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SPOTLIGHT: Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy & the Infamous Five

Monday, May 30, 2016

Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy and the Infamous Five 

(an article published in BLACK & WHITE in 2001)

There could be few people left on the face of this planet who have not heard of Harry Potter. You know, the one that has had kids camping outside bookshops all night. The one that has made sardine-flavoured jelly beans fashionable.

Maybe, if you’d been in a contemplation retreat for the past four years, you might have missed the commotion. Or lost in the Amazon jungle without a radio. Otherwise I can confidently say you know all about the Harry Potter Phenomenon. 

What you may have missed is the growing backlash against Pottermania. At the moment it is still low-key. Mutterings of middle-class bias. Fuming by feminists that Harry is not Harriet. Banning of the book by Bible-bashers. One critic described the hype ahead of the release of the fourth book as being “worthy of a Wonderbra.” Another has described them as ‘marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.’ That critic, Whitbread book judge Anthony Holden, went on to call Rowlings’ books “essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative (and) dispiritingly nostalgic.” 

I would have said exuberantly nostalgic. For therein lies the secret of Rowling’s success. It should be no surprise that her books have proved as hugely popular with adults as they have with children. For decades the literary establishment has been blaming TV, video games, the Internet, MTV and Macdonald’s for the demise of reading in the young and not-so-young. Few have wondered whether the reason reading has gone out of fashion is because the books published have simply not been what anyone wants to read. 

To me, the Harry Potter books have all the verve and wit and excitement of the books I loved to read as a child – and still read today when I’m tired or sick or studying for exams, when I feel in need of sinking myself in the guilty, sensuous pleasure of reading for the pure joy of reading. And though Rowling has been compared with C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and Edith Nesbit, the author she reminds me of most is the author I loved most passionately as an eight year old. Enid Blyton.

The first story I ever wrote was about a brother and sister who fell down a hole into Fairyland. It was unashamedly influenced by Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I was six years old. A year or so later I attempted my first novel. It was entitled Runaway and was about a brother and sister who run away from their cruel aunt and uncle, at last finding a happy home with their nice auntie after enduring all sorts of adventures. Coincidentally, the plot synopsis sounds remarkably like that of Blyton’s first book, The Secret Island (1938). 

For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book to read. Since there were 21 in the Famous Five series, my family found buying me Christmas and birthday presents very easy. I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy, in our never-ending Famous Five games. Since she was bigger than me, my sister always won. I had to be timid Anne who liked to play with dolls.

When I imagined my life as a grown-up, I modelled my daydreams on Blyton’s The Story Of My Life, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. Blyton described her life in idyllic terms. She lived in a big old house in the country with a huge garden filled with flowers and lots of animals and two sweet-faced children of her own and a vague sort of husband floating around. 

She never mentioned her bitter divorce,  perennial problems with the plumbing or the time her house was invaded by hundreds of rats – just like Julian never got a pimple or George never experienced her first menstrual cramp. I wanted desperately to be a writer living in a big old house in the country too – and I have to admit my ambitions have not changed much since I was eight.

Confessing to all this is actually very hard. Enid Blyton has been sneered at for so many years. One critic described her as “slow poison”; another said her language was “colourless, dead and totally undemanding.”

The first shot in the anti-Blyton campaign was fired by Geoffrey Trease in 1949 with the comment “The Blyton school stories entertain but … can hardly be said to go far in depicting reality, stimulating the imagination or educating the emotions. Their style (is) drained of all difficulty until it achieves a kind of aesthetic anaemia.” In other words, “marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.”

Geoffrey Trease’s 1949 book, Tales Out of School, was the first ever critical analysis of British children’s literature and it was to prove highly influential over the next half a century. In this seminal work, he placed great emphasis on the need for children’s books to “represent reality.” 

This was to become the rallying cry for critics, librarians, and literary academics everywhere – and not just in relation to children’s books. This was the age when ‘angry young men’ dominated the world stage. There was no room for whimsy and wonder, frivolity or fancy. No room for illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory or hunting for treasure in secret passages. No room for a world where gangs of children outwitted gangs of baddies without the unwelcome interference of bumbling grown-ups. No room for wishing-chairs or flying broomsticks or animals that could speak or wardrobes that led into magical lands.

