Monthly Archives: May 2010

I spit on you – you… PARENT!

Standard

The scenario: My five year old granddaughter is taking part in a show in June, so the dancing school were having an afternoon rehearsal, supposedly ending at 4 o’clock. The plan was to pick her up and deliver her and her six month old brother to their parents, who were working locally.  Sunday 24th May was a scorcher.

We duly arrived ten minutes early and sat in the stifling car. Five minutes later, I went into the building. The dance studio is up 5 flights of stairs and all the parents were lining up along one side of the stairwell. It was hot and I was increasingly anxious about the baby sitting in the car with my husband. Babies don’t do heat very well.

At 4.25 an imperious voice echoed down the stairwell. ‘They are still performing the finale. So they’ll be a bit late.’  No apology.

I was disgusted and amazed at the high-handed attitude on display. After all, they had stipulated that we needed to pick up the children at 4. Nearly half an hour late, they condescended to inform us that there would be a significant further delay. But there was no real sign of anger or resentment from the long line around me. Except yours truly. After all, I’m no longer an ‘active’ parent – I’m not used to being treated as if I’m a stinking smear on the side of a shoe.

‘How much longer?’ I called back.

The face peering down at me scowled, clearly shocked at my temerity.
‘I’ve no idea,’ she snapped. ‘It could be ten minutes. It could be longer.’

‘Yes, but how much longer? Another half an hour? An hour?’
‘It’s no good getting cross with me,’ she huffed defensively. ‘It’s not my fault.’

‘I’m not cross. I’ve a six month old baby in the car. I’m wondering whether to take him back home, or not.’

‘I’ll go and find out,’ she announced. And disappeared. That was the last we saw of her.

I got the baby out of the car and stood in the shade outside, where there was a breath of air. Luckily for all of us trapped there, he’s a poppet. In the circumstances, he’d have been entitled to start howling with the heat, and the fact he’s teething with the resultant nappy rash. He cried for a short while when we first rejoined the queue, but then decided to coo and gurgle at anyone who caught his eye.

They finally let the children out. One at a time. Fair enough. Did they ask the parents at the front of the line who they were waiting for and work down the queue? No – they yelled each child’s name down the stairwell and their parent battled up the stairs, passing other costume-laden parents and their children coming down, while those of us waiting shuffled closer to the wall to try and make room…

When someone, quite courteously, queried this approach, the response was, ‘You’d be the first one to complain if we just let your children go any old how. It’s your children we’re protecting.’

I wondered just how this was protecting anyone. Watching the lines passing each other on stone stairs, with some of the children as young as 4, it seemed to me that sooner or later, someone was going to trip. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to inching up the stairs with the baby in my arms and then coming back down with baby, costume bag and a weary 5 year old in tow… Fortunately, my granddaughter takes a long time changing, so the line was a lot shorter by then. As her name was called and I started to walk up the stairs, the parents around me took matters into their own hands.

‘She’s got a baby.’ Someone called up, before turning back to me. ‘Hang on, they’re sending your little girl down. Stay there.’

A familiar face peered over the banisters. ‘Granny?’

‘Hallo, sweet.’

Kind hands passed her costumes and lunch box down to me and we negotiated our way out. By the time we got the children loaded back into the car, it was 5 o’clock.

As you may have gathered, the incident niggled. But it has also sharpened my anxiety over a major societal fault line that is only going to get worse in the coming hard times.  What I found striking was how very cowed the waiting parents were. This is an inner-city area and some of the waiting dads were big, burly men, shifting uncomfortably in the heat. I was expecting a lot more grumbling, but everyone just seemed wearily resigned. It came to me, standing there, that parents are used to being treated in this manner. And it doesn’t take long to figure out why.

Parents are an oppressed underclass, these days. Think I’m exaggerating? Take a quick trawl on the Internet – everyone from Ricky Gervais to Government agencies and ‘Bad Parent’ sites takes a pop at them. Reality programmes such as Supernanny has us shaking our heads at households where the children are clearly in charge. I have attempted to watch the critically acclaimed sitcom Outnumbered. Twice. But I don’t find it funny – it’s too near the knuckle for my taste. I don’t relish watching children talk and manoeuvre their parents into tongue-tied helplessness as I’ve seen it happen too often as a teacher. And I also know just what a handful those children are at school.

The problem is, we have some very muddled notions about parenting. We acknowledge on one hand, that it is vital for the long-term health of our society that parents put in the necessary time and effort to instil core values and acceptable behaviour in a loving, supportive environment. But somehow think that this can be shoe-horned in between having a career and running a home. House prices and rent being what they are, the majority of young mothers I know don’t have the luxury of ‘deciding’ whether to be a stay-at-home mum. They work because their wage is vital to keep a roof over the family’s head.

Grandparents are stepping up in unprecedented numbers to take on some of the burden of childcare. Many of us do it with love in our hearts and can utilise the skill and experience gained by years of looking after our own children. But what of those who are really too old and physically frail? Looking after babies and small children is a gruelling, energy-sapping slog and if you don’t have the necessary stamina, you are unlikely to be able to do the job adequately.
Professional childcare is also a chancy business. My daughter is fortunate to have found a wonderful lady whom I am happy to entrust my precious, precious grandchildren to. But we’ve read the horror stories in the papers… Let’s face it, the inhumane business of packing our four year olds off to full-time education is because it is a low-cost method of childcare. Many four year olds – particularly boys – are neither physically or emotionally ready for formal education and they are being asked to behave in ways they cannot manage. Not because they don’t want to please, but because they are unable to sit still for long or follow complex verbal commands. They are being set up for failure before they have a chance to succeed. Hence the significant numbers of angry, resentful nine and ten year old boys creating havoc in our classrooms. Hence the gangs of unruly teenagers who regard adults with contempt and aggression, preferring to use their peer group as the ultimate guide in deciding what to do over vital issues like sexual behaviour, attitudes to drink and drugs. Which is a major disaster and we – the adults – should be hanging our heads in collective shame. We didn’t need scientists to tell us that the teenage brain undergoes a major rewiring, whereby a teen’s ability to make coherent decisions is compromised by the flood of hormones and that they are far more prone to take unnecessary risks… Those of us who endured the teenage years of our own children know these facts only too well.

What do we do about this state of affairs? I’m not sure. It’s a complex and difficult subject. As a lifelong feminist, I am torn. I don’t want to see a generation of full-time mothers forcibly consigned to resentfully looking after children. However, I also believe that our children deserve a great deal better than the current made-do-and-mend care that they are currently receiving. And, for starters, I think we should think very carefully about how to empower parents and give them back their self respect…

Review of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Standard

A kind soul lent me this book after a discussion in one of my Creative Writing classes about dramatic beginnings. And he certainly wasn’t wrong…

enduringloveJoe Rose has planned a romantic picnic with his lover Clarissa after having been away on business. However, the delightful idyll is horribly interrupted when a hot air balloon, attempting a landing, starts to break away from its moorings with a ten year old boy inside. Joe, along with a number of other men, rush to try and anchor it. But when the sudden wind strengthens and Joe finds himself suddenly jerked off his feet as someone else lets go, he follows suit – until only one man, John Logan, is left hanging on – until he plunges to his death… Shocked at the terrible accident and feeling guilty for letting go, Joe rushes to the spot where the dead man is lying and encounters Jed Parry. They exchange a passing glance and Jed, suffering from de Clerambault’s syndrome, immediately falls passionately in love with Joe, with dire consequences.

The novel is a close examination about the nature of love. As Jed’s misplaced passion creates increasing problems for Joe, his relationship with Clarissa suffers. Joe also feels impelled to visit John Logan’s widow – only to discover that she is convinced that her dead husband was entertaining a lover at the time of the accident. Sickened by the discovery, Jean Logan is bitter and furious, rather than grieving…

I found the book a riveting read. These days, I don’t generally bother with literary novels, but this really is excellent. The steadily building tension as Joe struggles to cope with Jed’s stalking and the fault-lines it exposes in his relationship with Clarissa are masterfully depicted. While the sudden plot twists, particularly near the end of the book were all the more shocking for the detailed exposition by Joe of his increasing alienation with his everyday life. I also found the Afterword disturbing – the ‘enduring love’ of the title wasn’t the love between Joe and Clarissa, or Jean and John Logan – it was poor Jed Parry’s obsession with Joe. This short novel will stay with me for a very long time. The unsettling message that the idealisation of romantic love comes at a very high price if taken too far may not be a new one – you only have to recall Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady sonnets. But McEwan’s skilled and thought-provoking treatment left me pondering uneasily about the exact nature of passion.
10/10

