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Graphic Novel: ‘In Search Of Lost Dragons’ by Élian Black’mor and Carine M ****

‘In Search of Lost Dragons’ is a graphic novel very different from all the others I have encountered so far. The storyline is rather simple, but the whole premise and especially the gorgeous illustrations and drawings adorning the book are so enticing and, in my opinion, what makes this book marvelous from start to finish. 24580295

The graphic novel is layed out as a travel diary (or personal notebook at times), narrating the story of the author as he embarks on a journey in which he discovers and stumbles upon many different kinds of dragons, which he illustrates and makes a list out of. He explores most of Europe, Scandinavia, as well as Asia, and the dragons he discovers in each place (like the people he encounters there) are so distinct and befitting to the particular setting. I found the general setting rather original and so well executed. I adored all the illustrations depicting the many different kinds of dragons the narrator came across on his travels, as well as various other creatures and mythical beings. The fact that the narrator chose to include tickets, show pamphlets, letters and newspaper clippings related to his search for dragons was quite excellent, as it enhanced the general feeling of reading the account of his adventures.

Most of the illustrations were absolutely stunning and some of the drawings were reminiscent of Tim Burton’s style of sketching. Apart from including a variety of pamphlets and tickets as part of his diary, the reader also notices some coffee cup stains being part of some of the papers and newspaper clippings included in the narrator’s archive, which is a detail I personally enjoyed a lot.

At times, I caught myself being more engrossed in the magnificence of the illustrations rather than the story itself, so I had to go back and reread certain passages in order to make sure I haven’t skipped any important part. I found it a bit difficult to read the text at times, due to the font, which was beautiful and very fitting to the mythical theme of dragons and the age this quest is set, but also quite tiring when reading it on screen instead of on a paper copy.

This book is definitely a treasure for any and all fantasy and folklore lovers, since it contains so much interesting information on dragons mainly but on some other fantastical creatures as well. It would be perfect to have this book in your library so you can go back to it at any given moment and read about a specific dragon species or simply admire the illustrations for the billionth time (because it is more than certain that you will).

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‘The Battle of the Villa Fiorita’ by Rumer Godden ****

First published in 1963, Rumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is the 574th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. The introduction to the volume has been penned by Anita Desai, who writes that the novel is ‘a display of her ability to construct a plot, quicken the pace and build up to a dramatic end’.

Desai states that the novel is ‘clearly based on her own feelings over divorcing her first husband, and her awareness of both her young daughters’ and her second husband’s difficulties in accepting each other’.  In her own preface, Godden reinforces this, stating that she wrote the novel because she ‘had grown tired of the innumerable novels about child victims of divorce.  “Let’s have a book where the children will not be victims but fight back”‘.  Financially, The Battle of the Fiorita did well, particularly in the United States, where the film rights sold for the substantial sum of $100,000.  Godden goes on to say, however, that ‘no book of mine has been more unpopular, especially in America’.

‘The characters too are those we recognise from her other books,’ Desai informs us, ‘particularly the children…  To some extent, it is the children who direct the action and through whose eyes we see it unfold’.  The protagonists of The Battle of the Villa Fiorita are siblings Hugh and Candida Clavering – known throughout as Caddie – whose ‘seemingly perfect life’ in their grand English country home falls apart when their mother has an affair with a film director.  She decides to leave the country with him, fleeing to the Villa Fiorita on Lake Garda in Italy: ‘”But it doesn’t matter where it was,” said Hugh afterwards.  It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle’.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita opens with Hugh and Caddie’s clandestine arrival at the villa.  Their father, Colonel Clavering, has been granted custody of the pair.  Their elder sister Philippa is seventeen, and above such things: ‘She did not rank as a child and was going to Paris to the Sorbonne’.  The children are interesting constructs, Caddie particularly; she is a daydreamer who confesses that she does not listen to anyone, and continually places her pony, Topaz, above everything else.  There are, however, many character traits which Hugh and Caddie have in common with a lot of Godden’s other characters, as Desai says, so it never quite feels as though one is reading a fresh novel, or meeting original constructs.

