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Flash Reviews (2nd April 2014)

‘Four Children and It’ by Jacqueline Wilson (Puffin)

Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson *****
I believe that there are two settings in which to best enjoy children’s literature.  The first is whilst basking in the sunshine on a beautifully warm day, with a long cool drink to hand, and the second is whilst curled up in front of a roaring fire in the company of a cup of tea and a purring feline.  I plumped for the latter, and began this on rather a chilly February evening.

Wilson has based her tale upon E. Nesbit’s classic (and rather beautiful) Five Children and It, which was first published in 1902.  Rather than retell the tale, Wilson’s book is a continuation of sorts, which even features Nesbit’s original child characters.  I was interested to see how it would compare to the original.

Four Children and It tells the story of brother and sister Robbie and Rosalind, their stepsister Samantha, who is known by all as Smash, and their baby sister Maudie.  Rosalind is our narrator, and she reminded me so much of myself; she took more books on holiday than clothes, and longed for uninterrupted stretches of reading, for example.  She is just the kind of Wilson heroine whom I adored as a child.  Wilson weaves such a lovely idea into the novel, where the Psammead from the original book is found by the children in a sandpit on a day trip to a local forest, and subsequently grants their wishes.

Four Children and It is just the most darling book, filled with delights, which is sure to charm everyone – young or old – who loved Nesbit’s original.  It is both marvellous and inventive, and I enjoyed it as much in adulthood as I would have done as a child.  I am sure that Nesbit herself would be flattered by, and would also very much enjoy, Wilson’s continuation of her rather lovely book.

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‘The Three Sisters’ by May Sinclair (Virago)

Three Sisters by May Sinclair ***
I very much enjoyed the first Sinclair book which I read – The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – and was pleased to see several of the author’s other titles upon the Virago list.  I selected this at random on my Kindle whilst on a trip to Portsmouth, and found it rather enjoyable.

Sinclair has based this story – that of the three Cartaret sisters who live with their cold and rather tyrannical father within a lonely rectory – upon the lives of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.  The Cartaret sisters’ father is the vicar of a parish, and he entirely disapproves of his daughters’ ‘godlessness’.  The sisters, Mary, Gwendolen and Alice, are varied in their characters and temperaments.  Alice is a rather ill and frail young woman, Gwendolen is reliable and is depended upon by almost everyone throughout, and Mary is really mysterious; we do not learn much about her until close to the end of the book.  The plot revolves almost entirely upon the relationships which the girls have with one another, and with others from the small village in which they live.

Throughout, Sinclair writes so eloquently.  The accents of the locals did seem a little overdone at times, but that is my only real criticism of her otherwise flawless writing.  The language which Sinclair uses is just as effective at charming the modern reader as I presume it ever was.  Despite the way in which I very much enjoyed most of the novel, I have only given it a three star rating due to the plot becoming rather unnecessarily silly towards the end, and its unsatisfactory ending.

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‘The Little Company’ by Eleanor Dark (Virago)

The Little Company by Eleanor Dark **
I hoped that this novel would be great company on rather a long trip to Liverpool back in February.  It was the only book which I packed in my satchel, and having never read any of Dark’s work before, I suppose I took a little bit of a gamble in not taking a back-up novel of sorts.  If I am honest, I found The Little Company rather dull.  Dark’s writing is not at all bad – in fact, some of her descriptions were quite dazzling – but the entire thing just felt a little lacklustre and inconsistent.  Some parts of the novel – mainly the characters – were quite underdeveloped, and others – the political situation during the Second World War, in which this novel is set, for example – were overdone to the point of becoming repetitive.  There were no characters whom I felt able to empathise with, and I was really quite disappointed on the whole.  I doubt I will read another Dark novel again based upon my indifference for The Little Company, and so I have crossed off the other one of her books which appears on the VMC list (Lantana Lane).

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‘Unsaid Things: Our Story’ by McFly

Unsaid Things: Our Story by McFly ****
There was a time when I could say that I had been to every single one of British band McFly’s tours, and saw one of their very first live concerts, when they supported Busted back in 2003.  Lately, I have missed many of their shows – for a number of reasons, including lack of someone to take with me, my dislike of their latest album (one which the band themselves are also not overly fond of), and the fact that the last time I went to see them, the place was almost entirely filled with pre-pubescent girls, who squealed horrendously throughout.  I do still have a definite softspot for them (much to the amusement of my sister), and was so pleased when I received their autobiography for Christmas.

