Tag Archives: recommendations

Cards on the table

     cardturner A few weeks ago, I picked up my copy of The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar, for the first time in over a year. I jumped into the middle and started reading, skimming through in the assurance that I remembered the plot well enough to simply dabble with rereading. Within ten pages, I was in tears, and I’d remembered why I first fell in love with this novel, when I reviewed it after its release: below is the review I wrote–every word is still true.

Bridge. Louis Sachar, award-winning author of the spectacular young adult novel Holes, had decided to write an entire novel about bridge. I couldn’t believe it. With all the wonderful, fascinating, creative ideas to write about, with all his genius and potential…he chose bridge. I’m a huge fan of Louis Sachar, but when I heard this, even I doubted his ability to make a book about a teenage boy who turns cards for his legally blind great-uncle exciting (an opinion which, according to Sachar’s introduction, was shared by his publisher, editor, wife, and agent). As a result, my attitude when I picked up The Cardturner, was, let us say, sceptical. Then I started the book. Not only was The Cardturner witty, engaging, clever, and wise beyond my wildest expectations, it was actually making me enjoy a card game I thought you had to be born knowing how to play. In fact, I found myself in the highly unusual position of having to force myself to put the book down in favour of things like food and sleep…I couldn’t stop reading (I love when this happens).

The novel is set in the present day, and indeed the characters and the tone are both extremely contemporary (Sachar has even managed to subtly capture the financial anxieties of the last few years). Narrator and protagonist Alton Richards is philosophical, funny, and quick, and his story, while timeless (boy goes to work for curmudgeonly relative; boy meets girl; boy learns family secrets and—well, I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story), is utterly modern. However, a compelling subplot threaded throughout also recreates a time when bridge was played in all the best houses (especially that big white one in Washington, DC), when “I Like Ike” was a national catchphrase, and when a woman was most definitely the property of her husband–however he might treat her.

Add to that a superb supporting cast of modern-day characters including Alton’s great-uncle Lester Trapp’s extremely unusual niece Toni (also known as his protégée and ex-cardturner), Alton’s financially-anxious parents, his ever-cool best friend Cliff (yes, the one who Alton’s girlfriend Katie dumped him for), and his younger sister Leslie (who shows more cool-headed intelligence than anyone who isn’t 11 would believe), and you have the recipe for an absolutely stellar novel.

Plot and characters alike are powerful, complex, and touched in turns by tragedy and joy, sorrow and laughter; issues of sexism, domestic violence, politics, romance, religion, and even the meaning of life are deftly interwoven in this unique coming-of-age story, as Alton struggles to discover his own identity and beliefs—inspired by everything from his remarkable yet caustic uncle, to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, to the complex, fascinating game that is unfolding before Alton as he is drawn further into the world of bridge.

Indeed, as you read The Cardturner you too may find yourself drawn into a world of excitement and intelligence: Sachar, himself a devotee of bridge from a very early age, infuses the story with his passion for the game as he offers instruction on everything from the basic rules of bridge to sophisticated and intriguing ploys to aid you at the championship level. These instructions, preceded by the image of a whale (inspired by another dense epic, Moby Dick, which similarly goes into detail that, while important, isn’t strictly relevant to the main story) so, as Alton says “if that makes you zone out, you can skip ahead to the summary box,” where the play is described as briefly as possible and you can get back to the plot. However, Sachar’s intelligent, accurate, and cleverly colloquial description of the plays will have you diving deep into the details of bridge, relishing the excitement inherent in the explanation.

Louis Sachar is well-known as a smart and funny writer. But until you read this book, you cannot fully grasp just how truly and completely wise and talented he really is: he doesn’t shy away from complex ideas or profound discussion, but weaves these threads in with a magnificent deftness of touch and such an engaging tone that the most reluctant reader cannot help but be inspired. The next time you’re looking for something new to read, take a chance on The Cardturner you won’t regret it, and it might just change your life; it’s certainly changed mine.

Four years later, I still stand by my last line.

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This is not a list post (part II)

Our last list (or non-list) focused on books for those who enjoy lots of pictures with their text, who are frequently found to be between the ages of very very small and about 8 or 9 (however, these age descriptions are pretty loose: we both enjoy lots of pictures with our text, and are both significantly outside that age bracket). In this post, we’re going to take a crack at some of our favourite novels. We say “some,” as naturally there’s no way we could ever make a complete list of our favourites (as I doubt anyone could–how would such a list be finished during one’s lifetime?), and even the titles we’ve compiled thus far are far too numerous to fit into one post–but it’s a starting place.

As before, we shall begin at the beginning, with some of the glorious novels we enjoyed as children:

