Monday, April 30, 2012

And now... Beryl Bainbridge!

A very quick post today - in case you missed it on my previous post, Annabel/Gaskella has taken up the challenge of nominating another author for a reading week, and designing a great badge, and so... Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week will be hitting the blogosphere June 18-24!  More info from Annabel here.  I've been intending to read Beryl Bainbridge for years - at the moment I only have Master Georgie, so it might well be that one I read, but I'll see what the library.  Go over and express your interest, if you are interested, and spread the word!

Jasper John Dooley Star of the Week by Caroline Adderson –NOT RECOMMENDED

Adderson, Caroline and Illustrated by Clanton, Ben Jasper John Dooley Star of the Week 128 pgs. Kids Can Press, Ltd, 2012. $11.96.  (Language-G Violence-G; Sexual Content-G).
When it’s Jasper John Dooley’s turn to be Star of the Week he is beyond excited.  But things start go wrong, first off his much loved lint collection doesn’t go over that well for Show and Tell.  Then Jasper is jealous of his friend Ori’s little sister, and wishes that his family was bigger. When he builds his own brother out of wood, named Earl, it eventually lands him in the principal’s office. Will Jasper make the most of his week in the spotlight or make a mess of everything?
This was one of the worst books that I have reviewed. From an adult perspective (with a psychology background), I was downright disturbed. When a 7 year old is sniffing his lint collection (including belly button lint) in a dark basement it raises my alarm bells. That wasn’t the end of my list of qualms either and you don’t want to get me started.
While I know that student readers won’t have my same hang-ups, I do think that they will fail to relate to this character as he uber weird, acts way younger than his age, and is just plain pathetic. 
EL – NOT RECOMMENDED Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Muriel Spark Reading Week: Review Round-up

Thanks so, so, SO much for all your contributions to Muriel Spark Reading Week - it's been such fun, and exceeded the highest hopes that Harriet and I held.   I'm especially thrilled for those people who discovered Dame Muriel for the first time, and loved her.  Harriet has already posted a round-up, but I thought I'd do one here too, for handy reference.  We were SO close to covering all her novels - just The Mandelbaum Gate left out.  [EDIT: Thanks Christine, we've now done them ALL!]  I've not included links to more general posts about Spark (although they were great!) so here are links to reviews of her novels and other books.  Enjoy!

(I don't have Google Reader or anything like that, so it's entirely possible that I've missed your review - do let me know, and I'll add it to the links below!)

The Novels

The Comforters (1957)
Travellin' Penguin

Robinson (1958)
A Penguin A Week
Vapour Trail

Memento Mori (1959)
A Girl Walks into a Bookstore
Gudron's Tights
A Penguin A Week

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
The Book Trunk
The Only Way Is Reading

The Bachelors (1960)
Behind The Willows
Page Plucker

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
An Adventure in Reading
Book Snob
Harriet Devine

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
Miss Bibliophile
The Book Trunk
Iris on Books
Park Benches & Bookends
A Work in Progress

The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
The Book Trunk

The Public Image (1968)
Page Plucker

The Driver's Seat (1970)
An Adventure in Reading
Harriet Devine
The Literary Stew
Page Plucker
Somewhere Boy
A Tale of Three Cities

Not to Disturb (1971)
Literature Frenzy!

The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
The Books of Life
Seagreen Reader

The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
Behind the Willows
Our Vicar's Wife
Page Plucker

The Takeover (1976)
My Porch

Territorial Rights (1979)
Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
Desperate Reader
A Girl Walks into a Bookstore
Morgana's Cat 

Loitering with Intent (1981)
Behind the Willows
The Captive Reader
Ciao Domenica
Laura's Musings
Our Vicar's Wife
Page Plucker

The Only Problem (1984)
Tales From The Reading Room

A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Harriet Devine
His Futile Occupations
A Reader's Footprints
Roses Over A Cottage Door
Silencing the Bell
La Vicomtesse
Winston's Dad

Symposium (1990)
An Adventure in Reading
Our Vicar's Wife

Reality and Dreams (1996)
Fleur Fisher
Our Vicar's Wife

Aiding and Abetting (2000)
A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore

The Finishing School (2004)
Harriet Devine
Iris on Books
Our Vicar's Wife
Silencing the Bell
Somewhere Boy
Tales From The Reading Room

Non-novels and Miscellaneous

Emily Bront—Ď: Her Life and Work (1953)
I Prefer Reading

The Go-Away Bird (1958)
Vapour Trail

Curriculum Vitae (autobiography) (1992)
Somewhere Boy

Complete Short Stories
Desperate Reader

And if you can speak Dutch... several reviews etc. at Leen Huet's blog!

Now Stacking The Shelves!

I have been trying to stay away from the whole plagiarism issue with The Story Siren. I don't support plagiarism or bullying, etc. I haven't had time to read all the posts with your opinions and thoughts, I'm actually just having some extra time to read comments on my already scheduled and published posts...but I discovered this great new meme by Tynga's reviewsStacking the Shelves!

Isn't that a cool banner? :) It's kind of refreshing!

