From 1950 to 1970, an American scriptwriter, Helene Hanff, embarked on self-education by book with the aid of some British secondhand booksellers. 84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of the letters which passed primarily between Hanff and the shop’s head buyer, Frank Doel. American candour and teasing on one side, British reserve and understatement on the other. Yet drawn into a mutually treasured friendship by their shared love of books. The second half, originally published as The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, contains Hanff’s diary of her visit to England following Doel’s death and the publication of 84, Charing Cross Road. In it she describes her visit, her encounters with her Charing Cross connections and other new and old friends and her experience of a country she had so long encountered only through books. Reading these letters and diary was like making several treasured new friends: books, authors and regular people. Thanks, Bron for the recommendation and loan!
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill is the third in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series. The girls are now 10 years old and the largely standalone chapters of the first two books smoothly transition into larger story arcs involving a terrible fight with their older sisters and various encounters with the immigrants in the nearby New Syria community. The depiction of their cross-cultural encounters with the neighbouring Lebanese community are gently done, as is the fight with Julia and Katie and its various consequences.
Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde is the second book in the Thursday Next series. Despite a sudden celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and improving the ending, not every one is happy with what Thursday has done. A series of extremely unlikely near death experiences seem like attempts to kill her. The Goliath Corporation are determined to get inside fiction and aren’t opposed to eradicating Thursday’s husband in an attempt to make her cooperate. As the plot thickens, Thursday finds another way into the world of fiction where she faces criminal charges for changing Jane Eyre and becomes part of Jurisfiction, the team of agents who protect and police inside of fiction. This paves the way for literary puns, humour, wordplay and adventures inside fiction as Thursday faces trial inside Kafka’s The Trial, fixes plot holes in Great Expectations and is solicited for real world luxury goods by everyone from the Cheshire Cat to Marianne Dashwood. This doesn’t even cover the major storylines! This book has an incredibly intricate and interconnected plot. It also manages to juggle two wonderfully realised worlds. It does all this with a lightness and humour that doesn’t feel bogged down in complexity and unnecessary detail (until you try to summarise it!).
When Stanley Yelnats gets caught holding a celebrity’s stolen sneakers which have just fallen on him out of the sky, he knows that it’s because of the family curse acquired by his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather. Stanley is sent to Camp Green Lake, a camp for bad boys, where every day each boy is set the task of digging a 5 foot hole in the dry lake bed ‘to build character’. But it seems like that may not be the only reason they are digging holes…
This is a great YA novel with a well-woven plot, great pacing and tone and a likeable main character. An enjoyable read. Good out loud too. Late primary schoolers would be able to to enjoy it as well.
I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in year 10 and it was the first really decent book I got to read for high school english (the junior syllabus really wasn’t inspiring – in year 8 we had to read an incredibly dull book about a rock that ate sheep!). Mockingbird is an incredibly nuanced exploration of race and racism, fear and difference, set in mid-20th century Alabama. The heaviness of the subject matter is beautifully handled by exploring it through the eyes of the young Scout Finch, growing up in a town where tensions come to the fore when her lawyer father takes on the legal defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s age, curiosity and directness set the tone of this novel and add helpful layers to the themes. Even if you were forced to read this at school and hated it, it’s worth a revisit in adulthood. I appreciated it at 15 but appreciated it more deeply in my 30s.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is set in an alternate England, where home-cloned dodos are common house pets and the public’s passion for literature occasionally erupts in street violence. Thursday Next is a literary detective, part of a specialised law enforcement body that protects against and polices crimes against fiction. When a criminal mastermind finds a way to kidnap Jane Eyre from the original manuscript, it is up to Thursday to save both the character and the narrative of Jane Eyre as well as facing some long-avoided troubles from her own past. Full of puns, wordplays and wit, the Thursday Next books are to classics and literature, what the Hitchhiker’s Guide is to Sci-Fi and fantasy.
Of all Jane Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is surely the least appealing, the most ‘foreign’ to our age. Unlike Emma’s assertiveness and Lizzy’s humour, Fanny’s combination of self-effacement and moral conviction are at odds with modern core values. Yet Mansfield Park is a beautifully crafted and mature novel and by the second half Fanny is also coming into her own. I love this novel for its exploration of integrity, self-control and character, family relationships and how our upbringings shape us. A beautiful, thoughtful and through-provoking novel that has the potential to stretch us where we are weak and reactive.
The Blue Castle was L.M. Montgomery’s only book written for adults and my favourite of her non-Anne books. Really the only difference between it and her young adult novels is that the heroine is 29 and unmarried teen pregnancy is part of a minor character’s backstory.
Valancy Stirling is part of a large and conservative clan and her life so far has been ruled by her mother’s sulks and the opinions and criticisms of her extended family. Her only escapes are reading and daydreams about her imaginary ‘blue castle’. But when Valancy is told that a severe heart condition means she only has a few months to live, Valancy snaps, determined to really live in the short time she has left.
While it’s not too hard to see how the different plot threads will ultimately come together, the journey to get there and the characters along the way make it an enjoyable and ultimately satisfying novel and a pleasant and easy read.
The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss is one of my favourite Dr. Seuss books. The eponymous story deals with status symbols and in groups. Other stories deal with disagreements and how we think about and treat people who are different to us. My father can still quote most of this book from memory because of all of the times he read it to us while we were children which is evidence that it gets the tick of approval from both adults and kids!!!
The basic storyline of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread revolves around the child of a mixed marriage and the various characters’ feelings, motives and actions regarding it. Yet this storyline is the vehicle for exploring the struggle between moral conviction and moral apathy, deliberate action and passivity. All this, against the backdrop of cross-cultural judgements and misunderstandings, social fears and crumbling idealism and romanticism. Snippets of foretelling and a very clear picture of several characters’ cultural arrogance and blindness gives the reader a privileged perspective on the events. Looking back now, I can see how the story’s construction sucked me into making moral judgements and then raised a bunch of questions about moral action (or inaction) and my own cultural blind-spots. Probably my least favourite Forster book of the four I’ve read so far, yet I still loved every minute of it!