Monthly Archives: February 2015

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Dragonfly Pool’

Ah, yes. Another classic from Eva Ibbotson.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

This was a delicious book, one which I couldn’t help reading whenever I got the chance, and one I looked forward to coming back to in the quiet of evening. It’s so well written; the skill with language here is remarkable, the sentences perfectly cut and rhythmically perfect, complete in every detail. As well as that, it takes as its setting a very serious and painful era of human history and makes it into something beautiful, and full of hope, and I love it for that reason alone.

The Dragonfly Pool is the story of Tally (full name: Talitha, named for her great-grandmother, a woman of such fortitude that she used to physically remove the socks from the tramps on the London underground and wash and dry them before returning them), her family, and her life at school, all set against the opening days of the Second World War. Tally’s father is Dr Hamilton, a man more interested in the salvation of his patients than in earning money, so they are well-respected and deeply loved by their neighbours and friends, but quite poor – not that this bothers Tally in the least (at least, not in terms of acquisitiveness). She also lives with her father’s two elderly aunts who have raised her since infancy, as her mother died when Tally was only a few days old. When the war opens, all the adults in Tally’s life realise that they will have to send her away from London in case she is injured in the fighting, and the story begins by taking us through the sorrow felt by all of the people Tally knows as they think about losing her, and how much they will miss her – all before Tally herself has been told that she must go away. I loved this strange, oblique and moving way of showing the reader how much Tally means to everyone around her, and how much she has brought to her small corner of the world.

Tally is offered a scholarship to a ‘progressive’ boarding school in Devon called Delderton, and at first she is hugely resistant to the idea that she might like and enjoy it there. She knows she will miss her family cruelly, as well as the city she has grown up in and loves, but she submits to her father’s wishes and allows herself to be taken away on a train full of strange, alternative-seeming children, all of whom are fellow students at the school. As soon as she arrives, though, she is struck by Delderton’s beauty and its liberated teaching methods, designed to bring out each student’s individuality and potential, and while it takes her some time to get on board with it all, she soon finds herself warming to her new life.

While at school she meets many friends, including a girl named Julia with whom she goes into a nearby town one day to watch a film. The film, Tally thinks, isn’t up to much, but the newsreel beforehand – which shows a clip from a country called Bergania, a tiny European nation which is bravely standing up to Hitler and his advancing army – catches her attention. When, a few weeks later, a chance emerges for Tally and her schoolmates to travel to Bergania on a cultural exchange, she works hard to convince her headmaster of the merits of the trip, and so they set off. Little do they know that their presence in Bergania at this particular juncture in that country’s history will end up changing the course of that history, as well as Tally’s life and the lives of everyone she knows.

The book’s setting is so unusual – not many children’s books set during WWII are this beautiful, this positive, this hopeful. Bergania may not be ‘real’, but its spirit is; every Allied nation which stood against the encroaching Nazis is reflected in Ibbotson’s depiction. I adored the way Ibbotson paints the German people, too, and how she takes several opportunities to make it clear that ‘German’ does not equal ‘Nazi’, and that the average German person was not necessarily a facet of the evil of their ruling party. She shows the suffering of German children alongside that of Berganian ones, and British ones, and children of all nationalities, and she shows with great skill the power of unity and the ability of friendship and fellow-feeling to overcome all obstacles. She also takes the idea of royalty, in the person of Karil (the crown prince of Bergania), and shows how when these constructs of status are stripped away all that is left behind are flawed, insecure and frightened human beings, children – like Karil – who need help and a loving family and who, finally, eventually, receive what they are looking for. She shows the power of a good teacher, and how one invested and interested adult at a crucial point in a child’s life can do so much good, and she explores the importance of being oneself, and allowing one’s individuality to shine through.

All this, and a cracking story, too? Well. It is Eva Ibbotson, after all.

The only tiny thing which bugged me (and this happened with Journey to the River Sea, too), was that Tally was a little too good and perfect for my liking. Maia, in Journey to the River Sea, was just the same: absolutely ideal in every way. I kept hoping Maia would throw a hissy fit, and in this book I kept willing Tally to lose her temper or say the wrong thing to the wrong person and have to try to make amends for it later – but that’s such a small quibble in such an accomplished book. If you haven’t yet made room for Ibbotson in your life, you really should – and you can’t go wrong if you start with The Dragonfly Pool. It’s fast become one of my all-time favourite reads.