Anyway, this was a slow week for me. I almost didn't read, mostly because I've been busy with work and planning my vacations, but I still got some great book for review:

Shift by Kim Curran

What do you think? All of them sound good, I hope I can read them as soon as possible :P Ohh, and what did you get this week?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: Article 5 by Kristen Simmons

Title: Article 5
Author: Kristen Simmons
Series: Article 5 #1
Release Date: January 31st 2012
Publisher: Tor Teen
Age: Young Adult
New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., have been abandoned.

The Bill of Rights has been revoked, and replaced with the Moral Statutes.

There are no more police—instead, there are soldiers. There are no more fines for bad behavior—instead, there are arrests, trials, and maybe worse. People who get arrested usually don't come back.

Seventeen-year-old Ember Miller is old enough to remember that things weren't always this way. Living with her rebellious single mother, it's hard for her to forget that people weren't always arrested for reading the wrong books or staying out after dark. It's hard to forget that life in the United States used to be different.

Ember has perfected the art of keeping a low profile. She knows how to get the things she needs, like food stamps and hand-me-down clothes, and how to pass the random home inspections by the military. Her life is as close to peaceful as circumstances allow.

That is, until her mother is arrested for noncompliance with Article 5 of the Moral Statutes. And one of the arresting officers is none other than Chase Jennings—the only boy Ember has ever loved.
Dystopias are pretty popular right now. I like some of them, but my problem is that I get tired pretty fast. That's why I wanted to read Article 5, it sounded different. I was curious, it wasn't about a natural disaster or a disease, but a past war and a new 'government'.

Ember lives in a world of soldiers and articles. If you don't follow them, you're punished. So she's keeping a low profile to live a peaceful life, but when her mother is arrested for noncompliance with Article 5 of the Moral Statutes, her life changes forever.

I really liked this book. It has a little bit of everything, and I think it was realistic. Ember is obliged to attend a 'reformatory' for girls like her...Articles 5. They treat her badly, hurt her and practically abused of her. It was pretty bad (but not as bad as it could have been). When she's about to receive the worst punishment, she's 'saved' by her ex-boyfriend, Chase Jennings, who now is a soldier. She can't trust him, so why is he helping her?

I liked Ember, but sometimes she was too naive. I had an idea of what happened to the other girls at the reformatory when the soldiers decided to punish them, but I can say she was very strong. I liked her love for her mother, she really wanted to find her, but again, she thought they could live a normal life after being arrested?

Chase was a great character, and I think he kind of stole the story. I wanted to know more about him, his suffering and what was on his mind when he decided to help Ember. Also, I liked their 'romance'. I wouldn't call this a romance book, but it's definitely there. But it was realistic (yay!), not ridiculously sweet but more like 'I love you and I will save your life not matter what'.

But, I wished there were more explanations, like why The Bill of Rights has been revoked and why people accept this new regimen. There was bits of explanations, a war from the past, but nothing full. Also, I didn't like Ember's actions sometimes. It was like she was acting exactly as they expected...there was some kissing (not with Chase) that I didn't understand...she was playing with fire.

Overall, I enjoyed Article 5 and definitely recommend it for someone who wants to read a book full of action. It's a great debut, and as I believe it's the kind of thing that could easily happen in our world.

Discussion, discussion...

Harriet will be doing a proper round-up of reviews on her blog tomorrow, and I might well do something after that, so I have a record here too - but I wanted to throw today's post over for discussion in the comments.  This is especially for those of you participating who don't have blogs, but of course everyone is welcome.

1.) How have you found Muriel Spark Reading Week?  What did you read - and was it your first time reading Spark?

2.) Which novel/novels have you been inspired to read next in Spark's canon?

3.) What themes do you identify across Spark's novels?

4.) Which other authors would you recommend to the Spark fan?

I'll answer this one myself, first - I would first and foremost tell people to read Jane Bowles' only novel, Two Serious Ladies, which is very much in Spark territory.  I'd also recommend anything by Barbara Comyns, if you love Spark's detached, surreal-but-matter-of-fact style.  And, perhaps controversially, I'd recommend Ivy Compton-Burnett - because I think Spark learnt a lot about dialogue from reading her.  And Spark does write in her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, that she loved ICB before writing her own novels, saying ICB 'resembled the Greek dramatists in her stark themes, and [...] her art was surrealistic.'  Remind you of anyone?

EDIT: Annabel has now suggested a Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week - more here.  Exciting!

5.) Just, well, discuss!  Anything you want to bring up...

Thanks for making this week so fun - maybe we'll come back next year, or maybe the work has been done in getting everyone excited about one of Britain's foremost authors.  Is there an author you think would be great material for a Reading Week?  If there is, don't just tell me - feel free to organise one yourself!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Shadowcry by Jenna Burtenshaw - ESSENTIAL

Burtenshaw, Jenna, Shadowcry.Greenwillow Books, 2011. Pgs. 320. Language: G, Violence:PG, Sexual Content: G

The Night of Souls, a night where the veil of death is thinnest and impossible magical things become possible, Kate Winters is in great danger. After raising a blackbird from the dead, Kate Winters finds herself burned out of her house and on the run from Silas, a powerful sorcerer, and Da’ru, an evil emperess, who seek  her family’s heirloom magic book “Wintercraft.” In the wrong hands, this book could spell death for many. With her uncle captured and sold into slavery, she’s forced to seek the help of Edgar, a boy with a mysterious, troubled past, to help her escape evil’s clutches. To save her family and kingdom, she’ll need to master her powers and discover her family’s secret past. Will she succeed? Can she save her kingdom?

