Wednesday, April 2, 2014

D is for Divergent: Review of Divergent by Veronica Roth

Before we begin, I have a confession to make: despite knowing full well the difference between fantasy (Magic! Wizards! Mythical beasts! Cool stuff!) and science fiction (Strange futures! Aliens! Space! Scientific cool stuff!), I seem to have stuffed up.

A Fantasy Alphabet, despite being only four books long so far, includes two books (Arclight and Divergent) which aren’t actually fantasy. They’re both dystopian sci fi. What can I say? My brain went on holidays and never came back, apparently.

However, since “A Fantasy Alphabet Which Occasionally Includes Books That Are Really Science Fiction” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I’m sticking with “A Fantasy Alphabet”. I was so keen to read Divergent that I don’t care.

So.

Today in my book review series A Fantasy Alphabet, I’m looking at Divergent by Veronica Roth. WARNING: May Contain Traces of Science Fiction. Ahem.


Divergent is the story of sixteen-year-old Tris, who is about to face the big rite of passage of her society. The people of her world live segregated into five factions with very different outlooks on life: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor. At sixteen, you must choose which faction you will live with for the rest of your life, and if it’s not the same as that of the family you grew up in, then bye-bye family.

So when Tris leaves her Abnegation family for Dauntless, that seems like a big enough wrench. But her new life is complicated by the fact that she doesn’t actually fit Dauntless either. In fact her test results showed she is Divergent, ie not fitting in any one faction, but showing traits of all of them. But that’s a secret she mustn’t reveal, because people who are Divergent tend to wind up dead.

Only something strange seems to be going on over at Dauntless, and maybe Tris isn’t the only one in danger. The whole society is teetering on the brink of disaster, and Tris may be the only one who can save it …

I could see right away why they would want to make a movie of this novel. I mean, apart from the whole let’s cash in on the latest YA blockbuster thing. It has great visuals – the five factions, who all dress and behave differently, the shattered city they live in, the many stunts the Dauntless daredevils pull – scenes of ziplining off the top of skyscrapers, or climbing giant ferris wheels. Plus the many virtual reality scenes where the Dauntless initiates have to face their fears. It’ll be great fun to watch.

It was fun to read too. Like Arclight – it seems to be the fashion for this type of novel – it’s written in first person present tense, so it has that sense of immediacy and urgency about it. The reader is riding on Tris’s shoulder, experiencing everything as she does.

And of course that “everything” includes a first kiss, with a dark and brooding hero named Four. And – wonder of wonders! – only Four. There is no love triangle, which is not only a refreshing change for YA, but a much more satisfying relationship as far as I’m concerned.

It’s an interesting world, with the different factions and their political manoeuvring. Though if I was going to quibble, I’d have to say the idea of people slotted into rigid factions is the least convincing thing about the book. It makes for a great story, and provides a good way to separate the young heroine from any parental support, and I was perfectly happy to go along with it for the sake of being entertained – but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.

People just don’t fit into such neat boxes in reality. No one is all one thing or another. The idea that there must be something weird or “divergent” about someone who can be friendly and brave and clever and truthful and self-sacrificing instead of just one of them doesn’t jibe with what humans are really like.

Roth takes a couple of other liberties with reality too – Tris seems to grow new muscles after only a week of training, and learns to fight pretty quickly too. The baddies are pretty much unremittingly evil, in a rather over-the-top way. But Tris and Four are well-drawn, and their romance, with all its teenage uncertainties and complications, is nicely realistic.

Overall, it’s a satisfying story. I can certainly see the attraction for the teenaged market – a fascinating world, a gutsy heroine trying to save it, and an appealing romance. And you certainly don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy those things! Just don’t look too closely at the premise of the worldbuilding and go along for the ride, and you’ll be rewarded with some entertaining storytelling.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Developing a sense of humour


I came upstairs to use my computer one day and found someone was there before me. This little Ender Man obviously had a burning desire to play Minecraft. Either that or Baby Duck has a very silly sense of humour.

I didn’t say anything, just moved the Ender Man. I set him up in front of the TV, remote control in hand and 3D glasses on (do you know how hard it is to put a pair of glasses on something that has no ears or nose??). When Baby Duck came to see what I thought of his surprise he was highly amused.

That kid makes me laugh. He has quite a dry wit. Watching kids grow and develop is fascinating in many ways, and the development of a sense of humour is one of them. When they’re little they often make you laugh, but at that stage it’s unintentional (and often at their expense). By the time they start school they’re trying very hard to get a handle on how jokes work, and often failing in hilarious ways.

Demon Duck’s first attempt to make up a joke was:

Q: Why did the chicken knit a scarf?
A: To keep her eggs warm.

We still laugh about that one. The poor baby couldn’t understand why her joke wasn’t funny. By age 7 or 8 they understand what makes a joke funny, and can retell ones they’ve heard, but it’s not till about 9 or 10 that they start to come up with original situational humour.

One recent Saturday morning, Drama Duck, who is not a morning person, was flopping around on a couch resisting all efforts to get her moving. I asked her several times to get up and have breakfast, but groans were my only reply.

Her brother gave her a withering look.

“Have breakfast,” he advised. “It’s brain food. You need it.”


Friday, February 28, 2014

Of love and ransom notes

Before February slips away completely, I want to point you towards this hugely funny post by Joshilyn Jackson on Valentines Day disasters. I swear that woman writes the funniest blog on the internet.

She asked people to chime in with their own funny Valentines Day stories in the comments, which sent me on a little trip down memory lane, way waaay back, before there were any ducklings, before the Carnivore and I were even married.

To show you just how long ago this was, there were no emails. Not even – gasp! – any mobile phones. We were engaged, and the Carnivore was working in a country town a long way away. To communicate we had to write actual paper letters, and at night, after he’d finished work, he’d drive into the one tiny main street and stand in the public telephone box and chat to me.

So while he was there Valentines Day rolled around, and me being the romantic type (well, I was back then!) and missing him terribly, I bought the cutest little white bear. Between its cuddly paws it held a tiny red box covered with love hearts. I filled the box with Smarties (one of his favourites) and sent the bear.

A few days later, I got this in the mail:


 You can see why I love him. Ridiculous man. He was so proud of himself.

Don’t worry, no cute white bears were harmed in the making of this extortion attempt. He took the bear to a local craft shop and asked the lady behind the counter to make him a matching ear. When he explained why, she was so amused she added blood stains and didn’t even charge him.

Certainly a memorable Valentines Day, if a trifle … unorthodox. My husband – the last of the true romantics.

What about you? Do you have any good Valentines Day stories to share?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

C is for Chosen: Review of Chosen by Benedict Jacka

Today it’s time for the letter C in my book review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, and the book I’ve chosen is, well, Chosen, by Benedict Jacka.


Chosen is the fourth in the Alex Verus series, about a mage living in modern London trying – and usually failing – to keep out of trouble. People always seem to be trying to kill Alex, often through no fault of his own, though there was that apprenticeship with a Dark mage that earned him a few enemies …

Now, in the fourth book, we learn much more about that long-ago apprenticeship, as the motive for the current attempts on his life are directly tied to his actions as an apprentice, despite his years of (relatively) clean living since. Alex has always been a bit of a flawed hero, and now we find out exactly how flawed.

Alex is a great character – something of an everyman, if you can overlook the fact that most regular guys can’t see the future. He’s done some bad things in his past, and now he tries to do good to balance it out, but he’s not perfect, and his good intentions are often hampered by a lack of trust from other magic users. This is the first book where he even has more than one friend, having always been a bit of an outcast.

And he’s no superman. He can’t throw fire or do anything flashy. His one power is the ability to see possible futures, which often allows for clever solutions to problems. And he needs every ounce of cleverness, as once the attacks start they keep on coming with barely a chance to catch his breath. The plot unreels at almost thriller-pace as it careers towards a surprise ending that promises a world of pain for Alex in the next novel.

The world of Chosen takes the “urban” part of “urban fantasy” seriously. London is so richly described it feels almost like another character. I love the sense of place in these novels. It feels like travelling without ever leaving home.

If you’re a fan of Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, you’ll love the Alex Verus novels. Chosen is a fast-paced addition to what is becoming a favourite series.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

If three wells make a river, what do three wases make?

Ah, revision – guaranteed to bring a writer’s ego crashing back to earth.

Dean Wesley Smith, a multi-published author, advises never to revise. He writes his first draft, checks for typos and publishes.

Maybe when I’ve written as many books as he has I’ll be able to do the same, but for now I think my readers (and my reputation as a writer) will be better served by removing some of the first-draft suckitude from my manuscript. And even the second-draft suckitude.

I was still finding gems on the second revision pass. The prize for most uses of one word in the same short sentence goes to:

“The worst part was, he was probably right, but I was out of options.”

That’s three occurrences of the word “was” in a total fourteen words, or 21%. Not bad, eh?

“Was” is a particular problem child of mine. I’m aware that when I’m writing first draft, creating the story, I tend to overuse basic sentence structures like “there was a something-or-other”. That’s fine. First draft isn’t meant to be about crafting beautiful prose. First draft is when I’m discovering the story, dealing with plot and characters and “big picture” issues, and I don’t want to break the creative flow by considering syntax too much.

But it means I end up with a lot of sentences like: “There was a lot of junk in the drawer.” That’s a grammatically correct sentence that conveys the necessary information, but it’s passive and dull. Too many of those suck the life out of your story. A better sentence would be something like: “The drawer bulged with junk”, which brings a picture to life in the reader’s mind.

Which is where revision comes in!

In revision “he was much taller than me” becomes “he towered over me”. “I should know what this little piece of rock was” becomes “I should recognise this little piece of rock”.

Cool, isn’t it? Swap out “was” for a more active verb, and the writing automatically improves.

After I’d finished two major revision passes through the novel I went hunting specific words. “Was” occurred 1467 times. Eek! Obviously a lot of those had to stay, but the tired old “there was a something” ones came out. I managed to kill off almost 300 of those suckers.

“Just” is another one I can’t seem to resist. There were 240 of those. That shows up a lot! The Find function commented jauntily. Rude piece of software. Bet it had a conniption when it counted the “wases”.

Actually I was expecting a lot more “justs”, though I did nuke what felt like a thousand of them on the second revision, so that might explain it.

The manuscript is just about ready (see? those pesky “justs” sneak in everywhere) to show to my beta readers. I’m pleased but frankly astonished to have made it this far – a real live almost-finished book! One small step for man, one giant leap for procrastinators.

Fingers crossed they don’t want me to rewrite the whole thing. Or add any wases.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

B is for Blackbirds: Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Today, somewhat belatedly, we arrive at the letter B in my review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, with Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.


First up, don’t you love that cover? A clever and intriguing piece of artwork, with the title popping out as the only touch of colour. Very eye-catching.

It’s a clever premise too, and one that had me itching to read this book: whenever Miriam Black touches another person’s skin she experiences a vision of their death. She knows the cause, the date and time down to the minute, but not the place. She’s also learned, from bitter experience, that she can’t do anything to save anyone.

Naturally this has left her rather antisocial, to put it mildly. She’s damaged and embittered, living the life of a drifter, never getting close to anyone. She battles her misery with alcohol and a biting dark humour that brings some relief to the relentless gloom of the first-person narrative.

One night she hitches a ride with a truck driver called Louis, who seems like a genuine nice guy. Only problem is, when she touches his hand and sees his imminent gruesome murder, he’s calling her name as he dies. And then she meets other people, and begins to see how she might be involved, and realises Louis’ death scene might be her own too, if she doesn’t somehow save him.

This is a real and gritty adventure through the seamier side of life. If swearing in books bothers you, you won’t like Miriam. Of course, you may not like Miriam much anyway – she’s prickly and difficult to like, even though you can see her prickliness is a shield, and you certainly feel for the terrible situation she’s in.

Her great redeeming feature is her sense of humour, which often made me laugh. Chapter 10, for instance, is titled “The sun can go fuck itself”. Chapter 11 is “The Sunshine CafĂ© can go fuck itself equally”. Though the humour is dark, without it I don’t know whether I could have finished the book. The pace is relentless, and seems to be racing Miriam and the reader to a terrible inevitable ending. As a person who usually reads lighter fare, the sense of impending doom hanging over the story filled me with dread.

That’s not a criticism, of course – when a book makes you feel something so strongly, the writer’s done a good job. And a reasonable person wouldn’t expect a read full of sunshine and roses from a story about someone surrounded by constant death.

It was a relief, though, to find some light at the end of the tunnel after all, and a ray of hope for Miriam, whose basic decency finally manages to claw its way free from her hard shell and arrest the story’s terrible downward spiral. Certainly not a Happily Ever After, which wouldn’t have suited the tone of the book at all, but a hint of redemption that raises interesting possibilities for the next book in the series.

“Grimdark” is a subgenre of fantasy that’s big at the moment, due to the popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin, but usually appears in epic fantasy, in medieval-type secondary worlds. I haven’t seen it used in urban fantasy like this before. (It may have, of course – I’m not claiming to be familiar with the entirety of the urban fantasy genre – but it was a new experience for me.)

If you like your fantasy grim and edgy but you’re tired of the swords-and-sorcery flavour, Blackbirds could be a good choice for you. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a well-written, immersive experience.
  

Next up in “A Fantasy Alphabet”: C is for Chosen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Focused writing demons



This is the first sentence of my still-nameless Dragon novel. This is about the fourth first sentence I’ve tried, and doubtless won’t be the last.

So, yeah – hi! This is me waving to you from the wilds of Revisionland. How’s it all going, you ask? Not too foul, if you can overlook the whole but we still don’t have a name for the damned book thing. I finally made it all the way through the first pass of revision, which is a new achievement for me. I usually give up long before this stage. See? Progress!

Now I’m doing a second pass, adding in setting details (since I always forget to put those in) and generally smoothing things over, making the writing prettiful, ensuring people’s eyes don’t mysteriously change colour halfway through, things like that.

I’ve written up a very Serious and Responsible Writing Schedule for the year, according to which I will have this revision finished by the end of next week. I must have been feeling very energetic the day I wrote that schedule! It says I’m going to write four novels this year.

Maybe I was temporarily possessed? If so, I hope that highly focused writing-machine-demon intends to come back and finish the job. I’m not sure I can manage it on my own.

Still, I find that even if your plans are a tad, shall we say? – optimistic – you generally get a lot more done when you have a plan than when you just mosey along without one, even if you don’t achieve everything you hoped to.

So that’s the … er …. plan. Finish this round of revisions by the end of next week and get this nameless sucker out to some beta readers.

Or else the Demons of Intense Writing Focus will steal my soul.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Joining the ebook revolution: confessions of a former Kindlephobe

Or maybe that should be evolution? It’s not as if people are barricading the streets and firing e-readers at each other. Ebooks are just another means to deliver story, no scarier than listening to audiobooks.

And yet, I was scared.

I received a Kindle for Christmas. Not this Christmas just past – the one before. For reasons I don’t really understand, I left that Kindle sitting in its box for a whole year. I was scared to open it.

I know it sounds ridiculous. It does to me too. I’m a normal competent human being. I quite enjoy learning new things and I’m not scared of computers. Somehow it just seemed too daunting. I’d have to create an Amazon account, and probably give them all this personal information that I hate giving out. (Amazing, I know. I must be one of the few people left in the western world who didn’t already have an account with Amazon.) I’d have to figure out how to drive the stupid thing, and there were sure to be technical hiccups and besides I had so many books to read I didn’t need ebooks as well …

Halfway through the year Demon Duck asked if she could at least open the box and look at it, but I wouldn’t let her, as if it were some bomb that would go off if handled. And all year, every time I walked past and noticed the thing, still sitting where I’d left it when I unwrapped it on Christmas day (I couldn’t even move it – how weird is that??), I felt guilty that this generous present was sitting there unused.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony that this person scared of the big bad e-reader is the same person who wants to publish her writing as ebooks.

Finally, when Christmas had come and gone again, I forced myself to Open the Damn Box Already and set up the Kindle. If this is going to be the year I start publishing, then first I have to at least see what an ebook looks like! And yes, there were technical hiccups, but no, the world didn’t end when I downloaded my first ebook.

In fact, I started to enjoy myself.

I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for instant gratification. And it doesn’t come any more instant than this – decide on a book you’d like to read, click the button and abracadabra! Within seconds it appears on your e-reader, ready to enjoy.

It’s magic.

I got such a childish thrill out of it that I changed the name of my Kindle. Now, whenever I acquire a new book, I get the even more childish amusement of Amazon solemnly informing me that it is sending my purchase to “Marina’s Magic Book Box”. It makes me smile every time.

At the moment the Magic Book Box has about ten books loaded on to it. The first one I read was Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge, which is self-published. It’s a great read, but I can see why traditional publishing might have been reluctant to take it on. It’s a fantasy where the protagonist uses economic means rather than military or magical might to combat the bad guys. I was expecting the typical quest and swordplay, and it caught me by surprise. Refreshingly different, with good characters and snappy dialogue. You can try it for free, and there’s plenty more in the series if you like it. I’ve already bought the second one.

So I guess I’m a convert. I still love paper books, but there’s no need to choose. It’s not an either/or scenario. Paper, audio, ebooks, whatever they come up with in the future – they’re all just the delivery system.

It’s the story that counts.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A is for Arclight: Review of Arclight by Josin L McQuein

Welcome to my new book review project: A Fantasy Alphabet. Note that that is “A” Fantasy Alphabet, not “The” Fantasy Alphabet. I’m not suggesting some definitive list of fantasy books here, merely wending my way through the alphabet choosing, in the main, current fantasy novels that I’m eager to read. (Though I’m not promising they’ll all be new. A few old favourites may sneak in, particularly with some of the more difficult letters!)

To kick off the series we have Arclight by Josin L McQuein, a Young Adult dystopian fantasy. Dystopia is big in YA at the moment, maybe because of the success of The Hunger Games, or perhaps just catching the mood of the times.



Reading the back cover copy, this one sounds almost more like horror:

“The first rule of Arclight: Light is safety. Light is life. The second: Never go outside alone. The third: No one ever comes back from the dark. But Marina did …”

Score!! How could I put it back on the shelf? You know how many books I’ve read where the main character shared my name? Out of all the tens of thousands I must have read in my lifetime? That’s right. None. The Jacks of the world have got it good. Every second damn thriller is about them. But us Marinas? We are a sadly neglected lot.

Look, I’m not a complete dag (quiet, you in the back row!). The book sounded interesting and I would have bought it anyway. I promise you will still enjoy this book even if you are not lucky enough to be named Marina. But it did kind of sweeten the deal for me.

Marina narrates her story in first person present tense (now it sounds like I’m talking about myself …). Sometimes this comes across as a little over the top, as in the opening paragraph:

“Someone’s attention shouldn’t have physical weight, but it does. Hate’s a heavy burden: hope is worse. It’s a mix of the two that beats against my skin as my classmates condemn me …”

But most of the time it has the effect of keeping us firmly with the character, feeling that we are experiencing her story with her as it happens.

And the story is a cracker, with some really juicy twists to it. Even better, Marina has amnesia, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know how much I love stories where the main character has forgotten their life. They always discover such terrible secrets lurking in their lost memories, and Arclight is no exception.

There’s also a love triangle, with Marina torn between two romantic possibilities, which is a popular trope in YA fiction. Normally I find them annoying. No one would really want to be in such a terrible situation, knowing that whoever they choose, someone else they love will be hurt. Yet so many books make it seem desirable.

However, in Arclight, there is a good logical reason for the situation, not just an indecisive teen trying to decide between two hot boys, and it makes the situation especially poignant. Apparently there is a sequel coming. I’ll be interested to see where McQuein takes the story, but this book is complete in itself (unlike some other YA titles which have simply stopped partway through the story and left you hanging until the next book – something that makes me a Very Cranky Reader).

So: where did Marina come from? How did she survive the Dark? Read Arclight by Josin L McQuein and enjoy uncovering the answers. But remember: “No one is safe when the lights go out.”

Next up in A Fantasy Alphabet: B is for Blackbirds.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review Alphabet

Well, the Twelve Reads of Christmas is over. Did you like it? I certainly enjoyed myself.

Of course, I had the idea way before Christmas, and the plan was always to read the books and write reviews well in advance, not do what I actually did and virtually read a book a day and write the reviews as I went. My eyes were not happy with me.

But what can you do? “Before Christmas” is not exactly a wasteland of free time, with nothing to do but lie around eating grapes and reading. For one thing “Before Christmas” (hereinafter referred to as BC) includes November, and we all know November is throw-yourself-into-crazy-writing-mode month.

I was supremely happy with my November effort this year. A complete 74,000 word draft! (My God, that deserves more than one exclamation mark – here, have a few more!!!) I’ve been letting it sit untouched since then, but will be going back to revise soon. I hope it’s as good as I remember. (Undoubtedly it will turn out to be made of suck, but hey, that’s what revision’s for.)

And then, once you make it out of the salt mines of November, it’s straight on to the end-of-year madness. Your life disappears in a whirl of assemblies, plays and concerts, while all the time that little panicked voice at the back of your head is bleating about the Christmas shopping and all the Things You Have to DO before BC becomes C and it’s all over for another year (thank God).

But I digress. I was telling you how much I enjoyed writing my reviews. If the pace hadn’t been quite so punishing I would have enjoyed it even more, so I was thinking of starting another series that might go all year, though in a more leisurely fashion.

And what do you know? It’s like magic. There are 52 weeks in the year, and 26 letters in the alphabet. See how perfectly that fits? It’s enough to make you think alien spacefaring monkeys must have started human civilisation at the dawn of time. It can’t be a coincidence!

Be that as it may, the lure of a new project is strong. A review series based on the letters of the alphabet would be fun, don’t you think? One-word titles would be neat. There’s a bit more scope there than titles with numbers in them, so it shouldn’t be too hard (though the latter end of the alphabet may be challenging). It’ll probably mostly be fantasy, since I’ll be looking for books I actually want to read (or reread, in some cases) for each letter.

I’m open to suggestions, though, on some of the trickier letters. Anyone know any good books that have a one-word title starting with Z?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The road to publishing is paved with a million itty bitty decisions

I’m thinking of changing the subheading on my blog to “Self publishing is like being pecked to death by a duck”. So many fiddly damned decisions to make. A billion and one new skills to master. I can see why so many authors fall prey to the “let us do it all for you” vultures out there. It would be so much easier …

However, we’re not going to slide into self-pity here. As they say, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, so let’s crack out the cutlery and get started.

But as it turns out, there’s no need for the pachyderms of the world to start shaking in their baggy grey skins just yet. Leaving aside for the moment the whole have you written a book yet? have you revised and edited and made sure it’s a good book? thing, the very firstest of all first decisions has me stumped.

What is my name?

You can’t run without legs, and you can’t start platform-building and getting your name known on Goodreads and Twitter and all the rest of it until you settle on your writerly name.

For reasons to do with a paranoid addiction to privacy and the fact that half the world misspells my real name (which is long), I don’t want to use my actual name. I had settled on the name “Marina Finn”, which is close enough to my real name to feel like me while still being short and memorable, when I made a very sad discovery.

There is already an author named “Maria Finn”. She seems to write memoir and cookbooks, so she’s not in the same fields as me, so possibly I could still go with Marina Finn. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to piggyback on her success, or to confuse my books with hers, so I don’t feel right about Marina Finn any more. (Sad face.)

But never fear! There are still options! We love options, preferably with sauce, but when there’s too many we dither in front of the pachyderm smorgasbord, unable to choose.

How about adding my middle initial? Marina K Finn sounds different enough from Maria Finn, doesn’t it? Or I could follow the greats like Tolkien, Rowling and Martin all the way down the initial path to MK Finn. (Could be good if I ever start writing science fiction or thrillers, whose male audiences often look askance at books written by women.)

But if I’m not going to use my real name anyway, why not go the whole hog and make up something completely unrelated? That’s always been a popular choice with authors. For instance, I quite fancy being a Piper. There don’t seem to be any authors called Piper Finn – but the twitter handle’s already taken. How about Piper O’Connor? Sounds kind of young and jaunty.

Or I could revert to my maiden name. I’m actually not keen on this one, though I’m not sure why. Does it seem weird that even as a child I wanted to marry someone whose name started with “E” or “F” because those names always seemed to be in the prime spot on the shelves in the bookshops? It does? Damn, I thought you were going to say that.

