Thursday, 30 August 2012

Review: Capturing Angels by VC Andrews

It is a sad day when you can sum up a book by one of your favourite authors with one word and that word should happen to be boring. Unfortunately, this is exactly how I would describe Capturing Angels by V.C. Andrews. Gone is the gothic romance and fractured fairytales that made the name V.C. Andrews a worldwide phenomenon and in its place is a short, mediocre and poorly researched tale of a little girl who is abducted by a religious fanatic who believes that she has special qualities.

Told from the perspective of Grace, a thirty-something wife of a religious zealot, the novel opens with the abduction of Mary, her five year old daughter, before turning to focus on the problems with Grace's marriage, her affair with a police officer and the eventual discovery of who abducted Mary and why. Unlike novels by the original V.C. Andrews, there is nothing terribly groundbreaking or shocking about this story, but for a few plot holes. I find it incredible that the police did not interview Margaret, a close family friend, immediately after Mary's abduction, for example. Of course, its worth noting that this novel was not actually written by V.C. Andrews, but Andrew Neiderman, a popular horror writer whose novels are often a hit-or-miss affair (Pin and The Devil's Advocate are both hits for example, Sister, Sister and Someone's Watching are misses.) As previously discussed on this blog, VC Andrews wrote just a few novels before she died, while more than sixty have been written by Neiderman. Personally, I think that it was high time V.C. Andrews name was retired or a new ghostwriter with a new perspective was found, but that is just my humble opinion.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Get Reading 2012

Great news. Get Reading, a government sponsored project designed to promote books and reading (previously known as Books Alive,) has published their annual list of fifty books that you cannot put down. Check out the full list here

Fun Babysitters Club Trivia

Okay, so all of us aging, dedicated BSC fans know that Mary-Ann Spier ran away from her own surprise birthday party and we all skipped that chapter that described each of the club members in detail (because lets face it, the descriptions were the same in every book,) but listed here are some fun facts that you may not have known about this best selling series of children's books.

1. The series lasted fourteen years.

Fourteen years is a very long time. It's even longer when you're thirteen (or eleven,) for twelve and a bit years of that duration. The Babysitters Club debuted in August 1986 with Kristy's Great Idea. The final Babysitters Club book, depicted the four core characters--Kristy, Claudia, Stacey and Mary-Anne finally graduating from Stoneybrook Middle School, along with their friend Abby.

2. BSC merchandise peaked in the early 1990s.

BSC merchandise included various calenders, organisers dolls, videos, a board game and even a line of children's nightdresses. There was also a chain letter book and a how-to guide to babysitting.

3. According to a poll where American readers were invited to vote for their favourite character, Stacey McGill was the most popular.

Kristy Thomas received the least number of votes. Abby did not appear in the poll, as her character did not appear until later in the series.

4. The books inspired numerous spin-off series.

Spin-offs from the Babysitters Club included Babysitters Little Sister (which featured Kristy's stepsister Karen and was aimed at younger readers,) The Babysitters Club Mystery Series (which featured the same characters as the core series but included some kind of mystery to be solved,) The California Diaries which was about Dawn and her friends after her move to California, The Portrait Collection, which was about a school project the eighth grade characters completed, Friends Forever, which wrapped the series up and did not feature key characters such as Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey. There were also numerous super specials and three "Reader Request" novels featuring Logan Bruno and Shannon Kilbourne.

5. Only three characters appeared in the series throughout its duration.

Kristy, Claudia and Mary-Anne are the only characters who remain members of the club throughout the entire series. Stacey, the fourth original member, officially left the club twice--once to return to New York (she returned to Stoneybrook after her parents divorced,) and once after she fell in with a bad crowd. She eventually returned to the BSC after discovering that her new so-called friends were using her. The BSC welcomed her back.

