Re-reading the classics – Audiobook review “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell

I listen to more and more audiobooks these days. Life never seems to get any less busy and if I only reviewed the books I actually read in the traditional format, I think I might only manage a couple a month! C’est la vie. It’s interesting, though, and gives you a different perspective on an author’s work.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, where she lived from 1850-65

I have posted here many times about Elizabeth Gaskell – I have reviewed North and South and am a regular visitor to her home in central Manchester, a beautiful and calm space in one of the busiest areas of the city, close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the universities. Gaskell also has a strong association with the Cheshire town of Knutsord. She lived there with her aunt after her parents died. It is where she met and married Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and where she is buried in the modest churchyard of the Brook Street Unitarian Chapel, close to the railway station. Knutsford is a short drive from my home and I am a frequent visitor to the magnificent Tatton Park, the entrance to which is on the periphery of the town. 

I was delighted to find that an audio version of Gaskell’s second novel Cranford (which was first published in serial form between 1851-53) was available as a freebie in my audiobook subscription. The reading was by Prunella Scales, an actress I love and whose voice we seldom hear these days as she has been living with dementia for some years now. 

I had never read Cranford, thinking of it as one of Gaskell’s less serious works, and neither have I ever watched the much-acclaimed television series which includes most of Britain’s acting royalty, including several Dames and Sirs! Listening to the audio, however, was a joy. With its wit, irony and observation of character I think it is up there with Jane Austen’s best work. 

Set in the fictional market town of Cranford (which is so recognisable as Knutsford that it is remarkable to think that almost two hundred years have passed), it is narrated by Mary Smith, a regular visitor to the town as the guest of the ageing Misses Deborah and Matty Jenkyns.  Mary Smith writes detailed accounts of events in the town, mainly insofar as they affect the female community, the widows and spinsters. There is a powerful social hierarchy here, as well as a strict code of behaviour and manners. This is a country town, but the industrial revolution hums in the background – Drumble (aka Manchester), lies not too many miles away. 

Change is coming to the community, suggested by a death on the railroad, by the happy marriage between the widowed Lady Glenmire and the local surgeon Dr Hoggins (considered by some to be an affront to the social order), and by the collapse of a bank which leaves Miss Matty virtually penniless. All these events unsettle the established order in Cranford. But what the episodes reveal is the tender humanity beneath all the appearance (and indeed the inhumanity of some).

Cranford is a treasure of a book. Written by Gaskell mainly to generate income, it shows the professional writer at work, honing her craft, exploring her creativity and drawing on ‘what she knew’ in the pursuit of her art. Great fun but also poignant and truthful.

Highly recommended.

2023 Reading Not-Challenge review – “Fludd” by Hilary Mantel

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about not setting myself anything too challenging in the way of a reading challenge this year. Challenges can be a two-edged sword – they can certainly push you to achieve things you might not have done otherwise (or in the case of reading challenges, to read things you might once have overlooked), but they can also make you feel like a terrible failure – reading challenges are of course, uniquely time-consuming, and sometimes life just gets in the way.

Hence, this year I’m doing a reading ‘not-challenge’ – reading a book that has been sitting around on my shelves for a while but without being too hard on myself if I don’t get through very many. Such books, lying unread and perhaps unloved, either deserves some attention or should be passed on. The first book that I selected for 2023, Fludd, the second novel by the late great Hilary Mantel, was first published in 1989 and has definitely been languishing for a while.

It is a slim volume, more a novella, and set in northern England in the 1950s, not the territory we have become used to from this author. Mantel was born in a village in Derbyshire, of course, and the setting of the novel, the fictional town on Fetherhoughton, undoubtedly bears some resemblance to that part of the country at that time, though it is very much a caricature. The other striking thing about this novel is its comedy; this is very clever satire that, far from being about the bleakness of a northern moorland town and its inhabitants, as you might at first assume, is an expose of what Mantel sees as religious hypocrisy. 

The novel opens with Father Angwin, the priest at Fetherhoughton, being told by the bishop that he is to be sent a young curate, Father Fludd. It seems the bishop thinks things need shaking up a bit and that some fresh blood will bring renewed energy and dynamism to the parish. He also wants the gloomy statues dotted about St Thomas Aquinas church to be removed, describing them as idolatry, doing nothing to improve the minds of the parishioners. The statues come to represent a kind of resistance – Father Angwin will at first go along with the bishop’s wishes. (He more or less admits to Father Fludd that he has lost his faith, and is simply going along with his role because he hasn’t anything better to do.) The statues are removed, buried in fact, but in an act of defiance, Angwin will later ‘resurrect’ them! This is just one of the events occurring in the second half of the book, which will symbolically challenge the authority of the church in the town. In doing so, Mantel breathes life into the characters, into the town, as if it has somehow broken free of the yoke of the church.

Father Fludd is a mysterious presence. Angwin finds himself warming to him in ways that he did not expect, and on long evenings over whisky and firelight, he opens up to him. Fludd seems to have this effect on people. The local school is run by nuns at the convent, a comical bunch, led by the vicious Mother Perpetua. One of her charges is a young Irish girl, Sister Philomena, practically forced into the Order by her mother. Accounts of the food, the clothing, and the regime at the convent make it feel more like a prison than a place of faith and worship. Fludd will have an effect here too, which will feel dangerous to the church authorities but which will in fact be personally liberating.

Who is Fludd? This question is left hanging at the end of the book, Mantel is not making it that easy for us. There is a note at the beginning of the book telling us that the real Fludd was in fact a sixteenth century physician, scholar and alchemist, and that is perhaps the key to understanding the character she has created here; that he has brought about change in form through the application of mysterious powers. It is about finding magic, where it seemed there was only darkness. 

The author’s wit, her creativity and her eye for the comic are on display here in ways that are not as present in her epic historical fiction, for which she is much better known. In a sense, this novel feels playful, it’s a dark comedy and shows her lighter side. It is also confirmation, if we needed any, of the breadth of her talent, alas, gone far too soon.

So, I am delighted with this first pick of mine and am only sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading this book. Highly recommended.

My second ‘off the shelf’ pick was Susanna Bailey’s Raven Winter which I reviewed on here last week as part of my #KeepKidsReading week. So, I’m on to my third pick and it’s still only mid-March. Yay! I’ve discovered I have a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl which I think I might have acquired secondhand sometime in the 1990s!

#KeepKidsReading – book recommendations

Like most avid readers, one of my favourite pastimes is browsing local bookshops, looking at what’s new, reading blurbs and admiring the artwork. Book covers have got so good in recent years, particularly in the children’s section and whilst I do love all my Penguin classics that have great works of art on the covers, the amount of original work out there is stunning and great for artists of course. I think this is particularly important for books for younger readers as it is often the thing that will make them reach for a title.

A few books have caught my eye recently and I thought I’d list a few here for anyone looking for ideas for the children in their lives.


I love the ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ series and since the titles were first (self) published in 2012 they now encompass a huge range of international figures from important people in history to pop stars, sports stars, artists, writers, scientists and explorers. The books have also won international acclaim and count Oprah Winfrey, no less, among their fans. Incredibly, they are all penned by one person, Spanish writer Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, working with a team of illustrators from around the world. Aimed at the 4-7 age group, you will find a title to suit your little one, no matter their interest. And the website has some excellent additional resources too.

If your 8-11 year old is interested in science these two books will be of interest. The Virus explains the Coronavirus pandemic in simple, factual and non-patronising terms. Could really help any kids still anxious about the disease. Adam Kay is best known for his darkly comic insights into life in the NHS, such as the bestselling This Is Going to Hurt.

History is such an important subject for young people and will help them develop their critical appraisal skills. I think the Windrush book is a timely and beautifully put together perspective on the subject through the eyes of those who travelled. And I loved A History of the World in 25 Cities which has echoes of the ground-breaking ‘History of the World in a Hundred Objects’ (BBC/British Museum). It’s an innovative way of looking at history which many of today’s well-travelled and cosmopolitan kids will respond to.

I adore these two books! Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots is a practical book for active kids who love nature and growing things and even those who live in flats and might only have a balcony or window can participate. This book would suit kids of even a young age who can follow the activities with the help of an adult. Grow is a thing of beauty! For children who are a little older (8+) it is a guide to plants and gardening, with the most stunning illustrations. It would make a great gift.

A Couple of quite serious books here. Unstoppable Us: How humans took over the world is by the Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari. He is well-known for his best-selling books for adults , such as Sapiens and Homo Deus. I wonder if he has given up on us grown-ups and feels it’s only the kids now who can save us! You Don’t Know What War Is is a Ukrainian child’s war diary. So many kids will have Ukrainians in their schools and communities and this book may help them to understand what is a very troubling geopolitical situation.

Finally, among the non-fiction, two that really appealed to me. Selina Boyd’s Cocoa Girl Awesome Hair is a fab book specifically for young people of colour, and great fun. And The Very Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra which will appeal to aspirational parents! I loved the buttons at the back where you could hear the sounds of different instruments.


I reviewed Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter on here a year or so ago and loved it. It was the first book of hers that I’d read and I learned subsequently that she has written a lot of middle-grade fiction. Her Wolfbane series has been hugely successful and this book is the ninth and final book in the series.

Sarah Hagger-Holt’s Proud of Me deals with similar tough themes to a book I reviewed on here last week Raven Winter. Two young people share the same father – an anonymous sperm donor but have different views on what information they want about this in the future. It is a story about searching for identity.

Another series, this time a pair of young detectives living in a high rise block of flats. This is the second book by Sharna Jackson and characters Nik and Norva. I used to love junior detective books when I was a kid and I am sure this would have resonated with me as a nine or ten year old.

Reading the blurb of this reminded me of Mitch Johnson’s Kick, which I reviewed here a few years ago. Set in an Indian slum area it deals with the reality of life for children growing up in this part of the world in very different circumstances than most of us are used to. This will be a powerful read, but, like Kick hopefully a hopeful one.

I couldn’t ‘resist’ a bit of historical fiction and Tom Palmer’s Resist fits the bill. Set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the second world war, it tells the story of teenage girl Edda fighting her own personal battles against her oppressors who have murdered members of her family and imprisoned her brother. Powerful stuff.

Finally, I love the sound of this book Little Sure Shot by Matt Ralphs, based on the story of Annie Oakley. Annie is a young girl living on an Ohio farm with her family who has a talent with a rifle. When the family is thrown into poverty by tragedy Annie must deploy her talents to keep the family afloat. A really novel idea for a children’s book. It is newly published and I hope it’s a success.

That wraps up my research for this #KeepKidsReading week. I hope there is something here that will appeal to your young people.

#KeepKidsReading classic audiobook review – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

I was first given this book as a child in primary school (I still have my copy!) and though I recall reading it, I’m not sure what I thought about it at the time. I read it again (along with the sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass) while I was an English literature undergraduate (this time exploring the symbolism and the place of the work in the history of literature). It is easy to forget that this book was written in the Victorian era (it was first published in 1865), a time when children were definitely meant to be seen and not heard. Alice is nearly subversive when thought about in that context!

I came across the audiobook recently, read, to my excitement, by the marvellous actor Jodie Comer, who comes from Liverpool but who seems able to mimic just about any accent. As I had a longish solo car journey, I thought it would be the perfect accompaniment. I was slightly disappointed that Jodie Comer read it in a (perfectly executed) received pronunciation – fitting to the book’s period, but I think it might make it sound somewhat dated to a modern child’s ear. There was a wide range of other accents too though, various northern and west country voices for the animals. 

I listened in one sitting and it really is a marvel. I had forgotten just how many different ‘episodes’ there are! I was reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which I think draws on the legacy that was established by Alice. I am currently watching season three of the BBC television adaptation of that series (which is further than I have read in the books) and I am struck by the succession of ‘worlds’ (or multiverses as I think it would be more fashionable to call them). Alice goes through a series of changes as she passes through the different areas of Wonderland and encounters different animals, some familiar, some fantasy, and different forms of people (such as the royal playing cards). As an adult, I have to admit that I have found this a little tedious at times – there is a kind of impatience in my watching/listening. But, of course, children have a much greater tolerance for this sort of thing and it’s probably a strong argument against bingeing. It’s simply too rich!

Listening to Alice, my absolute favourite section was the mock turtle’s story. I love the nonsense logic and I think the puns will make children laugh as much as I did. In performance terms, Jodie Comer had great fun with the Queen of Hearts and the King and the repetitions of “off with his head” got increasingly melodramatic. Again, children will love the anarchic humour.

Alice was a reaction to the constraints placed on children and the virtual denial of childhood in the late nineteenth century. Alice refers to the events going on around her as “curiouser and curiouser”, but of course, she is also curious, drinking potions and eating biscuits and mushrooms, even though she knows this is against every rule she has been taught, just for the hell of it, to see what happens. The message here is that curiosity is rewarded with adventures and rules can be broken…sometimes!

Some parts of this book may well feel dated to 21st century ears, and I was listening out for things that might offend, in the way that some have been offended by Roald Dahl recently, but Alice is much more fantastical, in my view. Its entertainment value for younger children remains strong, however, and Alice’s innocence still rings true. 

#KeepKidsReading Book Review – “Raven Winter” by Susanna Bailey

Having another #KeepKidsReading week on my blog has given me an ‘excuse’ to read a book which has been on my TBR pile for some time. It also fits perfectly with my reading challenge this year, which is to pick a long-ago purchased but so far neglected book off my bulging shelves. The first book of the year that I chose was Hilary Mantel’s early novella Fludd, a review of which I’ll post next week, but I wanted to tell you this week about Raven Winter. I picked this up when it was first published early last year, but somehow have never got to it. I’m so glad I did! 

The main character and narrator is Billie a twelve or thirteen year-old girl who lives with her ‘Mam’ and Mam’s boyfriend, Daniel in a flat somewhere in north east England. Billie moved to the flat relatively recently, having had to leave their previous home after her father went to prison for fraud against his employer. Billie has also started at a new school and is finding it difficult to make friends. People seem to know about her family situation and she has experienced some bullying. 

The other perhaps somewhat darker cloud in Billie’s life is Daniel, who is a dark and brooding presence throughout the book. He is a dominant and controlling character and there are strong suggestions that his intimidation of Billie’s mother is both physical and psychological. Billie cannot understand why her mother not only tolerates Daniel, but actually wants Billie to like him, welcome him as a substitute father. Billie misses her own father terribly; they were very close and shared a passion for nature and particularly birds. It is clear that there are secrets, that Billie has not been told the full story of her father’s ongoing absence, why they have lost contact with him, have not visited him for many months, and, now that his three year sentence has come to an end, why they are not reunited as a family.

Billie wants to run away. She sets out to do this one day, fleeing to a wild woodland area close to her home, Tanglewood, which her mother has warned her to stay away from. There, she finds an injured young raven and decides to take it home to nurse it back to health. Her relationship with the raven reminds of her father and brings her comfort. 

Raven Winter  is Susanna Bailey’s third book exploring the therapeutic relationship between animals and children who are facing challenging circumstances. Her first novel Snow Foal dealt was about a child going into foster care, and her second Otter’s Moon deals with divorce and relocation. Bailey clearly draws on her real-life experiences in the field of social work for her subjects. Raven Winter does suggest domestic abuse and a parent who is absent due to being in jail – tough topics – but I think it is done sensitively and gently. It is ‘middle-grade’ fiction after all, for the 8-12 age group. The bigger theme of the book in my view though is how children can find comfort in nature, how non-judgmental animals can help a child who feels alone, and how caring for someone or something outside of themselves, can be cathartic.

Bailey creates a lovely engaging character in Billie and the book is written very much from her point of view. To that extent I think it will encourage empathy in young readers. I also liked the way that the author ties up the ending. Even a few pages from the end it is not clear how things will turn out, so it will keep children interested. All the loose ends are tied up, but not in a schmaltzy, happily ever after way, rather in a realistic way that bears greater resemblance to the complexities of real life. It does end with hope, however, and that is the main thing needed in these sorts of books when they are aimed at this age group.

Recommended, and if Bailey’s other books are this good, they will provide ample material for children who enjoy this one. 

It’s World Book Day! #KeepKidsReading

World Book Day has to be one of my favourite dates in the bookish calendar. It is such a pleasure scrolling through the various social media platforms and seeing photos posted by proud parents of their kids dressed up as various fictional characters. As a parent, I didn’t love it quite so much when my kids were little I’m afraid! It was an enormous pressure to come up with outfits, especially when your kids have VERY specific ideas about how they should look and trips to various charity shops do not yield quite the desired items of clothing! On the day, though, when they were actually dressed up and happy went into school, it was always brilliant fun.

There is a more serious side to it of course. There is the fact that children in the UK and the Republic of Ireland get their free book token, and can purchase a wide range of other titles for just £1/€1.50. With so many electronic distractions in their lives, the importance of fostering a love of reading and of books is more important than ever. Rising costs of living do not make that easy for many families, and similarly squeezed council budgets mean there is pressure on local libraries too. It is important for the grown ups to keep campaigning on these issues. Even once our kids are beyond the dressing up stage, it is important to continue pressing for all children to have access to the joy of reading.

There are also some serious social benefits too, of course. We know that reading contributes to the attainment of developmental milestones in children which can in turn improve their life chances. But if you are reading this post, you already know this!

So, it seems like a good moment for another of my #KeepKidsReading weeks. In the next week I will post a couple of reviews of kids’ books as well as some suggestions for some great books that are just out or about to be published. Look out for these posts in the coming days.

In the meantime, if you have young children in your life, enjoy the rest of another wonderful World Book Day!

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