Godden is continually perceptive of how the divorce affects all involved, however; Caddie, for example, has a face ‘lumpy with distress’ and is ‘too broken with tears’.  It soon becomes clear that the relationship between the children’s mother, Fanny, and her lover, Roberto, is not as happy as it should be.  He continually orders her around, and treats her rather badly: ‘Rob had scarcely looked at her or spoken to her since he met her at the airport barrier’.  When the children arrive, for example, he allows her ten minutes in which to see them before they go out to dinner alone.

So much thought has been given to evoking the setting: ‘A path led away through the olive grove, a wide belt of rough grass and old, old trees with twisted trunks, some lichened, some split halfway up their length, showing wood dried to paleness; their roots made humps and coils in the grass but each of them had a crown of leaves, blaring now green, now silver, in the light wind’.  Godden’s descriptions work well throughout: ‘The lake had never been more beautiful; it was still as a pool, its mountains dark against the sky; only their snow glimmered’.  A lot of the dialogue has interestingly been woven into the prose, so one sentence often has two or three different exclamations or opinions of different characters within it.

Whilst The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is interesting and relatively rich, it does not strike one as Godden’s most engaging novel, and there is nothing overly original about its plot or characters, sadly.

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‘Marcel’ by Erwin Mortier ****

Marcel is acclaimed Dutch author Erwin Mortier’s debut work.  First published in Holland in 2001, and the recipient of several literary prizes, the coming-of-age novella has now been translated into English for the first time by Ina Rilke.

The narrator of Marcel is a ten-year-old boy who appears as a spectral, almost two-dimensional figure throughout, despite his place within the story.  He is always on the periphery, always watching those around him.  The Marcel of the novel’s title is his grandmother’s youngest brother; the young narrator takes it upon himself to discover what happened to him, his death deemed, as it was, ‘mysterious’.

Many of the scenes within the novella feature, either wholly or in part, the narrator’s grandmother; he refers to her throughout as ‘the grandmother’, as though she is nothing to do with him.  This further reinforces the notion that he is a detached observer.  He is referred to, quite a way through the book, as ‘a dreamer’, and as such he has a fresh and rather peculiar manner of viewing the world: ‘her toes lay like a row of bosoms in a black leather corset’, he tells us.  His first person perspective is both odd and rather beguiling; of a trip to a grey churchyard at the beginning of the story, for example, he says: ‘I was taken there once a year by the grandmother…  It was less than five turnings between the garden gate and the place where her dead lay sleeping’.  It feels as though nothing phases him, and he is simultaneously troubled by and comfortable within his often bleak surroundings.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the way in which Mortier sets scenes.  The personification which he weaves in works fabulously: ‘Behind the hedge of a spire of roof tiles slumped between two gables’, ‘the fluorescent green face [of the alarm clock] glowed spectrally in the dark’, a coffee service ‘shivers’ and heels ‘beat a nervous tattoo’ on the floor.  It is fair to say, however, that the writing which Mortier presents is not consistent throughout.  A lot of the conversations which go on seem a little bland, but the more descriptive sentences are clearly at odd with this: ‘When boredom crept over me the floor would reveal its secret geography, complete with all the tiny ridges and ravines where the soapy water collected into miniature lakes’.

Mortier is very perceptive of his characters; of a schoolteacher who is rather adored by the narrator, he writes: ‘She was a giant honey bird, large and feathered, a hummingbird-turned-woman.  As she tasted the cake a high-pitched sound rose up from the underhang of her chin’.  Whilst it could be called a little flat at first glance, the scenes and characters within Marcel do become more vivid as it progresses, and the dark family secrets which simmer to the surface are worth picking the novella up for alone.

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BookTube: Reviews – ‘Diving Belles’, ‘Five Children on the Western Front’, ‘The Midas Touch’ and ‘Confronting the Classics’

In which I talk to you, at length, about the following:

1. ‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood
2. ‘Five Children on the Western Front’ by Kate Saunders
3. ‘The Midas Touch: World Mythology in Bitesize Chunks’ by Mark Daniels
4. ‘Confronting the Classics’ by Mary Beard

All opinions are my own.  Obviously.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Town in Bloom’ by Dodie Smith ***

First published in March 2012.

The Town in Bloom is another of Corsair’s reprints of three Dodie Smith novels. It was first published in 1965.  The Town in Bloom is split into three separate sections. The first section opens with a lunch reunion, held in London every five years without fail. Aside from Mouse, three ‘friends one has known from [her] youth’ have been invited – Molly, Lilian and Zelle. The luncheon is a slip back into the pasts of the characters. They always visit the same restaurant, their meal is identical to that which they ordered during their first momentous meal together, and they are made, almost forced, to absorb themselves back into the past. Lilian insists that her friends are ‘not to talk about the present. You’re to think yourselves into the past – so that the past becomes the present.’

Zelle is always invited to these reunions, but fails to show up. The group haven’t seen her for many years – they knew her ‘very well, but not for long, and… a long time ago’ – but never really give up hope that she will show up. There is a foreshadowing that their relationship with Zelle ended in an incredibly unhappy manner. Smith alludes to ‘the way things ended’, a rather ominous statement which becomes clear as the novel progresses. Mouse spots her quite by chance in a park outside the restaurant and, intent on speaking to her, follows her to a tenement flat block which has a ‘grim, grubby respectability’.

In the present day narration, Mouse is a character who is incredibly interested in art and is also writing a book, a task which is proving more difficult than she believed it would be. We never find out her Christian name which she describes as being too long, and the affectionate ‘comic nickname’ bestowed on her by her friends sticks in consequence.

The second section of the novel then goes back in time to Mouse’s first night at ‘the Club’ during the 1920s. She is an orphan who has left her home in Lancashire after the death of her beloved Aunt Marion to start a new life in London, feeling ‘wonderfully free’. Her Aunt inspired Mouse’s love of the theatre and her niece wants to become a success on the stage in order to honour her. On her first night at the Club which is referred to as the other girls as ‘the village’, Mouse meets Molly Lorimer and Lilian Denison, who are both involved in musical comedy. The girls are all orphans and this gives them a certain solidarity with one another. They consequently become firm friends, united by their experiences. Mouse is mothered by them immediately, and even in the present-day narration they call her ‘child’.

Whilst in London, Mouse subsequently visits the Crossway Theatre in the hope of finding an acting job. She meets the actor-manager, the revered and kindly Rex Crossway. She soon finds herself part of an audition. Her sheer will and determination allow her to prevail in some of the situations she meets with. A good example of this is that despite being the wrong candidate for the acting job, she is offered a position as Rex’s secretary’s assistant. Secretary Eve Lester is ‘elegant, rather than smart or fashionable… what she really had was a faded beauty’. The ‘charm and personality’ of the protagonist serve to carry her career forwards.

There are many touches throughout which are incredibly and unmistakeably British. Smith’s distinctive writing style really shines through in The Town in Bloom. Her descriptions of the countryside, the restaurant in which the friends have lunch, and even her observations of everyday life, are so vivid that they set the scene immediately. The way in which Smith portrays many varied elements of life is wonderful. She does not used clichéd descriptions, but those which are fresh and interesting – for example, Lilian is described as having ‘gardenia-like sophistication’ and Molly has a ‘milkmaid freshness’ about her. Mouse explains that ‘when I studied my face in a dressing-table glass I knew I could play Lady Macbeth’.

The characters who feature in the novel have a wonderful array of unusual names – Zelle, Mouse and Madam Lily de Luxe among them. The character building throughout is executed well. We learn so much about Mouse and her friends from the moment they are introduced. Molly particularly is bossy and determined to be in charge. If she was portrayed by an author other than Smith, she may well be an unlikeable character, but the reader warms to her immediately.

The Town in Bloom is told from the first person perspective of Mouse. A journal entry is used on one occasion which helps to set the scene, but unfortunately this mixed narrative technique is not continued as the book progresses. Her narrative voice is distinctive, however, and flows relatively well throughout.

Smith’s novels seem to run on a theme, as a love interest for the main protagonist is included without fail at some point during their story. In this case, Mouse suddenly realises that she is in love with Rex Crossway and tells him so in rather an unlikely fashion. His only actions are to accept this announcement which comes out of nowhere, and to confess that he is simultaneously in love with her. This seems an incredibly unlikely course of events, particularly as Smith has not given even a shadow of the possible love between them beforehand. Various problems for the couple ensue as a consequence. The first half of The Town in Bloom was very promising, but it did wane a little and the storyline seemed rather unlikely in places.

The Town in Bloom is a coming of age story, essentially about growing up and moving forward. It is certainly an interesting novel, but it is not as engrossing as It Ends With Revelations, and certainly not as fine as I Capture the Castle.

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