Review: A Royal Passion, Katie Whitaker

When I was seven, my class did a topic on the Tudors.  I fell in love.  It's never really gone away - I still think the Tudors are fairly amazing.  Anyway, when the term's topic ended and we moved on (to the Aztecs, it just wasn't the same thing even if they did have cocoa beans), I tried to console myself by reading further on in my Kings and Queens of England and Scotland book (the Plantagenet Somerset Fry one which is tragically no longer in print) and through this discovered the Stuarts.  Somehow, I never thought that they were as good.  By then I was eight and to my objective eye, their hair was too long, their clothes were weird and they were just silly people who didn't know how to govern properly.  I have read a lot about the Victorians and the Plantagenets but somehow I've never taken a great deal of interest in the Stuarts.  But then ... I moved to Oxford.  During the Civil War, Oxford was the Royalist stronghold and my place of work is where Henrietta Maria lived and held court.  So ... my curiousity was finally piqued.  I read about the Curious Case of the Headless King.

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Fictional Mean Girls

I almost can't believe that it's been ten years since Mean Girls burst onto the screen - like Clueless, it very much became a touchstone in popular culture.  Many of the young actresses involved have gone on to significant success since (or in the case of Lindsey Lohan significant trouble with the law).  I had some slightly mixed feelings about the film because it is based on a self-help book called Queen Bees and Wannabes which my mother read to help her cope with my teenager self - something I really resented since I knew I was a pretty harmless kind of person, particularly compared to most of my peer group.  Anyway, I got to thinking about which were the most similarly unpleasant females of fiction - who are the truly mean girls?

The best Mean Girls are almost exclusively written by women, which is of course because a Mean Girl is not a figure of fear for boys.  Mean Girls are only ever mean to boys in passing - their targets are other girls.  The highly economical one-sentence put-downs deployed by Mean Girls have the power to leave scars that will last for decades, shuddered over occasionally and quickly shut away again.  Female writers understand - they may even bear such scars themselves - and so they are able to write such fabulously Mean, Mean Girls.  The ultimate genius for this was of course Jane Austen, she had an eye for the pointed punchline herself and each of her novels have at least one woman with sharp verbal claws.  It's not true that meanness is an exclusively female quality - I have known several very mean-spirited boys but the Mean Girl is not to be trusted, she may seem sweet as sugar but she is the false friend, she is looking out for herself and she will turn on you like lightning.  Be warned.

Wuthering Heights December Readalong

LiterarySisters Kirsty
Kirsty from the wonderful Literary Sisters site and I have been having extensive discussions about the possibility of a Booktube Bookclub.  I know that only a very slim minority of the lovely people who read my site use Booktube but there are a fair few bloggers so whether you choose to blog about it or booktube (or even both), I invite and encourage you all to join us for our first Readalong book together, Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights is a long-term favourite of mine but I actually haven't read it since my first year at university so I am looking forward to getting re-acquainted.  Also, it does seem like a very Christmassy kind of read.  I'm not sure why - Christmas does not itself feature but maybe its all the wuthering.  I'm hoping to post my review in the first week of January so there's plenty of time if you're interested - let us know in the comments below!

Saturday Poem - When I Was A Boy

I first learnt this poem as a seven year-old - we spent a whole day doing activities about it and I even drew a picture to accompany it.  One of my favourite things about running the Saturday poem is re-discovering old favourites like this one which pop into my mind almost out of the blue.  There is such a brilliant simplicity to Charles Causley's poetry.  I wonder how many other fans there are out there ...

Charles Causley
When I Was A Boy

When I was a boy
On the Isle of Wight
We all had a bath
On Friday night.
The bath was made
Of Cornish tin
And when one got out
Another got in.
          First there was Jenny
          Then there was Jean,
          Then there was Bessie
          Skinny as a bean,
          Then there was Peter,
          Then there was Paul,
          And I was the very last
          One of all.

When mammy boiled the water
We all felt blue
And we lined up like a cinema queue.
We never had time
To bob or blush
When she went to work with the scrubbing brush.
          First there was Jenny
          Then there was Jean,
          Then there was Bessie
          Skinny as a bean,
          Then there was Peter,
          Then there was Paul,
          And I was the very last
          One of all.

When I was a boy
On the Isle of Wight
My mammy went to work
Like dynamite:
Soap on the ceiling,
Water on the floor,
Mammy put the kettle on
And boil some more!
          First there was Jenny
          Then there was Jean,
          Then there was Bessie
          Skinny as a bean,
          Then there was Peter,
          Then there was Paul,
          And I was the very last
          One of all.

Charles Causley

For the full archive of past Saturday poems, visit Poetry Please in the Features.

Review: Family Secrets, Deborah Cohen

An alternative title for this book could have been The History of Shame.  Deborah Cohen takes an academic approach to the history of family secrets in this fascinating piece of social history.  As she herself acknowledges, it is extremely difficult to chronicle something which by definition was kept secret but Cohen has taken a step back and tried to understand how prevailing trends altered people's attitudes towards the people and events who they would prefer to airbrush from their back story.

Cohen divides her book into three sections but really it splits better into two.  The first five chapters cover issues such as mixed-race children, divorce and adultery, disabled offspring, illegitimacy and homosexuality.  The final two consider the changing nature of the family structure, the rebellion against the nuclear family and how we move forwards as a society.

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Spin Offs

Spin offs.  Spin offs.  So very many spin offs.  Where there has been success, there will inevitably be someone trying to cash in for themselves.  That is the jaded view of course, the fairer one is that where books capture the imagination, certain gifted writers are able to expand on the original story with a creation of their own.  I'm not referring to Death Comes To Pemberley which made an embarrassing number of mistakes about the original source material (which was Pride and Prejudice so surely PD James could have made an effort) or the James Potter series which from my limited readings seems to be Harry Potter re-run but Americanised.  I'm thinking of instances of actual invention and originality - I've started thinking about my Top Ten Tuesdays when I go swimming and I was charging up and down the lanes, these are what I came up with.

Review: St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, Karen Russell

This was a book that I wanted to read purely for the title alone.  It's a fantastic collection of short stories, each one beautiful and painful on its own merits.  Blending elements of the Gothic with the everyday, each tale ends abruptly just at the point where the drama seems to have reached fever pitch.  There is a sense of unease throughout the collection - the quote on the front that describes the stories as 'fabulous fun' seems a woefully inadequate way of describing these tales of the grim and the bizarre.  Truly, these are tales of where the wild things are.

Review: March, Geraldine Brooks

I bought this years ago, it won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2006 and was widely spoken of but I was very busy and it slipped down my To Be Read list but re-reading Little Women a few weeks ago inspired me to pick it up again.  Geraldine Brooks endeavours in this novel to lend a voice to one of the blankest characters in literary history - Mr March himself.  As the title suggests, Little Women is very much about the girls, about what it means to be a woman and how to conduct oneself.  Ordinary domestic order is in flux with the father absent and despite the family's middle class pretensions, they are in a state of poverty.  This is a tale of sisters doing it for themselves, standing on their own two feet and ringing all their own bells etc.  The Civil War is merely the painted backdrop, offering the alibi to Mr March since he has no real role in this drama - where there is advice to had, it comes from Marmee who is the deus ex machina, even summoning Beth back from the claws of the Grim Reaper.  To consider the cruel realities of the Civil War is to look past the gentle story of childhood adventures and girlish escapades and see this year for what it truly must have been.  Gone With The Wind may be a notorious potboiler, but yet Margaret Mitchell was recounting many of the stories handed down to her by her grandparents while one has a feeling that Louisa Alcott was sanitising her own recent history.

To be frank though, Mr March was never a character that held any interest.  He is blank to the point of not-existing, his only distinguishing characteristic is that his daughters are mysteriously fond of him - he is the ultimate absent father, even when he is present, he might as well be elsewhere.  The final pages of March have him back in his family's arms and repeating Alcott's words to each of his daughters on how the year has changed them and the man internally wonders why nobody asks how he has altered.  The brutal fact is, the reader never cared.  Some of the girls in my class at school put on their own highly interpretative play of it and gaily killed off the father because they had simply forgotten that he survived to the end of the book.  I was distinctly dubious that a story centred on him could actually hold water.  In the end, I did appreciate March the novel but I finished up with a distinctly mixed opinion on March the man.