The Forbidden Library

Many of you will probably have noticed that things have been a little more cobwebby of late on Literary Relish. That is to say, I’ve not been here as often, having become quite determined to ‘get my life back’ as it were.

That all sounds rather melodramatic. I do, of course, have a life but … as February drew to a close I was feeling pretty sick of sitting on my backside with my head in a book (or in front of a computer screen) every hour of every day. After an epiphany one day as I caught sight of my pallid, flabby complexion in the mirror at work, I formally decided to take my foot off the gas and post and read as and when I like. This may sound crazy to some but I know more than a few bloggers with full-time jobs/families, etc, who put themselves under unrealistic pressure and end up blowing up once in a while as a result. Lately I have started running, spent more time with my friends, in the garden, read and written as and when I want and am chuffed to say I am feeling more alive. Phew!

Along with this new attitude I have delved into my own TBR to read some books I have been meaning to get around to for years and mixed up my ARC reading a little. Starting with a children’s book! Given that my mind has been clearly frazzled of late, Django Wexler’s fantastical new adventure was just the ticket as part of my rest and recuperation program….

18160169Calling the heroine of your children’s fantasy novel ‘Alice’ was always going to be risky business. Why bother? Although this could be either an entirely random or calculatingly deliberate choice, it strikes me as a call to arms from Wexler in his wondrous adventure into the gloomy world of The Forbidden Library. 

Alice is a fairly ordinary girl, living a fairly ordinary, comfortable life with her father in a great big house in town. One night, she hears strange noises and voices coming from the kitchen. Who could her father be arguing with? Creeping down to peep through the door she is flabbergasted to see a fairy…or some such airborne monster, conversing with her father, albeit in a rather threatening manner.

Has the world gone mad? Surely fairies can’t be real…..or can they? Alice’s logical, practical mind is soon turned upside down as, after losing her beloved father in a shipwreck, she is forced to leave her home to live with her ‘Uncle Jerry’; a mysterious man whose life, and library hold more than meets the eye. Uncle Geryon is a Reader and it turns out that Alice probably is too. As the secrets of the library unravel before her eyes, Alice finds herself plunging into the books contained within the great collection to capture the beasts within and hone her 2 (2)

After reading book after book of ‘hard stories’ over the past few months, usually featuring persecuted women of some kind, it has been an absolute delight to get swept away for a change. What better way to do that than a plethora of talking cats, dragons, sprites, trees and little bird things. A true adventure. Parents will be happy to know that Alice happens to be the perfect role model for every strong young girl out there. Calm and practical, she takes even the oddest happenings in her stride and is, crucially, rather uncomfortable breaking rules. Although she soon learns that this is sometimes a necessary evil….

The Forbidden Library, as the name might suggest, is bound to be an absolute hit with book-lovers young and old. After all, however scary things get, what could be more exciting than working inside a magical library and being able to dive into books at will? This story focuses, essentially, on the immediacy and magic of a really good book and the sheer breadth of Wexler’s imagination simply flabbergasted me. Besides your traditional themes of good/evil, etc, the usual creatures we find in children’s fantasy (dragons, fairies…) are there, but are a complete departure from the traditional images we have. Particularly the dragon, who under Wexler’s pen becomes rather lumpy and lumbering, rather than the fire-breathing elegance we’re used to.

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This book was great fun and, if you have children within the right age bracket (10-14 years?), I implore you to pick this up as a birthday gift as it’ll give you a good enough excuse to read it too! Having stormed through this on my ereader, it was an absolute pleasure to nip into Waterstones and explore the hardback in person. Though I must say the pictures depict creatures much more terrifying than I had in my mind’s eye and I’m quite glad I didn’t have them there to distract me on the first read.

All in all, just the ticket for my ‘brain out, cabbage in’ month and one that has, along with a beguiling article in this quarter’s Slightly Foxed magazine on Narnia, got me thinking. I’ve read many children’s classics but there are some (such as C.S Lewis’ books) that I have never picked up. It’s all very well biting my nails at how little Dickens I’ve read but how about starting at the beginning? …

A Ladder of Chetham’s Library by Eric Magnuson via Flickr

Top Ten “Gateway” Books/Authors In My Reading Journey

So. When I first saw this topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, it didn’t seem too clear. However, I have since established that this intriguing theme has everything to do with those books/authors/genres you never really knew anything about but now, through the beauty of that ‘first’ novel…do!  A voyage of discovery. Something I’ve experienced most of all with my wonderful book group.


1. Alone in Antarctica; Felicity Aston – I never read non-fiction. Perhaps if I did I might learn something. Turns out that Felicity Aston; adventuress extraordinaire, taught me a lot.


2. Sense and Sensibility; Jane Austen – my first Austen, and my only so far. I love this book…perhaps I simply don’t want to peak too soon…


3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Neil Gaiman – Apart from Tolkien and my childhood fantasies, my first proper foray into this genre. Wonderful.


4. The End of the Affair; Graham Greene – Since I disliked Brighton Rock so much, I like to count this brilliant piece of literature as my first true experience of Graham Greene.


5. Jennie; Paul Gallico – This imaginative tale of a little boy stuck in a cat’s body will always represent both my first experience of literature at its best and, of course, the wonderful Paul Gallico.


6. Siddhartha; Herman Hesse – The path to true enlightenment also represents the birth of Literary Relish.


7. Someone Else’s Skin; Sarah Hilary – The thought of reading crime fiction after my working days spent hearing about real-life crime always seemed rather exhausting. Now I realise what all the fuss was about.


8. Mr Norris Changes Trains; Christopher Isherwood – Does anyone love Christopher Isherwood as much as I do?


9. Monsieur Le Commandant; Romain Slocombe – My introduction to the pioneering house of Gallic Books. Bravo.


10. Slaughterhouse 5; Kurt Vonnegut – My other half still won’t read this life-altering slice of dystopian fiction because Daddy Relish mentioned the ‘d’ word to him. For me, this was a word-perfect introduction to the genre.

Gateway by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr

Frog Music

After the heuOGe success of deeply disturbing psychological thriller; Roomseasoned author Emma Donoghue’s work intrigues me greatly. Massively varied and hugely popular amongst the book crew, there really is no excuse for never having read any of her work before now. Having little desire to delve into the abuse and disturbance of her most famous novel, simply hand me over a sweet slice of historical fiction in a sunny locus, enthralling era, with a host of titillating characters and then, well… I’m yours!

Welcome Frog Music…

Like many of our greatest tales in contemporary fiction, in her latest novel Donoghue has drawn her story directly from history; the murder of la petite cross-dressing frog-catcher Jeanne Bonnet. A curious, rather charming figure whose story had become lost in the swathes of time.

Wilting under the heat of a San Franciscan summer, Blanche Beunon, burlesque dancer and high-class escort at the House of Mirrors co-exists quite happily (or so she thinks) with her partner Arthur and his companion Ernest, her young baby tucked away safely in a ‘farm’ within the city environs. Nothing can disturb this remarkably modern, free-spirited, independent young woman with the thriving young city at her feet……or so she thinks.

Crashing full throttle into Blanche’s life, both physically (pennyfarthing and all) and 20427860mentally, Jenny Bonnet is both a larger than life quirk on the San Franciscan scene and a complete enigma. Captivating her new-found friend and unintentionally holding up a mirror to her flaws and foibles, the two women embark on a spiffing adventure together, one of great fun and great heartache all at once and one that will inevitably end in tragedy.

In a genius twist of plot that greatly assists in setting out Donoghue’s murder mystery, we begin with said tragedy and hurtle back in time as Blanche, and the reader along with her, attempts to unravel the pieces and discover whodunnit … not as foregone a conclusion as we might first think.

Assisted by a plot that is flawlessly sewn together, this novel isn’t simply the tale of a violent crime. It is a bubbling melting pot of colours, smells and intrigues that made up the boom-town of 19th century San Francisco; an exhilarating, liberating place to be. A halfway house of criminals, businessmen and dandies where Donoghue’s wacky, unconventional characters are afforded the opportunity to make something of themselves, something they may not necessarily have managed so well in the ‘Old World’.

Blanche is refreshingly flawed and gutsy for a nineteenth century woman, her new friend Jenny breaking all the more barriers by wearing nothing but men’s attire, and constantly getting thrown in prison/into scrapes for it. Blanche also refuses to conform to the stereotypical ‘wife and mother’ role, as her raw, sometimes brutally honest feelings about her baby son ‘Petit’ and her unnatural role as his mother come to the fore. This novel avoids being resigned to the shelf for a ‘cracking good yarn’ and shows designs on something deeper as themes such as the smallpox epidemic (itchy) and Victorian baby farming (horrifying) take centre stage.

This novel delighted me. Emma Donoghue writes with great lucidity and a polished turn of phrase and art to her storytelling that belies her skill and experience. I may, one day, pick up Room, but I’m so glad I met her here first. History is where I’m at home and, judging by Donoghue’s back catalogue, perhaps where she is too.

Red Frog Tea by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr

Stature: International Women’s Day


Although I relish returning to the countryside at the end of my working day, it’s still very true that good ol’ Mancland is a buzzing, thriving city. A multi-cultural, multi-faceted place of marvellous fun and intrigue that, it seems, pretty much always has something going on for the intrepid Northern monkey. Nuzzling neatly between the winter markets and the St Paddy’s day celebrations have been a variety of events and exhibitions to promote International Women’s Day. An International Women’s Month if you will.

One such brilliantly creative and powerfully symbolic exhibition arrived at our Town Hall courtesy of Warp and Weft, who ‘yarnbombed’ the all-male hall of fame of busts in the main vestibule, crocheting the enigmatic faces of incredible women over them. Skirting slyly around the filming they’re doing roundabouts for the new Daniel Radcliffe film, this proved a highly amusing and inspiring away to spend my lunch break.

Annie Hornimon

**Annie Horniman**

A lover of trousers, bicycles and great patron of the arts. Annie Horniman’s many achievements include the refurbishment of Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre.

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw**Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw**

Politician, mathematician, Rubik’s cube maestro and supporter of Manchester’s gay community.

Dr Kathleen Drew-Baker**Dr Kathleen Drew-Baker**

Scientist and saviour of seaweed.

Elizabeth Gaskell

**Elizabeth Gaskell**

Oh no I hear you cry!  Mrs Gaskell may not be my favourite author (and certainly not the Manchester Book Group‘s fave) however, I’m sure I can let bygones be bygones since she’s such an undeniably important part of Manchester’s literary history.

Esther Roper

**Esther Roper**

Champion of working class women and co-founder of one of Britain’s first LGBT publications; Urania.

Ethel Lowry

**Ethel Lowry MBE**

Pioneering long distance swimmer, the first woman to cross the English Channel.

Louise Da-Cocodia**Louise Da-Cocodia MBE**

An inspirational woman who strived for the rights of marginalised inner-city residents. Combating all manner of prejudice and discrimination.

Sylvia Pankhurst

**Sylvia Pankhurst**

Needs no introduction from the likes of me, I’m sure.

Suffragettes in Bow Street by Leonard Bentley via Flickr

Top Ten Books On My Spring 2014 TBR List


Thank GOODNESS it’s almost Spring. Although, with the attitude of the eternal optimist, I always get a little thrill leading up to winter, dreaming of hats, snow and mulled wine, by the end of February I am as inevitably fed up as everyone else and longing for a bit of sun on my skin. So, when it’s finally warm enough to sit in my garden, courtesy of The Broke and the Bookish‘s Top Ten Tuesday, what will I fancy reading?


1. All the Birds, Singing; Evie Wyld – This foreboding tale set in the bleak British countryside is just the thing to read before setting off across our own spooky moorland.


2. The Goldfinch; Donna Tartt – Take a deep breath….I have NEVER read any Donna Tartt. I know, I’m ashamed of myself too and I will sort it out this season.


3. The Goddess and the Thief; Essie Fox – I’ve not read any Essie Fox yet either (I know!) I’m hoping this one will impress, delight and spirit me away in India this year.


4. House-Bound; Winifred Peck – After hearing about this book in a podcast years ago I have been dying to give it a go. Thank goodness Persephone have done the honours yet again.


5. Life After Life; Kate Atkinson - I haven’t heard a bad word yet about this imaginative novel and that makes me very, very nervous. The Manchester Book Club book of choice for this month.


6. A Suitable Boy; Vikram Seth – a mammoth doorstop of a book that is as daunting a prospect as it is exciting. Will need a good few weeks of peace and quiet for this one please.


7. Gossip from the Forest; Sara Maitland – A delicate blend of forests and fairy tales, what could be more magical .


8. Cider with Rosie; Laurie Lee – Although I’ve read and loved Lee’s Spanish trilogy, his most famous account of an English childhood in a Cotswold village is surely the perfect book for spring.


9. A Tale for the Time Being; Ruth Ozeki – The real winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize in many eyes.

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10. Slightly Foxed: The Reader’s Quarterly - This beautifully produced magazine arrived on my doorstep this Friday all wrapped up in ribbon with a plethora of goodies inside. What a wonderful, wonderful project. I have Bundle of Books to thank for the tip-off!

Spring Orchard by Curtis Fry via Flickr

Hold Still


In superb timing with International Women’s Day, I have had the opportunity to encounter some remarkable female literary characters lately who have really surpassed my expectations.

Hold Still, début novel by art critic and poet Cherry Smyth continues the trend, narrating a significant period in the life of artists’ muse and model Joanna Hiffernan, the woman now widely believed to be the face behind Gustave Courbet’s controversial painting; L’Origine du monde (soon to be displayed in the Relish en-suite bathroom if I can find a nice frame!) Charting her relationship with temperamental American artist James Whistler, her blossoming one with the tremendous Courbet and the general pitfalls, hopes and dreams of being an artists’ muse, a Victorian woman of humble origins and an aspiring artist all in one, this novel lived above and beyond its tantalising blurb and nicely unassuming book jacket to entertain and enlighten me all the way through the gloomy January days.

Flitting between the bohemian, intellectual circles of mid 19th-century Paris and London (a big tick location/time wise for any novel I might care to read), Smyth has harnessed her work as an art critic and curator to lend authenticity and vivacity to this fictionalised account of a remarkable woman’s life, an account that, as far as I can tell, seems as true to the real tale as we could possibly be. Certain moments throughout Jo’s dramatic, romantic tale can seem at odds with the image we have in our mind of a typical Victorian woman;  displaying an independence of mind, body and spirit that we admire in our own, 21st-century selves:

‘ She is laughing, her body’s pleasure distilling into clarity and boldness, red as a matador’s cape. This is the fire she has stolen, the trail of bright flame, her own power.’


18750483Some modern authors may have a tendency to throw our modern attitudes and fancies onto their period characters without much thought. Although still living somewhat on the whims of the men she loves, Jo’s strength, intelligence and modernity seems genuine, a rejection of those ‘real women’ of a Dickensian persuasion who often seem a little too sensitive and fatalistic for their own good. Her modest beginnings could have spelt a very different life for her, much like that of her Bridget. Instead, Smyth has afforded us a glimpse into this woman’s exciting world. A world I wouldn’t really have had a clue about (despite an active interest in art) without reading this wonderfully entertaining novel. Much like Gallic Books, pioneering publishing house Holland Park Press have discovered a real gem in Cherry Smyth. All you lovers of fancy book covers place aside your shallow thoughts aside in favour of content. I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

In Memory of Water



I’m sure you’ll have noticed that things have gone a little silent on the ol’ blog of late. An unsightly combo of bad weather, too much work and wobbly thighs has resulted in me feeling really rather fed up and absolutely desperate for spring to rear her weary head. I’ve even thought, dare I say it, that an effective cure for my winter blues might be taking my nose out of my books for two seconds and taking a look around me and, by Jove, I think it might be working! Although the blog may have been sacrificed for the sake of my mood, a few country excursions, some antique-perusing and cinema-going have all transpired to make me feel a little more refreshed and cheery and ready to face the world again.

In 2010, northern wordsmith Simon Armitage embarked on a thrilling project in collaboration with the Ilkley Literature Festival. The project saw six original poems, centered around the theme of water, hewn into rock and cliff face in strategic locations throughout Lancashire and West Yorkshire. These poems, or ‘Stanza Stones’, form waymarks on a hike that takes you through some of the most wild and breathtaking scenery in this part of the world. Although I had stumbled across ‘Rain’ on one of our previous jaunts, whilst out climbing last weekend we accidentally discovered his poem ‘Snow’, carved into the most unlikely and unassuming piece of quarry and entirely obscured from passers-by on the road below. Most magically of all, despite the weak sunshine, as we contemplated the poem it did indeed begin to snow, and I began to see the great benefits of reading in a location other than my sofa and/or bed.



Along with such beauties as the Pennine and West Highland Way, the boyfriend and I have promised ourselves that we will partake in the Stanza Stone trail one sunny day this year, where I will endeavour to take photos of my very own to show you these inspired spots in detail. I couldn’t imagine anywhere more perfect to indulge in our combined passions for both the great outdoors and written word and a better way to clear my head and celebrate our damp countryside.



Or mizzle, as it tends to be up North, getting under my umbrella and playing havoc with my hair…



Although this wonderfully atmospheric photo is rather stormy, this fractured dream of dew leaves me rather hopeful for spending some time in the garden this summer **sigh**…



Yep…I’ve seen some of these lying around about the place this winter…



I know our feet are damp and our books dog-eared by all this rain but, should you be in this neck of the woods some time, visit at least one Stanza Stone and fall back in love with water again.

The Snow Stone, The Mist Stone, The Beck Stnaza Stone by Freddie Phillips via Flickr

rain detail18 by Pam Wright via Flickr

Dew Stone, Rivock Edge, North Yorkshire by Jeremy Weate via Flickr