Monday, 25 May 2020

Malory Towers BBC series: review

Tough times lead many of us to seek nostalgia trips - and what could be more nostalgic than Enid Blyton, and the BBC's recent adaptation of her Malory Towers series, dubbed "Downton for kids"? As a long-time Blyton fan, I figured lockdown was the perfect time for this trip down memory lane.

Despite instances of occasionally overdramatic acting (such as when Gwen falls into the water), on the whole the quality of the acting - from both children and adults - is superb. The Downton distinction is also well-founded: the grand setting immediately and beautifully evokes Blyton's stately boarding schools from times gone by. The overall sense of mischief, so integral to the series, is also generally successfully created. 

However, the script for the series is fundamentally flawed. Despite Darrell's shortcomings, she is not this bad so soon in the term, or believed to be by members of staff. In the same way, Gwendolyn is not this manipulative (for example, in the incident pertaining to the French prep), the Matron was never this nasty, and Alicia never so loud. In this way some characters become unrealistic caricatures rather than the realistic renderings that Blyton originally created.

Alicia's character, in fact, has been altered in ways that deeply discredit the script. Adding her as an American character (when this was not the case in the original text) adds incongruous (dare I say unfortunate) Americanisms - e.g. "mail" - to the script. This might be forgivable if the Americanisms were only spoken by an American character, but even Gwen says about "acing" a test. The girls' whooping is also thoroughly Americanised and not at all faithful to the time period in which Blyton's original stories were set. If the unnecessary character of the errand boy had not been added (who was only superficially sketched in, in any event, but still wasted valuable minutes), then time need not have been sacrificed on genuine characterisation of the protagonists and antagonist as opposed to insertion of further inferior invention.

Similarly the addition of the 'back story' of Darrell being allegedly asked to leave St Hilda's is unnecessary. Blyton's already strong story does not require such inferior embellishment. One effective addition, however, is Gwen running into the village by herself to make a malicious phone call, as this is far more in keeping with Blyton's original characterisation of her (which regularly sees Gwen cutting off her nose to spite her face).

Overall, the series lacked thorough historical, educational, and linguistic consultation. As well as Darrell's dyslexia (or "word blindness", as the series describes it) being thoroughly invented, learning difficulties were simply not well understood enough in Blyton's time to attract diagnoses (even informal ones). Darrell is also shown to be writing in print, rather than cursive, which simply never would have happened in 1940s Britain. 

Had Darrell really had dyslexia, Blyton would certainly have used it as a feature of her stories in order for children to learn from this. In the same way, a character with a facial disfigurement is added, but this is not part of any storyline - even though it would have been rare enough in Blyton's time (as now) to have been a talking point and as such, a learning experience. A black member of staff would also have been unlikely in this period (in general the BAME-ing of the cast seems to have been done for modern diversity reasons rather than reflecting the society of 1940s Britain), and again, would have been sufficiently unusual to prove a talking point in the original stories. 

The series also makes overt comments pertaining to World War 2; this, along with the d├ębutante storyline particularly, was equally unnecessary. Blyton's strength is in her escapist, timeless setting; it is this, and not the post-war situation in which she was writing, that makes the stories still popular today.

Arguably the series does overly compress the drama compared to the books - though this is arguably a failing of many literary adaptations. The length of the episodes generally works well for the intended audience (which I recognise I am not part of!) and made for accessible, easy viewing.

As such, despite the criticisms above, continued series based on the subsequent books would be most gratefully received, and even more so with the recommended alterations. Nostalgia is what we all need right now - and, Blyton fangirl that I am, I'll take anything that's coming to me, perfect or no.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Posting paperlessly

I'm a huge fan of real post and love the feeling of ink flowing across different textures of paper, as well as choosing beautiful writing paper, learning to calligraph, or even creating my own mail art. There's also the emotional aspect of knowing that you couldn't be physically closer to another person without actually being with them; you have touched what they have touched and have access to their innermost personality and feelings. 

This is all fine for individual letters. But when it comes to mass mailings - such as Christmas cards, or sending out our son's birth announcements - things become trickier. Whole books have of course been published solely containing the letters of the famous, giving us fascinating psychological insights. By and large this was the only communication method available to these luminaries; post was delivered multiple times a day and stamps were much more affordable. Furthermore, by comparison, telephoning was expensive and often inconvenient; telegrams were reserved for emergencies; and today's modern methods of communication simply didn't exist. On top of this, people generally used to spend more time sending letters and cards because there were fewer distractions and more spare time - particularly for women, who did not work as often as they do today.

So in this day and age, when it comes to sending, say, invitations to large numbers of people, digital methods have numerous advantages, particularly in terms of time-saving. Your card can reach tens or even hundreds of people instantly, and even if you've had to spend time and money making it, chances are that the overall cost is less. And, of course, environmentally, it all helps to save the trees!

This is where companies such as Paperless Post come in. On this particular website, you can choose from hundreds of designs to make a card for any occasion, then use your email contacts and/or social media networks to send it to whichever recipients you wish. You can either choose from free designs, or buy 'coins' on the website to add extras. Everyone can get 30 coins from signing up, linking your Paperless Post account to your Facebook, and liking the Paperless Post Facebook page. This at least enables you to try some of the premium elements before forking out for coins (which you can pay for in £, USD, or A$), which start in bundles of A$16, $10, or £8 depending on your currency. (And, of course, as they're online, they can be sent from wherever you are.)

When I was invited to try the service, I was immediately impressed by the wide range of products offered, including the possibilities for invitations for my son's first birthday party. These can be anything from photo-based to cartoon-based, with lots of options for different fonts, borders and colours, to cater for any taste. The quality looks good too.

But as my son's birthday isn't until November, I also wanted to try out something that would fulfil a more immediate need. My sister recently purchased and moved into her first home, so I wanted a card to commemorate this. (An online one was also perfect for the occasion as I was a little behind time-wise - oops!) When I typed 'new home' into the search engine, not immediately seeing a relevant category in the drop-down menu, I wasn't expecting much to come up, but was in no way disappointed. Even though some results are invitations to housewarming parties, there are definitely options for welcoming someone to their new home, congratulating them on this important moment in their lives.

With 30 coins to spend, I had a look at the possibilities, and settled on one encapsulating my synonymical (a word I just invented, I think - so neologistic too!) instincts: one describing my sister's new abode as mansion, apartment, shack, and home. With a bit of understated humour and elegant design, you can't go far wrong - but equally, if a goldfish swimming in its funfair bag floats your boat too, then the world is your oyster. 

The card-making process is both fun and simple throughout. You can start by choosing (or indeed removing) the background of the card (which is separate from the card itself), which ranges from classy marble-like designs to idyllic backdrops of boats on tropical seas.

You then turn to the back of the card, which contains your chosen text. Of course, as well as typing the text, you can pick the font, colour, and placement. Some fonts you'll recognise from word-processing programs such as Microsoft Office, whereas others are completely new. The only thing I found irritating about this process was that you had to press enter if you wanted to go onto a new line of text, as if you were using a typewriter, rather than this occurring automatically.

After this, you can even customise an envelope design, including the envelope colour, the liner, and the backdrop. You can keep the same background as for the card itself, or choose a different one. An envelope liner and colour is already chosen for you based on the colour scheme of the card (which is good if like me you have no artistic sensibilities whatsoever), or pick your own. You can also delete the envelope entirely if you don't want one at all. But if you do, you can even choose details for the front, such as a 'stamp' and 'postmark'. The stamps are relevant to your card's topic, ranging from new baby to having a party or celebrating Christmas. It would have been great to be able to preview the stamps and postmarks before choosing, though, as some designs are clearer than others, as well as to have a wider range of postmarks, as those available are quite US-centric at the moment. 

The text on the front of the envelope is pre-filled with the recipient's name (they see the front of the envelope in the email they receive telling them they have been sent a card), and there's also the possibility to have a reply card added - super useful if, for example, you are sending out something that requires an RSVP, such as a wedding invitation. 

Finally, you add the name(s) and email address(es) of your recipient(s). This can be done by manually entering email addresses, linking to an email account address book, or uploading a file (e.g. .csv). You can also send yourself a free test preview of the card by email - especially handy if you are sending your card to a lot of people and need to be sure it's correct. Of course, you can still edit your design after seeing the preview. It looks really professional and impressive. The 'cost'? 6 coins - which, remember, I took from my free 30 coins (from signing up, liking on social media, and linking my Paperless Post account to my Facebook), which means a) it didn't really cost me anything, and b) that I can still do another 3 or 4 cards before needing to really pay anything.

Another feature of the Paperless Post service that appeals is the Flyer service, which is designed to let you send event invitations to large numbers of people. Perfect for small businesses organising events, as well as if you're organising a party!

But perhaps the best part about Paperless Post is that if you do still want paper copies for relatives who aren't online or even just as keepsakes, you can also right-click and save the design to your computer and print it from there. Now that's what I call a win-win.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Making room (on the broom)

The extreme hiatus this blog has suffered recently is down to the birth of my son - who arrived 2 days after the publication of my review of Soupy Twists on this here website.

He is now 3 months old and charming all he meets. He is also - unsurprisingly in a household stacked floor to ceiling with books - an interested reader, who sits through whole stories (which are longish for his age!) with great attention, as well as enjoying 'reading' soft books on his own.

Being a full-time mother who is soon to become a full-time working parent, I will have to work even harder to make room for my own reading and writing, as well as fostering my son's own love of reading. I can only apologise for the gaps between postings that may well result.

Prior to my son's birth, this blog was also an excellent venue for my poetic endeavours, during projects such as NaPoWriMo. However, as I am now trying to carve out a serious career in poetry-writing, and many publishers do not accept your work if it has appeared elsewhere (even on a personal blog), no more poems will appear here.

So what with poetry-writing, reviewing, reading, full-time working, co-parenting, gym-going, (occasional) socialising, and much more besides, it's possible that posts here will be infrequent. However, for now, let me leave you with a list of some of my son's favourite books:

Cuddles/Ploum series (translated from French, originally by Micheline Bertrand and Lise Marin)
Being a bilingual household, we have some of these in French and some in English. As well as admiring the simple illustrations and cute characters, we find the effects of the translation interesting: the original French books rhyme and give a jollier feel, whereas the English ones do not rhyme and as such are more calming. Both, however, are perfect for bedtime, including length-wise - and thanks to being written in the 1980s, provide a nostalgic element for parents too. You have to enjoy a challenge, too, though - many are sadly out of print, so hunting through eBay and charity shops alike is essential. Nonetheless, you won't regret it!

The Storm Whale series (Benji Davies)
I admit that we often read books to our son that are pitched a bit above his age group! This series is intended for 3-7-year-olds. However, he sits through them happily and really focuses on the frankly beautiful and detailed illustrations. There are also little puns hidden in some of the pictures for parents (and, eventually, older children) to find. These are therefore really books that will grow with your child, which include moral messages without being preachy.

Juste un petit bout (Emile Jadoul)
Emile Jadoul's delightful little book is another one that's perfect for bedtime, with clearly recognisable (yet appropriately flawed) characters that are repeated throughout the pages, and a concise story that emphasises sharing. This one has been translated into English under the title Just A Little Bit. Some of his other books are also available in English, such as Look Out - It's The Wolf, and Push Me Higher!, as well as in other languages (such as Spanish and Italian). Our son's liking for it is testified via the corner of our copy which has been lovingly chewed upon.

Little Hedgehog series (Christina M Butler)
This series is another one recommended for its beautiful illustrations, which again hold our son's attention wonderfully. Aspects of the books are also textured, making them appropriate for even the very smallest readers, as well as offering well-constructed and rhythmically-told stories. Most of our copies are in French, but again the series is available in many languages, including Dutch.

Goodnight Everyone // A Bit Lost, by Chris Haughton
Our baby's bedtime routine is without a doubt enhanced by Chris Haughton's unique illustrations of adorable baby animals who are looking for their mummies, insisting they aren't tired, and more. Haughton's distinctive style and skill with different graphic weights makes this very different and much more modern than the more classically-illustrated books I have mentioned above, and are economical with the text too (with not a word wasted) while still incorporating humour (and maintaining that delicate balance of not making the little one too hyper before he goes to sleep). We have one in French and one in English, so you can probably take your pick of languages too.

Usborne Very First Cloth Books
Believe it or not, though, our son does actually possess some age-appropriate reading material, and he loves his Cot Book with a night-time theme from Usborne. Its detailed and brightly-coloured images offer contrasts that he spends ages looking at - and with a woodland theme on one side and a space theme on the other, there's plenty to keep your little one entertained. This was an impulse purchase in Exeter that has turned out to be excellent value!


I'm sure I'll probably think of, and discover, even more as our little boy grows up. What are your children's favourites? Don't hesitate to comment below!

Friday, 2 November 2018

Soupy Twists! (Jem Roberts)

--The blurb--

"Comedy history shows that it is our funniest double acts who receive the most love from the public, from Eric & Ernie and Pete & Dud to The Two Ronnies and Vic & Bob. But while all of these partnerships have been celebrated in print, one of the most beloved duos of all time – Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – have not.

Jem Roberts, acclaimed chronicler of Blackadder and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, seeks to rectify this with an all-new official biography, timed to mark the thirtieth anniversary of A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Featuring interviews with the likes of Emma Thompson and Richard Curtis, he takes a fresh look at the duo’s journey from insecure Footlighters to international comedy heroes. Beyond this, the trials and tribulations of their remarkable subsequent career paths, from QI to House, will be entertainingly explored for the very first time.

