Children’s and YA books – a short homage!

So, the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize shortlist has just been announced. I’m not familiar with many of this year’s nominated titles, so there’s some homework for me.

It’s nothing new to declare oneself as an adult who enjoys reading children’s and/or YA books. It’s cool, zeitgeisty and inclusive – ignore all the critics who say that it’s indicative of a juvenile tendency in today’s troubled millennials and their desire to regress; I reckon you are free to adore Will Self and Wolf Hall and Twilight and Michael Morpurgo in equal measure (just like you can enjoy both Balzac and Sex and the City). Why limit yourself to a particular subsection of culture, or earnestly avoid anything seen as ‘low’ art? And anyway, as much cleverer people than me have said, good children’s writing is good writing.

There exists a whole slew of very funny blogs aimed at adult readers of children’s or YA books: too many to list here, but even then it was only the other day that I discovered the delights of the brilliant Book Riot (which features posts focusing on such vitally important debates as JK Rowling’s alleged ‘mistake’ over Ron and Hermione and, even more crucially, which YA character has the most husband potential (I could think of a few more to add to their list, not least Wolf from Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes but you know, that might risk GIVING AWAY MY AGE)).

Tiger Eyes cover

I love recommending things to younger relatives – I aspire to be a sort of older cousin-come-geektastic-book-dispensing-fairy – and I love in turn hearing what they’re into. Haven’t heard their thoughts on the Waterstone’s list as yet, but it got me thinking about what I’d put if I had to sketch out my own, all-time favourites list. Not that any such list could ever be representative, or complete! But right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for:

Picture books

Hairy McClary’s Rumpus at the Vet by Lynley Dodd and David Tennant. For the character of Noodle the Poodle alone.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes. Made me want to be a better sibling in a very sweet and non-didactic way.

Dear Daddy by Phillippe Dupasquier. My own Dad once worked away and this was when I first understood that sometimes we read to find solace: a character has usually been there before you.

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth. A mystery, involving various kinds of POO! Does it get better??

Fiction for 5-12-year-olds

Kitty Slade Book 2 cover

Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes – this is FAB, the stuff children dream of. A brother and sister discover a time capsule buried in their garden – which happens to be a rather large underground chamber containing two cryogenically-frozen children from the 1950s! Cue fish-out-of-water-style mayhem as the two children abruptly enter the 21st century. Political incorrectness and culture shock – thought-provoking as well as funny.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. Shakespeare and time-travel! A determined but traumatised young lad named Nat is about to have the adventure of a lifetime playing Puck at the Globe. And it has the most beautiful, meaningful ending: ‘One day I’ll write thee an airier Robin Goodfellow…’ We know Nat is going to grow up and be a wonderful actor. And play Ariel in The Tempest, just as he was promised by Shakespeare himself…

Room 13 by Robert Swindells. Read it in year 3, 4, 5, and possibly again in Year 6. And yet again when I led a children’s drama club and we performed the stage version. So y’see, Whitby was synonymous with darkness for me long before I read Dracula or even Robin Jarvis’ The Whitby Witches. Still find myself searching for the Crow’s Nest hotel and ‘the eye that sleeps by day.’ Swindells is massively underrated.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. This was one of those books that I read as a child and completely forgot the title, and had to google all sorts of things before I refound it all these years later. Thank you, internet. So good to know the book’s still out there. Wonderful, moving, US-set coming-of-age story.

The Kitty Slade Series by Fiona Dunbar. A girl who can see ghosts – and blogs about it. Makes growing up just that bit more problematic. Book 2, Fire and Roses is probably my favourite, not least for the clever ways it uses events and real historical figures of the 18th century to create a twisty tale that involves some fun code-cracking.

Teens/Young Adult

The Geekhood books

WOAH, STOP. WAY TOO MANY TO LIST. It’s no use – it’s going to have to be a future post. I’ll just say though that I really loved two of last year’s Waterstone’s nominees, Andy Robb’s Geekhood and Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds (which went on to win). And I constantly find my *relatively* new children’s/YA ‘crushes’ (John Green, Meg Rosoff, Maggie Stiefvater, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness, Jenny Downham) competing with the ‘old guard’ (Anne Fine, Phillip Pullman, Robert Swindells (for the compelling and more adult Staying Up), Judy Blume, Louise Rennison (for Georgia Nicholson and her nunga-nungas, of course), Jan Mark, Jaqueline Wilson, Dick King-Smith…) Well, not competing, but jostling with them perhaps – some of the ‘old guard’ authors remain as popular as ever, others less so. I want to bring them back…

How I Live Now

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Books for February – wind, rain and ghosts

Rain, rain, go away. Yes, February wouldn’t be February without some rainy days. But at the moment, if I walk to certain areas of Oxford, it’s like entering a surreal, almost apocalyptic landscape. Strange lakes besiege the city. And we’ve got off relatively lightly, I know. Not like these poor folks.

Water, water, everywhere

If you’re a sucker for pathetic fallacy like me, and sometimes like the novelty of reading books that chime with the seasons, it feels apt right now to choose books where characters do battle with the elements and struggle to survive in what often seems a bleak, grey, inhospitable England (no, I’m not in the mood for reading about exotic foreign climes at the moment – it’ll just remind me how far away summer is).

Offshore

I confess to always feeling a bit underwhelmed by Penelope Fitzgerald, even though she’s a doyen of British literature and I should probably try more of her books. I found Offshore, her Booker winner, rather bizarre tonally and I don’t like the way she does children – Tilda and Martha just don’t sound like children, unless that’s the point. BUT her descriptions of this liminal little society living in houseboats on Battersea Reach in the 60s (‘creatures neither of firm land nor water’) and the river, the way it moves and looks, and the constant battle against the rising tide, storms and other threats to leaking crafts, are evocative and memorable. Fairweather people are adrift here, and even the most hardy barge-dwellers are at the mercy of the river’s whims. You could even say that water wins out in the end…

The Elements vs Woman. Elements 1, Woman 0…

However much the constant rain is driving you to distraction, just thank your stars you’re not the narrator of Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge. Think you’re battling the elements? You know nothing! Welcome to life aboard the ultra-eccentric Cassandra White’s farm in Cumbria. Wind! Rain! Cold! Back-breaking physical labour! And all that still isn’t as bad as…the Thunderbox!!

Come to the Edge cover

You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean – and please do read it, because it is an absolute scream.

The hapless, nameless narrator, sick of her suburban lifestyle, dull office job, endless rounds of IVF and philandering husband, answers an ad to help a widow with a ‘sprawling property’ in the ‘idyllic’ Lake District. Ho hum. She is quickly put to work on the maniacal White’s entirely sustainable farm (because Cassandra is opposed to paying for utilities, which would be propping up the commercial conduits of the nouveau riche aka ‘the perverts’, in her view). I loved the way Kavenna hilariously skewers any eco-ideals about sustainable living and all it involves (ever tried actually living on quinoa? Or milking a goat?). Our nameless, pliant narrator (not unlike the one in Rebecca – and the similarities don’t end there) then becomes embroiled in White’s mad, bad, bonkers social enterprise scheme – breaking into holiday homes and resettling locals in them. Kavenna is pitch-perfect in her send-up of so many things: the banality of office jobs (‘No RSI for you, you sinner’), the type of people who own holiday homes, and Cassandra’s anarchical plans for the revolution. Through Cassandra, the book enters the have-and-have-nots debate (anyone sceptical of George Osborne’s claims that we are ‘better off’ would enjoy this book; it’s even been hailed as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ novel) but this is no political manifesto – as others have identified, Kavenna does not come down on any one side. Enjoy the anarchical black humour and merciless satirising of the way we live now.

Stories for the dark and the cold

Here in my corner of Blightly, snow has been forecast a few times and has yet to make its appearance. But snow is nothing compared to the dark. In the Arctic, when winter descends, you know about it – we’re talking months of endless darkness. On these dark nights, with the promise of spring and lighter evenings still miles off, I can’t think of a better ghost story than Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which I read roughly around this time last year.

Dark matter cover

Centred on an expedition to the remote island of Gruhuken in the Arctic, the story follows Jack, a penniless, aspiring explorer who signs up for the trip of his life. But once the team have reached Gruhuken, circumstances cause all Jack’s fellow explorers to leave the island, one by one, until Jack is left to man the research station alone. Which would be fine – except it seems he’s not alone on the island. OH! This a masterly ghost story. It’s a slip of a book; sparsely, tightly told and rightly ambiguous about what Jack is experiencing on the island, surrounded by frozen sea and darkness. The clues are there, but everything is understated and slipped in so softly and insidiously as to create a growing sense of dread. The Arctic landscape, as you can imagine, is hugely important to the story and its sense of place – interestingly, Paver herself has visited the Arctic several times. If the promised snows do come, and the streets acquire that kind of hushed, deathly calm that only comes with a heavy snowfall, I’ll reread this. But you should read it anyway. With the lights turned off, if you’re well hard. PS. And oh my, there’s going to be a film.

Paris in fiction – my top reads

I love Paris, me. I embrace all its clichés – I don’t care. I am the starry-eyed tourist who still feels a squirm of excitement every time the Eiffel Tower looms into view. I am the pasty-faced Brit revelling in an espresso in a pavement café, blinking in amazement to be actually sitting outside (outside!) in the sunshine on a busy boulevard while the traffic zooms past. I wave back gleefully to children passing by in bateaux-mouches. I have sat on the Pont des Arts at dusk with a picnic and friends, pretending to do the whole nonchalant French student thing while all the while thinking, WOOHOO I’M IN PARIS! And hey, isn’t this the spot where Big tells Carrie she’s ‘the one’ at the end of Sex and the City?

Me in Paris

Winter shopping in Paris. My dear, is that a bag from Shakespeare & Co you’re carrying?

People tell me that since I have actually lived in Paris, I should be more relaxed and even jaded about the famed City of Lights. Ok, so I’ve been a frazzled tour guide trying to herd a bunch of hyperactive preteens on and off the metro. I’ve picked my way through the throngs (and the thongs – bikinis, that is) on the anti-climax that was Paris Plage on a sizzling day in August when all you wanted to do was dive into the Seine (not recommended). I’ve gasped and gaped at the price of renting a shoebox-sized studio. But it’s hard to be cynical about Paris for too long.

Stamp in book

…why yes, now you mention it, and here’s the stamp to prove it. And in a Hemingway too. Told you I didn’t mind cliches.

I’ve been suffering from a major bout of Paris-induced nostalgia recently. These cold grey days make me want to hotfoot it to the Eurostar terminal and escape for a while. (Not that Paris doesn’t have cold grey days, of course. They just seem less grey when you’re in Paris. And people still sit outside in pavement cafes. Pavement cafes are a tonic.) So I got to thinking, this being a book-themed blog and all, about visiting Paris in other ways. Here are some of my favourite depictions of Paris in fiction, in no particular order:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sometimes the best descriptions of place are incidental. A small section of Eugenides’ novel is set in Paris, where protagonist Mitchell spends some time at his friend’s girlfriend’s apartment. The whole episode is a gentle send-up of fairly privileged young people trying to do the bohemian student thing. This little passage nails the particular aesthetic appeal of Paris for many:

The window gave onto a view of dove-grey roofs and balconies, each one containing the same cracked flowerpot and sleeping feline. It was as if the entire city of Paris had agreed to abide by a single understated taste. Each neighbour was doing his or her own to keep up standards, which was difficult because the French ideal wasn’t clearly delineated like the neatness and greenness of American lawns, but more of a picturesque despair. It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.

