Z is for Ziegesar

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Little J escapes the confines of New York and Constance in the first in the series of the It Girl books.

Perhaps I’m getting too old to be reading teen books, but it seemed like there was a lot of swearing in this, considering it’s aimed at 12-17 year olds. Not to mention the drinking, the smoking and the general nakedness that goes on throughout.

Jenny Humphrey (of Gossip Girl, for those who know) has been asked to leave Constance due to a series of misunderstandings. She has chosen a rich, mixed sex boarding school somewhere in upstate New York, I’m guessing, where the girls dress in Chanel and Ralph Lauren and the boys dress in J Crew boxer shorts, apparently.  A mixed-sex boarding school does not seem like a good idea to me (but did, apparently, to her father) and as predicted, within ten pages the teens are bed hopping and smoking all over the place.

I can’t actually be bothered to relate the story. Sorry. It’s about Jenny being irresistible to the guys at school who all have popular girlfriends, and there’s some sort of scam going on with said bed hoppers and Jenny blackmailing someone else…

Some things I liked about it, as I do love Gossip Girl, which was created by the author, Cecily von Ziegesar. I liked the pretty clothes, although it’s not the same when you can look at on telly, but instead have to read endless descriptions of polo shirts, Pucci scarves and Stella McCartney boots. It was quite fun, in a Mallory Towers gone wrong way, and none of the girls actually had (or has had) sex, which was quite nice, I suppose.  I actually have the second in the series to read, but I think I will be returning it to the library forthwith.

Basically, if  you like the TV show Gossip Girl, stay away from the books.

Y is for Yates

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This is Frank’s story. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, ostensibly tells of the Wheelers, a young couple with a couple of young kids who live in suburban America paradise in the fifties. Really though, it is Frank’s story – we see everything through him and although his wife April is the first character we are introduced to, Frank is the one we get to know.

He goes to his office, where his job involves some sort of vague sales type marketing stuff, and then he comes home to his wife and kids where they pretend that everything is fine to their bland friends and excruciating neighbours.

Behind closed doors is a different story, where Frank and April tear each other apart – physically and mentally – torturing the other for trapping them in this inane life. April blames Frank for getting her pregnant seven years too early, thwarting her acting career. She later admits that she never really had an acting career, but this issue is soon replaced by another excuse to beat each other with. It’s bleak and sparse but Yates saves it from being depressing by making the characters sympathetic. Near the beginning there is a conversation about Evelyn Waugh, where someone comments that those people don’t exist. It is the opposite for Yates’ characters, where each of them has a human quality, a believable personality, fear, motive, that makes each trapped family unit heart-breaking.

What made this even more surprising to me was that it was written in 1961. I thought it was a look back at the fifties, using hindsight and experience to draw an insightful conclusion. In fact, Yates was in the middle of this time period, the yuppies before yuppies.

I think to say I enjoyed this would be a stretch, as it’s not an enjoyable book. However, the plot is beautifully held and taut right up until the end. All of the characters are believable, with a poignancy that is hard to write. I would like to read this again in a year or so, perhaps when I haven’t imposed such a stringent time limit on myself, or messed up the weeks.

I haven’t seen the film, either, and I think I would also like to see it. Like so many book to film adaptations, I may have to separate the film from the source material.

X is for… X, actually

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Everyone knows about Malcolm X.  He was the yin to Dr Martin Luther King’s yang, the devil to his angel. In this book, he tells his life story in his own words.

His early life revolved around his mother and father, and numerous brothers and sisters. His father was a preacher, and was brutally murdered at the hands of white neighbours, according to Malcolm X. This is one of the problems with an autobiography – the reader is given one view, rather like a diary, and that is the view he is supposed to take as truth.  Of course, I don’t doubt that Malcolm X’s father was murdered, and probably by white people too. It’s just that there is no evidence, no other point of view who can support the claims.

