Category Archives: Children

Long-Awaited Reads Month Update #1

Reading wise, January is off to a great start for me. I have not read this much in ages. Really, this past year I was lucky to make it through two books a month. But in January, the counter is now at six, including one which I started back in 2015. Even luckier, I have thoroughly enjoyed the books I have picked up thus far, even though not all of them have been as stunning as I had anticipated. Long-Awaited Reads Month, indeed:

Caddy's World Hilary McKayCaddy’s World by HIlary McKay

The Casson Family series deserves its own post really, but I know what I am usually like in these cases: I plan to write the post and then procrastinate endlessle. So instead, let me tell you why I love these books, this last book (because I do think this should be read last, though it is a prequel) included: the sense of family and comradeship despite difficulties, the acknowledgement of strains in family relationships but in a friendly manner, the book’s ability to acknowledge the good and bad in all people without judgement, the slight quirkiness of the whole Casson family, the utterly lovely characters which you grow to love throughout the series, and particularly Rose and Indigo, the attention paid to the different manners in which people engage with music and art as important forms of self-expression, and the general readability of course.

This one follows oldest-sister Caddy and her group of friends as they navigate confusing times in their lives. The focus is, of course, on Caddy who is trying to come to terms with the addition of Rose to the family. It is interesting to see how Caddy navigates the conflicted feelings about not wanting another baby in the house, but also being desparate for Rose to survive the complications stemming from her early birth. And this, of course, in the midst of her friends’ problems as well as the rearrangement of family dynamics at home. McKay does this wonderfully well, as always.

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is the latest book by E. Lockhart, the author who gave us the likes of the amazing  The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and the  lovely Ruby Oliver books. In it, we follow the recent years of Cady Sinclair and her family, and particularly the times directly before and after ‘the accident’. As we follow Cady puzzling together the truth of what happened during one of her family’s summer stays in Martha’s Vineyard, we are introduced to the world of the Sinclairs, a rich white family, and ‘the liars’, a group of four cousins and friends of which Cady is one.

We Were Liarsranked high on many of my favourite bloggers best-of list a few years ago, and so I could not wait to read it myself. But perhaps it was the hype.. because even though I enjoyed the book and definitely found it engaging, it failed to convince me that it was stellar. Perhaps it was that I saw most of the twist coming about half-way through, but generally that does not bother me so much. Or perhaps it was that the characters felt rather flat at times, which meant that instead of allowing room for the reader’s deconstruction of the character’s circumstances and behaviours, the book felt more focussed on plot-progress. This is not to say that you should not read the book. It is still a very good book, and I definitely felt lots of feelings while reading. Perhaps it is just that I had expected more? Sometimes these kinds of books hold up better when you read them at the time of their release and the initial enthousiasm about them, than they do a year or so later.

Jem and the HologramsJem and the Holograms: Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

A graphic novel series about a girl band in the 80s, the protagonist of which is too shy to perform in front of an audience, so instead they use hologram “Jem” to be able to perform. While this story provides a lovely mix of music, friendship, love, and true human relationships between women instead of hollow stereotypical versions of it, plus “girly-girl” imagery mixed with serious issues without one undermining the other -and as such offers lots to love- I also did not feel as special a connection to it as I had anticipated. Perhaps it is the comic format? I notice that with both this one and Lumberjanes (which I personally enjoyed much more) I really love the story, the underlying ideas and messages, but I just cannot quite become as absorbed in them as I would in a regular fiction book? I don’t know.. this is a question I will have to puzzle out over time..

10 PM Question De GoldiThe 10 P.M. Question by Kate De Goldi

The 10 P.M. Question tells the story of 12-year-old Frankie and the monumentous changes brought to his life when he befriends the new girl at school, Sydney. While this book also explores a quircky family in which different persons have to address daily difficulties and strains, it’s tone is more serious than Hilary McKay’s. However, the books share the respectful tone at which personal and familial problems are addressed, nowhere reducing a problem or a person’s ability or inability to deal with it to a caricature. This, as well as its engaging characterisation and style, is what made De Goldi’s novel so particularly strong, for the subjects with which she deals are not small, eg. mental illness. And yet, the manner in which she addresses Frankie’s anxiety’s and his mom’s inability to leave the house, as well as the issues faced by other characters, simultaneously draw them out of the corner of mental illness which places it apart, but instead normalises it to a very realistic extinct. Additionally, there is something refreshing about reading a book about a boy’s self-doubt, when it is unfortunately so often only girl characters who are portrayed in this manner. I would definitely, then, recommend The 10 P.M. Question. It is utterly readable, enjoyable, and fun. To this is added the a humane and gentle understanding that is utterly admirable.

