Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Grapes of Farthing Wood

The Animals of Farthing Wood, pre-quest
Now you're going to have to bear with me on this one, because I'll be starting with a TV series before I get to the bookish stuff. People brought up in the UK in the nineties may be familiar with a certain children's television show called The Animals of Farthing Wood, based on books of the same name, which was a cartoon about a group of wildlife animals who lose their woodland home and so set out for 'White Deer Park', a nature reserve in which they could live without fear of the humans coming and building over it. As far as children's TV goes, it was, in hindsight, pretty harrowing; there were arguments, anger and even a few deaths - not usually the kind of thing you expect in a cartoon that's shown just before Blue Peter, never mind the watershed. It's cropped up in conversation a few times over the years because it was a childhood favourite of mine, and The Boyfriend's - apparently he used to do a great impression of Weasel, and my tableau of Fox (as depicted above) has gone down in family legend (probably for all the wrong reasons). Yet it wasn't until very recently that we stumbled across one of literature's greatest secrets: The Animals of Farthing Wood is, in fact, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - but for children.

For those who aren't familiar with the story of The Grapes of Wrath, it follows the journey of the Joad family as they travel across America in the Great Depression, heading for California, the fabled land of milk-and-honey for the penniless, jobless, hungry victims of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. In California, there will be jobs for all, money for all, sunshine for all and nothing to fear anymore - these are the hopes that power the Joads along their way. Sound familiar? I certainly thought so; the animals are inspired to leave their homes because humans are pulling down the trees for houses, and they have heard of this nature reserve which will hold them safe. In the same way that the Joads find themselves displaced by poverty, so the animals are displaced by lack of a home; and like the Joads, they have heard of somewhere that would be a paradise on earth to them in their troubled times.

That's not just where the similarities end, however; if it was, any journey-story could be compared with one another. What I found to be particularly enlightening was that several characters in Farthing Wood never made it to White Deer Park, for a number of reasons. This too occurs in The Grapes of Wrath; as the Joads make their way West, they pick up and lose traveling companions as they go, in desperate scenes of pain, struggle and reluctant acceptance. I don't think I'm giving away the plots of either book too much to compare two such scenes, the first being between The Wilsons, and the Hedgehogs (guess who features in what). Both leave their travelling parties early on in the journey, and both for awful reasons; the Wilsons leave the Joads because one of them is simply too weak to carry on, and so they are left behind, whilst the Hedgehogs never made it across a road. In both scenes, you are forced to work out the rest for yourselves - realising that the Joads are reluctantly turning their backs on their friends, and that these characters will never make it to California, is harder to bear than if it had been spelt out. The Hedgehogs' disappearance from the story is just as difficult: you see the Hedgehogs are the last to make the dangerous dash across the road, then you see them begin the dash, then you see one curl up in a ball: that's it. After comes the dawning realisation that the Hedgehogs never made it across the road, and as the Joads pull away from the Wilsons in their truck, the same feeling creeps over you: one of great sadness, but also an acknowledgement that, for the living and well, carrying on is the only option.

A similar scene is a happier one: as the Joads make it closer to California, they stumble across a plentiful river in a beautiful location: it is here that the eldest son, Noah, elects to stay behind and live, and so he leaves the story. Having found his own personal paradise, he doesn't feel the need to seek out a new one, even with his family, and so the last we see of him is a man satisfied with his lot. With the Animals, it is the Newts who stay, having found a pond that is ideal for them to live in, no longer feeling the need to travel, choosing to wave goodbye to their friends as they continue on their quest. Again, there are themes of loss and sadness, but it's a different, bittersweet one: in both cases, leaving the party was a decision made willingly, in the best interests of those who stayed, and even though you know you'll never see them again, there's the bright spot of happiness from those who stayed as they contemplate their new homes. Unlike the bleak partings of before, this is a satisfactory one.

My final point relates to the arrival of the parties at their destinations: the Animals make it to White Deer Park, the Joads finally find California. Yet the expected paradise is not what is found. The Animals find that the park is already occupied by creatures who are unwilling to share their bounty, whilst the Joads realise that they weren't the only poor farmers to travel West, and the jobs' market there is now saturated. It's a lesson in expectations: in each story, all hopes are pinned on a fabled heaven that would answer all their prayers, only to find that if you scratch below the surface, it is far from perfect. The Foxes of Farthing Wood have to contend with the bitter hatred of the Blue Foxes who already live in the Park, whilst the Joads struggle to find anywhere that pays even a fifth of what they thought they might get. After such long, tiring journeys of loss and struggle, it's a poor welcome and a stark lesson for all concerned - even though, really, they had no choice but to follow those paths.

Okay, I am just speculating here (at length), and these are - I admit - tenuous links at best. But the conversation I had with The Boyfriend was one of those where you feel like you can almost see the pieces slotting together - like that bit in the film Knowing where Nicolas Cage realises all those numbers are, in fact, dates. It was a true lightbulb moment and one I was eager to explore in depth. It also got me thinking about how it doesn't matter how old you are, the same themes, no matter which way they are covered, can make you feel awful: that bit when the Hedgehogs were never seen again? Still can't bring myself to admit what really happened, and it's the same with the Wilsons - even as the Joads drove away, I was reading with disbelief that they were abandoning their friends like this. The Animals of Farthing Wood may not have been an award-winning show, and I am probably the only person who's spent this much time comparing a kids' TV show and book series with one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, but once I had made the connection, I had to explore it further. It's also got me wondering if there are any other children's shows or books which could be seen as being re-tellings of adult novels - if you've made it this far and can think of any, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I recently compiled a list of the characters from literature that I hated the most - aptly titled, 'I Hate That Guy!'. One of the slots on this list is occupied by a certain Mrs Danvers, housekeeper of a manor called Manderley in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Writing about 'Danny', as she is affectionately known in some twisted quarters, got me thinking about the novel as a whole, and I soon picked it up again, becoming absorbed once more in the claustraphobic world of Manderley, Maxim de Winter and his brides.

The novel follows a young, timid woman who, whilst in the employ of a tyrannical social-climber, finds herself romantically entangled with the enigmatic, older Maximillian de Winter. It's not exactly a whirlwind romance, but Maxim quickly proposes marriage and barely a few chapters in, our nameless heroine is spirited away as the new Mrs de Winter to his ancestral home, Manderley. Dreaming of an illustrious, sociable future as the new mistress of Manderley, de Winter's new wife little realises the horror that awaits her in her new home; for, whilst Maxim's first wife, the titular Rebecca, drowned in a boating accident nearly a year previously, her memory still haunts Manderley, assisted by the intimidating Mrs Danvers. What ensues is a battle of wills between Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers, as one struggles to escape the influence of Rebecca, whilst the other fiercely fights to keep her memory alive.

For those who believe this story to be a romance; don't be fooled. It's about as romantic as rock to the face. There are love stories, of sorts, but none of them healthy -  the first being Maxim's relationship with his new wife. It's an uncomfortable one, in which he treats her like a child, whilst she compares her love with him to that of a dog: 'I'm being like Jasper [the dog] now, leaning against him. He pats me now and again, when he remembers, and I'm pleased, I get closer to him for a moment. He likes me in the way I like Jasper.' The second love story - that between Maxim and Rebecca - is the one that dominates; Mrs de Winter paints several pictures of the idyllic, happy life that Maxim and Rebecca shared before her untimely death. Rebecca - who is named, over and over again, while the narrator never claims an identity - is portrayed as being the perfect wife, hostess, lover, friend, mistress and person, and subsequently everything Mrs de Winter the second is not. Rebecca is beautiful, popular, talented and beloved by all, and our poor narrator feels her shadow looming over her for much of the book, tainting her marriage with the constant comparisons that must be made between herself and Maxim's first, greater love. The final love story - that of Mrs Danvers' for Rebecca - is one of obsession; Mrs Danvers' grief over Rebecca's death causes enmity and strife for the young mistress of Manderley, who wishes only to be the kind of wife to Maxim that Rebecca was. As the novel progresses, these three love stories continue to clash and twist into an almighty mess that no one can escape from.

The general story itself is one of those which feels like it is constantly shrouded in a dark fog; an ominous air hangs constantly around the characters, tainting even the brightest descriptions with an ugly shadow. It's not an easy book to read in this respect; whilst it is difficult to put down once it has been begun, I felt constantly uneasy, as du Maurier consistently insinuates that there is something sinister peeping out from the dark corners of Manderley, and it is this feeling of being watched that makes it both a compelling and unhappy read. It's also difficult to find a character to root for; each has their benefits but, in the same way that the story has a dark cloud hanging over it, so do the characters; they are never without something to compromise a reader's allegiance.

Rebecca is easily the most likeable character for much of the book; as she is presented through Mrs de Winter's impressions, she is a vision of perfection and loveliness and, despite being dead, is the most memorable character of the novel (and not just because her name is also the title); it is easy to see why the new Mrs de Winter struggles to exorcise her memory and constantly compares her failures with Rebecca's triumphs. She is, in stark contrast, beige; young, easily intimidated, awkward, dowdy, unfashionable and - a key aspect to this otherwise dull character - innocent. For whilst Rebecca appears to be the perfect person, she is not an innocent; she is not without her sordid secrets. In fact, it is not until our unlikely heroine discovers one of these secrets that she begins to grow as a character, becoming stronger and less insipid. Maxim, on the other hand - the man for whose attention Mrs de Winter is constantly vying for - is a distinctly unlikable man. He patronises and ignores his young wife, causing her to believe he is still in love with the dead Rebecca, and behaves abominably selfishly throughout the novel. Why Mrs de Winter is so in love with him is a mystery - but as mentioned before, the love she bears for him is not one based on mutual respect and affection.

I'm never actually sure why I like this book; on paper, there's not really a lot to like in it, what with the dark subject matter of obsessive love, the twisted characters and the oppressive, looming presence of the house of Manderley. It's one of those books that I tend to read once, then not pick up for another year or two. There's something so uncomfortable about it that I find it hard to attempt on a regular basis. Nevertheless, when I do find myself reaching for it, the mystery of Rebecca, her relationship with Maxim and her death makes for the kind of story that keeps me reading into the wee hours. I'd never call it a satisfying book in that you know it won't end well - indeed, the first chapter clarifies quickly that Manderley is no more - but in terms of sending shivers up your spine, it's a winner.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

I Hate That Guy!

Have you ever come across a character in a book that enraged you so much, you found your knuckles had gone white from gripping the book too hard? Someone who grated on you so much that you could actually feel your blood pumping as you contemplated just how much you hated the character? Of course you have; literature is chock-a-block full of characters designed to make you want to punch something; part of the fun is how involved you get, how much you desperately want that person to get their comeuppance. It's not just constrained to literature either; the most fun at the pantomime is booing the villain in their speeches, and there's nothing like watching a sanctimonious character in a film get shot to smithereens (metaphorically or literally). Recently, because I was inspired by Emerald Fennell's Top Ten Villainesses that she wrote for the Guardian, I've been thinking a lot about the characters that I have hated most throughout my reading experience, so I've compiled a little list; my Top Ten Most Hated. With any luck, I'll have your blood boiling by the end of the post.

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!! In order to reveal why I hate these people, I've had to give away some plot points. So watch out!

10. Rebecca from Bridget Jones' Diary: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
Ugh. The simpering, smirking, jellyfishing uber-cow from Hell, Rebecca is one of those characters that are designed to be hated by all girls; it's not that she's beautiful, talented and clever - though that can rub salt in the wound - it's that she's a complete traitor. Whilst masquerading as a friend, she sneaks in little insults to conversations (known as jellyfishing, as you don't know you've been stung until it's already happened), she demands all attention is focused on her, and worst of all - she steals boyfriends. The ultimate non-friend and the kind of girl you'd very much like to slap - or see fall off a bridge.

9. Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
What a cad and a bounder. A complete rascal and rapscallion. An utter cur. And so on and so forth. Mr Wickham does his utmost to ingratiate himself with beautiful women and their families whilst bad-mouthing perfectly lovely gentlemen (who are just a bit misunderstood), yet all the while hiding his true, seedy character. He has affairs with serving girls, elopes with impressionable women, gambles, and runs away afterwards to avoid trouble. If Mr Wickham was a modern man, he'd be the kind of bloke who'd appear to be the most amazing, charming boyfriend, until you find out he's come on to your sister and stolen your dad's laptop when he came to stay for the weekend, then disappears into thin air, taking half your savings with him. A most unpleasant man.

8. Blanco from The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.
This is a bit of an odd one as Blanco is only a very minor character - a vehicle for a main character to find her way to God's Garden and stay there. Yet despite this, the mere presence of the man throughout the novel is like a big, fat, vicious, ugly cloud hanging over the story. Blanco is a mean, petty beast, who preys on those he thinks are weaker and uses women like tissues - including the bit where you rip 'em up a bit. He's a massive bully but unpredictable in his behaviour, and that's what makes him so hateful and terrifying.

7. The Entire Cast of The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling.
They say time heals all wounds but I'm sorry, I'm still unimpressed with Rowling's post-Potter offering. Not a single character - except maybe the dead one, who doesn't have much of a part - can be considered redeemable. Rarely has a book been stuffed so full of such selfish, arrogant, ignorant, rude, boring characters. I might've enjoyed it a bit more if they weren't in it.

6. Mrs Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
She's the creepy old servant of a creepy old manor house, with more than a little bit of an obsession with the previous Mrs de Winter, and so a massive grudge with the current one. As far as playing mindgames go, she's a pro, manipulating and distressing the impressionable new Mrs de Winter to the point of near-madness for no other apparent motive than for her own gratification - all the while acting as if she is the most subservient and helpful person you'll ever meet. Spine-tingling in her sheer evil.

5. Mrs Puri from Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga.
This is a character who is all the more hateful for being someone that, originally, was a friend. The story follows an elderly widower, Masterji, as he battles against his neighbours and the property developer they want to sell their apartments to. As emotions run high and battlelines are drawn, Masterji quickly discovers who his real friends are in the building - of which Mrs Puri is not one. A selfish and greedy woman, she uses her disabled son's condition to justify her increasingly appalling campaign against Masterji. What makes it worse is that she initially appears to be a kind, friendly neighbour, until the prospect of money forces her to show her true colours.

4. Narigorm from Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.
Narigorm is terrifying. An angelic-looking little girl, she hides a dark power within the runes she obsesses over, using them in her campaign to expose the truth - no matter what the reason for concealing it is. With the story set against the backdrop of plague-ridden medieval England, the culture of suspicion, misunderstanding and fear helps Narigorm along on her way, as well as her butter-wouldn't-melt look of innocence. What's all the more frightening is her motive for the cruel little game she plays with lives - or lack of it. She's ambiguous as well, for shouldn't a character hell-bent on revealing truth be commended?

3. Hilly Holbrook from The Help by Kathryn Stockard.
You want racism? Ignorance? Bullying? Selfishness? Look no further - Hilly Holbrook has all in abundance. A sixties housewife in the Deep South of America, Hilly is everything that was wrong with the era; she treats her maids like they're less than human, treats her friends like children and generally just plays with people's lives to further her own ambitions and opinions. Rarely have I felt such disbelief when encountering a character; it's so hard to comprehend that people as unpleasant as this can exist even in literature, never mind outside of it.

2. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling.
A bit like Narigorm, Umbridge is made all the more despicable by her outwardly-innocent appearance. A terror in a fluffy pink cardigan and a simpering smile, she loves nothing more than to wield her power over others, using torture as her favourite means-to-an-end, and she giggles all the time she's doing it. One of the most sadistic, evil characters in children's literature.

1. Joffrey Baratheon from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.
Now this is a character who, even as I contemplate him, is making me angry. A spoilt, bratty, violent little prat, with more than a streak of cruelty, Joffrey is another power-mad maniac with no consideration for anyone else. He lies, humiliates people, treats everyone like crap and, being arrogant, refuses to listen to anyone. So unpleasant, I spent most of the chapters featuring him wishing he would get killed off. Really, I cannot convey enough what a vile character and nasty bit of work this guy is. Oh, and he's only about thirteen. Charming.

Well there you have it - the characters I hate the most. You'll have to excuse me now, as I have to go punch a wall - writing about such a despicable lot has got me all riled up.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Review: Guardians of Time Trilogy by Marianne Curley

It's tradition in my family now for myself and my sister to make the trip back to the homestead for the seasonal festivities, and 2012 was no different. What was a bit different was that, for the first time since I entered the working world, I had all of Christmas off; from the 22nd December to the 2nd January I was free, free to do whatever I liked (in the spare time between visiting relatives)! And naturally, being the kind of person I am, I spent a lot of this new-found free time digging out old favourites at home and reading them - three of which were these, the Guardians of Time trilogy. I'd stumbled across these books whilst a teenager and enjoyed them immensely at the time, then promptly forgot about for about 8 years. Over the Christmas break, however, I rediscovered them, and was delighted to find that they were as enjoyable now as they were then.

The story is centred on a small town in Australia called Angel Falls, which just happens to be built over an ancient city that is at the centre of a war between two immortal twins, Lorian and Lathenia. Whilst Lathenia and her Order of Chaos are attempting to increase her power over the world by sending her minions back in time to change the course of events in her favour, Lorian is doing his utmost to stop her with his own personal team - the Guardians of Time. As the prophesied final battle approaches and the number of attacks on history by Lathenia increases, the members of a crack-team of nine warriors with fantastic powers begin to reveal themselves - the Named. A motley crew of angst-ridden teenagers and wise elders, each with their own special gifts and grudges, begin to assemble under the guidance of an ageless leader to prepare for the coming conflict.

There's a bit of an upsurge of interest at the moment in young adult fantasy fiction; starting with Harry Potter and Twilight, there's also, of course, Throne of Glass, The Hunger Games and the Divergent series, of which the first book is soon to be a film. All of these comprise the same elements; a young adult with more power than they give themselves credit for and a bit of a tortured soul, a few conflicts and, at times, a fair bit of violence - all with an undercurrent of teenage lust running through. It's a shame, then, that The Guardians of Time has somehow been missed out, because not only do I think it fits the mould but I also think there's something pretty original here. For a start, the premise is a fantastic one; Chaos theory, the theory that our paths are pre-determined by the choices we do and don't make, is central to the plot, in which Lathenia sends her people back in time to assassinate an important historical figure, blow something crucial up, or steal vital objects. The Named, in turn, have to go back to the same time in history, find Lathenia's agents and prevent them from carrying out their work - essentially, making sure history runs it's true course. Not only does this mean you learn a bit about history, but it also presents the interesting notion of what would happen if history was changed; for example, the un-historical death of a famous political figure results in a massive change in the behaviours of the citizens of Angel Falls. Whilst I think Curley could've done more with this part of the story, there's still enough here to make your brain tick and wonder at the way in which our history has shaped our world.

Our protagonists are slightly less interesting, unfortunately; Curley spent slightly less time on them than the plot, clearly. A few stand-out characters do exist - Arkarian, the ageless, blue-haired, purple-eyed leader; Isabel, the fierce tomboy and Ethan, the unsure, eager hero. The rest, however, seem to be slightly-amended copies of these first three characters, despite being as central to the plot. All the girls are of a similar nature - strong, tough, powerful but with a vulnerable side - whilst all the boys are essentially the same as the girls, but a bit more conflicted. This makes for confusing reading at times, as trying to follow who-said-what when any of them could've said it is very tricky. Their saving grace, however, are their fantastic powers; each member of the Named have two - or even three - magical skills that help them on their quests. Ethan, for example, is able to create illusions so convincing that they become physical for a time, whilst Isabel has the power to heal others. It's the discovery of these powers, and what can be done with them, that propels some of the characters forward and gives them a bit more dimension. Curley also throws in a healthy dose of romance for several characters to round them out a bit more; with so many teenagers running around, there is obviously a lot of room for love - both unrequited and, er, requited. She manages, however, to weave the more romantic plotlines in without detracting from the main story; whilst in some places the feelings of the characters are almost essential to the plot, they're never allowed to overrun or detract too much attention from the main point. This means that, whilst there's probably more pairings, couples and lovelorn characters than your average series, it never feels like you're being smacked in the face with it; there's precious little mooning-around or brooding over feelings here.

The writing style also provides a point of interest. Each of the three books are told from the points of view of two members of the Named, with the chapters divided fairly evenly between them. This not only gives us two different points of view to how the mission against the Order of Chaos is progressing, but also allows - in some cases - the reader to be in two places at once; this is particularly true in the second book, The Dark, in which one character is abducted, and the others try to rescue them. Subsequently, we get to see the abducted character in their prison,  as well as the others attempting to find them. My only slight critique of this is the fact that it's kind of told as-it-happens; there's a lot of sentences like 'I can't believe my eyes!' and 'As I'm falling, I'm searching for the ground but it's so dark I can't see it!'. This style doesn't leave an awful lot of room for description or tension, and I found that there was a definite over-use of exclamation marks to identify where there was a surprise. This was distracting at times; when you're counting the number of exclamation marks on a page, you're not really focused on why that particular punctuation mark is required.

Despite the somewhat flat characters and occasionally-confusing writing, however, this is a fantastic series of books. It's a simple premise with a fair bit of magic thrown in, some tense conflict, a few romantic entanglements and a bit of history, all of which combines to make an ideal teenage read. Curiously enough, I think I enjoyed reading these more as an adult; I do distinctly remember being a bit judgemental and scoffing at these books from time to time. However, now I've found I'm able to appreciate these books for what they are: good, old-fashioned easy reads, designed to hook you in and hold your attention without taxing your brain too much. It's also a rare and curious thing that I'm actually lamenting the fact that there's not even a rumour regarding these books being made into films; usually I'm of the opinion that the books are always better than their visual cousins, but in this case I actually think the plot would translate really well to the big screen. All in all, the Guardians of Time books are not big, but they're kind of clever and they'd definitely be excellent for reading on a beach holiday or curling up on your sofa for an afternoon - depending on your budget.