stories of the beautiful lake with the waterfall that made the mill move and the fairies that danced on the rocks and between the woods.

Anna wants to know the women she came from, who shaped her. After she finds an old picture of her grandmother, Hanna, the perspective of the book shifts and we learn about Hanna’s childhood. Her family was incredibly poor. The tiny village by the lake where they live was struck by famine and only slowly recovered while Hanna grew up. When she was twelve and worked on her uncle’s farm, she was violently raped by her cousin and became pregnant with a little boy. The girl and her son couldn’t count on pity from the harsh, taciturn villagers: she was deemed a whore and her son a bastard until a widowed miller, moved there from another region, saw fit to marry her. With her husband, she got more children: three sons and a little daughter. The girl is called Johanna, and she will be Anna’s mother.

When Johanna was a child, she still lived by the lake in her father’s house by the mill and, for a time when there was a war threat with Norway, in a cave without so much as a fire. But when she was eight years old, the family moved to Göteborg. There, she embraces modern life as much as she can. Her happy childhood becomes a fairytale, she reads and dreams of stories and love. Her mother, a living reminder of the poor country she comes from, is often a source of embarrassment to her. Hanna, though very content with the conveniences of life in the city, doesn’t believe in progress like people in the cities do. She is from a culture of no expectations, little hope and taking things as they come. Johanna has a city education and a city accent and believes in things like social security and pensions and love. The women clash like Anna will clash with her mother and her daughters will clash with Anna after that. But each generation cares for their children as best they can.

The two stories of Hanna and Johanna are woven together by chapters from Anna’s point of view. While she tries to reconcile with the loss of the women who went before her, she decides to write a book about the family history. We follow her as she researches the family heirlooms and pictures and ponders the many complex relationships. Although the story is largely psychological, it reads like a thriller. Dreamy passages with elements of magical realism are intertwined with grim reality in that typical style that Fredriksson has. When trying to summarise the story it sounds rather bleak, but in reality it grabs your attention from the first page. Yesterday I reread the beginning before starting this review, and before I knew it I was a 100 pages in.

I think part of the attraction of this book is that Fredriksson is clearly aware that people, specifically women, are so connected in the things they feel and are and think. For centuries, certain images and pieces of wisdom and character traits have been given from parents to their children. Religion in the village by the lake, for instance, is a strange mixture of different strands of Christianity and remains of ancient beliefs: rune witchcraft, and widespread but secret superstitions. This eclectic mixture is not judged in the book, nor is it romanticised. Fredriksson seldom does your thinking for you. It is however one of the many story elements that show how everything we do has its roots in an exponential amount of people that have gone before us. Whatever the characters go through, there is something comforting in that thought that runs through the book.

There are few relationships more complex than those between mothers and daughters. Fredriksson draws out all the little spoken and unspoken things that happen between the three generations of women with so much nuance and softness. The women learn how to hate, how to hope, how to criticize, how to forgive and how to grow old. To create three full, complete women’s lives with all their contradictions, faults and virtues in only 400 pages is something few authors can accomplish.
It’s refreshing to read a book that is so completely driven by female characters. However, Fredriksson does have the tendency to blame everything that goes wrong in her characters’ lives on their mothers. A husband cheats on his wife because of his distant mother, a boy becomes a rapist because of his doting mother, the main characters’ inability to talk about their feelings is inherited from generation on generation. I forgive Fredriksson for this because of how much love and support exists between the women also, but I don’t agree with her. All daughters resemble their mothers to a certain degree, but it’s not fair to trace every shortcoming back to our parents and if we do, our fathers ought to shoulder some of the blame.

There is a sense here of a women-only world that I am fascinated by. It is a wonderful thing on one hand, but might also be the reason why Fredriksson blames everything on women. I don’t think she means that women are worse creatures than men. It’s just… men are what they are in the universe of this book. Whether they’re bad or good men, the women in their families are still in inferior positions to them. So those women turn their attention to each other. They focus on what they can change in their lives and who they can interact with, and this is a female world that consists of kitchens and churches and babies and baking. It is not a pathetic world but one full of meaning and strength and life. The other side of the coin is that they will criticize the women, who they might be able to change, and forgive the men, who they have no control over, regardless how badly those men behave.

