Friday, 21 October 2016

A childhood favourite

The Best of Girl Annual 1952-59 (edited by Denis Gifford) - which, despite its name, was actually published in 1990 - was one of my favourite books when I was 10. So much so that I regularly re-read it well into my late teens (and possibly even early 20s). In a fit of nostalgic indulgence, I decided to re-read it (again!) to see if I would find it as enchanting as I first did 26 years ago (eek!).  

But as excited as I was to have the book back in my hands (my childhood copy being long gone, I had to order another one from AbeBooks), I was apprehensive - I remembered that some of the comic strips were "dated" in their views towards people of colour, so I was concerned that these strips would now strike me as so racist that I could no longer think of the book fondly.

Well, the book is - by today's standards - downright racist towards people of colour. Whenever someone not white is featured, they are usually a servant of some sort and, worst still, tend to have a limited vocabulary. In Sumuna's South Sea Isle, for example, both the titular character Sumuna and a character called Loki (black and depicted as just wearing shorts) speak in the third person and look up to the white male hero (fully dressed when not swimming). In fairness, Sumuna is shown to be brave and have initiative as is the character Lotus Flower (!) in the story Martine and The Mystery of Golden Buddha. Plus the plot of one story, Vicky has an adventure in Spain, centres on a gypsy man coming to the rescue of a boy whose father has treated the man with prejudice. Overall, the casual racism makes for uncomfortable reading but as mentioned in my previous post, you do have to judge a book by the standards of when it was written. Therefore, my enjoyment of the book isn't marred - I just wouldn't rush to read it to my nieces (or nephews)!

What I didn't expect when I re-read it was the fun of picking up on all the things I'd missed when I was a naive 10-year-old (and teenager for that matter). There are several instances when the heroines try to help someone who is in "a jam" (they are all, of course, resolutely middle class) but do the exact opposite of what most logically thinking people would do. In Flick and The Vanishing Girl, Flick sets out to rescue the actually kidnapped girl but at no point considers calling the police (if she's was in a horror film, she'd no doubt go down into the cellar rather than run out the door) and doesn't even explain to Jim the Milkman (wearing a flat cap just to stress the fact he's working class) why she needs him to give her a lift (other than "it's terribly urgent"). Obviously, as per the Famous Five, being have-a-go heroes works out for them and they always end up saving the day. 

Then there's the star profiles, which are masterclasses in glossing over the complex parts of celebrities' lives. They neglect to dwell on why Dirk Bogarde was the star who "shuns the bright lights" (er because he couldn't live openly as a gay man) and make no mention of the deeply unfair bad press that Gracie Fields received during the War because she had had the temerity to marry an Italian-born man (who had actually emigrated to USA in 1914). Mind you, there's a lot to be said about not mentioning everything about a celebrity's life. I know more stuff about Kim Kardashian than I actually ever wanted to because I am constantly bombarded by headlines every time she as much as sneezes. 

In summary, I do still have great affection for the book. Yes, it's dated but not all of the values belong in the 1950s, It shows girls being brave, clever, and kind - which is a good message for all children (whatever their gender identity) I think.

Monday, 17 October 2016

How I rate books

A couple of BookTubers have posted videos (1,2) about what, for them, makes a five-star read - the highest rating on Goodreads. Their videos have not only got me thinking about I consider to be a "five-star" book but also about my general process for rating books. One thing I've realised is that my system for rating books doesn't match-up with Goodreads' rating system.

WARNING: Some spoilers below

One star
Goodreads = "Did not like it"
Me = "I absolutely hated it"

Somewhat perversely, I only give one stars to books that I think are well written. I tend to hate a book when I vehemently disagree with its themes or how the characters are portrayed. The author has to sufficiently portray both the characters and themes for me to understand them to disagree with them! After all you can only disagree with a set of policies if you know what they are. 

An example of this is Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It's an undeniably compelling book but it's also undeniably racist. You do have to judge a book by the moral standards of when it was written rather than the standards of today; therefore, given Mitchell wrote it in 1936 -  a good 28 years before US legally-enforced public segregation was abolished by the 1964 Civil Rights Act - it's not totally surprisingly that she's not exactly championing equal rights for black people. But I felt that in Gone With The Wind, she doesn't just reflect the racism of her day (which would have been bad enough), she reflects the racism of the South during the Civil War. The subtitle of the book might as well be "slavery: black people preferred it that way". Given the horrific race-related events (such as Scottsboro Boys case) that happened in the USA in the 1930s, I couldn't keep reading.

Two stars
Goodreads = "It was OK"
Me = "A total let down"

I give two stars to books that I am frustrated with or disappointed by in some way. I got totally hooked by SJ Watson's Before I Go To Sleep until the big twist was revealed. The whole way through as I was like "that can't be the twist; it's too flipping obvious" but oh no, the twist was that obvious. The twist may as well have been "it was all a bad dream" it was so unoriginal. If you're going to go for a predictable ending, don't con your readers into thinking your book is anything other than your average  airport thriller paperback. Actually, that's unfair. Airport thrillers don't have delusions of grandeur and just get on with being your bog-standard page-turner. 

Three stars
GoodReads = "I liked it"
Me = "It was OK"

Three stars tends to be the lowest rating I give a book on Goodreads as I tend not to finish those that I consider to be one- or two- star reads. Life's too short to be reading a book you hate I say. Therefore, I give three stars to books that I enjoyed but I felt had one or two flaws that keep me from being that enthusiastic about it. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, which is the last book I read, was a good read but I did find it lost its way towards the end. As I mention in my review, I would be interested to read other books by Pulley (this is her first one, so she's allowed to be less than brilliant) but I don't think I would rush to recommend this one. 

Four stars
GoodReads = "I really liked it"
Me = "Nothing to complain about here"

I give a book four stars when there's nothing I would criticise about it - I enjoyed it, the plot was good, and characters were well developed etc. The only reason I give it four stars rather than five stars is because I am not passionate about it. As much as I enjoyed it, the book is not one that will stay with me. I really enjoyed Andrew Miller's Pure and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it but, a few years after reading it, I'd struggle to say what happened or why it was I liked it.

Five stars
GoodReads = "Awesome"
Me  = "Wonderful"

A five-star book is not necessarily the most well written but one that I feel connected to in some way. And having looked at the books I've given five stars to, they all seem to share a common theme - lonely outsider finds their place in life. Jane Eyre, of course, is my favourite book of all time.. I am not quite sure what that says about me; probably that I still haven't, at 36, quite got over being the misfit at school. 

Mind you, I am also partial to books featuring redemption in some way. The House of the Spirits, by Isabelle Allende, is one of my favourite books that I've read this year. I loved that the "baddie" in the book isn't as all out horrible as he initially appears. Again, not sure what that says about me. I am going to pretend it's because I am a Quaker and thus duty bound to see the divine in everyone rather than because I've got psychological issues going on.