by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

House of Night

Posted 29 August 2009 in by Catriona

So (through which I “obliterate all previous discourse and narrative” and simultaneously call for immediate attention—thank you, Seamus Heaney) . . .

I may have mentioned once, or twice, or, perhaps, even three times, my current fascination with vampire boarding-school stories.

What I haven’t talked about in any detail, though, is P. C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, only five books of which have so far been published.

Now, I’ll be honest: I didn’t take to these from the start.

Partly, it was that I was uncertain about a joint-written work, and suspected that the daughter part of the mother-and-daughter team had been largely brought in to make sure the language was idiomatically and authentically teenage.

Partly, it was that the authentically teenage language made me feel, in the early chapters, as though I were too old to be reading these books, which is (firstly) probably true, (secondly) an uncomfortable reading position, and (thirdly) irrelevant.

And partly it had nothing to do with the books at all, and everything to with circumstances. I’d taken the first volume down to Sydney with me along with the first volume of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Intruments trilogy, not being certain whether I’d like either. Then I thoroughly enjoyed the Clare, and when it ended on a cliffhanger, I become so annoyed that I hadn’t thought to bring the second volume that I rather resented the book I did have.

When I gave the series another chance a month or so later, I was surprised by how much I did enjoy it.

You know, it’s almost impossible to write about vampire fiction, without talking about the modifications that authors make to the archetype. That, it seems, is the nature of vampire fiction: one selects a vampire protagonist, and then one tweaks the archetype a little (so that, to pull an example off the top of my head, your vampires sparkle in direct sunlight), and that’s all anyone talks about.

But it’s particularly impossible not to talk about that with this case, and I’ll explain why.

All vampire boarding-school stories that I have read have some justification for why there’s an all-vamp school. (This is one disadvantage that they have over the traditional boarding-school stories, since it seems that secret vampire societies don’t have any policies in place about universal education.)

So in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series (and none of what is a spoiler: it’s all on the back of the first volume), there are two distinct forms of vampires, the “mortal” Moroi and the “immortal” Strigoi [yes, I have ret-conned this bit of the post: see Tim’s comments below], as well as the half-vampire, half-human dhampirs who act as guardians for the Moroi. Since the Moroi are in constant danger from the stronger, immoral, and immortal Strigoi, Moroi society is basically a succession of gated communities, of which the school is only one.

In Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, the school exists so that those vampires who were turned young and have lived long lives can find a safe place to learn about changes in modern society—so a vampire turned in the Middle Ages and living in isolation for most of the years since might find themselves programming an iPod as their end-of-year assessment task.

In the House of Night series, it all comes down to the changes to the archetype of the vampire.

In this world, vampyrism is a biological change that takes place in some people during adolescence. The new fledgling is “marked”: the tattooed outline of a crescent moon appears on their foreheads. At that point, they have two choices: they can die, or they can go to one of the world’s many Houses of Nights, where the adult vampyres secrete an airborne pheromone that helps keep the fledglings’ bodies stable.

Over the next four years, roughly ten percent of the fledglings die anyway, as their body rejects the Change. If they Change successfully, the crescent moon tattoo is filled in and another tattoo—unique to each vampyre, circling the eyes and covering the cheekbones—appears on their face at the moment of the Change.

So vampyres in this world aren’t secret: they can’t be, with sapphire-blue tattoos covering their faces. And, as an adolescent is marked, they become an emancipated minor under the law, free to choose their own names and subject only to the High Priestess of the House of Night and to their professors.

Interesting, huh?

And note that term “High Priestess.” These vampyres are both spiritual and matriarchal. They worship the goddess Nyx, the personification of the night, and, while the worship does involve blood, it also involves candles, herbs, circles of power, and such like.

And this is where my interest is really piqued. Because the heroine of these books is Cherokee, through her mother. And the vampyre rituals (and the threats to vampyre society that emerge across the books) become tied up with Cherokee legend and ritual.

(I’m far from informed on Native American legends, but it seems to me that these books modify aspects of Cherokee mythology to further their own plotlines—not that, as the cliche goes, there’s anything wrong with that. I can’t be certain, but it looks as though this Wikipedia page on the central villain of later books is drawn exclusively from the fiction, though presenting itself as an actual Cherokee legend: I’m assuming that, if that’s the case, it’s poor writing or confusion, and not deliberate obfuscation. On the other hand, authoritative sources show that this fictional threat is rooted in actual Cherokee legend.)

