Monthly Archives: April 2013

You choose: what should I read next?

You choose: what should I read next?

The Library in English in Geneva had its semiannual book sale this weekend. It’s not a large library, but it provides an excellent service to the English-speaking community and has been doing so for decades. They expected to have about 20,000 books on sale, and it’s one of their major fundraisers. I’ve been a member on and off since I was tiny, so I’m always happy to give them a bit of cash.

This time, I was particularly on the hunt for Big Read books and came back with 9 new ones for about CHF20 – a bargain.

A pile of secondhand paperback books shown against a mottled white background

From top to bottom they are:

  1. The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
  2. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  3. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  4. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
  7. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundra

Which book should I read first?
Leave a comment by midnight on Friday, and I’ll read the one with the most votes first. I may work through the rest in the order of popularity, so you can keep voting after Friday, but no promises. The review of the winning book will probably go up on 10 May. I don’t expect many votes, so your definitely will count – in fact, the first commenter may well get their choice!

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I love #82 I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith to bits – I remember reading it several times as a teenager, and coming back to it was a pleasure. The only downside was that I was reading my original paper copy which has a terrible ’80s cover and doesn’t have the highlight function an ebook does.

I Capture the Castle tells the story of the Marchmains, a genteel family living in a crumbling rented castle, trying not to starve while their father works – or perhaps doesn’t – on his second book, already a decade in the making. The story is narrated by Cassandra, the middle child, age 17, and is set sometime in the late 1920s or 1930s.

Dodie Smith is most famous for her children’s book, 101 Dalmations but I Capture the Castle is nothing like that. It’s a book for young adults and adults.

Poor and upper class
Families in books for children and young adults written before the Second World War regularly seem to lose all their money and slide into a genteel poverty. We saw a version of it in Little Women, it’s in Ballet Shoes and The Railway Children and the theme crops up again in I Capture the Castle. It’s an odd sort of poverty – the old-fashioned phrase ‘reduced circumstances’ seems to cover it well: the family’s income is reduced, and in general, they have to get by with only one servant and cheap jam, unlike the majority of chronically poor people, seen in works by contemporaries like Dickens, who are too poor even to be servants and never see jam at all.

In this context, I Capture the Castle stands out for two reasons: first, the family is really on the edge, hunger is a constant presence and no one ever gets quite warm and second, they’re at least somewhat aware of the privileged position that education and class have given them, although one of their class markers is that they rarely talk about either – it would be complaining, which isn’t done.

Part of what causes the Marchmain’s poverty is the era’s limited options for women. The household comprises three adult women, two adult men and a school boy, and none of the women are qualified to do work which would support the family. It’s not for lack of willingness, but out in the sticks they have limited options and setting up in town requires capital – and clothes – they don’t have, making training as a secretary or similar a pipe dream.

Beautifully written
Part of the appeal of I Capture the Castle is the writing style and the tone of the book. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but I found it charming. In some ways, I Capture the Castle is a more grown-up version of the world found in classic children’s novels like Little Women and The Secret Garden so if you enjoyed books like that, this is a pleasing book to graduate to. It’s more desperate, a little closer to modern experience, a little grittier, but still has the same charm and delicacy. (Another one is The Saplings by Noel Streatfield, which I strongly recommend.)

I could spend all day teasing out little bits of I Capture the Castle to discuss – it’s a book which bears repeated readings and I think would be a good subject to study in school or at university. One of the major themes of the book is writing and story telling, how it’s done and by whom, but it’s not a lecture, it’s an interested exploration. Another facet is the setting – it’s at once very specific and very vague. The castle, the countryside and the seasons come through clearly, and yet the year is vague. The characters are held in stasis, almost, in a world where the First World War is a hazy memory, never alluded to, and the Second isn’t even on the horizon.

I strongly recommend I Capture the Castle – and as it’s now on Kindle, you can read the beginning on Amazon to see if you’re captured by it, like I am, before you invest.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Farmyard Knits by Fiona Goble

Farmyard Knits by Fiona Goble

Knit a whole farmyard in 15 simple patterns, from fields to farmers, chickens to cows. Farmyard Knits has clear instructions to make a complete farmyard set with animals, people and even a tractor.

