Monday, 9 December 2019

Book #90

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

Dolphin adores her mother: she's got wonderful clothes, bright hair and vivid tattoos all over her body. She definitely lives a colourful life. Dolphin's older sister, Star, also loves her but is beginning to wonder if staying with a mum whose temper can be as flashy as her body-art is the best thing for the girls.

In true Wilson style, this is a book which will seem exciting and exotic to children, yet harrowing and dark for adults.

Marigold has two girls, Star and Dolphin, who have two different (yet both absent) dads. She presents herself to her daughters as a friend rather than a mum, resulting in the girls having to look after themselves much of the time. Marigold has mental health issues and alcoholism, tends to disappear overnight, and spends the majority of their money on frivolities.

Wilson deals with these themes delicately and masterfully. Presenting from the point of view of Dolphin, she paints a horribly bleak picture of loneliness, as she tries to come to terms with her mum’s behaviour, and tries to hold the family together. Marigold’s delusions, flights of fancy, and erratic choices prove difficult for a small girl to cope with, and we ultimately see how this progresses for the family.

I didn’t read this one when I was younger, but I know that I’d have been completely taken with Marigold - her dress sense, her tattoos, her dinners consisting only of cake and chocolate, her penchant for allowing the girls to do whatever they liked. I hope I’d have understood some of the underlying issues here, but I know Marigold would have captivated me.

As an adult, I was horrified to see two little girls exposed to the worst aspects of a mental health decline. For them to have no other adult to turn to, given the biased opinion of their teachers and neighbours, was utterly heartbreaking. I think Wilson handled this perfectly, with the girls feeling they needed no one outside of their family unit, only to be shown by the end of the novel that help is available and can work wonders.

This was released in 2000, and though we’ve come a long way in understanding mental illness since then, some of Wilson’s commentary here is still very relevant and important. The social bias in particular is still rife, and the reluctance to seek help very much still a thing. Although Marigold is worried about electric therapy and straitjackets, while our hesitation is mainly due to stigma, NHS waiting times, and a British abhorrence to showing weakness, the reluctance is still a huge factor for us almost twenty years after this novel was published.

A truly wonderful handling of a difficult topic - engaging, heartwarming, and bloody important. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Book #89

Is this a dagger which I see before me? by William Shakespeare

This collection of Shakespeare's soliloquies, including both old favourites and lesser-known pieces, shows him at his dazzling best.


This was a nice little collection of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. Although in a collection such as Little Black Classics, why has it taken until book 113 for a Shakey inclusion?

Although it’s a treat to read the most famous and evocative all at once, there was something quite jarring and disengaging about reading them in this way. Penguin provide short explanations before each, in order to give context, but of course they are far better consumed as part of the whole.

Despite that, I’ve now been incentivised to read some of Shakey’s plays which I had no interest in before, mainly the Henrys. Some of the passages were truly excellent, particularly those dealing with the characters’ mental states as a result of war, or the fight for the crown; I’m excited to delve further into these.

A decent addition to the range. Penguin haven’t totally missed the mark with this, but could have benefitted from a little more thought towards the context and inclusion. 

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Book #88

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.


I do love a good swashbuckle, and Dumas has really swashbuckled me into oblivion here. Combining action and romance, he paints a beautifully fictionalised picture of the king’s musketeers and the cardinal’s guards in the early 1600s.

That he takes such poetic license with historical events is wonderful. In true Romantic style, he shows us how wars were begun as a result of love, how duels were sought in a woman’s honour, and how chivalry and friendship were the unerring catalysts of danger.

His prose is gorgeous and engaging, his mysteries engrossing, his characters glorious. He builds his story and his people slowly, gradually revealing both the main plotline and the players who will carry this out. The relationship between the four musketeers was executed perfectly, really displaying what can be gained by humanity and kindness. The villain is given to us exquisitely; she is frightening in a contrastingly non-violent manner, far more scheming and intelligent than anyone else on the board.

I truly didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, and as my first Dumas, I’m delighted to have finally read it. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Book #87

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

In this charming book from 1906, Okakura explores Zen, Taoism, Tea Masters and the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony.


Tea. I’m not into it.

I didn’t finish this one. From reading other reviews, I recognise I have probably missed out on some gorgeous Asian customs, architecture, and prose, all of which crop up later in the book. I mean, just read the excerpt printed on the inside cover:

'Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.'

Gorgeous.

I just simply could not continue reading how tea is brewed. These explanations, I imagine, are to be gotten through before you hit the good stuff. Friends, I could not.

Which poses the question - why on earth are you reading The Book of Tea? And the answer, of course, is that I’m trying with every fibre of energy I possess, to finish the Little Black Classics range once and for all, and put them safely into my reading past where they belong.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Book #86

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.


Wholesomely bleak seems like a true oxymoron, but it’s a wonderful way to describe this novel. Poverty and joy, cruelty and kindness, struggles and celebrations; Smith gives all, and it truly is glorious.

The novel traverses the life of Francie, a Brooklyn girl in the early 1900s. At our first meeting, Francie is eleven years old, and we’re allowed to make our way through life with her until her late teens. Smith wonderfully details the things that excite and fascinate her at eleven, only to slowly advance her into almost-adulthood, where very little is big and wonderful any more. It’s a sad, yet relatable fact that we all become apathetic and less imaginative as the years progress. It’s an excruciating blow to an adult reader, which made me wish I’d read this earlier in life when hope was abundant.

Francie’s life, and the life of her family, is difficult. She’s given a poverty-stricken home, an alcoholic father, and the curse of being born a woman. Every obstacle seems to be against her, and yet Francie sets her eyes forward to the future she wants, sometimes erring in her determination, but always returning to her resilient personality.

Smith consistently hits the family with tragedy and woe, yet always juxtaposes this with the notion that the world has more good in it than evil. Every single black cloud comes with some sort of silver lining, whether that be the kindness of humanity, or simply a life lesson. Francie develops throughout the novel as a result of the struggles in her childhood, becoming the woman her family knew she could be, and it’s heartwarming to watch her grow.

It was glorious to see Brooklyn set in this age; I loved reading the social commentary from Smith here. One particularly interesting mainstay was the idea of ‘what will the neighbours think’, present in situations ranging from babies born out of wedlock, to the noise created by a husband aspiring to become a one-man band. What other people will think or say is far more prevalent in poor communities than in the wealthier, and Smith presents this as bring down to a stronger grasp on morals and religion.

The different ethnicities shown in the book also make for fascinating analysis. Although Smith reinforces that they simply do not mix together, Francie often visits Jewish and Chinese neighbourhoods to buy provisions, witnesses Germans drown out their holiday singing, and even mistakenly offends someone by using a racist slur which she wasn’t aware was a slur. The commentary is very subtle, and yet the differences in comparison to how we behave now are clear, and Smith makes very apparent hints towards the status gained by those whose parents were born in America. Even Francie feels pride as she stands up in (a very white) class to announce both her, and her parents, had been born there. Many had parents who had made the journey looking for a better life, so this makes Francie feel like a true American. I doubt I need say more.

Although this could be considered a coming of age tale, particularly for young adults, I absolutely loved reading this as it’s so much more than those things. It’s heartbreak, it’s love, it’s family, and most importantly, it’s human. Thank you, Betty Smith.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," thought Francie, "something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains - a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone - just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”