In December 1975, the Times Literary Supplement wrote “the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth.”

Twenty-five years after that review and fifty years after Geoffrey Trease first cast Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit and other popular children’s writers out into the arctic circle of academic scorn, Harry Potter has taken over the world. J.K. Rowling had the good luck to sit down and write her fantastical, whimsical adventure stories at a time when the world was hungry for kiddies’ books like you used to get. Of course, she had some trouble convincing the literary establishment of that. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series, was rejected by every single publisher in the UK before at last being picked up by Bloomsbury. It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of that publisher’s turnover and all the other publishers in the world are now clamouring for books about boy wizards, grumpy owls, chambers of secrets and boarding school capers. 

What is most interesting is that this enthusiastic embracing of the unrealistic comes at a time when the almost universal derision towards Enid Blyton is being replaced with a new degree of critical and popular interest. 

Hugh Grant recently named The Naughtiest Girl In the School as his favourite book of all time, and it was widely reported that Liz Hurley sought refuge in her own Blyton collection after his infamous encounter with a black prostitute. Writers who have unashamedly acknowledged their early love of Blyton include Melvyn Bragg, Beryl Bainbridge, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, and Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme (who, much like me, wrote a Enid Blyton rip-off called 
‘The Cave of Adventure’ at the age of seven). 

Blyton’s own life has been a source of continual fascination, perhaps because she so unfailingly represented it as bathed in perpetual sunshine. The Channel Four series Secret Lives recently probed the dark, secret shadows of her life with great relish - Blyton’s frigid relations with her own family, her affairs and bitter divorce, her intense friendship with Dorothy Richards (Bi Women On the Web, a resource page for bisexual women, lists Enid Blyton as one of its heroines, along with Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Bernhard).

Most tellingly, Blyton has finally been the subject of an in-depth critical analysis, published last month in the UK as Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature. David Rudd, a senior lecturer at Bolton Institute, has examined the life and work of Blyton, with particular emphasis on the fact that, despite the storm of adult negativity, Blyton remains the most popular children’s author ever.  To date, her books have sold over 300 million copies and are still selling strongly. They have been made into TV series, feature films, radio plays, stage plays, fun parks, animated cartoons, and puppet shows. They have never gone out of print and 32 years after her death, Enid Blyton is still chosen by children as one of their all-time favourite authors.

“Why does a writer accused of being … middle-class, snobbish, sexist, racist … continue to fascinate in our multicultural world? To fascinate not only in France, Germany and Australia, but also in Malaysia, Russia and Japan, and in languages such as Catalan and Tamil?’ Rudd asks.

To begin with, Rudd examines the primary criticisms of Blyton’s work and concludes that many “are based on glaring misreadings, sometimes not even drawing on Blyton’s own original texts.”

The accusation of sexism, for example, is one that has always troubled me. Of all the thousands of books I read as a child, it is George of the Famous Five that remains most vivid in my memory - the tomboy who refused to let the boys push her around, the girl who could out-swim, out-climb and out-wit anyone. The critic Bob Dixon has described George as “a very bad case of … penis-envy’, yet she was a powerful role-model for literally millions of young girls. 

Enid Blyton said that the character of George was inspired by herself as a child

Blyton’s books are filled with passionate, independent girls who fight desperately against being straitjacketed in normal gender roles. Even Anne, normally dismissed as the typical domesticated female, has her own power, which often takes her brothers by surprise. And as Rudd points out, without the contrast of Anne, George’s behaviour would not appear half so subversive.

Noddy, once Blyton’s most popular and celebrated creation, was singled out for the most venom. One critic of the early ‘60s called him “the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction.” Noddy books were banned for many years, primarily because of the racial implications of their naughty golliwogs. Blyton herself protested that she depicted more bad teddies than golliwogs and statistically she was right. A close examination of the Noddy books shows that the poor maligned golliwogs were wicked in only one story, out of 24 books in total, with the real villains more likely to be monkeys or goblins.

In the sanitised, homogenised versions of the books on sale now, the golliwogs have been replaced by slit-eyed goblins. Noddy and Big Ears, who once liked to share a bed, now live in separate establishments and Noddy no longer feels himself “coming over all queer.” The BBC, producer of the hugely popular animated TV series, has introduced a number of new characters, among them Dinah Doll, who it describes as a “black, assertive, ethnic minority female.” 
In spite of the controversy, Noddy has continued to be hugely popular with the very young. In the 50 years since he sprang to life in Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination, the Noddy books have sold more than 200 million copies in 27 different languages, with spinoffs including toys, clothing and CD-ROMs generating annual sales of more than $80 million in Britain alone. In the US, the Noddy series is now more popular than Sesame Street. No wonder he was asked to ring the bell to launch the day’s trading at the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year!

Most interestingly, Rudd places Blyton strongly within the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, where the audience is spellbound by the visual, sensual aspects of the tales, their sense of immediacy, their affinity with the natural daydreams of the powerless, who long to be heroes. What is most interesting about Rudd’s analysis is his comparison of this oral tradition with the literary tradition, and how contempt for the more intuitive, spontaneous and simplistic oral tradition reaches as far back as Plato.

In The Republic, Plato criticises Homer’s work for being, at best, frivolous and at worst, dangerous. He sees it as a ‘crippling of the mind’, a ‘species of mental poison and an enemy of the truth.’ Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? 
One of the primary causes for concern for many critics was the sheer volume of Blyton’s work. She was the most prolific author of all time, writing 700 books, 10,000 short stories and hundreds of magazine article and columns. She could write up to 10,000 words in a day. This meant she could write a Famous Five adventure in a week. 

Many worried that once a child became addicted to Blyton, he or she would read nothing else until they progressed - “if ever, on such a spoon-fed diet” as one critic despaired - to adult literature. However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives. 

The fact is Blyton was a wonderful storyteller, with a wonderful knack of knowing just what it is children like in books. Her first ever review, for the book of poems Child Whispers (published in 1922 when she was just twenty-five and working as a nursery governess) celebrated her ability “to move into the child’s world of fancy”. 

The psychologist Michael Woods wrote “she was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child.” He did not mean it as a compliment. Nonetheless, it is a statement of profound truth and the greatest tribute any critic could give a writer for children.  

(This article was written and published quite some time ago, but I think is as relevant as ever. Just to be fair, I have to say I love Geoffrey Trease's books too!) 

BOOK LIST: Best Books about Circuses for Children

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

To celebrate the success of The Sequin Star, the new YA timeslip adventure written by my sister Belinda, I asked her to prepare a list of the best books about circuses for kids. I remember reading all of these!

Here they are:

Mr Galliano’s Circus by Enid Blyton was one of my favourite books when I was young. I loved reading about the adventures of Jimmy Brown, who leaves his everyday, suburban life behind when his Dad gets a job as the circus carpenter. Jimmy makes friends with the naughty, mischievous circus girl called Lotta. The circus is filled with colourful characters like the ringmaster, Mr Galliano and lots of wonderful animal performers. I particularly loved Jemima the monkey, and remember begging for a pet monkey of my own. Lotta is a delightful character – a bareback trick rider who teaches Jimmy how to perform in the circus ring. Enid Blyton wrote several other books set in circuses, including Hurrah for the Circus and The Circus of Adventure

Circus Ring was written by Mary Grant Bruce in 1936 but is set in a horse drawn circus in the 1890s. The two primary characters are Hugh Russell and Nina Peterson, child performers in Peterson’s Circus. The book follows the ups and downs of the circus performers as they travel through the Australian countryside. It is a story of hardship and adventure set in an old-time travelling circus. 

