Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

A Children’s Classic for German Literature Month

glm_vIt’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline.  Rather than not join in (November has been is still very hectic for me), I picked a quick read – a newish translation by Anthea Bell from Pushkin Press of a German Children’s Classic, by an author whom I never read as a child. I had previously only associated Erich Kästner with Emil and the Detectives which, given that my brother read it, I thought it a ‘boy’s book’ – I know, I should have read it too.  I hadn’t realised though that Kästner had also written the original novel that a classic children’s film was based on – two versions, both by Disney – the later being one of my daughter’s favourites; the film with Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan with (gorgeous) Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson … Got it yet? The earlier version from 1961 starred Hayley Mills. Yes, it’s …

The Parent Trap by Erich Kastner

The Parent TrapNine-year-old Luise Palfy from Vienna meets nine-year-old Lottie Körner from Munich at a summer camp for girls where they discover that they look exactly the same. Initial shock and anger dissipate into an armistice and then collusion…

Both girls have slipped into the bathroom and are standing in front of a big mirror. Lottie is enthusiastically setting to work on Luise’s ringlets with a brush and comb.
‘Ouch!’ cries Luise, and ‘Ow!’
‘Do for goodness’ sake keep still!’ says Lottie crossly, pretending to be a stern grown-up. ‘When your mummy’s braiding your hair you don’t screech like that!’
‘I don’t have any mummy,’ complains Luise. ‘That’s why – ouch! – that’s why I’m such a noisy child, my father says!’
‘Doesn’t he ever spank you, then?’ enquired Lottie with interest.
‘Not him! He loves me far too much!’
‘And anyway, his head’s full of other things.’
‘He only needs to have one hand free!’ They laugh.
Then Luise’s braids are plaited, and the children look eagerly in the mirror. Their faces are shining like Christmas trees. Two totally identical little girls look at the mirror! Two totally identical little girls look back out of the mirror!
‘We’re sisters!’ whispers Lottie, delighted.

Even if you didn’t know the story you can guess what will happen – the girls discover they really are twins, separated when their parents, having married young, split when the twins were still little. Both longing to re-find their other parent, they will swap places at the end of the camp, and start plotting to reunite their parents. It should have been simple, but becomes complicated by the fact that Ludwig has a girlfriend who has designs on marrying him.

The girls’ parents are quite accepting that their daughters have changed during the summer. Lottie seems worse at maths and cooking, but more fun to her mother; Luise takes the housekeeper/nanny in hand and impresses her father. Only the doctor’s dog isn’t fooled…

Lottie and LuiseKästner’s story is charming and paired together with the original illustrations by Walter Trier made for a diverting read. Told in the present tense there’s an innocence about the girls’ exploits, but told through the knowing eyes of the narrator.  The later film in particular played up the comedy in the girls’ initial enmity.  The original story gets that out of the way in the first short chapter. Kästner keeps it simple, leaving the meat of the book to the girls getting to know their parents – at first through each other’s tales, then living with the other parent, before finally seeing the parent they thought they knew through new eyes. The film too milks the plot to get rid of the girlfriend; in the book she doesn’t outstay her welcome, allowing true love to be re-found. A delightful tale.

Give Dame Maggie an Oscar now!

The Lady in the Van

Firstly apologies for having gone AWOL for a fortnight. Life took a hectic turn (annual school fireworks extravaganza one week for which I’m Health & Safety Manager, at the same time as preparing for school inspection this week). I’ve been too worn out to blog, but have built up a pile of books to talk about now! But first, a few words about The Lady in the Van

lady in van film poster

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this since first hearing about it, and had to see it on the day of its release. I took my daughter, and she loved it too.

I just couldn’t think of a better pair of actors to play Miss Shepherd and Alan Bennett than Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings – both were pitch perfect. Although Maggie Smith is queen of the put-down with her impeccable tone and hauteur, she also doesn’t need to say anything – her face is just so expressive, it was a triumph of acting. Seen in close-up on the screen, it was very moving.

The film, made at Gloucester Crescent in Camden itself in and around the house still owned by Alan Bennett where he let her park her van temporarily – she stayed for 15 years, was adapted from Bennett’s stage play, in which fifteen years ago, Maggie first played Miss Shepherd – I do wish I’d got to see the original play. The film has built upon the stage play by expanding on the fact that Miss Shepherd had been a concert pianist, and in one moving scene near the end Maggie plays the piano – for real.

The story is narrated by Alan Bennett – who is split into two – ‘the one that does the writing and the one that does the living’ which is a really clever way of taking it.  The two Bennetts are quietly bitchy and supportive of each other at the same time.

I won’t say much more about the film, except that there are cameos for almost all of the History Boys, and the neighbours are a riot!  Go see it and enjoy the masterclass in acting from Dame Maggie.

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lady van gentlemanI first read The Lady in the Van  in Alan Bennett’s collection of memoir and essays Writing Home, published in 1994, although The Lady in the Van had been published separately previously on its own in 1989.  I’d thoroughly recommend Writing Home and Untold Stories which came afterwards.  But, although I already own a book with it in, freed from the inspection yesterday afternoon, I went to my lovely local indie bookshop and they had copies of a new edition of The Lady in the Van.  Apart from a film tie-in paperback, Faber have also brought out a hardback, illustrated by David Gentleman, and including loads of stills from the film, intro from director Hytner and film diaries by AB – and they had copies signed by Bennett – SOLD!!!

A little more Shiny Linkiness

There are two books I reviewed for the latest issue of Shiny that I’ve yet to tell you about:

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

house-of-shattered-wingsThis was the first book I’ve read by the Franco-Vietnamese author – but won’t be the last. It’s an urban fantasy set in contemporary Paris during the aftermath of the Great Magician’s War. But you won’t recognise this version of Paris as a modern city – it’s pure Gothic, with a crumbling Paris ruled over by several powerful houses led by magicians. Politics meets a murder mystery with fallen angels, mythology and plenty of magic in a novel that has some brilliant world-building. Imagine a modern version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in Paris with angels and you’d be halfway there… (8.5/10)

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

See also:  Sakura’s Q&A with the author and review here.

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Mythology by Christopher Dell

mythology-cover-285x300Subtitled ‘An Illustrated Journey Into Our Imagined Worlds’, this softback edition from art specialists Thames & Hudson is precisely that. It concentrates on images from all over the world grouped by theme. The juxtapositions of pictures, often from different continents, on the same spreads just shows how the central mythologic themes that preoccupy us are the same the whole world over. As you’d expect from a Thames & Hudson art book, the pictures are sublime and the book beautifully produced. They are accompanied by just enough text to put them into context and explain their origins. An ideal Christmas present! (

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

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Something ‘that scares me’…

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

grasshopper-jungleOne of the few remaining squares on my summer(!) book bingo card has been crossed off with this novel. I find few ghost stories truly scary and own few horror novels of the type that would scare me. However, big creepy crawlies do make me squirm when confronted by them without glass in between us – at school we have several visits a year from various  bods with their boxes of huge beetles, stick insects and tarantulas – I keep resolutely behind the camera lens – those critters aren’t going to get on me!  So, come the day that we’re all forced to dine on insect protein, I will starve! The idea of the rise of insects is scary enough – but the thought that those insects could be dominated by six feet praying mantises which hatch from human hosts scares me sh*tless! This is what happens in this absolutely brilliant YA novel:

Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back and forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, …

Meet Austin Szerba, of Polish descent, and his best friend Robby Brees. Robby is gay, Austin has a girlfriend, Shann, but he loves Robby too. He’s your typical confused teenager.

They attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy and the boys from the public school, Herbert Hoover High, always bully them and slag them off. During the opening sections, Austin and Robby have an encounter with the bullies and Robby ends up with a dripping, bloody nose.  He starts to spell out a message on the tarmac in drips of blood – GRANT WALLACH MURDERED ME, but only gets as far as the Wa.

Austin works for Shann’s Dad at the weekends; he runs a used goods warehouse where there is a locked room in which Mr McKeon keeps his treasures that are not for sale. Many came from the labs his late brother ran before he died. There are pickled mutant animals in jars, a preserved human head, in other words – a ‘real life horror show.’ There are also sealed glass globes that pulsate with light and particles – one is labelled ‘McKeon Industries 1969 Contained MI Plague Strain 412E’.

One night Austin and Robby sneek in through the skylight to take a look – but sadly this coincides with the Herbert Hoover bullies deciding to break in, in search of booze and cigarettes. Austin and Robby hide and will escape. However, one of the bullies will take the globe and drop it on the tarmac outside near the bins where a tramp often lurked:

The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E said hello to Robby Bree’s blood on the asphalt in Grasshopper Jungle.

And the end of the world began at about 2.00 a.m., around three and a half feet away from a discarded floral print sleeper sofa infested with pubic lice in Ealing, Iowa. One time, Travis Pope unfolded the sofa and fucked his wife, Eileen, on it. (p72)

The blood will activate the bugs who will infest the seven people who accidentally come into contact with it. They will hatch out of these bodies into six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things – mate and eat. Yuck!

The blurb tells us about the giant insects as does the opening paragraph and, for once, knowing vaguely what’s to come raises the reader’s level of anticipation hugely and thus the macabre enjoyment from the horrific circumstances that have come about. Will anyone get out alive? Will it be the end of mankind? Will insects really rule the world? I’m not telling!

Yes, I know that in the real world those globes would have been safely destroyed (fingers crossed); they would not have been allowed to be inherited and stored in a simply locked office. A suspension of belief is required – but that was simple to do. This was because Austin and Robby were such brilliant characters and so easy to love.

Underneath the crazy horror story is the coming of age one, of Austin searching for his identity. Whether he’s straight or gay he’s not quite so certain, not being sure whether his love for Robby is fraternal or not. As a lad on the cusp of manhood, he is obsessed by sex and has a strong urge to lose his virginity one way or another soon! In between, he tells us how his Polish grandfather arrived in New York and how he worked to fit into his new world and how proud Austin is of his heritage, that’s one thing he’s not confused about.

Austin is delightfully forthright in his narration, feeling compelled to set down all the relevant facts for the record, making connections between them. He is a young man that strives to understand the big picture and where everyone fits in history. He’s a little geeky, a reader and diary-writer, whereas Robby is simply the best friend you could ever wish for. They were such good company. This being their story, their immediate families don’t feature much, but Austin gives us the bare details – for the record:

I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that. …

Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in the seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that. (p19)

This novel was entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure and told with great verve. Smith’s imagination runs riot but can go from gross-out to comedy to poignancy without faltering, making Grasshopper Jungle perfect for fans of Charlie Higson’s wonderful zombie novels for younger teens to graduate to. As an adult I adored it too. It has enough darkness and complexity to make a rewarding read for anyone from mid-teens upwards.  Grasshopper Jungle was actually Smith’s seventh novel, but the first to be published in the UK in 2014; I’ve ordered his latest from earlier this year The Alex Crow – can’t wait!  (10/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own Copy.

Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle. Electric Monkey (Egmont teens) 2014, paperback, 400 pages.

The 1924 Club

I had every intention of joining in with this lovely project hosted by Simon and Karen.


There was a book on the Wikipedia Literature list for 1924 I had long been intending to read – The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany. I duly ordered a copy – the Fantasy Masterworks edition which has an introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I have read many of the novels in this series over the years, so hopes were high…

King of Elfland's DaughterBut it’s been a severe case of wrong time for reading this book for me. I only got a couple of short chapters in, but the language is too florid and full of multi-claused sentences which start off passively for me at the moment. Here are a couple of examples:

And there with eyes that saw every minute more dimly, and fingers that grew accustomed to the thunderbolts’ curious surfaces, he found before darkness came down on him seventeen: and these he heaped into a silken kerchief and carried back to the witch. (p4)

To the long chamber, sparsely furnished, high in a tower, in which Alveric slept, there came a ray direct from the rising sun. He awoke, and remembered at once the magical sword, which made all his awaking joyous. It is natural to feel glad at the thought of a recent gift, but there was also a certain joy in the word itself, which perhaps could communicated with Alveric’s thoughts all the more easily just as they came from dreamland, which was pre-eminently the sword’s own country; but, however it be, all those that have come by a magical sword have always felt that joy while it still was new, clearly and unmistakably. (p9)

Compared with Star Trek, a Star Wars fan I am not, and I think this Yoda-speak with added clauses would irritate me intensely at the moment if I continued. So I am putting aside the book for another time!

I have, however, previously read and reviewed two titles published in 1924, so I will give them a plug here instead:


“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town” Part Deux

More Holiday Highlights

Halfway through our holiday in New York, and we were in the grips of an Indian summer with temperatures in the mid-70s, which had been perfect for our river cruise the day before. What came next?


198 Thu Smilodon Sabre-toothed tiger (600x800)A day concentrating on the natural world. This meant a crosstown bus through Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History to give it its full name.

209 Thu Ocean hall (800x600)The morning was spent wandering the halls of dinosaurs, fossils,  animal dioramas including the suspended Blue Whale in the Great Ocean Hall, and seeing a live axolotl in one of the special exhibits plus all the gemstones and rocks in the geology section.

223 (800x600)We took our street food lunch into Central Park opposite, and then wandered for a bit past the famous Alice in Wonderland statue before bussing down to Central Park Zoo which was absolutely lovely.

231 (800x600)Juliet and I both love zoos, as long as thought is put into giving the animals a good life there of course. This tiny zoo had red pandas, snow leopards, and a herd of inquisitive chinstrap penguins in its collection. We headed back uptown slightly earlier this day as we had plans for the evening…

We did the Empire State Building at night, going up once dark.  Before you get close to the lifts, you have to walk for what feels like miles between velvet ropes, zig-zagging up and down the mezzanine.  I guess it is designed to minimise queues for the lifts – keep ’em walking – but was just irritating to me!

P1030318 (600x800)

Chrysler from the Empire State Bldg

Once up though, the iconic views open up again and you forget the pain of getting there – your next mission is now to avoid all the buggies pushchairs and selfie sticks (they were everywhere!) to reach the viewpoints to take your own photos. If you want to go up to the 102nd floor observatory from the 86th, it’ll cost you an extra $20 each – we declined.

The Empire State Building  does stay open until 2am when I’m sure it would have been quieter – 8pm was rather busy and no time nor room for pretending you’re meeting someone like Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle.


A change of pace today – although driven out of the hotel early by the noise of the city inspectors who started work shortly after 8am, we headed downtown for a long subway ride to Brooklyn. The heat had broken giving us a crisp, autumn day and we started off browsing the shops in Williamsburg which is cool and hip.  I managed to sneak in my only bookish purchase at Spoonbill & Sugartown while Juliet was browsing a gift and stationery shop next door.  We lunched  at a neighbourhood cafe Fabiane’s, before heading back to Brooklyn Bridge Park and more iconic views back across to Manhattan.P1030431 (800x600)

We dallied with an ice-cream from the Brooklyn Ice-Cream Factory before heading back uptown for more midtown shopping. I did drag my daughter into the cavernous Strand Books for a quick look, but didn’t have the inclination to submit Juliet to being bored while I browsed the second-hand shelves.


P1030456 (800x600)Our last day. After packing and leaving our cases to pick up later, we headed towards the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway.  Rather like the Staten Island Ferry which is free if you don’t get off (you only have to pay coming into Manhattan boarding in S.I.), the R.I.A.T. big cable car ride is the price of a subway ride – or included in a Metrocard. So we went over to the island, confirmed there was nothing to do there (it’s a mix of industrial and residential), and came back – but again you get good views and it’s another different form of transport!

P1030464 (800x600)We lunched in a proper diner, then headed back to Midtown for more shopping – starting at Michael’s  which is an arts and crafts chain a bit like Hobbycraft in the UK, but not as nice. So over to Greenwich Village and Washington Square (right) for a last stop on our touristic itinerary.  It was heaving with buskers, prayer groups, dog-walkers, the young and the old alike.

Getting homesick as you do on your last day of a holiday, we headed back back to the hotel and then to JFK a bit early. Now, we need a holiday from our holiday to recover!

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While there are undoubtedly bargains to be had in New York, Levis for $25 at Century 21 if you can find your size for instance,  T-shirts in H&M 2 for $10 instead of £10 – that sort of thing, you have to search for them. I want a new Swatch Skin watch but the price of $110 everywhere was exactly the same as the £70 in England. The Duty-free at JFK wasn’t worth bothering with it was so expensive (but we did have a tester squirt of perfume each way – as you do!)  US paperbacks are also more expensive than UK ones.  So New York isn’t a good place for bargain hunting unless you have the time for it.

I did get hassled by a homeless guy inside a coffee shop which was a pain. He asked for change. I politely refused.  He asked another lady for change and she bought him a donut and drink – he wasn’t going to say thanks until she prompted him. Then he came back to me, and said ‘The other white lady helped me out’!  I asked him firmly to leave us alone.  He continued to work the other customers, but kept looking my way. The shop staff seemed quite happy with him being in there. I hate being made to feel guilty in such a persistant and irritating way though. (As I had planned to do anyway, I gave all my spare coins to the Virgin children’s charity on the plane home.)

However to end on a positive side, nearly everyone was really friendly – some shop assistants were over-friendly, but others made up for them.  If you looked lost, it is easy to get disoriented at crossroads in NYC, someone would always point you in the right direction. I think it was much friendlier than London in that respect.  I’m looking forward to going back and exploring more of this fascinating city.

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