The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!

917XNylWC9L

I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

The Winter Children – Lulu Taylor

“Writing a NYT bestseller was a delightful experience. But there are many books which are read by few that should be read and reread by many, as well as books bought by many that are hardly worth the ink.” ― Ron Brackin

51ZdfG9dsRL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

I don’t enjoy posting bad reviews, I enjoy writing them – it’s incredibly cathartic – but I don’t enjoy posting them, so I’ll try and keep this short…

I was travelling to London one afternoon and regretfully forgot to pack something to read; terrified of the idea of a train journey without reading material I ducked into the station’s WHSmith and went to peruse the bestsellers and new releases. I found this one, and didn’t really give much thought to the blurb, silly I know, I guess I was in the mood for a winter’s tale.

I wish I had remembered to pack my book that day, or picked up something different when I went into WHSmith, or been late for the train and had to gaze out of the window for an hour and a half, and more than anything I wish I’d stopped reading this when I realised how much I disliked it, but once I started I felt compelled to keep going.

This book is about a childless couple, Dan and Olivia, who after years of trying to conceive decide to use an egg donor, in one final attempt to fall pregnant. The problem lies with Olivia, and using an egg donor is the only chance they have. Unfortunately, Olivia is married to a complete narcissistic arsehole, who openly admits he would not be able to love the child on someone he doesn’t know.  Luckily for Dan and Olivia, Dan has an old university friend, and borderline psychopath, by the name of Francesca, who is obsessively in love with Dan, and offers to allow them the use of her eggs. Sounds like a great idea doesn’t it? Of course Olivia cannot know, and this is where the story begins.

Fast forward a couple of years and Olivia and Dan, having been blessed with twins and after spending the first few years of the babies’ lives with Olivia’s family in Argentina, make plans to return to the UK – but they have nowhere to live. Meanwhile Francesca’s husband decides he wants to buy an enormous derelict manor house as a renovations project. Francesca, being the mentalist that she is, sees the perfect opportunity to have the twins nearby and invites Dan and Olivia to live onsite and look over things.

After they move in the house beings to ‘surrender its long held secrets’ – this occurs in the form of several chapters given over to a time in the 1950s when the hall was an all girls school. I held out hope that this part of the story would make the book more exciting, but it didn’t. There was nowhere near enough historical background to make up for the rest of the book.

I won’t bore you with more details, mainly because it is hugely predictable and I am sure you can see where this is going. So let’s just say Francesca makes a nuisance of herself and eventually all hell breaks loose.

So, aside from the fact that the storyline did absolutely nothing for me – I could have forgiven that and just put it down to not being quite my thing – it was the absolutely detestable characters which made the book unbearable.

I’ve already established that Francesca is mental and Dan is a narcissist. Sure, I didn’t like these characters, but I didn’t feel anywhere near as much outright hatred as I did for Olivia.

Olivia has absolutely nothing going for her, she is weak, one-dimensional, and just so horribly dull, add to this her over-emphasised obsession with food and you have the perfect recipe for the worst character of all time. When she isn’t thinking about, looking after or admiring her children, Olivia is thinking about food – it could be something as simple as thinking about giving her children a cracker or preparing them lunch, or a passing thought about the ‘indulgent creaminess’ of a cheesecake she has made, but it is relentless. Olivia is cooks a meal and it smells delicious, she serves the meal, she admires her work, she savours every bite of the food, or sometimes, just to jazz things up a bit, she neglects to taste the food, while somehow still managing comment on it, because she is so preoccupied with something else. I found this incredible annoying. I wouldn’t have minded as much if she was portrayed as an out and out foodie, but she isn’t. She’s just an incredibly boring woman who happens to think about food a lot.

I thought nothing could make me dislike Olivia more, but then I got to the climax of the story, the chapter when all hell breaks loose, and ordinarily you can’t bear to put a book down. In this scene, having found out Dan and Francesca’s deep, dark secret, Olivia is transformed into a ‘mighty goddess’ ready to rip the ever-living hell out of Francesca. This is the one time she does anything other than lie down and take a good shoeing from everyone around her, but, far from making her into a more believable character, the scene is so horribly clichéd and badly written that she just sounds ridiculous.

‘Let them go!’ cries Olivia in a terrible voice, full of strength and fury. She feels able to lift Francesca up and toss her against the wall. She feels she could crush her with her fingertips, she is so strong and fierce.