I requested a review copy of this through NetGalley, and the publishers, Andrew McMeel, kindly sent it to me. I haven’t knit any of the patterns, and honestly I don’t think I will.

There are lots of things I like about this book, but sadly the designs aren’t one of them. I think the creatures and people look rather creepy, with their wide, white eyes (on a horse, isn’t that sign they’re about to bolt?) and I’m not that keen on the way some of the animals are jointed – the joints don’t move, it’s just that they look a bit odd in the way they’re attached.

I realise, however, that’ this is entirely subjective so I strongly recommend you go take a look at the cover. Do you like what you see? Then you’ll probably enjoy the book.

Clear, precise instructions
While I don’t like the designs, I am impressed with how the book is laid out. Goble seems to be writing with beginners in mind, which means she includes useful information at every step. The book opens with a list of tools and techniques – and tells you which ones the less common ones will be required for, so if you don’t want to knit the cat you don’t need to worry about satin stitch.

The patterns themselves are clearly laid out. The toys are knitted in sections which will need to be sewn up at the finish, and as usual there aren’t many pictures of the back of the animals to guide you. However, Goble does indicate where you’re starting (e.g. body is knit from neck to tail) so you know what you’re making as you knit it, and can easily match head to neck to feet when making up. I haven’t seen this before, and it strikes me as incredibly useful.

Beautifully illustrated
Farmyard Knits is part pattern book, part story book. Over the course of a day, farmers Anna and Frank, tend each of their animals and work on the farm. Each time of day introduces different creatures and the patterns to make them, and opens with a story page explaining what’s going on.

The story pages are a nice touch, and the whole book is beautifully illustrated. The knitted characters are set into drawings showing their activities – the knitted hen and her knitted eggs are sat on a drawing of a nest, the knitted pigs eat at a drawn trough which Anna fills with a drawn bucket. It’s very effective and a combination of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ which children will understand from their own imaginary play. And hopefully they’ll recognize the distinction, and not demand a knitted trough…

All in all, if you like the designs then I can see this being a good choice for a farmyard collection. I really like the fact that there’s a tractor and a playmat of fields to go with the animals, and that it’s designed to be a playset rather than ornamentation.

I received a review copy of this book through NetGalley free from the publishers, Andrews McMeel Publishing. You can see their page about Farmyard Knits here.

Everyone needs flexible working at some point, not just mothers

Everyone needs flexible working at some point, not just mothers

Andi Fox of Blue Milk is a blogger I read because she’s always smart, and makes me think, even when I think she’s wrong or I can’t relate to what she’s writing about. She has a guest post up at Essential Baby about returning to work after having a baby. In it she says:

workplace flexibility, phased returns and part-time options will help companies recruit mothers – and failure to do so leads to an unnecessary loss of skills and experience. I’m particularly encouraged by this message because for a long time I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that part-time work is the secret to happiness. And not just for mothers either! [emphasis mine]

It’s that last line I want to focus on, because I’m somewhat bemused by how tightly focused the flexible working debate seems to be in mainstream media. There seems to be a willful disregard of all the other reasons why people might need flexible working, work from home or part time roles to allow them to continue with their jobs. It’s not like getting pregnant turns women from mechanical workers into human beings with other needs and responsibilities.

In no particular order, here are a few I’ve seen in my closest circle, none of which have anything to do with voluntary motherhood and many of which have nothing to do with choice:

  • Fatherhood
  • A broken leg, swine flu and other accidents
  • Long term illness or disability
  • Panic attacks, depression and similar
  • Caring for a family member
  • Caring for other peoples’ children
  • Relocation of the workplace
  • Relocation of the home
  • Narrow field of employ + can’t relocate
  • Unexpected caring responsibilities thrust upon them
  • Religious commitments
  • Caring for animals
  • Snow and other bad weather
  • Unreliable public transport
  • Hobbies and passions

These aren’t all permanent – heck, even in Switzerland the snow melts eventually – but pretty much everyone will have one of these things happen in their life time. I certainly have, and luckily my employers have been supportive – or I’ve started looking for new work, because if an employer threatens do dock your pay because of transport delays, why would they support you if you get hit by a car?

Andi Fox comments that even in a “positive discussion about women combining work and family”:

I couldn’t help notice the odd little barb that reminded us that having a paid job and a family isn’t supposed to be easy. For instance, there was concern about how job-ready mothers will be on return to the workforce

Having a paid job and a life isn’t supposed to be easy, according to many employers. Why don’t we just admit it? The goals of most employer are not that their employees lead happy, fulfilling lives which are successful in many ways – they’re organizations designed to make money, and do that by trying to get the most work possible out of their employees.

The benefits most articles suggest working mothers demand aren’t complex or impossibly expensive. They’re, in my experience, slighter demands than the benefits many software companies offer well-paid single young men. In hip young companies, where trust is standard and creativity is expected, then you can expect to be able to do the following, without much comment:

  • Start late if the bus is late and make up missed time at the end of the day
  • Start late, just because you feel like it, and making the time up later
  • Work through lunch and leave early
  • Take a laptop home and working while you wait for a delivery
  • Check personal email in a meeting or work when your contribution is not required
  • Take personal calls in the office
  • Take a day off at short notice
  • Arrange for part or all of a commute to count as work, as you’ll be working on the train
  • Arrange your schedule or work part time so you can pursue a hobby or sport

When we talk about work-life balance as a motherhood issue and tie it up with maternity benefits, parental leave and adjustments relating to childcare, we do two really crap things. First, we separate the category ‘mothers’ or ‘parents’ from the category ‘workers’, making the smaller group fight the whole fight. Second, by stepping away rather than standing together, we ensure that what should be a general workplace improvement becomes a special privilege which you can only get if you personally grow a baby.

I had a job interview once, where one interviewer explained to me that while the contract was for 40 hours, they generally expected more and said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly) if it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t working hard enough, followed a smile, am I right? and a laugh.

A job interview isn’t the best place for a philosophical debate, but my answer was simple: I didn’t take the job. There is more to my life than work, and work needs to respect that.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

A short, rather lovely book, #16 The Wind in the Willows is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

The Wind in the Willows tells the story of Mole, who gets fed up with spring cleaning one bright new morning and blows out of his hole and down to the riverbank, where he falls in with Ratty, Toad and Badger. Hijinks ensue, and the book reminds me of nothing so much as Three Men in a Boat.

First published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows is an Edwardian idyll, packed with evocative descriptions of the English countryside – descriptions which, in my experience, are generally more pleasant than reality – picnics, boating and a little daring-do.

Talking animals eating animals
The Wind in the Willows is a story about talking animals, and I’m curious about the way that works out. It gets interesting, as a moral puzzle, when there are several kinds of animals talking to each other – and they’re not all vegetarian. Is it ethical to eat a talking animal if you are a talking animal?

Honestly, I suspect most of the authors never consider this sort of thing, and it’s one reason my own fiction rarely gets past the first few pages – I am too easily distracted and derailed by this sort of quandary. The characters in The Wind in the Willows are more like Edwardian gentlemen than real-life animals. It’s like Three Men in a Boat with fur, and without the dog. The food and the clothes and the boats are human, and it seems that talking animals do eat talking animals – we encounter rabbits as people, characters who talk and get scared, and yet Toad has a delicious pie which contains rabbit, and says this to a human woman, with no shudder of distaste:

‘O, never mind about the washing,’ said Toad, not liking the subject. ‘Try and fix your mind on that rabbit. A nice fat young rabbit, I’ll be bound. Got any onions?’

It’s something like cannibalism, honestly.

Vanished women
Like many of the other books I’ve read, both on this list and off, The Wind in the Willows is a boy’s club. All the animals are male – even when a group of animals move en masse later in the book there are no females amongst them. There are three human women in the story, and this is interesting – while they’re forthright, headstrong, minor characters, they’re all domestic workers or shown in a cleaning role. It’s interesting that all the females the animals encounter are well away from the animals’ native haunts (the river / the wood) and also doing domestic work, because it’s clear the animals have domestic workers themselves, probably female.

I was wondering about this for a while, as meals seemed to pop up without much effort, but then no one ever goes shopping in lots of books, and that doesn’t mean a bachelor can’t cook for himself – and the Mole did his own spring cleaning. However, late in the book, there are only two characters at home at one of their houses, and yet – they’re waiting for dinner to appear. Unseen hands, hands which never make it into the story, take care of these debonair gentlemen at every turn.