Top Ten *cof*day – Favourite Literary Heroines

The Broke and the Bookish, as you may know, host a fantastic meme every week called Top Ten Tuesday. Since I no longer regularly post on Tuesdays, this means I don’t really have any right, goshdurnit, to take part in the endeavour.

But this week – this week, I had no choice. They’re asking about my Top Ten Literary Heroines. Come on. I had to get involved in this, even if it’s a day late.

I have so many literary heroines that I had to create a longlist, and then a shortlist, and then a shorter shortlist. I’ve sweated and wept over these choices. I had to invoke criteria, like ‘no two characters written by the same author’ (which was painful, particularly when it came to Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Frances Hardinge) and ‘they can’t all be from children’s books’. But, never one to shirk a challenge, I battled my way to a final list of ten.

And here they are, in no particular order of preference – because that, my friends, would’ve pushed my fragile mind right over the edge.

Top Ten Literary Heroines

Coraline Jones from Coraline

Image: coraline.wikia.com

Image: coraline.wikia.com

What, I ask you, is not to love about this character? Clever, brave, adventurous, resolutely ungirly (oh, how I do love an ungirly girl), possessed of a powerful sense of justice and owner of the world’s coolest name, Coraline is a character who wriggled her way into my heart from the first second I met her. I was given a copy of Coraline by a dear friend, many years ago, as a birthday present, back when I wasn’t entirely familiar with Neil Gaiman as an author who wrote for children, and it isn’t overstating anything to say it changed my life. I adore her, and I adore her story, and I love her parents (the non button-eyed ones, at least), and I love the cast of crazy supporting characters who people her world. She rocks.

Lirael of the Clayr from Lirael and Abhorsen

I love pretty much all of the female characters in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books, and with good reason. They’re kick-ass (even the ones who don’t fight); none of them are superfluous, or objectified, or belittled because of their gender, or considered to be in any way less capable than the men in their world; they own their own sexualities and are unashamed of their own feelings, and they prove, time and again, that they can meet and exceed any challenge put in their path. Lirael is a great example of all this fabulousness, but she’s also amazing in her own right – a girl who feels she has no role in her world, who is a Daughter of the Clayr but who never awakens into the Clayr’s power as a seer, and who feels for many years like an embarrassment or a mistake, she is forced to find her own path. After struggling to fit in for many years, she eventually learns she has a far greater calling than she ever imagined and a much bigger role in the fate of her world than she or anyone else could have guessed. Also, she gets to use a sword and walk in Death, which is awesome.

Neverfell from A Face Like Glass

Choosing a top heroine from Frances Hardinge’s work was, I admit, a challenge. I could have gone for Triss, or Hathin, or Mosca Mye, but Neverfell was the one who called to me. The heroine of Hardinge’s masterful novel A Face Like Glass, Neverfell is the girl who falls into a vat of cheese in the underground city of Caverna, where nobody can form facial expressions and where everyone must be taught, by an elite group known as Facesmiths, how to arrange their faces to suit a certain, proscribed, set of emotions. Neverfell, however, is not stymied in the face department. Whatever she feels or thinks comes out in her expressions, which makes her incendiary in the world of Caverna, and marks her out as special – or, perhaps, worth getting rid of… Like all Hardinge’s heroines, Neverfell is spunky, sparky, clever, curious, undaunted by danger, possessed of a fierce determination to get to the bottom of whatever’s going on and full of hidden talents which come in handy at unexpected times. Is it any wonder I love her?

Katsa from the Graceling trilogy

Image: movieweb.com

Image: movieweb.com

It’s been far too long since I read these books, and I don’t own them anymore so I can’t just dip in and remind myself how good they are – curses. I will always remember Katsa, though, whose power and grace (not just her Graced power, which makes her a formidable fighter) as well as her compassion, strength and loyalty made her one of the best female characters I’ve ever read. Like the women in Garth Nix’s books, those in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling books are strong, independent, confident and capable, and their badassery is legendary. Katsa is the queen of them all.