A fun mystery adventure for fantasy fans. All characters, good and evil, are mysterious, likable, and well-developed. The plot is intense, complex, and fairly fast-paced. The author also does a great job of using foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the reader’s interest. Readers who like action, adventure, magic, paranormal, and a little bit of mystery will enjoy reading this book. MS, HS. ESSENTIAL. Reviewer: Kira M, Youth Services Librarian, WHI Public Library.

Julia Gillian and the Dream of the Dog by Alison McGhee

McGhee, Alison, Julia Gillian and the Dream of the Dog. Scholastic Press, 2010. Pgs. 327. Language: G, Violence: G, Sexual Content: G

Julia is starting sixth grade and middle school. Instead of enjoying recess, Julia is stuck “controlling variables,” older school bullies, reluctant reading buddy, and mounds and mounds of homework. To make matters worse, Julia’s old dog, Bigfoot slowing down is the final straw for Julia’s world falling apart. Can Julia find a way to get her life under control or will life get the best of her?

A short, fun read for reluctant readers. The characters are well-developed. The plot is well-done and does a good job of holding the reader’s interest. Readers who like realistic fiction, school stories, and friendship stories will enjoy reading this book. EL(4-6). ADVISABLE. Reviewer: Kira M, Youth Service Librarian, WHI Public Library.

Two More Sparks: The Abbess of Crewe and The Takeover

A couple more Spark novels this morning; later in the day I'll put up a more general post with some questions looking back over Muriel Spark Reading Week for y'all.

I decided to try and cover some of the Spark titles which others haven't read this week, and so in the past couple of days I read The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976) - consecutive novels from around the middle of Spark's writing career.  Turns out others have now posted about The Abbess of Crewe (including my own mother), but I'm still alone on The Takeover.  Or The Take-over, sometimes.  But Chris won a copy in my very brief competition on Facebook, so perhaps I won't be alone for so long.  Victoria/Litlove wrote in her excellent post that she's seen a lot of people this week say "this isn't one of Spark's best."  I'm delighted to say I've seen equal amounts of "this is my first Spark novel and I love her!" but, for these two novels, I'm going to have to say... they're not Spark's best.  But Spark's sub-par is still rather wonderful.  Onto the books.

The Abbess of Crewe is, the cover of my rather ugly edition informs me, a satire on the Watergate scandal.  (And, rather wonderfully, apparently a film starring Glenda Jackson called Nasty Habits.)  Now, I don't know a lot about the Watergate scandal, which happened over a decade before I was born, so Our Vicar gave me a quick rundown.  All I knew was that bugging was involved, and that seems to be the most salient detail for understanding the links with The Abbess of Crewe.  Who but Muriel Spark would transfer bugging and intrigue from politics to an abbey?  One which, indeed, uses both the Bible and Machiavelli's The Art of War.

Alexandra is the Abbess of Crewe at the start of the novella - after a chapter, Spark does her frequent trick of taking us back in time, to the period where Alexandra and Felicity both wish to win the 'election' for Abbess - supposedly without canvassing for votes, which is forbidden by abbey rules.  Alexandra is one of Spark's casually ruthless characters, without any strenuous sense of morality (which one might expect from a politician, but is amusingly strange from a nun).  She says wonderfully snarky/Sparky things like this:
"I don't deny," says the Abbess, "that by some chance your idea has been successful.  The throw of the dice is bound to turn sometimes in your favour.  But you are wrong to imagine that any idea of yours is good in itself."
Alexandra is not only determined to become Abbess, she is certain that it will happen.  Of course, the reader knows that it will - but it is curious that Alexandra is herself unswerving in this knowledge.  This sort of prelepsis is common in Spark, and always unsettling.  Another unsettling aspect is - and I can't think of other Muriel Spark novels where she does this - that The Abbess of Crewe is all in the present tense.  Usually that's a big no-no for me, but it works quite well here - because it gives the sense of constant surveillance.  And that's what's going on in the abbey: everyone's movements are recorded and observed, in the buildings and grounds.  And then there is the scandal caused by Felicity, and started by the theft of a thimble, alluded to in the first chapter, but rather a mystery to the reader...

My favourite character was one who was rather irrelevant to the plot - even in the slimmest of novellas (and this one comes in under 100 pages in my edition) Spark finds room for tangents, doesn't she?  Sister Gertrude is off in a far-flung corner of the globe, trying to convert cannibals, somewhere "unpronounceable, and they're changing the name of the town tomorrow to something equally unpronounceable."  She is called by telephone every now and then (somehow), is utterly unflappable, issuing the detached and bizarre aphorisms for which Spark is famous ("Justice may be done but on no account should it be seen to be done.")

The Abbess of Crewe is one of Spark's weirder books, and also one of the more amusing - on Thomas's wonderful Quirktensity Graph he puts it somewhere near the middle, but I'd put it in a very-quirky-not-very-intense position.  For people who know lived through the Watergate shenanigans, I imagine the whole thing would be even more entertaining - for me, it tipped the scales at a little too strange, but it was certainly the sort of novella nobody but Spark could have written.

