The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1) by Lemony Snicket

Unless you have really cool grown-ups in your life, you won’t be introduced to dark humour until a few years after you could do with a dose. That means you have to find a darkly humorous children’s book yourself and if you’re lucky, that means you find ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. The series, which starts with The Bad Beginning, tells the story of three unlucky siblings who take on an evil villain. It is packed with dry wit, appreciation of learning and warnings to listen to children. All things children and adults alike could stand to hear more often.

At the beginning of The Bad Beginning Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny Baudelaire are playing on Briny Beach when a man with a top hat and an eternal cough comes to bring them terrible news: their parents have died in a fire that has also destroyed their home. The children are to be put in the care of a distant relative who lives nearby. His name is Count Olaf, leader of a theater groupe and hatcher of evil plots. In Count Olaf’s house, the siblings are nothing more than slaves while their guardian tries to gets his hands on their family fortune. None of the adults they reach out to wants to listen when they raise the alarm, so Violet, Klaus and Sunny have to rely on each other to escape. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you if they succeed, but the first book is followed by twelve sequels, so suffice it to say that the children won’t be out of trouble anytime soon.

This synopsis sounds quite dark, but the book is full of comedy. This comedy doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the subjects and situations that it deals with, it just makes thoses themes understandable. Someone recently told me that children are drawn to extremes and that sounds plausible. It is no wonder than, that Lemony Snicket’s style of constant hyperbole works in a children’s book. He emphasises how horrible the Baudelaire’s situation is, how awful Count Olaf is, how sad the children’s story is and how the reader should put the book away and read something happier. Still, there is hope: the children are smart, kind and resilient. They help each other and use their individual talents to best Count Olaf and his troupe of comical but evil henchmen. Fourteen-year-old Violet is an inventor and engineer who can make useful devises out of whatever is lying around. Twelve-year-old Klaus loves nothing more than to do research and remembers everything he has ever read, thus accumulating extensive book knowledge. The infant Sunny, who likes to bite things, has not yet come into her own, but she shows every sign of an intellect as sharp as her teeth.

‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and its distinctive writing style have become well-known, especially since the series was adapted for Netflix. I might try, as others have, to write a part of this review in Lemony Snicket’s tone of voice. But he is really the only person who can get away with his particular melancholy, cynical style and people who try to copy him fail without exception. Therefore I will quote some typical dialogue between the siblings:

“I hate it too,” Violet said, and Klaus looked at his older sister with relief. Sometimes, just saying that you hate something, anD having someone agree with you, can make you feel better about a terrible situation. “I hate everything about our lives right now, Klaus,” she said, “but we have to keep our chin up.” This was an expression the children’s father had used, and it meant “try to stay cheerful.”
“You’re right,” Klaus said.”But it is very difficult to keep one’s chin up when Count Olaf keeps shoving it down.”
“Jook!” shrieked Sunny, banging on the table with her oatmeal spoon.

As you might have noticed, the author is very present in his story. He breaks the fourth wall by explaining words and idioms, to go on page-long rants and to hint at his own circumstances. Throughout the series, it seems that Lemony Snicket himself is somehow connected to the children he has vowed to write about. This is only a small part of the mystery that surrounds the main characters and of which they know as little as the reader. Violet, Klaus and Sunny are portrayed as talented, smart and polite children who have grown up in a big house with parents who loved them, encouraged them in their interests, and provided them with books and support. But both in their parents’ past and in the shadows of their happy little world, things are not as perfect as they seemed to be. Because they are clever and resourceful, the children uncover these secrets bit by bit. Lemony Snicket follows their quest closely and comments on every step. As they learn, the reader learns to. That was especially the case with me when I read the books for the first time. I had only just started to read in English and Snicket’s explanations of difficult words and literary conventions actually helped me to understand the story better, even if those explanations were sometimes preposterous or highly specific to one situation.

