In Part II of my Advent Book Recommendations, it’s 7 through to 12. I’ve been posting these on twitter (#adventbookrec) but following up on here gives space to talk about them more. Please do share yours, or let me know what you think to my choices.
- The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
‘More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal.’
That above is the blurb. But it doesn’t do it justice.
This is one of the first books that made me really think about narrative structure and about what is possible in a novel. It’s set in both the past and the present, in places two characters are writing their own sci-fi story, it’s told in first person and third, it has newspaper articles included too, it is spectacular story-telling. The ending is…divine…shocking…perfect.
- Life: An Exploded Diagram – Mal Peet
This is another books whose structure really inspired me. It’s in thirds – the first third in Norfolk at the end of the Second World War with teenage Clem and Frankie and their elicit meetings, the second flicks to the Cuba missile crisis and the final takes the reader to New York in 2011, ending with Clem nearing the Twin Towers on September 11th.
I’m a little in awe of this book – that it dares to take the reader a third of the way, and then switch to a completely different setting, and trusts they’ll stay with it, (and then it dares to flick again), but as a reader you do, because you know you’re with a writer who can pull it off! The portrayal of JFK in the middle third brought him to life in my head like no other book, film or documentary ever has, and while being entertained by such a wonderful story, I also learnt loads about the Cuban Missile Crisis!
- The Swish of the Curtain – Pamela Brown
I read this at around the same time it came out as a children’s TV series on the BBC. There is something magical about it, not just that it gives me now, as a grown-up, a wonderful feeling of nostalgia for my childhood, but that Pamela Brown has created a wonderful atmosphere within it, and a wonderful group dynamic with the children.
I so wanted to be part of their gang, and if I couldn’t then I so wanted to find friends around me to create my own ‘Blue Door Theatre Company’, and who then could find a little stage to put on shows just like they did.
Brown was fourteen when she wrote this. Fourteen! So if any teenagers are reading this blog and you have dreams of being a writer – go for it!
- The First Fifteen Years of Harry August – Claire North
Harry is a kalachakra – meaning when he dies, he is reborn back where he started. Perpetually reborn in a railway station in 1920 to a raped mother. Gradually, as he becomes a toddler, his memories of his previous lives come back. But then in one lifetime, he gets a message – sent down through time – warning him that someone is trying to change the past which could destroy the future and Harry, through different lifetimes, has to stop this, and the demise of his ‘people’.
A time-travelling, sci-fi, mystery with a philosophical look at life, it’s an absolute gem and I take my hat off to Claire North as the planning must’ve been immense! My whole family have read this (including the teenager) and loved it.
- The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
When I recommended this on twitter, so many people came back telling me how much they love it! Author Antonia Honeywell even told me that she only had children so she could read this to them. That’s maybe a bit extreme!
It’s about Milo. Milo is bored. So when a tollbooth unexpectedly appears in his bedroom, he jumps aboard his toy car, pays the toll and passes through. And his adventures begin.
He heads to Dictionopolis, he meets The Whether Man, passes through The Doldrums, meets a watchdog called Tock, and after a tussle with Officer Short Shrift heads off to The Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason.
It’s unpredictable, funny, witty and vastly imaginative. It’s full of puns, brain-teasers, warmth and figures of speech taken literally. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud, or to snuggle up and enjoy, and giggle at, by yourself.
- Maus – Art Spiegelman
A Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel. Maus is two stories, one is Vladek’s story of surviving the Holocaust, the other is his relationship with his son (the author and artist), as he dictates to him what happened in occupied Poland and in the concentration camp.
The Jews are drawn as mice, the Poles as pigs, the Nazis as cats, but rather than making you feel further from the story, that somehow draws you closer. I always remember one drawing – a cat smashing a baby mouse against a wall – could Spiegelman have drawn that if it wasn’t done as animals? Would it have been too shocking? Is it more powerful this way?
We all know – or we should do – the Holocaust story, but this doesn’t just remind us of that. We see the effects on Vladek, even all this time after, we see his guilt, how his experiences taint his relationship with others, and we see his experiences still echoing through time now.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my recommendations – these are some of my favourite books.
Part III to follow soon.