I live in a world where, luckily, great steps have been taken in equality between men and women. Though there is still a lot of work to be done, I can see how far we’ve come and I am grateful for the good men in my life. But part of me longs for that female world that, in my culture, is now almost forgotten. There is a camaraderie, a wordless understanding and natural support in good times and bad ones that is now lost. I think Fredriksson still knew that world, even if her generation was trying to be free of it. And I don’t mean we should turn back time, because back then it was a necessity in the face of great pain and lack of agency. I just think we should think about keeping the good things, like loyalty and that particular female strength, while discarding the inequality and adding some diversity in our lives.

Marianne Fredriksson is careful about not making you nostalgic about old times and not overly trusting in modernity either. She does make you think about the people we’re connected with and the shapes love can take. She proves that you don’t have to be overly verbose or melodramatic to write about a family history. So I won’t become sentimental about this book – but heavens, how I love it.

Call the Midwife Award for nailing the circle-of-life theme

Marianne Fredriksson, Anna, Hanna och Johanna (Stockholm, 1994)

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Jo Robin

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

This isn’t the first time I’m reviewing one of Agatha Christie’s books, which probably has something to with the fact that I’ve read dozens of them. As I mentioned in my review on The Pale Horse, which you can read here, my grandfather left me his entire collection of Christie books, but long before that I was already hooked. And it’s a family thing: we all love to read murder mysteries and on Saturday evenings, we would often watch some kind of detective adaptation on TV. I was very young when I first became engrossed by this macabre but mind-probing kind of mystery and long before my grandfather’s death, I started reading Christie on my own. I think I was around 12 years old when I first read At Bertram’s Hotel and it left a lasting impression on me, because I believe it is one of the best books, plot-wise, that Agatha Christie has written.

Our favourite innocent but nosy old lady, Miss Marple, is taking a vacation in London and staying at the fancy Bertram’s Hotel. As soon as she arrives, she is struck by how the hotel hasn’t changed one bit since she stayed there before the war! This special charm appears to attract all kinds of interesting characters, because the hotel is filled with politicians, clergy and other famous Brits. Among them is Lady Selina Hazy, an old friend of Miss Marple, whom she meets for tea at the hotel. Strangely enough, Lady Selina keeps on thinking she recognises people, only to realise she is mistaken. However, she does spot Bess Sedgewick correctly, a gorgeous woman famous for her adventurousness and her many, many husbands. At the same time, a young girl by the name of Elvira Blake checks into the hotel with her guardian, Colonel Luscombe. And Miss Marple discovers another friend of her is staying at the hotel: the forgetful Canon Pennyfather. The old lady only starts to get suspicious when the famous race car driver Ladislaus Malinowski begins to hang around at the hotel with young Elvira.

Slowly, we learn more and more about these colourful characters. Elvira finds out that she will inherit a great deal of money from her estranged mother as soon as she turns 21. This makes her decide to set up some sort of scheme with her best friend, that will allow her to fly to Ireland for reasons still unknown to the reader. On that same day, Canon Pennyfather is expected on a congress in Lucern. However, forgetful as he is, he has mixed up the dates and misses his flight, so he returns to Bertram’s a day earlier than expected. As he returns, he not only finds an intruder in his hotel room, but he is also knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, a few days later, he is accused of a robbery by the police, but can’t remember anything! In the meantime, Bess Sedgewick has managed to discover a man from her past, now a hotel attendant. Miss Marple is conveniently at the library when she hears the two argue loudly about their past. The next night, two shots ring through the street on which Bertram’s Hotel is located.

As soon as the noise has sounded, people start running towards the screams. They find Elvira Blake next to the body of the hotel attendant, claiming that the killer was aiming for her and that the attendant has tried to save her. It doesn’t take long for the police to find out that the gun that was used belongs to Malinowski. Miss Marple, always noticing things that others ignore, talks to Canon Pennyfather. She tries to help him regain his memory to remember what happened to him on the night he was attacked. For a long time, nothing comes, but then a word pops up into his fragmented mind: doppelganger. From this moment on, Miss Marple starts to believe that a sinister operation takes place at Bertram’s. In fact, Bertram’s Hotel with all its pre-war charms might be nothing more than a front, and the daring Bess Sedgewick is right at the centre of this scandal.

Agatha Christie has written two types of books, in my opinion. Some are great fun, spine chilling, but plot-wise, not that good. I’d say the Pale Horse fits nicely into this category. Read the review, but I’ll say that I thoroughly enjoyed that book, though I didn’t think it was very cleverly written. At the end of the book, I still had many unanswered questions and many plot points simply didn’t make any sense. At Bertram’s Hotel is the complete opposite. When it comes to plot, it’s absolutely at the other end of the spectrum, because once you read the end, literally everything fits! Just like the hotel fools its guests, the same thing happens to you while you’re reading the book. The wool is being pulled over your eyes and it takes a while before you realise it is happening. In fact, I needed Miss Marple to tell me it was happening before realising it myself. Another problem Christie’s books sometimes have is that a character appears at the end of it all of a sudden and resolves a plot line  or a family relation is explained of which you, as a reader, couldn’t possibly know. Again, this isn’t the case in this novel. All the elements are there and at the end you’ll slap yourself, saying: of course! Everything about this book is cleverly constructed, nicely built up and fantastically executed, until the very last and unexpected plot twist.

Of course, I have to say something about the absolutely brilliant character of Miss Marple, if only because I haven’t had the chance to do so before. Jane Marple is a kind, elderly spinster, who lives in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead. This means that she is completely ordinary and hardly ever noticed. She herself remarks at one point that “anyone asking questions might be seen as inquisitive and suspicious, but an old lady asking questions is nothing but an old lady asking questions.” In fact, she is by no means ordinary and this has everything to do with her exceptional skills of observation. She notices small things, little habits people have, when they break their daily rhythms and she has an incredible knowledge of people in general. Her strength comes from that tiny village she lives in and the ordinary but unique villagers: she compares everyone she comes across to those villagers and through this method she is able to see what other people fail to notice. So, the entire world can be found and known through the lens of that tiny English village. I think that this might be one of the most original characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading about and for the invention of Miss Marple alone, Agatha Christie deserves eternal glory in my opinion.

But Miss Marple is not the only marvellous character in this book, and I have to say that I loved each and every character in At Bertram’s Hotel. Canon Pennyfather is just so incredibly lifelike, a kind but forgetful clergyman that everyone would like to have in their village, so when he gets attacked, I was simply appalled! Bess Sedgewick is another wonderful invention by Christie: a runaway aristocrat who doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t be allowed to do certain things, just because she is a woman and born into the upper class. I couldn’t agree more. Ladislaus Malinowski! When I first heard his name, I couldn’t stop saying his name over and over to myself, because it sounds wonderful and sort of slides off the tongue. And it fits him perfectly: a foreign, mysterious and beautiful man, with his own vintage sportscar with a gun in the glove pocket, who might be too good with women for his own good. Elvira properly scared me, as does the Colonel to some degree I think, because she may be young, but incredibly calculating when it comes to money, men and getting her own way. And, lastly, Lady Selina! She is only a minor character, but the book wouldn’t be the same without her hysterical commentary on some of the hotel guests. This book does exactly what the hotel does to its guests: the characters are so dazzling, that you fail to see the bigger picture, but still, who wouldn’t be dazzled by these people, whether in real life or just on the page?

It’s a shame that hotels like Bertram’s no longer exist. It would be wonderful to stay at a hotel where it seems like nothing has changed for over a hundred years. It would be lovely to have a kind and engaging staff watching over you, to have breakfast in bed and to have tea with proper scones, not just the American teacakes that they call scones. But it would be exceptionally great to find out about the criminal organisation organising everything behind the scenes. If only a hotel like that still existed, I would spend every one of my holidays there. But, a book about it is nice too, I suppose.

American Horror Story: Hotel – Award: Because Agatha Christie manages to outdo them from the grave 

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel (London, 1965)

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Thura Nightingale 

Bone: The complete edition by Jeff Smith

This is one of those books that made me wonder why the world was still turning as if nothing had happened when I finished it. I was so engrossed in the story that I wanted to talk about it with everyone. This comic book has everything: humour, adventure, excitement. It had me bite my nails because it was so scary and it also had me cheering with the protagonists when things went right. And also very important, the ending was very satisfying. However, this comic has over a thousand pages, consisting of nine volumes in total, and I knew it would be hard to convince anyone to read it and read it quickly as well because I am not patient. Let me use this review to convince you to read this amazing epic adventure comic. I’ll be reviewing the comic series as a whole which consists of nine volumes. The target audience for this book is children around twelve years old.

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This story fits within the fantasy genre: it is set in a world different from ours and besides humans, other creatures are living in this world. There are the creatures called ‘Bones’, which are the white ones in the picture, dragons, rat creatures and locusts. The story starts when three Bone cousins, the protagonist Fone Bone, careless Smiley Bone and shady businessman Phoncible Bone, are chased out of Boneville because of one of Phoncibles schemes has gone wrong. Eventually, they end up in a valley which looks very idyllic and peaceful. In the valley, the cousins look for someone who can show them the way back to Boneville. Before they can leave, however, winter sets in with a big thud and they are stuck. In the picture, you see how suddenly winter set in, one example of the slapstick humour. Luckily, they meet Thorn and her grandmother Rose in the forest and they are allowed to stay until the end of winter. Life in the valley is peaceful at first, full of chores and hard work and watching grandmother Rose compete with cows in a running match. However, soon it becomes clear that things are not as peaceful as they seem. After the first two volumes, the story takes a darker turn and the adventure takes its full shape.


One day, Fone Bone meets the Red Dragon in the forest who tells him of the threat of the Lord of the Locusts. The Lord of the locust is the leader of a plague of locusts out for the destruction of the lives of the people in the valley. The people of the valley have been at war with the Lord of the Locust before. At that time the people in the valley were united as a kingdom and dragons lived among them. During the war, their king and queen were killed and the last descendant, a baby girl, disappeared together with the dragons. The people of the valley narrowly won the war with the locusts at that time. Now, the threat is bigger because there is no king or queen anymore to reunite the people of the valley. Throughout the first few volumes, the only thing the Bone cousins want is to return to their own town. However, slowly they get dragged into the war and before long they find themselves fighting the locust threat along with the people from the valley.

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As I said before, this book is a mix of humour with a chilling adventure. This creates a good balance where the book never becomes completely dark, which makes the scary scenes easier to take. I think that’s a good thing in a book aimed at children. When the story gets too scary, there will be a joke to break the tension. One recurring joke is the rat creatures. They are dangerous because they constantly chase all the characters to eat them. However, whenever they manage to catch someone they fail to eat them because the creatures cannot agree on how to prepare their catch. One of the rat creatures dreams of trying out a quiche. However, the other creature doesn’t want that because it is not evil enough for a rat creature. Every time they catch someone they discuss how to prepare their meal at such length that their catch easily escapes. The scary parts are the choices the characters have to make and how they deal with the consequences of their decisions. When they make a bad decision other people suffer because of it and their friends get into danger. This made the story realistic because in every war tough decisions have to be made and there are consequences of those decision to deal with. Those consequences forced the characters to grow and to become better than they are so the war can be won and their friends will be saved. Jeff Smith managed to portray the growth of each character very well.

I own two physical copies of this series: the first one is all nine volumes in colour in separate books. The second version is one massive collection of 1000+ pages of all the volumes in black and white. I first read the series digitally in black and white and when I got the coloured version I decided I didn’t like it and got the black and white version. Reviewers on Goodreads suggest they coloured in the drawings to appeal to children more. That might be true, but for me, the colours distract from Jeff Smith’s amazing drawing style. It is a whimsical, detailed style that gives each creature he created a life of its own. Also, his style distracts a bit from the scary elements of the story. I prefer the black and white version as well because that fits more with the darkness within the story and it balances the scary and humour parts better. The coloured version looks too silly to me. But I am also predisposed to like black and white children comics because they remind me of time spent at my grandparents’ place. They had a Ducktales comic in black and white which I read at least fifty times. Sometimes I was also allowed to colour in the pictures myself which I always loved. It made me feel like an artist and part of the creation of the stories. Compare for yourself the coloured pages versus black and white:


In conclusion, I want to say that this is a whirlwind fantasy story that benefits of its length because once you pass the first volume you’ll find yourself turning pages like a maniac which won’t run out! This story is often compared to Lord of the Rings, but funnier. Both stories are indeed epic long adventure stories where unwilling heroes fight an ominous threat. However, there are more differences: Bone is aimed at children and consequently has a more an innocent feel to it; there is more humour in Bone; Bone is a Jeff tells his story with images and words in an excellent way. Adults and children alike – those who love to emerge themselves in a big epic adventure story – would all love this story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life, read this book so I have someone to talk to about it. You won’t regret it.

Goosebumps Award  for giving us a story that is scary, and also so much fun

 

Jeff Smith, Bone: The complete collection (Columbus,  1991)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

 

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that no contemporary book has a fan base quite as big as the Harry Potter series. If I were to guess, I’d say that everyone who reads this review has already read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone except for one person who has made a conscious decision not to and one very confused American who will realise in a minute that actually, he has. However! Have you read the particular edition that is illustrated by the marvellous British illustrator Jim Kay? If you haven’t, here’s why you should.

This is the first book in the Harry Potter series, in which Harry Potter turns eleven years old and discovers that he is a wizard. There are many editions of this popular book in existence, some of which are very beautiful, but what makes this version special is that it relies just as much on illustrations as it does on words to tell the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone contains, firstly, the kind of pictures you expect when you hear the word ‘illustration’: small watercolours next to the text or in the background and decorations around chapter titles.

But now and then you turn a page to discover a full-page painting that feels like you could reach into the book to touch whatever magical scene is depicted.

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p. 103

Kay’s style is vibrant, full of warm colours and has a strong sense of atmosphere. From one illustration to the next, the focus can be different, but the overall style remains coherent. Take, for instance, this insanely detailed picture of Diagon Alley, that actually runs over four pages in total:

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p. 60-61

And compare that with this relatively plain portrait of Draco Malfoy:

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p. 67

The two pictures seem nothing alike, except that the street that we see seems the only possible place that this boy, with his piercing gaze and long robes, can exist. Kay has succeeded in creating a visual world that seems real and complete in itself, just like Rowling did with words.

As you probably know, the Harry Potter world is quite harsh. You forget it sometimes, especially in the first few books in the series, but the wizards and witches can be distant and manipulative and callous even when Voldemort is nowhere around. Kay has grasped this and plays with it in glorious contrasts:

Hagrid’s little shack looks as comfortable as you can imagine, a place to feel safe and loved. The Forbidden Forest is eerie, but beautiful. Hogwarts is both wonderful and imposing. Remember, not only is this castle centuries old and made to keep bad people out, but this is also the first time Harry, Ron and Hermione see it, as it is their first year in school. I’d be very overwhelmed if I saw Hogwarts for the first time, from the viewpoint of a tiny boat in an enormous lake no less.

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When I read a book, I have a very vivid image in my head of what people and places look like. This is why, for me, books and film adaption always exist more or less next to each other. The atmosphere of what Kay has created is remarkable close to what I imagined when reading the story for the first time, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. I can imagine that the pictures don’t speak to you if your own mental picture is completely different. Even if that is the case, the illustrations are drawn so skillfully and with so much expression, each of them can exist and be appreciated on its own.

