Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen
Naxos Audiobooks, 2007 (originally published in 1817)
7 discs (unabridged)

Here is a case where an audiobook works a lot better than the print version for me. I've tried picking up Northanger Abbey a couple of times over the years (this book has the distinction of being one of the earliest entries on my formal TBR: number 7, to be exact) and it just never worked out between us. And the beginning, even as an audiobook, is a bit dry. But the wonders of a good reader reading an excellent, scintillating, clever story have once again pulled me through. I loved this whole experience.

Which is not to say that we always got along, the reader, the story, and I. I found Juliet Stevenson's delivery of Catherine Morland's voice to be irritating at first. But there are some subtle variations that start to make a great deal of sense, and by the end of the seventh disc I was mostly won over, though I still think she sounds stupider than the book (having read a few passages since) seems to suggest. Also, the story gets a bit... flat at the end. Almost like the author is in a hurry. Or perhaps she is pulling back, letting her characters get on with things without too much interference. (Now I know where Mary Robinette Kowal gets it from, I'm inclined to forgive her a bit for it.) At any rate, it's a wee bit unsatisfying.

But enough of the bad! Shall we see which passages I particularly enjoyed? Or perhaps a summary first?

Catherine Morland is a lovely, unpretentious, and perhaps just a bit callow young woman of seventeen, who is on her way to Bath with family friends, the Allens. She is quickly delighted and extremely impressionable, but also easy-going and generous with her affections. Not, perhaps, as the narrator might wish, an exactly perfect heroine for a Gothic novel... but entertaining nonetheless. In Bath she meets a number of new friends, chiefly Isabella Thorpe, who shares her love of Gothic novels, and Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who are well-off, intelligent, and good-natured companions. When Catherine is invited to spend time at the Tilney estate, grandly called Northanger Abbey, her imagination takes hold: the ancient Abbey holds terrors everywhere for a young, unattached woman... doesn't it?

It's actually all fairly complex, Austen-like, and there's a fair bit more going on here than first appears. It's a pointed skewer of the immensely popular Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe et al, surprisingly postmodern (Jane got there first!), a romance, an examination of reading and language, an examination of the state of women, a look at friendship. And probably more, but I was only listening to this, after all, not doing a close reading. Oh, and it's funny. It's really quite funny, in that perfect, almost surprising way -- sometimes sly, sometimes droll, and every once in a while full-out amusing.

And as a lover of books since childhood, there are a number of parts that are entirely, utterly relatable. Catherine is convinced that she shall be the one to discover the Abbey's deep, dark secrets, just by virtue of... well, she's not sure exactly what virtue is going to help her, but it's what happens in all the books, is it not? Catherine: I have been there.

Perhaps I shall let Jane do the talking now. There are a number of quite quotable bits, things that delighted me quite a bit. The narrator is rather put out that her heroine is not quite a perfectly accomplished, desperate, and desperately unhappy Gothic heroine, and we get some rather ... shall I say gently exasperated? asides from her. Very dry humour, of the sort that likes to lull the reader into complacency and then give her a bit of a poke.

The progress of Catherine's unhappiness from the events of the evening, was as follows. It appeared first in a general dissatisfaction with every body about her, while she remained in the rooms, which speedily brought on considerable weariness and a violent desire to go home. This, on arriving in Pulteney-street, took the direction of extraordinary hunger, and when that was appeased, changed into an earnest longing to be in bed; such was the extreme point of her distress; for when there she immediately fell into a sound sleep which lasted nine hours, and from which she awoke perfectly revived, in excellent spirits, with fresh hopes and fresh schemes.

And this... Catherine speaks first, Henry Tilney second.

"... But you never read novels, I dare say?" 
"Why not?" 
"Because they are not clever enough for you -- gentlemen read better books." 
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."

It's harsh, but I laughed out loud. Not that I would ever suggest someone who doesn't like reading a good novel is necessarily stupid, myself. Lots of very smart people prefer nonfiction. Some smart people don't like reading at all. Although there is a reading snob in me who whispers that someone who doesn't like reading at all... well, I shouldn't say it out loud. Bad librarian! I have to be aware of my prejudices. Apparently that is one. And not a helpful one, in my line of work.

This was a bit challenging to get started on, as I stated above. Now that I've been through the whole thing, I can totally see reading it (or listening to it) again. The payoff is entirely there, and it's a wonderful book. There is a good reason Jane Austen is still so popular after all these years. Dare I try Sense and Sensibility next? Because that truly is not one of my favourites. Or perhaps Love and Friendship? Or... well, the truth of the matter is that I'm already listening to Pride and Prejudice. Again.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

rambles about change

Many many years ago I started a blog. 1998, I believe. That means I've been blogging as long as John Scalzi. (I am not as famous, in case anyone was wondering -- this is largely due to inconsistency and my fickle blog habits... oh, and maybe because I'm not John Scalzi.) It was hosted on Diaryland (remember Diaryland?) As a gift to me, my then-boyfriend and now-husband did some fancy design things, including a bumblebee that people could click on and move around the page. We called him Fuzzbutt. I was very, very fond.

I blogged about a lot of stuff there, a lot of it teenage and then twentysomething angst, and some of it kind of interesting, and occasionally books showed up. After some time I migrated to my own domain, the name of which came from an old high school nickname that was once written in the dust covering my first car, a red (not sexy red, more sensible red) manual transmission Toyota Corolla station wagon called Marge.

I eventually moved on to Blogspot, just for ease of use since a custom-built back end was a little clunky and required upkeep (not by me, either.) Blogspot was easy. It turned out to be too easy. I started two blogs. One of them is mouldering and waiting for me to remember it exists, which I do, every once in a while. The other is this one.

And this one now has my own, old domain name stuck to it. You can update your links to reflect, as you wish. I've updated my template to reflect my favourite blogging colour scheme. The pink has been fun, but I feel at home in blue.

Back to regular programming as soon as I get through finding all the quotes I want to quote from Northanger Abbey. bluepixie is a book blog now.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting

The Body Finder (Body Finder 1)
by Kimberly Derting
Harper, 2010
327 pages

Don't you just love that cover? I love the covers for this series. I have wanted to read this series for ages, just based on the covers. Sadly, it's not quite going to work out between us, but I still love the covers.

I am trying to think about how to talk about this book without sounding like I disliked it. Because overall I quite enjoyed it, in the same way I quite enjoy scarfing down half a bag of delicious kettle-cooked potato chips when I get home from work sometimes. I don't even take off my shoes. Sometimes I don't even hang up my purse. I just stand there in the middle of the kitchen and hoover.

I should be embarrassed by that, but I'm not.

So in the same vein, I'm not particularly embarrassed that I essentially hoovered this book. I really did read it in the same way that I eat those chips: extremely fast, sometimes even without tasting it, and occasionally just standing or sitting in terribly uncomfortable positions, but not really noticing. I am realizing that this is the way I read novels with significant suspense or thriller elements. I don't even necessarily enjoy them, at least not in the way that I enjoy other books. "Enjoyment" is maybe not the right word for the emotion that accompanies the above actions. But I absolutely need to know what happens. And I need to know as fast as possible, and I am in this crazy, uncomfortable mind space until I finish the damn thing, either while I'm reading it or especially while I'm not.

It makes it difficult to write anything coherent or interesting about the book, I think. Because I am in the weird position of having... maybe?... liked the book, but also kind of detesting it for what it did to me.

So, summary: Violet Ambrose, sixteen years old, is dealing with two major dilemmas: her sudden more-than-friend feelings for her absolute best friend in the world, Jay, who grew from a gangly teen into an incredibly handsome young man over the course of a summer; and her ability to sense dead bodies. This ability starts to cause her significant problems when a serial killer shows up practically on her doorstep, and girls and young women start disappearing and dying. Violet can find their bodies -- and it turns out she can find their killer, too.

And let's see. I liked Violet; she's a strong character, with a great voice, and a good balance of strength and vulnerability and flaw. I liked the way her paranormal sensitivity is dealt with -- it's well done, consistent, and kind of a cool ability in the sense that boy am I glad I don't have it. I liked her parents, her close and supportive relationship with them, her relationships with her friends. I really enjoyed the relationship with Jay, and was incredibly relieved that the vague appearance of a love triangle went absolutely nowhere, as I particularly hate love triangles and YA is rife with them. The dialogue was entertaining and snappy and felt realistic anyway. In fact, if this hadn't been a thriller, but just about Violet and Jay and their friends and their relationship, I think I probably would have enjoyed myself more. I'd have taken my time. I'd have savoured things.

But alas. The action was movie-scene larger-than-life, which I expect from a suspense novel; Violet gets into scrapes and generally needs a bit of rescuing, which is a bit frustrating but again, kind of expected. She's a little bit horror movie heroine -- for god's sake, tell someone where you're going, you moron, or better yet don't go at all -- but again, kind of expected.  In fact, a lot of things were just as expected, and maybe that's where I start to feel a little... bloated? The suspense kept me reading, but not because I really felt like I was loving the book.

The convention Derting uses, of setting some scenes from the point of view of the killer, is used quite effectively here in a certain way; sometimes villain p-o-vs get a little campy or ridiculous. Here, he is really awful and creepy. For that reason, it's a convention I don't really like; I don't feel any sympathy for the guy, reading from his perspective doesn't increase my understanding of him, really, other than to build suspense when we know that things are just going to go from bad to worse. Actually, what bothers me about books that include scenes from the villain's point of view, when the villain has nothing to offer or to recommend him, and the scenes from his perspective are just to show the reader how truly evil he is, is that they're manipulative.

I am an easily manipulated reader. I don't tend to notice when I'm being manipulated, always, so it takes a bit of a clumsy hand to tip me off -- and I was tipped off a couple of times in this book. There was one really egregious example, where a villain's p-o-v section and a Violet p-o-v section coincide closely in a way that is clearly intended to make you think that maybe Violet's in serious, serious trouble. She's not. I knew that pretty much immediately. And I found it irritating that I wasn't deceived, that the trick was so obvious. It made the Violet scene not nearly as emotionally effective as it could, or should have been -- because when I know how I am supposed to feel (relieved? happy? I guess?) but I don't, the writer hasn't done their job.

And it's emphatically not that Derting is an ineffective writer most of the time. I think she's quite good for the genre, generally. I think that all that is wrong with this book is that it's a genre that is not really for me, or at least, it's not the best thing for me. Like a bag of potato chips, it leaves me feeling over-stuffed and under-nourished, which isn't a terrible thing once in a while, but it's also ultimately forgettable and leaves me feeling vaguely like I've just spent an afternoon doing something that wasn't quite worth my while.

Recommended as a try for fans of YA romance (it's a solid one, predictable and enjoyable for that aspect) and definitely suspense; it's not so much a mystery as a thriller. The fantasy aspect -- Violet's unusual ability -- is a part of the plot and the character, but is so well-done that it doesn't feel far-fetched or fantasy-like, and  therefore this might be a good entry for someone interested in reading a bit of the paranormal romance stuff out there without getting into a story where one would have to have an understanding of the genre and its conventions to buy what is going on. I probably won't be continuing with the series, although if I needed something for an airplane or a bus ride and the second book was handy I wouldn't be unhappy to pick it up.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right by Barbara Coloroso

Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right: From toddlers to teens, teaching kids to think and act ethically
by Barbara Coloroso
Viking Canada, 2005
249 pages

You're not likely to see a lot of parenting books show up here. I mostly don't read them. I maybe should read more than I do, and maybe someday I will, but between the business of actually parenting, other parts of life, and reading things I enjoy... well, parenting books generally fall behind on the priority list. This is not to say that I don't see a lot of them go by and think I'd like to read them very much, or that they might be tremendously useful to me. They just tend to get brought home and then spend three weeks -- or longer -- sitting on the table, looking interesting and not getting read. See, the thing is, I am lucky enough to have some excellent role models, and besides that one doesn't work with children and their parents for ten years (!!) and not pick up a few things. (Or decide there are things I'm not going to pick up, thank you.) So while there's always room for improvement... and those books do look awfully interesting... I'm going to read Kimberly Derting's The Body Finder next, okay?

Barbara Coloroso's books may be an exception. My mother has always had Coloroso on her shelf, and I have grown up knowing her as an authority on parenting. I am primed to respect Barbara Coloroso's views on parenting and children, and after finally reading an entire book by her, I think I'll be ready for more.

It helps that she writes well. Just Because It's Not Wrong... is an easy book to read -- in some ways. Certainly the ways related to writing. Occasionally she uses a bit of blunt instrument to drive her point home, and there is a lot of repetition. Most of the times the things she repeats bear repeating. It does make me suspect that I wouldn't enjoy this book very much in audio, since repetition tends to be more noticeable and irritating (to me) there.

The point she's driving home, as a brief summary: we are all born with the ability to care deeply about ourselves, others, and the planet, but moral behaviour needs to be nurtured from infants on up. There are ways to help children become adults who think critically and behave compassionately and ethically. There are also ways to stifle those impulses. Coloroso explores the positive ways to interact with and teach children, and the pitfalls that can lead to children who conform to authority and the mob, and behave selfishly, unkindly, or with an absence of caring. In many ways, this is a companion to her book kids are worth it!, which I have yet to read, but is now creeping up to the top of the list.

Nurturing children's ability to care without teaching them to think critically will not serve them well. In his 1963 book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

As I read parenting books, I tend to be extremely wary of the sort that make me want to lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I am DOING IT WRONG and I will ruin my child forever. This book didn't do that, not quite. I think there's potential there, because Coloroso does have some pretty strong views on certain things, and it's pretty clear that she thinks it is possible to do things wrong. It just so happens that I agree with her on the particulars, and so rather than make me want to quit, she validates my parenting philosophy and makes me feel better about what I'm trying to do. Also, I read it at the right time. I think if I was attempting to parent a teenager and reading this book, I'd find it a lot more alarming. Because I think (I hope) that if one reads this book early and starts to live the concepts in it early, it might make the later stages of parenting a little bit easier, a little bit smoother.

I like that this book makes me think just a little more carefully and critically about how I do things, how I interact with smallfry as she starts to get into her "Why?" stages and her "No!" stages. It makes me think about rules. Why do we have that rule? What is at the core of saying "don't throw food on the floor"? Because that is a rule, and a reasonable one, but what is it about throwing food on the floor that's problematic? (It's wasteful. It's disrespectful. It makes my life harder. In general, it's not a nice thing to do.) But if I can't answer the question "why?" for a rule, I think I should be thinking harder about it.

Apparently this book is helping me revert to my terrible twos.

But I did find this book alarming. I find it alarming that anyone feels a book like this is necessary, and alarming that it clearly is necessary. I find it alarming that Coloroso has enough real-life experience to pull terrible stories and examples into the discussion to explain a concept. I find it alarming that I recognize the counterproductive behaviours and attitudes she identifies because I've seen them in real life. Or I've felt those impulses within me. Or I've actually done that thing.

I find it alarming because it makes it very, very clear that parenting is going to be really, really hard work. This book makes me feel a bit daunted by the enormity of the task and the responsibility. These are things I know intellectually, and knew before we decided to have a kid, but it's sometimes better to just work away piece by piece rather than stepping back and having a look at the whole. On the other hand, seeing the whole every once in a while is a good thing too.

I find certain parts of this book flat out scary. The bits on media are not exactly scare-mongery, and she stops short of blaming video games for real-life violence, but I'm not always the most responsible, aware consumer of media myself. So how do I ensure my daughter is? Is our current strategy of not having a television (mostly out of lack of space and lack of interest, not actually a parenting strategy) going to actually serve her well in the future? When does she get her own computer? When does she get to use mine? When do I stop asking her for her passwords? Why can't we just pick up as a family and move into a cave somewhere very, very remote? (Answer: because we'd starve.)

Throughout all of this, though, Coloroso makes it clear that disengaging (see: cave) is not the answer either. Offering children safe chances to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes, and engage the world around them in a caring way helps them become ethical individuals. And while the task may seem daunting, it is also not an impossible thing. She offers counter-examples and clear advice to balance out the alarming pieces. In all, despite the parts that are somewhat hard to read and the parts that should scare the pants off any reasonable parent, this is a very balanced book. And frankly, as a primer on how to be in this world for any and all of us, not just our children and not just parents, one could do much worse.