* * * * *

The Takeover is probably my least favourite of the ten Spark novels I've now read - but it's still rather interesting, and good; everything is relative.  I intended this post to be brief, so I'll whip through The Takeover pretty speedily.  It's set in Italy and apparently (the cover again) it's a 'parable of the Pagan seventies', whatever that means.  Hubert and wealthy Maggie Radcliffe have parted ways; Maggie returns to the area with her new husband but Hubert refuses to leave her house, which is still filled with her furniture.  He busies himself secretly selling off her antique furniture and valuable paintings, replacing them with impressive fakes.  Oh, and Hubert 'considers he is a direct descendant of the goddess Diana of Nemi.  He considers he's mystically and spiritually, if not actually, entitled to the place.'  Here he is, in full Pagan action:
Again, standing one winter day alone among the bare soughing branches of those thick woodlands, looking down at the furrowed rectangle where the goddess was worshipped long ago, he shouted aloud with great enthusiasm, "It's mine!  I am the King of Nemi!  It is my divine right!  I am Hubert Mallindaine the descendant of the Emperor of Rome and the Benevolent-Malign Diana of the Woods..."  And whether he was sincere or not; or whether, indeed, he was or was not connected so far back as the divinity-crazed Caligula - and if he was descended from any gods of mythology, purely on statistical grounds who is not? - at any rate, these words were what Hubert cried.
That's a great example of how Spark writes her narratives: she does not interpret or judge, she simply presents the characters, their words and actions, and sits back to watch them.  In The Takeover, though, the stuff about Diana doesn't really seem too important until the final section.  Before that, it's all about money and lies.

There are plenty of characters - other neighbours, including Maggie's son Michael and his wife Mary; various effeminate ex-secretaries to Hubert; Pauline Thin, his current besotted secretary, etc. etc.  More or less all of them are concerned with embezzling from one another, without any sense of conscience-twinging going on anywhere.  That's one of the reasons I couldn't entirely get on board with this novella.  I'm used to Spark's characters being rather unapologetically ruthless - but here they are in the Evelyn Waugh school of selfishness.

The dynamics between Maggie and Hubert are interesting, as she tries unsuccessfully to takeover her own house, and there are certainly many moments of Spark's inimitable style ("How do you know when you're in love?" she said. / "The traffic in the city improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.") but I'm afraid on the whole I found it rather lacking in momentum.  Perhaps if I hadn't recently read several other Muriel Spark novels, and dozens of reviews, I'd have found the joy of reading her style sufficient - but the comparison has made me feel The Takeover a bit lacklustre.

So, a very brief review, I'm afraid.  I daresay one could write a lot about The Takeover, and if any of you are well-acquainted with 1970s Paganism, it would mean more.  For today's post I seem to have picked the two Muriel Spark novels which require the reader to have lived through the 1970s, don't I?  And interestingly, although both are ostensibly about religious activity, neither really have much to do with religion.  That's one of the few links I can see between these consecutive novels - except for both giving away huge plot twists long before they happen, in typical Spark style.

Of the five Spark books I've reviewed this week, I think her autobiography is my favourite - and, from the novels, I would choose The Only Problem, which keeps growing in my estimation since I finished it.  Later today, as I mentioned, there'll be a general discussion post - especially for non-blogging folk, but of course everyone else is welcome to comment too.  Keep posting your reviews, and letting me or Harriet know!  What fun!

Hans My Hedgehog by Kate Coombs - ADVISABLE

Coombs, Kate Hans My Hedgehog  (a tale from the Brothers Grimm), illustrated by John Nickle.  Atheneum (Simon), 2012.  PICTURE BOOK. $17.  

The farmer and his wife would take any child to raise – even one who is half a hedgehog.  When their hedgehog son grows up, he runs to forest to find his own path – that leads to the gates of two different kings and two very different receptions.  And the breaking of a long ago spell.  

Don’t expect this to blithely follow the original – and you really wouldn’t want it to.  Coombs hasn’t “Disney-fied” the original, but she has tweaked things just a bit – telling the story with the same lessons, but not as mean or scary.  This would be good for any fairy tale collection – and great as a comparison.  This one is staying in my library.  

EL (K-3) – ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher.

Leaving Fishers by Margaret Haddix - ADVISABLE

Haddix, Margaret Petersen Leaving Fishers, 255 p.  Simon & Schuster, 1997, 2012.  $9 (new paperback edition).  

Dorry is just floating through her new school – friendless.  Until Angela and her friends come to her rescue and introduce her to their religious group, the Fishers of Men.  At first their attention is flattering, but step by step, the Fishers start pulling Dorry away from her job, from school and even from her family.  Will Dorry choose this group over everything?  

Haddix’s look at the draw of a cult hasn’t lost any of its power after 15 years.  And if you can help a student draw the same connection to gang membership, even better!  

MS, HS – ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher.

Giveaway at GoneReading!

Hi everyone! I just wanted to let you know that GoneReading is celebrating Mother's Day with a huge giveaway!