The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene was a big favourite in our house, so I particularly enjoyed The Ringmaster’s Secret, when Nancy is sleuthing a mystery involving a long lost gold charm bracelet, an orphaned trapeze artist and various circus villains. To solve the mystery, Nancy goes undercover as a bareback circus rider, and of course she performs like a seasoned professional. During her adventures she is attacked, kidnapped from the circus and finally imprisoned in the lion’s cage before the ringmaster’s secret is solved. 

Five Go Off in a Caravan, was one of my favourite Famous Five adventures. Once again Enid Blyton writes a rollicking adventure story amongst the colourful characters of a circus. George, Julian, Dick, Anne and Timmy the dog, set off on a holiday in two horse drawn gypsy caravans, blissfully free of any interfering parents. They stumble across a circus camp and make friends with Nobby, the circus boy, his performing dogs and Pongo the chimpanzee. Of course, as well as loveable circus performers, there are villains and mysteries aplenty.  

Know any other great books about circuses for kids? I'd love to hear about them!

INTERVIEW: Felicity Pulman author of A Ring Through Time

Friday, May 09, 2014

I've read and enjoyed Felicity Pulman's books for years, and was thrilled to hear she had a new book out. A Ring Through Time is a timeslip novel, one of my favourite genres of  fiction. It moves from the POV of Ally, a contemporary teenager living on Norfolk Island, and Alice, whose diary of her life in the early days of the settlement is found by Ally.

Please welcome Felicity to the blog: 

Are you a daydreamer too?
A:  Always - and always getting into trouble for it!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A:  Not as such. Writing stories was always something I did, something I took for granted. Only in my 40s did I start to consider it as a serious career - something I now deeply regret.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
A:  I was born in Fort Victoria in Rhodesia, now called Masvingo in Zimbabwe (and perhaps that's why so many of my novels are about displacement, with the characters having to find out where they belong!)  I now live in Sydney with my husband, and have two (grown up) children and five grandchildren who keep me busy and also techno-savvy.  I love to read, write and listen to music, but I also enjoy bush-walking, surfing, snorkeling and holidays!  And did I mention chocolate??

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
A:  I heard a voice!  We were on holiday at Norfolk Island, and went snorkeling at beautiful  Emily Beach.  I put on my mask and, as I put my face into the water I heard a voice say: 'if only I could see my own life as clearly as I can see now.'  Who was this girl, and what was so wrong with her life that she wanted to see it more clearly?  That was about 10 years before I wrote A Ring Through Time - but I eventually found out the answers to those questions!

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
A:  I've been caught out in the past not knowing the real ending of my story when I wrote it and being led astray because of it. Now, I start when I know who the characters are and (sort of) what's going to happen to them and I also have a good idea how I want the book to end. Mostly  I don't really know how the characters are going to get there and for me, that's the fun of writing - to see what's going to happen next.  I don't plan in too much detail, because that would kill the spontaneity of the story for me.   And of course things change along the way, including the ending sometimes.  But I'm okay with that because the new ideas are usually an improvement. 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
A: In one of my first novels, Ghost Boy, Froggy has nightmares about drowning (and for a good reason.)  I used to dream about drowning as a child, and still remember the heart-thumping fear of those nightmares.  Dreams have often offered encouragement (when I feel I've lost my way.) And I've found mind-mapping an image from a dream a very useful exercise to kickstart the imagination when I'm feeling stuck. 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
A:  I was lucky enough to be awarded a May Gibbs Fellowship residency in Adelaide to write A Ring Through Time (although this title only came later.)  I'd put in a story idea but was really not sure that the story had 'legs' as I'd envisioned it.  My husband and I went to Adelaide a week early, to go on the Murray River princess - a little holiday before I started work.  It was a wonderful cruise, made memorable by a visit to the museum at Swan Hill, one of our stops.  I found a case of mourning jewellery, brooches etc. woven out of human hair.  To this day  I don't know if there were any hair rings there, but that's what I 'saw' - and that's when the whole story clicked into place along with its title. A serendipitous find indeed!

Where do you write, and when?
A:  I have a very messy study cum library where I do most of my writing.  But I also write anywhere and everywhere - even when stopped at the traffic lights if I have a brilliant idea!  I also have a pen with a light in it beside my bed to scribble down ideas without having to get up to do it. But if the ideas keep rolling, I'll work by night as well as by day.