It’s not obvious, but it was disconcerting. Perhaps Grahame simply couldn’t figure out who would wait on a Toad or a Rat, and left it to the reader’s imagination or perhaps he was simply so accustomed to food and clean clothes appearing that it didn’t occur to him to write in a method – much in the way that most Regency romances have no smells, no sewage and are surprisingly well-lit.

I don’t want to be too cynical about The Wind in the Willows, because I did genuinely enjoy it. It starts with a lovely description of spring and spring cleaning and it did make me want to get outside and go mess about in a boat. It’s absolutely charming, and nothing very bad happens – I wouldn’t hesitate to read it with a child now and again, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a steady diet!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’m late reading Dodger – it came out last September, and typically I finish a new Pratchett book within a couple days of getting my hands on a copy. Dodger has been sitting on my shelf for months, for two reasons:

  1. There was a lot going on
  2. I started it, and didn’t immediately love it

It’s easy to explain why I turned away from Dodger, despite being rather enamoured of Terry Pratchett’s novels – it’s that Charles Dickens again.

Dodger, for those who haven’t spent as much time with Dickens as I have recently, is named for the boy thief with the laughing face and the quick fingers in Oliver Twist. It’s a speculative rewriting of history, mixing actual historical figures with a completely fictional story, deliberately changing actual events to get a better plot.

Pratchett’s Dodger is a quick, canny young reprobate, who saves a girl from a beating an in doing so gets drawn into a world of wider intrigue where he needs to use every trick and twist he’s learned in the poor parts of London to stay alive and out of the reach of those who would snuff him out like a candle.

Too much Dickens, not enough Pratchett
Dodger isn’t like Pratchett’s other books. It’s not set on the Discworld, but it a somewhat alternate-universe version of the 19th century, perhaps the same universe as Nation (which I very much enjoyed, incidentally). It’s being marketed at children, judging by the suggested reading at the end, and certainly looks like it’s going to be a Pratchett retelling of parts of Oliver Twist. It isn’t. Dodger is an entirely separate and unique story, which has more to do with Dickens’ actual life than the contents of Oliver Twist.

Dodger is something of an odd mix, I found – I think it’s like a mash up of Pratchett and Dickens, like a writing excercise taken full length. Pratchett has an extra 170 years of writing conventions and tropes to deal with, so in writing a historical novel he’s had to abandon many of his enjoyable fantastic elements but can’t really replace them with Dickens’ tricks as they’ve become cliched in the interim – particularly what I think of as ‘is it really you?’ where a chance encounter or a detail mentioned in passing causes someone to start up and cry ‘is it really you?’ as they discover that the book only has 6 characters, and therefore their missing brother, aunt, benefactor, mother and pet dog are all in the room with them already.

I’m very fond of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and not very fond of Dickens, so it’s not surprising that I was disappointed at first reading. Beyond my personal taste though, I felt that there was something a bit off about this one – a lot of the characters sounded the same to me when they spoke. I think – although I can’t tell for sure – that it’s the Vimes Does A Speech voice, which crops up in the Vimes books when he starts to lecture. Perhaps everyone was lecturing Dodger, but it did seem odd to me that so many of the secondary charcters had this same tone when Pratchett’s minor characters are usually so memorable.

The plot didn’t immediately grab me either, although I did get into it towards the middle, and finished the book in a couple of days this time round.

Too much Pratchett, not enough Dickens
Pratchett is not – to state the obvious – an on-the-spot period writer like Dickens was, and he’s had to bend history quite a bit to get his story to fit in. I’m not fond of historical changes unless they’re either clearly marked (I’d like footnotes, please, with references and suggestions for further reading) or so big that and obvious that you can’t possibly take them as fact (like dragons fighting Napoleon, for example). Pratchett’s book drags so many well-known names (like that Dickens) into the story that you hope no one would take it for direct reporting, but it’s still not always clear. I don’t quite know whether to call the changes inaccuracies, as the end notes make clear that at least some of them are deliberate, but there are quite a few things which don’t ring true, even to my untrained eye.

One thing which bothered me – and this is possibly only because I’ve just finished Oliver Twist – is that Pratchett throws Dickens into the story, but as a solidly Victorian character. And he seems like he should be, being heavily associated with the reign of that Queen, which, in fairness went on an awful long time. In Dodger, Dickens reads like a young, hungry journalist of about 20. Even allowing for the fact that gents at this period seemed to carry that phase on into their 30s and possibly longer (see Dickens’ own Pickwick Papers for an example), by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Dickens was 25 and married, a character formed in the pre-Victorian era.

There’s no mention of a wife in Dodger, and it’s written as though Pratchett’s Dodger is the inspiration for the character in Oliver Twist but it seems like Dickens in this story encounters the Dodger some time after he would have written the fictional Dodger. The Dodger first appears in Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist, a chapter first published in May 1837, according to Wikipedia. In Dodger, Queen Victoria is mentioned as not only being securely on the the throne (accession June 1837, coronation 1838) but married to Albert (1840).

All in all, I think this was probably a good book (if you like Dickens, which I don’t) but it wasn’t a book you’d recommend to someone because they told you they loved Colour of Magic or my own favourite, Small Gods. It’s very different from Pratchett’s Discworld books. I imagine Pratchett enjoyed writing it, and did it for the love of the thing, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.

He has written so many books I’ve loved to bits that I can hardly complain that I haven’t had enough – although I do always want more. It’s like someone inviting you round for dinner regularly and putting your favourite foods on the table every week – it might take months before you realise they were serving their favourite foods and it’s all been a happy coincidence. For me, the discovery that Pratchett wasn’t writing to my exact tastes has been so long in coming that I really can’t do more than grouse, looking back at all the wonderful books I’ve had, that this one was merely acceptable.

Season by altitude

Season by altitude

By any marker, it’s spring in Switzerland but what that’s like varies widely depending on the altitude. One of the things I found odd about living in the UK was that you were stuck with one season, one climate, one weather all the time. Whatever happened… just happened. In Switzerland, it’s easier to change things: you just go up or down and the season changes with the altitude.

Saturday, we went up to Verbier for the last ski day of the season (for us, anyway – others will ski on). At 2300m above sea level it was like this:

Looking out at the snow-capped alps over a deep valley. In the foreground, a house is buried to the roof in snow

That’s a small house, if you can’t tell what the snow drift covers. It’s still spring though – the sun was out, the snow was melting in streams and the ski slopes changed from ice to slush as the sun warmed them up.

Today, at 300m above sea level, the garden looks like this:

A spring garden - a bed of daffodils, pansies and primroses with green grass visible around

It’s warm enough to sit outside in the sunshine at both altitudes (bit chilly in the shade) but the difference in the look and plant growth is amazing. The snow line is a really important marker here, and this year it’s low (in meters above sea level) for this time of year – there’s more snow than normal.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

If you’ve been following along as I read my way through the List, you may have thought this day would never come. I’m here to tell you that I read a whole Dickens book in less than a week – and I enjoyed it. #182 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

Oliver Twist is a pretty well-known story, what with all the movies and the hit musical, never mind TV shows, plays, tales for children and more. It tells the story of one child, Oliver Twist, who is born in a workhouse and dragged up in early 19th century England. Oliver suffers a series of reversals, and the cast of secondary characters is astonishing – not just because of the variety but because of how they take over. You don’t even see Oliver for chapters at a time, but I certainly didn’t care.

I didn’t find the story upsetting but there is plenty of grief in the book, and a lot of violence, including towards children. However, it didn’t bother me –  I can’t usually take it any more seriously than the characters do, and Dickens goes so wry at those points that I quite often had to reread a passage to realise that something quite grim indeed had just happened. But it’s worth a warning.

Somewhat implausible
Oliver has the most luck of any child in any story I’ve ever read. It’s not all good luck – far from it, most of it is dreadful luck – but honestly, if you knew Oliver you’d be tempted to send him to buy a lottery ticket because either he’d win or be abducted by aliens or fall down a hole and land in a dragons hoard, and whatever happened, it would be entertaining.

Oliver himself is of the faint and faithful, delicate and good child. I doubt Dickens invented the type, but between Oliver, Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol) and poor little Nell (who I haven’t actually encountered yet, as The Old Curiosity Shop isn’t on the list) he certainly added to its numbers. Thanks to his faint, faithful, goodness, he very nearly expires several times and almost vanishes from the novel entirely, shoved aside by much more vivid characters.

