Classics re-told: Revisiting literary gold from Jane Austen's Emma to The Wizard of Oz


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Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), the American author's first YA novel, draws on Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, updating the story for a new generation of adolescent readers.

Set in a boarding school for intelligent but troubled teenagers, the students taking "Special Topics in English" – each trapped under their own bell jar – find themselves transported to a seemingly magical world every time they add an entry to their term-long journal assignment. Wolitzer's adult voice occasionally drowns out that of Jam, her central protagonist, who's grieving the death of her high school boyfriend, but overall the book is a clever examination of the psychological workings of trauma through the lens of magical realism.

Set in 1991 in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar against the backdrop of seething violence and rebellion, Mirza Waheed's The Book of Gold Leaves (Viking, £12.99) tells a story of star-crossed lovers that owes much to Romeo and Juliet. The romance between Roohi – a dreaming, romantic Sunni girl – and Faiz – a Shia papier-mâché artist turned militant – gains "something of a folk status" among the city's besieged inhabitants. "Some of my friends ask why him," Roohi explains, "when there are so many good Sunni boys around? I say to them, 'I didn't have a choice, did I? I think it was written before we were born.'"

Picking up where Silver – Andrew Motion's sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island – ended, The New World (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) begins with his young protagonists, Natty and Jim, shipwrecked off the coast of Texas. Having lost their fathers' silver, the children steal a new and dangerous treasure before embarking on a picaresque adventure home. As befits a former poet laureate, Motion paints an alluring portrait of a land that is in turns bountiful and beautiful, barren and savage.

Another story of adventure in a young America is Donald McCaig's Ruth's Journey (Simon & Schuster, £16.99). McCaig follows up Rhett Butler's People, his sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, with this prequel to Gone with the Wind that tells the story of Mammy. Rescued from the rubble and blood of revolution on the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue, the newly named Ruth comes to America as the young servant of a French émigré, the first of her headstrong mistresses. McCaig's story sweeps across the American South, slowly wrapping Ruth, the Butlers and the O'Haras together in the complex web of entanglements we know must eventually come to a dramatic head.

Alexander McCall Smith's Emma: a Modern Retelling (Borough Press, £18.99) turns Jane Austen's classic heroine into a Mini Cooper-driving wannabe Cath Kidston, but apart from the necessary updates to bring the story into the 21st century, McCall Smith doesn't take any liberties with the plot. Thus, the end result is something not dissimilar to a Richard Curtis film – a world populated by country gents who have degrees in land management and play rugby, and where the notion of a two-bedroomed flat in London is pity-inducing. It's comfort reading at its most soothing, but I couldn't help but wish the modernisation promised had been a bit more radical.

Rather than updating the story, it's Olimpia Zagnoli's illustrations that breath fresh life into L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Rockport, £20). Bold, geometric graphics in black, white, gold and the all-important emerald green turn Oz into a world of sharp lines and repetitive patterns. The book is a thing of beauty, but without Dorothy's silver shoes, the Munchkins' blue houses or the yellow brick road, it's a bit like being stranded back on the "great gray" Kansas prairie after you've seen the world in glorious Technicolor.