Nation – Terry Pratchett

That’s what the gods are! An answer that will do! Because there’s food to be caught and babies to be born and life to be lived and so there is no time for big, complicated, and worrying answers! Please give us a simple answer, so that we don’t have to think, because if we think, we might find answers that don’t fit the way we want the world to be.

Rarely does a book come along that is both light and intensely challenging – Terry Pratchett’s Nation is one of these kinds books.

The story is as follows: Mau is a boy from Nation, undergoing a rite of passage on an island by himsel when a tsunami hits and wipes away everything and everyone he knows and loves. English girl Daphne gets shipwrecked on the same shore. Together, but separated by language, culture and religion, they have have to build a new Nation and survive. Why would the Gods allow this to happen? What is the meaning of this suffering?

There’s a reason Pratchett writes “Thinking. This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.” This book is so highly philosophical and painful, as two young people survive and are faced by tragedy. Mau has to bury everyone he knows, and lead the survivors in the rebuilding of Nation. But what is Nation? When everyone who lived the culture but one has died, can such a thing as “Nation” still exist? Also, is there a God(s)?

Yet even though the topics this book handles are very sophisticated and incredibly heavy, it does have typical Pratchett humour throughout. He makes fun of religion, the idea of Empire, the English, and succession. That said, he takes Mau, his musings and suffering, and his world very seriously. Because of this, the comic relief comes in the form of Daphne, or rather, her education and “good breeding”.

“You are very clever,” said the old man shyly. “I would like to eat your brains, one day.”
For some reason the books of etiquette that Daphne’s grandmother had forced on her didn’t quite deal with this. Of course, silly people would say to babies, “You’re so sweet I could gobble you all up!” but that sort of nonsense seemed less funny when it was said by a man in war paint who owned more than one skull. Daphne, cursed with good manners, settled for “It’s very kind of you to say so.”

The writing is witty and poetic, like most Pratchett novels, but unlike most of his other work the tone of this one is heavily philosophical and serious. You feel for Mau, and as you enter his mind you are forced to face the same questions and issues. Can you believe in the Gods when they wiped out everything you knew and loved? Is it possible to rage against them if you do not believe?

The chemistry between the characters is wonderful though, and it is not all misery and suffering. Overall, I highly recommend this book. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will warm your heart as you ponder the nature of life and the purpose of death.

Terry Pratchett, if I could I would quote the following back to you:

No more words. We know them all, all the words that should not be said. But you have made my world more perfect.

Although you never had a chance to know, you mean a lot to me. Thank you.

A Glorious Return

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Wow, has it really been nearly half a year since I last posted on this blog??
After being so consistent with posting twice a week, I must admit I feel more than slightly embarrassed about being gone for so long, but no worries my friends, I have returned!

Yes, the glorious return of this vaguely literature oriented, vaguely tea oriented blog has finally come, and it’s come with some changes.

The reason of this long stretch of silence essentially boils down to lots of moving house, cross city, cross country, cross continent. Also I worked a lot. I may post about that some time (as one of my jobs was literature related and actually very cool).

Also I started a PhD in children’s literature at the university of Cambridge, which is incredibly time consuming – but also loads of fun!
Now, to keep myself sane and to spend time thinking about my favourite ‘genre’ of literature; children’s literature, in a non-academic setting, the blog is back baby!

Get strapped in for a whole new take on this ride, featuring:

  • Fewer postings!
    I’m lucky enough to now be a very busy woman, and will therefore have to limit my postings. That said, the posts that will come out will be of a more …consistent quality, let’s say, and be less formulaic.
  • Talk/rants about my academic struggles!
    I’ll relate it to children’s literature, I swear.
  • Recipes using tea!
    After thinking about it for, well, half a year, I’ve decided that I do really enjoy the thought of using tea in baking and sharing these experiments with you guys, my lovely readers.

Now I went on a lovely little day trip to Ely a little while ago, and to try and revive this blog slowly I’ve set myself the goal to have that post up by this Monday, so I’ll see you guys then!

A Little Princess

“Are you learning me by heart, little Sara?” he said, stroking her hair.
“No,” she answered. “I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.”

No, this post is not about me!

Today I will, once again, be geeking out for Frances Hodgson Burnett. My love, my boo, the one lady with the key to my childhood heart – the author of The Secret Garden.