That’s right, Olivia is ‘strong and fierce’ with a ‘terrible voice’. You do not want to mess with her, and if you haven’t quite got that impression yet, then this next part will really drive home just how badass she is:

Olivia nestles both children to her chest, their bodies awkward against hers. They press into her, crying loudly. ‘Never, never touch these children again. They are mine do you understand?’ Her eyes are flashing and she is mighty, a mighty goddess who will destroy anyone who threatens her children. ‘They are mine and you can’t have them!’

So there you have it, I thought that this book was a waste of the paper it was written on. It was ill-conceived, predictable, sloppy, and above all badly written.

Let this be a warning to all of you who are so determined to have something to read on a train journey that you pick up something from WHSmith. You could find something fantastic – the last time I did this I discovered The Shock of the Fall and it made me reckless – but you could end up with a massive wet fish. Now I’m off to donate this thing to charity, or leave it on a park bench, or, more than likely, to cut out the middle man and send it straight to the pastry cooks on Duck Lane.

February cheer from Prudence and the Crow

I know, I know, February ended yesterday. In my defence I have been incredibly busy – there was this trip to Germany, multiple training courses and then I got obsessed with a computer game, it’s just been crazy!

This month’s – or rather last month’s – box of treats, as usual, did not disappoint. Prudence and the Crow have clearly picked up on my love of children’s literature, and are doing their best to introduce me to all sorts of wonderful names and stories.

IMG_20160216_180442

And, as luck would have it, this one came with another inscription!

IMG_20160217_175042

I wonder how old Trevor is now…

Perhaps I’ll ponder that over a cup of nighttime tea 🙂

Short Works – Ross Tomkins

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” ― Kahlil Gibran

9780262162555However uninspiring the title, Short Works, may appear, this is much more than just a book of poems, translations and short stories. The work nestled within this simple cover, accumulated over five decades, is nothing short of a literary treasure trove. It makes me wonder whether there is perhaps something more to the title Short Works – is this just a literal description of the contents in its rawest form, or does it mean something else? The works are really not short at all. I would go so far as to say they are relatively ‘long’ works. While the reader could easily make short work of reading the book – I myself succeeded in a lazy afternoon – it is clear that the author took more than a little more time in writing the book. Perhaps I’m looking too much into this – but I like to think that the, perhaps somewhat dull, title has a deeper meaning, one which alludes to something of the comedian in the author’s personality.

The first half of this book is a collection of poems, past and present, which speak volumes as to the life of the author. Tomkins’ wonderfully melodramatic and fantastic younger years overflow with the essence of youth, while largely avoiding the embarrassment of childhood innocence. Later years fall into the metaphysical, the metaphorical, and the philosophical. The works clearly span not just decades, but continents, and more than one or two frames of mind, exhibiting a truly unique voice, at times jumbled and jarring, at others fantastically vivid, presenting creatures, settings, times and places that form and reform before your eyes, like images from the screen of Disney’s Fantasia.

The author’s words are at times beautiful:

Under an opal moon
Metallic scorpions scuttle

Toad winks, blinks, and gulps
Wings sticking tattered to damp lips.

At others morbid:

I remember hide and seek
And a dog dead under a bush,
Its pebble-teeth scattering the path,

But always, above all, vivid and resounding.

I was delighted by the section given over to ‘Poems from Poems’ – although I can’t be sure, exactly, what Tomkins means by this. I imagine this section is where translations and found poetry come into play*. I absolutely love constructing poetry from other poetry, it has a charm all of its own, and I like to think that the author shares and has explored this passion. A story does not need to have a meaning before it is written, sometimes, it is in the writing that a meaning is born. This section of the book goes to show just this.

The section of short stories is perhaps the most difficult to pass judgment on – with so much content, how can you give adequate coverage to everything? On the whole, Tomkins’ short stories are well-written – remarkably well-written in fact – concise, intricate, and beautifully flowing. The works really bring character and setting to life, with the imagery exhibited in the poetry brought to a whole new level, delivering a picture the reader can really see. The stories are so open to interpretation, leaving their mark and giving the reader something to think about long after they have turned the final page. The characters, each unique in their own way, have hidden secrets, desires and aspirations that the text can only allude to, a mystery which can only be imagined, a silent, niggling message which can never be fully understood. I love the power of the short story to make you think, fill out the characters and create your own story, within the verbal landscape of the author.

I was particularly taken by ‘The Sands of the Sea’ – although ‘Mr Lippstadt’s Holiday’ was certainly not without its charm – being drawn in firstly by the delicious descriptions of Ferdy’s newly found bookshop. I was delighted by the description of the books as living creatures, hopping from shelf to shelf, following Ferdy on his search, as though desperately excited at the prospect of purchase. The last book, however, is something more insidious, with the elusive work crawling through the bookcases before coming to rest, like some predator, to lie in wait, inconspicuously, silently, on a final dusty shelf.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Overall I found Short Works to be refreshing, thoughtful and surprisingly readable. While undoubtedly magnificently written, this book is not self-important or difficult for the sake of difficulty. The poems and short stories alike are sure to delight wordsmiths, and leave the reader with one or two things to think about.