A Company of Swans IbbotsonA Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

This is typical Eva Ibbotson romance, but as always, it is good. Telling the story of Harriet Morton, who is raised by her father and aunt in a very protective, strict, and sober environment, but when given the chance runs away to follow her dream of performing in a ballet company while they tour the Amazon. While there are questions to pose about romantic interest Henry and his friendly colonial entrepeneurship versus that of his rivals, Ibbotson’s usual black-white portrayal of good vs. bad parents and innocent children, and the romantic imagery about the Amazon, I nonetheless enjoyed A Company of Swans immensely. Somehow, there is something about Ibbotson’s rose-coloured glasses that makes her books quite irresistable. Perhaps she leaves just enough room for realism and criticism to get away with it? I wonder.. Or perhaps it is simply that enjoying a work of fiction does not mean unapologetically condoning all of its portrayals? And yet, writing about Ibbotson’s romance novels always makes me wonder if she has a quality that allows us to jump a little too easily to the “oh, it was just lovely!” description instead of posing the more difficult questions, and if there is a danger in that. For it is true, I did wonder about some of the representations here, but mostly, I was too caught up in the fairytale to care.

I also, of course, read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but since I have already written about that here, I won’t repeat my thoughts.

Meanwhile, I have begun to read Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell. This one is another that falls into the “comfort reads” category for me, having so much enjoyed her High Rising in 2014. Reading it seems to be taking a little more time than the rush I felt in the previous 2 weeks. But who knows, maybe I will get to pick out another book before January is over.

What have you been reading in January thus far? Any books that stood out to you in particular?

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Unlike many others, I did not see the promotional picture of two girls kissing for the release of The Sleeper and the Spindle. Instead, being so out of the loop with blogging and new books, I saw this title appear in the top 20 sold books on Bookdepository one day, and decided to buy it. “New Neil Gaiman and a fairy tale at that,” I thought, “I will probably like this”. Not having seen the promo, I was probably saved a lot of disappointment. Instead, I got what I expected: a fairy tale Neil Gaiman-style, with twists that I did not expect, and lovely illustrations by Chris Riddell to boot.

The Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman // Illustrated by Chris Riddell // Bloomsbury, 2014

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman // Illustrated by Chris Riddell // Bloomsbury, 2014

But sometimes, getting what you expected may not feel like enough. And I realise this sounds spoiled. And let’s be honest: it is. But for the first half of the book, it was a thought that flashed through my mind. We’ve come to expect great tales from Gaiman. And upon seeing that cover (WOW!) the idea of wonderful images might be taken for granted.

And so it took a while to realise exactly what joys The Sleeper and the Spindle provides.

Take this quote at the beginning, which plays with gender expectations and “the happily ever after” right there (before playing with it some more throughout the book):

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.

And then there’s the moment when realisation first hit (and yes, I am sloooow), that this were fairytales intertwined, with a lead that is Snow White an her dwarfs, mixed up in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. And I started to love the book a little more.

As we near the end I first realise that here’s a wonderful girl protagonist, who is allowed the possibility of a death in battle (see the quote above), and moreover, to make her own choices (there’s quite some gender role reversal when she tells the prince she will leave on a mission), and take such a large part in the action.

And then there is the very end. With a twist on traditional fairy tale expectations about beauty and age that I loooooved. And by then I cannot help but conclude that yes, I was spoiled to even think that getting what one expects of an author may not be enough.

I ended up really enjoying The Sleeper and the Spindle. But I do understand some of the disappointment out there. For this is not a LGTB take on a fairytale. The kiss itself is beautifully pictured but of very little importance in the story as a whole.

Reading Next: The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz (and still reading Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim).

Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

I began my journey into the world of 1001 Children’s Books by selecting the very last title listed. Finding Violet Park had been lingering on my shelves for a few years, bought at a this-bookshop-is-bankrupt sale years before. I never quite knew whether I should read it or discard it, until I saw it listed here. Yay for persuading me to pick up a long-forgotten book from my TBR shelves.

Dutch version of Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine // Published in English by Harper Collins in 2007 (Also published as "Me, the Missing, and the Dead")

Dutch version of Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine // Published in English by Harper Collins in 2007 (Also published as “Me, the Missing, and the Dead”)

In Finding Violet Park Lucas Swain goes on a journey of self-discovery in which he comes to terms with his broken family and learns to face the imperfect nature of his missing father, after finding the abandoned urn of concert pianist Violet Park at a taxi stand.

I did not think Finding Violet Park was extraordinary. But it was a lovely read nonetheless. Lucas Swain is entirely realistic and easy to relate to. The style of the book is humorous. The short chapters ensured that I rushed through the book without feeling hurried or inattentive. There is a bit of suspension of disbelief required for the many coincidental relations between events and characters, but at the same time this might be explained by Lucas’ conviction that Violet Park wanted him to find her urn for a reason.

In short: I really enjoyed Finding Violet Park, and I am glad I did not toss the book out when I moved. At the same time, I find I have very little to say about it. (Hah, and here I thought I was going to get back to blogging full-swing).

Finding Violet Park counts towards the Children’s Books Project. It also counts as first book down (1/37) for my personal 2015 TBR challenge.

Currently reading: Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim.
Next up in the Children’s Books Challenge: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf.

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13 was my first read of 2014 and the first book for #LARmonth

The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson
Macmillan Children’s Books, 1994

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

By the beginning of January, I needed a good comfort read. And if anyone can provide comfort reads, it is Eva Ibbotson. Happily diving into the Ibbotson novel I received as a holiday present those first days of the year, I cannot say I was disappointed.

In The Secret of Platform 13 said platform at King’s Cross Station provides a portal between our world and an island for 9 days every 9 years. When the son of the king and the queen of the island disappears in the world and is unable to return to the island, the queen is devastated. A rescue party is organised nine years later to bring back the prince, among which are a wizard, an ogre, a fey, and the young hag Odge. Can they bring back the prince before the portal closes for another 9 years?

When the rescue party arrives in London, they find that the boy they are told is the prince, Raymond Trottle, is not what they expected. He is a spoilt boy who is given everything he desires by the rich lady who calls herself his mother. Meanwhile, Ben, who helps in the Trottle’s household, does all in his power to help the rescuers, and even if he wishes he could join the rescuers in going to the island he stand by his dying grandmother who he does not want to leave alone.

Admittedly, the story in The Secret of Platform 13 has its predictable qualities. There is a clear set up where the reader finds himself rooting for Ben, while Raymond is portrayed as horrible from the beginning. I find myself agreeing with Ana’s observation that she would have liked it better if the ending had been a little different. Moreover,after reading more of Eva Ibbotson’s book, particularly One Dog and His Boy, I wonder if selfish rich people are a bit of a trope in Ibbotson’s work? She has a definite view of who is “good” and “bad”, and while some privileged people (for example the king and the queen in this story) are portrayed as lovely people, it is clear that Ibbotson did not have much sympathy for rich people who become spoilt and selfish. On the one hand, who can blame her? On the other, it would be nice to see a little more shades of grey built into the narrative at times. Ana’s suggestions for an ending where inheritance is less prominent than upbringing would work wonderfully in that case, I think.

These criticisms aside, I did very much enjoy The Secret of Platform 13. It is always a joy to read Ibbotson’s work. At least part of the reason being that she integrates fantasy with our contemporary world seamlessly. There is no needless explaining; instead the world building simply is, which is something I really appreciate. Another thing I love about Ibbotson is her portrayal of children: with agency, with good intentions, and yet their slight faults.

All in all, The Secret of Platform 13 was a lovely start of the year and of this year’s Long-Awaited Reads Month.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones

Black Maria - Diana Wynne JonesBlack Maria – Diana Wynne Jones
Published as Aunt Maria in the US

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2000
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In Black Maria, Mig, her brother Chris, and her mother visit their aunt Maria in a seaside town. On the surface, Maria is everything one may expect of an elderly aunt in fiction: she is a little stiff and boring, she upholds the social conventions, and the children are not particularly fond of her.

Quickly, however, Mig and Chris discover that something more and entirely different is going on beneath the surface. With her polite correctness, aunt Maria seems to control an awful lot of people in their life, stifling them with correctness, so to say. The men, meanwhile, all appear to be grey-suited zombies without a will of their own. When Chris rebels against her aunt, she turns him into a wolf. It is now left to Mig to try to turn her brother back into a human, and to do so, she has to go against her aunt and the social mores of the town..

As always, I turned to Ana for advice on what to read next by Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended Black Maria since she knows I am interested in gender. I admit, I was a little sceptical. I don’t particularly like the cover for this one (I admit I like it a lot better in retrospect) and I don’t know.. I just had trouble to look past that. But of course I should have known better. Ana knows what she recommends, and Diana Wynne Jones was too smart to merely have this be the cutesy tale that I somehow expected from the cover.

What makes Black Maria such a great read is the combination of Jones’ utterly engaging writing style and storytelling with a very smart and layered commentary on gender relations. To be more precise, through Aunt Maria’s particular position and the social conventions of the town, Diana Wynne Jones magnifies the power relations and consequences of a strict interpretation of a “natural” gender divide. Moreover, by turning this divide on its head, by having women as naturally belonging to the domestic sphere, but also giving them the control of the village instead of the men, she also questions emancipatory ideas that use the “natural spheres of men and women” argument to argue that women are actually more capable of ruling. She then counters those experiences with the arguments of a few men who fight Maria’s regime, who also use the idea of “natural” gender competences in their effort to gain power. All this is preceded by small comments of Maria on how Mig should behave more in a manner that befits a girl, thus leading up to the larger themes underlying the novel.

In the midst of this fictional and very well-executed world that always remains subtle in its references to the critique below the surface, it is a joy to follow Mig in her navigation of all these claims and power relations. To see her waver, but also find her own path.

[insert contented sigh here]

What more can I say? This is Diana Wynne Jones, everyone: of course you should read it. As for me, I am happy that I still have so many of her books left to explore. And yet, with every new treasure I find, I am also saddened knowing that it means I have one book less to look forward to.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, We Be Reading, Shelf Love, Yours?