Review of Peacekeeper – Book 1 of the Ariane Kedros series by Laura E. Reeve

Standard

Military science fiction fans might find the cover of this debut novel from Reeve somewhat misleading, as it isn’t merely some high-octane, shoot-‘em-up kill fest. Not that I’ve got anything against such books – they’re great escapist blasts. But Peacekeeper is something more.

peacekeeperFifteen years ago, Ariane Kedros piloted a ship on a mission that obliterated an entire solar system. Branded a war criminal, she was given a new identity and had to forge a new life. In return, as a Reservist, she regularly goes on undercover missions where she does her duty – and someone else’s dirty work. But now twelve of Ariane’s wartime colleagues and friends are dead – assassinated by someone who has discovered their true identities. And her superiors have placed her directly in the assassin’s line of fire on a peacekeeping mission that will decide the fate of all humanity…

Apparently, as an Air Force officer, Reeve participated in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and she has put those experiences to good use in Peacekeeper. In the world she has constructed, the Terran Expansion League and the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds still regard each other with suspicion and dislike years after the war between them has ended – and it falls to the enigmatic alien race, the Minoans, to broker and keep the peace between them.

This adventure story is set in a complex, multi-layered world, with the mandatory tough-yet-vulnerable female protagonist. But what sets it apart for me are the themes explored within all the non-stop action. The guilt Ariane Kedros feels over her part in the obliteration of the Ura-Guinn system is doubtless a useful plot twist to give the character extra depth and interest – but it also raises the issue of when a serving soldier should turn around and say ‘no’. None of the Kedros’ team did so – and they all pay a high price. Can remorse redeem such a terrible act? One of the characters is convinced it can…

Reeve also explores the idea of revenge and at what point it stops being a natural reaction to a terrible wrong and becomes something a lot darker – or maybe that’s what it always is. And before you go away with the impression that this book is full of declamatory rambles about these ideas (let’s face it – we’ve all read ‘em…), I’d like to reassure you that Reeve manages to embed her themes within the story such that neither the pace or narrative tension lets up for a nanosec to accommodate them.
All in all, this is a cracking, enjoyable read that manages to raise some interesting issues along the way, making it a cut above much of this sub-genre. I’ve already gone out and bought the sequel…
9/10

Review of The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

Standard

If you like your Fantasy tales inhabited by strong, complex characters who are confronted with some crisis within a well constructed world, then it doesn’t get much better than this. Brett’s impressive debut novel makes him a writer worth watching as this cracking story gripped me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until I got to the end. Which doesn’t happen all that often, these days…

paintedmanEleven-year-old Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day’s ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook. As dusk falls upon Arlen’s world, a strange mist rises from the ground: a mist that promises death to anyone foolish to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialise from the vapours to feed upon the living. As the sun sets, people have no choice but to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until the creatures dissolve with the first signs of dawn. When Arlen’s life is shattered by the demon plague, he realises that it is fear, rather than the demons, which truly cripples humanity. However if he is to fight back, he must leave everyone he has ever known and the home where he grew up, to discover a different path.

Brett’s well drawn characters have more than ravenous demons to contend with – betrayals, scandal and murderous attacks also occur and the action keeps coming, despite the fact that there is no night life to speak on this world – for obvious reasons.

My one niggle is that when one of the female characters is raped, she recovers far too quickly. I tend to get irritated when an attack of this nature is treated (often by male writers) like any other physical encounter. It isn’t. And victims take more than a couple of hours to bounce back to ‘normal’. However, this incident struck the only jarring note – and the rest of the book was a joy to read.

The various demonic confrontations are beautifully written. Brett effectively creates plenty of tension as people cower in their homes, hoping that the magical wards that act as the only barrier between them and the monsters roaming outside in the dark will hold. During these sections, I was reminded of Sheri S. Tepper’s A Plague of Angels, which is one of my favourite all-time reads. If you haven’t get done so, check Brett out – you won’t be disappointed…
9/10

Review of The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Standard

The great news for Robin Hobb fans is that The Dragon Keeper is revisiting the world of the Liveship traders – one of my all-time favourite fantasy worlds…

thedragonkeeperThe Tangle of serpents fought their way up the Rain Wild river, guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia. Many died along the way. With its acid waters and noxious airs, it is a hard place for anyone to survive.  People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other abnormalities, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the dragons’ return. It is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the Liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching, as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons.

