some children’s books

Therapist: and what do we do when we feel a tiny bit heartbroken but also dumb because we revealed our vulnerability to someone who rejected it, and additionally feel waves of acute terror that a no-deal Brexit will threaten our actual life because we need insulin and medicine shortages will be more than a minor inconvenience?

Me: walk to the nearest bookshop and purchase £50+ worth of children’s and YA novels

Therapist: NO

And so:

wrinkle in time

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: Not gonna lie, this one has aged weirdly. Not badly, exactly, but weirdly. There’s a level of sheer serene acceptance of Christian theology that would actually make me think twice before sending it to a child now—not because L’Engle ever advocates anything more controversial than the power of love, but because direct Biblical quotation in a book for eight-to-twelve-year-olds feels a bit…full on? Maybe that’s my problem, though; maybe a child would skate over whatever they didn’t need. They tend to. Also, I can’t quite shake my uncertainty about the characterisation of Meg, her genius-mystic little brother Charles Wallace, and her beautiful-genius mother Mrs. Murry, in particular, ever since reading this Paris Review article. Are they just prototypes of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist trope in YA? I don’t know. There’s enough left in the book, even with my discomfort, to make it resonate with me very deeply: the way Meg is told that her weaknesses can also be her strengths, that what she has in her heart for her little brother is enough to save him from the cruelty that wants him for its own. And the description of the terrifying dark planet of Camazotz, with its authoritarian sameness and awful punishments for those who step out of line, retains all of its power to disturb.

phantom tollboothjpg

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: The complex delights of characterisation are not really an issue in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our protagonist, Milo, is a chronically bored little boy (one rather extraordinary feature of the book is that he appears not to have any parents; it’s not that he’s orphaned but that they simply aren’t mentioned. I guess he’s what that era might have called a latchkey kid, except that he literally never thinks about them, not once. It’s a fascinating omission. Is it that they don’t love him, or that they’re simply not necessary to the story? Or a bit of both?) Anyway, one day he finds a parcel in his room which turns out to be a flatpack toy tollbooth. He rouses himself from lassitude enough to put it together and drive through it in his little toy car, and suddenly finds himself in an entirely different world, where two brothers rule over words and numbers (respectively), the conductor Chroma directs the orchestra of the world to play every day into colour from sunrise to sunset, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord collects loud noises along with his lab assistant, the Terrible Dynne. Milo acquires two faithful companions, Tock the Watchdog (watch + dog, you see?) and the Humbug (stripy, pompous, likes spats), and soon finds himself on a quest to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in the Castle in the Air. The delights of The Phantom Tollbooth are in the rigorous logic of its nonsense world, in which it much resembles Lewis Carroll; if you eat subtraction stew, you get hungrier and hungrier, of course—why wouldn’t you?

*a personal disclaimer: I read The Phantom Tollbooth out loud to my kid brother when he was six or seven and I was eleven or twelve. It made the most enormous impression on him; until he discovered Roald Dahl, he called it his favourite book, and he used to talk about it loads. We never found another book that did quite the same sort of thing.

arsenic for tea

Arsenic For Tea, by Robin Stevens: The second in Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and quite possibly even better than the eponymous first book. Daisy Wells (president of the Detective Society at Deepdean School) and Hazel Wong (Secretary) are at Daisy’s parents’ country house, Fallingford, for the summer holidays, but there is something rotten in the estate. Daisy’s mother (much younger than Daisy’s father) has invited a rather flashy and insincere antiques dealer named Mr Curtis to stay, and they seem entirely too chummy; Great-Aunt Saskia’s habit of pinching the silver spoons is becoming too obvious to ignore; and why does Uncle Felix (who does something top secret for the government) seem to know the girls’ holiday governess, when she’s only just been employed? When Daisy’s birthday tea ends with the unexpected demise of Mr Curtis, and flash flooding cuts off Fallingford from the surrounding countryside, it’s up to the girls to find out which of the houseguests is a killer… The reason Stevens’s books work so brilliantly is that, within this familiar framework of Christie-esque plot devices, she is absolutely committed to psychological realism. Daisy and Hazel have investigated one murder already, and they are only fourteen; where a lesser author would skip over any lingering effects of trauma, Stevens understands that the resilience of youth has limits, that Hazel is upset not just by this murder occurring but by the way murder seems to be happening all around her and her friends, that Daisy’s apparently lesser concern is not (as Hazel believes) a sign of her superiority but an indicator that something is not quite right with her. Daisy’s and Hazel’s characterisations have both developed between books one and two, and I’m very interested to see where Stevens takes them next. (She also has the extraordinary knack of dealing with topics like infidelity, lesbian relationships and pathological kleptomania in a way that feels entirely accurate to the 1930s’ schoolgirl point of view, but also entirely appropriate to her 21st-century audience, neither patronizing nor unsubtle. It is one of the hardest tricks in the world and she deserves to sell very well for it.)

howl's moving castle

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones: Wynne Jones mostly bypassed me, somehow; I had friends who loved Charmed Life and Dark Lord of Derkholm, and I think I read one or two, but they didn’t really sink in. And I’ve never seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is presumably how most people now come to the book. But the Folio Society—of all people—made Howl’s Moving Castle the subject of their most recent illustration competition, and artists produced such stunning and intriguing work for it that I found myself picking it up and thinking I’d give it a go. Well, it’s great. Wynne Jones, like Stevens, takes familiar and even goofy genre tropes (three daughters, a supposedly evil wizard, seven-league boots, curses cast by jealous witches), throws them all together with a huge dose of irony, sarcasm and bloodymindedness, and makes something entirely sui generis. Sophie Hatter is an eldest daughter, which means her life will be comfortable and boring; everyone knows only the youngest children in a family get to have adventures. But when she inadvertently offends the Witch of the Waste, a spell is cast on her that makes her appear to be an old woman. Making her way to the castle of the feared wizard Howl in hopes that he can remove the curse, she finds that being an old woman liberates her from caring for other peoples’ opinions, and she installs herself as Howl’s cleaner. But the Witch is after Howl, too, and Sophie needs to find a way to free Howl’s indentured fire demon, Calcifer, if she’s to rescue not only herself but her employer… Extremely funny, quite unpredictable, and with some action taking place in our world in a way that Wynne Jones simply declines to explain, which (instead of being annoying) makes it all the more magical. Also, and rather unexpectedly, features one of my favourite John Donne poems.

rules for vanishing

Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall: Actually not part of the book haul, but a proof copy sent to the bookshop which I plucked off the shelf in anticipation of its October publication by Walker Books. It is an excellent instance of Internet-creepypasta-type horror, including an urban legend about a girl who disappeared, mysterious documents about “the road”, “the game” and “rules” that must be followed, and a fragmented, documentary-style structure. (I was forcefully reminded in the early pages of this exceptional Reddit thread.) There’s also a very impressive subtlety to the representation of deafness, bisexuality, and stammering; I often struggle with YA where the characters are DIVERSE!!1!1!!!1!, but Marshall does it brilliantly, making each character an individual with a given trait, as opposed to a walking trait. (The deaf character’s deafness, in particular, actually functions in the story: because of it, most of his friends know ASL, so they can communicate silently when they need to.) I’ll definitely be recommending this to thirteen-year-olds and up, for Halloween and beyond.

Currently reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, which I’m loving (more on that in another post, perhaps), and have two more from the book haul stack left: Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, which is new to me but which Abigail Nussbaum convinced me about, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a childhood favourite and also one of those books that, when read as an adult, make one wonder why on earth our parents thought this was appropriate for us at the tender age of nine.

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06. Pericles, by William Shakespeare

I like Pericles. A lot of people don’t, or find its weirdness too weird, its lacunae and unreliability and dreaminess offputting. It is weird and unreliable and dreamy, but those, I think, aren’t bad things. Of all the plays Shakespeare had a hand in, surely the odd ones, the ones that don’t totally work or don’t work the way you think they should, are the ones we ought to be most interested in.

Pericles is particularly interesting for a lot of reasons, not least because Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated fairly heavily on it. His co-writer has been identified as a playwright called George Wilkins who was artistically active only for about three years, writing more or less competent comedies, and then spent most of the rest of his life as a pimp. He does not appear to have been a terribly nice man (Mark Haddon’s recent novel, The Porpoise, which takes inspiration from Pericles, deals with Wilkins in a most satisfactory manner). Most of Acts 1 and 2 are thought to be Wilkins’s, primarily because they’re the ones in which the verse (and the prose, frankly) is less impressive. Shakespeare’s influence allegedly begins in the Prologue to Act 3. If you’re paying attention, you can see it, I suppose, a difference in the quality of the verse; everything gets tighter, the scansion less limp, the rhymes more pungent. But then that might easily be confirmation bias. It doesn’t feel like crossing a Rubicon of any kind. The improvement is noticeable, but not jarring.

One of the other tricky things about Pericles is the state of the text we have, which is shocking. Publishing an edition of the play is a question of reconstructing–sometimes just guessing–what might be meant by lines that are often punctuated in a way that renders them nonsensical, have too many syllables to fit the metrical scheme (or too few), and sometimes just don’t exist. (There’s a gap of probably three or four lines at one point that no one has been able to fill.) General academic opinion is that the text was recounted from memory by one or two of the actors who’d performed the play (one of them might have been the boy who played Marina, Pericles’s daughter): they were probably trying to sell it to a publisher, somewhat unscrupulously, because theaters closed for a year, thanks to the plague, almost immediately after Pericles‘s first performance. They were hungry.

The point is that Pericles is not one of the more accessible of Shakespeare’s plays. Even if a theatrical ensemble can get past the textual problems, and can make the less impressive prosody sound convincing, it is odd. Bouncing from location to location, it follows Pericles as he 1) flees the wrath of a provincial governor who, it turns out, is sleeping with his own daughter; 2) wins the hand of another princess in a tournament; 3) marries, impregnates, and is immediately shipwrecked with said princess, who gives birth to their daughter and promptly dies; 4) leaves his newborn daughter with the governor of another city-state while he returns to Tyre to take up his throne upon the death of his father; 5) forgets to come back for her for the next fourteen years; 6) returns for her after fourteen years only to be told that she’s died [she hasn’t]; 7) after quite a lot of faff and much mourning, is reunited with her in a different city, as well as 8) being reunited with his wife, who isn’t actually dead and has been working as a priestess of Diana all this time. That is A Lot. There is also a chorus figure, who represents the medieval poet John Gower (which is something that doesn’t happen in any other Shakespeare play: a named individual functioning as a chorus between scenes). If what you want is something with a clear narrative trajectory, at least one memorable speech, some naughty jokes, and either a wholesome group marriage scene or a cathartic tableau of dead dramatis personae at the end, do not go to Pericles for it.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to take it for whatever it is, there’s a lot to be had. Most notably, it’s a play obsessively concerned about incest: it’s the opening impetus for Pericles’s flight when he uncovers it in a rival court, it’s a tension when he first meets his wife (whose father is, to everyone’s relief, a doting and appropriate parent keen to settle her in marriage), there’s the constant threat of it when he first meets his daughter, whom he doesn’t recognize. The whole play is overshadowed by the representation of deviant, non-generative sexuality, sexuality that, instead of allowing for growth and forward movement, curls back in on itself like a snake eating its tail. Fathers and daughters must be parted; even as Shakespeare and Wilkins bring Pericles and Marina back together at the end, their reunion is only possible because Marina has caught the eye of a handsome and wealthy young man outside of the family grouping, a socially appropriate match. There’s more to this–the father/daughter relationship and controlling interest in adolescent female sexuality is reminiscent of The Tempest; the lost/not lost wife subplot appears again in The Winter’s Tale–and if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, or even (especially) if you think that he’s overtaught and overpraised and has nothing more to surprise you with, give Pericles a go.


Pericles was probably written in 1607 or 1608. My copy is the Arden Shakespeare 2nd edition, edited and introduced by Suzanne Gossett and published in 2004.

05. Dressed, by Shahidha Bari

Reader, I DNFd it.

Most likely it’s a problem with me, not with Dressed itself. You can hardly fault a book just for not being the thing you wanted it to be. Still, I was really hoping for some fairly specific, example-grounded analysis of garments and styles, and what I got—at least for the first thirty pages or so—was a series of rather superficial, if lyrical, pronouncements. The back cover quote is (for once) illustrative: “Clothes tell our stories, some that we would rather not tell, others that we hardly know ourselves.” As an introduction to a section that delves into specific instances of garments that reveal more than they’re intended to about the person wearing them, that sentence would be okay; still a little dull, but it’d do. As the precursor to several other sentences that are, substantively, exactly like it, it doesn’t convince. Perhaps Bari is more amenable to citing evidence that backs up her statements later on in the book, but life is short, books are many, and I’m never going to get that far.


I don’t intend to replace this in my official 20 Books of Summer list; it’s okay not to finish things. Dressed was published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June.

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

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03. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

~~some spoilers ahead, I guess~~

10 minutes and 38 seconds is the longest amount of time (according to Elif Shafak’s novel) that human brain activity has been recorded post-mortem. (I’m not sure this is true, but as Shafak makes no attempt to convince us of medical legitimacy, I’m also not sure that it’s the point.) In this novel, the dead or dying brain belongs to Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Her ten minutes are spent remembering her life up to this point, in a series of vignette flashbacks that each start with a smell: the scent of the lemon-and-sugar wax that her mother and auntie slathered on their legs, the aroma of the cardamom coffee she used to drink with the man who became her husband. Shafak’s descriptive powers are at their height in these flashback passages, which are the strongest parts of the novel. She is a serious political novelist, but also a dryly humorous one; particularly enjoyable is the sequence in which the madam of Leila’s brothel makes all the girls clean it in anticipation of the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet, only to be stymied by a left-wing student demonstration that means the Americans never get off their ship. Bitter Ma’s rage at the lost business potential is very real and fundamentally not funny–we already know that she privileges a profit above the safety of her workers, as when she leaves Leila alone with a john who has a history of violence and who ends up throwing acid at her–but Shafak simultaneously nails the glorious, futile absurdity that seems to characterize street life in Istanbul. This section also introduces Leila’s five friends: Hollywood Humeyra, Sabotage Sinan, Nalan (who used to be Osman), Jameelah, and Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height; she has a form of dwarfism). These are the people–transsexuals, sex workers, the disabled and the lonely–who form her chosen family when her blood family fails her, and they will be the people who come to take her body from the morgue.

They don’t receive it, though. The first part of the book is entitled The Mind; the second, The Body. Shafak splits her narrative strategy into two: The Mind is limited to Leila’s perspective, but The Body–which mostly concerns the five friends’ attempts to give Leila’s corpse a proper burial–is narrated by an omniscient external voice that observes the living characters without committing to any one point of view. As the five are not her immediate family, the hospital refuses to release Leila’s body to them, and she is buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a kind of potter’s field outside of Istanbul where the nameless dead are denied even gravestones: the individual plots are marked with wooden boards upon which numbers are haphazardly scrawled. Nalan, the group’s de facto leader, suggests a solution: they will rob the grave, remove their friend’s body, and bury her at sea, as she wished. This section (and the very brief third, The Spirit, that follows) is much less successful. Mostly, I think, this is because Shafak’s handle on her tone starts to loosen. In part one, there is a delicate balance between horror and hilarity; in part two, the madcap grave robbery quickly becomes slapstick, and many of the jokes seem to turn on the inherently amusing nature of Nalan’s physical presentation as a trans woman. It’s as though the novel can’t decide what sort of book it is: an evocative meditation on violence against women in twentieth-century Turkey, or a buddy romp.

On the whole, I think, the first section is strong enough to carry the rest. But once the life leaves Leila, it leaves the book, too.


10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was published by Viking on 6 June.

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02. Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer

Lara Prior-Palmer signed up for the Mongol Derby—famously the world’s toughest horse race—on a whim, a month before the start date. Other competitors had been preparing for a year, building their endurance and stamina. She won it. At nineteen, she was the youngest rider, and the first woman, ever to do so. Although her book about the experience is technically, I suppose, a sports memoir(!), what’s most evident throughout Rough Magic is the kind of mental or spiritual transformation she finds herself undergoing. When she starts the race, she’s casual and unconcerned, in it for the fun of spending an August in Mongolia, a why-not kind of person. By the time she’s halfway through, she discovers quite suddenly that she cares. The compelling bones of Rough Magic are the paths she took in her own head to get to that place.

Even, or especially, by her own account, Prior-Palmer is a vague and drifty sort of person. Her family seems to think of her as semi-permanently away with the fairies. But that’s a common disparagement to throw at young women (her father’s friend refers to her as “Avatar”, which she tells us in a way that I think is meant to be ironic and self-aware, but which I actually found quite disturbing–what kind of adult man gives his friend’s kid a nickname deriving from her social awkwardness, then uses it to her face?) In any case, that blinky personality serves to mask more interesting things. One of these is that Prior-Palmer is ambitious, and she acknowledges that she’s been raised to find naked ambition vaguely suspect. Her impetus to win the race comes from being deeply, personally irked by an American woman called Devan, who, only a year older, takes the race with deadly seriousness. Some readers seem to feel betrayed by Prior-Palmer’s immediate antipathy towards Devan, seeing it, I think, as yet another instance of women competing instead of coming together in supportive sisterhood. But it rings very true: there’s little that can spur a person more than seeing herself reflected at a frustrating angle in someone else.

Of course, there’s plenty about the nitty-gritty of the race: the Derby is so difficult in part because it has twenty-five stages and each one is ridden on a different Mongolian pony, which are rounded up into small herds at each checkpoint. Prior-Palmer differentiates each of her mounts with a nickname, which helps the reader keep track as well. She’s great on the confusions of navigating on a seemingly featureless steppe (the GPS tracker is frequently unhelpful), negotiating a place to stay with the local semi-nomadic herders when she gets caught between checkpoints at nightfall, and the cultural cruces that make communication difficult. (She also glances at the particular hazards of being a woman traveling alone, even in a bad-ass competitive way: one local assaults her, and a group of boys attack her pony while she’s riding.) If you’re interested in the logistics of cross-country horse racing, Rough Magic has you covered. But it’s also a very compelling twist on the current crop of memoirs by young women; Prior-Palmer’s psychological growth isn’t often foregrounded, but the reader is ever aware that the Derby is permanently changing her. Very worthwhile indeed.


Rough Magic was published by Ebury on 6 June.

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01. Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

Oof. This BOOK. Three women; eight years; their love and sex and desires meticulously recorded, celebrated, foregrounded. It is, almost unbelievably, nonfiction that – in the very truest sense – reads like a novel; Lisa Taddeo gives her subjects the care and complete focus that we often only give to the people we’ve made up.

The three women she chooses are Maggie, who has an affair with her high school English teacher at fifteen, and at twenty-three decides to seek justice; Lina, who marries the first man who asks, then suffers in the desert of being unkissed and untouched for months on end; and Sloane, who’s thin and hot and rich but whose husband is most turned on by watching her have sex with people he’s chosen for her. They couldn’t possibly be more different, and yet Taddeo seems able to slide into each of their brains with ease. (She is scrupulous, in her prologue, about her sources: she uses text records, phone logs, and court documents where she can, but in situations like Maggie’s–her teacher demanded that she delete every text message sent to, or received from, him–she has had to work with her subject to reconstruct the dynamic from memory.)

The most interesting element of Three Women, for me, is Taddeo’s ability not just to trace the events of eight years or so, but to show how every choice each woman makes, every twinge of desire or dread that she feels, is rooted in experiences from years or decades previously. Maggie’s early years–both her parents alcoholics, their marriage essentially loving but under a good deal of strain–make her intensely vulnerable to the isolation and grooming that Aaron Knodel perpetrates upon her. Sloane’s relationship with her mother, Dyan, a woman who herself was starved of familial love after a car that she was driving killed her own mother, is a kaleidoscope of inherited trauma. Lina’s parents’ apparent inability to take anything she says seriously drives her to cover up her own gang rape (by three friends of her older brother) in high school, then to an increasingly desperate need to have her longings acknowledged as an adult. Their choices are the sums of their lives, but so are their needs, their predilections, their compromises.

You’re likely, I’ll warn you, to come away from this book with the strong conviction that men are worthless toads. None of the featured men treat women well. Aaron Knodel is a weasely paedophile; Lina’s husband Ed is a vague and distant human-shaped meatsack; Aidan Hart–a high school sweetheart with whom she initiates an affair–sees her as an option but never a priority; Sloane’s husband Richard evades all the responsibility for any heartache that their sexual life–based entirely upon what arouses him–causes other couples.

But the point that Taddeo makes, implicitly but with every sentence, is that men aren’t the fulcrum of this book’s interest. It’s called, after all, Three Women. The sheer level of focus and attention, of serious consideration, given to the fantasies and realities of her subjects is almost unprecedented. Lina’s goofy texts to her lover made me cringe with their profound lack of sexiness, but Taddeo never cringes. Maggie’s experiences at Knodel’s trial made me flinch, but Taddeo never flinches. Nor does the book judge Sloane. Such care: is that what we mean by grace?


Three Women is out on 9 July, from Bloomsbury. Man or woman or neither or in-between, you should read it asap.

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