After the death of his father, his mother tried to provide for her children as best as possible, but in twenties America this was difficult. It was even more difficult for a widowed black woman, who ended up in an institution with the strain. Malcolm blames this on white people too, who goaded her and undermined her position in the family until she gave in to their thoughts. After this, the family are split up and sent to live with other families. They keep in touch, and Malcolm eventually goes to live with his half sister, Ella. I don’t want to tell his whole life story, as to be honest, you can read the book yourself if you like. However, some events are important for the later conclusions that he draws.

Malcolm ends up in prison, where he finds solace in a new religion – the Nation of Islam. It teaches that a mad scientist bred white people, thousands of years before Christ, from black people. Along the way he also produced what Malcolm calls ‘red, yellow and brown people’. This white race were the opposite to the natural black people, and when they returned to society from the island the scientist had been banished to, bullied the more peaceful black people into submission. Anyone who knows a little about Islam will be able to recognise this as false, but Malcolm identified with this idea of the White Devil because of the mistreatment he suffered in his childhood, along with the every day treatment he received simply for being black.

He threw himself into his Islamic studies with great fervour, and used his obvious charisma to climb up the chain of Nation of Islam upon release from prison. He was loyal and hard working, and their leader, Elijah Muhammad, recognised this. Along the way, Malcolm explains that he is not being racist when he calls white people devils, or refuses to let them join Nation of Islam. The same is true when he talks about Jews being selfish – this is not racist, according to him, but the facts. It’s quite an unsettling book to read because it’s quite clear that he believes all of it. He cannot see that some people are bad people – black, white, yellow, red or brown.

Another thing to think about it is that America was very different in the forties. A black person was considered a professional if he was a bell hop – nothing wrong with that, but there was no question of college, of being a lawyer or doctor – purely because of the colour of his skin. This, I hope, is an alien way of thinking, sixty years later.

I found the early part of the book to be frustrating, but it got more interesting when the Nation of Islam came into it. Malcolm X was obviously an engaging man, but I get the feeling he was a bit of a namedropper as well. Again, if you look at it from his point of view – being invited to Africa and meeting important leaders was unprecedented for a black man from America. Perhaps he was not being arrogant, but modest.

He begins to realise that the Nation of Islam is not recognised by the rest of the world’s Muslims through conversations with Muslim leaders. This is, for me, the most engaging part of his character – that he can devote himself whole-heartedly to one person, to one cause for nearly a decade and a half, and then still possesses the open mindedness to realise that that man is a charlatan. He instead embraces true Islam as a Muslim, and undertakes the Hajj. Hajj is a sacred pilgrimage that all Muslims are expected to do at least once in their lifetime, if possible. While on the Hajj, Malcolm realises that he has never before felt such a sense of brotherhood with so many people of different colours.

He comes back to America with a more rounded view on racism – not all white people are devils, not all Jews are selfish and money grabbing and not all black people are saintly. By this time he has broken away from the Nation of Islam and formed his own organisation, under true Islam rules and guides.

The last part of the book is reflective, where Malcolm discusses his sense of impending death. Chillingly, he talks about who will be ended first – himself, or Martin Luther King.  History tells us that Malcolm X was to be assassinated first.

I believe that books are meant to be thought provoking, to encourage discussion and debate. This is certainly what this book did for me, through all of the sections. As wrong as I believe he was in the beginning, I’m glad that there was redemption and understanding from all sides by the end, although of course, there was still a long way to go. Without Malcolm X, America and the world would not be where we are today in terms of human and civil rights.

V is for Vikas Swarup

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Q & A, by Vikas Swarup, is the story of the unusual orphan Ram Muhammad Thomas. Set in various cities in India, Ram/Muhammad/Thomas moves from family to family, trying to earn enough money to eat and be independent of his life of minimum wage work.

The book opens with his admission that he won a game show. He is subsequently accused of cheating and arrested, as the studio bosses cannot believe that a poor orphan from the slums was able to answer all of the questions correctly, as no one has ever done before. Ram is rescued by a lawyer, who urges him to tell her how he knew the answers to all of the questions. Each chapter is headed according to the question, in which a story explains how Ram knew the answer.

This means that each chapter is not in chronological order, but instead follows the order of the gameshow. As confusing as that may sound, the stories are a good mix of time setting and closed narrative, as people come into Ram’s life and out of it, leaving him with that all important piece of knowledge that will one day help him win a billion rupees.

Sounds like a familiar story, doesn’t it? That’s because it was turned into the multi award winning, Danny Boyle directed film Slumdog Millionaire. The film adaptation is well done, but it has to miss out characters, amalgamate experiences and distil the book down to a manageable couple of hours.  Instead of a little brother, Ram has another orphan as his best friend. Rather than one girl he has pined over his whole life, who sees him as a meal ticket out of prostitution, there are many girls who parade through his life in different roles.

I found this to be much more satisfying than the film, to be honest.  Although I don’t want to give too much away, Ram has better reasons for entering the competition than ‘that girl might see me on telly’, and there are better stories behind why he knew the answers to the slightly different questions.

One of the central themes is that of luck versus sheer force of will. Ram has a lucky coin that he uses in all of his decisions, and this seems to show him the way to good choices. However, there are plenty of stories where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as when he was robbed of his life savings by railway bandits.

Even his name is more interesting – Ram is Hindu, Muhammad is Islamic and Thomas is Christian. The reason for this is given in the early chapters, but it is something that marks him out as different in a country where your name is literally your identity – your religion, your caste, your colour. This makes it more believable that in a country of billions of people, he will still be noticed.

If you enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, I’d recommend the book. If, like me, the twee title of ‘Feelgood hit of the year’ was irritating when paired with the violence and sheer hopelessness throughout 90% of the film, I’d recommend this book.  It adds weight where there was none, and it illuminates the author’s intention more clearly.

Independence Day

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I have lots of news since I last wrote. Firstly, thanks to all of those who helped out with ideas for my books – much appreciated! Of course, I’m going to need ongoing help throughout the year… I think I’ll wing it so I’ll know the books for about a month in advance. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my blog fixed too so it looks prettier! (Miss S, if you’re reading… J )
I might even be able to do something fun like get a bit of a book theme going on. Book wallpaper to make it look like a library. Hmm. Hints and tips on how to store and organise books.
Someone suggested I read the Bible, which is a great idea apart from the dubious authorage… It might take me more than a week to read as well!
I am being decidedly rubbish at the moment with books. I’ve been reading “The Lollipop Shoes” for about six weeks. Well, I’ve probably read for about six hours in all of that time. I’ve read about a million magazines and blogs inbetween too, but it’s still taken an inordinately long time for me to read a medium length book. It doesn’t bode well. I have three other books from the library I want to finish before the end of the year, too – Hallam Foe, a Sherlock Holmes one and another I’ve forgotten. Lots of reading for me over the next fortnight!

My first book, the ‘A’ is going to be “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. I urge anyone who hasn’t read it, to read it. I don’t know anyone who has read it who has disliked it. I know a couple of people who have managed the first chapter and no more, but they’re quitters. Quitters! The plot sounds a bit schmaltzy but basically it’s a love story between Henry and Clare, where Henry is a time traveller. One of the things I love about it is how brutal and physical his time travelling is – it hurts, it uses up a lot of energy so he’s perpetually hungry and it’s nearly always inconvenient. A bit like having an unusual form of epilepsy.

I had a half day off work yesterday to sit my driving test and I passed! I have to admit, it was the second time. It was different this time – I was nervous but not terrified, like I was the first time around. It helped that some plonker decided to walk out in front of me and wave through the window, and I dealt with it like a pro. As in professional, not prostitute. Still, I suppose that’s what happens when you sit your test in Lowestoft.
I still can’t believe that I’ll never have a driving lesson again. It’s been over a year of a two hour lesson every Saturday, which has been nice but I’m very glad to have my Saturdays back. Mrs Mum Charming has offered to teach me how to knit and other crafty stuff, so I probably will go over on Saturdays anyway – just not every Saturday and I can drive myself! I haven’t driven by myself yet – boring insurance type stuff. I’m a bit nervous to, to be honest. It’ll be fine once I’m in though. I’m very pleased that I’ll be able to help out Mr Charming with the drive down to the West Country at Christmas, though. The last time we went the car had four people in it and only Mr Charming could drive – now if we went there’d only be one person who couldn’t! Still, that was about four years ago now so it was about time.

Last weekend I hopped on a plane to Edinburgh to see my sister and my nephews. As I’m not spending three hours a day travelling and I’m in Norwich all week, it seemed crazy that my sister lives an hour away (by plane) and I haven’t seen her since my brother’s wedding 18 months ago. It was a whirlwind visit but definitely worth it – it’s made me determined to go and visit more often. I also saw my Dad and my wee brother for lunch on Sunday, which was nice too. Not to sound like an old lady, but it’s amazing what we can do now. My family are scattered far and wide but technological advances like the internet means we can keep in touch as if we were round the corner. Of course, nothing’s as good as a face to face chat and a good hug.

Mr Charming and I watched “Elf” while we hoisted the Christmas decorations last week. Very festive, I think the next Christmas film we watch will be “Love Actually” on Saturday while we wrap all of our presents in preparation for the West Country exodus. Yes, you may congratulate me on my organisational skills. *Smug* However, it’s down to necessity more than anything else – Saturday’s the last day we have to wrap!

I am most looking forward to Sunday. A big group of us are visitng the region’s premier independent cinema to see the best Christmas film in the whole world. In fact, it’s a serious contender for best film in the whole world. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and by Jove, it is. That’s another reason I love “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – there’s a big section where Henry and Clare watch it and describe what’s happening interspersed with conversation. The first time I read it I hadn’t seen the film, so I had to question if there really was a swimming pool under the gym floor and a moon on a stick and a violent Old Man…
That’s not all we’re doing on Sunday. Those who can/wish will be dining at a pub along the road from us and exchanging Secret Santa presents, huzzah. We decided to do that this year instead of worrying about who to buy for, and what to buy for them.
Basically, “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes me cry from the very beginning. You know, that bit where all the people are praying for George Bailey as he’s a good man, fallen on hard times? I’m welling up just writing this, big sap that I am. No doubt I will win the contest over who cries first, this year at least!

So what’s on you Christmas wishlist, dear readers? I will be sending out Christmas parcels asap (darn those of you who live far away!) so hopefully Royal Mail will deliver. Ha.
Apparently I want quite a lot of stuff. It’s all bits and pieces though – Mamma Mia DVD, Vampire Weekend CD, a year’s worth of books…

I hope Santa brings you what your heart desires.
Merry Christmas lovelies, and a Happy New Year for 2009!

xx

HQhair update

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I posted a couple of months ago about HQhair.com and how their site is not Mac friendly. I bought a gift certificate for a family member’s birthday before realising that she can’t use it, as she has a Mac at home.
I called HQhair to get a refund, and was told categorically that they don’t do refunds on gift vouchers. This was before I’d even explained why I wanted a refund, so once I’d cut through the customer service apathy, the customer service rep said she’d take my number and ask their technical department how to do it.
After hearing nothing for twenty four hours, I called again, and got the same person. For a pretty complex site, I don’t think there’s a huge customer department. She told me that the site was being updated and as from this week (around the 14th of September) it would be possible to complete payment on a Mac.
Great news! It’s only taken them around three years to do something about it, from when I first e-mailed. It’s yet to be proved as I really don’t need any more stuff at the moment, but I’ll let you know when I try it out.