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 

 

 

 

 

 

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 

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 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I’ve been on a spree of reviewing children’s books lately and I’m not sure why. One of the reasons is that I think you should never stop reading the books you love, even when they’re children’s books. Let me rephrase that: especially when it’s a children’s book! Some books teach you a lot about life and this is one of the books that taught me some lessons I hope I’ll never forget. This world and the adults in it can be cruel, and someone has to hold them accountable. As an adult now, I still feel like a child has the right to punish an adult when they’re wrong and this is just one of the effects Matilda has had on me.

Mr and Mrs Wormwood are bad people, and Matilda will be the first one to tell you that. Five-year-old Matilda is precocious to say the least and a genius to be frank, but her parents treat her with utter disgust. They usually ignore her, but when they don’t, they ridicule her and let her know they can’t wait until she is gone. The problem is, of course, that Matilda’s parents and her brother are dumb and slow. Therefore, they fail to notice just how special their daughter is. When Matilda was only one-and-a-half years old, she could already talk perfectly. When she was two, she learned how to take care of herself. By the time she was three, she had taught herself how to read and by four, she started reading every book she could get her hands on. Unsurprisingly, her parents don’t own many books, so little Matilda decides to go to the library on her own when her parents are out one day.

Books change Matilda’s life, as they give her hope and the first look outside of her awful home life. And they make her feel less alone. When Matilda is finally old enough to go to school, she befriends her teacher Miss Honey, who actually notices how intelligent Matilda is and appreciates her for it. However, the school is run by a tyrant by the name of Miss Trunchbull. Slowly, Matilda bonds with Miss Honey more and her confidence grows. So the little girl decides to punish her parents for being mean, because a bad person deserves punishment, right? Matilda gets very creative and it’s absolutely brilliant. At the same time, Miss Trunchbull terrorises the school and when Matilda’s friend Lavender tries to pull a prank on their headmistress, Matilda must step in to save her. This is when Matilda finds out she is not only incredibly bright, but she also has telekinetic superpowers, and there is no stopping her now.

Matilda really is the original bookworm and it could be said that it’s a crying shame that we haven’t reviewed her book on this site before. How exactly she learns how to read isn’t explained in the book, but she does and reads with gusto. When you think about it, it’s interesting how Matilda is a book about a bookworm, probably read by little bookworms, because Matilda is quite a long book for young children, so you need to be dedicated to it. But I really identified with Matilda when I was little, because my childhood was hard and I remember reading so many books as a way out. Matilda does the same thing, but even better, she translates her newfound knowledge from books to action in real life. She is just a child, but she develops her own sense of morality based on what she learns, like how a bad person has to be punished, even when it’s the adult who’s bad. Matilda reads to feel less alone, which is such a strong message, but I think an even stronger message is that kids who read this book feel less alone through Matilda.

There has been a shift in me and in how I read this book now compared to when I was little. When I was little I was aware of Matilda’s parents being mean, but the main points of interest are how funny the book is, the books Matilda reads and how cool it would be to have superpowers just like Matilda. I’ve recently re-read this novel and now it also strikes me how sad Matilda’s home life is. The book is filed with pain in a sense and two storylines of horrible neglect. Matilda is still a cool little girl, but she is also wounded and vulnerable from the abuse she essentially faces. As great as it may seem that she decides to change all of that on her own, a six-year-old girl shouldn’t be responsible for that. The adults should act, but as is often the case in Dahl’s books, adults are completely useless. Matilda was a hero to me when I was little because of the fact that she takes control of her own life, but as an adult now, I can also see the adults who fail her so badly.

One of the best things about Roald Dahl’s books is the fact that he seems so in tune with how childrens’ brains work. I think many adults can’t for the life of them remember what it was like to be a kid, but Dahl; he remembers. Like I said, the adults are often useless, which is unfortunately the case in real life as well. But there’s also the imaginative stories he creates, with little details kids love, but adults might find disgusting or simply too weird. His books are hilarious, unexpected in every way and the children always win. I’ve always found it interesting how Roald Dahl was apparently not that great of a father, but on the other hand, maybe you can’t have it both ways. Maybe you can’t still be a child at heart and be a wonderful parent at the same time. This is another one of the lessons I have learned through Matilda: a healthy balance is needed. I need to remember what it’s like to be a kid, but I also need to make sure I do not fail a kid.

I’m not sure if Matilda is my favourite book by Roald Dahl, but it has been his most influential one. I used to read it in times of distress and I still do on occasion. Now, I hope with all my heart that you’ve had a lovely childhood and never had the need to escape it through stories, but if you did, Matilda is the heroine for you. If not, this book is hilarious, still deep at times, and an utter joy to read. You’ll not regret reading it. As a last warning: if you plan on gifting this book to a child, please do, but beware of Matilda’s moral advice: if a person is bad, that person deserves to be punished. So, if you end up with your hat glued to your head, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alex Cabot Award: For straight up legal advice

Roald Dahl, Matilda (London, 1988)

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Thura Nightingale 

Crusade in Jeans (Kruistocht in spijkerbroek) by Thea Beckman

There have been two books that have had a great influence on me when I was a child and there have been two traumatic incidents in my adolescence concerning those books. As you may have guessed, as many people have had similar experiences in their life, these were the moments my favourite books were adapted for the big screen. Both movies were disappointing in every sense, both utterly terrible as a film and the worst homage to both the books and authors, who had originally created wonderful tales of adventure and mystery. Instead, we got saddled with pretty boys with long hair who couldn’t ride a horse to save their life in a movie theatre. I’m still not over it, as you can see, so please please please, do not watch the films, but read the books. The first one of these books so horribly adapted was ‘A letter to the King’, reviewed by Jo here. The second one is called ‘Crusade in Jeans’ by Thea Beckman and to this day, it’s one of the greatest and most original Dutch stories I have ever read.

Rudolf Wega is a fifteen-year-old boy, who isn’t special in any way. He comes from a place called Amstelveen and usually goes by the name Dolf. For the Dutch people reading this, in the 70’s when this book was written, Dolf was quite a common nickname for Rudolf. But when an experiment in his hometown is to take place with a machine called the ‘Materietransmitter’, he volunteers and he is then transported back into time. His plan was to watch some French medieval tournament for a while and then return home, but through some faulty calculations, he ends up in the German city of Spiers in the thirteenth century. As he is unable to return to the twentieth century, he joins a children’s crusade that plans on freeing the Holy Land through their innocence, led by the shepherd’s boy Nicolaas with a vision from God.

Thousands and thousands of children have joined the crusade and it’s usually children who have nowhere else to go. Apart from the hordes and hordes of children, there are two monks who seem to have taken over the organisation of the crusade. Dolf worries for the children and quickly takes charge to try and protect them, and keep the children’s crusade from unnecessary losses. He tries to organise groups that search for food and one that protects the others from wild animals and such and yet another that can lead the way. He even saves a group of children from an earl who has taken them captive as slaves, by creating some makeshift gunpowder (which had not yet been invented in Europe in the thirteenth century). Apart from Dolf’s inventiveness and knowledge that goes beyond the typical medieval person’s, he is also an avid history lover in his own time, so he starts to recognise some things that have happened and will happen, crusades being one of them. Of course, this makes him stand out like a sore thumb and both the monks and Nicolaas start to dislike  him.

Eventually, Dolf realises with his more modern knowledge of geography, that heading to Genua where the sea will open up to them to get to the Holy Land, doesn’t make any sense and he starts to investigate. One of the monks, Anselmus, desperately tries to discredit Dolf and accuses him of witchcraft. This does have an effect on some children, as witchcraft was a very serious accusation at the time, but some side with Dolf. However, Dolf turns out to be right and the children’s crusade is nothing more than a front for a much more sinister plan fuelled by the innocent belief that the children have in their quest to save the Holy Land. But Dolf manages to save them all in time and he is saved as well, also just in time.

Thea Beckman was still quite the phenomenon in the Netherlands fifteen years ago. Born in 1923, she started writing most of her historical novels after her retirement. After her death 2004, Crusade in Jeans was made into a film (an utter disaster) and this was one of her books that was translated into many languages. As I mentioned, many of her books are historical novels and I used to save up all of my money to buy them. When I was twelve I had almost every one of them, about thirty in total, and they were my absolute favourite. Her strength in writing lies in the fact that she takes an ordinary person, like Dolf, and places them in a great historical situation. This makes her books easy to read page-turners and before you know it, you’ve read a children’s book over 600 pages long! I have loved history for as long as I can remember and a large part of my knowledge as a child came from my father and Thea Beckman. Because the historical elements in her books are always completely correct: this woman has done her research. You get a complete history lesson, often through the eyes of an ordinary inhabitant of a Dutch city at a certain point in time, but without noticing it. As a reader, you focus on your character, which are often also historical figures, and the things that character goes through and you are simply entertained. But to this day, I remember dates, events and names in history by linking them to specific books by Thea Beckman.

Crusade in Jeans is actually one of her books that is a bit different from the other books she has written. To start off, her main character is a man, Dolf, and often her main characters are women, sometimes famous, sometimes especially ordinary, but always opinionated and feisty. Beckman has often been described as a feminist, though she herself didn’t agree with that label, but her women aren’t always non-conformists, rebels or tomboyish: they can find their strength in being a mother as well, but strong they always are. Some of these girls can be found in Crusade in Jeans, but mainly it’s men and boys in this novel, with the same strength of mind that is. Another striking feature is that Dolf isn’t from medieval times, but he is from our time. This way, the main character is even easier to relate to than her standard medieval characters. And lastly, there is an element of science fiction or magical realism or whatever you want to call it added in this book in the form of a time machine. For an author that tends to meticulously do her research in archives and city history books, a time machine as part of a story is an unexpected piece of fiction, but strangely enough, it works very well.

The main problem I had with the movie was how badly history was executed in the film. Medieval times are portrayed as a kind of Medieval Fantasy Fair, with anachronistic themes and objects and two-dimensional sets and characters. Thea Beckman’s books are the complete opposite. Her books contain so many accurate details, without going too much into history, that you actually feel like you’ve just walking into medieval times. The children’s crusade was a factual historical occurrence in 1212, but the emphasis in the book isn’t on this magnificent historical event, but on the common children who were a part of it. And they are common, poor and innocent. They knew very little of what was going on, but they just followed along with it all. That’s what you feel like as a reader, like one of the children walking the crusade, not yet knowing that countless of books would be written on the subject.

There are many books that I have read as a child and many books that have shaped me to be who I am today. I think most children love to read, as most children love stories of some kind, but they just need to find books that grab their attention. Before I studied theology, I studied history for a few years. I’ve visited many cities in the Netherlands, just because I was fascinated by their history. Thea Beckman has made me the history-loving, investigative and bookwormish adult I am today. And even though she is such a Dutch literary phenomenon and even though her books are written for children, I think everyone should read at least one of her books in their life. You might even learn something, completely by accident, almost like you’re stepping into a Materietransmitter and are transported to the past.

Self-sufficiency Award: for the author who has been called a feminist, a communist and a socialist, but didn’t agree with any of them, apart from the label of a self-sufficient woman

Thea Beckman, Kruistocht in spijkerbroek (Rotterdam, 1973)

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Thura Nightingale 

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce #3) by Alan Bradley

Whenever I’m reading a book or a series I really, really enjoy, I try to put myself on a pages-ration. I realise this may sound absurd, but even if I’ve just hardly started a series, I can already sense the loss one feels when a book or series has finished. One feels an almost existential pain in the simple question: what do I do with my life now? And so I try desperately and against all hope to postpone the ending of a book, just to keep the magic alive just a little longer. This doesn’t always work: I could have a brilliant plan in place that will allow me to only read 40 pages a day, but when I’m in bed, all of a sudden I’m six more chapters down the line. It happens. Why am I telling you of all my plans (and failures) surrounding book-rationing? Because that is what I’m currently doing when it comes to the Flavia de Luce series. As we wait in anticipation for the 10th novel, I’m trying to ration the ninth book, which I’m currently reading. I hope that writing a review on book number three might slow me down a little. It might just a have an opposite effect though. We’ll see.

In this third novel, Flavia sets fire to a tent. She doesn’t do so on purpose of course, but when a gypsy fortuneteller says something about a woman in the mountains trying to come home, Flavia panics. Because this woman is of course Harriet, Flavia’s mother who disappeared in the mountains ten years earlier. But when the tent catches fire, Flavia runs, only to be troubled by her guilt later on. The old gyspy woman does manage to escape from the inferno, but is quite ill afterwards. So Flavia does the only logical thing she can think of: she invites the gypsies to move their caravans to a remote part of their estate. She does so without asking anyone’s permission and she does so without knowing they’ve been there many times before. Thinking herself redeemed, you can imagine the shock when Flavia finds the old woman in a caravan only a few hours later, bloody and barely breathing.

Flavia may have saved the old woman, but now Flavia has to deal with the gypsy’s granddaughter Porcelain, who puts a knife to Flavia’s throat upon meeting. When discovering it’s only a butter knife, Flavia invites her over to Buckshaw. But when the two girls try to find out who has tried to kill the old woman, they stumble upon more questions than answers. Could the attack have something to do with a missing baby, something the villagers have blamed the gypsies for? Or could it have something to do with the religious dissenters called the Hobblers, who meet at night on the riverbanks near the caravan? But Flavia doesn’t have much time to mull over the village history, when a burglar at Buckshaw turns up dead, hanging from the large fountain on their estate, with a fork protruding from his nose. This mystery especially is riddled with secrets and societies, but if there’s anyone who could unlock all of those mysteries, it’s Flavia de Luce.

As this is the third book in the series that I’m reviewing, I won’t go into the same kinds of aspects of the story as I did in the other reviews. If you would like a clearer idea on the background of the stories and family-life of the De Luces, I’d recommend you read my review on the first book, which can be found here. And if you’d like to know a little bit more about Flavia’s development in the series up to this point, I’d recommend you read my review of the second book in the series, which can be found here. In this book we see Flavia coming into her own even more, but I found it especially interesting how she is reflecting on her own character in this book. At the start of the book, the gypsy woman tells her how she scares her. Flavia starts to think about her cold De Luce eyes and how she feels connected to a long line that she is a part of, while also experiencing a massive distance from the family, when it comes to her sisters. She characterises herself as a liar, untrustworthy, but with the ways of aristocracy and her own special kind of brilliance. She has become quite acquainted with murder at this time and she has discovered her own talent for separating the dead person from the mystery. She even looks at a vast amount of blood with a simple fascination for the chemistry involved. This told me that she will either grow up to be quite a cold scientist, or that she is just a child still. I’d say the latter. One of the best examples is how she talks to her bicycle Gladys like it’s an actual person. And there’s one of my most favourite quotes by Flavia from all of the series:

“Compared with my life, Cinderella was a spoiled brat.”

And there’s the wonderful realisation once again that she is invisible due to being only eleven years old, but also the reflection on that in Flavia: she likes the solitude more than being with people, but she’s also lonely. This takes me to my second observation on Flavia in the novel that really hit me in this book particularly. Flavia is incredibly lonely, with no one to talk to but the handyman Dogger and Gladys. She does search for other people to connect with here, something she hasn’t done before. She desperately wants a friend in Porcelain, the young gypsy girl, but finds it hard to get into the mechanics of friendship. Also, Flavia’s obsession with detective Hewitt and his lovely wife grows. At one time she even fantasises about being invited over to tea and what they would talk about. But most of all, Flavia allows herself to reflect on her mother for the first time. In the last novel, her Aunt Felicity remarked that Flavia is actually a lot like her mother, even though her sisters would often say she was adopted, but I felt like Flavia hasn’t let that bit of information in, simply because it’s too much for her to handle. Now she does and when she finds a portrait of her mother with all of her three children, she can no longer deny her longing for a mother figure in her life.

As for the actual mystery in the novel, a lot is going on! And in all honesty, it might be that there is too much going on. I loved the gyspies in this story and I loved when we find out how Flavia is not the first one to connect with them. I also really enjoyed the dissenters and even though I’m not sure the Hobblers were actually a thing (there were so many at one point), there was a fascinating piece of English history touched upon in this book. I liked Flavia’s self-reflection; I liked the murders and even enjoyed the strange burglary side-plot that had everything to do with fencing and fooling the rich. And lastly, reality sets in, in the form of mounting debt when it comes to the family estate. Buckshaw was once Harriet’s, but after she has disappeared without leaving a will, it may be impossible to keep the estate in the family. Here we have another fine example of how the aristocracy often isn’t actually rich, as many people believe, but are just the caretakers of a large estate and how many people depend on them. Another fascinating piece of history! However, it was a little bit much for just one novel and the plot wasn’t as strong as it could have been. It might have been better if Alan Bradley had made two separate books out of this one story.

All in all, this is another fine book in a long series of great murder-mysteries. All the familiar elements of rivalling sisters, village idiots and chemistry are there. Flavia still plans to take revenge on her sisters with every poison under the sun, but eventually decides that just planning it is cathartic enough. Flavia is still eleven years old, but I do feel she is growing up just a little. Same as always, these novels are quaint, charming and incredibly funny, but with some dark undertones, in the form of neglect, loneliness, bullying by sisters, rising debt and, of course, murder. As these dark undertones grow, some people might enjoy these novels less. I, however, think it only makes sense for the novels to become darker, as Flavia loses some of her innocence. I do have a feeling these novels will only become darker and darker, but then again, none of us can stay eleven forever. There are some lighter moments still and without any relevance to it, I would like to end this review with my absolutely favourite quote from this book, by an old stubborn catholic philatelist:

“Tell them we may not be praying with them,” Father told the Vicar, “but we are at least not actively praying against them.”

Rumplestiltskin Award: Because there’s nothing a liar hates more than finding out that another liar has lied to them

Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce #3) (New York, 2011)

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Thura Nightingale 

Tank Girl (Tank Girl #1) by Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett

Usually, Bella is the one reviewing the graphic novels on this site. I do the classics and a few young adult books. Jo does children’s books and also some classics. It seems almost like we’ve divided the categories. But I recently started to think: I can do what I want! I read all kinds of books and I’m all for having no shame about anything in your library, as long as you enjoy it. In fact, I do read some comics and it only made sense for me to review one of my favourite graphic novels. This series has made me think, made me laugh out loud and spit out my beer, brought me to many a protest, while also making me care just a little bit less about things. It has also made me permanently confused, because none of these stories actually make sense, but I‘ll get to that later. I hereby present the hero we never wanted but all need (whether we like it or not): Tank Girl!

How to possibly tell you what this graphic novel is all about, because these novels have no regard for plot or narrative whatsoever. But at the centre is always our Tank Girl, or Rebbecca Buck as she is later revealed to be called. The stories take place in Australia, after some natural/nuclear disaster, which has left the entire continent a desert. In the post-apocalyptic world, kangaroo mutants run wild and all the water is private property. It seems a desolate and desperate place to live in and most people would just give up. But not Tank Girl, who manages to see the humour in every situation and is ready to kick at authority at any chance she gets. I’ll let her describe what happens in the first few issues of Volume 1 of this series: “In issue one I bagged off with a kangaroo. In issue two I made President Hogan sh*t his pants. In issue three I’m hunted by some of Australia’s nastiest bounty hunters!” Just another few examples are when in one issue Tank Girl barges into a warehouse to save her favourite brand of beer and another where she meets the lovely Jet Girl and yet another where she forces her kangaroo boyfriend Booga to box. Again, one doesn’t really read these comics for the plot, but for the simple explosive bad-assery.

The only stable element in these stories is Tank Girl and the fact that she doesn’t listen to anyone. Apart from that, literally anything can happen, and it does. Tank Girl started off as a bounty hunter, but after a few mistakes, she is an outlaw. She does everything she does in a tank, which she has rebuilt for her own dodgy purposes and which she frequently drives off cliffs (and she’s okay every single time!). Tank Girl is loud, filthy, always spitting and smoking and very impulsive. She enjoys random acts of violence and sex. She doesn’t think anything through, which means you never know what is going to happen next. The amount of enemies she has is astounding and you keep wondering how she survives all the time. The answer is simple: people that insane never die. Also, she has a tank. It makes very little sense, but you’ll never be bored while reading: it’s absolutely action-packed from beginning to end, commented on by the most unreliable and cynical narrator on the planet: Tank Girl herself.

tank girl 1

Tank Girl is first and foremost a punk. Her look is nothing less than a true inspiration of mismatched skimpy clothing and her partially coloured hair and shaved scalp. Always a beer in hand and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of her. Her entire look is the product of skinhead culture, moshpits full of combat boots summers and raging teenage hormones. Here, have a picture of this gorgeous human being.

I got into the punk culture in London, when I was only a little girl myself. My parents aren’t exactly punk and actually kind of posh. But I heard the music, saw the people and I was sold. There was a kind of freedom and acceptance to them that I just wanted to have as well. I have never fitted in and I’ve always been judged anyways, so I didn’t have much to lose. Pretty soon I discovered one of these graphic novels, bought it, hid it from my parents and I had a new hero.
This is probably what I love most about Tank Girl. She’s a superhero but she’s not pretty or epic or exceptionally strong. There’s no real message to her stories, or so it seems, she’s just running around crazy. Except there is a message: trust your own instincts, distrust authority and never tone yourself down for anyone. As a ten-year-old street rat, I really needed to hear that.

This graphic novel doesn’t just have a punk protagonist; it has its roots in punk culture. The British comic book was first published in 1988, an era of many troubles in England, which in turn caused a reaction on all levels and in all subcultures. Punk visual art is a style of artwork that came to be from the punk culture. It has graced many an album cover and it is often bold, colourful and shocking. This is the entire idea behind this form of art: it makes a point, it often creates a feeling of revulsion and there’s some form of sarcastic humour involved.
The graphic novels of Tank Girl fit right into this genre, because they are disorganised, absurd and often psychedelic. It is anarchy on paper, because it criticizes and vocalises everything wrong with society, which other people simply don’t have the balls to say out loud. One of the most striking examples in this story specifically is how all the water is owned by a company: Shocking? Yes. Unlikely that we’re headed there? No. 

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Even the technique of collage-style and graffiti drawings remind us of the punk visual art movement. And although the story is set in futuristic Australia, any punk will find that these stories are heavily influenced by the British punk scene at that time.

 

Both the writer and the illustrator live up to all of my expectations. Writer Alan Martin went to art school, wrote these wonderful stories, lived in a few hippie communes and has a son named after 70’s series The Professional’s character Bodie. His written dialogue is always quick, critical of everything and street-smart, just like Tank Girl herself. Illustrator Jamie Hewlett got his inspiration from the punk group The Undertones. If you’ve never heard of them: shame on you and look it up. Inspired by both punk culture and the Looney Tunes, he went to art school. His style is like nothing I have seen before. It’s wild and crazy, big and bold, but so detailed! Check this out: 

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One day, I came across something that was kind of similar to the art of Tank Girl and I got really excited. Remember the band Gorillaz? It’s sort of the same style of art. So I read up on that and guess what Jamie Hewlett did after Tank Girl? Yes, he created Gorillaz.

If you think this review didn’t make much sense, yay! You have just gotten a taste of the Tank Girl universe, where nothing makes sense, everything is rude and crude, but you’re strangely attracted to it anyways. Trying to be a responsible adult here for a second: this might not be a great book for children, as it is mostly mayhem, booze and bodycounts. To be fair, this is a niche-book in general, because many will not understand the strange British references, cannot appreciate the self-deprecating humour and do not adhere to the call to overthrow the system. But to all those other unwanted shitty little kids out there: this is the comic book for you. It will teach you all you need to know and if you do it right, you will not want to be like Tank Girl, but you’ll want to be you, because you’ve now adopted the right mind-set and you no longer really care what anyone thinks. Smash the patriarchy, take no shit and stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything!
UP THE PUNX!

Don’t let the bastards get you down Award: Because life’s too bloody short

Alan C. Martin and Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl (Tank Girl #1), (London, 1988)

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Thura Nightingale 

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

One of the first classics I ever read was Oliver Twist. At school we had these children’s versions of classics, which is a great way of introducing children to these wonderful books in my opinion, and soon after I read the ‘real’ Oliver Twist. I was a tomboy, got in a lot of trouble at school and with adults in general and even stole the occasional apple from the market. So after reading Oliver Twist, I decided that if I ever were to marry, I would marry the Artful Dodger. But I wasn’t the only Dickens-lover at home. My mother studied English and I found her thesis on Dickens’ characters once, and it’s wonderful. I think we can both agree that the characters make Dickens’ stories great. And Oliver Twist has a few of my favourites.

On a dark and stormy night, a boy is born in Mudfog workhouse, and he is named Oliver Twist. His mother Agnes died in childbirth and Oliver is looked after through the ‘Poor Law’. When he turns nine, he is sent to the main workhouse to work. After losing when all the boys draw lots, Oliver gets up in the workhouse, asking for more food. Oliver is then sold to Mr. Sowerberry, an undertake, as an apprentice of sorts. But this doesn’t last long either: as Mr. Sowerberry’s other apprentice Noah insults Oliver’s mother, Oliver attacks him, gets locked up and eventually runs away to London. In London he meets the Artful Dodger, a young pickpocket. Oliver’s innocence makes him follow Dodger after just a few words and he takes him to the place where Fagin lives, the man who ‘employs’ a fair number of street thieves. In Fagin’s den, Oliver meets a young and sweet girl by the name of Nancy and her terrifying and abusive lover called Bill Sikes, who all the boys fear. Oliver still has no idea what the boys get up to and when he goes out with them and they steal, Oliver runs away and is blamed for the theft.  He is eventually cleared in court, but falls ill from shock.

The gentleman who was robbed is Mr. Brownlow and he takes Oliver home with him, where his ward Rose looks after the boy. Fagin is scared however that Oliver will talk, so they abduct him and take him back to their den of thieves. Another part of the story, a parallel line in the novel if you like, is about a man we get to know as Mr. Monks. He talks with Fagin about Oliver and he wants Fagin to make the boy into a thief. Eventually, we find that he simply wants Oliver dead. Even Fagin wonders why a gentleman would take an interest in a simple workhouse boy, but Mr. Monks is willing to pay a lot for it. Nancy regrets having taken part in Oliver’s abduction and lets Rose know where he is, paying for her betrayal with her own life at the hand of Sikes. In the end, Oliver is saved, Mr. Monks is captured and revealed for who he truly is, as is Oliver, and we get our happy ending.

The reason I mentioned my mother was twofold: her thesis on Dickens’ characters and because she taught me a lot about the life of Dickens. She once mentioned that Dickens appeared to be almost afraid of women, like we were some mysterious creatures that could never really be understood. It is interesting to me then, the role that women play in this novel especially. Women are often only side-characters in Dickens’ books, as women often were in life at that time. But in Oliver Twist the women save the day. These two heroines are Nancy and Rose. They come from very different backgrounds, but both are often overlooked or not being taken seriously, because they are women. Rose has never given up looking for her sister Agnes, even though people kept telling her to give up. She is also the one who trusts in Nancy when she risks her life to tell her where Oliver is. Nancy is a thief and it is often said that she is a prostitute, though this is never mentioned in the novel, only assumed. She is still very young, but as determined as Rose is. When she changes her mind about Oliver, she risks everything to make things right. Her concerns for a young boy are more important to her than her loyalty to Fagin and Sikes, and this costs her her life. These two women together change the plot of the story completely, because if they wouldn’t have spoken, Oliver would just have disappeared into the underworld of London and Mr. Monks would have gotten his way and no one would have known who Oliver really was! I’d say that both girls are only seventeen or eighteen years old, but they are still my role models to this day.

Another thing that Dickens does very well is his social critique through stories and, again, characters. He describes the horrific effects of the new ‘Poor Laws’ on an innocent child. Oliver’s innocence is at times unrealistically exaggerated, but to make a point I think! The industrialism in 19th century England brought great poverty with it and Dickens doesn’t shy away from describing its effects, mostly on children. They appear to be either thieves or whores, living in filth and at the mercy of men like Sikes and Fagin. The gentlemen, the men on the board of the workhouse and people like Mr. Sowerberry, are hypocrites, reflecting the harshness and greediness of the times. Oliver is the exception and so are the Brownlows, but Dickens does make you think: what happens to all those other children living in poverty, who don’t have a benefactor somewhere out there? What happens to the other Nancys? It’s a sad image, but Victorian London unfortunately was.

Now, to be honest, Dickens’ plots aren’t always the greatest. This has a lot to do with him publishing his books often in monthly instalments, and I sometimes feel that Dickens doesn’t quite yet how he will end the book when he’s halfway through the story. Oliver Twist isn’t like that, or so I think, but the plot does unfold rather quickly and conveniently, which makes it less believable. But one doesn’t read Dickens for the plot, but for his way with words! Though first published in 1837, Dickens is easy to read and a master of language. His prose is often smooth, while his critique on society is razor-sharp. But there’s also humour, in the form of comical characters, but also the dark kind, the satire, which attacks society in a fashion that is both hilarious and spot-on. At times you even feel like Dickens is directly speaking to you, pointing out your flaws with beautiful words and phrases. However, I often read that people find Oliver Twist amusing and the characters funny, but I want to point out that they are not. Oliver Twist is a bitter satire, from the pen of a man bitter about the effects of ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ from 1834 on all people and deeply disappointed in society to let it come this far.

This was probably the hardest review for me to write, not because I didn’t know what else to say about this glorious piece of fiction and critique, but because my other versions were simply far too long. The things I could say on each character individually, I could write a whole review on Fagin alone! I could write more about the social developments in Victorian England and its obsession with death that came with it. I could write a long and angry essay on why Dickens isn’t appreciated as the rebel and fighter-for-justice-with-prose that he is. But I won’t, and for these things I would refer you to my mother, who taught me all I know on the subject. I would simply say: read the book; feel uncomfortable at its descriptions of pain and poverty and marvel at Dickens’ storytelling: a true classic, in every sense of the word.

Golden Watch Award: For all the gentlemen, hypocrites and pickpockets, roaming the streets together

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (London, 1837-1839)

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Thura Nightingale 

The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

A few months ago, I reviewed Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys and ended my review with how many of the questions I had were still left unanswered. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book and it was nothing like I had expected or feared. It should come as no surprise that as soon as I finished that review, I continued reading my way through the series. This review, however, will contain some spoilers, so if you have not read the series I would like to redirect you to my review of the first book, which contains no spoilers at all, and you can find it here. In The Dream Thieves our beloved dysfunctional gang is back, including a pet raven, more magic, a dead Irish mobster and a hundred identical white cars. Yeehaw!

Speaking freely now, the end of The Raven Boys was such a rollercoaster. We found out that Noah wasn’t just joking, he has actually been dead for seven years, and the boys’ Latin professor killed him, when they were in school together. Noah was actually sacrificed on the lay line, in order to try and wake the ley lines up. Also, Adam has moved out! This is great news, but the even better news is that Ronan beats Adam’s father to a pulp before he does so. Cabeswater is the magical forest that seems to just have appeared on the ley line, and where the trees speak Latin. The gang eventually find their creepy Latin teacher in the forest trying to perform another ritual, when he pulls a gun on Gansey. Adam intervenes by offering himself up to Cabeswater, to be ‘its hands and eyes’, which wakens the ley lines and gets the creepy Latin teacher trampled. The book ends with Ronan casually mentioning that he pulled Chainsaw, his pet raven, from his dreams.

The sequel mostly revolves around Ronan, but Ronan isn’t anything without his little gang, so fret not. We learn that Ronan has inherited his knack of taking objects from his dreams from his father: a bit of a cliché Irish bastard, but Ronan seems to have loved him. A lot of Ronan’s issues do stem from seeing his father getting murdered. In this book Ronan tries to learn to control his gift, by showing it to his friends, but also through some lessons. A new character starts to play an important role in this novel, by the name of Kavinsky. Interestingly enough, he has the same talent that Ronan has, he is the roughly the same age, but they are nothing alike. Kavinsky throws loud parties, risks everything that can be risked, appears to have no fear and owns a hundred identical cars, pulled from his dreams. Ronan, on the other hand, has a pet raven he loves very much. However, Kavinsky does manage to teach Ronan a few things about himself and on how to control his gift. But that’s not the only challenge Ronan faces in The Dream Thieves: there is also the issue of his father’s will stating that his children can’t return to their childhood home, ‘the Barns’, even though their mother is still there. But, it should come as no surprise that Ronan challenges the will and goes anyways.

Another new character appears in town: The Gray Man. He is indeed a hitman, as the name might make you think, and he is looking for something called a ‘Greywaren’. He believes this to be an object that enables one to pull objects from dreams, though the reader knows it is not an object. The Gray Man is in fact the man that killed Niall Lynch, Ronan’s father, years ago, but he was hired to do so, as he is now. His employer remains a bit of a mystery, but his search doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when he gets to Ronan’s brother Declan. Also, pulling things from dreams takes energy from the ley line and with both Kavinsky and Ronan at it, draining the ley line has all kinds of effects on the small town of Henrietta. This is yet another challenge Ronan has to face, but when his beloved little brother Matthew gets taken, he really is out for blood.

I’ve praised Maggie Stiefvater’s writing style in my last review and I will try not to repeat myself. It’s as good as in the first book, maybe even better. In my first review I mostly went into her great gift for dialogue and that is still great and like you’re there with them. But this time I would like to praise her gift of creating space and ambience. Stiefvater isn’t one for describing places and scenery in great detail, but somehow she manages to create an entire world with just a few words. It’s like looking at one of those Tumblr moodboards. Just a few words, and I know what Henrietta looks like, what Monmouth Manufacturing looks like and what 300 Fox Way smells like. I can almost feel the texture of Blue’s hair, I can sense Ronan’s rage and I can hear Adam thinking. It is truly a remarkable thing that Stiefvater has accomplished here and many famous authors of great literature that have yet to master the skill of saying so little, while creating so much.

To be completely honest, this book didn’t have a great plot. If you didn’t like the first book, you really shouldn’t bother with the second one. The actual storyline, of finding a dead Welsh King and Gansey possibly dying, takes a step back in The Dream Thieves. But from the start, this series was all about the adventure of a raven king versus the madness of everyday (magical) life. And whichever way you look at it, this story starts and ends with the characters. The characters make the story. In my review of the first book I asked the question on why we should care about a dead Welsh king, but the answer is simple really: because Gansey wants to find him, because he needs to find him and because we want nothing but the best for Gansey! This sequel really explores the characters, especially Ronan and Adam, but all the others as well. I didn’t like Blue much at first, but she is starting to grow on me. It’s like getting to know a little sister and I feel so protective of her. The friendship between Blue and Noah: it’s absolutely wonderful and so pure. It’s the kind of love between friends that I never knew I needed. Gansey is still just Gansey, but there is a sense of loneliness to him that is even more pronounced in this novel. Like all the others, this is one of the elements that made the character even more three-dimensional in this sequel. Adam is my lone warrior, the magician, the broken boy that made my heart bleed a little. I cannot wait until he realises just how powerful he is. And I also loved the new characters! We don’t learn much about Kavinsky, but I was just fascinated by this train-wreck of a youngster, from beginning to end. There’s The Gray Man dating Blue’s mother, that was a twist, but I’ve never read about such a polite hitman before, so all is possible, right?

RONAN, I just can’t with this character. He is like my Irish farmer/hooligan good-heart-but-bad-manners baby and I want all the best for him in life. In the first book for the first few hundred pages he seemed like a bit of an arsehole to be honest, but I was already intrigued by then. The interesting thing in ‘The Dream Thieves’ are all the chapters from Ronan’s point of view, and you really get to know him. And he is just hurt. I loved how Ronan and Declan go to church every Sunday, because their younger brother Matthew demands it. I loved Ronan’s protectiveness of all he holds dear, while breaking every rule there is to break. I loved the fact, and this is the only real spoiler I’m giving for this book, that Ronan is gay. It was one of those fantastic moments where I didn’t see it coming, but it made perfect sense to me. He has none of the cliché traits that gay people often have in media, except that he, you know, loves a boy. I was utterly thrilled by every detail we got to know about Ronan Lynch:
”Ronan Lynch, keeper of secrets, fighter of men, devil of a boy, had told them all that he could take objects out of his dreams.”
His second secret is Adam Parrish, the one secret Ronan doesn’t even let himself think. Unless he thinks things like this:
‘’It was hard not to stare at the odd and elegant lines of his face.”
I cannot thank Maggie Stiefvater enough for creating this character.

All in all, this book wasn’t as good story-wise as the first book in the series. However, I loved this one ever better than the first one, and that is down to Maggie Stiefvater’s characters. I want more of them, all of them, and I want it now. That’s how real they are in my mind and that says a lot about an author’s abilities. I see them all so clearly before my eyes, the way they look, smell, hold themselves and with all their strengths and many, many flaws. I need them to be okay and I want all the best for them. We have now reached the point that I would adopt them all and I have four dysfunctional boys and one eccentric girl as my babies in my heart. So, furiously reading on it is, once again.

Lucid Award: for taking conscience dreaming to a whole new level

Maggie Stiefvater, The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle #2), (New York City, 2013)

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Thura Nightingale 

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

Once upon a time, there was a group of girls in secondary school, who baffled all teachers. They constantly flaunted the rules, skipped classes and sat outside the window in the sun. They talked in code, carried around secret documents and took care of each other no matter what. They refused to leave the world they appeared to have created, but they were happy. And maybe this is what baffled the teachers most. There were a rebel girl, a strict Christian girl and a quiet, but colourful, science-fiction geek. I imagine that if an American had written about our lives, this is probably how it would have been described. We were these girls and we created our own sisterhood in the middle of the chaos that was our lives. When nothing else was safe, we created safety. I was the first one to read this book, ’Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ and it spoke to me at once. There was so much I recognised, and this book became a pivotal piece of literature for us. We planned on writing a letter to Rebecca Wells when we were sixteen, but we never did. Maybe we should, though. If I were to write to her now, this is what I would say:

A ‘Tap-dancing child abuser’ of a mother. That’s what Siddalee Walker has called her mother in an interview with some big magazine, and Viviane Joan Abbott Walker is less than pleased. Sidda is a grown woman now, but can still feel very small in the presence of her larger-than-life mother Vivi. After the interview, Sidda immediately realises her mistake and desperately tries to apologize to her mum, while also fighting for a right to speak of her childhood in an honest manner. But Vivi ignores her, until Sidda writes her mum that she has postponed her marriage to her fiancé Connor, because they’ve been having problems as well. Sidda writes to her mum: ‘I just don’t know how to love’. Vivi’s having none of that and finally replies: ‘Do you think any one of us know how to love?!’ and sends her old scrapbook, The ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ along with the note, to her daughter.

Sidda has locked herself away in a cabin, to escape her mum’s anger and, mostly, her fiancé. With her she has her mother’s scrapbook that tells the tale of her life and that of her best friends: the Ya-Ya’s. The four girls met when they were only little, in rural Louisiana. Vivi has always been the leader; flamboyant, imaginative and taking up all the space in the room. Teensy was the rich girl, always speaking her mind, and ever so proud of her Cajun heritage. Caro was the little girl who grew up in a theatre and never lost that bohemian fierceness. Necie keeps them morally grounded: both in her appearance and manners the conservative one, but incredibly loyal. They’ve been inseparable from the moment they met, had many adventures, faced all of their demons together and created the sisterhood that they’ve called the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. They’ve created their ‘own happy little world, that they still live in happily to this day’, but the problem is, they don’t really share it with anyone. However, the latest fight between Sidda and her mother makes them all see that maybe they need to speak out about things that they’ve kept silent about for so long. The scrapbook tells the story for them.

The Ya-Ya’s grew up in the South of the United States, a world filled with wealth and racism at the time, but they only saw the magic of it all. They climbed out of their windows at night, got into fights with the priest, got arrested for swimming naked in a water tank and had their own secret rituals over bonfires. But it ‘wasn’t all fun and games’, especially when they grew older. Slowly, Sidda learns of Vivi’s mother, her grandmother, who was a devout catholic, mentally ill and absolutely terrified of her daughter. This caused her to treat her terribly, send her away to horrible schools run by nuns for wayward girls and it nearly killed Vivi when she was only a teenager. Sidda learns of Vivi’s great love, but it wasn’t her father. His name was Jack and he was Teensy’s brother and Vivi’s future husband, until he was killed in World War II. None of these facts make Sidda’s childhood less traumatic, when her mother beat or disappeared on her children, because she was either drunk of dealing with her own mental illness. But the book does exactly what the Ya-Ya’s had intended: Sidda starts to see her mother in a different light, she starts to see her as a person  and not just as ‘her mother’. And finally, finally, the possibility of communication has opened up.

The three of us used to pass this book around, which is why it’s a bit worn, but I like it that way. We didn’t meet when we were four years old, I wish we would have, but when we were fourteen. We were completely different girls and the friendship was an unlikely one. This book very much has two sides to it: there’s the light one, of the happy memories of swimming and lounging at a lake, and the dark side of trauma and pain. The light part was our teenage experience for a large part. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but we had a lake nearby, parents who were absent a lot and therefore wine and cigarettes and we had eternal freedom, or so it seemed. But we also knew of some darkness, as we all came form homes that had its own share of problems and I, specifically, dealt with a lot of trauma back then. But we could face anything, because we were together. I think this book taught us more than anything that you need something to fall back on, a group, a tribe of women, whatever. The world is such a volatile place and people come and go, but some things are consistent if you let it be: these four girls might pretend they rule the world, but they don’t know much, except that they have each other’s backs.

This book has also taught me much when it comes to my parents. The other Ya-Ya’s tell Sidda often that Vivi is old now and she’s crazy; she will not change anymore. But Sidda still has a long life ahead of her and she shouldn’t run away from love out of fear. I think we often think of our parents as heroes, until something happens that breaks the idea you had of them, whether that happens when you’re very little still, or much older. Because the painful fact is: our parents are just people. Now, I’ll be the last one to say that we should simply forgive our parents no matter what, but this book has made me milder towards my own. Sidda learns what her mother was like a as child and it makes her more forgiving towards her mother, but I think that’s because she starts to see her mother as her own person. Parents often, or should, start parenthood with all kinds of ideas and some of them simply don’t work out. Whatever the reasons or history behind a childhood is, these will always be your parents and you have to deal with that. Oftentimes that means that you, as the child, will have to be the one to change, not them, because they can’t anymore. However, you can still change the way you look at things, whether that means moving on or forgiving your parents, but your parents will always have some place in your story.

That being said, I do in fact think that Vivi is a ‘tap-dancing child abuser’. There are all kinds of factors that make Sidda see that some of it wasn’t Vivi’s fault or mental illness is to blame to some degree, but she does abuse her children. The thing is, this was never what bothered Sidda so much: it was the fact that she thought her mother abandoned her and that she didn’t love her. But love was never the problem; the problem was how her mother didn’t speak of such things. I think this speaks of an entire generation who simply didn’t ‘interfere’ or talk about painful subjects, especially when it concerned their personal life. The only ones who were allowed to speak up were Vivi’s sisters, the Ya-Ya’s. I think what I like best about this book is that the other Ya-Ya’s break their vow of keeping silent on these painful memories, because they feel that is what needs to be done. Caro is the first one Sidda calls, after receiving the book, because Caro is often blunt and brutally honest, and so she is. People call each other ‘sister’ in a sort of pink sugar-coated manner, but here the true meaning of sisterhood comes to light: they hold each other accountable. They know each other better than probably their husbands do, longer at least, and they are not afraid to say: you messed up, go fix it with your daughter. Their intervention into the lives of both Vivi and Sidda isn’t democratic, but it’s much needed. This has happened to me on more than one occasion and I never much liked hearing the harsh truth, but God only knows I needed to hear it. And I am grateful now.

Memories are the core element of this book. In the ‘Divine Secrets’ Sidda is able to read of all the crazy things the Ya-Ya’s have done as young girls and some of them remind me so much of all the things we have done. I read this book for the first time when I was quite young and I adored these women. Now I’m older and I see quite a few flaws in the story. Rebecca Wells brushes over the fact that racism is very much present in the south and it even is in her characters. All of these women are spoiled and wealthy, and have no idea of real hardship. We used to pretend and say to each other: you would be this character of the Ya-Ya’s and I would be this one! But the truth is that we are from such a different world and we are none of them, but ourselves. But we come from a long line of women, and I’ve really started to appreciate that through this book.

So, Miss Wells, I thank you for writing this book. I thank you for giving me an appreciation of women, of tribes and long lines of women and an understanding of what men have to go through to deal with us. I thank you for giving me, now, an understanding of how flawed your book in some ways is, because we are not all rich white women. But most of all, I thank you for giving me an understanding of what friendship is. I don’t want to be like the Ya-Ya’s any longer, but I want us to be like us, because the Ya-Ya’s are just one tribe of women and we have our own. And lastly, I thank you for reminding me of the importance of memories: forever kept, hopefully valued enough and adding onto them as much as we can!

Find Your Tribe Award: because they’re out there, in whatever shape or form, and because no woman is an island

Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (New York, 1996)

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Thura Nightingale