Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

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H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give a book for Christmas- an annual gift guide

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When it comes to buying gifts, I’ve become stuck in a very pleasant rut- my number one choice will always be a book and compiling my regular biblio-gift guides will always be one of my very favourite things to do. So here’s the latest and whether you are buying for Hanukah, Christmas, Diwali or for no reason at all, I hope you’ll find something to please you from my selection of wonders, both newly published and a few older classics.

Culinary words-

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 Essential Turkish Cuisine by Engin Akin is a timely reminder of a country, culture and cuisine possessed of riches, magnificence and generosity of spirit. “Turkish cuisine marries palace finesse with rugged nomadic traditions” explains Engin Akin as she folds and pleats delicate boreki pastries and the reader is taken on a magical and thorough exploration of the way that geography and culture has influenced what is eaten, by whom and in what way. Engin owns a cooking school in Ula and this means her recipes are well tested and possess cultural veracity. They work.

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This Autumn has seen the release of cookbooks by Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, an embarrassment of riches indeed. Simply Nigella was reviewed more extensively here but, simply put,  Lawson had to ‘cook herself strong’ and this new cookbook is testimony to how she achieved this. We are witness to the rebuilding of a life and kitchen via her usual well tested, humorous and alluring recipes which are liberally scattered with useful micro-recipes and tips to help you eat well. Slater’s latest in his kitchen diaries series, A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III reflects the “endless delight I get from giving people, loved ones, friends, complete strangers, something good to eat” as he stated. His recipes are understated, economical of word and deeply reflective of seasonal time and place, collated into a diary form recipe per day structure.

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Creole Kitchen

Creole Kitchen by Vanessa Bolosier is fabulous in every way from the fabulous jacket design to the recipes and words which tell of joy, brightness and life. Her cuisine is drenched in history and is birthed from the ancestry and migration of island people. Starting with an explanation of the term ‘Creole’, Vanessa tells their story and then instructs us as to how best to equip a kitchen Creole style. These are perfect little vignettes in themselves and we then move onto the recipes and a pattern emerges of bold bright flavours infused with a sophistication born from the authors skill and ability. Bolosier has a Guadeloupian, Martinique Creole background, worked as a model and moved to London where she now runs a food company, cooking school and supper club so she makes a great mentor.

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Not a cookbook but containing some recipes which are closely tied to its story, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal is a mother and daughter coming of age novel set against the food and culture of the American Midwest. We meet Eva, grower of chilli peppers in her wardrobe, effectively an orphan and now looked after by her aunt and uncle. Eva is heart and soul of a story which both skewers and celebrates the emerging global food culture and plays with opposites, placing the authentic (Eva) against those who posture, postulate and pontificate about food in a totally unauthentic manner. Eva is destined to sing through food, becoming a culinary goddess and this lovely novel tells her story and that of the people she meets along the way.

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The revival of old homesteader crafts such as pickling, fermenting and smoking has resulted in a slew of books showing us how to do this safely because ignorance of hygiene (among other factors) can result in some pretty nasty consequences. And that is where Olympia Provisions by Elias Cairo and Meredith Erickson comes in because although it is an American book, the meat preserving techniques it demonstrates are universal. There’s a great balance between the European origins of a lot of the charcuterie and recipes that show the American versions of such- the frankfurters, sausage, salami and confits that have made their store and restaurant so popular.

Inspired by jägermeisters, the charcuterie makers who smoke, cure, and can animals that they’ve hunted or raised on their farm which the author met during her 4 year apprenticeship in the Swiss Alps (before the opening of Olympic Provisions, known as OP), this is a hearty, muscular exploration of the craft. Illustrated with stunning shots of places, food and people the book is not just a coffee table tome for those of us *thinking* about *one day* curing our own meats, it is a call to action because it balances the glossy aspirational aspects of food writing with the practical how to side that is vital in ensuring readers actually get off their butts and DO it.

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For those of you who like cookbooks inspired by hot new restaurants, the following books should provide you with plenty of inspiration.  Nanban: Japanese Soul Food by Tim Anderson is a sensory delight with bold recipes and unexpected flavours and ingredients by a Masterchef winner. His take on Japanese cuisine resulted in a restaurant from which these recipes are based whilst the restaurant Hartwood in the Mexican Yucatan inspired the eponymous Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry. Hartwood cooks with local ingredients over an open flame, on the grill or in a wood-burning oven. The fish is all freshly caught from nearby waters, the produce is purchased from Mayan farmers, and technique marries the eclectic with timeless ancestral methodology.

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The Brodo Cookbook was written by Marco Canora who has been the owner and Executive Chef at Hearth Restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village since its opening in 2003. After revitalizing his health by integrating bone broth into his diet, Marco began to make his nourishing broths available by the cupful to New Yorkers from a small window in his East Village restaurant, drawing sell-out crowds virtually from the beginning. No longer just a building block for soups and sauces, bone broths are now being embraced for these perceived health benefits and in Brodo, Marco shares the recipes for his flavorful, nutritious broths and shows how to serve them year round as well as incorporate them into recipes and as a daily health practice. For those people interested in perfecting technique, this is the perfect book.

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The appeal of a cookbook starts with the words and images for many of us and although it is highly likely that many purchasers of Sea and Smoke by Willows Inn chef Blaine Wetzel, Joe Ray and photographer Charity Burggraaf, might not cook from it, judging a cookbook by this kind of misses the point. The descriptions of food are wistful and beautiful: A broth of roasted Madrona bark,” “Nootka rose petals and salmonberries” and serve as jewelled treasure map to the tiny Lummi Island, a few hours north of Seattle, which can only be reached by an open-air ferry. Ray spent a year here and his words capture the four distinct seasons of Pacific Northwest cuisine without losing any of its wildness, spirit and fleeting beauty.

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If you are a fan of everyday French cooking, In a French Kitchen: tales and traditions of everyday home cooking in France by the author of the now-classic memoir, “On Rue Tatine” Susan Hermann Loomis will keep you comforted entertained and informed. Loomis introduces the reader to the busy people of Louviers, the ingredients available locally and what to do with them. Eighty five recipes and a multiplicity of stories later, Loomis learns that delicious, even decadent meals don’t have to be complicated. Definitely one to read on the darkest of winter evenings, curled up by the fire with a glass of wine: I first read her back in the very late eighties when I was learning to cook for my family and she has been a reliable and warm companion ever since.

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For the sweet toothed among you, Sweeter Off the Vine: fruit desserts for every season by Yosy Arefi will provide you with a collection of heirloom-quality recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, ice cream, preserves, and other sweet treats. From raspberry pink peppercorn sorbet, ruby red rhubarb pavlova, juicy apricots and berry galettes with saffron sugar to blood orange donuts and tangerine cream pie, Arefi shows us how to incorporate seasonal ingredients with the more exotic (such as rose and orange flower water from her native Iran), all photographed sumptuously by her.

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The publication of the Groundnut Cookbook followed a successful Guardian Cook residency where authors Timothy Duval, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fidio Todd wowed readers with their witty, fresh and culturally intriguing collection of recipes. From Jollof Rice, Butterbean Terrine and Pork in Tamarind to Cardamom Mandazi, Yorkshire Pudding with Mango Curd and Puna Yam Cake, the clear instructions, easily sourced ingredients and sumptuous photography will ensure you’ll cook from it again and again.

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Finally, if you have a small child keen to get involved in cooking, then this lovely picture book which focuses upon all those lovely festive scents will make a perfect post lunch read. The Sweet Smell of Christmas is about Little Bear who knows that Christmas is nearly here because of all the amazing scents floating in the air. From soft gingerbread men to sweet mint candy, there are so many smells to accompany the festivities; it’s hard to choose a favourite. The book contains six different scratch-and-sniff scents, so kids can interact with the story and smell some of the things that Little Bear smells too. And for older kids, teens and adults who like a bit of GBBO style creativity, The Great British Cake Off by Harriet Popham will encourage them to put sprinkles and cake tin aside and pick up a pencil in order to tackle over seventy colouring in designs. Beautiful illustrations of favourite cakes and bakes are just waiting to be brought to life alongside colouring ‘technical challenges’ to push you just that little bit harder.

Words of Adventure, art and history

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Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in Atlas of Cursed Places.  Accompany him to 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death, including the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most ‘popular’ suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.

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In Sidewalking, David L. Ulin offers a compelling inquiry into the evolving landscape of Los Angeles. Part personal narrative, part investigation of the city as both idea and environment, Sidewalking is many things: a discussion of Los Angeles as urban space, a history of the city’s built environment, a meditation on the author’s relationship to the city, and a rumination on the art of urban walking and psychogeography. Exploring Los Angeles through the soles of his feet, Ulin gets at the experience of its street life, drawing from urban theory, pop culture, and literature. For readers interested in the culture of Los Angeles, this book offers a pointed look beneath the surface in order to see, and engage with, the city on its own terms.

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Paul Theroux turns his travelling eye on America’s Deep South in his latest eponymous book and this well seasoned traveller of over five decades roams through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Alabama then wades through the slow moving bayous, low country rice fields and marshy Delta backwaters, all of them way below the Mason Dixon Line and still haunted by Mr Crow’s ugly decision. This is a place which is still chained to the past: from older people who cling to the misnomer ‘the war of Northern aggression’ to the problems with who ‘can’ use the ‘N’ word, to multiple losses of industry to ‘abroad’. The book relates the sum total of four trips over eighteen months as opposed to a single linear voyage of discovery and for that reason, the reader has a sense of thoughts revised and cumulative impressions laying on top of each other like the leaves of a book. Yet there is the other side of the South too: the literature and music which Theroux writes of; the food, and hospitality, We go to potlucks and dinners on the ground with Theroux, we see the gun fairs and football and febrile religious observances which divide as much as they enjoin. This is not an especially cheerful book but how could it be? Much of what we believe about the South is not yet a cliche but what we end up with is still a fascinating, frustrating and haunting account of one of the worlds most culturally distinctive places.

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For cycling fans, What Goes Around by Emily Chappell, is an exhilarating and well written account of the life of a cycle courier in London. We experience vicariously, her six years of pain and pleasure-both mental and physical-of life on wheels: the hurtling, dangerous missions; the ebb and flow of seasonal work; the moments of fear and freedom, anger and exhaustion; the camaraderie of the courier tribe and its idiosyncratic characters; the conflict and harmony between bicycle and road, body and mind. I feel in turns, both frightened for her and envious of her unique bikes eye view of the city.

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Near the top of Mount Everest, on 10 May 1996, eight climbers died. It was the worst tragedy in the mountain’s history and Lou Kasischke was there. After the Wind tells the harrowing story of what went wrong, as it has never been told before – including why the climbers were so desperately out of time as the rogue storm struck. His personal story tells about the intense moments near the top and these moments also revealed the love story that saved his life.

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Long evenings are pefect for getting to grips with a good historical biography and Cleopatra by Ernle Bradford takes a more balanced view of the last Ptolemaic Queen whom history has traduced and maligned as an infamous woman, given to sexual excess and capable of every perfidy. Bradford depicts her as a woman of infinite courage and political resource who, from the age of eighteen until her death, fought to free her country from the iron dominance of Rome and to secure its inheritance for the son of her first lover Julius Caesar. It was right that she should be buried in Alexandria, for in her spirit and in her ambition she was worthy of Alexander himself. The subject of biography and tragedy, Queen Cleopatra remains a subject to which historians are attracted two thousand years after her glorious but doomed life.

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What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  is the perfect book for any science enthusiast with a penchant for big questions and a side of humour. What if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, complemented by signature xkcd comics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with updated and expanded versions of the most popular answers from the xkcd website.

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For those of you hooked on Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire is an in-depth history of the Seven Kingdoms, sumptuously detailed to clear up any gaps in knowledge. We go from one world peopled with thrones, swords and fantastical themes to another with our next choice because many of us have grown up with tales of glass slippers, evil queens, and magic spells, but where did they come from and what inspired them? Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale explores these famous stories, their origins, and their modern film, literature, and stage adaptations. In addition, if you are studying literature or have a child in the middle of an English GCSE course, this is such a useful contextual read.

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There are days so crepuscular, wet and cold that even the most dedicated gardener will baulk at going out in them: this is the time to curl up with Dear Christo: memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter by Rosemary Alexander, a lovely commemoration of a book where well known  garden writers and celebrities such as Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord, Helen Dillon, Hugh Johnson, Simon Jenkins and Mary Keen remark upon their memories of Great Dixter and the great man who gardened here. Or escape the cold by taking yourself off on an imaginative odyssey and literary exploration of Sicily in the capable hands of John Julius Norwich. “Sicily,” said Goethe, “is the key to everything.” It is the largest island in the Mediterranean, the stepping-stone between Europe and Africa, the link between the Latin West and the Greek East. Sicily’s strategic location has tempted Roman emperors, French princes, and Spanish kings. The subsequent struggles to conquer and keep it have played crucial roles in the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful dynasties. Sicily: an island at the crossroads of history is the first to knit together all of the colourful strands of Sicilian history into a single comprehensive study.

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If you are looking for another peaceful, meditative and thoughtful space inside the pages of a book then The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury will please: it has been one of the best books I have read all year and destined to be re-read. Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent. Raised by loving adoptive parents, she grew into a wanderer, drawn by the beauty of the British countryside. One summer, following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine sets out – accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions and what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

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Wood has provided a worthy subject for this years surprise runaway bestseller: Norwegian Wood: chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way by Lars Mytting, so when we found Robert Penn had written a lovely book about using ash wood to create a myriad of items, we had to suggest it as a worthy companion. Ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history so Penn decided to fell one and see how many things he could make from it. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Penn finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood and reading it is deeply calming.

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If you have a Wes Anderson film buff in your home then what better gift to give than this? The Wes Anderson Collection is the first in-depth overview of Anderson’s filmography, guiding readers through his life and career. Previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera complement a book-length conversation between Anderson and award-winning critic Matt Zoller Seitz. The interview and images are woven together in an intricately designed book that captures the spirit of his films: melancholy and playful, wise and childish and thoroughly original. And for those of you who appreciate the art of a great interview, The Smith Tapes by Howard Smith gathers together the best of this journalists revealing interviews with the likes of Jagger, Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol. Unedited transcripts are published here for the first time in all their counter cultural glory.

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Other people’s letters are always fascinating and in this digital age, the epistolary arts risk being lost to us all. Feast upon Letters of Note then, a gorgeously designed collection of over one hundred of the world’s most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the popular website of the same name – an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

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From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression ‘OMG’ in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi’s appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

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At a time of busy domesticity, this next book might seem like an odd and possibly even insensitive choice after weeks of gift shopping, turkey stuffing and tree decorating, but Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson makes riveting reading. Giving voice to women at a time when domestic politics often rendered them unheard, the pain, lack of fulfilment and frustration behind the popular image of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores and kept themselves and their home immaculate is revealed. Betty Halbreich is a legendary New York City figure and I’ll Drink to That, her amazing life story is also in development by Lena Dunham for HBO. Halbeich is a personal shopper and stylist and now in her eighties, she has spent nearly forty years at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman, working with socialites, stars and ordinary women. She has led many to appreciate their real selves through clothes, frank advice and her unique brand of wisdom; she is trusted by the most discriminating persons – including Hollywood’s top stylists – to tell them what looks best. But her own transformation from cosseted girl to fearless truth-teller is the greatest makeover of all, best read in this wonderful autobiography.

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If you need to ramp up your personal grooming or feel you are floundering when it comes to the make up arts, then Face Paint by top makeup artist Lisa Eldridge will become your friend. This glossy history of cosmetics from the early days of bodily adornment to the present day machinations of the giant beauty industry is explored by a pro who is also known for her excellent YouTube beauty vlogs and practical down to earth assistance.

Fiction

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From Jane Lotter comes The Bette Davis Club, a madcap road adventure with Margo, a spirited woman in the prime of life whose adventures are triggered by a double martini on the morning of her niece’s wedding.

When the young bride flees—taking with her a family heirloom and leaving behind six hundred bewildered guests—her mother offers Margo fifty grand to retrieve her spoiled brat of a daughter and the invaluable property she stole. So, together with the bride’s jilted and justifiably crabby fiancé, Margo sets out in a borrowed 1955 red MG on a cross-country chase. Along the way, none of what she discovers will be quite what she expected. But it might be exactly what she’s been seeking all along.

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I’m always pleased by fiction set in less familiar places and in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma we meet Renuka Sharma, a dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law holding the fort in a modest rental in Delhi while her husband tries to rack up savings in Dubai. Working as a receptionist and committed to finding a place for her family in the New Indian Dream of air-conditioned malls and high paid jobs at multi-nationals, life is going as planned until the day she strikes up a conversation with an uncommonly self-possessed stranger at a Metro station. Because while Mrs Sharma may espouse traditional values, India is changing all around her, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if she came out of her shell a little, would it? A new voice in Indian fiction, Ratika Kapur writes with an equal dose of humour and pathos and her novel is a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity.

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Secrets and family estrangement lie at the heart of Kelly Romo’s Whistling Women, set against the backdrop of the 1935 World Fair in San Diego, a city where everything went terribly awry for Addie Bates. This is all the more heartbreaking because of the tentative hopes Addie had about a new start as she arrived there from the Kansas orphanage she had previously lived in before travelling to live with her newly married sister, Wavey. Years later, Addie flees to the Sleepy Valley Nudist Colony which provided her with a safe haven for her for 15 years, until she starts to realise that the loss of her more nubile younger body will cause the colonies owner, Heinrick, to eject her. Addie must make her way in a world for which she is ill equipped to live in and following the example of some of the other colony performers, she realises that family is her best hope.

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A little bit of horror doesn’t go amiss in the Winter either and the stunning ‘lost’ horror novel of the late William Gay is deeply unsettling.  Little Sister Death is inspired by the famous 19th Century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee and follows the unraveling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to try and find inspiration for his faltering work. There’s no irony or post modern trickery in Gay’s novel: it is a classic Haunted House tale and written by a master of the genre.

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Horror and confusion of a more contemporary kind in Tim Washburn‘s Powerless where a massive geomagnetic solar storm destroys every power grid in the northern hemisphere. North America is without lights, electricity, phones, and navigation systems. In one week, the human race is flung back to the Dark Ages. This is something many of us contemplate: can we manage without the sophisticated and interrelated technological matrixes we’ve become dependent upon? Only one man–army veteran Zeke Marshall–is prepared to handle a nightmare like this. But when he tries to reunite with his family he discovers there are worse things in life than war. And there are terrible and unthinkable things he’ll have to do to survive.

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Just out in cinemas is Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and this book which was first published by the London Review of Books has been re-released. In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years. Altogether darker in tone is David Mitchell’s Slade House which was born out of the short story he published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabits the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks. 

