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Review: White Horse; Yan Ge

White-Horse

White Horse

Hope Road Publishing, RRP £1.19, Suitable for ages 12-16

Publishers blurb:

“Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father, and an uncle, aunt and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie”.

I like to think of books in translation as cultural exchange. They are an opportunity to experience the worlds that we are separated from by language; to visit cultures that may seem alien to us and to learn. With White Horse we get to visit a culture that is, literally, half a world a way, and in it we find that while culture and experience may separate us, humanity is universal.

This short novella, translated by Nicky Harman, peeks behind the closed doors and whispered conversations of a restrictive family environment to uncover the secrets within. It is a story that could happen in Paris, France or Paris, Texas. It could be Newcastle, New South Wales; Newcastle Tyne and Wear or Newcastle KwaZulu-Natal.  This time, though, it takes place in small town China. The cultural landscape is evoked beautifully and in the usual way – though food. Descriptions of meals, cooking and treats shared evoke the setting while character is revealed through dialogue. Yan’s characters have depth, warmth and humour, though they’re not always likeable.

White Horse is ultimately an entwicklungsroman, chronicling the growing sexual awareness of Yun Yun and her cousin, both in their own lives and the lives of others. As naïveté gives way to knowledge, the conservative hypocrisies and generational differences of the modern family is revealed. Yan’s real skill lies in her protagonists treatment of this situation; it is difficult to tell how much Yun Yun understands or even cares.

To delve to much in the the imagary of White Horse would be to give too much away;  this is a cerebral novella, reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or  Jostein Gaarder, but it is difficult to dicuss the narrative without at least touching on it. Chess appears as a motif and metaphor throughout the 30 page e-book but the major symbolic component is of course the white horse, a stalwart feature of both mythological and historical storytelling in China. Yun Yun processes the discomfort she encounters by envisioning (or perhaps hallucinating) a white horse, lending an air of magic realism to the tale. Gonsun Long’s famous paradox (can it be that a white horse is not a horse?*) is also recalled in the conflict of the story. Names and why we are who we are are not explicitly discussed but are alluded to. Perhaps Yun Yun needs to grow up a little bit before she can really tackle those questions.

With strong characterisation and some wonderful turns of phrase, White Horse is a quick but affecting read. 8/10.

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* Don’t be fooled, the fact that I am aware this paradox exists means that I understand it. I don’t. Not even a little bit.

Review: Janice; Jean Goulbourne

Janice

Janice

Published July 2014,  Hope Road. RRP £3.43 (Kindle) £1.99 (ePub)

Publishers blurb:

Schoolgirl Janice, in the care of her single mother, with a father in prison, leaves the poverty and crime of the ghetto for a life with more prospects when her mother gets a job in the suburbs. But all is not what it seems, the affluent household she moves to has its own problems, and secrets, and soon Janice is caught up in a dark web of suspicion as the well-off girls at her new school look down on her and her ghetto past. Caught between two worlds, Janice begins to wonder if the grass is really greener on the other side of the tracks. Are these new upwardly mobile city dwellers any  better than the poor people at the standpipe in her old home, or the rural life of her grand-parents in the country? 

I am always faintly concerned when any work is described as a ‘moral tale’. Whose morals, exactly? Overt didacticism, however well-meaning, is prone to rejection from readers who feel like life is an eternal conveyor belt of thou shalt nots. The last thing they want in fiction is a sermon. Janice, from an author who has more than half-a-dozen other titles to her name, both poetry and prose, could sail too closely to a condescending pedagogy with her first venture into YA.

The primary plot concerns drug use among teenagers and, unlike Junk, for example or Crank, the good are unerringly good and the bad are unerringly bad. The titular protagonist is pious and wide-eyed, her antagonists mean and the grown ups, when they are around, perfectly loving and supportive. This, in addition to some clunky exposition and unsophisticated plotting (at one point the narrator muses “…if items began to disappear from the house, to be sold for Cornelia for more cocaine, they would be the ones suspected of stealing” Sure enough, five swipes of the thumb later items have gone missing.)  could render the text condescending.

But it is not. The prose itself is engaging. There are some fine descriptive passages, especially in the early chapters, and Jean Goulborne’s ear for voices means speech is rendered on the page beautifully. Ultimately,though,  Janice is primarily a book about class – how we define it and how it defines us – and this is how it avoids becoming cloying.

Transplanted to the affluent suburb of Saint Andrew, a large cosmopolitan parish in Jamaica, Janice is caught between her poverty-stricken family and friends and her new surroundings. Her mother, a practical nurse, has taken a place caring for an elderly patient and Janice, who dreams of academic success and a career that will let her escape the ghetto, must go with her. Both missing her old home and aspiring to have the things her new community has, Janice navigates her confusion with the help of the other staff.

The novel subverts the cultural meme that poverty is an eternal bedfellow of immorality. Middle class families lack the cohesion of the less fortunate families even though they don’t subscribe to traditional ideals concerning the domestic sphere and they operate under a different set of rules. As Miss Meline puts it, “Everything happen in this country, them blame it on us […] Nobody investigate them bank account.”

Them people who have too much always go on like them can’t get enough. Them never satisfy.

Entitlement, greed and recklessness are swiped at; the value of intangible assets is espoused and moral behaviour is foremost among these assets. It is those with money and influence who are most lacking.

There is a somewhat traditionalist approach hidden in Goulborne’s thesis on class. Obstacles are placed on every path – fair enough – but some don’t have the will navigate them. A collective push for betterment alone can lift communities out of want. This offers some balance to the picture of poverty revered as virtuous or holy, but it also hints at the idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Janice, of course, does not deserve to be poor, and her goodness is rewarded by both hard work and luck.

To experience literature that takes place in a culture and context removed from our own can only be a worthwhile endeavour. Though Janice takes place half a world away its themes are universal. This is a Christian allegory wherein everyone gets their just desserts and characters make frequent reference to God. Such overt religiosity is not a common feature of YA but it does not feel out of place. Instead it contributes to a vivid rendering of  a cultural landscape that is largely unknown in the UK. The varied environments of Kingston are evoked through food, nature and speech and the difference between her home and St Andrew is clearly drawn. This is a captivaiting read.

Janice is an accessible novel that’s more suited to the younger end of the YA market. It deserves a hearty 7 out of 10.

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With thanks to Alex at HopeRoad for the review copy.

White Horse by Yan Ge is available from the same publisher in October.

 

 

 

[Review] Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?; Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

roland

Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT?

Published 2013, Huntley Rahara Press. Suitable for ages 3+

From the cover:

“Roland Humphrey is a little boy for whom sparkly pink things bring a measure of joy. Roland sees girls at his school dress in a rainbow of hues and is confused by the “rules” limiting what boys can choose. He likes sports but also ballet; Roland doesn’t understand why girls can like both but for boys there’s just one way.

Will he bow to peer pressure? Conform to others’ ideas of who he should be? Or will he follow his own heart and be the authentic Roland Humphrey?

I love books that do their part to destroy gender binaries, harmful stereotypes and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? is just such a book.

Unlike a number of other books I’ve featured Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? does not address gender directly. It’s speaks of the unwritten rules that seek to shape our behavior and keep us complicit in our biologically determined gender roles.

Roland’s dilemma is one familiar to many children of liberal parents. He’s always been taught that he can dress how he likes without judgement but this theory is tested when he is outside the safety of the familial home; when Roland wears his ‘girly’ colours and motifs to school, his friends make a helpful list of what is appropriate for him to wear.

Lucy and Ella's colour rules 4 boys

Lucy and Ella’s colour rules 4 boys

Roland is upset by these prescriptive demands, but the next day he’s made a decision:

“Hi friends!” in a bright voice Roland declared.
“You need to know that I’m no longer scared.

Not scared about how you’ll view what I’m wearing,
because I’ve decided I need to be daring.

What matters to me is whether you’re kind.
The friends I deserve truly won’t mind

if I choose sparkly nailpolish, skirts or clogs,
they’ll like me for me, not for my togs.

Roland’s decision to be true to himself appears to have given him more than just the confidence to wear pink. For the first time we see him wearing a dress and tiara, a fairy wand and catcher’s mitt peeping out of his backpack.

