Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Top Fifty Children's Books - The Fourth Instalment

We are currently on holiday in the South West of France (by far the best bit of the Hexagon, in my not so humble opinion) and, what with that and the inevitable pre-hols work nightmare, I’ve kind of got behind on posting, which is a shame as I really want to post on a couple of great books I’ve read recently – a fantastic ‘60s London crime novel and a rich and epic memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union.  Still, before I can do that, I need to finish my count down of my top fifty childhood books.  So, continuing where I paused, before swanning off to sun, sea and gorgeous food……….

31.          Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling.  Leaving aside his questionable imperial politics
and iffy poetry, these timeless tales continue to appeal in their simplicity and originality.  Mini-Falaise enjoys How the Leopard Got His Spots as much as I ever did – what makes it even more special is the fact that the cover of the Folio Society edition from which I read to mini-Falaise is the same as that of the edition my father bought for me nearly 40 years ago, O Dearly Beloved.

32.          Noggin the Nog by Oliver Postgate.  This series of books, based in the cult children’s TV series, featured the aforesaid Noggin, the heir to a quasi-Viking throne, who is constantly battling his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad.  This one probably won’t ring any bells for anyone non-British or under the age of 40.

33.          Comet in Moominvalley by Tove Jansson.  One thing I’ve noticed in this top 50 list is the Scandinavian influence, either authorial or in the characters – I don’t know if this is coincidence or whether Scandinavia was an epicentre for children’s writing during the ‘70s but it’s interesting (at least to me).  I don’t think I read all the Moomins books but this is the one that has stuck in my mind.  The Moomins were white, round-faced fairytale-like characters who lived in Moominvalley and had numerous adventures.  As well as also featuring in a TV series, there is also apparently a Moomin theme park in Finland.

34.          Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson.  This is another wonderful book where one has to separate one’s views on the book from one’s feelings about the author (Williamson’s popularity dwindled after he became a supporter of Oswald Mosley).  It tells the story of the life and death of the title character, an otter living on the banks of the rivers Taw and Torridge in Devon.  What separates this from the usual animal story is its lack of anthropomorphism – Williamson tends not to ascribe human motives or emotions to his characters – and a pretty brutal description of the hunt for Tarka by the local otter hunt.  It’s a real antidote to much of the over-sentimentality that features in children’s books with animal characters.

35.          Smith by Leon Garfield.  I don’t know if children still read Leon Garfield’s books today – if not, it’s a shame because they are rich and vivid.  Smith is the story of a young pickpocket in Victorian London who witnesses a murder and finds a document belonging to the victim, which leads to him being hunted across London.  I remember the feel of London that Garfield created (and which I can now describe as Dickensian!).

36.          Jennings and Darbishire.  Technically, Jennings is the protagonist in Antony Buckeridge’s tales but Darbishire, his side-kick and foil, is so integral to them that it seems unfair to exclude his name.  As a pre-school kid in late ’70s England, these stories were almost custom-built for me.  Jennings and Darbishire are boarders at Linbury Court, a fictional prep school.  Their adventures were hilarious (although probably massively dated now), revolving around Jennings’ uninhibited curiosity.  I can’t pick a favourite but Jennings Follows a Clue and According to Jennings would be contenders.

37.          The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier.  A true classic, this is the story of four children in wartime Europe, trying to make their way from Poland to Switzerland to find the parents of three of them who have been taken away by the Nazis.  

38.          The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes.  Brilliant story about two girls who draw a picture
of an old witch, living alone on a glass mountain.  She is lonely so the girls draw her a family and these are their stories.  I loved this as a kid.

39.          The Diary of Anne Frank.  It’s a classic, everyone knows it and there’s little I can add to the sum of human knowledge about it, save to say that, like millions, it touched me deeply.

40.          One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Like Anne Frank’s Diary, this wasn’t specifically written as a children’s book but we read it at school when we were quite young so I feel free to include it here.  As it says in the tin, it tells the story of one day in the life of a prisoner in one of Stalin’s gulags.  Obviously the political detail escaped me then (if you’re interested read Gulag by Anne Applebaum – brilliant history) but it moved me and made me think hard.

So there we have it, just ten more to go…………which will follow on my return from La Belle France.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Classics Spin #3

In an unscheduled interruption to my countdown of my favourite 50 books from childhood, I’m going to take part the first Classics Club spin since I joined a little while.  The principle appears to be quite simple – I list twenty books from my Classics Club list, they post a random number from one to twenty and, in August and September I have to read whichever book on my list the number corresponds to.
So, without more ado, here is my spin list:

1.   Fantômas – Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
2.   The Thirty Nine Steps - John Buchan (reread)
3.   Rashomon – Akutagawa Ryunosuke
4.   The Trial – Franz Kafka
5.   Chaka the Zulu – Thomas Mofolo
6.   The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hasek
7.   The Sword of Honour trilogy – Evelyn Waugh (reread)
8.   Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Döblin
9.   Mr Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood
10.   Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell
11.   Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
12.   The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
13.   Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
14.   The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (reread)
15.   Interview with a Vampire – Anne Rice
16.   The Twelve Caesars – Suetonius
17.   The Complete Short Stories – Saki
18.   The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis
19.   The Voyage of Argo – Apollonius of Rhodes
20.   Any Old Iron – Antony Burgess

Let’s see what comes up on the wheel tomorrow!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My Top Fifty Children's Books - the Third Instalment

And, now, in the third instalment, we count from 21-30……………………..

21.       The Adventure series by Enid Blyton

Although I loved many of Enid Blyton’s books, I think this series was probably my favourite.  In some
respects it followed a classic Blyton concept - four children with an animal companion (in this case Kiki the parrot) off having adventures and solving mysteries without much assistance from adults.  In other ways, however, I think it was much more interesting than her other adventure books.  Firstly, the children were, generally, more well-defined with their own talents and clear personalities.  Secondly, there was even less adult involvement than in, say the Famous Five - for instance, in The Circus of Adventure (my personal favourite) two of the children are, essentially kidnapped at the beginning of the story and taken abroad where the other two follow them with no adult assistance.  But, most interestingly, was the gradual construction over the series of a traditional nuclear family as, firstly, the mother of two of the children adopts the other two children (who were orphans) before, later in the series, she marries the main male protagonist, Bill Cunningham, completing the family.  It kind of chimes with Blyton’s anachronistic social mores and, maybe, wouldn’t work today.

22.       Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

Written in 1929, Emil and the Detectives concerns a small boy who is sent to Berlin by his mother with some money for his grandmother.  The money is stolen from him on the train so he puts together a gang of Berlin children to be his detectives and hunt down the thief.  It’s a relatively simple tale but one I rather enjoyed.

23.       Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved mythology and, especially Greek and Roman mythology.  My parents bought me versions of the Odyssey and the Iliad for children and I suspect this love pushed me towards studying classics at school and, eventually, taking both Latin and Greek A-levels.  One of my favourite books about mythology was Roger Lancelyn Green’s collection of Greek myths for children.  All the old favourites are there and, as it’s definitely still in print, I’d heartily recommend it.  Mini-Falaise is blissfully unaware but, one day, her old man will be sitting down with her to read this.

24.       Tales of the Roman Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green

See above but this time in Rome.  I never read his books on Arthurian, Egyptian and Norse mythology but wish I had - I may have come to those mythoi sooner.  Incidentally, I didn’t realise that Lancelyn Green was a former pupil and, later, friend of C.S. Lewis, another resident of this list.

25.       The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I can’t help thinking of this as a book of wordplay and language teaching as much as a story.  It’s a fun story of a boy, Milo, who drives his toy car through a magic tollbooth to the Kingdom of Wisdom where he visits places such as Dictionopolis and the Island of Conclusions and goes on a quest to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason.  If you haven’t read it, it’s really very good with lots of puns and suchlike.  When I was a teenager at boarding school, my parents occasionally used to take me to a restaurant called Le Talbooth for lunch which always triggered memories of this book and tickled me somewhat.

26.       A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin

With due apologies to fans of J.K. Rowling, before Hogwarts there was Roke and before Harry there was
Ged.  A Wizard of Earthsea is Harry Potter with added oomph.  It is the story of Ged, the true name of a goatherd who, having shown great but raw magical power is sent by his first master, Ogion to the school for wizards on the island of Roke.  Although still nominally a children’s book, it is filled with more sophisticated images and ideas and is much scarier and adult in tone than Rowlings series.  As a standalone novel, it is fabulous and also forms part of the Earthsea cycle of five books.  It’s meaty and substantial fare and I still have a copy on my shelves.

27.       Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien

I loved the idea of a group of rats with human intelligence helping Mrs Frisby move her poorly little son to her summer house and away from the farmer’s plough.  It’s a lovely book.

28.       The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Need I go on?  The tales of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad are all-time classics.  Loved them then, still love them now.

29.       Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The classic tale of pirates.  Long John Silver, Israel Hands, Billy Bones and Jim Hawkins.  As well as being an exciting adventure full of action and skullduggery, it also introduced some of the now-standard pirate tropes - the treasure map where X marks the spot, the treasure island and fifteen men on a dead man’s chest.  Brilliant stuff.

30.       The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

I have to confess I had to do a bit of searching to find the title of this book and the name of the author as only the basic plot had stuck in my head.  In my defence though, it is over thirty years since I read it.  This story, set during World War II, revolves around a group of kids who find a crashed German bomber with a machine gun in full working order.  The kids turn it into a fortress to defend their town.  It’s tense and exciting and is another book where the children take on the adult world independently.

So, that’s all for today.  There are 20 more to go on my list.  Tune in again tomorrow…..or maybe the next day for numbers 31-40.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My Top Fifty Children's Books - The Second Instalment

Carrying on from my last post, here is the second part of my Top 50 children’s books……….

11.       Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

I spent most of my childhood living either in a city or a suburban town and so Ransome’s tale of dinghy sailing, camping and outdoor adventure totally appealed to me.  Funnily enough, although I loved this, I never bothered reading any of the other books in the series and I can’t, for the life of me, remember why.

12.       The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I can’t think of anything more enticing to a child’s mind than the thought of discovering a completely new world accessible through the back of a wardrobe.  Add in fauns, a witch, snow, Turkish delight (yum) and Aslan and it’s an all-time classic.  I read a couple more in the series but then lost interest and this one is clearly a cut above the others.

13.       Watership Down by Richard Adams

Apparently, Watership Down has been described as an allegory of the endless struggle between freedom and tyranny.  I can’t say that occurred to me as a young boy; I just enjoyed it as a story with its quests, escapes and heroic battles.  It’s also got a deeply poignant ending which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it.  It was made into an excellent animated film with that Art Garfunkel song.  My father took me to see it and, dear reader, I might have had a moist eye or two at the end.

14.       Paddington Abroad by Michael Bond

I was a big Paddington fan generally but this story of the Browns’ holiday to France and Paddington’s misadventures on the continent is the Paddington story that stood out for me, especially the cover with Paddington’s usual hat replaced by a French beret.

15.       The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton

I was much more “Team Famous Five” than “Team Secret Seven” but I did love the idea of their clubhouse and the secret password.  Basically, however, I loved all those stories of Blyton’s about groups of kids solving crime and having adventures.

16.       Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Another in Dahl’s amazing catalogue of children’s books.  I was a big fan of this story of Mr Fox and his struggles to feed his family and the other underground creatures in the face of constant attack from Messrs Boggis, Bunce and Bean.  The edition I had contained a brilliant illustration, showing Fox’s underground run from his burrow to the farmers’ storehouses.  It’s a shame that the recent film takes liberties with the story.  Mini-Falaise thoroughly enjoyed this when I read it to her.

17.       Diving Adventure by Willard Price

I read all of Price’s wildlife-based adventure stories but tended to enjoy the diving or sea-set ones best.  This
one revolved around a diving expedition to an underwater city to collect specimens and the whole underwater city really grabbed my imagination (The whole undersea thing may explain why The Spy Who Loved Me remains one of my favourite Bond movies).  Some of Price’s attitudes are a bit anachronistic but I am glad to see that some of the books have been reissued - I bought two of them for my oldest nephews birthday last year.

18.       Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Prøysen

I only read some of the Mrs Pepperpot stories but they were very enjoyable.  For those unaware of her, Mrs Pepperpot is a little, old lady with the unfortunate habit of sometimes shrinking to the size of a pepper pot, occasioning some inventive stories of how she escapes from the tricky situations this lands her in.

19.       My Friend Mr Leakey by J.B.S. Haldane

Haldane is better known as a geneticist and Marxist but I first encountered him in his guise as author of this wonderful little book, containing stories about Mr Leakey, a magician, his Djin, pet dragon and servant, an octopus.  The stories were really inventive (I particularly enjoyed A Meal With A Magician) and the illustrations are by Quentin Blake, always a plus point.  I’m pretty sure there’s a reference to custard apples in here that really fired my imagination (I really loved custard as a child).  I pestered my mother for years to find one and, when she finally did, I was most disappointed with the flavour.  Anyway, I’ve bought a copy of this and am looking forward to reading it with mini-Falaise in due course.

