The Thrifty Fictionista Strikes Again!


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Tolstoy’s great tale, beautifully translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky.

I was heading out the door to collect Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop from school this afternoon when I casually slung my handbag over my shoulder and nearly put my back out. Now, I will admit that this particular accessory is known in our household as “The Bottomless Bag”, not only because it holds a great deal of stuff, but also because it seems to possess an uncanny propensity to cause said stuff (most commonly keys) to evade my grasp whenever I am scrabbling around the bottom of said bag.

Today, however, I already had those elusive keys in my hand — my handbag was just heavy, and perplexingly so. What on earth could I possibly have stowed in my tote?

It was at this point that I remembered that I, quite literally, had a copy of War and Peace in The Bottomless Bag.

Having a book in my handbag is not an uncommon state of affairs for me — in fact, I suspect that not having a book in my handbag, not to mention a notepad and several pens, would be much more unusual. But today, I had completely forgotten that sometime this morning I had waltzed happily (though perhaps a little lopsidedly) out of the local bookstore with a copy of Tolstoy’s classic tale in my bag. Yes, the Thrifty Fictionista had struck again…

For those of you as yet unacquainted with my alter-ego, the Thrifty Fictionista is prone to prowling through bookstores, aiming to get as much book for her buck as possible. At one point last year, the Thrifty Fictionista staked out Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy.  Earlier this year, she successfully ensnared Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And today, obviously, she tracked down War and Peace, which being out of copyright and running to well over 1,200 pages definitely meets the Thrifty Fictionista’s usual criteria for her prey: lots of book for not so many bucks.

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War and Peace: the Laughing Squid edit.

To be completely honest, I — having given up referring to myself in the third person a lá Jaqen H’ghar in the last paragraph — did not actually track the book down all by myself this morning. I engaged the assistance of an obliging young bookshop employee who was all too happy to point me in the direction of the hallowed shelves where the classics reside and then, to my delight, knew exactly which translation I was referring to — the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky one, of course — when I asked specifically for War and Peace. Could it be that the Thrifty Fictionista had found a kindred spirit, a fellow hunter of bargain-priced quality books? A simple flip of the volume to check the price tag (watch your wrist, there, it’s a hefty tome) and I was rewarded with a knowing smile. Yes. A kindred spirit, indeed.

As it turned out, my new best friend was also in the process of reading War and Peace. I didn’t ask him where he was up to — the book took Tolstoy six years to write (and, some would say, takes just about as long to read), but his slightly bleary eyes revealed that he had been at it for some time, while the determined jut of his jaw indicated his intention to finish. It was my turn, it seemed, for a knowing smile.

The first time I read War and Peace I borrowed my father’s copy, which was conveniently housed in three battered blue volumes he had bought as a boy. I’ve always enjoyed Tolstoy’s work, particularly after studying Russian history at university, and still count Anna Karenina among my favourite novels of all time. But having just watched the sparkling new BBC adaptation of War and Peace, which was written by Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for that TV version of Pride and Prejudice, not to mention House of Cards and Vanity Fair, among many others), I wanted to read the book again — particularly now that the screen production has provided me with faces to associate with the many (hard to remember and harder to pronounce) names in the book.

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Tom Burke stealing every scene he’s in as Fedya Dolokhov, the soldier who takes exactly what he wants…

Davies’ adaptation shrinks Tolstoy’s story down to just over six hours of television, but I don’t believe that the end result to be at all reductive. The screen is filled with the broad sweep of the novel and of Russia itself, and is populated by an impeccably costumed cast. Paul Dano is admirable as Count Pierre Bezukov, James Norton suitably haughty as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and Lily James utterly exquisite as the young Countess, Natalya Rostova.

For my money, however, it is in the supporting cast that the stars really begin to shine. Brian Cox is superb as gruff old General Kutuzov, who has seen it all before (with his one remaining eye) and knows his best ally against Napoleon is Russia’s winter rather than her troops. But the stand out, in my view, is Tom Burke’s brilliant take on the career soldier, Fedya Dolokhov, a man who makes his own luck and takes exactly what he wants — this man’s wife, that man’s money, even the food off his friend’s plate. He’s a troublemaker (to put it mildly), a dangerous and destructive force played with impulsive energy, passion and panache by Burke.

