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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 (Boxing Day Edition)

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!  I hope your Christmas Day was a beautiful one.  (As with all of my Christmas posts, this was written a couple of weeks before the big day, so my excitement is building greatly at present.)  Below, I shall be writing about one of Philip Larkin’s novels, another of Carol Ann Duffy’s gorgeous poetry books, another in the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and a most interesting piece of non-fiction about women who lived in Paris between 1900 and 1940.

‘A Girl in Winter’ by Philip Larkin (Faber & Faber)

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin ****
My sister purchased this beautiful book for me for my birthday (I have a different cover to the one pictured, with a beautiful painting upon it), but I patiently waited until winter came around to read it.  I must confess that I have read very little of Larkin’s poetry, which is awful of me, particularly as he was born and grew up in the city in which I went to University.  I was most looking forward to reading his two novels, and was overjoyed when A Girl in Winter was given to me.

The novel begins in the most beautiful of ways.  Larkin is so in control of the language which he uses, and he weaves some truly stunning sentences.  In A Girl in Winter, he tells the story of Katherine, a young girl who comes from somewhere abroad to spend a holiday with the Fennel family in Oxfordshire.  Part of the novel deals with her teenage self, and another with her early adulthood, in which she is living in a dreary town and working as a librarian.  We never find out where it is that Katherine hails from, but I quite enjoyed the ambiguity.  As a character, she was fully formed and such information, whilst it would have been mildly interesting to know, may have been rather superfluous to the plot and her experiences.  In A Girl in Winter, Larkin has written a great novel, in which the character arcs work marvellously, and everything is so very believable.

One of the beautiful illustrations from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Wenceslas’

Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy *****
I purchased this gorgeous little book from Waterstone’s just after the New Year, but felt that it was too seasonal to read immediately.  It has languished on my to-read shelf ever since, and I am so pleased that I have been able to read it at last.  As with all of her Christmas books, it goes without saying that Wenceslas is absolutely beautiful.  Stuart Kolakovic’s illustrations are sublime, and I could look at them for hours.  The marriage of prose and picture is perfect.

In Wenceslas, Duffy treats us to a medieval feast.  She has written a reimagining of the Christmas carol, which ‘celebrates what is truly important at this special time of year; the simple acts of kindness that each of us can show another’.  Duffy has made me long to back to beautiful Prague, where Wenceslas, of course, is set.  The rhyme scheme is lovely, and like The Christmas Truce, this is a book which I shall enjoy each and every year.  It is a delight from start to finish.

The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket ***
April very kindly sent me the missing fifth book in the A Series of Unfortunate Events, so that I could slot it into my reading of Snicket’s books.  The Austere Academy, whilst interesting, is definitely my least favourite of the series so far, merely because it does not seem to be as original as those which precede it.  Whilst I liked the Quagmires, friends of the Baudelaire children, I felt as though the tale was a little too predictable, and I guessed a lot of it far before it happened, which was a real shame.

‘Women of the Left Bank’ by Shari Benstock

Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 by Shari Benstock ***
I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it.  Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them, I had not even heard of.  Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on.  The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.

The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into.  Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture.  It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did.  Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.