Digital illustrations from Katrina Revenaugh are bright and colourful, making full use of the so-called feminine palette, stylistically recalling the work of Rex  Ray in 10,000 Dresses. Each page is  full of interest.

The narrative, unfortunately, leaves a little to be desired. Kiernan-Johnson tells Roland’s story in rhyming couplets, but the language is occasionally forced and the rhythm sometimes stumbles. These slips are jarring and make for an uncomfortable reading experience.

There’s something about Roland Humphrey… that I can only describe as a self-published quality. It is well meaning, absolutlely, and it hits the mark about 70% of the time, which is absolutely not bad. But it needs to be hitting the mark 100% of the time. The language is slightly off; the cover text feels like an afterthought. Revenaugh’s art is lovely, but it’s just not matched by the text, which means Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? scrapes 5/10.

My thanks to Huntley Rahara for providing a copy for review.

Review: Charles Gilman; Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1, Professor Gargoyle and #2, Slither Sisters

prof-gargoyle

Professor Gargoyle

Published October 2012 and January 2013, Quirk Books. Hardback. List price, £10.99

Appropriate for ages 7-11.

From the cover of Professor Gargoyle:

‘Strange things are happening at Lovecraft Middle School. Rats are leaping frm lockers. Students are disappearing. The school library is a labryinth of secret coridors. and the science teacher is acting very, very, perculiar. Robert Arthur knew that seventh grade was going to be weird, but this is ridiculous!

With the help of some unlikely new friends, Robert discovers theres more to Lovecraft Middle Schol than meets the eye. Can he uncover the secrets of the school before it’s too late?’

It’s really difficult to stick to the old adage of never judging a book by its cover when you get a book with a cover like this.The lenticular covers of each book in the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series morph as you move them: the dignified looking bearded man becomes a horned beast; the svelte, wan twin sisters become scaled hydras. It’s sure to pull in reluctant readers and it made me want to dive in immediately.

It is, perhaps, a little odd to describe a paranormal story with an antagonist who eats live hamsters as ‘comforting’ and ‘warm’, but that’s exactly what the first two books in Charles Gilman’s middle readers series are. Similar to RL Stein’s Goosebumps but far wittier, far creepier and far more intelligently written, Professor Gargoyle and Slither Sisters follow awkward pre-teen everykid Robert Arthur as he arrives at the newly built state-of-the-art Lovecraft Middle School, a place where the mysterious, gilt and dust world of the supernatural sits beside the digital chalkboard and brightly anonymous fittings of a super-modern school campus.

slither-sisters

slither Sisters

The stories are engrossing. What child does not fantasize that their science teacher might secretly be a demon or the cool, popular girls running for class President Medusa- headed monsters? This is the force that drives the series, which, though inspired by HP Lovecraft, has none of his overwrought prose. It’s clear Gilman knows his characters inside out and cares deeply for his audience. Never condescending, always bright and often funny, its difficult to find a downside to Gilman’s storytelling.

Intertexual references to Lovecraft abound. Monsters are borrowed from the Cthulhu Mythos, philosophising that,

The Great Old Ones have the intelligence of ten thousand men combined. We should not question their actions.

Professor Gargoyle, p. 73

Though the books don’t explore too deeply Lovecraftian philosophy the groundwork is laid for future books in the series to delve further. In another nod to Lovecraft the books’ accompanying website plays Camille Saint-Saëns Dance Macabre. Read the rest of this entry

Review: The Further Tales of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson

The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit; Emma Thompson, illus. Eleanor Taylor

Published September 2012. F. Warne & Co. List price £12.99

Appropriate for ages 20 months and up

From the cover:

‘Peter Rabbit is in low spirits, what he needs is a change of scene. He squeezes under the gate into Mr McGregor’s garden intending to steal a lettuce – but what happens next is just the excitement that Peter is looking for.