Marian McAlpin from The Edible Woman

Another author whose work is chock-full of amazing heroines is Margaret Atwood. I struggled to choose just one, but I went for Marian because I read The Edible Woman at a formative point in my life where the book meant a huge amount to me. The idea of being consumed by expectation, weighed down by a static, predetermined idea of what your life (as a woman) should be, and the effort it takes to fight against the tiny boxes that others try to put you in is, and was, a powerful one. Marian seems at first like a passive, acted-upon woman who bends to gender and social expectation, before turning everything around as the novel reaches its conclusion. I loved her, I loved the book, and I love Atwood. If you haven’t read this one, do.

The Dog Woman from Sexing the Cherry

Another author whose work bristles with fabulous women is Jeanette Winterson, but The Dog Woman will always be my favourite. Large, childless (until the river delivers her a son, whom she loves as tenderly as any mother ever loved a baby of their own body), seen by others as grotesque, without a place in the world besides at the margins, The Dog Woman is nevertheless bountiful, generous, loving and possessed of a spirit so huge it changes the world. I can’t explain how much I love her. I see myself in her, and I see every woman in her, and I see her as my example. She’s a masterful creation.

Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

I surprised myself with this choice. I love so many female characters in the Discworld – Tiffany Aching, her grandmother, Sergeant Angua of the city Watch, all the witches – but I’ve always had a special fondness for Granny Weatherwax, whose common sense and straightforward way of looking at the world appeal to me. Unsentimental (yet deeply loving, despite it all), fiercely intelligent, braver than an army, possessed of knowledge beyond anyone’s understanding, and full of the most profound advice, she’s a character who comes across like a piece of flint until you realise that there’s nobody you’d rather have at your bedside when Death comes calling, or when disease strikes, or when you’re in your direst hour of need. If anyone can help, Granny can. Whether you’ll listen to her advice – now, that’s a different story…

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials

Choosing Lyra meant I couldn’t have Sally Lockhart, but to be honest it wasn’t all that difficult a decision. Lyra Belacqua is another brave and resourceful and intelligent and stubborn and fiercely loyal character, and so I’m really not surprised by the depth of my affection for her. A girl brave enough to travel to the ends of the earth for her friends, intelligent enough to outsmart the king of the armoured bears, open-minded enough to see beyond appearances, loyal enough to do what’s right no matter what the personal cost to her, she’s straight-up incredible. What a literary achievement she is.

Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle and its sequels

I’m beginning to see a theme here. Courageous, uncaring about appearances, not remotely girly, willing to do anything in the pursuit of knowledge, fiercely loyal, impulsive and unafraid to make mistakes, hard-working, never afraid to love, Sophie Hatter is a fabulous character. Her interplay with the wizard Howl in the books in which they feature is a delight – she is never, not even for a second, anything less than his equal. I love that.

Sophie from Rooftoppers

Ah, yes – another Sophie. Foster-child of Charles Maxim, brave defier of gravity, tireless searcher for her mother, Sophie is a character I love. Now, admittedly, she wouldn’t be half as cool without her incredible guardian by her side, who raises her to be the strong, confident, intellectually curious, prodigiously gifted girl she is, and who encourages her to follow every single dream (even those which are probably impossible), but the fact remains that Sophie, with Charles Maxim by her side, is an awesome and memorable heroine in a wonderful and moving book. (I’m still sighing over Charles Maxim, by the way. Have you read this book yet? If not, you really really should).

So, there you are. The girls and women whittled down from a very long list to form my Top Ten Literary Heroines. I bet I won’t have this post published five seconds before I’m regretting some of my choices and wishing to swap them out for others – but isn’t that a great indication of how many wonderful female characters there are to choose from in the wide world of literature? Yes. Yes it is. Anyway, happy middle-of-the-week to you. May all be well and perfect in your small corner of the earth.

 

 

It Does Your Heart Good

Over the weekend, I had cause to be out in the world, among people, in an actual city. I even took several forms of public transport, alone and unchaperoned, and I managed to survive the ordeal intact.

In fact, it was rather fun.

Photo Credit: Chris_O'Donoghue via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris_O’Donoghue via Compfight cc

Getting out like this is a big deal for me. When one is, as I am, living away from a major urban centre, and stymied not only by an inability to learn how to drive (all right, all right, so more like an unwillingness than an actual inability, but this will be the year, my friends. This will be the year I finally bite that particular bullet!) and also slightly financially embarrassed, getting around can be hard. But I had a friend who was home on a flying visit from a foreign clime (well, the UK. Not exactly Svalbard, but still. I don’t see him very often) and so efforts were made and trains were taken and streets were navigated, and everything worked out perfectly.

