The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce #2) by Alan Bradley

Once upon a time, the three of us went on a hike across England, to prove a point to everyone that we actually could do it. It was one of the best times of my life, just six weeks of nothing but hiking, but there was just one problem. If you’ve ever gone hiking, you’ll know that you have to travel as light as you possibly can, because everything is carried on your back, so no books. We thought we’d be fine with this, but as the weeks went on, we started reading everything, and I mean everything: every sign, every food packet information bit and every church leaflet we came across. We were seriously suffering from our addiction to books and spent most of our breaks talking about books. So the next time we went on a hike, we brought a book. I’ve often been the one to read out loud to the others, and during another long hiking holiday, I started reading the Flavia de Luce novels to the others. These books have a special place in out hearts now, and therefore we’ve decided to review the entire series. Maybe we can make these wonderful books a bit more known to the general public in this way, because they really are brilliant.

I have reviewed the first book in the series already, and in this review I won’t go into the setting of the series much more, as I’ve already done that. You can find the review on the first book here. But just to jog your memory a little: Flavia is the youngest of three sisters, who live at Buckshaw, their country estate. With her distant father and shell-shocked handyman Dogger, she can spend her days as she pleases, and she’s developed a special talent for chemistry after discovering an old lab at Buckshaw. The stories are set in 1950’s England and an unusual amount of corpses turn up at the little village nearby, called Bishop’s Lacey. Luckily, there’s Flavia to bud in and with her wits, charms and poisons she usually manages to solve the murder.

In this second novel, Flavia is still an eleven year old girl and therefore invisible. At the start of the book, Flavia is at the empty village church, pretending to attend her own funeral, because she is a little dramatic like that. At the graveyard however, she comes across a woman, who lies on one of the stones, crying her eyes out. As it turns out, the woman is part of the famous puppeteer party led by Rupert Porson. Her name is Nialla, and she is Rupert’s companion, though Flavia has no idea what that actually means. Some experiments on her handkerchief later, Flavia is certain however that Nialla is pregnant. When it turns out that the duo is stranded in Bishop’s Lacey due to their van breaking down, Flavia is first in line not only to help out, but also to snoop around a little.

Eventually the duo confesses that they have very little money to get their van repaired, so the vicar suggest that they put on a show at Bishop’s Lacey as payment. Flavia is ever so enthusiastic, and pretty soon the entire village is buzzing with excitement. While the puppeteer company waits, they’re camping in a field on Culverhouse Farm. This was once a great farm, but now the farmers are recluses, after the death of their young son Robin of only five years old. When Flavia visits the farm, she finds the mother, Mrs. Ingleby, sitting up in the dovecote, next to an altar she’s made for her son. This thoroughly gives Flavia the creeps, as it did me, and she starts to wonder what actually is going on at that farm. Also, it soon becomes clear to Flavia that Rupert is a bastard, that he beats his ‘lovely assistant’ regularly, and that he’s not that much of a stranger to Bishop’s Lacey as he has first led them to believe.

The puppeteers plan on performing their famous version of Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rupert even takes the time to show Flavia how the mechanics of it all work, including the climax of the show, where the dead giant falls upon the stage. However, the show doesn’t go quite according to plan, when the Jack puppet bears a striking resemblance to little Robin, who died in the village years ago. This murder was never solved, but that might just be because Flavia has never given it a go. Tragedy strikes again, when, during the second show at Bishop’s Lacey, it’s not the giant who comes crashing down on the stage, but Rupert Porson himself. This time around, Flavia has not one, but two murders to solve.

The characters really make the book, like they did with the first novel. I won’t go into the main characters as much as I did in my review of the first book, but there are some new characters added to the plot here. First there’s Nialla, the lovely assistant and the woman that Flavia has an instant fascination with. Often Flavia is drawn to strong or independent women, and she’s desperate to gain their approval in some way. I’m guessing this has a lot to do with her being a little girl without a mother, and I find this both completely understandable as well as heart breaking. Nialla may be pregnant and she may be living with an abusive man, who is also the father of her child, but she won’t be put down and never does anything without a fight. I loved her character for that. Also, I hated Rupert from the very moment he entered the story. He’s cold-hearted, unpredictable and aggressive, has very little respect for any woman and only cares about himself. I was not sorry to see him die by electrocution. Lastly, the grieving mother, Mrs. Ingleby, was incredibly frightening, but it was also a very painful experience to learn about her loss. Losing her son drove her mad with grief, but, as it turns out, there’s definitely more than meets the eye with this tiny woman.