20.       Stig of the Dump by Clive King

One day Barney, whilst out exploring the woodland near his house discovers a cave-boy living in a pit amongst the rubbish.  Although Barney’s parents don’t believe him when he tells them about Stig, the two become friends and have lots of adventures exploring the woods.  It’s brilliant and an absolute classic and I loved it.

I’m now 40 per cent. through my Top 50 list and it’s turning out to be quite different to that of The Times, although there are some overlaps.  Do come back tomorrow - or possibly the next day - for another instalment.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Top Fifty Childrens' Books - the First Instalment

As promised in my last post, this is the first post in a short series setting out my fifty favourite childrens’ books to compare to the Times list of 50 ‘must reads’ for the youth of today.  Like The Times, I’m going to try to stick to books that I consider to be childrens’ books.  I don’t recall the concept of YA being particularly well-developed in my day - there were just childrens’ books and adult books and one jumped from one to the other quite abruptly, via a short period of mixed reading.  Consequently, many of my favourite reads from my childhood are books that we would normally think of as being adult reads - the likes of Wodehouse, Waugh and a plethora of detective stories.  So, once these are taken out of the equation, I was really left with the books I read from the ages of about 6 through to 11 or 12, by which time I was reading almost exclusively what we would regard as adult books.

I’m not sure whether I would have preferred to have had access to today’s acclaimed books for teenaged audiences - I sometimes wonder whether they are really necessary or whether we would do better to encourage teens to engage with good adult writing.  That’s not a criticism of either young readers, their mentors or the authors of teen books; it’s really just a vague feeling that, in over-focusing or categorising, we end up limiting ourselves or our children.  In any event, I can’t say that I feel I missed out.  Unlike The Times, however, I haven’t limited myself to one entry per author - writers like Roald Dahl, who delighted me as a child deserve more than one measly shout-out.

I’m going to list my favourites ten at a time and they are in no particular order, although they are, of course, very much “of a time” - in my case the late ‘70s!

1.         Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
I say that I’ve not put them in any order but this would have been pretty much near the top had I tried to do
so.  I LOVE this book.  I love the fantastical sweets and chocolates, I love the incredible world of Wonka, I love the slightly strange ambiguity of Wonka and I love the whole golden ticket idea……..and who wouldn’t love the idea of owning their own chocolate factory, filled with Oompa-Loompas.  The nearest I ever got was a visit to a Nestlé chocolate factory in Switzerland on a school trip in 1981 - at the end we were given 90 seconds to grab as much chocolate as we wanted from a massive sample table.  Happy days.  I’ve already read this to mini-Falaise, who was gratifyingly enamoured of it.

2.         The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Anyone who has followed this blog over time will be aware of my Tolkien-love and, as I’ve posted on The Hobbit before, I don’t intend to repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, this was the gateway drug for my youthful addiction to fantasy writing.  The Times had it at number one and I wouldn’t be arguing against that.  Simply wonderful stuff.  There’s a beautiful Folio Society edition on mini-Falaise’s shelves for when she’s ready.

3.         The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
I’ve written about this sequence of five fantasy stories before on here.  The overarching plot of the cycle is the age-old battle between the dark and the light set in a Celtic-Arthurian background.  The stories move from Cornwall to Wales and the heart of England and the tone varies from childrens’ adventure to something much darker as the cycle moves on.  I can’t see how The Times managed to leave it off their list as it is wonderful stuff.

4.         Professor Branestawm by Norman Hunter
Professor Branestawm was an archetypal eccentric inventor who appeared in a series of 13 books written by Norman Hunter. I only read the first few as I’d grown out of them by the time the last ones were published in the ‘80s but I loved them as a young boy.  Branestawm, who lived in the village of Great Pagwell, (surrounded by Little Pagwell, Pagwell Heights, Pagwell Gardens and several other Pagwells), specialised in weird and wonderful inventions that went spectacularly wrong, causing all sorts of problems for the Professor, his housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop, and his friends.  As well as being very funny, the books were marvellously illustrated.  Although many of the books are now out of print, a couple have been reissued by Red Fox and I must try and get hold of one for nostalgia’s sake.