Now The Secret Garden is one of my favourite novels of all times, and The Little Lord Fauntleroy is a solid Christmas classic – so of course I got super excited when I saw a new, beautiful edition of one of the Burnetts that I hadn’t read yet: A Little Princess. I’ve read about this novel before, specifically concerning (almost) perfect protagonists and how they work in some novels. That sort of spoilt the story for me a little bit, I suppose, although I’m not sure if that’s a valid concerning when reading Burnett novels. They’re all almost fairytale-esque in their storylines, often concerning a conversion of some kind; Scrooge to lovable uncle, miserable to lovely child, and of course riches to rags…to riches again.

Yes, when you sit down to read a Burnett story you know what you are getting into. It’s like a Disney movie: you will not be surprised by the “twists” of it, and you essentially know what will happen after five minutes. But, like Disney, you’re not here for a subversive story – you’re here to be enchanted by style and characters.
And like with Disney, you will be.

A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, daughter of an adoring father based in India. She gets dropped off by her father at a boarding school for young girls, and he spares no expense for her to have the best imaginable. She is either loved or hated by the other girls, as she is rich, a talented storyteller, and sweet almost beyond belief. See, Sara is not a real princess, but a princess in her behaviour and morality. After her tables are turned horribly, and she is reduced to utmost poverty and friendlessness, she keeps her head held high and remains polite and friendly to everyone.

“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”

Of course her fate gets changed for the better at the end, and she helps other characters improve their situations as well. I do think that Burnett walked a fine line with Sara: she is very close to being too perfect. The things she goes through are horrible, and she just stays sugar sweet throughout all of it. However, the thing that I think makes it work is that Sara is a dreamer, a storyteller. When she tells a story, she can visualise it to the point where reality and fiction get blurred. This is the thing that keeps her going – she’s kind of delusional. By pretending that she’s a princess, whatever that means to her, she manages to cope. This mixing up of fact and fiction is a big flaw that she uses to her advantage, and turns into a trait we as readers can admire. Yes, I do wish she would punch some of the kids and the headmistress, either physically or verbally, but I think her grace and pride (although not necessarily befitting a child) make her admirable and lovable in exactly the way I imagine Burnett intended it to.

That said, out of the 3 Burnetts that I’m familiar with so far this is probably the one I connected with the least, and it is probably because of the characters. I don’t feel any of them really grew at all – Sara is always lovely, and the others remain the same also, it is just the situation that changes. In The Secret Garden Mary and Colin both go through a tremendous transformation, as does the garden, and in Little Lord Fauntleroy the story is the uncle changing himself to live up to his nephew’s expectations. Although Sara is a lovable character, I’m not sure if she is a good character. The typical Burnett click didn’t happen for me, and because of that the magic meter was stuck at A Christmas Carol (unpopular opinion I know).


So what tea would go well with a story of riches, rags, riches, and magical storytelling to escape from abject poverty and hunger?
After thinking long and hard, staring at my tea collection, I decided to go for a tea that tastes like a little princess would drink it: luxurious, sweet, and with a small nod to Sara’s background in India. The tea in question is Coconut Truffle by Whittard. It’s a white tea infusion, with coconut, apple and cocoa nibs. It’s sweet, but sugar free, and velvety rich in flavour – exactly what Sara and her friends would crave!

So sit down with your decadent cup of Coconut Truffle and imagine yourself a little princess.

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A Song for Ella Grey

This week’s review is a tough one for me. To be honest, it was supposed to come out last week, but I didn’t manage to finish the book in time. I actually thought I would never finish it at all!

If you know me, you know that it pains me to not finish a book I started. It’s a dramatic gesture, only reserved for those books I just cannot stand. This was pretty much one of them. So let’s dive right into A Song for Ella Grey, by David Almond.

This book is a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. A quick refresher: Orpheus is a master musician, who can charm every living creature with his song. He marries the lovely Euridyce, who gets bitten by a snake and dies pretty much immediately. Heartbroken, Orpheus goes down to Hades and persuades him via song to take Euridyce back to the living. There is one condition: Orpheus cannot look back at Euridyce whilst on their journey back up, or she’ll be dead forever. Of course he does, and it’s tragedy all around.

This story is essentially the same, but Eurydice is now called Ella Grey, and the story is told by Claire, Ella’s obsessive best friend. (As Ella is Euridyce I’ll just go ahead and call her Elladyce, because I like to think I’m funny.) It’s set in modern(ish) time England, so there’s some interesting accents and lots of partying.

And that’s it, that’s the story. As it is pretty much the same as the original myth, I will spend most of this review talking about style and narrative strategies. Don’t worry, it won’t be dry!

He smelt his fingers. A beetle was crawling on them. He breathed on it and let it crawl to the earth.

A blackbird sang. He turned his face to it and smiled, and sang quickly back in answer.

‘I found nothing,’ he said, ‘I thought I would have to kill myself.’

