May bank holiday – I like books that tell a story

A long weekend is the perfect excuse for a leisurely Saturday. Today we headed into town for a spot of lunch and a wander around market, and I just couldn’t resist slipping into the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street.

After treating myself to a few new books last week, I promised myself I wouldn’t buy anything. I reasoned that I would only go in for a look, just to be around the books for a bit and soak up that great used-book smell. After spending a few idle moments perusing the classic texts I stumbled upon the collectables – truth be told, I was looking for the children’s section, but it seems they’ve rearranged the place since my last visit.

Nestled in amongst some dusty hardbacks by authors whose names I’d never heard, and ancient cook books the likes of which might have graced my Grandfather’s kitchen shelves, I found a well-loved volume of children’s stories.

Children’s Stories From Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends

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I love old children’s books. Our sitting room contains a bookshelf dedicated to children’s literature, where all the old fables and fairytales I was given as a child sit amongst Sebastian’s French Tin Tin comics and several tatty picture books by Hungarian photographer Ylla.

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I knew I wanted to add this one to my collection before I had even taken it off the shelf. I’ve never read a Japanese fairy tale, and was interested to see how they would compare to my childhood favourites by Hans Christian Andersen. A quick glimpse inside the book let me know I was making the right choice.

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I’ve never managed to pick up an old book with an inscription without buying it. There is something so beautiful about an inscription, as though it gives the book a story of its very own. Questions about the previous owner immediately started entering my mind. Were they a little boy, or a little girl? Why was Daddy gifting the book alone? Are they the only previous owner?

After trying, and failing, to strike up a conversation with the gentleman behind the till by informing him, somewhat excitedly, that there was an inscription in the book, I wandered home with my loot.

I spent the afternoon sat out sunshine getting to know my new friend, running my fingers lovingly over the pages to feel the indentations left by the old printing presses, and reading the first tale ‘The Daughter of the Moon’ – a charming story about a bamboo cutter who adopts a beautiful fairy.

As much as I liked the first tale, the thing that got me really excited about this book was the illustrations. There is the occasional printed colour plate often found in children’s books from the early 20th century, but there are also images included in the text that have been coloured in by hand.

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Towards the front of the book the pictures have been filled in delicately, with something resembling watercolour paints (above left). I had a look at other editions of the books online, and the images were definitely in no more than black ink when the book was first published. They must have been coloured in by one of the previous owners – was it the child who first received the book from ‘Daddy’ in 1930?

As I got further into the book I noticed that the images were no longer coloured with paint, but instead with coloured pencils, and the signature scratch of a much younger child (above right).

Without knowing anything about the previous owners, I can’t know for sure who coloured the pictures in, but this makes it all the more exciting. This book has its own mystery; a secret story told only in marks left behind by the ghosts of the past. If the first owner of the book did contribute to the coloured in images, and I like to think that they did, I do hope ‘Daddy’ wasn’t too cross.

Charlotte’s Web named best children’s book of all time!

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” ― C. S. Lewis

I was over the moon today to learn that Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White had been voted the best children’s book of all time.

The 1952 tale, about a lovable pig named Wilbur who is saved from the slaughter thanks to his unlikely friendship with a resourceful spider named Charlotte, was named number one in a list of 151 books chosen by critics in a poll by BBC Culture.

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The initial selection was whittled down to a list of the 21 top books in children’s literature, a diverse selection of books which provides a charming glimpse into children’s literature of the past two centuries.

1. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
3. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
5. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
6. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
7. Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
9. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
10. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
11. The Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
12. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
13. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler – E. L. Koenigsburg
14. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
15. His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
16. Matilda – Roald Dahl
17. Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
18. Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
19. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
20. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown and Pat Hancock
21. The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

There are many books on the list I would have happily seen voted number one, but I think the most deserving book won. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Little Women are all firm favourites of mine, but they are books I came to love later on in life, whereas Charlotte’s Web was one of the first books I read on my own.

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I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I find it just as enjoyable now as I did twenty years ago. So I am over the moon at it’s number one spot. Books which tell a story from the point of view of animals have always been popular among children, and E. B. White took this classic theme and created something truly wonderful.

I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this. Did your favourite children’s book make in onto the list? Do you think something else is more deserving of the number one spot? Let me know! 

Children’s book review tour! Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book

“My world was the size of a crayon box, and it took every colour to draw her” ― Sarah Kay

If yesterday’s review wasn’t out of the ordinary enough for you I hope today will not disappoint.

I recently bought an adult colouring books for one of my friends. She had been under a lot of stress, and I thought it would give her an excuse to do something relaxing and creative to unwind at the end of the day.

Adult colouring books have only really been a ‘thing’ for the last year or so, but if sales are anything to go by they certainly seem to be proving popular. There is no shortage of them on the marketplace, just type the words into Amazon and you will be well and truly spoilt for choice.

I was a little envious of the book I had bought my friend, so I set out to secure one for myself – for review purposes of course.

I was lucky enough to be sent this one for free by Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book – Cindy Wilde, Laura-Kate Chapman and Richard Merritt

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My first feeling upon opening the package was one of great satisfaction – the book itself is lovely. There is none of the horrid flimsiness you often get with traditional children’s colouring books, not a single sheet of sugar paper in sight. It’s nice and weighty, with a hard cover and thick, good quality pages.

I spent a few minutes leafing through the pages and was impressed by the effort and attention to detail which so clearly went into the making of the book. A children’s colouring book would normally include a selection of crudely drawn outlines of trees, houses, tractors and smiling faces –  perfect for a child to scribble outside of the lines. Color Therapy, however, shows the sophistication that divides grown-up colouring books from their traditional counterparts. The pages are stunning, an eye watering mix of outlines, patterns, blank pages and illustrations on which to colour, doodle and sketch to your heart’s content.

Here’s a little taster of some of the pages I am most looking forward to:

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Even the layout of the book pretty sophisticated – despite the introduction stating that there are no rules ‘pick up a pen or pencil and get creating…’ – it is split into seven sections, each of which focus on a different palette, fiery reds, happy yellows, majestic greens and icy blues.

IMG_20150322_101539172I’ve spent the last few weeks taking half an hour or at the end of the day to use Color Therapy, and I have to say I have really enjoyed it. Although I should confess that so far I have only focused on the first section, Red, as it seems the perfectionist in me is unwilling to complete the book in anything other than chronological order.

Colouring in is incredibly soothing, I suppose it is a bit like curling up into the foetal position, there is something comforting about retreating back to more innocent times. I’ve been suffering from headaches a lot recently, and I’ve noticed that using Color Therapy in the evenings has helped to ease the pressure a bit, and as a result I have been sleeping better.

I’ve also found that while colouring in my mind begins to wander, it gives me time to think, but not about the stresses of everyday life. Rather, I find myself thinking about my writing. Since I’ve started using this book I have found it easier to sit down and start on the writing projects I have planned.

The following are a few of my creations – I particularly enjoyed colouring the flamenco dancer!

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Adult colouring books will not be for everyone. I’ve read somewhere that the trend is, somewhat unsurprisingly, far more popular among women. That said, I would definitely recommend Color Therapy. I have thoroughly enjoyed my adult colouring book so far, and I am planning to continue using it. If colouring appeals to your arty, creative side, or if you just want an easy going hobby to unwind with, I think you could benefit having a book like this in your desk drawer.

Children’s book review tour! Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves” ― Abraham Lincoln

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad – Henry Cole

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Another children’s classic, the picture book. It is unusual for me to try and review a book with no words at all, but a challenge I accepted and enjoyed to the last.

What would you do
if you had the chance
to help a person
find freedom.

This is the question presented to a young girl, in Henry Cole’s haunting tale of a young slave’s journey to freedom.

Unspoken is a beautiful example of a children’s picture book with illustrations that are filled with emotion and can, on their own, tell a strong and provocative tale. Cole has taken something which is often associated with children’s literature, a picture book, a wordless story, and created something beautiful. That is not to say that picture books can’t appeal to adults. Children’s classic such as The Snowman, and Father Christmas are stunning and offer equal entertainment for adults as they do for children.  Indeed, the tale told in Unspoken can speak more toward an adult audience as the innocent child is unlikely to grasp the full extent of sadness that underlies the beautiful artwork. To the child the book may appear as nothing more than a story of young girl with a secret friend.

unspoken-9780545399975-pages-16-17-1-final-rightWithout words, the young girl who lives within the illustrations of Cole’s work is almost a stranger to us; we do not know her name, or very much about her life. However, from her actions it seems as though she is from a less than well off family. Cole draws her working on a farm in tattered clothes, leading cattle and feeding chickens. It is while carrying out chores that the child sees men on horseback riding through her family’s farm, they are searching for something, and she is soon to discover the whereabouts of their quarry. Sent to the barn to gather supplies she is startle by a sound coming from a pile of corn – there is someone there.

If we knew little about the young girl, even more mysterious is the identity of the runaway. We see only their eye peeking through the ears of corn, and later, their thankful hands, reaching out to receive food encased within the young girl’s handkerchief. In my mind I have given the runaway a female identity, although each reader will have their own feelings on this matter.

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The worry etched on the young girls face as she hides this secret says far more than any words could express. Her concern seeps from the pages, a combined anxiety for the creature in the corn, and that she will be discovered harbouring a fugitive.  She watches with clear disdain as men on horseback visit her father once again, offering a reward for the return of an escaped slave. You can see that the family live a simple life, likely a reward would be very gratefully received, and yet the young girl looks on, in silence.

Our heroine, beautiful in her innocence, seems only to think of the safety of the figure in the corn. She follows her heart, as the runaway follows the North Star, away from the South, to freedom. When she returns to the barn and finds the runaway gone, leaving behind a small token of thanks, she knows she has made the right choice.

