Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Famous Five Annual 2014

I have to admit, a very childlike part of me became very, very excited (in a clean way, folks, don't get ideas,) when I was inside my local Big W and saw that they had Famous Five Annuals for sale. It's been many, many years since I bought at annual of any kind, and I don't think Famous Five ones were actually around during the course of my childhood, but I was always a bit of a fan of the series (in fact, the first full length novel I ever read alone was Five on a Treasure Island,) and annuals generally, so I couldn't resist snapping this one up. It looks as though this one has been produced to cash in on, sorry, celebrate, the recent seventieth anniversary of the series.

Fortunately, the annual reads less like a kids book and more like a holy grail for nostalgic, childless adults (i.e. me). There are short stories, comics, a history of the Famous Five (and yes they do pay homage to Five Go Mad in Dorset, the Famous Five spoof produced by the Comic Strip, that went on to become almost as popular as the series itself,) and there are profiles of all five lead characters, though naturally Dick and Anne (arguably the most boring of the five,) have their profiles poked somewhere near the back. This one is a fun, nostalgic read and it wont set you back all that much money, either.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

Heist Society is yet another of those books. You know the kind. It was bought at a secondhand store, taken home and placed on my to-read pile where it stayed and stayed and stayed, until one day, I picked it up and the entire novel was read in a couple of hours. Damn. I really need to stop doing that.

Heist Society was a fun page-turning read, detailing a few weeks in the life of a young art thief and her family and friends as they endeavoured to find and steal some artwork in order to clear her father's name. The writing is was upbeat and humorous, though in my opinion, many characters from the large supporting cast seemed quite undeveloped. 

The novel comes across as quite young for a YA novel (read: no sex, no swearing, no violence,) and offers little to challenge readers. Still the art references are interesting and the heist itself is quite entertaining. 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Friday Funnies: Hi I'm Daria. Go to hell

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Review: Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones is back! She's 51 years old, a widow and well ... Bridget Jones. In other words, we've got a total rehashing of basically the same jokes that were repeated over and over again in the first two novels. Bridget is a good person, though she has ideas a little above her station and can be somewhat hapless in her attempts to navigate through her day-to-day life. What Bridget wants is the perfect British upper middle class existence. What she gets is reminder after reminder that it is more important to find personal happiness and to learn through her mistakes. And you know, the book has some truly awesome moments. (Bridget being stuck up a tree and accidentally flashing her g-string at her son's teacher, for example. Oh, and did I mention farting?) But on the whole, the book is just more of the same material that we saw in the first two novels, just tweaked a little to suit the 21st century. (The first two novels being set in 1996 and 1997, respectively.)

I suspect without the sequels, the original Bridget Jones's Diary (which did, after all, inspire an entire genre of rip-offs, in fact my own novel has been compared favourably to Bridget Jones,) would have been destined to become a modern classic, or at least be well remembered for one, it's take on the times and two, the intentional similarities between the book and Pride and Prejudice. But now ... maybe I'm just looking at it from the jaundiced eye of a reader who loved the first book (a common affliction for readers who build their favourite novels into something greater than it is, and then have almost impossible standards for a sequel,) but it just felt like a rehashing of the first two novels ...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

An Evening With Tim Winton ...

Last Sunday evening, I was lucky enough to attend An Evening With Tim Winton at Elder Hall, a sell-out event that is part of an Australia-wide tour to launch Winton's new novel, Eyrie. Despite being a fan of Winton's novels for more than ten years (closer to twenty, if The Bugalugs Bum Thief and Lochie Leonard count,) I have never heard the author speak. So when I got the chance to attend this event, I decided to take it. I wasn't disappointed.

As Winton read pages from Eyrie to a captivated audience (always, the most wonderful part of a book launch is hearing an author read from their own book,) I was struck by how down-to-earth he is. Happily, he skipped over parts that he considered boring, gave a language warning after dropping the f-bomb and, perhaps the most important message that he delivered during the course of the evening was that fiction and novelists cannot enable change. (Read more here.)

Overall, an enjoyable evening. For those of you who live interstate, if you get the chance to attend any of the upcoming events, I definitely recommend doing so.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

1990s Nostalgia: Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

The year was 1995. I was in my second week of high school. And Go Ask Alice was one of those books. You know, the things that had bad stuff in them like drinking and drugs that well-meaning adults thought that thirteen-year-olds shouldn't be reading. And it was all based on a true story, taken straight from a young girl's diaries. So, naturally, I just had to pull it down from the shelves at my high school library and read it. The first half of the novel gave me what my mother often describes as the awes and shits. It's basically where you look at something and go, "Oooh ... shit!"