On the way home, I took a tram for part of my journey (I did this mainly because I think Dublin’s tram system is extremely cool, and I just wanted to take a short trip for fun. If you’re ever visiting that fair city, do try it). In my carriage was a lady travelling with her father and several of her children, and they were a thoroughly charming bunch.

Yes. All right. So I eavesdropped. It was hard not to. Don’t judge me.

Anyway. During the course of their conversation the lady and her son had a brief exchange, a version of which I have thoughtfully recreated for you below. I do not jest when I tell you that hearing it made my book-lovin’ heart swell, just a little.

Mum: ‘So, we went to the library last Saturday, didn’t we?’

Son: ‘Hmmf.’

Mum: ‘And how many books did we get out?’

Son: ‘Five.’

Mum: ‘Five! And how many had you read by Sunday afternoon?’

Son: ‘Four. And a bit.’

Grandfather: *chuckles*

Mum: ‘Four and a bit. And so then, what did we do?’

Son: ‘Dunno.’

Mum: ‘We went back to the library on Wednesday, didn’t we?’

Son: ‘Yeah.’

Mum: ‘And how many books did we get out that time?’

Son: ‘Five.’

Mum: ‘And when had you read all of those?’

Son: ‘Friday.’

Grandfather: ‘Good lad. Good lad, yourself.’

I felt like cheering (even though it would have been inexcusably rude) or maybe just turning around and giving the kid a high-five. His mum was extremely proud of him, of course – my recreation of their dialogue doesn’t really get that across, maybe – and she wasn’t in any way complaining about all these library treks. She was prompting him to tell his granddad how good he was at reading, and it was brilliant to hear a whole family, over several generations, being so reading-positive and library-positive and praising a young person for being such a great reader. Particularly, of course, when that young person is a boy. Reading has a reputation as being something which appeals more to girls than to boys, which I think is a shame; any child who wants to read, regardless of gender, should be encouraged to do so. Of course. Also, libraries are underfunded and overstretched, and I was so pleased to hear about one family’s enjoyment of their local branch – though it did make me woefully guilty that I haven’t visited the one library I’m a member of in over three years.

Three years. There’s no excuse.

Anyway. Today’s mini-post is just to say ‘well done’ to that young man on the tram, and to every child who loves to read and who – like I used to – enjoys nothing more than taking five books out of the library and having them all read by the end of the following day, despite the fact that it leaves them bookless until the next trip (it’s strange how I never really learned the lesson to take books slowly and make them last – I do something similar with chocolate, funnily enough). It’s to say ‘well done’ to every parent and grandparent and guardian and aunt and uncle and older sibling and family friend who praises a child for reading and who encourages them to read. It’s to say ‘well done’ to the fantastic librarians (and, indeed, booksellers and teachers) who help children to find their next great read and who form the reading tastes and, as a result in some ways, the entire lives of the small people they come in contact with. It’s to say ‘well done’ to all the writers and illustrators out there who make books children love and which they want to experience, not just with their eyes but with their mind and their whole being. The books we read and love as children have such an impact on our adulthood, I firmly believe, and when we read as children it’s more immersive and complete than at any other time in our lives.

Sometimes, it can feel like reading is falling out of fashion. Games and apps and TV and YouTube and what have you seem to be replacing books in the lives of many young people, but I learned a lesson this past weekend. No matter how bad things seem, there will always be readers, and they are as committed and passionate now as they’ve ever been. Is it any wonder I skipped off that tram with a spring in my step?

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Darkmouth’

Shane Hegarty’s newly published début novel for Middle Grade readers, Darkmouth, has been causing quite the stir.

Image: easons.com Artist: James de la Rue

Image: easons.com
Artist: James de la Rue

Sold to Harper Collins for an excellent sum, and recently acquired by a film company (likely theatrical release is set for 2017), it’s stories like this that give me hope there’s life, and plenty of it, in the children’s book market.

Darkmouth introduces us to Finn – who, at the story’s outset, has no surname because he hasn’t earned it yet – and his family. They live in the town of Darkmouth, which is one of a number of Blighted Villages dotted all over the world where monsters can manipulate the fabric of reality and break through into our world. These monsters, including Griffins and Minotaurs and Manticores, and some less familiar creatures like Hogboons, are correctly known as Legends – and, despite being as real as you or me, have been relegated over the centuries to myth and fantasy in an attempt to cope with the fact that they aren’t, in fact, imaginary at all. They’re out there, and they want to take over the world.

Only a handful of brave people can stop them – the Legend Hunters, who are stationed in the Blighted Villages, waiting for a chance to capture and neutralise any encroaching Legends. Finn’s dad, Hugo, is one such Hunter, and Finn (as is customary) is supposed to take over after him. The only problem? Finn would rather be a vet. He doesn’t have the stomach or the heart to hunt and destroy living creatures and, despite being very brave, feels he is completely inadequate and unequal to his calling. A calling, by the way, which he doesn’t even want in the first place.

This central conflict is a strong one, and it is a perfect base for the story. Hugo is a great character (despite being rather stubborn, dense and sometimes extremely insensitive), Finn is likeable and intelligent, always ready to do his best despite his desperate fear, and I particularly liked Clara, Finn’s mother, who – unlike a lot of mothers in children’s fiction – is not only alive, but has a career of her very own. She is a dentist, and a successful one at that, and her occupation becomes important as the plot thickens.

Then, we have Emmie and her father Steve, who arrive in Darkmouth at an important point in Finn’s life. He’s learned he has a vital test to pass in order to become a Legend Hunter, a test he feels he is in no way prepared for or capable of passing, and then Emmie turns up in Finn’s class at school one day. Immediately, this is flagged as ‘weird’; nobody moves to Darkmouth. It has a terrible reputation. So, why is she there?

Why, indeed.

As much as I enjoyed the other players in this story, I thought Emmie, and Steve, were underdeveloped as characters. Steve isn’t important until the end, but Emmie is a regular figure throughout the book, and I never managed to warm to her. This might be because of the role she plays in the story (lips are sealed!) but I’m not sure. I also thought some of the other characters were ‘stock’, like the Savage brothers (who are, as you may have guessed, the bullies of the piece). One of the most significant characters, for me, was Sergeant Doyle, the local policeman, who is only in the story for a very brief time but who left a large emotional footprint on me. Having said that I did enjoy the ‘villain’, naming no names, and – even though I saw it coming – the twist at the end, and the opening up of another mystery, right in time for the sequel which is coming later this year.

The book is paced well and the dialogue is sparky and good, full of wit and banter and clever images. Finn’s family have a wonderful dynamic, and I loved how their relationships to one another are portrayed. I thought Finn was genuinely three-dimensional, and the sort of character I’d cheer on any day of the week. The compassion he brings to everyone and everything, and into every situation, is a fantastic touch. I also really enjoyed the inventions in the story – the Desiccator, which shrinks Legends into tiny balls, and the Reanimator (which does what it says on the tin) – and the fact that surnames have to be earned, depending on a Legend Hunter’s success or failure in his calling.

I didn’t love the story, though. It never wormed its way into my heart, the way other stories do, and have done in the past. I was interested, but not gripped; committed, but not invested. Make of that what you will. Darkmouth is a clever book, well written, and should appeal to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love for Tales of Mortal Peril… so, basically, everyone. I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, and to the movie, and I’m delighted to see a fellow Irish author doing so well. More power to you, Shane Hegarty!

Here’s Lookin’ at you, Kid

I recently read a really good article by Margaret Atwood (I can’t find a link to it online, which is a shame) about the importance of dressing your fictional characters, and getting it right. She talked about the fashion cut-out games she used to play with as a child during the war, where you took printed ‘dolls’ and printed clothes, cut around the outlines, and used one to dress the other in any way you pleased. I remember them from my own childhood, too; they were endless fun, particularly the ones you could colour in yourself. Customisation, baby. It’s key.

The point of talking about dolls was to illustrate the importance of clothes, appearances, and the descriptions thereof in your writing. For Atwood, this appears to be important; she discussed the lengths to which she went in order to get the clothes right for her novel Alias Grace, which is set in a women’s prison in nineteenth-century Canada, for instance, which involved months of painstaking work. Only the most astute of readers would have known, in all likelihood, if she had got it wrong, but that’s not the sort of writer Atwood is. She also wrote about her influences when designing the clothing for the characters in her masterwork The Handmaid’s Tale, which drew on historical sources as well as advertising imagery from her youth. She argued, persuasively, that clothing ‘maketh’ the setting – if a reader can’t believe in a character’s clothing (i.e. it’s not functional for the role they’re playing in their world, and completely logical and sensible and ultimately, easy to picture) it undermines the whole believability of the story.

Well, yes. I found myself nodding along with all this, agreeing wholeheartedly – and then realising, like a slap across the chops, that I don’t do any of this in my own writing. None of it. In fact, something I tend not to do at all is describe the people in my stories, unless it’s a situation where they have three heads, perhaps, and that knowledge is vital to the reader’s understanding of the plot. In my most ‘finished’ work to date, my début novel The Eye of the North, I don’t describe my main character very much besides the fact that she’s wearing a dress. What colour is the dress? I never say. What fabric is it made from? Unspecified. Her coat? The same. She’s wearing one, but it could be black, or blue, or canary yellow. It could be a floor-length, fur-collared beauty, or a dinner jacket. This never struck me as being significant; as a reader, I tend to like it when writers leave imaginative space around a character’s looks, so that we can picture whoever we like in the lead role.

But maybe I’m wrong about that.

It could also be down to the fact that I, as a human person separate from my writing life, do not care about clothes at all. My mother despairs of me. I have, at most, two pairs of wearable jeans (one for the body and one for the wash – it’s logical, right?) and maybe three or four shirts/tops which I alternate, without a lot of thought as to fashion, colour coordination, and so on. If something fits me, I wear it. If it’s clean, all the better. I’ve never been fashionable, because it just doesn’t come into my sphere. I’m interested in fashion as a human endeavour, and as an art form, and I love the style of the forties and fifties, for instance – but I’m entirely the wrong shape, everywhere, to dress like a glamourpuss from the war era. For me, it’s strictly an ‘admiration from a distance’ thing. So, maybe that’s why I don’t dwell overmuch on physical appearance in my writing. Emmeline (my main character) is described, in sketchy terms, somewhere near the end of my book, but as a throwaway comment; how she looks isn’t important to the fact that she’s strong, independent, intelligent and resourceful. Her dress is only described when it gets in the way, and likewise her boots. Essentially, Emmeline dresses for convenience, a lot like me.

I wonder if I’m alone in not being too invested in an author’s physical descriptions of their characters, though. I love Haruki Murakami, for instance, but one thing that drives me round the twist with that author is his tendency to linger, rather lasciviously, on the physical attributes of his female characters. It irritates me both because it’s not necessary but also because it’s rather unrealistic, and makes me think ‘oh, yes. Here’s the author again, intervening in the thoughts of his made-up people.’ I also tend to get annoyed when an author introduces a character to us by saying something like: ‘And then Tony turned the corner and there was Billy, all six-foot-four of him, his straw-yellow hair askew beneath his flat cap. He turned, his bright green eyes lighting up as he smiled at his oldest friend, the gap between his front teeth making his broad, sunburned face look relaxed and almost childlike. He took a step in Tony’s direction, holding out one broad, rough-palmed hand in welcome.’ I’d rather know that Tony had to look up to meet Billy’s gaze (hence, he’s tall), or that a gust of wind knocked the hat off his head (hence, he was wearing one), and have him talk about his work outdoors (hence, allowing us to imagine that he’s sunburned and weather-beaten). Is it just me?

Anyway. Next month, with any luck, I’ll be starting the edits for The Eye of the North. We’ll see, then, what my editor thinks of my tendency not to describe the physicality of my characters. There may be wailing and gnashing of teeth – and lots of research into fabric, dress design and ruffles. I shudder at the thought!

 

 

Readin’? Who Needs It!

The other day, I was reading an article on a science website I frequent. It was about a very (very) rare medical condition called ‘fetus in fetu’ which means, essentially, that a person ends up with an undeveloped, unviable mass of tissue somewhere in their body which may, originally, have been a foetus – perhaps their own twin, absorbed by them in the womb, or perhaps a type of tumour known as a teratoma. The article described a baby girl, recently born in China, who was found to have two masses in her abdomen which appeared to be ‘foetuses’; luckily, the masses were removed and the child was fine. It was a fascinating (if slightly gross) article, which taught me something. I love it when that happens.

But, sadly, I then went on to read the comments.

Photo Credit: LafayetteBeacon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: LafayetteBeacon via Compfight cc

I am, of course, aware that you should never read the comments (except on blog posts, naturally, where lots of lovely comments are left by wonderful and intelligent readers), but I regularly fall into the trap. I suppose I simply feel, when I read a great article, that I want to bask in the common glow of human learning, and gain from the insights shared by my fellow readers – but instead what I got was a truckload of ignorance.

And not only that, but willful ignorance, which is the worst kind.

The first comments were from people who were, to use that horrendous phrase, ‘calling BS’. I can’t stand this terminology. It’s judgemental, and a clear declaration that the commenter believes they are somehow superior in learning, training or experience to the person who has written the article, and superior enough to declare it faulty or flawed without, of course, providing reasoning, proof or any sort of argument. They’ve just decided it’s rubbish, because it’s something beyond their own sphere of experience, and therefore – of course – it can’t possibly exist. (As well as that, it’s just rude).

Then we had the crew declaring that anyone ‘stupid’ enough to believe the article was one of the amorphous group known as the ‘sheeple’. The definition of this demographic appears to change, depending on who’s describing it, but it seems to be anyone who believes something different to the person doing the commenting. It never ceases to amaze me how the people calling others ‘sheeple’ believe that they (the ones doing the calling) are the only true repositories of knowledge and wisdom. Based on what, I wonder?

There were people – brave souls – wading in among these commenters to supply links to other articles and proof and places to learn more, but they were shot down as soon as they dared to press ‘post’. Actually doing a bit of work, and learning something? No way! Readin’? Who needs it!

It depresses me that there are people whose worldviews are limited to what goes on inside their own brain – their own brain, a miraculous and wondrous organ, capable of changing the world, which they feed on a diet of hokum and make-believe, superstition and pseudo-science, conspiracy theory and reality TV, and which they then expect to work correctly and give them a balanced view of the world they’re living in. There are people who take pride in never reading a book, never reading a newspaper, never actually going out of their way to meet people who aren’t exactly the same as they are, and never thinking about anything for themselves. They have their beliefs, formed from the way they were raised, the communities they live in, and the conversations they have with the people around them, and anything beyond that is ‘BS’.

This is fine, I suppose. I don’t like to judge others for what they choose to do, believe or think, and everyone is formed and shaped by where they come from, who they grew up with and the prevailing beliefs of their communities. But when people oppress others for actually daring to read, and learn, and trying to improve themselves and the world, and when they attempt to destroy rather than build, I have to admit it angers me. It angers me, for instance, that people would rather expose their children to disease than take them for their immunisations, based on nothing more than a half-baked theory. It angers me that we forget, so easily, the things that have happened in the past and how hard our forebears worked to give us the skills to avoid the disasters that decimated them, things like diphtheria, which – as anyone who has read about it will tell you – is not a disease we want to see taking hold again. The reason we almost always have to read about it now, rather than experience it first-hand? Science.

But if some people had their way, science would be thrown out the window and superstition would rule instead.

Reading is important. Opening your mind to new ideas, experiences and beliefs is important. You don’t have to open it to everything, and you certainly don’t have to believe everything you read, but you’ll never learn how to filter the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’ if you don’t give yourself wide exposure to what is going on in the world. Thinking is not hard work – or, if it is, it gets easier with practice. It worries me that it seems fashionable, somehow, to remain entrenched in your own beliefs these days. Is it a defence mechanism? A way of shoring up in a world which seems under attack from all corners? A response to the vapid celebrity culture all around? Who knows.

Anyway. I’m ranting, on a par with the type of vitriol I try to avoid in other articles, so I’ll draw a line beneath this blog post and move on. Live and let live, I guess, is the message – and let’s not shoot down new ideas before they’ve even had a chance to get airborne.

Have a great week, everyone. Read well, and read often!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Anne of Green Gables’

So, yes. This book is probably older than everyone who has ever read this blog, if their ages were all added together. It’s a classic; it’s a book nearly everyone reads at some point in their childhood; it’s so much a part of culture that it’s sort of lost, almost, diffused so fully that the story itself trickles away under the wider literary tapestry.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome.

