The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion features an unusual hero on a mission to find a wife. To increase the efficiency of the process, Don Tillman develops a lengthy questionaire that will allow him to quickly eliminate women who would be unsuitable. However the Wife Project becomes more complicated when Don begins helping Rosie Jarman to find her biological father. Rosie brings all sorts of chaos into Don’s incredibly regulated life. This first-person novel is rich in dramatic irony as we see the world through Don’s eyes but also pick up on social clues that Don sees but doesn’t understand. It is rich in gentle humour and conveys both the struggles and the richness of having a brain that works differently to the average.
Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder continues the Little House books. The Long Winter is over, the prairie is filling up and Laura is old enough to get summer work sewing in the growing town. When winter comes the Ingalls family again move into the town, but this winter is mild and sunny. At first Laura hates living in town but soon she is enjoying town life, even when her old enemy, Nellie Olsen, moves to town and the school has the unfair Miss Wilder as teacher. But Laura must continue to work hard at school in order to get a teacher’s certificate so that she can earn money to help her sister Mary continue at the College for the Blind. Another beautiful account of growing up and American pioneering life.
Letters from England by Karel Čapek is a book I picked up for $5 in New Zealand, one of those high points of secondhand-bookshopping. As suggested by the title, it’s a collection of letters from the Czech author’s travels in England. The translation (by Paul Selver) is very readable and the humour and outsider’s perspective enjoyable. Čapek is particularly intrigued by architectural fashion crazes that make whole streets look alike, the impressive powers and proportions of the police and the surprising Englishness of England!
The Door in the Air and Other Stories is my favourite book by Margaret Mahy, a fantastic (in both senses) kiwi children’s author. I have two favourite stories from this book. The first is The Work of Art, which makes fun of art critics who go ga-ga over a cake that they mistake for art. The second is The Bridge Builder, a whimsical story about a man who builds bridges just for the sake of it, with many beautiful descriptions of his bridges.
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas is a beautiful picture book about the nature of memory. It tells the story of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge who lives next door to an old people’s home where his friend Miss Nancy lives. Wilfrid’s quest to find Miss Nancy’s lost memory helps her to tap into the long-term memories that still remain.
Light A Single Candle by Beverley Butler is a great book written in the early 60s that I discovered in high school. Cathy Wheeler becomes completely blind in her early teens when surgery to treat glaucoma goes seriously wrong. As well as adjusting to her sensory disability, Cathy also faces the complicated responses of friends, family and strangers, ranging from unsolicited to pity through to embarrassment, avoidance and rejection. Some of these experiences lead to Cathy giving in to pressure to attend the State School for the Blind, a horrible experience, that eventually leads her to Trudy, a German shepherd and trained guide dog, who facilitates her reintegration to the sighted world. This book, which draws on Butler’s own experience, has the ring of authenticity, in its portrayal of blindness, of Cathy’s adjustment and of other people’s reactions.
Goodnight, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian is a historical novel and modern children’s classic set in World War II Britain. Billeting arrangements bring together Mister Tom, a gruff and grieving old man, and Willie Beech, a starved and abused child from London’s East End. Both need each other. Tom is forced to leave the seclusion he has embraced since the death of his wife and child in order to care for Willie. Willie flourishes within the new experience of safety and security that Mister Tom gives him. All this is challenged when a telegram requires Willie to return to his mother in London. This books is deeply moving as it deals with tough issues like abuse, poverty and mental illness. It is incredibly subtle for a children’s book, masterfully showing rather than telling. Thanks to MT for introducing me to it.
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis is the 6th Chronicle of Narnia. As a child it was my least favourite Narnia book, despite containing a favourite character and a favourite scene. The drawbacks are that the main human characters spend most of the story squabbling and failing to follow the instructions they are given at the beginning of the book with inevitably bad results (that usually involve more blame and squabbling). However, there are redeeming features. One is the terrific character of pessimistic Puddleglum, the morbid marshwiggle whose attempts at optimism are particularly hilarious. Another is a scene in which Puddleglum gives a rousing apologetic for the overworld in the face of darkness and trickery. A final enjoyable feature for adults are Lewis’ periodic judgements on ‘modern schooling’.
A Country Gentleman and His Family by Margaret Oliphant is surprisingly well written. Mrs Oliphant was a Victorian authoress who wrote novels to support herself and several dependents so was prolific but variable in quality. This book had skillful characterisation and lovely, revealing reflections on life. While the plot was somewhat predictable, the characters were not, while still being plausible. The book opens with the death of two husbands (one boring, one wild) and the complex feelings of relief experienced by their wives. Mrs Warrender, dutiful during her husband’s life, feels relief at the prospect of expressing a side of herself that has been suppressed and misunderstood throughout her marriage. Yet her easily shockable daughters and somewhat dictatorial son prove a challenge. Meanwhile Lady Markland blossoms as she takes over the reins of her young son’s estate in an effort to turn it around after her husband’s damaging treatment of both his estate and his family. Yet Lady Markland’s flourishing is threatened by a possible remarriage, to which she will bring all the complications of a history, mature opinions and character, and a son from her previous marriage.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis was my favourite Narnia book as a child – an exciting ocean journey discovering new lands in a quest to find seven missing lords of Narnia. It again features King Caspian and Reepicheep from the previous book, as well as Edmund and Lucy Pevensie. It introduces a new character from our world, their obnoxious, ‘modernly-educated’ cousin named Eustace Scrubb (and, Lewis tells us, “he almost deserved it”). The journey is driven by the quest for the missing lords but the story is about the regeneration of Eustace, with comments about sin, spiritual blindness, regeneration and sanctification. I recently re-read this out loud in an evening as part of an end-of-year storytime marathon and appreciated these spiritual themes in a whole new way following a doctrine exam on similar topics! It made me enjoy this book the most I have since childhood.