6. The other characters appeared as follows:

Dawn Schafer: books #5-#67, #84-#88. Dawn debuted in book #4 as a new girl at Stoneybrook Middle School. She and Mary-Anne soon became best friends (though a misunderstanding early on almost ruined their friendship,) and they soon discovered that Dawn's mother and Mary-Anne's father had been high school sweethearts. (They eventually married.) Dawn returned to live with her father in California on an extended holiday during books 67-83. She returned briefly to Stoneybrook but soon became homesick for California. She moved to California permanently in book #88, but remained an honourary member and made numerous guest appearances in the series, and featured in the spin-off series California Diaries.

Mallory Pike: books #14-#126. A former sitting charge, Mallory was invited to join the BSC after Stacey left for New York. She failed her initiation, but was eventually invited again to join the club after she and her new best friend Jessi started their own Babysitting business. Mallory agreed, but on the condition that Jessi be allowed to join the club too. Mallory eventually left Stoneybrook to attend boarding school.

Jessi Ramsey: books #14-#131. After moving into Stacey McGill's old house, Jessi Ramsey and her family were not initially welcomed into Stoneybrook due to the colour of their skin. This prejudice was soon forgotten when Jessi proved herself to be a talented dancer and a compassionate babysitter (she learned sign language in order to communicate with a deaf sitting charge,) she eventually left the club to spend more time dancing and did not feature as a key character in the Friends Forever series.

Abby Stevenson: books #90-#131. Abby was the asthmatic, jewish and least memorable character of the series, debuting sometime after the books had lost their popularity. She appeared in the Friends Forever series but was not a key character.

7. Author Ann M. Martin surprised fans when she said that she had no strong feelings about Mallory Pike.

During a rare interview in 2010 the softly spoken author was asked what she felt each club member would do when they grew up. She described a future for all of the characters but for Mallory Pike, explaining that she had no strong feelings about the character. This caused some surprise among fans, leading to this little gem on Jezabel.

8. The thirteen year old characters repeat eighth grade three (possibly four) times during the duration of the series.

The girls begin eighth grade in book #10. In book #34 they begin their summer holidays. In book #35 the characters are back in eighth grade at Stoneybrook Middle School. Book #67 depicts them starting eighth grade once again. They start eighth grade again during the Friends Forever series and finally graduate in the last book in the series, the aptly titled Graduation Day.

9. Stacey's full name is Anastacia McGill. 

Despite this, she is known on the back cover of the books as Stacey. Jessi, another character to have her name shortened, is known on the back covers as Jessica. 

10. Abby is the only main character to have a twin.

... and to have a close relationship with her sibling. No other BSC member seems to be particularly close to her brothers or sisters, often dismissing them as annoying or immature. 

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Review: For Love Alone by Christina Stead

For Love Alone was a book that was placed in my hands by Giselle, the supervisor of my English Honours thesis, when I was at the tender age of twenty-one. Painfully, brutally shy, and something of a late bloomer when it comes to all things emotional, I struggled to understand this book. And now, ten years later, I wish that I had tried harder. It could have saved me a whole lot of bother.

For Love Alone tells the story of Tess Hawkins, a young, idealistic woman from Sydney who falls in love with Jonathan Crow, a man who is not only indifferent to her in a sexual and romantic sense, but who is arrogant, unpleasant and takes a sadistic pleasure in watching her suffer. With no true understanding of the difference between love and sexual attraction, Tess devotes herself to this man completely, believing that love means to give everything and not ask for a single thing in return. Tess suffers a considerable amount of cruelty at the hands of Jonathan (the scene where she is left alone and frightened in a mill at nighttime is particularly memorable,) before eventually being rescued by her employer, James Quick, who shows her how she deserves to be treated as a woman.

What I love about For Love Alone (which has been reread over the course of this week, not an easy feat given the length of the novel,) is the total honesty of the book. Tess is is simply a young woman who thinks that she understands what love is and behaves accordingly. As for Jonathan, the author doesn't pull any punches here. He is an arsehole. Somehow, though always maintaining his indifference, he manages to play with Tess' emotions for little more than his own sadistic pleasure. There is a hint within the novel, through a letter that he sends another girl, that Tess may not in fact be the only young woman that he is playing in such a way. There is no punishment for the character and no change of heart. Jonathan is quite simply, an arsehole at the beginning of the novel and remains an arsehole at the end. The only way Tess can find a way out of the situation is to simply walk away and never look back. 

