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 

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 

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

“I was born in a sycamore tree. That was fifty-five years ago, and it made me a bit of a local celebrity. My celebrity status was brief, though. Two baby girls, later my best friends, came along within months of me in ways that made my sycamore tree entrance seem less astonishing.” Odette Henry tells the story of her life almost casually. She and her friends, locally known as the Supremes, have been inseparable since they were very young. The book lets them tell their stories, sometimes moving, sometimes joyful and sometimes absurd. In my opinion, there was a bit too much of everything. Even though the characters were sympathetic and the writing style natural and warm, I missed depth in the many issues the story touches upon.

Three middle-aged women meet every Sunday after church at the local diner, Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat. Odette Henry, Clarice Baker and Barbara Jean Maxberry have been nicknamed ‘the Supremes’, after the singing group, ever since they first made the diner their hang-out as teenagers. They have stuck together through love, marriage and heartbreak, taking on their lives together. At the start of the story, they receive some bad news: the owner of the diner, Big Earl, has died. From now on, they have to get through their troubles without his kind support and advice. Big Earl started the first black-owned business in their small town of Plainview, Indiana, United States. His diner was the heart of the community and a refuge for outcasts of any skin colour for decades. Even when Big Earl retired, you could always find him at the diner, now owned by his son Little Earl. The Supremes have their own table there, where they share sorrow, joy and gossip.

Missing their friend and father figure Big Earl is made the more difficult because the three women encounter one of the most challenging years of their lives. Barbara Jean’s husband dies and the man she loved as a teenager returns to town. When they were young, their love was impossible because he is white and she is black. Now, decades later, Barbara Jean has conflicted feelings about her first love. Clarice, the poised piano teacher, struggles with her charming husband’s adultery and her own lack of assertiveness. And Odette, the sassy fighter, learns that she has cancer. The story jumps back and forth through time, showing the lives of the three women through the lens of hindsight while they deal with the challenges of the present. Many more characters appear along the way, making it colourful if a little overpopulated. To make matters a little more complicated, Odette starts getting visited by ghosts like her mother was before her. While the Supremes work their way through their troubles with wit and friendship, the ghosts comment and give unsolicited advice.

When I was little and first learned the word ‘novel’, I thought that it meant a book in which characters encounter as many dramatic, real life problems as possible. Somebody must have explained it in the wrong way or else I jumped to conclusions on my own. I genuinely thought that a novel needed to be stuffed with life-threatening illnesses, tragic deaths, divorces, etcetera. I now know that ‘drama’ is not synonymous with ‘novel’ and that ‘conflict’ doesn’t mean literal fighting but The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat made me think about my youthful mistake. This story has a bit too much of everything, especially dramatic plotlines. It makes it hard to keep track of who is dealing with what. It sometimes veers to the ridiculous, which threatens the balance between comedy and drama. I’d say the author should have limited himself to one big conflict for every Supreme, allowing it to really make a difference to their development as people. That would make the drama more affecting and I suspect it would also make the comedy funnier. As it is, none of the serious issues like racism, alcoholism, abandonment, grief for a child and adultery are explored to the extent they deserve.

The story alternates between chapters told in third-person and chapters that are told by Odette in first person. The exclusives through Odette’s eyes make clear that the author thought of her as the most important character. Although the life stories of Clarice and Barbara Jean are also central to the book, it is Odette who is the most interesting. She is the most opinionated and strongest of the three and the most vulnerable as well. She loves her now-dead mother very deeply, although she’s quite different from her. She has learned to copy her mother’s confidence despite of her own self-doubt, which makes her the decisive one in her friend group. The fact that she sees ghosts is not that shocking to her: she takes things as they are and the ghosts of her parents and people she knew in her past are often a comfort to her, connecting her with times gone by.

One thing the (male!) author has done very well, is to portray the friendship between the women itself. It is a comfortable friendship that only exists when you’ve grown up together and know each other through and through. Although I am half their age, I was convinced by the portrayal of how female friendship works when you’re middle-aged and your children are grown up. The women have insecurities but their friendship is the thing they fall back on. This is illustrated when Big Earl’s daughter-in-law runs past Clarice and Odette to seek comfort with Barbara Jean upon hearing of Earl’s death. Clarice and Odette, although both closer to friends to the woman than Barbara Jean is, are not for a moment offended or surprised. They know that their best friend knows more about grief than they do and people turn instinctively to her for comfort.

All in all, the story is charming and engaging. But I have to confess that I forgot almost everything about it quite soon after I had finished it. There are too many colourful but two-dimensional characters and too many different plotlines that keep the story from really diving into its subject matter. I liked the book, but wouldn’t read it a second time. Then again, not every book needs to be a classic. The feel-good friendship of the Supremes at their favourite table at Earl’s gives off plenty of warmth for a one time read.

Greek Chorus Award for the ghostly group of commentators

Edward Kelsey Moore, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (New York, 2013)

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Jo Robin

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 

The man in the brown suit by Agatha Christie

Personally, I always associated Agatha Christie with thrilling murder plots solved by prying old ladies or a slightly overweight Belgian man. While reading The Man in the Brown Suit, I discovered Christie also writes thrilling adventure stories! We at Bookworms United love Agatha Christie, shown in the fact she has been reviewed before: The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie and By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie, however never by me. Reading and reviewing the murder books is usually more Jo’s and Thura’s cup of tea. However, I’ve always loved reading Agatha Christie, so it is time for me to review one of her works.

The Man in the Brown Suit is about Anne Beddingfield, whose father died at the start of the book leaving her an orphan. Her relationship with her father was distant because he was obsessed with his work and treated Anne as his assistant. Anne lived a boring life with her father, which frustrated her because she believes she is made for adventure. Upon the death of her father, she immediately moves in with friends in London in the hope to find an exciting life there. Initially, Anne is disappointed, because life turns out not more exciting in London, despite her initial excitement to move. That is until she takes the underground one fateful day. She is waiting for her train when she makes contact with a man standing on the platform. The stranger looks at something behind Anne which gives him such a fright that he dies of shock.  A man in a brown suit appears on the scene to investigate the man and disappears in a rush. Something about the man attracts Anne and she decides to pick up a note the man in the brown suit has left behind.  On the note is written the name and date of a ship leaving for South Africa: the Kilmorden Castle

Things are getting even more exciting when Anne reads about a murder in the morning papers. An unidentified woman was strangled in Mill House, the house of renowned politician Eustace Pedler. The suspected culprit is a man in a brown suit. Overwhelmed by these coincidences, Anne decides solving these murder cases is the adventure waiting for her. She buys a ticket on the Kilmorden Castle with her last money and leaves for South Africa. On the ship, she meets the other characters of this book. You have Suzanne Blair, a wealthy lady who helps Anne to investigate the mystery. They become friends because of their shared love for excitement and adventure. Colonel Race is Suzanne’s travelling companion, a very suspicious character. He tells the ladies about a mysterious diamond theft linked to the murders.  Also, the politician Sir Eustace Pedler and his two secretaries are on board. Sir Eustace has to travel to Johannesburg to hand over important documents to stop the strikes and riots there. From the moment she boards the ship to South Africa, Anne gets all the adventure she wished for including murder attempts, instant love, wooden giraffes and a fateful scene near a waterfall.

The pace of this book is super quick, with one exciting event following on after the other without pause.  Also, there is not much logic or explanation behind the actions of the characters. In that sense, this is truly an adventure book and not a whodunnit in my opinion. It is true that there is the mystery of the murders and diamond theft, but I found myself so caught up with the action, that I did not care to puzzle out the solution for myself. I just laid down, let myself be entertained by the book and Anna’s lust for adventure, and let the events unfold. Reviewers remark that there is not much logic to the events and decisions of Anne, and that is true. But if you read like me it doesn’t matter. In a span of around 200 pages, we go from cruise to kidnapping in Cape Town, riots in Johannesburg and souvenir buying in Rhodesia and it’s fantastic. It is interesting that someone who is famous for writing intricate murder plots also enjoys writing a rambunctious adventure story. Maybe we all like to relax sometimes.

Writing interesting characters, especially enlarging their idiosyncrasies, is what Christie does best in my opinion. Most of her characters are a bit more dramatic or ridiculous, strange or funny than people would be in real life. It’s like Christie was fascinated by people’s small idiosyncrasies and liked to explore them to the fullest in her stories. This doesn’t create realistic characters, but rather personalities that are funny and fit within the story. This book is a good example of that habit. For example, Sir Eustace perpetually complains about his secretary running his life. There must be people in Christie’s life who were facing that problem on a small scale where a secretary takes a bit too much leadership when it comes to their employers agenda. However, Sir Eustace lives that problem and I would not be surprised if he feels he has to ask his secretary to use the loo. This makes most of the characters in Christie’s books a bit ridiculous and I love them that way. Her writing shows us the silly habits people sometimes have and her British writing style makes us laugh at the habits, and don’t take the ridicule too seriously. Another character who is made fun of is Suzanne Blair: she is rich, married and bored. She barely speaks to her husband and mocks him for his annoying tendency to ask for her attention, how could he right?

This book is not a good example of Christie’s murder stories and intricate plots. It is a perfect example of her skills to write an exciting adventure full of funny, although slightly ridiculous, characters. I read through this book super quickly while laughing and what more can we hope for in an adventure book written by one of the world’s most renowned and appreciated writers?

 

Bilbo Baggins awards because we all secretly  like an adventure sometimes, be it in fiction or in real life

 

The man in the brown suit, Agatha Christie (London, 1924)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

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.

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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 

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella Enchanted is a modern re-imagining of the classic fairytale Cinderella. One of many, you might say. But first of all, fairytales are meant to be told over and over and develop with each re-telling; second of all this book is from 1997, which puts it squarely before the fairytale-craze of the last years; and third of all, Carson Levine’s take on the story really is original and innovative. The Young Adult genre often uses the same formula for its plots, but now and then you find a gem between the rocks and this is one of those.

“Ella Enchanted is now a major motion picture, featuring Anne Hathaway, star of The Princess Diaries!” says the back cover of my copy of Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, in big yellow letters. I’ve seen it, it’s a funny and colourful film with an excellent cover of Queen’s ‘Somebody to love’, amongst other songs. It is, however, nothing like the book. And since they advertise the film on the book cover, they ought to promote the book in the film because it is definitely worth reading.

The story takes place in the fictional kingdom of Kyrria. A ditzy fairy, Lucinda, bestows a gift upon Ella of Frell when she is newly born. Thinking it will be a blessing, she grants Ella the gift of obedience: the girl has to do anything and everything she is commanded to do. Of course, everybody around the crib is horrified, because forced obedience is actually as cruel a curse as you can imagine. But Lucinda is adamant: she thinks she has done the child a service and won’t undo the curse. So Ella must learn to live with a dangerous secret. Anyone who knows about her curse could have absolute power over her. But the girl is headstrong and refuses to let the curse take over who she is. She tries to find loopholes in people’s commands, obeying the letter of the order but not the spirit.

From this premise the story develops. It follows the storyline of the original fairytale quite closely. The different events from the fairytale are like anchor points throughout the book. Between them, the novel develops. Ella’s loving mother and always her ally, Lady Eleanor, dies from an illness when Ella is nearly fifteen. Her father, a proud and distant businessman, soon gets entangled with a mean woman called Dame Olga. This woman, of course, comes with her own two insufferable daughters: Hattie and Olive. The three teenage girls are sent off to finishing school together. Hattie, the eldest and smartest of the two sisters, bullies Ella relentlessly and eventually figures out Ella’s secret. When Ella complains in her letters to her father about her stepsisters’ bullying behaviour, he ignores her.

When Hattie orders Ella to break off her friendship with Areida, a girl from the neighbouring country of Ayortha, she is heartbroken and decides that enough is enough. She runs away to find Lucinda and to ask her to reverse the spell. On her journey, she meets mythical creatures like elves, ogres and giants, but these are introduced naturally and fit into the reality of the book. On the whole, Carson Levine doesn’t spend much time padding the story by needlessly elaborating on details that are not necessary to the story. The descriptions are colourful and visual and just enough. The book is, consequently, easy to read.

You might be wondering if the prince appears in this version of the story. Ella is clearly a woman who can take care of herself. But the prince, Charmont (Char), has an important role to play. Luckily then, his character is well-rounded and actually charming without being utterly arrogant and annoying. Ella and Char know each other for a long time, become friends, help and support each other, before a romance develops. When it does, it happens while they are miles apart and can only write each other letters. There’s a problem, though: Ella realises that a prince can never marry a woman who could murder him in his bed if told to do so by some malicious individual. Their relationship seems impossible after that. I won’t reveal the ending, but we all know the fairytale: there’s a royal ball, there’s a pumpkin carriage, there’s a search when the stroke of midnight and a spiteful Hattie put a damper on the evening. But soot-covered Ella is our heroine, and she will not only save herself, but the entire kingdom.

I did wonder, as did many other readers, whether the curse couldn’t easily be broken by someone ordering Ella to ‘stop obeying’ or some such command. But thinking about it, I realised that this command would mean she could never again do anything anyone told her to do. Can you imagine the consequence if her prince unthinkingly told her ‘kiss me’? If, on the other hand, you would order Ella to only do whatever she wanted to do herself, she wouldn’t be able to function as a human being, seeing as we do have to put a check on our base desires, thoughts and actions. Any command to break the curse would become a new curse. Anyways, I don’t think the wording of the original curse would have allowed for such a simple solution.

While the frantic film is aimed at young children, I would recommend the book to children from about eleven years old and up. It is not complex, I just think it’s more fun when you’re old enough to swoon a little at characters falling in love and to laugh at blessings turning to horrible, ironic curses. Because Lucinda is still traveling around Kyrria, waving her wand at unsuspecting citizens like big magic is nothing. The best example of her presents is the wedding of Ella’s father, Sir Peter, and Dame Olga. Lucinda attends, the only one crying at a ceremony that has everything to do with money and influence, but nothing with love. She decides to give the ‘happy couple’ a gift: they will love each other forever. Two egocentric people, forever connected by an artificial love… they will never be able to get rid of each other. Now that’s dark humour.

Jane Austen Award for a romance build on respect and copious letter-writing

Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (New York, 1997)

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Jo Robin

Caraval (Caraval #1) by Stephanie Garber

I’m going to be completely honest here, in saying that I picked up this book mostly because it reminded me of ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern and I hoped it would be similar to that one. I loved the magical atmosphere of The Night Circus, its beautiful language and just the stuff of dreams. Caraval is a story with a circus that moves around and appears when you least expect it, and it’s the closest you’ll ever come to magic, or so it says. Maybe my expectations were set too high and I admit I do a lot of comparing to The Night Circus, but I really was very disappointed.

Scarlett is a young girl, who has written every year, for many years, to the Caraval Master Legend, for an invitation. Only when she writes to him that she’s getting married, and won’t be able to come, he answers with an invitation. Very excited, Scarlett tells her younger sister, Donatella, the good news and how they’ll finally be able to escape their tiny island and their cruel father’s rule. Tella is ecstatic at the news, but then Scarlett begins to have doubts. She’s the more practical one of the sisters and fears her father’s punishment if they do run away. Tella, in the arms of a young and handsome sailor, wants to take any opportunity to leave and the sailor even offers to help them. But Scarlett is engaged to a count she has never met and decides that marrying him is the safest way for them to escape their father. Tella, however, takes matters into her own hand and, with the sailor, she practically kidnaps her sister and takes her to the island where the Caraval games will be held.

When the sisters were abandoned by their mother, their father turned vicious towards them. Their grandmother soothed them with stories of a magical circus, Caraval, where the participants play a game to win the prize of one wish. Legend, the Caraval Master, apparently once loved a girl, but she rejected him and that’s how magic came to be in the Caraval, in an effort to impress her. Fuelled by their childhood dreams, the sisters both cope with reality by dreaming of escape. But when Scarlett sails towards the magical island with this sailor boy named Julian, (Tella has already gone ahead) all she can think of is danger, so she plans to only stay for one night of the games, find her sister and get back home in time to marry the fiancé she has never met. When they get to the games, magical things like shape-changing dresses and secret portals inside clocks appear, with notes attached, addressed to Scarlett who is now Legend’s special guest. In order to find her sister, Scarlett decides to play, but playing comes with a warning: ‘’Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.’’

But this year’s mystery to be solved at Caraval, is finding Donatella, Scarlett’s sister. Confused by how Legend seems to send her personal notes and how they’ve now become the center of the game, Scarlett decides that playing along might be in her best interest. At the same time, Julian gets up to all kinds of strange things: he appears in charming fashion, only to disappear again without saying a word. As her search continues, it soon becomes clear that Scarlett will need more than just one night to find her sister, but the game turns more sinister with every hour. When she finds out how a girl, Rosa, has once died during the games, Scarlett begins to suspect that Legend is not as magical as he seems, but might be just as cruel as her father, or worse.

Again, I don’t really like comparing one book to another, but Caraval brought it upon itself when it was promoted as the Young Adult version of The Night Circus. Unfortunately, the comparison acutely demonstrates what it is Caraval lacks. I don’t think I would have thought much of this novel, even if I hadn’t read The Night Circus, but you can never really tell. I did enjoy reading Caraval though, to a certain degree, because it was a fun read, a page-turner and I was curious if it was going anywhere exciting (It didn’t really…). But after finishing Caraval, I could mostly see everything wrong with the story. There are two elements that are extremely important in Fantasy novels, in my opinion. Number one is the setting, or the ability to build a world that is convincing and compelling. The Night Circus takes place in our world, in Victorian London, where magic is ever so needed and fits perfectly into our world. Caraval takes place in some other reality, and the sisters are apparently from the Conquered Isles of Trisda. This bothered me, because no explanation was ever given. Conquered by whom?? We get to learn nothing about this world, except when the author suddenly describes the gorgeous colour of the sand on the beaches. Because of this, nothing really appears magical, because nothing is out of the ordinary, because as a reader you have no idea what’s going on most of the time. Her world feels flat and very unrealistic because of it.

Number two is character development, or the likability of the characters, or even just characters being compelling in some way. But even here we start off with a cliché: Scarlett is the heroine and Donatella the little, foolish but following-the-heart-kind-of-girl, sister, and then there is Julian: love-interest, for both girls… Scarlett is the main character and the narrator of the story, and I can’t tell you how much of a nuisance it was to be trapped inside her head for 400 pages. She is, I can safely say, the most boring of characters I’ve ever encountered. She repeats herself over and over, even in thoughts, never quite makes up her mind or does something incredibly foolish all of a sudden and then prides herself on being practical? To give you an example: She quite fancies Julian and a lot of paragraphs go into how she would like to kiss him. I’d say, go for it. But no, Scarlett first has to bore her poor audience, for the hundredth time, with reminding us of her upcoming nuptials. We know this marriage will likely never take place, so kiss the handsome strange but oh, so attractive stranger, with his (why avoid any clichés at this point) gorgeous amber eyes. But, after much contemplation, she doesn’t. Also, I hated how Scarlett berates her sister constantly for falling in love when she hardly knows the man and what does she do? Yes, she falls in love with the handsome sailor without knowing a thing about him. Scarlett; I’m not a fan, but don’t even get me started on Donatella…

I’ve touched upon it a little already in the paragraph above, but I didn’t care for the style of writing either. The book is filled to the nook with clichés and platitudes. The same goes for the characters, without any character development, not relatable or realistic in any way. All the women are damsels in distress in this novel and all the men are young, dark and have a smile with ‘flashing white teeth’. It’s annoying. Then there’s also the horrible unconvincing manner in which certainties are conveyed. For example, Legend is supposed to be this charming, but elusive and magical man, but we only know this because the author keeps telling us. You just have to assume she’s right, because in no other way does she bother with actually convincing us of this fact, and this happens a lot in the story. People die and again, the author has tried very hard to keep us emotionally involved, but I never really cared about them anyways. But the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that Scarlett sees emotions in colours. Isn’t she special?! It makes no sense, everything appears to be some exotic kind of blue and the author is simply trying to hard to be poetic here, failing miserably.

Lastly, the plot doesn’t make the book either. Caraval is a game and it attracts all kinds of special snowflakes. It’s like a mystery or scavenger hunt, which sounds like fun, but everyone competing must be completely dim-witted. Because Scarlett, not the brightest bulb, is the only one on the entire island able to figure out the clues, and the clues are so easy. There’s a number of plot twists or answers to questions that I figured out way ahead of her. So what is the rest of the people doing there, besides from looking pretty in their overly described dresses? The love story is as predictable as it is nauseating, with mysterious stranger falling for the girl in the end, without him ever intending to… So many interesting things are left unanswered and the answers that are given in the end are incredibly disappointing. It’s like the author didn’t quite figure out how to end the story either and left us with a sloppy anticlimactic ending. So I have to ask: did Stephanie Garber even try?

But honestly, and this may come as a bit of shock after everything I’ve written above, I did enjoy reading the book and I read most of it in one go. To be fair, I kept on reading hoping it would get better and even though it didn’t, it kept me reading. The story does draw you in, but I’m not sure why. I think it’s just a simple tale with a lot of darkness mixed in, and I liked that. All the unanswered questions make it a page-turner, but it was very unfortunate that most questions remained unanswered. It was an easy read, very quick-paced, and therefore quite enjoyable on a sunny morning. However, looking back on it, the book comes up short in so many ways, so I wouldn’t recommend it or read it again. Sadly, my overall feeling towards this book was just disappointment.

I-really-wanted-to-like-this-book, but-didn’t award, because this happens more often to us readers than we’d like to admit

Stephanie Garber, Caraval (Caraval #1) (New York, 2017)

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Thura Nightingale 

About a boy by Nick Hornby

Even the cover of this book portrays Hugh Grant and an adorable and chubby Nicholas Hoult, and I think most people know the ‘About a boy’ film adaptation of 2002. Before the film, however, there was the coming of age novel, which is a lot less comical and deals with quite serious topics, such as suicide, depression, casual sex, bullying and loneliness. Also, in the book Nirvana is quite important, which was unfortunately left out completely in the film (even worse in fact, replaced by rap music..).

The novel has two main protagonists: 36-year-old Will Freeman, who believes he’s as hip as any teenager could only dream to be, and twelve-year-old Marcus Brewer, who has great difficulty bonding with anyone. Set in the 1990’s, Will spends his time ‘being cool’ basically, living off the royalties of some crappy song his father once wrote, by drinking a lot, partying, having casual sex and making sure his hair is perfect. Marcus lives with his suicidal mother, Fiona, who is a bit of a hippy, and he isn’t able, not for lack of trying though, to make any friends or become popular. His home life and the responsibility of taking care of his mum has turned him into an introvert and his only connection to another human being, is his depressed alternative mother. Needless to say, he has a hard time at school.

Will then comes up with the brilliant idea of picking up women through a single parents’ support group, where he invents a two-year-old son called Ned. Through these women, Suzie in particular, he eventually meets Fiona and Marcus. At first, Will thinks nothing of Marcus, except that he is a weird kid. He has never even owned a pair of trainers! But he gets used to the kid hanging around, until everything goes south when Marcus kills a duck.

The fact that Marcus accidently kills a duck at the park by chucking a loaf of bread at its head is not that important, but the fact that he comes home to his mother, who has overdosed on pills, is. The incident changes something vital for both Marcus and Will, when Marcus decides his mother might like a boyfriend to cheer her up, and he has set his eyes on Will. Will doesn’t like Fiona and it doesn’t work out, but he does try and help Marcus (though at first only for selfish reasons). He even buys him a pair of trainers, which get nicked after school of course. Marcus’ new love for Nirvana does earn him a friend however: 15-year-old moody Ellie, who sadly gets him arrested at some point. But in the end, both protagonists learn from each other: Marcus turns out to be the one who brings everyone together, forms his own opinions and has some friends because of it, and Will let’s go of his old ‘cool’ indifference towards the world and actually, for real, falls in love.

Starting off with the title, ‘About a boy’ is actually a reference to the Nirvana song ‘About a girl’: Nirvana plays a big part in the book. Ellie is a huge Nirvana fan and constantly gets into trouble at school for wearing her Kurt Cobain jumper, which is not part of the school uniform obviously. Even though Marcus and Ellie form an unlikely pair, they bond over Nirvana. Ellie is the one who teaches Marcus to not care as much about what other people think of him and to voice his own opinions. When Marcus goes to visit his dad, he brings Ellie along for support: she really is a bit like his big sister. But she’s not as uncaring as he had thought and is quite affected by Kurt Cobain’s death. Marcus can’t understand why she cares so much about him, but Ellie insists that he was the only one who understood her. When she sees a cardboard cutout of Kurt in a shop, she becomes unbelievably angry, as she feels they are trying to exploit his suicide. Her anger and violence result in their arrest, but it also results in Marcus being able to vent his anger towards his dad for the first time. I quite liked Ellie for that.

The character of Marcus was very likable to me. He’s such a tragic figure, but an adorable boy at the same time. For example, through his mother he has only learned to love Joni Mitchell and Mozart, and he has the terrible habit of humming songs with his eyes closed, out loud, in class, without him noticing it. The boy never stood a chance against bullies. I thought it interesting how the book deals with the problem of bullies, because there’s Will teaching him how to fit in more, but there’s also Ellie who teaches him to not give a shit and fight back. In the end, both help him a lot. Then there’s the massive responsibility he faces in taking care of his suicidal mother, which explains why at times he seems far too grown-up for a twelve-year-old, but at other times makes him seem very naïve and young: he can be quite wise one moment and incredibly vulnerable the next. Quite often, children turn into half-adults when something like that is expected of them, and Marcus is a great example of the depression that can occur in a child when they find they can’t fix it all on their own. In a way, Will brings him back to what it’s like to be a child again and that’s what I really liked about Will: he’s in fact a lot more than just the epitome of consumerism and laziness. At the same time, Marcus shows Will how vacant his life is, and so Marcus turns Will into more of an adult. This idea, the healing combination of those two characters that really are worlds apart, was a brilliant invention by Nick Hornby.

The style of writing is very British: covering deep and meaningful topics, but often with very dry humour. In the film this doesn’t come across as well as it does in the book, how Brits often deal with shit by making light of it, sort of. The ‘dead duck day incident’ is a great example, because the story of Marcus inadvertently killing a duck is quite funny, but in his mind it is forever connected to his mother’s suicide. He feels guilty and lost, both times, and he can’t fix it. The emotional depth of the book surprised me greatly when I first started reading the book, because Nick Hornby doesn’t lay anything on too thick, which I can appreciate. Also, the style of writing makes is very easy to read, in one go even, so I’d recommend this book to anyone really: housewives, hip bachelors, mothers, sons, English boys, foreign boys, punk girls and all introverts, read it! I know it’s a saying, but I can vouch for it when it comes to ‘About a boy’: You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, a lot.

Stop the exploitation of Kurt Cobain!-award, because I’m with Ellie on this one 

Nick Hornby, About a boy (London, 1998)

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Thura Nightingale

The wonder by Emma Donoghue

Imagine yourself arriving in a forlorn village, right at the heart of Ireland, that barely survived the great famine in the second halve of the 19th century. To really settle the mood, the driver of the horse cart you’re in speaks in an unintelligible accent and it drizzles. You are not there to feed the hungry, but you are there to make sure Anna, a girl of eleven years, does not eat for two weeks. It is true that the girl has not been eating for four months already, but still, as a nurse this goes right against all your principles.

This is the situation Mrs. Wright, or Lib later in the book, finds herself in at the start of the book. She is hired by a group of men from the village to watch Anna, who believes she is fed manna from heaven and therefore does not have to eat. This is proclaimed a wonder by many people who visit to worship with her. It is Lib’s job to confirm whether Anna’s fast is truly a wonder or a fraud. She watches over Anna 24/7, alternating shifts with an Irish nun. The rest of the book consist of Lib warding of curious visitors and trying to figure out how the girl is fed, because she is not a believer. Her investigation is thwarted by almost everyone from the village, but especially by the men who hired her. Her investigations become desperate when Lib starts to believe Anna really is in danger.

This is a book about people and why they do the things they do. There are many themes, such as religion, superstition, feminism, nursing and grief, and Donoghue weaves them together nicely. This is a difficult book to talk about without giving too much away, because motifs and mysteries are unfolded very slowly, which allows the reader to figure them out for herself while reading. I do not want to ruin that experience for anyone. This is the first book from Donoghue I’ve read. I am not sure if I will read another one though, because it took me quite a while to get into it. It did help with this book that I really liked the subject matter.

For me this felt like a very strange book in the beginning. It took me quite a while to get into it, because of Emma’s writing style. She does not explain that much at the beginning, which makes it difficult to grasp the kind of book you’re reading. I expected an easier book, so I probably did not pick up on all the hints immediately, which did not improve my enjoyment for about the first fifty pages. Once I was fully engrossed in the book that style of writing became commendable, because all events unfold at a natural pace. Another nice thing about the book it that it is written from a single character’s point of view. This causes that what happens is as much a mystery for you as the reader as for Lib, the protagonist. The story unfolds itself as a combination between a psychological drama and a thriller while Lib attempts to find out who is feeding Anna. The development of Lib’s psyche is really fascinating to read because she goes from sceptical, to almost believer to advocate regarding Anna’s health. As a bonus in this book the reader is also a witness of Irish religious life in the latter half of the 19th century.

The thing that fascinated me the most in this book where the characters and how they behaved towards each other, especially the dynamics between Lib and a visiting journalist, William Byrne. William Bryne visits the small village to report about the alleged wonder. They come from completely different lives, and still they manage to somehow form a friendship. Also Rosaleen, Anna’s mother her cold attitude towards Anna makes a lot of sense when later events unfold. In general Lib is very much a stranger in the Irish village, something she notices daily when interacting with everyone she meets. All these nuances between character’s connections make me believe Donoghue thought about it a lot, which is important for a book so strongly driver by the interaction between the people in it.

The one thing I want to applaud Emma Donoghue the most for in this book was her handling of religion. Usually, religion is used as a quirk for bad guys who frown upon sex, or it is portrayed as something inherently backwards and illogical and as something no logical character could led herself in with. In this book Donoghue found an excellent way to talk about the different ways in which people can believe. There is Lib the heretic; the pragmatic, no-nonsense journalist; Rosaleen, Anna’s mother, who is pragmatic and action oriented; the nun is above all obedient; the maid is superstitious and as last Anna, who is pious and sincere. The diversity of characters, and the fact that people’s religious actions are only discredited from a character’s point of view, makes this one of the sincerest portrayals of religion in pop culture I have read. I am very curious what people with the religious catholic upbringing, as is portrayed in the book, would think about it.

The only thing I can not talk about unfortunately is the ending. But be assured that the mystery will keep you engrossed until almost the end. Fortunately, by then you’ll have other more important worries to keep yourself occupied with the book. I guess I just want to conclude that the ending of this book was totally bad-ass and even if you are not liking the book, makes it worth the read.

Maria award for a fair portrayal of religion, making this a religion inspired suspense novel

Emma Donoghue, the wonder (New York, 2016)

P1000855

Bella G. Bear