  • Here Comes Charlie Moon – Shirley Hughes. We know, we know–Shirley Hughes again. But can you really blame us? What could be better than a seaside mystery, with sweets, disguises, eccentrics, a perilous waxworks, and a hall of mirrors; never precious or cloying, this is a glorious adventure story that bears endless rereading.
  • The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge. A shimmering wonder of a tale, it sparkles like moonlight on the sea, and glows as brightly as a hearth fire.
  • The Princess and the Goblin – George McDonald. Immerse yourself in the the world of courageous Irene, stalwart Curdie, and Irene’s mysterious and beautiful many times great grandmother.
  • The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson. Ever wonder where J.K. got the inspiration for her magical doorway? Look no further.
  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome. The book that launched a thousand log rafts…not to mention at least one summer of sleeping in the backyard every night. No childhood should be without it and its splendid companions.
  • Half Magic – Edward Eager. What would you do if you found a magic coin…but it only granted half wishes?
  • Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren. Naturally.
  • Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter – Astrid Lindgren. Ronia’s strength, courage and wisdom were an inspiration to both my daughters. A perfect book to read outside (if you happen to live near a forested glade or magic wood, so much the better). ~F
  • Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, by Bruce Coville. An unexpected treasure that has stayed with me to this day. ~M
  • Nicobobinus – Terry Jones. Land of dragons, pirate monks, and a boy who can do anything (just ask his friend Rosie)…Nicobobinus is a childhood treasure.
  • The Saga of Erik the Viking – Terry Jones. With little or nothing in common with the film of the same name, this book (and the one above) was a read-aloud staple in our house for years; an excellent introduction to Viking and Norse lore, it makes the mythical seem possible. ~F
  • And while we’re on the subject of melding history and magic…The House of Arden, by the inimitable E. Nesbit, does this to perfection. Elfrida and Edred Arden meet a magical Mouldiwarp, who takes them on a fantastic adventure through English history. ~F
  • The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster. My sister and I went through the tollbooth countless times during our childhood, and on every journey discovered something new and magical about the fantastical world of language and mathematics. (who knew math could be hilarious?) ~M
  • The Van Gogh Cafe – Cynthia Rylant. A perfect gem of a book, I still carry a copy in my bag, for those days when I need a little gentle wisdom, or to be reminded of the beauty and wonder in the everyday. ~M

To be continued…again (and again, and again.)

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Homage to the Queen

   

I was eight when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones novel, Charmed Life; more than 15 years later, having read almost all her canon, I consider her one of the most influential and important writers of my life. She created an abundance of extraordinary, wonderful characters, whom I love to this day; she invented a host of magnificent, magical worlds that it was my dearest wish to visit; and always, she moved and inspired me with her beautiful, brilliant stories. Perhaps, however, the most lasting gift that Diana Wynne Jones has given me is that of her language. There are certain adjectives and phrases, now a treasured part of my writing style, which I first discovered in Diana Wynne Jones books, and particular words that I cannot read or write without thinking of her. Her grace, her warmth, her ability to weave together intricate strands of poetry, mythology, compelling humanity, and true magic in engaging, elegant, easy prose, that dances along the page and makes me laugh aloud with the sheer delight of it, is something that has shaped my understanding of the written word. Jones was a woman for whom the world provided a cornucopia of trials and torments—her childhood was nothing short of Dickensian—but in reading her work, what surpasses the imagination, the cleverness, the depth and richness of her storytelling, is the incredible joy that infuses every word of it. If she had given us nothing else, her invention in A Tale of Time City of the glorious, meltingly amazing 42 Century Butter Pies, widely renowned among connoisseurs of imaginary food, would surely have been enough to secure her standing as a literary legend.

When I was ten years old, I read Howl’s Moving Castle; it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t realise then what a part it would play in my life. In this marvellous novel of fairytale curses and misperceptions, hats and scarecrows and demons, Jones uses a poem by John Donne as a spell; at age ten, I knew nothing of this 17th century icon, but his words enchanted me nonetheless—I set out to find the poem and read more like it. 11 years later, I am still under the spell of Donne’s language, his complexity, the incredibly layered nature of his writing, and the deep joy that shines through it. The same things, in fact, that have for so long inspired, shaped, and moved me in the magical, lyrical, powerful writing of the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones.

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This is not a list post (part I)

    

When we started this post, we had planned to write a list of 20 books that we considered the most influential in our lives; but the more we tried, the more we were troubled by our approach: for one thing, our decision to select twenty was incredibly arbitrary; for another, Freda, especially, hates “top 20” lists, because you always end up having to cut something good or important in order to make things fit. Thinking about it, we realised that this is really a problem we’ve both had for years: all too often, you end up being forced to cut something valuable in order to make things fit a certain, standardised, frame.

(Disclaimer: we’ve both worked as editors, so we also know the importance of a clean cut when necessary.)

So with that said, here is the first part of our list (unnumbered) of books that have meant something to one or both of us, and that, for one reason or another, we recommend to as many people as possible. Further lists will appear as we go.

In the beginning was…

  • Shirley Hughes. Because no childhood should be without the guiding spirits of Alfie and Annie Rose, or the marvellous adventures of the children from Trotter street.
  • Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney.
  • Night Cars – Teddy Jam.
  • Big Red Barn – Margaret Wise Brown.
  • Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep – Eleanor Farjeon.
  • The Dragon in the Rocks – Marie Day.
  • The Mousehole Cat – Antonia Barber.
  • Catkin – Antonia Barber. Because no one understands the mythical, mystical magic of cats like Barber does.
  • Owl Moon – Jane Yolen.
  • Anything and everything by the magnificent Janet and Allan Ahlberg, but especially Burglar Bill, whose cheery “I’ll have that!” is, to this day, a watchword in our home.
  • Jillian Jiggs – Phoebe Gilman.
  • Ox-Cart Man – Donald Hall.
  • The Tomten – Astrid Lindgren. A beautiful gift to young children, and to those who once were young children.
  • Graham Oakley. In addition to his brilliant Church Mice series, which was a staple of my childhood, Oakley also penned (and illustrated) the fabulous Foxbury Force. ~M
  • Fred – Posy Simmons.
  • Jill Barklem. Every Brambly Hedge book she ever wrote.
  • Doctor de Soto – William Steig.
  • Burnie’s Hill – Erik Blegvad.
  • Working – Helen Oxenbury. Simple as can be, I can still remember the picture of a baby covered in spinach (it struck quite a chord with our family). ~M

To be continued…(of course.)

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