Moomins books reissued

I only recently discovered Tove Jansson. I didn’t grow up with the Moomins and it was probably only five years ago that I realised she was a woman. What I am now discovering is that she was a fascinating and talented woman. Jansson illustrated anti-fascist magazine Garm in the 1930s and continued to work as an artist throughout her better-known writing career. There is currently a retrospective of her art at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, which I hope to visit. Her books have a gentle, nature-loving heart and yet still manage to deal with some really tough subjects.

My first Jansson read was The Summer Book and I loved it. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl who summers on an island with her (largely absent) mother and her grandmother. Next, I read a collection of Jansson’s short stories Letters from Klara, which are often sharply funny and switch easily from light to dark. Then I finally turned to her best-known creation: the Moomins.

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Prepare for tears

Red Dog
by Louis de Bernières

This is the sweetest most wonderful book I have read in some time. I think it’s sort-of aimed at children, at least I hope it is else I will have to have criticisms about some of the slightly condescending explanations and I don’t want to criticise such a lovely lovely book.

The best summary of this book is the one supplied by the author himself:

“In early 1998 I went to Perth in Western Australia in order to attend the literature festival, and part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner. Karratha is a mining town a long way further north. The landscape is extraordinary, being composed of vast heaps of dark red earth and rock poking out of the never-ending bush. I imagine that Mars must have a similar feel to it. I went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier. I felt straight away that I had to find out more about this splendid dog. A few months later I returned to Western Australia and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories and visiting the places that he knew, writing up the text as I went along. I hope my cat never finds out that I have written a story to celebrate the life of a dog.”

Red Dog was a Red Cloud kelpie, which is an Australian breed of sheepdog, and lived in the 1970s in and around Dampier, at that time mostly a mining town. De Bernières has lightly fictionalised his account but based it on those stories he collected and it does read like a collected folklore, though there is nothing unbelievable or magical about it. Red Dog was simply a dog who refused to be tied to one owner but somehow became everyone’s dog. As dogs go he had some quirky habits and he wasn’t above stealing his dinner but he was affectionate and loyal to those he befriended and in return most everyone he met considered him a friend. People would take it in turn to de-flea him or take him to the vet for shots and he would sit by their sick children’s bedsides or guide caravan-dwellers to the toilet block at night.

This is such a simple story but de Bernières tells it beautifully, describing the landscape and the weather and using the local dialect just enough to give a real flavour of the time and place. The book is illustrated by Alan Baker with basic but effective line drawings in red and black and they add a fairy-tale quality to the experience.

The only negative, and I really hesitate to say it, is that de Bernières does over-explain some details. It adds to the condescension that at the back of the book there is a “Glossary of Australianisms” which I didn’t find at all necessary, seeing as the few words I didn’t know were made completely clear by context. But as I said above, if this is intended as a children’s book I can forgive all of that.

I really would recommend that everyone read this heartwarming book but doglovers beware, you will need to have tissues handy – it’s the life story of a dog, how do you think it’s going to end?

First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Secker & Warburg.

The line between life and death

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

Yet again looking for a quick, undemanding read, I picked up another of Gaiman’s children’s books. Once again I was reminded that not all children’s books work as easy adult reads.

Gaiman’s prose is beautiful, expertly bringing to life each scene. The story is original, with lots of twists and turns. The characters tread a fine line between over-the-top grotesque and real-life normality; definitely believable. But somehow…I wasn’t kept interested.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), a boy who is raised in a graveyard after his family are murdered. The ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard club together to provide him with education and support, but his main guardian is Silas, not a ghost but some other creature who is neither alive nor dead. Bod is discouraged from leaving the graveyard because Silas is convinced that the man who killed his family still wants Bod dead.

The book opens brilliantly with the murder of Bod’s family, from the perspective of the killer. The pages are illustrated evocatively by Dave McKean and I genuinely thought from that first chapter that I would love this book. Certainly I love that this is a children’s book unafraid to talk about death – murder even – and from the interesting perspective of having ghosts be, for the most part, friendly or at least benign creatures. I also like that not every mystery raised is solved.

However, whether it was too vague an overarching story (each chapter is a separate adventure, a year or two after the last one) or something else, I wasn’t engrossed. Maybe I’ll switch back to Gaiman’s adult books now.

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

See also reviews from Col Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Girls Gone Reading.

Don’t open that door

Coraline
by Neil Gaiman

This is one of that excellent trend of children’s books that don’t shy away from being scary or gruesome because, well, children like that kind of thing. I did. Far more so than I do now.

Coraline is a young girl who moves, with her parents, to a flat in a big old house one summer. Her parents rarely have time to spend with her and as the long holiday drags on she gets increasingly bored of rainy days with nothing to do and starts exploring the house and grounds until the only thing left is whatever’s behind the mysterious door in the drawing room. Despite cryptic warnings from the neighbours, Coraline finds a way to unlock the door and her ghostly adventures in a strange new world begin.

The story is excellent and the characters brilliant, either ghoulish or eccentric apart from Coraline herself, in that slightly exaggerated manner that makes sense in children’s books. The other world is cleverly imagined, starting off as a bright, attractive place and gradually becoming stranger and scarier. Coraline is a strong heroine who learns to appreciate her slightly absent parents and to solve problems for herself. The language is very simple, in fact possibly simpler than is strictly necessary. It reads like a children’s book and as an adult I found the language a little offputting. Clearly I am not the target audience but I do think perhaps Gaiman has tried too hard to distinguish this from his more adult fiction.

However, I did enjoy it. I genuinely flinched at the scarier moments and laughed out loud at some lines. I loved the downstairs neighbours, two retired actresses whose talk of treading the boards and famous Shakespeare quotes make no sense to Coraline but might to a well read (or read to) child. The main villain is chilling and original and described well enough to picture – the illustrations by Dave McKean help, of course. I would not hesitate to recommend this for a child but not necessarily to an adult.

First published 2002 by Bloomsbury.