And then common sense kicked in. How could all that stuff really happen to one girl? How could she take drugs, make a full recovery start taking drugs again, run a successful business and get repeatedly raped without suffering any kind of side effects. And how cruel were her classmates and how convenient was her eventual death. And why the hell would her parents want her diary published?

I didn't have a clue. So I returned the book to the CBHS library, borrowed the latest Christopher Pike instead and basically forgot about it until I found a copy a few weeks ago.

Go Ask Alice as it turns out is a spectacular example of literary fraud. Edited by social worker Beatrice Sparks in 1971, she claims that it is the real life diary of a young woman addicted to drugs. There is no proof that the young author ever existed and Sparks own the sole copyright to the book as well as numerous other trashy diaries that she has published in the following years covering a range of issues including teenage pregnancy, religious cults and teacher-student relationships. The original diary (if there was one,) has never been found and Sparks claims to no longer have it in her possession. 

Definitely not a highlight of my teenage years, this is one that is not worthy of a revisit. I think I'll go and read a Christoper Pike book instead ...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Morrissey Autobiography: A Penguin Classic?

Two biographies were released in Australia this week . The first is a meticulously researched bio of a deep thinking and creative man who is respected by many. The second is autobiography of an ego-driven rock star. I'm planning to read Brian Jay Jones' biography on Jim Henson for pleasure and Muppets nostalgia. I wouldn't normally give a shit about Morrissey's biography but for the fact that it has been so controversial.

So what is the controversy? Morrissey, it seems, believes that his autobiography is so interesting and will have such a great cultural impact that it deserves to be published under the Penguin Classics imprint. And Penguin, it seems, have been willing to play ball. Basically, they've tampered with a much-loved and well respected imprint to satisfy the whims of an ageing, albeit intelligent and well-respected rock star.


To be honest, as a consumer I am divided on the issue. I get that rock and roll is all about pushing cultural boundaries and accepted norms. Rock and roll is intended at times to upset and challenge. That is what the best kind of art does. The sacred Penguin Classics imprint is quite an interesting boundary to push and something that no one has tried (or at least tried successfully,) before.

On the other hand ... it's Penguin Classics. That's one hell of a sacred imprint. The books published under the imprint are always those that have stood the test of time and the editions are always thoroughly and meticulously researched by scholars, and come with introductions, appendices, footnotes, etc. As a university student, I knew that the Penguin Classics edition of any set text was always the finest choice--the only other publisher who ever came close was Oxford University Press. And now the imprint has been cheapened with the inclusion of a rock and roll autobiography. Suddenly, the imprint does not seem so special any more.

So what happens now? Well, maybe it will turn out that Morrissey's autobiography is just as well written and important as he claims. But I doubt it.  My guess is that Morriessy's autobiography will sell a decent number of copies, be shelved as biography rather than with the classics and in a few years time the whole controversy will be quietly forgotten. Maybe we'll get a quick recap at the end of the decade or if the author should create more controversy somehow, somewhere. As for Penguin well, I suppose that it is their publishing house and their imprint. They can do what they like with it.

But I doubt that they will publish another rock star autobiography under that same imprint again.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins definitely did not tell the story that I was expecting it to when I found the Penguin Paperback sitting on the shelves at Dymocks. This heavily detailed and enticing novel opens in the early 1960s with a young Italian man who is trying to turn his family-owned business into a thriving hotel. A young actress who is dying of stomach cancer quite literally appears in the ocean one day, setting off a chain of events that will span continents and the course of the next forty years. And then we meet some eccentric characters, the narrative goes back and forth between Italy in the 1960s and modern day America and every character in the book seems to be another character in another persons film, book or life story. It is a complex tale that took the author fifteen years to write (or as he puts it in the interview at the back, it took him two to three years of actual writing with lots of breaks in between). This one is too eccentric to be a favourite and too well written for me to hate it. Which leaves me precisely nowhere and with a review that tells potential readers absolutely nothing. And that seems kind of fitting, all things considered ...

Friday, 18 October 2013

Friday Funnies: The Stupidity of Your Actions

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

1990s Nostalgia: Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden

I don't even remember how old I was when I read this one. It probably happened sometime during my first two years of high school. In any case, some of the themes were a little too complex for me to truly understand until I got a bit older and reread my copy. The basic plot and what I understood was this:

-- Liza and Annie are friends from very different backgrounds who slowly, and without realising or understanding what is going on, fall in love.
-- Their relationship is discovered and looked down upon by various members of the community, but Liza's parents, in particular her father, choose to accept the relationship.
-- The pressure gets too much, the pair split up and now in her first year of college, Liza begins to realise how important Annie is. Hence why Annie is on her mind.

As a young reader, I understood that the pair were in love, but did not quite understand the complexities that lie beneath. I thought it was sad that the pair had split up and failed to see why Liza could not just admit that she loved Annie. What I realise now is that the author was depicting quite a complex relationship and set of circumstances. Being a heterosexual teenager, I had a limited understanding of the challenges that a homosexual teenager might face in terms of discrimination or just a lack of understanding from others, even when they were spelled out right in front of me. (Yes, I was that insensitive.) The novel does highlight these problems quite sensitively and challenges a number of stereotypes. 

Annie on my Mind is a novel that has stood the test of time and is a good one for all teenagers to read regardless of their sexual orientation. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

Erotica, Romance and Erotic Literature ...

The difference between romance, erotica and erotic literature is something that has been bugging me for a while now. Most of the time, the lines are blurred and thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey the whole bloody lot--the good, the bad and the downright ugly (many might argue Fifty Shades is the downright ugly,) are lumped together on the same shelves at the bookstore, regardless of the content or quality of such. For the first time in my life, I'm seeing Anne Rice and Anais Nin on the same shelves as Abbi Glines and I'm wondering what the difference is. And so, I've decided to choose one book from each and see if I can work out for myself what the difference is ...

Romance - The Marriage Mistake by Jennifer Probst

The Marriage Mistake is probably one of the gentler romances to hit the supermarket/department store shelves in the wake of the Fifty-Shades era. The plot plays out much like an extended Mills & Boon romance. The characters are all wealthy--the heroine comes from a rich family, the hero is a family friend and self-made billionaire. Both are living in the United States but come from a European background. Neither wants marriage or children. The heros looks are described in detail--he's blonde haired, blue eyed and enjoys working out and any other manner of activities that mean that the reader can imagine a tanned and well maintained torso. As for the heroine ... I have no idea what she looks like, but for a mention of olive skin and that the hero thinks that she looks good in shorts. The first three quarters of the novel moves sensually between the interactions of the two leads until they eventually give in to the sexual tension that was obvious in the first chapter. The last quarter of the novel is spent with both characters experiencing separate epiphanies where they realise that their arranged marriage (which is organised for family reasons,) is something that they both want and they are meant to be together. It's the classic tale of two sexually frustrated people being tamed by desire that turns into love. 

The novel is very much trapped in a fantasy like world. We have wealthy, a sexy alpha male and a scatty heroine whose features are barely mentioned--this last part is intentional. The female reader is meant to imagine herself as the heroine, and she can enjoy some safe sexual fantasies that come complete with a guaranteed happy ending. She gets to enjoy both male stereotypes, the sexy alpha and the committed husband. 

We know that real relationships don't work like this. People don't change and suddenly become family oriented just because they feel sexual desire for another person. Sexual desire isn't love or what holds a healthy relationship together. On the other hand, it is intended to appeal ones senses, not ones common sense.  

Erotica - Eighty Days Yellow by Vina Jackson

This one is straight out porn. Two sexually frustrated people find one another and thanks to a situation involving a violin share some erotic adventures. This one really isn't for casual readers and I probably never would have finished it, had I not been given a free review copy. It's really intended for hardcore fans who want to read about some heavy sex and don't care about the happily ever after part.

Erotic Literature - Eat Me by Linda Jaivin

A controversial release that was banned in a number of US libraries, the novel opens with a hilarious though implausible scene in a supermarket where a consumer and an in-store detective pleasure themselves with fruits and vegetables. (It's later explained as being an erotic story within an erotic story.) What follows are tales of the sexual fantasies and exploits of four friends. Not all of the exploits are real and not all of the characters are honest. A big part of the fun is guessing what is what and having a bit of a laugh at the things people will do to get themselves off. And the characters are all very, very human. Each of the woman considers herself to be liberated and they certainly don't fall into the victim or helpless heroine role. The ending is not conventional. The story is basically literature with an erotic flavour.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

1980s Nostalgia: The Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

I still remember the first time I read this short novella for younger readers. I was eight years old, almost nine, and our school librarian, Mrs Peterson (who has subsequently gone on to have quite a successful beading supplies store but that is another story,) chose it as a book to read out loud to my grade three class. This was the second Roald Dahl book I had ever read (the first being a picture book titled The Enormous Crocodile,) and in the months to come I would feel sad when I heard of the authors death. In the years following, I would read many of his other books for children including my personal favourites, Matilda and The BFG and his volumes of short stories for adults. 

The Fantastic Mr Fox contains many of the elements that make Roald Dahl's books a hit. The story is darkly comical and has the usual underdogs (or in this case, underfoxes,) versus the gross and selfish farmers. Mr Fox is a clever and witty man who wants only enough food to feed his wife and children. Boggis, Bunce and Bean are all greedy, selfish and unhygienic farmers who are fed up with having their live poultry stolen. So they come up with a twisted and obsessive plan to outsmart Mr Fox. Who, naturally, finds a way to outsmart them ...

This is a brilliant, funny children's book that I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed revisiting. I'm not to keen on seeing the 2009 film of the same name (to date, I've only seen two worthwhile adaptions of Dahl's work, and a lot of unworthy ones) but as far as nostalgia trips go, Roald Dahl's books don't disappoint and certainly stand the test of time. The only surprise was that the edition I found at my local secondhand bookstore was not illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose illustrations I remember being a feature inside Dahl's work. That said, illustrator Tony Ross does a brilliant job of bringing Mr Fox and his friends and foes to life. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

Friday Funnies: Wild Turkey Surprise

This week for Friday Funnies I bring to you a classic Looney Tunes clips. It's short, it's funny, there's an awful impersonation of an Italian stereotype and one wild turkey surprise ...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Review: The Hive by Gill Hornby

Overlong, crowded with characters and densely packed with information are the first few thoughts that spring to mind in regard to Gill Hornby's debut novel. It was written for the right reasons--chronicling the lives of the mothers of the children who attend St Ambrose Primary and their complicated social hierarchy and including some very interesting analogies about bee keeping--but the telling is just so bloody boring that I struggled with this one. I get that parts of the novel were supposed to be funny, however I had trouble "getting" some of the jokes. This book isn't terrible, but it really wasn't for me.

The Hive is a sincere effort and no doubt was intended as an interesting look at female friendships and might be better suited to those who have primary school aged children and enjoy being part of a clique. (Or perhaps, who had being part of a clique and want a good reason not to go near one ...)

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

And Now For a Look at the Literary Charts ...

Reasons a man would buy an engagement ring for a you:

Source: Greg Behrendt author of He's Just Not That Into You and 99 Random Men who we approached at various jewellery stores around town.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Love Letters by Anne Cassidy

I purchased this one for fifty cents from the bargain bin at my local secondhand bookstore, took it home and let it sit on my to-read pile for a very long time. Pity. Love Letters may be a easy-to-read teen drama but it also offers some very clever and incredible insight into the fragilities of the human mind.

The novel opens with seventeen-year-old Vicky. Vicky is a nice girl, is academically bright though a bit innocent for her age and has never had a boyfriend. Imagine her surprise, not to mention, delight, when she receives a neat blue envelope containing a short love letter from a secret admirer. She and her best friend Jen start to speculate on who the admirer may be. Vicky hopes that it isn't Ricky, a boy from her class, but instead Chris, Jen's older brother who she has admired from afar for some time. And then the notes continue, slowly getting more and more familiar. Vicky receives them addressed to her at home, at her college and at her job at a local supermarket. Through misunderstanding and misadventure she learns that not only are neither Chris nor Ricky the authors and that something far more sinister involving an older man she barely knows is afoot ...

This one was an easy read, but I loved the insight that the author had into the human mind. Vicky often overreacts to the actions of other people around her, making her the perfect target for a predator. By the time that she discovers who her stalker is, it's too late for anyone to believe her story and her stalker has a solid alibi. There are also two interesting examples of where the lead characters fear about other people and their intentions get the better of her--when Ricky visits the supermarket, she falsely assumes that he is there to see her, even though he doesn't approach her, and later assumes that he must be the author of the letters after he tries to talk to her at a party. Later, Vicky makes a fool of herself when she confronts him and is laughed at by her peers. The second and more interesting example comes as a flashback. When Vicky was eleven she thought that a boy from her neighbourhood was following her, because she used to see him around everywhere. She eventually complained to her mother, who went around and spoke to the boys mother. It turns out that he kept seeing Vicky everywhere and assumed that she was following him. In other words, there was nothing sinister afoot, just a coincidence. 

The scenes, along with Vicky's inability to see that Chris isn't interested in her, help showcase the characters deep imagination, innocence and fears, all factors which make her the perfect prey for the real stalker. No one is going to take the complaints of a girl who is so clearly confused about other people and their motives seriously. And her stalker does use some very clever alibis.

Finally, the stalker (whose identity I wont reveal,) is caught and the authors talent for understanding the human condition is shown again. The author depicts him as an ordinary man who is suffering from a mental illness, who is eventually treated and sorry for his actions and whose new life will never quite be the same ...

This one is a brilliant read. In a world where the world stalker can be thrown around far too liberally, it's nice to read something that highlights the difference while offering a sympathetic view of Vicky's innocence and her predicament. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Friday Funnies: Tapioca Pudding

This weeks selection for Friday Funnies comes yet again from Schultz brilliant Peanuts Comic Strip. One of the least memorable characters with the most memorable name (and when you consider some of the unusual names that were featured in the last twenty-five years of the strip i.e. Truffles, Peppermint Patty and Molly Volley, that is no easy feat,) is Tapioca Pudding. Tapioca Pudding made her Peanuts debut in 1986 and was a student in the same class as Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt. She appeared to be quite taken with her blonde hair and her father's job which was in licensing [sic] and hoped to one day have a range of lunch boxes and t-shirts with her picture on it.

Just as Schulz often used his comic as a vehicle to discuss everything from unrequited love to wishing his daughter Amy happy birthday, the point of Tapioca Pudding's existence seems to be for Schulz to laugh at, and point out the ridiculousness of licenced merchandise. During the 1980s, it was common for children's cartoons to be used as a vehicle to push a large a range of associated merchandise--for example the Care Bears, Rainbow Bright and He-Man were all Saturday morning cartoons that came with an extensive, not to mention expensive range of licenced merchandise. The cartoons themselves were quite cheaply made and are probably considered unremarkable to anyone outside of the generation who grew up with them. Even the naming of this particular character--Tapioca Pudding--would appear to be a send up of Strawberry Shortcake. Of course, such a protest from Schulz seems highly hypocritical, considering the huge range of Peanuts merchandise that has been produced both before and after Tapioca Pudding's Peanuts debut. (Click here if you don't believe me.) And if you consider that one of the early Charlie Brown TV specials damned the commericalisation of Christmas, but was sponsored by Coca-cola. (Click here.)

The difference is, of course, that Schulz put his heart and soul into his work and always produced a high quality comic. The merchandising itself was handled by United Feature Syndicate. (Though Schulz would later get annoyed that the Syndicate also put a lot of effort into marketing Garfield merchandise, the only comic strip that has ever come close to rivalling the popularity of Peanuts, see Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis for more information.) The comic came first, the money made from merchanding was simply a reward for all his hard work. The fact that others could bypass this stage probably angered Schulz quite a bit. And hence, one of the most useless characters in the strip, Tapioca Pudding. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Off Topic: Good Manners Vs Flirtation

Saw the above meme doing the rounds on facebook this week, I have to agree. There is nothing more embarrassing than having good manners mistaken for flirtation. It's a subject that I've touched upon on this blog a couple of times before, but in my own life it seems that this one is an issue that isn't going to go away any time soon. I try to be a good person. I try to be polite. I try to listen to the other person's point of view, even if I don't agree with it. But that doesn't mean that I am trying to flirt with you. 

And, honestly, most of the people I encounter on a regular or semi-regular basis know this. Mostly, the people I know who mistake friendliness for flirtation do so because it gives them a bit of an ego boost, respond politely and take it in their stride.

So is there any cure for this affliction? Hmm, probably not, unless manners suddenly become fashionable, or if people who use manners in order to get something in return stop doing so. Or you know, if that meme really affects the minds and hearts of enough people. But I suspect it will soon just become forgotten, you know, like that other meme about ...