Book Recommendations: May 2013
By Appa the Gypsy
Maybe you’re like me, and you’re forever drowning in that pile of books to read that’s always growing, and never seems to shrink. Maybe you wish you read more, but you don’t know what’s worth picking up. Either way, there really is never enough time to wade through the contents of the bookstore or the library and work out which ones you love and which ones aren’t really your thing. That’s what recommendations are for! We all need a little help working out what’s out there. So I’m here to help you find something you might like to pick up, by telling you about books I’m glad I’ve read, and in return, maybe you’d like to tell me about some of your favourite books, so I can check them out.
Children’s Fantasy: The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton is a children’s author whose work has remained popular for decades, and for good reasons. Her ideas are creative, imaginative and fantastical, and they’re the kind of stories that imprint themselves on your imagination. As a kid, I was massive fan of the Faraway Tree, and adventures of the children who lived near the Enchanted Wood it was located in.
Essentially, the Enchanted Wood is a place where all sorts of fairy folk and strange creatures and people live. They come out at night for festivities and merriment, but keep to their homes in the whispering trees of the woods during the day. Three children, Jo and his younger sisters, Bessie and Fanny, move to the country, into a cottage near the large wood. One day, they climb the largest tree in the wood, meet the eclectic inhabitants of the Faraway Tree, and find that it leads up to the clouds, and into a new, fantastical land every time you visit. Some of the lands are fun, like the Land of Birthdays, and some are most certainly less enjoyable. Lots of complications arise from the children’s visits, including their getting stuck in lands after they’ve moved away from the top of the Faraway Tree. In the later books in the series, they are joined by other children, including their cousin and by their devious friend, Connie, neither of whom want to believe in the Faraway Tree to begin with.
Enid Blyton’s work has become quite outdated as the years have passed, and it has been criticised for sexist and racist undertones. These are less of a problem in the Faraway Tree than in Noddy and the Famous Five, but the girls do spend much more time indoors in the kitchen while Jo is outside working in the garden, so there’s that. But that’s just a general warning. As a kid, I never put that much thought into it, and Enid Blyton is said to have commented that she had little regard for the opinions of critics who were not children themselves. The Faraway Tree is a great series to read with your child before bed. The chapters are short, and usually round up nicely at the end of each one. The language is quite simplistic, but the enjoyable characters and magical lands make up for that. The books are also generally quite wonderfully illustrated, as well, which is something I know I appreciated as a child. The pictures helped me visualise the lands that the children encountered, and the unusual things they did and saw.
1) The Enchanted Wood
2) The Magic Faraway Tree
3) The Folk of the Faraway Tree
4) Up the Faraway Tree
Young Adult Historical/Supernatural Fiction: The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Diviners, by Libba Bray, is about a 17 year old girl, Evie, who is exiled from small-town Ohio to New York City in 1926 where she goes to live with her uncle at his museum. While she’s there, a bunch of grisly, occult-connected murders begin to pop up and the police ask Evie and her Uncle to help them solve them. The book revolves around this group of characters trying to solve the crime, with many of the characters having secrets or abilities themselves. If you enjoyed Libba Bray’s other novels, particularly A Great and Terrible Beauty, then you will definitely enjoy this. It’s a bit of Criminal Minds mixed with Charmed and some of The Great Gatsby thrown in. The Diviners gives us some great characters whose secrets we are dying to find out and a thoroughly creepy murderer. It is most definitely a page-turner and I look forward to the next book.
Adult Literary Fiction: Foe by J.M. Coetzee
This might seem like a strange recommendation from me, what with my general preference for Fantasy and Sci-Fi, but I actually really enjoyed reading Foe, despite it being a text I had to study this semester. Most people know the general story of Robinson Crusoe. Guy gets shipwrecked on island and is eventually saved. Pretty simple. And it’s been the basis for thousands of stories, novels and films since it was written in the 1700s. Anyway, the thing you have to understand about Foe is that it’s pretty much Robinson Crusoe fan-fiction. It’s like the author asked themselves two questions: “What if Robinson Crusoe was a true story?” and “What if a girl turned up on the island?” The only important questions you really need to ask, I guess. And then he wrote a novel about it.
My advice, in preparation for reading Foe, is to look up the plot of Robinson Crusoe on Sparknotes or something, just to get a slightly more in-depth idea of the plot, at the very least, instead of just guy gets stuck on an island, because there is more to it, and knowing that will clear up a lot of things for you. I would also suggest that you do some research on the life of Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, and look into his other works, because Foe is littered with references to both his life and his other novels (particularly Roxana and Moll Flanders), despite Robinson Crusoe being the primary reference for the novel. The point is, this is a novel that you can just read, but I’m telling you that the more background information you have, the more it will make sense, and the more you will appreciate the way it’s been written, and enjoy what’s been done with the text.
So, Foe follows the journey of Susan Barton, who finds herself castaway on the same island as a man named Cruso (Robinson Crusoe) and his companion, the mute, former slave/cannibal, whom Cruso has named Friday (his origins cannot be discovered due to his inability to communicate his story). At this point, Cruso and Friday have been trapped on the island for decades, and Cruso has lost any hope or desire of being returned home. Susan cannot understand this, and she spends her time trying to get information out of Cruso about how he came to be on the island, what Friday’s origins are, and why they don’t expend more of their efforts trying to escape what she sees as their island purgatory. The novel reveals notable differences in the characterisation for Cruso, in that he’s kind of lost his mind, and doesn’t really know his own story any more, he doesn’t keep track of the days or keep a journal, and he makes no effort to really communicate with the language-deprived Friday. After a year, the trio are rescued, but Cruso has fallen ill, and doesn’t survive the journey back to England. Susan takes it upon herself to take responsibility for Friday and to find someone to document the story of the island. Susan contacts a Mr. Foe (Daniel Defoe), and essentially stalks him for a while, as she tries to get him to make a story out of her tale of sitting on an island trying to block out the sound of a wind for a year. The novel deals with questions of fiction and history, fact and entertainment, as well as questions of language and communication, feminism, and post-colonialism. So, in other words, it deals with a lot, and it really gets you thinking.
I found Foe to be vividly written, littered with sneaky references to the history and fiction of Daniel Defoe, and thought-provoking to boot. Susan represents the historian, trying to make sense and make a story out of events that she has no understanding or experience of. She also represents the colonialists, intent on taking care of the ‘uncivilised’ Friday, but unwilling to accept that he might be capable of truly learning or making decisions for himself. A majority of the novel is told through Susan’s letters to Mr. Foe, and it is mostly comprehensive, with the exception of the final chapter. Foe rounds itself off by questioning all the events of the novel. Maybe it was all fiction. Maybe it was all fact. Or maybe it was a mix of the two, written by a man who knew the value of an exciting tale. This is a book for a very specific taste, I think, but it’s an interesting look at a well-known text which was originally marketed as a biography, and I found it enjoyable as a kind of egg hunt for references to the original text, which was weirdly fun.
Fun Fact: Enid Blyton wrote a lot of books. Like, a lot. Thousands. And she also wrote a massive collection of short stories and poems. So much that’s actually really difficult to keep track of. These guys have done an epic job trying, though…
Feel free to comment and suggest any books or series to me or our other readers that you’ve liked. Even though I do suffer from the never-shrinking pile of books I have to read, I think I’d be lost without it too. It’s like a constant challenge that I’m accepting, so don’t feel bad for adding to that pile. In fact, come at me with your recommendations. Challenge accepted.