* Explanatory note from the author: ‘What they are in fact are translations in the form of condensations where I hope I succeeded in cutting away fluff and padding to get at the raw heart of the poems – pushing towards the interplay of images and away from the explanatory.’

New year, new update!

Hi boys and girls!

I hope you all had an amazing Christmas and New Year with your loved ones.

I know, I know, I suck! I’ve been really rubbish the last month and haven’t posted a single update!

You see…

The run up to Christmas was insanely busy, what with 12-week reviews, gift shopping, chest infections, and preparing for a long-haul flight (which, it turns out, makes me rather anxious), and I very much needed to take a little time off – I do hope you will forgive my radio silence!

Excuses, excuses.

In other news, we’ve just come back from an amazing few weeks in Hong Kong!

In my time away I drank Champagne in the highest bar in the world, got purposely elbowed in the face by a Chinese woman, fell over – twice, saw a real life giant panda, and ate more strange things than I would care to admit (sea cucumber is definitely an acquired taste).

But you didn’t come here to read about my festive antics, did you?

You’ll be pleased to hear that in my absence I surmounted quite the pile of books to review, so I’m going to have a very busy start to the new year. It’s a good thing I am feeling so wonderfully refreshed 🙂

I also returned to some very welcome packages from my good friends Prudence and the Crow!

November’s box

IMG-20151120-WA0000

December’s box

IMG-20151227-WA0001

While I’m over the moon with both my books, I’ll be placing November’s choice on the bookshelf for now, purely because I reviewed all the Chronicles of Narnia not that long ago, but I can’t wait to get started on December’s choice:

Redwall – Brian Jacques

It is the start of the Summer of the Late Rose. Redwall Abbey, the peaceful home of a community of mice slumbers in the warmth of a summer afternoon. The mice are busy preparing for the great Jubilee Feast. 

Bust not for long. Cluny is coming! The evil one-eyed rat warlord is advancing with his battle-scarred mob. And Cluny wants Redwall. 

Needless to say, I am thrilled with the prospect of another vintage children’s book to sink my teeth into – especially as it comes with a personal recommendation from Prudence.

IMG-20151227-WA0000

Here’s wishing you all the Happiest of New Years 🙂

There will be many, many reviews to follow.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“A clockwork heart can’t replace the real thing.” ― Dru Pagliassotti

I received this book in my August Prudence and the Crow box, the book selection was a fantastic bit of luck, as I’d been really craving classic children’s literature – between you and me I’m becoming more and more convinced that Prudence and the Crow are able to read my mind. From the a quick look at the front cover and the name alone – I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, right? – I was expecting story about a mouse that fell in love with a windup mouseling. I’m sure you get the idea, something similar to Pinocchio, but English – so, perhaps with afternoons spent playing in dolls’ houses pretending to drink tea. I could not have been more mistaken, but, far from being disappointed, I absolutely loved it.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“Where are we?” the mouse child asked his father. His voice was tiny in the stillness of the night.
“I don’t know” the father replied.
What are we, Papa?”
“I don’t know. We must wait and see.” 

the-mouse-and-his-childOn a cold winter’s evening a tin father and son emerge from a box to stand on display in a toy shop window. Outside the cold wind blows and tramp passes by, momentarily taken by the sight of the toys. Brand new, and confused, the mouse and his child struggle to comprehend what it means to be windup toys and the thought of the life that lays before them makes the poor child cry.

It is not long before they are swept away, bought by a family, destined for a life spent dancing beneath the Christmas tree – the life of a windup. It is a simple life, spent quietly fulfilling their duties; until they break the ancient clock-work rules and must face the consequences.

Discarded in the snow the mouse and his child begin a wholly different journey than the one written for them. They are rescued, repaired by a tramp, and chased by a terrible force that would see all windup toys turned to slaves. Through all that they endure the mouse and the child wish for only one thing, a place to call their own – a magnificent house, a mother, and a sister.

I wish I could say that I had read this book as a child. This is definitely a tale that will take on an entirely different meaning, and gain resonance as a person grows older. I spoke about the book with a colleague when I had just started reading it, and he said that he loved it as a child, but upon revisiting it as an adult realised, quite simply ‘wow, this is really deep stuff’. I could try and say it more eloquently, but that is the bare bones of it. The Mouse and his Child is an incredible tale of quest and determination for children, and when viewed with an adult’s mind it is absolutely brimming with philosophical thoughts, lessons, analogies, and big, gaping questions about life.