He discovers a picnic basket and before Peter knows it he is in Scotland, and so the further tale of Peter Rabbit begins…’

Beatrix Potter’s series of 24 books, published between 1902 and 1930 are classics, enjoyed in childhood and beyond. Peter Rabbit, who made his first appearance in 1902 with The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is undoubtedly the most popular of Potter’s beloved characters. It is testament to the popularity of the naughty little rabbit and his creator that so many adaptations have been produced: from countless animated versions to a ballet, Beatrix Potter biopics, CD-ROMs & other digital media and myriad merchandise, they have been reproduced and absorbed in to our culture and recognised as a significant point in the history of children’s literature. The books are, unusually for the age, child-sized; the illustrations are designed to be read in conjunction with the text; even Potter’s merchandising of her characters was groundbreaking at the turn of the last century. Read the rest of this entry

[Review, stage] Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons promotional poster

Reviewed performance: Saturday matinée, 4th Feb. 2012. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Swallows and Amazons tours nationally until May 2012.

One of the joys of attending theatre for children as an (admittedly rather short) adult is that one generally has a clear view of the action. So it was that on a chilly, windy day in Dùn Èideann, I found myself warm  and with an uninterrupted view of the stage as National Theatre’s touring production of Swallows and Amazons began.

I had been apprehensive – I just wasn’t sure that Swallows and Amazons would work as a musical – but, the score is perfectly acceptable, if nothing particularly special. Provided by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy (no, really) the songs are not numbers, they’re not (with one exception) set pieces, and as such the show would do perfectly well without them. Only John’s solo adds to the narrative; from it we glean a deeper understanding of the boy’s motives, a move which makes the character infinitely more likeable. Even this song is instantly forgettable, though – you won’t be humming the tunes as you leave the auditorium.

Adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Tom Morris, Swallows and Amazons sticks fairly closely to Arthur Ramsome’s 1930 classic (with one glaring omission to which I will attend later). Ransome’s child characters, aged between 7-13, are portrayed ably by actors aged 22-38. Roger, aged seven, sports knee-pads and a five o’clock shadow, but such incongruencies can be overlooked when the talent on stage so completely inhabit their characters. Titty is mischievous and bouncing, Susan is the Angel in the House, John is Captain Sensible. But Roger, oh Roger. Roger is an utter joy to behold. He is seven, short-trousered and sharp. So utterly consumed by his seven-ness that it seems not at all odd to see a grown man throw himself face down on the floor in childish despair. There’s no high dramatics, though. Despite the pantomimic elements the show takes on part way through the second act, there’s no cartoonishness, no overwrought theatrics. Instead, we are treated to myriad subtleties, performances that have been, one feels, heavily workshopped but that shine.

Read the rest of this entry

[Review, DVD] Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Fairy tales suffer a lot. They undergo constant revision, both by design and by accident; by people purposely seeking to subvert the traditional tales (a la James Thurber), and by misrememberings and chinese whispers of oral storytelling.

Little Red Riding Hood may well be the most reinterpreted of the classic Tales of Mother Goose: Roald Dahl’s comic verse; Angela Carter’s twisted tales in The Bloody Chamber; Toby Forward’s POV swappage. There’s a plethora of retellings available on Amazon, from  board books for toddlers to long YA tomes that Freud would be proud of. In its lifetime, the story of the hooded one has been a morality tale, a metaphor for sexual awakening, a love story. It has been a thriller and a creature feature, a revenger’s tragedy and a modern satire.

Hollywood has taken the story to heart, with the character having been portrayed on-screen in at least 117 features. The The Weinstein Company‘s Hoodwinked! was released in 2005 to a lukewarm reception, and the latest take on the tale comes from Twlight director Catherine Hardwicke.

Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is the simplest and most well-known version of the story. In it Red is beat to Grandmother’s house by the wolf because she stops to pick wildflowers, and after running through the ‘what big arms/legs/ears/eyes/teeth you have’ schtick, is eaten up by the wolf. There’s no rescue, no redemption, and the tale ends with a moral:

Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way.
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, or charming never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth—
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!

Rotkäppchen (or Little Red Cap) by the Grimms differs slightly from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. Split into two parts, the first half mirrors the Perrault text but has Red rescued by the Huntsman after she’s been eaten. Once bitten, twice shy, the Grimm’s add a second part to the story that sees Red and Grandmother foil further similar attempts to gobble them up by a second wolf. Read the rest of this entry