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‘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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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my love for Goodreads lists.  I’m not really a reader of popular fiction, and prefer those works which sneak under the radar for the mostpart, so the ‘underrated’ section for books to buy and consequently fall in love with is perfect for me.  To procrastinate ever so slightly from a proofreading manuscript, I have decided to detail fifty very underrated books which I have my eye on over the next week.  They are certainly a mixed bag, but all have intrigued me.  Have you read any of these?

 

1. Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner 9780143039792
‘In a literary career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner created a remarkable record of the history and culture of twentieth-century America. Each of the thirty-one stories contained in this volume embody some of the best virtues and values to be found in contemporary fiction, demonstrating why the author is acclaimed as one of America’s master storytellers.’

 

2. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
‘Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis’s seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman’s prize-winning translation.’

 

97800620590553. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
‘There was once a little brown bat who couldn’t sleep days—he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.  With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, The Bat-Poet—a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—is a collection of the bat’s own poems and the bat’s own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell’s funny, lovable, truthful fable. ‘

 

4. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton
‘An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.” This ultimate edition of An Exaltation of Larks is Mr. Lipton’s brilliant answer to the assault on language and literacy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In it you will find more than 1,100 resurrected or newly minted contributions to that most endangered of all species, our language, in a setting of 250 witty, beautiful, and remarkably apt engravings.’

 

5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
‘Junie Moon, Warren, and Arthur meet in the hospital and decide to live together when they leave. Each is coping with a disability with courage, strength, and friendship.’

 

6. The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman 9780449211779
‘When the quiet and shy Amelia Jones reads these words, her life changes irrevocably. She’s just become the new owner of the Ebbtide Shop, a musty antique store filled with merry-go-round horses and hurdy-gurdies, and it is while fixing one of these barrel organs that the scrawled and threatening note falls out. Armed only with the strange woman’s first name and the note written years before, Amelia begins a journey into the past, a search that takes her from the protective cocoon she’s wrapped herself in to a precarious world where passions boil underneath the surface, where nothing is the way it seems, where fear is second nature, and dark secrets just might uncover murder—her own…’

 

7. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
‘Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters — and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day — has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall’s monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era — Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them — she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson’s individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne — but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women’s studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.’

 

97801411837498. Southern Mail by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
‘In his first novel, Saint-Exupéry pays homage to “those elemental divinities-night, day, mountain, sea, and storm,” turning an account of a routine mail flight from France to North Africa into an epic rendering of the pioneer days of commercial aviation. The book is also a poignant reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight enhance the mystery of one another.’

 

9. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
‘Amy Hempel’s collection of 16 stories seems to ask: “What if people could be just a little more like dogs – -forever loyal, ardent and loving in our hearts?”‘

 

10. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
‘In the 17 short stories collected here, Paley writes with verbal economy and resonance, pithy insights, and warmth and humor. The themes are familiar: friendship, commitment, responsibility, love, political idealism and activism, children, the nuclear shadow.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne ***

I adore John Boyne’s fiction (few books make me cry, but his A Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is one of those which never fails to induce tears), but I must admit that I have been a little disappointed with a couple of his novels.  The first was The Absolutist, which I really didn’t enjoy, despite my love of its wartime setting.  I took a bit of a gamble in that case in reading Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, which is set during the First World War, but it looked too sweet not to request on Netgalley.  Plus, Oliver Jeffers’ cover illustration is beautiful.

‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne

The premise of this children’s novel is most interesting:

The day that the First World War began, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the very next morning.  Four years on, his letters have stopped, and all Alfie knows is that he’s far away on a special secret mission.

In Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, Boyne has crafted the story of a young boy who has to grow up in the face of wartime, and who has to become the man of the house at such an early age, even deciding to secretly become a shoeshine boy in King’s Cross Station to help his mother out with money.  Whilst Alfie does not always understand what is going on around him, he experiences some quite horrid events.  His friend, a young girl named Kalena Janacek, and her Czech father are taken away, believed to be ‘spies’.  Boyne describes the way in which: ‘The last Alfie saw of them was Mr Janacek weeping in the back of the van while Kalena stared out of the window behind her at Alfie, waving silently’.

The First World War began on Alfie’s fifth birthday, and the few memories he had of his father are diminishing.  Throughout, his childish naivety has been well captured.  There is an overriding sense of humour which Boyne has used at intervals, which nicely balances out the horrors of war that the adults around Alfie speak about: ‘Georgie and Margie had been very old when they got married…  His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.  Alfie found it hard to imagine what it would be like to be twenty-one years old.  He thought that it would be difficult to hear things and that your sight would be a little fuzzy’.

Boyne has built up the social and emotional history of World War One well.  I imagine that reading such a story would be a good tool to help children to understand the devastation and destruction which battles on such a wide scale can bring – death, weaponry, conscientious objectors – as well as practical ways in which the population of Britain coped in the face of such adversity, by reusing things and rationing.

The third person perspective has been put to good use, but one element of the novel did not sit well for me as an adult reader.  Alfie seemed rather too grown up for a five-year-old at times – for example, he knows all about voting for the prime minister, and speaks of it as though he is far older and wiser than his age suggests.

Boyne is a diverse author, and whilst this was not my favourite of his books (I truly doubt that anything could beat the beautifully haunting The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas for me), it has to be said that he writes just as well for children as for adults.

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Reading the World: Austria

Austria, one of the most beautiful countries which I have been lucky enough to visit thus far, is next on the list.  This is possibly my most varied list of recommendations for my Reading the World project, containing, as it does, a graphic novel, a book which nestles somewhere between child and adult literature, a novel, a piece of non-fiction, and a collection of poetry.

1. Persepolis II: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi 9780375714665(2004)
‘In” Persepolis,” heralded by the “Los Angeles Times” as one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day, Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging. Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran. As funny and poignant as its predecessor, “Persepolis 2” is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism. In its depiction of the struggles of growing up here compounded by Marjane’s status as an outsider both abroad and at home it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.’

2. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997)
‘When Ellen Carr abandons grey, dreary London to become housekeeper at an experimental school in Austria, she finds her destiny. Swept into an idyllic world of mountains, music, eccentric teachers and wayward children, Ellen brings order and joy to all around her. But it’s the handsome, mysterious gardener, Marek, who intrigues her – Marek, who has a dangerous secret. As Hitler’s troops spread across Europe, Ellen has promises to keep, even if they mean she must sacrifice her future happiness.’

97809542217203. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
‘It’s the 1930s. Christine, A young Austrian woman whose family has been impoverished by the war, toils away in a provincial post office. Out of the blue, a telegram arrives from an American aunt she’s never known, inviting her to spend two weeks in a Grand Hotel in a fashionable Swiss resort. She accepts and is swept up into a world of almost inconceivable wealth and unleashed desire, where she allows herself to be utterly transformed. Then, just as abruptly, her aunt cuts her loose and she has to return to the post office, where – yes – nothing will ever be the same.’

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
‘The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.The netsuke drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s “Luncheon of”” the Boating Party.” Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in “Remembrance of Things Past.”Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile.In “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.’

5. Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (ed. Edward Snow, 2011) 9780374532710
‘”The Poetry of Rilke” the single most comprehensive volume of Rilke’s German poetry ever to be published in English is the culmination of this effort. With more than two hundred and fifty selected poems by Rilke, including complete translations of the “Sonnets to Orpheus “and the “Duino Elegies,” “The Poetry of Rilke “spans the arc of Rilke’s work, from the breakthrough poems of “The Book of Hours “to the visionary masterpieces written only weeks before his death.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

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More New Releases

The wonderful Powell’s in Portland, Oregon has released a list of their picks of the year.  As any good reader, I immediately perused this, and furiously scribbled down around half of their choices.  These are the real standouts for me, and those which I hope to get to during 2016.

97805474858501. 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor
‘”The Best American Short Stories”is the longest running and best-selling series of short fiction in the country. For the centennial celebration of this beloved annual series, master of the form Lorrie Moore selects forty stories from the more than two thousand that were published in previous editions. Series editor Heidi Pitlor recounts behind-the-scenes anecdotes and examines, decade by decade, the trends captured over a hundred years. Together, the stories and commentary offer an extraordinary guided tour through a century of literature with what Moore calls all its wildnesses of character and voice. These forty stories represent their eras but also stand the test of time. Here is Ernest Hemingway’s first published story and a classic by William Faulkner, who admitted in his biographical note that he began to write as an aid to love-making. Nancy Hale’s story describes far-reaching echoes of the Holocaust; Tillie Olsen’s story expresses the desperation of a single mother; James Baldwin depicts the bonds of brotherhood and music. Here is Raymond Carver’s minimalism, a term he disliked, and Grace Paley’s secular Yiddishkeit. Here are the varied styles of Donald Barthelme, Charles Baxter, and Jamaica Kincaid. From Junot Diaz to Mary Gaitskill, from ZZ Packer to Sherman Alexie, these writers and stories explore the different things it means to be American. Moore writes that the process of assembling these stories allowed her to look thrillingly not just at literary history but at actual history the cries and chatterings, silences and descriptions of a nation in flux.’

2. Slade House by David Mitchell
‘Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night. Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…’

3. After Alice by Gregory Maguire 9781472230430
‘When Alice fell down the rabbit-hole, she found Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But how did Victorian Oxford react to Alice’s disappearance? Gregory Maguire turns his imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings -and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll’s enduring tale. Ada, a friend mentioned briefly in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, sets out to visit Alice but, arriving a moment too late, tumbles down the rabbit-hole herself. Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and bring her safely home from this surreal world below the world. The White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts interrupt their mad tea party to suggest a conundrum: if Eurydice can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or if Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.’

4. Felicity by Mary Oliver
‘Mary Oliver, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, celebrates love in her new collection of poems ” If I have any secret stash of poems, anywhere, it might be about love, not anger, Mary Oliver once said in an interview. Finally, in her stunning new collection, “Felicity,” we can immerse ourselves in Oliver s love poems. Here, great happiness abounds. Our most delicate chronicler of physical landscape, Oliver has described her work as loving the world. With “Felicity “she examines what it means to love another person. She opens our eyes again to the territory within our own hearts; to the wild and to the quiet. In these poems, she describes with joy the strangeness and wonder of human connection. As in “Blue Horses,” “Dog Songs,” and “A Thousand Mornings,” with “Felicity “Oliver honors love, life, and beauty.”‘

97814746022425. The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
‘It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s daughter started to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbours accused neighbours, parents accused children, husbands accused wives, children accused their parents, and siblings each other. Vividly capturing the dark, unsettled atmosphere of seventeenth-century America, Stacy Schiff’s magisterial history draws us into this anxious time. She shows us how a band of adolescent girls brought the nascent colony to its knees, and how quickly the epidemic of accusations, trials, and executions span out of control. Above all, Schiff’s astonishing research reveals details and complexity that few other historians have seen.’

6. Atlas of Cursed Places by Olivier de Career
‘This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.’

7. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson 9780374298470
‘The spirit of our times can appear to be one of joyless urgency. As a culture we have become less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, and more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield material well-being. But while cultural pessimism is always fashionable, there is still much to give us hope. In “The Givenness of Things,” the incomparable Marilynne Robinson delivers an impassioned critique of our contemporary society while arguing that reverence must be given to who we are and what we are: creatures of singular interest and value, despite our errors and depredations. Robinson has plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Lila “and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead,” and in her new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern predicament and the mysteries of faith. These seventeen essays examine the ideas that have inspired and provoked one of our finest writers throughout her life. Whether she is investigating how the work of the great thinkers of the past, Calvin, Locke, Bonhoeffer–and Shakespeare–can infuse our lives, or calling attention to the rise of the self-declared elite in American religious and political life, Robinson’s peerless prose and boundless humanity are on display. Exquisite and bold, “The Givenness of Things” is a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural heritage, and to offer grace to one another.’

8. The Marvels by Brian Selznick
‘In this magnificent reimagining of the form he originated, two stand-alone stories-the first in nearly 400 pages of continuous pictures, the second in prose-create a beguiling narrative puzzle. The journey begins on a ship at sea in 1766, with a boy named Billy Marvel. After surviving a shipwreck, he finds work in a London theatre. There, his family flourishes for generations as brilliant actors until 1900, when young Leontes Marvel is banished from the stage. Nearly a century later, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and seeks refuge with an uncle in London. Albert Nightingale’s strange, beautiful house, with its mysterious portraits and ghostly presences, captivates Joseph and leads him on a search for clues about the house, his family, and the past. A gripping adventure and an intriguing invitation to decipher how the two narratives connect, “The Marvels” is a loving tribute to the power of story from an artist at the vanguard of creative innovation.’

10

‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett *****

This review was first published in 2013, but after recently dipping back into the novel, all fangirling about it still stands.

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Colin, Mary and Dickon in the 1993 film version

There are many tales from my childhood which I absolutely adore (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Madeline, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.), but The Secret Garden is my absolute favourite.  I watched the VHS of the 1993 film so often when I was younger that I managed to wear it out.

The story in The Secret Garden is lovely.  On the surface of it, the plot seems rather simple – a young girl is sent to England after the death of her parents during a cholera epidemic, and is forced to stay in the middle of nowhere (rural Yorkshire, to be precise) with a mysterious uncle whom she does not know.  At first Mary Lennox, the young girl in question, is lonely, but her inherent stubbornness allows her to make the best of her situation.  Those who persevere with her – the kindly maid Martha, for example – alter her personality, and she begins to care about those around her in consequence.  Mary finds out about a secret walled garden which belonged to her aunt, and which has been shut up since her death.  She vows to resurrect it with the help of kindly Martha’s lovely brother, Dickon.

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‘The Secret Garden’ Penguin Threads edition

What complexities there are creep into the plot almost immediately.  Hodgson Burnett weaves ever such a lot of different details into the story – life in colonial India, disparities between different societies around the world, cholera, disability, death, suffering, the bleakness of surroundings, loneliness, the building of relationships and an appreciation of the natural world.  I absolutely adore all of the characters in their own ways.  Mary is headstrong – amusingly so at times – and her determination is often rather inspiring.  Mrs Medlock is nowhere near as awful as the film makes her out to be (Maggie Smith’s portrayal of her did used to frighten me a little, I admit), and she does have compassion for her charge.  Colin, despite his petulant nature and obsession with having a lump on his back like his father’s, is rather adorable.

I adore Hodgson Burnett’s writing style.  With it, she has crafted a beautiful and memorable tale which gets better with every read, and she has introduced me to some of the finest literary characters I could ever hope to meet.  The Secret Garden is an utterly enchanting novel, and the story and its characters will always have a place within my heart.  I love the way in which they grow and develop as the story progresses, and their interactions with one another have been portrayed so well.  A truly heartwarming tale, and a perfect summery read.

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