A sudden flock of pigeons swooped over our heads. He made a noise of feathers with his breath and tongue. He made more birdsong and more birds came. He made a sound of water and two salmon leapt.

‘Then I knew I had to come back here,’ he said.

He blew an echo of the breeze. And the breeze blew warm. The clouds were opening, preparing for an astounding dusk, and twin beams of brilliant light shone down through them onto the city.

‘I knew I’d have to start from here,’ he said. ‘Where it all started.’

All emphases mine to highlight the word repetition.

It’s kind of bad to have so much repetition in just one page. Sometimes, you can’t avoid having to use the same words. This is not the case here. Even worse is that you could just skip this page all together. This is the part after Elladyce died and Orpheus and Claire are looking for the entrance to Death/Hades. It should carry at least some form of suspense or drama, and as the reader has been battered to death with how whimsically magical Orpheus is, all that these descriptions mount up to is breaking the flow of the narrative. This happens throughout the entire novel, and I understand why: the author wanted to make it feel surreal, and flow like a dream. Unfortunately, in this case this came at the expense of an enjoyable read.

It’s a bit painful to read this novel. I like the original myth, and I love modern retellings of classic tales. The idea for this text was great, and having the story be told by an outsider (who is also totally in love with Elladyce) was very clever as it could shift the focus from Romeo and Juliet style lovey love love to a story about a different kind of loss. However, making Claire be in love with Elladyce means we have yet another YA love triangle – seriously, why couldn’t it just have been about friendship? Have we learnt nothing from Daria? – and the writing makes it really hard to get through this book at all. For some reason, for instance, everyone pretty much always refers to Elladyce by her full name. The dialogue in general is very stiff and unnatural. Here, for instance, you have two overbearing, heartbroken parents confronting Claire and her parents about the death of their beloved child:

‘Ha! And you,’ said Mr Grey, baring his teeth at me now. ‘What did you do to protect her? What did you do, oh best of friends?’

‘It was an accident,’ I answered. ‘It was a chance in a million. It was the snakes.’

‘It was no accident,’ said Mrs Grey. ‘It was not the snakes. It was you and you and you, and the rest of the stupid motley crew. You are the ones who caused the death of Ella Grey.’

The retelling strategies in this novel are also a bit confusing: choosing the name Orpheus for the same character from the myth makes it obvious what the story will be, but why change Euridyce to Ella? Or Hades to the too-vague Death? Calling Orpheus by that name makes it impossible to see him as a part of the modern setting, which is probably what the author went for. It also makes it impossible to see him as a part of Elladyce, no matter how much the author tries to paint her as something that is not a part of this world.

I feel sad about this book. The idea was so great, and it was clear that the author knew what he was doing. He just didn’t manage to pull it off.


As I said above, I struggled finishing this book. I found myself skipping sentences, paragraphs, almost even pages. To keep myself awake and going, I decided to match this novel to a tea that maybe superficially makes no sense – but bare with me here.

This story’s tone is fairytale-esque and dreamy – and confused. There’s a lot of talk about beaches, parties, divine music, young and obsessive love and heart breaking death. I would therefore recommend a tea which is also light, slightly floral, and elegant in tones. However, the only way I could keep going was through dissonance. I had to enjoy at least something from this experience, and the only way to do that was to enjoy the tea. Because of this, I decided on Yumchaa‘s Chilli Chilli Bang Bang. Described on their website as something to drink when “you need a superhero side kick” it seemed appropriate. It’s a wonderful infusion of cinnamon, ginger, red thistle, sweet red pepper corns, and a Rooibos base. The Rooibos does have that light and elegant nature to match the dreaminess, and the rest is very healthy for you. And to keep you awake, it’s got a slight punch of chilli!

A Song for Ella Grey Chilli Chilli Bang Bang


So if you feel like reading about Orpheus and Euridyce, do so – the myth is a classic for a reason. But maybe skip this book and just have the tea instead.

Snuff

Vimes thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, dear, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man with a lot of wood must be in want of a wife who can handle a great big–

I can’t believe we’re already half a year into this blog, and this is the first time I talk about a Terry Pratchett novel!
For those of you who are unaware (there are not too many of you left!), Terry Pratchett was a fantasy novelist with possibly the longest series ever. His Discworld series spans 50 novels, all loosely connected stand alone stories, with varying protagonists and settings. (You can read this series in any order!) Pratchett’s style is humourous high fantasy, filled to the brim with political and philosophical satire. However, as with any series, not all his novels are as great (or even good) as some others. I for instance loved The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic (including the movie!), but could not bring myself to finish Moving Pictures – and I’m not sure where my copy of Raising Steam has gone.
Yes, I will have to agree with any and all critics of this series in that a series this long will inevitably have some bad installments in it. It totally does. However, there are also some true shining diamonds here, and one of them I will discuss here today.



Snuff
is my first City Watch novel (which means that it is mainly about characters involved with the Ankhmopork City Watch), and it’s amazing.
The story is about the Commander of the Watch, Lord Vimes, whose wife dragged him away to her country estate for a forced holiday. He’s a Bruce Willis-esque hard ass, who seems unable to escape trouble – and who dearly loves his wife. Vimes feels intensely uncomfortable without the hustle and bustle – and smell – of the city. But when a goblin girl gets brutally murdered and he gets the blame, he falls into his zone trying to uncover the deep, dark conspiracy lurking in the sleepy countryside.

This novel does several clever things with its form (yes I know it was the author that did the clever things, but I’ll just personify the novel instead). Because of the setting it’s a historical drama, with balls, lords, ladies and dowries. Because of its story, it’s a detective. Because of the tone, it’s a satirical comedy.
This novel is the prime example to demonstrate that such an odd mixture of tones and forms is not only possible, but can elevate a story way beyond its constraints.
It also doesn’t explain every aspect of the world it is set in to you, just the bare basics you’ll need to know to understand what’s going on. This makes you feel more immersed quicker than you would if there were just chunks of exposition littered throughout the long text. This is indeed quite the long read for a Discworld novel, but it is still too short. It is exactly the right length to make you fall hard and fast for Commander Vimes, his family, and the world they live in.

Snuff Cover Vimes
Just look at him, he’s so cool!

A large portion of the novel deals with the struggle for goblin equality. In a world where trolls, dwarves, vampires and werewolves are all accepted members of society, only the goblins are still considered so far removed from humans as to be considered vermin. Commander Vimes is one of the few people who considers this wrong, and part of his journey in this story is to convince others of the goblins’ humanity.
Personally, I cannot help but read this as a race allegory. It’s quite moving in that way, and it does show how ingrained inequality is in society, how hard and long the struggle for equality is, and how people can have dangerous mindsets without realising it. Hats off to you, Mr. Pratchett!

This novel is truly amazing, a must read for fans of fantasy, crime novels, or period dramas. It will make you laugh, love and cry, and I think that’s pretty neat.


As for the tea to go with it, after some deliberation I’ve decided it would have to be a Russian Caravan, based on the character of Vimes himself. On the one hand he’s a hardened cop, marked by the dark and disturbing things he’s seen, feeling the pull of the dark side even within himself – something which calls for a smokey, robust flavour. On the other hand he’s a loving husband and father, reading with his son and going on expeditions, and doing anything his wife asks of him – even giving up bacon. Also he loves pillows, which is cute. These traits demand a lighter, more delicate note.

In comes Russian Caravan, a black tea blend which attempts to recreate the flavour of Chinese black teas as drunk by campfires whilst being transported to Russia. I think this is a great fit, as it captures all the aspects of Vimes’ personality – and would be something his wife would actually allow him to drink!

Russian Caravan
Look. I don’t actually own Russian Caravan. But this is what it looks like! (will upload a picture as soon as I have it)

So drop yourself in a sea of pillows, leaving you only enough light to read this wonderful book and drink your warming and complex Russian Caravan, and prepare yourself to get lost for hours.

Return to the Secret Garden – or, on Fanfiction

If you’ve read this blog before you may have picked up on the fact that I love Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It is one of the few novels that I return to at least once every year, and its warming charm has not been lessened in the slightest. It is a criminally underrated piece of magic that has a special place in my heart.
Because of this, I naturally felt a little flutter when I saw a new novel in my local bookshop, called Return to the Secret Garden. Could it be? Frances Burnett has been gone for a long time, so obviously somebody with a great love for the original work picked it up and decided to keep the magic going just once more. I couldn’t help myself. Of course I walked out with this book in my hands and a smile on my face.

I should have been more careful. People always say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but you should. A lot of time and effort has gone into making that cover, and to have it represent the story within. It is also a marketing tool, as a certain type of cover would fall into a genre and therefore a market more easily. So looking at the shiny, metallic pink cover of this novel I should have heard it screaming for a 12 year old girl interested in I don’t know, horses or something. It’s definitely not like there is anything wrong with that genre, or even with this kind of aggressive marketing. It is, however, not befitting the style of the original novel.

