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One From the Archive: ‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

First published in 2017.

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

First published in October 2017.

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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Virago Week: ‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in wintertime.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on effect it had from the beginning.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick calls his debut, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things”.  It was the movie ‘Hugo’ which made me go and seek out this beautiful book – for a book it certainly is – and I purchased the very last copy in Waterstone’s whilst on a post-Christmas shopping trip.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

The book was the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal in 2008, the award usually applying only to picture books.  The film also won five Academy Awards in 2012.  I am so pleased that I have a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret to sit in pride of place upon my bookshelf.  Just like the film, it is a thing of beauty – lavishly illustrated in black and white, with attention to detail present on every single page.

The style of the book is so very interesting: “With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience”.  It is quite unlike anything which I have ever read before, and the mixture of narrative types and techniques works beautifully.

Selznick’s blurb, too, is beautiful:

“Orphan, clock-keeper, and thief, twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric girl and her grandfather, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.”

Hugo and Isabelle look out over Paris

The novel takes place in 1931, ‘beneath the roofs of Paris’.  Selznick has woven in the true story of French filmmaker Georges Melies, and has created fictional elements alongside to build his very inventive plot.  His sense of place is sublime, and I love the way in which the story was told, making use of its glorious Paris surroundings throughout.  Hugo’s world is so well evoked.

Hugo Cabret is one of my favourite child characters.  He is so very determined and so headstrong, and he is also incredibly industrious.  I love the way in which he looks after himself and is able to fend for himself in such a large city.  I adore the levels of his curiosity, and the way in which he will work at something until it is fixed and he is satisfied with the result.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is exquisite, and it is truly a work of art.  The entirety is enchanting, and its characterisation perfect.  The pace which Selznick has stuck to works marvellously with the unfolding story, and the book and film are certain to charm both children and adults alike.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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