Sweet Valley Confidential – For the Love of Nostalgia Please Stop

So they’re releasing “Sweet Valley Confidential”, and they’re making a Sweet Valley High movie too.

There is a reason Sweet Valley High books were so popular in the 1980’s. And 1990’s. And early 2000’s for that matter. I’m not going to count how many were written but it is some mind-boggling number like over 500 at a quick glance. This includes the spin-offs, University, Senior High, Twins, Unicorn Club, Kids, Junior High, Thrillers for each spin-off series etc.

Now people collect these books with a singular dedication I could call astounding, but I am a (quite mad) book collector myself. Also my sister probably has the entire series so there is no need for me to embark on such a mission, I have enough collections going on. I recently decided to rescue them out of her garage and put them in the book room we’re setting up at home. She had offered them to me for selling some time back when we set up the Sweet Valley Books website, but I refused and told her to hang onto them. The bitter regret I have seen over the years from customers and book collectors who have sold/given away/lost large collections always leaves quite an impression on me.

“You will never find them all again” I told her firmly.

Of course I read them when I was a kid. Since I opened the website I have re-read a whole lot of them. The characters are shallow, stereotypical caricatures of real people, the plots are ridiculous, unbelievable and banal.  This didn’t diminish my enjoyment of them one bit.

I was quite surprised when I found out they were reprinting them. I wondered how on earth they could be relevant in 2008. Well, of course, they were re-issued, re-written, and re-packaged. And they were terrible. All kinds of terrible. Nine kinds of terrible. References to popular culture are peppered throughout the book in a urgent attempt to modernise them, in some cases it seems like an afterthought, but in each case it seems to fall flat. They stopped at book six.  Now it’s not until book 13, Kidnapped!, when the real shenanigans begin (really poor Liz was in a coma only six books ago, now she’s being kidnapped) and while Jessica killing 93 boyfriends in the space of 12 months would be too much of a stretch they seemed to come to a fairly abrupt halt. Incidentally I stopped stocking them on my website because nobody was buying them.

There’s a reason you re-read the books you read when you were a kid, and buy them for your kids. Nostalgia. When you try to re-write them you expose the original books as the silly, shallow melodramatic twaddle that they were. And when you take the camp out of Sweet Valley, you take the fun out.

Now, while I understand Francine Pascal may feel the need to re-visit with her creation ten years on, I have read the first chapter Random House has released online and I imagine it will meet the same fate as the ill-conceived re-issues.  You can read it here

Or, just cover your eyes.

Bloody Sweeney Watch It Again

Tim Burton brings a London to the screen so magnificently ruinous (like Mrs Lovett’s pies) you can almost smell the decay.
Depp’s scowling portrayal of Todd brings a new intensity to the revenge obsessed barber, while Helena Bonham-Carter’s world-worn Mrs Lovett, in her dreams of a new life beside the sea-side, touches the heart with a ridiculous poignancy.
The young lovers are sweet, the villains, scoundrels.
With flashing razors, gallons of blood, lashings of humour, possibly the first musical murder montage, it has all the vengeance fueled intensity of Japanese Kabuki theatre.
A bloody good romp.

Watch it again.

Don’t Be Afraid to Read Bentley Little…

My friend Dave is visiting from Western Australia. You will probably hear a bit about Dave in future blogs. Usually referred to as “Dave” or sometimes “Comic Book Dave” depending on what I am discussing. Dave is a passionate book collector, and we have many long discussions about books and our latest finds. Obviously he collects comics, but he also collects a massive amount of fiction, hardback first editions, of course.

One of Dave’s great passions is horror. Not my favourite genre, as you know, I am happy in my world of dragons and magical swords. Bentley Little is one of Dave’s favourite authors. Bentley Little is very popular and I always pick up his books to sell, although I never find the hardcovers (which is of course what Dave is after)

We had lunch last week and I was telling him a little story…

One Saturday afternoon I finished my op-shopping, and burdened with only a single bag for a change I went off towards the bus stop, only to see the bus meandering off in the distance. The buses used to run only once an hour in the late afternoon, and the tiny shopping strip I was stranded in didn’t have much in the way of entertainment. I figured I had a bag of books at least, and walked to the next stop outside a little church where there is a nice lawn and an old tree to sit under while I waited.

