Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Provincial Daughter, Bread and Butter Stories, Sabriel, Sarah McLachlan

I've just finished Provincial Daughter by R.M. Dashwood. It was hilarious as expected and just as good as he Diary of a Provincial Lady. However, I can't help but think it felt a bit forced now and then : the whole process of writing a book imitating another one so closely doesn't really scream originality and where E.M. Delafield's writing sounded fresh and honest, her daughter lacked a voice of her own I must say.
I can't resist typing a passage for you (oh come on, you know it's at least worth your time when you can pick a random passage and laugh till your stomach hurts) :

On return from school James and Toby have again much to say about forthcoming school concert, James by his own account is uncertain whether, in the Nativity play, he is to take part of Joseph, Mary, the Babe, or one of the Animals. Or he might be a Shepherd. He could, he says, do any of them, he is rather good at Acting. Am reminded of Play Scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and say he is a proper little Bottom, isn't he? To my horror both children take this entirely in the wrong sense (hardly surprising really, they have never even heard of Shakespeare) and go off into transports of shocked but delighted laughter. Have probably acquired reputation of bawdry now with my children which will last a lifetime. Only hope they will never see fit to write autobiographies.

There's something about free indirect speech, it's so excellent for humorous passages. Also, the disappearance of pronouns. Interesting to study.

Off to read Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (another Virago!)

I've also ordered two books. The first one is a hardcover copy of The Bread and Butter Stories written by Mary Norton, much talked about on different blogs. She's the author of The Borrowers, a series of books I had never even heard of up till recently although apparently it's quite famous - I didn't read much as a child.

When Mary Norton, creator of The Borrowers, needed money to support herself and her young family, she turend her hand to writing short stories for publication in women's magazines. They were not designed for consumption by literary critics or 'serious' readers; they were simply a device to make money, so she always referred to them as the 'bread and butter stories'. Now, published for the first time, they show that Norton was much more than just a 'bread and butter' writer. The themes of these tales are perennials - growing pains, a new love affair confessed by a prim married woman, a newly-wed tourist almost tempted by the exotic charm of a bullfighter - but Norton's light touch turns them into enchanting cameos. The stories set in Portual, where Norton lived for a while, are particularly evocative.

I'll admit I was even more tempted when I saw the gorgeous cover :

As you probably know, I've been dying for some fantasy books recently. Well, I finally gave in and ordered a copy of Sabriel by Garth Nix. I hadn't planned on buying it just now but I couldn't resist when I saw it was recommended by one of my favourite authors, Philip Pullman, as well as Aletheia whom I've been harassing for some fantasy recommendations. Neil Gaiman is a priority, though, and January 2nd I'll buy a copy of American Gods and read it properly (I had to give up as I was reading it as an eBook and my eyes were hurting, I can tell you the first 200 pages were engrossing). Sabriel is the first in a trilogy : that's always good in my book. If I like it, I have two more to look forward to ! I really enjoyed reading Amazon's review of the book.

This may be the first book of yet another "cross-over" fantasy trilogy--theoretically equally appealing to both children and adult readers--but thankfully Sabriel has enough verve and panache about it to reach just such a wide readership and to ensure that author Garth Nix has created a bandwagon all of his own. Constantly rich and meaty, the story is intriguing from the off. Page by page the tension builds and draws you into a highly imaginative landscape that has familiarity and originality in equal measures.

Sabriel attends Wyverley Girls College in Ancelstierre (Nix's version of normal) and has recently graduated with runaway firsts in every subject. But her particular school has certain extra-curricular activities, like the learning of Magic, because of its proximity to the Wall which marks Ancelstierre's border with the Old Kingdom. Over the wall, life is very different and the use of magic is commonplace. Then, on the edge of death, Sabriel's father, Abhorson, sends her a cryptic message that means she must venture into the Old Kingdom and calm the storm that is brewing there, and which will surely multiply at her father's passing. Refusing to accept his fate, Sabriel inherits the tools of her father's trade and his name. Her new duty is to lay the disturbed dead back to rest with the help of seven powerful bells worn across the chest. Sabriel seeks her father's slayer in a mammoth journey that is hindered by dark magic, monsters-a-plenty and shadowy unsubstantial evils.

The narrative builds into a luxurious tale of good versus evil, with a re-assuringly likeable central character to take us through it all. Nix's writing is solid and well-planned, his prose convincing and rounded. Make a note to look up the sequels Lirael and Abhorsen in due course--they're unlikely to disappoint.

Who should I leave you with ? As I've been listening to old favourites these days, I picked the singer I've been listening to for the longest and I picked a live album (from her Afterglow tour) as I couldn't choose a favourite studio album - they're all breathtaking. Ladies and gentlemen, Sarah McLachlan !