I’ve already started re-reading Tolstoy’s epic tale of love and loss, of War and Peace — I couldn’t stop myself — and I am thoroughly enjoying placing the characters in the sets and contexts so beautifully supplied by the BBC adaptation. I love that the book itself is as big as a house brick, and that I might well have put my back out had I not taken it out of The Bottomless Bag before school pick up, but that within its pages and in between the battles and bombardments there are subtleties and nuances and snippets of conversation conveying the overriding delicacy of thought that is so characteristic of Tolstoy. There is an insistence that we look at ourselves, and at our choices throughout life, and that we recognise within ourselves the power to forgive, to love, and to be happy.

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Well, that’s the one thing we are interested in here — until the Thrifty Fictionista strikes again…

Muggling Along

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Harry Potter: the Boy Who Lived

Nearly twenty years ago, something magical happened that changed the world — and I do mean, quite literally, magical. Back in 1997, we encountered an eleven year old boy with green eyes, untidy black hair, and a lightning bolt shaped scar on his forehead for the very first time.

We met Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived.

I’ve always loved reading the Harry Potter books, despite the fact that I had just graduated from university when the first volume was published. And whenever the movies are on TV I find it ridiculously difficult to change the channel and watch something else, let alone turn them off.

The scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Harry, Ron and Hermione and their friends (and occasional foes, if you count Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle and the rest of Slytherin house in that number) arrive at Hogwarts remains one of my all-time favourite sequences in any film — ever.

Perhaps it’s the recollection of the awe and excitement I felt when I first saw the lamplit boats, bobbing on the black waters of the lake with the castle looming above. Or maybe it was the welcoming golden light shining from the windows of the school, promising goodness and safety, knowledge and wisdom within those ancient walls and towers.

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Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Regardless of what so captured my imagination, the world of Hogwarts and Harry Potter has been one that I have been happy — no, make that overjoyed — to return to with my children. Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have fallen in love with the characters and the wizarding realm just as quickly as I did, and while Marvel Girl knows that the books are works of fiction, Miss Malaprop (being two years younger) is having a hard time understanding that it isn’t real. Not surprisingly, Miss Malaprop is a firm fan of Harry himself — “because he’s brave” — while Marvel Girl favours Hermione Granger — “because she’s clever and she likes to read a lot”. But they both absolutely adore Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, and his fabulous phoenix, Fawkes.

So much could be written about the wonders of these books and the wisdom they impart to their readers, particularly via Albus Dumbledore himself, who conveys many simple — yet powerful — truths.  “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be,” he reminds us, along with other pearls like these:

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The quotable Dumbledore — you can get these on Etsy here.

Surviving life in the Muggle world (the non-wizarding realm, for the small handful of uninitiated still among you) is ever so much easier when you have the guidance of the greatest sorcerer of the age to fall back on — Order of Merlin, First Class no less. And the fact that J K Rowling created such an incredibly detailed world, complete with its own rich history, myths and legends, customs and values remains a great and daily inspiration to me whenever I don my fiction-writing hat (not to be confused with the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, of course), and sometimes even when I don’t. (That, in itself, could be the subject of a whole series of blog posts in which it would become even clearer that J K Rowling is one of my literary heroes, not to mention that I believe her to be the undisputed Queen of the Twittersphere.)

HP Muggles“I do believe,” as J K Rowling herself said, “that something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” I’m ever so grateful that there are seven volumes of Harry Potter for me to share with Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop. And when we’ve read each one, and watched the movie afterwards (our latest ritual), I’ll be thanking the Old Gods and the New that there are so many more fantastic lands we have yet to explore. I am looking forward to climbing with my girls through the wardrobe into Narnia, to wandering through The Shire towards Rivendell in Middle Earth, to sailing among the farflung reaches of the Earthsea Archipelago, and — perhaps when they’re a bit (a lot?!) older — to visiting Winterfell, and Kings Landing, and the rest of Westeros.

Even more importantly, I am grateful that I can give my children the gift of knowing that there is always another adventure to be had between the pages of a book.

Wherever I am, if I’ve got a book with me, I have a place I can go and be happy.

J K Rowling

Swashbuckling Swag

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Tom Burke & Santiago Cabrera as Athos and Aramis in The Muskeeters.

For some peculiar reason, I had a recollection this morning of the day, some years ago now, when Marvel Girl (repeatedly) singing a Wiggles song about Captain Feathersword prompted Miss Malaprop to stomp into the kitchen and announce: “Pirates aren’t human — that’s why they can’t swim.”

I remember suggesting at the time that this proclamation was, perhaps, not entirely accurate, only to be fixed with a mutinous greeny-blue eyed gaze and told even more emphatically, “Well, pirates do swashbuckle, you know — that means they don’t wash.”*

That was the point, I suspect, when I changed the topic of conversation, swiftly applying Blue Jai’s First Rule of Parenting (Distraction), and no doubt reminding myself of the corollary to said Rule (which is, of course, Pick Your Battles).

But the memory of that encounter made me realise that my girls, like many other children the world over, have always been fascinated by that wonderful figure of daring and romance: The Swashbuckler.  And — let’s face it — there are plenty of adults out there who still enjoy a tale or two of heroic derring do too.

Athos & Honour

No glory, no money, no love, none of the things that make life bearable — except honour.

What’s not to like about a hero who has plenty of good, old-fashioned adventures, tackling all manner of dangers with bravado and — more often than not — with a sword? And I’m not just referring to The Princess Bride here folks, or Johnny Depp’s hilarious take on Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Seriously — does anyone really think that Game of Thrones would be half as successful as it is were it not for its dashing ensemble cast of heroes and idealists, all brandishing weapons of warfare from centuries past?

Nothing beats the flamboyance of a decent sword fight, full of flashing steel and sophisticated steps, not to mention swirling capes (and don’t think for a minute that the capes are not important: every proper superhero has one). And, in this day and age, I suspect our fascination with the Swashbuckler isn’t simply an escape or a diversion, it’s something more important.

Take the recent BBC production of The Musketeers, for example. Admittedly, the Musketeers are by definition the original Swashbucklers, and have been ever since Alexandre Dumas brought Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan and Captain Treville to life on the pages of his novels in the 1840s. But I don’t think it is any accident that The Musketeers has proved to be so popular, or that the show’s loyal fans around the globe are eagerly awaiting the premiere of Season Three.

Athos & D'Artagnan

Taking the easy way out? Or taking responsibility…

My suspicion is that in this self-obsessed day and age of the quick fix we want to remember the ideals of a bygone era, and not necessarily for rose-coloured or romantic reasons. We want to be reminded of the concepts of chivalry, of honour, of duty. We want to believe that the famous rallying cry of “All for one!” can drown out the far more commonly heard call of “every man for himself”.

And the Musketeers — consistently — deliver. In every episode, we see them strive to set aside their own aspirations and take responsibility for doing things because they right and just — not because they will bring them personal gain. Time and again they are required to rise above their individual flaws, their respective personal circumstances, and the ever-present temptation to take the easy way out against a parade of brilliantly cast villains — not least of whom is Milady de Winter (Maimie McCoy), Athos’ evil estranged wife.

To date, the Musketeers have confronted the scheming Cardinal Richlieu in Season One (played with class and sass and a whole lot of cape swirling by the inimitable Peter Capaldi), followed by the increasingly unhinged Spanish agent Rochefort (Marc Warren) in Season Two, and are set to tackle King Louis XIII’s illegitimate half-brother (Rupert Everett) in Season Three.

It doesn’t hurt — obviously — that the Musketeers are a bunch of good-looking leather-clad blokes who ride around on horseback saving the day in brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, and that the women they love are often as as brave as they are beautiful. But the Musketeers do help to remind us that chivalry does not have to be a forgotten ideal of days gone by, and that doing what is honourable or dutiful can be something worth aspiring to.

So let’s celebrate the Swashbucklers and their stories, too.  Let’s live like daring adventurers, and revisit the romance of a bygone age. And if, along the way, we are reminded of the (somehow higher?) standard of those times — of the ideals of chivalry, honour, duty, loyalty and sacrifice — is that such a bad thing?

My thought is that the Musketeers generally, and Aramis especially, would suggest that applying yourself to such ideals tends to produce positive results — particularly if you do so with a robust sense of humour and a serious amount of swag.


Celebrate the Swashbucklers! Aramis, Porthos, Captain Treville, Athos and D’Artagnan…the Musketeers.

* For the record, I should probably acknowledge that Miss Malaprop’s assertion that “swashbuckling” means “not bathing” is probably historically accurate, even if it is, as a definition, far from complete.