But, for me, it’s the mere focus on the Cherokee heroine that fascinates me, the fact that the heroine strengthens her rituals for Nyx by blending them with Cherokee purification rituals, that her knowledge of herbs (from her Cherokee grandmother) blends into this new religion that she never knew she needed.

When, later in the series, she is thrown into an accidental alliance with a Benedictine nun, and we see, running alongside the spiritual vampyres and the Cherokee wise woman, the matriarchal branch of the Catholic Church (and its elevation of the Virgin Mary to a position of importance with which other branches of Christianity are often uncomfortable), then they fascinate me further.

Does the teen-centric prose still frustrate me at times? Oh, yes.

But I’ve not read teen fiction quite like this before, and never a vampire boarding-school story like this. If only I didn’t have to wait until October for the next installment, alas!

The Varied Career of Cherry Ames, [Insert Word Here] Nurse

Posted 27 August 2009 in by Catriona

According to Wikipedia, font of knowledge that it is, the Cherry Ames books were published between 1943 and 1968, written first by Helen Wells (also the creator of the Vicki Barr mystery series) and then (as Julie Tatham) by Julie Tatham Campbell (creator of the Trixie Belden series).

(And, while I’m here and being profligate with my own parentheses, may I ask the people who write Wikipedia to stop putting brackets in their URLs? It’s frustrating and makes it almost impossible to actually link to the site without going via TinyURL.com. Thank you kindly.)

Wikipedia also tells me that the series has a propagandist purpose, in that it aimed to get young girls to aid the war effort by becoming nurses.

Which explains this cover, from a 1945 addition to the series:

What it doesn’t explain is why Cherry, dedicated nurse that she is, seems more fascinated by the plane in the background than she does by the injured GI in the foreground.

But that’s all right, because her fascination with GIs is revived in time for the frontispiece:

(That image makes me more thankful than ever before—and that’s pretty thankful—that I never served in the U. S. Air Force during World War II.)

By the much later Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse (1965), Cherry has essentially rejected an interest in actual nursing, in favour of the less profitable but more engaging pastime of eavesdropping:

The caption for this image reads “From inside the tent came the murmur of voices,” which is evidence enough the attraction of serial fiction often lies outside the actual plot.

Then there’s Cherry Ames, Rest Home Nurse (1954):

The caption for this one reads “Mr. Stanley wheeled to face her, a guilty expression on his face.”

Why? It’s almost impossible to tell what he’s doing from the picture, except that it seems to involve a door and a chair. Perhaps he’s been caught trying to make a break for it? Or perhaps she found him jamming a chair under his door handle, so the rest-home nurses can’t come into his room when he’s sleeping, steal his possessions, and draw a moustache on his face with a texta?

I think I prefer the latter explanation, myself.

And what do you suppose Cherry’s hand gesture is supposed to express?

Still, it’s more exciting than Cherry Ames, Night Supervisor (1950):

The caption for this one is “She hardly dared to unfold it and read the typewritten words.”

No wonder Cherry ended up in the jungle and then—luckily for her—had that affair with Nancy Drew, if opening an envelope is the highest excitement possible in the high-tension world of night supervision.

The Varied Career Of Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter

Posted 13 August 2009 in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter in a previous post, in which I included the cover to this book:

And I stand by my statement then: any reporter worth her salt should be probably be able to sense when a mysterious cowboy is about to shoot her in the back.

But what both frustrates and fascinates me about my small collection of volumes charting Sally’s career as a “girl reporter” is that none of them have blurbs. There’s no way of telling what Sally will be doing in this next volume, short of actually reading the book.

Well, you could interpret the title, but that won’t help much in most cases. Sure: “On Location” should tell you that this is a film set and not the actual gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but what about this one?

Apart from the fact that Sally certainly better not be undercover, not if she insists on carrying that notebook around with her like that, I have no idea what might happen in this book.

Okay, so there’s a cruise ship. And a helicopter. But do those two objects intersect at any point? And how are Sally and her fetching padded pink coat involved?

I have no idea!

But I can formulate a convincing story about this next one:

Oh, sure: it’s called The Runaway Princess, but then it’s also called Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter, where Sally actually looks about forty in this picture.

So I don’t think this one has much to do with a runaway princess. I think it’s more likely that, in this book, Sally shows us how to fake our own deaths and start an entirely new life (as a barber) by stealing the identity of someone who didn’t keep a close enough eye on their luggage at Venice Airport.

Plausible, yes?

In fact, I’m rather sorry now that the dust covers for my copies of Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter, in African Alibi and Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter, in Underwater Adventure are missing: I can only imagine what depths of crime she sinks to in those!

The Strangest Girl-Detective Stories On My Shelves

Posted 12 August 2009 in by Catriona

And these are only the pick of the bunch! Basically, any Nancy Drew story and most of the late Trixie Beldens qualify as “strange girl-detective stories,” but these are even weirder.

I may have mentioned this one on the blog before now, but the only reason it’s on my shelf is that it is hands down the strangest girl-detective story I’ve ever come across. Apparently, there are at least three Jenny Dean mysteries, but I’ve never seen another one.

Jenny is “a sixteen-year-old sleuth with a passion for solving some of the most extraordinary science fiction mysteries ever recorded.”

But only some of them. I guess she has to complete her homework sometimes.

In this one, Jenny and her friend Mike are troubled by the strange behaviour of their classmates: “What was causing those strange screams? Those disappearing acts? Those pale and shining complexions?”

I would suggest vampires, but that’s the wrong genre.

Still, “Jenny and Mike encountered danger at every turn—at the famous Mordern Institute, at an abandoned power plant, and at a scientist’s laboratory.”

Here’s my advice for teenage sleuths: nothing good ever came of an abandoned power plant. Ever.

Not that that bothers the young Nancy Drew, as she finds out who is “the champion of cheaters”:

I’m guessing it’s not Champion, the Wonder Horse, which is a shame. (He was a horse who solved crimes in his spare time. More or less.)

This is a version of Nancy Drew rejigged for younger readers, as you can tell from the blurb:

It’s so unfair! The Champions on Ice show is coming to River Heights, Olympic stars and all, and Nancy signed up early to be one of the skating flower girls. But she may be sitting on the sidelines instead.

Someone erased her name from the list, and she could just cry. Better yet, she’s going to find out exactly who did it. Nancy has just one clue, and it’s her only chance to learn the truth—and be a flower girl after all!

Someone erased her name from the list? Oh, the horror!

But what annoys me about this series is that it constructs Nancy as a natural sleuth, a girl who is just using her given talents to solve crimes. And that’s all well and good, but the professional female sleuth doesn’t have that long a pedigree: she only goes back to C. L. Pirkis’s Loveday Brooke, and we can’t really afford to have another professional slip away and be replaced with an amateur.

Still, anything is better than this next option:

Like the Nancy Drew notebooks, this one was designed to cash in on the popularity of Trixie Belden: neither this nor Julie Gordon: Exchange Student actually featured Trixie, but she endorsed them, in as far as a fictional character can endorse anything.

I don’t know who decided to engage Edvard Munch as the cover artist, but I think it was a mis-step.

I love the cover on this one, though:

All three characters seem to belong to a completely different storyline. I like to imagine they’re thinking the following thoughts:

JOE HARDY (BLONDE): Man, who hit me on the head? That, like, really . . . something. Hurt! That really . . . something.
FRANK HARDY (BRUNETTE): I wonder if Nancy hit Joe on the head? She’s certainly looking shifty.
NANCY: I think this brown lipstick was a mistake. I wonder if I can subtly change it before Frank gets around to asking me why I coshed Joe?

There really isn’t any justification for the next one:

“Awful” is, I think, the only possible descriptive term for this one. Apparently,
“Cassie B. Jones becomes detective Cassandra Best when her wealthy friend, Alexandra Bennett, sends her a ticket to mystery and adventure . . . at the Kentucky Derby.”

Gasp! Not the Kentucky Derby!

But, on a more serious note, why are rich girls always called something like Alexandra? If your father has millions, I suppose you need the extra syllables.

I also wonder why the blurb doesn’t mention anything about them finding a horse in their living room. You’d think that’s the sort of thing people would want to talk about, wouldn’t you?

Finally, there’s this one:

I don’t know if there were more “three Matildas” mysteries: I’ve never seen another. But I do like the way the author’s hook is to have three girls with the same name.

And, yet, she’s not satisfied with that alone, as the inside blurb shows:

If . . .

you can write your age upside down and backward and still have it come out the same, you’re off to a good start. [Query: a good start for what? That’s not the most useful skill, and it’s fairly fleeting.] There’s at least one girl called Matilda in this book who can do just that.

If you can go places wearing a dog around your neck and make people think that he’s only a fur scarf, you’re pretty lucky. [Query: Why? That doesn’t sound like luck by any definition I’ve ever heard, and I fail to see any real advantage to the process, either.] But there’s another Matilda in this book who’s been getting away with it for a long time!

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have a food faddist for a mother, an artist for a father, and a genius for a brother, there’s still one more Matilda in this book whom you should know about.

