some time later: a proof TBR update

I’m through that proof pile (we can talk about the library books later/never), so here are brief thoughts on each one.

71tn28sidylThe Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (out 6 Feb): I mentioned this a little in the earlier post because I’d actually finished it by the time I wrote that. Initially something of a challenge to hook into (it starts, shall we say, very much in medias res), it becomes more navigable as it goes on, and reveals itself to be the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on a Virginia plantation whose father is Howell, the white owner. Raised as a body man to his own (feckless) white half-brother Maynard, Hiram’s life is one not just of oppression, but of suppression: to survive as a house slave, particularly one so close to the family, he must occupy an intensely lonely and narrow social stratum, where he can fully trust neither his white family (who could sell him at any time) nor his slave one (who might develop resentment of his relatively high status). When Maynard drowns, Hiram is made over to Maynard’s fiancée, Corrine, and discovers that she has been freeing slaves and running a training school for Underground Railroad agents on her immense plantation, fighting slavery from within its own dark heart. She wants him because of a power he possesses, one his African grandmother, Santi Bess, is said to have used to free nearly a hundred slaves. Here is where I struggled a little with Coates’s conception: a supernatural liberating power that relies on harnessing traumatic memory is a brilliantly resonant idea; trauma plays such an insidious and undeniable role in the lives of descendants of enslaved people now that the idea of channeling it towards liberation is irresistible. But in the process, does it diminish or cheapen the efforts made by real Underground conductors, like Harriet Tubman, who appears in The Water Dancer as a supreme wielder of this power? Maybe: after all, enslaved people were not freed by magic. Or maybe not; maybe the metaphor holds and our conceptions of Tubman’s skill, courage and dignity are enriched by the suggestion that she was touched or chosen by something greater. I’m still not sure, though precisely because it raises these questions, I think The Water Dancer deserves to do very well.

81ongunjfrlThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts (out 6 Feb): Roberts is a travel writer whose work has been published in the FT and in Condé Nast Traveler; this is her first book, and takes the form of a quest. On her travels, she has met a world-class pianist in, all of places, the Mongolian steppe, but this musician lacks an instrument equal to her powers. Roberts determines to find her one, and to do so by looking in Siberia, generally known as a land of unforgiving conditions, prison camps, black bread, greasy soup, exile, and misery. But—partly indeed because of the Tsarist, and later the Soviet, exile system—it also contains a surprising amount of culture, left over from times when highly educated and accomplished men and women were sent to the steppe for life. There are many pianos in Siberia. There are concert halls; there are opera houses; there is a ballet company. There are pianos brought for virtuosi to play and abandoned after one or two performances; there are pianos shipped overland by the determined wives of commissars and high-ranking Decembrist exiles; there are pianos in sitting rooms and music schools, played by children and old people and students and housewives. Siberia, it turns out, is intensely musical. There is great charm in Roberts’s descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the history. I personally tend to struggle with books of this nature because their composition seems so patently artificial: there’s a note right at the start of the text to inform us that Roberts has conflated and combined details of three long research trips to make her narrative, and while I understand why a writer might do that, something about it makes me automatically wary of all the detail that comes after. She also hasn’t quite managed to integrate herself into the text in a way that feels…how shall I put this? Generous? It’s hard to describe, but every time Roberts mentions her own reactions to something, you get the sense that the piano hunt is a proxy; what she wants, really, is an excuse to find Siberia. But there is never any acknowledgment of this, even though leads on pianos sometimes disappear for pages at a time. Hard to sum up, then, this book, though it’s also hard not to fall under its spell.

71pecyno-ql._ac_ul320_sr208320_The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott (out 6 Feb. Mild spoilers follow): Elliott’s debut novel for children stars a protagonist with a condition that goes unnamed in her world, but which is pretty clearly Down’s syndrome. In an alt-Scotland, Agatha is a Hawk: her job is to guard the sea wall that keeps her clan isolated and safe on the Isle of Skye. When she makes an honest, but dreadful, mistake, it’s held up as proof of her unfitness for work, and she’s stripped of her duties. Meanwhile, Jaime has a different problem: he’s been assigned a job as an Angler, a deep-sea fisherman, but is scared of the water. He’s also about to be married off to a girl from the neighboring island, Raasay, which is a fate worse than it usually is in children’s books because Skye people have never married; it’s not part of their culture or society. Jaime’s wedding is political—it’s meant to cement an alliance—but also deeply antithetical to everything his tribe has ever taught him, which is just one of the ways in which Elliott intelligently deals with tropes. (How many times have we seen a reluctant-young-bride figure in YA fantasy, as opposed to a reluctant young groom? How many times have we ever seen a boy being made to do things with his body that he doesn’t want to?) Agatha and Jaime—plus Jaime’s new wife, a Raasay girl named Lileas—must pull together when a betrayal sees their entire village abducted by alt-Vikings.

Elliott puts his characters in convincingly perilous and terrifying situations, and he’s not afraid to be realistic about the violence adults are willing to inflict: when a fairly major character is overpowered by the Viking prince whom the three children have managed to capture, their death is both shocking and thoroughly believable. Elliott introduces fantasy through the legend of the former Scottish king, who is said to have bred an army of shadows to carry on his war with “Ingland”, and to have been destroyed by them. The legends, it turns out, are quite true, and Agatha and Jaime will have to be the best versions of themselves—Jaime will need to be brave, Agatha to master her anger—in order to face them. I could have done with more Aggie, actually; I understand why Elliott chooses to intersperse her chapters with ones narrated by Jaime, in order to orient us, and Jaime himself has a rather lovely trajectory to do with his learning that homosexuality is fully accepted in what’s left of mainland society (and I can’t be the only one who’s also reading repressed queerness in his character). But I thought Agatha’s viewpoint was both unusual and strong, and wished for more of it. Luckily, this is the first in a projected series (the second is already written), and the final pages suggest that Agatha’s unusual ability to communicate with animals will drive the plot of the next installment. Hopefully that means she takes center stage on her own.

41vpl1d7djl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski (out 6 Feb): Initially giving the impression of some kind of Aciman/Greenwell love child, Swimming in the Dark doesn’t actually dispel that characterization so much as deepen it. Though I haven’t read Aciman, I don’t think he’s best known for being tremendously political; Jedrowski, on the other hand, is at least as interested in the effect of state repression on the growth and development of two men’s minds as he is in its effect on their romance. Indeed, he makes it clear that the two things are sort of the same. Ludwik and Janusz meet at a camp for university students, meant to teach intellectuals about the joys of toiling on the land—for this is Poland in the 1980s, half a decade away from Lech Wałeşa and Solidarność. They’re irresistibly drawn to each other, Ludwik with a kind of halting nervousness, Janusz with something more like gracious acceptance, and at the end of the camp, they go on a walking holiday together. They become lovers almost immediately, with a sense of utter naturalness and simplicity. Upon their return to Warsaw, they maintain their relationship, but in secret; in communist Poland, homosexuality is up there with sympathy towards the decadent West as the sort of leaning that can get you into serious trouble. Ludwik, who early in the novel acquires a banned copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, is deeply frustrated by this repression. Janusz, by contrast, seems to see it as a necessary evil, the price a gay communist must pay for the satisfactions and rewards of being part of the state. The tension between these mutually exclusive attitudes will eventually render their relationship, and Ludwik’s continued habitation in Poland, impossible: the novel is focalized through his eyes and in retrospect, from the life he leads in New York in the late ’80s, watching news coverage of the revolution in his home country. We are meant, of course, to sympathize more with Ludwik, whose integrity will not be compromised, but Jedrowski is a good enough writer to gesture at the ways in which Janusz may not have made such a bad choice; he has almost certainly survived, his marriage to the fun-loving daughter of a high-ranking Party official both a protection and perhaps a thing enjoyable enough in itself.

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A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher (out 6 Feb): This is the one I’m going to find hardest to talk about, not only because I finished it the most recently and therefore haven’t had time to let my thoughts about it percolate, but because there’s a lot about it that resists summary, though not necessarily analysis. It is, in essence, the story of a political awakening, but where most such stories tend to stop after that moment (the “small revolution” of the title, in one possible reading), Hensher’s more interested in the repercussions, the implications, of changing your mind or refusing to. His protagonist, Spike, and Spike’s partner of many decades, Joaquin, are the only two people from their youthful friendship group who have not deeply compromised their teenage radical principles. Others—like Percy Ogden, erstwhile leader of their gang, who once harangued an Army recruitment officer and now writes smug, condescending columns for a national newspaper, or Eric Milne, now a QC and a lord—most certainly have. Perhaps the worst offender of all is James Frinton, whom Spike recalls as the offspring of a pub landlord and a clinical depressive, smelling of overcooked peas and despair, and who reinvented himself so thoroughly at Oxford that he is now Home Secretary. And yet Spike doesn’t seem quite comfortable with his own integrity. He repeatedly notes, with something like unease, that the word “boyish” is often used of himself and of Joaquin. There is an extent to which moral compromise defines adulthood; if Spike and Joaquin haven’t compromised, how much can they be considered participants in the “real world”? How much do they want to be? (I wonder, also, if Hensher’s choice to make his protagonist a childless gay men is meant to be a gesture towards this as well. Not that I think Hensher is actually saying that a childless long-term homosexual relationship is a form of lifestyle immaturity; but I do think he might be suggesting that the world at large often frames choices like Spike’s in this way.) Anyway. Very interesting, and quite a good introduction to Hensher’s work, I think.


Have you got a proof TBR you’re trying to tackle? How’s it going?

vital details

It was such an ordinary evening, but every detail of it would matter; every detail would become vital.

Wed Wabbit, Lissa Evans. 2017.

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Lissa Evans had my heart with Old Baggage, a novel for adults about a suffragist’s attempt to impart meaning to her life after the battle for the vote has been won, which came out in 2018. Seeing that Wed Wabbit was released just a year before that only increases my sense of admiration. How talented do you have to be to produce not only a heartwarming, unsentimental, brilliantly angry and complex adult novel, but also a heartwarming, unsentimental, brilliantly angry and cacklingly hilarious children’s novel, within the space of two years? Pretty bloody talented.

Our heroine is ten and a half-year-old Fidge (her mother named her Iphigenia, and her little sister Minerva; her father acquiesced on the condition that he be allowed to give the children unfussy nicknames, so they are Fidge and Minnie). She and Minnie live with their mum. Their dad, a firefighter, died (of cancer or a similar terminal illness) a little over a year ago, a fact with which Fidge is struggling: she hasn’t let anyone hug her since then. Minnie, age four, is going through something of an obsessive stage: her favourite animal is a stuffed red velvet lapine to whom she lispingly refers as “Wed Wabbit”, and her favourite book, which Fidge is obliged to read over and over again, is a nauseatingly cheery and reductive story entitled The Land of Wimbley Woos:

The first picture showed a group of happy-looking Wimblies. Each was a different colour, but they were all shaped like dustbins with large round eyes and short arms and legs, and they radiated a sort of idiotic jollity. Fidge turned the page and continued reading in a bored, rapid mutter.

“Yellow are timid, Blue are strong, Grey are wise and rarely wrong. Green are daring, Pink give cuddles, Orange are silly and get in muddles. Purple Wimblies understand The past and future of our land.”

“Wead it pwoply, with expwession,” commanded Minnie.

Fidge is a tough cookie, but she is looking forward, with heartbreaking intensity, to an impending outdoor-activities holiday. On a last-minute shopping trip into town the day before, her mum’s slowness combined with Minnie’s need for the latest Wimbley Woos book causes them to be too late to buy the flippers that Fidge so desperately wants. Mutinous with resentment, she kicks Minnie’s beloved Wed Wabbit—intending only to take out her frustration—directly into traffic. Minnie runs out after him, and…well, no, it’s a children’s book. But she is hospitalized, and Fidge—now wracked with guilt—sent to stay overnight with her Uncle Simon, Auntie Ruth, and cousin Graham. Graham is hopeless, apparently terrified of everything and overprotected by his parents but convinced of his own superior intellect, “large and pale, like a plant that has been heavily watered but kept in the dark”. While Fidge is there, there’s a thunderstorm, and something extremely odd happens. In Evans’s own, deliberately hand-wavey explanation,

Fact: when Fidge had thrown all Minnie’s toys down the stairs at Graham’s house, the thing that had happened next—the huge soundless static explosion—must have somehow churned them together, and who knew what might—

Yes: Fidge, and Graham, and all of Minnie’s toys (including a pink and purple elephant named Ella and a bright pink diamanté mobile phone that makes a very annoying sound when it rings), and Graham’s “transitional object” (a plastic promotional carrot from a supermarket, which his rather dippy parents are hoping will serve as a locus for all of his fears and help him cope with change), are in The Land of the Wimbley Woos. And not just in a generic sense, either: they are, specifically, in Minnie’s copy, and therefore in Minnie’s version of Wimbley Land. (The Purple Wimblies, upon all of which she has drawn moustaches in felt-tip in her copy of the book, are moustachioed here.) Much more problematic, though, is the fact that Wed Wabbit is also in the book—and here, in what is clearly some corner of Minnie’s fearful and confused psyche, he is extremely powerful. In fact, he has overthrown the Wimbley King (who doesn’t mind, mostly because his greatest ambition is to be left alone), and established himself as a vast (literally; everything is bigger in Wimbley Land, so Wed Wabbit is about twenty feet tall) and terrifying dictator.

Well, terrifying to the Wimbley Woos, anyway. When Graham and Fidge first meet this tyrannical incarnation of Wed Wabbit, the inherent ridiculousness of the situation brings them together for the first time:

“WIMBLEY LAND HAS BEEN WUN IN A WEGWETTABLE WAY, BUT NOW THE TIME OF WECKONING HAS COME,WEQUIWING A BWEAK FWOM THE PAST AND A CWACK DOWN ON TWEATS AND WELAXATION. IT WILL TAKE AN EXTWEMELY STWONG STWUGGLE TO WIGHT THESE WONGS AND I—”

Graham let out a huge snort, and Fidge found she couldn’t hold back any longer and they were suddenly both yelping with helpless, uncontrollable laughter—Graham doubled up, Fidge with tears actually running down her cheeks.

(That’s not a formatting error above, by the way; Wed Wabbit speaks in 62-point all-caps.)

In order to depose Wed Wabbit, Fidge and Graham—plus Ella, the carrot (who demands to be referred to as “Dr. Carrot”, despite Graham pointing out that the “DR” printed on her base stands for “Douglas Retail”, the name of the shop where the vegetable promotion was occurring), a plucky Pink Wimbly and a somewhat long-winded Grey Wimbly—must bring all the Wimblies together to take out the Blues, who serve as castle guards.

Honestly, I’m nearly 1000 words into the review and we’ve just about sorted the meat of the plot. Wed Wabbit pretty much defies description in that regard, but in the best possible way. It is an intensely weird premise and there is no point in pretending it is not—but then, Evans knows, and is entirely uninterested in, its level of weirdness. The mechanism by which Fidge, Graham and the toys get into Minnie’s book—much less get out again—is never explained and hardly dwelt upon. Wed Wabbit isn’t about believable world-building; it’s about using the structure of a quest narrative (free Wimbley Land from tyranny!) to intelligently parallel an arc of internal emotional development. Both Fidge and Graham need to let go of something that is holding them captive: Fidge, her refusal to give or receive hugs (which here are metonyms for affection and the vulnerability that comes with being demonstrative), and Graham, his terror of everything and his belief in the superiority of intellect above pragmatism or kindness. Both of them, in other words, have their own Wed Wabbits lurking in their hearts.

For the most part this is fairly subtly done (at least, I imagine a ten-year-old wouldn’t necessarily twig). There is one moment, I think, where Evans slightly overplays it:

“But why?” asked Graham. “What does he get out of it? OK, so he’s the boss and the whole country’s terrified of him, and everyone rushes about obeying his orders, but he’s stuck in the castle, he never gets out, he never does anything or talks to anyone or has any fun or…” He suddenly became aware that Dr. Carrot was looking at him in a significant way. “What?” he asked defensively. “You’re not trying to say that’s like me, are you?”

Why, yes, yes indeed.

Fidge’s turn, when it comes, is better managed: having done what they believe necessary to defeat Wed Wabbit, she realizes one final thing is in order, and—reluctantly—hugs him. Instantly, he shrinks, colour returns to Wimbley Land (amongst other things, he has been draining everything to white), and good governance is restored. (Not, mind you, by the re-installation of the Wimbley King. The Oldest and Wisest of the Grey Wimblies, who has by now learned the art of brevity, is elected ruler in his stead.)

Fidge and Graham’s personal quests, though a hook to hang the rest of the book from, are not really the funny bits. Those are mostly to do with the Wimblies, who can only communicate in the singsong rhyme scheme of their book, and whose self-conceptions are entirely based around the assumption that each color Wimbly is only good at one thing. (This is, in fact, key to the strategy that ends up overthrowing Wed Wabbit, but I won’t spoil everything for you.) The rhyming provides almost infinite opportunities for wit, and Evans takes full advantage of them. The Wimbley King’s apathy, for instance, is delightfully articulated by the fact that he frequently can’t be bothered to think of end rhymes:

“Sorry, I didn’t hear your question./This muesli’s rather good./Bim bestion.”

When Wimbley Land is freed, it’s not just from Wed Wabbit, but from the shackles of trochaic tetrameter. A Pink Wimbly thanks Fidge in the structure of a limerick:

“But it’s us who can’t thank you enough/We know that your journey’s been rough/For such a brave fight/Your talents were right/You’re clever and stubborn and tough.”

“It wasn’t just me,” said Fidge.

A Purple with green blotches clapped Graham on the back.

“One straw is so weak,” it bellowed. “But take and weave a handful—/Such strength together!”

“That didn’t rhyme,” said Fidge.

“Blank verse,” said Ella.

(I think, actually, it’s a haiku.)

The strength of Wed Wabbit, therefore, isn’t necessarily in its plot: even though describing it takes ages and sounds quite mad, it’s in the service of a not-so-unusual story, about how to find strength at moments when you feel weak, about how to make friends and move through fear. Where it shines is in its complete dedication to being batshit, its ability to convince us that yes, of course, a four-year-old’s idea of a terrible dungeon would indeed include squashy bananas and warm milk with a skin on it, because those are the things she hates. That’s what makes it, not just a good children’s book, but a good book, like Pixar doesn’t just make good movies for kids but good movies in general. In fact, I’d quite like to see Pixar adapt this.

stories with happy endings

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.

The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. 1999.

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Oh, Lemony Snicket, how did I love thee, back when I was a mere tiddler reading through the non-YA section of my school’s library (and furious because my mother would not give me a note permitting me to read the YA books until I had turned ten). The Bad Beginning, book one of his A Series of Unfortunate Events, doesn’t quite count as a 21st-century children’s novel, but the largest portion of the series was published after 2000 (it ended in 2006 with the splendidly named thirteenth installment, The End), so I am counting it towards my goal of reading through this list. Really, to be a completist, I should read the whole series, but I already did read it, when it came out, and the point of the challenge is primarily to expose myself to new children’s fiction, so The Bad Beginning will suffice.

You may or may not know the premise of the series, which is that three resourceful and much-loved children—Violet, an inventor; Klaus, a reader; and Sunny, the baby, who likes biting—are orphaned in a mysterious house fire. The terms of their parents’ will stipulate they must to be sent to live with a relative, and thus their woeful adventures begin. In The Bad Beginning, the relative who takes them in is the “short-tempered, demanding and bad-smelling” Count Olaf, whose house is covered in pictures of eyes and who is obviously scheming to get hold of the vast fortune that the Baudelaire children will inherit as soon as Violet comes of age. He is, or calls himself, an actor, and concocts a plan that involves marrying Violet, under the guise of her performing an ingenue role in a play that conveniently culminates in a wedding ceremony. The children manage to foil the plot, but Olaf and his associates escape, and their parents’ executor must find a new relative for them to live with. Cue book two…

Today’s tiddlers probably come to the misfortunes of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire through either the mostly dreadful Jim Carrey movie of 2004 (rescued only by the performance of Jim Carrey, which is excellent), or the more recent Netflix adaptation. This is something of a shame, because Snicket’s style is so inimitable, and such a delight. As with most things loved in childhood, I worried that a revisit as an adult would disappoint; it did not, not in the slightest. From the patently false authorial name and bio (“Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot. …He is considered something of an expert by leading authorities.”) to the slightly off-kilter urban layout of wherever it is the Baudelaires live (there’s a meat district and a banking district, but also, unremarked-upon, a sculpture district), to the tone that effortlessly combines world-weariness with a knowledgeable avuncularity, Snicket’s world has lost none of its charm. Part of that is that he, and the book that he’s writing, seems to know its antecedents: numerous asides, and a curious blankness or vagueness to the wider world beyond the direct experiences of the Baudelaire children, make it quite clear that there’s an element of fable, or even allegory, at work.*

*footnote: I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly allegorical as it goes on, at least up to about book seven; the children are dumped with a procession of unsuitable relatives, each of whom personifies a fatal weakness of character that allows Count Olaf to continue menacing them. It’s not dissimilar to medieval allegorical adventures: each failed guardian constitutes an obstacle, or a test. But that’s somewhat outside the remit of this review.

Back to the tone: one of the things this series is famous for is its in-text (and in context) definitions of words. Snicket does this for the first time on page two:

…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore…

It’s such an intelligent way of enriching the text without making it inaccessible that one is surprised by how novel it feels. I can’t think of any children’s book that I read before Snicket that did this, and can’t really think of many after, either. And it’s not just for didactic purposes; quite often it’s funny, either by defying our expectations about what words need clarifying (“…his voice faking—a word which here means feigning—kindness”), or by being outrageously context-specific (again, this happens more often in the later books, and usually takes the form of “translating” Sunny’s non-verbal gurgles).

If The Bad Beginning was no more than some entertaining wordplay (one more I can’t resist: the sham play written to conceal the marriage is supposedly by “Al Funcoot”, which, although this is never actually said, is a delightfully crap anagram of “Count Olaf”), it’d still be fun. But its real power—Snicket’s real power—is that there is menace, handled with a lightness of touch that only enhances the effect. Consider, for example, this moment between one of Olaf’s henchmen and fourteen-year-old Violet:

Nobody paid a bit of attention to the children, except for the bald man, who stopped and stared Violet in the eye.

“You’re a pretty one,” he said, taking her face in his rough hands. “If I were you I would try not to anger Count Olaf, or he might wreck that pretty little face of yours.” Violet shuddered, and the bald man gave a high-pitched giggle and left the room.

The eye contact, the touching of her face—perhaps most of all, that “high-pitched giggle”—it’s terrifying. Snicket is too well aware of his young readers to be quite explicit about the sexual nature of the threat that Olaf poses to Violet, but reading as an adult, it is absolutely clear. More on a child’s level, perhaps, is the fact of Olaf’s unpredictable physical cruelty. He strikes Klaus across the face, knocking him to the floor; he puts Sunny in a birdcage; and once he has the children’s money, he’ll kill them. In many ways he is a cartoonish villain, but always a thoroughly believable one.

The only fault I might ascribe to The Bad Beginning is that it lacks some of the baroque elements of later installments in the series; there’s nothing in it to match the empty lift shaft in The Ersatz Elevator or the terrifying climax of The Miserable Mill. Even the allusions and wordplay are muted in comparison: there is, of course, the fact that the Baudelaires’ executor is named Mr. Poe and his horrible sons are named Edgar and Albert, and that he works at Mulctuary Money Management, but that is about as much as we get. In comparison to later books with characters such as the fashionable Esmé Squalor or the tyrannical headmaster Nero (obsessed with his violin), it’s a little thin. (I suspect I still haven’t worked out all of the references in these books.) But as the first in a long series, it contains all the seeds of later brilliance. Not such a bad beginning, after all.

just after midnight

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.

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I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?

A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.

Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.

The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.

I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.

The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:

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A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.

reading and listening

(long-ish, sorry)

Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!

This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…

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A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.

Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.

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It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords –  who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.

The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.

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Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.

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The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.

The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)

Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.

also read recently:

  • North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
  • The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
  • A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.

a bit of most things

Not everything I’ve read since my last post, but a fair amount of it.

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Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve: An addition to the shelf of books that prove children’s literature need not be any less morally complex, engaging, or surprising than adult books (Philip Pullman’s complete oeuvre also lives there). You no doubt know the premise of this already, from the film: in an ecologically ravaged future, cities have become mechanized and mobile, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism encourages larger settlements to hunt and consume smaller ones. (This accounts for Reeve’s justly famous opening line: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.”) Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice historian, saves a famous adventurer from an assassin and, during the struggle, is flung from the city into the wastelands below. He must team up with a physically and emotionally scarred girl named Hester Shaw, not only to get back to London, but to foil a plot brewing within the city itself that threatens what remains of the world. There’s also a third point-of-view character: Katherine, the sheltered and protected daughter of the man whose life Tom saves, who mounts her own investigation from within the upper echelons of London society.

Both Katherine’s and Tom’s moral arcs bend towards disillusionment and the assumption of responsibility, and Mortal Engines is so good because that development is paced so well. Tom and Hester argue periodically about the legitimacy of Municipal Darwinism, and for more than half the book, Tom cannot quite understand why anybody would want a different system; Katherine trusts in the good faith of the authority figures around her for a very long time, even as she continues to uncover proof of corruption. It’s a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to face the flaws in your own beliefs, and it’s infinitely more convincing than the remarkable readiness of, e.g., Katniss Everdeen to overthrow everything she’s ever known. (Reeve also writes with a restraint and sureness of touch that makes his more emotional sequences unbearably effective: a sudden death near the end of the book is conveyed in a paragraph the rhythmic balance and deftness of which made me cry.) I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

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The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty: Back to adult literature for a bit, with Neil Hegarty’s second novel, which was published on 3 October. It centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. It draws the attention of the public for its uncanny freshness: the nature of the materials means the colours should not have remained bright for as long as they have. A short opening sequence is from the perspective of the late Victorian female artist who painted the piece; when it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. It is, in a way, a novel about a stolen painting, but it is not an art-world heist caper; it is very much more about the lives led by three people brought together by a piece of art that is meaningful to each of them, about what sorts of experiences form a person and how that formed personality can sometimes be blazed away, for an instant, by something other. Probably more to the point, though, Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland. Some are more effective than others. I was never quite as convinced by Roisin, the gallery curator, and the story of Ward, the recovery specialist, is by far the most emotionally engaging. But these are quibbles that raise themselves weeks after reading the book; while turning the pages, all of these characters are real. And Hegarty’s prose is just so trustworthy, which is much rarer than it sounds.

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Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, by Colin Grant: Also published on 3 October. Grant is a journalist and Homecoming (or Home Coming; reviews have been published that spell it both ways) is an oral history of black Caribbean-British life from the 1940s onwards. Like many books that use this research method, Homecoming is often not quite clear about when its sources were interviewed, presumably because Grant has visited some of his interviewees multiple times, then cut and shaped their testimony (Svetlana Alexievich’s books are not dissimilar). The book also borrows transcripts from other projects of this kind: from BBC documentaries on the black British experience going back as far as the 1950s, for example, or from memoirs by black British writers. Although this can lead to a kind of historical vertigo, it also has the effect of layering generations of testimony, sometimes in a surprising and enlightening manner; there is a whole chapter dedicated to racist violence in Notting Hill in 1958, but there are also several interviewees who state frankly that Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, ten years later, made little to no impression on their daily lives. It’s one of many salutary reminders in the book that people live, as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “as usual”–that patterns we retroactively read as abnormal or catastrophic are often experienced much less dramatically by the people alive at the time. The point is not that racism never existed or wasn’t as bad as news reports suggested; it’s that no two people of Caribbean descent in Britain have experienced the same things in the same ways. Homecoming goes a long way towards challenging the still-prevalent idea of a monolithic racial narrative.

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The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather: Still on a Cather kick, and I think this might be the best one so far, although possibly that’s because it’s about something that fascinates me: namely, the artistic development of a musician. Thea Kronborg grows up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Moonstone, Colorado, but her talent as a pianist, and later as a soprano, lead her to Chicago, Germany, New York, and beyond. Cather’s strengths are here in full force: her apparently effortless evocation of the lands of the American West; her subtle and entire grasp of the complications of human character; and her innate understanding that artistry involves sacrifice, and that involves decisions that other people can’t always empathize with. (Thea chooses, for example, not to come home when her mother is dying; if she stays in Germany, she will have the chance to sing the role of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, which becomes her breakthrough role. The people in her life are divided primarily into those who understand this perfectly, and those who never will.) Structurally, Cather thought the novel a failure, and AS Byatt, in her introduction, agrees: she cites what Cather seemed to think of as the weakening effect of the final section of the novel, during which Thea is seen at the height of her career. Cather’s regret is understandable; the novel would be strong enough if it ended just as Thea goes off to Germany, her development as a singer now well underway. This isn’t really a book about success: it’s a book about work, which makes a whole section on success a little redundant. But it’s worth it, just about, to know that the work pays off.

also read recently:

  • Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, undoubtedly the most intelligent and rigorous essay collection on the Internet age, and specifically Internet feminism, that I’ve yet read. Tolentino’s a New Yorker staff writer and she is not content with platitudes about millennial culture or about the deleterious effects of social media on our attention spans; she’s much more interested in dissecting how things happen, what the exact circumstances are that result in malaise, or trolling, or a specific cultural phenomenon. Outstanding.
  • Priests de la Resistance, by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a moving and also charming collection of biographical chapters focusing on religious individuals (mostly ordained or consecrated but some not) who have fought Fascism in the twentieth century. The usual suspects are present (Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but also some names quite new to me (Sister Sara Salkhazi, Pietro Pappagallo). He also doesn’t just stick to WWII-era resistance, but glances also at the religious foundations of the US civil rights movement. A bit more balance would have been welcome, but maybe that’s for volume three? In any case: an excellent collation of humans who, whatever you think of theology in general, felt themselves called to save lives. We could all do a lot worse than to follow these particular examples.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, my first audiobook in… maybe ever. Our household didn’t really do audiobooks when I was a kid, and I’ve always assumed I’ll find them annoying. This was technically a re-read, since I read it first at fifteen, but this time around, Atwood’s novel felt much more immediate and daring and vital. For a long time I’ve been quietly skeptical of what all the fuss is about, having only faint memories of the book I read twelve years ago, and now – especially thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s dry, softly-spoken narrative style – I get it. Occasionally Atwood shows signs of the slightly too on-the-nose jokes that have started to mar her recent work (“pen is envy”, recently cited by a reviewer of The Testaments, turns up for the first time in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m not at all convinced by the likelihood of portmanteaux such as “Prayvaganza” or “Particicution”, although the grim euphemism of “Salvaging” is plausible). But mostly, it’s as fresh and terrifying a guide to the ways in which women can be enslaved – and complicit in the system that enslaves them – as ever.

 

 

 

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.