Besides the wild plot and copious adventures, the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events is wonderful as well. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world full of eccentric characters who go to see opera’s and read books in beautiful libraries and give masked balls to pass on secret messages? Although that world can be cruel, the same goes for the real world, so I’d prefer one with more room for imagination and books. Part of the atmosphere of the Baudelaires’ world comes from the beautiful and mysterious pencil drawings of Brett Helquist, the books’ illustrator:

The Bad Beginning is short and uncomplicated, a beginning pure and simple. To really appreciated these first 165 pages, you should go on to read the rest of the series. If you like the style (of course, it might not appeal to everyone), you certainly will. I would recommend this book to bookworms of all ages, because Lemony Snicket understands the world as we see it through bookish eyes and in this day and age, that is very, very precious.

Victorian Award for the cliffhangers and lavish costumes

Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), (New York, 1999)

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Jo Robin

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Arsenic for Tea (Murder most unladylike #2) by Robin Stevens

As I have now reviewed two books in the Flavia de Luce series, always with the highest praise, I think it’s obvious to most of our readers that I’m a big fan. I’ve never read any book like it and even though it’s a series with many novels, I couldn’t get enough. So that’s how I picked up this book. ‘Arsenic for Tea’ caught my attention with the title alone, and when the cover read that it’s about little girls getting involved with murder solving in 1930’s England, I was very hopeful! This is the second book in the series, but the books can be read on its own. It’s nothing like Flavia de Luce as it turned out and it really is a children’s book, but it’s murder and mystery and tea, so overall, good fun.

During their holidays from boarding school Deepdean School for Girls, best friends Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells spend the weekend at Daisy’s house to celebrate her fourteenth birthday. Last year they apparently started their very own Detective Society, when a murder at their school took place, which they managed to solve brilliantly! Daisy is a pretty blonde, with perfect teeth and manners, a little standoffish at times, but a great friend to Hazel. Hazel is a little girl who stands out wherever she goes, and she’s very much aware of this, because her family is from Hong Kong. The girls are inseparable however and a perfect match: where Hazel lacks confidence, Daisy speaks her mind, and where Daisy is a bit rash at times, Hazel has the brains.

While they are staying at Daisy’s family estate Fallingford, the party consists not only of the girls and Daisy’s parents. They’re Lord and Lady Hastings, a mother who is nothing short of a glamorous but distant diva and a father who’s a bit of a kooky prankster in gentleman form. Daisy’s great-aunt Saskia stays with them as well, another strange old lady who is basically a kleptomaniac. Then there’s Daisy’s flamboyant uncle Felix, brother to Lady Hastings, who suddenly acts in a strange and serious manner over the holidays. Of course the girls are expected to keep up with their lessons during their school break, so there’s their governess Miss Alston, who isn’t like any other governess Daisy has ever had. Daisy’s older brother, Bertie, is also home from school and he has brought a friend by the name of Stephen. Besides the household staff, there’s Kitty and Beanie, two friends from Deandeep, who have been invited to Daisy’s birthday celebrations. And last, and most definitely least, the horrible Mr. Curtis.

Mr. Curtis is a friend of Lady Hastings and he ruins Daisy’s birthday right from the start, by being rude, arrogant and far too friendly with Lady Hastings. Daisy is furious of course, and decides they must keep an eye on him. Hazel notices at once what his intentions are towards Lady Hastings, but Daisy won’t hear of it, even when they are seen kissing. The Detective Society soon notices something very odd about this Mr. Curtis, when he is spotted examining all the paintings, works of art and antique in the house. He can’t keep his eyes of the things, but he insists towards the family that everything is worthless. Soon, the atmosphere in the whole house changes into a grim one, and Daisy’s birthday seems hardly important anymore. To make matters worse, the weather changes all of a sudden and Fallingford becomes flooded overnight. The next day is the day of Daisy’s birthday tea, but also the day when tragedy strikes. That very morning, Lord Hastings was seen threatening Mr. Curtis, but for some reason he hasn’t left and shows up at the tea like he hasn’t a care in the world. So, when he is served arsenic instead of tea, very few people are sad. However, a murder is always grizzly, especially in a flooded house, when the murderer has to be among family and friends.

The thing I loved most about this book was how it really is a book for young children, but a murder mystery, and those are, unfortunately, very rare! The language used is simple and it’s written from a child’s, Hazel’s, point of view. As the daughter of a minister, I grew up with detectives and murder mysteries, but lots of people find these kind of stories unsuitable for young children. Psychology, murder en puzzles are apparently things that children shouldn’t be exposed to, but I disagree: murder, however unladylike, is always great fun.

The world created by Robin Stevens sucks you right in and I do love a book set in the past. 1930’s England is a strange place, but also one of traditions and improvisation. When someone is murdered, that’s unfortunate, but life goes on as it ought to. Maybe it’s because I’ve read so many murder mysteries, but just the thought of a group of Englishmen having innocent tea in the 1930’s makes me think: Yep, someone’s about to get done in. But it’s not just the setting: the entire atmosphere of boarding school girls and the way they live and think comes across beautifully in this novel. From the first chapter on, you just step right into their little world, which seems ever so big to them, and go along with Hazel’s thought process. This might be the reason I finished the book in just a few days and I loved that. I only wish I could’ve found this book when I was a lot younger myself.

I was a little bit disappointed with the characters in this book though. As you may have noticed, this book is the second book in the series ‘Murder most unladylike’ and maybe this is the reason, but I found the characters to be very flat. They all appear to have just one characteristic and then they act accordingly. Hazel is the only exception, and I really do love her. She’s a permanent outsider, but at the same time she offers some insight on how peculiar the British actually are. She’s very quiet, dislikes murders intensely, but is also incredibly resourceful and smart. Why Hazel puts up with Daisy I couldn’t quite figure out, because Daisy is mostly arrogant, impulsive and often very unkind. However, friendships often don’t make sense to outsiders and I know this by experience. My best friends and I are nothing alike and people have often commented on our friendship, so I was able to look past this detail. But Uncle Felix, Aunt Saskia and even Chapman, butler to the Wells family, are horrible, two-dimensional clichés.

I did however love the idea of the Wells & Wong Detective Society. The fact that Daisy wants to figure out the mystery before the adults do, just to prove a point, made so much sense to me and I cherish these know-it-all memories of my childhood. Because this is the second book in the series, some might argue that it’s unlikely that these girls find murders wherever they go, but as we all know, this is what happens to all the great detectives: you solve one murder, and before you know it, your entire village should have been extinct for years. So I have great hope for these girls; they will surely follow in the footsteps of the great Miss Marple. Because these girls really are fearless: Hazel is quite scared of murder, but pulls through anyway because she truly believes in justice and Daisy has to face facts and acknowledge that a member of her family might be involved, but that doesn’t stop her either. They compliment each other so well!

All in all, I really did enjoy reading this book and I will probably read the other books in the series at some point. It really doesn’t matter that I read hem out of order. The mystery in this novel was a bit weak; I did figure that out long before the great unveiling, but my inner child loved it. It’s a cute little read, nothing like Flavia de Luce, but I’m really glad I found this series after all. If I ever have a child, this would make a great tenth birthday present.

Little know-it-all girls award: because without them we’d probably be dead.

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea (Murder most unladylike #2), (London, 2015)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

Reading Challenge for August

As Bella is leaving us for a few months in August for Kenya, we thought we’d better find a way to keep ourselves from falling apart from sorrow.
So, Thura and I decided to commit ourselves to a Reading Challenge. Recently, Thura discovered an amazing YouTube channel by the name of Book Roast. She hosts a Magical Readathon based on the Harry Potter books and the educational system of Hogwarts. In April she hosted the OWL’s challenge and August’s challenge will be based on the Hogwarts NEWT’s examinations.

You can find details of the challenge below in the video posted by Book Roast, but in this Readathon you will pass each NEWT subject when you read at least one book per subject, and following the instructions per subject, and three books to receive an Outstanding.
You can find your examination schedule and requirements, depending on your chosen subjects, here. But check out Book Roast’s actual video as well, because it was her enthusiasm and imagination that led us to choosing this particular challenge.