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Reading this novel really felt like I was reading a piece of fanfiction rather than a “real” novel. Fanfiction is when fans take characters and/or a setting from a certain work of fiction and write their own based off of that. The most famous platform for fanfiction is fanfiction.net. This type of writing is an act of fan love, and dedication for the source material. There is also a lot of it, and most of it is not very good (take note however, that some of it is!). A very famous example of fanfiction (taken to extreme success based on plagiarism), is Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as a Twilight fanfiction.

The problems with fanfiction as opposed to original novels are plenty but not crippling or necessarily true for all of them. The main problem, however, is that the work is based off of (generally) famous works that have a fan base already. Because of that the fan authors write with the underlying assumption that you already know the characters, and don’t waste time with character development. They also tend to forget about the age-old rule of show don’t tell. And that is the issue with this novel.

I won’t go into the plot of it, mostly because it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things: it’s almost the same as the original (another fanfiction staple). Let me just say a few final things to round off this review.

Holly Webb, the author of this sequel, seems like a lovely lady whose passion for the original work is very clear and rivals my own. I liked her vision of how the original characters would develop over time and the world war, and I applaud her for taking this risk. Her descriptions of the garden were pleasing, and I felt that her modern day Colin was very understandable and sympathetic – maybe even more so than the original!
That said, having the plot of this novel be almost the same as the original, and even adding a diary that “Mary wrote during the plot of the first novel” (which she obviously didn’t because we followed her through all of the novel and it wasn’t mentioned once, also it doesn’t match her style at all, also she couldn’t write)…. not a fan.

This is not the worst novel ever. Its descriptions of wartime impacting young children and families are good and very interesting, and the love for the original really shines through.
That said, this also not a good novel. The writing feels immature in a way, with a lot of telling rather than showing, and the plot is simply recycled.
I recommend this book to its intended audience, as demonstrated by the cover, the 12 year old girls interested in light reads about other girls with a little bit of non-threatening mystery.

Ms. Webb, if you happen to come across this review, I know it sounds bad and I have to admit I didn’t enjoy reading your book. However, I am also not your intended audience and came at it expecting something in a style completely different from what it is. I think it’s great that you were able to develop your passion for this great story into a work of your own. Best of luck to you in the future.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

Today it’s time to talk about a beautiful little book called Tom’s Midnight Garden. I picked it up from the classics section of my local bookstore, and absolutely fell in love with it! I cannot believe that I have never read this book before, especially considering my deep love for Burnett’s The Secret Garden. So, to rectify this sad mistake, I will now share this lovely little tale with all of you guys!

Tom’s Midnight Garden tells the story of Tom, who after his brother gets the measels gets evacuated/quarantined at his aunt and uncle’s place. They think he may have the measels also, so he’s not to go outside for fear of infecting others as well. Being kept indoors at all times and forced to rest, Tom, like most children, get bored pretty much immediately. Lucky for him, however, the landlady’s grandfather’s clock rings 13 at midnight, opening the garden to the past. There, in his midnight garden, he befriends a girl named Hatty – the only one* who can see him. Every night he visits her in the garden, but time seems to pass most strangely…

Much like the book itself, I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I truly love this book, it is right up there with Burnett’s The Secret Garden for me with their utopic gardens, unhappy and lonely children making friends, English stateliness and sweet happy endings. For the ending to Tom’s Midnight Garden is the kind to leave you all warm and fuzzy inside! I won’t spoil it here (in fact, I think I will leave out the spoiler section all together from now on), as it is something that should be experienced. Although it’s not a twist, you shouldn’t be thinking of it whilst reading it – it would be like dreaming of your dessert all through your Michelin dinner!
Much like The Secret Garden, this book makes me want to go outside and play like I used to when I was young. Whereas the former makes me want to go into a garden to see it bloom, Tom’s Midnight Garden makes me want to take my partner by the hand and run through the hills. I think this difference may be because the protagonist is a boy, and because of that the author diverted the focus from the blooming garden to the adventures and play of the children. Neither approach is better than the other, and both are executed superbly!

To go with this read, I recommend Night Melody by Anteaques. This tea is a delicious herbal infusion of Rooibos, lime blossoms and honeybush. It’s caffein free and actually does help with sleep! The reason this tea is great with this novel is that it is light and fresh (maybe not traditionally refreshing without the caffein), and has a lovely floral, gardeny flavour to it due to the blossoms and the honeybush. It is a delicate combination of flavours that calls for a bit of a longer infusion – I’d recommend around 5 minutes for all the flavours to be sufficiently defined. For what is better than a wild adventure in the meadows than a fresh and floral cup of tea?

I fully recommend this novel, and this tea. They are both of them perfect on a “warm” spring day, and make your skin call out for a bout of kisses from the sun!

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