Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

28 07 2007

I’ve just finished reading Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty. I don’t tend to go with things with a fantasy or supernatural or other-worldly story to them (except for Harry that is), but I enjoyed this novel and wouldn’t mind reading the next and perhaps even the third in the series when it is published.

I think what held me throughout the novel was the heroine, Gemma, and her relationships with the other girls. Though the supernatural element plays a large role in the novel, it is also very much about the interactions between girls and the complexity of bonds at that age and the era in which the story is set adds an element to this since Bray is dealing with a time period where girls and women did not have a great deal of choice. How the girls struggle with and try and assert themselves – be it in magical terms or not – is one of the more interesting themes Bray deals. I felt the Victorian coming-of-age boarding school story worked quite well with the supernatural elements, and held by interest more than just the magically or supernatural aspect of the story would have on its own.

There is also a great deal about choice and the play between dark and little which was effective, but I couldn’t help being reminded of Harry Potter in these section. There is also a theme of forgiveness and the importance of forgiving others and also forgiving yourself. In some cases, both the talk about goodness and evil and about forgiveness could seem a bit melodramatic, but I didn’t find that to be the case in Bray’s writing. There was a directness that served the plot, characters and themes well.


Que Cera Cera

26 07 2007

You know when you can’t get a song out of your head?  This one has been in my head all afternoon:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

I hummed it as I made dinner.  It was still up there in my head as I sat down and spent time polishing and sending off a few more resumes, and it’s still there now.  Usually I would be annoyed.  But tonight I’m glad.

It’s a good sign I think.

I’ve been feeling a little blue for a few days and whether it’s the writerly mood I wrote about before or various other stresses, I’m not sure.  But suddenly, this afternoon, for no clear reason, everything felt okay and I started humming Que Cera Cera.

Maybe it’s about reading some really good books.

Maybe it’s all the theatre – lots and lots and lots of theatre.

Maybe it’s because I was out today listening to an awesome ukulele band or the fireworks I watched last night.

Or maybe it has something to do with the little girl splashing about in the rain as we took shelter under the band-shell when the aforementioned ukulele band got rained out.  She was – as the Artistic Mama put it – “taking lemons and making lemonade.”  She made everyone there smile, I think.  I remember doing that, splashing about in the rain, not worrying about anything beyond that second.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to.  Enjoying the moment.  It isn’t something I’ve been good at recently – for a long while actually. Maybe, just maybe it’s because I’m starting to trust that things will be okay.  And that I can breathe a little.  And that the right thing will come at the right time.

Que Cera Cera… 

Review: The Art of Roger Murgatroyd

26 07 2007

I finished Gilbert Adair’s The Art of Roger Murgatroyd yesterday and I must say I found it quite delightful.  I don’t usually use the word “delightful” to describe  things.  It’s quite a quaint kind of word, but it fits this book, which feels very much to belong to a different era.

Mysteries are one of my guilty pleasures, particularly the soft-boiled variety and a good Agatha Christie is right at the top of my list.  If I could plop myself into any book at all I’d probably pick one of her country house mysteries.  I think that’s why I found this book so appealing.  It’s classic Christie, very much in her style and without giving too much away (though the title alone begs the comparison) very much modeled on one of her novels (one of my favourites as it happens).

The novel begins with a group of house guests stranded, on Boxing day, at a country house with a dead body in the attic.  And not just a body, but the perplexing puzzle of a locked room murder – the type that one of the guests, the famous mystery writer Evadne Mount, never includes in her novels because they aren’t rationale.  Enter an ex-police officer who lives not too far down the road and suspects with such shady pasts that any one of them could be a potential murderer and you have all the elements of a classic cozy or soft-boiled style detective story.

What I also enjoyed about the book was feeling so on the in.  A book like this depends – for a great deal of its enjoyment – on one being aware of the genre and of certain key characteristics of it.  Adair’s device of having one of the guests be a mystery writer and turn amateur sleuth allows even more allusions to devices that mystery authors use.  I think the story itself and the language and the characters’ deep, dark pasts would be interesting, but it’s that being in-the-know about and the feeling of superiority that gives one that is the most striking and enjoyable thing about The Art of Roger Murgatroyd.  Yes, it’s a bit of foolish froth, but it’s quite delightful all the same.

I’m excited to see that there will be a trilogy of these, with another one being published in November – A Mysterious Affair of Style.  That will definitely have to go on the wish list.

My Writing Mood

24 07 2007

I’ve been writing a lot more recently than I have for a long time. School and work kept me busy and now having neither of those for a couple of months I’ve focused more and more on my writing. And I think that’s good. But it’s also bad.

It’s complicated.

I find that writing puts me in a distinct mood – after a certain amount of writing time that is. The odd scribbling here and there doesn’t do, but if I sit down and for days in a row do at least a couple of hours writing, I get myself into a state. I get distracted and antsy if I’m not writing. But then it shifts a bit and I start worrying about where it’s all going instead of just enjoying the writing as I know I should and that makes it hard to concentrate on anything at all (writing included). Time seems to kind of press in on me and I feel like it all – whatever that all is – needs to be ‘now’ rather than ‘some day.’ On some level it seems that writing – or at least how I think about my writing – is bad for me, but at the same time I think it’s very, very good for me too. So, as I said right from the off-set, it’s complicated.

I’ve tried to combat this by switching projects a bit and tried to put the thinking about what to do with the end project on the back burner with my other worries about finding a full-time job and being a disgraceful supply teacher. I can do it sometimes, keep that pot on the back burner, though I am the sort to let that burner simmer instead of switching it right off.

There is one thing that is helping and that is my reading. Because I’ve been reading my summer kinds of reads, I am reminded over and over and over again that reading should be fun, that it should be about being sucked into a really good story, that it should be about taking you away from all those cares and woes simmering on the back burner.

And that above all else helps when I’m in my writing mood. Well, something had better or someone will soon hang a sign above my head that says, “BEWARE – Writer at Work.”


22 07 2007

Yes, I’ve finished and fairly quickly. I didn’t rush out and line up last night because the temptation to stay up all night reading would have been too much. But I went early this morning and picked up my copy and then spent all day in the hammock reading and reading and reading.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I don’t want to say very much – I don’t want to give anything way. But I will see that many of the things I suspected ended up being true.

I am sad that this is the last book because I’ve enjoyed then and the type of reader I am when I read them. I enjoy many, many books and on a variety of levels, but none do I enjoy in the same way as these, reading in a kind of feverish anxious delight. They take me back to a much more enjoyable kind of reading and I think that is what I will miss most.


20 07 2007

I’ve started reading short stories as my pre-Bedfordshire reading. It worked fairly well with my first selection – Vinyl Cafe Diaries. For my second selection I turned to some Alice Munro. I don’t have her newest collection, but I had Runaway on the to-be-read-shelves so I settled on it.

I’m having some trouble with it. I’m stuck actually.

I should begin by saying I’m a very big fan of Munro’s earlier work and my favourite collection is her very first (Dance of the Happy Shades). My favourite of her stories – “Red Dress – 1946” – is in that collection. There is a feeling of looking back and nostalgia about those stories, no matter how unpleasant the details remembered are. I find Runaway different though. It’s hard even to put in words the change, but there does seem a definite and even conscious shift away from something.

The story that has given me pause, that has stopped me in my tracks is “Soon.” Overall, I wasn’t overwhelmed by this story or by the two that came before it. What stopped me was the ending, the final two pages.

In case you haven’t read the story and don’t want the ending spoiled please stop reading here.

Juliet (the main female character in this and the previous story) has just had an argument with the minister about faith. Her mother Sara then discusses her faith with Juliet, explaining that it is more complicated. She tells her daughter:

“I can’t describe it. But it’s – all I can say – it’s something. It’s a – wondering – something. When it gets really bad for me – when it gets so bad I – you know what I think then? I think, all right, I think – Soon. Soon I’ll see Juliet.”

At first it seems Sara cannot put a name or a label on her faith, describing it simply as “something.” But she reveals at the end of this passage that her faith is connected to Juliet, to expecting to see (versus actually seeing) Juliet.

This isn’t the end of the story – in the final section Munro focuses on the concept of home and Juliet thinking about home and where home is when she returns for Sara’s funeral. Juliet admits in this section to the reader that she had not responded to Sara’s statement about faith. Juliet thinks, “it’s what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can,” but then admits she didn’t protect Sara when she had the chance. She talks about how simple it would have been to respond to her mother, to acknowledge her. She also realizes how much it would have meant to her mother and that it would have cost her (Juliet) so little effort to say something in response.

It is that denial that struck me the most, that unwillingness to say something so simple and so needed, especially, most especially when it would cause us so little pain or take so little effort. It is that battle between protecting home, what or who we consider our home and denying those closest to us the most simple and profound necessities. Of being faced with such love and faith in us, and deciding to turn away, to be unable or unwilling to return that same kind of affection, of not being capable of equal affection and wanting because of that to hurt or diminish what has been offered or admitted to us.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I can’t move any further in the book, not yet at least. The next night I opened the book, looking for the spot where the next story started and I came across these pages again and I read them again and then once again, tears stinging my eyes, aware that I was not ready to move forward from the story or from the emotions it had awakened in me.


18 07 2007

I’ve been away for a few days, a vacation from the computer so you’d think I’d come back in a more happy state, and yet here’s what I’ve chosen to write about: disappointment.

It’s been on my mind for awhile, this feeling of disappointment. It seems a continual state for me personally, and yes, I realize that isn’t the most positive state and sometimes, sometimes I do escape from it, but then it suckers me right back in. It’s on my mind quite a bit today because much of the first half of my novel focuses on disappointment. Disappointment in situations, but more so in people, in people not being as good as you expect or at least hope they will be. Of course this probably begs the question about the intersection of writing and personal experience. Is my work autobiographical? Not in terms of era or situation and there is no character that is me, but deep down, in terms of world views and beliefs and feelings and reactions, well, yes it probably is. All of who I am and what I’ve experienced inform my writing and have shaped the world I’ve created and the people that have come to inhabit that world. So in a way I am writing what I know, though on the surface the world and the experiences I am writing about seem very distant from me.

And how does this relate to my reading? Well, I was thinking of that today too as I tried to decide on what to read next. I’m feeling a bit indecisive about it not wanting to delve into too much since I am eagerly awaiting Harry on Saturday. I looked through my bookshelves – my to-be-read shelves – and feeling (yes, you can see it coming) disappointed in what was there. Many of the books have sat on the shelves for awhile and looking at them now I feel a bit disappointed in them, or rather sense this aura of disappointment hanging around them. It’s just they all seem to have sounded so much better when I bought them then they do now.

And then there’s the books that I did start and which proved (to say the least) disappointing, probably because I was expecting too much. I was also – switching gears slightly – the tiniest bit disappointed in the new Harry Potter film. I realize it’s a big book and there’s lots that has to be cut out, but the 5th book was the one that I had the most invested in (having published a piece on it) and I just felt a bit wanting in the film. I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t my favourite of the films and did not live up to my expectations for it.

I guess that’s the secret to outsmarting disappointment: don’t expect too much. But I can’t seem to get a handle on that. I still go about expecting a lot, expecting things to be better and even though that means I teeter and totter like Humpty Dumpty on the perpetual ledge of disappointment, I can’t help feeling that learning to expect less would simply send me plunging over the other side rather than placing me safely on solid ground.