That’s right—three Matildas. But that’s not all.

Please, save us from the girl-detective book blurb that reads like an infomercial!

Three True Things: A Follow-Up

Posted 7 August 2009 in by Catriona

I hadn’t realised, when I followed up the Three True Things meme this morning how young a meme it was and how closely I was connected (through the Internet’s network of sociability) with its birth.

I’ve never been so close to the birth of a meme before.

So, since my post is running the risk of being buried under an exceptionally long live-blogging of a Torchwood episode, I thought I should take this rare opportunity to link to the places where the meme was born, before it found its way here.

First, Galaxy, where the meme was born.

Then Reeling and Writhing and Mark Lawrence, the blogs tagged by Kirsty at Galaxy.

Then Smithology and Nannygoat Hill, the two blogs tagged by Mark Lawrence.

All wonderful: all varied.

(What I’m liking, too, are the comment threads, and the way they’re dipping into ideas about genre fiction and where that sits in its always uneasy relationship to what the bookstores and publishers call “literary fiction.” But, then, I’m a woman for whom vampire boarding-school stories exert a strong fascination.)

So far, the meme is resting there, as far as I can see. But I don’t think this is a meme that should stop now. Surely there are more truths to fiction out there?

Three True Things

Posted 7 August 2009 in by Catriona

Having been tagged for this meme by Smithology (and being, besides, someone who talks about books at the drop of a hat, even to complete strangers in shops—though the tragedy is that my weakness for books has not corrected my weakness for cliches such as “drop of a hat”), I don’t see how I can pass this up.

I’d not come across the meme before, but apparently it requires me to post three true things that I’ve read recently that come from fiction.

So let’s start with a man who is, to my mind, one of the greatest novelists in English not just of the twentieth century, but of my reading experience:

May I say, too, that much of what I put in this book was inspired by the grotesque prices paid for works of art during the past century. Tremendous concentrations of paper wealth have made it possible for a few persons or institutions to endow certain sorts of human playfulness with inappropriate and hence distressing seriousness. I think not only of the mudpies of art, but of children’s games as well—running, jumping, catching, throwing.

Or dancing.

Or singing songs.

(Kurt Vonnegut. Bluebeard. 1987.)

Vonnegut is an easy enough choice, but my next choice requires me to roughly sketch in some background. Bear in mind: what follows is the melancholy tale of an unanticipated moment of overwhelming pretentiousness.

Two nights ago, Nick and I were watching an episode from season three of Northern Exposure: an episode in which Chris in the Morning is offered the chance to buy into Holling’s bar and goes slightly mad with bar-tending power.

At one point, he offers cheap beer to anyone who can recite the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

And I said to Nick, “I used to be able to recite those!”

T. S. Eliot was one of the poets I studied for my H. S. C. back in the mid-1990s, and because the exams were not open book, much of my final year of high school was devoted to memorising Eliot, Robert Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and various broadly applicable quotations from Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Arthur Miller.

Not the most effective way to learn to love literature.

So two nights ago, the juxtaposition of this mind-numbingly dull learning experience and a Northern Exposure episode led to Nick and I sitting on the back verandah in the dark and the cold, with me clutching a glass of wine and reading T. S. Eliot out loud.

We’d made it through “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” before I came to my senses and said to Nick, “You know, this is the most pretentious thing I have ever done—and it developed so organically!”

That doesn’t change my response to this passage:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

(T. S. Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock and Other Observations. 1917.)

If the meme demands true statements from books I’ve read recently, the next quotation should be from something with a vampire in it, since that has made up the majority of my reading material for the past month. Much as I enjoyed them, though, I can’t think of a statement that struck me as essentially true.

(Though it is true that I came to an important realisation while reading—and thoroughly enjoying—Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy. It may not have been the intended moral of the story, but what I took from it was this: No matter how doughty a demon killer your brother is, snogging him still shows a paucity of imagination.)

So, instead, I’m going to fall back on a quotation from one of my all-time favourites, which I first read in 1993 and only recently read through and adored once again.

It is, fittingly, a quotation about truth in fiction:

What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? Haroun couldn’t get the terrible question out of his head. However, there were people who thought Rashid’s stories were useful. In those days it was almost election time, and the Grand Panjandrums of various political parties all came to Rashid, smiling their fat-cat smiles, to beg him to tell his stories at their rallies and nobody else’s. It was well known that if you could get Rashid’s magic tongue on your side then your troubles were over. Nobody ever believed anything a politico said, even though they pretended as hard as they could that they were telling the truth. (In fact, this was how everyone knew they were lying.) But everyone had complete faith in Rashid, because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue and made up out of his own head.