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Without a single word Cole’s book speaks mountains. There is no colour, no creed, no judgement, just a person, helping another person.

In his author’s note Cole writes that he hopes that those who read the book will use his pictures as a starting point to create their own story – filling in all that has been left unspoken.

Children’s book review tour! Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”  ― Wilfred Owen

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

51QTsd1WFBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was never any question of including this book on my tour list. Before I had even received the book I knew that I loved it. Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier is exactly what the title implies; the diary of an unknown soldier.

One winter’s morning, Barroux was walking down the streets of Paris when he passed a house which was being emptied of rubbish; piles of old belongings, wrappers and refuse had been placed in the street. ‘We are emptying the basement. Help yourself if you like’ he was told by one of the people ferrying rubbish onto the street. It was at this point that Barroux picked up an ageing yellow diary from amongst the rubbish. A diary which belonged to an unknown soldier serving during world war one. Barroux took the diary and from it created Line of Fire, a graphic novel depicting the words written by an unknown French soldier…may his words never be forgotten.

This book was such a find! I’m over the moon to have discovered it, read it, and to have a copy of my own.

The illustration style fits so perfectly with the subject; you can almost imagine the soldier himself drawing them. They are simple, almost childish, yet graphic, as though they have been scratched with a piece of charcoal salvaged from the embers of long extinguished fire. They remind me, in some ways, of images I have seen drawn by soldiers on the front line. Although the sketches undoubtedly carry Barroux’s distinctive style, there is much in the way of reality present in the scenes. I am reminded of the images in A Soldiers Sketches Under Fire by Harold Harvey – real images sketched by a soldier on the front line.

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It feels strange to review the words of a man when I know nothing about him. Although Barroux is listed as the author of the book, the words belong to the Unknown Soldier. They are exactly as they were found, although in the case of my copy they have been translated into English from their native French. They are powerful words, and although it does not take long to read the book, the effect of the story is far reaching and potent.

The Unknown Soldier speaks of the things which are sure to have plagued any man on the front line of WWI. His fatigue, it is crippling, and he feels dead on his feet – ‘My feet are bleeding, My legs can no longer hold me up. This isn’t a man who’s walking but a sheep following the flock.’ He is never able to rest for more than a few hours before being aroused, often in the dead of night, to move on to the next place. He takes to sleeping on piles of straw, where they are available, next to his companion Fernand, sleeping close together for warmth, and, I expect, comfort.

Our Soldier worries about those he has left behind. He is so worried, plagued by worry each time he receives no word from home. It is moving to see the worry from the other side. It is well known that those that are left behind will worry about their father, brother, son, or husband who has gone away to fight, but the soldiers words show that the worry tortures him equally. ‘The women weep. It’s up to us to show that we’re stronger than they are and convince them that we will return.’ When he does hear news his release is evident, as though he has let out a deep breath of relief; ‘at last I receive some postcards from my dear wife’.

The horror of war is also painted on the pages of the diary, not so much in Barroux’s drawings, but in the soldier’s words. The words are not complicated or flowing, but to the point, and powerful – you can smell the gunpowder, hear the crackle of artillery fire, and see the horrors that the Unknown Soldier scrawls within the pages of his diary. ‘This is where a powerful shell landed on a platoon of the 6th company, which was partially destroyed’ he writes, having seen the remains of a soldiers leg hanging from a tree branch.

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The Unknown Soldier seems to have made a narrow escape from the horrors of war, although no one knows now anything about the man who kept this diary.  He writes of being injured while forced to advance under the eruption of overhead shrapnel, and of the bravery of a fellow soldier, without whom he may not have survived. ‘While he’s bandaging my arm, the shells continue to rain down on us. I shall never forget the devotion of this soldier who didn’t think twice about risking his life, staying close in order to tend to me.’

Once out of the line of fire, he is faced with a lengthy journey to a hospital, all the while in indescribable pain, and with a raging fever which forbids him rest and sustenance. It is once he arrives at hospital, and his fever begins to subside that he is faced with another, unimagined issue – boredom. For a week we hear nothing of the Unknown Soldier, and then, he writes of his boredom, the slowness of the days, his heavy heart, and his feeling that life is carrying on all the same outside of the hospital walls.

‘Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t stay in the line of fire’ – and with these words the Unknown Soldier’s story ends.

Line of Fire has left me feeling such a strange mix of emotions, with so many questions running through my mind. The power of the Unknown Soldier’s last words are incredible, and only made more so by the fact that he, undoubtedly, never expected anyone to read his diary. Who was this man? And why did he stop writing? Questions I will find myself often asking, and will never know the answer to.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone. Even if you don’t feel drawn to Barroux’s illustrations the power of the Unknown Soldier’s words will not fail to captivate. History students, WWI fanatics, children and adults alike, this is a lesson in history, and an important one at that. Read it and pass on the recommendation.

