Tuesday, 27 December 2011

"An unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious"

Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier

A gentle, easy read bringing much neglected historical figures into the spotlight.  Tracy Chevalier is very good at mining history for narrative framework and in the case of Remarkable Creatures she has done just that, bringing a spotlight onto some neglected women of science.  The novel is a fictionalised account of the lives, work and friendship of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, 19th century fossil hunters who with their fossil discoveries revolutionised early paleontology.

Set in Lyme Regis during the early half of the 19th century the novel explores the conventions and mores that restrict the ability of women to achieve in a very patriarchal world.  A world not only male dominated but with serious constraints based on class and economics.  Mary is a working class girl whose family is struggling to survive financially.  Fossil hunting for her is as a much an economic imperative as an intellectual one.  The fossils she finds, the 'curies' or curiosities are a product she can sell to feed herself, her mother and brother, her father a cabinet maker dies early, leaving behind a mountain of debt and a struggling family with no bread winner.  It is Mary's remarkable eye and talent for recognising fossils in the cliffs of Lyme Regis that brings in much needed income.  As Mary progresses with fossil hunting she becomes expert in fossil anatomy and is able to impress the more wealthy and educated men she sells her fossils to, the very men who largely overlook and obscure her contribution:

"Mary had been so generous for  so long, to so little gain - apart from Colonel Birch's sudden, madcap auction - while others took what she found and made their names from it as natural philosophers.  William Buckland lectured on the creatures at Oxford, Charles Konig brought them into the British Museum to acclaim, Reverend Conybeare and even our dear Henry De La Beche addressed the Geological Society and published papers about them.  Konig had had the privilege of naming of naming the icthyosaurus, and Conybeare the plesiosaurus.  Neither would have had anything to name without Mary.  I could not stand by and watch suspicion grow about her skills when the men knew she outstripped them all in her abilities. (p.285).

Chevalier tells her story through the dual and alternating narration of her two main characters, Elizabeth Philpot is the other figure in this tale.  An impoverished middle class spinster, Elizabeth Philpot has at least a class advantage that Mary lacks, but like Mary she is at a disadvantage due to her gender.  There is a distinctly Austenesque note in Elizabeth's story, having failed to locate husbands, she and her sisters come to Lyme Regis in search of a suitable home for impoverished spinsters.  The inherent misogyny of the age is one theme of the novel.  There is within the story a direct if minor reference to Austen herself:

 "Margaret was  in her element.  This was the sort of situation that she read about in the novels she favoured by authors such as Miss Jane Austen, Whom Margaret was sure she'd met long ago at the Assembly Rooms the first time we visited Lyme.  One of Miss Austen's books had even featured Lyme Regis, but I did not read fiction and could not be persuaded to try it.  Life itself  was far messier, and didn't end so tidily, the heroine making the right match.  We Philpot sisters were the embodiment of that frayed life." (p.208).

The religious questioning which the fossils and the obvious extinction they represent  is  touched on in the novel but it is not explored to any great degree: "It is too frightening for many, for it challenges our belief in an all-knowing, all powerful God, and raises questions about his intentions." (p.294).  That such discoveries caused religious questioning is largely where Chevailier leaves the issue. 

Chevailier does, by her own admission take some liberties with the known history of these women but in the process she does bring their story to life.  This is an easy and interesting read which has the power to inspire further reading, usefully Chevailier has included a suggested list for further reading at the end of the book.  Given the upcoming Victorian reading challenge, perhaps I should have saved this title for that challenge, since it tells the story to two great and generally little known Victorian women.  Just by way of a final observation, and in light of my last work contract which was in an all girls high school, this would make an interesting read for such students.  It highlights the struggles women faced in the past, celebrates their achievements in the face of quite overwhelming adversity, tells the story of scientific discovery and celebrates such a story.  It is not a demanding or literary read but it is a good read.
public domain image
Mary Anning

Thursday, 22 December 2011

What makes humanity the place the falling angel meets the rising ape?

by Terry Pratchett

I have read this wonderful novel several times now and I never seem to tire of it.   Pratchett's 20th Discworld novel examines the myths and experience of Christmas and does so both with humour and profound insight.  In this novel Pratchett has DEATH step into the shoes of the Hogfather, (or the Discs version of Santa), in a fantasy that explores the nature and importance of stories and myth.  This is both an extremely funny, entertaining novel and a very profound and intelligent one.  This is a re-read for me, last week feeling a bit blah and unable to get into any other title I picked this up.  I have reviewed this novel previously here at my old blog: http://thegenteelarsenal.blogspot.com/2009/12/ho-ho-ho-or-cower-brief-mortals.html, so it seems redundant to revisit it again except perhaps to include here a passage from the book itself.  I should perhaps mention here that if your unfamiliar with the character of DEATH in the Discworld novels that he always speaks in capitals and he is aside from being the anthromorpic representation of death,  a great student of humanity and therefore a powerful vehicle for Pratchett's satire:
'All right," said Susan. 'I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need ...fantasies to make life bearable.'
'Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little - '
'So we can believe the big ones?'
'They're not the same at all!'
'Yes, but people have got to believe that or what's the point - '
'MY POINT EXACTLY.' (p.422-423).

There are so many memorable lines from this novel, some simply very funny but the above passage is my favourite.  Currently sniffling through a summer cold or I would write more, suffice to say this novel is an enduring favourite, the best Christmas read I know.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Victorian reading challenge

My final challenge commitment will be the Victorian reading challenge hosted by Laura at Laura's Reviews.  This challenge includes books set in the Victorian age as well as Victorian authors, and non fiction works on the Victorian age and even movies.  Laura is planning on featuring a particular author each month, so I will try and read or watch something relating to each featured author for that month but I may not quite stick to that.  I do commit to reading at least 12 Victorian related texts for the challenge, a couple will be double ups with other challenges, a couple will be short stories and some like Wuthering Heights and the Picture of Dorian Gray will be re-reads but that is all okay.  I still have to decide on a couple of my texts but I will fill those in later, for now here is my current list and hopefully I will read many more beside just twelve. Here is the link for the challenge details and sign up: http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/2011/12/victorian-challenge-2012-sign-up.html

1.Jamrach's Menagerie (Victorian setting)
2.Burton and Swinburne in Expedition to the mountains of the moon (steampunk Victorian)
3.Twenty Thousand leagues under the sea Jules Verne
4.The picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde
5.The Canterville ghost. by Wilde (short story)
6.The signal-man by C. Dickens (short story)
7.Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
8.Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
9.Something by Arthur Conan Doyle

I think I am all challenged out now, for updates on my reading list see the challenges page.

Reading rut and challenges

Over the last week I seem to have hit a brief reading rut, to many distractions and generally unable to concentrate, so resorting to re-reading an old favourite. Since that most magical of nights is rapidly approaching thought I would re-read my favourite Christmas read, which happens to be Pratchett's Hogfather.
The other thing I need to update is my challenge commitments for 2012. I have decided to commit to two more reading challenges for the year. Firstly I will do the Speculative fiction challenge hosted by BaffledBooks 2.0 . Just click on the link or the badge to go to the details about the challenge. I will commit to the 'excited' level which means I will read six speculative fiction titles for this challenge, some of them will be double ups for the dystopia and steampunk challenges. I still have to choose at least two more titles for this challenge, but here is the list so far.

1.Burton and Swinburne in Expedition to the mountains of the moon
2. Twenty Thousand leagues under the sea
3.The Knife of Never letting go
4.Children of men

I seem to be having some problems with getting this post to actually post.  I am also planning on doing the Victorian challenge but will put that in a seperate post.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Zombie apocalypse at the state library!

Libraries really are the coolest places.  Places of innovation, invention, information and fun!  The following event I think confirms that; the zombie climate apocalypse, described as; 'an educational alternative reality game', designed 'as a means of challenging perceptions about learning and libraries'. Just click on the link below to read more about what is a great and innovative way to promote the library.

Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/be-very-quiet-were-dodging-zombies-20111216-1oxy7.html#ixzz1ggcGUdiv

Or here is the facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/FCZombie?sk=info

The library may contain the information that will save your life.  So how cool are libraries?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Crime and justice in the Regency world.

Death comes to Pemberley
by P.D. James

The characters and setting of Austen's Pride and Prejudice receive a re-visit and crime writing re-vamp in this Baroness James most recent novel Death comes to Pemberley.  Set in 1803, six years into their marriage Elizabeth and Darcy must face a new challenge to their peace and tranquillity at Pemberly.  On the eve of a great annual ball a chaise rolls up to the hall out of a wild night carrying a distraught and unwelcome Lydia Wickham hysterically claiming her husband has been murdered.  While a murder has taken place in the wood at the perimeter of Pemberley, Wickham is discovered not as the corpse but as a possible suspect in a violent crime.  What ensues is not just a mystery of the calibre we have come to expect of James but an exploration of the history and culture of the time particularly as it relates to legal and social history.

P.D. James does to an extant capture the tone of Austen but she also brings a modern sensibility to the period, highlighting issues and themes that Austen largely left unstated.  Austen may have left the lives of the working class essentially unexplored and the overt political climate unstated but James with the vision and hindsight of a modern woman rectifies those omissions.  Servants have a greater presence and feature more strongly as characters, both as suspects and victims of circumstance.    James' Pemberley has much more of a feel and atmosphere of  Upstairs Downstairs than Austen's original Pride and Prejudice. The rise of the middle class is embodied in the character of Alveston, a young up and coming lawyer with an affection for Georgina, Darcy's sister, who is also the subject of romantic interest from colonel Fitzwilliam.   The significance of the military is not left unstated with the looming threat of Napoleon throwing a shadow over the story.  Reference is made to Wickham's military history and his heroics while in Ireland, alluding to yet another piece of history that is largely unstated in Austen.  The implications of all this to the evolving nature of the British criminal and legal system is perhaps where James is at her most interesting.

The historical setting does not allow for the kind of police procedural that a modern readership expects, in Darcy's world forensic science is at it's dawn and therefore the crime scene conventions can largely be abandoned, just as many of the conventions of the modern trial narrative are also susceptible to the conventions of the time.  Much of the narrative involves not the presumption of innocence but the presumption of guilt and is the exploration of the legal process in the Regency age that makes this novel so readable and interesting.  It is an interesting marriage of history and Austen's historical voice with modern sensibility that makes this tale so worthwhile. Perhaps the passage below displays what this novel is about and the challenging path that P.D. James has chosen to walk in giving us Death comes to Pemberly:
   Ignoring him, Georgina turned to Darcy. 'You need have no anxietyPlease do not ask me to leave. I only wish to be of use to Elizabeth and I hope  I can be. I cannot see that there is any impropriety in that.'
   It was then that Alveston intervened.  'Forgive me, sir, but I feel I must speak.  You discuss what Miss Darcy should do as if she were a child. We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?'
  Fitzwilliam took a moment to control himself. He said, I suggest, sir, that you save your diatribe for the Old Bailey.'
   Darcy turned to Georgina. 'I was thinking only of your welfare and happiness.  Of course, if you wish, you must stay; Elizabeth will, I know, be glad of your help.'
   Elizabeth had been sitting quietly wondering whether she could speak without making matters worse.  Now she said, 'Very glad indeed.  I must be available for Sir Selwyn Hardcastle when he arrives and I do not see how the necessary letters can be delivered in time unless I have help.  So shall we make a start?'
   Thrusting back his chair with some force, the colonel made a stiff bow to Elizabeth and Georgina then left the room. (p.135)
Character is not especially detailed and if anything some characters, like Elizabeth, who is so strong in the original story seem a little one dimensional in this one.  Little is added to the other original characters, they merely act, much as we would expect them to.  In a sense this is not as rewarding a read as some of  P.D. James other novels, where character and plot make her one of the finest exponents of the modern mystery.  The mystery itself is not James at her best, but it is entertaining enough.  The historical context and the detail James imbues the story with do, however, make this a worthwhile read even if Jane Austen is not your thing but for the Austen fan this is probably an unmissable book. 
I must admit I am now very interested in Jane Austen and her relationship to the criminal aspects of her time and society and will be seeking out a copy of Susannah Fullerton's book Jane Austen and Crime.   I  should say I also very much enjoyed Pratchett's recent novel Snuff which also pursues a rural setting, not unlike Pemberley, with a murder mystery and some puns at Miss Austen's expense, perhaps the subject of another blog post.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Why is Jane Austen so easily appropriated by crime?

I have just finished P.D. James new novel Death comes to Pemberly, a novel where James introduces crime and mystery to the mannered world of Jane Austen and I am struck by how readily Austen's work lends itself to appropriation by crime writers.  There seems to have been a rash of novels re-working Austen with criminal intent, Death comes to Pemberly is just the most recent example, even Terry Pratchett has entered that particular literary arena with his latest disc world novel Snuff also essentially a mystery/crime novel but with reference to Austen and her aristocratic settings.  Two other titles spring immediately to mind; Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepperd and A cure for all Diseases by Reginald Hill, which re-tells Austen's last incomplete novel Sanditon in a contemporary setting with murder and mystery thrown in.  I am curious as to why she does seem to lend herself so readily to these kinds of adaptations or is it just a reflection of the enduring popularity of Austen's work.  Or is it perhaps because beneath the civil exterior of Austen's world we either know or wish a darker world exists. 

Curiosity aroused I did a quick google search on Austen and crime and discovered some interesting links.  The Australian president of the Jane Austen society, literary lecturer Susannah Fullerton has written a book on Austen, the crime of her age and her fascination with that crime, called simply Jane Austen & Crime, it is a book that sounds fascinating and is now on my list of books to track down.  From goodreads: This new approach to Austen and her works uncovers the renowned author’s fascination with illegality and its brutal consequences. From murder, adultery, and duelling to gaols, hangings, and stocks, this book examines the criminal landscape of Austen’s England and highlights its significance in her novels. 

Along with Fullerton's book I also found an interesting, if brief podcast of an interview she did with ABC radio on this very subject: http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2011/05/04/3207499.htm
This is worth a listen and has piqued my interest in Fullerton's book further.  So now I find I have all sorts of questions about Austen and crime.  Have say the Brontes lent themselves as readily to the same kind of appropriation as Austen seems to?  The work of the Bronte sisters seems to be more overtly dark and yet their work does not seem to have come in for the same kind of criminal focus.  I must confess that I always preferred the world of the Brontes to Austen's mannered romances, perhaps that says more about me than it does about the authors in question. 

I will post my review of Death comes to Pemberly in the very near future.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Paranormal romance with an Indian flavour

Tiger's Curse
by Colleen Houck

This novel will have huge appeal to the female young adult demographic, or to fans of paranormal romance in general, more like Ladyhawke than Twilight, it offers a change from vampires and werewolves.  It revolves around a cursed Indian prince doomed to spend his existence as a white tiger.  The circus he is imprisoned in hires Kelsey Hayes high school senior for a temporary summer job and this sets in motion a process of discovery and adventure for all concerned.

Kelsey discovers she has an unusual affinity with the tiger Dhiren, so when the mysterious Mr Kadam buys the tiger, with plans to return him to his Indian homeland, she is easily persuaded to take advantage of the opportunity for an adventure and travel with Ren on his journey home.  It is only after their arrival that she discovers all is not as it seems.  I must admit that I liked the Indian setting of this novel and the use of Indian mythology in the telling of the tale.  The adventure element is one of the strengths of this book, for a debut novel it does have much to commend it but for me the romance was not one of those things.  As the story progresses it is revealed that Ren and his brother Kishan originally fell out over a girl and now both brothers are cursed, doomed to spend the rest of their existence in the form of tigers, Ren the white tiger and Kishan a more primal black tiger who has not suffered the indignity of capture.

I must admit I found the sibling rivalry and romance rather clumsy and highly predictable and while I quite liked Kelsey as the heroine at the start of the story, by the end I found her irritating and idiotic.  I hated the romance elements but then I am not normally a romance reader, so perhaps I am no judge.  I did like the quest adventure that Kelsey has to go on with Ren in an effort to find a way to free him from the curse.  Indian gods are encountered and a journey to the mythical city of Kishkinda is undertaken and those are the elements that kept me reading.  Character development overall seemed weak, and characters lacked real complexity, but then this is a first novel by Houck.  The use of an exotic mythology to tell a paranormal romance marks this book as different from the bulk of what has recently been on offer to the YA market since Twilight.  Houck may mature as a writer, and her work may develop, certainly some of the young adults I know would enjoy this novel.  This is an escapist read and at 500 pages it is a considerable investment in time and while this is not my particular cup of tea, I am a big fan of anything that gets kids reading and it appears that this is a series to do just that.  It is very much a book for the Twilight reader.  I had all sorts of issues with Twilight which aren't worth rehashing here, suffice to say that I found this novel preferable to that rather surprising success.  Great literature it isn't but as a YA paranormal romance it has some merit.

It is only fair to let this book speak for itself so I have included a passage which reflects those elements I did like.  This is only a short extract but I think it illustrates both the good and the bad in the writing.  In the passage below Kelsey and Ren have an encounter with the goddess Durga:

   Phet's henna design surfaced vividly again and blazed bright red. Crackling sparks lept from my tingling fingers.  I heard a tiger growl, but it wasn't Ren.  It was Damon, Durga's tiger!
  The tiger's eyes gleamed yellow.  The stone changed from hard rock to living flesh and orange and black fur.  It barred its teeth as it growled at Ren.  Ren backed up a step and roared as his fur bristled around his neck.  Suddenly, the tiger stopped, sat down, and turned its face up to to its owner.
   I took my hand out of the print and began moving away.  Slowly, I stepped backward until I was standing behind Ren.  Chills shot down my spine, and I started quaking with fear.  The rigid statue began breathing, and the pale oyster-colored stone melted away into flesh. (p321)

Just one final point, I have to say the cover is absolutely gorgeous.  The illustration is by Cliff Nielsen and the design by Katrina Damkoehler.  The beautiful cover alone should see this title walking off the shelf.  There are now two more titles out in this series; Tiger's quest and recently Tiger's voyage, it will apparently be a five book series.  There is a website for the book which contains some great book trailers, I must admit it was the combination of the beautiful cover, and the book trailer that led me to read this one, so here is the link for anyone interested: http://www.tigerscursebook.com/

Saturday, 3 December 2011

School libraries and digital literacy video link

I am afraid the blog gets used as something of a bookmarking library at times which is what this post is about.  I was just sort of happy wandering on the web when I saw this video at School libraries achieving results and thought it might be worth posting a link here.  A TED video it has some worthwhile things to say on the changing nature of research for high school students and the issue of digital literacy in particular. 
03 Dec 11