I settled down and rummaged through my bag. It was pretty slim pickings, but I had found a copy of “Dominion” by Bentley Little in there. I probably hadn’t read a horror book in years at this point, so I thought I might give it a try. I opened the first page and began to read.

I read a paragraph. Then another. By the third paragraph horrific images were battering me at such an alarming rate I was imagining distant screams. By the end of the first page I hurriedly closed the book and put it back in the bag. But I made sure to place it in the very bottom of the bag, and then cover it defiantly with the rest of the books.

If I can’t see you Mr. Little, you can’t scare me.

Needless to say we were all having a good chuckle at my faint-heartedness, (or being a great big chicken) but I was remembering that this page was actually quite creepy. There was something about women in a room and crawling malformed babies and an utter stink of evil about it. I do put that down to him being a fine writer.

Now I couldn’t remember the title of the book I had that day as I sat to write this, so I went to Amazon to have a look as I could read the first page there. I checked quite a few books which all started off in such a ‘normal’ fashion that I was beginning to think I had imagined it. But about twelve books in I found that page, and the book was “Dominion”

But there was something printed on the fly-leaves of all the books as I went through that was amusing me a great deal.

Don’t Be Afraid to Read Bentley Little…

Clair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds – The Mouse, The Monk and the Moonlight Ballerina

Clair de Lune by Cassandra Golds

“Once upon a time – one hundred years ago, and half as many years again – there lived a girl called Clair-de-Lune, who could not speak”

So we meet our heroine, Clair-de-Lune, who lives at the top of a very tall, very narrow, very old building with her Grandmother, Madame Nuit. Clair-de-Lune has not spoken a word since the night her mother, the great ballerina La Lune, died onstage…

“at the end of a tragic and beautiful ballet about swans, who, it is said, are mute until the very last moments of their lives, when they give forth the most lovely of all songs”

Do not be fooled, this is no ordinary ballet story. Indeed, it is no ordinary fairy-tale.

Clair-de-Lune lives a singular existence in the attic of the building with six floors, with two rickety staircases for each floor. Each morning she attends her dance class with Monsieur Dupoint three floors below, returns to the attic for lessons with Grandmother, then ventures out to the street “just outside” to buy what groceries her Grandmother can afford. It is a small, dark world, where there is never enough to eat, where she is intimidated by her classmates and her Grandmother, and where she cannot make her feelings heard, that encloses our Clair-de-Lune.

But it is a building full of secrets, and a building full of memory. And the day that Mr Sparrow, the class pianist, plays a song that awakens a long-forgotten feeling in Clair-de-Lune, a mysterious feeling that brings a flood of tears, the secrets begin to unravel. For while Clair-de-Lune cannot make a noise, there is a mouse who hears her silent sorrow.

And while Clair-de-Lune cannot speak, Bonaventure can speak for her. Great Bonaventure the dancing mouse takes Clair-de-Lune deep into a world within her tiny world, beneath the darkness and the secrets, where a monk may help the Moonlight ballerina find her voice.

In a touching, sometimes melancholy, beautifully crafted world, Cassandra Golds and her Clair-de-Lune reach out to every child who has ever felt different, lonely, and the utter despair of feeling there are too many things they cannot change. But for every exploration of grief, of guilt, of fear and loss, there is a resounding theme of love and the most wonderful of friends.

‘Few people,’ he remarked ‘appreciate the skill mice have attained in calligraphy!’

Indeed dear Bonaventure, few of us have.

[rating:5]

The Great Redwall Hunt – The Wall, The Quest, The Warrior

It might have been 1987, perhaps a shade before, but I will stick to “when I was eleven years old” (and that is quite a stretch in memory) when I first saw Cluny the Scourge. On my oldest friend’s bookshelf, (she is still around and sharing books with me) sat a paperback copy of Redwall. A 1986 copy to be exact, with the original British cover illustrated by Pete Lyon. She was quite excited when she purchased it, as she had been reading her cousin’s copy on the weekends when visiting, and now she had one of her own. I was promised a loan of this marvelous book as soon as she had finished, and I was certainly intrigued, as she had filled me with tales of Abbeys and Mice and dastardly Sea Rats. I was convinced I had never read anything like it before and therefore it must be the greatest book written since any of my Enid Blytons. And then there was the superb illustration of Cluny on the cover, and surely he must be the greatest villain any mouse had to overcome.