As the both of us didn’t sit our OWL’s, we’re only doing our NEWT’s as a practice run for next year. So we simply decided to choose some subjects we like and try and do our best on our exams, determined to not disappoint!

Thura chose to take her NEWT’s in five subjects, being History of magic, Defense against the dark arts, Transfiguration, Care of magical creatures and Potions. As you are required to pass at least one subject with an Outstanding, her focus will be on either Defense against the dark arts or Potions.
I’m only doing three subjects, because I’m a much slower reader, being History of magic, Herbology and Ancient Runes, the last one being the one I’d like to excel in. Obviously, I’m more the scholarly type, rather than a magician with many practical skills.

If you’re still looking for some kind of Reading Challenge to do over the summer, we’re really excited about this one and we can’t wait to start! Let us know if you’re doing a Reading Challenge, especially if you’re doing this Magical Readathon as well, in the comments below.
We’ll keep you updated on our preparations, which books we’ve chosen to read and so on, and our progress.

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Jo Robin

How to train your dragon (how to train your dragon #1) by Cressida Cowell

   “I was not a natural at the heroism business. I had to work at it. This is the story of becoming a hero the hard way”  

This is a sentence uttered by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III in the opening statement of this book. It is a good representation of the book, and the series, as a whole. In this story, an unlikely hero saves his Viking tribe, the Hairy Hooligans, and learns there are many different ways of being heroic. This is never a bad message for a children’s book.  In this book, the threat comes in the shape of two giant sea serpents called the Green and Purple Death. They are defeated by cleverness instead of the traditional Hooligan training strategy: shouting at dragons. This is part one of a twelve-part series written by Cressida Cowell, or actually written by Hiccup, and translated from ancient Nordic by Cressida Cowell.  

The Hooligan tribe are Vikings living somewhere in the icy north. They believe in shouting, hitting things with an axe and generally being more brutal than the other person to gain dominance. They use dragons as domesticated animals to help hunting fish, much in the way we use a horse for transport. Every Viking has their own dragon which they have to capture and train as initiation into the tribe. Hiccup is the son of the chief of the Hooligans and by right will be the next chief. However, he doesn’t look like the typical Viking. He is small, scrawny and prefers to think about things instead of shouting until things go the way you want them. Shouting has never worked for him anyway. As the son of the chief, though, he has to be the best imaginable version of the typical Viking imaginable. This is a constant source of anxiety in his young life.  Especially because his peers see him as a laughing stock. Most prominent one among them is Snotface Snotlout, a bully.  

The book starts with the young boys in a boat in the icy waters of the sea on their way to Wild Dragon Cliff. This is where they are going to capture their own dragon. The young dragons are in hibernation which makes it the safest time possible to capture one. If they don’t manage to capture and train a dragon they will be exiled. Among the boys is also Fishlegs and he is the most annoying character, and strangely also the best friend of Hiccup. He is whiny, gets Hiccup into trouble without apologizing and also Hiccup constantly saves his ass and he keeps complaining about everything. Hiccup on the other side, also complains, but he actually has a good reason for that considering the constant pressure to be a brutal Viking, which he isn’t. He has a secret as well: he studies dragons and even speaks their language, Dragonese.  Dragons are not seen as something to be studied in the tribe, and seeking knowledge is also considered a shameful pursuit. One of Hiccup’s bullies at some point shouts he can’t read, and he is told off for bragging about that fact.    

Hiccup has been fascinated with dragons since he was a small boy. Eventually, he realises he can use that knowledge, and his general smartness, to train dragons in his own way. In this way, he and his dragon Toothless manage to become the heroes of this story. This realization came just in time because after capturing his dragon, it becomes clear shouting at it doesn’t work for him. He learns to rely on his knowledge of dragons and cunning. This becomes even more obvious when the Hooligan tribe is frightened by the arrival of two sea serpents, the Green and Purple Death. One of the dragons had been sleeping for hundreds of years to digest the Roman legion he ate: it is difficult to digest brass spokes of wheels. Now that he has woken up he is hungry and looking for food. His eye has fallen on the Vikings and dragons of the Hooligan tribe.  The second sea serpent also arrives at the Viking’s place with the intention of eating them. The adults try to scare the dragons away by shouting at them, but that doesn’t work. It turns out training by that method only works when the creature is smaller than you. And this is where Hiccup and his dragon have their moment of glory.  

