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Books for Summertime

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 summer, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent autumn and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Reading the World: Italy

Our next stop is Italy; hopefully it will fill you with springtime joy to visit the beautiful landscapes and well-paced way of life which are evoked in the following books.

1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (2003)
‘Meggie loves books. So does her father, Mo, a bookbinder, although he has never read aloud to her since her mother mysteriously disappeared. They live quietly until the night a stranger knocks at their door. He has come with a warning that forces Mo to reveal an extraordinary secret – a storytelling secret that will change their lives for ever.’

2. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (c. 1588-1593) 9780199536108
‘Titus Andronicus was the young Shakespeare’s audacious, sporadically brilliant experiment in sensational tragedy. Its horrors are notorious, but its powerful poetry of grief is the work of a true tragic poet.’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann 9780486287140
‘”Death in Venice, ” tells about a ruinous quest for love and beauty amid degenerating splendor. Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but lonely author, travels to the Queen of the Adriatic in search of an elusive spiritual fulfillment that turns into his erotic doom. Spellbound by a beautiful Polish boy, he finds himself fettered to this hypnotic city of sun-drenched sensuality and eerie physical decay as it gradually succumbs to a secret epidemic.’

5. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
”Look, my lord! See heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!’ The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It inaugurated a literary genre that will be forever associated with the effects that Walpole pioneered. Professing to be a translation of a mysterious Italian tale from the darkest Middle Ages, the novel tells of Manfred, prince of Otranto, whose fear of an ancient prophecy sets him on a course of destruction. After the grotesque death of his only son, Conrad, on his wedding day, Manfred determines to marry the bride-to-be. The virgin Isabella flees through a castle riddled with secret passages. Chilling coincidences, ghostly visitations, arcane revelations, and violent combat combine in a heady mix that terrified the novel’s first readers.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Flash Reviews (18th December 2013)

Percy Jackson and the Battle for the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan ****
This year, I have read through the entirety of the Percy Jackson series of books, all of which deal with a young American boy who finds out that he is the son of Poseidon, and has to battle many beings from Greek mythology with his ragtag band of friends from thereon in.  I find Riordan’s interpretation of ancient and modern so very interesting, and Percy’s voice is believable throughout.  In The Battle for the Labyrinth, the story which has been set out in the first three books carries on marvellously.

Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan ***
I have been so enjoying this series of books, and am surprised that I reached the end of them so quickly.  Throughout the entire series, Riordan has crafted all of his characters well, and as with the previous four books, I love the parallels which he draws between Ancient Greece and present-day America.  The Last Olympian was, however, my least favourite of the five Percy Jackson books.  It felt at times as though it had been written merely for the sake of ending the series.  The ending was a satisfactory one on the whole, but I predicted it in its entirety, which was a real shame.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Shattered by the Shocker (Marvel)

The Amazing Spider-Man: Shattered by the Shocker ***
Being rather an enormous fan of the man himself, I was given this graphic novel for my birthday by one of my University friends.  It has taken me rather a long time to get around to it, I admit, but it stubbornly refused to come out of my next-reads jar.  In Shattered by the Shocker, there are ten mini comics, all of which have the same thread of plot running through them.  On the whole, I enjoyed the drawings more than the text.  It seemed a little stolid and cliched at times, which was a real shame.  As is often the case with such collections, I suppose, some of the comics were far better than others.  I was also a little baffled that Peter Parker and friends, all of whom were meant to be young students, looked as though they were approaching middle age in the illustrations.

Richard II by William Shakespeare ****
Richard II was my third to last Shakespeare play.  It was not my favourite, and when it began, I did not know if I was going to enjoy it.  I am pleased to say that it did improve a lot as it went on.  Overall, the play is an interesting one.  The history within it is presented well, and a real feel for the characters and their personalities is present from the outset.  The writing throughout is lovely, and some of the speeches absolutely beautiful.  I far preferred it to Richard III, which I read as part of my AS Level study and very much disliked.

‘Best Detective Stories of Agatha Christie’

Best Detective Stories by Agatha Christie ****
Winter nights always make me want to curl up with cosy books, and as far as crime stories go, Agatha Christie seems to me to be as close to cosy as one can get.  Although all of the stories in this collection are rather short, they are all very clever.  I found them morally interesting in terms of the consequences of and musings behind the motives of the killers.  I really liked the use of different detectives in the volume, and was pleased to see the appearance of good old Poirot and Miss Marple.  I love Christie’s writing, and her plot twists work marvellously.  I cannot wait to get stuck into more of her stories!

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Flash Reviews (29th November 2013)

Crash by Jerry Spinelli ***
Upon the strength of Stargirl and Milkweed, both of which I very much enjoyed, I will happily read any of Spinelli’s work, even if the storyline does not appeal to me as such.  This one in particular did not, as it is partly about football which I have no interest in, but I began it regardless and still found myself enjoying it.  Throughout, I found the protagonist, Crash, rather difficult to like.  His character arc was believable however, and I admired the ways in which Spinelli consciously altered his views and behaviour by the time the end of the book was reached.  The narrative voice used throughout worked very well, and the writing was polished.  My favourite characters were Crash’s neighbour Penn, and his young sister Abby, both of whom I felt were marvellous constructs.