5.         Agaton Sax by Nils-Olof Franzén
Wallander? Van Veeteren? Sarah Lund? Harry Hole?  Frankly, you can keep your Scandi-noir detectives because Agaton Sax is the daddy of Scandinavian crime fighters.  Sax, from Bykoping, was the hero of a series of stories such as Agaton Sax and the Diamond Thieves, Agaton Sax and the Max Brothers and Agaton Sax and the Criminal Doubles, in which he not aonly assists his hapless friend Lispington of the police but, in his spare time, runs Bykoping’s newspaper.  The books are a pastiche of detective fiction and are hilarious.  What really capped the English translations though, were the illustrations, drawn by the legendary Quentin Blake.

6.         The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
She may be unfashionable now and distinctly un-PC but I used to thoroughly enjoy Blyton’s books as a boy.  I can’t single out one Famous Five book for this list as I loved and read them all.  Even in their newly-bowdlerised state, they remain good old-fashioned adventuer stories……..with lashings of ginger beer!

7.         The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat
One evening my father returned from work with two leather (or, more likely, faux leather!) bound books forTreasure Island.  I read this one first and was captivated by it.  Set in the English Civil War, its lead characters are the four Beverley children, orphaned by the death of their father, a Cavalier officer, at the battle of Naseby.  When the Puritan forces burn down their home, they are presumed dead but, having been rescued by the local gamekeeper, they are hidden in his cottage.  The plot focuses on the oldest boy, Edward, and his love for Patience, daughter of a Puritan.  The book favours the Royalists and was one of the earliest true historical novels.  It has stood up well to the test of time, having been written in the 1800s.
me as a present - this and

8.         The Wandering Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford
Those dratted humans are building a big road through Wimbledon Common and Great Uncle Bulgaria decides the Wombles need a new home.  Inexplicably, however, he sends out Bungo and Orinoco to scout for new homes, resulting in a trip to Loch Ness and Buckingham Palace.  I liked all of the Wombles books (and the TV shows and pretty much everything Womble-related) but this one has stuck in the mind as being particularly fun.  The books were reissued a couple of years ago and I’m looking forward to introducing mini-Falaise to them in due course.

9.         James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Crossing the Atlantic inside a giant, ripe peach with a cozy stone and a crew of talking over-sized insects?  YES, PLEASE.  Another storming effort from the Master, featuring the dreadful Aunts Spyker and Sponge and an unusual way of getting rid of the unnecessary parents - death by escaping rhino.  Mini-Falaise loved it (although she got scared by the cloud giants) as I did all those years ago (without getting scared by the cloud giants - honest.).

10.       The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
It’s about a pudding that reforms every time it’s been eaten.  Yes, a never-ending pudding.  Need I go on?  Oh, OK then.  It’s Australian and features three companions, including Bunyip Bluegum, a koala bear, who are constantly having to guard the pudding from the Pudding Thieves.  Lindsay wrote it to win an argument that children would rather read about food and fighting than fairies.  It’s for the younger reader but it’s great fun.

See you tomorrow (hopefully) for my next instalment………………

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Best Childrens' Books Ever? You Decide

The Times recently published an article in which a distinguished panel of literary figures compiled a list of fifty books they believe every child should read.  It’s not the only such list out there – the Independent did one a couple of years and the Telegraph had a bumper Top 100 list five years ago, but, nevertheless, it’s an interesting one.  The article can be found here but I’ve set out the bare list here, omitting the paragraph of commentary on each one.  I’d recommend giving the article a read (although it sits behind a paywall) to see whether you agree with the given reasoning – it’s well worth it.

Although there are many indisputable ‘must-reads’ on the list, there are a number of surprising omissions.  There’s no place for Harry Potter or anything by the wonderful Julia Donaldson.  Jacqueline Wilson, much lauded for her books dealing with difficult issues for children doesn’t make the cut and Michael Morpurgo, Childrens’ Laureate and author of War Horse is similarly missing.  The Famous Five and Secret Seven are absent as are Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver of Treasure Island fame.  I also have a personal grievance that they excluded Susan Cooper’s brilliant The Dark is Rising cycle and would guess that the judging criteria permitted only one book by each author to feature (how else to explain there being only one Roald Dahl entry).  I’m pleased that there was room for older books such as Vice Versa confirming that great literature is timeless, although I suspect that political correctness may have done for Enid Blyton, W.E. Johns' Biggles books and, possibly, Willard Price.

