Foundlings, illustrations and independent bookshops

A couple of weeks ago I visited the ‘Drawing on Childhood’ exhibition at the Foundling Museum. Originally built as a hospital for orphans and unwanted children in 1741 by Thomas Coran, the museum hosts a permanent exhibition on the history of the hospital as well as  visiting exhibitions such as this one which looks at illustrations of foundlings in literature. From Oliver and Peter Pan, to Harry Potter and James and the Giant Peach, the exhibition displays a range of interpretations form the original first editions, to modern depictions of these much loved characters.

It was lovely to see how different illustrators had brought these children to life in such different styles. Below is Mabel Lucie Atwell’s work for a 1921 copy of Peter Pan alongside Steven White’s recent graphic novel of the tale. His drawings were slightly darker, with a nod to anime style, and I definitely want to get my hands on a copy.

As well as spotting some of my favourite titles, I was also awakened to some children’s classics that I have not yet had the pleasure of discovering, and have also added to my wishlist.

The following week, I found my self Easter-holidaying in Lyme Regis where I visited one of my favourite little finds – The Sanctuary Bookshop.23023193

This is an Aladdin’s cave of  bookshop with room after room of floor to ceiling bookshelves, stacks of antiques, memorabilia and framed cartoons – it even overflows to the basement! What I like most is the way the shelves are categorised. With entire sections dedicated to particular authors, or even to certain publishers and imprints, such as the old Penguin Classics, the layout encourages rummaging and discovery. There are also a mix of original treasures alongside more recent works, and obscure titles you may never have heard of.

Amongst the children’s classics, I spotted a beautiful, slightly love-worn 1921 edition of The Water Babies, filled with both line illustrations and colours works by George Soper. This was one of the titles from the exhibition that I have not yet read so I was delighted to add this stunning copy to my collection.

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Review: Girl on the Train

Nothing is better than a receiving book as a Christmas present. Unless it is a beautifully designed hardback book.

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Lauded as the new Gone Girl, it was little surprise when New York Times Bestseller Girl on the Train took the UK by storm last year.

Paula Hawkin’s tapped into the current thirst for dark psychological thrillers, flawed female protagonists and unreliable narration to create this engrossing yet maddening novel.

Since her marriage ended in a fog of drunken rage and violence, Rachel has slipped further into alcoholism whilst her husband has moved his new wife and daughter into the home she had made for them. The story is largely told from Rachel’s perspective – her life slowly falling apart while she sits back on the train everyday, pierces open another can of gin and tonic, and fantasizes about the lives she can see from the window.

When Megan, a woman who Rachel often watches, goes missing, Rachel might be the person who holds the key to what happened to her. If only she could remember what she saw that night, or if she could stay sober long enough to retrace her steps and piece it all together.

Scattered between Rachel’s narrative are excerpts from Megan before she disappeared and the occasional insights from Anna, the new wife. This structure adds further layers to the plot and positions the reader as detective, tasked with pulling together what is relevant and reliable.IMG_3942

Whilst the mystery is gripping, what I found interesting about this novel was the way in which Hawkin’s positions the female characters. They don’t work or have their own ambitions, they all identify themselves by the men in their lives and are utterly scathing of every other female in the novel.

Rachel has completely fallen apart since her marriage with Tom ended and still calls him her husband and phones in the middle of the night.

Anna seems to have no life outside her husband, her child and her hatred of Rachel.

Megan is always viewing herself through the effect she has on men.

Another difficult aspect of the narrative is the automatic judgement of Rachel’s drinking and the unstoppable desire to shake sense into her. It’s so hard to understand the effect that addiction has on a person’s attitude towards relationships and their own lives that it is refreshing to see it explored through a main character. Even as Rachel thinks she needs to keep a clear head, and about how she will feel afterwards, these thoughts are not enough to stop the pain pushing her towards the stale white wine stashed under the bed.

Judgement runs throughout this novel – of alcoholism, of looks, of people’s pasts. This fuels a perpetual sense of distrust that is not just felt by the reader but by everyone Rachel tries to reach out to in her search for Megan, driving the story in a constant back-and-forth towards the truth. The jumps in time and narrator further complicate the mystery that, whilst difficult to get into, does keep you guessing until the end.

The constant circles of the story are echoed in the design of the special edition hardback created for Waterstones. The train tracks provide Rachel’s voyeurs platform, they draw her towards the other characters and but keep her removed and pull her away again. Her pointless travelling back and forth on the train mirrors the limbo her life has become and the continuous tracks on the cover perfectly sum up the maze that works through the novel.

Red edge-painting completes the incarnation of the sinister this novel.

Whilst no character is likeable, Hawkins has captured some unsavoury aspects of humanity  and this fresh approach makes the process of unpicking the mystery in many ways more absorbing than the case itself.

 

Review: How To Build a Girl

Well, it’s been a busy 2016 so far but I’ve finally got around to writing up my first review of the year.Festive readings #DearPenguin

During the Christmas break, I was lucky enough to take advantage of Penguin Book’s ‘Festive Readings’ pop-up at Paddington Station. Selecting Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How To Build a Girl, I walked off with a nice early Christmas present and a hilarious read to carry me on my train journey.

Opening with protagonist Johanna Morrigan masturbating in the bedroom she shares with her brothers, Moran sets the tone for a novel that will take the reader through shock, laughter and recognition as they intimately follow a 14-year-old girl’s journey through adolescence.

And the very fact that it shocks is inherent to one of the problems that Moran seeks to address: the taboo of female sexuality. Initially concerned about her lack of experience with boys, Johanna seeks to become a ‘legend’ in the sex-stakes but soon discovers that the expectations of both society and the men with whom she goes to bed are not what she expected.

Socially insecure, uncertain about her future, and burdened by a family traversing the poverty line, Johanna decides to kill herself. Not literally but through a total reinvention of self – like many teenagers  – to shed her overweight, “kissless virgin” self to a London-dwelling music journalist modeled on Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly.

How to Build a GirlThe plot follows ‘Dolly’ as she works her way onto the staff of music magazine D&ME, fighting to make it in an all-male workplace which transforms her from an inexperienced teen to a drinking, smoking Sex Adventuress. Moran tackles the debate of why a man who is sexually active is praised whilst a woman is branded a slut, and also explores Dolly’s feelings about sexual pleasure and what she deserves.

It soon becomes clear through that she is building the girl that she thinks she needs to be to succeed, but in the process loses sense of herself in both her relationships and her writing.

Her journey to overcome the limitations that are expected of her working class background and gender explodes at one point as she defiantly tells one of her partners that ‘I’m not your bit of rough. You’re my bit of posh.’ Dolly knows what she wants and, although her journey of self-development is not smooth or straightforward (who’s is?), she soon learns to be herself in the world she wants to be a part of.

How to Build a Girl is a witty, refreshing and personal adventure in how to be what you deserve, not what people tell you you should be.

 

Review: We Never Asked for Wings

On the first page of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings, the reader is faced with a woman in flight. She is driving down the freeway, indecision pulling at her at every exit sign she passes yet unable to turn away from the road ahead. Then we are confronted with the line:  ‘She’d left her children.’

9781743536896The impact of a mother leaving her children is instant. A mother’s connection to her child is often perceived as something so unbreakable and profound that cannot be explained to outsiders, and the idea that this woman has abandoned her babies strikes as inconceivable. What could possibly have torn her from them in such an indecisive panic?

Letty is in flight mode when her mother, who has held her life together since Letty’s teenage pregnancy disrupted her life’s course, moves back to Mexico. Suddenly Letty is left to not only fend for herself, but to become the mother she’s avoided being for 14 years.

“Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their paths all at once”. 

Thrust into an adult world of expectation, Letty must navigate her way through becoming a responsible mother, with a little girl who misses her grandparents and a wary teenage son who is curious about his unknown father and the feelings he’s developing for a fragile girl at school.

The narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of Letty and her teenage son Alex and what is most striking is how reversed their roles are. Letty is chaotic and indecisive, self-medicating her anxiety with alcohol, whilst Alex is studious and compassionate and is seemingly immune to the anger that most would feel in his situation. He also wants to be a hero which turns out to be his downfall.

After the shock of their grandparents’ departure, Alex’s world takes knock after knock. His mother illegally signs him up to Mission Hills, the elite school on the other side of town; he tracks down his father who didn’t know he existed; and he tries to rescue the immigrant girl he loves.

Budgie feathermacro photo with S110 through an element of a telescope lens
Jon Sullivan

A fascination with birds and the feathered mosaics that Letty’s father is famed for set the analogy for the entire novel. Alex has inherited his grandfather’s passion and it is his study of the uniqueness of each feather than helps him form a relationship with his father.

 

Threaded with themes of immigration, inheritance and finding your direction, this is a beautiful story of a family finding their wings.

 

Review: Dan and Sam

For a while now I have been filing graphic novels into my mental TBR pile but just haven’t quite gotten round to diving in. So when I found a copy of Dan and Sam at the SYP Conference, I was so delighted that I wasted no time getting started. Dan and Sam is a stunning collaboration between comedian Mark Watson and illustrator Oliver Harud.dan-and-sam-784x1109

Dan Jolly and his wife Sam are pretty much the dream couple. Lovers and best friends, their life is about as perfect as it can get. But then one terrible night Sam is knocked down and killed by a car right outside the restaurant. Dan cannot believe Sam is gone. But then one night, as if by a miracle, she comes back to him. But it cannot last and as quickly as she appeared, she is gone again. Soon Dan realises that he must make a choice – to have Sam with him again, but just once a year, or to let her go – forever. A magical story about love, grief and moving on…or not.

This novel is so beautifully and painfully honest in its portrayal of grief: the way it leaks into every aspect of your life and alters your interactions with everyone around you, even those you love. It also represents the way you can see them everywhere and have to remind yourself that it’s not possible and the heart-tearing sensation of that realisation.

FullSizeRenderBut just because it hurts, part of you can’t let go of that feeling because at least the pain is a part of their existence living inside you. How can Dan live as if Sam was never there? How can he love anyone else when she was his world? How can he navigate life when everything about him is part of the ‘Dan and Sam’ brand? His life was so constructed and determined by them as a unit.When he sees the slightest glimmer of hope that he can make their story last, he grasps onto it even if it’s torture. I almost felt like this annual ritual and his blankness in between was a way of him torturing himself because he was the one that had stayed. He felt like he had to mirror Sam’s year long nothingness and only live in that one night.

Graphic novels and comics are often used to illustrate complex issues such as mental health, prejudice and politics. The concept of Dan and Sam is perfect for the graphic novel genre because Sam’s return can be seen as both supernatural and psychological. Dan is the only one to see Sam and it could be a self-delusion formed out of hope, loneliness, and as I’ve already said, torture. This idea is further hinted at as Dan begins to see a counsellor. I’m unsure as to whether the counselling was good for him as he was channelling all his energies into increasingly frequent sessions to just talk about how hard things were and fill the time until he could see Sam again. It was as if it was another way to have her with him in between.FullSizeRender (1)

The illustrations in this book are beautiful and what I like most is the way Harud has used colour only in the panels in which Sam has come back. This both shows her bringing colour to his life, but also enforces the idea that this could be a fantasy, a delusion that Dan has constructed which goes beyond his everyday in every way possible.

It has certainly reignited my drive to read more graphic novels!

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize,
We are all completely beside ourselvesKaren Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an insightful, heartbreaking but equally humorous exploration on humanity’s most basic elements.

This is a hard book to review because the hinge of the whole narrative hangs on the secret of Rosemary’s family that she has spent her whole life trying to shut away.

Once one of three, Rosemary is now an only child and her life has been shaped by the sudden departure of her sister, Fern, when she was only five years old. The sister that she had never been apart from – her ‘same’.

When a few years later her brother goes off in search of Fern, he embarks on a dangerous path that will leave Rosemary completely isolated, suppressing her families complex past until a destructive encounter with a rebellious college girl forces her to confront what happened to Fern and the role she played in it.

“Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

The narrative style of this novel instantly connects to the reader. Jumps in time are marked using the world events that mark history in our minds, and Rosemary’s analysis of herself and those around her is in equal measure comically conversational and grounded in psychological studies. Whilst her upbringing is like nothing we can imagine, she talks openly about her motives, insecurities and inconsistencies in a way that is completely relatable. Her self-awareness of her awkwardness with people and her troubled relationship with her parents are touchingly familiar and yet almost clinical in analysis. She even manages to use this awareness to manipulate situations and protect herself.

The thread of psychology throughout is fascinating, particularly as it is tied so clearly to the context and to Rosemary’s past. It teaches us about how pscyhological discoveries are made and what they tell us about human behaviour in an eye-opening look at the animals we are.

But if for no other reason, you should give this book a read and find out the twist that is challenging reviewers everywhere.

Review: Seed

I am finally starting to get throughSEED the TBR pile that
I collected at the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) and to be quite honest, it’s a miracle that this cover didn’t grab me sooner. Egmont imprint, Electric Monkey, have taken foiling to a whole new level with the iridescent jacket of SEED. Barely visible behind the mesmerising, almost painful glow, is the image of a girl holding a flower to her lips along with the haunting message ‘Seed loves her Seed will never let her go’.

This cover perfectly reflects the mood of the book – it is about nature and power, beauty and secrets, mystique and manipulation.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl has lived her whole life protected within the small community at Seed, where they worship Nature and idolise their leader, Papa S. When some outsiders arrive, everything changes. Pearl experiences feelings that she never knew existed and begins to realise that there is darkness at the heart of Seed.  A darkness from which she must escape, before it’s too late.