“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act. Be of good cheer. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. The world lies before you.” 

The humanity of Hoban’s characters is truly incredible. The authors has taken windup toys and elevated them to the next level. Each toy, however minor their role in the tale, has its own unique drive and personality: the once-proud elephant, now plushless, and with the missing ear and eye patch; the tin seal, long separated from her colourful ball; the sweet child, forever asking questions, always looking, and understanding; and even the donkey – the poor, poor, donkey – who once dared to complain. These creatures may be made of clockwork, but they are no less human than you and I. They are exhausted, frightened, frustrated, despondent, sentimental, joyous, hopeful, and forever working towards their goals. Life throws its hurdles, and each one is tackled, even if it does take a short lifetime. Can you imagine what it would be like to spends years at the bottom on a pond? Through all this, they grow stronger, never losing sight of their aims, growing, learning and interacting with all whom cross their path. Just one more step, they will get there in the end.

The mouse and his child, who had learned so much and had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, never could be persuaded to teach a success course… The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught. 

The Mouse and his Child is a truly phenomenal children’s book, which has just as much, if not more, to offer to adult readers. I feel really thankful to have discovered this book, and look forward, truthfully, to a time when I can share it with the children in my life.

Myths of the Norsemen – Roger Lancelyn Green

“The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended.” ― A.S. Byat

Myths of the Norsemen – Roger Lancelyn Green

I received this book in my second Prudence and the Crow box. I’ve never read much in the way of Norse mythology, so I was eager to see what the book had in store for me. I signed up to Prudence and the Crow hoping to expand my reading list, so really I couldn’t ask for a better book choice.

In the very beginning of time, so the Norsemen believed, there was no Earth as we know it now: there was only Ginnungagap, the Yawning Void. In this moved strange mists which at length drew apart leaving an even deeper Gap, with Muspelheim, the Land of Fire, to the south of it, and Nifelheim, the Land of Mist, to the north of it.

norseIn Myths of the Norsemen, Roger Lancelyn Green has taken the surviving Norse myths, collected from Old Norse poems and tales, and retold them as a single, continuous narrative. The entire Norse timeline is covered, offering a complete and concise history of the Aesir and their dealings with the Giants of Utgard, from the planting of The World Tree, Yggdrasill, right up to the last great battle Ragnarok.

This book is serves as more than just a story; it is a journey through the Norse lands, from beginning to end. Along the way the reader is introduced to famed Norse figures: the great God Odin, who wandered Norse lands seducing and impregnating women; the all-powerful Thor, just one of Odin’s many children; the mischievous, shape-shifting Loki; as well as brutal giants, scheming trolls, and bizarre creatures lurking in far corners of the Earth. With each passing saga the pressure in the book increases, signifying the approach of Ragnarok, and mirroring the battles fought by gods of Asgard. With each passing story the spirit of Ragnarok grows stronger, and the great serpent Jormungand begins to tremble, signalling the beginning of the end.

The tale stood out for me amongst all others was ‘Thor’s Visit to Utgard’, when the great god was challenged by the giants to prove his strength. Before the watchful eyes of the giants Thor failed to drink even a small amount from the king’s horn of ale, could lift only a single paw of the king’s pet cat, and fell to his knees at the hands of the king’s old nursemaid. While Thor lay ridden with shame at his failings, the giants sat in deadly peril, having witnessed the mighty Aesir drink so deeply from the sea as to cause the first ebb tide, come close to raising the Mitgard serpent, and refuse to fall before Old Age herself. This tale is so full of passion and emotion – the giants’ diabolical treachery, the ingrained fear, not just of the giants, but Thor himself, and the sheer power exhibited by the Aesir simply radiated from the pages. I couldn’t help but tremble at the thought of Thor unknowingly lifting the Mitgard serpent and bringing about Ragnarok.

The 15 tales in Myths of the Norseman will each speak to different readers. While I was moved most of all by one in particular, each separate saga has its own intrinsic appeal. I was fascinated by the -tale of beautiful Iduna and her basket of strength-giving apples, devastated by the death of Balfur at the hands of his blind brother, and increasingly infuriated by the impish yet malicious traitor Loki. There is so much to love about this book, and each of the tales nestled within its pages.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Myths of the Norseman. The book is entertaining, enlightening, and exceptional readable, as a whole, and on a story by story basis. The tales collected and retold by Lancelyn Green present an excellent introduction to the ancient Norse myths, and a deeper understanding of how such tales helped to shape modern literature.