Children’s book review tour! Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales – Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I could hardly do a book tour on children’s book for adults without delving into a little bit of young adult fiction now could I? If you enjoyed them as a pre-teen, you will probably quite enjoy going back over them now. Who can honestly say they wouldn’t happily sit down with a copy of Goosebumps, if just for the novelty?

Don’t lie to me.

So the next book on my tour was selected with this in mind.

Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales – Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

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‘Let’s be honest. We have questions about monsters. That’s why we put this book together. That’s why you’re reading this book right now. On old maps, cartographers would draw strange beasts around the margins and write phrases such as “Here be dragons.” That’s where monsters exist: in the unmapped spaces, in the places where we haven’t filled in all the gaps, in outer space or in the deepest parts of the ocean.’

In their Anthology of Beastly Tales Link and Grant answer some questions about monsters, or rather, tell us a few tales about the monsters hiding in plain sight.

But before we begin reading, there’s a pop quiz to complete – this is novel. So as advised, I turn down the lights, pick up a nice sharp pencil, ‘one that can double as a weapon in an emergency’, and tell the truth.

The questions start off casually; multiple choice questions about the way monsters look, would I consider dating a spider, would I let a vampire bite me, you get the gist. But then they get just a little too creepy for a girl alone in a big house on a dark night.

When you were younger, you were afraid that something was in your closet.
Yes/No

There’s nothing in the closet. Really.
True/False

Are you sure there’s nothing in the closet.
Yes/No

Maybe you should go look in the closet, just in case.
Yes/No/I don’t want to. You do it.

Check again. Just one more time. Go ahead. We’ll wait right here.

After completing my pop quiz, silently cursing Link and Grant, and with my wardrobe door firmly shut. I began the first story ‘Moriabe’s Children’.

“Alanie had never seen a kraken, but her people spoke of them often. The kraken were out beyond the breakwaters of Serenity Bay, the hungry children of Moriabe. They writhed in the depths and sometimes rose to the surface to hunt. A kraken’s tentacles could encircle a sailing ship and crack its spine. Kraken snapped masts like kindling, and swallowed sailors whole.”

This first tale creeped me out. I’m terrified of squids, and the descriptions of the mammoth children of Moriabe writhing like ink pools under the sea surface made me inwardly shudder. So far so good!Denys_de_Montfort_Poulpe_ColossalThere are fifteen stories in all. Fifteen tales that dip briefly into the lives of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons and shape shifters. Some of these creatures hide in the shadows of our own existence, and some inhabit their own weird and wonderful worlds, where flowers are the cancer that infects a person’s soul and artificial boyfriends made from soft plastic walk among the living.

The book has a great combination of stories from different authors from all over the world, and shows an immense amount of imagination and flair. Some of the stories will appeal more to some than to others, as with any anthology, but I think there will be something here for everyone. I was particularly pleased to come across a hidden comic strip towards the end of the book, which was wholly unexpected, and served as a nice break from the rest of the text.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Reading Monstrous Affections was like revisiting my preteen years. Some of the stories don’t try and frighten in the slightest, and instead slip into the weird and wonderful, while others are straight out spine-chilling. I am thinking in particular of ‘Left Foot, Right’ – the story of a young girl who, guilt ridden at her sister’s death, attempts to appease her sisters spirit with the gift of new shoes – which was undoubtedly the most horrifying of the stories from my perspective, and I love ghost stories.

The book is also, physically beautiful, it is a nice weighty volume, with a stunning, if slightly horrifying cover image. The book is hardbacked and made from thick, good quality paper, and to hold in your hands feels almost like a spell book, or book of dark magic, apart from having that wholly divine new book smell, rather than an equally pleasant old book scent.

But the thing I found most impressive about this book, was not the stories themselves, but the fact that many of the stories explore a lot of issues which pre-teen and young adult audiences will be able to relate to. Many of the stories explore sexuality and underage pregnancy, as well as looking at love and friendship, the loss of loved ones and bullying. I think exploring issues such as these is really important in YA fiction, and Monstrous Affections has approached this really well.

Monstrous Affections was a really fun, and at times slightly thrilling book to read. Link and Grant have selected a great variety of short stories to fit into this anthology; of the 15 tales included each is unique, with different ghosts and ghouls unlikely to feature in more than one tale. I think this book would appeal to a wider age group than the young adults it is aimed at, but with adults it would be more of a novelty than anything else. That said, I would recommend that anyone who did enjoy reading the likes of Goosebumps and Point Horror as a pre-teen give it a go.

I was sent a free copy of Monstrous Affections by Walker books in exchange for an honest review.

Children’s book review tour! The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy – Nick Bantock

‘All of us need to be in touch with a mysterious, tantalizing source of inspiration that teases our sense of wonder and goads us on to life’s next adventure.’  ― Rob Brezsny

Ok so these books aren’t technically children’s books; they’re very much written for adults. Instead, it’s the style of the books which is taken from traditional children’s literature – they are interactive, made up entirely of heavily illustrated postcards and private letters that you can remove from their envelopes.

I heard about this trilogy on an episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast and knew straight away I needed to check them out. I’m always on the lookout for new things to read which are a little different; this one certainly piqued my interest.

Griffin and Sabine

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Griffin Moss:
It’s good to get in touch with you at last.
Could I have one of your fish postcards?
I think you were right – the wine glass had more impact than the cup.
Sabine Strohem

So begins this extraordinary correspondence between Griffin Moss, a postcard illustrator living in London, and Sabine Strohem, a postage stamp illustrator from the fictional Sicmon Islands.

The book is without introduction, background to the conversation, or hint as to how these two people know one another. As a reader, you begin the book in exactly the same situation as Griffin, for he also knows nothing about Sabine.

The mysterious Sabine has been linked to Griffin for many years, with the power to see his artwork through his very eyes. He struggles to believe this fact, but what choice does he have? How else would she know that he darkened the sky in his most recent painting? This begs the questions is she real? Or merely a figment of Griffins grief addled mind?

Through their correspondence Griffin gets to know Sabine, and lays bare his soul for the entire world to see. The journey through their correspondence brings them closer together, though they are separated by thousands of miles of land and ocean.

The experience of reading this book was truly amazing. I was sceptical, mainly because I knew these books had been published in the 90s but that I had somehow never heard of them until now. But I was so far from being disappointed.

As the relationship between Griffin and Sabine unfurls you are able to delve into it on such a personal level. There is something so deeply intriguing and alluring about reading the story through private correspondence, as though you can enter the minds of both Griffin and Sabine. At no point are the characters actively described in terms of appearance and yet by the end of the book I had developed a clear image of both in my mind.

The illustrations are stunning. And so they should be, drawn supposedly by professional postcard and stamp illustrators. I felt as though I could spend hours studying the images, while the text itself could probably be read in just half an hour. At times the images of the postcards seem to illustrate the passion written in the short blurbs of text.

So – you’ve been making love to me ten thousand miles away – how tantalizing.

It’s all rather steamy, I can feel myself blushing – if I feel like this what kind of affect is it going to have on Griffin?!

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Their relationship intensifies to the point that Griffin thinks himself insane, convinced that he has imagined himself a companion to sooth his troubled soul. He panics, terrified of what might happen, and attempts to break all ties with Sabine.

But she is not to be played with.

There are so many questions left unanswered. So much I want, no, need to know. Thank goodness I already have the rest of the trilogy.

Sabine’s Notebook

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Faced with the terrifying prospect of coming face to face with his own imaginary creation Griffin has fled London. Meanwhile his muse sits quietly, patiently, awaiting his return, having taken up refuge in his empty flat.

The second book is told with the same beautiful postcard and intricately decorated envelopes that make up the correspondence between the two star crossed, and, possibly imaginary lovers – but with the added bonus of doubling up as Sabine’s notebook. The pages which surround Griffin’s letters and cards serve as extra space for Sabine to doodle, sketch, wonder and muse.IMG_20150315_130227339

Griffin travels all over, Dublin, Italy, Egypt, picking his way through crumbling ruins and ancient civilisations, drawing further into the abyss of the past, running further and further away but from what? All the while Sabine sits patiently in his flat in London, or else taking the occasional excursion to more rural England, waiting for his return.

Sabine serves as Griffin’s voice of reason – guiding him on his journey, puzzling through his problems in her intricate sketches, and ultimately, leading him home to her.

The second book flings up even more questions which will leave you itching to get your hands on this third.

The Golden Mean

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Griffin is in back in London, and Sabine is back in the Sicmon Island – somehow they missed each other. But how? The final book in the trilogy sees Griffin and Sabine suffering silently against the unseen forces which keep them from one another.

‘It seems that each cannot exist in the presence of the other. Yet neither can continue without the presence of the other.’  

Sabine has returned to the Sicmon islands, she has washed her face in the sea and felt the sand between her toes, and yet she is unhappy. Her visions of Griffin’s artwork are fading, and a mysterious stranger is haunting her everywhere she goes.

The final part of the trilogy is told once again through postcards and letters, but this time the illustrations begin to take a darker form. Shadows emerge in the corners of the page, threatening to engulf that which lurks within the images. The fog leaks across the page, like that which creeps before the eyes of Griffin and Sabine, a physical representation of the dark forces at play.IMG_20150315_130321081

Desperate to be with one another Griffin and Sabine try one last time to make a connection.

Far from being a conclusion to the trilogy, The Golden Mean throws up just as many new questions as it answers old ones, and may leave the reader feeling many combinations of feelings – but I can guarantee this will not include disappointment.

From what I had heard about these books before I bought them, I expected them to be good, but not mind-blowing. I thought they would be novel – having books made out of postcards is such a quirky idea, but really, how far can a story be told in this way?

So, how do I feel now I’ve finished the books? Suitably humbled.