What is your favourite part of writing?
A:  Finding out what's going to happen next!

What do you do when you get blocked?
A:  Going for a walk is always helpful.  Or doing the housework - any physical activity that keeps your body busy while leaving your mind free to roam is good.  Or I might try writing something in a different genre: an article or short story perhaps. Sometimes I compose haiku while I'm walking.  Or I do some mind-mapping, or some other writing exercise.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
A: I read a lot (novels, newspapers, journals, research material) and talk to friends, particularly other writers who are always very generous with their time and with their ideas.  I have a range of different interests, and I try to keep a balance between work and pleasure.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
A: I have an 'altar' with charms and amulets and artefacts that, for one reason or another, have significance for me. Sometimes I burn essential oils, but mostly I just get on with it. Starting a new novel is always my greatest challenge: I have to trick myself into it.  Once I have an idea, I open a folder and then chuck notes into it - news items of interest, research material, scribbled ideas - anything that might have some relevance to the new story.  Sometimes voices and visions come into it too, or perhaps a conversation between two characters.  I write it all down and file it until I am clear about where the story actually starts - and that's usually because I've already written the beginning without knowing it.  Once I've made a start, I can keep going - but facing a blank screen is terrifying!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
A:  Only 10??  

Enid Blyton was my favourite as a child (I think I'm still writing versions of The Magic Faraway Tree!) Ayn Rand was a huge influence in my teens. Connie Willis, Phillip Pullman and Guy Gavriel Kay are current favourite fantasy writers. I like C.P. Snow and Maeve Binchy for their memorable characters; Sharon Penman, Geraldine Brooks and Ellis Peters for historical fiction; Helen Garner and Jodi Picoult for difficult and interesting topics; Jane Austen for all sorts of reasons, plus Elizabeth George and other crime authors too numerous to mention.

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A: I'm less concerned about posh literary writing, being more interested in reading a story with a heart, and that takes readers on a journey with characters they care about. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
A: Read a lot and write a lot.  Be professional in your approach: near enough isn't good enough when you send off a mss to a publisher. Getting published has never been so tough, so be prepared to think outside the square, try different genres - keep learning, keep writing,  and don't give up.

What are you working on now?
A:  My new novel for adults titled I, Morgana has just been accepted by Momentum, the e-publishing arm of Pan Macmillan. (Very exciting!)  I'm now thinking about the sequel. 


SPOTLIGHT: Felicity Pulman on High v Low Fantasy

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Today on the blog, guest Felicity Pulman ponders the difference between High and Low Fantasy 

One of my favourite books as a child was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I remember that delicious thrill when you just knew that those children wouldn’t get back to the doorway of the tree in time, and that a new (and horrid) land would swing in and then they’d be trapped.  And I sometimes think I’ve been rewriting versions of these books ever since.

True confessions (and with apologies to Kate!)  

Beginning with The Hobbit and LOTR, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ high fantasy: those magical lands with magical creatures and magical characters with impossible names just never captured my imagination quite like those fantasies that are grounded in reality – and here I’m talking timeslip scenarios – or what one might call ‘low’ fantasy.  

These are the sorts of stories I love to read, whether the jump is to an Otherworld (think Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvellous Fionavar Tapestry trilogy or Philip Pullman’s wonderful Dark Materials trilogy) or a jump back into the past. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is one of my all-time favourites, going back to the time of plague in the middle ages, but I have also enjoyed her timeslips back to World War II (Blackout and All Clear.) And of course I love timeslip movies too – like The Lake House and Sliding Doors.

The perceived wisdom is to ‘write what you know’.  I prefer to write the sorts of stories I love to read.  And so I, too, have gone back in time with my novels for children and YA, such as Ghost Boy and, of course, A Ring Through Time, and also the Shalott trilogy which taps into Arthurian legend through a timeslip to Camelot in the middle ages.  My latest novel (for adults) is I, Morgana – this time exploring one of the most maligned and enigmatic of Arthurian characters, and with a timeslip to the future (to be published in June by Momentum.)