You can win $100 in Gifts from GoneReading, plus $25 from Amazon....sounds good right? :)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Daisy’s Perfect Word by Sandra Feder –OPTIONAL

Feder, Sandra and Illustrated by Mitchell, Susan Daisy’s Perfect Word 88 pgs. Kids Can Press, Ltd, 2012. $11.21.  (Language-G Violence-G; Sexual Content-G).
Daisy love’s words. She keeps lists of words and puts a lot of thought into what words make her feel like. She has favorite words and words she doesn’t like. When her beloved teacher announces that she is moving away, Daisy decides to give her the perfect word. In a world full of words how is Daisy going to find the perfect one?
This is the kind of book that teachers love, but students might not really vibe with. What teacher wouldn’t love an active learner who is obsessed with increasing their vocabulary and enjoying every second of it? Who knows maybe Daisy will inspire! Overall a wholesome and easy to read simple chapter book.
EL – OPTIONAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

Book Review: To Catch a Highlander (MacLean Curse #3) by Karen Hawkins

Author:  Karen Hawkins
Series: MacLean Curse, #3
Release Date: January 1st 2008
Publisher: Pocket
Age: Adult
In this sizzling romantic adventure, a daring Highland lass plays a high-stakes game to keep the home she loves...but ends up losing her heart instead.
When her father gambles away the family estate to darkly dangerous Lord Dougal MacLean, Sophia MacFarlane is determined to use her wiles to regain it. Forced to stake the one thing she has left -- her virtue -- she desperately hopes her skill can limit her losses to a few matter how hotly tempting Dougal turns out to be.

Dougal MacLean knows that Sophia has some trick up her sleeve, but he can't resist the challenge -- or her ravishing beauty. So when she proposes a card game with most unusual stakes, Dougal is delighted to accept. But as the game ends, Dougal and Sophia discover they've wagered something even more precious -- their hearts.
It has been a while since I read a highlander romance, and I'm really happy I read To Catch a Highlander because I practically loved it.

Dougal is the typical alpha male. He won a house from Sophia's father at a gambling game and is decided to claim it. But Sophia and her father are doing everything to make him leave and leave their house alone.

Sophia is a beauty, and her life is basically spending time with her father. She's not happy when learning her father lost not only their house, but also her mother's jewels. But she has a plan, trick Dougal into a gambling game where she can win the house...and maybe a few kisses.

I love these kind of romance where the sexual tension of the protagonists is everything. Dougal and Sophia were attracted since the moment they met and they did anything to spend time alone and do naughty things. I wasn't expecting to find Dougal's sister and her husband in this story, but it was a nice addition.

Overall, To Catch a Highlander is one of my favorites books of the MacLean Curse series. It's the perfect romance to read in just one afternoon, I liked both protagonists and they always managed to trick themselves in naughty situations.

Curriculum Vitae - Muriel Spark's autobiography

Another Spark review from me - three books reviewed in one day, gosh!  Although this one I actually read during Muriel Spark Reading Week, and I'm writing about it down in Somerset - where the book group my Mum runs have all been reading Muriel Spark.  I joined in their lovely lunch, chatting about Spark - everyone enjoyed reading her, although one lady (who had read The Abbess of Crewe, apparently one of Spark's weirder novels) was rather bemused.  I'm hoping Mum will write some reviews of the Spark novels she's read this week... hint hint...!

Once I've read a lot of an author's novels, I like to look into their life a bit.  (You can do the same, very quickly, with Katherine's piece.)  I prefer doing it that way around - so that I have formed my own opinions from the books, and can use biographical information to augment my interest, rather than act as a starting point.  Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark was looming in one corner of my room, but it's enormous, so I went to the horse's mouth - Spark's 'fragments of an autobiography', Curriculum Vitae (1992).

I had been curious to discover quite how Spark would write an autobiography, since her novels so often eschew normal narrative structures and the reliable narrator.  Not that her narrators are particularly unreliable - just the question of reliability seems to be rather sidelined.  Well, in Curriculum Vitae she is very concerned with reliability (I've typed that so often it doesn't feel like a real [reliable] word any more...) and refuses to trust her own memory: 'I determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses'.  But there are definitely signs of Spark-the-novelist in the structuring of the autobiography.  Her usual trick of playing around with time makes an appearance, but it's the enticingly disjointed beginning which made me realise Spark-the-autobiographer was no real distance from Spark-the-novelist.  She starts by writing about bread, under its own little subheading.  And then butter.  And so on.  It's an interesting way to structure a childhood, but I don't think any other method would suit this most unconventional of novelists.

Spark grew up in beautiful Edinburgh, amongst family and neighbours who were fairly poorly-off, but with many strict manners and customs - although her own parents seem to have been pretty fun.  I can't summarise Spark's many details about this upbringing, but it demonstrates how incredibly observant she was from an early age - and who knows what she left out, because she couldn't find corroborating evidence?  There are definite signs of the latent novelist in Spark:
I was fascinated from the earliest age I can remember by how people arranged themselves.  I can't remember a time when I was not a people-watcher, a behaviourist.
A while later, whilst completing her education at Heriot Watt College, she notes:
I was particularly interested in precis-writing, and took a course in that.  I loved economical prose, and would always try to find the briefest way to express a meaning.
There, I think, you have the two keystones of Spark's novelistic power.  She is endlessly perceptive, and always concise.