These books aren’t just good, they are really something special. Bantock’s artwork, imagination, and the intimacy and passion with which each letter is written combine to create a trilogy of books which really shine. The books are niche, clever and, above all, a truly epic read. I have been completely drawn in to Griffin and Sabine’s world.

I would recommend these books to crafty types, arty types, fans of children’s fiction, fans of fiction, fans of pictures books – in short, pretty much everyone, other than those who only read non-fiction.

Comic Relief 2015: The Queen’s Orang-Utan by David Walliams

Any of you literary types looking to make a donation to Comic Relief?

Hilarious new children’s book The Queen’s Orang-utan was written exclusively for Comic Relief 2015 by David Walliams.

David will be giving all of his proceeds from the book to the charity. The illustrator, Tony Ross, will waive his royalties and HarperCollins UK will also donate all profits from the publishing of the book – at least £3 from each copy sold will go to Comic Relief.

The Queen’s Orang-Utan – David Walliams

The-Queens-OrangutanFrom Number One bestselling picture book duo, David Walliams and Tony Ross, comes this spectacularly funny story for children of 3 and up.

A bored queen.

A birthday wish.

An outrageous orang-utan.

Everything’s about to go bananas!

Available to buy from Amazon and direct from HarperCollins.

Praise for David Walliams

“TV star David Walliams is as adept at writing for the under-fives as for older children.” – Daily Express

“No one has any business being as talented as David Walliams. He is one of the few comic actors who is actually funny, and is now the genius writer of ridiculously over-the-top and utterly delightful children’s books…” – Spectator

“I absolutely love David Walliams’s books. In a few more years they will become classics.” – Sue Townsend, author of Adrian Mole

“A new Roald Dahl” – The Times

“You can love someone so much…But you can never love people as much as you can miss them.” ― John Green

Love and tragedy

Spare change – Bette Lee Crosby

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Heralding from the southern United States, Bette Lee Crosby fell in love with fiction at a very early age. For Crosby, the step towards becoming a writer was an obvious one. ‘Storytelling is my blood,’ she says, and describes her mother as a ‘captivating storyteller.’ She recounts using bits and pieces of her southern mother’s voice in almost all of her writing, a trait for which she is well known and much admired. Crosby first entered the international publishing scene in 2006 when she received the National League of American Pen Women Award for one of her unpublished manuscripts. Since her debut novel, Cracks in the Sidewalk, was released in 2009, she has gone on to publish six further novels, including USA Today bestseller Spare Change in 2011.


In Spare Change Crosby exceptionally executes the multi strand narrative, telling the tale of two very distinct characters, whose storylines unexpectedly become one. Olivia Ann Westerly has her life well and truly figured out, stubborn and superstitious to the very core, she hates opals, loathes the number 11 and sees children as a weight that crushes a woman’s soul. That’s why, despite being well into her thirties, she continues to dismiss any proposals of marriage. Her life is simple, until she meets Charlie Doyle, a man with blue eyes and a lopsided smile which finally captures her heart. When Olivia allows herself to become absorbed by her love, ignoring the bad omen brought by the unexpected gifting of an opal necklace, her honeymoon period ends abruptly and with devastating results. Leaving her once more alone, with none of the independence she once so coveted. Meanwhile Ethan Allan Doyle has been born into an underprivileged home, to an abusive father, and a mother with dreams of running away to New York City to pursue a music career. Having grown up in a less than conventional household with a mother and father with their fair share of secrets, Ethan Allen knows better than to go shooting his mouth off. As a result, when he bears witness to a gruesome incident, which leaves both his parents dead, he knows he needs to run before the man responsible catches up to him. Lost and without a hope in the world, Olivia and Ethan Allen’s lives may seem miles apart, but they are about to get to know each other a whole lot better.

This was my first experience of reading Crosby’s work, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. I really appreciated the southern flair in her style. The language is second to none and gives a real twist to the text. I found myself inadvertently reading pretty much the entire book with a southern accent. The use of the southern dialect sets the perfect scene for the book, and it’s not just the speech which has this amazing southern feel, the whole book reads like a passage of speech from the Grapes of Wrath:

‘The year Ethan Allen became eleven was when things between Benjamin and Susanna turned rancid as a week old pork chop.’

I challenge anyone to get through the whole novel without inadvertently donning an internal Scarlet O’Hara-esque persona on at least one occasion. Just try and say the words ‘leastwise’ or ‘elsewise’ with anything other than a southern drawl, I’m sure it can’t be done. This aspect of Crosby’s work is something for which she is well known and liked, and it’s evident from reading the book just why this is.

Crosby’s narrative is interlaced with passages of italicised text which serve as the internal monologues of some of the main characters. These short passages allow the reader an insight into the inner thoughts and workings of the characters. I found these openings to be the place where the most of the language came out, especially with Ethan Allen, whose character was less likely to have lengthy passages of speech within the storyline itself. From his expressions and thoughts I developed a very clear image of the boy in my mind – street wise, small, dirty, and foul mouthed. I can imagine him as being a bit of a Huckleberry Finn type character. Olivia’s monologue also lent me a clear view of her personality, her written word painted such a clear picture that I felt as though I could reach out and touch her. She seems to be quite the quintessential southern belle: much sought after, but never captured.