I thought that this would be a great book to start our first readathon with, and I did manage to read it very quickly indeed.  I can categorically say that in no way was I expecting it to begin in the way it did, with the description of rather raunchy massages whilst the band were on tour in Indonesia.  Throughout, the boys are very honest indeed; it is as though they really want their fans to know all about them without holding anything back, and I really do respect this.  It is, unsurprisingly, very sad in places; I had not quite realised the extent of Tom and Dougie’s problems before beginning the book, for example.  I found it so interesting to see which of their personal experiences influenced their songs, and I loved the use of their joint perspectives throughout.  Unsaid Things: Our Story is sure to make a wonderful gift for any McFly fan, even for those who profess that they are now ‘too old’ or ‘too cool’ to listen to them.

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Flash Reviews (23rd January 2014)

Diamond by Jacqueline Wilson ****
April very kindly sent me this beautifully sparkly book for Christmas.  I have adored Jacqueline Wilson since I was very small, and was lucky enough to meet her when she did a signing at my local bookshop whilst I was still in junior school.  Ever since, even though I no longer fall into the bracket of her young teenager intended audience, I have made sure that I read everything new which she releases.  Diamond begins in 1891, when Ellen-Jane, the book’s narrator, is sold to the circus by her poor alcoholic father.  As with all of Wilson’s novels, this is great in terms of characterisation, but there was one thing which did not quite ring true throughout – the dialogue.  It felt as though it was far too modern a lot of the time, and a few of the phrases within the narrative gave the same impression too, and consequently did not fit with the era.  As a whole, Diamond is a very enjoyable novel, and it certainly works well as part of the Hetty Feather series.

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‘The Call of The Weird’ by Louis Theroux

The Call of The Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux ***
I originally purchased this as part of my boyfriend’s bookish advent calendar, not realising that he already had a copy.  It was given back to me, as he thought I would enjoy it.  I happily took it off his hands.  I began reading it on my way to Suffolk to visit family over Christmas, and was reminded almost immediately of Jon Ronson’s great The Psychopath Test

Throughout, and much like Ronson did, Theroux has gone in search of oddballs across the United States of America, as a follow-up to a television series which he brought out some years previously.  He meets a great range of unusual people, from those who refuse to pay their income tax in the belief that it is their right to do so, and porn stars, to neo-Nazis and those who hold cult seminars for the masses.  Theroux states that his aim was to ask ‘what “weird people” have to tell us about our own human natures’.  It was scary in part, and I am surprised that some of the beliefs which Theroux outlines exist in our twenty-first century society.

I really like the way in which Theroux writes, and the wit which he manages to weave into almost every single page.  I think I would have got more out of the book if I had a) watched the original programme and knew of its participants, and b) if I stopped comparing it to the aforementioned The Psychopath Test.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting book, and one which raises a lot of questions which we as humans really should be addressing.

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Cats by Delia Pemberton ****

‘The Cat at the Window’ by Utagawa Hiroshige

April sent me this beautiful little British Museum book for Christmas (thank you!), and it looked so adorable that I am surprised I didn’t begin it as soon as I parted it from its pretty glittering paper.  Such care has been put into its presentation, and as a result, it is very aesthetically pleasing.  The entirety has been so well considered, down to the use of images within to complement the particular text which it sits beside.

There are so many paintings and illustrations by a wealth of different artists which have been included – Leonardo da Vinci, Theophile Steinlen, Goya, Sir John Tenniel – and lots of feline artefacts housed in various museums too.  Many extracts from a host of different sources can be found within its pages too, from haikus and poems by authors like Charles Baudelaire, to the letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell.  Cats is a gorgeous little book, which will grace the shelves of any cat lovers.

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Sunday Snapshot: Childhood Favourites (#15-#11)

15. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
I still adore The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so much so that I have a Hungry Caterpillar mug and badge set, which were purchased for me quite recently.  The story is simple but the illustrations make it incredibly memorable.

14. The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson
One of my absolute favourite Wilson books.  I love the mixture of present and past here, and Charlotte and Lottie are both marvellously drawn characters.

13. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter
It was incredibly difficult for me to choose a favourite from Potter’s delightful tales, but Mrs Tiggy-Winkle has stuck with me forever.  I adore her as a character, and am sure that I will even enjoy this book when I’m well into my old age.

12. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
Tigers have always been my favourite animals, and I adore afternoon tea and tea parties, so this was obviously going to rank amongst my favourites.

11. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
Utterly delightful in its entirety, and no childhood is complete without reading the compendium.

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Sunday Snapshot: Childhood Favourites (#25-#21)

25. Madeline in London by Ludwig Bemelmans
There is something wonderful in the thought that a nun could suddenly up and take the twelve little girls in her charge on a trip from Paris to London to visit their lonely next door neighbour who has been forced to move by his Ambassador father.  This story is charming, funny and just absolutely lovely.

24. The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Oh, this book is just utterly lovely.  Mildred is a wonderful and vivid character and her adventures are both amusing and exciting.  I found myself inwardly cheering when she saved the day and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.  A wonderful piece of nostalgia.

23. Sophie Hits Six by Dick King Smith
I remember reading all of the Sophie stories when I was little, and they’re just enchanting.  The stories are so cute and Sophie is a wonderful character.  A great book.

22. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
<i>James and the Giant Peach</i> is an absolutely magical and enchanting tale from one of the world’s best storytellers.  It is as wonderful reading it at the age of, say, 22 as it was at the age of 6.

21. The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson
I lost count of the number of times I read this book as a child.  It is incredibly sad on the whole, and deals with a young girl struggling after her parents split up, but the characters are all marvellous, and it is written so sensitively.

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Flash Reviews (9th September 2013)

King Lear by William Shakespeare ****
This is one of the plays which I’ve been most looking forward to reading during my Year of Shakespeare.  I liked the bare bones of the plot, and felt that they worked well, particularly when Shakespeare’s beautiful writing came into force.  I very much enjoyed the different prose styles in King Lear, particularly with regard to their concurrent use by the same characters.  Rather a sad play, but an incredibly good one.

The Dwarves of Death by Jonathan Coe **
My Dad told me that I should read this book merely due to the amount of Smiths lyrics used within it.  (This was one of the only aspects of the novel which I enjoyed – along with the title, of course).  He had warned me before I began that it wasn’t very good.  (He was right).  The entirety of The Dwarves of Death is poorly written, and the narrator, William, is nothing short of an idiot.  The dialogue is dull, and the dwarves which feature in the title only star on a couple of pages.  There is very little about the actual murder, and the majority of the book goes into a kind of sad reverie, focusing almost solely upon middle-aged men rehearsing music with one another.  I would not be inclined to read another Coe book after this one, that’s for sure.

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane ***
Let me begin by saying that I adore Helen Dryden’s 1915 Vogue cover which has been used to adorn this book. 

'Treasure Hunt' by Molly Keane

‘Treasure Hunt’ by Molly Keane

Isn’t it absolutely lovely?  I was expecting great things from Treasure Hunt as I so enjoyed Keane’s Good Behaviour, but was a little apprehensive about it when I learnt that the novel had been translated from play form, something rarely done in the literary world.  In terms of its plotline, Treasure Hunt was rather weak.  I certainly expected more to happen as it went on.  I found the entire cast of characters difficult to sympathise and empathise with, and they weren’t believably built up as individuals.  Keane’s descriptions, particularly those of landscapes and the interiors of buildings, were lovely.  I think that their beauty contrasted well with the lacklustre, almost melancholy feel of the family dynamic.  My major qualm about this novel was the amount of dialogue (too much) and the information it actually gave to the reader (not much).  The three stars which I have awarded the book are for the descriptions alone.

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson ****
I think Lily is one of Wilson’s best protagonists.  She is strong, brave and courageous, and despite being only eleven years old, she always tries to do the best things for those around her.  The characters in Lily Alone are so well realised, and Lily’s younger sister, Bliss, was particularly lovely.  The only downside I found in this novel was the language which Wilson uses.  I can’t imagine many eleven year olds saying a lot of the things that Lily does, nor any three year olds saying, ‘You bet!’.

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Flash Reviews (5th September 2013)

Cookie by Jacqueline Wilson ****
This novel starts off in rather a heartrending manner, with a downtrodden young girl, Beauty, and her mother abused by their controlling father.  Despite this, Cookie is such a sweet, feel good story, particularly once Beauty and her mother realise the strength they have.  In this book, Wilson shows that everything, however bad, can be overcome, which is such a nice message to put into children’s and young adult fiction.  The characters are well developed as a whole, and I didn’t guess where the story would end up, which was a very nice touch.

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann ***
I have read some absolutely marvellous reviews of this novel, and couldn’t wait to begin it.  The prologue of Let The Great World Spin is visually stunning and well thought out.  If only the rest of the book had been the same!  I enjoyed the author’s writing on the whole – some of his descriptions, for example, are sumptuous – but my stumbling block came with the characters.  They were interesting enough on the whole, but they were all so broken, often by alcohol and drugs.  Because of this, no distinct characters stood out for me, and I found it difficult to empathise with any of them in consequence.  An interesting novel, but a little disappointing by all accounts.

