Image adapted from an original by Kid Gibson under the creative commons licence.
Words from Circe by Madeline Miller
Before I had Phoebe, I always imagined that I’d be really into planning dress up and coming up with costume ideas for World Book Day. After all, books and fancy dress are two of my “things”. Then she arrived and, who knew toddlers could be so opinionated and their mothers so tired that making a World Book Day costume for a preschooler would become a hassle rather than pure fun?
This year, Phoebe wanted to dress up as Kwazii from the Octonauts, but she watches that as her sole TV privilege (then spends the rest of her time role-playing it with me generally cast in the role of a Colossal Squid or Sperm Whale, thanks daughter dearest) instead of reading the books and I was a bit fundamental about insisting that for World Book Day she dressed as a book character. I was willing to compromise at dressing as a Pirate because she does love The Night Pirates with the rough, tough little girl pirates who steal the grown up pirates’ treasure but in the end, she decided that she would like to dress as…..
The Witch from Room on The Broom. I think she was expecting the full cauldron, cat, dog, bird and frog works, but I didn’t have the stamina for that. It’s hard enough finding a broomstick in February! She had a nice time making an exact replica wand herself (with a little help), and already had the skirt and t shirt. The cloak and hat will come for Halloween and dress up play, and since the cloak is reversible, she can play Little Red Riding Hood in it as well.
It’s that time of year again. You know, less than a month to Christmas and a lack of ideas for secret santa presents or stocking fillers has you panic buying “funny secret santa presents” like stressticles or office voodoo dolls which the recipient will throw in the bin by January 1st. I’m here to make a plea that you save the planet from the extra plastic waste, and for under £15 buy them book that they will enjoy for at least three hours, if not a lot longer.
The best bit? These will all be available at your local bookshop for a last minute Christmas gift.
For readers of a certain age (my age) the release of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman , the first in a new trilogy which is set to be a companion to his Northern Lights trilogy was probably the publishing event of the year. Hailed as a tidal wave of imagination, though darker and more savage than the original trilogy, it’s a safe bet for any lover of fantasy.
The most powerful work of speculative fiction that I’ve read in a long time, Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a must read for any fan of Margaret Atwood. I keep meaning to write a review of this, but my mind is still processing the emotions I felt reading it. It’s a safe present for any woman who hasn’t read it, and it’s always interesting to listen to people’s post-read dissections.
I was delighted to see the new edition of Kate Bradbury’s best-selling The Wildlife Gardener publish this year and swiftly bought myself a copy. It’s the perfect present for any gardener or wildlife enthusiast, and gives fun, practical advice for creating a home for wildlife in what outside space you have available. Saving the planet starts here, folks.
Remember when Oxford University Press decided that children no longer needed to be able to look up words like acorn and bramble in the dictionary? Well that outrageous act inspired Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, this beautifully illustrated volume of poetry. A spell book which reminds adults and children alike about the power of words, reading the poems brings the words back to life and gives nature power and relevance for a new generation.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, and shortlisted for multiple awards and honours besides, Lincoln in the Bardo is a safe fiction bet for anyone who likes to read the current big novel. This first novel is an experimental work of fiction, a story of love after death which looks at a problem which faces all humans, how do you find the courage to love when it means you will face loss?
A beautifully illustrated picture book, with a story in the tradition of the old fairy tales, Hortense and the Shadow is dark and exhilarating at the same time. This is set to become an instant children’s classic which adults will love as well. I’ll be adding it to my collection.
I loved Last Stop on the Reindeer Express so much when it published that I bought it only a month later to read with my daughter on Christmas Eve. It would make an ideal Christmas present for any picture book lover or younger gift recipient. A little girl who is missing her Daddy discovers a world within a post box and goes on a beautifully illustrated lift the flap and peep through the pages adventure. I can’t wait to read it as a family before Santa visits.
In case you worried that you’d run out of presents to buy for Harry Potter fans, the launch of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise has also lead to the publication of this beautiful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book which reminds me of the Tolkein’s bestiary that I had as a child, with the names, descriptions and magical illustrations of all the fantasy creatures you encounter in the Potter novels.