In the early section of the autobiography, the part which was of most interest to me (and might well be to others) was on Miss Christina Kay ('that character in search of an author') whose teaching inspired Spark, and helped inspire her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie.  Of course they are not the same - Spark is too good a writer to lift people straight from life, even if that were possible - but they shared a love of educating girls, of Mussolini, and art.  Spark shows how she used Christina Kay, and where she invented.  Indeed, Spark often finishes an anecdote by mentioning which short story or novel the event helped influence.  The following excerpt is an example of this, but also of the way Spark writes her autobiography with the same unusual, out-of-kilter twists she presents so often in her novels:
Just round the corner in Viewforth lived Nita McEwen, who resembled me very much.  She was already in her first year at James Gillespie's School when I saw her with her parents, walking between them, holding their hands.  I was doing the same thing.  I was not yet at school.  It must have been a Saturday or Sunday, when children used to walk with their parents.  My mother remarked how like me the little girl was; one of her parents must have said the same to her.  I looked round at the child and saw she was looking round at me.  Either her likeness to me or something else made me feel strange.  I didn't yet know she was called Nita.  Later, at school, although Nita was in a higher class and we never played together, our physical resemblance was often remarked upon.  Her hair was slightly redder than mine.  Years later, when I was twenty-one, I was to meet Nita McEwen in a boarding house in the then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  There, our likeness to each other was greatly remarked on.  One night, Nita was shot dead by her husband, who then shot himself.  I heard two girl's screams followed by a shot, then another shot.  That was the factual origin of my short story 'Bang-Bang You're Dead'.
Perhaps I should elaborate on the self-confessed disastrous marriage which led to her life in (then) Rhodesia; her cunning escape back to Britain during World War Two; her hilarious account of working for the Poetry Society (which helped inspire Loitering With Intent); the various dramatic and often calamitous personal and professional relationships Spark had... but I want you to read Curriculum Vitae yourself, so I shan't.

Spark finishes this autobiography at about the time her first novel, The Comforters, was published.  She talks of a second volume, and it is such a shame that this volume never appeared - I would love to see her take on literary circles and the trappings of fame - but what Spark has written is wonderful enough.  Curriculum Vitae has all the energy and unusual qualities of a Spark novel, with the added joy of acting as a centre from which all her other works are spokes.  Once you've read three or four (or so) Spark novels, I recommend you hunt this down and see her bizarre take on real life - it's further evidence of her claim (I believe) to being one of the 20th century's greatest writers, and certainly one of its most original.

George by Frank Keating - OPTIONAL

Keating, Frank George: George Washington, Our Founding Father, paintings by Mike Wimmer.  Simon & Schuster, 2012.  $17.  

Educated only until he was 15, among many things, George Washington learned rules of character that he wrote down, treasured and used to govern the rest of his life.  From the his first forays with the militia when he was in his 20’s, through the French-Indian War, the Revolution and onto the Presidency, Washington let these rules become his actions.  

While I loved the paintings on each page and could spend hours poring over them, the integration of the Rules and the text didn’t really appeal to me – I would have rather had a Rule on every page, rather than scattered hither and yon – and it wasn’t intriguing enough to support the stilted, fake auto-biographical styling of the narration.  I would, however, recommend this to a teacher to use the paintings to support a look at Washington around President’s Day or any time for a history lesson.  

EL – OPTIONAL. Cindy, Library Teacher.

Don’t You Dare Read This Mrs. Dunphrey by Margaret Haddix - ESSENTIAL

Haddix, Margaret Peterson Don’t You Dare Read This Mrs. Dunphrey,  115 p. Simon and Schuster, 2012, 1996.  $9 (new paperback edition).  

Tish Bonner’s life is falling apart.  The only hints are in the journal that she writes twice weekly for Mrs. Dunphrey’s English class.  But Tish knows that if she writes “Do not read this”, Mrs. D will respect her privacy.  Until one day, Tish decides to take that extra step and trust her teacher with her pain and anguish.  

Wow!  Has it really been 16 years since this was first released.  This is still one of my go to books when helping a reluctant reader find that first spark.  I love the new cover on this edition.  Time for some new copies!!!  MS – ESSENTIAL.  

Cindy, Library Teacher.

Monkey’s Friends by Ruth Brown –RECOMMENDED

Brown, Ruth Monkey’s Friends 28 pgs. Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 2012. $11.69. (Language-G Violence-G; Sexual Content-G).
When Monkey goes for a walk through the jungle he makes sure to greet all his friends, even when they are hidden.
A great lyrical walk through the jungle. Each page has flap that reveals the hidden friend. Beautiful textural artwork and jungle creatures with just enough personality.
Pre-K – ADVISABLE. Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.

I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill - ADVISABLE

Bonwill, Ann I Don’t Want to be a Pea! Illustrated by Simon Rickerty.  Atheneum (Simon), 2012. PICTURE BOOK.  $15.  

Hugo Hippo and Bella Bird are best of friends, but when they have adifference of opinion as they get ready for a costume party, their friendship may be in jeopardy.  

An excellent story about friendship and compromise.  Adorable pictures and just enough story for a great little lesson!  I will be keeping this one in my middle school for our Teacher Advisory classes and for our Teen Living class.  

EL (K-3) - ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher.

Spell Bound by Rachel Hawkins - ESSENTIAL

Hawkins, Rachel Spell Bound (Hex Hall), 326 p. Disney Hyperion, 2012.  $18.  Violence: PG; Language: PG-13 (18 swears, 0 ‘f’); Mature Content: G.  