In the last Flavia de Luce novel, we were still getting to know Flavia and her family. Now, it’s like we’ve known her for years and we know what to expect of her. Again, she doesn’t back down and is absolutely determined to solve both murders. She crawls through the woods, deceives anyone to get some information, breaks and enters once again and ruins many a good dress, and is therefore often miles ahead of the police force. At some point she even saves someone from cyanide poisoning with bird droppings, which is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. I’ve mentioned before that it’s crucial that Flavia’s eleven: the age where a girl is no longer a child, though certainly not an adult yet, and starts to form her own personality, but no one notices this yet. I loved how Flavia has the same observation in this book:

‘”You are unreliable, Flavia,” he said. “Utterly unreliable.”
Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.
Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable. We’re past the age of being poppets: the age where people bend over and poke us in the tum with their fingers and make idiotic noises that sound like “boof-boof”—just the thought of which is enough to make me bring up my Bovril. And yet we’re still not at the age where anyone ever mistakes us for a grown-up. The fact is, we’re invisible—except when we choose not to be.’

I’ve read many reviews by people who are not only annoyed by Flavia, but also think that the character is simply too smart for an eleven year old. I can understand how people think she’s annoying: she probably is, but so was I and are most little girls who are just a little too smart for their age. We all were insufferable know-it-all’s, but don’t worry, that won’t last long. However, Flavia being impossibly smart for her age is simply not true in my opinion. Yes, she’s brilliant, but her talents mostly lie in only a few fields: chemistry, deduction and logical thought. Often, she finds it hard to understand complex emotions in people and, one of my favourite things, she understand very little of relationships. Daffy, her thirteen-year-old sister, sometimes explains little things to her, but Flavia can’t quite work out what an affair entails or why Nialla would stay with Rupert. So she decides to ask Dogger about affairs and he says to her that having an affair means that two people become better friends than one could ever imagine. Flavia is completely satisfied by this answer. I found this very endearing and a good reminder that Flavia is just a child after all.

Even though it was great to be back with Flavia, this novel was lacking in some ways. The start of the book was a bit slow. Much like the first novel, the first half of the book is still without a murder and the mystery only takes off in the second half. But with this one, the first half was a bit slow. This could be because I don’t get too enthusiastic about puppet shows, or it could be because I really did feel like Alan Bradley was dragging it out a little too long. Also, I did feel that the plot was a little thin at times, but Flavia and the characters still make it worth your while. The second half of the book, became a little strange, but in a good way. All of a sudden there’s the vicar dancing around naked in the woods, there’s a farm with a secret little weed patch out back and there’s the background story of a former German soldier with a love of the Brontë sisters. It’s up to Flavia to connect all these dots, and so she does.

Though I do have some points of critique, I didn’t enjoy this second novel any less. Let’s be fair, you’re not reading these books for the brilliant detective novels that they are, but because they are fun and cute on a hot summer afternoon. Stepping back into Flavia’s England was a little like coming home, and I can only rejoice in the fact that there are at least six more novels to follow.
There is just one thing I’d like to mention, as a little teaser for the next novels to come. Flavia is a special girl, no doubt, but her Aunt Felicity says something quite casually to her in this novel that seems to point ahead, and I can’t wait to find out what this means in the novels that are to follow. She acknowledges that Flavia is a lot like her late mother, Harriet, a rebel and a genius. This blows Flavia away, because her sisters tell her quite often that she’s adopted, just to be mean to her. But Aunt Felicity also says to her:

‘Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You must follow it, Flavia.
Even when it leads to murder.’

If this won’t probe your curiosity for Flavia de Luce, I don’t know what will.

Red Lipstick Award: for the women Flavia adores so, but doesn’t quite understand

Alan Bradley, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce #2) (New York, 2010)

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Thura Nightingale 

 

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

 

I’ve seen the movie of this book many times and loved it a lot. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a story about a star that falls out of the sky and turns out to be an annoyed lady called Yvaine, brothers killing each other amicably to decide succession of the throne while the ghosts of the dead brothers comment on the events, and a silly girl who doesn’t get the boy. By that reason, I was overjoyed when I discovered the story was based on a book! The book is written by Neil Gaiman and is a great example of what he does best: creating magical fairy tales, which somehow feel as if they could happen to anyone. Even you or me.

