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Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

“‘Well—what kind of books does he write?’ she asked.

‘He’s doin’ one now about another young fellow who wrote books, and then his sisters pretended they wrote them, and they all died of consumption, poor young mommets.’

‘Ha! A life of Branwell Brontë,’ thought Flora. ‘I might have known it. There has been increasing discontent among the male intellectuals for some time at the thought that a woman wrote Wuthering Heights. I thought one of them would produce something of the kind, sooner or later. Well, I must just avoid him, that’s all” (75-6).

Oh, how I laughed! Gibbons’s 1932 send-up of the rural melodrama is a treasure and not to be missed—I’m only sorry it took me this long to get around to reading it! In this short novel, the young socialite Flora Poste sets out for her distant relations’ Sussex Farm and, upon arriving, determines—come hell or high water—to put everyone and everything in order. And so she does, from making matches and arranging film auditions to setting the bull loose and insisting the curtains be washed. Flora is a delight, as is her no-nonsense attitude and her deft handling of the silly Mr Mybug, who insists that the Brontës were frauds. You can polish Cold Comfort off in an evening or two, so check it out!

 

If you liked this, check out:

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

If you liked this, check out:

  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

Hexwood

Hexwood (Diana Wynne Jones)

For readers 14 years and up

“‘And stop looking at me like that just because I’m telling you the truth. You think you’re a magician with godlike powers, and I know you’re just a man in a camelhair coat.'”

At the beginning of Hexwood, Ann (who is tired of being sick and stuck at home) watches her town from her window. From there, she watches strange people and vehicles entering the fenced-off Hexwood Estate, and feeling stronger than usual, she follows them inside to investigate. Hexwood, though, is no ordinary country house: inside she finds a crotchety wizard, a little boy who seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and a robot who sulkily watches over the pair of them. To boot, every time she visits Hexwood, things change—the boy gets older, the wizard gets younger—because inside the wood, things don’t happen in chronological order. As Ann and the others try to puzzle things out, the question arises: are they really in Hexwood at all, or is the fabled Bannus—a virtual reality machine—playing with them? And if it is, why?

Hexwood is a wonderfully rich and challenging read. As the wood itself reorders the chronology of events—sometimes characters are young, sometimes old, and sometimes different people altogether—so the novel itself challenges our understanding of events even as they take place? Is Ann real, or is she someone else imagining a young woman named Ann? Are the violent struggles against a powerful dictatorship of another planet really worlds away, or do they have something to do with what’s happening in Ann’s sleepy English village?

In addition to the pleasant challenge of reading Hexwood, there is much to be grateful for as a reader: Ann shows us courge and tenacity; Vierran, impetuousness coupled with a revolutionary spirit; Mordion shows us how a child might respond to—and live through—severe trauma; and the Bannus itself asks us to consider whether, really, everything has its place and its time, after all.

Finally, given that much of this novel takes place in the Hexwood itself, there’s a fascinating ecocritical element at play. The back of the book tells us that “Hexwood is like human memory,” the landscape mirroring the human mind and suggesting a much closer connection between human and nature than one typically expects.

If you liked it, check out:

  • Diana Wynne Jones’s autobiography. In Hexwood, a child who is told never to complain dies of appendicitis. Jones herself lived with undiagnosed appendicitis for months when her mother believed her illness to be fussy and “psychological.’
  • Fire and Hemlock (Diana Wynne Jones)
  • The Secret Under My Skin (Janet McNaughton)
  • Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier) (not young adult fiction, per se, but entirely worth reading)

 

A Kind of Courage

A Kind of Courage (Colleen Heffernan)

For readers 13 years and up

“‘I think about how you love your music and how you worked so hard at it when you didn’t even have a piano. And I know that’s what I want—something of my own that I can be best at.'” 

A Kind of Courage tells the stories of Hattie and David, two Canadians living through the First World War. Hattie lives on a farm with her parents while her brother, Will, serves in the army. David, a musician and a conscientious objector (and subsequently, a social outcast), has been sentenced to farm work in lieu of military service. As you might guess, the two cross paths, and Hattie her own feelings about the war and about social obligations to military service.

This is a beautiful little novel that gives readers a window into a part of the First World War not typically seen: women’s lives on the home front. Plus, it alludes to Robin Hood, which you know I’m rather fond of.

If you liked it, check out:

 

Girl in the Arena

Girl in the Arena (Lise Haines)

For readers 14 years and up

“Joe Byers introduced neo-gladiator sport into American life to involve teenage boys in a new form of athletic competition that would be exhilarating while releasing aggressive energy in a safe, clean way. He hoped there would be less need for war over time, especially for useless, savage wars like Vietnam.” 

Girl in the Arena takes place in an America very like our own, but rooted in a significantly altered history: In Lyn’s world—our narrator, Lyn—a man who loses his son to the Vietnam War* encourages a new form of gladiator sport, hoping such a sport would help stop war before it starts by “releasing aggressive energy.” What happens instead is the development of “Glad” culture, the new hot sport: men (and it is, by and large, only men—Women are “Glad wives”) fight to the death in front of screaming audiences and dozens of cameras, while their families live in the public eye, their lives dictated by increasingly arbitrary Glad bylaws. When the novel opens, Lyn’s mother has been married seven times—each time to a Glad—and when her seventh husband, Tommy, loses in the arena, one of the Glad bylaws orders that the 18-year-old, pacifist Lyn marry his killer.

*Technically, his son dies while dodging the draft by aggravating his allergy to cats.

From this premise—which, admittedly, is rather odd—Haines builds a story that is complex and surprising, and that reaches well beyond the forced marriage subplot. Spoiler: Lyn and Uber, Tommy’s killer, don’t fall in love. (Phew!) Lyn has complicated relationships with both of her parents, highlighted by her struggle to figure out what she wants to do after high school. She also takes charge of her little brother, Thad, who—though it’s never stated—appears to have a form of autism, as well as supporting her mother, who’s built her life around Glad culture and can’t function when it fails her. Lyn also takes on life in a sickening spotlight, pursued almost constantly by paparazzi, and has both female and male friends. She keeps her secrets, lives by her decisions, and won’t let Glad culture (itself run by a corporation) rule her life. In short, she’s a well-developed, strong character. Haines’s writing is also darkly funny: from the first page, biting comments and sharp criticism of North American culture continually spice up the writing. (For example, Lyn and her friends joke about escaping Glad culture by running away to Canada.) I take issue with the ending, which wraps the novel up in a blazing hurry and, honestly, can’t live up to the wildfire promise of the story itself, but all the same, Girl is worth a read.

If you liked it, check out:

Pick up a pen!

  • Haines’s alternate history turns on a new imagined outcome of the Vietnam War. Try writing a story where a different outcome to a major historical event changes all the rules—and us with them.

Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads.

Graceling (Kristin Cashore)

I reviewed Graceling earlier this week.

Gunnerkrig Court, Volume 1 (Tom Siddel)

Gunnerkrig Court is a print-edition of Tom Siddell’s webcomic of the same name (Volume 1 compiles a good chunk of the early strips), about a girl named Antimony, who starts school at the mysterious Gunnerkrigg Court. The Court is rather… mystical, but focuses primarily on science and technology (Antimony builds a robot, named… Robot!), while the forest across the river represents things a bit more unusual. What’s up with Antimony? What’s up with her absent dad? Her teachers knew her parents, but they’re not letting anything slip. The comic has been running since 2005 (whoa!), but these early strips are more episodic and a great place to start. However (!), I’m concerned about Siddell’s use of Coyote as a character—he draws a lot on myths and cultures that aren’t his own* and yes, writing, creative freedom, etc. etc., but I’m not entirely sure that’s on. Seems iffy to me.

*Unless I am totally wrong

Graceling

Graceling (Kristin Cashore)

For readers 13 years and up

“Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.“*

“She didn’t know what would happen because of this. But she knew that today, she would hurt no one. She threw back her blankets and thought only of today.”

Tamora Pierce gives Kristin Cashore’s Graceling a sparkling promotion on the back the hardcover edition—Pierce’s recommendation was enough to get me started, and Cashore’s writing kept me going. Graceling was fun and engaging, with a diverse cast of characters, and writing that shows a deft hand for weaving plot threads. Cashore builds an interesting heroine: Katsa, the niece of a king, with a supernatural gift for fighting—one that her uncle exploits, using her as to strong-arm  his subjects, even requiring her to kill for him. Katsa does this for many years, but eventually begins to subvert him by coordinating a secret council—to which anyone may come for her help. It’s through her work here that she rescues an old man, and meets the man’s grandson, Po, with whom she tries to solve the mystery of who kidnapped him, and why.

I was very fond of Katsa, and found her quite well-developed as a character. My heart, though, belongs to Bitterblue, the ten-year-old princess Katsa rescues. (That’s right, folks—The princess rescues the princess.) What a fascinating character! Manipulated by her violent father (who has the supernatural power to make anyone believe anything he says), Bitterblue is understandably traumatized—But she’s also cold  and clear-thinking, sure of herself (she learns to ignore her father’s lies), and believably courageous.*** She also takes the throne at the age of ten. So rad!

Though I don’t want to ramble, there are several different elements in the story that I want to touch on:

1. Katsa doesn’t want to get married. Also, she saves the princess.

The point here isn’t to rag on marriage, but to celebrate that Katsa has an opinion, it’s hers, she’s thought it out, and the man she eventually ends up in a relationship with doesn’t try to bully her out of it. (Dialogue, friends—It works, and then everybody wins.) The back-of-the-book blurb rattles on about “a heart-racing romance that will consume you.” Not really—It’s just two classy folks being classy, and that’s the way I like it.

2. The villain of the piece is the man believed to be one of the nicest kings around. His trick is his ability to make others believe anything he says, and for still others to believe anything his listeners repeat. There’s a lot of different ways to “read” that power. What could it mean? What, in our lives, in different people’s lives, could that correlate to? At the risk of frightening you off with some Symbolism, it makes me think of patriarchy, of an oppressive system that tells us lies so well that we would never, ever, ever doubt them. (For example: You need to lose weight, Girls aren’t good at math, You need to shave, Blondes are stupid, Girls don’t belong in public office, You should be quiet when men are talking, You can’t make a difference—All that garbage!)

The plot is complicated by a dark twist: King Leck is a sadist and a sexual predator. This is dark, dark stuff—This character is beyond cardboard villainy. It’s all the more important, I think, that Katsa and Bitterblue (and Po, too, yes) are the ones to defeat him.

3. “Ability” and accepting who you are

Both Katsa and Po are strongest when the embrace the “Graceling” traits that they were born with, even when those same traits alienate them from most of the rest of a fearful population. Katsa realizes the true nature of her “Grace” while Po accepts and embraces his blindess.

(I recognize that I’m not fully qualified to talk about ability/disability—If you want to add to the discussion, email specialgirlsbooks[at]gmail.com or leave a comment.)

* Does this quote remind you of anything? A certain wildly popular novel, perhaps? I can’t help but wonder if Cashore is intentionally playing off the connection.

** Graceling reminded me a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Gifts, in which which some children are born with different supernatural powers, from the power to start fires to the power to kill with a look.

*** I’ve just learned that Cashore has recently published a sequel, titled Bitterblue. I’m often wary of sequels, but concede that I’m rather excited for this one. (The cover has three keys on it, which makes me think of BluebeardMaybe I’m way off the mark there, but who knows?)

If you liked it, check out: