Discovering Black Beauty

Whinge alert! A few months ago I re-entered the workforce albeit in a part-time capacity doing admin for the chaplain of a nearby private girls’ school. It is the perfect job because I can still do school drop-offs and pick-ups; it’s five minutes from home and Iris’ school; school term only; and very family friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I am immensely grateful that I could get this job and I know how blessed I am. However, I also knew that unlike when I was working full-time and Iris was in day care in Singapore, it would be my most trying period of life. This is because I still have to do most of the housework (cooking, cleaning, food prep and buying, gardening, pet care, accounts, household admin, etc, etc, etc) but now I have to fit it into the last few hours of each afternoon or give up my evening.

As a result, I have never, not even when I was in the throes of huge exams, looked forward to school holidays as much as I do now.

As expected, I’ve had to forego a lot of peripheral stuff (I refuse to call them all hobbies) — yesterday was the first time in 4 months that I stepped into a Spotlight. Yes, amazing isn’t it? Reading has been reduced to in the car before and after work and bedtime, and writing is…well it has been 4.5 months since my last post.

So I absolutely love that Iris’ bedtime reading has progressed to proper books now. Apart from revisiting my beloved Dahl, we recently finished a classic that I’ve actually shockingly not read. This copy of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was an op-shop find and such a beautiful edition with gorgeous illustrations.

It was really special to experience a good book anew with Iris. We were totally absorbed by Black Beauty’s story, his ups and downs and we both teared up at the sad bits, with Iris bawling her head off.

Black Beauty has been called “the most influential anti-cruelty novel of all time” by Bernard Unti in the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. I think the fact that it’s written from the horse’s point of view greatly lends itself to this. Animal welfare is a cause very close to my heart and I love nurturing this very important value in Iris. Today’s media, however, is so focused on shock tactics and scare-mongering that I’ve avoided showing her too much of it.

Black Beauty though is the perfect way to educate a six-going-on-seven-year-old because it doesn’t disguise the cruelty but it describes it in a matter-of-fact way without any gore or too much detail. A good sign of this was that while she remembered the saddest bit weeks after we’d finished the book, it wasn’t with horror but with sadness and empathy.

It didn’t give her nightmares but it gave her lots to think about. This, to my mind, is the mark of a true classic.

We’re currently reading Finding Black Beauty, Lou Kuenzler’s retelling of Black Beauty from the point of view of a young girl. So far it’s been just as good with a slightly different focus. Will post a review soon-ish.

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Lost in Translation

White-Horse

My third foray into young adult literature has been less enthusiastically positive. Having read books translated from loads of different languages, I have to say the most difficult to get right is by far those translated from Mandarin and its dialects. Having spent 14 years trudging through the language in school, I do have some understanding of it. Perhaps that is why I feel translations from Mandarin are not as good, but I don’t think so. It’s in the structure and nature of the language. Mandarin being so, extremely different from English it is virtually impossible to capture the exact tone and lyricism of the original. I should probably read those books in Mandarin, but then that would take me about a year and I still wouldn’t understand it!

So it is with White Horse by Yan Ge. Set in a small town in China, the plot follows ten-year-old Yun Yun. Through her older cousin, she is introduced into the ways of love, while learning to live with her single father and his various love affairs. This culminates in an explosive scene of revelations and mild violence.

White Horse plunges its reader right into the thick of Chinese culture with all its complexities and societal idiosyncrasies. This can be good and bad. While you get a sense of how a small Chinese community would behave, it’s delicate nuances can be lost on those not already familiar with the culture. For example the white horse could be pointing to the one in the Buddhist story, Journey to the West, where the horse symbolises mental will. Or it could refer to Gongsun Lu’s White Horse Dialogue, reading which gives me a headache.

Yet acclaimed author, Yan Ge’s literary skill does emerge in certain aspects of this snapshot of Yun Yun’s coming of age, which is vivid and believable. How she deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding her is poignant and easily related to. The imagery of the white horse, with or without the background historical information, is powerful and well done.

With the language, it definitely does not flow as well as if it were read in Chinese (I imagine) and Chinese idioms directly translated into English always sound ridiculous and totally out of context. Also, a warning that it contains one very explicit swear word.

