Monthly Archives: June 2013

31. The Story of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson

the Story of Tracy BeakerTracy Beaker stars in four books, two TV series, a television movie and a musical so I think it’s fair to say that when she is referred to as one of Jacqueline Wilson’s most popular characters it’s probably accurate.

A feisty 10-year-old who has spent most of her life in care Tracy is eloquent, precocious and more than capable of getting her own way. I’m sure that I read the Tracy Beaker books when I was in their intended age bracket (7-11) but I stumbled across the television show again recently (it’s available on YouTube if anyone’s interested) and even as an adult I enjoyed it but I couldn’t remember what the written Tracy was like so I decided to reread the book. It turns out that the first series of the TV show is remarkably similar to the first book so kudos to the BBC for that, I do like an accurate portrayal.

The book is written as Tracy’s diary and is a relatively unbroken prose describing incidents from life at The Home, who she does and (more often) doesn’t like and her unwavering attempts to get Cam Lawson to be her foster-mother. Tracy spends a lot of time living inside her head, making up stories as to what it is that keeps her mum from coming back to look after her and fantastic explanations for why whatever just happened is NOT Tracy’s fault.

The book is a great read for children and adults; it’s funny, imaginative and easy to read yet full of characters you really like and who are easy to root for. It’s easy to see why Jacqueline Wilson is one of the UK’s most popular authors (she was made a Dame in 2008); she tells poignant tales of neglected or troubled children with a humor and warmth that make them easy to relate to. It’s a rare gift that she has and it’s certainly something to be treasured.

And it’s impossible to review a Jacqueline Wilson book without mentioning the wonderful illustrations by Nick Sharratt which bring the story to life and are so much a part of her work that even the TV series have made them a feature of the shows. The team of Wilson and Sharratt are close to unbeatable in children’s literature (the only other team I would put above them are Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake but it’s a very close thing!)

Advertisements

76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryMuch as I hate to admit it, I judged this book by its cover and by its title. I assumed that it was going to be a predictable romance tale in which the hero (or heroine) has a terrible secret which eventually comes out and nearly ruins everything before a big reunion just in time for the final curtain.

I was wrong. And not just a little bit wrong but totally, utterly, completely mistaken.

For a start, there’s no romance. There’s a bit of sex but that’s entirely incidental to the rest of the plot.

Because this is a crime story about a group of college students whose studies of classical Greek literature turn murderous. Don’t hate me, that’s not a spoiler – the murder takes place in the prologue.

The narrator for this story is one Richard Papen who has been drifting through life and makes the decision to apply to Hampden college on a whim and the decision to study classical Greek on an even flimsier whim. Now that I’m thinking about it the way Richard approaches his life is actually fairly annoying – the rest of the group are rolling in money so can afford to study something with (forgive me linguists) with few real world applications. Richard, on the other hand, spends the novel hiding the fact that he is on financial aid from his friends. Given the fight that he had to secure that funding I find it incredibly ungrateful that he goes on to waste his time studying Greek. But anyway, enough of that.

Richard’s friends are a somewhat eccentric group who all have more money than sense and spend most of their time in a drugged or drunken haze while conversing about ephemeral matters in Latin or Greek. They’re not exactly a group I found it easy to relate to and it was hard to like any of them. Just when I thought I was warming to someone they’d do or say something so obnoxious that I’d go right off them again. This goes for Richard as well although I liked him more than any of the others.

The whole book is quite bizarre and the point at which the storyline turns criminal is as odd as any of the rest of it but in a really strange way it works. There are a number of points where Richard is out of step with the rest of the group and their erratic behaviour is only explained when someone fills him in. That device works to make the reader bond with Richard a bit more as we’re all left out together and out of the mouths of this group, any explanation is believable so the madness can be excused.

This isn’t sounding like the most positive review but I actually enjoyed this book, it was like a window into a world I don’t quite believe exists – the world of the super privileged who can and do get away with anything and it also explores the different ways in which people deal with guilt which was an interesting plotline.

The more I think about it the more bizarre the whole story seems but when I was caught up in reading it I didn’t notice it to the same extent, I suppose I had suspended my disbelief so I could accept anything. The day after I finished reading it I offered the book to a friend and when she asked what it was about and whether I’d enjoyed it I didn’t really know how to describe it. She still took it off me though so I’m looking forward to seeing what she makes of it!

Nostalgia

I’m suffering from a serious bout of nostalgia at the moment. It’s so bad that I’m really struggling to read anything new because all I want to do is revisit my old favourites.

The Hunger GamesI’ve just finished rereading The Hunger Games trilogy and I think I enjoyed it even more this time. Last time I read it I was fed up of Katniss’ wining and ‘woe is me’ attitude by the end of Mockingjay but this time I was more tolerant, she does go through a hell of a lot in those books!

So having finished them I was casting around for what to read next and plenty of names suggested themselves to me; The Clan of the Cave Bear, Brave New World, The Book Thief and so on but the thing is, I’ve read all of them before. So I was stern with myself and started Gulliver’s Travels (which I thought was on The List and have since discovered it isn’t L). But I’m really struggling to get into it and I think one of the main reasons is that I still have all those other titles in my head and I want to be reading them instead.

ChocolatSo what is it that drives us to revisit old favourites? For instance, I’ve read Chocolat at least a dozen times but I still keep going back. The same with the Harry Potter series. Often it’s just that a story is so well written that it bears reading again and again. Well-constructed characters, especially those who we follow for a long time, can become like real friends and the thought of never hearing from them again can lead you to go back and read their stories another time. And a story that grips you once is more likely than not going to keep you hooked when you reread it.

Which brings me to another point – no nasty surprises. I hate knowing what happens in a book the first time I read it, spoilers are bad, but the second time round it can be comforting to know that the bad things you envision happening won’t. Your favourite character won’t fall down that cliff or get offed by the bad guy and the bad guy will get his comeuppance eventually. It leaves you free to enjoy the story in peace and, importantly, at a slower pace than the first time. There’s none (or maybe that should be less) of that racing through and skipping out all the descriptive details to find out who perished in the landslide or who was holding the murder weapon. I often find that I get more out of a book the second time round.

But having said all that I should probably confess that I am just a hopeless nostalgic. I’m one of those people that clings onto every train ticket, every holiday receipt, newspapers with reports on events I was at, everything. You know those old women who end up in a house full of clutter because everything has too many memories to throw away? That’s me, just without the ‘old’.

CasualtyTo prove this my favourite occupation at the moment is to watch old episodes of Casualty (for non-BBC viewers, Casualty is a drama set in a hospital emergency department and has been a fixture of Saturday night TV here in England since 1986). The episodes are all available on YouTube in 10 minute segments (it’s a 50 minute programme) and while I can get through 1 or 2 a night, I have lost whole weekends this way. One of the best things is that whenever they have music in an episode I get a double hit of TV and music nostalgia – last night’s episode contained tracks for S Club 7 and Steps, I was overjoyed!

I don’t think there’s much hope of a cure for me and what’s more, I don’t want one. I’m perfectly happy wallowing in my nostalgia the only downside is when it gets so bad I can’t enjoy new things but I’m halfway through Gulliver now and I’m reading The Clan of the Cave Bear in a morning so I get both old and new in one day.

Perfect!

Perfect!

 

59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer

Artemis FowlSince it was first published in 2001, when I was 13 I’m surprised I’ve not read this book before. I was definitely in its target audience and it’s the kind of thing I would have read. Although having said that I think I remember seeing it in the library and thinking that I was far too grown up for something with a sparkly cover and which featured a storyline about fairies. I mean hello? I was a teenager!

Anyway regardless of my teenaged opinion, Artemis Fowl has made it to number 59 on the BBC’s list and so when I spied a copy in the Cancer Research shop I snapped it up.

In short, Artemis Fowl is a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who has designs on removing a large amount of gold from the fairy world. And of all the people who’ve attempted this before, Artemis is the most likely to succeed.

I’ll be honest, the adult me groaned at the storyline (and the glittery cover), it just sounded so….familiar. I find it hard to explain exactly what it is that put me off this book but I was filled with a certain reluctance to start reading it.

Once I did, however, I actually found myself quite enjoying it. I’d say that this turnabout is probably due to the cast of the fairy world. Captain Holly Short, Commander Root and Foaly are all funny, likeable characters who I warmed to instantly. Even Mulch, the dwarf was a great character. The humans on the other hand – Artemis I found fairly flat and didn’t really seem to feature in the way you expect of a title character, Juliet was vapid and uninteresting (I think she was supposed to be) but Butler was fun, I liked him.

I’m not sure which side you’re supposed to be on here. I mean it’s rare for the title character to be the bad guy but with Artemis being human and the same age as the target audience I would assume you’re meant to be rooting for him. But when reading the book, more time is spent following Holly and the other fairies and they are the characters I warmed to most. But they’re all adults. And mythical beings. So I don’t know who you’re meant to cheer for but I was definitely supporting the People (not the human people) although which side won I obviously can’t tell you.

It was a very easy read, I flew through it in three days at most and I loved all the descriptions of fairy technology and the glimpses of fairy history that we were allowed but I felt that the story itself lacked depth. There were twists and turns in the plot, plenty of peril but there was something missing. Possibly it’s something to do with the fact that all the action took place in one night so there was no build  up of tension or maybe I’m just expecting too much from something aimed at 10-12 year-olds but coming from the era of Harry Potter I think I’m well within my rights to expect more.

This was the first book in a series of eight (and there were numerous hints at sequels throughout the story) and I wasn’t left desperate to find the others. So perhaps the teenaged me was right after all.

Daughter Am I, Pat Bertram

I bought this book after reading an excerpt from the book on Pat Bertram’s blog. It seemed like an interesting take on the crime genre so I thought I’d give it a go.

Daughter Am I is about Mary, a woman who discovers that the grandparents she thought died before she was born weren’t dead at all but have recently been murdered by person or persons unknown. Having become sole heir to her grandparents’ estate Mary decides she want to know more about who they were, who killed them and why her parents have been lying to her for so long.

Along the way she discovers more than she bargained for when she finds out that the farm she has just inherited was actually a hide-out for gangsters when they needed somewhere to lie low and that her grandparents weren’t always on the right side of the law. In the process of making these discoveries Mary gathers a motley assortment of aging gangsters many of whom are still operating with little regard for the rules.

I struggled a little at the start to see how I was going to care about the characters and the plotline but once I got into it I came to love many of the ‘elders’ as Mary calls them, especially Crunchy and Kid Rags (it took me a while to get used to using such strange names but eventually I came to quite like them). I didn’t warm to Mary to the same extent but I often find that with the main character, I always prefer the bit parts!

The plot moves along at quite a lick and changes along the way so that we go from just trying to learn more about Mary’s grandparents to finding out who killed them to hunting for treasure but it all comes together in the end for a final, dramatic showdown.

It’s a well told story with a host of well developed characters who all go on their own journey throughout the book and all in all an enjoyable read.

“Jak mówić polskim” which almost certainly does NOT mean “How to speak Polish”

So as you may know I recently went on holiday to Poland, partly for fun and sightseeing and partly for the serious business of my friend’s wedding (I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Polish wedding but they take their vodka very seriously). Now this is a book blog so I wasn’t going to write a post about my holiday but Leah said she was anxious to hear all about it so this post is about my holiday but in the guise of a review of my book about the language.

51VK5XEEVSLMy Granny sent me Teach Yourself Polish for my birthday (she’s visited Poland quite a few times so was very excited when she found out I’d be going) and since I hate visiting a country without knowing at least some words I decided to make an effort to learn something before I went.

I should point out that the book actually came with a CD which in her infinite wisdom my Granny failed to send me so I didn’t get the full experience but even so I would suggest that there maybe many better books on how to learn Polish than the one I was using. And I shall give you some reasons why throughout the post.

1. I hate learning how to pronounce letters from a page of writing, it’s always so hard to make sense of. And it doesn’t help when your guide includes advice like this:

ą and ȩ tend to represent sounds like o as in box and e as in bed but lengthened by a cross between ł and or m

That passage left me scratching my head for a good while. Even once I’d found out how to pronounce ł which wasn’t until the following page. Moving onto consonants I was told that:

When two consonants occur in succession, the second one usually decides whether the combination is voiced or not…

Which I suppose is fine if at some point the book also told me how to know what the decision is.

At the end of the guide the book confidently tells me that if I see any Polish word written down I can be ‘at least 99% sure how to pronounce it’. I beg to differ.

However, having learned to pronounce some of the letters I can tell you that I did NOT visit KrakoW on my trip but instead I went to KrakoV (w=v). Once there the minimal amount I had picked up failed to help me communicate with the gentleman I met at a bus stop having got off the bus five stops too early and being somewhat lost. I also don’t think he entirely understood the BSL (British Sign Language) I was using to try and ask my questions but eventually we ascertained that I was an idiot and should probably get back on the bus.

First Polish conversation mastered, I eventually made it into Krakow and spent two days seeing the city which is a really pretty place seeped in history – I saw Wawel (VaVel) castle, the Jewish quarter (Kashmieriz where they serve zapiekanki, a kind of giant pizza which kept me full all day) and the factory where Oskar Schindler made his list (or didn’t if we’re honest). I also went to Zakopane for a day and went up Kasprowy Wierch, one of the Tatra Mountains. All in all a very pleasant three days and I even developed the beginning of a tan.

Krakow

Krakow

I also went to Auschwitz-Birkennau which was a much more sobering experience but one I felt I had to have. Unfortunately in the summer months visitors must be taken round by a guide and our particular guide wasn’t very good which made it hard to get the full experience but I don’t think anyone could walk into that gas chamber and not feel the full weight of what  happened there.

On the fifth day of my holiday it was time to head for Warsaw where the wedding would be taking place so we boarded a Polish train, squeezed ourselves into the crowded compartment which just about took all our luggage and settled down for the three-hour trip. Which gave me chance to learn (or not) some more Polish. Here follows some more anecdotes from the book:

2. Krakowskie Przedmieście. Try and pronounce it, go on. It’s the main street in Warsaw and we couldn’t work out how to say it but then I found a section in my book which was sure to help:

This street in Warsaw is difficult to talk about in English. Either you insert a Polish tongue-twister in the middle of an English sentence, or you translate it into English as ‘Kraków Suburb’ which sounds bizarre…we suggest you go for Krakowskie Przedmieście. Like most things in Polish, it will come with practice.

Brilliant, you suggest I guess. What wonderful advice!

At this point I essentially gave up on trying to learn Polish. I was able to say please (proszȩ) which my book assured me was a multi-purpose word but which my friend informed me Polish people almost never use. I think on this occasion she was wrong as I heard it everywhere. I could also say hello (dzień dobry) and also knew the word for English (Anglii for the language jestem Angielka to say I am an English woman) and since most people in the service industries seem to speak English I was getting by fine.

So here endeth anecdotes from the book.

Arriving in Warsaw we were more than a little disappointed to find that the sun of the south had given way to torrential rain. We were all on a tight budget so were walking everywhere and it is fair to say that we got absolutely drenched on four days out of the five we spent in the capital. Luckily I’d checked the forecast and taken an umbrella, my friends had not, and none of us had waterproof shoes! Still we’re not intimidated by a bit of bad weather so we still did lots of sightseeing (mostly churches and monuments but we also went to the Royal Palace and a couple of museums).

Warsaw is a place that has only just about recovered from the Second World War. 90% of the city was destroyed by the Nazis in response to the Uprising staged by Polish citizens in 1944 and much of it has been rebuilt as it was before 1939. The result is a discordant mix of historical and communist architecture (most of the rebuilding was done under Russian rule and it shows). It also gives the city a slightly strange feeling as although the buildings look old, in actual fact they’re only 40-50 years old and they lack all the signs of wear and tear that you see walking around older cities. It’s an odd place but I liked it and I have huge admiration for the respect that was shown to the city’s history during the rebuilding; it must have been very tempting to just build an entirely new city which would have been a shame.

The devastation inflicted on Warsaw has also given rise to a vast number of monuments many of which we managed to see but my favourite by a long way was the monument to the 1944 Uprising. I love the way the figures are shown emerging from the stone which I think beautifully illustrates the sudden revelation of underground forces.

Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising

Monument to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising

The other monument I loved is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ogród Saski (Saxon Park). The Tomb is in the remains of the Saxon Palace and I think shows not only the cost to human life but also to architecture as the arches clearly used to be part of a larger structure.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

But of course the real reason for me being in Warsaw was to see Miss G get wed to Mr C. And luckily for them their wedding was on the only sunny day that week, you can’t plan things like that!

The wedding took place at St Anne’s church right in the centre of town and one of Warsaw’s grandest churches and oldest buildings (rebuildings excluded). Speaking as someone who has only ever been to protestant or methodist churches and sees a church as a cold, draughty stone building with perhaps the occasional tattered tapestry on the walls, I was somewhat overwhelmed by this incredibly beautiful building. For obvious reasons I couldn’t follow the service but I was fully occupied gazing at the amazing statues and decorations around me. To illustrate exactly how much of a big deal this church was here are a couple of anecdotes:

1. The guide of the (free!) tour we attended the day was rendered speechless when we told him we’d be going to a wedding there, his jaw literally dropped.

2. Not only did people take pictures of us arriving at the church (we were at one of those weddings!) but tourists kept coming in during the service (which turned out for the best since some of them actually went to take communion while the actual attendees shuffled their feet and stared at their knees).

St Anne's Church

St Anne’s Church

It was an awesome day, the bride and groom both looked fantastic and although I didn’t understand a word of the ceremony those who did were very moved. After the church service we moved onto the reception venue where we were greeted with some of the best mojitos I’ve ever tasted and we then had a night full of food (a three course meal followed by unlimited dessert and a BBQ in the evening!!), drinks (toast every speech or appearance of the bride or groom at your table with a shot of vodka (that’s a 40ml shot)) and lots and lots of dancing.

I got home at 4am  and spent most of the next day recovering.

So that’s about it really for the story of my trip to Poland. It’s a fascinating country full of history and some truly stunning scenery and if you ever get the chance to go to a wedding there, take it but prepared to be apologising to your liver for the next week or so!

vodka