Maybe I am simply not as well-read as I could be, but I also found that Jonathan Crow is a rare character in fiction. The tortured hero is a common character in romantic fiction, and usually any seemingly cruel actions on his part have some kind of explanation. His love for the heroine is boundless and he feels hurt when any kind of pain is inflicted on the woman that he loves. One example of such a character is Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice who helps to rescue Elizabeth's wayward sister Lydia after she elopes with the nasty Wickham. Darcy's actions at this point are completely selfless, as he Elizabeth has turned down his proposal and he believes that she could never marry him. Stead leaves us in no doubt that Jonathan Crow is not this kind of man.

A sadist is less common in fiction. Many sadists (this are emotional sadists, not to be mistaken for sexual sadism,) such a Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are often portrayed as having some kind of redeeming qualities, or it is suggested that their actions are caused by a bad childhood or via an obsessive, albeit pure, love for the heroine. It is, I suppose, a romantic idea that appeals to the emotional centre of our minds and may to explain the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy, in which Christian Grey's need to control everything around him is explained by his abusive childhood. It is, of course, the love of a woman, the innocent and easily seduced Ana Steele, that saves him. A true emotional sadist cannot be saved, nor does he want saving though he could easily use it as a ploy to seduce women. Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre is another example (damn, those Bronte sisters must have met some duds in their time,) happily seducing and almost marrying the young Jane (before it is revealed he has another wife locked in the attic,) and only changing his ways after he is severely harmed in the fire that kills his first wife. It could be easily argued that Rochester does not love Jane any more or less than he did before the fire, but he now simply finds her devotion quite convenient and is happy to have her around to suit his own purposes. But maybe that is the cynic in me.

Jonathan, of course, has no love for Tess or for any other woman, and nor has he suffered an abusive childhood. He is just a man who gains pleasure by inflicting emotional torture on others. It's impossible to question the why or how come of his actions (though I suspect many readers have tried,) because there is no answer. He just is. 

Overall, For Love Alone is an honest tale of an idealistic young woman who learns some tough lessons about love and what it means to be a woman. Simply brilliant.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Literary Quotes

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

Oscar Wilde, "Lady Windmere's Fan" 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Whew, who would have thought that a whole week would go by without any updates on here. Damn, that review on He's Just Not That Into You must have really got me rattled. I still think the book was a whole lot of rubbish, pushing one silly and oversimplified catch phrase. Anyway, I'll move on to the next book for review, the delightfully mysterious Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Like pretty much everyone who studied English Literature at a South Australian high school in the late 1990s, I first encountered this book at school. I was drawn in to the mystery of what happened to the three girls and their teacher who disappeared during a school picnic at Hanging Rock.

Rereading this book as an adult, after finding it for twenty cents at a secondhand store was a revelation. There is no denying that Picnic at Hanging Rock is creepy. From Edith's hysteria to the subplot where the headmistress murders a student to the style in which the book is written (in the form of a historical document,) the sinister overtones of the novel seem to have no end, which would no doubt make it an ideal read for fans of V.C. Andrews or Daphne DuMaurier. What older and more discerning readers may be interested in is the subtle elements of science fiction that exist within the frame of the novel. Read carefully and you'll see plenty of hints about time and different dimensions and possibilities of where the girls may have slipped away to. Seriously, I urge you to read this one through very carefully.

Or if you don't want to do that, at least watch this clip through to the end:

Friday, 10 August 2012

It's time for another Feature and Follow Friday. It's been a little while since I participated in one of these, so for those of you who don't know, Feature and Follow Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkie's View designed to help like-minded bloggers to connect. This week's all important question is:

Q: What would you do over if you were to start your blog again from scratch?

Honestly, I wouldn't change a thing. Every thing that I have done on on this blog, the good, the bad and the ugly, have helped me to grow and develop as a writer. 

Then again, maybe I would have researched more words that rhyme with spider for that little feature on the sidebar. Suggestions, anyone?