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Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. More mysteries abound in the newly published The Master of the Prado by Javier Sierra as he takes readers on a grand tour of the Prado museum in this historical novel that illuminates the fascinating mysteries behind European art—complete with gorgeous, full-color inserts of artwork by da Vinci, Boticelli, and other master artists. Historical figures are brought to life and dazzling secrets, conspiracies and prophecies hidden within artistic masterpieces are uncovered in this intriguing story.

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I loved Purge, the earlier novel by Sofi Oksanen and her latest, When the Doves Disappeared ( translated by Lola Rogers) doesn’t disappoint. Her plot is fast paced and explores Estonia’s terrible wartime history of mass human displacement, collaboration and occupation, shining a light upon a part of the world which is often neglected by writings about the Second World War. The translation is superb too. Another well translated novel is A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman which became a sleeper hit over the late Summer via word of mouth. The titular Ove is a cantankerous Swedish misanthrope, constantly cross and combative with neighbours, shop assistants and everything, to be honest. But beneath this gruff exterior is a decent man with a generous spirit. Read and smile as he becomes an unexpected saviour to the unfortunates who come his way.

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Finally, 2015 saw us saying goodbye and thank you to Jackie Collins who died far too soon of breast cancer. In tribute to a writer who kept me entertained and helped to educate me about what kind of men I needed to avoid, I’ll be rereading two of her novels: Hollywood Wives and Lovers and Gamblers, both classics of the sex, shopping and backstabbing genre. The former provides hours of fun trying to identify the thinly disguised real life Hollywood people who inspired her characters and the latter is a romp involving beauty queens. a male hero who is a priapic hybrid of Tom Jones and Rod Stewart and a plane crash in the South American jungle. Enjoy.

Seasonally themed books

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Christmas themed books are a yearly tradition in our house and the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is where we recommend you start. Scrooge actively hates Christmas and he’s not shy about spreading his misanthropy. A timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remind him about life, love and priorities. Another favourite of mine is A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote and set in Alabama during the great depression. We meet seven-year-old Buddy whose parents leave him with relatives over Christmas whose gift-buying imagination doesn’t stretch to much more than a religious magazine subscription. His friendship with an elderly cousin saves the day as they both get drunk on whiskey, bake cakes and decorate trees after a muddy cold expedition to find one.

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For young children, Chris Judge’s The Snow Beast is jolly Christmas whodunnit because Beast has been robbed and so has the whole village. Without tools the villagers can’t put on their legendary Winter Festival, so Beast sets off to solve the mystery. Discovering that a stranded Snow Beast is behind the robbery, Beast has to decide whether to help this odd-looking stranger.

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For both children and adults, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss tells of the journey towards love, acceptance and forgiveness which the Grinch, whose heart is two sizes too small, undergoes, after stealing everyone’s gifts because he hates Christmas. Closer to home, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is based on his own experiences, growing up in a small Welsh town and ideal for reading aloud. Christmas in the country provided Laurie Lee with plenty to write about in Village Christmas, a moving, lyrical portrait of England through the changing years and seasons. Laurie Lee left his childhood home in the Cotswolds when he was nineteen, but it remained with him throughout his life until, many years later, he returned for good. This collection brings to life the sights, sounds, landscapes and traditions of his home – from centuries-old May Day rituals to his own patch of garden, from carol singing in crunching snow to pub conversations and songs.

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For those in need of humour after spending hours servicing the needs of others, the writings of humourist David Sedaris might do the trick of putting you back together again (along with a large gin). Holidays on Ice boasts six humorous short Christmas stories impregnated with the sardonic and darkly dry humour Sedaris is known for. If reading about such things as the banality of life working as a Christmas elf in Macys amuses you, because life could always be worse, this is the book for you. Known for her sardonic nature in real life, Fox in the Manger by  P.L Travers has been reissued in a whimsical new edition by Virago. This charming retelling of the Christmas story by the author of Mary Poppins. Printed on board, with beautiful illustrations, this will be the perfect gift book for Christmas.

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Finally, how can it be Christmas if someone hasn’t been murdered? Bring Poirot to the rescue with  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie or enjoy the recently reissued Mystery in White: a Christmas crime story by J Jefferson Farjeon who was highly acclaimed back in the day. Read on as heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near a tiny village, leaving passengers at the mercy of a murderer in the deserted home they shelter in. Good classic stuff.

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Thinking of buying a book as a gift? Here’s some suggestions

Sarah Horrigan
Photo by Sarah Horrigan via Morguefile

The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests,  I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location-  a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.

Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature. 

Food writing & cookery books

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My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.

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I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.

Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.

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‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’

Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.

The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’ features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.

Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo  or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.

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In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.

The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’ firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.

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Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the ‘World Atlas of Coffee’ by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky,  the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like  ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.

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One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.

I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendium by Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.

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My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food.  Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.

Children’s books

Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.

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The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.

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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’

It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale.  Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort,  supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?

The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’s Photicular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.

Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long. 

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Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.

Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’sThe Diddakoi is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her. Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.

Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults

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The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell, Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?

If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’  – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.

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In her book ‘Wild’, Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.

I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.

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Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s  classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.

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I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’ are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.

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‘Charming Package’ by Norman Rockwell, one of the paintings explored in Deborah Solomon’s book.

Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.

Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.

Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age
Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age

The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.

Fiction and short stories

Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.  If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.

‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?

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Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book,  we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel JoycesThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Brideis named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.

In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.

To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.

During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.

Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz- ‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’;  The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.

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Charlottes Web

And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adultsthe stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.

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Charlottes Web

Book shops in Norfolk

Holt Books, Holt

Crab Pot Books in Cley and Wells-Next-the-Sea

Jarrolds Books, Norwich

Ketts Books, Wymondham

Norfolk Children’s Books Centre, Aylsham

The Book Hive, Norwich

The Brazen Head Burnham Market

Book shops in Suffolk

Aldeburgh Book shop, Aldeburgh

Browsers, Woodbridge

Chapel Books, Saxmundham

Harris & Harris, Clare

Kestrel Bookshop, Sudbury

Landers, Long Melford

There are also branches of Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds (2), Southwold, Ipswich and Norwich.

Books to Help Children Cope with Loss

Incomprehensible to an adult, how on earth can we expect a child to get a handle on death and bereavement, especially when their parents and family may well be struggling themselves? These books are not a substitute for loving human contact and explanations (no matter how clumsy or incomplete these may be) but what they can do is provide a breathing space for grieving adults who might be struggling to put words to their pain. The child is helped to understand that death is universal through the written experiences of others and there are a myriad of ways by which we experience and understand it. And shared reading will help both parent and child to cope.

Sad Book by Michael Rosen 

 

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The pairing of two of Britain’s former Laureates, and chronicling Michael’s grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis when he was a teenager, this is a moving combination of honesty, sincerity and simplicity which acknowledges that sadness is not always avoidable or reasonable. We like this book because it makes those complicated feelings plain on the page, with the illustrations of Quentin Blake expressing that which cannot be communicated verbally- whether that be through the weight of pain or there being no words. It wasn’t made like any other book either; Michael Rosen said of the text, ” I wrote it at a moment of extreme feeling and it went straight down onto the page … Quentin didn’t illustrate it, he ‘realized’ it. He turned the text into a book and as a result showed me back to myself. No writer could ask and get more than that.” And Quentin Blake says that the picture of Michael “being sad but trying to look happy” is the most difficult drawing he’s ever done… “a moving experience.”

Children and their parents everywhere have grown up with the work of Michael Rosen. When bad things happen we turn to the familiar because it makes us feel a little safer in a world that has tilted on its axis and is less dependable as a result. To read the words of an author that we love and trust brings comfort and for us, that is this books greatest strength, even if it strikes us as grossly unfair that such pain should be visited on a man who has given us so much.

Duck, Death & the Tulip by  Wolf Erlbruch, Penelope Todd and Catherine Chidgey

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This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. The author,  Erlbruch is a much respected man in Germany and his subjects emerge from the less cosy side of childhood, a place filled with edgy creatures and difficult themes. You won’t find a fuzzy bunny or a little bear who can’t sleep in Duck, Death and the Tulip and the story is simple. A duck notices that she is being followed. She is scared stiff, and who can blame her, for her stalker is an eerie figure in a checked robe with a skull for a head.

Erlbruch gives the impression that he is incapable of sentimentality, but his drawings are delicate, beautiful and convey a sweet humour that helps us cope with the immensity of the subject. “You’ve come to fetch me?” asks the terrified Duck. But Death demurs, explaining that he has always been close at hand, in case of some mishap.

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death which is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence, eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock and there is something infinitely tender in the way Death strokes her ruffled feathers into place, lifts her body and places it gently in the river, watching as she drifts off into the distance. “For a long time he watched her. When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.”

Care is needed in the telling of this story because it could inspire nightmares in the more ruminative and sensitive child. We found it difficult; the depictions of death are not cosy although the comfort that death can bring to the old, the tired, the sick and the sick of it is acknowledged. Death comforts the dying duck and is comforting to those of us who can understand that life can be a burden- whether your child can grasp this is your call.

The Bear and the Wildcat by Kazumi Yumoto and Komako Sakai

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Bear is grieving for his little friend, Bird. He has gently laid him to rest in a box lined in the softest moss,leaves and feathers and has a desperate need to talk about Bird with his other friends but they all urge him to move on. Bear doesn’t want to and is not ready to move on either. He wants to both mourn and celebrate his friendship and feels isolated by his grief from his friends and from the World.

One day Bear meets a Wildcat sitting alone next to a violin shaped box and after asking about its contents, confides in Wildcat about Bird, “You must have loved Bird very much” is all Bear needs to hear to unlock the torrent of love, longing and memories inside him; memories illustrated beautifully by the vignettes of Bird’s life- a life well lived. The celebration and commemoration continues as Bear decorates Bird’s box with bright leaves as his new friendship grows and we see those vivid memories come to life. In this, children learn that eternal life can mean living on in the hearts and minds of those left behind, irrespective of religious belief.

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The messages in this book are wonderfully pragmatic, healing and heartbreaking for both parent and child. We are slowly guided to the realisation that memories must be cherished, celebrated in an every day manner and friendship never dies. Grieving is honourable and a new friendship is not a betrayal- it is part of honouring those that have gone before. Indeed we realise that the best way to love again is to have loved before.

We would recommend this as a supervised read for a child (and adult) who have recently endured loss and it will help stimulate age appropriate chats about feelings and experiences at a difficult time. The book also serves as useful preparation for pet owners, especially of creatures with short lives who provide our children with an early experience of loss.

The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic and Illustrated by Olivier Talliec

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We were most jolted by the  anger we felt when we lost our Grandfather so this book, dealing as it does with the anger of a little boy whose mother has died, is important in the way it represents a full range of human responses to death. The little boy is overwhelmed with sadness, anger and fear that he will forget his mother, shutting all the windows to keep in her familiar smell and scratching open the cut on his knee to help him recall her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad any more, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take – until she shows him another way to hold on to the feeling of his mum’s love. With tenderness, touches of humour and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive red-infused acrylic and pencil drawings.

Read it to yourself a few times before sharing with a child; while we advocate sharing feelings of pain and loss with your children, we advise being prepared first because the rage, pain and isolation of this little boy can be very hard to bear but so many children have reported finding this book a solace and realistic depiction of their own feelings that it is worth persevering with.

Still Here with Me: Teenagers and Children on Losing a Parent by Suzanne Sjoqvist

 This book is a moving and thoughtful anthology of the experiences of thirty-one children and teenagers who have lost a parent. In their own words, children and young people of a variety of ages talk openly and honestly about losing their mother or father. They describe feelings of pain, loss and anger, the struggle to cope with the embarrassed reactions and silence of others, and the difficulties involved in rebuilding their lives. They also share happy and loving memories of their parents, and talk about the importance of remembering while learning to accept their parent’s death. The accounts cover a variety of circumstances in which a parent died, including death from cancer, heart attack and involvement in an accident. Taboo experiences which are often avoided are also covered, including death through alcoholism, natural disaster, war, suicide, and domestic violence. The book displays a courageous and insightful group of children and young people who prove that it is possible to talk openly about these subjects without stigma. Still Here with Me will be a valuable source of information and comfort to young people who are struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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Illustration by Jim Kay

A simply stunning book for older readers that challenges the reader emotionally and intellectually- it deals with a child experiencing the death of their mother and spares nothing in its steadfast honesty and sensitivity. The story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy who is continually visited by a monster while his mother is dying, Patrick Ness has taken an original story from the gone too soon writer Siobhan Dowd, (who died of breast cancer at the age of 47) and produced a book most worthy of her. The monster – part wild yew tree, part giant man – tells the boy three stories. These confusing tales pale into comparison to the true monster in the home- the death of Conor’s beloved mother and the mystery of death, terrible in its unknowing-ness.

The hardback copy has illustrations by Jim Kay and these amplify the beauty and emotion of the text. Although you will be sliding down a wall, sobbing by the end of the book, it is a cathartic grief and so I would recommend this book for those months when people have ceased to acknowledge your loss or expect you to have ‘dealt with it’.

Fred by Posy Simmons

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We can never know all the details of somebodies life, no matter how close we are to them. Even if we are well acquainted with a persons biography, they will always have a secret inner life, that intrapersonal relationship that they hold very close and this book cleverly reminds us of this.

Fred is a family cat with owners who think he is the laziest cat in the world, but who knows what goes on after dark? The family and children grieve for Fred after his death and night after night, hear the mewing of cats in the garden “Meaow meaow, meoooo, oh waily waily woooo….” as they mourn the passing of the Fred they knew- a cat pop star with a secret life.

Using a comic strip format, we watch as Sophie and Nick join in the funeral celebrations with his friends and fans who have come far and wide to pay their respects to a very cool cat and, in the process, we see his owners learn all about the life of a cat they thought they knew. In this, the book proves a useful jumping off point to the idea that when somebody dies we all have our own relationship with that person, our own memories and together, they go some of the way towards true appreciation of a person and their life. None of us have true ownership of another loved one and understanding that we are not the only ones to grieve might help a sad child feel a little less alone in their bereavement.

Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson

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The guilt and anger felt by children when somebody they love dies are profoundly unsettling and frightening and in this superb book, Wilson ensures that Vicky, killed in a car accident, can also show anger at her own life being cut short. Jade, the friend left behind struggles with guilt, wondering if their argument triggered Vicky’s death- a classic display of magical thinking so common in children. Wilson personifies this in the form of the dead Vicky continuing to inhabit the life of her friend, following her around, trying to remain involved inserting herself into her new friendships and hindering her attempts to adapt to the loss of her best friend. Eventually Jade comes to the realisation that as much as she loves Vicky, she also has to move on with her life, a decision which can invoke yet more guilt for any of us in a similar situation. Vicky realises that her idealisation of her dead friend denies the essential truth of her- she was a human with all of the glorious and real flaws of that condition. When she accepts this, she is set free and able to find a comfortable place in her psyche for the memory of her dead friend.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

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Award-winning picture book star Oliver Jeffers explores themes of love and loss in this life-affirming and uplifting tale. Once there was a girl whose life was filled with wonder at the world around her then one day something happened that made the girl take her heart and put it in a safe place. However, after that it seemed that the world was emptier than before. But would she know how to get her heart back?

In this deeply moving story, Oliver Jeffers deals with the weighty themes of love and loss with an extraordinary lightness of touch and shows us, ultimately, that there is always hope.

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford Smith

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With a design that is clearly influenced by the two Williams- Morris and Blake- the Fox and the Star is a children’s book which adults will be moved by and enjoy too. It is particularly inspired by Blake’s poem Eternity – “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” – and Bickford Smith’s story tells of the forest-dwelling Fox, who loses, and mourns for, his friend Star. If you hold onto something you value too tightly, you risk losing it but learning the lesson that when you love deeply, you have to let the love object go is a hard one and especially hard for Fox.

Teeming with life and haunted by isolation, the contrasts between the two and the pain this can cause us is an important and central theme to the story. Fox is an innocent creature, trying to carve a space in the world and a total opposite to the traditional depiction of foxes in literature- itself an important lesson about stereotyping.

 

 

 

 

 

Children’s books we love

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These gorgeous books come in a series- crab cat, spider cat etc and were much loved by my daughter. Crab Cat is a cat who wants to be a crab. He imagines lurking in a rock pool waiting to pinch children’s toes (which would make my daughter squeal and curl her toes up), the illustrations are rich in detail providing plenty to point at and talk about. These tiny little books are perfect.

Aviary Wonders Inc: Spring Catalogue & Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

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This might be the weirdest picture book published this year although its central premise- that in the future (2031 to be exact) birds will be extinct, or at least, birds as we know them- isn’t that left field, sadly. It begins, “Whether you are looking for a companion, want to make something beautiful, or just want to listen to birdsong, we’ll supply everything you need to build your own bird.” The next 30 pages are an illustrated catalog of wings, legs, tails, combs, and feathers for kids to choose from. In the back are “Assembly Instructions” (“Step 2: Attaching The Beak.”) The illustrations are serious art — full-color paintings that would look at home in a museum. At its heart the book is a warning about habitat destruction, but mostly, it will make you laugh, and children with a sense of whimsy will be delighted to imagine building a bird. (For ages 9 to 12)

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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How could we possibly leave this wonderful series of books off our review pages? Recommended by the Local Editor from Leicestershire who writes- “This book is perfect for Christmas, for children aged anywhere from 3 to 11. With beautiful illustrations, it’s the first of the famous stories of this pioneering American family. It has a wonderful Christmas scene in it that is guaranteed to make you cry. And the best last lines of all: ‘She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.’ I’m off to weep right now..”

My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson

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OK, here’s a good one for small children – and especially good for their parents. My Big Shouting Day, by Rebecca Patterson. This book tells you EVERYTHING you need to know about having a toddler and a baby at home at the same time.

Superworm by Julia Donaldson

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The wiggly, squiggly superhero is now available in paperback. Never fear, Superworm’s here! He can fish Spider out of a well, and rescue Toad from a busy road. But who will come to Superworm’s rescue, when he’s captured by a wicked Wizard Lizard? Luckily, all of Superworm’s insect friends have a cunning plan. With impeccable rhythm and rhyme, wonderful illustrations by Axel Schleffer, this book is a must for the bookshelf.

The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

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The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

Thankfully newly reprinted, this book was made into a wonderful yet disturbing children’s TV series in the late 70’s. Telling the story of Kizzy, a little girl badly bullied because she is half Romany Gypsy, the themes are of even greater relevance today. Full of cultural detail cleverly woven in, the book has held up well and treats its subject with dignity.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

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Another beloved book from my own childhood with themes of being far from home both in distance and culturally, explored sensitively. When little Nona is sent from her sunny home in India to live with her relatives in chilly England, she is miserable. Then a box arrives for her in the post and inside, wrapped up in tissue paper, are two little Japanese dolls. A slip of paper says their names are Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Nona thinks that they must feel lonely too, so far away from home and Nona has an idea – she will build her dolls the perfect house! It will be just like a Japanese home in every way and will even have a tiny Japanese garden. And as she begins to make Miss Happiness and Miss Flower happy, Nona finds that she is happier too.

Doodlebugs

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Doodlebogs by Nikalas Catlo

Crammed with creepy-crawly doodles to create and complete, Doodle Bugs also includes fascinating facts about the insect world – a perfect gift for any budding ‘bugologist’. Let your imagination run wild. These doodle books are so popular with every child I have bought them for. There are every permutation of subject available (including some less appealing gender stereotyped editions ie pink for girls) so finding one to suit your child’s tastes won’t be hard.

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

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Suitable for children aged thirteen and up. Alem is on holiday with his father for a few days in London. He has never been out of Ethiopia before and is very excited. They have a great few days together until one morning when Alem wakes up in the bed and breakfast they are staying at to find the unthinkable. His father has left him and it is only when the owner of the bed and breakfast hands him a letter that Alem is given an explanation. Alem’s father admits that because of the political problems in Ethiopia both he and Alem’s mother felt Alem would be safer in London – even though it is breaking their hearts to do this. Alem is now on his own, in the hands of the social services and the Refugee Council. He lives from letter to letter, waiting to hear from his father, and in particular about his mother, who has now gone missing…A powerful, gripping new novel from the popular Benjamin Zephaniah.

Vikings Sticker Book

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The Story Of The Vikings by Megan Cullis

Delve into the past with this extravagantly designed sticker book, packed with over 100 stickers of amazing artefacts from the Viking World. An interactive way of finding out about Vikings’ everyday lives: their clothes, food, homes, weapons, culture and their legacy. For children interested in history, for reluctant readers and to back up school history, this is a great choice for over 8’s.

Duck, Death and the Tulip

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Duck, Death & the Tulip

This book will break your heart. I read it in the bookstore and sat weeping in the corner of the store. Death and broaching the subject with our children – any children- is always going to be difficult but this book does it beautifully. 

Duck strikes up a friendship with Death, a slightly sinister skeletal figure that lurks nearby. Death is treated as a normal part (or consequence) of life as Duck learns to first tolerate and then accept its presence eventually finding a kind of solace in its proximity. Finely drawn illustrations and gentle leading prose means the moment when Duck grows tired and lays down is not such a shock. The only problem with this book is wondering how on Earth you can read it without bawling.

Architecture According to Pigeons

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Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather, Stella Gurney and Natsko Seki (Designer)

One of those books that makes me think ‘why didn’t I think of this?’ so cool and clever is its central premise – that pigeons make the best guides to the basic principles of architecture with their birds eye view. Speck Lee Tailfeather, the pigeon in question reveals that pigeons are great aficionados of architecture and delivers an account of a journey around the globe with fun facts about each of the iconic buildings he visits. The book features the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and dozens of other buildings in a non didactic and engaging manner. I loved this book and will be adding it to the list of books bought for all the children in my life.

Wow Said the Owl

Wow Said the Owl
Wow Said the Owl

This super cute little board book is a great budget buy for babies and toddlers and will help them learn their colours. The extremely alluring thought of being awake when you are ‘supposed’ to be sleeping is brought to life when Owl decides to stay awake all day, only to be wowed by the colours and sights. The idea of not taking for granted that which is most famliiar is emphasised by Owls realisation that the stars that light up the night sky are, to her, the most beautiful of all. 

Owls big eyes will be appealing to babies who tend to focus most upon these. The illustrations we felt, would be more suited to older toddlers with their melded shades and less defined outlines.

“In the belief of the Gond tribe, the lives of humans and trees are closely entwined. Trees contain the cosmos; when night falls, the spirits they nurture glimmer into life”

The Night Life of Trees

The Night Life of Trees
The Night Life of Trees

Created by hand and illustrated by tribal artists of India, each page tells the folklore that surrounds a different tree. The tree artwork is silk screened onto black paper, creating vibrant  images that would make beautiful art works in themselves. 

Follow that Line by Laura Ljungkvist

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Follow the Line Around the World by Laura Ljungkvist

One single line carries you through every spread of the whole book forming the shapes for illustrations along the way. Kids run their finger along the line tracing their way around the World. By bus, helicopter and ship (among others) we discover the glories of both the natural and man made world. This is just one of a whole series too.

This is London by M Sasek

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This is London

With the same wit and perception that characterised his quirky and gorgeous little books on Paris, New York, and San Francisco, M Sasek presents stylish, elegant London in This is London, first published in 1959 and now updated for the 21st century.  Highly stylized and loving in its depiction, with some of the landmarks no longer in existence, this is still a relevant book to own and share with a child (or just for you!)

Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop Up by Dr Seuss

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go Pop-Up Hardcover by Dr. Seuss

Or how to find your own pathway through this life… In celebration of its 20th anniversary, this classic bestseller has been transformed into a pop-up book by master paper engineer David A. Carter. Fantastical, breathtaking and glorious paper constructions  retain the whimsy and deep deep emotional intelligence of the original text. Apparently this book is bought for many a graduating young person and is then filled with written messages from family and friends. A treasure in the making.

Tiddler, the Story Telling Fish by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

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In which the tiniest fish can tell the biggest, tallest tales. Every day Tiddler’s lateness at school is explained away by increasingly fantastical tales involving flying rays, mermaids and Gruffalo fish. Children will enjoy the rhythmical flow of the story which encourages chanting of the dialogue and the ever captivating, vivid and alive illustrations of Schleffler.

The Sea Witch by Annie Stewart

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Ellie and Lucy are twins holidaying with their Grandmother in Devon; a holday which is about to take a strange turn after their discovery of a seashell on the beach. Their newly struck friendship with a sea witch called Mia comes to their assistance when another friend goes missing and is feared kidnapped. 

Full of fun, suspense, witchery and drama, this novel reflects a long tradition of child as detective aided by the mystical. As limitless in imagination as that of the children who will read it and suitable for ages 8 plus.

Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton

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 ‘Shh! We have a plan’ follows four hapless characters in the woods, looking for birds. The smallest, quietest one is ignored by the other three who are determined to get the bird by brute force. The story shows that diplomacy and understanding wins the day. Chris Haughton is a fantastic illustrator and clever storyteller and Oh No George is a huge favourite of my many children. A fun story that is perfect for reading aloud, predicting events and is open ended, giving you the opportunity to explore what might happen next.

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards, Illustrated by Shirley Hughes

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Lovely, timeless stories with great illustrations. A favourite of mine when I was young and my daughter and son loved them too. Lovely language and great stories about the naughty antics the little girl gets up to.They are quite old fashioned but this seems to add to the appeal and the description of the birthday trifle that Bad Harry and naughty sister end up devouring after they find it in the larder has stayed with me since first reading about it over forty years ago.

Read the Mumsnet webchat with ‘My Naughty Little Sister’  illustrator Shirley Hughes and her daughter Clara Vulliamy.

Cosy Classics : Jane Eyre / Moby Dick / Huckleberry Finn and others by Jack Wang & Holman Wang

Cosy Classics
Cosy Classics

The Cozy Classics board books retell “cozy” versions of hefty stories like Les MisérablesWar and Peace, and Jane Eyre. Better yet, they’re illustrated with lovable photographs of painstakingly needle-felted scenes from classic literature. Classics never go out of style and the concept for this series of books is simple: every classic in the series will be condensed to 12 child-friendly words, and each word will appear alongside an illustration. Each word is carefully selected to relate to a child’s world, such as “friends”, “sisters”, “dance”, “muddy”, “boat”, and “leg”. The books work as word primers, even without any reference to the original stories. If you, as a parent, can fill in some of the original tale as part of the reading experience, so much the better.

 

Cozy Classics are not intended to provide babies with any kind of academic leg up and unfortunately, in the minds of many, classics are associated with academics. However, no classic was written for the classroom; every one was written to give pleasure and these books offer a fresh and simplified (but not dumbed down) take on these timeless stories.

 Haiku Baby by Betsy E Snyder

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This totally adorable board book introduces infants to the ancient Japanese art of haiku poetry, as well as key early literacy and education concepts like sounds, seasons, and nature. All in a baby-friendly format.

Haiku Baby follows a tiny bluebird, the book’s would-be protagonist, as it visits its various animal companions–from an elephant that shades the bird with a parasol to a fox in a meadow and a whale in the ocean. The little bird’s story is told primarily in pictures, and through the book’s six haiku: rain, flower, sun, leaf, snow, and–of course, it would not be a board book without–the moon, making it ideal for the bedtime line-up. Adorable collage-cut illustrations work nicely with the haiku form to give the book a whimsical, yet serene, feel. And the haiku are light and fun without being too cutesy. Index tabs on the right margin, with pictures that tie to each of the poems (leaf, raindrop, snowflake, etc.), create a unique look, and make it easy for toddlers to flip through the pages on their own without having them stick together like they can with other board books.

Babylit Series by Jennifer Adams & Alison Oliver

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The BabyLit series uses literary classics as loose inspiration to teach subjects like colors, numbers, and counting, and includes gorgeous riffs on Alice in WonderlandAnna KareninaDraculaPride and PrejudiceJabberwocky, and others. In ‘Moby Dick’ Little Master Melville teaches little ones the language of the sea: from ships and sailors to squawking gulls and moody good captains, Alison Oliver’s brilliant illustrations and Jennifer Adams’ clever, simple text will make a sea dog out of any young shipmate.

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The Tell Tale Heart

One of the most inspired adaptions of this series is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Tattle Tale Heart’ in which the plucky, mischievous toddler Edgar the Raven is at it again in a spirited story with some important lessons. What will Edgar do when he accidentally breaks a statue sitting on a dresser? Will his sister, Lenore, tattle on him? Will Edgar tell his mother the truth? Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” little lit lovers will delight in this new adventure with characters illustrated in a most “poe-etic” way and without the appalling Gothic darkness of its original tale which is most definitely NOT for tiny readers.

Andy Warhols Colours by Susan Goldman Rubin

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In the vein of fine art for babies, Susan Goldman Rubin’s awesome board books use classic and modern art to teach infants concepts like colors and counting. In Andy Warhol’s imagination, horses are purple and golden monkeys wear pink baubles on their tails and the simple text “Big Red Dog Barks Bow-Wow-Wow,” and such is the kind of repetitive funny wording that appeals to babies and toddlers. Other featured artists in the series include Jacob Lawrence, Wayne Thiebaud, Matisse, Magritte, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Touch Think Learn Series by Xavier Deneux. 

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I really like the way the stylish die-cut illustrations in this board book series teach shapes, numbers, and colors in a hands-on, multi-sensory way — babies can experience what a circle actually feels like by touching the shapes while hearing the words and seeing the pictures. Such a clever way to translate abstract concepts.

Wiggle by Garo Tomi

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 I’m a total sucker for Taro Gomi’s whimsical, playful doodles, and was stoked to discover that he’s authored several board books just for babies. I love the interactive element ofWiggle!, which features illustrations that are incomplete without a wiggling finger — including an elephant’s trunk, penguin’s beak, chameleon’s tongue, and robot’s nose. And it’s up to young readers to help them out. Kids can finish the illustration by wiggling their fingers through suitably placed die-cuts. Children are sure to giggle at the silliness of turning their fingers into elephant trunks and chameleon tongues—and learn a bit about animal features on the way.

The Quiet Books by Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska

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What does “quiet” mean? From “Top of the roller coaster quiet” to “First look at your new hairstyle quiet,” The Quiet Book looks at all kinds of quiet with the help of impossibly sweet bears, rabbits, fish, birds, and iguanas. With its soft covers, rounded corners, and sturdy board book pages, this is a perfect addition to baby’s first library.

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis 

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 This adorable board book has received tons of reviewer and librarian accolades, and it’s easy to see why. A box is just a box . . . unless it’s not a box. From mountain to rocket ship, a little bunny stars in this story that puts an updated spin on the timeless idea that you can be transported wherever your imagination will take you. In addition, anything that encourages children to play with toys that don’t cost hundreds of pounds from Rip-Off-Parents-R-Us is a bonus. Just read this with them and then give them a big ‘ole cardboard box.