Despite its flaws, it’s an interesting read that makes you think and would appeal to some. Particularly those going through similar situations (single families, older siblings becoming sexually active). I would recommend this for mid to late teens.

Gothic Charm

Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Inspired by my first YA (young adult) book review, I decided to pop into the YA section at the library. The first book I saw on the “recommendations” table was Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I briefly glanced at the synopsis and thought, hey an Honour Book of The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s got to be passable and popped it into the book bag.

The book sat on my bedside table for a week and a half while I finished up Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (very, very good but more for adults). The more I looked at the cover, the more doubts I began to have about it. Was it really something I’d like? Or some soppy pre-pubescent gothic romance with glowing vampires and other such rubbish? Yet, when the time came, I decided I’d at least give it ten pages. Boy was I pleasantly blown away.

I’ve always had a predilection for children’s fantasy. In my opinion, the best single, all-round novel is Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (though a cult favourite, the movies do not come within a hair’s breadth of how great the book is). And of course there is the inimitable Roald Dahl who gave me years of fantastic escapism. However, I’ve not come across anything even near their quality since. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series but the writing itself is just not as good. Then I read Ms Near’s debut novel.

Her prose is pitch perfect. She uses a language both beautiful and suitably challenging for a teenager. Drawing on inspiration from Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe, she manages to fabricate a vividly colourful world within a tiny English coastal village with exactly the right tones of ghostly horror appropriate for her audience. Her main character, Isola Wilde, named after Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated younger sister, is at once identifiable as a girl who stands out for being herself. Isola can see things that others can’t, including ghosts, fairies, mermaids and gargoyles. Then one day, walking through her beloved wood, she comes across a dead girl in a cage who proceeds to haunt her in a terrifying way. Isola finds herself slowing becoming possessed by this ghost despite the best efforts of her six guardian “princes”. Interwoven through this is her unhealthy relationship with her manic depressive mother who fed her on the fairy tales that seem to be swallowing her up. Can her new love interest, Edgar save her?

It’s one of those rare books that I did not rush through the end because I wanted to start a new book.

The ending is also pretty spectacular. Perhaps not the most original but still perfect in its execution. The only thing I’d change is the cover.

When I closed this book, I had a massive smile on my face. I cannot wait for Ms Near’s next work.

Ghetto Dreams

Janice

One excellent result of this blog is that I’ve been approached to do book reviews. More books to read! How awesome is that? Granted, there are stinkers out there, especially with the proliferation of eBooks. It seems as if everyone just gets a lot more sloppy when there isn’t a physical book.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read the young adult ebook Janice by Jean Goulbourne published by Hope Road Publishing.

What most people know of Jamaica could probably be summed up in two words: Bob Marley. Yet the reality is far from worry-free happiness. Set in the rich and colourful vibrancy of Jamaica, Janice, is an engaging story of one teenager’s struggle with prejudice from others and herself.

Goulbourne manages to create distinct and strong characters you can sympathise with and the plot is one most teenagers the world over could identify with. Overcoming prejudice is something everyone faces to some degree. Very often they are our own prejudices that hinder us from growth and realising our full potential. So it is with Janice. Coming from the ghetto, with a father in prison, she is overjoyed when her mother earns a place as nursemaid to a rich family. However, she soon gets caught up in the relative luxury of her new surrounds and tries to deny her heritage. Through trial by a relatively mild fire, she learns that she needs to embrace her past and use it to help her to become the woman she can and should be.

Janice sets a very clear and strong message of a young person who may have grown up in difficult circumstances but overcomes them with determination, humility and plain good sense.

When putting a very distinctive accent to print, it can turn out absolutely awful and make the reader feel as if they’re wading through a thick sludge. Goulbourne, however, manages to bring across the Jamaican accent with a precision and clarity I wish all writers had.

I have a scant two criticisms of the book. I wish the author had injected even more of Jamaican culture into it, describing more of the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. I also thought she could have made the prose more complex for her audience. Young people nowadays mature at a much faster rate and so their reading levels are far more advance than we might imagine. For a young teen, it may read a little too simply.

Otherwise this was a very enjoyable, easy and satisfying read.