Stripped of her demon powers, Sophie doesn’t know where to go in the next step to stop a huge battle that could destroy her family and her friends.  One day she is in the clutches of the evil, demon-hunting Brannicks (who also happen to be her relatives???!!!!) and the next Sophie and her friends are back at Hex Hall – the new power base for the Casnoffs – and they are just supposed to go to class and pretend that nothing happened?  Sophie will not take all of this lying down – in fact she will kick some major butt to save everyone she loves.  But she will also be forced to make a choice that could very well break her heart.  

LOVED IT!  Totally stunned and happy by the ending – I can’t wait until you get a chance to read it!  

MS – ESSENTIAL.  Cindy, Library Teacher

Words Set Me Free by Lesa Cline-Ransome - ADVISABLE

Cline-Ransome, Lesa Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, illustrated by James E. Ransome.  Simon & Schuster, 2012.  PICTURE BOOK.  $17.  

When Hugh’s master catches his wife teaching the young slave Frederick to read, he tells her, “it would forever unfit him to be a slave.”  How true those words were.  While it didn’t happen quickly, the renames Frederick Douglass later finds his way to freedom and becomes an important part of our country’s history.  

While a picture book, there is just enough story to make this worth looking at for a longer lesson.  There are so many great picture books about Slavery and Civil Rights, an elementary school or middle school class could use then all as a basis for an excellent unit.  

EL, MS – ADVISABLE. Cindy, Library Teacher.

Fake Moustache by Tom Angleberger

Angleberger, Tom Fake Moustache, 196  pgs.  Amulet Books, 2012.  $13.95.  Language - G, Sexual Content -G; Violence – G;  

A fake mustache bought at the novelty store pits two friends against each other in a battle to save the fate of the world.  The mustache isn’t just any cheap costume.  It is the Heidelberg Handlebar #7, a very convincing disguise, it can turn a whole town into mindless yes-men. Casper Bengue  a twelve-year-old pust on a suit and mustache and begins robbing banks around the country and launching a bid for the presidency.  His friend Lenny Flem Jr. quickly realizes his buddy is up to no good.  With the help of Jodie O’Rodeo,  teen cowgirl queen, at his side with the townspeople on their trail, Lenny and Jodie set out to stop Casper (Fako Mustacho) before he makes it to the White House.  

This is a silly story that start out a little confusing, but picks up.  It is told in three parts first from Lenny’s point of view then Jodie’s then back to Lenny to end the book.

EL/MS-OPTIONAL. Reviewer:  SFC Librarian.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Two Sparks: The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Only Problem

Although I'm actually writing this in advance of Muriel Spark Reading Week, I'm confidently going to predict that we're all having a great time, and that you're all putting up brilliant, thought-provoking pieces on this wonderful novelist... yes?  Yes.

Since it's my day to post, I'm going to write fairly speedily about two Spark novels that I've read recently - and hopefully by the end of the week I'll have finished at least one more.  (There will be no shortage of Spark reviews around the blogosphere this week, but if you fancy reading all my archive posts on Spark, including this one, click here.)  I chose The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) because my supervisor said it might be a useful comparison to Lolly Willowes, and The Only Problem (1984) because it looked really interesting, and also one that I hadn't seen mentioned anywhere else in the blogosphere.  Cutting a long story short, I thought they were both brilliant - neither take the crown away from Loitering With Intent as my favourite Spark novel yet, but both add to my cumulative for Spark.  You'll be avidly reading Spark posts here, there, and everywhere, so I'll try to keep my reviews brief... and hopefully enough to intrigue you to read them!

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is centred, indeed, in Peckham Rye - and concerns the arrival and influence of one Dougal Douglas (sometimes going by the name of Douglas Dougal.)  The novel opens with the aftermath of a bride being jilted at the altar - indeed, with the bride's mother insulting the jilting groom.  It's all a little confusing (deliberately, one imagines) and it's difficult to get the story straight - especially since everyone is superimposing their views and imaginings over the facts.  The brief chapter concludes:
But, in any case, within a few weeks, everyone forgot the details.  The affair is a legend referred to from time to time in the pubs when conversation takes a matrimonial turn.  Some say the bridegroom came back repentant and married the girl in the end.  Some say, no, he married another girl, while the bride married the best man.  It is wondered if the bride had been carrying on with the best man for some time past.  It is sometimes told that the bride died of grief and the groom shot himself on the Rye.  It is generally agreed that he answered 'No' at his wedding, that he went away alone on his wedding day and turned up again later.
This is a great example of how Spark plays irreverently with the normalities of narrative.  And if the reader expects everything to be neatly unfolded by the end of the novel, then he/she clearly hasn't read much Spark before.  She obeys few authorial 'rules', and weaves her narratives with little concern for the reader's expectation.  If she were writing a play (and she has; I should read them) she would unveil Chekhov's gun in the first act, and nobody would ever lay a finger on it again.

But as someone notes on the first page of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, "It wouldn't have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn't come here."  She is quite right... although it is difficult to trace exactly how Dougal Douglas influences the community, his influence is undeniable.