High or low fantasy? I think both subgenres are of equal value in that they both tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ scenario whereby a central character is led to or forced to accept a quest of some sort and has to venture forth into the unknown, undergoing trials, meeting challenges and setbacks, and also reaching a new level of self-awareness along a circular journey that leads home, usually in triumph with ‘the boon’.

And isn’t this, really, what every good story is about?  In my opinion, it is the author’s challenge to create a character, or set of characters, that readers will care about, and who will take them on a vicarious journey of discovery of the world outside, but also on a journey within, where they find out who they really are, along with all their strengths and their weaknesses; and they experience that trial by fire by which we are all tested in our lives and which, hopefully, will give us the courage to become our best selves, either as characters within a story or – and perhaps more important – as characters in our own life story.

BOOK LIST: Books set in '20s & '30s

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Michelle Cooper, author of the wonderful 'Montmaray Journals' has compiled a list for me of books set in the same historical period - the 1920s and 1930s. There are some great recommendations here:

It seems to be compulsory for reviews of ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ to mention Dodie Smith’s classic coming-of-age novel, ‘I Capture the Castle’, and it’s certainly flattering to have my work compared to such a beloved book. Both involve a teenage girl writing in her diary and living in a crumbling castle with her eccentric family – although I don’t recall any princesses, pirates, sea monsters, ghosts, Nazis or gory murders in ‘I Capture the Castle’. 

One reviewer also described ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’ as a modern version of the Brontës mixed with the Famous Five. After I’d finished feeling indignant (about the Enid Blyton bit, not the Brontës), I remembered my book did include Cornish smugglers, seaside caves, secret tunnels, a mad uncle, a tomboy and a loyal dog . . . so all those Famous Five books I read as a child must have had more of an effect on me than I’d realised.

On the other hand, reviews of ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’ tend to mention either ‘Downton Abbey’ or the Mitfords. As I haven’t seen ‘Downton Abbey’ and it’s not a book, I won’t discuss it here. 

However, I can’t resist an opportunity to rhapsodize about my favourite Nancy Mitford novels, ‘The Pursuit of Love’ and ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, both set in the 1920s and 1930s, and based on the author’s eccentric, upper-class English family. 

If you enjoy hilarious, irreverent stories about innocent debutantes and their ambitious mothers, French dukes and exiled European royalty, country estates and London Society, you will love these books. 

Nancy Mitford also manages to include some sharp observations of 1930s politics – which isn’t all that surprising, given her family history (her sisters Diana and Unity were devotees of Hitler, while another sister, Jessica, ran away from home as a teenager to join the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War). 

There’s a lot of interesting non-fiction by and about the Mitford sisters. My favourites are ‘Hons and Rebels’, the first volume of Jessica Mitford’s memoirs, and ‘The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters’, edited by Charlotte Mosley.

‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, the final Montmaray book, is mostly about life in England during the Second World War. There are a lot of great novels set in this period, but among my favourites are the Cazalet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. This is a wonderful series that follows the changing fortunes of a wealthy middle-class English family throughout the war and beyond. The four novels – ‘The Light Years’, ‘Marking Time’, ‘Confusion’ and ‘Casting Off’ – are based on the real-life experiences of the now ninety-year-old author, who has just announced that she’s working on a fifth Cazalet book. Some other favourite Britain-at-war novels are ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy, about the experiences of Jamaican airmen stationed in Britain, and ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, which cleverly links the stories of four Londoners, all of them on the outskirts of respectable society because they’ve fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ people. Readers who liked Toby’s story in ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’ may also enjoy ‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault (although ‘enjoy’ probably isn’t the best word to use about a book set mostly in a military hospital). Finally, for those looking for some non-fiction that isn’t excessively long or academic, I recommend ‘Debs at War 1939-1945: How Wartime Changed Their Lives’ by Anne de Courcy, about the privileged young British women who joined the services, drove ambulances, nursed the wounded and worked in factories and on farms during the war.