The beautiful RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare ***
Unbeknownst to me was the fact that this is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays; ‘perhaps even his first’, according to my beautiful RSC edition of his complete work.  Each introduction in the volume is marvellous, and this one particularly sets the scene very well indeed.  Throughout, the introductions speak of Shakespeare’s chosen techniques in each of his plays, his themes, the choices he makes regarding names and vocabulary, and the balance between comedy and seriousness, amongst many other elements.  I really cannot recommend this collection enough.

I did not know anything about Two Gentlemen of Verona before I began reading it. The play tells the story of two friends, Valentine and Proteus.  Valentine has set his heart upon leaving Verona to search for much-needed adventure in Milan.  Whilst the storyline is interesting, it does not feel as polished throughout as Shakespeare’s other plays.  There does not seem to be that marvellous awareness of how powerful plays can be made if things are left unsaid rather than explicitly stated.  This is not the best play which I have come across by any means, but it is most interesting to see how Shakespeare’s writing progressed during his career.  My favourite element here was the fun wordplay employed throughout, which brought a comic touch to proceedings.

13, rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro ***
I inwardly cheered when I found such a pristine copy of 13, rue Therese in Brighton, and was glad when the suggestion to read it came out of my book jar so quickly.  The novel was not at all what I expected.  It contains a lot of source material throughout – letters, photographs of people and objects, etc. – and is told both through letters and narrative.  First, second and third person perspectives have been made use of, and are switched from one to the next quite seamlessly.  The story has been based upon a box of random objects which Shapiro’s mother kept after one of their elderly Parisian neighbours, who owned it, passed away.  Shapiro has tried to recreate her story – an imagined working of how the objects came to be in the box, as it were.

The novel begins in 1928.  Several linked stories run concurrently – one of a professor whose secretary seems to own the box of objects and places it within his filing cabinet for him to find, of Louise Brunet (Shapiro’s neighbour), and of Xavier Langlais and his family, who become residents of the novel’s address.  These tales overlap at seemingly random junctures.  The idea of the novel is interesting, but the use of so many sources – almost like clues throughout – make the whole feel a little disjointed.  I liked the idea of 13, rue Therese more than the execution.  I found the entire novel rather odd, repetitive and jumpy, and the ending was utterly bizarre.  Still, as it held my attention and curiosity throughout, I have given it the benefit of the doubt and awarded it three stars instead of the two which I briefly considered.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico ***

‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico

I have heard many marvellous things about Gallico’s writing, and this title particularly appealed to me.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book, and I did not even know which age group it was aimed at particularly, even when I had finished reading.  In some ways it seemed rather too simplistic for adults, but equally, the latter part of the story does not strike me as overly companionable with children.  The prose style throughout feels fairytale- and fable-esque.  The first section of The Snow Goose takes place upon the Essex coast, and begins in 1930.  It tells the story of a man named Rhayader, a painter and bird lover, who relishes peace and solitude.  My favourite part of the novel was Gallico’s description of him:

“… a lonely man.  His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things.  He was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty.

The main thread of the story begins when a young girl brings Rhayader an injured snow goose, which she hopes that he can save.  It then grows darker in its plot, and Rhayader goes off to fight in Dunkirk.  This element of the story did not work that well as far as I was concerned.  On the whole, The Snow Goose is both odd and sweet, but it feels a little lacking at times, and is not one which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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Flash Reviews (5th November 2013)

The Father by August Strindberg ***
I have never read a Strindberg play before, not even at University, so I was not quite sure what to expect.  The plot was interesting yet a little staid.  My favourite aspect of it was the interaction between different characters – Laura and the doctor particularly – and found that the majority of the conversations worked well as a semblance of a conversation which one could expect to have in real life.  The Father is not a play which I will read again, and nor is it one I would like to see performed, but I am looking forward to reading more of Strindberg’s work.

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The adorable Logan Lerman as Percy Jackson

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan ****
I very much enjoyed the first novel (and film) in the Percy Jackson series, and was eager to carry on.  The first story was very clever, and I loved the way in which Riordan merged Percy’s present day story as a ‘troubled kid’ with ‘behavioural issues’ with tales of Ancient Greece.

The task which Percy and assorted friends from school and camp face in The Sea of Monsters is to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters, which Riordan cleverly casts as the Bermuda Triangle.  The story moves on from the first book marvellously, and I am looking forward to seeing which adventures and monsters which Percy will face next.  The humour and sarcasm throughout work well with the action of the story, as does the first person perspective.  Percy feels realistic, and his character development and actions are believable and well thought out.  Highly recommended if you want a fun, light read, or a novel which is sure to entrance any children in your care.

King John by William Shakespeare ****
I became a little behind with my Shakespeare challenge and should have read King John earlier than I did, but I am hoping that by the end of this month, I will be back on track.  I found King John very enjoyable and incredibly well written, and am surprised that there are not more performances or fans of the play.  Throughout, Shakespeare raises interesting questions about one’s eligibility to the throne, and musings about the best candidates who could take over such a position.  A great history play, and one which I would love to see on the stage.
(Side note: I loved the fact that one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Frank Turner, had used a line of the play as a slogan of sorts – ‘Heaven take my soul but England keep my bones’ – and the latter part of this as an album title.  Awesome choice, Frank.)

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Flash Reviews (16th October 2013)

The Blue Lenses and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier ****
I love Daphne du Maurier’s books, and her short stories are especially powerful.  This collection, also published as The Breaking Point and Other Stories, promises ‘eight stories which explore the half-forgotten world of childhood fantasies and subtle dreams’.  This quote, coupled with the tales in The Birds and Other Stories, the first of du Maurier’s story collections which I read, made me hope for rather a dark and memorable collection, and that, I am pleased to say, is exactly what I was met with.  Each plotline throughout was surprising, and the twists and turns made me unable to guess what was about to happen.  The tales were startling and full of power, and I very much enjoyed them all for different reasons.

'The Weight' by Jeanette Winterson

‘The Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson

Weight by Jeanette Winterson ****
The two books which I’ve read in the Canongate Myths series so far (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy) have been great.  Both were very imaginative stories, and I thus had high hopes for Winterson’s offering to the series.  Her chosen story, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles told in her distinct and unique way, was a marvellous addition to the oeuvre.  The different narrative techniques used throughout complemented with one another, and I loved the way in which the story was presented.  The inclusion of a concurrent present day story running alongside Winterson’s interpretation of the myth worked well.  My only qualm with Weight is that there were perhaps a few too many sexually explicit scenes woven in which were not really necessary, but it is a great read nonetheless.

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare **
I didn’t find Love’s Labour’s Lost as intriguing or interesting as the majority of Shakespeare’s other plays.  The storyline, whilst interesting, did not quite hook me from the outset, as most of his other work has done.  The plot often felt overshadowed by other elements, and I did not feel that it was as developed as I was expecting it to be.  I liked Moth as a character, but he did not feature enough for my liking.  I shall be watching the film version on my boyfriend’s recommendation, but at present, this sadly ranks amongst my least favourite Shakespeare plays.

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Flash Reviews (1st October 2013)

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green ****
(Kindly sent to me by April – thank you!)
I always look forward to a new John Green novel, and whilst this is one of his earlier works, it is one which I’ve strangely never been able to locate in bookshops.  The more I learnt about Colin, this book’s protagonist, the more baffled I was that he was able to have one girlfriend, let alone nineteen of them.  That sounds very mean, I know, but he was very self-important and wallowed in self-pity for the majority of the novel.  His antithesis for me came in the guise of his best friend, Hassan, with whom Colin sets off on a roadtrip with no destination in mind.  Hassan reminded me of one of my friends with regard to his speech and mannerisms, and so I liked him immediately.  I enjoyed the structure, which included scenes involving many of Colin’s past girlfriends – all Katherines – at the end of every chapter.  There were perhaps a few too many graphs and instances of ‘fugging’ in An Abundance of Katherines, but the novel is well written and rather amusing.  It is not incredibly sweet and sad like Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, nor as heartwarming as Paper Towns, but I still very much enjoyed it.

The Lovers by Vendela Vida ****
I so enjoyed Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and have been wanting to read more of her fiction ever since.  Turkey’s landscape was set out beautifully throughout The Lovers, and I found that Vida built up the sense of uneasiness in rather a marvellous way.  She is one of the few authors I can think of whose use of the third person perspective does not detract at all from the story which she writes.  Throughout, she captured the protagonist Yvonne’s loneliness perfectly.  I liked the way in which she describes Yvonne being both married and widowed, weaving the memories together in order to create a full picture.  The characters were all believable and felt real, as did the relationships which Vida built up between them.  The Lovers is a great novel, and one which I struggled to put down.

Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare ****
Troilus and Cressida followed on marvellously from my reading of The Iliad.  I found it most interesting that critics find it difficult to place this play into only one genre, as elements of it cross over somewhat.  I very much liked Shakespeare’s inclusion of a prologue, which set the scene marvellously.  I am often blown away by the conversations Shakespeare crafts between his characters, and this play was no exception.  The insults particularly are rather marvellous; Ajax and Thersites call one another ‘You whoreson cur’, ‘thou sodden-witted Lord’ and ‘thou scurry-valiant ass’, amongst other things.  The plot in Troilus and Cressida moves along marvellously, and whilst it is most enjoyable, it does pale rather against the stunning epic poem that is The Iliad.

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Saturday Poem: ‘Dirge of the Three Queens’ by William Shakespeare

URNS and odours bring away!
Vapours, sighs, darken the day!
Our dole more deadly looks than dying;
Balms and gums and heavy cheers,
Sacred vials fill’d with tears,
And clamours through the wild air flying!

Come, all sad and solemn shows,
That are quick-eyed Pleasure’s foes!
We convent naught else but woes.

William Shakespeare