While the story is told, chapters of the book are alternated with intervals with background information on the different dragon species in the book detailing their characteristics, especially how dangerous they are. I really liked this feature, because it teaches the reader more about the dragons in this world. If you are the kind of reader, like me, who always appreciates some background information about the fantasy creatures created in books you would like this as well. Hiccups dragon is called Toothless because he has no teeth. Toothless is a very small and lazy dragon and quite common, as the book tells us. Not at all like the awe-inspiring and vicious dragons the future chief of the tribe should have. There is quite a lot of variation of dragon species. There are the more or less domesticated dragons the Vikings use, which are categorized in sub-species. There are sea dragons who look like alligators and are deadly in sea and on land. Also, there are the giant sea serpents, which form the biggest problem in this book. All in all, the Vikings are not living in hospitable surroundings. This mix of dragon species made their existence sound plausible. It always works well to mix the very dangerous dragons with the not-so-dangerous ones – not all cat-like species are the same level of dangerous as well after all.  

If you have only seen the movie of this wonderful book, you are probably very confused by now.  For example, Toothless is not the awesome mysterious Nightfurry dragon it is in the movie. I still have hope Toothless will turn into something majestic somewhere along the series though. I only hope for his sake that this is not only my optimism speaking. When comparing the book and the film, Toothless is a more interesting character in the book where he has more his own voice. He is the kind of character that hates its attachment to other creatures because it forces him to do things he doesn’t want to in order to save them. The nice thing about the movie is the female Vikings. In the book all young Vikings-to-be are boys. I have decided to believe the girls are somewhere else doing more sensible things than shouting at dragons. The downside of the movie is that you don’t get to read the book. It is written in a very funny way with a lot of descriptions and scenes that made me laugh out loud hours after I read them. Another thing I admired about the writing style is that it doesn’t come across childish at all, even though it is aimed at a young audience. Those are the best children books in my opinion: suitable for small children, fun for grown-ups and which do not read childish. Children are not stupid after all.  

All in all, this is a funny book. Cressida Cowell has a wonderful, witty writing style. There are many dragons in this book all with their own personalities and characteristics. And if dragons and humour are not enough to convince you, I haven’t even told you about the most amazing thing of this book: the audiobook is narrated by the always attractive David Tennant in a lush Scottish accent.  So, go ahead and find the audiobook and you will be both mesmerized by his beautiful Scottish accent, and entertained by this witty story about dragons and how to become a hero the hard way.  

Hero of dragons award by proving you can also be a hero without wielding a battle axe  

Cressida Cowell, how to train your dragon (New York, 2004)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Small book blogs we love!

A little while ago, we asked all the darling bookworms of tumblr who are running a book blog to share their site or reviews with us. As the owners of a small book blog ourselves, we know how hard it can be to build a following and we’re trying to help out by compiling a list of small book blogs we believe deserve more attention. All this to revive booklr as a community: help each other out! 

So eventually we’ve selected five book blogs/reviewers that we simply adore (in no particular order): Check them out!

Number one is Beth’s blog ‘Betwixt-these-pages’, which can be found here
I think most people love penguins, so you can’t really go wrong with these reviews. Beth even reviews her books through little penguin pictures, of which the ‘hot and steamy’ one is my favourite (found here)! But it’s all there: a summary, her opinion, a diverse set of reviewed books and lots of colourful aspects to attract some attention to her reviews, which she really does deserve. Also, her style of writing is not only very honest, but very nice and accessible to read.
Why we’d recommend this blog: the reviews look great and amazingly fun and, hello, penguins.

Number two is a blog run by two authors under the name of-books-and-pen, which can be found here.
This appears to be quite a small blog, but the site looks adorable! The books reviewed here are very diverse, from old literature to graphic novels and manga. When reviewing anything, the authors really go into detail and depth about this book, which makes for a great review. Also, the authors just appear to be very friendly.
Why we’d recommend this blog: they make a fair point that most book blogs focus on new releases, and old books deserve just as much attention!

Number three is yet another author who writes her reviews on tumblr, by the name of ‘alwaysbringabookwithyou’, which can be found here.
Grace writes relatively short reviews, usually starting off with a short summary or introduction to the book reviewed, to grab your attention, followed by her personal opinion and rating. She mostly appears to be reviewing young adult books, but there are some classics in there as well. She has built up quite a following already, but she definitely deserves to be mentioned here anyways.
Why we’d recommend this blog: Short and well thought through reviews, which give you an idea of the book instantly. If you’re dealing with a ‘to read or not to read’-dilemma, these reviews are brilliant. Also, check out her book recommendations: you will not be disappointed.

Number four seems to be a bit of an undiscovered gem, from the tumblr ‘thebookishone’, where reviews can be found here.
These reviews are short and sweet, with a clear and unapologetic opinion on each novel. A great variety of books are present, but hardly any notes on them, much to our surprise. No decorations, no distractions: just books and opinions. We love it.
Why we’d recommend this blog: I just loved how this author simply states their honest opinion on every book they read, which we enjoyed immensely.

Number five is Sophie’s blog, called ‘parchment-and-petrichor’, which can be found here. When you start off your blog with these words: ‘Prick my fingertips and I’ll bleed ink for you’, we’re immediately fans. Sophie appears to review mostly young adult books, but the way she goes about it is very nicely organised and it looks great. She has great skill with language and her reviews read like novels in themselves. Her analyses are very good and her opinions are clear.
Why we’d recommend this blog: I love how she starts off her reviews by recommending this book to ‘those who enjoyed’, followed by a number of titles. Very original and useful!

And as a cheeky little bonus honourable mention, here’s a small blog we’re just really curious about to see what will happen with this one next 

This is a cute little blog, from the tumblr named ‘confessions-of-a-readaholic’, and her blog can be found here.
Cute blog, but I’m guessing she’s still starting out, because there are very little reviews to be found on her site as of this moment. But we really like the way she writes, so we’re curious to see where this goes.
Why we’d recommend this blog: to show some support to her and see where it goes!

So, we’re really hoping our readers will show some love to these blogs and authors as well. Us bookworms should support each other, right?
These are just some suggestions for now, but maybe we’ll do another one of these posts again some time, so if you own a book blog or site, let us know: we always enjoy reading them. 

 

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Once in a while, I finish a book and just go ‘huh’. It might be that the ending was sudden, or not what you expected, or more depressing than what you knew you signed up for. With A Handful of Dust (1934) it was all three: it’s the story of a marriage that spins disastrously out of control and then just goes on spinning until you go ‘huh’. Luckily, Evelyn Waugh is far more eloquent than I am, so instead of generic noises, he produces subtle, beautiful prose and a wonderful satire of rich people’s lives.

Tony and Brenda Last are quite happy. They live at Hetton, the estate of Tony’s family, with their young son and loyal staff. The house is a terrible, ugly nineteenth-century building deep in the countryside, but Tony is devoted to its upkeep and spends most of his money on the estate. His wife Brenda is less fond of Hetton – she prefers the liveliness and thrills of London. Although she likes Tony, she’s also… bored. So what else can she do but take a random lover?

The answer should be: literally anything other than this. Her decision to take up with the insufferable John Beaver, leech of London society, starts her family on a road that leads to nothing but grief. ‘Beaver’ is used to living off other people. He is not rich, but too lazy to work, and instead waits by his telephone every day for ladies to invite him to lunches and dinners and parties – always last minute, when another, more interesting guest has cancelled and a place must be filled. Nobody likes him, but he is useful: the London upper-class society calls him ‘London’s spare man’. An affair with pretty, elegant Brenda is a great opportunity to him to be invited to better parties with a more popular set. To Brenda, the affair is entertainment.

Brenda’s carelessness is funny at first. She is nonchalant about deceiving her husband like only very rich, very spoiled people can be. She remains convinced that she is a good wife, at one point even setting him up with another woman in the hope that he will have some fun of his own. She doesn’t realise that all he really wants is her, and to live quietly at Hetton. As the story progresses, the minor characters are still funny but the relationship between Brenda and Tony is less and less so. Brenda’s carelessness becomes callousness, Tony is increasingly desperate and the couple’s friends, family and acquaintances are pompous and vain. After a tragic incident things start to escalate and every time you think they can’t escalate further, they do. I must have said ‘nooo!’ at least five times over the course of the book at a surprise death, deceit or decision.

I’m honestly not sure how much I liked the story. The ending especially was bizarre, but still something made me read on despite the cruel characters and strange turns of events. It even kept me reading past the frequent racist remarks, which I have to warn you are nasty. Apparently George Orwell called Evelyn Waugh “almost as good a novelist as it is possible to be, while holding untenable opinions”. Arab, African and Native American people are portrayed as inferior to English people and ridiculed, especially Native Americans, while the n-word is also used. It is something you have to get through if you want to read the book, because it’s not something you can read around.

The thing that kept me reading was probably the way Evelyn Waugh tells the story. It makes a far-fetched plotline plausible, and quite addictive, while it makes detestable characters intriguing. Brenda alone I hate completely, so much that I would gladly crawl into the book just to hit her whiny face. Tony is sympathetic if not too smart, Beaver is annoying and he calls his mother ‘mumsy’, but he isn’t worth getting worked up over. There are two minor characters I liked: Jock Grant-Menzies and Mrs Rattery. Jock is a sort of 1930’s fuckboy, the one you go to if you want an unoriginal kind of affair. He, like everybody else in London, knows about Brenda and Beaver but he actually hates having to keep it from Tony. He doesn’t seem as sneaky as the rest of their friends. His girlfriend at the time of the story is Mrs Rattery. She’s married, but she’s not at home much. She flies a small aeroplane, wears pantsuits and, like Jock, doesn’t care a lot about what people say about her. Mrs Rattery is mostly referred to as ‘the Shameless Blonde’ and Tony, when he finally meets her, is surprised that she doesn’t look like a chorus girl. Jock and Mrs Rattery are the ones who keep cool in a crisis, give fair advice and don’t play games with other people as much as the rest of the London gang do.

As far as the strange storyline goes: it grew on me. Characters made decisions that were hard to predict and I liked that. Tony, for instance, sets out on an expedition to find a mythical city in the Amazons with the help of an obsessed scientist. Weird as that seemed at that point in the book, it made sense after a while. Tony wanted nothing more than a simply family life at Hetton, and when he couldn’t get it he searched for this place that he had idealised in his head. Of course, he doesn’t find the vision of medieval English glory that he imagined but rather more adventure than a family man needs. Brenda, in the meantime, wanted fun and parties but finds her new life is harder than expected when the securities of her marriage with Tony are no longer something she can take for granted.

Somewhere in the midst of all this screaming irony, sarcasm and weirdness, this book charmed me. It was much like a high society Englishman from the 1930’s, I imagine: charismatic, problematic, eloquent, looks like something you can take home to your mother but you actually shouldn’t. I will probably read it again.

Jimmy Carr Award, for a book so shocking, painful and funny that it can only be British

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (London, 1934)

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Jo Robin

Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

‘My name is Eva, which means ‘life’ according to the book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory.’

The first time I read these first few lines from the book, I was hooked, so I figured the only way to start off this review properly, is to let you bask in Isabel Allende’s brilliance as well. With a style and prose unlike any other, she has captured my heart and mind. Eva Luna is my favourite book by her, which I read at exactly the right time, when I was only thirteen years old. In my opinion, this book should be a compulsory read for any young woman.