BOOK LIST: Books read in January 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

I've been meaning to keep a better track of all the books I read so here is, a little late, a list of all the books I read in January 

1. The Falcons of Fire & Ice - Karen Maitland

An utterly compelling historical novel which moves between Portugal and Iceland as a young woman searches for two rare white falcons in a desperate attempt to save her father's life. Her journey is fraught with danger, betrayal, murder and horror, with the strangest set of seers ever to appear in fiction. Highly recommended.

2. Jewels of Paradise – Donna Leon
Donna Leon is best known for her murder mysteries set in Venice, which I really enjoy. This one was a disappointment - it was rather slow and the characters were unappealing. Stick to her Guido Brunetti series instead. 

3. Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schiltz

I absolutely adored this book! Laura Amy Schlitz reminds me of one of my all-time favourite authors, Joan Aiken, which is very high praise indeed. This is a rather creepy story about children and witches and a puppet-master in London a century or so ago. Brilliant. 

4. Madonna of the Almonds – Marina Fiorato

I've been slowly reading my way through Marnia Fiorato's books since enjoying her debut The Glassblower of Murano a few years ago. This one is set in Renaissance Italy, and tells the story of the love affair between a painter and a young woman who invents a liquor made from almonds in order to save her beloved house. I really enjoyed this and will be interviewing the author later this month. 

5. The Mystery of Rilloby Fair  - Enid Blyton

An old childhood favourite.

6. Shatter – Michael Robotham

Warning: this book must be read with all the lights on and a man or a large dog in the house. I have not been so freaked out by a book in a long time. Seriously scary, this book is possibly the most brilliant psychological thriller I have ever read. I still shudder from time to time thinking about it ... wondering what I'd do if I was faced with such a situation ... and determined to keep my children closer than ever ... Chilling, powerful and utterly superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   

7. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake – Sarah McLean

I really enjoyed this Regency romance novel - it was funny, sexy, and had a really appealing hero and heroine. Great fun.  

8. Island of the Blue Dolphins – Scott O’Dea
I've had a vague plan to read all the Newbery Medal winners, and slowly I'm getting through them. This one is very restrained, almost cold, yet its a compelling story of a young Indian girl left alone on an island and her struggle to survive. It won the Newbery in 1961, and so its older than I am. One of those short, yet very strong books that leave a lingering impression.  

9. Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
This is the most beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica - I'd really recommend it to anyone who loves books about forgotten women in history (in fact, I'd recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction.) Here's my review of 'Chasing the Light' and here's my interview with Jesse Blackadder

10. Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny
I really enjoy Louise Penny's contemporary murder mysteries set in Quebec - she's very good on character and dialogue, and her mysteries are always clever and puzzling, the way mysteries should be. 

11. The Lavender Keeper - Fiona McIntosh
Loved this book! Loved it! Its the story of French resistance fighters in the Second World War, and their loves and fears and betrayals. I believe there's a sequel coming out - I can't wait. 

12. White Truffles in Winter – N.M. Kelby
This is a slow moving but beautifully written account of the famous French chef Escoffier and his life and loves. It desperately made me want to eat the amazing food described in the  book - larks cooked with truffles and such things and brought to life that period of history for me most vividly. 

13. Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, which was like an early policeman in Regency times. This was a great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. I'm looking forward to reading the next one. 

14. The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier
I love Tracy Chevalier so much. She's what I'd like to be. Each book is very different from what has come before, each is beautifully written - walking that fine line between the high style of the literary novel and the accessiblity of the popular - and she is interested in the subjects that interest me. I've always been intrigued by the Quakers and I've always wanted to know more about the Underground Railway that helped runaway slaves escape. I've even thought I might one day write a book about it. Once again, Tracy has beaten me to it - this book brings to life both the inner world of a Quaker woman and her struggle with the narrow strictures of a Quaker life, and the drama of the Underground Railway, and the bounty hunters that seek to drag back the runway slaves. 'The Last Runaway' is rather a quiet book, yet its utterly readable and compelling. I really loved it - I just wish Tracy wrote faster!

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