Emma Laybourn's Blog

April 30, 2020

Which is the bleakest house in Dickens's 'Bleak House'?

While I was abridging Charles Dickens's Bleak House, one thing kept bugging me: why did Dickens give the book that title?

Indeed, why did he give the house in the book that name? For Bleak House is not bleak at all; it is a haven of comfort and affection for the orphaned heroine, Esther. But it is only so because of the kindness and care of its owner John Jarndyce, who has transformed it from its previous run-down state.

So Dickens is making the point that the nature of a household depends upon the nature of its head (or heads). That raises the further question; if the Bleak House of the title does not refer to John Jarndyce's household, whose does it mean?

There are several candidates for that doubtful honour. Foremost amongst them is Chesney Wold, the magnificent but emotionally stifled home of the lordly Dedlocks. At the other end of the social spectrum lie Tom-All-Alone's, the filthy refuge of the poor boy Jo, a sink of poverty and fever, and the rough houses of the brickmakers' families with their violent menfolk and bruised wives.

Then there are Skimpole's and Mrs. Jellyby's households, both equally neglected by careless parents; and the skin-crawlingly dank, dark home of Krook, where a nameless lodger dies - to say nothing of Krook himself, who meets one of the most extraordinary deaths in fiction by its hearth.

Of all these houses, it's difficult to pick the worst, and I think Dickens merely intended to demonstrate the various types of domestic bleakness. But not all here is bleak: there are warm and loving households in the novel too. To visit them yourself - and the multitude of vivid characters therein - you can now download the abridged and slightly simplified version of Bleak House free from my website here .
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Published on April 30, 2020 02:36 Tags: charles-dickens, classic-novels-abridged, victorian-fiction

April 4, 2020

Where to find free children's books online

Now that so many schools and libraries are closed, where can you find free children's ebooks online? Here are some suggestions:

Oxford Owl by Oxford University Press (publishers of the widely used Oxford Reading Tree books) have many free ebooks on their site.

Book Trust (UK charity): online picture books, story-telling videos and games.

Story Shares - for teenagers: a library of books (mostly American) to read online.


Children's classics are easy to find online. Try these sites:

US Library of Congress has a collection of childrens' classics to read on screen (but how easily may depend on what type of screen).

Manybooks has a library of children's classics to read online or download free in many formats including pdf.

Project Gutenberg . No frills, but has a huge library of public domain works, which can be read online (though it's best to shrink your screen size on a large monitor) or downloaded in epub or mobi format - but not pdf.

Here are twenty popular titles that are free to download on Project Gutenburg. (Just be aware that they will appear in your download folder with uninformative names like pg35997, unless you rename them.)

Treasure Island by R L Stevenson
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
A Collection of Beatrix Potter Stories by Beatrix Potter
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott


Good modern children's books are harder to find online for free. There are many self-published ebooks on the internet, but sadly few of a high quality. Over the years I've reviewed free children's ebooks on the self-publishing site Smashwords. Here are some of their better books, in approximate order of reader's age:

Age 6 and up:
Uncle Rocky, Fireman #1: Fire by James Burd Brewster. This easy, illustrated story of a fireman's first real fire has plenty of detail and just enough excitement for younger readers .
Digger the Worm: a big dig by Peter Ponzo. A jolly little book about a forgetful worm.
Fang by A.M. Laye. 6 year old Jamie unexpectedly grows fangs: a thoughtful book about families and relationships.

Age 7 and up
The Witch's Dog by Stepanie Dagg. One of several good-humoured stories about Cackling Carol the witch.
Stupid River! by Peter A. Reynolds. A dryly humorous tale about an aardvark, with charming illustrations.
Frog Kisses by Maikah Smith. A short, thoughtful story with a twist.
Bogamus the Troll by Nathan Jones. Not flawless, but fun, this is an inventive tale of a helpful troll.
Ellie and the Mushroom Thief by Kate Amedeo. Ellie the witch finds an unexpected creature stealing her mushrooms in a gentle tale.
Look Here, Hercules by Teri Kanefield. A short, cheerful story about a girl's adopted dog.

Age 8 and up
The Cat Who Couldn't Miaow by A.M. Kirkby. Narrated by a cat adjusting to a new family, this short book is written with an assured touch.
Gobbles - the Hungry Cat by Maxwell Grantly. Jack's mother warns him, 'Don't overfeed the cat!' But somehow Jack keeps forgetting... A light-hearted short story.
The Prince who Turned into a Toad by Shelley Chappell - a fairy story with a twist. Prince Rupert deserves his toad status, but it's up to his sister to turn him back.
Tunnels of Terror by Anne Ludwig. When grouchy twin boys stay on a remote farmstead, they learn a lot about themselves in this adventure.
Archibald the Giant-Slayer by Terence O'Grady. Archibald tries to live up to his giant-slaying father's reputation, in this entertaining short book.
Andie's Adventures: the Boots and the Lion by Kaelan Cessna. A clever retelling of "Puss in Boots", with a few twists.

Age 9 and up
Growned by Tracey Meredith. Liam is kidnapped by fairies in a light-hearted story.
Stars by David McRobbie. A lively, well-crafted story about Charlie's efforts to prove himself innocent of art vandalism.
Daksha the Medicine Girl by Gita V. Reddy. Daksha lives in a poor village in India, where she uses her herbal knowledge to heal. A carefully-written, informative story.
Escape the Volcano by Stephanie Dagg: a realistic adventure set in France.
Tippie & the Big Cat by Catherine Kinnery. Set on a small Scottish island, this is a leisurely, good-humoured tale of school-children on the hunt for a big cat.
4 go to Dumdumland by Patrick Edgeworth. The opening words, "I fart at thee," set the tone for this anarchic, silly and entertaining adventure about a land where everyone pretends to be stupid.
The Little Demon Who Couldn't by Odelia Floris. A clever, well-written tale about Murmur, who disappoints his demon family by not being evil enough.
Fighting Tom (Jerry the Kat series) by Carolyn Lis. An unusual and entertaining story of a troop of cats that undergo military training, as sniffers for explosives.
Fierce Winds and Fiery Dragons by Nan Sweet.
When Carrie and Ivy hatch a dragon's egg, it leads them into exciting adventures.

Age 10 and up
A Dog of my Own by Richard Clark. Lively farce involving 11 year old Jonas and a movie-star dog.
Stella Sky - the Shattered Mirror by C.A. Strand. Two teens and a talking ferret find themselves marooned on a lake, in a well-told fantasy.
Rare pets and other oddities by David Leys. Quirky, entertaining short stories.
Keeper by Bonnie Garety. Ten-year old orphan Stephen has to make a new life with an unfriendly aunt.
Emily Macintosh, Ghostbuster by Jen Cole.
A lively, well-written ghost story.

Age 11 and over
Beyond Wisherton by Amanda Hamm. 12 year-old Sevra has an unwelcome supernatural gift, which means her whole family must leave their home.
Speed by D.C. Grant. A very competently written, involving thriller about a 14 year-old who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit after his parents' car crash.

This list only goes up to 2018 so there are bound to be more recent ones that I've missed.

I haven't reviewed picture books, but hope do so in a future post. Meanwhile, you can find many original picture books (as well as children's classics) at FreeKidsBooks.

Other sites that might be of interest:
Scholastic - learning resources to use at home (American) with book-based activities.

Open Culture - links to 200 free educational resources of all kinds and subjects.

And finally there's my own website, Megamouse Books, where everything is now free.

Happy reading!
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Published on April 04, 2020 03:08 Tags: children-s-books-online, classic-children-s-books, online-reading

March 16, 2020

101 Memorable Poems - a free ebook

During my school days many. many years ago in Leeds, I was obliged to learn a fair amount of poetry. Some of it promptly disappeared again, but some has stayed with me all my life and re-emerges, occasionally unbidden, in times of happiness as well as stress or sorrow.

This is because of the ability of good poets to aptly describe universal themes - "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." Which is by Pope; who is one of the 101 poets represented in my new ebook anthology of Memorable Poems.

The book spans seven centuries, up to the 1940s. Only one poem by each author is included, and readers will have their own ideas about which ones I should have chosen. However, all, I hope, are memorable in the senses of being both easy to learn, and well worth the learning.

The anthology is free to download in pdf, epub or mobi (Kindle) formats from my website
www.englishliteratureebooks.com
. I hope the poetry within may prove an emotional resource in these strange and troubling times.
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November 5, 2019

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: an ebook of selected poems

She read Greek at ten; she began writing a Homeric epic at eleven; by forty she was one of the most acclaimed poets of her day, and secretly married to one of the other most acclaimed poets of the day; after Wordsworth's death she was considered for the post of Poet Laureate (it went to Tennyson); she wrote with passionate clarity and intellectual force, tackling themes of women's education, socialism and slavery, as well as love poems and ballads; her verse-novel Aurora Leigh was called by Ruskin "the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century" - and all this while suffering lifelong ill-health.

Yet nowadays Elizabeth Barrett Browning's works have fallen into semi-obscurity. She is, unfairly, little read compared to Tennyson and her husband Robert Browning.

This free ebook selection of her poems aims to introduce her work to readers who might otherwise only encounter one or two of her sonnets. The book contains over sixty poems and extracts (including much of Aurora Leigh) and is available in pdf, epub and mobi formats. It's free to download from my website www.englishliteratureebooks.com.
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Published on November 05, 2019 03:16 Tags: classic-literature-ebooks, victorian-poets

June 18, 2019

Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (abridged)

Anthony Trollope's great (in all senses) novel The Way We Live Now was first published over 18 months, from 1874-5, in serial form. It was one of the last major novels to be serialised, and did not do well.

On reading this mammoth novel in one go, the effects of the serialisation are obvious. Trollope often recapped previous events in the manner of a modern TV series, meaning that the book contains much superfluous repetition. Of course, when you are effectively being paid for writing by the yard, there is little incentive to cut.

As a result of all this reiteration, I've found TWWLN one of the easiest books to abridge that I've so far attempted. The shortened version is about 60% the length of the original - you can download it free from my website English Literature Ebooks here .

The book's central figure is the financial tycoon Augustus Melmotte, physically large and intimidating, and no less large in his ambitions. Twenty years earlier, Dickens had portrayed a similar financier in the form of Merdle in Little Dorrit; but Melmotte's portrait is drawn with a vigour and insight which Dickens's cipher entirely lacks. (Both characters were probably partly based on the real life swindler John Sadleir - see link here .

Melmotte's thinking is increasingly revealed as the book progresses and his downfall looms closer. It is a mark of Trollope's greatness as a writer than he can make the reader empathise with Melmotte even while deploring his monstrous behaviour. The result is one of the masterpieces of Victorian fiction.
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Published on June 18, 2019 09:07 Tags: abridged-classics, classic-novel, simplified-novel, victorian-fiction

February 13, 2019

On Coleridge, Kubla Khan, and opium addiction

(...and a free ebook of Coleridge's Selected Poems, available free here ).

"I am very unwell. On Wednesday night I was seized with an intolerable pain from my right temple to the tip of my right shoulder, including my right eye, cheek, jaw, and that side of the throat. I was nearly frantic, and ran about the house naked... on Thursday (it) began severer threats towards night; but I took between sixty and seventy drops of laudanum, and sopped the Cerberus, just as his mouth began to open..."

The writer is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the year is 1796. The laudanum he took for his neuralgia was opium dissolved in alcohol. Laudanum was easily available, and in those days was commonly taken for all sorts of pains and illnesses. Coleridge was accustomed to dosing himself frequently for, it appears, both physical and mental ailments - even though in one letter of 1796 he referred to 'the languor and exhaustion to which pain and my frequent doses of laudanum have reduced me.'

It was not long after this that he wrote Kubla Khan, the most famously opium-induced poem in English literature. In his description of how the poem came to him in a dream, Coleridge only admitted to falling asleep after taking 'an anodyne'; however, given his habits, it is pretty safe to assume that opium was involved. The result was the extraordinary visionary outburst of Kubla Khan - an outburst that is too short, for the dream faded and Coleridge never continued the poem despite assuring his readers, 'The Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him.'

It is possible, though unproven, that laudanum also played a part in the hallucinatory and nightmarish images of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - the skeleton ship, the spectral Life-in-Death who plays dice for the lives of the crew, and the slimy things that 'crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea.'

By 1802, Coleridge was determined to try and reduce his drug intake, although he showed some confusion about exactly which substances might be causing him the most harm:

'.... I have now left off beer,' he wrote, ' and... I take no tea; ... I take ginger at twelve o’clock at noon... Once in the twenty-four hours I take half a grain of purified opium, equal to twelve drops of laudanum, which is not more than an eighth part of what I took at Keswick, exclusively of beer, brandy, and tea, which last is undoubtedly a pernicious thing - all which I have left off, and will give this regimen a fair, complete trial of one month.... But I am fully convinced that... opium in the small quantities I now take it is incomparably better in every respect than beer, wine, spirits, or any fermented liquor, nay, far less pernicious than even tea.'

Despite his efforts to cut down on tea and opium, Coleridge's life became increasingly turbulent and difficult in the years that followed. By 1814 he was in no doubt about the reason. He wrote:
'In two instances I have warned young men, mere acquaintances, who had spoken of having taken laudanum, of the direful consequences, by an awful exposition of the tremendous effects on myself.'

And in a letter to Dr James Gillman in 1816, he confessed that 'when I am alone, the horrors I have suffered from laudanum, the degradation, the blighted utility, almost overwhelm me.'

Coleridge was fortunate. The sympathetic Dr Gillman took him into his household and under his care. Coleridge never kicked his habit, but he brought it under control, and was able to lead a productive life. Still, his poetry never again reached its former heights. And he never did finish Kubla Khan.


To download a free ebook of Coleridge's major poems (in pdf, epub and mobi), please visit my website Englishliteratureebooks.com .
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is also downloadable there as a free, separate pdf.

[Quotes are from The Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E.H. Coleridge, Heinemann 1895]
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Published on February 13, 2019 01:27 Tags: laudanum, rime-of-the-ancient-mariner, romantic-poetry

December 16, 2018

Free online children's Christmas stories - an updated list.

I first compiled a list of free children's Christmas stories in 2012, but some of my recommendations have since disappeared. So this is an update of that post. These Christmas stories can be read online or downloaded as free ebooks.
Click on each title to be taken to the book's webpage.

First, classic stories - there are various Christmas collections at Project Gutenberg:
A Budget of Christmas Tales by Charles Dickens and others includes A Christmas Carol, but the other stories by Victorian authors are very wordy and moral.
There's a collection of much simpler (though still old-fashioned) stories in
The Night before Christmas and other popular stories for children
On a middle ground between these two lies
A Children's book of Christmas Stories
, with authors including Hans Christian Andersen and Susan Coolidge.

What about modern stories? Smashwords has a number of free, enjoyable kids' Christmas tales which you can read online or download in all ebook formats. My favourites include these:

A Newfangled Christmas by Betsey Haynes, a story for over 8's about a Santa bemused by modern technology.
Santa's Boots by LA Quill, about an elf's first experience of helping Santa, is slight but sweet.
The Holly and the Ouch Tree by Michael Beddard occasionally has dodgy punctuation, but is a pleasant tale of country mice.
Shannon and Ally love Christmas by Kate Everson is a gentle photo-story about a real family's Christmas.
Bad Brad Saves Christmas by Joe Corcoran is a funny and enjoyable story about Brad's encounter with Santa.
My Snowman, Paul by Yossi Lapid
Nicely illustrated, simple book for age 4 plus

There are three of my own Christmas stories on Smashwords:

Cold Cuthbert's Journey , about a snowman who learns to walk.
Horace's Christmas Sleigh When Horace the dog decides to play Santa, the results are chaotic...
Pies and Harmony Ella and Matt discover something surprising hidden in their old house.

On my website Megamouse Books there's a short, easy story, The Best Christmas Play Ever , about a school nativity play that goes wrong. There's a printable snowy crossword there too.

For slightly older readers of about 9 upwards, try:

Sarah Sues Santa by P.J.Leonard - an engaging and thought-provoking take on "A Christmas Carol", in which Sarah lives through different versions of Christmas.
Creepy Christmas by Jaimie Admans: 10 year old Kaity has to deal with spooky snowmen and a sinister Santa whilst trying to get her parents back together.
The Dragon's Christmas Gift by Terence O'Grady is a slightly long-winded but good-natured tale of how dragons help a village in trouble.
Christmas Tales 2 is a collection of well-written stories and poems by mainly Australian authors.


Online stories that are not downloadable as ebooks:
The British Council website has an easy animated story with text, Santa's Little Helper (designed for children learning English, so very straightforward.)

A site called Santagames.net has six online Christmas stories, with rather cutesy cartoon pictures.

Finally, for kids' Christmas activities, facts, jokes and puzzles, and a retelling of the nativity story, there's an attractive non-commercial website called Why Christmas? It looks useful for parents and teachers, with lots of interesting items.

Have a Happy Christmas.
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Published on December 16, 2018 02:39 Tags: children-s-christmas-stories, free-christmas-ebooks

November 21, 2018

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems - here's a free ebook.

Why Yeats? Because Ireland's greatest poet has something for everybody. From his early romance with Celtic myth to the disillusion of his later years, he covers a vast range of human emotion and experience with a poetic style that seeps into the heart and settles there.

The free ebook contains over 100 of Yeats's poems, from all periods of his life, with a few annotations. You can download it in pdf, epub of mobi formats from my website English Literature Ebooks, here .

My favourite poem by Yeats has changed over the years; but at the moment it's The Wild Swans at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
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Published on November 21, 2018 02:29 Tags: classic-poetry-anthology, free-poetry-ebook, irish-literature

October 15, 2018

Charlotte Bronte's 'Shirley', and Emily Bronte

"Note well. Whenever you present the actual truth, it is, somehow, always denounced as a lie; whereas the product of your own imagination, the fiction, is adopted, petted, called sweetly natural."

The words are Charlotte Bronte's, from the final chapter of Shirley (and if you've struggled to make it to the final chapter, you can now download my abridged version free from my website here ). Certainly in Shirley Charlotte Bronte aimed for the "actual truth", drawing many of her characters from the life - most notably her sister Emily, whom she depicted as Shirley herself. Emily died while the book was still being written, and Charlotte may have intended the portrait as a tribute to her sister.

But it is a strange tribute. Not that the character of Shirley is unattractive - on the contrary, she is a independent-minded heiress, beautiful, intelligent and brave: Charlotte even used an incident from Emily's life when she feared she had been bitten by a mad dog and cauterised the wound. Yet it seems that friends of the family failed to recognise Emily from the book.

Shirley represents an idealised Emily - not only is she given riches and health, but perhaps her very nature is changed to fit Charlotte's idea of the person she ought to have been. In the novel, Shirley has the imagination but not the inclination to write (apart from a flowery essay from her schoolroom days, very far from the raw power of Wuthering Heights). No role seems open to her other than that of lady of the manor and, eventually, wife. It seems odd that Charlotte deprived her fictionalised sister of the outlet which in life was so vital to her.

Shirley is little read these days compared to Jane Eyre - partly because it lacks Jane Eyre's high drama, but also because it is a wordy and somewhat indigestible book. Yet it is still an interesting and perceptive one. If you'd like to meet Shirley/Emily for yourself, the abridged version shortens the novel to about 60 % of its original length, making it more readable for modern tastes: it's downloadable as a free ebook (in epub, mobi or pdf) from my website English Literature Ebooks.
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Published on October 15, 2018 08:15 Tags: abridged-classics, emily-bronte, victorian-fiction

July 22, 2018

The Poetry of Sleep: a free ebook anthology

This free anthology can now be downloaded from my website English Literature Ebooks .

The oldest reference to sleep in literature is almost certainly in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed four to five thousand years ago:

"While Gilgamesh sat there resting on his haunches, a mist of sleep like soft wool teased from the fleece drifted over him..."
Gilgamesh has been trying to stay awake for six days, but once sleep overcomes him, he does not wake for another week. The description of sleep has a sophistication which suggests that the author(s) had long thought about its nature.

And poets have been thinking about the nature of sleep (or the want of it) ever since. Although The Poetry of Sleep does not go as far back as Gilgamesh, it does span six centuries from Chaucer to the 1900's. Containing 80 poems, it's free to download in epub, mobi or pdf here .
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Published on July 22, 2018 05:41 Tags: english-poetry, free-anthology, sleep-in-literature