Eva Luna tells the story of her life, starting off with her birth in some unknown South American country. Her mother was brought up by missionaries, she taught Eva to invent stories and brought her up in the house of an old professor. Her father was an Indian ‘with yellow eyes’, whom she has never met. After her mother dies when she is only little, Eva takes her mother’s place in the professor’s household, entertaining him with her stories, until he dies as well. She wanders around a little and meets Huberto Naranjo, a boy from the streets, whom Eva befriends. She then ends up, still very young, in the care of La Señora, who owns a brothel. She soon learns to take care of herself and uses her stories like a true Scheherazade to survive.

For a few years she lives peacefully at the brothel, where she meets a friend of Madame named Melicio, who goes by the name of Mimi at night. However, when the brothel is raided due to new laws, Eva has no choice but to move on once again. That’s when she ends up with Riad Halabi, a turk with a cleft-lip and his wife, and helps around their house and shop. But when the wife, Zulema, kills herself because she actually hates her husband, Eva is one of the main suspects and she flees with Riad, who then becomes her lover. Eva Luna then meets up with Mimi once again, now officially a woman, and lives with her for a while. Again, Huberto appears in her life, now no longer a street urchin but a fully-grown guerrilla fighter, and the two start a sexual relationship. However, Eva decides near the end of the book that he is not the man for her.

From the very beginning of the book it is mentioned that Rolf Carlé is the man that Eva Luna will marry. Though most chapters are told from Eva’s point of view, some offer a parallel narrative about Rolf’s life. He grew up in Europe and has come to South America as a photojournalist. This is how he has met Huberto Naranjo: while he was filming the guerrilla movement. Eventually he meets Eva through Huberto and after they participate in one last illegal act on behalf of the guerrilla movement, Eva and Rolf profess their love for each other.

The story is set in Latin America just after the Second World War. Many countries were in shambles at that time, and South America especially was a continent struck by poverty. Eva is not only South American, but she is also an orphan without any relations, poor and a woman. Her circumstances are less than ideal, but none of these facts about herself appear to hold her back. I admired this character immensely, not only because she was able to capture anyone with her tales (much like Isabel Allende herself does), but also because she never wants people to pity her. She does what she has to do to survive, she is eager to learn about life from all the diverse people she meets and she’s strong. At times she can be a little naïve, but then again, there has been hardly anyone to teach her. From a weak little girl without opportunities she grows into a strong-willed young woman, with a determination in life that I can only call admirable.

This brings me to my second point: Isabel Allende. Though I have never met her, I feel like I know her a little from all the books by her I’ve read and I have to say: what a woman! Maybe it’s that South American imagination, flair and magic, or maybe it’s just the well-read woman herself, but she writes in a style entirely new. It really is like Allende is sitting right in front of you, like you are in the same room as she is, telling you the story. Her prose manages to capture me every time, even when I don’t really like the story. But I love Eva Luna, because it really has that magical element, the telling of stories, mixed in with the reality of poverty and despair in a broken country. Sometimes the novel does feel like a strange combination of a telenovela and a political novel, which is quite common point of critique on this book, but I quite liked that. It’s a matter of taste, I suppose.

Let me just continue praising Isabel Allende a little more. Because, and this is often the case, the characters really do make the book. The characters are very diverse in this book, from a Turkish ‘ugly’ shop owner to a colourful and loving transsexual woman. Allende treats all of her characters with equal respect and as Eva learns from them, so does the reader. This is probably what I liked best about this novel: you join Eva Luna on her journey to becoming a young woman and learn when she learns. I was only thirteen when I first read this book, and I learned a lot. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Great women teaching little girls to become strong young women in their turn.

This brings me to my last point, which is the character of Eva Luna herself. Isabel Allende manages to make the story not about some girl who survives on her beauty or feminine charm; she gets by on her inventive personality. I think the next quote brilliantly illustrate how she simply gets on with things and how Allende breaks through all the stereotypes of a fragile woman in one swift motion.

‘I stopped examining myself in the mirror to compare myself to the perfect beauties of movies and magazines; I decided I was beautiful– for the simple reason that I wanted to be. And then never gave the matter a second thought.’

Strong women award: May we know them, may we be them and may we raise them

Isabel Allende, Eva Luna (Bogotá, 1987)

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Thura Nightingale