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p. 150

Jim Kay is an illustrator and concept artist who lives in Northamptonshire with his partner, who is a designer and milliner. Kay has worked in the Libraries & Archives of Tate Britain and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. His love for museums, libraries and gardens is evident in his drawings: detailed backgrounds and textures are often inspired by real places. The door in this picture of Hermione conjuring a light, for example, is based on the door of All Saints church in Thornham.

Kay has done his research by visiting stately homes, churches and mansions which gives his illustrations a distinctly British character, in accordance with the story. One of the things I love the most is how overgrown Hogwarts is with ivy and other plants. In this picture, part of the castle is even built on trees:

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p. 247

It is nearly the last picture in the book, at the point in the story when the children are going home for the summer. In the course of the book, Hogwarts has become Harry’s home and he has made the wizarding world his own. Hogwarts in this picture is inviting, the place where he is confident he will be returning to in the autumn.

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p. 136

I think the fandom’s ubiquity has made the love for Harry Potter a thing that is often hijacked by commercial exploitation. These illustrations remind me of why I loved these books in the first place: the magical world, the rampant imagination that sets the story alight and the host of misfit characters. There are many more pictures to marvel at, from a Norwegian Ridgeback that is taken straight from Dragon Species of Great Britain and Ireland, to a nightly aerial view of Hogwarts, to a regal portrait of Professor McGonagall. Take your time to savour them and you might be inspired to take up a brush or pencil yourself. As Kay writes on his website:

“For all those young readers who like to draw, keep scribbling! Remember, it’s your ideas that are important, the technique will come along with practice. So don’t be down-hearted if things don’t always come out the way you’d intended. I’ve never produced an illustration that I think is ‘finished’ or that I’m particularly happy with, but I keep trying. Sometimes it’s the mistakes that make us interesting and different, in my opinion.”

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p. 94

Baz Luhrmann Award for a dazzling visual take on a classic

J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London 2015, story originally 1997)

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Jo Robin

Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle #3) by Maggie Stiefvater

Here I am again, reviewing the third instalment in this wonderful series. I’m struggling to write a review that isn’t just yet another read-this-book!-type of thing, but I’ll do my best to provide some new information as well. This year, I’ve headed in a new direction of life by way of doing a different course in university, which will take me another three years to complete at least. This means that I’m meeting a lot of new people, I have to change my studying strategies because I’ll have to study a lot and it means I’m expected to figure out who I am on my own. A part of me keeps hoping I’ll meet a Ronan or Gansey among these new people, or that I might find a character trait within myself that will bring me closer to their kind of quest. So, long story short, I find it hard letting go of these amazing characters.

This review will, once again, contain some spoilers, so if you’re not familiar with this series, I’d like to refer you to my review of the first book, which can be found here and contains no spoilers at all. My review on the second book, which can be found here, is mostly centred on Ronan, as did the second book. This one is all about Blue and her strange little family at 300 Fox Way. If I were to summarize this book, I’d say it’s about a strange, but safe young girl, who finds out the world can be cruel, unfair, misleading and, most of all, uncertain. The tone of this book is so much darker and while comedy still plays a part in this one, it’s getting hard to ignore the tragedies unfolding in our gang’s life. Luckily, they have each other and they seem to be closer than ever: they no longer deal with individual problems, but one man’s problem is the group’s problem. Keep all of this in mind when reading the following summary of this novel.

As mentioned, this book is not only darker in atmosphere, but it’s also more mystical. The novel starts off with Persephone teaching Adam about how he can tap into the ley line’s power. At the same time, Maura, Blue’s mother, is missing. When Calla, another housemate at 300 Fox Way, and Blue search her room, they find that she has gone underground, literally, to find her former lover. Blue feels orphaned in every sense, but still goes along with the gang when they explore Cabeswater: the magical forest. Whether Cabeswater is made of dreams or lives off dreams isn’t quite clear, but the situation becomes extremely perilous when Gansey falls in a cave and suddenly fears there will be bees. Remember, he is deadly allergic to them and remember also, the forest can make whatever you think into reality, and so Gansey’s fear is what could kill him in that moment. To make matters worse, Noah has started to act strangely and when I say strangely, I mean he appears to be possessed by some malevolent demon.

