1

Books with Floral Names

From time to time, I like to collect together books which seem quite different on the face of it, but which have a subtle theme. For this post, I’ve decided to collect together eight books with floral names, all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed over the last few years. I hope you find something here which catches your eye, and please do let me know your favourite book with a floral name.

1. Daisy Miller by Henry James

‘Originally published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1878 and in book form in 1879, Daisy Miller brought Henry James his first widespread commercial and critical success. The young Daisy Miller, an American on holiday with her mother on the shores of Switzerland’s Lac Leman, is one of James’s most vivid and tragic characters. Daisy’s friendship with an American gentleman, Mr. Winterbourne, and her subsequent infatuation with a passionate but impoverished Italian bring to life the great Jamesian themes of Americans abroad, innocence versus experience, and the grip of fate.’

2. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

‘The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.’

3. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

‘In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.’

4. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

‘At all times wonderfully evocative and poignant, Cider With Rosie is a charming memoir of Laurie Lee’s childhood in a remote Cotswold village, a world that is tangibly real and yet reminiscent of a now distant past.

In this idyllic pastoral setting, unencumbered by the callous father who so quickly abandoned his family responsibilities, Laurie’s adoring mother becomes the centre of his world as she struggles to raise a growing family against the backdrop of the Great War.

The sophisticated adult author’s retrospective commentary on events is endearingly juxtaposed with that of the innocent, spotty youth, permanently prone to tears and self-absorption.’

5. A House in the Sunflowers by Ruth Silvestre

‘In the late 1970s in the south-west of France, the author and her family found Bel-Air de Grezelongue, a house that had been deserted for years. They fell in love with it. This title tells of their love affair with the house; from the ups and downs of buying and renovating it, to the challenge of becoming part of the local French community.’

6. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

‘Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor-husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an onimous reputation and only elderly residents. Neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome them and, despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises she keeps hearing, her husband starts spending time with them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare.

As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavet’s circle is not what it seems.’

7. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

‘Spending the holiday with friends, as she has for many years, Camilla finds that their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous summers. Anxious that she will remain encased in her solitary life as a school secretary, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, a handsome, assured – and dangerous – liar.’

8. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

‘Lady Rose Targenet, later the Countess of Lochlule marries Sir Hector, owner of the estate next to ‘Keepsfield’, the palatial Scottish mansion where she lives. But one day she meets someone on a park bench in Edinburgh. This novel is about dreams and the hard world of money and position and their relations to one another.’

3

Great Books Under 250 Pages

Like all readers, I am sure, I love discovering new authors. What better way to do that than to pick up something relatively short which they have previously written? I find sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover extremely satisfying, and it often gives an excellent idea into what you can expect from other, perhaps longer, works from the same author. With this in mind, I wanted to gather together eight books, all of which are under 250 pages, and which can be read in one go – provided you’re happy to forego other activities, of course!

1. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan (208 pages)

‘Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan is about a woman bringing up a family who is left at the end, when the children are on the verge of adulthood, asking herself not only what it was all for but what was her own life for? Yet the questions are asked subtly and readably.

Having shown us how everything is made bearable for Patricia if her children can be at the centre of her life and, more important (because she is not a selfish woman) if they grow up to fulfil her ideals, Joanna Cannan proceeds to show us her happiness being slowly destroyed. In Princes in the Land the tragedy of the book is that not only do none of the three children live up to their mother’s expectations, she has to watch as each of them takes a path that is anathema to her. Yet of course, she can do nothing about it; nor, sensibly, does she try.

Joanna Cannan began writing early, and her first novel was published when she was 26. From 1922 onwards she published a book a year for nearly forty years – novels; detective novels, including the very successful Death at The Dog; and the first ‘pony’ book (first in the sense that the focus was on a pony-mad girl rather than a horse or pony), a genre that her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson were to make very much their own. Princes in the Land is about an interesting and rarely-discussed theme; it is also evocative about Oxford.’

2. The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (130 pages)

‘It’s Copenhagen, 1968. Lise, a children’s book writer and married mother of three, is becoming increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and taunting voices. Convinced that her housekeeper and husband are plotting against her, she descends into a terrifying world of sickness, pills and institutionalisation. But is sanity in fact a kind of sickness? And might mental illness itself lead to enlightenment?

Brief, intense and haunting, Ditlevsen’s novel recreates the experience of madness from the inside, with all the vividness of lived experience.’

3. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (201 pages)

‘One of Zola’s most famous realist novels, Therese Raquin is a clinically observed, sinister tale of adultery and murder among the lower classes in nineteenth-century Parisian society.

Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dingy haberdasher’s shop in the passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, this powerful novel tells how the heroine and her lover, Laurent, kill her husband, Camille, but are subsequently haunted by visions of the dead man, and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their crime.

Zola’s shocking tale dispassionately dissects the motivations of his characters–mere “human beasts”, who kill in order to satisfy their lust–and stands as a key manifesto of the French Naturalist movement, of which the author was the founding father. Published in 1867, this is Zola’s most important work before the Rougon-Macquart series and introduces many of the themes that can be traced through the later novel cycle.’

4. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (256 pages, but I still wanted to include it)

‘First published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away is now a landmark in American literature. It is a dark and absorbing example of the Gothic sensibility and bracing satirical voice that are united in Flannery O’Conner’s work. In it, the orphaned Francis Marion Tarwater and his cousins, the schoolteacher Rayber, defy the prophecy of their dead uncle–that Tarwater will become a prophet and will baptize Rayber’s young son, Bishop. A series of struggles ensues: Tarwater fights an internal battle against his innate faith and the voices calling him to be a prophet while Rayber tries to draw Tarwater into a more “reasonable” modern world. Both wrestle with the legacy of their dead relatives and lay claim to Bishop’s soul.

O’Connor observes all this with an astonishing combination of irony and compassion, humor and pathos. The result is a novel whose range and depth reveal a brilliant and innovative writers acutely alert to where the sacred lives and to where it does not.’

5. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (96 pages)

‘Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola and her philandering rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly and unloved. Yet telling her story is the narrator Rodrigo S.M., who tries to direct Macabéa’s fate but comes to realize that, for all her outward misery, she is inwardly free. Slyly subverting ideas of poverty, identity, love, and the art of writing itself, Clarice Lispector’s audacious last novel, arguably her best, is a haunting portrayal of innocence in a bad world.’

6. The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (84 pages)

‘Sharply observed and expertly crafted, D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox is a captivating work exploring the dual themes of power and supremacy in the aftermath of the First World War. Banford and March live and work together on their meager farm, surviving hardship only by sheer determination and dedicated labor. The farm is their world, a place of safety—that is, until a young soldier walks in and upsets the women’s delicate status quo. None could have predicted the effect his presence would have on their lives.’

7. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell (115 pages)

‘A collection of essays that looks at, among others, the joys of spring (even in London), the picture of humanity painted by Gulliver and his travels, and the strange benefit of the doubt that the public permit Salvador Dali. It also includes an essay on the delights of English Cooking and an account of killing an elephant in Burma.’

8. David Golder by Irène Némirovsky (176 pages)

‘Golder is a superb creation. Born into poverty on the Black Sea, he has clawed his way to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil. When the novel opens, he is at work in his magnificent Parisian apartment while his wife and beloved daughter, Joy, spend his money at their villa in Biarritz. But Golder’s security is fragile. For years he has defended his business interests from cut-throat competitors. Now his health is beginning to show the strain. As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?

Available for the first time since 1930, David Golder is a page-turningly chilling and brilliant portrait of the frenzied capitalism of the 1920s and a universal parable about the mirage of wealth.’

Have you read any of these books? Which is your favourite short book?

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Ten Great Biographies and Memoirs

I read a lot of non-fiction, and although I sadly don’t have the time to review it all separately, I wanted to collect together ten recommendations in today’s post. These are all books which I have thoroughly enjoyed over the last year or so. They vary somewhat in their focus, but each delighted me, and kept me interested throughout.

  1. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss

‘No other bird is quite so ever-present and familiar, so embedded in our culture, as the robin. With more than six million breeding pairs, the robin is second only to the wren as Britain’s most common bird. It seems to live its life alongside us, in every month and season of the year. But how much do we really know about this bird?

In The Robin Stephen Moss records a year of observing the robin both close to home and in the field to shed light on the hidden life of this apparently familiar bird. We follow its lifecycle from the time it enters the world as an egg, through its time as a nestling and juvenile, to the adult bird; via courtship, song, breeding, feeding, migration – and ultimately, death. At the same time we trace the robin’s relationship with us: how did this particular bird – one of more than 300 species in its huge and diverse family – find its way so deeply and permanently into our nation’s heart and its social and cultural history?

It’s a story that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the robin itself.’

2. Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.

This rediscovered classic memoir tells the incredible tale of a woman defying society’s expectations to find freedom and peace in the adventure of a lifetime.’

3. A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney

‘Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always—until now—tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.’

4. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

‘Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day.”Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.’

5. Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood by Christa Parravani

‘Christa Parravani was forty years old, in a troubled marriage, and in bad financial straits when she learned she was pregnant with her third child. She and her family were living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she had taken a professorial position at the local university.

Haunted by a childhood steeped in poverty and violence and by young adult years rocked by the tragic death of her identical twin sister, Christa hoped her professor’s salary and health care might set her and her young family on a safe and steady path. Instead, one year after the birth of her second child, Christa found herself pregnant again. Six weeks into the pregnancy, she requested an abortion. And in the weeks, then months, that followed, nurses obfuscated and doctors refused outright or feared being found out to the point of, ultimately, becoming unavailable to provide Christa with reproductive choice.

By the time Christa understood that she would need to leave West Virginia to obtain a safe, legal abortion, she’d run out of time. She had failed to imagine that she might not have access to reproductive choice in the United States, until it was too late for her, her pregnancy too far along.

So she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Keats. And another frightening education began: available healthcare was dangerously inadequate to her newborn son’s needs; indeed, environmental degradations and poor healthcare endangered Christa’s older children as well.

Loved and Wanted is the passionate story of a woman’s love for her children, and a poignant and bracing look at the difficult choices women in America are forced to make every day, in a nation where policies and a cultural war on women leave them without sufficient agency over their bodies, their futures, and even their hopes for their children’s lives.’

6. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

‘Six friends have spent the dark, deprived years of World War II fantasising-in air raid shelters and food queues-about an idyllic life in a massive country house. With the coming of peace, they seize on a seductive newspaper ad and take possession of a neglected 33-room manor in Kent, with acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener yearning to revive the estate’s glory days. But the realities of managing this behemoth soon dawn, including a knife-wielding maid, unruly pigs, and a paying guest who tells harrowing stories of her time in the French Resistance, not to mention the friends’ conscientious efforts to offer staff a fair 40-hour work week and paid overtime. And then there’s the ghost of an overworked scullery maid . . .

Based on the actual experiences of Ruth Adam, her husband, and their friends, A House in the Country is a witty and touching novel about the perils of dreams come true. But it’s also a constantly entertaining tale packed with fascinating details of post-war life-and about the realities of life in the kind of house most of us only experience via Downton Abbey.’

7. We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington

‘As a bored, moody teenager, Emma Beddington came across a copy of French ELLE in the library of her austere Yorkshire school. As she turned the pages, full of philosophy, sex and lipstick, she realized that her life had one purpose and one purpose only: she needed to be French.

Instead of skulking in her bedroom listening to The Smiths or trudging to Betty’s Tea Room to buy fondant fancies, she would be free and solitary, sitting outside the Café de Flore with a Scottie dog at her feet, a Moleskine on the table and a Gauloise trembling on her lower lip.

And so she set about becoming French: she did a French exchange, albeit in Casablanca; she studied French history at university, and spent the holidays in France with her French boyfriend. Eventually, after a family tragedy, she found herself living in Paris, with the same French boyfriend and two half-French children. Her dream had come true, but how would reality match up? Gradually Emma realized that she might have found Paris, but what she really needed to find was home.

Written with enormous wit and warmth, this is a memoir for anyone who has ever worn a Breton T-shirt and wondered, however fleetingly, if they could pass for une vraie Parisienne.

8. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

9. Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee

‘From an award-winning writer whose work bristles with “hard-won strength, insight, agility, and love” (Maggie Nelson), an exquisite and troubling narrative of masculinity, violence, and society.

In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.

In this graceful, stunning, and uncompromising exploration of living, fighting, and healing, we gain insight into the stereotypes and shifting realities of masculinity today through the eyes of a new man.’

10. Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past by Jessica J. Lee

‘Combining an immersive exploration of nature with captivatingly beautiful prose, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a journey to discover her family’s forgotten history and to connect with the island they once called home.

Taiwan is an island of extremes: towering mountains, lush forests, and barren escarpment. Between shifting tectonic plates and a history rife with tension, the geographical and political landscape is forever evolving. After unearthing a hidden memoir of her grandfather’s life, Jessica J. Lee seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then on to Canada. But as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of Taiwan, Lee finds herself having to traverse fissures in language, memory, and history, as she searches for the pieces of her family left behind.

Interlacing a personal narrative with Taiwan’s history and terrain, Two Trees Make a Forest is an intimate examination of the human relationship with geography and nature, and offers an exploration of one woman’s search for history and belonging amidst an ever-shifting landscape.’

Have you read any of these books? Which titles pique your interest? If you have any biographies or memoirs to recommend, please do!

7

Something a Little Different

I like to think that I read widely, and am always on the hunt for something a little bit different. I don’t tend to pick up very popular books that often, and prefer to look for under-the-radar gems when searching for my next reads. With that in mind, I thought I would put together a list of such books, for those of you who want to try something a little unusual, or pick up something which is perhaps out of your usual comfort zone.

1. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter

The Death of Francis Bacon is very strange. I very much enjoyed Max Porter’s first two books, and will definitely pick up everything he publishes in future, but I don’t feel I was quite prepared for this one. It is a very short tome, which can easily be read in one sitting, but it can be a little complex to get one’s head around at first. It is not always entirely clear as to what is going on, and there is something unsettling about it. However, if you want to see Porter’s writing mastery at work, look no further. I found The Death of Francis Bacon incredibly memorable precisely for its layout, and Porter’s unusual choices.

2. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Who knew that I would ever pick up a book centered around chess? I have never played before, despite my boyfriend having promised to teach me for years, and didn’t know all that much about it. However, seeing the amount of hype around for the Netflix adaptation, I thought I would give The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis a go. The novel was published in 1983, and I chose to listen to the audiobook version, as it was readily available on my library’s app during the height of the pandemic. I was fascinated at first, and certainly learnt a lot from the book. I do feel as though there were issues with the detachment I felt toward the main character, Beth, and some of the scenes felt a little flat. I still haven’t learnt how to play chess myself, but The Queens Gambit is a book which has stuck with me.

3. Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

I really enjoy reading novels told in different narrative formats, and Sarah Crossan is quite a well-known author in this respect. She writes her books in prose, and manages to tell wide-ranging and effective stories through the medium. I picked up Here is the Beehive, her first book for adults, and found it both imaginative and inventive. It deals with a lot of serious topics, and the subject matter is sometimes difficult to read, but it is certainly worth pushing through. Here is the Beehive, like all of Crossan’s books, is memorable, and I very much look forward to seeing what she will come up with next.

4. The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Several years ago, I read quite a few of Australian author Kate Grenville’s novels, but hadn’t picked anything else by her up in the interim. I came across a non-fiction audiobook, The Case Against Fragrance, when browsing my online library app, and was very intrigued by it. Here, Grenville provides an intelligent and thorough investigation about the dangers of using fragranced products, which a quarter of the population have adverse reactions to. It scares me somewhat that the ingredients in perfume do not have to be listed on labelling, as they are protected. I found The Case Against Fragrance to be incredibly eye-opening, and whilst it has not made me stop wearing perfume, I will be leaning towards natural fragrances when I need to replenish my stash.

5. A Note of Explanation by Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West is one of my favourite authors, but I hadn’t heard about the gorgeous A Note of Explanation until I stumbled across it online. It was unpublished during the author’s lifetime, and was discovered relatively recently in miniature form, in Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle. I am thrilled that this has been published – and not in miniature, as the Art Deco illustrations are an absolute joy. I don’t want to give too much about this away, as I knew nothing of it before ordering myself a copy. I think it is best to come to with little idea of the story, so that you can immerse yourself into it.

6. Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds by Stephen Moss

Stephen Moss is one of my absolute favourite nature writers, and I have loved everything of his which I have read so far. I spotted a lovely hardback copy of his Urban Aviary: A Guide to City Birds when browsing in my local library, and had to take it home with me. Here, rather than focusing on a single bird, as Moss often does in his writing, he takes into account bird species from all over the world, who have made their homes in urban areas. For each, there is a page of informative text about the species, and how it coexists with human populations. There are also stunning full-page watercolours included by Marc Martin for each entry, which are a real joy to look at.

7. Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

In Don’t Touch My Hair, BBC correspondent Emma Dabiri has approached a topic of which I’ve read nothing about before – the ways in which ‘black hair has been appropriated and stigmatized throughout history, with ruminations on body politics, race, [and] pop culture’. Dabiri writes honestly, weaving her own experiences with the history of Black hair, and both the fashions and cultural expectations which have gone along with it. I learnt a great deal from this relatively short book, and it is definitely one which I would like to come back to in future.

8. The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

I include this on the unusual list because although I have read quite a few fictionalised books about cults, this one was a little closer to home. It is based upon the true story of the Panacea Society – a group set up in 1919, it was made up of mostly ‘virtuous single women’, all of whom obsessed with a prophecy – in the town of Bedford, England. I am quite familiar with the place, as several of my family members lived there when I was young. It’s not a town which I’ve read any other books set within, so it was really interesting to me to see what Claire McGlasson made of the place. I liked the use of her main protagonist, Dilys, and the LGBTQ+ segment was a really effective addition to the plot.

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest? Please recommend some of your more unusual book choices!

5

Eight Great Series

As a child, I read a lot of book series – The Chronicles of Narnia, everything by Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, and even, embarrassingly, the Babysitter Club books as a tween – but I definitely gravitate more towards standalone novels as an adult. However, recently I began Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, about a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk, who assists the local police in all manner of grisly cases. I realised that I very much enjoy the gradual character arcs which such a series brings, and am eagerly awaiting the newest instalment=.

This led me to think about the fictional series which I have actually read the majority of as an adult, and I wanted to piece together a post which showcases my favourites. I have tried to be as varied as possible, but the majority of series which I have read are crime-related; this is great, I suppose, if you are partial to a detective story, but I have tried to focus on the slightly more unusual, or lesser known, series here. Of course, I love the Miss Marple stories – and have read every single one – but I decided not to include them, as they are so well known.

1. The Ruth Galloway Series by Elly Griffiths

As I have mentioned above, Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, who works as a lecturer at the fictional University of North Norfolk (UNN). In the first book, she begins to assist the police with forensics in a case, and soon becomes one of the people they call on to help. Along with the rather awful cases which come up in each book – the murder of a young girl in The Crossing Places (book number one), and six bodies found at the foot of a remote cliff in The House at Sea’s End (book three) – there is also a running storyline of Ruth’s brief affair with married policeman, Harry Nelson. The character development here is impressive, and every single novel has kept my interest. I would highly recommend starting the series if you’d like something with elements of the detective novel, but which is rather different in its approach.

Start with: The Crossing Places, as these books do need to be read in order
My favourite from the series: The Crossing Places, The Outcast Dead (book number six), and The Dark Angel (book number 10)

2. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I have only read the first three books of this series so far, but I absolutely adore them. I am writing this post ahead of time (thank goodness for WordPress’ scheduling abilities!), so hopefully by the time this is published, I will have read the five book cycle. The novels display a family, the Cazalets, in all of their trauma and their glory. There are many characters, but each is distinctive. The first novel, The Light Years, begins in 1937, when the Second World War ‘is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon’, and the final book, All Change, is set during the 1950s. I am so looking forward to seeing where this series takes me, and what happens to my favourite characters as they change and grow.

Start with: The Light Years; this cycle is chronological, and also needs to be read in order
My favourite from the series: Marking Time (book number two)

3. The Pilgrimage Cycle by Dorothy Richardson

I started reading Dorothy Richardson’s excellent Pilgrimage cycle in January 2016, with the first book, Pointed Roofs. The novels, written in the stream-of-consciousness style, follow a young woman named Miriam Henderson. They are beautifully written, and enlightening. I had planned to write my research Master’s thesis about the novels, but my supervisor was already working on such a project with another student. Regardless, these are wonderful books to study, as there is so much to look at. I have not finished the thirteen novels which make up Pilgrimage yet, as I have had trouble getting my hands on the later volumes. I am pretty sure that I will love them, though.

Start with: Pointed Roofs, as this series also needs to be read in order
My favourite from the series: Pointed Roofs (book number one), and Backwater (book number two)

4. The Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola

Emile Zola is a wonderful author, and one whom – perhaps controversially – I do not feel is read enough. I am not very far through the Rougon-Macquart Cycle, but I have loved each tome from it which I have read to date. A great thing about the series is that it does not need to be read in any order, given that the characters differ from book to book. I started reading this whilst studying at King’s College London, when The Ladies’ Paradise (book number eleven) was one of the books on my reading list. I absolutely adored it, and have been (very slowly) working my way through since.

Start with: whichever you like, although I would highly recommend The Ladies’ Paradise! Nana (book number nine) would be a good starting point too
My favourite from the series: The Ladies’ Paradise

5. The Gervase Fen Mysteries by Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin is an excellent writer of vintage mysteries, and I have thoroughly enjoyed this series so far. They are entertaining, filled with fascinating characters, and clever mysteries. I really like the character of Gervase Fen, an ‘unconventional’ Oxford University don whom we first meet in The Case of the Gilded Fly. Fen is also an amateur detective, and likes nothing more than taking a strange case to its conclusions. Again, I do not feel as though this series needs to be read in order, so choose whichever tome you want to begin with.

Start with: the mystery which appeals to you most.
My favourite from the series: The Moving Toyshop (book number three)

6. The Fairyland Cycle by Catherynne M. Valente

These books are a little more unusual, and nothing which I would ordinarily choose to read, as I steer clear of fantasy novels as a general rule. Catherynne M. Valente’s novels, though, are beautiful, with excellent word choices, and unusual prose. The stories in this series are imaginative, and I love the way in which she weaves together the everyday and the strange, to make something quite compelling. The long chapter titles, too, are very appealing.

Start with: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the first book in the series. There is a continuous thread of story here, so the books do need to be read in order.
My favourite from the series: I like them all equally.

7. Tommy and Tuppence by Agatha Christie

I feel that Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories are far less well known than the likes of her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. The stories were televised a few years ago, but I have not watched them, as I cannot imagine David Walliams in the title role. Regardless, the stories are clever – in true Christie fashion, of course – and they keep one guessing throughout. Tommy and Tuppence also feel rather different to her more famous characters.

Start with: your choice; again, I do not feel that these books need to be read in any particular order.
My favourite from the series: The Secret Adversary (book number one)

8. Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy

The frontman of one of my favourite bands, The Decemberists, Colin Meloy started releasing books in the Wildwood trilogy back in 2011. This imaginative series is set in Portland, Oregon, in ‘a dense, tangled forest’ at the edge of the city. Here, a young girl named Prue McKeel ventures after her baby brother is snatched by a murder of crows. It sounds strange, and it is, but as with his songs, Meloy’s choices of vocabulary are gorgeous and rich, and his stories come together so well.

Start with: Wildwood, the first book in the series. These stories do need to be read in chronological order.
My favourite from the series: Wildwood

Have you read any of these series? Do you have anything to recommend to me along this vein?

9

Rural Memoirs

I am happiest when exploring, and I have always been enraptured by the countryside, no matter which region I am visiting. In my reading life, I am drawn to rural memoirs, and have made my way through quite a few of them in the past. However, a lot of these are recent publications, or volumes which my library has on its nature shelves. I wanted to try and marry my love of forgotten books, with the rather niche genre of rural memoirs. After stumbling across a wonderful shelf on Goodreads, I have created a list of ten lesser known books which I very much want to get to, and soon.

1. Speak to the Earth: Pages from a Farmwife’s Journal by Rachel Peden (1974)

‘A farmwife for 45 years, Rachel Peden believed that the family farm’s best crop is a “harvest of the spirit.” In Speak to the Earth, she looks at life — domestic and wild, human and critter — through the eyes of someone who witnesses nine seasons of the year rather than the typical four. Peden views the farm as “a place of opportunity simultaneous with obligation, an immaculate fitting-together of plant and animal life.” Each year yields an abundance of small, priceless observations, and through her writings, Peden encourages readers to appreciate both the simple pleasures in life as well as the more profound qualities embodied in family and neighbors, mallards and ladybugs, possums and pigs, and the irresistible characteristics of old houses, local history, and changing times.’

2. When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journey of Staying Put by Vivian Swift (2008)

‘Following a lifetime of trekking across the globe, Vivian Swift, a freelance designer who racked up 23 temporary addresses in 20 years, finally dropped her well-worn futon mattress and rucksack in a small town on the edge of the Long Island Sound. She spent the next decade quietly taking stock of her life, her immediate surroundings, and, finally, what it means to call a place a home.

The result is When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Filled with watercolors of beautiful local landscapes, seasonal activities, and small, overlooked pleasures of easy living, each chapter chronicles the perks of remaining at home, including recipes, hobbies, and prized possessions of the small town lifestyle. At once gorgeously rendered and wholly original, this delightful and masterfully observed year of staying put conjures everything from youthful yearnings and romantic travels to lumpy, homemade sweaters and the gradations of March mud.’

3. The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet (1961)

‘This is a biography and astonishing adventure story of a woman who, left a widow in 1927, packed her five children onto a 25-foot boat and cruised the coastal waters of British Columbia, summer after summer.Muriel Wylie Blanchet acted single-handedly as skipper, navigator, engineer and, of course, mum, as she saw her crew through encounters with tides, fog, storms, rapids, cougars and bears. She sharpened in her children a special interest in Haida culture and in nature itself. In this book, she left us with a sensitive and compelling account of their journeys.’

4. The Happy Season by Mireille Burnand Cooper (1952)

‘From Kirkus Reviews: “A childhood summer in Sepey, Switzerland, has a mild, gentle recall of sunny time and comfortable family life. Papa, an artist, and Mama, the six sons and the two girls, make their return to the house that is the center of a three family reunion and this is the blissfully remembered record of the small incidents that loomed large in young Mireille’s life as she and her twin, Rita, struggled for recognition in the face of competition from Franz, Marcel, Rene, Tony and the boy twins, David and Daniel. There were relatives and visitors, godparents, games, the rats’ room (and polecats), storms and bathing parties, local celebrations and Sunday customs; there were expeditions to a neighboring castle, to a nearby farm and in the adult world, a bit of romance, a glimpse of death, and the comforting security of a safe home life. Relaxed and relaxing, this is pastel tinted nostalgia.”‘

5. The Shape of a Year by Jean Hersey (1967)

‘Month by month chronicle of a woman’s life in Connecticut. Nature observations.

The shape of a year is written for those who enjoy gardening. You are allowed to glimpse daily moments in Jean Hersey’s life. Recipes are given. Grape juice is made, forsythias are forced and patchwork pillows are sewn. How to make maple peppermint tea, what to do with boiled day lilies and how you should winterize your perennials is included in this personal cycle of life.’

6. A Tuscan Childhood by Kinta Beevor (1993)

‘The sparkling memoir of an idyllic, bohemian childhood in an enchanted Tuscan castle between the wars.

When Kinta Beevor was five, her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield, bought the sixteenth-century Fortezza della Brunella in the Tuscan village of Aulla. There her parents were part of a vibrant artistic community that included Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, and D. H. Lawrence. Meanwhile, Kinta and her brother explored the glorious countryside, participated in the region’s many seasonal rites and rituals, and came to know and love the charming, resilient Italian people. With the coming of World War II the family had to leave Aulla; years later, though, Kinta would return to witness the courage and skill of the Tuscan people as they rebuilt their lives. Lyrical and witty, A Tuscan Childhood is alive with the timeless splendour of Italy.’

7. Long Ago When I Was Young by E. Nesbit (1966)

‘An autobiographical account by the author of “The Railway Children” and other children’s books, in which she describes a childhood spent sometimes within the security of her family and sometimes apart from them in schools she detested.’

8. On Island Time by Hilary Stewart (1998)

‘This book is for anyone who dreams of living on an island. Writer and artist Hilary Stewart recounts the tale of buying property on Quadra Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, and her determined search for the ideal house design. Through drawings and anecdotes, she shares her delight in discovering the small wonders of the natural world while exploring the nearby beaches, forests, and lakes, gathering seaweeds, mushrooms, plants and berries. Hilary Stewart also offers glimpses of some of the people and events that make up island life: learning local ways and history, attending Native peoples’ ceremonies, observing the water dowser, helping to discover unknown petroglyphs, circumnavigating Quadra Island on a boat, canoeing quiet lakes, coping with wild winter storms, taking part in the annual eagle count – and drumming up the full moon around a fire near the beach.’

9. A Croft in the Hills by Katharine Stewart (1996)

A Croft in the Hills captures life on a Scottish hill croft 50 years ago. A couple and their young daughter, fresh from life in the town, struggle to get the work done and make ends meet in an environment that is, at times, hard and unforgiving.’

10. The Outermost House by Henry Beston (1928)

‘A chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing. Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in a seaside cottage, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he “could not go.”

Instead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall to: the migrations of seabirds, the rhythms of the tide, the windblown dunes, and the scatter of stars in the changing sky. Beston argued that, “The world today is sick to its thin blood for the lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” Seventy-five years after they were first published, Beston’s words are more true than ever.’

Are you a fan of the rural memoir? Have you read any of these books?

2

Books to Read in One Sitting

I quite often read relatively slim tomes, without writing down enough thoughts in my notebook to type up a full review. I have collected together ten such books which I have very much enjoyed, and which are fitting to read in a single sitting.

1. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett (50 pages)

‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’

2. Someone Not Really Her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman (162 pages)

‘In this graceful and compassionate fiction, three generations of mothers and daughters in the McCarthy family face the challenges of Alzheimer’s. This story offers unusual insight into the consciousness of Hannah Pearl, who lives her daily life with courage and generosity in spite of her confusion. Although her daughter and granddaughters attempt to help her stay in the present of her Connecticut shoreline town, Hannah increasingly inhabits the world of her ardent youth in war-torn France and England. As Miranda McCarthy and her daughters Fiona and Ida walk on tiptoe around Hannah’s secrets, it is the reader who discovers and illuminates all the pieces of this intelligent and dream-like puzzle.’

3. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (176 pages)

‘A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change. This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.’

4. The Part-Time Job by P.D. James (46 pages)

‘Follow the ‘Queen of Crime’ as she takes us into the mind of a man who has waited decades to enact his patient, ingenious revenge on a school bully.’

Also included in The Part-Time Job is a highly enjoyable essay entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, which I feel the book is worth picking up for alone.

5. The Shortest Day by Colm Tóibín (31 pages)

In Ireland, a man of reason is drawn to a true mystery older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge in this enthralling story about ethereal secrets by New York Times bestselling author Colm Tóibín.

During the winter solstice, on the shortest day and longest night of the year, the ancient burial chamber at Newgrange is empowered. Its mystifying source is a haunting tale told by locals.

Professor O’Kelly believes an archaeologist’s job is to make known only what can be proved. He is undeterred by ghost stories, idle speculation, and caution. Much to the chagrin of the living souls in County Meath. As well as those entombed in the sacred darkness of Newgrange itself. They’re determined to protect the secret of the light, guarded for more than five thousand years. And they know O’Kelly is coming for it.’

6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (112 pages)

‘”Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: ‘Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'”

Willa Cather’s protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.’

7. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton (112 pages)

‘Glancing by chance at an advertisement in the Spectator, Stephen Glennard perceives a way to escape the downward spiral his career has taken, begin a new life for himself, and win the hand of the beautiful Alexa Trent. It would seem he has one highly sought-after possession: the letters written to him by the eminent and now deceased author, Margaret Aubyn. All he need do is silence his uneasy conscience and sell the letters for publication.

As the publicity frenzy around its publication heightens, the Aubyn Letters becomes the latest hot topic among the glamorous and money-driven society that Glennard’s wealth now gives him entrée to. And the source of greatest fascination is the identity of the man whom Aubyn so adored but who has betrayed her so irrevocably. Glennard, resolute in his silence, can only watch in dismay as, from the grave, Aubyn begins to exert a powerful and unmistakable influence over him.

Exploring the dual themes of money and moral compromise, The Touchstone is an early and extremely accomplished work, foreshadowing many of Wharton’s greatest novels.’

8. Summerwater by Sarah Moss (208 pages)

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

9. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (112 pages)

‘When Olivia turns sixteen she is sent to a Parisian finishing school to broaden her education. Soon after her arrival, she finds herself falling under the spell of her beautiful and charismatic teacher. But Madamoiselle Julie’s life is not as straightforward as Olivia imagines and the school year is destined to end abruptly in tragedy.’

10. The Fruit of My Woman by Han Kang (28 pages)

The Fruit of My Woman is about a woman born in an impoverished fishing village. She wants to go to the ends of the earth on her own but, believing that marriage is ultimately one of the best ways to face the world, she ends up settling down with her husband. They gradually lose their attachment and affection towards each other. Aside from the communication problem, the woman’s wish of running away from her husband to a remote place fails to come true. She then imagines herself as a plant soaring through the veranda ceiling of her house up to the roof top. Through this outstanding story, the writer shows that people have a strong will to escape from the mental fatigue and hopelessness of modern life.’

Are you tempted by any of these books? Which are your favourite books to read in one sitting?

2

‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’ (Part Two)

I had such a hard time narrowing down a Goodreads list entitled ‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’ last week, that I thought I’d make another post. As in the first, I have chosen ten books from the list that I would really like to read – yes, even as an adult. You can find the full list here, should you want to peruse it yourself.

1. Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky

‘A special twenty-fifth anniversary edition relaunches this beloved classic coming-of-age nove, which was called “one of those rare delights…as wise as it is funny” (Alix Kates Shulman, Ms. magazine). This endearing novel chronicles the growth of the young Allegra in pre-World War II Brooklyn as she learns about sex, death, bigotry, family limitations, and what it means to be young and female and independent.’

2. Once on a Time by A.A. Milne

‘”This is an odd book” or so states the author in 1917 for his first introduction. A fairytale with seven league boots, a princess, an enchantment, and the Countess Belvane. As Milne wrote in a later introduction: “But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of the two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won’t. It is that sort of book.”‘

3. The Wicked Enchantment by Margot Benary-Isbert

‘Life in the old cathedral town of Vogelsang had gone on peacefully for many years, and life for Anemone and her father had always been a happy one. But strange and disturbing things began to happen. One of the cathedral statues of a foolish virgin disappeared, and also the figure of the gargoyle that spouted above it. The mayor dismissed three of the town’s most respected councilors, blaming them for the disappearance. And Anemone and her dog, Winnie, ran away from home – driven to it by the mean housekeeper and her horrid son who had made life miserable for Anemone since Father befriended and took them in.

Even Aunt Gundula, a remarkable woman, who had been Anemone’s mother’s dearest friend and with whom Anemone took refuge, couldn’t, at first, understand why things in the town were in such upheaval. It was unheard of that the songbirds which had always been welcomed back by the townspeople each spring were now being caught in nets by the Mayor and his friends, and the Mayor had actually forbidden the sale of Easter eggs. This was more than Gundula, who each year painted the most beautiful eggs for Easter, could stand.’

4. The Lady of the Linden Tree by Barbara Leonie Picard

‘This collection will be a delight to lovers of the fairy tale, and a boon to storytellers of all ages. Here, Ms. Picard spins twelve magic new stories set in various regions of the world—Europe, the Middle east, Asia. In them the reader will meet a Chinese boy who found an almond tree that blossomed in the winter, a princess who chased a golden ball through an enchanted wood for one hundred years, and a kindly fox who was able to transform a poor servant girl into a beautiful princess. To each of these stories, Ms. Picard brings a distinction of style that earned her wide recognition as one of the finest contemporary storytellers of folk tales, myths and legends.’

5. When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson

‘Anna lives with foster parents, a misfit with no friends, always on the outside of things. Then she is sent to Norfolk to stay with old Mr and Mrs Pegg, where she runs wild on the sand dunes and around the water. There is a house, the Marsh House, which she feels she recognises – and she soon meets a strange little girl called Marnie, who becomes Anna’s first ever friend. Then one day, Marnie vanishes. A new family, the Lindsays, move into the Marsh House. Having learnt so much from Marnie about friendship, Anna makes firm friends with the Lindsays – and learns some strange truths about Marnie, who was not all she seemed…’

6. The Invisible Island by Dean Marshall

‘When the Gutheries moved from a New York apartment to the country the three children found that they not only had a lovely brook that ran into a lake, but more exciting yet, they had a real island.

Right in the middle of the wooded acres surrounding their new home up in Connecticut! On one side was the pond, on another a wide brook, and running from that to the pond, another, narrower brook. So here the four young Guthries were, ‘cast away on a desert island’ which they promptly named Invisible.

Mother sent ‘rations’ from ‘the wreck’ which was the name they gave the house beyond the orchard; David discovered a cave; Winkie, who still believed in fairies, caught a glimpse of a dryad (with freckles); and a pleasant, shivery mystery hung over the island from the very beginning. Solved, it put the happiest possible ending to a story already bursting with all the things children love. Here are summertime and out of doors and make believe all woven into a story of exceptional beauty.’

7. The Mousewife by Rumer Godden

‘Day in and day out the dutiful mousewife works alongside her mousehusband. The house of Miss Barbara Wilkinson, where the Mouses make their home, is a nice house and the mousewife is for the most part happy with her lot—and yet she yearns for something more. But what? Her husband, for one, can’t imagine. “I think about cheese,” he advises her. “Why don’t you think about cheese?”

Then an odd and exotic new creature, a turtledove, is brought into the house, and the mousewife is fascinated. The mousewife makes friends with the strange dove, who is kept in a cage but who tells her about things no housemouse has ever imagined, blue skies, tumbling clouds, tall trees, and far horizons, the memory of which haunt the dove in his captivity. The dove’s tales fill the mousewife with wonder and drive her to take daring action.

Rumer Godden’s lovely fable about the unexpected ways in which dreams can come true is illustrated with beautiful pen-and-ink drawings by William Pène du Bois.’

8. The Fearless Treasure by Noel Streatfeild

‘Subtitled A Story of England from Then to Now, this is a social history of England told through vividly imagined scenes set in several periods within a contemporary frame. The book follows six children from different backgrounds and different parts of England who are taken on a journey in which they experience the past and learn the history of their own families and the parts they played in shaping the nation.’

9. Summer at Buckhorn by Anna Rose Wright

‘Set in 1907, this autobiographical book tells the story of the five Rose children who set off alone for an eventful summer at Buckhorn, the old family estate in the South. On arriving they found that the surprise their aunt had promised them is a very disappointing bookworm of a boy, Edwin, whose parents have sent him there for his health. Aunt Wig promises the children the $200 for his board (which the children vow to donate to defray their mother’s medical expenses) if they will give Edwin a good time and teach him how to play. Their success is great and Edwin, re-christened Ted, becomes a good friend.’

10. The Country Child by Alison Uttley

The Country Child is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up in the country. Alison Uttley has drawn on her own youth to produce memories so vivid and nostalgic that you can almost smell the honeysuckle and hear the owls calling at dusk.

She writes about the small intense joys and sorrows of life on a small farm: the fun of haymaking, the sadness of favourite animals being slaughtered, and the close sweetness of Christmas celebrations in the farmhouse kitchen.’

Have you read any of these books? Do you, too, enjoy reading children’s books as an adult?

5

‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’

Even if you’ve only been around here for a few months, I’m sure you will be aware that I am a huge fan of the humble book list. I scour them relatively regularly, although this is by no means a good idea, as I end up adding lots of titles which I’ll probably never get to onto my already very long to-read list.

Regardless, Goodreads is one of the resources which I use when seeking these lists out. A list entitled ‘Best Children’s Books Most People Have Never Heard Of’ piqued my interest. I was a huge reader as a child, going to my local library every single Saturday morning to switch over the big stack of books which I had borrowed the week before. I still enjoy reading the odd children’s book now, as an adult.

Although this book list is, of course, highly subjective, and even a little suspicious – I would think that most readers have heard of Pippi Longstocking and the Moomins – I have chosen ten books which really take my fancy, and which I never got to as a child. If you wish to peruse the whole list, you can find it here.

1. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

‘Meet the Melendys! The four Melendy children live with their father and Cuffy, their beloved housekeeper, in a worn but comfortable brownstone in New York City. There’s thirteen-year-old Mona, who has decided to become an actress; twelve-year-old mischievous Rush; ten-and-a-half-year-old Randy, who loves to dance and paint; and thoughtful Oliver, who is just six. Tired of wasting Saturdays doing nothing but wishing for larger allowances, the four Melendys jump at Randy’s idea to start the Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club (I.S.A.A.C.). If they pool their resources and take turns spending the whole amount, they can each have at least one memorable Saturday afternoon of their own. Before long, I.S.A.A.C. is in operation and every Saturday is definitely one to remember.

Written more than half a century ago, The Saturdays unfolds with all the ripe details of a specific place and period but remains, just the same, a winning, timeless tale. The Saturdays is the first installment of Enright’s Melendy Quartet, an engaging and warm series about the close-knit Melendy family and their surprising adventures.’

2. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

‘When Jerry, Jimmy and Cathy discover a tunnel that leads to a castle, they pretend that it is enchanted. But when they discover a Sleeping Princess at the centre of a maze, astonishing things begin to happen. Amongst a horde of jewels they discover a ring that grants wishes. But wishes granted are not always wishes wanted, so the children find themselves grappling with invisibility, dinosaurs, a ghost and the fearsome Ugli-Wuglies before it is all resolved.’

3. Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

‘The four Linnet children: Nan, Robert, Timothy and Betsy are sent to live with their strict grandmother while their father travels to Egypt. Locked away in separate rooms as punishment by their ruthless grandmother, the Linnets feel at once that their new life is unbearable—and decide to make their escape—out of the house, out of the garden and into the village. Commandeering a pony and trap, the children and their dog are led away as the pony makes his way nonchalantly home. The pony’s destination happens to be a house that belongs to their gruff but loveable uncle Ambrose. The kindly uncle Ambrose agrees to take them under his wing, he educates them and encourages them to explore Dartmoor, letting the children have free rein in his sprawling manor house and surrounding countryside.

Befriending the collection of house guests, including an owl, a giant cat, and a gardener, Ezra, who converses with bees, and getting to know the miscellaneous inhabitants of the village, the four siblings discover a life in which magic and reality are curiously intermingled and evil and tragedy lurk never far away. Then stumble upon the eccentric Lady Alicia Valerian, who seems to have lost her family. And then the real fun begins! The Linnets start their search for the missing Valerians. But the village is under a spell of the witch Emma Cobley. Can the children lift the spell and restore happiness to the villagers? Or will they be thwarted by evil Emma Cobley and her magic cat?

This charming story beautifully depicts early twentieth century English country life while conjuring an air of magical adventure. It is full of vivid characters, battles between good and evil and wonderful spell-binding moments.’

4. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

‘Robin was always wandering off (her mother’s words) to get away from the confusion she felt inside her. It was not until Robin’s father found a permanent job at the McCurdy ranch, after three years as a migrant worker, that Robin had a place to wander to. As time went by the Velvet Room became more and more of a haven for her — a place to read and dream, a place to bury one’s fears and doubts, a place to count on. The Velvet Room, first published in 1965, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and part of Scholastic Books’ Arrow Book Club.’

5. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf

‘Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909  — the first woman to be so honored — Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) was a gifted storyteller whose writings were often tinged with the supernatural and rooted in the sagas and legends of her homeland.
She secured her reputation as a children’s-book author with  The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, long considered a masterpiece of children’s literature.

Written at the request of Swedish school authorities and first published in 1906, it is the enchanting and remarkably original tale of Nils Holgersson, a mischievous boy of 14 who is changed by an elf into a tiny being able to understand the speech of birds and animals. Brilliantly weaving fact and fiction into a breathtaking and beautiful fable, the story recounts Nils’s adventures as he is transported over the countryside on the back of a goose. From this vantage point, Nils witnesses a host of events that provide young readers with an abundance of information about nature, geography, folklore, animal life, and more.’

6. The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy

‘Life on the Hungarian plains is changing quickly for Jancsi and his cousin Kate. Father has given Jancsi permission to be in charge of his own herd, and Kate has begun to think about going to dances. Jancsi hardly even recognizes Kate when she appears at Peter and Mari’s wedding wearing nearly as many petticoats as the older girls wear. And Jancsi himself, astride his prized horse, doesn’t seem to Kate to be quite so boyish anymore. Then, when Hungary must send troops to fight in the Great War and Jancsi’s father is called to battle, the two cousins must grow up all the sooner in order to take care of the farm and all the relatives, Russian soldiers, and German war orphans who take refuge there.’

7. A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur

‘“I suppose if we had not come to live in Pembrokeshire, Judith, Briony, and I, this story would never have been written, for in another set of circumstances our lives might have run very differently. There would have been no Dido.”

So begins A Candle in Her Room, the story of three generations of haunted people, and of the doll Dido, whose compelling smile and enticing hint of evil changed even the lives of those who were repelled by her. The book begins at about the turn of the century and comes almost up to the present. In it some people mature, grow old, and some die; others are born and begin to live their lives in the shadow of those who have gone before. And through it all the events of the outside world and the strange hidden fascination of Dido impinge almost equally on plans and dreams and personalities. This is a book about many things—evil, the dimensions of reality, the flow of generations and most of all the power of love.’

8. The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin

‘Betrayed by her sisters, a tsarina and her infant son are marooned on a barren island until a magical swan helps them regain their rightful heritage.’

9. White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt

‘When the first flakes fell from the grey sky, the postman and the farmer and the policeman and his wife scurried about doing all the practical things grownups do when a snowstorm comes. But the children laughed and danced, and caught the lacy snowflakes on their tongues. All the wonder and delight a child feels in a snowfall is caught in the pages of this book — the frost ferns on the window sill, the snow man in the yard and the mystery and magic of a new white world. Roger Duvoisin’s pictures in soft blue half-tones with briliant splashes of yellow and red emphasize the gaiety and humor as well as the poetic quality of the text.’

10. The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion

‘Everyone has heard of baby sitters, and some people have had jobs as dog sitters. Even flagpole sitters are more usual than the type of sitter Tommy became – a plant sitter!

When his family decided not to go away for the summer, young Tommy got a job. He collected all the neighbors’ plants, promising to care for them throughout the summer. Soon Tommy’s house was unrecognizable. Watching television was like watching an outdoor movie deep in the jungle, and taking a bath was like swimming in a small lake in the middle of a forest. Tommy’s parents were not particularly enthusiastic about their son’s career, but the plants flourished.

One night Tommy had a dream that the plants had grown too big to fit in the house. The next day some research at the library revealed his worries. When the neighbors returned they were delighted to see their healthy plants. And Tommy was delighted when his father suggested a vacation for the plant sitter and his family.

Margaret Bloy Graham has painted a garland of gay and verdant pictures for this utterly enchanting story.’

Have you read any of these books? Do any on this list appeal to you? What is your favourite children’s book?

6

The TED Reading List

I recently came across this very interesting reading list, published by TED in 2018.  It is wonderfully varied, and certainly contains quite a few niche genres which I certainly have not read before.  Although the list specifies that these choices are aimed at summer reading, I thought that I would look through it and pick out ten titles which I would like to get to over the next year or two.

 

1. A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley 412vb-c3-l._sx336_bo1204203200_
‘In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.  Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class–where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.’

 

51xf8lggsll2. Sophie’s Misfortunes by Comtesse de Ségur
Les Malheur de Sophie (Sophie’s Misfortunes) describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not – by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.’

 

3. Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World by Eileen McNamara 41gx2bnlk4el._sx327_bo1204203200_
‘A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist examines the life and times of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, arguing she left behind the Kennedy family’s most profound political legacy.  While Joe Kennedy was grooming his sons for the White House and the Senate, his Stanford-educated daughter Eunice was tapping her father’s fortune and her brothers’ political power to engineer one of the great civil rights movements of our time on behalf of millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, in Eunice, Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen McNamara finally brings Eunice Kennedy Shriver out from her brothers’ shadow to show an officious, cigar-smoking, indefatigable woman of unladylike determination and deep compassion born of rage: at the medical establishment that had no answers for her sister Rosemary; at the revered but dismissive father whose vision for his family did not extend beyond his sons; and at the government that failed to deliver on America’s promise of equality.  Granted access to never-before-seen private papers—from the scrapbooks Eunice kept as a schoolgirl in prewar London to her thoughts on motherhood and feminism—McNamara paints a vivid portrait of a woman both ahead of her time and out of step with it: the visionary founder of the Special Olympics, a devout Catholic in a secular age, and a formidable woman whose impact on American society was longer lasting than that of any of the Kennedy men.’

 

41ipnhudval._sx326_bo1204203200_4. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
‘Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.’

 

5. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 51uu9frdkhl._sx324_bo1204203200_
‘For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times–the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  It was an unlikely quest from the start. With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler. The emotional heart of the tale lies with Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not only to regain his shattered self-regard but also to find a real place for himself in the world. Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.’

 

51epm2wuoil._sx327_bo1204203200_6. The Overstory by Richard Powers
‘An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers-each summoned in different ways by trees-are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”‘

 

7. No Pity by Joe Shapiro 41gldpjfgsl._sx321_bo1204203200_
‘In No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Joe Shapiro of U.S. News & World Report tells of a political awakening few nondisabled Americans have even imagined. There are over 43 million disabled people in this country alone; for decades most of them have been thought incapable of working, caring for themselves, or contributing to society. But during the last twenty-live years, they, along with their parents and families, have begun to recognize that paraplegia, retardation, deafness, blindness, AIDS, autism, or any of the hundreds of other chronic illnesses and disabilities that differentiate them from the able-bodied are not tragic. The real tragedy is prejudice, our society’s and the medical establishment’s refusal to recognize that the disabled person is entitled to every right and privilege America can offer. No Pity‘s chronicle of disabled people’s struggle for inclusion, from the seventeenth-century deaf communities on Martha’s Vineyard to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, is only part of the story. Joe Shapiro’s five years of in-depth reporting have uncovered many personal stories as well. ‘

 

8. A Kind of Mirraculus Paradise by Sandra Allen 51hyyhwsbql._sx338_bo1204203200_
‘Writer Sandra Allen did not know their uncle Bob very well. As a child, Sandy had been told Bob was “crazy,” that he had spent time in mental hospitals while growing up in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. But Bob had lived a hermetic life in a remote part of California for longer than Sandy had been alive, and what little Sandy knew of him came from rare family reunions or odd, infrequent phone calls. Then in 2009 Bob mailed Sandy his autobiography. Typewritten in all caps, a stream of error-riddled sentences over sixty, single-spaced pages, the often-incomprehensible manuscript proclaimed to be a “true story” about being “labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic,” and arrived with a plea to help him get his story out to the world.  In A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia, Sandy translates Bob’s autobiography, artfully creating a gripping coming-of-age story while sticking faithfully to the facts as he shared them. Lacing Bob’s narrative with chapters providing greater contextualization, Sandy also shares background information about their family, the culturally explosive time and place of their uncle’s formative years, and the vitally important questions surrounding schizophrenia and mental healthcare in America more broadly. The result is a heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young man striving for stability in his life as well as his mind, and an utterly unique lens into an experience that, to most people, remains unimaginable.’

 

9. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien 61u61td7s2bl._sx331_bo1204203200_
‘Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences. With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.’

 

51ni9lnyfdl._sx325_bo1204203200_10. Sorry, Not Sorry by Haji Mohamed Dawjee
‘Why don’t white people understand that Converse tekkies are not just cool but a political statement to people of colour? Why is it that South Africans of colour don’t really ‘write what we like’? What’s the deal with people pretending to be ‘woke’? Is Islam really as antifeminist as is claimed? What does it feel like to be a brown woman in a white media corporation? And what life lessons can we learn from Bollywood movies? In Sorry, Not Sorry, Haji Mohamed Dawjee explores the often maddening experience of moving through post-apartheid South Africa as a woman of colour. In characteristically candid style, she pulls no punches when examining the social landscape: from arguing why she’d rather deal with an open racist than some liberal white people, to drawing on her own experience to convince readers that joining a cult is never a good idea. In the provocative voice that has made Mohamed Dawjee one of our country’s most talked-about columnists, she offers observations laced with acerbic wit. Sorry, Not Sorry will make readers laugh, wince, nod, introspect and argue.’

 

 

Which of these books take your fancy?  Have you read any of them?