Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Over Sea Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Three children go to Cornwall to stay in a house rented by their mysterious Great Uncle Merry (Gum). During the course of their explorations they discover an ancient manuscript telling the story of King Arthur and which leads them into a quest for the Holy Grail. But they are pursued every step of the way by the terrifying Mr Hastings and his servants.

This is the first book in the compelling 5-part The Dark Is Rising series. And, like Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights series, the Harry Potter books or, indeed, much great literature, is about the battle between good and evil, light and darkness.

But although it was written in 1965 and the children have adventures in the style of E. Nesbit or Enid Blyton, there is none of the sexism (girls washing up etc.) you usually find in books of that era.

The series works on many levels - read aloud to young children as an adventure series or read them yourself aged 9-12 years to understand more about the moral battles.

by Vita Anichkina
Published in the November Rendezvous, 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Seahorse by Tania Unsworth

This hauntingly successful portrait of the mother-daughter relationship is a must for all grown up daughters and mothers of grown up daughters.

Following the death of her father, Vanessa West takes her mother Marion on a trip to Ashagiri in India, where Marion grew up. Vanessa is determined that visiting Marion’s childhood haunts will do her mother good and is exasperated by her mother’s failure to enter into the spirit of the adventure. Marion’s reluctance to be done good to is her quiet way of asserting her own identity.
In the end it is the efficient Vanessa who comes unstuck in India while her apparently dithering mother reveals an inner strength.

The Seahorse, American author Unsworth’s first novel, is a hugely intelligent exploration of the nature of memory, of identity, of our yearning yet inability to connect with others.
Where it excels, however, is in encompassing all the emotions that make the mother daughter relationship so powerful: the guilt, dislike, love, disdain, the best intentions, the longing to prove oneself, the misunderstandings. Marion and Vanessa are revealed in both their own eyes and each other’s. Each wants the trip to be a success for the other but without grasping what the other wants.

Unsworth achieves this with the slightest, deftest of strokes.

“Why are you being mean?”
Vanessa wasn’t sure, but she suspected that it had something to do with her mother’s handbag. It was large and rather shiny. Snakeskin with a jaunty silver buckle holding it shut....
“You just don’t take a handbag to India.” Vanessa regarded the neat nylon pouch strapped around her own waist with satisfaction. When she looked at it, it reminded her that she was, after all , in control.

He turned round and smiled at them. An ordinary sort of face, in Vanessa’s opinion. Pale, very English.
Marion beamed at him. “You must sit down with us,” she said, before Vanessa had a chance to prevent her with a look.
Did her mother have to be so... enthusiastic? As if this young man was saving them from a completely joyless evening.

“I can’t believe you brought a bed jacket,”. Vanessa said.
“I thought I might want to sit up in bed and read.”
Vanessa said nothing. She had to admit that the bed jacket, although bulky and somewhat ridiculous, was useful...Vanessa felt suddenly protective. How vulnerable her mother seemed. During the entire day, the much imagined day of their arrival in Ashagiri, she had recognised little but the dessert they had been served for dinner. It hardly seemed worth their journey.
“Tomorrow we’ll see the mountains,” she said . “We’ll find stuff. I know we will.”

Vanessa’s mother, however, does not want her daughter’s protection any more than she wants to be shepherded to her old school or family home. In the end it is Vanessa herself who needs protecting, not least from herself.

The appearance of one of Marion’s schoolfriends in Ashagiri provides the story with mystery and the host of secondary characters, from the local Indians to the inevitable back packers, are delightfully drawn and temper the emotional power of the novel with light relief.

by Miranda Ingram
Published in the November Rendezvous, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Seras-tu là? Guillaume Musso

Seras-tu là?
Guillaume Musso

Without doubt, the best way to improve already reasonable French is to read, read in French. A good idea is to browse the collège reading lists - the subject matter is stimulating enough to hold adult attention while vocab- ulary, syntax and texts are not overly complex. In the book pages, Vitalia Anichkina will be sharing her her recommendations with both fellow book-loving collegians and French improvers.

What if we could go back and change our life? What would we change? In what way?
Elliott, 60 is given a chance to do just that when he operates on a small boy from a lonely village. He goes back thirty years and meets his younger self - his younger self still with Ilena, the only girl he has ever loved.
When Elliott, 30, realises Ilena’s death is imminent he enlists Elliott, 60,’s help to save her. What will really happen to Ilena? And will either of them really live a better life for it?
At times unbearably sad, this is a book about love - and sacrifice.
It is also about how we can never tell what the consequences of our actions will be but nor do we know the consequences of the actions we didn’t take. There is no guarantee that the outcome would have been any better.
I was lent this book but loved it so much that I bought my own copy so I can read it again.

The Summer Book Tove Jansson

Hang on to summer with this gem from Tove Jansson, the Swedish author of the Moomin books for children.
In a country which sees so many hours of winter darkness, summer is revered and this delightfully simple yet powerful story, one of the ten books she wrote for adults, is considered a modern classic and has not been out of print since it was published in 1972.
An elderly artist whiles away the summer with her six year old granddaughter on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The girl’s mother is dead. Her father, the grandmother’s son, “works in his study” all summer, occasionally emerging to lay his nets.
Never sentimental, the book explores the unique friendship which can exist between the very old and the very young.
The two rub along, sometimes getting on each other’s nerves. Each is grappling with private fears: Sophia, the girl, as she tries to understand the adult world while her grandmother, often tired, confronts her encroaching senility.
Both are independent, honest, yet the bond of love between them is fierce and protective. They learn from each other.

One day Grandmother and Sophia decide to take the dory out for a little row and pass one of the other “summer islands”:
“...there was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING
“We’ll go ashore,” Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened.. “There’s a big difference,” her grandmother explained. “No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.”
“Naturally,” Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably.
In the opening chapter, Sophia and her grandmother decide to go for an early morning swim. They sit with their legs dangling in the water.
“I can dive,” Sophia said….
”Do you believe I can dive without me showing you?’ the child asked.
“Yes, of course” Grandmother said . Now, get dressed”…
The first weariness came closer. When we get home, she thought, when we get back I think I’ll take a little nap. And I must remember to tell him this child is still afraid of deep water.
Nothing of consequence happens in the Summer Book. A visitor arrives. A boat spills its load. Father goes to the mainland for supplies. Sophia adopts a kitten.
It is based on Jansson’s own family experiences - of love and nurture, life and nature as well the family’s own summers spent on their “summer island”.
It is exquisitely written - beautiful, sad, funny, positive. Deceptively easy to read, the Summer Book is about the human experience.
Miranda Ingram