And, oh, Dickens is good at a character portrait, when he’s having fun. The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Sikes, the good Doctor, the workhouse beadle and the matron – the villains and quirky characters are a delight, steal every scene shamelessly and make the book. It starts with a bang and carries on with new twists and turns in every chapter – none of the waiting around I found in Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. Start Oliver at the beginning and run with it through to the end.

Not unproblematic
If you’re familiar with the text, you’ll notice I didn’t mention Fagin. Dickens first published Oliver Twist in 1837, and it ran as a serial story until 1839, neatly covering the period when Queen Victorian became queen and was crowned. So although Oliver is often treated as a tale of Victorian squalor, it’s actually earlier than that.

Which is to say, that if you thought Victorian attitudes to certain sections of society were unreconstructed, you should see their predecessors. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, a hanging was a good day out, the British Empire was a brilliant scheme for dealing with foreigners and savages and people were only just starting to consider the idea that starving poor people to death might not be an appropriate punishment for the crime of being unlucky.

Fagin is a very memorable character. He’s thief-in-chief of a gang of juvenile delinquents. He’s taken up and trained each of them, looks out for them, to a certain extent, and makes sure they’re fed and kept in gin and tobacco. He’s intensely miserly, doesn’t care much about anyone but himself and is thoroughly unpleasant. He’s also Jewish. Which wouldn’t, of itself, be terrible except that it’s so rare to see a Jewish character in Great Works of English Literature before 1950 (partly because the Jewish texts aren’t considered Great Works generally, maybe Pretty Good Works or perhaps Unjustly Forgotten works, like, oh, all the rest of the Others) and Judaism is mentioned like a vice, another bad character trait when the character is already cringing, creeping, miserly, grasping and physically disgusting, like Shylock in Merchant of Venice.

Dickens tagged his characters – the ginger hair, the white waistcoat, the angel, the brute – so people would remember them throughout the months and years of reading a serial in installments. Fagin is ‘the Jew’ – he’s pretty much the only Jewish person in Dickens, so in one, narrow, sense it’s a reasonable appellation, but in another: it sucks.

Wikipedia suggests that Dickens was made aware of this problem and worked to correct it, which is interesting and – like the conversation about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does raise the question of which edition one should read: the first (‘true’) edition? the later (‘director’s cut’) edition? an even later, even cleaner one? I, personally, tend to see this sort of change as correcting a mistake – like tweaking a story to fix a plot hole or factual inaccuracy, but one does have to draw the line somewhere, and other texts are trickier.

All in all, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. I’ve read it twice now, and think it’s a good story and probably my favourite Dickens so far. I’ve been told to look forward to David Copperfield – that and Bleak House are the last two on the list, so any words of encouragement are welcome!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Topsy-Turvy Inside-Out Knit Toys by Susan B Anderson

Topsy-Turvy Inside-Out Knit Toys by Susan B Anderson

Susan B Anderson’s latest knitting pattern book is a collection of 15 transforming toys, with detailed instructions and illustrations, including step-by-step photos of the transformation.

If you haven’t met me in real life, you might not realise that I knit a lot. And I’m kind of into knitting in a big way – I run a twitter feed @YarnNewsUK which is about, well, YARN. Lots of it. And I used to work for Simply Knitting magazine which is still awesome, even though I’m not there any more. And, of course, there’s The Stash.

So, what I’m saying is: when I saw this book on NetGalley, I had to ask for a review copy. And I was thrilled to bits when the publishers, Artisan, sent it to me. (You can see what Artisan have to say about Topsy-Turvy here and what the author had to say here.)

The book is adorable. Absolutely charming. I will say that not all of the patterns grab me, but then I don’t expect them to. (And I would be in a serious pickle if I wanted to cast on the whole book at once.) I really like the things which turn into things they would be inside toys, like a dog which turns into a kennel and a penguin which turns into an egg.

Hard to picture? Yeah, a little. Check out this video which shows each of the toys transforming (and also gives you a good idea of scale).

Direct link to watch the video on YouTube

Although I haven’t knitted any of the patterns (yet!) I’m confident that the patterns are easy to follow and clear – I’ve been bitten one too many times by adorable-but-impossible, so I really do read all the way to the end of the pattern now. At least half the time. Or maybe a little less. Anyway, Anderson’s patterns are fairly simple – if you don’t mind a bit of sewing up – and are clearly written and well illustrated, so I think these projects would be suitable for a patient beginner, maybe an older child even.

A few more positives:

  • Patterns are arranged from easier to harder
  • Step-by-step tutorials, some basic, some more advanced
  • With photographs
  • Which are referred to by page number in other patterns
  • Clear illustrations of the toys – very helpful for making up, particularly faces
  • Explains how to sew faces – with photos and stitch techniques (this is rare)
  • Gives size of finished item
  • Clear section headings

I’ve only a couple of things to say as words of caution:

  • Smallest unit of yarn is ‘one hank’ where ‘a short length’ may be more accurate – my tip for tiny amounts is to buy tapestry wool, which is usually about DK or sportweight and comes in 10m lengths
  • There are a lot of small pieces, and a lot of sewing up – this is typical for toy making, but it’s still worth saying
  • It could have done with more shots of the back of the toy. I realise the front is the best bit, but when you’re making it up, you want to get it all right

Overall, I was really pleased with the book, and would definitely like to knit something from it. It’s a hit with the rest of the house, too, as the patterns really are quite clever, so I imagine that the toys would make good gifts.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

The original edition of #46 Animal Farm by George Orwell was sub-titled A Fairy Tale and honestly, it reads like one. For the most part, it reads like a slightly grittier Enid Blyton.

Animal Farm tells the story of a group of animals, somewhere in England, who take over the farm. However, with their mix of abilities and needs, they rapidly run into problems.

It’s a very short book, and easy to read – however, Animal Farm is a book with not-so-hidden depths. Like fairy tales, there’s plenty going on behind the surface story of pigs and sheep.

Allegory all over
Animal Farm is an allegory, using the animals to tell Orwell’s version of the history of Russian communism. Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945, when the Cold War was just kicking off and McCarthy wasn’t even a senator yet. However, capitalists had been worried by communism since before the Russian Revolution in 1917, which overthrew the Tsar and the aristocratic system, so Orwell wasn’t carving a new path so much as following a six-lane highway.

However, Orwell was, himself, a socialist and not so much anti-communist as anti-Stalin, although with almost 70 years between his writing Animal Farm and my typing this, the distinction has blurred. Too much has happened since to make untangling what Orwell meant and the context in which it would have been received at publication simple. In 1945, the war was fresh as new paint and all the horrors and brave deeds had not yet been revealed – we’re still waiting for some things to be declassified now, after all. Suffice it to say that the revolution in Animal Farm stands in for the events of 1917, Napoleon is Stalin and Snowball is mostly Trotsky, and if none of those names mean much to you, you’re going to miss a lot of what’s going on in the book.

Out of date or ripe for a modern reading?
As it’s so clearly rooted in a particular situation, not just Orwell’s story of the Russian Revolution but also their role as Allies in the Second World War, Animal Farm has lost a lot of its subtlety with the passing decades – not because the text has changed but because the readers have. One of the first major news events I remember is the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 (I was 6) and by the time I got through to high school, the Cold War was already part of the history program. For most new readers, Animal Farm is going to be a story about some pigs – to try to put it in its proper context, you have to work at it.

That said, the messages Orwell presents, the ideas inside the story and the techniques Napoleon uses to gain power and control are still strong, shocking and valid. With the omniscience of a reader, it’s hard to see how the animals could be led on by the pigs and accept the changes they insist on, and yet it all sounds familiar, too. Napoleon’s tactics don’t require an actual army to be effective – you’ll find bullies in schools and workplaces as well as at the head of a state, and forewarned is, to an extent, forearmed. Perhaps now, the strength of Animal Farm isn’t its scathing attack on one bully, but the sympathy it draws for the victims of all bullies. I didn’t like the book well enough to reread it immediately, but it’s interesting to consider the lies, intimidation and misinformation in other contexts – to think about reading Animal Farm as an allegory for domestic abuse, for example, or schoolyard bullying, rather than violence and cruelty on a national scale.

Animal Farm is very short and quick to read, but it’s one to think about. It’s like poetry – it’s not the time you spend reading it but the time you spend living with it in your head that really makes the book.

Animal Farm is available for free on Project Gutenberg Australia – it’s only out of copyright in a few countries, so do check before you download if it’s legitimate in your area. I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.