Thanks to the generosity of both colleagues, the A Bit of Fry & Laurie archive has been opened up, revealing a host of tantalising titbits for fans – including what happened next for Tony and Control, which other shops Mr Dalliard’s friend ran, and the lost Laurie number The Ballad of Neddy Muldoon…"

--The review--

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are without doubt a central part of the British televisual canon. Whether your first discovery of Stephen Fry was via quiz show QI, your first sight of Hugh Laurie was in the film Maybe Baby, or indeed you encountered the two together in iconic series Blackadder, Jem Roberts deftly shows in the crowdfunded publication of Soupy Twists! how the duo rose to the top of their game - and how they've done probably an awful lot more than you realised in order to get there.

Fry's sheer talent is rightly prized over the darker elements of his past, but Roberts gives both a realistic and honest treatment. Roberts also does well to demonstrate the hard work that went into the pair's meteoric ascendancy to fame, as well as acknowledging the opportunities that were available to them at various points - alongside humbler beginnings.

Roberts' meticulousness as a researcher is seen front row and centre in this joint biography. His attention to detail and emphasis on first-hand accounts (from such luminaries as Emma Thompson) is what brings the recount to life, alongside a beautifully varied selection of photographs, and never-before-seen access to scripts. It is a balanced retelling that showcases Fry and Laurie's strengths and weaknesses and sensitively analyses what makes them the performers that they are today.

The scripts from A Bit of Fry & Laurie will perhaps be the highlight for die-hard fans; however, for those who have seen less of the show, it may be harder to visualise the tone, gestures and overall performative style inherent therein, even if readers are familiar with the twosome's other work (both together and separately). For this reason, the book would arguably be an even greater standout hit as an audiobook, enabling the scripts to spring into full life. An ebook format would also enable links to clips at relevant moments. Fry and Laurie are themselves such animated forces on the screen (big or small) that any textual rendering is bound to feel a little flatter by comparison.

Nevertheless, Roberts' exclusive insider access and expertly incisive commentary makes this book an excellent gift for any Fry and Laurie fan, especially in anticipation of the upcoming festive season (is it even legal to mention the C-word before Bonfire Night?). Soupy Twists! is entertaining, engaging, thorough and humane - and readers will surely not be disappointed.

other works by Jem Roberts
The Fully Authorised History of 'I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue' (2010)
The True History of the Black Adder (2012)
The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2015) 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

OctPoWriMo 2018! Day 31: endless

We try counting stars, and fail,
falling back instead on souls.

Stretching boundlessly into

our skies' sparkling seas, we see
our souls' infinite spaces,
spiralling unfadingly.


Today's prompt suggested inventing our own poetic form. I didn't set out to, but may have inadvertently done so.
I've ironically written quite a short poem today, figuring that less is more. I was inspired by yesterday's form - the Pleiade - with its seven lines, and Hortensia Anderson's additional restriction of 6 syllables per line. It occurred to me yesterday that 7x6=42, and that as all Douglas Adams fans know, 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. So in reversing the form (today creating a sestet of 7-syllable lines, which I can't describe any more technically than this as the metre is so irregular), I created a short form that is actually the gateway to everything we need thanks to its 42 total syllables. You can call it the Deep Thought form if you like (as in Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy it takes the computer named Deep Thought 7.5 million years to calculate that 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything). Or one could even call it the Molybdenum form, since "The atomic number of Molybdenum is 42, as mentioned by Elliot Cooper. Coincidence? I think not, because molybdenum is a very important element for humans and plants in minute quantities for proper growth."

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

OctPoWriMo 2018! Day 30: dancing on the moon


Moonshine through the window
makes our first night come back.

Mirroring in water,
moving with us, it soon
mimes our luminescence.

Mute, we tread our secret
measure, dancing again.

Monday, 29 October 2018

OctPoWriMo 2018! Day 29: by the numbers

add up
to all that
is right, meaning
the sum is complete.

In encircling me, you
are my diameter; like
pi, we continue forever.

Our sequence links irrationally.

Totalling infinity, we spiral
Fibonacci-style. Suddenly it all seems
so rational after all; we are symmetry.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

OctPoWriMo 2018! Day 28: split in two

Form: the Anglo-Saxon riddle

The most famous Anglo-Saxon riddles are located in the Exeter Book. Unsurprisingly located in Exeter, UK, specifically in Exeter Cathedral. And who spent three years studying ENGLISH LITERATURE, OF ALL THINGS, in Exeter and never ONCE went to see it? *points at self* (...yep. Kick me now.)

I've been informed by someone with a master's in literature from Cambridge, and former education professor, that the gaps in the riddles occur at each line's halfway point - and each half-line is alliterative. So the split is not just visual - which for our purposes is very convenient.

But I understand if you don't feel up to writing a riddle. After all, the ones in the Exeter Book are so complex that many scholars have spent years unravelling them. If nothing else, Megan Cavell's British Library article on the subject makes an entertaining read that it would be a shame for you to miss out on.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

It may seem hard to believe - but Christmas is indeed just around the corner, at barely 8 weeks away. Shops may be cluttered now with Halloween paraphernalia, fireworks for Bonfire Night, and Thanksgiving delicacies, but several shop windows already have Christmas trees and home decorations front row and centre. It's common within the beauty industry, too, to have 'Christmas in July' showcases so that journalists can already have Christmas issues ready to go even before October. And as someone whose first baby is due today (!) I have already been making Christmas cards and buying presents, anticipating that in the blur of life with a newborn it will soon be the last thing on my mind.

Luckily, Literary Book Gifts has got you covered for all the bibliophiles in your life (including that awkward uncle who can sometimes be hard to buy for). Looking through the website, I found all kinds of goodies that you could either pair with a book or would make excellent standalone gifts.

Say your awkward uncle is on the especially erudite side. You could team a T-shirt themed around the work of Descartes or Machiavelli with a copy of one of the works of the great man - giving you options even if your intended receiver does not enjoy fiction. Scientist? Try Darwin's Tree of Life or Gray's Anatomy. Artist? Michelangelo's got you covered. Hipster? It's #typewriter time! Or just a grumpy old git? I especially liked the slightly sinister The End T-shirt, which reminded me of the time when my sister and I were watching the Disney movie of Peter Pan and, come the closing credits, my grandad walked past and said "This is my favourite part!" 

You don't even have to start with Christmas if you don't want to. If you have any male friends with Halloween birthdays, look no further than the range of creepy T-shirts, featuring illustrations alluding to Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Heart of Darkness, or the works of Edgar Allan Poe, to name just a few. 

If you're after a more discreet design, there are always T-shirts like this (available for both women and men) which combine the quirky, fun and literary, without naming the book outright:
Virtually all of the designs, in fact, seem to be available for both men and women, so you're sorted regardless of what type of book your recipient enjoys. Literary Book Gifts' range is extensive both in the titles the products reference and in the design styles - and there are a variety of colours available too. T-shirt wise my personal favourites, if I were buying for me, included one alluding to Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, and the T-shirt transcribing Emily Dickinson's Hope Is The Thing With Feathers (what with these and the Whitman design, there's plenty for poetry-lovers!), as well as the wonderfully subtle Beethoven design (perfect for any musicians amongst your friends and family). All designs are created in-house and printed professionally, meaning you are getting a high-quality gift that won't disappoint, whether for Christmas, birthdays, or "just because".

Sizing and fit wise, you don't have to worry. The guide shows that women's designs are available for a 34-inch chest and up, with men's shirts going all the way up to a 50-inch diameter. (Measurements for tank tops and hoodies are also listed, although sadly none seem to be available at the moment.) Once I've made a purchase myself, I'll report back in terms of comfort as well.

But what if you have enough T-shirts? If you are buying a book for your loved one, what better wrapping than a tote bag? These come in small, medium and large sizes for added flexibility, with the price scaled accordingly - meaning you can watch your seasonal spending budget easily. My favourite designs here include the Jane Austen (which features the great lady's desk), the fabulously elegant Marcel Proust (whose swan design perhaps alludes to Book 1, entitled Swann's Way?), and the bold Don Quixote (especially meaningful to me as I've recently purchased a Quentin Blake print that also comes from this novel).

All of these products ship worldwide from the US at very reasonable rates - I'm located in Europe, so would have to pay the $10 flat rate (excluding any taxes/customs duties your country charges), but I have had to pay much more than this for postage of products even within Europe in the past, so consider this to be good value. And best of all? With 20% off your order thanks to an exclusive Bianca's Book Blog discount code (BiancasBookBlog20) that has no minimum purchase required, you can get your shopping sorted as of right now. You can thank me later. And Merry Christmas!

(This post was requested by the owner of Literary Book Gifts, but was not paid for in products or money, or sponsored in any other way.)

OctPoWriMo 2018! Day 27: what colour is it?

I asked you what your favourite colour was
and you said it was me;
that I could be your rainbow
whenever I so pleased.

I photographed myself in emerald
and also in deep blue.

You said to come as I was,
in whatever colour I choose.

In the end, we were Impressionists.

We made a palette true.

You held me in your arms that day
to make a newer hue.