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The Book Trail: From Light to Rain

As the starting point for this particular Book Trail, I have chosen one of the standout novels which I read last year, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have a full review on this title forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, but thought it would make a great jumping-off point for this series of mine. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this historical fiction-heavy list. Please let me know which of these titles you have read, and if any take your fancy.

1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.’

2. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

‘In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France—a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.’

3. The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd

‘The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family’s three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to become restless. Her mother wants nothing more than for their South Carolina endeavor to fail so they can go back to England. Soon her family is in danger of losing everything.

Upon hearing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza believes it’s the key to their salvation. But everyone tells her it’s impossible, and no one will share the secret to making it. Thwarted at nearly every turn, even by her own family, Eliza finds that her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return — against the laws of the day — she will teach the slaves to read.

So begins an incredible story of love, dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.

Based on historical documents, including Eliza’s letters, this is a historical fiction account of how a teenage girl produced indigo dye, which became one of the largest exports out of South Carolina, an export that laid the foundation for the incredible wealth of several Southern families who still live on today. Although largely overlooked by historians, the accomplishments of Eliza Lucas influenced the course of US history. When she passed away in 1793, President George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.

This book is set between 1739 and 1744, with romance, intrigue, forbidden friendships, and political and financial threats weaving together to form the story of a remarkable young woman whose actions were before their time: the story of the indigo girl.’

4. One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow by Olivia Hawker

From the bestselling author of The Ragged Edge of Night comes a powerful and poetic novel of survival and sacrifice on the American frontier.

Wyoming, 1870. For as long as they have lived on the frontier, the Bemis and Webber families have relied on each other. With no other settlers for miles, it is a matter of survival. But when Ernest Bemis finds his wife, Cora, in a compromising situation with their neighbor, he doesn’t think of survival. In one impulsive moment, a man is dead, Ernest is off to prison, and the women left behind are divided by rage and remorse.

Losing her husband to Cora’s indiscretion is another hardship for stoic Nettie Mae. But as a brutal Wyoming winter bears down, Cora and Nettie Mae have no choice but to come together as one family—to share the duties of working the land and raising their children. There’s Nettie Mae’s son, Clyde—no longer a boy, but not yet a man—who must navigate the road to adulthood without a father to guide him, and Cora’s daughter, Beulah, who is as wild and untamable as her prairie home.

Bound by the uncommon threads in their lives and the challenges that lie ahead, Cora and Nettie Mae begin to forge an unexpected sisterhood. But when a love blossoms between Clyde and Beulah, bonds are once again tested, and these two resilient women must finally decide whether they can learn to trust each other—or else risk losing everything they hold dear.’

5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

‘Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.’

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

‘Set during the waning days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960, this extraordinary novel tells the story the Mirabal sisters, three young wives and mothers who are assassinated after visiting their jailed husbands.

From the author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents comes this tale of courage and sisterhood set in the Dominican Republic during the rise of the Trujillo dictatorship. A skillful blend of fact and fiction, In the Time of the Butterflies is inspired by the true story of the three Mirabal sisters who, in 1960, were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. Alvarez breathes life into these historical figures–known as “las mariposas,” or “the butterflies,” in the underground–as she imagines their teenage years, their gradual involvement with the revolution, and their terror as their dissentience is uncovered.

Alvarez’s controlled writing perfectly captures the mounting tension as “the butterflies” near their horrific end. The novel begins with the recollections of Dede, the fourth and surviving sister, who fears abandoning her routines and her husband to join the movement. Alvarez also offers the perspectives of the other sisters: brave and outspoken Minerva, the family’s political ringleader; pious Patria, who forsakes her faith to join her sisters after witnessing the atrocities of the tyranny; and the baby sister, sensitive Maria Teresa, who, in a series of diaries, chronicles her allegiance to Minerva and the physical and spiritual anguish of prison life.’

7. Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García

‘Here is the dreamy and bittersweet story of a family divided by politics and geography by the Cuban revolution. It is the family story of Celia del Pino, and her husband, daughter and grandchildren, from the mid-1930s to 1980. Celia’s story mirrors the magical realism of Cuba itself, a country of beauty and poverty, idealism and corruption. DREAMING IN CUBAN presents a unique vision and a haunting lamentation for a past that might have been.’

