24 March 2010

Book of the Week (53): "The Heart and the Bottle" by Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers illustrated and wrote one of my favourite picture books of recent years, Lost and Found, the story of an unlikely friendship between a boy and a penguin. (Other favourites include The Way Back Home and The Incredible Book Eating Boy.) His latest book, The Heart and the Bottle, is no less off-beat, and every bit as charming. It’s the story of a little girl who loves to learn all about the world – the stars, the sea – until one day, she comes over to her father’s chair to show him something she has drawn and finds the chair empty. Her father is no longer there. At that moment she stops feeling wonder at the world, stops marvelling at the beauty of things. Sadly she puts her heart away in a bottle, just to keep it safe…

Like Lost and Found this is at least in part a book about loneliness, and its story is supremely well told; and just like the earlier book it finds an ending which doesn’t feel forced or over-sentimental and yet is sweet, is just right. As usual Jeffers’ mixed-media pictures bear slow appreciation – they’re beautiful things (I’m going to have an Oliver Jeffers on my wall one day, just see if I don’t…), sometimes very richly detailed and sometimes expressive with such simplicity, with many lovely, witty discoveries to be made.

I have slight doubts, as I occasionally do with Oliver Jeffers’ books, whether they aren’t the sort of lovely picture books that adults adore more than children do – I’m yet to be persuaded that this is a book that young children will be charmed by. But I’m going to ignore that brief cavilling for now, because personally I love it. It’s about grief and love and the whole world – it’s touching, and profound.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

16 March 2010

Book of the Week (52): "No and Me" by Delphine de Vigan

Lou Bertignac, a thirteen-year-old girl with an IQ of 160, has been moved up a couple of years at school. She is socially awkward and shy, with few friends. The last thing she wants to do is a class presentation. Findng herself put on the spot to identify her topic she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind - the homeless. She will interview the homeless girl, 'No', whom she met at the station. There begins a new friendship and a strong bond between two young girls struggling through life in very different circumstances. No without home or family, Lou with a family that seems to have stopped living. Lou finds herself opening up, not only to No but also to Luke, the older boy in class who seems to like her. Luke quickly becomes her accomplice as she tries to help No.

It's a touching and engaging story led by its characters. Lou's narrative walks a delicate balance between being intelligent and beautifully innocent and childlike. I warmed to her instantly, feeling her desire to understand, following her life through thought tangents and experiments, and moments of lostness as she tries to navigate her life in a painful world.

No and Me is well written, effortless to read and enjoy while touching on heartbreaking issues of loss, illness, family and social dysfunction. Most of all this is a story of friendship, loyalty, the way people relate to each other and how personal determination and desire to help can make a difference - though not always in the way you expect.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

  • Try Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which explores another supportive yet complex friendship growing from one girl's attempt to help another with her difficult life situation - in this case being a teenage mum of two.
  • Or for another unique character-led story, try The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

09 March 2010

Book of the Week (51): "Lob" by Linda Newbery

The Green Man is one of the oldest thematic figures in this country's folklore, and Linda Newbery has taken this motif as a starting point for her new book, Lob.

Lob is an ageless wanderer, who walks the roads till he meets his next special person
to whom he will devote himself for the rest of their life. He will work with them as they clear and sow and tend their plants, to bring their gardens stunningly to life. Not everyone can see Lob, but Grandpa Will is one of the lucky ones, and now young Lucy can see him too - so whenever she visits her grandparents, and helps Grandpa Will in his garden, she knows Lob is there with them, helping, too...

Though set in a modern world - urban traffic, waiting lists for city allotments, etc. - there's something timeless about this lovely story, not only in its theme, which links us back to generations past, but also in the telling of it: elegant, sedate, beautifully crafted, filled with a warm kind of hope and old-fashioned charm. It's also an unashamedly poetic, writerly sort of book (for something that is being sold to quite young readers), which in other hands might have weighed it down, but not so here. There are not many writers who could have pulled off a story like this - but Linda Newbery is one of them. Very lovely.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

01 March 2010

Book of the Week (50): "Blackout" by Sam Mills

How much harm can a book do? That’s the central question running throughout Sam Mills' new novel, Blackout. It’s a question still playing on my mind.

When Stefan’s father hides the writer of a banned book in their house Stefan finds himself torn between loyalty to his father and to the state. Could it be that his father really is a terrorist or has state authoritarianism just gone too far? Whose side does Stefan want to be on?

An action packed, thought provoking variation on a dystopian idea, with references to many loved classics such as 1984 and Catcher in the Rye as the dangerous books banned in society for fear of triggering teenage terrorist attacks. Such books are rewritten by the state, removing all hint of violence or lust – Lord of the Flies becomes a tale of boys quibbling over sweets! If you haven’t read these books already, you’ll find yourself seeking them out urgently, before it’s too late, before they’re re-written. If you’ve read them before, you’ll want to re-read them just to check they’re as they should be, or perhaps just for the thrill of reading a dangerous book.

A must-read for anyone with a burning desire to read to explore the complexities of life through literature and for those who like to ‘escape’ into a book. It inspires a simultaneous desperation to read everything ever written, while fearing the power of the words contained within those books and reminding you of the uncertain truth of fiction. It felt dangerous to read.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

  • For another dystopian novel focusing on the impact of censorship on literature try Ray Bradbury’s Farenheight 451.
  • Or maybe you’d like to risk reading some of the novels mentioned within the text – 1984, Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies.