Desert Island Children’s Books: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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My choice of children’s classic to take to my desert island in October was one beloved by many, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

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Alice in Wonderland is an 1865 novel by English author Lewis Carroll. It tells of a young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into a subterranean fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre. The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults as well as with children.

I’m so behind with these posts, but better late than never!

I actually listened to Alice in Wonderland on audiobook in October and I really enjoyed this way of consuming it, it reminded me of when I read the book to my daughters before they were old enough to read it for themselves, so it was a double jaunt down memory lane. Is there a generation that hasn’t fallen in love with the eccentric story of Alice who goes on a fantastical journey through a world down the rabbit hole?

Every time I go back to Alice, I rediscover parts of the story that I have forgotten, and characters that I have loved which don’t make it into the Disney film. Many people’s main memories of Alice are from the movie, but if you read the actual text, there are loads of fun details that didn’t make it into the film. My favourite is still Alice being stuck in the cottage when she has grown huge and hearing a conversation about ‘Little Bill’ coming down the chimney, who she then proceeds to kick into the air without actually knowing what kind of creature Little Bill is (he is a poor lizard, it turns out.)

This is a book that it is possible to enjoy as much, if not more, as an adult than a child, because you can appreciate the absurdity and the sly humour of the writing much better. I am always in awe of Lewis Carroll’s imagination when I read this book, he has created a world that has delighted children for more than 150 years and continues to remain delightful to this day. What an achievement, to write a book that is so timelessly enchanting that people are still reading and enjoying it more than a century later, and whose characters are instantly recognisable around the world.

This will remain one of my favourite books of all time as long as I can pick up a novel, and it is one I will return to often when I need reminding of the innocence and joys of childhood and all that is fanciful and ridiculous. It is a huge gift to be able to revisit and embrace that child-like wonder in a world that can feel darker and more cynical by the day.

You can buy a copy of Alice in Wonderland here.

About the Author

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Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (27 January 1832 – 14 January 1898), better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English writer of children’s fiction, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. He was noted for his facility with word play, logic, and fantasy. The poems “Jabberwocky” and The Hunting of the Snark are classified in the genre of literary nonsense. He was also a mathematician, photographer, inventor, and Anglican deacon.

Carroll came from a family of high-church Anglicans, and developed a long relationship with Christ Church, Oxford, where he lived for most of his life as a scholar and teacher. Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell, is widely identified as the original for Alice in Wonderland, though Carroll always denied this. Scholars are divided about whether his relationship with children included an erotic component.

In 1982, a memorial stone to Carroll was unveiled in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. There are Lewis Carroll societies in many parts of the world dedicated to the enjoyment and promotion of his works.

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Desert Island Children’s Books: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

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I am very late posting my Desert Island Children’s Book choice for September, but it was a choice that is worth waiting for. September’s choice is a favourite of many, it’s Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, and it is the perfect children’s classic to pick up for an autumn read.

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‘Oh, it seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody – not really’

When a scrawny, freckled girl with bright red hair arrives on Prince Edward Island, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are taken by surprise; they’d asked the orphanage for a quiet boy to help with the farmwork at Green Gables. But how can you reject a child like an unwanted parcel, especially when she tells you her life so far has been a ‘perfect graveyard of unburied hopes’?

So the beguiling chatterbox stays. Full of imagination, spark and spirit, it is not long before Anne Shirley wins their hearts.

Anne Shirley is one of my favourite characters is all of children’s literature. So fond am I of the Anne who has lived in my head since I first read Anne of Green Gables *cough* years ago, I have never been able to watch any of the adaptations of the Anne books that have been made (despite the fact that everyone tells me how excellent they are) because I really don’t want my version supplanted by someone else’s.

Why do I love Anne so much? The main reason I think is the same reason I love Jo March from Little Women, because she is someone I immediately related to. Not the fact that she is an orphan, I have two loving parents still, or that she lives on a farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada. But Anne is bookish, and a day dreamer and has a vivid imagination and all of these things made her my fictional kindred spirit.