I was indeed correct.

I was plunged into a vast woodland world beyond the walls of a great Abbey filled with monastic mice and other marvelous creatures, tales of great bravery, of intellect, of old lore and warriors, and of the smallest mouse who can change the world.

I was ever so sorry to leave.

The first Redwall book was published in 1986. But Brian Jacques was not done yet, not nearly so.

I read her copies of Mossflower and Mattimeo, but as I was growing up Brian Jacques was passing me by.

I knew some later books had been published, and I read a few here and there, but I had moved onto my world of adult fantasy, while the creatures of the Abbey patiently waited for me to return. They reminded me many years later that life in Mossflower country flourished.

I was book shopping with Craig, in an op-shop in Sydney when I found a large collection of Redwall books. There was at least a dozen, mostly paperbacks and a couple of hardcovers. I picked them up one by one, studying the cover art, carefully leafing through the pages, and slowly I was transported back in time, some seventeen or eighteen years, to when all the world was Redwall.

It was a strange stroke of fate that weekend, I had been staying in Sydney for a couple of weeks with Craig and Mel decided to visit one of her friends that weekend and fly back to Melbourne with me (and promised to split her baggage weight with me as I has some 30 kilos of books I had found) Redwall found me and my oldest comrade in Mossflower country that week.

I proceeded to read them in publication order (although the actual chronological order is different), some seventeen books in a row while frantically trying to collect them (original British covers thank you) to make sure I had enough to go on with. That took maybe 18 months or so as I was reading things in between, but in the last couple of years I haven’t read another. Mel has since started reading them.

I had purchased a couple of first editions here and there, including a beautiful limited and numbered re-issue of book one signed by Brian, but I had not begun a dedicated pursuit.

So, as we have moved into our first house recently, all of my books were in boxes. I found all of my Redwall books sitting in one box and a slight nostalgic feeling was nagging at me. I unpacked my hardcovers and put them on the small shelf in my bedroom, and decided it was a pitifully small collection. Always supportive of my quests, Craig bought me a first edition of book one for my birthday recently.

And so the great Redwall hunt begins again. I have decided to try and collect the hardcovers in order. I do have the first four books so far, but there are another eighteen, so it should be no easy task, but it will be yet another adventure with Redwall.

On ‘Recycling’ Vintage Books and What It’s Worth

‘Cassandra by Chance’ by Betty Neels original cover from 1973,  opposite a 1990’s reprint of the same book.

While you’ll often find art-work reproduced from vintage pulp-fiction, the early Mills and Boon and Harlequin artwork tends to get overlooked. Some of those old covers feature the coolest artwork, and I am sorry they don’t reproduce it when they reprint collector’s editions of books. Once in a (very long) while I come across large collections of M&B from the 60’s and 70’s, and if I am lucky I might find some of the 1950’s hardcovers (I have featured a picture of one in a previous blog on Betty Neels) which are really a lot of fun to go through.

You’ll also find some cool cover-art on the Women’s Weekly Fiction magazines. Unfortunately you will also find some ‘interesting’ uses of it.

A few days ago on Twitter, Penguin books posted a link saying they ‘loved the use of vintage covers on these notebooks’ Thinking someone is reproducing old cover-art on notebook covers I click on the link to have a look. They’re not actually reproducing the cover art, they are removing the covers from old books and using them to make notebooks. For a princely sum of $18 mind. You can order the text block of the book, sans cover,  to be sent for an additional $5. I suppose that is something.

I don’t know how I feel about defacing and destroying vintage paperbacks to make a largely disposable item. I have seen worse, however.

On an online-site-that-shall-not-be-named, a seller-that-shall-not-be-named was selling purses made out of Women’s Weekly Fiction magazine covers. The purses were, they claimed, fairly fragile as they were made of paper, and would probably hold up six months. I was browsing the covers with a mix of horror and intrigue when I stumbled across a purse made with a Lucilla Andrews cover. Before I could stop myself I had shot an email off to the seller begging them to stop.

“You can’t sell these” I was told huffily “They’re not worth anything”

So as every year, thousands upon thousands of vintage paperbacks are sacrificed to recycling, or to, er, “quirky” ideas like the aforementioned. For every collector that treasures their out-of-print and/or vintage paperbacks, there are probably dozens of people who claim they’re “not worth anything”

And every year we might lose another book, the final book, long out-of-print, once-cherished, to the recycling pile, never to be read or enjoyed by anyone again.

 

On Steampunk Romance and starting with the Wrong Book

Edie had been nattering about ‘steampunk’ here and there, and while it piqued my curiosity each time, taking the time to check it out kept slipping my mind. While I was second-hand book shopping I picked up a copy of  ‘Steamed’ by Katie MacAlister. I vaguely recalled Edie telling me she hadn’t gotten past the first page, but thought I might give it a whirl (as I just told her, telling me not to do something is as good as daring me to).

But first I googled steampunk, and found out I had actually read some of the science-fiction based sort. I’m not going to get into any long-winded explanations of it as I’m not a strict sub-genre fan at all (and certainly not an expert on this one). But it seems perfectly suited as a sub-genre in romance, and it seems like it  hasn’t been explored a great deal yet.

This here is the culprit

The book starts with a horrible “is that a blah-blah in your pocket” cliche which is usually enough to make me close the book there and then, but I rallied and kept reading.

Jack Fletcher spends the first chapter telling us why he is really not so-cool. Then dropping as many ‘steampunk’ references as possible along the way to his lab (he’s an engineer) he meets with his sister Hallie, who manages to spill a vial of something, which transports them into Steampunk land.

It’s not timetravel, we find. It is still 2010. Also it’s not strictly steampunk. There’s an air-ship and a lot of talk of steampunk.

Then we meet Octavia, an air-ship Captain. Expecting a strong female lead? Think again. The woman has no handle on her crew at all, who either disobey her or make constant lecherous remarks about her breasts, which she gets exasperated at, and not much else. I thought perhaps the family tragedy she recalls early on would lend her some depth, but, well, not so far anyway.

Jack Fletcher is a silly, shallow, irritating man. This is displayed in some mind-bogglingly appalling statements such as

“a man would have to be dead six months to not want to ogle your breasts” Really? Like you wouldn’t get a poke in the eye for that statement? But Octavia gets all fluttery and brushes it off.

Then “Your mind says no but your body says yes” and, after a mild complaint,  “Your mouth says yes too”

There is no instance in where a statement even vaguely similar to this should be used, ever. That is all.

I imagine that finding your hero repulsive and your heroine a simpering fool will usually deem the rest of the book unreadable.  Sexual tension is no excuse for being moronic. I put the book down.

After some wailing on Twitter the other day the lovely Jen from Evening Hour and Kat from Bookthingo swooped in to help me with some suggestions for what I might enjoy more. Thank you girls.

I picked the book up again, but then the lengthy explanations on the mechanics of the air-ship began, which normally would be fine, but as I couldn’t emotionally invest in the world, it did nothing but annoy me. So I stopped reading. I don’t think I made 100 pages.

A spectacular failure for my first attempt at this sub-genre.

justromance.com.au/blog

On Comfort Zones, Happy Like Murderers and Loving Your Customers

I loathe listing true crime. When I sit with a pile of books filled with murder, torture, rape, and other unspeakable things, and as I read the back of the book for the synopsis, I get completely creeped out. It might sound ridiculous, but there you have it. I have hundreds of true crime books, and I usually limit myself to listing a small group at a time as it’s about all I can stand.

The very first true crime book I read was at the request, or suggestion, of a customer. When we had our bricks and mortar shop I had a lovely customer who read True Crime. Like a lot of readers she used to like to have a chat, and decided to convince me to read a true crime books as I had never read one.

“You know I read Enid Blyton” I told her laughingly “I’m not sure I could handle reading a true crime book”

Being passionate about her favourite genre, as we all are, she finally managed to convince me after much wheedling. When you have a small struggling business you really appreciate your regular customers (and they can usually talk you into reading all sorts of strange things)

She had recommended Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn. This was the story of Fred and Rosemary West, probably the most notorious serial killer couple of all time. I came across a copy, and after some tentative peeking at the first few pages, I delved in.

This is not an ordinary true crime book. As the first true crime book I had ever read it was not what I was expecting at all.

The title, for starters, Happy Like Murderers, and the smiley face on the cover, should have warned me. I only knew of Fred and Rosemary West, I knew absolutely no details of what evil crimes they had committed. The book had no pictures, no scans of police reports, no mug shots, no images of shallow graves or fresh-faced innocent victims to make you rage at the injustice of them having their lives mercilessly snatched from them.

The book is narrative. It doesn’t begin, as one would expect, with the early life of the Wests. It begins with a victim, Caroline, written in a fictional style, of her tough life and how it led her into the world of Fred and Rosemary West. By the time Fred West is introduced you’re absolutely filled with dread for the inevitable.

And then Burns draws you in. And on, and on, relentlessly repetitive, detached, chilling, until you really don’t want to read one more word but you can’t put the damn book down. Every tiny detail he includes about the Wests, the victims, Cromwell Street, their children, their everyday life, that beckons you in closer and closer, until you’re in the most evil place on earth and you can’t leave until it all collapses around you.

I’ve since returned to my happy world of wizards and dragons and good conquering evil, and I have never ventured back to that one. I have read snippets of, and a very few true crime books since, but in a genre filled with a sensationalism and glorification, this book will always stand out.

Don’t read the damn thing, you won’t sleep for a week.

[rating:5]

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole – Film Review

I found the Guardians of Ga’Hoole books about four years ago, well the first one, on the bargain table in a country book shop. They hadn’t taken off here, and I managed to find the rest (eight at the time) in the US and got them shipped here.

I was delighted with the story, animal tales being one of my favourite type of kids books. There is not enough of them these day in my opinion, and while I get a new Redwall at least each year, new finds are always a welcome addition to my bookcase. I found them well-researched and I liked the characters. They got packed into a box at some point and I didn’t follow on with the series. They still were not popular, and I’m not sure they were even stocked here, so I had no idea they had gotten up to fifteen books. When I saw the preview at the cinema, where I am sure I shrieked ‘Ga’Hoole!’ when I saw the owls. But enough about that. We just got back from the movie a few hours ago.

Zack Snyder did a terrific job on this film. Animal Logic, who I discovered have done work on everything from Lord of the Rings to 300, provides absolutely stunning animation. You can see every line on every feather on every owl. It looks incredible. The story I already like of course.

The movie is based on the first three books in the series.

The Pure Ones are kidnapping helpless Owlets and taking them to their lair to either train as soldiers or work slave labour in order to assist them in building a machine to enslave even more owls. I hear some people complain the machine was confusing. It uses an magnetic field to trap owls at ground level, and unable to move, the Pure Ones send bats in to finish them off. Simple stuff. They control the Owlets by ‘moon-blinking’ them which involves the owls going into a trance-like state after being exposed to the full moon. Your heroes, Soren and Gylfie, outsmart their captors and manage to avoid being moon-blinked. An elder owl with a guilty conscience teaches them to fly and helps them escape.

Soren and Gylfie meet Twilight and Digger on their travels, and discover Mrs. P., Soren’s nest maid (a snake) and form a fabulous fellowship of five, and go off in search of the Legendary Guardians of the Ga’Hoole.

I loved this film. It looked gorgeous, it was fun to hear the Australian accents, the battle scenes were just outstanding (although perhaps a bit violent for the young ones) and I am sure they snuck in a Tassie Devil. I definitely saw a Eucalyptus tree.

Apparently a lot of people had a problem with the plot. Well, it’s magical talking owls. They wear helmets and can wield swords. They engage in the classic fantasy battle between good and evil. Enjoy it.

