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‘Keeping Henry’ by Nina Bawden ***

Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden – an author who is a firm favourite on the Modern Classics list – is one of the first of her books to be reissued by Virago for a younger audience, complete with new illustrations by Alan Marks.  First published in 1988, the Observer calls it ‘a subtle and many-layered story, one of Nina Bawden’s best’.  The aim of the new Virago series for children, which will expand to twenty titles at the end of 2017, is to publish ‘timeless tales with beautiful covers that will be treasured and shared across the generations’.  Other titles upon the list as it currently stands are a charming mixture, ranging from the likes of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful The Secret Garden.

9780349009193Keeping Henry revolves around a young squirrel, who is found by a wartime family who have relocated from London to Wales, after the youngest son Charlie accidentally catapults him out of his nest.  Unable to be released back into the wild, the family keep the squirrel as one of their own, and swiftly name him Henry.  Keeping Henry is, in part, based upon Bawden’s own childhood, as she herself kept an abandoned squirrel as a pet, and was, like the family in the novel, evacuated to rural Wales during the Second World War.  The blurb plays upon this, describing Keeping Henry as a ‘winning combination’ between an evacuee and family story, and an ‘unlikely, mischievous pet’.  Indeed, the family within Keeping Henry were: ‘upturned from their old life just as Henry was “tipped out” of his nest.’

Keeping Henry, which is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed girl, opens in the following manner: ‘My brothers, Charlie and James, have always blamed me for what happened to Henry.  Even now, years and years later, Charlie still says it was my fault.’  Her ‘sharp-eyed’ brother ‘had spotted the nest high in the tree by the brook; who watched for a while, several days, and then fetched his friends, Tommy and Stan, and his big brother’s catapult.  A lucky shot for a little boy only seven years old, though not as lucky, of course, for the squirrels.’  Thankfully, the boys’ mother is accommodating, and does not mind looking after stray or lost creatures: ‘She was mad about animals.  Sometimes I thought that she preferred them to people.  Except for Charlie, of course; her baby, her favourite.’

As one familiar with Bawden’s work may have come to expect, Keeping Henry does include a level of psychological insight about the family, and their circumstances.  Charlie particularly is shown as being troubled by their uprooting to rural Wales: ‘Charlie had heard the bomb fall, and although it was three years now since we had left the city to live on this farm in the country, he still jumped and went pale when a tractor backfired or Mr Jones, the farmer, was out shooting rabbits’.  Whilst such occurrences are not shied away from, there are some wonderful evocations of the countryside within the pages of Keeping Henry.

Children are set to learn information about red squirrels as they read, and will come to care immensely for the animated Henry and his fate.  Bawden’s children’s books add something a little different to the genre; they are sweet but also witty, a little quaint at times but not old-fashioned, and as knowledgeable as they are perceptive.  Bawden characteristically deals with a lot of issues in Keeping Henry, but the main thread here is displacement; the children are away from their home and their father, who is in the Navy, just as Henry has lost his family and his nest.  Marks’ whimsical illustrations are comical and sweet, and fit well with the text.  Keeping Henry is sure to delight both nature-loving and thoughtful children, and to charm adults just as much.

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Five Great… Novels (A-B)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“The limits of fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world are defined by the high walls of her family estate and the dictates of her fanatically religious father. Her life is regulated by schedules: prayer, sleep, study, prayer. When Nigeria is shaken by a military coup, Kambili’s father, involved mysteriously in the political crisis, sends her to live with her aunt. In this house, noisy and full of laughter, she discovers life and love – and a terrible, bruising secret deep within her family.”

2. Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
“Lucy Entwhistle’s beloved father has just died, and aged twenty-two, she finds herself alone in the world. Leaning against her garden gate, dazed and unhappy, she is disturbed by the sudden appearance of the perspiring Mr Wemyss. This middle-aged man is also in mourning – for his wife, Vera, who has died in mysterious circumstances. Before Lucy can collect herself, Mr Wemyss has taken charge: of the funeral arrangements, of her kind Aunt Dot, but most of all of Lucy herself, body and soul. ”

3. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
“Truly Plaice – part behemoth, part witch, part Cinderella – is born larger than life into a small-minded town. Her birth rocks the pillars of tiny Aberdeen, New York, and breaks her family into smithereens. She spends a painful childhood in the shadow of her older sister Serena’s beauty, and is teased mercilessly for her enormous physique. But when Serena unexpectedly vanishes and leaves her son in Truly’s care, Truly must become mistress of a house she did not choose and the unwilling victim of her brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Morgan. Once her childhood tormentor, he now subjects her to brutal criticism and cruel medical experiments that test her endurance past breaking point – but Truly may have more power than he realises…”

4. Devil by the Sea by Nina Bawden
“‘The first time the children saw the Devil, he was sitting next to them in the second row of deckchairs in the bandstand. He was biting his nails.’ So begins the horrifying story of a madman loose in a small seaside town- his prey the very young and the very old. Seen through the eyes of Hilary- a precocious, highly imaginative, lonely child- it is a chilling story about the perceptiveness of children, the blindness of parents and the allure of strangers. As the adults carry on with their own grown-up capers, Hilary is led further and further into the twilight world of one man’s terrifyingly warped view of normal life. But will she have the sense to resist it?”

5. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
“When Rose Campbell, a shy orphan, arrives at “The Aunt Hill” to live with her six aunts and seven boisterous male cousins, she is quite overwhelmed. How could such a delicate young lady, used to the quiet hallways of a girls’ boarding school, exist in such a spirited home? It is the arrival of Uncle Alec that changes everything. Much to the horror of her aunts, Rose’s forward-thinking uncle insists that the child get out of the parlor and into the sunshine. And with a little courage and lots of adventures with her mischievous but loving cousins, Rose begins to bloom. Written by the beloved author of “Little Women,” “Eight Cousins” is a masterpiece of children’s literature. This endearing novel offers readers of all ages an inspiring story about growing up, making friends, and facing life with strength and kindness.”

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Flash Reviews (8th November 2013)

Selected Stories by Alice Munro ****
I adore Munro’s writing, as most of you probably know by now.  She has recently – and most deservedly – won the Nobel literature prize, though is sadly too ill to collect her award in person from the ceremony in Sweden.  I have read several of her collections to date, and when I saw a lovely American edition of her Selected Stories languishing on a shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I just had to have it.

The volume is made up of stories which Munro has selected herself, and all are presented in a roughly chronological order.  I had read several of them before in other collections, but it was lovely to reacquaint myself with them.  Munro has made a very good selection, and each story leads into the next to form a cohesive whole, despite the disparities between protagonists and their situations.  The majority of her writing here is filled with darkness, and the notion of loneliness and how it is able to affect one is woven through from the outset.  Her writing is beautiful, but this, for me, goes without saying.  Whilst I adore her titled collections, this is a great way to receive a thorough overview of Munro’s stories.  It is better to dip in and out of than to read in one go, as I did.  I very much enjoyed reading Selected Stories in this manner, but as the settings were all similar, some of the stories did run together a little, which was a shame.  Regardless, it comes with this Literary Sister’s seal of approval.

Juvenilia by Jane Austen **
I felt that, being a fan of Austen’s novels, reading her Juvenilia was a must for me.  Unfortunately, I seem to have been mistaken.  All of the stories collected here felt rushed, and the lack of editing in the volume very much annoyed me.  Yes, fair enough, Austen wasn’t the best at spelling, but there was no need, in my eyes, to keep in so many of her original mistakes.  Most of the pieces in Juvenilia are unfinished fragments, all of which share the same themes (yes, you guessed it – love and marriage, or the lack thereof).  The majority are written in the same stolid, plodding, matter-of-fact, rather bumbling way.  In comparison to the Bronte sisters’ juvenilia which I am working my way through, Austen’s early work is decidely poor.

The Secret Passage by Nina Bawden ****
The more work of Bawden’s which I read, the more I am beginning to favour her children’s stories over her adult offerings.  The last couple of the latter which I have read have been thoroughly disappointing.  I was a little apprehensive when I began The Secret Passage, but I very much enjoyed it.  The story is relatively short (only 155 pages in the lovely old Puffin edition I have), but it is so well written.  The relatively simple story – three children living in Africa suddenly have to move to England to live with her aunt after their mother passes away and their father is taken ill – has somehow been rendered unpredictable in terms of what one might expect will happen.  It reminded me a little of Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden and Enid Blyton’s mystery stories.  A lovely, lovely book which brought a smile to my face, and which is sure to delight even the fussiest young reader.