The individual stories of Ethan Allen and Olivia are sure to tug on the heart strings of all that read them. Both characters have such tragic stories; blessed by love, but plagued by loss. The relationship between Ethan Allen and his mother may be unconventional, but it uniquely charming and adorable in its own way. His evident despair and anger at having lost his mother is truly heart-breaking. Meanwhile, Olivia’s relationship with Charlie is nothing short of perfect from the very start, but is so much shorter than anyone could ever expect. The brutality the situation is overwhelming, and is epitomised in the words that Olivia uses to describe her grief:

‘The bits and pieces of Charlie are like a bouquet of roses. I look at them and see a world of sweetness and beauty, but when I try to hold onto them the thorns rip me to pieces.’

It is the tragedy of each character’s past which makes the unexpected relationship which blossoms between the two of them all the more rewarding.

Another aspect of the book, I would like to go into is the past that Ethan Allen is running from, but I’m wary of unleashing too many spoilers, so I’ll keep this short. Needless to say, Ethan Allen’s troubles are not over when he meets with Olivia; in fact they’re really just beginning. A shadow of the past is following Ethan, threatening to take the only thing he has left – his life. It is the prospect of his past catching up with him which ultimately brings Olivia and Ethan Allen closer together. As it becomes apparent that his troubles are not just going to disappear Ethan realises he has to trust Olivia, which means telling the truth about what he saw the day his parents died.

On the whole I found Spare Change to be a satisfying read, and I would definitely consider reading more of Crosby’s work. The only thing I felt I could have done without is the final chapter; I think that introducing a spiritual aspect to the novel at the last minute was unnecessary. That said, as it is the final chapter wasn’t too perturbed by it. The relationship between Olivia and Ethan Allen is enchanting and really heart-warming, but the storyline itself manages to stand out and is not too flowery. Crosby’s style is easy and fun to read, serving as an eclectic mix of southern flair, tragedy, crime and love which really expresses the best of human nature.

Many thanks to Bette Lee Crosby and Bent Pine Publishing for supplying me with a free review copy of the book.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” ― Groucho Marx

A child’s innocent review

My Family and Other Animals ― Gerald Durrel

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My Family and Other Animals is the childhood autobiography of the renowned naturalist Gerald Durrell, and takes place over a few short years that the Durrell family spent together on the Greek Island of Corfu. It is perhaps the best known of Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, the others of which are ‘Birds, Beasts and Relatives’, and ‘The Garden of the Gods’. I have yet to read the other two, but they are currently working their way to the top of my ever increasing ‘to read’ pile.

The Durrell family made the choice to migrate to Corfu in an attempt to escape the dreary English weather. Early on in the book you are made aware that the family is somewhat unconventional as moving abroad seems to be a very snap decision. While of course this could just be the situation viewed through the eyes of a child, I have heard it said that the book paints a fairly accurate picture of the family. In fact it was described by Gerald Durrell’s elder brother Lawrence as “a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book”.

Through My Family and Other Animals Durrell traces the amusing happenings of the family in their new lives, and goes to great length to describe and account for all the creatures that he comes into contact with throughout his adventures. In fact, Durrell originally planned for the book to be purely a journal of all the animals he discovered, but in the process of constructing the journal he managed to wonderfully meld his own adventures with that of his family. The result is a really charming child’s snapshot of a period of Gerald Durrell’s life which to all extents sounds absolutely blissful and idyllic.

When writing about her married life to Durrell in her autobiography ‘Beasts in My Bed’, Jacquie Durrell remarked that she had never known Durrell to work with the vivacity he had while writing My Family and Other Animals, commenting that “it seemed to pour out of him”. I find this interesting, as many writers consider writing to be a laborious task. I remember with such clarity a lecture on essay writing during my first week at university. One of our new lecturers told us quite matter-of-factly ‘Writing hurts, and it will always hurt, when you sit down it will be painful’; words that have forever stuck with me. As much as I love writing, I do often find it painful in a way, albeit a positive way. There is no doubt that Durrell was immensely passionate about the animals he wrote about and this seems almost to have flowed directly out of him, through the pages of the book, and into the minds of the reader. I suppose you have to, like Durrell, write about something you love ardently for it to come this naturally.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Durrell’s time in Corfu, while it is not an action packed adventure novel there is so much to appeal to the reader. The eccentricities of the Durrell family seem to make each character instantly likeable. To live on a whim, as the Durrell’s do, must be ever so exciting. Imagine at the age of ten having a mother that would let you keep as a pet any creature you brought home be it a snake, a toad, an owl, anything. Everything that occurs in the Durrell’s lives in steeped in unconventionality, absurdity and hilarity. From the offset Larry has only to suggest going to Greece, and although Mother attempts to resist at first, it is done. Once in Greece Larry makes the bizarre suggestion that they move to a bigger villa, because their current one is too small to accommodate the guests he has invited to stay, and again Mother attempts to stand her ground, but part two of the novel begins with the line ‘The new villa was enormous’. Indeed the uniqueness of the family does not go unnoticed, their parties are always lively to say the least, and on the journey back to England, with “the finches [singing] in their cages, the Magenpies [chucking] and [hammering] with their beaks, and Alecko [giving] mournful [yarps] at intervals. [While] the dogs lay snoring” the family are described by passport control as “One travelling Circus and Staff”.

The entire book is told from the point of view of Durrell’s childhood self, Gerry, the inquisitive ecologist. Gerry’s love of animals of all sorts comes out in all aspects of his writing, the most obvious of course being the title ‘My Family and Other Animals’. He has countless encounters with strange beasts, many of which would make the average person squirm in discomfort, but fill Gerry with an unquenchable curiosity. In fact some of the most animated conversations, and interactions that Gerry recollects are those between himself and his best friend Roger the family dog. He speaks of, and to his pets [and there are many of them] as if they are people. I would even say that in some ways Gerry appears as if he is a sort of animal himself, distanced and at odds with the rest of the family, he is often referred to as: ‘THAT BOY!’

Throughout the novel Gerry is subjected to an education of sorts and often finds himself with the most peculiar tutors. He seems to bond the most with, and indeed goes into the most detail describing, his final tutor Kralefsky who quite coincidentally has a house full of exotic birds. Not surprisingly nature plays a large role in Gerry’s methods of learning and remembering those dull things which children were often forced to memorise. Hannibal and his elephants were memorable because Hannibal gave his elephants hot water bottles, equally he is most interested not in Columbus discovering America, but it the fact that Columbus’ first words upon reaching the shores of America were ‘A Jaguar’. There is the distinct impression that much of the time Gerry spent with his tutors was time better spent elsewhere, as he ultimately learns the most from his unlikely friendship with Theodore, a scientist, and nature lover just like Gerry. Days spent with Theodore are the days Gerry looks forward to the most, and when he commits the majority of his education to memory, asking questions, learning and discovering:

”What, I wondered, did things sound like to a trapdoor spider? I could imagine a snail would trail over the door with a sound like a sticking plaster being torn off. A centipede would sound like a troop of cavalry. A fly would patter in shorts bursts, followed by a pause when it washed its hands – a dull rasping sound like a knife-grinder at work. The larger beetles, I decided, would sound like steam rollers, while the smaller ones, the ladybirds and others, would probably purr over the moss like clockwork motorcars.”

One of my favourite things about My Family and Other Animals, and I am sure this is a recurring theme throughout Durrell’s work, is the lengthy descriptions of the most stunning scenery, amongst events, people, animals, although it is the scenery in particular that I enjoy. The book is full of examples of this, but one of my favourite instances and the one which really stood out to me first and foremost was the description near the beginning of the book, of the family having breakfast outside of their new villa:

“We ate breakfast out in the garden, under the small tangerine trees. The sky was fresh and shining, not yet the fierce blue of noon, but a clear milky opal. The flowers were half-asleep, roses dew crumpled, marigolds still tightly shut.”

Through a description like this you can almost smell the dampness of the flower buds, and feel the slight chill of dawn, the soft blanket of night being pulled back to reveal the splendours of the day ahead.

Durrell pays just as much attention to detail in the description of just about everything in the book. Accounts of different characters are described down to the smallest details; the invaluable Spiro is “a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap”. Everything is described so that it feels it will leap out of the page, like the crowd of Corfiots waiting in the church to kiss the feet of Saint Spiridion “This dark multi-coloured wedge of humanity moved slowly towards the dark door of the church, and we were swept along with it, wedged like pebbles in a larva-flow.”

One aspect of this particular edition of my family and other animals that I very much liked was the inclusion of an afterword by Peter J S Olney. This gave the reader a little information on what happened to the family in the years after the book was set. I thought this a very nice addition, as with works based on true events I often find myself wondering what happened afterwards, knowing of course that the lives of these characters carried on beyond the pages of the book. It was through this afterword that I discovered that the events described in the book, are sometimes, not exactly true. For example, Gerry’s brother Larry actually spent the whole of the time the book is set, living in another part of Corfu, with his wife Nancy. I have also heard it quoted that the reason the family left the Greece, was not, as Gerry claimed, so that he could get an education, but in fact due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed the dates do match up. These inaccuracies, if you can call them that add to the innocence of the book. The idea of the whole family, living together, embarking on one huge, somewhat eccentric adventure, is far nicer than thinking of them having been separated by something as grown up as marriage. Also, while being forced to leave the home of your dreams to pursue an education is hardly a pleasant thought for a child, it is much sweeter than the bitter harsh reality of the Second World War.