It's also interesting in that it highlights the question of what constitutes 'childrens literature'.  Back in my day, the book world was divided into adult literature and childrens literature but in recent years, books have become more and more categorised - YA, MG, new adult etc.  Yet, there are books on the list like The Diary of Anne Frank which weren't written with a particular audience in mind.  Equally, series like His Dark Materials and The Hunger Games have audiences that reach well beyond the underaged.  A personal example is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel of life in the Soviet gulag.  Not written specifically for children, we read it at prep school and it was a childhood favourite.  How do books like this fit in to this kind of list?

I suspect it’s cause for celebration that one can rattle off any number of books and authors that could have been on the list without even having to give it much thought.  My love of reading was definitely nurtured as a child by the combination of generous parents who almost never said no to a trip to the library or the bookshop and the ready availability of exciting books to read.  If that was the case in the 1970s, the same must go in spades for today’s children, judging by the number of recent books in the list as well as those mentioned above, most of which weren’t around in my youth.

Mini-Falaise is reading now and clearly loving it – Mrs F and I often turn a blind eye to the sound
of her reading out loud after bedtime and, over the next few years, I hope to facilitate this love.  I’m going to need to strike a balance between steering her towards books I loved and allowing her to explore the vast country of Literature.  I’ve been slowly and piecemeal starting a collection of books for her, including some gorgeous Folio Society editions, but need to slow down to give her the space to find her own way.

In any event, I am so looking forward to her first years of ‘proper’ reading – I hope she loves some of my favourites and that we discover some great new books together.  The Times list and mini-Falaise have inspired me to make my own list – I’ll be posting it in sections over the next few posts – please do stop by and let me know how you think it stacks up to the Times and to your own favourite childhood reads.

The Times 50 Books Every Child Should Read

1.  The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
2.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
3.  The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
4.  His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
5.  Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
6.  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
7.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
8.  The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
9.  The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
10.  The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
11.  Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
12.  Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
13.  The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
14.  Just William by Richmal Crompton
15.  Matilda by Roald Dahl
16.  The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
17.  The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
18.  Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
19.  Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
20.  Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde
21.  Hellbent by Anthony McGowan
22.  The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
23.  Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
24.  The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
25.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
26.  The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
27.  The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
28.  The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
29.  The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
30.  The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
31.  The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
32.  How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
33.  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
34.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
35.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
36.  One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson
37.  The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
38.  The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate by Margaret Mahy
39.  Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
40.  How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
41.  Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin
42.  The Borrowers by Mary Norton
43.  The Snow-walker’s Son by Catherine Fisher
44.  Holes by Louis Sachar
45.  Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
46.  Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
47.  Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
48.  Vice Versa by F. Anstey
49.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

50.  Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

Monday, August 5, 2013

Joining the Classics Club

When I first started blogging, one of the things I enjoyed most was the regular Classics Circuit Tour.  The sheer variety of topics was an excellent way for me to pep up my reading list and help me achieve one of the aims of this blog, that of broadening out my book diet.  Unfortunately (although completely understandably), the tour stopped after Rebecca, its driving force, became a parent.

Although the two are completely unconnected, I’ve also noticed a slight reversion to my comfortable reading habits of old in recent months and so, in an effort to halt this and to reconnect to the classics, I’ve decided to join the ranks of the thriving Classics Club.  I’d previously held back from this on the grounds that the commitment required was a little too much for me but, having given it some thought, I reckon I can do it, without letting a set list take over my reading completely.

So I’m dipping my toe back in by picking a list of 50 classics to read over the next five years, the minimum number required by the club.  If this proves to be easy, I can always up the number.  The list comprises a mix of books I’ve always meant to read, some I feel I “should” read and a few old favourites I’d like to meet again.  I’ve stuck to the “25 year” rule but haven’t paid much attention as to whether it is unduly Western or male oriented.  Basically, it’s stuff I want to read.  So here it is – I’ll be setting the list up as a separate page and linking to my reviews both here and on the page:

