Paul Magrs – Exchange

A quick review today for a quick read (or in my case, a re-read). Which isn’t to dismiss it at all, because this is a lovely book and a perfect one for voracious readers.

After the death of his parents, 16-year-old Simon packs up his things, including a few boxes of books, and moves in with his grandparents. His grandmother, Winnie, shares his passionate love of reading and the two embark on a series of excursions around the local charity shops to bolster their impressive collections of books. Until they discover The Great Big Book Exchange, a bookshop unlike any other.

Membership of The Great Big Book Exchange comes with a host of other unexpected consequences, including Simon’s burgeoning relationship with the store’s gothic assistant, Kelly, a link to Winnie’s childhood and the incendiary breakdown of Simon’s grandfather who is slowly losing his mind at sharing his home with both the readers and their books.

This is such a warm, well-characterised story with a lot to say about the act of reading, why we do it and when we need to be wary about the lines we draw between life and books.


Judith Kerr – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

It’s easy to forget that there must have been a time when I didn’t know about the holocaust, about other similar horrors or the sheer breathtaking scope of the potential for man’s inhumanity. I don’t remember when I heard about it for the first time or what I thought when I did. I can only imagine it’s a little similar to how I feel about it now because it isn’t really an idea you get used to or one that softens with time.

It makes me sad that one day my daughter will have to hear about it for the first time and a part of her world view will be permanently shadowed. But when in doubt about tackling the harder things in life, there is always a book to help you along the way.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, published in 1971, was written by Judith Kerr to help explain the events of her own life to her children. It tells the story of nine-year-old Anna, who journeys with her parents and her brother Max from Germany, through Switzerland, to France and eventually on to England. Forced into a new life as refugees by the rise of the Nazi party, Anna’s family must contend with poverty, isolation and a growing awareness of what is happening back home to the friends and family who decided to stay. Judith Kerr’s own father, Alfred, was a theatre critic who openly criticised the Nazis and whose books were publicly burned after the family’s flight. Kerr’s family reached England in 1936, and she has lived there since, becoming an OBE in 2012.

I was surprised by the book in a number of ways; it has an unexpected sense of humour and masterful subtlety. It also resonates with a powerful honesty that doesn’t seek to apologise or revise any of Kerr’s own childlike views or perceptions about what happened to her. So on the one hand you have this lovely depiction of a child’s-eye view of the ‘adventure’ of creating a new life. And on the other hand you see glimpses of what the reality must have been for her parents and how hard they both worked to create the illusion of normality for Anna and Max. Kerr herself said that the book was a chance to ‘remember [her] parents, and for them to be remembered.’

Anna’s own innocent resilience also acts as a powerful antidote to the crimes of the Nazis; a reminder that no one is born into evil. Whether or not Kerr intended her to be, I think she becomes a very effective metaphor for the hope that we all share that the next generation might just find a way to pick up the pieces.

In an interview, Kerr said ‘When you have small children, you think you know what you think about things. But you don’t.’ This rang so true for me reading the book and realising that I had a new filter through which all my thoughts were passing and emerging subtly altered. But I don’t think you need to be a parent to take something powerful from Kerr’s story. Approaching a known event from the perspective of a child has a powerfully transformative effect on something that we think we know well. I love being forced to come at something from a new angle and always come away feeling like my ideas have been refreshed in the process.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first in a trilogy that includes Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away and I’d love to read both.

If you have a bit more reading time:

#1968Club – Children were reading books too…

I love Simon from Stuck in a Book‘s biannual (I think?) reading weeks, where he chooses a year and rounds up a whole host of posts on titles published that year. It’s a great way to find out about more books and blogs to read. This time around it’s 1968, which The Guardian suggests, in its gallery of key events, was a year that changed history. I’ve been keeping up with the new posts on Simon’s #1968Club home page and authors featured so far include Elizabeth Bowen, Quentin Bell, John Le Carre and Jean Rhys.

I thought I’d go for a slightly different angle.

Children’s books!

The reason being that my daughter turned 2 last week and each birthday I track down a few classic children’s books that she needs in her library. Abebooks came up trumps as usual and I’d placed my order. Then I started hunting around for the right book for 1968 week and realised, to my surprise, just how many classic children’s books popped up that year. Including a couple that we already have, one on the wishlist and one I’d just ordered.

There’s no such thing as coincidences, right? So here I present – five classic children’s books published in 1968.

P D Eastman, The Best Nest – Mr and Mrs Bird go searching for a better nest, with unexpected consequences.

The ‘grass is always greener’ trope recurs a lot in children’s books: I spotted it most recently in Fran Preston Gannon’s Dave’s Cave, which is great. The Best Nest is a book I had as a child and hadn’t revisited in years. Looking at the pictures of the secondhand copy we tracked down, I had that lovely thrill of recognition you get when you see something familiar from childhood. Also contains the line ‘They got some man hair’ which is just brilliant.

Judith Kerr, The Tiger Who Came to Tea – does this even need a precis? Ok then, Sophie and her mummy have tea with a tiger who has a particularly large appetite.

Such a classic. My daughter loves this one and we’ve had our copy since she was born. Listening to her say ‘…and they had a LOVEly supper…’ just melts me. I particularly love the illustration of a 1960s street scene as they head off to a cafe after the tiger eats them out of house and home. Judith Kerr herself will likely be popping up again in these parts as I’ve just finished reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

Jill Tomlinson, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark – Plop the owl (I know! Squeee…) is afraid of the dark and refuses to go out hunting. But he eventually discovers it’s not as scary out there as he thought.

Some of the best children’s books leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy. The dark is pretty terrifying as a child, particularly if you’re blessed/cursed with an overactive imagination. I love this story about shifting your perspectives and overcoming fears. It’s firmly on the wishlist for an upcoming birthday or Christmas.

Richard Scarry, What Do People Do All Day? – A trip around Busytown to see what people are up to.

There are some angry reviews out there about this one (along the lines of how Scarry is pushing a misogynist agenda to inculcate conservative values in the next generation of children) but I adored this as a child. The detailed illustrations, the insight into a world that I was only just beginning to understand was much bigger than I originally thought. Yes, I’m glad we live in a world where there are a few more female doctors and lumberjacks, but I actually think books like this can be really lovely kicking off points for important conversations about equality. I want my daughter to know she can follow her heart into whatever career most excites her, but I also want her to know that she has freedoms and choices that many women didn’t, and in many cases, still don’t have.

Russell Hoban, A Birthday for Frances – If Gloria, Frances’ little sister, can’t throw, catch or play hide-and-seek, does she deserve her birthday present?

These books about Frances the badger are such a great example of classic children’s storytelling at its best. Warm, funny, witty and a great way to remind yourself what the world looked like through your pre-school eyes. And isn’t this line just the best:

“That is how it is, Alice,” said Frances. “Your birthday is always the one that is not now.”

Oh, the agony of childhood!

Have you read these classics? Did you have them as kids??

By the way, if you wanted a more adult read from 1968, I reviewed Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate back in 2014.

Highlights from a summer of reading: the rest…

I promised some miscellaneous bits from my summer reading to finish. So, in no particular order…

A scattering of essays:

Lives in Writing, David Lodge – this is hard to categorise because it’s not, as it might first appear, about people who write. Although it sort of is by a more roundabout route. It’s actually a lot about the people who write about the people who write, and a bit about the people who write in the process. Still with me? In this collection of essays, Lodge focuses on biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction/criticism, diaries and memoirs from and about famous writers and, in so doing, unpicks the writing life from a number of different perspectives. Of particular interest is Lodge’s take on biographical fiction in light of his works Author, Author and A Man of Parts (about Henry James and H.G. Wells respectively). Given that the essays were mostly originally published in a number of different contexts, there’s a really interesting breadth of writing style on offer too. I breezed through more journalistic essays, such as those on Alan Bennett, Simon Gray and Malcolm Bradbury – in fact, I think my favourite essays are those in which Lodge writes about writers who are also friends, as in the case of Gray and Bradbury – and painstakingly unpicked my way through heavier, more lit crit essays on Frank Kermode and Terry Eagleton (with some success, I hope!). But I really enjoyed having to re-engage brain with each shift in style and there’s a lot of interesting information on offer about the subjects of Lodge’s essays too. A recommended read if you’re at all interested in writers (as well as their work).

A wonderful epistolary memoir:

A Very Private Eye: an Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, Barbara Pym – I am a Pym fan and really have very little to say about this other than that, if you too are a fan of Pym then this really is a must read. Compiled by her sister, Hilary, and close friend and colleague of many years, Hazel Holt, this is a selection of extracts from Pym’s diaries, writing notebooks and letters (to, amongst others, Philip Larkin – a long-time friend and fan). It’s so lovely to hear from Pym in her own warm, astute, humorous and often poignant words. She’s a true writer, in the sense that even the littlest fragments from her notebooks are gold. Although I was aware that Pym had a bit of a resurgence later in her writing life, I had no idea just how many years she spent in the wilderness, doggedly continuing to write the novels that publishers assured her no one wanted to read. Her stoic humour in the face of all that rejection is an inspiration. Hopefully she’s currently somewhere lovely having a right good chuckle at the explosion of Pymophiles out there in the blogosphere continuing to do their level best to make sure she’s not overlooked again.

The obligatory Christie:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie – every few months I get the urge to read another Christie. This was a good one. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. Nicely played, Agatha.

Highlights from a summer of reading: non-fiction

From my summer reading, here are the non-fiction highlights…

The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi – there are a lot of books in the world and I’ve mostly made peace with the idea that I won’t read them all. But there are some writers that I feel uncomfortable not having read, and Levi was one of them. The Drowned and the Saved was one of Levi’s later works, published for the first time in 1986, the year before he died. It is a collection of essays in which he further explores both the death camps and the people within them. It would be facile to suggest I ‘enjoyed’ reading this. There’s not a lot of enjoyment to be found (wider reading suggests that Levi’s final book is more bitter and despairing in tone than earlier ones, and I still feel like If This Is A Man is a book I must read) but I’m very glad I read it. A great deal has been written about the holocaust and I’ve read the tiniest sliver of it. I’ve never read anything like Levi though. He is understandably angry, although measured, erudite and considered. What he does that was so different to anything I’d read before was remove the easy interpretations, the sense of good people and bad people. He does away with the idea that any part of the holocaust can ever be ‘understood’ in a conventional sense. One of the essays is actually called ‘The Grey Zone’ and it quickly becomes clear that most of Levi’s polemic operates in this half light. It’s deeply unsettling but, particularly in light of recent political events, I came away confident that the unease he made me feel was vital.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, Jennifer Teege – the slightly ‘click-baity’ title worked on me in the library but this was actually an emotional and thought-provoking read. Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, a fact she wasn’t aware of until, aged 38, she recognised a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Goeth (Goeth’s mistress while he was at Plaszow) in a library book. The reason for the title is that Teege’s father was Nigerian, and her book was an interesting companion to Levi’s essays. Levi writes about both survivor guilt and the complex guilt felt by many people in the generations that followed. With Goeth’s atrocities so well-known and recorded, Teege has a particularly heavy burden of guilt to bear. The book was her attempt to work through the terrible depression she fell into on discovering her personal history and it has much to say about the responsibility we bear for the events of the past, whether directly related to the protagonists or not.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the remaining highlights – some essays, a memoir and a Christie.


Highlights from a summer of reading: fiction

Since I was last here, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t said very much about them. It occurred to me that they represented most categories on the reading spectrum, so I thought I’d pick out a few highlights.

Some really good fiction:

Euphoria, Lily King – someone somewhere, and I have to apologise for not being able to credit where credit is due, said about this that it’s one of those really good pieces of writing that makes you want to go away and read more about the non-fictional inspiration for the fictional story. Having finished it, I wholeheartedly agree. Euphoria is based (loosely, I understand) on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and given that truth is often too unbelievable for fiction, I’d love to know where the boundaries lie between Mead and her fictional counterpart, Nell Stone. The story centres on the events of a few months in the jungle of New Guinea, where Stone, her husband Fen and a third party, and fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, become entangled in a complex web of professional and personal interactions, interwoven skillfully with the preoccupations of the indigenous people they are at once a part of and set apart from. There are actually boundaries all over this novel and King poses some lovely meaty questions about the lines between scholarly observation and true understanding, as well as the idea of how we change something by being a part of it, thereby potentially destroying forever our hopes of witnessing something as it truly is. I loved that King managed to be smart about both the intellectual ambitions of her characters and their emotional cores.

The Still Point, Amy Sackville – it’s interesting when you write about books together in an arbitrary way how often you discover links between them that you might not otherwise have noticed. As I set out to describe Sackville’s debut, it strikes me that it too explores the reconciliation of human ambition with human emotion, as well as the potential pitfalls of human nature. The setting couldn’t be more different though. Her beautifully crafted narrative jumps from a rambling Victorian house on a searing summer’s day to the splintering cruelty of an Arctic winter a hundred years earlier. It’s a story about Edward Mackley, charismatic polar explorer, Emily, the young wife he left behind, and his great-great-niece Julia, who is now living in his house with her husband Simon, while attempting to make sense of Mackley’s legacy: a legacy that includes not just dusty boxes of possessions to be itemised, but the meaning of his failed attempt at the pole, and the idealised love that kept Emily waiting until waiting turned into a life to be endured. I loved this book, for its evocative settings and descriptions as much as for the way it muses on the nature of relationships. But I think what most stood out was its narrative voice, which jumps out at you in the opening lines. Rather than listening to a distant omniscient voice, it’s a little like sitting in one of those observational rooms with a two-way mirror, watching over the people in the novel,  while the narrator sits next to you, arm around your shoulder, lots of friendly ‘we’s’ to draw you in. I wasn’t sure whether Sackville would manage to sustain it for the whole book but somehow it becomes like listening to a friend and the first book I picked up afterwards with a more conventional authorial voice seemed a little strange and distant in comparison.

And before I wrap up, I thought I’d give a quick shout-out to Martine Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets, a historical novel with a pleasing foodie slant. I probably won’t still be thinking about this one in a few months – as I more than likely will in the case of The Still Point – but this 18th-century tale of aspiring cook Biddy and her journey across Europe in the wake of a mistress who, from the off, is clearly embroiled in a ‘plot’ of some sort, is an absorbing read. I really want to use the word ‘rollicking’…you know what, I just will. It’s a touch rollicking. While some bits are very much  on the darker side, there’s a sense of adventure about the whole thing that keeps you turning the pages.

Hmmm. On the subject of unexpected links, it’s just occurred to me that all three of these books present their stories from the point of view of more than one of their main protagonists. Both Bailey and King use letters and diaries to present viewpoints. And both King and Sackville jump around in time (although only a little in the case of King). I do like unexpected links. Anyway, tomorrow night – non-fiction!


Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.