Friday, 27 June 2014

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Review by M

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea was a reread for me this time, and so I’m charting my reflective thoughts on my reading journey with it. There are some small spoilers but nothing that actually ‘spoils’ a first read. This is a dense and special book, the kind that really begs to be read again and again (and I rarely read a book twice).

Wide Sargasso Sea is about Antoinette, a creole girl in 1930s Jamaica, set just after the emancipation of black slaves. Born to a white slave owner and a creole mother from Martinique, Antoinette passes into womanhood during turbulent times, and finds that her family is reviled from every side. Struggling with her own identity problems and with a history of family ‘madness’, marriage and a move to Granbois in nearby Dominica begin as a blissful escape and descend into something much more sinister.

The novel is often talked about as a companion novel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Certainly, that’s how I came to first read it. It was on the reading list for an English Lit options module that I took, something along the lines of either Gender in Fiction or Feminist Fiction (because of course, they may not be the same things). Essentially, Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Jane Eyre and features the first Mrs Rochester as well as the Mr, and gives voice to the mad woman in the attic.

Previous to first reading it, I’d read Jane Eyre, again for a literature course. I cannot immediately recall anything about it (!) and my recorded comments for it were ‘Disappointing’ (clearly my expectations had been somewhere quite off the mark). My comments for Wide Sargasso Sea, however, were “strange but powerful”. Additionally, I could remember much about the atmospheric Wide Sargasso Sea, although in a very disjointed way.

Recently, it popped up in conversation on Twitter. When Natasha Farrant mentioned that she had started reading it, wondering how it had never been in her life before this, I knew it was time for me to look it over once again.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a little book. I read it in just over one sitting (simply because I started it very late on a Friday night and I was past being ready for sleep). It is beguiling, and sad, and unbelievable, and stark, and confusing, and deeply rich in its imagery. Antoinette’s relationship with Christophine, and the pulls and sway of both obeah and christian religions in the novel are both intoxicating for the characters and the reader. Wide Sargasso Sea still says as much to me as it leaves unsaid and trails, in a sweetly troubling way, around my head.

Part One is narrated by Antoinette, Part Two by the I who is her husband and Part 3 again by ‘Antoinette’. On narration, I had the feeling that Antoinette also narrates sections in Part Two of WSS (but without a triple check, I may be wrong). Part 3 is perhaps the one that most directly links WSS to Jane Eyre and is my least favourite part of the novel.
I’ve heard some people say you need to read Jane Eyre first in order to understand Wide Sargasso Sea. Well, seeing as Jane Eyre had left such a weak impression on me, I do not agree. Of course, there are references in Wide Sargasso Sea that are obviously Jane Eyre, but they don’t detract from Wide Sargasso Sea as it’s very own story. As much as there’s the idea of giving a voice to the mad woman in Jane Eyre, for me, Wide Sargasso Sea is very much its own distinct – though connected – story to Jane Eyre. Antoinette’s story is compelling and powerfully told. For me, again, it is both Jean Rhys’ atmospheric language as well as Antoinette’s desire to be accepted and not treated as an unworthy foreigner, that leave the biggest marks on me.

Throughout the novel, Antoinette also recalls a dream she has, and tells it in three parts (I think, it was three). At the end, her dream becomes clear to her but it muddled a few things for me. I felt as if both she and I had experienced some sort of déjà vu and that I should have been paying more attention to her dream segments than I had (I often lose interest when characters relate aspects of their dreams!). Clearly, there is plenty left for me to explore on a third reading at some point, perhaps!
I’m currently rereading Jane Eyre (I still can’t remember anything about it! Perhaps I previously skim read it for an exam!), so it will be interesting to see whether this enhances or alters my thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea.

My classics club challenge verdict: Absolutely a classic: it has been re-read by me and I suspect generations on will continue to explore it


Publication details: first published 1996
This copy: mine, Penguin, 1968, paperback (yep, it’s my varsity copy)






Tuesday, 24 June 2014

What tone has the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2014 set for children’s literature?

Yes, this is a comment piece (as distinct from the commentary in our reviews)!

Kevin Brooks’ chilling, The Bunker Diary won this year’s Carnegie medal, which awards an outstanding book for children. The novel is the diary of a kidnapped boy, the tale is bleak, its grit relentless. This is not the sort of novel I am drawn to yet I selected it as part of my personal shortlist for this year’s medal. This was very much despite the plot and very much about the writing and the form (you can read my review, which denies the plot). While The Bunker Diary is shocking, I don’t think it is ‘shock factor’ writing, and I think it’s a worthy winner bravely chosen by the judges.

The Telegraph, online, questioned whether the Carnegie judges had overstepped the mark in awarding this novel because it is unrelentlessly and unremorsefully dark. Additionally, the opinion piece berated the publishers for the book cover’s lack of content guidance.

The CILIP Carnegie shortlist provides age guidance for each book on the shortlist to help inform readers. This is available on their website. The Bunker Diary is marked as 14+, and with my parent hat on, that sounds about right to me. I’m keen on informative content guidance, so I do agree with The Telegraph on that.

However, the Carnegie medal awards an outstanding children’s book. The book has to be first published as a children’s book. The Bunker Diary fulfils these criteria. But, I read Bradbury’s comment piece as really raising questions about tone: should the Carnegie be setting a tone for children’s literature?

In his acceptance speech, Brooks spoke about the question of hope, which many commentators say is lacking in The Bunker Diary. Brooks disagrees with this view but, to him, this is a subsidiary issue anyway. Ultimately, and arguably controversially, he believes that ‘hope’ and happy endings are not a pre-requisite for children’s literature. I, now a legal adult for many years, quite like hope in anything I read, but a lack of hope doesn’t necessarily affect literary quality (but it may affect a reader’s appreciation).

We started this blog just over two years ago when Little M was twelve. We thought we knew what children’s literature was: something entertaining and something excitingly exploratory – but with a safety net. But we knew that young adult fiction (targeted at children) was something slightly different – we suspected the net had moved. Without reading it (which she hadn’t and I hadn’t for about twenty years), we could tell this from the covers. They often looked more like something you’d find on the adult genre shelves or on a movie poster. Actually, most of the cover-facing books probably were movie tie-ins! Both of us were very much in favour of knowing ‘what’ was in these books. Yes, we mean sex, drugs, violence, and their degree of graphic depiction and, importantly for me, a subtextual worldview.

Two years later, we’ve decided that YA is very much a free-for-all with a teenage protagonist. And to me, that’s fine – just tell us on the cover: not for the adults who read YA, or the fourteen years olds; do it for the sake of those who’ve just finished reading The Famous Five. Because after all, YA is widely considered children’s literature and we don’t want to start censoring teenage content….or do we?

The Bunker Diary is a challenging read. It covers difficult and abhorrent subject matter, it smashes a reader’s expectations of story structure and of a children’s book (let’s be honest, this is young adult fiction not middle grade), and it provides avenues for questions about all sorts of things, including literary ones. For me, that’s the tone that this year’s Carnegie win has set and it has nothing to do with light or dark.

Read my review of The Bunker Diary.
Read my interview with Kevin Brooks.
The Telegraph piece.







Sunday, 22 June 2014

Which book will win the CILIP Carnegie medal 2014?

I don't know! But I'm going to take a punt.

First off, while we've read and reviewed all of the Carnegie shortlist, neither of us has independently read all of them so we couldn't have a proper 'judging chat' this year. But here's my comparative recap and the heavily subjective approach I've taken this year.

We have reviewed each of the shortlisted titles and you can find links to all of them on our dedicated CILIP Carnegie page.We'd read and reviewed four of the shortlisted books before the nominations were announced in November 2013 and we haven't reread any of them - so there's some hazy memory recall going on (most definitely not what the actual judges will be relying on).

Back in May 2013, I read the first few chapters of The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston. I have a thing when I start reading middle grade or YA review books: if the first few pages (or chapters) read like a book that Little M will fall in love with more than me, I pass it on to her. Sometimes, it just feels like she should be the first one to read it and rave about it to me and anyone else, rather than the other way around. And she did. She still raves about The Child's Elephant. I haven't finished reading it primarily because I know it's not my personal winner, and the poignant relationship between a village boy and a baby elephant keeps making me cry. But, everything about The Child's Elephant is beautiful. It could well be someone else's winner.

Next up was Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy. Both of us started reading this but stopped after a few chapters because of a slow pace. However, I picked it up again and the rest (and the whole of the book) is extraordinarily good.

Then to Blood Family by Anne Fine where I found I was skipping large sections of the final part, was unconvinced by the plot twist (though that could have been a marketing issue), and the writing wasn't as smooth as some of the other shortlisted titles. I did not enjoy the subject matter but Little M thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

The last novel I read before the nominations were announced was Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper. I loved it, it was one of the best stories I'd read in a while and at that point, it was top of my pick for the Carnegie (despite preferring the first part a lot more than the second).

After the nominations, the first title I sought out was Julie Berry's All the Truth That's in Me. I was captivated from start to finish. It was incredibly intense and stirring, the structure of the novel added an almost intrinsic element to it, and I loved it very much. There were some aspects that made the plot a little full at times but, oh, that voice.....Ghost Hawk slipped a spot on my list and All the Truth That's in Me was the one to beat.

Then came Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. Most definitely, this is the novel that I imagine becoming a modern children's classic: it has probably every element that I love in children's fiction (although I was unconvinced by the fight scene).

From the warmth and brightness of Rooftoppers, I ventured onto The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I was very afraid and I should have been! But, I was also incredibly surprised. As with Blood Family, I really disliked the subject matter but the writing's changing structure and form were very clever and took the novel to another level for me. However, the ending was flat with many unanswered questions. I liked to see the novel as metaphysical but I don't think it was intended to be interpreted that way. An accessible but challenging read for all sorts of reasons, not least of which are linked to literary questions.

And finally, The Wall by William Sutcliffe: an important story, eloquently and beautifully told but for me, some of the plot elements were distracting.

I think it's wide open this year. I woulkd highly recommend seven of the eight novels to different readers. But, "Throw your heart out in front of you and run to catch it" says Bat's grandmother in The Child's Elephant. I'm doing just that. If I'm throwing my heart out, I'll almost always go with the 'voice'. So for me, it's All the Truth That's In Me (but with Sophie and all Charles' Maxim's possibles chasing close behind).

What are your favourites?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Illustrator Victo Ngai and The Time Out of Time Cover

It's blog tour time! Illustrator Victo Ngai talks us through designing her eye-catching cover for the first book in Maureen Doyle McQuerry's Time Out of Time saga. Ngai has been named one of Forbe's 30 Under 30 for Outstanding visual artists. Victo is short for Victoria and she often illustrates covers for the New Yorker.

Time out of time
the horned man rides
with the forest queen,
the greenman dies,
the heavens bear witness,
the great wolf flies
and Timothy James stands alone. 

 Over to Victo…..

I have been working on a new book series called Time out of Time by Maureen Doyle McQuerry. Book 1 Beyond the Door has just come out!

Time out of Time is an imagination packed fantasy story which draws inspiration from Celtic mythologies. Our hero is a shy bookish boy named Timothy who is fairly certain nothing interesting will ever happen to him. However, everything changes on one dark spring night. A mystery knocks on his door and starts revealing his role in an ancient prophecy…

Time Out of Time: Beyond the Door - full cover illustration by Victo Ngai

Choosing a moment from a book as cover is always a fun challenge. It has be a true representation of the story without spoiling the plot, while being visually stimulating. I decided to go with the Wild Hunt because:

a) There’s a giant golden flying wolf, who wouldn’t like that?

b) We introduce our main character - Timothy. 

c) The chase set the stage of adventure and the storm set the mood of danger.

d) It’s a perfect moment to show the parallel existence of Timothy’s ordinary world and the fantastical world “beyond the door”. 

This art has been featured on the American Library Association Booklist cover, what an honor! 

An early sketch by Victo Ngai

Another sketch by Victo Ngai

Big thanks to Maureen McQuerry for this great story, Chad Beckerman and Editor Howard Reeves for all the great input.

I hope you would enjoy the book as much as I do!
Don’t forget to decipher the secret code which comes with the book! 

 Thanks to Victo Ngai for this. I love that cover!
Time Out of Time: Beyond the Door by Maureen Doyle McQuerry is published in the UK by Abrams.

Next stop on the tour - Serendipity Reviews on 16th June.



Monday, 9 June 2014

Joanna Swainson chat

We sat down for a chat...with Joanna Swainson, literary agent

Hardman & Swainson, the literary agency for Bone Jack by Sara Crowe, is two years old this month. Bone Jack was tremendously enjoyable to read so we got a bit of a lowdown from Joanna Swainson about the book, the agency, herself and the agency’s mysterious third party.

Joanna Swainson and Caroline Hardman
WSD: You’re two years old! What will you be celebrating?

Joanna Swainson: I can’t believe it’s two years already. One of the best things about this is that, having been in business for two years, the agency has become eligible for membership of the Association of Authors’ Agents. Of course we’ve always run the business along AAA guidelines but we made our application, met the criteria and were accepted, which is worthy of a wee celebration as a milestone in itself. Other than that, I think we’ll raise a glass to our authors – they’re everything to us - have a laugh then get back to work!

WSD: You travelled through Spain and France, lived in a tent and read the whole of Dickens in a year! Sounds bookishly romantic. What else did you manage to fit in on this trip?

Joanna Swainson: When I left school we lived in the middle of nowhere on the moors in Yorkshire. I treasure that, now, but at the time I was determined to get away as soon as possible, so worked for a month in the local paper mill, saved up £400 and hit the road with my twin sister. It was basically a year of living hand to mouth, busking a bit, picking fruit for cash as it ripened in different regions and every now and then having to phone up dad to borrow some money when we completely ran out. I couldn’t possibly go into detail about exactly what we got up to or I might be arrested, but what a time!

WSD: I recently loved Bone Jack, which is how I heard of your agency, so I'm intrigued to hear that you lived in a tent for a year while travelling: a bit of synergy with Sara Crowe's lifestyle, perhaps? Please could you say what it was about Bone Jack that stood out for you?

Joanna Swainson: Sara has spent the last year or so wandering the British Isles in a campervan with her partner and their two dogs. I do envy that freedom. It’s a bit of a cheat to say I spent the whole year in a tent. It was more like nine months as we spent the winter in Seville and it was freezing so we rented a tiny flat to get us off those windblown streets.

What really stood out about Bone Jack was Sara’s ability to evoke place. Her descriptions are so vivid and I feel as if I’ve been to those mountains and that lake and Thornditch itself. Tolley Carn, Monks Bridge, Stag’s Leap – great place names. I love the mythical and folky aspects and that it’s a story of two boys’ friendship tested to the limit. Best of all, now that it’s published, is kids seem to love it – my daughter read it all through double maths at school to finish it. And my 11 year old nephew was gripped by it, too, immediately asking if she’d written another book. No pressure, Sara!

WSD: While Sara Crowe has her dogs, Hardman & Swainson has Monty. Please introduce us to him.

Joanna Swainson: Monty is a three year old black cat with some oriental heritage, greeny yellow eyes and a rather small head. He’s very chatty and drinks water from the intern’s glass on the table when she’s not looking, rather than from his own bowl. And he’s always on the wrong side of the door.

WSD: Other than reading books, do you have any hobbies?

Joanna Swainson: I come from a family of musicians – my grandfather was a wonderful pianist, my mother and father are professional violinist and viola player respectively. So music runs in the blood and I love to sit down at the piano now, or play my guitar or fiddle. I’m not nearly as good as I’d like to be! I love all sorts of music but if I could have anyone’s voice it would be Sandy Denny’s. Other than that, come winter I’m a bit of a knitter.

Joanna Swainson (from Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency) is very friendly on Twitter, so you can find out more about her there.
For more about Bone Jack, here’s M’s review and an interview with author Sara Crowe.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Vacationers - Emma Straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Review by M (Adult Fiction)

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
The Post family goes on holiday to Mallorca: Manhattan-living husband Jim and wife Franny take their two grown children, a best friend, and partners to an out-of-the-way villa. It was supposed to be a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary celebration but a ‘discovered workplace affair’ has thrown a couple of spokes in the wheel.

This is very much not the sort of novel that I would actively pick up to read (though the cover is quite catching!) and in many ways the characters are all many worlds away from my life (no spoons from Tiffanys here and my family is the most functional ever – of course!). But it was here so I gave it a go. I read it quickly and it is funny, in that ‘sideways’ sort of way. It also made me want to go on holiday, possibly even to Mallorca, which is not a transatlantic flight away for me.

The two week holiday, or vacation, is the setting for the plot from beginning to end, and most of it takes place in a heavenly sounding villa. Of course, like all middle class extended 'families', this one has its dysfunctions and all of the characters and couples and friends have their ‘issues’ and their ‘secrets’, from body-building powershakes to gay adoption and 'class values' (and not forgetting ‘the affair'). While there is something to dislike about most of the characters (except Lawrence, and Carmen gets a rough deal, in my opinion) there is also plenty to like, and the bossy, people-feeding matriarch, who is Franny, is actually a delight.
The Vacationers is a novel that is very much about, though not too deeply, the characters and their relationships (which is very much the sort of novel that I like to read). A funny and feelgood-but-not-too good-cos-that-would-be-uncool beach read.

Publication details: Picador, 5th June 2014, London, paperback
This copy: for review from the publisher



Cristina Henriquez chat

We Sat Down For a Chat...with Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown Americans is a very tender immigration story. I loved the coming of age thread and the inclusion of chapters from other immigrants who lived in the building. I also really admire the UK cover image, and for me it forms part of the novel's narrative. It’s author, Cristina Henriquez, chats to us about it.

WSD: In the Acknowledgments for The Book of Unknown Americans, you thank your mom for providing the story that set your novel in motion. What was that story?
Cristina Henriquez: My mother is a translator for the school district where she lives, so she works with a lot of immigrant families and she specializes in working with families whose children have special needs. She often talks to me about them and what they’re going through. One of the families she told me about was struggling to take care of their daughter who had had an illness since birth, and I found myself thinking about them a lot, about what it’s like to be a parent where the only thing that matters to you is making sure your child is okay, about the challenges of doing that in a place where you don’t know the language nor any of the customs, where it’s difficult even to figure out how to take a bus to a school meeting, and all of that somehow gave rise to the book.

WSD: In your novel, food is frequently used to signify poverty but also home (as well as 'not home'). What things conjure up images, or thoughts, of home for you?
Cristina Henriquez: That’s an interesting question. I’m not exactly sure what home is for me. When I was growing up, my family and I moved every few years, and even after I left for college and was on my own, and then when I was with my now-husband, I continued that pattern. I’ve lived in enough places that it’s difficult to think of any one of them as home. The older I get, the more I start thinking that home isn’t actually physical or geographical at all. It’s emotional, a sense of belonging, a feeling of ease and of connection. So for me, when someone asks me about my home now, I think not about a place but about people, the people I love best, the people I feel most myself around, which are my husband and children. Anything that reminds me of them – soccer, Curious George, chocolate milk boxes – conjures thoughts of home.

WSD: Why does Maribel not have a chapter in her voice?
Cristina Henriquez: I don’t have a good answer for that. Maybe I should have given her one. My idea was to give every apartment unit one representative chapter, and then beyond that I chose Mayor and Alma to be the primary narrators. Celia, Mayor’s mother, doesn’t have her own chapter, either. Her husband, Rafael is the voice for their family. For the Riveras, since Alma was already spoken for, either Maribel or Arturo could have narrated the family’s one chapter and considering how the plot unfolds, my instinct was to give Arturo the last word. Even without hearing from her directly, hopefully readers finish the novel with the sense that Maribel has gotten stronger by the end, the sense that she will go on and get even stronger still.

WSD: Yes, I think the novel gives a very strong sense of Maribel and her growth.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Read M's review of  The Book of Unknown Americans

Monday, 2 June 2014

Manchee & Bones - Little M's new blog

Mac, or Little M as many of you know her, has started up her own book blog. She's named it 'Manchee & Bones' after some of her favourite dog characters in books (Manchee from Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go and Bones from Sam Angus' Soldier Dog).

I'm not completely sure but I think a complimentary tweet from Rooftoppers' author, Katherine Rundell, prompted the motivation for Mac's new move.

Go and have a look at 'Manchee & Bones'. You'll currently find a Rooftoppers review and a list of books Mac would like to read for GCSE English Literature. If you look closely, where 'We Sat Down's' book reviews often feature our pink and red heart bookmark, 'Manchee & Bones' fittingly features a blue and orange pawprints bookmark. Head on over.