'The Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley - Selected by Fiona Sampson' (Faber)

‘The Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley – Selected by Fiona Sampson’ (Faber)

Poetry: Selected by Fiona Sampson by Percy Bysshe Shelley ****
Sampson’s introduction to this gorgeous Faber edition draws parallels between Shelley’s life and his poetry very well indeed.  It is a beautiful little volume, and is incredibly aesthetically pleasing.  The poems too are lovely.  I enjoyed every single one, but my favourites were ‘Mutability’, ‘To Wordsworth’, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, ‘Julian and Maddalo’, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, ‘Adonais’, ‘To -‘, ‘To Jane: The Invitation’ and ‘To Jane: The Recollection’.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ****
I adore the Deep South as a setting and am wondering why, after finishing this stunning novel, I’ve not read any of Faulkner’s work before.  I adored the differing perspectives throughout, and the way in which each and every one of them was so marvellously distinct.  The story is such an absorbing one, and I love the idea of it – a family waiting for and commenting upon the death of one of their members.  Faulkner’s differing prose techniques in use in As I Lay Dying are wonderful, and show that as a writer, he is incredibly skilled.  Terribly sad on the whole and very cleverly constructed.

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Flash Reviews (31st July 2013)

The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I hadn’t even known of the existence of these newly discovered tales before I spotted them quite by chance whilst searching for Virago books on the Kindle store.  I so enjoyed Lolly Willowes which I read earlier this year that I couldn’t pass up the chance of purchasing the collection and then starting it almost immediately.  What I was greeted with was a short book, but an incredibly good one in terms of the quality of its tales.  I love Townsend Warner’s writing, and she strikes a perfect balance between loveliness and expertly building up an atmosphere.  The lasting quality of these stories and the way they linger in the mind is marvellous.  My favourites were ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘Haig’.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this novel, but I know that it is much loved and well respected in the literary world.  I had read one of Winterson’s books previous to this (The Passion, a quirky book which I very much enjoyed), and when I spotted it on a crammed shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I added it to the (surprisingly) small pile which I was carrying.  The blurb utterly intrigued me.  I found the story incredibly absorbing, and the child narrator Jeanette makes it even more so.  Aspects of the novel were so very sad – for example, Jeanette’s lack of friends, and her classmates and teachers shunning her at school for being so religious – but it was also so witty and amusing.  The balance between the two was expertly done.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an incredibly powerful and unexpected novel.  At one point, it felt as though my heart had been ripped out and stamped over, due to the power of just one sentence.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
I adore McCullers’ writing, and after reading the beautiful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year, I vowed to work my way through her books sooner rather than later.  Whilst the main story in this collection was a relatively interesting one, I do not feel that it or its themes had been quite developed enough.  The characters were not realistic on the whole, and I felt that some of their actions did not at all match McCullers’ initial descriptions of their characters.  I feel as though the length of this story and the mere fact that it was a novella worked against it from the first.  Nothing was quite developed enough.  My favourite part of the story was the stifling and oppressive small town atmosphere which was built up.  After having relatively mixed feelings about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, I began the short stories with some trepidation.  I was interested to see how McCullers would tackle the often restrictive genre of the short story.  I was beginning to think that these tales were all rather commonplace, and then I reached ‘A Domestic Dilemma’, which proved to be one of the most powerful short stories I’ve read in a long while.  In it, McCullers builds up the atmosphere perfectly, and the musings which the protagonist provides about memory are subtly written and very well woven together.

Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson
Yes, I suppose that I am too old to be reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but they were such a big part of my

'Candyfloss' by Jacqueline Wilson

‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson

childhood that I still look out for her new publications and will happily read them.  With regard to the storyline in Candyfloss, it was not my favourite of Wilson’s creations, but it tackles issues faced by a worrying amount of children – one parent deciding to move to Australia with her new partner and baby, and the other staying in England.  Whilst the conversation seems a little outdated throughout, the story is sweet, and Floss is a nice little narrator for such a tale.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
I so enjoyed the first book which I read in the Canongate Myths series (the glorious and inventive The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood), and I also so enjoy Smith’s writing in the other books of hers which I’ve read, that I jumped at the chance to read Girl Meets Boy.  On the whole, the tale which she crafted was an imaginative one, and she used the foundations of her chosen myth very well indeed.  Smith presented an interesting blend of modernity and antiquity here, and injected interesting musings on life, society, rights and morals too.  I love the intertwined stories and the use of different narrative voices, all of which were distinct.  The entirety of Girl Meets Boy is tied together so well, and is so intelligent in its tale and its telling.