Saturday, 26 July 2014

Facing the music

Sedition is a fabulous romp of a novel that reminds me of Sarah Waters' debut, Tipping the Velvet; it's mock-historical, not in the sense that any individual incident is strictly historically inaccurate, but due to the cumulative effect of its plotting, which plays out strikingly modern themes. It's late eighteenth-century London and five young women are seeking a match. Their fathers conspire to educate them on the pianoforte so they can wow society and make wonderful matches. However, the men have more money than sense, and the pianoforte maker, and more specifically, his daughter Annie, has plans of her own. Conversely, the five girls are not innocent victims. While the plot pivots around their virginity, they are far from ignorant or even likeable. Alathea, manipulative and secretive, stands out from the crowd, but does not seem to know what she ultimately hopes to gain. Meeting Annie, however, throws everything into perspective.

The sheer energy of the narrative makes Sedition an enjoyable read, and although there are some very dark moments in the novel, it's not told straight enough for these to be truly disturbing. Katharine Grant tells her story as if she is writing a bawdy ballad or folk-song; it has resonance, and we identify with the characters and want them to succeed (or fail), but the telling does not have enough realism to make us truly suffer with them. It's a strategy that works remarkably well. The initially schematic characterisation of the five girls unfolds into something much more interesting, and Annie is a highlight from the start, suffering over her hare lip but determined to seek her fortune nonetheless. Grant is also clever enough to avoid the pitfalls that dog most historical novels. Partly, as I've suggested, this is because this is a mock-historical, and partly, it's through the skill of the writing, which conjures the atmosphere of Georgian London without getting bogged down in detail, or saying too little. Like Waters, she uses genre to capture the sense of a period; this story would not have worked if it were set in the mid-nineteenth century, just as Waters exploited the crime conventions of that period when she wrote Fingersmith. The other comparison that occurs to me is David Mitchell's fantastic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; this is a very different novel, but pulls off the same trick of not letting the author's imagination be confined by the historical setting.

I know little about music, and this book might mean more to someone who is more musical; music is embedded in its metaphors as well as in its plot line. Nevertheless, this was no hindrance to following the story, and the ending seemed both inevitable, and totally fitting. I look forward to reading more from Grant.

I received a free digital copy of this novel via NetGalley.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Laura Rereading: the Animorphs series

Cover of the third Animorphs book,
narrated by Tobias, who gets 'trapped'
as a hawk in the first book. I had a massive
pre-teen crush on Tobias and, in honour of
that fact, all the covers I'm featuring
are of him and his hot, floppy-haired,
angsty cover models.
This post will include spoilers for all Animorphs books.

This post involves a bit of explanation, because while the Animorphs series were phenomenally popular in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, they were never as well-known in the UK, although all the books were published here as well. I was a staunch fan since reading one of the early books in the series aged eleven, and insisted on ordering the rest from America as they came out so I didn't have to wait for the later UK publication (and far inferior covers). Essentially, the series, aimed at eight to twelve-year-olds, focused on five teenagers who were given the power to morph, or turn into any animal they could touch, in order to fight an invasion of aliens called Yeerks who infested humans by entering their brains and controlling their minds. It ran to fifty-four books total, plus special editions and 'chronicles' that looked at the backstories of the various alien races the teenagers encounter. Each character took turns narrating a book.

While finishing off my PhD thesis, I decided to re-read all the Animorph books I still own in sequence (my collection is not complete, as I dumped some of the ghostwritten books in the middle of the series due to their poor quality compared to those produced by the original writers, Katherine Applegate and Michael Grant) and was amazed by how absorbing, thought-provoking and fun they still are to read. In my opinion, they stand head and shoulders over popular children's and YA dystopian offerings today, from The Hunger Games to Divergent and beyond. Why? To be as brief as possible…

Swoon. Also, it's clear Tobias primarily identifies
as a hawk, not a human, by #23.
1. The characterisation. Although it takes a few books to establish the five main characters (plus their alien buddy, Ax) beyond their initial character traits, Animorphs continues to develop all five of them in subtle and interesting ways throughout its long run. Tobias, for example, starts off as a stereotypical bullied sensitive type. He then gets trapped in hawk 'morph' after staying in it for more than two hours, one of the restrictions of 'morphing.' Initially, it seems as if this is going to provide another excuse for Tobias to angst about his terrible life. In the long run, it turns him into a much more complex character as the reader realises he is actually happier as a hawk than he ever was as a human. He's also affected by living alongside the hawk's instincts in his head, which deeply alters his personality; much is made of the fact that he's now a predator who has to kills small animals to survive, but on my re-read, I found myself getting interested in the less obvious changes, such as the fact he now defines good weather by the quality of the thermals and irrationally hates owls and crows. On the whole, it's clear that the Tobias who started the series no longer exists, and the new Tobias is a true meld of hawk and human, rather than a human who has to live alongside a hawk mind, as I interpreted it when I read these books as a teenager.

2. And the characterisation. Animorphs, however, does equally well with its fully human characters. Take Rachel, who starts off as a beautiful gymnast who is obsessed with shopping and ends up being addicted to the violence of the war. The beauty of her transformation isn't the contrast but the way in which you can genuinely see that her reckless, violent tendencies were inherent in the character all along. The writers follow the logic of the stereotype they initially created - the reckless, tough, hot 'strong girl' - to some much more interesting places. She's like a better Katniss. Or take Cassie, Rachel's inverse, who starts off as the kindest, most moral member of the group and who resorts to a kind of moral cowardice, passing the consequences of her actions on to the other Animorphs because she can't bear to witness them. Cassie is usually everyone's least favourite character for this reason, but I actually think she takes some of the very bravest actions in the series as well. To her misfortune, she's cursed with the ability to read people and hence to manipulate them alongside powerful empathy; these qualities make her both the strongest and weakest of the Animorphs.

3. And the characterisation… I think you get the point. But it's rare to see this in a children's book, or even in the majority of adult books.

4. The grey morality. Whenever people say to me that children/teenagers want black and white morality, good guys and bad guys, in their novels, I always tell them about Animorphs and my sheer relief, aged eleven, that somebody had finally realised that grey characters were more interesting. Animorphs sticks with a fairly black-and-white formula for a while, but once it starts humanising its villains and darkening its good guys, it never really stops. By the end of the novels, the Animorphs are in alliance with an alien race they previously presumed were evil, while they're opposing the xenocidal tendencies of the alien race they predominantly saw as good. Meanwhile, their attitude to their major enemies, the Yeerks, has become more complex that you would have thought possible after reading #1.

My sister (right) and I enjoying a sublime reading experience
in summer 2008. Also, hot Tobias cover on the book on
the right.
5. Logical follow-through. This is clearly not true of the series as a whole. Animorphs is a big, sprawling mess of plot holes. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the fact that the authors have clearly taken time to think about the implications of the key powers and rules that they establish for the series. I tested this recently by telling my fiancĂ© about the series, and was interested to note that the books do pre-empt and deal with all the plot-holey questions he posed. "But can they morph a Yeerk?" "Yes, #29." "Do all the Yeerks want to control humans?" "No, #19." "Why don't they make lots more Animorphs?" "The morphing cube, and also, David." "Why don't they let Yeerks morph humans?" "This is indeed the solution." This may say a bit too much about my encyclopaedic knowledge of this series…

6. Respect for young readers. Animorphs is a dark and complex series. The writers knew that children can cope with darkness, and with complexity, if they are interested enough to read on. Indeed, I'm more disturbed by the scenes of mental and physical torture now than I was as an eleven-year-old.

Scholastic recently reissued the first eight Animorphs books, but they cancelled the reissue due to poor sales. It's odd that the series was so successful back in the day, but not now. Long-running series do appear to have been more popular in children's fiction in the 1990s (Goosebumps, The Babysitters' Club, etc) whereas the trend now seems to be towards trilogies or shorter series, perhaps inspired by Harry Potter. It's a shame, however, because, despite the simple writing, I think Animorphs has most of these series beat. Are there any other UK fans out there?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Tuesday Musings: Should we have GCSE 'set texts' at all? or, goodbye, Michael Gove

The departure of Michael Gove from the Department of Education has prompted another flare-up of complaints about, to my mind, one of the least offensive things he did during his tenure: swapped one set of arbitarily-selected GCSE set texts for another arbitrarily-selected set. I'm no fan of Gove, but he is right to say that he has not 'banned' any books by doing this, unless we think that all of world literature was 'banned' from the previous GCSE syllabus bar the handful of texts that made their way onto it. It's also odd that the attacks have been focused on proving the literary merit of the excluded titles, such as Of Mice and Men. Again, many previously excluded titles also had literary merit, so Of Mice and Men is not being deemed unliterary by its omission. Most pernicious, however, is the idea that Gove's syllabus somehow discriminates against working-class children. A recent petition directed at Nicky Morgan, the new education secretary, states that 'you won't find many 15 year olds who will easily connect with Dickens and Shakespeare… most are alienated by the culture, the characters and the language.' The conclusion is that 'this is a syllabus that privileges the elite and deprives the disadvantaged'. While I agree we should be suspicious of Gove's Anglocentrism, I think it is equally offensive to suggest that working-class children are not capable of appreciating the texts on his syllabus. English literature is taught in schools to stretch pupils' horizons and expand their imaginations, and, in my opinion, it is an awful thing to suggest that non-elite children don't have imaginative capacity, or that a good teacher can't teach a difficult text to a less academic class. This is not a good reason to oppose Gove.

When a range of writers were asked by the Guardian to pick GCSE set texts, Hilary Mantel gave the only right response: 'Should we play the Gove game, by setting up opposing lists? Or should we ask, which Gradgrind thought up the idea of set texts in the first place? Why should students be condemned to thrash to death a novel or a corpus of poetry, week after week, month after month?' Opposing Gove does not mean coming up with another handful of texts, or fighting for a return to the (bad) status quo, but by returning the choice of texts to teach to those who have to teach them. The author of the petition I cited above claims that teaching Dickens or Shakespeare to fifteen-year-olds is too difficult; other teachers would not agree. Giving teachers the choice of texts would avoid the tokenism, box-ticking and so forth that goes on at the moment (ethnic minority writers suffer particularly badly, as to a lesser extent, do women) and allow them to teach texts that appeal to them and to their class. The National Curriculum (b. 1988) is, after all, a relatively recent invention, and ultimately micro-management does not encourage teachers to work at their best. This doesn't mean there can't be broad national guidelines suggesting that teachers should teach a novel and a play, for example; but these would be much more flexible than what is currently on offer. It would also avoid the pointless squabbling about what texts are valuable or representative, a choice that no individual can make adequately.

Gove has departed from education, but it seems unlikely that much will change unless we radically rethink the way schools are run; harmful changes were set in motion long before he entered office. Sadly, this is no time for celebration.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Outside in

Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, this novel follows eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman as she fumbles her way into a family after she marries the head of the household, Johannes Brandt. The atmospheric, evocative writing of this debut has prompted inevitable, though accurate, comparisons to Girl With A Pearl Earring; yet, oddly enough, the novel that The Miniaturist recalls most strongly, at least for its first two-thirds, is Rebecca. And like the second Mrs de Winter, Nella is our guide and point of contact, but not an especially interesting character in her own right. She's sensitively portrayed in her growth from a timid near-child to a more decisive young woman, and - unlike the majority of historical novelists - Jessie Burton explores how such a growth might have been experienced by a seventeenth-century woman, rather than imposing modern attitudes on to the past. Nella's reflections on marriage and the duties of a wife, for example, have modern resonance but are very much of their time as she considers how becoming a wife will be the culmination of her life and the opening of opportunities she could not access otherwise. However, the strength of The Miniaturist lies in the information that's held back from the reader. Despite its dramatic and gripping plot-line, by the end we are left with the sense that much of the action has taken place off screen - and outside Nella's understanding. (The fabulous cover, designed by Rosanna Boscowen with incredible attention to detail, as she explains here, helps to cement our image that we're looking in from outside.)

The rest of the Brandt household are all more complex characters than Nella - even the loyal and emotional maid, Cornelia. For me, the most fascinating figure was Johannes's unmarried sister, Marin. Initially appearing almost as a Mrs Danvers archetype, Marin gradually reveals a softer side while losing nothing of her uncompromising personality. Burton cleverly plays with our expectations as she suggests more cliched stories that lie in Marin's past, and although I found the culmination of her secrets very predictable, it is convincingly portrayed as a true shock to the rest of the household. Other characters seem almost under-explored, and there is a suggestion that Burton knows, and could have written, much more about them. Despite his relatively large amount of page-time, I felt myself wanting to find out more about Johannes. We know even less about Otto, a black man in service for the Brandts. And of course, the mysterious miniaturist remains a cipher. The miniatures that find their way to Nella are both a great conceit on which to hang the plot and a little frustrating. Nella gradually comes to realise that the miniatures have an oddly predictive power, but - having accepted this - why doesn't she check the remaining figures for clues earlier? For me, this quasi-magical device wasn't well-integrated or explored enough, and I felt there was a bit of wasted potential, although I respect Burton's choice to keep most of the explanation under wraps.

The Miniaturist is not a perfect novel; firstly, it starts slowly and the richness of characterisation takes some time to be revealed. To an extent, the early chapters do feel like a wasted opportunity to add further depth to Johannes, Otto and Marin, despite the depth that they acquire later. As I've suggested, the miniaturist is a little too tangential to the main plot. And while I suspect that Nella is meant to be a cipher, she could have been a little quirkier, more individual, from the start, if only through telling us more about the first eighteen years of her life. Nevertheless, this is one of the best historical novels I've read in several years, and I would recommend it.