(Salman Rushdie. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1991.)

There’s more truth in fiction than can possible be covered here. So, since one good tagging deserves another, I’ll see what truth Wondering Willow and A Billion Suns find on their bookshelves.

At Boarding School, No One Can Hear You Scream . . .

Posted 5 August 2009 in by Catriona

At least, so says the tagline of the first of the Bard Academy novels, the brilliantly named Wuthering High.

And, yes, I’m as bewildered as you are by the adaption of the tagline from a horror movie for a teen novel based on a famous nineteenth-century novel. But it made such an excellent title for a blog post.

The taglines for the other two novels in the series are “Being unpopular at private school? There’s nothing scarier”—which is (firstly) almost certainly not true (Clowns? Sharks? Giant spiders? Being buried alive?) and (secondly) banal—and “Bad things happen when fact and fiction collide,” which is just vague.

But once again I have let my snideness and my talent for long, rambling non-sequiturs run away with me, because I’m actually thoroughly enjoying these novels. And when I’m enjoying something, I think the least I can do is not be snide about it on my blog.

I first mentioned the Bard Academy in this post over a year ago, but I’ve only just now managed to get my hands on them this last weekend. (The same weekend, incidentally, on which I bought this book, which I came across even longer ago. And also got my copy of this. So, an excellent weekend in terms of working through the back catalogue of my own blog.)

And I’m enjoying the books even more than I thought I would.

I could go into more detail about why I’m enjoying them, but it’s the first week of teaching (since I’m not lecturing this semester) and I’m tired. So I’m going to settle for quoting this section from early in the book, where the heroine is mistaken for someone else by a mysterious man on the school bus (which is being driven by a suicidally reckless bus driver whose name tag reads “H. S. Thompson”):

“Miranda Tate,” I say, extending my hand. “And you are?”
He looks at my hand, and then at me. “Heathcliff,” he says cautiously, taking my hand. His hand is rough and calloused. Either he’s a guitarist, or he’s done some hard work on a farm.
“So who’s Cathy?”
I watch as a storm cloud settles over his features, then his face settles into a scowl again. He says nothing. I guess it’s a sore subject. (27-28)

Admit it: you laughed.

Some Things Have the Inevitability of an Avalanche

Posted 1 August 2009 in by Catriona

And one of those things is this fact: once I became aware that there was such a genre as the vampire boarding-school story, I was going to read as many as I could get my hands on.

Surely there can be no surprise about this?

Oh, I know that there’s a certain segment of the world’s population who feels that reading anything that hasn’t been nominated for some sort of prize amounts to prostituting one’s literacy (and, yes, that is a line I stole from Sue Townsend)—and, apparently, they don’t count any of the numerous prizes awarded to children’s literature.

But I—as you know, from reading this blog—adore children’s fantasy and I always will.

Plus, a quick glance at Delicious Library 2 tells me that I own 150 girls’ school stories, and that’s not counting the eight or so that my mother has bought for me recently, which I haven’t yet added to the database.

And though I wrote a post, early in this blog’s life, about how I wasn’t entirely sure I was interested in vampires (a post to which I won’t link, because it was weak writing), that was, in point of fact, a lie.

So when I see a book called Vampire Academy, my heart sings a little, just a little atonal hum of pleasure.

When I see that the second volume is marketed with the tagline “When love and jealousy collide on the slopes, winter break turns deadly,” that little atonal hum swells into “Ode to Joy,” because this is basically Sweet Valley High.

Sweet Valley High with vampires.

How could I pass that up? And, yes, that was a rhetorical question.

So now I not only own the Vampire Academy series, I also bought the first five books in the House of Night series.

And the first two volumes of the Evernight series.

And I’ve just comes across the Blue Bloods series, which, of course, I’ll buy.

Not to mention The Immortals, which I’ve only just discovered today.

And, thanks to friends who are returning from the U.S. this weekend and are willingly acting as book/DVD mules for us, I’ll be able to read the Bard Academy series, in which students are taught by the ghosts of famous writers who died young. I mean, Wuthering High? The Scarlet Letterman? Moby Clique? There is no way on earth I would let those pass me by.

I’ve devoted thirteen years of my life—thus far—to studying and teaching English literature—some of the best and most beautiful literature ever written in English—in the academy.

I have no concerns whatsoever about the fact that for the past month, I’ve not read a single book that didn’t have a vampire in it.

For the forseeable future, it’s vampire boarding-school stories all the way.

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