Monday, 6 August 2012

God: According to Calvin

Just wanted to share another of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes comics. There is something wonderful about young Calvin's imagination, whether he is playing with his best pal Hobbes or making what he feels are philosophical comments about God. The thing I like most is the way that the character speaks his mind, without worrying about what others may think or how they may react. Despite his young age, Calvin is very much his own person. 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Book Place

Like many, many women who were preteens in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I positively adored Ann M. Martin's wonderful series of books, The Babysitters Club. Every week, I used to look forward to the trip to the school library, where I would borrow the next book in the series. At the time, the school had about thirteen or so books from the series, and not all of them were in sequential order. If my memory serves me right, I think the school library had books 4, 6, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 19, plus a selection of the books from the Babysitters Little Sister series. Unsurprisingly, I soon ran out of BSC books to read. Never fear! During a trip to Rundle Mall, my mother and Auntie took me to a little store that was in the basement of John Martins. This little bookstore was called The Book Place and not only did they have every Babysitters Club book that was in print at that point in time in Australia (it was May 1990, so there were probably about 28 books, plus three Super Specials,) but they offered the books at a discounted price. For the sum of $3.55 my mother could buy me my very own BSC book that I could read over and over again, and never have to return to the library. I remember scanning the books for a long time (after all, deciding which book I wanted to keep forever was a very serious business,) before eventually settling on BSC#18 Stacey's Mistake. It had an off-white cover and a picture of Stacey and Claudia standing in dinosaur display at some kind of museum. I proudly read the first thirty or so pages on the bus trip home on the ol' 700. (The ol' 700 being a brown and yellow volvo that rattled a lot and always struggled to make it up Tapley's Hill, before taking a complicated network of backstreets before eventually arriving at Noarlunga Interchange. The route was decommissioned later that same year. Buses 712, 722, 723 and 733 have since incorporated parts of the route.) 

Anyway this little shopping trip was my first ever excursion to what would become my favourite bookstore. Who cared if the escalators used to jerk, that the carpet was off-white and a little dirty and the pink paper bags that they used to package book purchases in looked a little tacky? This little department had an incredible selection of books, knowledgeable staff and they always offered some kind of discount. Over the next ten years, I visited the store many times and many, many first book purchases of favourite authors, including Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, Francine Pascal, VC Andrews and RL Stine were made that this little bookstore. Sadly, John Martins closed its doors in March 1998, a few years after being bought out by David Jones. The store was later knocked down and a bigger and grander David Jones now sits in its place. David Jones has a tiny bookstore on the second floor, where I once purchased a copy of Cold Comfort Farm while the basement, where The Book Place once so proudly stood is now a Food Court. 

But you know what? Every now and again while I'm searching for books on eBay, I will find pictures of ones that have the distinctive blue and white price stickers still attached to the front. I guess I'm not the only one who loved that little store.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Except: Pledged by Gwynneth White

Greetings folks. Today I'm lucky enough to be able to share with you all a small excerpt from Pledged, an awesome new Young Adult novel by Gwynneth White, which will be published by Swallow Press in coming months. (And before you ask, no, she is not a relative. Just a delightful coincidence.) Anyway, without further ado, Pledged ...

Despite the heat, Seth felt icy. Dread could do that to him. Or so he had recently discovered. Deep breathing usually calmed him, so he sucked in a lungful of desert air and told himself to relax. It didn’t help. By the time he’d walked from the aircraft to the immigration hall he’d ripped off a jagged piece of thumbnail, already bitten raw. He handed his US passport to the Botswanan border official, and, after a frown, and a stamp, he joined the crowd at the baggage carousel. Botswana in southern Africa was the last place on earth he’d ever have picked for a holiday destination. But he wasn’t here on holiday. Not even close.
His backpack was slow in coming. Tired from his long-haul flight from New York, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. Almost as if to mock him, the hated vision that had brought him to Botswana burst into his mind. In an instant he was back in ancient times, watching a man he knew only as Gideon. As usual, Gideon was huddled on a windswept hill with his band of hopeless soldiers, waiting to be slaughtered by a huge army gathered in the valley below.
Seth snapped his eyes open to stop the battle from waging in his mind. It wasn’t that he was particularly squeamish; he’d watched enough movies to iron clad his stomach against gory visuals. But no movie had ever left him icy with dread the way Gideon’s battle did. And the reason for that was simple. The moment the visions had started, he had known that the war, fought so long ago in a place he’d never heard of, was far from over. And, as reluctant as he was, he too was being enlisted to fight in a cause he didn’t understand or want.
He forced himself to focus on the present: Erin, who waited for him in the arrivals hall; his brother Kyle, whom he’d come to Botswana to visit; Kyle’s expedition to find the Lost City of the Kalahari . . .
He ripped off another piece of fingernail. Thinking about the search for the Lost City was almost as bad as the war-vision. I hope Kyle never finds the damned place. He slapped his hand on his thigh. Enough! Grabbing his backpack off the carousel, he set his face into a smile and strode into the arrivals hall.
The first hurdle was finding Erin. She was due to arrive an hour earlier on a flight from Cape Town in South Africa, one of Botswana’s neighbours. He’d never met her, although they had spoken over the phone once. Then she’d described herself as “a short, seventeen-year-old (a year younger than him) with a mass of ginger hair.” She’d sounded nice. Meeting her was the one ray of brightness in this otherwise dark picture.
He stopped to scan the crowd. A petite girl with shoulder length, reddish-blonde curls, dressed in skinny jeans and a purple blouse, immediately caught his eye. It had to be Erin. Nice legs. What’s it with girls that they always under-sell themselves? He studied her face with his artist’s eye. Vermeer would’ve killed to paint her. Suddenly wishing he didn’t look so grimy after his three plane-changes, he walked over to join her. “Hi, I’m Seth. You’ve got to be Erin. My brother’s just married your sister Izzy.”
“And after only knowing each other for about a week.”
Her dimpled grin was infectious, making him crack his trademark crooked smile. “Madness.”
“Mysterious.” Erin cocked her head to one side, seemingly appraising him. He knew he had been accurate when he’d told her he was tall and dark-haired. But what he had failed to mention was what girls had often said they liked about him: his strong, angular face, softened by expressive brown eyes. He watched her eyes rove over his grey Muse: Resistance t-shirt, taking in his broad shoulders and chest. From there they darted down his black camo-pants to his boots. Amused by her blatant assessment, he cocked his head to one side, watching her. Suddenly Erin giggled – was she embarrassed? – and picked up her bag.
“We’ve yet another plane to catch. My fourth in the last twenty-four hours,” Seth said, hoping to explain away his rumpled appearance. “To a place called Maun.”
“So we do. Let the adventure begin.” 

Pledged Copyright 2012 Gwynneth White.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Author Study: V.C. Andrews

Imagine a large house in Portsmouth, Virginia. It is late and the lights are out but for one inside a bedroom. Inside that bedroom a woman sits up in bed, a typewriter on her knee. The woman pounds furiously away on the typewriter, the tapping of each key echoing through the bedroom. The woman is middle aged and the wheelchair by the side of her bed is evidence enough that she may have some limitations. However, this woman would rather you not discuss her age thank you very much, and the presence of a wheelchair does not mean that she cannot walk at all.
From another bedroom, the woman’s mother snores gently. The woman smiles. The subjects discussed in her current manuscript are not that she would to share with her mother. Greed, rape and incest are hardly topics fit for the breakfast table.
At the end of the night, forty more pages of her manuscript, a gothic novel titled The Obsessed, are complete. In a few weeks, this writer will send her manuscript away to an agent. The agent will successfully sell the novel to a publishing house. Within months, the manuscript will be heavily edited, making it even more shocking than what the author had originally intended. An unusual cover, with a keyhole and a stepback image of four beautiful, innocent children being haunted in an attic by an old man is designed. The book has been retitled, rumours are circulating that it is based on a true story and within two weeks of its release it has reached the New York Times best-seller list. The author is V.C. Andrews, the book is Flowers in the Attic. The rest is history …

Each V.C. Andrews novel appears to be a gothic inspired fairytale, featuring a young protagonist on the cusp of adulthood whose innocence is soon lost in the wake of terrible family secrets, evil grandmothers and perhaps the odd betrayal or two. The characters live in a world that is similar to ours, but is not quite like ours. In this world, every piece of good luck will always be countered by bad luck, sisters should rarely be trusted and any wealthy couple who volunteers to care for the young protagonist will inevitably have a hidden agenda. Incest, greed and child abuse are common themes. The Dollonganger series opens with twelve-year-old Cathy who lives a happy, sheltered life in a small American town with her loving family. Her safe, happy world comes to an abrupt end when her beloved father dies unexpectedly and her mother takes the children to live with their rich grandparents who they have never met. Moments after arriving at Foxworth Hall, the children are locked in an attic, where they stay for the next three years while their mother remarries and plots with the grandmother to poison them. Did I mention that Cathy not only falls in love with her older brother, Christopher, but the pair then discover that their mother had married her uncle? Over the course of the five book series, the three surviving children escape, Cathy becomes a ballerina, falls in love with a much older doctor (who keeps a pickled, grossly deformed foetus on his desk that may or may not been from a miscarriage Cathy experienced shortly after escaping the attic,) has an affair with her mother’s second husband, marries her brother and moves into the house next door to her mother and eventually returns to Foxworth Hall, where she dies alone in the attic. The end. Oh, and the whole thing is rumoured to be based on a true story. Great literature? Hmm. A whomping good read? Absolutely.
Some of the plot twists may seem implausible in our world, but fit perfectly into the one depicted by the author. The family sagas, (Dollanganger, Casteel,) reflect the old biblical notion that the sins of one generation will impact on the next generation and even the third and fourth generations. Even the covers, often dark and featuring a keyhole and a step-back picture of the beautiful young heroine surrounded by her loved ones and tormentors, add to the dark feeling of the novel.
Since the publication of Flowers in the Attic in 1979, V.C. Andrews has enjoyed a successful career as a horror/gothic romance writer. Before her death in 1986 she would publish six more bestsellers, three sequels to Flowers in the Attic, a stand alone novel My Sweet Audrina (1982) and the first two volumes of the Casteel series, Heaven and Dark Angel. Nearly all of these novels would reach the much-coveted number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. The books were phenomenally successful across the globe, particularly in Germany, where both the English versions and German translations are readily available.
In the twenty-five years following Andrews’ death, more than sixty books baring the authors name would arrive in bookstores across the globe and would reach the New York Times Best Seller Lists, the final three books in the Casteel series – Fallen Hearts (1988), Gates of Paradise (1989) and Web of Dreams (1990) – as well as Garden of Shadows (1987) a prequel to Flowers in the Attic. Andrews was said to have left behind a considerable amount of unpublished work, which helped to explain why novels continued to be released after her death. However, it was not until Dawn the first book in the Cutler series was released in 1990 that the Andrews family revealed that they had been working with a ‘carefully selected author’ to finish the novels in the Casteel series and to write new books, inspired by Andrews genius. It is now common knowledge that the ghost-writer is Andrew Neiderman, a horror writer most famous for his novel, The Devil’s Advocate, a strange tale of some satanic goings on at a US law firm, which was later made into a feature film staring Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt. Neiderman receives no credit inside the books for his work. The copyright to the novels is owned by the V.C. Andrews trust.
The original themes of family secrets and a fairytale gone wrong remain, though recent releases such as Daughters of Darkness are quite different from the novels written by Andrews thirty years ago. The reviews of the later novels are mixed at best, with many fans complaining about the lack of family sagas and the fact that the novels are often marketed by the publisher as being by the same author as Flowers in the Attic. In January 2012, the official V.C. Andrews facebook page announced that there will be several new releases over the next few years, including Capturing Angels, which will only be released in eBook format. (You can read more about that and my feelings on the issue here.) 

If you are interested in learning more about V.C. Andrews and her work, I highly recommend the Complete V.C. Andrews website, the longest running V.C. Andrews fan site on the internet.