8. After Rain by William Trevor

‘In this collection of twelve dazzling, acutely rendered tales, William Trevor plumbs the depths of the human heart. Here we encounter a blind piano tuner whose wonderful memories of his first wife are cruelly distorted by his second; a woman in a difficult marriage who must choose between her indignant husband and her closest friend; two children, survivors of divorce, who mimic their parents’ melodramas; and a heartbroken woman traveling alone in Italy who experiences an epiphany while studying a forgotten artist’s Annunciation.
Trevor is, in his own words, ‘a storyteller. My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so.’ Conscious or not, he touches us in ways that few writers even dare to try.’

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

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

1. Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky

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

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

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

3. The Wicked Enchantment by Margot Benary-Isbert

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

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

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

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

5. When Marnie was There by Joan G. Robinson

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

6. The Invisible Island by Dean Marshall

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

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

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

7. The Mousewife by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

8. The Fearless Treasure by Noel Streatfeild

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

9. Summer at Buckhorn by Anna Rose Wright

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

10. The Country Child by Alison Uttley

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

1. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

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

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

2. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

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

3. Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

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

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

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

4. The Velvet Room by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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

5. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf

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

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

6. The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy

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

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

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

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

8. The Tale of Tsar Saltan by Alexander Pushkin

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

9. White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt

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

10. The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion

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

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

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

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

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

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

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‘Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings’ by Shirley Jackson ****

I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015.  For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library.  The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt.  The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.

The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – 81nzbak1holeach a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’  In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’  They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’  Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’

In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection.  She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.

Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic.  Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.

Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding.  She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable.  Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things.  As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists.  At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance.  A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.

Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him.  We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected.  In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time.  Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back.  Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘

The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing.  Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces.  She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.

For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat.  To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style.  Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces.  They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.

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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
9780099521358

The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser ****

I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected.  I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect.  De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia.  Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago.  I therefore ordered a copy immediately.

Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one 9781760111212sitting.  There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre.  Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules…  One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’  It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.

Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow.  They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis.  Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’  Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story.  At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring.  It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists.  Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed.  Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.”  How had that happened?  She was twenty-eight.’  As a character, I liked her immediately.  She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’

We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood.  Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve.  There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’  After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’  This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’

In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney.  In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned.  Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay?  The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’  Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm.  At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’  I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’  I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass.  It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it.  Small parrots shrieked with self-importance.  Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’

I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place.  De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges.  It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension.  I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character.  The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted.  It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful.  There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories’ by P.L. Travers ****

Virago’s delightful Christmas gift book for 2014 is P.L. Travers’ Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories.  In the early 1940s, Travers – most famous, of course, for her charming Mary Poppins books – wrote these stories, which she gave as Christmas gifts to her friends.  Each was published in a limited run of 500 copies – ‘Aunt Sass’ in 1941, ‘Ah Wong’ in 1943 and ‘Johnny Delaney’ in 1944 – and they are now available to a wide audience for the very first time.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers focuses upon three quite unusual characters, all of whom inspired her childhood.  They range from ‘eccentric great aunt’ Christina, who was known as Sass and was the inspiration for Mary Poppins, to a Chinese cook and a ‘foul-mouthed ex-jockey’.

9780349005683Victoria Coren Mitchell’s foreword is rather lovely, and so nicely written.  She begins: ‘These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers; great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories.  Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations’.

As in Mary Poppins, Travers’ descriptions are lovely, and her characters sparkle with vivacity from the moment in which they are introduced.  Aunt Sass, whom it is believed is based upon Travers’ own great-aunt Ellie, is ‘stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving’.  ‘Like Mary Poppins,’ writes Coren Mitchell, ‘she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots’.

In her title story, Travers describes the way in which ‘Everything in the world came back to herself – or her family.  She used notable people simply as a background for her own life…  The universe and other unknown worlds swung about the central pivot of Aunt Sass and those nearest her…  She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-round.  When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses’.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins in sentences such as this: ‘The gruff words were immediately discounted by the smile that lit the grim face with a radiance more moving than beauty’.

In ‘Ah Wong’, a family of Australian children try to convert their quirky Chinese cook to Christianity, with some quite amusing results.  In the third and final story, ‘Johnny Delaney’, the title character, with his ‘little thin bow-legs’ and ‘black, Irish head’, works on the family’s plantation and is a jack-of-all trades: ‘I suppose you would have said that he was primarily a jockey.  That, at any rate, was the form of address he preferred.  But he was also groom, stable-boy and carpenter; even, when labour was short, a cane cutter, and sometimes a feeder at the mill’.  In each successive story, elements of darkness creep in, and everything has a hidden depth of sorts.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers lets her readers in, just a little, to her craft: ‘We write more than we know we are writing.’  The places which spring from her pen are so richly described that it does not take long for the scenes which she depicts to become vivid.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories themselves are not festive; they are merely autobiographical tales which show those who had a large impact upon Travers when she was young.  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories is amusing and heartwarming, and would make a charming addition to any bookshelf.  The book contains lovely illustrations by Gillian Tyler, which match the tales beautifully.

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Short Story Series: Part Three

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the ” Secret Annex” of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne’s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank’s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady’s Life.’

2. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
‘In this collection of wonderful stories, which range between fantasy, humour, science fiction and a sprinkling of horror, the reader will relish the range and skill of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Be prepared to laugh at the detective story about Humpty Dumpty’s demise, spooked by the sinister jack-in -the-box who haunts the lives of the children who own it, and intrigued by the boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard in this collection of bite-sized narrative pleasures.’

3. The Persephone Book of Short Stories
This is an absolutely marvellous collection of short stories, featuring a plethora of different authors.

4. The Wordsworth Collection of Classic Short Stories
‘Poignant, wry, chilling, challenging, amusing, thought-provoking and always intriguing, these accomplished tales from the pens of great writers are object-lessons in the art of creating a literary masterpiece on a small canvas. From the straightforwardly anecdotal to the more analytical of human behaviour, all are guaranteed to capture the imagination, stir the emotions, linger in the memory and whet the reader’s appetite for more. In this book, Wordsworth Editions presents the modern reader with a rich variety of short stories by a host of towering literary figures ranging from Arnold Bennett to Virginia Woolf. This disparate and distinguished company of writers has rarely – if ever – met within the pages of one volume: the result is a positive feast.’

5. Stories to Get You Through the Night, edited by Helen Dunmore
‘”Stories to Get You Through the Night” is a collection to remedy life’s stresses and strains. Inside you will find writing from the greatest of classic and contemporary authors; stories that will brighten and inspire, move and delight, soothe and restore in equal measure. This is an anthology to devour or to savour at your leisure, each story a perfectly imagined whole to be read and reread, and each a journey to transport the reader away from the everyday. Immersed in the pages, you will follow lovers to midnight trysts, accompany old friends on new adventures, be thrilled by ghostly delights, overcome heartbreak, loss and longing, and be warmed by tales of redemption, and of hope and happiness. Whether as a cure for insomnia, to while away the hours on a midnight journey, or as a brief moment of escapism before you turn in, the stories contained in this remarkable collection provide the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life – a rich and calming selection guaranteed to see you through the night. It features stories by: Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Haruki Murakami, Wilkie Collins, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brothers Grimm, John Cheever, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Helen Simpson, Richard Yates, James Lasdun, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Somerset Maugham and Julian Barnes.’

6. Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard
‘From the author of “The Great Fire,” a collection of stories about love and acceptance, expectations and disappointment Shirley Hazzard’s stories are sharp, sensitive portrayals of moments of crisis. Whether they are set in the Italian countryside or suburban Connecticut, the stories deal with real people and real problems. In the title piece, a young widow is surprised and ashamed by her lack of grief for her husband. In “A Place in the Country,” a young woman has a passionate, guilty affair with her cousin’s husband. In “Harold,” a gawky, lonely young man finds acceptance and respect through his poetry. Moving and evocative, these ten stories are written with subtlety, humor, and a keen understanding of the relationships between men and women.’

You can find my review here.

7. The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
‘”The Red Garden” introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in “The Red Garden” are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, “The Red Garden” is as unforgettable as it is moving.’

8. Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
‘An elderly caretaker at a large outdoor exhibition, called Art in Nature, finds that a couple have lingered on to bicker about the value of a picture; he has a surprising suggestion that will resolve both their row and his own ambivalence about the art market. A draughtsman’s obsession with drawing locomotives provides a dark twist to a love story. A cartoonist takes over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown only to discover that his own sanity is in danger. In these witty, sharp, often disquieting stories, Tove Jansson reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and as consumers. Obsession, ambition, and the discouragement of critics are all brought into focus in these wise and cautionary tales.’

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