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Abandoned Books

Below are several more reviews of the books which I’ve begun but haven’t finished.

Love from Nancy by Nancy Mitford
I had originally intended to read <i>Love from Nancy</i> last December, when Nancy Mitford was my now defunct online book group’s monthly author.  I felt that it was a good volume to begin before I went on holiday, as it could be left whilst I was away and I wouldn’t have to try and remember the story, as it were.  I liked the way in which the book was split into sections, and that each was accompanied by a biographical introduction of sorts.  Despite this positive aspect, however, I was rather disappointed by the entire volume.  I thought that Mitford’s letters would be fascinating, but they all struck the same chord after a while.  Dare I say this?  A lot of the correspondence here was dull and frequently similar, and I believe that all but die-hard enthusiasts of the Mitfords and their lives would find the collection the same.  With regard to other letter collections which I’ve read recently, it lacks the enchantment of Beatrix Potter’s, the vivacity of Sylvia Plath’s, and the wit of Ted Hughes’.

Glimpses of the Moon and The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
I liked Wharton’s writing and descriptions in both of these books, but I struggle awfully with her characters.  They are so unlikeable, particularly within the situations in which they are thrown together.

The Odd Flamingo by Nina Bawden
I really enjoy Bawden’s writing on the whole, but of late, I have found a couple of her novels rather hit and miss.  This book was certainly a miss for me.  I found the introductory paragraphs relatively interesting, but the characters were stolid and the protagonist very sexist and patronising (although this is perhaps more to do with the time in which The Odd Flamingo was written, rather than what Bawden wished him to be like).  The storyline, on the whole, was rather dull, and Bawden does not present the male first person narrative perspective well in my opinion.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
I’ve read in several reviews that Amelia Peabody, the protagonist of this series of Elizabeth Peter’s, is incredibly difficult to like.  She is.  She is stubborn and sexist, and bases her entire life upon a series of ridiculous assumptions – for example, that a girl she comes across who has fainted on the street will be her travelling companion just like that, with no say so on her own part.  The telling of the story reminds one of wading through rather dull treacle, and even though the book is told from the first person perspective, it lacks both personality and empathy.  I am fascinated by Ancient Egypt, but I found this novel made the subject rather boring – something which I didn’t previously believe was possible.  I gave up on the book before I’d even reached the mystery.

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Abandoned Books

Until last year, if I was reading a book which I wasn’t enjoying, I would struggle through to the end and then feel inevitably dejected about the entire process. The deciding factor of abandoning books for me came with Nancy Pearl, who suggests that if you aren’t enjoying a book by page fifty, you should stop reading it, and either put it aside for the future when you might get on with it a little better, or abandon it altogether. It was with this in mind that I decided to abandon two books over the first weekend in August, because they just weren’t for me.

Circles of Deceit by Nina Bawden
I do really enjoy Bawden’s novels on the whole, but the blurb of this one didn’t appeal to me very much at all. I have been reading one of her books each month with two of my Goodreads friends, and on the whole, the experience has been a great one. I was, however, very disappointed with our July pick, The Ice House, which I abandoned as soon as page fifty was in sight. I had hoped that Circles of Deceit would be far better, but I was disappointed once again, so much so that I didn’t even make it to page fifty. The narrator was egotistical, the male narrative voice was not consistent or believable, the characters were in interesting, the plot contrite and the writing style awkward. I didn’t hate it – I have read far worse books in my time! – but it failed to capture my attention in any way.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
I’m fighting a losing battle with Cather’s stories. I’ve read quite a few now, and they all seem to start off well and then lose whatever momentum they had by about the halfway point, if not earlier. In consequence, I feel rather indifferent about their characters and endings. Contrary to my other Cather reads, Death Comes for the Archbishop did not even interest me from the outset. I love her descriptions, but I found this storyline rather stolid, and the religious aspects of it did not interest me in the slightest. Not an awful book, but just not one for me.

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Flash Reviews (23rd July 2013)

Emma Roberts as Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch by Carolyn Keene
Perhaps it’s because I’m English and was fixated on the likes of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson – all of whom were also popular with my peers – that Nancy Drew completely passed my child self by.  I now know, thanks to the Internet, that she holds a special place in the hearts of many, and so when I saw this in a lovely little secondhand bookshop in Portsmouth, I had to add it to the growing pile in my arms.  I must admit that I was expecting an American Famous Five-type story.  I did get a little excited in the respect that both books have female characters named George, so that was a relatively good sign.  However, I found that I had more dislikes than likes with regard to the first novel in the series.  Nancy Drew as a character was far older than I thought she would be.  I expected her to be closer to the still at primary school age to a fashion mad driving heroine.  The mysteries in The Secret of Shadow Ranch were mildly intriguing, but I struggle to understand why Nancy and her companions had none of the infectious exitement of the Famous Five or the Secret Seven.  Any such injection into the plot of the book would have made me like it far more, I’m sure.   I must say that it also seemed rather stereotypical at times – Nancy and her friends putting on a ‘little helpless girl’ act and two cowboys living in Arizona who went by the names of ‘Tex’ and ‘Bud’, for example.  Strangers were also awfully trusting of Nancy.  Perhaps this is just my inherent Englishness creeping in again, but I must admit that these elements ruined the book a little for me.  On the whole, I was incredibly underwhelmed by the story. I will, however, be watching the film at some point in the future, as I imagine that I may warm to Nancy more if she comes across as a three-dimensional character.

A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden, Virago

A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden
Two of my bookish friends and I have been reading one of Nina Bawden’s novels every month, and I am so enjoying the project that I am beginning to supplement it with her other work.  For me, one of Bawden’s strengths is the psychology of her characters which she so deftly presents.  It is clear that she understands them as well as she possibly can, and this shines through on every page.  The relationships which she builds between certain characters are well played out.  I really like the first person narration used in A Woman of My Age, and feel that it works marvellously with the story.  From what I know of Bawden’s life, some aspects of this book read like an autobiography of sorts – for example, her protagonist joining the Labour Party, and the Oxfordshire setting.  Her use of descriptions, particularly with regard to the scenes she paints in Morocco, set the tone marvellously, and add some much needed vibrancy to an otherwise commonplace plot.

Despite the fact that A Woman of My Age is an incredibly well written piece with believably crafted characters, I struggled to actually like any of them.  The weak among them seemed too feeble, and the strong-minded too callous.  Elizabeth, the narrator of the piece, was rather too pretentious, and in one scene she even complains about the family home which she and her husband move into as having ‘only six bedrooms’.  I found the passages about Richard and Elizabeth’s past lives rather dull if I’m honest, especially with regard to their professions.  My interest in it slipped as it reached the middle, but the last few unexpected and rather startling chapters really pulled it back for me.  A Woman of My Age is a quiet novel in many respects, but the way in which Bawden portrays humans and the cruelties which can rage amongst us alone makes it worth reading.

Joe Berger’s marvellous ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ illustrations

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
As a child, I was utterly terrified by parts of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film.  The child catcher in particular haunted many a night.  I remember much of the production to this day, and was incredibly interested to see if the story differed from book to screen, and if so, how much.  Many of the elements were really very different within the novel – for example, the twins’ father, Caractacus Potts, seems far more interested in inventing than he does in the film; they have a mother, Mimsie; the family are not destitute, and the twins even go to boarding school.  I loved the way in which Fleming crafted this tale, and his prose was so exuberant – both bouncy and fun.  He has created such a wonderful adventure, and the many twists and turns worked so well.  I found the entirety rather unpredictable, which is a marvellous tool to use in fiction, I think.  I personally think that the plot in the novel was far superior to that of the film, and I struggle to see why they changed it quite so much.  This tale takes place in England and France, and not in Bavaria, and there is not a child catcher in sight, much to my delight.  I absolutely loved discovering the original story, and I am already very much looking forward to re-reading it when I have a little one in tow.