Adam Kay is a comedian and former junior doctor, and This is Going to Hurt is his frank memoir of life on the front line of the NHS. Hilarious and heart-breaking, it gives you an insight into what life is really like for the junior doctors keeping us and the NHS ticking along.
I always find it fascinating when an author I admire writes an exposition on their craft. Philip Pullman is indisputably something of a master storyteller, and in Daemon Voices, a collection of thirty essays, he lets his readers peer behind the veil to learn about his views on storytelling, including such topics as the origins of his own stories, the art of writing, and the storytellers who have meant the most to him. A great gift for readers, and aspiring writers.
To say that Phoebe has an obsession with Peter Rabbit is something of an understatement. She lives and breathes Peter Rabbit, be it the books, the TV series with Nimah Cussack that I enjoyed as a child and found on Amazon, or the Nickelodeon series which created the admirable Lily Bobtail to go alongside the traditional male characters.
She wakes up in the morning and tells me she’s dreamt about Peter Rabbit, runs around the house looking for the fierce bad rabbit, and shows me the best places to hide from Mr McGregor after we’ve stolen radishes from his garden. At the end of all this, she falls asleep cuddling Benjamin Bunny.
You can imagine then that when I saw that Henley River and Rowing Museum were running a Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem exhibition, with everything from original Beatrix Potter illustrations and vintage toys, to interactive exhibits ideal for tiny rabbit addicts.
We had a lovely day at the museum. The ground floor exhibition area had a fairly traditional museum display with beautiful original illustrations, vintage toys, first edition books etc. in glass cabinets, which would have the potential to be a little dull for your typical toddler, but the museum had added a lovely little reading area, colouring table and post office in which children could write letters to their favourite Beatrix Potter characters. They also had a shelf of cuddly toys based on Beatrix Potter characters so the little ones could choose a friend to look around with, Phoebe chose Squirrel Nutkin (or Scwerl Nutkah, if you will).
Upstairs, there was a wonderful hands on exhibit for little children. They could serve customers in Ginger and Pickles shop, peg washing on Mrs Tiggywinkle’s line, plant and harvest carrots in Mr McGregor’s garden, play in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, and play puppets with Mr Tod, Tommy Brock and Diggory Delvet in a puppet theatre.
The museum entry cost about £25 for two adults, with free entry for children. On the face of it, that’s a pretty expensive day out, but this gives you entry to the museum for a year, and I’m already planning to go back to check out their Wind in the Willows exhibition. I was really impressed by how child friendly the exhibit was so, I’ll be keeping an eye out for what else is coming up in the future.
If you took a straw poll to determine the greatest love letter in literature, I’d wager that Frederick Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliot towards the end of Jane Austen’s Persuasion would come out on top.
Estranged former lovers, Anne harbours a massive flame for Frederick Wentworth but has resigned herself to the fact that he doesn’t feel the same after she gave him up eight years before. Until she receives this hastily written, unsigned letter which is personally delivered with a meaningful look….
Happy Valentine’s Day!
For the Classics Challenge 2016, February edition, I decided to hunt through my to read pile (part of my bid to spend less money on books by reading the ones I already have, rocket science, I know) and came up with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. I may or may not have been swayed to choose this modern classic, ranked 41 in Le Monde’s 100 books of the century, because its short length matched the shortness of the month….
Bonjour Tristesse, narrated by seventeen year old Cecile, tells the events of a summer she spends on the French Riviera with her vain, self-indulgent father and his mistress, Elsa. When Anne, a family friend, comes to stay and threatens Cecile’s cosy, vapid existence and bourgeoning love affair with a local boy, she begins plotting to be rid of her.
As classics go, this novel is small but perfectly formed. Although she initially appears naïve and innocent, Cecile is one of the most detestable narrators I’ve ever encountered- loaded with a raging Electra complex, vindictive and self-excusing. The skill with which Sagan manipulates the reader’s feelings from supporting Cecile and seeing Anne as the villain of the piece at the novel’s opening to a total inversion of this by the end. When you consider that Sagan was only 18 when she wrote this novel… pretty incredible.
If you’re looking to dip a toe in the classics with an accessible read, or a fan of unreliable narrators and characters that you love to hate, this is a great read for you.
“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Persuasion by Jane Austen
In the past, I may have compared Jane Austen to porridge. Not that I have anything against porridge per se, or Jane Austen really, but there are only so many marriage plots that you can really embrace before you feel a little jaded.
My not-quite-antipathy of Jane Austen has been compounded by the fact that I found Northanger Abbey one of the most irritating books I’ve ever read. But after being given a beautiful folio box set of Austen’s collected works for my 30th birthday, and deciding that Daniel Defoe’s The Storm (a groundbreaking work of 18th century journalism… apparently) was a little too dry to start off the 2016 Classics Challenge, I decided to try Persuasion to see whether Austen, or I, had improved with age.
And, do you know, maybe we have? For one thing, I enjoyed it. While, as with many a marriage plot, the story is fairly light and predictable, Jane Austen’s claws are out in a way that they just aren’t in her other books. Pretentious and vapid characters are mercilessly mocked, while the Cinderella-ish, sensible and practical heroine (who is feared to have lost her bloom at twenty-eight… I know…) gets her happy ending (and her bloom back).
Any Austen novel will always be considered among the classics, but I really do think this has a little more zest than her other books. Though it still has characters rigidly observing and believing in the class structure of the time, it doesn’t pull any punches on the subject of snobbery and seems quite forward thinking for the time, at least where the “ideal marriage” and roles of women are concerned.
Obviously I would recommend this to Jane Austen fans, but for anyone who wants to read probably the earliest, and most certainly one of the best, fictional love letters in English literature needs to check this out.
Exciting news for those who like to judge books by their covers. Yep, me too. The New York Public Library has undertaken a huge digitization project to make over 185,000 of their book covers, maps, illustrations and other images available to anyone. And they are free from copyright.
Definitely worth a browse. Just look at some of these beauties:
I’ve never seen Death in Paradise, but I am a big fan of murder mystery novels, so I was excited to be review The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood, who originated the BBC series and the detective Richard Poole.
The second in a new series of Richard Poole novels published by MIRA Harlequin, it tracks back in the timeline of the original detective (spoiler for the TV series- Wikipedia tells me he was killed off so the actor could spend more time with his family) in Death in Paradise as he investigates the apparent suicide of world famous supermodel Polly Carter on Saint-Marie. Being a murder mystery, it naturally isn’t too long before foul play is suspected.
Murder mysteries are, by their very nature, pretty formulaic. Even when you’re not reading locked room mysteries, they have a fairly limited cast of characters, nearly all of whom are suspects, and the test of the author’s skill is to play the reader like a fish, throwing out red herrings and characterisation as bait. The problem with The Killing of Polly Carter, for me, was that it didn’t do either of these especially successfully.
It is a proud tradition for the lead detective in murder mystery novels to be quirky but brilliant, but while Richard Poole is quirky in a heavily stereotypical, Englishman-abroad sort of way, I was unconvinced of his brilliance. “Clues” were nodded to heavily, while red herrings, alongside detective insight. were in short supply. This was compounded by an unnecessarily large team of detectives (there was a ratio of about four detectives to seven suspects) swarmed over the novel making limited progress. Throw in an unengaging subplot involving the lead detective’s strained relationship with his parents, couple that with a summary of the murder which was very much at odds with the initial description, and for me, any sparks of interest were lost.
I think that part of the problem in this respect was that the novel was written almost as a storyline for a TV episode which gave basic stage directions as to the layout of the scenery but which still needed the set designer and wardrobe department to come in and fill in the colour, then the actors to inject their own sense of personality from the limited description which had been provided. The Caribbean setting was certainly a novelty, but for me, the plot didn’t live up to the promise of the setting.
Maybe one to read on a Caribbean holiday, but I prefer my murder mysteries with a few more chills and thrills.