Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons is another book that, for me, is crammed full of memories. Every turn of the page reminds me of someone I know or an event I have done. Whilst I read Swallows and Amazons I was surrounded by friends reading it at the same time as me, consequently, as well as being an amazing book, Swallows and Amazons holds a lot of sentimental value for me.  I think this is partly because I first read Swallows and Amazons as part of a literature study with some friends.

Swallows and Amazons is one of the best loved books on our shelves at home. As a sign of how much our family love Arthur Ransom's book the copy we own is held together with tape, and some of the pages are missing. To be fair our copy is from the charity shop but it still has been read a fair few times by my siblings and I . The twelve Swallows and Amazons books have been published world-wide, in hard-back and paper-back format, and in multiple languages. They have never been out of print and considered classics of children's literature.

From the very first time I read Swallows and Amazons I loved everything about it. I loved the adventures they had because they were realistic, they were games they had invented for themselves rather than huge mysteries that involved police. They didn't discover vast hordes of treasure, instead they did normal childhood things. Things like, hanging out with friends and inventing their own games.

As part of the literature study we not only looked at Arthur Ransom's amazing use of language to create such vivid characters and scenarios, we also had a go at creating our own Swallow, I can't remember exactly what we made them out of, or what colour the boats were, or anything really. My sisters and I did discuss it but none of us completely agree. I do remember that the boats were pretty cool and making them was great fun- I can vaguely remember having VERY sticky fingers from all the glue we used!

The characters that Arthur Ransom created is another reason I love Swallows and Amazons. The Swallows, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, are an extremely adventurous and close-knit family. When they decide to go camping the children don't argue about where they want to stay instead they have all agreed to visit Wild Cat Island. The Swallows are all natural explores and they enjoy being outdoors, discovering new places and spending time with one another. As well as group characteristics Arthur Ransome develops each of the Swallows individually using aspects such as packing the Swallow and the sorts of books they read. To Arthur Ransome his characters were real and this is very clear through the amount of detail he puts into his characters.

The Swallows parents are very supportive of them and their adventures. They allow them to sail on the lake on their own because they trust them to be responsible and learn from their mistakes. Both parents are also very active and outdoorsy which is one of the reasons that the Swallows enjoy sailing and being outside so much. The father is a particularly strong influence on the Swallows even though he is never actually present. He works on a ship and is often discussed by his children who greatly admire and respect him.

As much as I love the Swallows my favourite characters in Arthur Ransome’s book are Nancy and Peggy, otherwise known as the Amazons. I like these two girls because whilst being both responsible and practical like Susan and John they are also highly imaginative and adventurous. Clearly most at home on the lake, or at least in some form of mischief. For me I liked the balance Ransome creates in these two characters. They aren’t overly responsible and ‘grown up’ like John and Susan, who at times can consequently miss out on some of the fun, but also don’t go off and enjoy themselves leaving everyone else to pack the boat or make lunch like Titty does.

I really advise picking up and reading this book. It is full of memories and experiences that people of any age can enjoy. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks

'Tiger, Tiger' is set in one of my favorite periods of ancient history, and is written by one of my most loved authors. Without even opening this book, I knew I was going to love it. Tiger, Tiger follows the story of two tiger cubs separated at birth; one to be trained as a fighter in the arena, and the other as a companion for the emperors daughter. Two brothers, with two very different fates.

I first read this book when I was 10 and doing a history project with some friends. One girl and I were older so were encouraged to read a couple of books alongside the project, that fitted in with the time period we were studying.  In this case the period was Ancient Rome, and the book was 'Tiger, Tiger.' As I often say, I think my enjoyment of this book was heightened by reading it at the same time as my friend because we could discuss the characters and plot. The only slight difficulty with this was that Libby was a lot faster at reading than me and had usually finished the book a couple of chapters ahead -she also wasn't particularly good at keeping the ending to herself!

Reading 'Tiger, Tiger' brought the world of Rome truly alive in a way that fascinating and gripping for my 10 year old self, and is one of the reasons I went on to do Classical Civilisation at GCSE. Whenever I pick up Tiger, Tiger I think of the towering Colosseum in Rome, full to the brim with people eager to catch a glimpse of exotic wild animals fight. I think of the cool marble palace of the emperor with it’s beautiful fountains and stately rooms, and I think of the twin cubs. I think of how different their lives became but how, through it all, they remained close.

As always favourite characters are a familiar question. Often I have so many that it is hard to choose, for example in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings I will jump up shouting 'Yes! That's my favourite character!' for pretty much every single person throughout all of the books. In 'Tiger, Tiger' however my answer is a lot simpler; Marcus. Marcus is Princess Aurelia's younger, and extremely annoying, cousin. Despite being rather foolish and spoilt at the start of the novel, Marcus develops into a wise and much more reliable young man. At first he takes pleasure in teasing and causing trouble for Princess Aurelia, but after a horrifying event at the Colosseum he assumes his responsibilities. Unlike his old self, he accepts his share of the blame and guilt for what happened, realising that what he did had huge affects on everyone involved. 

I would advise reading 'Tiger, Tiger' around 10-11 years old. Maybe you could find a friend who would enjoy reading this book at the same time as you, so that you can talk to them about the characters and plot. Sometimes reading a book alongside friends, especially books that you might find difficult, makes it more enjoyable. A little while back my friend Dan read the Silmarillion. I also really wanted to read it, so decided to start at the same time. Unfortunately, due to being extremely busy at the moment, I still haven’t finished the Silmarillion however, having a friend to talk about it with has made it easier to read as much as I have and inspired me to finish it when I have time. 

As a final note,  before I go and pack for my holiday, this book is well worth reading and I encourage all of you to give it a go. There is something very inspiring about two tigers, animals we see as strong and independent, struggling to have any say in their lives. Also, who can resist a story set in Ancient Rome? 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins starts on Aunt Hill, the name given to the hill on which Rose's numerous aunts live. One of the things I loved most this book, when I read it, was the sense of reality that Louisa May Alcott creates and how relatable her characters are. One point that I found the main character, Rose, particularly easy to relate to, was when she was cooking bread in the kitchen. In this particular passage Rose is described as being red around the face, flustered and stressed. You can imagine the scene: flour everywhere, messy hair, and there, triumphantly placed in the centre of the table the loaf of bread! I really enjoy cooking but sometimes it can be quite stressful. I often feel like the recipe is asking me to be way too many places all at the same time and, consequently, often get things wrong. I have managed to add garlic butter to a cake, dropped eggs on the floor, forgotten to add baking powder, let bread rise so much that it explodes over the sides of its tray and, most recently, covered the entire kitchen in chocolate sauce! My friend, Megan, and I, didn't pay attention to how much chocolate sauce we were pouring on top of the cake. Before we knew it, it was too late. The chocolate proceeded to roll off the cake, off the plate and finally, off the work surface, before collecting in a sticky, brown puddle on the floor. It took a lot of cleaning up- especially as the sauce was very sticky!

Before I ramble on and on about my numerous cooking calamities let's return to the book that I am meant to be writing about, Eight Cousins. This is another of the books that my mum read to my siblings and I when I was was younger, I have also read it multiple times since. When I pick up Eight Cousins I think of long walks, quiet afternoons reading, baking, playing outside in the sunshine, trying new things and just generally doing all the things I love doing most. Books like Eight Cousins are great because so many of the experiences the characters have are realistic. For example, Rose learns to horse-ride, even-though, initially, she is terrified of horses. There are numerous things in everyone's life that they are afraid of, but overcome. When I was younger I used to be very frightened of horses as well. They were so very big and powerful, and I was so extremely small! I managed to get over this initial fear however, after taking horse-riding lessons with my friend Libby for just over a year. I'm still not completely confident around horses but I am able to walk, trot and canter without freaking out. Well, that is if I can still remember any of the things I used to know!

Louisa May Alcott writes about all of her characters in a way that makes them connect with you as the reader, each of them have their strengths and weaknesses,’ just as in real life. I'm not sure who my favourite character is in Eight Cousins, however, one that is particularly inspiring and heart-warming is Phoebe. She is a lovely young girl who is employed at Rose's great aunt's. Rose and Phoebe immediately strike up a lasting friendship despite their differences. Phoebe comforts Rose in her small sorrows and misfortunes without envying Rose's wealth, family or education. Despite how hard she has to work Phoebe is still optimistic, joyful and hard-working. She is also described as being incredible at singing, and thoroughly enjoys entertaining people with her voice as she preforms her work around the house.

Well, that's me done. My hope is that you will have been persuaded to pick this book off your shelf, dust it off, and give it a read (I know copies of Eight Cousins do still exist in local libraries). Louisa May Alcott is a favourite author of mine and I encourage that you try reading Little Women as well. Eight Cousins may not be as well-known, but it is a wonderful story about growing up, making friends, and facing life with strength and kindness. I am convinced that if you give this book a try you will come to love Rose Campbell as much as  I have.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brian

Let me start by saying: 'do not judge this book by its cover!' (or the movie if you happen to have seen it) Another thing is that even if you aren't particularly fond of rats, mice or maybe even wildlife in general, persevere. This book is well worth it. In his novel, O'Brian deals with issues extremely relevant to us in our modern day society, for example; discrimination and animal testing, to name just a couple. All of the characters in this book fight injustice and work to have more power and control over their own lives. Mrs Frisby particularly, although tiny, believes that she has a right to raise her family in safety and security. Sure the main characters in this book are mice and rats, but what they want is to have a voice in their own lives and destinies. 

'The Rats of Nimh' has various different titles including 'Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh' and 'The Secret of Nimh,' it's original title. I have read this book multiple times and have yet to get tired of the Frisbys and the rats. The novel tells two stories at once: the story of widowed Mrs. Frisby and her struggles to protect her family, and the story of a group of highly trained, super smart rats. The difference between the two is that Mrs. Frisby's story unfolds in real time, while most of the rats' story occurs in flashbacks, as they tell their story to Mrs. Frisby.

The protagonist in this novel is Mrs Frisby, which is unique because she is a widowed field mouse with four children- definitely not your typical hero. I actually prefer Mrs Frisby because of how ordinary she is, it encourages me to continue to aspire to do amazing things, no matter how small I may feel. It also makes it easier to sympathise with the characters if they are down to earth and vulnerable, rather than invincible superheros.   

At the time The Rats of NIMH was written questions about animals, control, rights, and destiny were a big thing. Therefore, it's not at all surprising that Robert O'Brien chose to write a book that is at least partially about animal rights. Despite the fact that 'Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH' is the tale of a community of animals living in harmony, there are loads of other themes in this book. These include: wildlife and farming, medical testing using laboratory animals, courage and self-sacrifice, perseverance, teamwork, prejudice / profiling and most importantly the importance of friends and family. Right from the very start of the book Robert C. O’Brien emphasises how close the Frisby family have to be to stay alive and how much they have to depend on their friends. The fact that they are mice, particularly shows their vulnerability and need to stick together.

Stereotypes is another main theme in Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. A group of highly intelligent rats and a distressed widow with four children to look after, outsmart the humans and go against everything they’re labelled as. The Rats of NIMH, for example, refuse to steal and scavenge, instead learning to live independently and grow their own food. 

Speaking of food, I'd better go, my little brother JJ is begging me to go bake some cakes with him....

Off The Shelf Radio- The Rats of Nimh