Whichever way you look at it, this story begins with Blue. When an old British professor comes over from England to advise Gansey on the lay lines, he shows them a picture of a tapestry that belonged to Glendower. On the tapestry three women are depicted, all with Blue’s face. The Gray Man’s employer, Colin Greenmantle, shows up at her house, threatening the Gray Man to deliver Ronan to him, or he’ll kill Blue’s mother. Colin’s creepy wife, Piper, also makes her preparations to go after Maura underground. Not knowing what to do, Blue decides to return to the cave, although she has been warned about a curse. By far the most scary thing happening in this book is the scene that then plays out: Noah appears to be possessed once again, turns to Blue and says emotionless ‘Blue Lily, Lily Blue.’ They eventually find a tomb in the cave, open it up, but instead of finding the king Glendower, they find Gwenllian Glendower, his daughter. The book ends with yet another mysterious cave and a strange journey inside of it, Blue bearing the brunt of it all and Adam having far too many responsibilities. So you could say: whichever way you look at it, the story ends with Adam.

I realise that this summary makes very little sense, but neither does the book. When you’re reading, you’re part of the action and everything is happening all at once. At first, I didn’t like this and I put it down to sloppy writing. But it’s not. As a reader you’re feeling everything the characters are feeling. You feel Gansey’s mortal fear, you feel Blue’s loss and absolutely helplessness, you feel Adam’s power as well as his inexperience, you feel Ronan’s raw anger and you can even feel Maura moving underground. The series is coming to an end and everything is happening now, all at once. I’ve already mentioned how much I love the characters and how much I want them to be real, but they are real now. Because Stiefvater has added another very important dimension to all characters in this book: their vulnerability. Interestingly enough, this is their strength in this book. Gansey turns into The Knight: he is as delicate as ever, but honour seems to be above all things now. Blue is the Page of Cups: she is the only non-psychic one at her home, which means she is a mirror and incredibly powerful in her sense of helplessness. Ronan is the Greywaren: my hooligan who seems to know nothing but loss, but still has the ability to dream and is perfecting that ability as we speak. Adam is the Magician: abused, hurt, but definitely coming into his own. My prediction is that this series will end with Adam.

One of the great things in this novel is that we’re finally moving on when it comes to the story. The second book and the first part of this book were for a large part establishing characters and their relationships. We know this now and there is no more time for reflection. Action! Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploring of people’s hearts and souls, but I still really do want to know what happens with and to Glendower! Finding his sleeping daughter and waking her up was such a plot twist to me. I was prepared for one ancient Welsh king, but his ancient sleeping daughter? Did not see that coming, and I’m not even talking about her personality yet. I love how the gang is finally asking the right questions, like: where is Cabeswater coming from? Why are we looking for this king? What do we want from him? Interestingly enough, the most important teenage question is now taking a backseat, being: Who am I? But through their search they’re getting closer and closer to an answer to that question especially, even when all the other things still remain mysteries.

I am beginning to think that this is a series you’ll either love or hate. It is, however, the series I would recommend to anyone sceptical about Young Adult literature, because I was one of you, and I’ve changed my mind completely. I’ve told you about the great characters, Stiefvater’s talent for creating atmosphere and now there’s the action: it’s fast-paced, clever, unexpected and never-ending. If they were to make a film out of this series, deciding on a genre would be a challenge, but this book especially would make a wonderful film. It feels like a cinematic experience when you read it, with images flashing past and plot twists around every corner. I think this is where I’ll end my review and pick up the fourth book, with the hope that I have sold this book on all fronts now. Action-lovers, romantics, great readers of old literature, scholars, freaks and admirers of psychology and anthropology: this book is the one for you.

Hitchcock Award: For scaring the shit out of me when I didn’t need it

Maggie Stiefvater, Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle #3) (New York, 2014)

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Thura Nightingale