The weather has been dreadful recently, but I don’t mind a bit of rain so much when I can head to a cozy cafe for coffee and cake with a good book (or several). Because of my job at Booktrust, I’m lucky enough to get my hands on review copies of lots of great new children’s, teen and young adult books. Here are some of those I’ve recently been enjoying:Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman I fell hard for this book: a quirky story of first love and first heartbreak, beautifully told by Daniel Handler, who you may know better as the author of the Lemony Snicket series. It’s an unusual book in all sorts of ways but for me what really sealed the deal were Maira Kalman’s gorgeous, faux-naif colour-saturated illustrations. I love that we are beginning to see more illustrated books for teens and young adults, and these beautiful artworks perfectly fit with the atmosphere of the book.Debutantes by Cora Harrison From its sugar-plum coloured cover to its delicious descriptions of flapper fashions,Debutantes is a delight. Set in 1923, it’s the story of four sisters growing up in a crumbling country house – but in spite of their lack of money and social connections, the girls are determined to make their way to London and experience the glitter and glamour of the roaring twenties. Each has an ambition – Daisy, the central figure of the story, aspires to become a famous film director, whilst Poppy aims to become a jazz musician and eldest sister Violet simply wants to be the perfect debutante. I wasn’t always totally convinced of how true this really was to the period - sometimes the bubbly confidence and open-mindedness of Daisy and her sisters did seem a touch unlikely for 1920s teenagers. But really, who cares about accuracy when it’s this much fun? Anyone who (like me) love the Mitfords and I Capture the Castle will enjoy this charming novel.The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo I do like a good fantasy and The Gathering Dark is great fun: the first in a trilogy set in the fictional country of Ravka, which focuses on its magical elite, known as the Grisha. Our heroine is downtrodden orphan Alina, whose life changes dramatically when she discovers she has magical powers of her own. Drawing on Russian traditions and folklore, Leigh Bardugo has created a vivid fantasy world: the plot rattles along with plenty of exciting twists and turns, and Alina makes for an engaging heroine.The Abominables by Eva IbbotsonThis completely delightful book is a hugely fun, warm and imaginative story – but nonetheless, reading it left me feeling sad. Why? Simply because it’s the last book from the wonderful Eva Ibbotson. The incomplete manuscript for The Abominables - a lovely story about a family of kind-hearted yetis who go on an unlikely road-trip – was found among the author’s papers at her death in 2010, and has been completed by her son, but nonetheless this is vintage Ibbotson in the tradition of One Dog and His Boy and Journey to the River Sea. Undoubtedly a classic in the making.What’s Up With Jody Barton? by Hayley Long You’d be forgiven for glancing at the brightly coloured, doodled cover of this slender novel, and dismissing it as another funny romance for younger teens, but Hayley Long’s newest book is full of surprises. This is the story of Jolene and Jody – twins who couldn’t be more different, at least until they both fall for the same boy. So far, so predictable? Maybe, but there’s a big twist ahead that I for one, certainly wasn’t expecting. I won’t give it away here, but I promise this isn’t your run-of-the-mill teenage book, but instead a warm-hearted, thoughtful and very readable story about family and coming to terms with who you are.The Diviners by Libba Bray Back in the 1920s again, but this time we head to New York, for the latest novel from Libba Bray. I’m big fan of Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty - a mysterious story set in a turn-of-the-century girls’ boarding school, which has much about it than your average teen supernatural romance. The Diviners publishes in September and I devoured the proof copy. It’s a beautifully-written and thrilling murder mystery set in glamorous Manhattan, complete with flappers, speakeasies, Gatsby-esque parties, and of course (this being Libba Bray) an unearthly, spine-chilling supernatural side. Every detail is perfect: I absolutely love the 1920s flapper lingo – from now on I’m only referring to alcoholic drinks as ‘panther sweat’ and ’giggle water’. The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable Also publishing this autumn is The Wolf Princess - a heartwarming children’s adventure, very much in the style of classic authors like Eva Ibbotson. Lonely schoolgirl Sophie lives a fairly humdrum existence in a dull boarding school, until a long-cherished dream unexpectedly comes true, and she and two friends find themselves heading to Russia on a school trip. But after a series of strange encounters, the three girls find themselves lost and alone in an unknown wilderness – until they are rescued by the beautiful Princess Anna Volonskaya. The Princess takes them away to her winter palace and tells them tales of lost diamonds and her family’s tragic past – but what does she really want from them? Vividly conjuring up the crumbling grandeur of the winter palace, from its dusty crystal chandeliers to the wolves howling in the forest outside, this is an atmospheric and enchanting read.The Apothecary by Maile Meloy I’d not heard of this book until it appeared on my desk at work, but something about it immediately grabbed my attention. Like How We Broke Up, it is enhanced by lovely illustrations, this time atmospheric black and white drawings from Ian Schoenherr. It’s an unusual and inventive story set in the early 1950s: Californian teenager Janie hates the idea of moving from sunny LA to cold, grey, drab post-war London, but once there things look up when she meets the rebellious Benjamin, who dreams of becoming a spy. Events take an unexpected turn when Benjamin’s father – an apothecary – is suddenly kidnapped, and he entrusts Janie and Benjamin with a book full of ancient spells and potions that they must protect at all costs. Combining fantasty with the very real nuclear threat of the 1950s, The Apothecary is an unusual, magical and highly engaging tale.PS. Picture taken at Fork, a new favourite cafe on Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury which does great coffee and even better Chelsea buns.
Here's another set of five cultural delights that have been pleasing me of late:
1. THE ROBINSON INSTITUTE
I really enjoyed this immersive and thought-provoking exhibition from Patrick Keiller at Tate Britain. The Robinson Institute documents a walk through Berkshire, Buckingham and Oxfordshire undertaken by the mysterious Robinson, a fictional academic and 'scholar of landscape' who has featured in various films previously made by Keiller. Here, the Duveen Gallery is filled with clues to Robinson's journey and which point to his strange disappearance - potent photographs of cloudscapes and pylons, offbeat maps, unusual artefacts, landscape paintings and quirky black and white film clips, creating an intriguing web of ideas and references.
2. MARIA KALMAN
I love Maria Kalman's beautiful illustrations for Why We Broke Up, a new young adult novel from Daniel Handler (who is perhaps better known as Lemony Snicket). Kalman is the illustrator of numerous books for both adults and children, and has also created many covers for the New Yorker: I love the way she combines brightly-coloured illustrations with handwritten texts in her artworks. Pictured above is one of her images from The Pursuit of Happiness, a fascinating 'visual column' she wrote and illustrated for the New York Times in 2011: read it here.
3. A MONSTER CALLS
If you haven't read A Monster Calls yet, you must. Based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, this is an extraordinary and deeply moving children's book, in which a beautifully-written text by Patrick Ness mingles and merges with incredibly powerful illustrations by Jim Kay. It's no surprise that the book has just become the first ever to win both the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway Medals. (I interviewed Patrick and Jim about winning these prestigious prizes here).
I'm never entirely convinced by the British Library's exhibitions: displays of beautiful old books are all very well but it might be more fun if you could actually read them. However, their latest exhibition, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, certainly has some real treasures in it for bibliophiles to enjoy. My highlights were a 1940s first edition Famous Five, the notebook in which Daphne Du Maurier planned Rebecca, the manuscript of Jane Eyre, a first edition of Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville and the original manuscript of Cold Comfort Farm.
I've just returned from a much-needed holiday in Italy where I spent a week staying in a beautiful cottage in a small hillside village in Liguria... a week of walking through sunwarmed olive groves; handfuls of wild cherries straight from the tree; views of a bright blue sea; befriending local cats; discovering tiny sun-faded churches; meadows sprinkled with daisies, wild sweet peas and butterflies; eating spaghetti scoglio, stuffed courgette flowers, local figs, foccaccia and torta verde; drinking prosecco and homemade grape juice; and by night, watching fireflies and hearing owls hooting to each other in the dark.
Better late than never, some thoughts on the new Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Tate Modern...
I first encountered Japanese artist Kusama’s gloriously wacky artwork in the Hayward’s group show Walking in My Mindback in 2009 and was instantly struck by its colourful eccentricity. But the Tate exhibition proves there’s much more to Kusama than the distinctive polka-dot installations for which she is best known. Starting with her early works, the exhibition traces her artistic development chronologically through the 50s, 60s and 70s, following her from rural Japan to the heart of the New York art scene. The work here is incredibly varied, ranging from semi-abstract works on paper influenced by traditional Japanese artwork to trippy films of 1960s art ‘happenings’. If one thing is clear from these early works, it’s how quick Kusama was to absorb contemporary influences, continually reinventing her work and finding new directions in response to other artists and their works.
Since 1977, Kusama has lived voluntarily in a psychiatric institution in Japan, marking something of a turning point. From here onwards, her practice seems more consistent, and we encounter works that might seem more familiar – from her soft, sculptural forms to the dizzying polka-dotted domestic space, I’m Here But Nothing. This is work that is vibrant, unexpected and often very enjoyable, yet the final installation Infinity Room – a disorientating, darkened, mirrored space which we must pass through before leaving the gallery – makes it quite clear that Kusama’s work is about more than entertaining eccentricity and jaunty coloured spots. Ultimately, this is work which challenges our perceptions of mental illness, exploring the ways that art can begin represent the disturbing experiences of psychological trauma, neurosis and obsession.
Managed to pop into Hales Gallery today to catch the final day of Laura Oldfield Ford's show,
'Transmissions from a Discarded Future'. Oldfield Ford's delicate, yet bitingly political ballpoint drawings of mundane scenes of abandoned housing estates, deserted tower blocks, derelict shopping arcades, advertisements and tall billboard posters are hugely powerful and distinctive. Taking their cue from the August riots, they fizzle with anger, casting a new light on the forgotten corners of the urban landscape.
[Images: Transmissions from a Discarded Future #1, 2011, Ink on Tyvek, 239.5x169cm and Transmissions from a Discarded Future #1, 2011, Ink on Tyvek, 239.5x169cm by Laura Oldfield Ford, via Hales Gallery]
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