2016 Classics Challenge – Recommendations and TBR

By Jim Dean, January 16, 2016

We’re taking part in the 2016 Classics Challenge, hosted by the brilliant Stacey at Pretty Books – sign up here!

Throughout the year she’ll be running chats to go with the challenge, using the hashtag #ChatClassics, and the first is TONIGHT (Sat 16th Jan) at 8pm GMT – we can’t wait! It seemed like a great day to share some recommendations and my TBR.

Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken

Starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and continuing for another 11 books, this is a stunning series set in an alternate version of 1830s England ruled by James III. I’ve actually only read about half of them, somehow, but Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, and The Stolen Lake, in particular, are three of my favourites of all-time, and the heroine of these, and others, Dido Twite is probably the only serious rival to Kat Stephenson (Stephanie Burgis’s brilliant main character) when it comes to talking about my favourite ever main characters in series. Aiken’s plots are glorious – Dickensian tales of villainy and dark plots, with added legends. It’s Dido, though, a young tomboy who quickly won my heart as a child, who makes this sequence stand out. Having said that, the various people she comes up against, all truly horrible in their evil ways, are all stunning characters as well!

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

While Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is one I still hear people talking about a lot, Alexander’s Prydain series is less commonly discussed. Like Cooper’s books, this is heavily influenced by Welsh mythology, but it’s set in a different world to our own – the titular Prydain. For me, it’s the greatest children’s fantasy series ever written – it follows the fortunes of hero Taran, who starts off as an assistant pig-keeper with dreams of being a hero, but matures wonderfully over the course of the five books as he’s plunged into a series of adventures to try and stop the Death-Lord Arawn. I love the complex characters, with so many strengths, weaknesses, and failings, while the last book is incredibly emotional.

Forever by Judy Blume

Often heralded as one of the first YA books, and certainly one of the first to feature sex in anything other than a ‘cautionary tale’ way, this frequently-censored story about a girl trying to work out whether to start a sexual relationship with her new boyfriend is a really interesting read. Having not read as a teen, it’s not one that works for me quite as well as some of Blume’s other books, but I think it’s intriguing to read and compare with modern books (especially when people talk about sex in YA as if it’s something that’s only been introduced in the last few years!)

The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper

As mentioned above, this is definitely more in people’s minds at the moment than Alexander’s series – particularly the title book, confusingly second in the series. I love the way that the Arthurian legends are intertwined with the books here and adore the development of lots of great characters here, including Will Stanton, the teenage boy who is the last of the Old Ones. One thing though – on rereads I always put the last book, Silver on the Tree, down a few pages before the end, the VERY last couple of pages annoy me so much!

William series by Richmal Crompton

One of my childhood favourites, William – a rebellious young boy who, along with his friends The Outlaws, causes chaos wherever he goes despite the best of intentions – is hilarious to read about. Babysitting, fortune telling, or trying to get away from Violet Elizabeth Bott, fun is sure to follow him. With each of the books forming a series of short stories, normally only loosely connected, they’re perfect to dip into. Also, the fabulous Pan Macmillan are reprinting them at the moment with some truly gorgeous covers from top notch illustrators, including Chris Riddell, Alex T Smith and Lydia Monks!

Trebizon series by Anne Digby

This 14-book series about Rebecca Mason and her friends at Trebizon, starting when she joins the school in the second form, and continuing until she reaches the fifth form, is one of my favourite quick reads. I love the friendships that form over the course of the book, the developing romance between Becky and best friend Tish Anderson’s brother Robbie, and the portrayal of teachers is good. Also, the reprints from Egmont – the first three of which hit shelves in a couple of weeks – have gorgeous Lucy Truman illustrations which I absolutely adored!

Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

This is the only book I’ve read by Forest and, as far as I’m aware, is the only one still in print. Twins Nicola and Lawrie are confidently expecting to be just as distinguished as their older sisters when they arrive at their new school, but things don’t really go as they were hoping. Really funny and with a great pair of central characters, I also liked the depth here – in particular ‘bad girl’ Lois Sanger is a far more developed character than most antagonists in the early examples of the school story genre were.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Orphaned at 19, Flora Poste – a London sophisticate – is led to retreat to deepest Sussex to live off her relatives the Starkadders at the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm, a mournful bunch who take her in as they couldn’t refuse anything of Robert Poste’s child, but seem less than happy with having to do so. As she meets the preacher Amos, his over-sexed younger son Seth, his flighty sister Elphine, and the hugely memorable – if barely seen – Aunt Ada Doom, the first person in literature to see something nasty in the woodshed – she resolves to take the family in hand and solve their problems.

I ignored this for years because I wasn’t sure if I’d like the novel from the plot summaries I’d seen, but if I’d realised how incredibly funny it was I’d have got to it a couple of decades sooner, I’m sure! Gibbons brilliantly parodies authors like Mary Webb and DH Lawrence – although you don’t need to be too familiar with them to enjoy the fantastic humour here; her deliberately impenetrable language and wonderfully memorable characters make this a superb read.

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Brought back to Matthew Cuthbert’s Avonlea farmhouse to live with him and his sister Marilla, who were expecting a boy to help them run the farm, red-headed Anne is expecting to be sent straight back to the orphanage but quickly wins over the siblings. This book, first in a series, follows her through her coming of age years.

I finally read this a couple of years ago after #2016ClassicsChallenge organiser Stacey’s fab guest post persuaded me to and fell utterly in love with it – it’s a brilliant read with a fantastic heroine and so many quotable lines! I definitely want to read more in the series this year.

Five Children and It by E Nesbit

On holiday, five siblings find a gravel-pit in which there lives a strange creature called the Psammead. Grumpy and vain, the creature doesn’t take too kindly to being disturbed, but has a remarkable power to grant wishes. Through numerous adventures, the children come to learn the truth of the saying “Be careful what you wish for.”

I reread this for the first time in 15-20 years last year, just after adoring the Costa-winning Five Children On The Western Front by Kate Saunders, and really enjoyed it. It’s my favourite Nesbit – although I also love The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children, amongst others – and it feels fresh and funny, even now.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

From the classic opening line “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, Smith’s novel about 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, her eccentric bohemian family, and the rich, good-looking Americans who move in next door is exquisite. Beautifully-written and with a wonderful set of characters, it’s one of my favourite ever coming-of-age stories. Despite the 30s setting it feels remarkably fresh and I think that most teens who enjoy reading would adore this.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was my first read for the 2016 Classics Challenge, having meant to read it for ages last year and never quite getting round to it. I enjoyed it, although I found it dipped a bit in the middle. Despite that, it’s a generally exciting read and Long John Silver is a wonderful character. I’ll be writing about it in a bit more depth soon!

So, one down and eleven to go – here’s my tentative line-up for the rest of the year! Have you read any? Any you’d particularly recommend? Or have my 12 suggestions got you interested in reading any of them? Let us know in the comments!

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Great Expectations and/or David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright (reread of The Saturdays, reading the rest for the first time)

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith

What do you think?