The Marriage Plot cover

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Enjoyed it way more than The Virgin Suicides (but that’s a whole other blog post!)

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat) by Antoine Laurain. Here is an exuberant, 80s Paris tinged with a kind of technicolour, fairytale nostalgia, from the red awnings of exclusive bistros on the Champs-Elysees to a bench in pretty Parc Monceau and the scandale of the newly-erected modern art adorning the exteriors of the Palais-Royal and the Louvre. Oh, and oysters. Lots of oysters. Heck, there was so much I loved about this book.

The President's Hat cover

Loving the jaunty cover art used by Gallic Books

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – a witty, cosy little tale and an awful lot of fun. An impossibly glamorous, twinkling Paris, seen through the eyes of an ever-so-‘umble London cleaning lady who makes the trip of a lifetime to buy a Dior dress. You’ll want one too by the end of the book.

'Mrs Harris Goes to Paris' cover

Pretty in pink: my copy of Mrs Harris.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. The first book in this hilarious and shrewdly-observed series following the exploits of Paul West, a young English bloke transferred to Paris for work. Includes Clarke’s now-legendary observations on dog poo, the way the French serve tea and suppositories.

A Year in the Merde cover

Get some Merde into your life.

Le système Victoria (The Victoria System) by Eric Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s thriller traces the downfall of construction project manager David through his entanglement with the enigmatic Victoria. The blood, sweat and stress of the building site and the listlessness of suburbia combines with a secret Paris of daytime hotel rooms, swanky bars and seedy cinemas. No postcard-pretty Paris here, but a city that acts as both host and silent witness to a destructive affair. I’ve praised this book before and I won’t hesitate to recommend it again. Chilling.

Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot or Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac. I’ll be shot for saying it: Balzac can be a bit of a slog. But he chronicled nineteenth century Paris like no other French writer and it’s worth diving into one of the novels from his epic series La Comedie Humaine (the Human Comedy) – try Lost Illusions (Illusions Perdues) or La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin). In Goriot, meet the rag-tag inhabitants of a poor Parisian boarding house, including an ex-convict and an ambitious young chap named Rastignac who’s out to better his fortunes no matter what the cost. Nowadays he’d be a City banker or a wolf of Wall Street. Don’t miss the book’s iconic final chapter set in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Le Pere Goriot cover

Goriot’s looking a bit worn…appropriately…

One Day by David Nicholls. Ok yes, I know it only takes up a small bit in the book, but I just love it when Dexter comes to visit Emma, who’s now made it as a writer and is forging her own glorious writerly lifestyle just off the Canal Saint-Martin. Even her apartment’s got that picturesque Parisian scruffiness about it.

L’élegance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. If you ever wondered how the other half live in Paris in the twenty-first century, this is it. More importantly, this is how their concierges and maids and other overlooked people, live. Here’s what I made of it all.

Elegance of the Hedgehog cover

Hedgehog en français. I read the English too, though – fab translation.

Les faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) by André Gide. Last but not least, this wonderful novel takes a pluralist, almost Cubist view of Paris as we follow multiple characters in their journeys around the city and beyond. A bit metafictional, damn clever and moving to boot, I’ll make a note to expound on this in a future post. Gide, you rock.

Les faux monnayeurs cover

Les f-m complete with straggly post-its. Yes, I first read this at uni.

Have realised that I’ve shot myself in the foot a bit with the title of this blog post, as it excludes excellent journalistic essays and non-fiction – for these, see Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (pretty much compulsory reading if you want to do the whole arty, penniless writer thing in Paris), Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Clearly, my list is highly personal and not exhaustive. I haven’t mentioned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or Proust or Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro or Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – and if you don’t, other Paris-loving readers will flay you

I’ll update this list when I’ve made some more discoveries. Now off to St. Pancras…