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Christmas, the Carol Ann Duffy Way

Last Christmas, I read the majority of Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poems, all of which I very much enjoyed.  To get us in the mood for the current festive season, I thought that I would amalgamate my short reviews of them all into one post.

Another Night Before Christmas (2010) 9780330523936
This extended poem, about a young girl’s longing to find out whether Santa is real, is just as lovely as ever.  The artwork here is gorgeous; minimalist and lovely.  A delightful volume.

The Christmas Truce (2011)
9781447206408This was the first of Duffy’s Christmas poems which I read after finding a lovely little copy for fifty pence in a Notting Hill bookshop, and it evokes one of my favourite historic Christmas stories, that of the 1914 truce between German and English soldiers in the trenches, when they played the famous football match and sang carols.  There is such humanity and sensitivity packed into these pages, and it is a true delight to settle down with each winter.

Wenceslas (2012) 9781447212027
A beautifully illustrated and rather sumptuous poem; perfect for making one think of Christmas past, and the true message of the season – good will to all men.

Bethlehem (2013)
9781447226123Alice Stevenson’s art is lovely and fitting, particularly with regard to scenery and still lives, and Duffy is on form with the originality of her wordplay throughout.  I particularly enjoyed the use of sibilants, and think that this would be a great volume to read aloud: ‘The moon rose; the shepherd’s sprawled, / shawled, / a rough ring on sparse grass, passing / a leather flask’, for instance.  On the whole, it is a really sweet poem which promotes a nice message, but I think it would have been better had it been extended slightly.  Still, it is a lovely contemplative Christmas read.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday (2014)
9781447271505I put off reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday when it was first released as Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poem, but couldn’t resist ordering a secondhand copy to read over Christmas 2016.  It’s not that festive, but it is a lovely little volume.  The art style is gorgeous, and I loved the use of just a few colours, an effective and evocative choice on the part of the illustrator.  The poem itself was sweet; not my favourite Duffy, but a simple and vivid story nonetheless.  It is not as playful as a lot of her other work; the vocabulary used is not unusual, and was even a little simplistic in places.  Still, I feel that I will probably indefinitely reread this once a year as the festive season rolls around.

The King of Christmas (2016)
9781509834570I love the fact that The King of Christmas is based upon tradition from the Middle Ages, in which a Lord of Misrule could be appointed to take charge if the original ruler was in need of a break, or some light relief.  The art here is very appealing, and Duffy’s rhyme scheme and wordplay worked perfectly.  Thoughtful and mischievous, The King of Christmas evokes winters past in rather a magical way.  It is a perfect addition to the set.

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Flash Reviews (20th January 2014)

‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault

The Charioteer by Mary Renault ***
Renault is one of the Virago authors whom I have most been looking forward to reading, particularly because April so adores her.  The Charioteer has been recently reissued, and many new reviews can be read in major publications, most of which praise it highly. From the start, I felt that I was reading something ultimately special.  Renault’s writing is absolutely lovely, and her characters and scenes are so very believable.The many years which pass between the chapters is an interesting technique.  Laurie, our protagonist, jumps from being a five-year-old to a seventeen-year-old applying to Oxford, and at the next juncture, he is twenty-three.  Despite all of the lost time between chapters, it does feel as though we get to know him rather well.  The Charioteer, which deals with Laurie’s homosexuality, is a very sad novel at times.  A lot of pain has been woven into his story, manifesting itself both physically and emotionally.  Overall, I found that the story was an interesting one, and Renault certainly addresses some important and topical issues, but my qualm with it was that I could not warm to Laurie.  I also found that I enjoyed the first two chapters far more than the rest of the novel.  Regardless, I would still very much love to read more of Renault’s work.

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‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham ****
I first read Before I Die when the paperback came out.  I did enjoy it, but found it incredibly chilling, coming as it did just a couple of years after my own grandmother passed away from cancer.  After watching ‘Now Is Good’, a 2012 film which is based upon the book and which stars the lovely Dakota Fanning, a re-read was prompted.

Before I Die tells the story of Tessa from her own perspective.  Four years previously, she was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia, which has become terminal.  Tessa has made a list of all the things which she wants to do before she passes away.  The novel is so very sad, even when you are prepared for what is coming, but Downham handles the topic so sensitively.  Tessa’s narrative voice is incredibly strong.  She is not always the most likeable of characters in terms of her actions, but everything she does is consistent with the shattering news which she has to face.  In this way, Downham has rendered her book rather a gritty read at times.  I liked the way in which she has blended several different stories together, and the way in which she shows how Tessa’s illness affects those around her, as well as herself.  I enjoyed Before I Die far more the second time around, and to everyone who has read and adored John Green’s beautiful The Fault In Our Stars, I say go and read this.

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The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy ***** (re-read)
Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas books are absolutely beautiful, both in terms of the words and illustrations.  I first read The Christmas Truce, which tells the lovely story of the British and German soldiers putting down their arms during a First World War Christmas, and spending a peaceful day together, swapping gifts and playing a football match, last year, when I spotted it in the lovely Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange.  This is a book which I will gladly read every single year, and one which I will never tire of.

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From ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde (1907)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde ****
I absolutely adore Oscar Wilde, and this is one of just two works of his which I had not yet read.  The sense of place throughout this poetry collection is stunning, and his writing sublime.  I adore his use of language.  A wealth of subjects have been considered here – Milton, Nelson, Ancient Greece, death, nature, Scandinavian myths and legends, travelling, religion and history just to name a few.  Sadly, I did not quite fall in love with The Ballad of Reading Gaol enough for it to rank amongst my favourites, but it is still lovely.  My favourite poems were ‘The Harlot’s House’ and ‘Les Ballons’, which you can read below.

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Les Ballons

Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;

Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.

Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.

Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.