Goodnight Gorilla


When I first had a thought to do reviews for books aimed at babies/young children, I felt like it would be more interesting and helpful to focus on more recently published works. Works we never had as kids and that deserve a bit of attention rather than the solid classics.

Despite that, tripping down memory lane with some of these amazing books has just been so much fun; legitimate, childish fun I can have without embarrassment since I am, after all, reading to my little boy. As it turns out, the pull of nostalgia is far too strong, as will be the need to write a little something about my all-time favourites as we go along.


Horrifyingly, in this case I had never actually heard of Peggy Rathman’s Goodnight, Gorilla growing up. I say horrifyingly; this is an American book and I was a little old when it was published in the 90s but still. After buying it on the advice of some book list I’d seen somewhere I was initially, and very naively as it turns out, disappointed by the fact that there are barely any words in this colourful board book.

Our zookeeper; ‘Joe’, takes time of an evening to say goodnight to all of the animals under his care, starting with a rather cheeky miniature gorilla who steals his keys and, as Joe makes his way around the zoo, releases the other animals one by one until they all follow him home to bed.


In what is, for my little man, the most sidesplittingly hilarious page in the book, Joe’s  long-suffering (I reckon) wife discovers all the animals in her bedroom and patiently leads them back home (only to be followed home again by Gorilla and his little mousey mate.)


This book is wonderful, a true toddlerhood comfort ‘read’ and it is the lack of words that makes it so genius. As well as the illustrations and story needing to be bold and amusing enough to make up for the lack of words, the lack of Mummy or Daddy blithering on actually leaves room for the child to build up their confidence to turn the pages and read for themselves, even to read to you if you’re lucky. For such a deceptively small and simple story, there’s something to spy anew every time you pick it up and the undersized elephant, cheeky monkey, banana-toting mouse and their friends leave plenty of opportunity for animal noises. Winner.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt


On 4th August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden, a prosperous bourgeois couple living in the Fall River area of Massachusetts, were bludgeoned to death with a hatchet in their own home. Andrew Borden’s face was so severely destroyed that he was unrecognisable. The culprit? According to the police, the daughter; 32-year-old Lizzie Borden.

This brutal crime and subsequent sensational trial (which ended with Lizzie Borden’s acquittal – women just weren’t capable of such violent crimes after all) is so well-known in America, they even have a song:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

Shudder. (US readers – it isn’t a nursery rhyme or something horrendous is it? Like ‘ring a ring o’ roses??!’):

It is so hard now, with the passage of time and the no doubt questionable and inadequate  investigative techniques of yor, not only to know for certain who actually committed these gruesome murders but to understand the woman who was most likely the culprit. It is for this reason, along with the sheer infamy of these crimes even today (seriously, just have a quick Google there are some absolute diehard ‘fans’/theorists out there) that Sarah Schmidt is a brave woman to take on this crime as her subject, as ripe for retelling as it inevitably is.

This was April’s choice for the Manchester Book Club and I honestly thought we were in for one of those chats where, because everyone loved it, beyond explaining why we loved it there really wouldn’t be much left to say. This wasn’t to be so. To my delight (quite frankly, because I love a good discussion) some found the oppressive, sickening atmosphere that Schmidt so deftly builds up to be a little too much to stomach. I personally thought it was genius, and so cleverly done. This novel is less about the ‘whodunnit’ (covered so many times), ‘howdunnit’ or even necessarily the ‘whodunnit’ (that is kind of left up to the reader) than the hot, sticky, sickening atmosphere of the Borden house in the height of the Massachusetts summer.

Along with the heat, the actual illness of the main characters in the house (bar, ever suspiciously, Lizzie herself) helps to exacerbate the stomach churning feeling. A pot of mutton stew sits on the stove throughout the novel, to be reheated again and again. Watching the family tuck into the meat is disgusting enough in itself… are they making themselves ill? Or have they been poisoned?

The Lizzie Borden story will always be a guessing game. Schmidt paints her as a needy, vulnerable, slightly manic character who we can perfectly place with a hatchet in her hands. But why the mania, why the murder? Mr and Mrs Borden are not the most endearing of characters, particularly Andrew Borden, who Schmidt shows to be both distant and abusive. We can only wonder at what went on behind closed doors. We are also introduced to the creepy uncle ‘John’, in real life the only ‘outsider’ known to be staying in the Borden house around the time of the murders. His relationship with his ‘girls’ is, again, painted as a little off. Is he an abuser? Or, indeed, is he capable of murder himself?

I loved this book and promptly lent it to Mummy Relish (with a warning not to read it when in the house on her own, ironically I found the creepiest bit to be the epilogue where Schmidt describes her own stay in the murder house). The only part that jarred and I felt was thrown in just for the sake of throwing up the question of Lizzie’s guilt was a random character called ‘Billy’, whom John hires to hurt/threaten Andrew Borden (he never gets the chance). There is mystery enough in the Bordens’ sad story without throwing in an extra character, and an unendearing one at that.

This is more than worthy of the Women’s Prize Longlist. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her for next week’s shortlist!



Books That Take Place Abroad

Courtesy of That Artsy Reader Girl, I’ll be dipping into books I’ve read that take place abroad (i.e. not the UK) this week. It feels a bit of a cheat really because, when I think about it, I don’t read a great many books set in England in the first place!

For these purposes, therefore, I need to think a little deeper. About those books with the greatest sense of place, that would be devoid of meaning without it.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry


The first time we went to India my other half and I were determined to read literature to go along with our trip. He read Shantaram (ridiculous, apparently) and I read Rohinton Mistry’s chunk of a novel. It is a phenomenal book, capturing India and its hierarchical society in all its glory. Brilliant, evocative and added a perfect extra layer to the holiday.

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden


I read this classic so many years ago that the details are vague. However, what has easily remained with me is both how much I adored it (maybe time for a reread?) and its deeply evocative sense of place.

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht


It seems odd I suppose to include a book here that I, controversially given its prize-winning status, didn’t much care for. In reality I found Obreht’s surreal tale to be unnecessarily confusing and meandering. That said, the bleak portrait she paints of an unknown Balkan state, with its icy weather, traditions and folklore has stuck with me ever since.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini


Another one that I read years and years ago but whose images; dusty courtyards, bombed out houses, women gazing through the mesh of their burqa, have seared themselves in my mind. And I haven’t even read The Kite Runner yet. Yey.

Ruby –  Cynthia Bond


As tough as some of the scenes are in this tale of abuse and betrayal in America’s Deep South, the atmosphere and imagery of rural East Texas are undeniably beautiful.

The Orchard of Lost Souls – Nadifa Mohamed


I’ve said it countless times but I really need (still) to read more African literature. Somalia is a real black hole on a map for me, thankfully less so after reading this Mohamed’s thoughtful, complex second novel.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang


This task is so useful for reflecting on books I read years ago. I stared at this one on my auntie’s bookshelves for years before finally picking it up. It is an absolute must read. Epic.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt


An entirely different side to America than Ruby, Donna Tartt’s doorstop novel, which I dog-eared to bits, is phenomenal, ranging from a cosy, antique New York to a cold, hard Los Angeles, whose dusty streets and sterile homes magnify the sense of unease and foreboding.

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys


This classic really gets mixed reviews so I felt rather dubious when it was chosen by the book club one month. To my surprise I really loved it and that was helped by the vivid picture Rhys paints of life in nineteenth century Jamaica/Dominica. Hot, oppressive and delirious.

Carmen – Prosper Mérimée


I was so excited to read the novella that inspired Bizet’s famous opera. Mérimée is always good for a short story and Carmen is no exception. It also helps that I lived in wonderful Sevilla for a very short time and have LIVED that famous cigar factory. Yas.

Oh No, George! – Chris Haughton


Ah George. Your perfectly rounded dome head, your dopey stare, your perfectly floppy ears…your great big clumsy body….hang on, I’ve seen you somewhere before….


Inspired by our very own dome head, my other half bought Chris Haughton’s book on a whim whilst loitering around Waterstones one chilly afternoon. This tale of doggy mischief and mayhem is hilarious and heartwarming and another absolute fave in the Relish household at the moment.

George the Labrador (this isn’t specified by the way, I just like to think of him as a lab) lives with owner, Harris (who is, I’d like to note here, both smaller than George and rather green around the gills) who decides to leave poor George to his devices one day. I say poor George as the prospect of being left alone in the house with a cake, a cat AND some lovely potted plants makes him incredibly nervous.


What follows are the disastrous consequences of Harris’ departure, as George, unable to resist his doggy instincts, makes mistake after mistake, all accompanied by the cry ‘Oh no George!’ Reading to a toddler every day you swiftly come to realise the value of Repetition, with a capital R.


Harris of course has to eventually come back, George is rumbled and absolutely devastated by his behaviour. In a scene that I think is simply the saddest I’ve read in a long time (yes, more than THAT scene in One Day) George, with a tear rolling down his cheek, apologises and offers his beloved Harris his toy duck. Oh George, you break my heart.

Being a sensible sort of chap Harris suggests going for a nice walk to clear the air, a walk where George redeems himself by ignoring all temptation. What a good boy. But wait……an overflowing bin looms on the horizon. Baby is left with a nerve-wracking cliff hanger. Will he go for the rubbish? I personally like to think he does.


I love this book. From a personal point of view it makes me feel like I understand our great daft dog a little better and, I hope, makes me a little kinder to him when he snaffles in the rubbish bin. Ish! I wasn’t overly keen on the Microsoft-paint style illustrations at first but the naive style really does grow on you and after a while, I cottoned on to what I think Haughton is trying to do here. And its charming.

But never mind me, does baby like it? The answer is a big fat yes. The colours are bold and the characters recognisable (it helps that we have our very own teeny black cat and great big dog at home). The constant repetition of ‘oh no George!’ (and, later, ‘well done George!’) is something he’s waiting for, the anticipation making it all the more hilarious. I also think it’s important for young children to get to know characters like George, who make mistakes despite their best intentions. It seems an important message to send that we’re not all perfect after all and that, if you’re genuinly sorry for stealing that slice of cake and make a big effort to redeem yourself afterwards, everything’s probably going to be absolutely fine.

Warm, funny, colourful, relatable, all we need in a baby book.


‘Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire…No man is free who is not master of himself.’              

 EPICTETUS   (and George, the dog)


We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehisi Coates


Along with much of the sane world, in January of last year, I sat, pinned to my sofa in utter horror as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. How had this country, or indeed, the world, gotten into such a state where a openly racist, misogynist tycoon/tv personality could rise to the most powerful seat in the world? A fact all the more astounding given his car crash of a presidential campaign. It was this question I was hoping to answer when I put forward Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book as an option for the book club last month. We took the tantalising bait.

Coates’ book consists of a series of articles, originally published in The Atlantic magazine, written over the course of Barack Obama’s time in power. He takes us from the Civil War, Malcolm X and black conservatism right through to the election of Donald Trump; whom he dubs America’s first ‘White President‘. Each article is preceded by a brief introduction from Coates explaining his motivations for each article in relation to each stage of the Obama presidency.

Coates obviously has a clear agenda with this book and that is ostensibly to demonstrate how the explanation for Trump’s victory lies not purely in struggling rust belt states and their distaste for a liberal, elitist class that they feel has forgotten them, but in racism, pure and simple. With the relevant facts and figures he demonstrates that the Trump electorate came from every class, gender and creed. Their unifying characteristic? They were overwhelmingly white.

Is this tribalism at its purist? The reaction of a spooked white populace desperate to claim back power? I really don’t know and am nowhere near qualified to answer. My instinct tells me that the answers are far more complex than even this book demonstrates, but Coates’ arguments are nevertheless compelling.

One thing that is clear is that racism, specifically towards African Americans, is an inherent part of American society. This is a country that, whilst advertising itself as the land of the free, was built on the backs of African slaves and their descendants. It is also a country where government legislation has actively cold-shouldered the African American community, be it through Jim Crow law or practices such as redlining. This is all fact (trust me, I fell into a Google hole with something every other page). And it is deeply shocking.

Most of the group found this book a bit of a slog. Thinking back to my university days this isn’t the densest non-fiction I’ve ever read but, since all I’ve read for years is novels I did find this slow going, but god is it illuminating and I do feel, as cliched as it may sound, a better person for having finished it. Coates is clearly writing, of course, from his particular point of view, which makes it tricky for someone who, although completely  on side, doesn’t have the depth of understanding of American history and politics to hold her own (I’m repeating myself here I know but I’m wary about sticking my oar into such a sensitive subject when I understand so little). There’s also, due to the book being a series of articles, a lot of repetition which, although helping to hammer some points home that I may not have previously grasped, massively increased the slog factor.

Coates maintains that Barack Obama is the best of the best and that, including his unusual, multiracial, international upbringing made him uniquely qualified to rise up and take the seat of power. Now his legacy is threatened by a man who thinks that global warming is a ruse created by the Chinese and whose attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is deplorable. Nice one America.