I was drawn into this novel instantly as we find Pearl during one of the key moments of a teenage girl’s life, and witness her horror as she thinks she is dying. It is scary to think that this can be a reality for many girls who have not been prepared for their bodies changing, but even once Pearl is reassured that this is natural, she is faced with a new horror. When girls become women at Seed, they must spend a dark and claustrophobic night underground in natures ‘womb’. This is just the start of the rituals within the Seed community that manipulate those who think they live the idyllic natural life.

There are hints throughout that there are dark secrets at Seed. From the voyeur in the attic, to the screaming Forgiveness Room, to the readers’ knowledge of what becoming Papa S’s companion must entail.

When outsiders join the community, it is instantly apparent that they will either bring knowledge that disrupts the camps naivety, or else be crushed into submission. There were so many times that I wanted to shake Pearl who continued to regurgitate ridiculous theories about the world that she had been brought up on and refused to open her eyes to the truth. When she begins to have doubts and starts to have ‘bad thoughts’ about newcomer Ellis and his outside ways, she becomes even more frustrating as this patient boy who is trying to wake her up is shut out. Ellis himself is a fantastic character. Despite his clear view of how Seed operates, he gives it a chance for the sake of his mother’s mental health and happiness and is incredibly patient with what he faces. To his own downfall.

I personally found the ending rushed and neither as haunting nor as climatic as the the build up had promised, however the characters and the secrets in this novel are affecting. The sense of cult-like power is palpable. With it’s precarious balance of worshipping the abundance and beautiful simplicity of nature, and fearfully violent and abhorrent power plays, this is a book that will fully envelop you in its manipulative grip.

Joanne Harris’s ‘A Writer’s Manifesto’

Commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich, author Joanne Harris has created ‘A Writer’s Manifesto’ and spoken out about the need for mutual respect between authors and readers.

As blogs are one of the major places we see the discussion of writers’ works, I feel that this is something that should be shared in this space. As a book reviewer, I love to examine what I like about books and what I think could have been approached differently. I have spoken before about the need to remember that writers are people too and I certainly hope that I am always respectful, but this manifesto has given me food for thought and I hope everyone can appreciate that authors never claimed to be able to write for everyone, or even to write perfectly for us as an individual, and they certainly never claimed to fix the world. Mutual respect people.

A Writer’s Manifesto:

1. I promise to be honest, unafraid and true; but most of all, to be true to myself – because trying to be true to anyone else is not only impossible, but the sign of a fearful writer.

2. I promise not to sell out – not even if you ask me to.

3. You may not always like what I write, but know that it has always been the best I could make it at the time.

4. Know too that sometimes I will challenge you and pull you out of your comfort zone, because this is how we learn and grow. I can’t promise you’ll always feel safe or at ease – but we’ll be uneasy together.

5. I promise to follow my story wherever it leads me, even to the darkest of places.

6. I will not limit my audience to just one group or demographic. Stories are for everyone, and everyone is welcome here.

7. I will include people of all kinds in my stories, because people are infinitely fascinating and diverse.

8. I promise that I will never flinch from trying something different and new – even if the things I try are not always successful.

9. I will never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how – not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the reader. And though you sometimes try to tell me otherwise, I don’t think you really want me to.

10. I promise not to be aloof whenever you reach out to me – be that on social media or outside, in the real world. But remember that I’m human too – and some days I’m impatient, or tired, or sometimes I just run out of time.

11. I promise never to forget what I owe my readers. Without you, I’m just words on a page. Together, we make a dialogue.

12. But ultimately, you have the choice whether or not to follow me. I will open the door for you. But I will never blame you if you choose not to walk through it.

This was created as part of the National Conversation which examines how we produces and engage with writing. You can find out more at www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk.

Review: Girl, Interrupted

The title of Girl, Interrupted Girl interrupted in her musicoriginates from a painting by Renoir that depicts a girl staring pleadingly from her prison-like frame, victim to the gaze of all passersby, but also almost willing them to stare.  However, it is also a metaphor for the life of a girl, swept into a mental institution and suspended there without physical, temporal or emotional connection to the outside world for two years.

This is the true story of Susanna Kaysen told though a combination of her own view at the time, and what she has come to understand since. Interestingly, it also embeds copies of the doctors notes and medical records of the time which, when decipherable, provide a heart-wrenching double perspective of a life changing diagnosis. It makes you question the sense and ethics of mental health care in the 70s, but also makes you question the narrator’s reliability. It is never entirely clear who’s perspective is to be trusted.

Girl InterruptedUndoubtedly, Kaysen was suffering. She recounts ‘arm banging’ episodes of self harm, delusions about the passage of time and in one particularly difficult episode seeks to scratch out her bones to check that they are there. Yet at the same time, her treatment is cold and patronising. Her diagnosis is based on symptoms that ring true of pure adolescence and, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, it is difficult to trust the judgement of the ‘professionals’. She is at first shuffled off into the institution by what seems to be an uninterested doctor, and when a later doctor attempts to use her as a test subject for his analytical skills, she mocks his basic psychoanalytical theories with her own Freudian interpretation of his lifestyle. This further shows the subtleties of what is deemed insane and what is deemed normal – this is not a binary.

The jumpy narrative is extremely effective and
serves to amplify her obsession with the passage of time and her need to allocate and document her own time exactly. It also interrupts the reader’s experience of the narrative which not only reflects the otherworldly nature of the isolation, but also gives a real sense of the interruption of life that the institution causes.

The patients watch the news with a detached sense of understanding and vie with each other for the more serious diagnosis. I did find it uncomfortable how some of the patients behaviours and delusions appear to be displayed for effect. One patient called ‘the Martian’s Girlfriend’ is particularly explicit and seems to be used for sickly comic value. Whilst I don’t doubt the reality of Kaysen’s account, it did jar with me that the girls’ conditions seemed to serve as a vehicle for shock and entertainment.

The entire novel is unsettling. In this horrific, glaring memoir, Kaysen makes the reader feel a fraction of the painful experience of a young girl alone and confused, both outcast from society and member of a complex community, and so we should feel unsettled.

Review: All The Bright Places

The last book I remember reading that induced tears like this was Malorie
Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. But where Noughts and Crosses leaves you in a broken heap until the next book, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places battles through the hurt to show the slow light that can come after.all-the-bright-places

“Is today a good day to die?”

This is the first line of the book and what reader can skip over such a line? It is so much bigger than the short question it appears: not just someone contemplating death, but contemplating a choice over death and a judgement of its quality and suitability.

It is the question that plagues Theodore Finch constantly and yet something always stops him from acting on it. He is fascinated by the immensity and the mystery of the world around him: black holes, stars, blue holes – and the beautiful girl that smiles at him with her eyes as well as her mouth.

“And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand.”

Following the death of her sister, Violet Markey loses all sense of who she is. Once a popular and inspired student who’s life was filled with extracurricular activities, writing a web-magazine and on a pathway to college in NYC, now she lives only to cross off the days to graduation. Once that day comes she can leave behind the life that is not hers without Eleanor by her side.

Until Finch shows her the beauty that must be there if everyone else sees it, and shows her it is possible to have a perfect day.

“I’d like to live in a world designed by Theodore Finch.”

They meet at the ledge of the school bell tower, both contemplating the end and both scared of what would come next. This sparks a journey for both of them, wandering the beautiful places of Indiana and trying to save each other.

Finch has some magic about him that brings Violet back to the world of the living. As a boy he confessed the thoughts that danced around his head and has since been labelled a freak, an outcast. He has grown up as several versions of himself, shifting between ’80s Finch’, ‘Badass Finch’ and ‘Nerd Finch’ to name a few. He is both uncomfortable in his skin and restless to experience different lives, painfully aware of his status as outcast and goading to those who judge him.

Their love is necessarily slow to flourish: they are from different worlds, they are both young, and they are both damaged. Because when Finch is not eccentrically running around, he crawls into darkness, a sleep, that he can’t control.

the-waves-virginia-woolfNiven writes poetically of the mysteries of young love,
adventure and grief,
growing a complex romance through a love of language. Beginning with shared quotes from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Violet and Finch build their adventures around rescuing the positive words and getting ideas out on post its.

The Waves is significant both in its lyrical mapping of their relationship and the strong parallels it evokes between Finch and Woolf’s own struggles with bipolar disorder.

Although I felt Violet was at times an unconvincing character, I wonder whether it was Niven’s intention to create her as a slightly vague and irritating relief to Finch. Throughout the narrative, as Finch begins to shut off his communication altogether, Violet rediscovers the writer in her that she thought had died with Eleanor.

In All the Bright Places, the romance is actually the secondary theme. What Niven delivers with exquisite and wrenching skill is the grip of mental illness. I have never read a character that demonstrates such a turmoil of thoughts and complex impulses with such clarity. The reader is both confused by the darkness and inconsistency in Finch’s mind, but is also drawn into the way he picks things apart. He feels everything with great intensity and the idea of death is not just an impulse but a study – full of facts, history and a larger idea of our place in the world.

Most importantly, Niven shows us an after.