1.       Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
2.       Inferno – Dante
3.       Purgatorio – Dante
4.       Paradiso – Dante
5.       Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
6.       Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
7.       Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
8.       Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
9.       A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (reread)
10.   Bleak House – Charles Dickens
11.   Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
12.   Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne (reread)
13.   Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson (reread)
14.   The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
15.   The Gambler – Fyodor Dostoevsky
16.   Kim – Rudyard Kipling
17.   The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad
18.   The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers
19.   Fantômas – Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre
20.   The Thirty Nine Steps - John Buchan (reread)
21.   Rashomon – Akutagawa Ryunosuke
22.   The Trial – Franz Kafka
23.   Chaka the Zulu – Thomas Mofolo
24.   The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hasek
25.   The Sword of Honour trilogy – Evelyn Waugh (reread)
26.   Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Döblin
27.   Mr Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood
28.   Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell
29.   Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
30.   The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
31.   Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
32.   The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (reread)
33.   The Sea of Fertility – Yukio Mishima
34.   Interview with a Vampire – Anne Rice
35.   The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco  (reread)
36.   The Aeneid – Virgil (reread)
37.   The Twelve Caesars – Suetonius
38.   Scoop – Evelyn Waugh (reread)
39.   The Complete Short Stories – Saki
40.   A Culinary Campaign – Alexis Soyer
41.   The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis
42.   The Complete Essays – Michel de Montaigne
43.   Scum of the Earth – Arthur Koestler
44.   Shakespearean Tragedy – A.C. Bradley
45.   The Belly of Paris – Emile Zola
46.   The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Victor Serge
47.   Ancien Regime and the Revolution – Alexis de Tocqueville
48.   The Conquest of New Spain – Bernal Diaz del Castillo
49.   The Voyage of Argo – Apollonius of Rhodes
50.   Any Old Iron – Antony Burgess

Saturday, August 3, 2013

2,451: Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

I’ve never been particularly convinced by prequels or sequels to well-known books that are penned by a different author to the original.  It seems to me that they are either Hollywood-like attempts to cash in on a popular character or story or a kind of high quality fan fiction, an ersatz effort to ape the original.

So it was with a certain apprehension that I approached Silver, Andrew Motion’s sequel to the classic Treasure Island.  Like virtually everyone, I had read the original as a child and I was intrigued as to how Motion would treat one of literature’s best loved childrens’ stories.  The result?  Fun but flawed.

The main narrator of the story is Jim Hawkins, son of the cabin boy of the same name in Treasure Island.  As Silver opens, young Jim is trapped assisting his father in running their pub, Hispaniola, in the Thames estuary.  Jim, a loner who is happiest spotting wildlife in the marshes, is approached one day by a young woman, Natty, whom, it transpires, is the daughter of Long John Silver.
Silver is keen to get hold of the bar silver that the pirates had left behind on Treasure Island (with Stevenson maybe having an eye to a sequel himself).  He has Natty persuade young Jim to betray his father by stealing the legendary map of the island and together, Natty and Jim sail off to Treasure Island to try and find the missing buried treasure.

Silver is a fun and atmospheric tale, full of thrills and excitement.  Motion manages to find a suitably Victorian writing style and, although the opening few pages drag a little, the pace of the book soon settles into something pleasingly fast-moving.  He has a particular gift for detailed description which shows up well in the scene where Jim steals the map and also in the descriptions of sailing through the outer reaches of the Thames, where the writing is so good, you can almost smell the estuarine air.

Andrew Motion is, of course, best known as a poet and Silver shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the poetic approach.  On the one hand, the descriptive parts are fantastically well-crafted with a wonderful breadth of language and his fine ear for words allows him to strike a tone that, while I am not sufficient of a Stevensonian to be able to say is authentic, has a period ring without succumbing to the density and prolixity of some Victorian writing.

On the other hand, Motion sometimes misses some opportunities that a more natural novelist might have pounced on – the key villains come across as a little flat and run of the mill (certainly by comparison to the original novel) whilst he passes up the chance to turn the tension between Jim and Jordan Hands (nephew of Israel Hands from the original) into a strong sub-plot.

I think the crux of the matter lies in the opening paragraph of this post.  Talented as he may be, Motion is no Stevenson.  Silver a pretty good adventure story (although a little confused as to its intended readership – it doesn’t quite have the air of a childrens’ tale which is what it should be) but it pales by comparison to Treasure Island which, after all, pretty much created all of the familiar tropes of the pirate story and inspired other classics such as Peter Pan.  And that’s the problem because once you adopt the world of Treasure Island, that’s the yardstick against which you are going to be compared and Silver, understandably, comes off second best.  It’s a shame because the result of the comparison will probably lead to Silver being underrated or overly criticised.

The other thing that irritated me a little about Silver is that it is a little anachronistic.  In the original, the pirates were authentically rough and hard, being prepared to mutiny to get the gold.  There was also a pleasingly moral ambiguity in the story, particularly in the figure of Long John Silver himself.  Silver, by comparison, has a 21st Century liberal morality running through it.   The attitude of Jim and Natty’s crew towards issues like slavery and the treatment of women seems implausible even in a historical setting where slavery was on the verge of abolition.  Even if abolitionist views were spreading, it seems unlikely that a rough crew of buccaneers and sailors would have imbibed them so thoroughly so quickly.  Furthermore, despite one or two half-hearted efforts by Motion, there is no ambiguity or moral uncertainty amongst the characters.  The crew are loyal, honest and decent and, with the partial exception of Junks, the maroons are blackhearted.  Only Long John Silver retains a ambiguity about him and he plays a relatively limited direct part in the story (which is a bit of a missed trick).

All of this means that, as I have said above, Silver is a perfectly good adventure story but not a patch on Treasure Island.  It's a good, nostalgic way for those of us who loved Treasure Island as children to reconnect with it (and maybe our childhoods).  If that's you, I’d recommend it as a good effort to create a follow-on story (and one which itself leaves open the possibility of a further sequel) and it won’t disappoint the general fan of pirate or nautical adventures but it remains a flawed work that acts as a good exemplar of why sequels to great novels should probably be best left to the author of the original.

I’m grateful to Broadway for sending me a copy of Silver for review and, if you’d like a second opinion, please pay a visit to the following blogs:

2,452: I am Max Lamm by Raphael Brous

“Lamm had been hiding hungrily, filthily, in the capital’s closest approximation to Dante’s Inferno.  His purgatory - smeared in sausage fat, charcoal dust, petrified kebab skewers - was the maintenance hole beneath a barbeque in Hyde Park.”

There is so much going on in Raphael Brous’ debut novel, I am Max Lamm, it’s a bit difficult to know quite where to start.  Max Lamm, Brous’ hero, is an Australian-Jewish former tennis prodigy whose promising career comesto a crashing halt when an Internet video of him having wild sex with a Salvadorean prostitute in New York goes viral.  When we first meet Max, he is living, as the quote above suggests, in a hole underneath a disused barbeque in London’s Hyde Park.

Why is he there?  As it transpires, he is the proximate cause of the worst race riots in London for a generation, having accidentally killed a Pakistani teenager whom he thought was trying to mug him.  Convinced the police are hot on his heels and having nowhere else to go, the hole in the ground seems the perfect hiding place while he reflects on his talent for messing things up and tries to come up with a way out.

I am Max Lamm is a rollicking, bawdy, darkly funny ride through the rubble of Max’s life, packed with ideas and images whilst being perversely minimalist in the number of characters that appear.  Apart from Max, the only character with a substantial presence in the book is Kelly, the messed up daughter of a US Republican senator in whose arms and between whose legs Max seeks salvation.

Brous’ writing has been compared with Philip Roth and, although I have not read sufficient of Roth’s work to be able to judge how apt the comparison is, one of the many themes explored in I am Max Lamm is that of Jewish identity, family and loyalty.

Of itself, this motif would have been sufficient to fill out the story but Brous isn’t content with this and so we get explorations of, amongst others, the phenomena of collective hysteria, racial politics, the psychology of privileged youth and the possible sexual undercurrents of US male neo-conservatism.  At times, it comes all a little too fast and furious and I can’t help feeling that the story might have been better served by a deeper treatment of a more limited selection of them.

As it is, though, I suspect that I am Max Lamm will be a bit of a ‘Marmite’ book – you’ll either love it or hate it.  Personally, I loved it but I was reading it more as a satirical piece than anything else and so the exaggerated nature of some of the scenes worked well for me.  I even sensed an almost Tom Sharpe-like feel to some of it, albeit a more sexual and hard Sharpe-ness, in the way Max’s actions and decisions become increasingly erratic and wild as each previous decision causes his situation to become more extreme and out of control.

I am Max Lamm is an intriguing piece of writing which demands a reaction from the reader, although I can’t say it will be for everyone.  It did, however, work for me and I’m looking forward to see the direction Brous takes going forward as he has a truly distinctive voice that could take him in a number of different directions.

I’d like to finish by thanking Corsair for sending me a review copy and, if you’d like a second opinion, please do go and have a read of these other bloggers’ views: