Monday, 25 April 2016

Something Old Something New

Now I really must apologize, a PhD deadline, for submitting my first chapter, rather took precedence over the Blog for a few weeks but it is Monday morning, it is my birthday tomorrow and I always like to start the new birthday year with a new challenge, this one is going to be to keep the Blog updated by writing a new one each and every Monday ... if I have not posted by 1pm  you must email/Facebook/Tweet me and remind me to do it ...

So for week 1 of the new mission a blog written by reviewer and all round fantastic book reader Bridget Carrington with plenty on offer to get your teeth into ...

Something old and something new came through my letterbox in February. The old comes in welcome reissues by the New York Review of Books of two classics: James Thurber’s splendid fairy-tale from 1950, The 13 Clocks, with its original illustrations by Marc Simont, and from 1964, 

The Pushcart War by another American author, Jean Merrill, with its original illustrations by Ronni Salbert. Thurber’s is a wonderful story, well-known beyond its country of origin, while Merrill’s less familiar work, reset in the future, time having caught up with the 1964 original, provides an amusing but cutting commentary on the often ridiculous origins of war. While there may be other editions out there, the NYRB specializes in faithful reproductions of classic twentieth-century children’s texts together with the illustrations which went with them in their original form, something that’s often missing from later re-publications. The NYRB is an occasional series which has returned to us several otherwise hard to come by titles, mainly American, but notable also for British authors such as Eleanor Farjeon, Leon Garfield, E. Nesbit and (to my great pleasure) Barbara Sleigh’s delightful Carbonel stories.

The new includes two picture books and two Australian YA/New Adult novels. I’m not quite sure what distinguishes a New Adult novel from a YA novel. One definition classes it as YA with added sex and swearing, but this clearly ignores many noteworthy and award-winning YA novels written in the last fifty years. Equally, as she doesn’t include sex and swearing, should we count Jane Austen as an up-and-coming writer of Young Adult rather than New Adult material? If it’s only that the protagonists are older, but the subject matter remains coming-of-age related angst/relationships/romance it seems a false distinction. Perhaps this just shows how unhelpful it is for publishers to pigeonhole books into categories based on age…

Australian author Laura Buzo’s second novel Holier than Thou (Allen and Unwin) is classified as New Adult, and her main protagonist is twenty-four, a graduate in her first job as a mental health social worker. There is sex and there is swearing, but there’s an awful lot more to this deeply thoughtful narrative. Holly tells her own story, starting with a crisis at work, but then ranging to and fro through her high school and university life to examine her relationships with her parents, her sibling, her friends and her boyfriends. In an interview Buzo herself describes the novel as being ‘about the trajectory of grief, and of friendship, family, loss, loyalty, work and the nuts and bolts of morphing into adulthood.’ She adds, ‘It is sad and I don’t pull punches, but I never forget to bring the funny as well.’ All this is true, and Buzo makes an excellent job of it, particularly in examining Holly’s reaction to her father’s death, and her search for a man whose intellectual as well as physical charms would make a suitable permanent relationship. Has she made the right decisions by the end of the novel? If Buzo gives us a sequel, we might find out, but otherwise it ends as real life so often does – in resigned uncertainty.

Michael Adams’ YA novel The Last Girl (Allen and Unwin) envisages a post-apocalyptic Australia in which almost the entire population is suddenly affected by The Snap, whereby they can all hear what everyone else is thinking, and which results in a considerable amount of violence and a great number of deaths. Following this the majority of the remaining citizens enter a catatonic state, apart from a few who have a physical anomaly which appears to shield them. Sixteen-year-old Danby is one of those, and after the Snap-related deaths of her father and step-mother we follow her attempts to help her learning disabled younger step-brother, and to reach her vulnerable real mother’s remote home. Along the way we see convincingly portrayed scenes of mass hysteria, devastation and horror, and are introduced to Nathan and Jack, to both of whom Danby is attracted. There are complex and interesting moral dilemmas raised, particularly when it comes to choices over resuscitation of the catatonic, and we are promised even greater decisions to be made in the two following novels, The Last Shot and The Last Post.

In Time Travelling Toby and the Battle of Britain written by Graham Jones and illustrated by Neil Parkinson (GroBags) we have the curious combination of a cheery comic style, featuring the eponymous hero and his brothers being taken by his time-travelling sports car to the Battle of Britain, with a rhyming text which seems at variance with the serious nature – bombing and death – of the setting. Parkinson’s illustrations are bright and attractive, but would be better employed in more appropriate texts. Further volumes are planned, Apollo Moon Landing and Battle of Trafalgar and there is a website:

Far more interesting is Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle written by Darcy Pattison and engagingly illustrated by Peter Willis (Mims House), which is adapted from Faraday’s own Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, turning his 1848 six-part scientific series on The Chemical History of a Candle into a text which younger readers could understand. Faraday himself published the full lectures as a book in 1861, and advocated that several of the experiments could be undertaken by children at home, so Pattison and Willis are following in a noble tradition of engaging children with practical science. Pattison accurately puts the subject in context, with a brief explanation of what the RI Christmas Lectures were and who attended, followed by Faraday’s own words explaining how a candle burns, and followed by detailed information about Faraday, the Lectures, and an explanation of the terms and ingredients. The text is varied in type, size, colour and style on the page, while the illustrations are placed in a nineteenth-century world, bright, inviting, amusing and accurate, providing a lively visual interpretation of both historical and scientific matter. As I would unreservedly recommend it for every primary school book shelf, it would be helpful to relate the concepts to UK curriculum stages, as they have with the US NGSS, but other than this, this is an excellent book, which should engage and entertain young people as the Christmas Lectures themselves continue to do into the twenty-first century.