But the creatures who emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly. Some do not even have wings; others seem witless and bestial. Soon they are seen as a danger and a burden; something must be done. Far upriver, so far it is shown on no map, lies the legendary Elderling city of Kelsingra – or so the dragons believe. In their dreams, they see visions of their lives there and long to return. But they cannot get there on their own; a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them.

To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job; their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils. Not only are they not expected to return – no one wants them back…

I, for one, was delighted when I realised that this book would pick up the adventures of the tangle of serpents as I’d found the whole storyline surrounding them and the liveships a really satisfying tale. So I started The Dragon Keeper with high expectations – and it did not disappoint.

The characters in Hobb’s stories are always strong and in this story we have several protagonists, all in third person viewpoint. The two that stand out for me are Alise and Thymara – but the whole cast are entertaining and once more, Hobbs gradually unwraps her plot with the deft skill we’ve all come to expect. Her world building is pitch perfect as the inhospitable Rain Wilds take its toll on man and beast alike – in contrast to the stifling confines of Bingtown’s society.

The main theme of rejection – one of Hobb’s recurring issues in her work – winds throughout the storyline. The party accompanying the dragons are all unacceptable in one way or another and each one of them has been shaped by being an outcast. As the journey gets under way, their differences in attitudes are thrown into sharp relief – and promise to create yet more narrative tension in the second book in the series now due out. This is Hobb at the top of her game and I’ve just got hold of the sequel, Dragon Haven. Yipee!

10/10

Review of Turn Coat – Book 11 of The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

Standard

This is the eleventh novel in the Harry Dresden files series and I thought as I’d just finished it, I would review it. Has Butcher managed to keep the characters fresh and surprising? Are the plots getting increasingly entangled and mangled in an effort to breath some new life into a threadbare scenario? Has the fact that the TV series was such a crock adversely affected Butcher’s enthusiasm for his wizard detective?

turncoatHarry Dresden, PI and practitioner of magic, has done his best to keep his nose clean where the White Council of Wizards is concerned. Even so, his past misdeeds haven’t looked good to the Council’s Wardens – and they take their responsibility to enforce the Laws of Magic very seriously. But this has placed him in a bit of a predicament. Morgan, formerly his chief persecutor among the Wardens, has been wrongly accused of treason. There’s only one punishment for that crime so he’s on the run, wants his name cleared, and needs someone with a knack for backing the underdog. Someone like Harry Dresden.

Dresden faces a daunting task. He must clear the less-than-agreeable Morgan’s name while simultaneously hiding him from the Wardens and the supernatural bounty hunters sent to find him; discover the identity of the true turncoat and, of course, avoid accusations of treachery of his own. A single mistake may mean that heads – quite literally – could roll. And one of them might be his.

For the record – yes, no and no. The answers to the questions I posed at the start of this review. Butcher has managed to breathe new life into these characters, giving some of them a surprising twist. And no, there is no sense that this world is running dry of creative juice.

We have encountered the Council from time to time in Dresden’s adventures, but this further insight into their politics and the characters made for an entertaining read. Butcher manages to give all the major protagonists surrounding Harry Dresden an equally complicated and tortuous personal journey, which is probably one of the secrets of this series successful longevity. So we learn yet more about Billy and his pack of werewolves; Molly, his snippy apprentice and her growing abilities; Thomas his Vampire half-brother; and continue to thoroughly dislike Morgan, who might be in a tight corner but doesn’t let victimhood blunt any of his sharper corners.

As ever, events unfurl at a fair clip, building to a yet another cracking climax with plenty of emotional fall-out along the way. Butcher really has this particular genre absolutely nailed – and Turn Coat is an enthralling page-turner, worthy of its successful predecessors.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, but haven’t yet gotten around to this particular series, then I urge you do to so. There’s a solid reason why a bunch to television executives decided to transfer the Harry Dresden series to the small screen – it’s just a shame they didn’t get around to doing it justice…
10/10