Having reread Anne of Green Gables again, I still love Anne as much as ever, and relish the tenderness of the story of the wild, red-headed orphan who comes by mistake to the Cuthbert farm, but proceeds to melt the hearts of the shy Matthew and prim, gruff Marilla until they cannot imagine what they did before she arrived to light up their lives. She gets into lots of fun scrapes, and maintains a rivalry with Gilbert Blythe throughout the book, until he does something that melts even Anne’s stony heart at the end of the book – you’ll have to read the other six books in the Anne series to find out what happens between them in the future.

The writing in these books is delightful. L. M. Montgomery really brings the community of Avonlea to life, and peoples it with all manner of amusing characters for Anne to interact with. The setting is perfect, and we experience falling in love with the beauty of Prince Edward Island along with Anne, to the extent that it has long been a destination high on my bucket list, and I know I am not the only person who feels this way about the books. My cousin Michelle cites Anne of Green Gables as her motivation for travelling to PEI.

The relationship between Anne and the Cuthberts is beautiful and tender and moving, and I defy anyone not to be moved by it. Following Anne through her subsequent years in the rest of the series is equally enchanting, and I can highly recommend the whole series. Definitely one to have on a desert island for repeated consumption.

You can get your copy of Anne of Green Gables here.

About the Author

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Lucy Maude Montgomery (1874-1942) was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, the setting for Anne of Green Gables. She left to attend college, but returned to Prince Edward Island to teach. In 1911, she married the Reverend Ewan MacDonald. Anne of Green Gables, the first in a series of “Anne” books by Montgomery, was published in 1908 to immediate success and continues to be a perennial favourite.

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Desert Island Children’s Books: Bogwoppit by Ursula Moray Williams

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My pick for the book I would take from my childhood favourites to read and reread on a desert island for June was Bogwoppit by Ursula Moray Williams.

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When Aunt Lily marries the lodger and goes to America, orphaned Samantha is packed off to her Aunt Daisy, who lives in a grand house at the Park. Snooty Lady Daisy Clandorris has no time for children.

Lucky for Samantha, then, to discover the small, furry creature living in the cellar; a bogwoppit – believed extinct – up till now…

Many people will know Ursula Moray Williams for her more famous books, Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, both of which I loved, but my favourite of her books was always Bogwoppit. The story is basically about three misfits – Samantha, Aunt Daisy and The-One-and-Only-Bogwoppit-in-the-World – finding happiness and companionship in each other, but of course they start off hating each other and have to work their way to the end point through a series of misadventures.

The appeal of this book is the humour and the sheer level of imagination that has gone into the story. There are  host of well-developed and hilarious characters here, all interacting in madcap ways, to make an entertaining and fulfilling story. Firstly we have Samantha, an orphan who has been living with one of her aunts after her own mother died. however, Aunt Lily and Samantha have never really got on, and Samantha does not feel wanted or loved. She certainly is not wanted when her aunt gets married and wants to move to America, so she gets palmed off on yet another aunt, who wants her even less. Samantha is no cowed and bashful wallflower, she is feisty and demanding of attention. She fights for what she wants, and what she wants more than anything is a family, a home and a pet.

Daisy Clandorris is just as feisty as Samantha. She has been abandoned in a decaying old house by her aristocratic explorer husband, fighting the creeping damp and the encroaching bogwoppits and it has made her afraid and bitter. The last thing she wants is the responsibility of her brash niece, but Samantha isn’t taking no for an answer, and they are going to have to learn how to rub along together. The way the relationship develops between these two spiky and independent characters, who we can see are lonely and actually need each other, is fun to read and I think all children secretly dream of being able to speak to adults the way Samantha does and getting away with it!

Finally, there are the bogwoppits. I’d like to be able to describe them to you, but they aren’t really like anything you’ll every have seen and you need to read the book to understand them. En masse, they are quite annoying, but The-One-and-Only-Bogwoppit-in-the-World is different and becomes the star of the show. It is amazing how much love and emotion can be expressed by a small creature who can’t talk! I think this is the genius of the writing, how the author manages to create a strong personality in a creature that has no language to communicate. You will definitely fall in love with the bogwoppit if you read this book.

Shirley Hughes has created some beautiful illustrations to accompany the text which really enhances the story, and I loved repeatedly reading this tale of an ordinary girl who has an extraordinary adventure and ends up with everything she ever wanted. It used to make me think amazing things can happen to anyone, which is always the best kind of children’s book.

You can buy a copy of Bogwoppit here.

About the Author

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Ursula Moray Williams (19 April 1911 – 17 October 2006) was an English children’s author of nearly 70 books for children. Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, written while expecting her first child, remained in print throughout her life from its publication in 1939.

Her classic stories often involved brave creatures who overcome trials and cruelty in the outside world before finding a loving home. They included The Good Little Christmas Tree of 1943, and Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat first published the previous year. It immediately sold out but disappeared until re-issued in abridged form by Kaye Webb at Puffin Books twenty years later, when it became a best-seller.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Pearl by John Steinbeck; Narrated by Hector Elizondo #Audiobook

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‘In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind.’

The Pearlis Steinbeck’s heartbreaking short parable about wealth and the darkness and evil it can instill in even the most generous of men’s hearts.

Category 13 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge is ‘Read a book with less than 100 pages.’ John Steinbeck’s classic, coming in at a mere 96 pages, falls cleanly within this remit. (Yes, I am now doing the categories completely out of order and have yet to review books to fit categories 7, 11 and 12. They are coming, I promise.)

I haven’t read any Steinbeck novels since school, and I am wondering why because The Pearl is so stunning, in both the writing and the story itself, that I now feel like I need to go and pick up more of his work.

This is the story of Kino, his wife Juana and their baby Coyotito who live a hand-to-mouth on the shores of the Gulf until Kino, a fisherman, finds a huge and exquisite pearl that he believes will elevate his family from the cycle of poverty which traps them. He longs for opportunity and education for their son, so that he will not be prey to being kept down by their fear and lack of knowledge. However, greed and envy, the determination of those above to keep them down and the fear of the unknown of those around them, conspire to rob Kino of his dreams.

The writing is beautiful from the very first page. It is not flowery, but powerful, with the descriptions of the simple life of the fisher folk bringing their world to stark life. Their fear and panic when misfortune befalls their child, their rage when they know they are being manipulated and robbed by lack any ability to prevent it, the unfairness of their situation burns brightly on the page through Steinbeck’s prose, and leaps from their into the soul of the reader. I felt their pain very keenly and deeply, and was left with lasting pain on their behalf long after the book was finished.

Despite this being a very short book, Steinbeck manages to explore in detail the themes of evil in the hearts of man. How one person’s good fortune inspires darkness in the hearts and minds of others, and how difficult it is for people to break out from under the yoke of poverty when to do so does not serve the people who benefit from exploiting them. If this book does not make you angry, I would be very surprised.

This book is a shining example of how to write. Not a word is wasted, and the picture is painted in the reader’s mind’s eye with clarity and intensity. It is both inspiring and daunting to read as a writer, demonstrating what lofty heights are possible and making one despair of ever getting anywhere close to them.

The Pearl is out now in all formats and you can get a copy here.

About the Author

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John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author and the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters.”

During his writing career, he authored 33 books, with one book coauthored alongside Edward Ricketts, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas The Red Pony (1933) and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies.

Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede; Narrated by Ray Porter #Audiobook

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When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill.

As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.

Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.

Category 10 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021 is ‘Read a book with a vehicle on the cover,’ so I chose this non-fiction book from my TBR pile, bearing the image of a plane. I have been meaning to read The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede for a long while, and this provided the perfect opportunity, although I actually ended up listening to this as an audiobook.

No one who was alive and of sufficient maturity to understand what was happening on 9/11 will ever forget where they were when the planes struck the World Trade Centre. A day on which the evil that man was capable of wreaking on their fellow man was terribly evidenced to the eyes of the world. Well, this book displays the other side of that coin and demonstrates the love, generosity and selflessness that humans can lavish on one another at times of great need. Whilst the world reeled in the face of absolute, unbelievable horror, the airline passengers who found themselves stranded in Gander, Newfoundland on that terrible day saw the antithesis of this is the welcoming people of this tiny place.

I had never really thought about what happened to all the hundreds of planes that were in the air, bound for the USA, when the terrorist attacks caused the closing of US airspace until I came across this book but the story of what happened to those planes, or a small proportion of them anyway, is unbelievable and fascinating as laid out in the pages of this book. How the hundreds of stranded flights were handled by the air traffic controllers, then at the over-whelmed airports, then by the places they ended up, is all laid out here as shining examples of what can be achieved by good-hearted people rallying to the cause and performing amazingly under pressure. Everyone was united in the horror at what had been done in New York and determined to support people affected by showing them that goodness still existed in a world gone mad.

I have to tell you that I spent nearly the whole of this book on the verge of tears (not great when you are listening as you drive!), because all the stories are so moving. I have visited the WTC site and 9/11 museum since that awful day and seen the aftermath of the horror. It is something that will never leave me – and rightly so because it is only by remembering these things and understanding (as far as it is possible to understand such evil and madness) why they happened that we can take steps to ensure we personally act in a way that tries to ensure they don’t happen again. So, to read stories of the opposite side of the coin, that reassure you that good still exists in the world, that most people are basically decent and loving – well, it restores your faith in humanity. Given some of what is going on now and the rhetoric we see, we need reminding of this from time to time.

I really loved this book, it moved me in a way I wasn’t expecting and that doesn’t come often in non-fiction and I will definitely come back to it again when my soul needs a lift. It is strange to say that any book dealing with the events surrounding 9/11 can be uplifting, but it is definitely true of this book. I can’t recommend it enough if you are feeling jaded and need reminding that good people exist in the world.

The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland is available in paperback and audiobook formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Jim DeFede has been an award-winning journalist for sixteen years, first with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and then with the Miami New Times. His work has appeared in TalkThe New Republic, and Newsday. He is currently a metro columnist for the Miami Herald.

Connect with Jim:

Facebook: Jim DeFede

Twitter: @DeFede

Instagram: @jim_defede

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Desert Island Children’s Books: Five Run Away Together by Enid Blyton

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For my fifth choice of a childhood favourite novel to accompany me to my desert island, I’ve had to bring at least one book from my favourite series. I was addicted to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series when I was young, reading them all multiple times, but it was the third book in the series, Five Run Away Together, that was my absolute favourite and the one I would snatch from a burning building.

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Summer holidays again, at Kirrin Cottage – and the Five are together again! Could anything possibly be better? And when the children become aware of some mysterious signals from a boat at sea, excitement and curiosity descends! The children suspect it’s smugglers, but then they hear a child scream…

During Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin’s absence (following an unexpected illness), the children are left under supervision of the new cook—Mrs Stick and her son Edgar, and as a result of their spiteful and unpleasant ways, the five run away to Kirrin Island, and find themselves in the middle of a breath-taking adventure!

This is the first time I have revisited one of my Desert Island Books and haven’t loved it as much as I did when I first read it. I think this is probably a reflection of the fact that The Famous Five are a product of their time, and that time is long past. The world is unrecognisable from the one Enid Blyton was writing about, and the whole story just seems totally improbable. Plus, I’m now looking at these children through the eyes of a mother, who finds them insufferable, rather than a child who is envious of their adventures!

It was always a strange idea that four children aged mid-teens and under would be allowed to just disappear off for weeks on end, roaming the countryside, chasing criminals that have evaded the police with their wily ways, but prove no match for the fabulous Famous Five, and then the police fall over themselves in gratitude. What a self-satisfied and annoying bunch of ‘prigs’ they are, why did I love them so much that my copies are battered to death?

Well, because I never saw any of this when I was a pre-teen myself, I just envied the freedom and excitement and adventure. This book is the epitome of all that – the Five take off for their own private island, with a castle, a wreck and a cave, no one cares, and they foil a kidnapping so cleverly and smugly that I now just want to look them all in the dungeon in which they imprison Edgar and throw away the key. When I was 11, I desperately wanted to go and live in that cave with them for a week, eat sardines and drink ‘lashings of ginger beer’ (which I don’t think I’ve ever tasted to this day.)

I wonder why other books from my childhood have stood the test of time, despite being set in equally alien worlds to mine, and this one hasn’t. I am no longer surprised that my children can’t relate to these favourites from my childhood as they have others, I no longer can either. I’ll still hang on to them for sentimental reasons though, because no series fed in to my love of reading the way the Famous Five novels did, they are a major foundation stone of where I am today.

You can buy a copy of Five Run Away Together for yourself here.

About the Author

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Enid Blyton is one of the most popular children’s authors of all time. Her books have sold over 500 million copies and have been translated into other languages more often than any other children’s author.

Enid Blyton adored writing for children. She wrote over 700 books and about 2,000 short stories. The Famous Five books, now 75 years old, are her most popular. She is also the author of other favourites including The Secret Seven, The Magic Faraway Tree, Malory Towers and Noddy.

Born in London in 1897, Enid lived much of her life in Buckinghamshire and loved dogs, gardening and the countryside. She was very knowledgeable about trees, flowers, birds and animals. Dorset – where some of the Famous Five’s adventures are set – was a favourite place of hers too.

Enid Blyton’s stories are read and loved by millions of children (and grown-ups) all over the world.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Nesting by C. J. Cooke #BookReview

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A house stands alone in the woods.

Deep in the forests of Norway, Lexi finds a fresh start with Tom and his two young daughters, working as their new nanny.

The darkness creeps closer.

But Lexi is telling lies, and she’s not the only one. This family has a history – and this place has a past. Something was destroyed to build this house, and in the dark, dark woods, a menacing presence lurks.

Lexi must protect the children in her care – but protect them from what?

Challenge number 9 was ‘Read a book that is on the TBR of a Fiction Cafe Member.’ As The Nesting by C. J. Cooke was on the TBR of Charlene Mattson, and also on my NetGalley shelf, it seemed like the obvious choice. Two birds, one stone and all that. I actually listened to the audiobook, narrated by Aysha Kala, which is a great option if you are considering it. The narration was excellent.

This book is a really interesting mix of gothic fairytale, environmental parable and exploration of depression. It is dreamy and ethereal and dark and scary, and surreal all at the same time. The threads are so tightly and cleverly woven together by the author that, even by the end, you won’t be quite sure what is real and what has been a dream.

The book is told through the voices of a number of people. Troubled Lexi, running from her demons and her problems, finds herself hiding out in Norway, pretending to be someone she isn’t in an effort to find a life better than the one she has been living. Tom, battling the forces of nature in a remote Norwegian forest to balance building his beloved wife’s dream holiday home with protecting this unspoilt wilderness. And Aurelia, feeling isolated in the aftermath of her second daughter’s birth and haunted by the ghosts of the Norwegian forest. Each of them experiences supernatural events in the dark, Norwegian forest and the remote fjord, but which are real, and which are products of troubled minds.

The dive into Norwegian folklore and stories was the part that most drew me to this book, because anything along those lines fascinates me. I loved the way that the author wove them in to the narrative of the novel, and used them to make commentary on the impact of human beings on the planet and its non-human inhabitants without being preachy. It was also a clever way to explore why we are drawn to stories of darkness to explain things that we are afraid to confront inside ourselves.

Aside from these themes, this is just a cracking good story that is a compelling read. What is actually happening out there in the Norwegian forest? What is Aurelia really experiencing, and what is just a result of the problems that can afflict women after child birth that can go unnoticed and unrecognised by those around her? Is Lexi’s past going to come back to haunt her? Is Tom everything he seems to be? I was eager every time to get back to listening to the book, and it made some mundane chores seem a lot less arduous, I was so engrossed.

The Nesting is a great book for anyone who loves the gothic and the mythic, but also for anyone interested in the human brain and the things it can do for us when we are thrown off balance. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will definitely be recommending it to a few friends.

The Nesting is out now in all formats and you can buy it here.

About the Author

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C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film.

Connect with Carolyn:

Website: https://carolynjesscooke.com/

Facebook: C J Cooke Books

Twitter: @CJessCooke

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett #BookReview

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The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

I am so behind with the reading and reviews for this challenge but I am determined to catch up! So today I am reviewing the book I chose for the eighth category in the challenge, ‘Read a book by a BAME author’ and the book I have chosen is one of the top books from 2020, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

(For those with very eagle eyes, I have missed out category seven, I know. I had to stop reading the book I chose for that category part way through because of the demands of blog tour books and haven’t had chance to go back to it yet. It’s coming soon, I promise!)

This book is an eye-opening exploration of what it meant to grow up in the segregated south of the US in the 1950s and the practice of ‘passing,’ where light-skinned people of colour would pass themselves off as white to avoid the stigma and hardship inflicted on their community. The lengths that people would go to, the sacrifices they were prepared to make, and the consequences of these decisions that echo down the generations are all addressed in this novel with tenderness, understanding and compassion in a book that is beautiful and illuminating but deeply melancholy to read.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are identical twins growing up in the small Southern town of Mallard, where being a light-skinned person of colour is revered and those with darker-skin are shunned. Both sisters leave the town for New Orleans, but then their paths diverge. Desiree later returns to Mallard with her daughter, who has very dark skin, whilst Stella lives as a white woman, having to hide her real self from everyone around her, including her own daughter. However, order is disrupted and secrets come to light when the cousins unexpectedly meet.

This book examines in detail the idea of transformation. Aside from Stella, there are other characters in the book who start off as one thing and, through determination and force of will, morph and mould themselves into something different, all for different reasons. The author looks at how these metamorphoses are viewed by the people around them, and how being true to yourself, your identity, ambitions and desires, can alienate you from the people you love. Are these sacrifices worth it? Which course has made the person happiest in the end? What does it mean to really be true to oneself? How does it feel to hate the body you were born in? To be persecuted for merely being who you are?

The author’s writing is absolutely stunning, and I thought she explored every facet of the story and the themes with real care and deep thought, which provoked the same reaction in me, as the reader. The book is s slow, gentle but demanding read, not one which is full of action and startling event. It is entirely character-focused, which I loved but I know does not appeal to everyone. The themes addressed are complex, sometime controversial and make for an uneasy emotional reaction. It was a book that left me examining my thoughts and feelings on the issues for a long while afterwards, and I know it is a book that will linger in the back of my mind for a long while, and one I will probably return to soon. I listened to it as an audiobook – the narrator did a great job – and I fully intend to return to it again in physical format to see if there is more I can get from it.

I understand fully why this book has been the hit it has and why it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction. A memorable and accomplished novel that really rewards and provoked the reader.

The Vanishing Half is out now in all formats and you can find your copy here or at all good book shops.

About the Author

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Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Connect with Brit:

Website: https://britbennett.com/

Facebook: Brit Bennett Writes

Twitter: @britrbennett

Instagram: @britrbennett

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Desert Island Children’s Books: Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

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Next up in my nostalgic romp through my favourite childhood books is one of three books that I used to take out repeatedly from Askern Library in my formative years. I had this book out on loan so often that I doubt any other child in the vicinity had chance to read it. The book is the marvellous Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers.

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When the Banks family advertise for a nanny, Mary Poppins and her talking umbrella appear out of the sky, ready to take the children on extraordinary adventures.

Mary Poppins is strict but fair, and soon Michael and Jane are whisked off to a funfair inside a pavement picture and on many more outings with their wonderful new nanny!

Needless to say, when at last ‘the wind changes’ and she flies away, the children are devastated. But the magic of Mary Poppins will stay with the Banks family forever.

I’m guessing many of you will only know Mary Poppins from the Disney movie and will not have read the original book by P. L. Travers. Whilst I do love the Disney version, Walt’s version of Mary Poppins is a lot more saccharine than the character originally written by Travers. Travers’ literary Mary Poppins is much sterner, much more acerbic and much more vain than the character portrayed by Julie Andrews on screen. One look from the paper version of Poppins and any child, or adult, would be quaking in their boots, and she was extremely quick to take offence. For some reason, this stronger, prickly, complicated character was much more appealing to me as a child, and now still as an adult, than the watered down version we see in the movie.

In addition, Disney appears to have picked out the less exciting escapades the children have than the other ones featured in the book, and taken poetic licence with them too. In the movie – and the blurb above – the children take a trip into a chalk picture and ride the carousel. In the movie, the horses then jump off the carousel and enter a horse race. In the book, only Mary Poppins and Bert jump into the picture, the horses stay firmly attached to the carousel and there are no penguins to be seen in this scene! When the children go to ‘Feed The Birds,’ they don’t bring down their father’s bank, and there is no dancing with sweeps across the London rooftops. I can understand why Disney picked the scenes he did to include, the story in the book is much less linear and does not really form a complete story arc for a movie, but for me, the encounter with Mrs Corry and her giant daughters, and the finale escapade in the nighttime zoo are much more interesting to read. I think my point is, if you think you know Mary Poppins from the movie, you don’t. The literary Mary Poppins is a horse of a different, and much more interesting, colour altogether.

What people also may not be aware of is that Mary Poppins is only the first book in a series. After her initial visit, Mary Poppins returns to the Banks household several times, always arriving by a different method, always taking the children on exciting adventures, before disappearing unexpectedly. I devoured all of the books in the series, and was fascinated by the way the author’s mind worked in coming up with the different stories. Want to take a romp through the constellations? Chat to statues? Find out what Noah’s descendants are up to now? All of these things are described by Travers in the subsequent Mary Poppins books and they are stories that have stayed with me through the years. Although I have not had time yet, I fully intend to revisit the remaining books in the series this year. If you want to know the real Mary Poppins and not the Disney version, you might like to pick them up too.

Mary Poppins is available in a number of different editions but you can buy this one here.

About the Author

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Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE (born Helen Lyndon Goff; 9 August 1899 – 23 April 1996) was an Australian-British writer who spent most of her career in England.[1] She is best known for the Mary Poppins series of children’s books, which feature the magical nanny Mary Poppins.

Goff was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and grew up in the Australian bush before being sent to boarding school in Sydney. Her writing was first published when she was a teenager, and she also worked briefly as a professional Shakespearean actress. Upon immigrating to England at the age of 25, she took the name “Pamela Lyndon Travers” and adopted the pen name “P. L. Travers” in 1933 while writing the first of eight Mary Poppins books.

Travers travelled to New York City during World War II while working for the British Ministry of Information. At that time, Walt Disney contacted her about selling to Walt Disney Productions the rights for a film adaptation of Mary Poppins. After years of contact, which included visits to Travers at her home in London, Walt Disney did obtain the rights and the Mary Poppins film premiered in 1964.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane #BookReview

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In the wake of tragedy, two sisters have to piece their family back together…

Grace never thought she’d have to return home to Floral Street. Having spent most of her life building a successful career in London, she’s done everything she possibly can to avoid the flower stall that’s been in her family for generations. But when tragedy hits, she’s got no choice. It’s time to face the demons of the past and support her family.

Faith has returned home after years travelling the world. The baby of the family, she always struggled to find her place. She thought that her life would be different after a trip across the globe, but as she settles back into life in her childhood room she has to come to terms with the fact her life isn’t quite what she expected. And she has no way of getting out of the rut she finds herself in.

Faith and Grace have never seen eye-to-eye, always clashing, never forgiving. But they might just find a way to understand one another, to fight their way through their grief and come out stronger. By opening up, they’ll discover they aren’t so different at all. And family will always be there for you.

Category six of The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge was ‘Read a book by an author with the same name as your best friend.’ Now, this caused me a bit of a dilemma as I have a number of close friends and didn’t want to offend the others by naming any one of them ‘best.’ So I chose the name of my first best friend at senior school who moved to Cornwall after a year and who I haven’t seen since 1984! It also allowed me to tick a book off my NetGalley list, so it was win-win. The book I picked was The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane.

I am ashamed that this book has been languishing on my TBR for so long, because I have loved Jane’s previous two books. This one was another great piece of women’s fiction, that spoke to me on a personal level, dealing as it does with the relationship between three sisters. As someone who is the eldest of four girls, and who counts her sisters as her closest friends as well as siblings, the dynamics of relationships between sisters is always something I am interested in seeing explored in a novel.

In this book, two of the sisters have remained close, despite the fact that the eldest left home at a young age after become largely estranged from their father. The youngest sister has been away travelling and her return to the family home marks a period of upheaval for them all, that culminates in a family tragedy that changes them all forever, and has the power to push them all apart or pull them back together.

In this novel, Jane has drawn a truly authentic and believable family dynamic that plays out honestly on the page. I felt that each of the characters, and their relationship to one another, were beautifully realised and explored and I could really relate to all of them. Despite my own closeness to my sisters, the tensions and rivalries between the three girls were very recognisable to me; with the best will in the world every family has difficulties and areas of friction, and the way each of the sisters interpreted events differently depending on their position and role within the family was all too familiar!

As the eldest, Grace was the one to whom I most related. I recognise that feeling of responsibility and having the weight of sorting out the family’s issues and taking on its burdens, whilst the younger sisters have a much more carefree existence. I am sure my sisters would argue that the younger girls have their own crosses to bear, and would recognise themselves more in Hope or Faith, which is the genius of Jane’s drawing of the characters!

The story centres around the family’s flower stall business, and its future in the wake of the tragedy and the shockwaves of its aftermath and, in this regard, it is a tight, small story that could be happening to any family up and down the country today and, in fact, in the wake of so many losses suffered by so many families in the last twelve months, many of the issues explored will be painful and relevant to a lot of people at the moment. In this regard, the book will speak to a lot of people and touch many of us with its message. This is a book that takes a step beyond a typical women’s fiction novel.

I really enjoyed this book. It is a novel with a big heart and a gentle exploration of issues that will have touched most of us in some way at some point in our lives. I would be surprised if there is anyone who can’t find some recognisable experience or emotion in its pages. Well worth reading.

The Little Shop on Floral Street is out now in ebook and paperback formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Jane has reached the age now where she no longer tells people her age! She’s old enough to legally be able to do everything and that’s all that matters. Secrets & Tea at Rosie Lee’s is Jane’s debut novel. Born and brought up in London’s East End, she now lives in Lincolnshire with her family. Thankfully she recently discovered the joys of mail order pie, mash & liquor, so she can relive her youth anytime she feels like it!

Although writing stories was something that Jane had always done, she never thought anyone would pay her to do it so she focused on learning to act instead, figuring that this was a much more reliable way to earn a living. Sadly, her career as an actress was shortlived, actually it was non-existent, so she turned her attention to another reliable line of work – Cable Television! This was where Jane managed to finally get paid (badly!) doing something she enjoyed – writing. She began with scripts for a series all about Serial Killers (imaginatively entitled ‘Serial Killers’) and then moved on to a series of history documentaries. This series never saw the light of day in the UK but Jane has been informed that it used be very popular with insomniacs staying in hotels in the Far East. This may or may not be true.

Jane’s latest book, The Little Shop on Floral Street, is out now and returns to the familiar East London streets where the author grew up.

Connect with Jane:

Facebook: Jane Lacey-Crane

Twitter: @JaneLaceyCrane

Instagram: @janelaceycrane

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