Tue. Oct 19th, 2021


Newsletter: FT weekend

Lemony Snicket’s Poison for breakfast (Oneworld / Rock the Boat, £ 10.99) is an ingenious, discursive tour of a book. It affects literature and movies, but the biggest concern is death.

As in the great sale of the author A series of unfortunate events novels, Lemony Snicket (a pseudonym for Daniel Handler) is a character here, and it is indeed he who somehow ingested poison at his breakfast, at least according to a mysterious scribble note he discovers shortly after he completed the meal. It encourages him to examine each of the different foods he has just ingested, but his mind keeps going back to death.

The tone is consistently Vonnegutian – confused, amused, determined – and if the book does not deliver a surprising philosophical breakthrough, it’s the point, because it’s more about the journey than the destination. Such a bit like life.

Catherine Fisher’s Collection The red gloves and other stories (Firefly Press, £ 12.99) also has its morbid elements. There are ghosts and ghostly mirrors, vengeful creatures from folklore and dreams that foretell death. Yet, in its glorious haunting, it is anything but gloomy. Each story is a gem of compressed storytelling, both sparse and lyrical.

The sinister gloves of the title story, apparently in the possession of a malevolent spirit and tearing a fragile friendship apart, provide a well-crafted metaphor, while the twist at the end of ‘Ghost in the Rain’ is strikingly uplifting. Highly recommended.

That of Martin Brown Nell and the cave bear (Piccadilly Press, £ 6.99) is a completely lighter, brighter affair. It takes place in a prehistoric time and follows a girl from a cave tribe and her pet who goes away to explore a stream while the rest of the tribe is hunting mammoths.

Adventure takes place as their journey takes them into the clutches of a rival tribe and further out to sea. Brown is best known as the illustrator of the Terrible history series and in this, his debut novel, his writing shows clarity and conviviality to match his cartoons.

Speaking of Terrible history, Daniel Peak, is one of the lead writers on the TV version, and also produces screenplays for sitcoms Do not go out and Code: 404. Not Unexpectedly, his first book for younger readers, Small abomination (Firefly Press, £ 6.99), is very funny.

Rita is an extraordinarily premature toddler with the brain power of a teenager. She keeps it a secret from her parents until the day they and her older brother Lewis mysteriously disappear. She soon learns that she is not the only small child with advanced intelligence, and discovers a sinister conspiracy by a mad scientist to make young people smarter sooner so that they can be more productive members of society. The story blows nicely, and Peak exploits the comic potential of ice carts, evil clowns, mobility scooters, and indoor play areas.

Just as amusing is that of Nadia Shireen Grimwood (Simon and Schuster, £ 12.99), who sees sibling foxes Ted and Nancy forced to abandon their townhouse after Ted accidentally bites the tail of an angry, psychopathic cat named Princess Buttons. They go to the countryside and take refuge in the bushveld community with the title of the book.

The rural inhabitants are honest, merciful. For example, their favorite pastime is Treebonk, a game that involves throwing from tree to tree and getting up again without touching the ground. Yet Ted and Nancy feel welcome, and when a vengeful princess button finds them, they have newfound friends to protect them. Each page of the book sings with invention and joy of life -and is also covered in ink-splattered, scribbled and thumb-marked, as if the author’s scurvy enthusiasm just can’t be kept in check.

This is quite a contrast to the precise, pristine illustrative style of Tom Gauld. His extremely funny cartoons have attracted attention from publications such as New Scientist, The Guardian and The New Yorker, and now he has produced a picture book, The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess (Templar Publishing, £ 12.99).

In this neat tale, a king and queen ask an inventor and a witch to give them what they most want, children. The family is happy, but then the princess – who becomes a wooden house again at night – is thrown out of the palace and her robot brother goes to look for her. It’s just as sweet and charming as it sounds.

Greater realism can be found in Travel to the last river (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, £ 14.99). This follow-up to The lost book of adventure describes an expedition to the unknown depths of the Amazon rainforest. Allegedly a facsimile of sketchbooks, maps and diaries compiled by an unknown adventurer, but actually the work of author and outdoor enthusiast Teddy Keen, it is an extraordinary, alluring fusion of fiction and natural history. The artwork alone, rendered in pencil and pastel, is beautiful.

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