This is the story of Tristran, an awkward, somewhat strange, boy living in the small village of Wall. He has never fitted in, because he looks a bit strange and he has a mysterious past. For example, one of his ears lays flat on his face and is pointier than it should be. As in all good fantasy stories he is in love with the most popular girl of the town, Victoria, who isn’t interested in him at all. However, one fateful night the two see a shooting star in the night sky and Victoria promises to marry Tristran if he gets her the star. This all sounds easy enough right? However, there is something complicating that mission. The village they live in gets its name from a nearby wall which separates the England they live in as we know it from a magical place, called Faerie. The villagers do not go to that place and there are actually villagers guarding the entrance. Only one day every nine years the villagers are allowed to visit the place on the other side of the wall when there is a market. The star Tristran promised Victoria has fallen beyond the wall, so there is nothing to do for Tristran but to leave his home, go beyond the wall and start his wondrous adventure to retrieve the star.

Meanwhile, there are things happening in the kingdom of Stormhold in Faerie beyond the wall. The old king is dying and his three remaining sons are gathered around his bed. Normally, succession is arranged among the children, where the last remaining one will be the next lord of Stormhold. However this time three of his sons are still alive, so something else has to be done. The king decided to shoot a stone into the sky which will give ruling power to whoever manages to retrieve it. The stone clashes with the first star in the sky, which shoots down to heaven. This is the same star Tristran and Victoria saw, and this is where the two storylines connect. The three remaining brothers, Primus, Tertius and Septimus all go on their way to retreat the fallen star who has the stone, and ideally also to kill the other two. In the book, this is brought way funnier than it sounds now. The killing is going on in remarkable good spirits because everyone is used to this practice. Also, the ghosts of the dead brothers have remained on earth and comment on each movement of the brothers full of frustration and disdain. This adds a brilliant funny element to the story because their commentary is very similar to that of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets. The last storyline I’m going to tell you about is of the last party pursuing the fallen star. Those are three witches, the Lilim, who want the star to retrieve their magical power and youth. There is, unfortunately, nothing funny about this storyline. The witches are cruel and only want the star to cut out her heart to remain youthful.

The fallen star turns out to be a lady who is not pleased at all she is shot out of the sky. When Tristran finds her, she doesn’t want to help him at first, but only dreams of getting back into the sky. Tristran promises to help her after she has helped him win Victoria’s hand. The deal is made and they start on the journey back to the wall which is a very far way away. Obviously, the two go from having a cold relationship to friendship and even more in the end. On their journey, they see a big part of the country, which shows a lot of Gaiman’s world building. The two meet many different characters, such as a gipsy enchantress and sky pirates who harvest lighting out of the sky. Although, sadly, the fabulous and flamboyant captain Shakespeare, as portrayed by Robert de Niro, is only in the movie. All the details you learn about the world while Tristran and Yvaine travel through Faerie give you a feel for the place and make it come alive. In fantasy, it is often the small details that help, such as the practice of travelling via a Babylon candle which allows your steps to take leagues while burning it. In this way, Gaiman managed to create a world that feels possible, but also entirely fantastical.

All the different storylines and characters in this book turn out to be connected at the end of the book. This is a very interesting way to tell a story. First, as a reader, you are delighted with all the little glimpses the storylines give you of the world. After that, you are delighted because familiar characters return to do something amazing, or turn out to be long-lost mothers or enchanted witches. For example, the first part of the book tells about Tristran’s conception in the magical kingdom beyond the wall. Tristran’s father visited the market and was enchanted by a woman selling glass flowers. In the night his father meets up with the glass flower seller and Tristran comes from that union. This explains why the boy never fitted in with his own village because he is actually part of two worlds. Tristran’s mother comes back later in the story to do very important things I won’t spoil. Also, all the brothers and the witches’ storylines are entwined with Tristran and Yvaine’s in the end.

All these storylines are written down in a remarkably compact way. No sentence is excessive, and the reader is expected to fill in many parts of the story for themselves. For example, there are no long descriptions of feelings and thought processes of the characters, but rather it is stated what they do and why. This fits well with the fairy tale genre I think, because those usually don’t explore characters emotions that much as well.  I like that style because it helps to create a magical atmosphere when some motives and actions remain unclear. There is magic in mystery. The joy of this book is to sit back and enjoy all that happens without thinking about it too much. Enjoy the ride and let yourself be surprised by everything that happens. This fairy tale style of the book also helps to makes the book feel light, despite all the killing that is going on. In this book, it is a comedy element that the brothers Stormhold try to kill each other, something which is actually quite a nasty business if it would happen in our world.

This is one of my favourite books and my favourite by Neil Gaiman. Actually, I have a very conflicted relationship with his other books. Something in his writing style makes it very hard for me to read through his books. His ideas and stories are almost always brilliant, so that makes it a dilemma whether I want to read his books or not. On the one hand, I want to take in the story, but reading through it feels like such a chore. Maybe it is that he tries too hard to be mystical in the other books I’ve read of him. Stardust is one of his first novels (he did a lot of comics before that), so maybe he was still looking for his own distinctive writer voice in this book. This possibly makes this book different from the rest. It is interesting that many voracious readers have one, or some authors they do not take to without any logical explanation. Who knows what causes that? What I do know is that Stardust is a brilliant book to read when you want to submerge yourself into an exciting fantasy adventure with great characters, especially the brothers continuously trying to kill each other.

Fratricide award for creating a book wherein it’s funny to kill one’s brothers

 

Neil Gaiman, Stardust (New York, 1999)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

It is fifty years ago that Martin Luther King jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s not that long ago, less than a lifetime, that he fought for the right of African American people to be treated equally and fairly by the American government and citizens alike. While his famous dream has not come true yet, at least the racial segregation laws that hailed from the misleading doctrine ‘separate but equal’ have been removed from legislature. This book’s story takes place in a time when they were still upheld, but what is most notable in the novel is how much racist ideas were ingrained in people’s minds.

In the year 1962, a middle-aged woman called Aibileen starts caring for her eighteenth baby. Seventeen of those were not her own, because this black woman is a maid to white families in Jackson, Mississippi and, besides running their household, raises their children. She loves this new little girl, Mae Mobley, with all her heart, even though she knows the child will grow up to treat her with disdain, like her parents do. Aibileen’s own son, Treelore, died just five months before, only twenty-four years old. The loss has left her with ‘a bitter seed planted inside’ of her and the abuse of her employers and their friends awakens more and more defiance. Still, every night she faithfully continues a practice she began in middle school: to write down her prayers.

Minny is short, fat, the most wonderful cook in all of Mississippi, and Aibileen’s best friend. She’s a help as well, and would be very popular if she wasn’t so extremely sassy. She can’t keep silent, even if it kills her. Unemployed and with her abusive husband coming down on her harder and harder, she goes for a job interview with a newly married woman who has trouble fitting in among her peers in the city. Celia Foote is the only white woman who hasn’t heard the rumour that the daughter of Minny’s last employer has spread: that Minny stole silverware. She didn’t, but the lie would have ruined her life anyway if it weren’t for this country girl who married up, doesn’t have any friends in town and therefore doesn’t know any gossip. The stout Minny and barbie doll Celia turn out to be surprisingly well-matched.

At the same time, another young white woman returns from university to her hometown of Jackson. Her real name is Eugenia, but everyone calls her Skeeter because she is thin and spindly like an insect (apparently, ‘skeeter’ is southern slang for ‘mosquito’). She has a degree and wants to be a journalist, but her mother won’t rest until she is neatly married, like all of her friends. Sadly for her, Skeeter has other concerns, like getting a job with a newspaper and finding out what happened to the maid who raised her, Constantine. The kind old woman has suddenly disappeared ‘to live with family’ and nobody wants to tell Skeeter why or where she is now. While poking around in the city she grew up in, Skeeter encounters a bit more reality than she was looking for. Segregation laws are still in full effect and black women like Constantine, Aibileen and Minny are verbally abused, mistreated, humiliated and undervalued by their white employers.

Aibileen, Minnie and Skeeter are united by an either very foolish or very brave plan: to write down and publish the stories of the black Jackson women who take care of white families. With a combination of Skeeter’s journalism skills and connections, Minny’s bravery and persuasiveness and Aibileen’s tact and prayer-writing, they manage what is not only a lot of work but also a very dangerous project. People could be and are killed over this kind of honesty. I thought that a strong element of the story was how Skeeter, who obviously means well, is truly naive when it comes to matters of race. The book makes it clear that she, as a rich white girl, has prejudices, is quite ignorant about how people of colour are treated, and can be reckless with the safety of the black women she talks to. She is not racist because she means to be, but she is racist because she lives in a racist society. But she is vastly different from the people around her because she wants to be educated. She listens, writes down the stories, learns and applies the things she learns to her daily life. She is already a rebel in other respects, because she’s independent and demands respect from men instead of just giving it. But to the people around her, her growing involvement with the race issues are a step too far.

The story of The Help is told in turns by Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter and their voices and styles are very distinct. Reading how the three women see each other adds an interesting dimension to the book. I can’t judge the story on its historical accuracy, I don’t know much about American history, but as a story it was wonderful to read, with just enough sarcasm to counter the seriousness of the topic. All three narrators are keen observers with a lot of humour, and are honest enough to tell about their own less-than-beautiful thoughts or less-than-elegant moments. One of the funniest moments is when Skeeter reacts to a marriage proposal with “Oh… Jesus.”

Aibileen and Minnie are, understandibly, quite weary when Skeeter first approaches them. Even when they are more or less sure that they can trust this white woman, some of the black maids of Jackson are not quick to give up their stories. Why, after all, would they humour one of the white people they are so angry with? I liked this honesty and humanity. It made the characters so much more realistic, especially the protagonists. Furthermore, the characters are more than ‘black’ or ‘white’. They have their own lives and families, their own concerns and expectations from life. Aibileen deals with the painful reality of being left on her own without the son she was so proud of, and Minnie, strong as she is, struggles with the grip her violent husband has on her and her children.

My favourite thing about this story is how feminism and the social justice movement go hand in hand. I remember learning in University about nineteen-century feminism in America and how it was strangely disconnected from the struggle for rights for Afro-Americans. Predominantly well-to-do, white feminists fought for the rights of their peers but their attention, barring some exceptions, did barely extend to their sisters in lower classes or from other races. The Help shows the sexism that affects both white and black women, the class discrimination that affects many black women but also white women, and the racism that is visited upon the black women. Someone once descibed ‘white privilege’ like this (I’m quoting from memory): “It does not mean that white people have no disadvantages. They do. It only means that people of colour have extra disadvantages on top of those”.

Many people criticise the way books about segregation and black communities in the United States of America are often written by white authors and have white hero figures. It’s true that something is off when books with white protagonists become much more popular than those with black ones. Readers who are white themselves might be uncomfortable when a story doesn’t contain at least one white person who is not racist. People feel personally attacked so easily. I would say, however, that this criticism, while it is something to keep in mind about (American) literature in general, does not reflect on the quality of individual novels. So I don’t think having a white author writing about race issues makes The Help a bad book. As literature, it is a strong work; as social commentary, it is smart and might reach people unfamiliar with the subject (though I do not think it will easily sway the convinced racist). In this case, making Skeeter one of the main characters gives us access to her wealthy, white social circle and that works well.

The Help is a book about making yourself be heard and about countering stereotypes that have written you off, with your own stories. This happens not only when the women write down their stories. Celia defends Minny from a violent naked man with a poker, letting go of the image of the society lady she tries to be to help a person she cares about. Aibileen tells her own stories to the toddler Mae Mobley, like the time she puts a new spin on Mae Mobley’s favourite TV-show, My Favourite Martian:

“One day, a wise Martian come down to Earth to teach us people a thing or two,” I say.
“Martian? How big?”
“Oh, he about six-two.”
“What’s his name?”
“Martian Luther King.”
(…) “He was a real nice Martian, Mister King. Looked just like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head, but sometime people looked at him funny and sometime, well, I guess sometime people was just downright mean.”
“Why Aibee? Why was they so mean to him?” she ask.
“Cause he was green.”

Chocolate Pie Award for the best serving of chocolate pie recorded in literature.

Kathryn Stockett, The Help (New York, 2009)

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Jo Robin

The Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

As a fervent fan of Disney, I have watched the animated version of Beauty and the Beast many, many times. I think most bookworms and bibliophiles have swooned over the library the Beast presents Belle in the film, and I think it has raised all of our standards of men that they can’t possibly fulfill. Of course, I also very much enjoyed the songs in the film, Gaston and Lumière. However, when I came across this book, I thought the original fairytale might be quite different and I was right.

Beauty is the youngest daughter of twelve and her father is a wealthy merchant, at the start of the tale. Unfortunately, his house burns down with all of their possessions inside and he loses his wealth. Now, doomed to live small and work for their money, his daughters complain and his sons are forced to do their servants work, except for Beauty, who embraces their new life with enthusiasm and optimism. When their father hears of one of his ships arriving in port, which may restore their wealth, he sets out, but he gets lost on his way home. He then finds himself at the gates of an enormous and inviting castle and inside he rests. After he has eaten, he remembers his promise to each of his children, to bring them something they desired. Beauty, modest and content, has only asked for a rose, so her father decides to pick one in the castle gardens for her. But this rose brings all kinds of trouble, when a terrible beast appears and demands payment for his roses. Left without a choice, the merchant agrees to his conditions of returning with one of his daughters within the month, one who has agreed to give herself to the Beast voluntarily.

Upon his arrival home, the merchant is ashamed that he didn’t simply offer up his own life instead of one of his daughters’, but Beauty agrees almost immediately. Her other sisters have grown to hate her because of her cheerful nature and she feels as though she is responsible, because it was she who asked for a rose. So the merchant returns to the castle with Beauty, who is hopeful that this new life will bring her happiness somehow. Her father is then forced to depart, but Beast allows him to leave with as many riches as he pleases. Beauty is then left alone with the Beast, and she spends her days exploring the castle. The grounds are filled with statues, beautiful birds, gigantic rooms where monkeys perform and, of course, a fantastic library. Beauty only sees the Beast at night, during dinner, when he inquires about her day and always, bluntly, asks her to marry him. But Beauty refuses each time, not only because he is a Beast and he is ugly and stupid according to her, but also because at night she dreams of a handsome Prince and she has fallen in love with the Prince of her dreams.

Months go by and the Beast can see that Beauty isn’t happy, so he allows her to go back home, on the condition that she will return to him again, within two months, voluntarily. When Beauty returns home, she finds her family living in wealth once again, and she has a hard time making herself return to the castle again. However, a woman in her dream urges her to do so, or else the Beast will die. So she returns, finds the Beast whom she believes to be already dead and she is struck by grief because of this. As he wakes up, Beauty immediately says she will marry him, abandoning the Prince of her dreams. Of course, the Beast turns out to be the Prince in his true form and, eventually, they live happily ever after.

This story was originally written in 1740 by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and it is understandable that the tale has undergone many changes throughout the years. Although I missed the characters of the animated film, I did like the fairytale in its original form. In the fairytale there are no servants who turn into objects, but they are in fact statues, brought back to life after the curse has been lifted. The Beast is just a bit rude, but mainly timid and quite a gentleman in the tale. I did miss the character of Belle as I knew her from the film. In this tale, Beauty is quite annoying: beautiful, forever calm and cheerful, intelligent and somehow surprised at everyone’s jealousy. She’s also vain and a bit of an airhead in the original fairytale. Of course, women were often portrayed as such, and it even says so in the book when Beauty is described: ‘…a strength of mind which is not common in her sex.’ But, I actually really liked Belle the Bookworm from the film, who is mostly clumsy and even foolish at times. This must be the power of Disney: creating characters many can identify with.

Interestingly enough, the book is about 200 pages long and about halfway through, the curse is already lifted. What follows then is the background story of both the Beast and of Beauty. In the film, we see hardly any of this, and even though I thought this to be the most boring part of the story, this part does explain a lot that the film doesn’t. The Beast was once a Prince, and his mother was the Queen. After the death of his father, the Queen was often away at battle and a Fairy was left with the young Prince to take care of him. As he grows older, the Fairy falls in love with him, but as she is basically his old governess and he appears to be very young still, the Prince refuses her. This angers the Fairy and that’s when she turns him into the Beast, because the Fairy believes he refuses her out of vanity. The spell can only be broken by a girl, who voluntarily lives with him, even though she fears him, and grows to love him.

This is where Beauty comes in. In the story, when the spell is broken, the Queen, the Beast/Prince’s mother appears, but she is not at all happy. She should be happy that the curse is broken, but she only sees a merchant’s daughter, who isn’t nearly good enough for her son. Beauty despairs, but then another Fairy shows up and comforts her. As it turns out, the Queen has a brother: the King. The King once had a beautiful wife, but he lost her. But the Fairy reveals that she was not just any woman: she was a Fairy. She tells them of a great war between Fairies and how the King’s wife has broken the rules, so, long story short, she was banished. They did however have a child together, and this child is Beauty. But because of her mother’s disgrace, Beauty was left to grow up with a merchant, but, fear not, she is actually a Princess! Not only was I a bit surprised by the importance given to status, but that’s simply because in 1740 this was far more important, but also this means that Beauty/Princess and Beast/Prince are niece and nephew. Apparently, this didn’t bother anyone in 1740.

As noted above, this is a traditional fairytale and many elements seem strange to us now, but, again, I did enjoy it. Once you look past the emphasis on status, it really is a tale of learning to look beyond external beauty and finding true love. The language in this book is beautiful of course, but a bit difficult and even slow at times, and the descriptions are much like in a Jane Austen novel. But I can’t really review this story, without reviewing this particular edition, which is absolutely beautiful and it was another important reason for me to pick up this book.

This version was exquisitely illustrated by MinaLima, a graphic design studio founded by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima. Not only are the golden headings and illustrations gorgeous, but every page simply looks like ‘enough reason the buy the book’.


Apart from the illustrations, each chapter has some kind of interactive element, which almost makes you feel like you are there, with Beauty, exploring the castle.

I am quite confident that the imagery alone will provide you with enough reasons to pick up this book, but the tale won’t disappoint either. This is not the tale as I knew it from the film, but it’s a much more thought-out version, fitting in the 18th century. Still, it has all of the themes, including a rose that brings all kinds of misfortune but eventually happiness, that give this tale a magical feel to it. Except for the library, only mentioned once, which was a shame, but I’m sure we can easily add that in our minds to any house by now. And when you do recreate that library of your own, this beautiful collectors’ item volume can’t be missing from it.

The Bibliophile award: for castles with libraries, filled with gorgeous aesthetically pleasing books 

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, Beauty and the Beast (Paris, 1740)

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Thura Nightingale

Anna Edes (Édes Anna) by Dezső Kosztolányi

A few summers ago, I went to Budapest, Hungary, with some friends (Jo and Thura among them). There we discovered the magical atmosphere of the city, complete with churches and a castle around every corner. Also, there is a spectacular amount of great statues, each with their own unique expression and image, and each telling a different story of the city. The city’s grand past is visible in the architecture, complete with its nobility and wealth. I started this book in the hope to revisit those parts of Budapest once more, but it turned out to be about the not less important darker past of Budapest of poverty and revolution.

The book is set after the First World War in Budapest. The people of Budapest have struggled with shortages, which have left the city in chaos. Also, there has been a succession of people from different ideologies in power. Because of this, nobody is sure who to trust and whether they are safe from conviction or not. For a while, a government similar to the one of Soviet Russia had been in power. The leader Béla Kun fled at the start of this book, marking the end of the Soviet-like regime. Supporters of this regime are not safe, opponents of the regime feel they can finally breathe again.  The book is about the Vizy family, who were opponents of this regime. The janitor of the building they live in, Fiscor, was pro the Soviet-style regime. The Vizy’s are nobility, which explains their view on a Soviet-style regime. During the war, they struggled to maintain the appearance of greatness and wealth during the war, because of the shortage of work, personnel and basic food supplies. They do however kept the pride in a neat home where everything is meticulously kept clean.

The focus is on the household of the Vizy’s, with a focus on the day to day life of Anna, their servant, and the dynamics between Anna and the Vizy family. It starts with Mrs Vizy’s struggles with her maid Katica. We learn that it is near-impossible to find a good maid because few girls are willing to work in service. The maid they have now is coarse, lazy and doesn’t give the family the respect they think they deserve. In a fit of anger Mrs Vizy sends the maid away and now they are left with no-one. It is an almost impossible task to find a new maid. In comes Fiscor, the janitor of the building the Vizy’s live in. Fiscor is eager to get on the good side of the family, because Kornel Vizy, the husband, has influence in the current government – Fiscor had supported the Soviet regime and is eager to secure his safety in the current one. Fiscor has a niece, Anna, who is proclaimed to be the perfect servant. The obsessive Mrs Vizy pressures Fiscor to compel Anna to leave her current placement and to work for the Vizy’s. Anna doesn’t want to leave, but eventually, she does. It remains unclear why she does though because it sounds like she already had a good position.  Especially because later on it is hinted that she misses the children she was taken care of in that placement. Soon Anna becomes a vital part of the Vizy’s household: she is a hard worker, quiet and never complains about anything. Throughout the book, a lot of unfortunate and nasty things happen to Anne, but she seems to take it all with resignation and without complaints. This despite the fact that Anna’s life is by no means joyous: she is treated coldly by the Vizy family, used by Jansci, a nephew of the Vizy’s, for his own desires and has nothing in her life except work.

When Anna enters the Vizy’s household, she quickly becomes indispensable, especially to Mrs Vizy who finally has someone she can control and command. There is no room for Anna’s own wishes, which becomes clear when the family prevents her marriage to a chimney sweep. Also, the family doesn’t show her any real kindness or gratitude or give any thoughts to her as a person at all. They rather see her as some kind of prize bull and brag about her qualities whenever they can. Anna herself is difficult to understand. You never get to know much about her and her motives. She left her old family, but the book also hints that she liked it there, so why did she? Was it to protect Fiscor, or because of some fatalistic belief she will never be able to decide on her own life and is doomed to be a servant? Also, she decided not to marry the chimney sweep when the Vizy’s pressured her, but we never get to know what Anna’s thought were on either the chimney sweep or the fact she is not going to marry him. Did she love him? The answer to all of those questions remains unknown. But then again, the little space given to her thoughts in the narrative might have been deliberate to show she has no personality as a servant: she serves others and through that, her own self disappears. The book has a very violent ending, which in that line of reasoning shows that people start acting in an inhuman way when they are not treated as humans. But that is my speculation. Very smart writing in my opinion nonetheless.

Overall, the story does not go into great detail: weeks pass without notice. Also, most of the characters are not described in great detail. One learns most about the thoughts and feelings of Mrs Vizy, but that could be because of her dominant influence on the mood of the household. Mrs Vizy is a woman set in her ways and is only satisfied when things go her way. In that, she is not afraid to be unreasonable and cold to the people in her household. She is a tragic, but deeply unpleasant, figure. You kind of understand why though: her daughter died too young, she is stuck in a loveless marriage and the only thing she concerns herself with, her household, caused her great distress because she couldn’t find the right maid. Add to that suffering from headaches and an unstable mental disposition since her daughter died tragically. Her husband, Kornel Vizy, is absent a lot of the time. After the Soviet-style regime, he is adamant to make a name for himself in politics again. This takes most of his time. Personally, I like this ‘no frills attached’ style of writing, because that means a lot of things are happening, without filling in for the reader what to think of it. In this way the book kept me entertained after I finished it because I was still trying to figure out the characters.

This book focuses on the relationships between the characters. This is put in the bigger context of post-World War One Hungarian society. There are very few descriptions of the scenery, which is a shame because that’s what I was hoping for. Anna rarely goes out, so there is not much cause to describe the scenery. Still, the psychological side of the story kept me engaged enough to finish the book quickly. Overall, the book is written in a bare-boned style. It is about 300 pages long but still manages to include many different events, spanning a few years in total. Only the necessary details are given, leaving it to the reader to figure out the details, and in that way, to understand the characters. You could read through this quickly because it is written in a style very easy to read. However, you would get more out of the book by reading it slowly, or during a second read. Especially because there were a lot of things that were hard to understand or came unexpectedly to me at first. For example the ending: it was very violent and I did not see it coming at all. However, now I’ve thought about it for a while and wrote this review, it does make more sense. There is a very subtle build-up in this book of the event to come, which I can’t tell you because of spoilers. It is definitely there though. This makes the book almost like a murder mystery where one has to look for clues to identify the culprit, where the mystery goes even deeper because one has to guess what is going to happen!  A good book for anyone who likes to delve into the psychology of the characters in a book, and especially to which dark lengths the psyche of a person can go when pushed.

Housework award for a book about the benefits and downsides of hiring somebody to do it for you

Dezső Kosztolányi, Édes Anna (Budapest, 1926)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear