Friday, December 30, 2005

Bella Bathurst - Special

This is my first post on this blog. So please be gentle.

It's a review of Bella Bathurst's 2002 book, Special.

Summary:

A group of adolescent schoolgirls, accompanied by two teachers, are in the Forest of Dean to have an 'activity break' between the end of their exams and the end of term. Drink, drugs, sex, hate and anorexia are the order of the day.

Review:

I have a very fickle mind, and I get bored with things very easily. Reading has been my OTJ (One True Joy) ever since I clapped eyes on the immortal words 'A is for Apple', but I do sometimes get bored of reading too. And at such times, I need a book that is a revelation, that gets me excited about reading again. A book that is, as Stephen King might put it, boss. And as you might have guessed, this is one of those books.

Special is an honest, brutal, disturbing, and at the same time perfectly-pitched, story of teenage angst, and it is one of those books that actually manage to make sense of it. Angst no longer seems an indulgence. Special reminds us why it happens, how it happens. And along the road it deals with sexuality, self-obsession, self-loathing, lapses in logic, lost virginities, intimacy and self-destructive behaviour – all the expected clichés.

The basic focus is on three girls, Jules, the outgoing 'average' one, Hen, the withdrawn one, Ali, the loner, and a fourth girl, Caz, the 'perfect' one, who wanders in the background for the whole book before coming into focus at the end. Each one has problems. Some are big, some aren't, but they exist, and Bathurst analyses them wonderfully, almost tenderly, before letting us make up our minds about them.

But the best things about the book are the little things which might be (very mistakenly) easily ignored. The first of these is the writing. Bathurst's writing is my favourite kind of writing – extremely readable, but rich in unusual description and detail which actually makes up the meat of the book without in any way drawing away from the characters. Her skills of pointing out idiosyncratic truths are developed to an almost frightening extent, with every observation ringing true. The second is the manner in which the pace has been built – moving from one character to another smoothly, without being chaotic, and while retaining the individual tensions of each character. These tensions are such that I found myself turning the pages with trembling hands in a way I hadn't done since around ten years ago when I was a horror junkie.

I do have a few grouses against the book, some fairly objective, and some personal. The ending, in particular, strikes me as overdramatic, and, more important, needlessly overdramatic. Apart from that, my personal complaint is that the book is cynical and depressing. I can't bring myself to believe that the teenage world has become so ... gruesome. I can live with the fact that the happier (and therefore less interesting) characters aren't dealt with, but I feel that they should at least be implied. This book, if intended to serve as a microcosm, should have included those characters. But if you personally feel that this isn't a flaw, feel free to forget this paragraph.

In conclusion, you have to read this book. You might not agree with it, but it has a point, and it makes it beautifully. It is, indeed, special. (Okay, I promised myself I would not say that, but sometimes you can't help it.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Comfort

I didn't have the greatest Christmas...especially since we had relatives over. I tend to resent anyone outside the immediate family butting in. Yesterday and today I made it up to myself with nice long 'comfort sessions'.

So I watched the entire Pride and Prejudice BBC series and then read a Georgette Heyer novel and three Asterixes.

Pride and Prejudice is brilliant, and I love the BBC adaptation. Jennifer Ehle's so wonderfully Lizzielike that it's easy to forget that she isn't that pretty. Colin Firth is...*breathes heavily* just perfect.
The English department in college decided to screen this last year (in two sessions, no one was going to stay five hours after college) and the effect it had on people was rather unnerving. There's something very disturbing about being in a roomful of sexually aroused young girls who make animal noises at intervals. The Firth bath scene was greeted with the loudest response. I did not show my appreciation in so crass a manner. I whimpered quietly to myself.
I still haven't seen the most recent version of P&P, or the Laurence Olivier version. I think (blasphemy!) Keira Knightley looks the part better than Jennifer Ehle. But if the spirit of the book is 'light and bright and sparkling', the BBC adaptation captures it perfectly.

Georgette Heyer is one of the only authors my mother and I can both read (another is Agatha Christie). I don't know if there's some deep rooted feminine need for books about feisty, beautiful girls (of the upper class, please) falling in love with rich, dark men. But we certainly seem to like them. I do, anyway. And when they're accompanied by descriptions of regency dinners, horses and snuffboxes, they're made even better. Georgette Heyer's books may not have more *substance* than your average Mills & Boon (though it's nice that her heroines don't have unidimensional characters. And she's less mushy) but they're delightful anyway.

Asterix needs a seperate entry.

The above forms of entertainment must be combined with tea and pakoras, coffee, chikki, and occasionally chicken soup. There must be a quilt and lots of pillows, a big old sweatshirt, and a Leonard Cohen greatest hits CD playing in the background. Merry Christmas, everyone. :)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Manticore's Secret

I promised myself I wouldn't read this book till the 23rd - there was far too much to do. Which is why I felt rather naughty reading it on sunday.

I have very little to say really. Except that it's even better than the last. Go buy now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Polly Toynbee on Narnia

On an intellectual level, it's easy for me to agree with this article. But on an emotional level...it's Narnia. How could I ever not love Narnia?

Thanks, Uma. :)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

And since I mention Peake so often...

"As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip
through one’s fingers and slide into oblivion, the
startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of
the imagination, before they whip away on the endless
current and are lost for ever in oblivion’s black ocean.”

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On a first reading of Iron Council

The first time I even heard of China Miéville was on TORC, where someone reccoed Perdido Street Station with more enthusiasm than I'm used to. So I was vaguely on the lookout for it, and found it in April 2004 in Teksons. I might not have bought it even then, but there was a blurb by Neil Gaiman on the cover, and (turning to the acknowledgements page) a nod of gratitude to Mervyn Peake. I had to buy it.
Perdido was a brilliant book - very strong and very painful, at the end. I loved the detail that went into the history and geography of Bas-Lag, the politics, and (most of all, for some reason) the Ribs. Here was the potential for something as vast as Tolkien, as lush as Peake and as real as..well...reality. Because even if bug-headed womden and walking cactii aren't a part of our real life, politics, multiculturalism, drugs, alienation, corruption etc are.

The Scar was obtained from the library and finished in one, long sunday session (which was technically partly a monday session, since I finished at some obscene hour). I liked it more than Perdido. There's something about novels which include travel (especially travel by sea) that makes me want to fly up and look down upon them from some ridiculous height. Too many movies, perhaps.
Plus, The Scar had Uther Doul, one of the best characters I've read in ages. And a linguist/librarian/frigid bitch for heroine? Perfect. The Scar was just magnificent...everything about it was big and operatic. Giant creatures from other dimensions, giant cities made of ships, big manly men, all on the sea, which is just about the vastest canvas on Earth.

Which is why I was so eager to read Iron Council. It's also why I'm slightly disappointed with it.
There's nothing wrong with this book. New Crobuzon in a time of turmoil (but then, have we ever seen it in any other way?) is interesting, but the war with Tesh isn't really that exciting. It's a really good story, but somehow it isn't as engaging as the previous books. Perhaps it's a matter of expecting too much - I was blown away by the first two, this one I only enjoyed. It could be just me. Iron Council did win the Arthur C Clarke award, judged by minds far greater than my own.

But you know, just when I find myself forced to admit that this isn't his best:

Bastard, Cutter thought, tearing up, trying to speak. Bastard to say that to me. You know what you are to me. Bastard. He felt his chest hollow, felt as if he were falling inside, as if his very fucking innards were straining for Judah.
'Love you Judah,' he said. He looked away. 'Love you. Do what I can.' I love you so much, Judah. I'd die for you. He wept without sob or sound, furious at it, trying to wipe it away.

My literature student side is tugging frantically at my sleeve, telling me how this is cliché and repetitive and seeks to distance itself from what it really is with the use of swearing. My person-reading-book side is touched. It's simple, but for some reason I find it astonishingly beautiful.