He turns up somewhat out of the blue, and starts working at 'Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, a small but growing concern.'  His role is fairly vague.  Mr. Druce, the head of the company, is keen to hire 'an Arts man', and Mr. Druce places Douglas Douglas in charge of 'human research.'
"I shall have to do research," Dougal mused, "into their inner lives.  Research into the real Peckham.  It will be necessary to discover the spiritual well-spring, the glorious history of the place, before I am able to offer some impetus."
This research, it appears, chiefly constitutes attracting the workforce from their duties, calmly meddling in their lives, and undermining their confidences.  Dougal is all things to all people, and yet (although it is never asserted directly) it appears he might be an incarnation of the Devil.  He certainly has growths in his temple which rather resemble sawn-off horns - and the events which ensue from his presence have rather the hallmark of evil.

It is a fascinating concept, and one which has Spark written all over it.  She never gives us the certainty (as Sylvia Townsend Warner does in Lolly Willowes) that we are dealing with the Devil.  There isn't really certainty about much, for either the reader of the residents of Peckham Rye - but events spiral and, although the jilted bride is not the worst of the calamaties, it is a structural close to Dougal's presence and the circular narrative itself.  All is done with Spark's brilliant detached authorial voice, with doses of the surreal and strange interwoven with the commonplace and starkly observational.  Brilliant.

* * * * *

The Ballad of Peckham Rye was Spark's fourth novel; The Only Problem comes somewhere towards the end of her almost half-century of novelising - but they are unmistakably by the same author.  The concept is quite different, but the manner of approaching it is still very Sparkian.  I say that the concept is different, but thinking about it, these two novels both concern the nature of evil, in some way - though both rather skirt round the issue.

'The Only Problem' of the title is, according to Harvey Gotham, the problem of suffering.  Accordingly, he has taken himself off to the French countryside to write a monograph on the Book of Job, and his mind rarely wanders from this topic.  His own suffering seems to take the form of interfering relatives and his ex-wife Effie, whom he abandoned in Italy over a stolen chocolate bar.  The sort of premise which makes me know I'm in the delightfully odd world of Muriel Spark.

Amongst the cast are Effie's sister Ruth, and Ruth's husband (Harvey's old student friend) Edward.
Edward used to confide in Harvey, and he in Edward, during their student life together.  Harvey had never, to Edward's knowledge, broken any of these confidences in the sense of revealing them to other people; but he had a way of playing them back to Edward at inopportune moments; it was disconcerting, it made Edward uncomfortable, especially as Harvey chose to remind him of things he had said which he would rather have forgotten.
That is a very Sparkian relationship.  I can't think of any uncomplicated friendships in the eight Spark novels I've read - there is always some element of uneasiness or sharpness, or simply the failure to communicate naturally which characterises so many exchanges throughout her work.  I love conversations and plot expositions which subvert the normal rules in some way, or ignore the anticipated responses - it's on the reasons I love Ivy Compton-Burnett - and here is an example from The Only Problem.  There are some spoilers in it, so skim past if you want to avoid them:
Anne-Marie had put some soup on the table.  Harvey and Ruth were silent before her, now that she wasn't a maid but a police auxiliary.  When she had left, Ruth said, "I don't know if I'll be able to keep this down.  I'm pregnant."

"How did that happen?" Harvey said.

"The same as it always happens."

"How long have you known?"

"Three weeks."

"Nobody tells me anything," Harvey said.

"You don't want to know anything."
We aren't long in the cerebal world of theological exegesis.  Effie - it is claimed - has become involved in a terrorist organisation, and the police think that Harvey is also somehow implicated.  In vain does he protest (although never especially animatedly - Spark's characters tend towards the calm and detached) that he hasn't spoken to Effie for years.  The rest of The Only Problem follows this mad chain of events - Harvey calmly continuing to offer his readings of Job, while the police interrogate him and his wife's motives and actions remain mysterious.

Spark doesn't, however, permit the obvious parallels.  A lesser novelist (had they been able to think of the juxtaposition) would have used the wider action of the novel as an example of the problem of suffering.  Instead, like in all the novels I've read by her, Spark just lets things happen.  There isn't really any rhyme or reason, or grand overarching narrative point; there are no neat conclusions, just the brilliance of Spark's eccentric but observant writing.

So, two more gems to the Spark canon!  I'm so pleased Muriel Spark Reading Week gave me the encouragement to read more Spark.  Do continue to put links in the comments box, if you've reviewed a Spark novel or written anything about our Muriel - and I hope you're having a fun week!

Man Trip (A Calvin Coconut Book) by Graham Salisbury -ESSENTIAL

Salisbury, Graham and illustrated by Rogers, Jacqueline Man Trip (A Calvin Coconut Book) 144 pgs. Wendy Lamb Books, 2012. $11.04. (Language-G Violence-G; Sexual Content-G). Calvin gets to go on a plane for the first time, but even better he gets to go deep sea fishing. He is going with his Mom’s boyfriend Ledward, who calls it a Man Trip. Calvin has only ever caught little fish in the creek by his house and is super excited. There is also the complication of the frogs ruining his mowing and certain girl at school who loves frogs! I am starting to think that this author is the master of understated life lessons mixed skillfully into engaging stories.
I was so thrilled by this book, that I might have enjoyed the fishing more than Calvin did! Students will love these stories of a young boy who has a colorful life and fun adventures. This is the second Calvin Coconut book I have reviewed, and I am now officially a huge fan of this series and its author. EL – ESSENTIAL Reviewer: Stephanie MLS graduate & Author.