Book Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: September 2010
Genre: Historical Fiction

The second book in Philippa’s stunning new trilogy, The Cousins War, brings to life the story of Margaret Beaufort, a shadowy and mysterious character in the first book of the series – The White Queen – but who now takes centre stage in the bitter struggle of The War of the Roses.
The Red Queen tells the story of the child-bride of Edmund Tudor, who, although widowed in her early teens, uses her determination of character and wily plotting to infiltrate the house of York under the guise of loyal friend and servant, undermine the support for Richard III and ultimately ensure that her only son, Henry Tudor, triumphs as King of England. Through collaboration with the dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret agrees a betrothal between Henry and Elizabeth’s daughter, thereby uniting the families and resolving the Cousins War once and for all by founding of the Tudor dynasty.


The latest offering in the Cousins War series begins with a nine-year-old Margaret Beaufort, quite possibly one of Philippa’s most unlikeable characters to date. After praying all night (and proudly telling us of her ‘saints knees’) Margaret sees a vision of Joan of Arc. I was fairly sure Joan was still viewed as a heretic in the 15th century, she certainly wasn’t sainted until the early 1900’s, but nonetheless, this vision leads to Margaret idolizing Joan and praying in her name throughout her days. Margaret, as you may have guessed, is devoutly religious, convinced she is ‘especially favoured by God’ and that she has a vocation.

Margaret’s dreams of a vocation, perhaps an Abbess, are dashed when she is married off to the King’s half-brother, Edmund Tudor at the tender age of twelve. Giving birth to the future King, Henry Tudor, at the age of thirteen, Margaret is convinced it is God’s will that her son become King of England.

To follow is her lifelong plotting, scheming, increasing bitterness and final triumph in her quest to secure a Lancastrian King of England once again. She is an interesting character, certainly vile, and without a redeeming quality I can recall. While some people might ‘love-to-hate’ this character, I found her intensity, ambition, pride, envy and selfishness onerous towards the end.

Philippa switches narrative over to Henry in the battle scenes to finish off the book, which I felt didn’t work well at all, it is too disparate a shift after reading an entire novel in first person. It is, otherwise, as pleasant and breezy a read as usual from Philippa. You can read this novel before or after the White Queen, it is written as a stand-alone.

[rating:4]


Thanks to Simon and Schuster we have a copy of the Red Queen to give away. Just tell us about your favourite Philippa Gregory book. You can leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. Entries close October 24th. Australian residents only.

Harry Potter and the Finale – A Journey

I think most (if not all) devoted Harry Potter fans have suffered ‘Post-Potter-Depression’.

One you devoured your latest Potter in short order you were left with a feeling of  loss. There was, after all, yet another year (or three) to go until your next adventure. Then there was the pre-release hype, the endless online discussions and speculation, the anticipation of once again diving into the world of Hogwarts and seeing your heroes triumph against adversity.

In 2001 they started making films to keep us sated between the dark period of 2000 – 2003 when The Order of the Phoenix was being written. 2001 and 2002 saw the release of the first two movies and while (for me) they were hardly a replacement for my next novel, they were something to keep me occupied.

After ‘Deathly Hallows Day’ in 2007, sometimes in the evening after I finished the book, with many tears and much more elation, the feeling started to sink in again. This was the final book. Harry Potter was no more.

“Don’t worry” my partner comforted me “I’m sure there’ll be ‘The Adventures of Young Dumbledore’ for you to read one day”

“We still have the last movie” Potter fans told each other bracingly.

Yes, there was the last movie. There was Beedle the Bard to look forward to ,and the release of  Harry A History by Melissa Anelli, webmistress extraordinaire of the Leaky Cauldron.

Then last week my partner showed me the trailer for the final movie. I haven’t been keeping up with much news about the movie of late, indeed I wasn’t even sure if they had finished the movie. But there it was.

My Harry Potter journey started ten years ago. For others it has been thirteen. And now we are faced with the very final chapter in our very long adventure.

So, as is my usual tradition, I’ll re-read all of the books leading up to the movie. I might even watch the movies again, or the David Yates ones at least. As much as I feel that slight pang of anxiety that there will be no more, there is really no way to contain the excitement of entering the wizarding world again, for the greatest adventure yet.


Where Great Adventures Begin