Lincoln in the Bardo is the first novel by celebrated short story writer George Saunders. Already a towering figure in the literary world, his new venture was met with rapt attention by readers. Could he dominate a form he had hitherto never attempted? Short answer: A resounding ‘Yes!’
Be warned, Lincoln in the Bardo is a peculiar novel. It chooses as its subject Willie, President Lincoln’s pre pubescent son who died of typhoid in 1862. The recently departed Willie is trapped in a state of spiritual limbo as he passes between life and what comes after. The term ‘Bardo’ is borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism where it describes the bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next.
Willie rouses into his new state surrounded by a motley crew of similarly suspended souls all buried at the graveyard where he is interned. Former generals, pastors, mothers, bachelors, slaves, young virgins, lovers, misers and more are tethered to the physical realm each for a reason that torments them nightly.
Saunders fashions a wonderfully surreal purgatory for each soul from an imagination to rival Neil Gaiman. A hunter, having made a conversion to gentleness, is condemned to sit before a giant pile of all the animals he dispatched, lovingly holding each in proportion to the fear they experienced at death till they fly or totter away diminishing his heap. A rich property owner who floats “horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.” The symbolism is where the comedy crackles, and where the awaiting afterlife seems most foreboding.
Willie is waiting for his father to fetch him, blissfully unaware of his own demise. While Lincoln treads the grounds of the graveyard, head in hands, unable to fully comprehend his loss. When Lincoln steals into the crypt to share some heart wrenching last moments with his dead son we become aware of a unique connection between the two realms as son attempts to communicate with his father.
The novel is interspersed with chapters collecting varying and at times disputing accounts of events leading up to Willie’s death. The disparity is telling, revealing the unreliability of our witnesses to history. Yet the novel is told through a multitude of voices each passing seamlessly from one to another faithfully narrating the events taking place in limbo without disagreement. As if to suggest a purity when stripped of the physical realm.
Lincoln in The Bardo is a reinvention of the novel. Not for literary kicks, but for an immersive experience. Saunders tackles the big themes: love, life, loss and death, taking some enjoyable creative liberties along the way.
It is a known fact that in this world both good and bad people exist, and sadly, it is not always the former who succeed (in fact, more often than not it’s the latter). No book poses this simple truth of life quite like George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers. A rascal and coward who will stop at nothing to save himself, Harry Flashman has delighted generations of readers all over the world. Flashman comes alive before the reader and it is hard to believe that Fraser did not imbue him with a bit of himself. However, Fraser’s life shows us that this is not the case.
Fraser was born in Carlisle, England in 1925. Though Fraser was as awe-inspiring a person as his characters are in print, his early years were spent like any other ordinary English boy. In 1945 however, his life changed drastically when he joined the army— his accounts of the war are among the best memoirs of World War II that exist. It was this flair for writing that enabled him to achieve the literary success that was to follow him upon the publication of The Flashman Papers.
Let us now take a glimpse of how Fraser the soldier became Fraser the author. When the war ended Fraser became an officer, serving in Egypt. But much to his chagrin he found that peacetime soldiering wasn’t for him and he decided to try his hand at journalism instead. When in 1969 he left his job at the Glasgow Herald he promised his wife Kathleen that he would write them out of their financial difficulties. With the instantly successful Flashman Papers he did exactly that.
The series follows the adventures of the rogue and ruffian Harry Flashman as he travels the world collecting laurels and accolades through no hard work of his own. By the end of the series, Flashman has successfully slept with 486 women and though this makes him a reprehensible cad, Flashman’s one virtue is his immense readability.
Though best known for The Flashman Papers, Fraser has written numerous other books including several non-Flashman novels, among them Mr. American; The Pyrates; and Black Ajax. With Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, he wrote the screenplay for the James Bond film Octopussy, released in 1983.
For his work, Fraser received many honors, among them the Order of the British Empire in 1999.
Fraser died in 2008 of cancer, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy in his wake, full of books that are sure to delight future generations of readers.
We know how daunting a task it can be to help your children discover a new series. So we’ve done the work for you and have handpicked four popular series for your children to while away their afternoons with!
The Legends Begin (Darkmouth #1)-Shane Hegarty
There are certain towns where the border between our world and the world of monsters (called Legends) is thin. One of those towns is Darkmouth. As Legends seek to enter our world, Darkmouth is lucky to be protected by the son of the last remaining Legend Hunter, Finn, who will in turn be the last Legend Hunter in the world.
However despite his best intentions, Finn is a bit horrible when it comes to hunting Legends. And unfortunately, the terrifying Legend leader is busy planning an all-out attack on Earth, starting from Darkmouth.
The Last Wild (The Last Wild #1)-Piers Torday
In a world where animals no longer exist, twelve-year-old Kester Jaynes sometimes feels like he hardly exists either. Locked away in a home for troubled children, he’s told there’s something wrong with him. So when he meets a flock of talking pigeons and a bossy cockroach, Kester thinks he’s finally gone crazy. But the animals have something to say. And they need him. Join Kester as he embarks on an epic journey in this critically acclaimed trilogy joined along the way by an overenthusiastic wolf cub, a military-trained cockroach, a mouse with a ritual for everything, and a stubborn girl named Polly.
The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories #1)-Chris Colfer
Alex and Connor Bailey’s world is about to change as they leave their world behind and find themselves in a foreign land full of wonder and magic where they come face-to-face with the fairy tale characters they grew up reading about. After a series of encounters with witches, wolves, goblins, and trolls alike, getting back home is going to be harder than they thought and as they journey through these lands, we are taken on a magnificent journey with them in this fantastic series by Chris Colfer.
Geek Girl (Geek Girl #1)-Holly Smale
Harriet Manners knows a lot of things.
She knows that a cat has 32 muscles in each ear and that the average person laughs 15 times per day. What she isn’t quite so sure about is why everyone at school dislikes her. So when she’s spotted by a top model agent, Harriet grabs the chance to reinvent herself. However as she veers from one couture disaster to the next with the help of her overly enthusiastic father and her uber-geeky stalker, Toby, she begins to realize that the world of fashion doesn’t seem to like her any more than the real world did.
As her old life starts to fall apart, the question is: will Harriet be able to transform herself before she ruins everything?
Which series will you be picking up to bring in 2017?
A Court Of Thorn and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1)- Sarah J. Maas:
“I was not a pet, not a doll, not an animal.
I was a survivor, and I was strong.
I would not be weak, or helpless again
I would not, could not be broken. Tamed.”
This series breathes new life into the YA genre thanks to the introduction of Feyre. While some YA heroines seem doomed to a fate of ‘being fixed’ (read: controlled) by unnaturally good looking males, only feeling liberated when they levitate some knives or do some magic, Feyre subverts these notions. She is not a character that is strong from the beginning; instead she goes through an amazing arc and emerges a strong, empowered woman. The story winds up fast, in typical Maas fashion, and flies through twists and turns. The characters and their dynamic are fantastic and as a reader you will find yourself roaring with laughter at their antics.
An Ember in The Ashes (An Ember in The Ashes#1)-Sabaa Tahir
“The field of battle is my temple.
The swordpoint is my priest.
The dance of death is my prayer.
The killing blow is my release.”
Freedom will come at a heavy cost. Laia is a slave and spy and Elias is a soldier and neither is operating on their own free will. When the brutal world causes the two to meet, their stories unwind and join together, tighter and tighter. Love and loss shatter them and make them question the very different beliefs that they have grown up with. No one can be trusted- no one should be trusted. Key players in this story do not reveal themselves until the shocking end.
A love story that doesn’t overpower the plot or make you gag, earnest and sincere characters, hard choices and dumb decisions- this book is guaranteed to resonate with you. When I first read it, I was on vacation, and to the chagrin of my mother I could not put it down. Irresistible is the word for this brilliant story.
Six of Crows (Six of Crows #1)-Leigh Bardugo
“I’m a business man,” he’d told her. “No more, no less.”
“You’re a thief, Kaz.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
A testament to the brilliance of this book is that I spent a good 15 minutes choosing between quotes- there are just so many brilliant ones. This book is a YA Ocean’s Eleven, only more brilliant, more magical and with more females. It features a richly imagined story and a DELICIOUS plot (yes, edible adjective level good) – but the true triumph of this story is its characters. It contains a diverse, hilarious and unconventional team comprised of “a convict with a thirst for revenge, a sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager, a runaway with a privileged past, a spy known as the Wraith, a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums, and a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.” At times, it had me gasping, laughing and my heart racing. It was phenomenal.
Often furry and kind (if sometimes grumpy), The Last Word presents a wonderful selection of bear themed books to teach your child about family and growing up, accompanied by lovely illustrations and witty writing.
The Hide and Scare Bear – Ivan Bates
A story featuring a bear who’s not very good- he doesn’t say please or thank you, he doesn’t think about others around him, and he picks his nose. Worst of all, he plays a game called hide and scare- jumping out and scaring all animals, both big and small as he roars and laughs at their fright. But as the animals agree that they have had enough of the bear and his antics, a brave rabbit decides that the bear is truly good and can be reformed. Colorful images, funny text and a cheerful rhyme make this the perfect book to teach children to be kind and polite while also ensuring a giggle. Sometimes, even the worst of people need a helpful word or suggestion- transforming our worst enemies to our best of friends.
Where’s My Teddy? – Jez Alborough
Freddie is lost deep in the dark and scary woods and worst of all, he’s lost his Teddy. Determined to find him, he sets off deeper and deeper in the woods. To his shock, he sees Teddy, only 30 times in size. He climbs up onto Teddy’s stomach, upset and wondering how he will cuddle with a bear that won’t even fit into his bed. However, when he hears the heavy sobs of an approaching gigantic bear, he knows he’s in for even more trouble… Told through descriptive text and beautiful watercolours, this is a heartwarming story on how even the largest of creatures appreciate their teddies- and how sometimes, mix ups can result in funny surprises.
One Ted Falls Out Of Bed – Anna Currey
When one Teddy falls out of bed, he finds himself enjoying a night time adventure- while his friend continues to dream in bed. One, two, three, four, and five, Teddy flies through adventure after adventure- only to find himself missing his friend’s arms. And so his friends the trolls and mice and dolls help him find his way back to bed. A colorful story of night time adventure that helps your child learn to count to ten as you follow Teddy through a midnight adventure.
A Brave Bear – Sean Taylor and Emily Hughes
Everything is hot and grumpy for the father and son pair of bears. As the two stumble across their jungle for sanctuary, they play and jump, the jumpiest bears in the world. Little Bear finds courage in himself as he follows his father, taking his steps on his own and discovers how glorious and hopeful a tomorrow can be. A poignant story about fatherhood and growing up, this gorgeously illustrated book is reminiscent of The Jungle Book and leaves the reader hopeful for a tomorrow as glowing as the one that awaits the bears.
The Bear’s Surprise – Benjamin Chaud
Little Bear wakes up smiling to the smell of fresh flowers and spring. But where is Papa! Papa Bear is missing and Little Bear sets out to find him. We follow Little Bear through caves and pipes and circuses on his adventure through interactive cut outs in the page. The vivid images and text leave us suspenseful as we puzzle over where Papa Bear has gone. And who is this baby bear in Mama Bear’s arms? An interactive story that tells the tale of a family’s fun and adventure, Little Bear is reunited with his family with a new title by the end of the book.
The Rainbow Bear – Michael Mopurgo
Life for the snow bear is going according to plan- he roams the Arctic and meets friends while swimming in the frozen sea. However when he meets a magical human, he finds himself with the power to ask his most desired wish: to be a rainbow bear, shedding rainbows as he slides across the icy slush. However, he soon learns that one should be careful what they wish for as his peaceful getaway becomes home to hordes of humans who come to ogle at him. He is eventually caged in a human zoo, looked at and prodded. A tale of equal parts environmental preservation and of being comfortable with the skin you’re in, the illustrations and words will capture a child’s interest to leave a strong message.
I Love You Already! – Jory John and Benj Davies
Sometimes, we make unlikely friends. Meet Bear, who enjoys peace and quiet, and prefers a quiet day to himself over having company. His neighbor, Duck, just wants Bear to love him and be his best friend. He wants to do things that regular friends do: like go for walks, and race, and juggle 5 apples. Bear isn’t having any of it and he settles grumpily into the walk. Dejectedly, Duck turns to walk away and Bear explains to Duck how sometimes, friends show their love in different ways. A giggle inducing tale about friendship and play, your child will enjoy their time, whether they identify more with Bear or Duck.
The Bear Who Stared – Duncan Beedie
This curious bear holds unintentional staring contests with all the animals in the jungle: with the ladybug family who scream at him to leave them alone, the mother bird who tells him to go shoo, and the angry badger who bites the poor bear on the nose. Then the shy bear meets the frog, who teaches him to smile instead. The world suddenly changes for the bear, who makes new friends all through the wood, even with those previously annoyed by him. Richly illustrated, The Bear Who Stared will bring a smile to anyone’s face.
GRRRRR! – Rob Biddulph
Every year, a best bear contest is held- where fish catching, hula hooping, human scaring and of course, roaring is tested. For the past 3 years, Fred has remained champion. He doesn’t have many friends, but he reckons he doesn’t need them anyway if he has his medals. However this year, there’s a new bear in town and a he’s a worthy competitor- and worse still, poor Fred has lost his roar! GRRRRR! is a heartwarming tale on the power of friendship and how winning isn’t always anything.
We hope you have a beary good time reading these!
“Say it, reader. Say the word ‘quest’ out loud. It is an extraordinary word, isn’t it? So small and yet so full of wonder, so full of hope.”-Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
I clutched the book in my chubby little hands, grinning widely. Yesterday, my teacher had made it official, giving me access to the ‘big kid’ books. I was cool now. I read chapter books! At the time, it was my crowning achievement. No longer were my books restricted to three lines and a picture- now, I read paragraphs. The world had suddenly grown bigger and broader.
For the remainder of the school year, I found new tales and adventures to join in on- all crafted masterfully by Kate DiCamillo. Even now, more than a decade later, I find myself smiling fondly at the name. DiCamillo was to me a hero and a friend. As a child I had the distinct feeling of being confided in whenever I read her books; as if she was an older aunt come home from some grand adventure, telling me every detail. Rats, squirrels, or little girls; it didn’t matter what the subject matter, her stories never failed to enthrall me.
Around the time I delved into chapter books, DiCamillo had burst into the children’s literature scene with Because of Winn-Dixie, a story of a young girl and her life-changing dog; which later was developed into a film with Anna-Sophia Robb as the main lead. At the time, she had recently graduated with a degree in English and was working long hours at a book warehouse far from home in the bitter cold. The opportunity presented itself in an almost fairy-tale like manner, with her boss noticing her talent and getting her published. In 2003, she published The Tale of Despereaux, which features an adventuring mouse, a princess and a band of evil, kidnapping rats. This went on to win the Newberry Medal in 2004. DiCamillo had established herself as a force in children’s writing.
A decade later, DiCamillo went on to win the medal once again for Flora & Ulysses, a feat rarely accomplished twice. Speaking on the occasion, DiCamillo mentioned, “hands down, the biggest thrill is to get a letter from a kid saying, I loved your book. Will you write me another one?” In the same year, her immense success and talent were recognized as she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the years 2014 and 2015.
Certainly, these achievements are fantastic and key. However, the success that DiCamillo has enjoyed has been largely in the form of delighting children all around the world and managing to gain a steadily rising group of friends in the form of readers. She has created a network like no other, connecting a world of librarians, teachers, parents and of course, children.
Kate comments, “Every well-written book is a light for me. When you write, you use other writers and their books as guides in the wilderness.” It is only fitting to say that Kate has illuminated the world, one dreamer at a time.
In the 1850s when the British ruled India they found a stone seal near Harappa; it had some curious carvings and was apparently very old. By 1906, three more of these seals arrived at the British Museum and nobody was sure what exactly they were for or when they’d been made. By this time, they had caught the attention of the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and he ordered an excavation of the ruins at Harappa. What the British found there led to the rewriting of world history. It is curiously intertwined this world history: the past with the present, the colonies with the colonizer and the objects with their origins. One can also see this demonstrated in the object of the Rosetta stone, one of the most famous discoveries made and one which cannot be separated from the Egyptians, whose secrets it unlocked; the Greeks, who had it made; the French, who found it; or the British, who won it from the French in one of their almost endless colonial wars and then had this victory engraved on the stone itself. This colonial prize too now resides at the British Museum, where it is one of the most popular items on display, along with the mummies.
History is always a contested space and telling it in any new or old way is sure to fray some nerves, and attempting to tell a history of the entire world is a gargantuan challenge of its own kind. And that is exactly what Neil MacGregor tries to do in his book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. What was originally a radio show for the BBC, the project was undertaken when he was the director of the British Museum and is an eclectic history told through a myriad different objects from all around the world, telling a history which the author hopes does not privilege any one region or form over another. It is a wonderful book, and even if you get an attack of postcolonial angst at having objects from your respective history being appropriated by a Western institution, at least it forces you to actually think about your relationship with history both in general and particular.
In a similar vein, a book published recently attempts to write history a little differently too. Giles Milton’s Fascinating Footnotes from History takes various anecdotes from history and puts them into a book that is a patchwork of nuance and historical implications. There are certain blank spaces in historical narratives that always make people wonder about the “real story” of what happened. Milton tries to fill those gaps by taking incidents that would form “footnotes” in different books on history and putting them together in a book that is the tequila-shots-equivalent of history. It is history told from the bottom of the page, looking up at greater events through the prism of anecdotes ranging from double survival of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to mountaineering accidents that raise questions about who really conquered Mount Everest first. History as a truthful and exciting gossip column is still history and making it fun and diverse like this book does makes it appealing for a much larger audience.
Wouldn’t you like to be a part of that audience?
2016 has been harrowing. Much of which we’ve taken for granted, from pop-stars to physical security, has been snatched away from us. Brexit was one such unexpected demise that left Britain and the world dumbfounded. No more single market, freedom of movement or legal cover in areas of employment or human rights for Britain. What would make a population opt for such an option?
In the immediate wake of Brexit, the nation was deeply divided. Some chose to vent against minority populations, whilst some directed their ire towards the old, or non-Londoners. Yet there was one refrain I kept hearing as attributed to regrexits “I never thought my vote would count”. It was becoming apparent that the more affluent, aspirational Londoners saw themselves as having something to lose while those on the margins had had enough and were treating the referendum as a protest vote, as misguided as that response may have been. I needed to know what would drive someone to feel that they had no stake in their country’s future or prosperity.
I was quite lucky to alight on Respectable by Lynsey Hanley at that very moment. Published not more than 2 months ago, it anticipated, though could not deal with Brexit directly. Written as a study into social class and a personal account of a rise from the working class, ‘Respectable’ traces the identity of the working class in post war Britain and its deliberate dismantling in favour of a new capitalist economic model. The sense of despondency that manifested itself in the Brexit vote, can largely be attributed to government policies that limit social mobility and chipped away at the self esteem of the working class. Hanley explores the subtle demonising and its effect on an entire class.
Hanley uses herself as a case study, illustrating how from primary to high school, the educational system failed to inspire disadvantaged kids to excel, reinforcing class divisions through the relationship between teachers and pupils. As a result, the working class keep their ambitions and that of their kids in check, since they are ignored by politicians they seek comfort in the semblance of a community which is conditional on their desire not to excel.
Hanley compassionately explains how an alienated class can act against its own interest through violent resentment. There’s a desire to smash the system without an understanding of how much more vulnerable they will become.
In stark contrast the challenges faced by the middle class are few and far between. Individuals are wired to succeed, and the best resources are made available to ensure that outcome. They are free from the resentment that burdens the working class and are armed with the language and critical skills to help them assess a situation in their favour. They are destined to be blind to the challenges of the poor and in many cases unsympathetic too.
Through Hanley’s anthropological study of the classes the reader is able to empathize and appreciate how inequality has almost irretrievable divided the population. And whilst many have been indifferent to their plight, Brexit has now shown us that we do so to our own peril.
During what has been a tumultuous year, The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon swooped in to save me from utter despair with its humour, intelligence and compassion. Set in England in the summer of 1976, an arguably more peaceful era, we follow the ten-year-old protagonists Grace and Tilly as they search for a missing neighbour and signs of an elusive God. Told from the perspective of a child, the disarming innocence brings to life a community with the wry tenderness reminiscent of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mocking Bird”.
As they dig for answers in ‘The Avenue’ where they reside, Grace and Tilly encounter the private disappointments that appear to fuel public prejudices. The neighbours begin responding to the mystery of Mrs Creasy’s disappearance with increasing fear and intolerance toward those who don’t ‘fit it’, a condition which has come to define our times. As the story progresses it become apparent that the denizens of the street are harbouring their own guilty secrets of which they fear discovery. Increasing desperation finds them taking solace in an apparent and rather hilarious miracle.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep excels at recreating a soon to be forgotten era, where people aren’t driven to distraction by their devices, and are often found to rely on their wits to battle boredom. Those familiar with life in England will revel in the generous helpings of nostalgia that permeate the book. You will be left yearning for a simpler time which can come as a relief in these troubled times.
Joanna Cannon’s background in psychiatry gives this novel a sense of urgency, appealing to us to spare a thought for those living on the fringes of society. The patience and compassion exhibited here sits in stark contrast with the hysteria and tacit demonizing of mental health sufferers we see on the 24-hour news cycle. These are ordinary people dealing with ordinary struggles, and the only condition capable of tipping them into tragedy is the crippling fear of those that don’t fit in.