Image: amazon.com

Image: amazon.com

I recently answered some questions about myself for the Greenhouse Literary Agency website, and during the course of that interview I realised something. I wrote a book at about the age of twenty or twenty-one (which was, and is, execrable dross) but I always thought of it as having been heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. However, I realised as I was thinking about it for the Greenhouse interview that actually, L.M. Montgomery had a lot more to do with my flowery, ever-so-dramatical turns of phrase than Enid had. I read Anne of Green Gables as a little’un, in bits and pieces, whenever I could get it out of the library; I had largely forgotten it, but the language and the drama and the sensibility seems to have stuck with me, somewhere, because it sure as heck came out in my first attempts to write.

The book concerns itself with the trials and tribulations of Anne Shirley, an imaginative and talkative red-headed orphan who arrives at the farm of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. The Cuthberts are a brother and sister, both unmarried, who have long lived a quiet and uneventful life marked by piety and hard work. They send away to an ‘asylum’ – an orphanage – looking for a boy of about eleven to put to work on the farm in order to help Matthew; instead, they are sent Anne.

At first, they want to return her. The child’s wild imagination, ceaseless chatter and over-dramatic notions are a stark contrast to the Cuthberts’ controlled existence, but as first Matthew, and then (very gradually) his sister, begin to warm to Anne, she begins to settle into their small family and soon becomes an inextricable part of it. The book follows Anne from eleven to sixteen, from her arrival at Green Gables to her finishing her schooling, and we watch her grow from a flibbertigibbet into a young woman, one who is still imaginative and tender-hearted, but less prone to flights of giddiness. We are introduced to her ‘bosom friend’ Diana, and her classmates, and a boy who might be classed as her ‘frenemy’, Gilbert Blythe, who kicks off their relationship on the wrong foot by insulting Anne’s hair – a crime which she finds it very hard to forgive, but who becomes one of the most important people in her life from that point on.

The book is characterised by its tendency to tell Anne’s story not so much as a taut, controlled plot but as a series of vignettes, a ‘one thing happening after another’ style which isn’t so much in favour nowadays, but which speaks to its own time quite clearly. We watch as Anne learns, the hard way, how to make cakes and do the household chores which Marilla sets her, making a series of increasingly disastrous mistakes (though, as Anne herself points out, she never makes the same mistake twice!) My favourite episode was one in which Diana, then Anne’s newly-acquired bosom friend, comes over for the girls’ first grown-up tea, for which they are not being supervised. Marilla has told Anne she may serve her guest some raspberry cordial, and tells her where it is in the cupboard – but, unfortunately, Anne chooses the wrong bottle and serves Diana currant wine instead, leading to intoxication and a massive misunderstanding between Anne and Diana’s mother. It shouldn’t be funny to laugh at the idea of a child being so drunk she can barely walk across the field to her own house, but somehow the way it’s described here had me creased over with laughter.

As the book comes to an end, and Anne takes her final school examinations with the view to becoming a teacher herself, the story begins to pick up pace and some true conflict rears its head in terms of choices that have to be made, friendships which must change, illnesses which begin to claim their price on the people Anne loves, and homes which must be left behind. I must admit I read the latter chapters with tears in my eyes, perhaps because I’m a sentimental old sod and the style this book is written in played a disconsolate tune on my over-developed heart strings, but it is true that the closing of the story, after watching Anne’s progress, is emotional.

Anne of Green Gables rambles and meanders, and it’s full of pages of Anne’s chattering descriptions of everyone and everything she sees and thinks and hears and feels, but for all that it’s charming and beautiful. Anne is a character who will delight and sweep away even the most cynical of readers, and her relationship with the Cuthberts is deeply touching. I loved Anne for her brains and her courage, her distinct inability to put up with nonsense, her plain common sense (despite all the mistakes!) and her absolute loyalty and love, no matter what challenges come her way. It’s a shame there’s so much ‘ginger-ism’ here (as Anne continually goes on about how sore a trial it is to be red-headed; when I was a child, I prayed to be allowed to have red hair! Different strokes, I guess), but even that – of course – seems to work out all right in the end.

If, for some reason, you haven’t read this book already, I’d recommend it. If it’s a childhood favourite you haven’t revisited in a while, then dig it out. It’s a sweet, charming, guileless tale which, I think, is valuable in this mad, sad old world. I’m certainly glad I paid another visit to Green Gables – it’s just as pretty now as it was twenty-five years ago.