I guess I’m leaning toward Marina K Finn at the moment. Piper is tempting but it would feel strange to start answering to another name. What do you think, Internet? What would you do if you were me?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: 12th of Never by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: 12th of Never, 11 Birthdays, Ten Big Ones, Nine Parts of Desire, When Eight Bells Toll, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the final book in The Twelve Reads of Christmas series, I’m reviewing 12th of Never by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro.


 This is the latest in The Women’s Murder Club series. I haven’t read any of the others but, as with Ten Big Ones, it didn’t seem to matter. Like the Stephanie Plum series, you don’t need all the backstory to follow what’s going on.

And what’s going on caught my interest early on by opening with a woman in labour. She’s all alone at home in the middle of a violent storm and the power’s out. I was standing in the bookshop reading this scene and I had to buy the book to find out what happened!

Fortunately the baby arrives safely, and the new mum turns out to be detective Lindsay Boxer, who soon has several problems on her hands, both personal and professional. Her three friends, Yuki the lawyer, Claire the medical examiner and Cindy the reporter, also have problems, some of them related to Lindsay’s. Claire, for instance, is demoted after a murder victim goes missing from the morgue.

The missing body is only one case Lindsay’s working on. Others include a professor who keeps giving the police detailed descriptions of murders which then happen as described, and a serial killer who’s just woken from a two-year coma, who wants to tell Lindsay and only Lindsay where the bodies are buried.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. To add to the frantic pace, each short scene is a chapter in itself. And I mean short – 500 to 600 words at most. You feel like you’re rushing through, just hitting the highlights of a scene, and then it’s over and you’re rushing off to something else.

It certainly made for a quick, if rather breathless, read. I was quite intrigued to see how some of the plotlines – particularly the one involving the prescient professor – would pan out. A couple of times I was surprised, but other times the “big reveal” seemed blindingly obvious.

The four female friends didn’t have a lot to do with each other in the story. I got the impression from the series name that they would be working together to solve a mystery, using their complementary skills. Perhaps they have done so in earlier books, but here the focus was mainly on Lindsay, whose sections were the only ones written in first person, which made her seem like the main character, and everyone else revolved around her. There was a bit of a sameness to the characters which made it harder to remember who was who and which bit of the story they were involved in as we raced through the plot.

It was an entertaining enough read, but it didn’t make me want to rush out and buy the other eleven.


And that’s it for The Twelve Reads of Christmas. Phew! Now I can read a book that doesn’t have a number in the title. Hope you enjoyed the series.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love read to me: 11 Birthdays, Ten Big Ones, Nine Parts of Desire, When Eight Bells Toll, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the eleventh day of Christmas, I’m reviewing 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass.


This is a middle grade book with a Groundhog Day premise. Amanda and Leo were born on the same day in a small-town hospital, and ever since they’ve celebrated their birthday together. Until, at their tenth birthday party, Amanda overhears Leo saying something unforgiveable, and promptly severs their friendship.

Now it’s their eleventh birthday. They’re both miserable – but worse than that, they’re both caught in a curse that ensnared their greatgrandparents decades before – and the horrible day of their eleventh birthday just keeps repeating. If they can’t figure out what’s going on and how to break their curse, they could be blowing out eleven candles every day for the rest of their lives.

It’s a long time since I’ve read a middle grade book, and I have to admit this wasn’t my first choice for the eleventh read of Christmas. That was Stephen King’s time travel story 11.22.63 – but when I got to the library and saw the size of that sucker, I went looking for something that wasn’t going to take me a week to read, and this is what I found.

I think if I’d read it when I was a middle-grader I would have really enjoyed this. As an adult I found some of the themes pushed a bit heavily, but eight or nine-year-old me would never have noticed, too busy following the amusing adventures of the two birthday kids. I would have liked the little touch of magic too. What kid wouldn’t love the chance to live without consequences? No matter what you did, it was all forgotten when you woke up and relived the same day fresh again. Think of the possibilities! Leo certainly did.

It was nice to see a proper friendship between a girl and a boy too. A sweet, feel-good story for the younger readers in your life.


For the last read of Christmas, coming up is 12th of Never by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Ten Big Ones, Nine Parts of Desire, When Eight Bells Toll, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the tenth day of my series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, I’m reviewing Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich.

 

This is the tenth book in a series about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum that began with One For the Money and is up to Takedown Twenty with no sign of stopping yet. I haven’t read any of the others and it didn’t affect my enjoyment at all. I’m guessing, like a TV serial that offers a self-contained story every week, you could start with any of these and enjoy Stephanie’s current dilemma without knowing any of the backstory.

And, like a good sitcom, the cast of supporting characters is a big part of the fun. Stephanie is surrounded by larger-than-life characters like her crazy grandmother and her sometime sidekick. Sometimes their antics teeter on the edge of the unbelievable – and sometimes Stephanie herself behaves in ways that seem to suit the convenience of the plot rather than having much to do with reality – but it would be churlish to pick at such minor points when the overall reading experience is so good.

“The way I see it, life is a jelly doughnut,” the novel begins. Shades of Forrest Gump, but I love where Evanovich goes with this:

“You don’t really know what it’s about until you bite into it. And then, just when you decide it’s good, you drop a big glob of jelly on your best T-shirt.

My name is Stephanie Plum, and I drop a lot of jelly globs, figuratively and literally.”

Aaah. I can feel myself relaxing into the novel already. I love the voice, and a good voice is a huge part of a novel’s attraction. Plot is important, and if you don’t have a good plot you lose me as a reader, but the best plot in the world won’t keep my interest if the voice doesn’t draw me in to the world of the novel.

If there was any doubt that we are in the hands of a writer who knows her stuff, it’s blown out of the water by the first exchange of dialogue:

“ ‘Hey,’ I said to Lula. ‘What happened to the filing job? Who does the filing now?’
‘I do the filing. I file the ass out of that office.’
‘You’re never in the office.’
‘The hell I am. I was in the office when you showed up this morning.’
‘Yeah, but you weren’t filing. You were doing your nails.’ ”

As a reader, I’m grinning. I can hear those voices. As a writer, I’m in awe of her assured handling of dialogue. One “said”. No adverbs. No descriptions of what people are doing. Just a great back-and-forth that says a lot about these characters and their relationship. I could learn a lot here.

The plot races off, with Stephanie soon in danger – though it’s a close call whether she should be more frightened of the gangsters who are after her or her sister’s wedding plans. She has two hunky male love interests trying to protect her, but in the end salvation comes from a totally unexpected, but vastly amusing, source.

It hardly even matters what the plot is. The journey is pure entertainment. I’m not sure what genre you’d call this – I thought these were crime novels but, while there are plenty of criminals, there’s no mystery to solve. Romantic adventure, maybe?

Whatever you call it, it’s a great read. Highly recommended.
  

Almost at the end of our Twelve Reads of Christmas now! Coming up for number eleven is 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Nine Parts of Desire, When Eight Bells Toll, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the ninth day of my series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, I’m reviewing another non-fiction work, Nine Parts of Desire by journalist Geraldine Brooks.

  
This book is subtitled “The Hidden World of Islamic Women” and is an exploration of the many facets of life as a Muslim woman, both historically and in today’s world. It is based on Brooks’ extensive travels through many Islamic countries and tells the stories of the women she met on the way. Some are well-known figures such as Queen Noor of Jordan, or the daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini. Others are everyday women living their lives in accordance with the teachings of the Koran and the words of the Prophet Muhammad.

The book’s title comes from a quote from the founder of the Shiite sect, who was married to the Prophet’s favourite daughter: “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.”

A lot of Islam’s teachings and customs regarding women seem to stem from this attitude. Women are the temptresses, who must be controlled and covered up so as not to lead men into sin. I find it fascinating that the world’s other major religion, Christianity, takes the opposite view: men have all the desire, and women are the innocent objects they seduce and ruin. Yet the two opposing viewpoints arrive at the same conclusion: women must be controlled and held responsible for the actions of men.

Basically, ladies, we can’t win.

This is a fascinating and well-researched book which gives a great overview of the issues to do with women and Islam, with chapters on such things as clothing restrictions, sexual control through clitoridectomy and honour killings, polygamy and jihad, amongst others. But though academically it’s interesting, it’s difficult to read without getting angry. So many women are deprived of basic human rights in the name of religion, though in fact the teachings of the Koran have very little to do with the customs that have grown up over the centuries.

The sections that talk about the life of Muhammad and his dealings with his many wives are particularly interesting. I see parallels here with the founder of the Mormon church, who also received many revelations from God that seemed helpful to his own particular desires.

Muhammad’s favourite wife Aisha was quick to point out the coincidence of how many of the Prophet’s divine revelations touched on his own situation. “It seems to me … your Lord makes haste to satisfy your desires”, she said of Muhammad’s revelation that the incest laws against a father marrying the wife of a son didn’t apply to adopted children, thus clearing the way for him to marry his adopted son’s desirable divorced wife.

Everywhere in this book are things to make you grind your teeth. Did you know that Islam prescribes a dress code for men too? No, neither did I. That’s because it’s not adhered to. Men are free to wear whatever modern, revealing fashion they like, while the dangerous bodies of their wives and daughters must be swaddled in heavy black disguises.

I would say I recommend this book – except I worry about your blood pressure if you read it. It’s fascinating but infuriating, important but depressing. Read at your own risk.

At least you’re able to. For many Muslim girls, reading and education are an impossible dream.


Coming up next, something a little lighter: Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: When Eight Bells Toll, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the eighth day of my series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, I’m reviewing a book that’s nearly as old as I am, When Eight Bells Toll by Alistair MacLean.


This book is so old that my copy has pictures from the movie on the cover, showing Anthony Hopkins looking young and dashing. James Bond-like, even. I didn’t realise he was ever leading man material – I’ve only seen him play old or, at best, middle-aged characters.

The story begins rather like One Shot, with a detailed description of a gun. The writing is more lyrical and the sentences more traditionally structured than in One Shot, but there is still a lot of gun-related information. We are nearly at the bottom of a very wordy first page before it’s even mentioned that this particular gun is pointing right at the first person narrator.

Talk about burying the lede!

This is one of the things that make this book feel its age. It takes its time getting to the point of anything in a way that thriller writers these days just don’t do (at least in my limited experience). We don’t even find out what the whole point of the book is till about three-quarters of the way through. Till then our hero, a secret service agent on a mission in the remote harbours of Scotland, does a lot of secretive messing about on boats, but we don’t know why.

A couple of other things that date the book are pop culture references that mean nothing any more, and a rather wince-inducing attitude to women on the part of our hero.

The book is not without its charms, though. The narrator has a wry humour that’s quite entertaining. Discussing two dead colleagues, who in life had the still watchfulness common to men in their profession, he says “and I had no doubt they had gone on being as still and watchful as ever, but they hadn’t been watchful enough and now they were only still”.

But I have to admit, I wouldn’t have finished the book if I hadn’t been reading it for this series. The plot was well-structured, if a little predictable in places, but somehow the writing held me at a distance. I had trouble caring what happened to any of the characters, and could easily have set it down at any time. I freely admit I’m probably not the target audience, and I don’t read many thrillers, but it was more than that. One Shot kept me turning the pages all right. This one was perhaps too much of an intellectual puzzle, just not compelling enough on an emotional level.

Quite possibly the fact that we didn’t find out what was going on till late in the piece was part of the problem. If you don’t know what the stakes are, how can you care what happens?

I’d probably recommend you watch the movie instead. If nothing else, you get to see Anthony Hopkins with hair!


Coming up on the ninth day of Christmas: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love read to me: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Today, for the seventh day of my series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, I’m reviewing that classic of self-improvement, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey.


And right from the get-go, we’re in very different territory to that covered in The 4-Hour Work Week. There is no winning on technicalities or suspect work arrangements here. The sub-title leaves us in no doubt: “Restoring the Character Ethic”. This book is full of words like integrity, values, principles and conscience.

Covey’s seven habits are designed to give you a happy and successful life by applying the “character ethic” of integrity, hard work, patience, fairness and applying the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would wish to be treated”), rather than relying on the quick-fix techniques of the “personality ethic”, such as positive thinking and communication skill training. His habits are the “internalisation of correct principles” to make you a better person, the kind of person other people trust and are drawn to, who earns their success through hard work, not scams.

The first three habits are the “private victories” over the self, without which a person cannot be independent and must live their lives according to other people’s scripts. For instance, the first habit, “Be Proactive”, means you have to stop blaming other people for everything you think is wrong with your life, and take charge yourself.

The second habit, “Begin With the End in Mind”, tells us to be sure of our goals before we start – and he’s not just talking immediate goals here, but the life-spanning what-do-you-want-people-to-say-about-you-at-your-funeral kind of goals. Only if you know the target you’re aiming for can you ensure that all the steps you take in life are in the direction of fulfilling the goals that are truly important to you. As Covey says in a cute recurring metaphor, it’s too easy to get caught up in busy-ness, “to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall”.

After you’ve mastered the “private victories” and become independent, you can aim for the pinnacle – interdependence, where you combine your strengths with others’, in life or at work, to come up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. To achieve interdependence, there are the “public victories” of habits 4 to 6, such as habit 4, “Think Win/Win”.

Habit 7 applies to all six of the previous ones, and is the habit of continuous improvement. You never get to rest on your laurels!

The book is well-structured and easy to follow. Covey has obviously done a lot of research, as well as having spent years in the consulting and teaching fields earning real-life experience. His belief in and enthusiasm for the material shines through, and if things sometimes get a little dry, don’t worry, there’ll soon be a personal anecdote to liven things up. I have to admit these were my favourite parts, particularly the ones about his dealings with his kids – I’m always looking for tips on how to be a better parent. (Thankfully it seems I’m mostly doing okay!)

There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I could see how it could be truly life-changing if you took its advice to heart. Just the advice on reordering your priorities in the section on habit 3, “Put First Things First”, is worth the price of admission. The book came out in 1990, so if you’ve done any kind of time management course since then, you’ve probably seen it before, but it’s good to be reminded.

He talks about a time-management matrix, where activities can be divided into four groups: urgent and important tasks like crises; not urgent but still important tasks such as long-term planning; urgent and not important things like some meetings or phone calls; and tasks that are neither urgent or important: trivia and “busy work”.

At the beginning of the chapter he asks: “What one thing could you do (you aren’t doing now) that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?” Likewise, what one thing would make a similar difference to your professional life?

My answers: exercise every day, and write every day. And later in the chapter he asks you to look at your answers and see where they fit in the urgent/important matrix. He guesses, correctly in my case, and perhaps in most people’s, that they are “obviously important, deeply important, but not urgent. And because they aren’t urgent, you don’t do them”. And yet, we know they are things that would make “a tremendous positive difference” if we did. The way forward is clear!

Seems The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is just about the perfect book to read at this time of year – if you have New Year’s Resolutions in mind, it could be just the push you need.


Coming up on the eighth day of Christmas, a contribution from the Carnivore’s bookshelves: Alistair MacLean’s When Eight Bells Toll.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year!

Can you believe that? January again?? It seems to roll around faster every year!

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions? What are they?

I only have one this year, but it’s a biggie. I’m determined that 2014 is the year I finally start indie publishing. The learning curve is terrifying, but I’ll just have to grit my teeth and get on with it. Plenty of other people have managed it.

And I’m sure I won’t be lying on my deathbed one day wishing I’d spent more time faffing around on the internet. Publishing is the one big item I simply must tick off the bucket list.



Christmas already seems like forever ago, though it was only last week. Before I forgot, I wanted to show you how pretty my table looked for Christmas lunch. There were only a few of us, but we had a lovely day.

My side of the family got together for Christmas earlier in December because some of the family who live overseas were visiting. One person hadn’t seen Baby Duck since he was a toddler.

“You’ve grown so much!” she said to him. “How did you do that?”

Straight-faced, he replied: “Steroids.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: The Six Sacred Stones by Matthew Reilly

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: The Six Sacred Stones, Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

Continuing The Twelve Reads of Christmas, today I’m reviewing Matthew Reilly’s fast-paced action adventure The Six Sacred Stones.

The Six Sacred Stones (Jack West Jr, #2)

The Six Sacred Stones is a new adventure for ex-special forces soldier Jack West and his trusty band of sidekicks, after their first outing in Seven Ancient Wonders. Once again, they are called on to save the world, this time from an approaching “Dark Sun”, some kind of super-multigrated black hole lurking behind Jupiter which will soon destroy all life on earth.

That is, unless Jack and the gang can find the Six Sacred Stones, some very special matching diamond Pillars, charge the Stones in another ancient and Special Thingy, then somehow get all the Stones and the Pillars to various exotic hidden-since-ancient-times locations around the globe, where huge upside down pyramids await … and somehow start The Machine That Will Save the Earth. Which was probably devised by an ancient civilisation of people who existed before people began.

Or something. I stopped trying to follow it all after a while and just settled back to enjoy the ride. There are a lot of excited capitalisations: Pillars! Stones! Vertices! Potatoes! (Just kidding about the potatoes.) There are breathless sentences like this:

“He quickly slid up over the cockpit dashboard and stood out on the nose of the Clipper, in the battering wind, between the two flying planes!

(Italics and exclamation mark are Reilly’s.) You get the impression that Reilly is enjoying himself hugely, and if you are prepared to let go of the idea that plots should be at least vaguely possible and the laws of physics ought to be observed at all times, then you can enjoy the read too.

It’s like the old-time Saturday afternoon matinees – highly improbable and wildly entertaining. No one expects realism of Indiana Jones, and Jack West is much the same.

And I thought Jack Reacher was annoyingly perfect in One Shot! Jack West makes him look like a bumbling amateur. (And what is it with all the Jacks? Did someone publish a list of Manly Man’s Names that I missed? Let me guess what was in the Number One spot.)

It’s all ridiculously over the top. The villain is Extremely Evil. No, seriously, he’s a Very Very Bad Man. We know this because right at the start he tells a subordinate who has failed in his mission:

“Now, if you wouldn’t mind, Black Dragon, shoot yourself in the head … You were responsible and so you must pay the ultimate penalty.”

Isn’t that awesome? You must pay the ultimate penalty. Who talks like this?

Well, everyone in the book, actually. There is no characterisation. Unlike Liane Moriarty’s writing in Three Wishes, where you knew whose point of view you were in even from the word choices and syntax of the narration, much less the dialogue, everyone sounds the same. Here’s an eleven-year-old boy:

“the Altar Stone, if re-erected, would be at the very heart of the structure”

But such niceties as characterisation are as unnecessary as the laws of physics. Such things are not part of this book’s appeal.

It’s a very visual book. You could see it making a rollercoaster ride of a movie. Indeed, there are lots of pictures and diagrams included amongst the text, as if Reilly doesn’t trust the reader to follow his written explanations without help. Or maybe he’s just so enthusiastic he wants to share all the fun bits with his readers.

There’s a kind of comic-book exuberance to the writing that is very appealing. You can see Reilly’s done a lot of research and constructed a very convoluted plot that hangs together well. In some of his other books he’s relied on the most appalling and unlikely coincidences to hold his plot together. Thankfully, there’s none of that here (just thinking about Ice Station makes me want to punch someone), and his characters manage to extricate themselves from some truly diabolical situations through a lot of ingenuity and a good helping of preparedness.

But I must warn you – if you read this, be prepared for a truly blatant cliffhanger at the end. Normally, this would be enough to make me refuse to ever read another book by the same author again. I hate cliffhangers with a passion. To me, a novel has a beginning, a middle and an end – and if you’ve taken my money supposedly for a novel, and it’s missing the last of those three elements, I’m a very annoyed little reader.

In this case, my rage is held at bay by the knowledge that I have the next book on my shelf already. But if I’d read this when it was first published, I would have been Highly Ticked Off.

So be warned – it’s an engaging, larger than life read, as long as you’re not expecting anything too firmly rooted in reality – but make sure you have The Five Greatest Warriors on hand before you start, because this is not a complete story. The world is still in peril! Oh Noes! But don’t panic. I have a feeling Jack West will save the day.


Next up, on the seventh day of Christmas, I review the classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Twelve Reads of Christmas: Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Five on a Treasure Island, The 4-Hour Work Week, Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.

I say, chaps, today I’m continuing my review series The Twelve Reads of Christmas with a jolly exciting book from my childhood. Golly, but I did enjoy it so back then! Better than ham sandwiches with ginger pop – the simply smashing Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton.


Five on a Treasure Island is the first of many Famous Five adventures. I adored these books as a kid, and read the adventures of siblings Julian, Dick, Anne, their cousin Georgina (who liked to be called George) and of course Timothy the dog over and over again. I loved them so much I filled three exercise books when I was about Baby Duck’s age with the adventures of the Romney children, the eldest of whom was a girl named Marina who liked to be called Mark. Blyton fan fic before I even knew what that was!

In this book the five meet when the three children are dumped for the summer on an aunt and uncle they barely know. Mother and Daddy are off to Scotland, just the two of them – how smashing! – and “as you are really getting big enough to look after yourselves now”, as Mother says, the children have to find somewhere else to stay.

That raised my motherly eyebrows, I can tell you. These kids are 10, 11 and 12, and the parents are so close to the family they’re proposing to leave their kids with they have trouble remembering the name of their eleven-year-old daughter. (That would be their own niece.) Nice one, Mother and Daddy!

I guess kids were less cosseted in those days.

However, this seemed like a fine plan to my childhood self. After all, how can you have a decent adventure with your parents hanging around? Disney usually gets around the problem by killing off the parents post haste, so Mother and Daddy should probably be grateful they get some couple time in Scotland rather than, say, a fatal car accident.

And, gosh, but there are adventures! Blyton knows how to hit all the right buttons: a seaside cottage, a sunken wreck in the bay, a private island to explore with a ruined castle on it plus A SECRET TREASURE MAP.

OMG but I loved treasure maps as a kid, and I think this is where it all started. I used to draw them for my slightly younger nephews, and construct elaborate games wherein we discovered “treasure” in the backyard. The Famous Five gave me hours of pleasure even beyond the reading of the books, influencing the games I played and the stories I wrote.

Reading it again now, I’m struck by two things. First, how “innocent” it all was. The bad guys in this novel are the most laughable villains I’ve ever heard of. They may threaten to shoot the dog, but never point their guns at the children. They discover a treasure map leading to a hoard of gold ingots on the island George’s family own, and instead of just turning up one dark night and plundering the place, they arrange to buy the island. So law-abiding! And when they lock two of the children in a dungeon on the island, they most considerately bring down food and water though they’re only planning to be gone for an hour. How jolly thoughtful of them!

It all seems so civilised and non-threatening, compared to the perils children usually face in contemporary children’s fiction. They say the past is another country, don’t they? Things are done differently there.

Sadly, it’s often a country you can’t revisit, either – at least not with the same amount of pleasure as the first time.

The second thing I see as an adult that I was completely oblivious to as a child is the hideous gender stereotyping. Back then I adored George, and rather fancied myself as a tomboy too because of her (though I wasn’t particularly). It’s easy to see the attraction. She’s far more interesting than her jolly nice but rather colourless cousins. She gets to behave badly and have feelings that aren’t all sweetness and light. She’s the most active character in terms of pushing the plot along.

But now, by page 14 I’m already grinding my teeth. Anne, the perfect girly girl, tries to get George to toe the gender line with this speech:

“You won’t find that my brothers take much notice of you if you act as if you know everything. They’re real boys, not pretend boys, like you.”

Oh. My. God. The ultimate threat – my brothers won’t take notice of you! Because that’s the goal of every girls’ life, isn’t it, to be noticed by boys?

And you can’t act as if you know everything when you’re a girl, because that’s what boys do, and they’ve got the monopoly on it.

And no matter how much you try to be like them, you’ll never be good enough because you don’t have a penis, those magnificent pieces of anatomy that magically confer superiority.

The book is riddled with stuff like this – the continuous loving patronising of Anne by her brothers, the careful protection of her because she’s a girl, Dick’s fury at her when she tries to persuade George that boys do cry sometimes. George, of course, never cries, because crying is something girls do.

At one point George does actually cry because some very cry-worthy things have happened. She immediately apologises:

“ ‘I’ve been behaving like a girl,’ she said, half-ashamed.”

Gosh, we can’t have that, can we?? Behaving like girls? How simply beastly!

Sigh.

I still have fond feelings for the Famous Five, because of the joy they brought me as a child. But I don’t think I’ll be rereading any more. The past was a beautiful country, but I’ve changed too much to enjoy the view now.


Coming up on the sixth day of Christmas: The Six Sacred Stones by Matthew Reilly.