I recently found the first five of the graphic novel Baby-Sitters Club books in a local charity shop and reader, I screamed and grabbed them all and cackled my way home. I find these books intensely charming and rather brilliant things and so, this review must be considered to cover not just Kristy’s Big Idea, but also all the way up to The Baby-Sitters Club Graphix #05: Dawn And The Impossible Three. I’m doing it this way because basically, if I don’t, I’ll just be writing “THESE ARE REALLY GOOD” over and over again.
I really like the way that Raina Telgemeier approaches these. Her art is so clean and rich, and here’s the thing: it’s genuine. It’s honest and it’s genuine and it never kind of tries to wry it up (can we use ‘wry’ like that? I think we can, let’s go for it) and it never goes for the cheap or easy win. Telgemeier gives you a book full of love and heart and humour and does it every time. There are moments when you laugh out loud because she knows how little people see the world and how funny and glorious that can be.
I love these books. There is a scarcity, I think, of this girl-centred graphic storytelling for readers of this age, and particularly so in the UK where things seem to skew a little older or a little younger. (I am aware I generalise here so, imo, imo, imo). What I’m trying to say is that the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels are just really beautiful things. They’re full of loveliness and clean and sharp storytelling (so clean! beautifully judged!), and I would like more of this sort of thing in the world.
I hadn’t ever heard of The Sea Egg until a few days ago; I knew of Lucy M. Boston, of course, and although I rather loved the strange and gauzy light of her books (and the sad, wonderful heart of A Stranger At Green Knowe in particular), I have never had a lot of knowledge of her beyond that. This can happen. Some authors can become defined by one series and the twilight books that lie beyond that can slide past your notice. This is where second-hand bookshops come in, second-hand bookshops and time and a chance to browse and letting your eye slide past the things you know and dwell on the things that you do not. You’ll never know what stops you or why it catches your eye, but something will and that’s when the fun begins.
The Sea Egg then, a slender and graceful story, first published in 1967, and almost palpable with an endless Summery heat. There is a a feel of Minnow On The Say but also Susan Cooper, I think, that edge of finding the fantastical and the otherworldly in the intimate, known world. Maybe that’s not right, maybe it’s more that Susan Cooper quality of knowing that suddenly the world about you isn’t the world that you knew, that there’s something else here to discover, something that was there all along.
Plot wise, it’s straightforward and deceptively so. Two boys discover something unusual at a beach. That unusual turns out to be Unusual, in that delicious way that Boston can do so well. And her writing, my god, there’s some beauty here. I read many of the sentences over and over again, because stuff like “It was a magical morning with a silence like all the secrets in the world, and a light like happiness” will always do that for me. The grace of it!
There’s themes here of growth, of ‘that last summer before everything changed’, the onset of adulthood, the onset of loss, and it’s all so subtle, so softly done. I am made a bit breathless by it, and I think I’m gushing so you must forgive me for that but it is so. so. good. This is classy, big work by a writer who can move mountains and I am so glad I found it.
I have one of those ‘news in brief’ posts to share with you today so let’s get down to it. 😊
How To Be True is the Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week and I still cannot quite process it. Thank you to Nicolette Jones for being so lovely and thank YOU if you’ve read or shared or mentioned or gifted or commented or ANYTHING because you are all part of this story as well, yes, especially you at the back. I will add a link to the tweet I did with a picture of the review at the bottom of this post so you can see what it said.
I am doing some events in the first week of August with the lovely Explore York public library team and I cannot wait! I LOVE the Summer Reading Challenge so much (always the best part of my librarian year, I have to say) and it’s going to be very enjoyable to be part of it. If you’re in the area, do come along! All details int he link above.
I have been reading David Niven’s lovely, wry, modest memoirs about Hollywood The Moon’s A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses and if you are into classic Hollywood vibes (as indeed, I hope we all are), they are everything.
When it is a hot day, we turn to the shadows and we read the books. I had prepared for this day with a visit to the library, picking things that I thought might be in my wheelhouse and things that I had been meaning to read for some while and yet never got around to it. Carbonel has been on my radar for some time and so when I spotted it, I grabbed. I like the way that libraries do that sometimes; they give you the things that you did not quite mean to get and yet knew you always wanted.
Carbonel is a cat and he is under a spell. The spell must be broken by Rosemary who, in trying to find extra money to bring home to her impoverished mother, finds herself embroiled in mysterious and magical goings on. What I liked, however, was how immediate and everyday this magic was. There’s something very particularly British (and very particularly mid-twentieth century British) about magic being found on your doorstep. There’s also something very particular about a slightly sarcastic and curmudgeonly magical chum. I love it. Give me a slightly stroppy partner in crime who will do anything for their friend and I’m there.
There’s something very classic and confident about this, Sleigh’s debut. She’s clearly familiar with what it takes to write a story but also, I think, in what it takes to read a story. This is so reader friendly. The chapters are self-contained and deeply satisfying in their own right and although a more modern audience might be unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary of the time, it’s written so tightly that the reader just rolls along with it.
I liked this a lot. It’s just such a classy, solid story and such lovely stuff. What more does a book need to do?
My new book is out! How To Be True is the story of Edie Berger and how she became the brilliant little revolutionary that she is today. You’ll discover all about her family and her history and also there will be chocolate spread sandwiches and cobbled Paris streets and revolutionary first years and adventures galore. And it’s out today! Now! Right now! (did I say now enough? I think I did. I am overwhelmed, forgive me).
Honestly, I can’t quite believe it and I am SO grateful to everyone who’s been part of the adventure so far. Thank you. I value your support beyond words.
I was pleasantly surprised by this collection because, if I’m honest, I expected something that might have read a little bit worthy. There’s always the risk of that with books like this because it can be a tiny little bit annoying to be told what you should read? And then there’s the risk of getting a book where the extracts are all from books by old white dudes or were all popular a hundred million years ago or all express Appropriate Sentiments For The Youth To Learn From…
Basically books like this are a minefield and yet I think that if you curate something well and recognise precisely where you are and what you’re playing with, you can produce something very nice indeed. That’s what Writes Of Passage is, that’s what Nicolette Jones does.
As ever with a Nosy Crow production, Writes Of Passage looks stunning and is beautifully put together. It’s split into several chapters on themes such as “becoming you and your future” and “childhood and your past” and gives you extracts involving books, speeches, poetry and songs from writers as wide-ranging like Charlotte Brontë, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Greta Thunberg. Every piece in the book comes with a thoughtful note from Jones where she discusses its resonance and why it was included in the book.
I think if you’re after an inspirational book that will grow with your young readers and offer them a lot of potential in taking ideas forward and carving out their own path, then this is an excellent choice. I also think there might be something very lovely in using this in a classroom / educational context for longer investigations and prompts for bigger pieces – it’s a “dipper” of a book, full of things to pull out and savour and dig deeply into. Like I said, it’s a nice piece of work, well done.
The first thing to say about The Chalet School and the Lintons is that it’s a much better hardback than it is paperback. In a way it marks the first of the Armada edits that, to me, make very little sense. So! This review covers the hardback edition because that’s the one I read, and I like the shape of it a lot more than the paperback edit. You have to understand at this point with these books, we’re here for the detail that makes no sense to anyone and innumerably fantastical plot points because that is how this series rolls and we love it.
Okay, so to the book! This is Joyce and Gillian Linton’s first term at the school. Their mama is very ill and her only hope lies to go for the mountain air. Naturally the two girls follow and are enrolled and high-jinks occur and it is great. It is also SUPER dramatic (especially if you get the uncut) and goes to some quite big places and some quite intense moments. I love this period of the books a lot, god, they’re so good. Also THEKLA, drama queen, peerless villain, bacon chomping, AMAZING.
What I also really enjoyed is how EBD writes her adults here. There’s some lovely moments between the adults (and a hot doctor in the uncut being all YOU WILL NOT WALK HOME YOU DELICATE FLOWER MY CHAUFFEUR WILL DRIVE YOU HOME which, outstanding) and Madge going “oh Joey, you twit” and also Dr Jem being SO brilliant and ugh, I love it, I love it.
Two books in one which can be basically summed up as “girls: mean” and “girls: complicated!!!” We begin with a Mystery at the Chalet School which gives us a new girl with a MYSTERY and more of the delightful friendship group of Gill, Jacynth and Gay, and then we get a new girl who has a TINY PASH and we do not APPROVE but then she ultimately gets a grip and settles down to become a real Chalet School girl because THERE IS NO OTHER WAY.
I mean, this is one to read for completions sake and one for doing the series in full (and also for “how on earth did you manage to absolutely wreck yourself with a bit of string on the floor like that???”) but it’s kind of delightful in a sort of absolutely baffling way as well. It’s not what you’d call “good” by any means because I think we’ve rapidly got beyond such ideas in this series, but it still does it. We have genuine emotion and genuine heart in the tale of Miss Annersley returning to the fold, and then we have have [spoiler] pouring a ton of olive oil on her head. Amazing. What a series.
Today was a day for New House. The weather was thick and hot and dense; that still, heavy air that is just hot and nothing else, and what else should one do on such days but read a gentle book like this? Joey Bettany’s last term at the Chalet School as a student is one marked by the softest of adventures (even when they are at their gravest, Joey ‘will get well’), the best of friendships, and the sweetest of goodbyes to an era already iconic in children’s literature. This is not a book for new readers (already a trait of this series – you either sink or swim when we get onto the fifteenth description of floral curtains) but it is a book for readers. Brent-Dyer is comfortable here and strong and her life work has not laid heavy on her yet and the Tiernsee is still the brightest and bluest lake in all of Austria and all is so good and so gentle and so right.
For a while, and most specifically in these early books, Brent-Dyer is breathtakingly good. There’s very little that actually happens here in terms of plot other than “termtime” and yet it works. Everybody knows everybody else so well and the web that connects these characters is so genuine and true. Margia plays her music, Joey fears the dentist, and then all of a sudden a long lost family relative pops up in the way that only makes sense in these books and you believe it all because it’s just so effortlessly charming. This isn’t big drama, or even drama with any particular sense of threat or danger, and yet it works.
I think these books bring you along for the ride so genuinely, so confidently, that you can’t resist it. You can see all of the artifice at work, the devices and the sleight of hand, and you can go “oh my god do they never do anything but weep hysterically with laughter at a performance” and “wait did the maid actually just fall down the stairs because she thought she saw the devil… that actually is what just happened?” and yet you still love it and there’s no fighting it because that’s just the way it is.
I had tried to read The Girls before and it hadn’t quite worked out. I had been put off by the first few chapters because they were tight and dense things, unwilling to let me in and, I suspect, not really caring to be read. Just to be caring to be written, to tell a story that had to be told and not necessarily in a way that even the narrator understands. I find interest in that, and so I came back to The Girls for a second try and persisted in trying to figure out what it was and what this constricted, recursive prose had to give me.
And then, this time, I found myself unwilling to put it down. The Girls is something that revels in what it is and will, I think, take pleasure in letting you read the story that you want to read whilst telling you the story it wants to tell, and never quite worrying or caring if the two were to meet. Evie, our lead, falls into a life that is not hers, beguiled by the promise of a dark and dangerous something that she still can’t articulate, can’t quite understand, all those years later. Her story is told in flashbacks, fragmentary snatches of memory, and sentences that almost feel like she’s worked far too long over them, knowing that she can’t let them go, knowing that she has to. It’s brutal, final, bitter, and yet achingly otherworldly.
You know where this is going if you know your Hollywood history and even if you don’t, you know. There’s a brutal and vicious destination here and I think the book hinges on that, the memory of it, the expectation of it, the sad, desperate tragedy of it. It comes to define Evie and who she is, who she wants to be, the life she lives and the life she’s yet to live. This isn’t a linear book, it’s one that sort of collapses in on itself. Everything is everything, all at once, beautiful and awful, vicious and sad, and all you have to is figure out what story you want to make of that.
The Girls, then, this story is difficult and it is tight and it will put you off and it will leave you knowing that something important has happened here and that you’ll never quite know how you feel about that.
It’s vintage book acquisition o’clock! I recently picked up a couple of annuals from a local charity shop and was pleased to find them rather interesting things. Annuals aren’t my normal space as a collector because the authors that I’m interested in very rarely published in them. There’s quite a clear distinction as the names that I do find within an annual do tend to stay as ‘annual’ writers. The exception to the rule is Ethel Talbot who basically wrote everything for everybody in every moment of the day and was the very definition of prolific.
The Girls’ Crystal Annual 1952 is a collection of multi-chapter stories drawn from the Girls’ Crystal periodical and I wanted to share some pictures with you because it’s an interesting beast*. If you know this period at all, you’ll know what to expect: a couple of ‘blimey, I’m now in the lead role of this film‘ stories, a few ‘my pony and I must save my family’s business‘ stories and even a few ‘restoring wrongs that have been done with the aid of my trusty chums from the fourth form‘. (There’s even one here with a ventriloquist, I kid you not…)
(Shall I make a list of common stories from this period some time?? I suspect I shall, prepare yourselves…!)
What’s particularly interesting about this annual is that it gives you all of that and then, for some deliciously strange reason, gives you a story called: “The Secret Of The Forbidden Houseboat.” Now, I’m going to spoil this for you because it’s brilliant. The Secret of the Forbidden Houseboat is that Aunt Helga who doesn’t like green painted over some mysterious glass jewels on her houseboat and now, somebody’s trying to pilfer the houseboat from her. Cue: Lorrie and her chums who work out that the old owner of the houseboat was a gemmologist and he embedded his collection into the carvings on the boat and painted them all over to keep them safe. The mysterious glass jewels are, in fact, emeralds that this dude just stuck on his boat and thought ‘well, that’ll confound anybody trying to nick them” (?!?!)
I hope you enjoy the pictures! Alas, there is no credit for the artist but whoever it was, was pretty ace. I will amend this post in the future if I come across more information.
*I wanted to recognise here that working with material from this period can often be a challenging thing and there are certain elements about this annual that will read with some difficulty and discomfort today. As ever, I recommend you consider the context you’ll be working and trust your own professional judgement and instincts.
I am so happy to be able to share this guest post with you today from the lovely Rebecca Mills. As you may know, I have a great love for the early Chalet School characters and so this was right up my street. I suspect you’ll enjoy it a lot as well – it’s so interesting! I enjoyed every inch of it… 😊
Rebecca Mills (PhD) is Lecturer in English and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK, where she has taught and researched children’s literature, crime and Gothic fiction, and other literary and media topics. She has a strong interest in popular interwar women’s writing and landscapes in literature, and has been reading and collecting Chalet School books for about 30 years now. Recent publications include Agatha Christie Goes to War (Routledge 2020), an essay collection co-edited with J.C. Bernthal. You can find out more about Rebecca’s research here and follow her on Instagram.
Grand Tours and Great Escapes in the Early Chalet School Books
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1894-1969) possessed a gift for painterly landscapes and interest in travel that few of her school story contemporaries wielded. Where Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elsie J. Oxenham, and to a great extent Angela Brazil, usually sketched the picturesque moors and shorelines of an idealised England 1, and Enid Blyton was most interested in what happened within school walls, making surprisingly limited use of her seaside setting (with the exception of the famous salt-water swimming pool at Malory Towers, of course), Brent-Dyer embraced, and reflected, the spirit of adventure—and beauty, and threat—presented by the mountains where she originally chose to set her series. In The School at the Chalet (1925), the mountains offer excitement and danger from a physical and social perspective, and in ThePrincess of the Chalet School (1927) the mountains create a more sensational, even Gothic, setting for drama and suspense.
In the 1920s, when 12 year-old Joey and her older sister Madge Bettany set off for the Austrian Tyrol with Grizel Cochrane in tow to start the Chalet School, the Austrian Alps were—relatively—accessible from England. The Continent had been familiar ground for the wealthy and the aristocratic since the eighteenth-century heyday of the ‘Grand Tour’, a leisurely crossing of Europe from Paris to Venice and back, including the most culturally rich cities and significant landscapes. As Grand Tourist Joseph Spence wrote in 1741, ‘There is certainly nothing equal to travelling for the improvement of the mind and the acquisition of knowledge’ (4 February 1741). This was accomplished by visiting sites of learning and heritage, studying languages among native speakers of a similar class, as well as enhancing and elevating the senses by exposure to beautiful scenery and artistic and architectural grandeur. These aims, I think, resonate with Brent-Dyer’s approach to European travel; the Bettanys may be travelling by train rather than horse-drawn coach, mule, and sedan chair, and Brent-Dyer’s routes and sight-seeing might be informed more by Karl Baedeker’s famous guide books than Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), but there is an alertness to new scenes, experiences and un-English ways of life that resonates with the Grand Tourists of two hundred years before, as well as an intention to improve the mind of the readers as well as the characters. Incidentally, a 1920s Baedeker guide notes of the Achensee, the basis for the Tiernsee, that ‘a dark-blue lake, [it] is the largest and finest in North Tyrol. It lies in a valley dammed at the end by moraines of the glacier period.’
Everything is ‘fresh and new’ to Grizel as soon as they reach Boulogne; we’re not only on foreign ground but in foreign time—Brent-Dyer frequently reminds us that ‘it was five o’clock—or seventeen, if you cared to take the French time’. Joseph Spence in 1733, declared in a letter that
‘Paris is a very agreable place … I have not mist a night since we have been at Paris of being either at the Opera or the Play: these diversions begin early, and after they are done, we go regularly to the public Walks. Their Plays are good; and not ill acted, very often: but their Opera’s are things that I wou’d not advise any body to go to who has not lost his Hearing, or has no mind to lose it.’
Joey, Madge, and Grizel also find Paris ‘agreable’, enjoying the Luxembourg Gardens and the Champs-Elysees, although they find the opera far more pleasant than Mr Spence— ‘[Puccini’s La bohème (1896)] was an entire success. True, neither of the children understood much of the story, but the exquisite music appealed to them both, and even matter-of-fact Grizel felt a lump come into her throat when Mimi died’. Europe, for Brent-Dyer, is a place where even prosaic middle-class English girls might be moved to appreciate history, and art, and sympathise with the operatic death of a consumptive seamstress.
But the mountains are where these sensibilities are given full rein—appreciation of beauty and the moral and intellectual improvement of travel are infused with a desire for adventure, even danger. Eschewing Mr Mensch’s kind offer of an easy climb up a pleasant mountain to see butterflies, ‘I want to climb the Tiernjoch,’ said Grizel. ‘I like difficult things’. For Joey, imaginative and sensitive to beauty and horror, the Tiernjoch is sinister: ‘It’s such a cruel-looking mountain!’ said Jo with a little shiver. ‘It looks as if it doesn’t care how many people were killed on it!’. Mr Marani comments that ‘It is not a girl’s climb’ and advises her to leave it alone. For Grizel, however, therein lies its appeal. The Tiernjoch offers the opportunity to display her strength (for Grizel is a girl who glories in physicality, who desires to be a games mistress instead of the music teacher’s life she’s doomed to by her parental figures), to break free of confines—both those inflicted by her rigid father and stern stepmother, and the more gentle communal confines of the Chalet School and its expectations for good behaviour and ‘playing the game’. To sneak away in the early morning is decidedly not the ‘straight’ thing to do. Perhaps she also desires liberation from the expectations attached to being a girl—even though the Chalet girls had a lot more physical and intellectual freedom than their Edwardian and Victorian forebears, and the Chalet School actively promoted sports, games, rambles, country-dancing, and gentle climbing, nevertheless these were all communal. On the moors of Cornwall she had been accustomed to ‘run about like a wild thing’ in brief escapes from her stepmother’s supervision, but in the Tyrol she is constantly in close quarters with peers and prefects. For a girl of Grizel’s age and class to climb a mountain solo was transgressive, quite apart from the danger involved.
One of the things that Brent-Dyer does is navigate distinction between self-reliance, to be achieved and commended, and self-centredness, to be trained out, and in Grizel this tension is most evident. She comes to grief on the Tiernjoch, of course:
It was easy going at first, but soon became more difficult. The mist-clouds closed in round her, and presently she found herself struggling upwards, surrounded by white walls of mountain fog, which hid the path from her and deadened all sounds save those of her own footsteps. She was plucky enough, but the deadly silence and the eeriness began to frighten her.
This is solitude with a vengeance, with an uncanny edge. Grizel’s eventual panic at the edge of a literal precipice makes her aware of her need for others, and her desire to be reintegrated into her community and its rituals. Joey appears out of the fog, as if in answer to Grizel’s hasty prayers ‘Our Father, oh, send someone! Please send someone quickly’. It is easy to read Grizel’s crisis, and her subsequent guilt at Joey’s illness, as punishment for her transgression. This sort of consequence for wrongdoing is by no means unknown in children’s fiction—disobedient Katy Carr’s fall from the swing in What Katy Did (1872), or the injuries that overly-confident Amanda sustains when trying to swim in the sea in Last Term at Malory Towers (1951), for instance, come to mind.
There are elements of fairy-tale in all the early Chalet School stories; Grizel has a wicked stepmother, and another pupil’s uncaring parents abandon her and are suitably punished with death. A couple of books later, the fantastical strain of the series is heightened into the fully Ruritanian story of Princess Elisaveta and her mad cousin Cosimo, who plans to kidnap her and blackmail her grandfather, the King of Belsornia, into making him heir to the throne.
‘Ruritania’ is a fictional Eastern European country in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894); the name came to be associated with popular fiction set in imaginary Balkan countries—the periphery of Europe was far enough from England to be exotic and intriguing, but close enough that its fate had an effect on English foreign affairs, and was therefore fertile ground for English adventurers and political intrigue. We find Ruritanian countries in a great deal of popular fiction between the wars; Agatha Christie invented Herzoslovakia in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), for instance. We’re not told much about Belsornia; its court language is French, its native language is a mixture of Italian, Rumanian, and Greek (a highly unlikely Greco-Latinate hybrid—no wonder Joey ‘had found it not at all easy’!), the capital city Firarto is famous for its fountains. A key feature is the Salic Law, which forbids the female line from inheriting the throne—hence Elisaveta, despite being the sole direct descendent of the King, cannot be Queen. These dynastic concerns, along with the disruptive element of Cosimo’s insanity and cruelty, cause the novel to veer towards the eighteenth-century Gothic; in novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Europe is a murky and treacherous terrain where girls are pawns in the hands of their enemies and their families (not mutually exclusive).
‘If Cosimo finds out what Joey is doing, will he hurt her?’
‘If Cosimo is in a good mood he may do no more than take her prisoner’, he said.
‘And if not?’
‘Then God pity them both,’ replied the captain gravely. ‘Cosimo has a warped brain. I do not know what he is capable of.’
Elisaveta is sent to the Chalet School for her health; in the Tyrolean air she is rapidly transformed from the pale, sickly ‘Little Lady of Belsornia’, overly dignified for her years, to a ‘jolly natural child’ and fairly accomplished Girl Guide. Indeed, as Baedeker’s Guide remarks: ‘The invigorating effect of the Alpine winter climate is principally due to the dryness and purity of the atmosphere.’ Yet trouble and danger follow Elisaveta from across the mountains; the ‘horrid Prince Cosimo’, as Joey calls him, and his accomplice track her across Europe, and dupe her into going with them up a mountain pass, with the intention of hiding her in the German Schwarzwald, or Black Forest—so far so Grimm!
The Princess of the Chalet School, incidentally, was the first Chalet School book I read. The cover showed a girl poised between empty blue sky and rocky mountainside, fingertips clinging to safety, stockinged legs delicately positioned on the narrow path, St. Bernard dog Rufus loyally scrambling beside her. At first, I had assumed that this slight figure in the red beret was the princess, but of course this is Joey Bettany on a solo rescue mission (one of many, I came to find). Later editions of the cover show both Joey and Elisaveta—some mid-rescue, with one schoolgirl precariously lowering the other down a cliff with the aid of cut up and knotted pairs of stockings (reef-knotted, of course, in accordance with Girl Guide recommendations for rescuing princesses). There is danger to life and limb, to be sure—but it’s a matter of sharing wits to solve a puzzle, and the companionship and shared peril ameliorates the terrors of solitude and uncertainty. If the Little Lady of Belsornia is in the process of being rescued, the end of the adventure—baths, bed, hot milk, watchful care—is already in sight. These covers don’t have the same sense of the intrepid, the solitary grandeur of the heroine, the sublime vista of sky and mountain of the original cover.
It got steeper and steeper, and it was all Joey could do to go on. What was more, the sun was setting and the darkness would come very soon in this place, overshadowed as it was by mountain peaks all around. … Joey, following [Rufus], discovered that it was just possible for her to scramble up by tiny projections in the rock, and guessed that it had been necessary to put the Princess down while one of the men went up first, and they pulled her up between them. It would be the only way in which they would ever get her beyond it. She cut her trefoil deep in the side of the soft rock, and then followed a scramble beside which anything that had gone before was mere child’s play.
Joey marks her territory with the trefoil, inscribing the inhospitable terrain with the Guide mark, and demonstrating the resourcefulness of the English schoolgirl. Not enough, has been made of the fact that Joey single-handedly rescues a princess, a damsel in distress, subverting the gender roles of centuries—this is the act of a hero, an escapade worthy of an adventurer. The usual prize would be the princess’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom, but Brent-Dyer decides to re-feminise Joey, granting her an elaborate court ceremony in Belsornia, a string of pearls, and a future post as Elisaveta’s lady-in-waiting as a more suitable reward. Elisaveta does better, as after Cosimo is found dead in a ravine, the Salic Law is repealed and she becomes heir to the throne in her own right, ending her position as pawn.
But there’s another dimension, and that’s the landscape—the inherent romance and danger of the Alps, and their unpredictability. ‘The mists were so dense that they prevented us from seeing the other alps surrounding us’, wrote young George Lyttleton in 1729. Other travellers had a different experience of the same scene: “the journey thro the Alps, till you come to the foot of Mount Cenis is really charming,… The greatness, solemnity, and singularity of the views exceed all one can imagine’, rhapsodised Caroline Lennox 30-odd years later. Radcliffe wrote of her young heroine Emily St. Aubyn in The Mysteries of Udolpho that
It was one of Emily’s earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain’s stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH.
This recalls Joey’s habit of pausing mid-climb up to the Sanatorium on the Sonnalpe, begun in The Head-Girl of the Chalet School (1928):
‘They could see the school, surrounded by its fence, and lights twinkling in the windows told them that it was already dusk in the valley. Beyond lay the pinewoods, black against the snow, and beyond them the great limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.
In the West the sun was sinking in a glory of saffron light, which told of high winds for the morrow, but Jo paid no heed to this at the moment. She stood there, her little pointed face glowing with the beauty of it all, her black eyes soft and unfathomable.
‘Come on!’ said matter-of-fact Grizel at last when her patience was worn out.
The mountains offer infinite possibility, and this can be terrifying. Even as Jo carves her mark on the limestone, the glory and infinity of the mountains imprint themselves on her cosmology—and ours.
Sometimes I think thar you can get to books too soon. I first read Brideshead Revisited when I was at school, somewhere around my A Levels, and I was not ready for it. But then, I think, neither was it for me. We were both too wrapped up in our own stories at the time; I was too busy with an educational system that I did not wish to be part of in the slightest, and it was too busy with its long, languid days of introspection. Our first encounter, then, was poor; I was bored by it, I did not get it. But it waited for me to come back to it and I like it when a book does that. I like it when they exist in a kind of very precise point and place in time, ready for being read when world and circumstance and life allows it.
So this time, this reading: different. I was ready for the breathlessly aching prologue, by the way that literally everybody is infatuated with everybody else and if they are not, then they are infatuated with themselves. I was ready for messiness, people lost in systems that they did not understand nor control but that did control them. And I was ready for that surprising edge of callousness that creeps in as the book develops, the way that characters come to care about what’s in front of them rather than those that they leave in the wake. I was ready for stiff upper lips that grew stiffer still and the tight, tightness of the social class structure and I was ready for those misty edged moments between now and then. And yes, I was ready to be bored a little as well, accepting that this is simply part of the texture of this book for me, that there are sentences that break and fall apart, too lost in their own thoughts to consider how the reader might follow and perhaps, not even caring if they did.
But in a way, I still was not ready for grace. Waugh’s writing here is graceful, eloquent, and so very sure of itself that it felt like I was watching somebody carve marble in front of me. It is confident and fiercely certain, and it wins and loses and I suspect that it would do that without a reader or perhaps without even a book. There is something very timeless about this story and yet, paradoxically, there isn’t. It’s a love letter (and love comes so close to loss, I think, to grief) to a generation far gone but somehow still with us.
I wonder what might happen if I come back to it in another twenty years. I suspect that it will wait for me and I suspect it might not. I suspect that it might continue to tell its story, irrespective of whether it’s read or not. Somehow, somewhere, there will always be Brideshead.
It’s difficult to tell you how much I loved this book without just shrieking “I LOVED THIS BOOK” and basically just repeating that for several paragraphs or so. The Secret Garden on 81st Street was everything I didn’t know I needed. It’s basically adorable. Just utterly, endlessly adorable.
France Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was written in 1910. Not only have we changed a lot since then as a society, but any book that has endured for such a long time brings with it a legacy. Adapting that is hard. Working with that is hard. Putting that into a comic is probably harder still. I have so much respect for creators who can grapple with all of that and produce something as utterly charming as this.
The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a retelling made with love and respect; Misslethwaite Manor is transformed into an enormous New York home with a forgotten roof top garden. Mary is the daughter of Silicon Valley tech parents and spends most of her time online rather than off. It’s only when circumstances circumstance (can I put a spoiler in? I mean it’s a hundred years or so now but still, there are new readers so I’ll be coy) that she is sent to live with her Uncle’s family in New York. Not only is New York a brave new world for Mary to navigate, it’s also full of people and places and secrets.
I loved this book. (I’ve gone too long without saying it, so let’s do it again: I LOVED THIS BOOK). I loved how it’s as much a love letter to the urban environment and the city as it is to the garden itself. I loved how Mary goes out and discovers the world on her own terms. I loved Martha. SO MUCH. I loved the ending. SO MUCH. I loved how utterly genuine every single page of this book was. SO MUCH. And I think above all, I loved how unafraid Weir and Padilla were of the original text and how lovingly they made it speak to a whole new audience. That’s what you do with a classic. That’s it, right there.
Adorable, genuine, and rather utterly beautiful when it needs to be, this is (wait for it) lovely. So lovely.
I was alerted to The Years of Grace by a friend (thank you!) who knew I enjoyed books of this nature. And I do, I am very fond of those kind of ‘how to be a girl’ books from, say, the 1940s and 50s that try to grapple with the fact that they are trying to instruct a generation in how to be themselves when absolutely everything about that world is in the process of changing. Not only do they reveal precisely what factors the adults deem important (and by implication, not particularly present in their readership), they also tell us all about the world these children should be inhabiting. And that’s interesting to me, that tension between where people should be and where they are now and the tension of children doing their own thing when they should not.
There’s a lot here to boggle at whether it’s the chapter about how to watch sports successfully with your brother (turn up, look interested, do your homework, don’t die of boredom) or the chapter where Elizabeth Arden tells you about the importance of washing your belly button (I mean, what?). And if I’m honest, there’s a lot here that becomes a bit exhausting. Your sympathies become very much with those poor kids who had to read about the thousand different things that they were doing wrong. There’s so much!
It’s rescued, a little, by Noel Streatfeild’s curation. She introduces each chapter with a little essay, often self-deprecating and witty, and I particularly enjoyed it when she talked about how to be a writer. Basically you can’t learn to be an author, because they’re “born to write, just as a singer is born to sing” and so you don’t get a chapter on that. Reader, I cackled. That’s the sort of detail I come to these books for. They’re fun. (Even when the rest of it is a lot of work…!).
How To Be True is available for pre-order right now! It’s published in the UK on July 7th and in the US in September (it’s worth the wait, I promise). Pre-orders help a book massively and I’m endlessly grateful to anybody who does so. You can pre-order via Pushkin here (and there’s a US pre-order link here).
What can I tell you about How To Be True? It’s a sequel to How To Be Brave but you can read it without having read the first (I cannot cope with sequels that need Cliff Notes!) and it features a school trip to Paris where Things Happen. There are sock biscuits (biscuits you have in your sock, naturellement) and family mysteries and macarons and of course, a duck. There will always be a duck, I think.
All that remains to be said is a big thankyou for supporting the girls this far in their adventures. I am so appreciative of all of the support you give the books whether that’s tweeting, reviewing, or whatever – you are all stars. Here’s to book two. I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride.
There was a point, just towards the end of The Final Reckoning, the third in the remarkable Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis, that I knew that I did not want it to end. I will not give you spoilers for that moment for, if you are not familiar with them then you need to experience it for yourself, but it was one of those moments that you feel deep inside of you. One of those moments where, I think, story happens. You’ve forgotten the world around you, you’ve forgotten the thousand little jobs you have to do and the deadlines that loom because all that you are is here, in this book, in this moment.
I’ve been a fan of Robin Jarvis’ work for a long while, discovering him first through The Whitby Witches, which I read as a child, and then devouring all of the other books he ever wrote. There are prequels (squeakuels?) to the Deptford books which move forward and backwards and somehow everywhere at once. They pull apart the rich seams of fantasy within this series and explore the untold stories left within. I come to all of them regularly, every few years or so, and devour the lot. Squirrels. Mice. Bats. Rats. Arcane, magical, big stories. Unashamed bigness.
Back in the nineties, before certain bestsellers were bestselling, children’s literature was in something of a lull. Good books existed, of course, but they were not yet the big ones. We had not yet reached that moment in culture where every film seemed to be based on a children’s or young adult book and we had still not yet regained that post-war brave new world vibrancy. I often think that the Deptford mice and the Whitby books were ahead of their time. They entered this world and quietly remade it into something big and delicious and suffered, I think, from being at a point just before things happened. But that is what blogging is for, that is what wandering through the second hand book shops is for, finding those quiet books that changed the world and throwing a spotlight upon them once more.
I find the Deptford Mice books different every time I come to them. Memory makes us remember a book, and sometimes we read the memory rather than the book itself. For a while I did precisely that, remembering beats and echoes as if they came out of the fog, and then – all of a sudden – I read the book. There is a moment, I think, where you engage with what is front of you with everything that you have. You lock onto the story. You cast the world aside. You let it go and do so willingly for what you have, what you have – here – is better than anything you could possibly imagine.
For a long time I did not think I read fantasy. I remember telling a friend about this, saying that I did not really do fantasy as a genre because I really didn’t think I did and then I realised all of a sudden that I did and I was an idiot. I had read books about witches and magic and an Abbey that looked out to the sea. I had read about a white mouse with pink ears called Oswald and a grey mouse called Piccadilly and Audrey and Arthur and Twit and Thomas Triton, and I had loved every inch of them. I had read fantasy books, I had loved them, I had loved them.
I had loved them because they scared me, because they told me of gods who switched faces and walked amongst the living, because they conjured darkness on the streets at the seaside where I’d had ice-cream, and because they had been unafraid to give me darkness. The Deptford Mice books are bloody and raw and violent titles that don’t hold back from the truth of the world. They trust in the reader. They trust in the reader so much.
And I had loved these books because they gave me hope. And now, as I look back, I can see that they inspired me. There are characters in How To Be True that can trace their trajectory to Aunt Alice in the Whitby books, or that, for me, talk directly to the dark, raw complexity of the Starwife in the Deptford books. But I think that’s what you do as a reader, you take stories with you and you see the world through their pages and after a while, that story comes to story you.
(I think you can see the patterns as well, of where an author has been in their work, the books that made them who they are, and I take great pleasure in making those patterns visible in my own. No book is an island. Everything is connected).
And so here I am, page-finished and done with mice and yet, I know it’s not over. I’ll pass these copies onto the charity bookshop when I’m done because I know I’ll meet them again some time, at the right time. Books move through the world from reader to reader, shelf to shelf. They’ll find me again and I’ll buy them all at once, grabbing them from the shelf in a breathless, hysterical fashion, because I know what’s to come.
Max Counts To A Million is the first children’s book I’ve read to be set within the COVID pandemic. This is something I’m still wrestling with about whether or not to reference the pandemic in my own work and I don’t know if I’ve quite resolved it yet. What I do know is that I found some of what Williams recounts here actually very emotional to read and I can see the value of representing the peculiarities of this experience within children’s literature very much. Not only will Max Counts To A Million provide young people with a point of reference to discuss the strange surrealism of these years, but I can also see it providing some comfort to anybody who’s still trying to come to terms with what happened. And indeed, how those events continue to impact life today.
The plot is relatively gentle and straightforward and concerns Max’s decision to count to a million against the backdrop of the lockdown. Not only must he grapple with the pronouncements of the “floppy haired” PM, he must also deal with the direct impact of the pandemic on his family. Circumstances result in him deciding to count to a million and the whole community comes to cheer him on his way.
Like I said, it’s a quiet plot because we kind of already know that he succeeds in his quest, but I don’t quite think that the value of this book lies in that. I think that the value of this book lies in those soft and gently handled moments where Max tries to figure out his worries and his feelings in extraordinary times. Not only does Williams give you a lot of love and understanding here, he also gives you adults who are clearly just trying to do their best in difficult times.
I liked this. I think it may read a little younger than you might think in looking at it so don’t rule out a younger audience, and it would also be good to use in an educational context because there are a lot of discussions which will spark from it. It’s very thoughtfully put together by a publisher who knows how to work quickly with timely and relevant material whilst not cutting corners or quality. My thanks to them for a review copy.
I found this super charming and I’m grateful to Nosy Crow for sending me a copy to look at. The first thing to note is how beautifully they produce their books there. I always mention it because it’s always true: Nosy Crow give good looking books. It’s such a good sign because it tells you, the reader, how much they value the stories that they tell. And The Girl Who Lost A Leopard is lovely – it’s a pacey adventure story from the excellent Nizrana Farook and one which fearlessly takes young readers along for the ride.
Selvi lives on Serendib and spends as much time as she can with her beloved Lokka, a wild and beautiful leopard. Their relationship is rendered with a lot of restraint; Selvi recognises Lokka’s wildness and need to be by himself for she has something very similar inside of herself. The two of them move through the mountains together until the arrival of poachers bring danger. How will Selvi save Lokka?
Farook’s writing here is so clean and sharp that it’s a pleasure to read. It makes the story very quick and easy to read and you kind of just keep rolling with it (it’s probably not one for bedtime!).
I really enjoyed it and I think it’s got a very good space in the world to inhabit. Not only does Farook bring in a kind of young ‘people power’ quality to the text, an excellent thing for any young activist, she also delivers some softly told lessons about friendship. Structurally it’s also going to be of particular interest to readers who may benefit from the confidence-building short and crisply told chapters. Lovely stuff.
Every now and then I return to Robin Jarvis’ work like somebody finding dry land after weeks at sea. I first came across the Deptford books a long while ago, somewhere in that messy early nineties period of children’s literature where nothing was quite sure of itself and the era defining books had not yet been born, nor had we quite recovered from the eighties. Children’s literature was in a place that it did not quite yet understand and then there was Jarvis and his wild, rich fantasy steadily burning in the dark. The Deptford books. The Whitby books. They were local, intimate, everyday wildness. The importance of having a book set in places you knew about and not just named with a mash of a keyboard. Children who went to school in schools like you. Real world stories embedded in magic.
These are brutal books and violent, too, and there will be moment that will be difficult for some readers. Yet alongside this is a powerful and deft story that rolls steadily along and pulls the reader with it every step. There’s a wildly moving subplot that was all too briefly present for me (you’ll know it towards the end of the book) and I’d have welcomed more of that. I love those moments when Jarvis juxtaposes the brutality of man (and animal) with a kind of raw hope and faith in what people can achieve and be. I love that.
I also love how much faith Jarvis shows in his readers. These are big, big books that cover a lot of complex and often quite adult themes, but they work because Jarvis believes in his readers. He doesn’t go delicately into that good night but rather he tells you how it is for these people and it’s up to you to find the good – to learn how to see them and find the spaces for hope and kindness, even in all the grotesque shadows.
As this is a prequel to The Dark Portal, I was wondering whether to recommend that you read that first or this. I think you get a lot of benefit either way but for the full kick, it would probably be The Dark Portal (and indeed, its sequels) before heading to The Alchymist’s Cat (and its sequels).
And, as a final note, it’s beyond time for these books to be adapted for the screen.
Before I get to the review itself, can I tell you a bit about my copy of Tom? It’s one of the most precious books in my stash and honestly, it doesn’t look like it should be. It’s a slightly mothy Armada paperback with those soft, rubbed corners, so familiar to a book that’s been read a lot, and I found it at the other side of the world. I was in New Zealand and as you do, I was wandering through a bookshop in the middle of Auckland. I had told my friend about the Chalet School books and about how you had to check every bookshop you were passing, just in case one was there. (It’s the rules, I’m sorry). And the first bookshop we went into after that conversation had a copy of Tom. The last title I needed to complete my collection. It amazes me, even now.
I tucked that copy of Tom into the bottom of my rucksack and carried it around for the next few months. It was joined by a copy of Island for a short while (primarily because I couldn’t quite deal with leaving that on the shelf) but I ended up leaving Island in a campsite somewhere. I had another at home. Tom, though, it didn’t leave my side. Not once. Not ever. Isn’t it strange how a paperback can come to mean so much?
Slight yet solid, pretty fleeting in terms of plot and yet still oddly appealing, Tom Tackles The Chalet School kind of gains in cachet the more you read the series. Everything starts here, be that the recurrent “oh what price getting locked into a cupboard” gag that absolutely mystified me for years before I got a copy of this one, Tom’s legendary dolls houses, and indeed, the legend herself: Tom. Or Lucinda Muriel. Or Muriel Lucinda, depending on which way round Brent-Dyer remembered to put it. Either way, legend. And rather unusual in the world of girl’s school stories: Tom has been bought up as a young gentlemen and so has an interesting time in the female world of the Chalet School itself.
I like this book. Tom’s fun, Bride Bettany’s in it and she’s fun, the doll’s house business always leaves me with a weird urge to make one (and I never did dolls, remotely), and even though it’s episodic and a little over-dramatic (SNOW ON THE MOUNTAINS when it’s actually just kind of a gentle hillock at best…), it’s oddly charming.
I recently came across a copy of this in town and I knew, quite simply, that I had to have it. Published in the 40s (?) by Faber and Faber, A French Alphabet is by Margaret Cardew and does pretty much what it says on the tin. And yet, and yet, the style that’s here. That usine yellow! That juxtaposition of dame / dindon! The aesthetics of the ballon ! I had to grab a copy and equally, I had to share it with you all. Please do join me in fangirling over this ridiculously wonderful thing. I might have to start a new collection of vintage alphabet books on the strength of it.
I remembered how much I love these books when I got to the part where one character vaults out of the window and vanishes. Honestly, I think I cackled for a week over that one and I will probably cackle until the end of time. These books are so great, I love them.
So plot! Is there plot? It’s vague at best and involves the brief cameo of pirate treasure (I mean), Hot Commander Christie, pigs in the orchard, and a school that’s packing up to move to Switzerland. It’s time to leave the island behind and so we must have a (naturally) riotous regatta, high-jinks on swampy bits of islands (I never really follow this bit and I don’t quite think EBD does either, we’re just here for the drama), the reappearance of the Canadian troupe (a welcome cameo from Madge Russell here), a lot of lounging on deckchairs (amazing) and also a lot (a lot) of Packing Up Stuff. Honestly, if you’re into logistics, you’ll love this one. I remember being absolutely amazed at how these kids could be sent to boarding school (not a cheap thing, I think) and then legitimately be farmed off to pack up the library or sort out the old sports cupboards. I was comforted on this read to know that I still felt the same.
And yet even in all of this, it’s lovely because we get that incredibly specific and detailed minutiae that this series thrives on. Everybody has a kid! People come back! Pivotal friendships are formed! Gangs are split! Somebody has an attack of the hiccoughs that sees them end up being sent to bed under the care of Matron! It’s amazing and honestly, I feel we should produce this book to anybody who says: “look, Kids Books should have Plot and a Clearly Defined Antagonist” and go “dudes, but what about this one with lots of adults having a moan in the staffroom and the kids packing boxes”.
I have such respect for this wild and well-told adventure series and so I was thrilled when the publishers sent me a copy of Sabotage on the Solar Express to review. Adventure stories are hard to plot, mystery adventure stories are even harder, and when you whack it all on a train, you do not give yourself an easy ride (pun unintentional!). Nevertheless Leonard and Sedgman deliver, every time, and I have such admiration for how they do it.
Sabotage on the Solar Express is set in Australia and concerns a train driven by hydrogen and solar power, an invention from the mind of a brilliant child genius. But not everybody is happy with this and, as the journey unfolds, so does the sabotage. Accompanied by Elisa Paganelli’s delicious artwork, so precise and clean with detail, Sabotage on the Solar Express rolls on with utter aplomb.
What I like about Leonard and Sedgman’s approach is how they give you something quite classic and proven in terms of structure and make it work in a contemporary and modern setting. We know how adventure stories work – we recognise the patterns and structures of them and we look for them in our reading. What’s fun is when somebody says “look, we know what you’re thinking about here and we’ll give you that but not quite in the way that you expect”. Leonard and Sedgman do that with such delicious style here, be that in the chapter titles which reference action movies or in the neat subversions of expectations throughout. I love a book that makes me flip back to the start to check the details (I never pick up on anything, it’s a gift) and I love it even more when a book makes me stop everything I’m doing so I can see how it ends. It’s the best, I love this series.
It’s difficult for me to tell you how perfect this is so instead, I’ll tell you about how I had to stop halfway through reading to have a moment over how perfect it was. I have lusted over the Illustrators series from Thames and Hudson for a long while, making a quiet little list of the ones I wanted to get (all of them) and slowly started to pick them up when funds allowed. Judith Kerr was my first and I adored it, endlessly, emotionally, for Joanna Carey’s writing about her is so soft and loving and respectful and the images are perfect, and honestly, it’s just lovely. Lovely, lovely, lovely. (now I have to go and get all the others).
Okay, let’s try and be a bit more coherent here. (IT’S LOVELY). Let’s tell you about the fact that technically it’s more of an adult non-fiction biographical kind of coffee table hybrid of a book which interleaves a long and lusciously written profile of Kerr with richly reproduced images of her work. her earliest work is present due to the quick thinking of her mother, packing for their escape from Germany, and seeing these pieces laid out on the page is intensely moving. I particularly enjoyed seeing some of her college work and tracing the refinement of her style and voice – already fiercely present in her earliest artwork.
Judith Kerr was one of the most present and articulate creatives I have ever witnessed in the world of children’s literature and things like this are such a fitting tribute to the gift that was her work. I love Judith Kerr, I loved this, I loved it.
Delirious, dangerous, and rather intoxicating, Stalking The Atomic City tells of the author’s visits to the ‘exclusion zone’ that exists about Chornobyl. There’s more than a little bit of Trainspotting about it but also I think a kind of longing for life to be lived on one’s own terms, to find a place within the world that can be known in a way that nobody else has ever known it. There’s ennui in it, there’s a discomfort, a sharp, sharp edge of unease, and something rather, utterly fascinating.
I loved this. I’ve been trying to read more translated fiction and was really interested in what this book might do. I know very little about the topic and the area and so, in a way, Kamysh guided me as much as he does the people he takes into the exclusion zone. In a way though, his guidance becomes a kind of manifesto for visiting the zone as much as staying away from it. Come with him. Stay away. Look twice. Close your eyes.
Stylistically, it’s pretty distinct. I suspect you’ll either love it or hate it but you need to experience it. Rich, wild, contradictory sentences spike up against each other. Tenses play against each other, rules are forgotten, perspectives shift – and sometimes all of this happens all at once. There’s a wild edge here, one that tries to evoke something very particular as much as it shies away, self-consciously aware at what its trying to do. I liked it a lot. I’m always on the side of literature that tries to be something, to do something, to break new ground, to form new shapes. And the shape that Stalking The Atomic City makes is intoxicating.
It’s relevant to add here that I share a publisher with Kamysh and that I requested a copy of this to review through Netgalley. My thanks to Pushkin for the approval. The Stalking City is published by them in July. Make a note.
Meet How To Be True. It’s a follow-up to How To Be Brave and it features a school trip that nobody will ever forget, barricades before breakfast, and also cake. Lots and lots of cake. There will always be cake in my books. And ducks. There’s a pivotal duck. Always a good thing, I think.
How To Be True is published in the UK on July 7th 2022 by the beautiful and lovely Pushkin who have understood this book from day one. As with How To Be Brave, the cover is by the wonderful Thy Bui and I am herefor every inch of it.
I’ve had this on my to be read list for a while, interested not only for the author but also because of my research into young female writers. It is an amazing topic to look at and one which fascinates me endlessly (I’m doing a PhD on it) and so Queen Victoria’s book, written when she was ’10 and 3/4′ is particularly up my street.
One of the things to look at in books written by young writers, that is to say ‘children’s literature written by children’, is how it’s presented to the world. The packaging here is very precise and tells you that the author is both Alexandrina Victoria and also Queen Victoria – so she’s kind of captured between the two identities immediately, a writer who is young/old, herself and not herself, and her story is interesting because of that. This isn’t an unusual thing to do: there’s a big tradition of adults having some discomfort about how to represent juvenile texts. For example, I’m working with one at the moment that has a coy little note from the publisher’s that tells us how they haven’t changed the spelling or grammar one bit – and yet, in popping that little note in, they draw a wry adult attention to it. It says – essentially – that it’s a book by a kid and you need to understand that through the filter of your much more learned self. These stories are difficult things for adults to handle and I find that so, so interesting.
The Adventures of Alice Laselles comes with an introduction by Jacqueline Wilson who draws a connection between Victoria’s love of paper dolls and her own. There’s an interesting preface to this which talks about how Victoria’s dolls have been “digitally cut out and manipulated” with the addition of shadows, changed poses and expressions. The work is sensitively done and the dolls are rather delightfully handled, but I find such an interest here in why the work was done and what that work says about us (adults) when we read books written by children.
So what of the story itself? It’s well told but brief boarding school story with echoes of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe, Or What Happened At Miss Minchin’s and a fair bit of L.T. Meade; plot is introduced and tied up with some alacrity, characters are sketched with that kind of deliciously precise ‘she had brown hair and hated toast’ style of the time. It’s nicely written and speaks of a familiarity with literary cultures and also the boarding school story genre. This is quite classic stuff.
I liked it. It’s a nicely put together piece. I don’t think it’s earth-shattering stuff, nor do I think it would have been remotely published if the author hadn’t been who she is, but it’s still a valuable contribution to the world of children’s literature – not in the least because it exhibits something of the tussle between adult and child in the construction of such.
I came to The Last Weapon through one of Wilson’s children’s books Five of Them and could not quite believe how the author of that could also write this, an anti-war polemic that was banned during the first World War. It seemed so strange and almost unbelievable: Five of Them was such a sugary sweet book. To go from that to writing a banned book fascinated me. Thanks to my local library pointing me towards the hathitrust repositories, I was able to finally find a copy of it.
The Last Weapon is the sort of book that you can’t rate, so I must ask you to disregard that. It hovers somewhere between fable and polemic, anti-war sermon and viciously angry fairytale. Every inch of it sings with pain and heartache and raw, raw fury at the world. It is a difficult read at points, disturbing at others, shocking at many, and heartbreaking throughout. It feels like the work of a completely different author and one who, I suspect, wrote this through a very particular prism of pain. Perhaps personal, perhaps political, I don’t know. But this book comes from hurt.
Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. If I’m honest, I don’t know if it’s the sort of book that one recommends. If one can’t really rate it and one’s still trying to figure out how they feel about it, one can’t really pick it up and go ‘hey, this is the perfect read for you’. I suspect it will be of interest to people looking at anti-war literature and sentiment at the start of the early twentieth century, and I suspect it will also be of interest to people who want to find out more about female authors at this point. And I think I fall into the latter category for I’m always intrigued to find out what female authors were writing and talking about in a literary culture that was very particular about what was expected about them (let’s call a spade a spade eh? sexism, misogyny, the patriarchy, etc. etc.).
The Last Weapon is full of religious imagery and quotations and some (a lot) of the more precise theological connections got past me. I am, however, a bit familiar with the representation of popular religion at this time, and this book felt very, very particular to this period. We have big gatherings, people preaching to the congregation, a vigorous centralising of the church in all that goes on, and a look towards preachers and minsters to function as the voice of all that is good and right.
So what happens? Mankind is being tested, and the ‘Sons of Fear’ and ‘the Child’ have gone down to earth to try and persuade them to make a choice: whether to use the Last Weapon. The Last Weapon, we eventually learn, may be ‘hellite’ – an atom bomb like device which will destroy everybody and everything in its path, or love. I won’t tell you what happens but I will tell you that Wilson does not hold back. She is furious and raw and rather endlessly raging into the dark, dark night. It is scared and it is sad and it is searing.
Hovering somewhere between literary fiction, comic, short story, and ‘crisp, stark ruminations about life’, Killing and Dying has left me a little bit breathless. I found it almost by accident in the library and picked it up because I am always here for comics and I am always here for people who find something rather intensely personal and distinct to do with the form. This feels precise and sharp and crafted and I respond to that; I like stuff where I can feel the thought and intent behind every line.
So what is it? Technically it’s a collection of stories about living. They cover life and loss, love and art, hope and sorrow, and pretty much everything in between. They are short and precisely told, unafraid of an exit that leaves you wanting more or of a frame that makes you double back and question everything you witnessed before. Killing and Dying, the titular short story, is perhaps the most stunning in that area, giving you a quiet and sharp sudden disruption that made me literally gasp. It reminded me somehow of reading When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs., that visceral moment of feeling a text inside your very soul.
It’s perhaps useful to think of Killing And Dying as a cracked kaleidoscope: it reflects and illuminates and some of it works better than others and somehow you can see all of that as you for along. I loved the mournful grace and eloquent space of ‘Translated, from the Japanese’ and I was frustrated by it at the same time and then I got to thinking about well maybe that was the point. And that discussion, that little twist of thought about these fragments of life, is something that I value a lot.
Maybe it’s worth getting lost in the library because it ends up in you being found.
It’s an interesting one this, a career novel from 1960 (so written at the tail end of the 50s) and detailing the progress of Susan Kendall into her chosen career as nurse. It’s published by Victory Press Books, a religious press, and wears these credentials fairly lightly until about halfway through when: Religon! (It always makes me laugh that I never quite realise that I’m reading a book from an evangelical press until Religion! pops up. I always have to check the publisher and then I’m like ‘oh, yes, that does actually make this whole plot make sense now’).
It’s a bluntly-told, rampantly dated thing, and yet I did enjoy it. Not only does it document an upper class girl going to work in unconventional circumstances (and thus documenting some of the post-world war two shift in the class system), it also provides a rather startlingly acute look at hospital services at the time. Susan is a lively heroine who, despite the rather sketchy ‘she also attended lectures on bones and that’ paragraph, is actually pretty believable. She drinks! She has a smoke! (I mean, just the one drink and the one smoke and man, she does get punished for it but that is the way of books such as this).
The ending, by the way, is great. I will not spoil it but it’s hysterical and will leave you going “WHAT, WHAT IS THAT IT?” at the page.
Hello! Last year, I started a new tradition on this blog and I see no reason why I should not continue it this year. So here we are – it’s time for The Second Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz. You can revisit the first one here, and if you’d like a reminder of how the whole thing works, here we are:
I will give you a sentence like: One C P of B cheeking Matron and all you have to do is figure out what the letters stand for. In this example, it’s One Crown Princess of Belsornia cheeking Matron and that’s all there is to it. All the answers relate to children’s literature in some way or form (either titles or characters) and the vast majority of them have been reviewed on this blog….
Answers will be posted on December 31st!
Round One: Boarding School Stories
One M-L hanging off a sturdy young sapling
Two O’S T not caring at S C
One K F flipping from speedboat to speedboat
One C N having quite the first term at the S O T G S
Three R’s being adopted by the M’s
One D I M on her way to the J W F
One Inspiring Speech from M G at M T
One sensible S H
One rubbish proposal from R E to L M
One P W causing engine issues
Round Two: Pony Books
One J M rescuing S from the circus
One V B riding T P to victory
One A R and T B making friends on a desert island
One C D living out his retirement at F F
One J with her ponies B B and R
One P on the 12th floor
One R H meeting the Hot and Complicated P P
One Smouldering Slow Burn Romance between H and N, members of the W B pony club
It’s not often you get a pony story like this and that, I think, makes The Chestnut Filly rather interesting. Randal Gray, a stammering and shy thirteen year old, has come into money due to a wayward godfather finally remembering that his godson exists. And as people tend to do in these books, Randal is about to buy a horse. She is nameless, young, poorly broken, and somehow everything that he has ever dreamt of. He bids for her in the auction and wins; her name becomes Amber Light after a rearing fit at the traffic lights as he walks her home, and his parents are mildly bemused and yet delightfully accepting in that terribly vacant way that only parents in 1940s-ish children’s literature can be.
Cumming is a legend in the world of pony books; one only has to look at something like this, her opening paragraph to a chapter on ‘Riding’ in The Girl’s Companion to understand quite how purely she understands the urge for a pony, even when her readers or characters haven’t yet realised it for themselves. In this sort of a book, everybody needs a pony to look after for it simply makes them better and so it is with Randal who slowly learns to gain confidence in himself and his abilities and, in the process, realise that he’s more than his mean form-master ever thinks he can be.
It’s subtle and quiet and in many senses, delightfully airy. Of course Randal has a spare loosebox at home for the pony and of course the gardener/handy man knows everything about backing flighty fillies and of course, he manages to magic out of thin air food and tack and I think the reason that it all manages to work is because Cumming doesn’t quite know a world where it doesn’t. This is how it should be; a boy should have a pony and the world should twist and yearn to make it happen.
Where The Chestnut Filly becomes something quite unique is in its treatment of ‘The Movies’. Randal finally makes friends and they come up with a plot: Amber Light should be trained to be in the movies. I won’t spoil the ending here for it’s oddly moving and deliciously alien, all at once, but what I will say is that mixing films with horse stories and isn’t often done. The most notable example I can think of is in the Follyfoot books by Monica Dickens where the ponies are used in a film, but even then it’s done with a sense of remove (and, I might add, many years after this). The Chestnut Filly also throws in a little bit of boy’s school story and punctuates all of that for good measure with some rather gorgeous Stanley Lloyd illustrations.
There’s something rather entrancing about this strange and stubborn book and I can’t quite figure it out, but I do know I enjoyed it. It doesn’t quite work all the time but there’s something so fascinatingly distinct about it and interesting and strange in what it tries to do, and the world that it tries to do it in, that it’s kind of rather beautiful for it.
I’ve been a fan of the classy Little People, Big Dreams for a while. The quality of them is outstanding and I’ve always loved the artistic style used, a kind of vibrantly loose interpretation of the real world situations they depict coupled with a rich and heavily saturated use of colour. These are quality, quality books, and I think I’m rather obsessed with them. I like books that have a lot of care in them, and I love it when that care is visible. You can see it. You can feel it.
Michelle Obama is a new addition to the series and offers a very accessible snapshot of her life. It’s selective, as such things have to be under such circumstances, and there’s a nice little afterword with a more detailed biography plus some further reading. The artwork is richly representative and occasionally deeply moving. There’s an image of Michelle and her family on the White House lawn with the caption: ‘The presidential White House, built by enslaved Black people 200 years before, was now a Black family’s home.” That’s smart and good writing and respects your reader. That’s what every inch of this series does. It respects the reader so much.
I realised recently that I have a handful of books left to do before I have reviewed the entire Chalet School series and so, I headed off to Rivals to start ticking them off. It had been a while since I’d read it and so I’d sort of forgotten some of the finer detail of it. And then I remembered that it’s the one with the Klu Klux Klan references. And “still, grey and to all appearances dead”. And the singing of the Red Sarafan. And the poison pen letters.
Which. Is. A. Lot.
So. Yes. Where on earth does one begin with reviewing that? The KKK stuff is a startling and weird thing to find in a series so heavily concerned with multinationalism and cultural integration (albeit with certain ‘as long as you’re middle class or upper, thank you very much’ caveats), so I guess the best I can do here is to go “that is a hideous reference EBD ” and acknowledge how horribly it’s dated and this is a book from a certain period and time and there we are, ick, bleurgh, the end.
And the rest of it! The highest highs, the lowest lows, and somewhere in between the chaotic melodrama that is this series at its best! There is a deathbed scene that always makes me cry even though it is, if you study it very very critically, slightly ridiculous. There is an other school who we must DISLIKE and then LIKE, an anonymous letter episode which is OUTSTANDING drama and features quite the mean girl, and there’s even a bit where Frieda who is a bit gentle and wet sometimes (sorry) goes all Action (wo)Man. Epic, ridiculous, amazing, melodramatic, and then there’s an infectious illness as well!
I am EXHAUSTED.
(Banging cover, though. Good work Nina K Brisley).
We are many moons into the Abbey books by now so, as is tradition with this sort of thing, this title will make very little sense to anybody who hasn’t read all of the others and taken notes and made family trees and developed a healthy tolerance of everybody being called J- something or R- something and everybody giving! birth!
Honestly, I think Robins In The Abbey is the most EJO EJO that I have ever read and that is quite something. Let me find the particular quote that made me realise we were in for something special:
“Littlejan Fraser. Her real name is Joan after my cousin Joan, whose elder girl is called Janice, after Littlejan’s mother Janice. When Marigold was born she was so like her mother that her father called Little Jan, and the name stuck, although she was christened Joan.”
“She tried to make us forget Littlejan and call her Joan-Two or Joan the Second, when she first came home,” Lindy remarked, “But I don’t believe people will ever do it, though they may call her Marigold, now that she’s Queen. But she wasn’t Marigold when I saw her a year ago.”
I mean, what? What the who the what? Things only get better after that point. Rosamund has kids that she dubs all Ros-something, all of the men pop up briefly to make hottie faces at their respective hotties before disappearing in fear from the throngs of women called the same thing, Joy behaves like a muppet before pulling her socks up and Doing The Right Thing, the Abbey girls make friends with somebody called Robertina who’s known as Robin (nobody has one name in this book) and an unattached hottie called Robin pops up and WILL THE TWO ROBINS GET TOGETHER? Of course they will, for this is written on cards and obvious to everyone, even the characters in the book, and all the reader has to do is weep, numb with confusion.
It’s a lot, and EJO is kind of my nemesis for this sort of thing, but it’s still quite enjoyable in a sort of incomprehensible manner? And I don’t know how I can think that when 90% of this book is just the characters repeatedly telling each other their names?
I have been using Goodreads for a while. It began when I first started blogging, primarily because I didn’t know how to format things then (what on earth was this thing called HTML???) and I quite liked how Goodreads did the work for me. I’ve stuck with it ever since because I’ve become increasingly intrigued in what a record of my reading might look like. It’s a partial record, of course, for I am forgetful at adding things (it’s taken me until this year to remember to add ‘date read’…) and I don’t catalogue everything I read because not all of it is great, not all of it is public business, and not all of it needs reviewing and rating. Sometimes I don’t know what to say about it and sometimes I do, and sometimes I just don’t want to say that in a public forum.
Nevertheless, I catalogue at least some of my reading and this year, I even put in the date read (I always forgot beforehand). It was because of this that I was informed the other day that I had completed my reading challenge for the year.
I was pleased to see comics featuring heavily in this year as well. I’m increasingly desperate to put my own together (I have plans! I keep emailing my agent going “please can we do [complicated plot that isn’t a plot and more just a vague string of words ambitiously put together]”). Tempest Tossed was a very solid reimagining of Wonder Woman, and although I don’t think it was perfect, it’s pretty close. I felt rather indifferent to the graphic adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it and yet upon a reread, I found it rather brilliant. I think some of that change centres on how you have to let go when you read sometimes and just experience that which is given to you. It’s a thought I’ve been trying to tease out ever since reading Piranesi. That’s a book that asks you to have faith in where it’s going and just let it take you there – and that decision, that choice to have that faith, is vital.
Miffy X Rembrandt was a stone cold classic (as indeed is everything Miffy) and I’d encourage more attention for Guantanamo Voices and Welcome To The New World – two vital non-fiction comics. I’ve really come to appreciate the non-fiction comic form over the past few years, and I think these are stunning examples of what it can do and why it should be done in comic form. Talking of stunning examples, I think Vy’s Special Gift was glorious and one of the best picture books I’ve read in a long time (and should be of special interest to those of you looking to broaden your picture book representation).
The oldest book I read this year was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and the most recent was Danger At Dead Man’s Pass (2021). Ten books were published pre-1950 and twenty-seven were published in the 2000s, and I read a lot of books by women. I’m pretty pleased as well by the pre-1950s representation here; it’s really important for me to read and recognise the writers who came before me (the school story has a longgg tradition) but it’s also very important for me to try and relocate these authors into the (often male-determined and ‘oh god, why would I even look at a book by a woman’) canon.
There will be of course more to add to this list. I just finished reading Sharpe’s Assassin and am re-starting A Life In The Making thanks to my friends at Pushkin. This latter one is immensely interesting to me; the first few chapters hadn’t worked for me at all so I flicked ahead a bit and found some of the most beautiful writing that I think I’ve ever read. I’ll let you know how I get on with revisiting it.
I’ve wanted to read How To Be Ace by Rebecca Burgess ever since I heard about it. I’m always excited by the books that put something different or under-represented into the world, and books featuring asexuality are something I can count on single fingers (if that…). It seems obvious but if we don’t write and produce and make these books that talk about these ways of being and knowing, then the worlds we represent are narrow and partial and half-formed things. And that’s something I’ll never be comfortable in signing up for.
How To Be Ace is a delight. It’s a warm and kind autobiographical graphic memoir that follows Rebecca as they grows up. They’re surrounded by a world that’s obsessed with sex and the heteronormative, and all the expectations that that discourse pushes onto people, before they comes to realise their identity as asexual and find a comfort and pride in that.
Burgess’ art work is a delight, it’s full of a kind of lively softness (stay with me, I know that sounds odd!) where loose, gentle lines sit alongside rich washes of colour. The overall effect is one of rich intimacy, where the comic feels familiar and friendly and immediate.
The book is broken up into chapters, opening with “How To Pretend To Be Something You’re Not” and finishing with “How To Be Ace”. I am very fond of ‘How To Be…‘ titles, so I appreciated this on that level, but I also appreciate the technicalities at work here. Burgess uses the end of several chapters to offer small primers around the topic, ranging from the difference between sexual and romantic attraction to things people say to them when they discover they are asexual.
I loved this comic a lot. I read a lot about gender and identity and sexuality and I’m increasingly convinced of the value of seeking texts from people who know these experiences from lived, real-world experience. I learn a lot from their voices and Burgess is no exception. They deliver a thoughtful and gentle and honest memoir here and I’m very glad that the publishers went for it. I would recommend this entirely. There is a lot of hard fought for life and love and heart here and honestly, I think it’s pretty special.
Published in 1950, The Three Elizabeths is rather late for a school story – and, to be frank, rather on the edge of obscurity for the genre. It’s kind of missed the big moments and the big authors in the genre and sits somewhere towards what I would think of as the beginning of the downward curve. Big authors like Brent-Dyer have been writing for twenty-five years or more and are in the middle of their landmark series and others are increasingly removed from the world about them. Yet in being rather late for the genre, The Three Elizabeths also sits somewhere super interesting – namely, the ‘brave new world’ post Second World War. It comes into contact with co-educational schools, tenement housing, dances and (very briefly and in a slightly appalled fashion) even dates. There’s even a weirdly brutal moment where one of the girls goes to a dance and comes into contact with the poor unloved wallflowers who are all bawling in the cloakroom (this scene is so off its tree, I cannot). Finally, this book also possesses one of the worst school uniforms I have ever read about and I love it entirely for that.
So what do you do with a book that looks backwards to the greatness of girl’s school stories whilst also looking forward to something quite different? You write something that kind of echoes what it should do but also has this kind of wriggling discomfort and ache to be something different. And that’s precisely what happens here. There are moments in the Three Elizabeths that could be pulled out of the girls’ school story handbook (guides! bad baking! sports victories!) but then, there’s this effort to move away from the privilege that so often underscores this genre and an attempt to give something different.
I don’t think that The Three Elizabeth quite manages to pull it off but I appreciate it very much for the way it tries. Does that make sense? I’m increasingly fond of those books that try to really recognise who and what they are in the world and if they don’t quite fully deliver, I still appreciate that moment of trying. I’d rather a book failed in trying something different and vital and important rather than never trying at all.
Having said all of that, this really isn’t a bad book. It’s very pleasant indeed. It does slide into a rather episodic quality in the latter half where something happens to one girl and then the other before we all stop for tea, and the premise of the girls all being called the exact same thing is utterly ridiculous, but that’s what a vast majority of these books did back in the day. A healthy and unashamed embrace of the ridiculous is the absolute heart of this genre and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
When I knew that How To Be Brave was going to be published, I made a little bucket list for it and this was one of those things. I still cannot quite believe that it’s happened. Thank you to everyone who’s supported the girls in their adventures so far. You’re the best.
Do take the time to have a look at the rest of the nominees as there are some wonderful titles and authors represented. I have to say that I’m especially thrilled to see Hilary McKay represented in the Carnegie (I mean, can’t we give her the freedom of children’s literature already?) and Harry Woodgate, Jessica Love, and Chris Mould in the Greenaway nominations. Honestly, I think I need to go and move into the picture book section in the library for a bit. So much inspiration!
I’ve been on a bit of a deep dive with my reading at the moment, burrowing into things and not quite coming up for air until they’re done. Normally I’d think about reviewing them the moment that I finish (for they are good, good) and normally I do that, but sometimes I want more. I need to figure out how I feel about something, I need to understand why I’ve reacted to it in the way that I have, and that more takes time.
When we read a book, when we finish it, we have a moment of time right there. The glory of it. The crisp final moment of satisfaction. The page turned, the cover closed. The tangible thingness of it. We have read. The book is done. The event is closed, the circle complete, and we move onto the next.
But that’s never it, right? A reading isn’t a static thing, nor is it a finite thing. We read the book and the act of reading might end and all the pages might be turned but the reading itself – that interpretation of the text – that lingers. And sometimes you don’t know that it’s there until it’s all about you. Something in the air. A texture. A taste. A transformation. The world before isn’t the world that it is now, and even this nowness is becoming something else the more you look at it.
I don’t remember a lot of the books I read. Is that an awful thing to write? I wonder, sometimes, but that’s the truth. I read a lot of books and once they’re done, they’re done. I remember fragments, sensations and textures about them, but the plot? Precisions? I’d be nearer flying.
But the books I read remember me.
They linger insider, they hold a space in the world, and every now and then they reach out of memory to become something present. There’s a sense of the reading becoming friable then, something that holds weight and body and precision on the slenderest of edges before it crumbles away into nothing. Books remaking themselves and making themselves known, briefly, beautifully, a memory marking the world with its immediacy.
Do not forget me, let me live again.
And sometimes I don’t know what that sensation is until I let myself go, let it in. Reading can be about control, so much about that. We’re taught to read precisely, to follow letters, to obey the ink and understand its meaning, but letting it go, letting the rules fly by, there’s a decision that interests me. What happens when you read? What happens when you choose not to read? Can one read but not read, can one experience a book and allow different modes of being, of experience?
This is Louise Rosenblatt, this is transactional / aesthetic readings, this is reader response theory 101, and yet it is also not. It is, perhaps, the first few chapters of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, a book that I reviewed and tried to capture and yet, came nowhere near to doing so. The act of a review, with all the rhetoric such a device involves, can sometimes sit difficulty against a book so furiously distinct at this. I have not stopped thinking about it and what those first few chapters demand of the reader. They are stiff, they are other and I wonder if perhaps, the way to read Piranesi all along was to let go.
And by this, I mean a thousand things. To let go is to let things not make sense. It is to keep going, to cut a path through things that can’t be seen or understood, and to simply experience whatthe text is. The weight of it. The feel of it. The shape of it. To let that happen and then to kind of wilfully stop yourself from putting two and two together, from deducing, from tying thread to thread.
I felt myself doing it when I read Piranesi for the first time. I felt myself trying to rationalise the strangeness of it, to find a way for it to make sense, and it is only now that I think that’s starting to happen. I needed to let go, to read for what there was there and to experience that.
Strangeness can be strange, pages can be impenetrable, and you can simply just be, I think, just be. The eye of the storm, the reader, the wind – everything.
This was surprisingly charming, albeit in that very Victorian ‘everybody gets a moral’ kind of way. The story is simple: Dulcie and her brother Tottie live in London with their nurse Nancy. Their father is away being something of a foolish wastrel (as is the nature in stories like these) and Nancy herself has just died (again, as is the nature of stories like these). The children have one choice: to throw themselves upon the mercies of distant relatives.
Things progress in a very charming and gentle manner from that point onwards. There’s a strong Christian thread throughout (I did want to call it subtext but really it’s the text at this point…) with the children learning about religion and God and generally Doing The Right Thing by being good eggs, and there’s a few dramatic incidents to underscore the necessity of doing so.
It is a little bit Written By Numbers at points with noble maiden aunts, rich local gentlemen, secretly kindly doctors, wastrel papa eventually having a wastrel revelation, and an ‘Oh No They Might Die’ life-threatening incident, but I kind of didn’t mind it. Even though the children are very much of the time balls of innocence doing innocent things innocently, they are still occasionally human and all the more interesting because of that.
It’s all sort of intensely pleasant and immensely readable and rather charming. Quite the pleasant surprise!
I picked this up from one of my local bookshops with a healthy section in vintage children’s fiction. I’ve found some interesting titles there before and this, with the local – ish, connections caught my eye. I didn’t know the author nor the title, but I’m always interested in books that head up North and tie themselves tightly to landscape and space and place. I’m even more interested when they’re from the first half of the twentieth century because a) it’s my jam and b) I’m always intrigued as to what they say about the world they live in.
Rescue In Ravensdale is set during the summer of 1939. There’s an authors note which explains that the location is imaginary, the people are imaginary, the events are imaginary (except for the cat), and then there’s another little cast introduction of the main characters with a breakdown of their noseses (straight / snub / snub / straight / aquiline) and then! (we’re still not done) there’s a little bit of blurb to set the scene for the opening of the text which gives us the banging first line of “It’s like the beginning of a Story for Girls,” said Kyra. And then! And then! One of the children turns out to be into acronyms and the chapters – a thing I only sort of really realised towards the end of the book – spell out SWASTIKA.
I have literally never read a book quite like this. It is not perfect by any means (some of the plot is bodgey at best, and some of the ‘winsome’ moments with the kids are a bit ‘oh god, oh god end it now’) but then suddenly this book drops in some political commentary and Roger – the sole young boy – finds himself contemplating what his life is going to be like in wartime – and it kind of hits somewhere madly transcendent.
An example: There’s a moment in one chapter where Roger is talking with his Aunt and they talk about the difference between boys and girls. Roger laughs and says that maybe his half-brothers believed that boys were “grander” than girls, but he doesn’t. And then his Aunt begins to talk about how he’ll maybe see that idea altered in his lifetime:
Roger gave a non-committal grunt, and hoped it did not sound rude. After all, he did not know aunt very well, and he was shy at having committed himself to such a criticism of his half-brothers. Also, he and his friends at school had sometimes discussed with bitterness the lifetime likely to come to them.
Mrs Levington’s next remark showed that she understood more than he expected her to understand.
“I was about your age in 1914,” she said. “The war to end war, we called it.”
I read that about ten times when I first came across it because I wasn’t quite sure about what I was reading and then, all of a sudden, it hit me. I still can’t quite get over the subtlety of it, that deceptively simple depth and just the weight of it.
As the book progresses, we get various ‘glorious last Summer’ shenanigans set against the rise of the war. A German appears, a swastika is found on the moors, nothing is quite what it seems to be, and all that matters – really – is that British, sunshine-filled, hot summer and being together with family.
Like I said, this isn’t perfect. It’s problematic, heavily dated (some of the language is deeply challenging for a modern reader), but it’s also poignant, elegiac, and deeply, deeply mournful for the world that’s about to be lost forever. In a way, I think it’s kind of everything.
A thoughtful and eloquent “graphic novel and true story” Welcome To The New World is the story of an arrival. The Aldabaan family, originally from Syria, have arrived in America at the same time that Donald Trump has arrived in the White House. It is against this turbulent backdrop that they must find their feet – jobs must be found, English must be learnt, and schools must be attended. The family is supported by a number of characters and organisations but all along a clock ticks: a handful of months and they must be independent. The alternative is too much to think of.
Originally told as a serialised strip in the New York Times, this novel splits itself into five chapters. There’s a detailed note on methodology – perfect for any students of reporting or non-fiction illustration – and another that provides an epilogue. Methodologically speaking, I found this a deeply ethical project which respected not only the family at the heart of this story – a real world family – but also those people around them.
Let’s dwell on that for a moment. This is a story about people and the goodness that they can do for each other. I fell rather in love with one of the characters who appears in the later chapter who simply asks “If I help you, then you have to agree to help others. That work for you?” It’s also a story about the horrific things that people can inflict upon each other. There’s a dark, grey-tinged flashback to Syria which elaborates upon why the family left and what happened to them. It is told starkly and simply and very powerful because of that.
I only picked this up by accident, but I’m pleased that I did. It’s thoughtful and restrained and quiet and yet kind of immensely impactful all at once. Read it alongside Guy Delisle and books like Alpha. Abidjan-Gare du Nord: Abidjan-Gare du Nord and you’ve got some world-changing literature, right there.
(A quick note of recognition for the artwork of Adeebah Aldabaan as well. She has several pieces in the final pages of the book and they are some of the most eye-catching and stunning pages in the entire thing. One piece, the last in the book, left me breathless).
I was just looking back at my prior reviews of this series and everysingleone has five stars. And so it is with Danger At Dead Man’s Pass that takes the series to somewhere spooky and spectral and (when the resolution comes) deeply moving. It’s not easy to write books like this. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in terms of plot, structure, and simply getting everybody into the right place at the right time. And yet M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman deliver every time. It is such impressive work fand I admire them immensely for it.
So! Let’s have some plot. Harrison and his Uncle Nat are now getting a tiny little bit famous because of their skills and have been invited to investigate a case in Germany. There’s a family curse, a spooky mountain, a healthy amount of Faust, and it’s just thick, solid adventure from that point on. Like I’ve said before, I have little to no interest in trains and the like but these books make me care about them. How amazing is that? There’s a scene at the end, for example, that is just deliciously tense nailbiting stuff and normally I’d be all ‘yeah, whatever’ but because it’s written by Leonard and Sedgman, it is BRILLIANT.
Honestly, this series is such classy bold stuff. Long may it go from strength to strength.
I was catching up on some long overdue review copies this weekend and The House On The Edge was on top of the pile. It’s a Nosy Crow book which always means quality – the way they present their titles and package them is always delicious. There’s always a little extra something to them and here, in a book all about what lies beneath, a slender crack twists and jags its way across each and every page. Perfect. Those little stylistic details tell us so much extra about a book, and I love how Nosy Crow looks for those opportunities in their titles.
The House on the Edge is smart, unusual stuff. It’s the story of a family with secrets in a house that’s right on the edge of a cliff. There’s a crack in the ground that keeps going bigger, there might be sea ghosts in the basement, and there’s a child gone missing. It’s a lot and I think it could run away from a writer quite easily, but Alex Cotter keeps it together well. In fact, I think she does something super interesting here. Faith is struggling with a lot of things in her world and trying desperately to keep everything going. The writing reflects this with a kind of jerky, sudden vibrant quality – we skip and dance and dodge through all of the noise until we discover the things that Faith isn’t telling us – the crack that lies underneath her world. The way that the story’s being told tells us as much as the story itself and that’s exciting to me. There’s a lot of quality to that.
One thing to mention is that this book does go to some quite strong emotional spaces. It does so with a lot of grace and delicacy and often obliquely because Faith herself isn’t ready to tell us what’s happening, but it does give the book a very particular resonance. If you are reading this in a context with other readers, especially those who are unknown to you, it may be worthwhile to read it yourself in advance just so you have an idea of what to expect and how best to support your readers.
I am very fond of Julia Cameron’s idea of the Artist’s Date. The premise is simple: once a week you are to do something that interest you. It can be as simple as walking a different way home; what matters is that they’re something different – something playful and unusual – that gets your brain starting to think and work in a creative manner. I think sometimes we can get hung up on the idea of the ‘big’ creative act – that to write, we must experience immensely dramatic and outlandish things – and I find the Artist’s Date an immensely useful exercise to counter that narrative.
It’s particularly relevant when we think about life post-Covid restrictions. It’s difficult to argue for post- anything when it comes to COVID, so forgive me first for that awkward prefix . Having said that, it is still useful to recognise that the life we (and only some of we) live now is bounded now by different rules – and that when it was ruled by things such as lockdown, it was a much tighter and narrower thing. I was conscious of a mild culture shock when I left my quiet and still street to discover that the city still existed about us. The city centre on a Saturday afternoon, busy and full of race-goers, was an almost palpable shock. Learning to reacclimatise, learning to live again in that space with all of the collective trauma we have experienced over the past year or so, is difficult.
I am increasingly coming to realise that it is a process though, this reacclimatisation. It feels tentative, soft, as though I am rediscovering the city and the world through each step that I take. I have found new paths to the park; a snicket behind houses I could never afford; paths that cut past allotments and so many trampolines in gardens, lined up like a thousand tiny Stonehenges, behind such tall and tightly packed houses.
I chip away at the world, knowing that what I had is still there and that what is yet to come will soon be. I took a bus, proudly, blindly, forgetting much of what taking a bus actually means until I had to do it. Where to sit. How to scan my ticket. That you can even scan a ticket. The language of this space, forgotten, but the memory of it is still there. Like words you rubbed out but the indentation of them lasts on your notebook. The space remembers even if you do not.
I used my bus ride today as my artists date, finding interest not only in being there and on it, but in being on the top deck and at the back. There are so many layers here. And so I pick up my pen and I write, I play.
1. Bilborough Top Macdonalds to the A1 Junction
(I’ve talked before about the importance of “taking a line for a walk” and so I won’t rehash this here. What I will talk about, instead, is the notion of liberation when it comes to putting ink on paper. There are conventions that we are trained into; we write in a certain manner, we treat a page in a certain manner, we even orientate our work in a certain manner. We write to be understood in the way that we have been trained to accept as understanding. Every now and then there is interest to be found in doing things differently. Connecting the dots. Creating something new that makes you look twice at the page. Letting the pen go. Letting yourself follow).
(I do not easily consider myself a poet, nor do I have the training for it, but rather I like to think of what language can do and what it can be made into; the malleability, perhaps of it, the textures, and now that I have written that, I wonder if that is what poetry has been all along).
The Supreme Knowledge of the Top Deck of the Bus
There was a bench behind the hedge with people sat on it the bench I mean not the hedge and there were smoking shelters too four square and grey even though I was not sure that such things even existed anymore and the people were having a meeting in the way I used to have meetings which is to say: not at all.
3. Ways of Viewing
(I’ve been returning to John Berger a lot recently and in particular Ways Of Seeing. Art galleries are a perfect place to think about this sort of thing for they allow an opportunity to see. Not just the art, not just the exhibits, but the people too. No two people experience an art gallery in the same way. There’s something fascinating in that. The way that people see things. And sometimes there’s something really interesting in how people move through a space and mapping that. I sat in one gallery for quite some time, and I mapped how other people experienced it, finding myself as fascinated with their stories of interaction as I was with the piece itself. Art isn’t ever just about the ‘thing’ – it’s about the moment about the thing, I think. The movement about it. The stories it begins).
God, I found this so incredibly charming. It’s a rather deliciously eccentric comic which details the adventures of Louison at her new boarding school. That includes all the normal parts of new school life – making friends and finding a place in the world – but also being given the strength and powers of a pony by a pink toy pony called Jean-Pierre. Outstanding, right? I love a synopsis that just goes all ‘whoomp, there it is’.
It wasn’t just the synopsis that caught my eye. The art is such a treat. It’s vibrant and dynamic and full of absolute life in every inch. Spénale is such a power-packed artist, giving you vivid lines full of movement and life, and she totally gets how fully heartfelt and lovely girl life can be. Louison’s relationships with her room mates and her school friends are just packed with heart and humour, and then throwing in the whole Jean-Pierre thing for good measure just killed me.
I’ll admit that there were definitely a few moments which felt a little under-explored or that didn’t work quite in the way that I wanted it to, but I found this so genuine and so furiously, fabulously distinct that I’d recommend it entirely. I admire a book that is so completely itself. I admire that very much.
Between the ages of 8 and 11, one fictional school towered above all the others in my imagination. It had literal towers! Plus dormitories and midnight feasts and tuck boxes and a smart uniform, and of course the tidal seawater pool carved out of the Cornish cliffs. Malory Towers was the Platonic ideal of a girls’ boarding school, and I adored it. But the Enid Blyton books weren’t really school stories to me, they were pure fantasy. My own experience of school was nothing like Malory Towers. I attended a state primary school until I was 9, then moved to the Brighton Steiner School, which adapted the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner into a hippy experiment cherished by a small cohort of unconventional middle-class parents. Steiner school pupils were neither one thing nor another – we were seen as weird and insular by the local state school kids, but we had none of the golden privileges or casual confidence of ‘real’ private school pupils. We had no uniform (let alone one involving blazers and boaters), no imposing house mistresses (we called our teachers by their first names) and no sports facilities (what the hell was lacrosse anyway)?
I needed to move on from Malory Towers and find a fictional school that spoke to me. That school was Melling House. Margaret Biggs wrote 6 Melling books between 1951 and 1957, at the tail-end of the fashion for girls’ school stories. And yet she did temporarily breathe new life into the genre, not with original plots or a radical style, but with a simple twist. Melling House is a weekly boarding school – the gentle headmistress Miss Pickering doesn’t believe in keeping girls away from their families for long periods, and they return home at weekends. This allows the stories to expand beyond the traditional closed society of a boarding school and include rich and complicated scenes of family life. Not only that, but there are boys! I had a lot of friends who were boys growing up, and even though Melling was still a world away from any school I was ever likely to attend, I loved the hint of normality in the warm friendships the girls have with their brothers and brothers’ friends. There was also a sense of messiness and realness in the varied responsibilities, roles and problems that the girls face in their weekend lives. Melling isn’t an all-consuming world like Malory Towers; although the intensity and specialness of life away from your parents on the clifftop was part of the Malory Towers appeal, it sometimes felt claustrophobic and terrifying.
I re-read the Melling books (collected in two volumes in the early sixties) many times throughout my teens and into adulthood. Until recently I only owned the second volume, passed on to me by my mother who received it as an 11th birthday present close to its original publication date. It was easy to jump into the middle of the lives of the Blake family and their friends, so I never minded not having read the earlier books. The solid burgundy hardback with its torn spine and missing dust jacket was always comfort reading, but also gave me something different every time. As a shy and self-conscious teenager it was encouraging to see how the girls at Melling manage to overcome similar challenges. Nervous Franny Warner becomes head girl and a brilliant actress when her friends support and encourage her; the diffident Laura Lacey is also made head girl in her turn when perceptive teachers see her hidden depths. As a budding writer and second-generation librarian I also had a strong affinity with Roddy Blake, the sardonic, reserved middle Blake sister, who catalogues the Melling library and turns her sharp writer’s eye on the absurdities of school life. Then as a young adult there was a realisation that the grown-ups of Melling (both teachers and parents) are given unusual character depth and are shown dealing with their own struggles and emotions. They make mistakes and reflect on them. I had never before read a children’s book where a strict teacher (substitute head Miss Whyte) later admits that her strictness is born from insecurity and shyness, and apologises to the pupils she has bullied.
When I discovered Jane Austen (like many a 90s teenager, via Colin Firth with a wet shirt in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) I could see some of the same things that appealed to me about Margaret Biggs. Biggs was hardly a prose stylist on a par with Austen, but her dramas were similarly – deceptively – small scale and her moral lessons subtly taught. Roddy Blake is an Elizabeth Bennett type, independent and free-thinking but slow to see her own flaws of pride and stubbornness. Melling shows characters being both sympathetic and deeply flawed, which was something of a revelation. These flaws are not always overcome or trained out of them either – Helen Blake accepts her own laziness and doesn’t have any plans to change; her younger sister Susan remains incorrigible even as she enters the sixth form.
Bringing boarding school stories into the modern world is a challenge (one that several authors are still enthusiastically embracing, I’m happy to see!) Even Enid Blyton tried it with the unconventional Whyteleaf in the Naughtiest Girl stories in the 1940s. Melling isn’t exactly modern, but it somehow felt that way. I was aware even when first reading them that the world depicted was a rarefied and privileged one – the school is ‘frighteningly expensive’ and the two families at the heart of the books are undoubtedly upper class. As in Austen, snobbery abounds and many traditional societal structures are barely questioned (particularly the gap between the servant class and their employers, and the regularly mentioned feudal loyalty to the aristocratic but cash-strapped Laceys). But there are hints of change: a new looseness in social relationships, and an independence in the older schoolchildren as they become proto-teenagers at the dawn of the 1960s. There are dances and unchaperoned outings with boys, some of which blossom into romance as the books progress. The almost-bohemian art mistress Miss Killegan even wears ‘blue jeans’ on one shocking occasion.
I never really dreamed of going away to a single sex boarding school, midnight feasts notwithstanding (those could be created at home anyway, although the concept of ‘midnight’ during a rowdy but tired sleepover was a vague one, and quite likely to be 9pm). But if I had, if would have looked like Melling – a warm but uniquely ugly yellow brick sprawl in the draughty Fens, rather than a castle on a cliff.
(What are heatwaves made for if not to enjoy books that are eighty-eight years old?)
If you’ve never come across a Girl’s Own Annual, you’re missing out. They were yearly bindups of the Girl’s Own paper – a publication that ran from 1880 – 1956 – and included work from authors as legendary as Noel Streatfeild, Richmal Crompton, Angela Brazil and many more. The contents of the annual were a mixture of non-fiction and fiction, with moral content sitting alongside career guidance and – in the case of the 1933 annual – a lesson on how to keep a pet earwig. The index alone is basically the very definition of eclecticism. I love it. SO much.
These annuals tell us an enormous amount about what it meant to be a girl at that time in the world. To be more specific, they tell us about the expectations of girlhood at that time – the things that the people in power expected you, the girl, to be able to do and think and act like. For example, in 1933 you are a girl who knows how to ‘play the game’ and how to make a camping rug out of an old mackintosh. You are not to worry if you get too many handkerchiefs for Christmas as you know that you can make them into a lovely collar. If you grow out of your old dress, you’re not to worry about that either as you can simply cut out the sleeves and replace them with great swathes of organza. You’re also an absolute dab hand at running across the road and pushing professors out of the way so that you get knocked over and they don’t.
(Not even kidding about this last one – the accident leaves her in bed for months and her only comfort comes from the fact that her actions inspire the professor to come to a great discovery that very same day. Where does one even begin with that?).
I really loved Would You Like To Be A Detective by Norah Cameron – it’s a career guide to being a shop detective (in! 1933!) and talks about how girls are much better at seeing this sort of thing. Cameron interviews two young women who run an academy devoted to training young detectives – and although she’d only spoken to one of them six weeks ago, she is stunned at how swiftly that girl recollects everything about her. (Amazing, my god, I love it). The students at this academy learn about on shoplifting (less ‘how to do it’ and rather ‘what to look for’) and the importance of accosting thieves beyond the shop boundary and not within.
The illustrations on this article are STUNNING. They’re by an artist called Joan Burr and I cannot get over the fabulous dynamics of her style. I’ll put a slideshow at the end of this piece with some of my favourites. Look at how delicious her line work is! And how fiercely modern that abstraction is? It’s SO fabulous, I cannot.
Burr pops up again in the annual in an article all about The Civil Service For Girls by D. W Hughes. Hughes seemed to have a bit of a thing about writing Career Things For Girls as you can see by the index on him. The article here isn’t particularly amazing (it looks like it was the first thing he wrote for the paper), but the illustrations are everything. Joan Burr is my new hero. Let’s leave it at that.
I came across the film first. The Admirable Crichton (1957) caught my eye because of the mention of Kenneth More – an actor who I’d enjoyed in some other films of that period, despite his rather wonderful ability in them to be nothing but Very British At All Times. The Admirable Crichton sees More as the titular butler to a rich family who, following circumstances, find themselves shipwrecked on an island. The family cannot cope but Crichton and the ‘tweeny’ – a maid who’s neither nowt nor summit in the social strata – can. The class system inevitably crumbles, everything gets turned upside down, and everybody in the film fights over falling in love with Ken. It’s spectacular, intensely British, and I rather loved it enormously.
This, then, is the source – a play script first written in 1902 and bearing some of the most delightful and delicious stage directions I’ve ever read. Barrie is profuse in his detail here, and there’s some immensely wonderful stuff. I was particularly fond of the moment when the Pageboy cheers in response to somebody else’s speech. This is the “one moment of prominence in his life. He grows up, marries and has children, but is never really heard of again”. Outstanding. But it’s all like this. Chatty, verbose, deeply detailed, and pretty brilliant.
I found some interesting hints here towards Barrie’s later Peter Pan (1902) and it’s super interesting to read through that perspective. I love moments like this – where you can see little echoes of what’s to come for a writer. Future echoes, maybe, or hints at great ideas that they were about to explore or look at or come to realise. I’d recommend picking up a copy of the Admirable Crichton for anybody interested in Barrie and his work, but also for those of you interested in those Very Intensely British Commentaries On Class that are pretty much part of our literary DNA at that point. Plus, to be fair, it’s worth a recommendation just because it’s pretty funny and smartly written stuff. This is stylish, strong and rather outstanding work.
(Still not over everybody fighting over Kenneth in the film mind, I die, I die).
I keep trying with EJO and she keeps testing me and yet, I keep coming back. Why I cannot quit this series, I do not know. I keep putting them all in a bag to go to the charity shop and then, regular as clockwork, they come back and sit on the shelves with the air of books that know they’re never going anywhere. The sticking power of them. The sheer, stubborn, sticking power. And then I keep adding to them! I keep buying more!
Honestly, if only I knew what was going on here, I tell you.
So! The Abbey Girls Go Back To School isn’t really anything to do with their school. They’re all off to a country dancing school to dance and then dance some more and then a little bit more, and when they’re done dancing, they’re going to give EVERYONE a nickname and never use their real names and then they’re going to swoon over each other a bit and then Joy’s going to be hideous and there will be some. more. dance. And more swooning. And more nicknames. And it’s all kind of fabulously fabulous and yet immensely ridiculous all at the same time, until the last few pages which STEP IT UP in suitably dramatic and eye-catching style.
Basically, this book. It’s a lot. It’s interminably interminable until suddenly it’s mad dramatic and yet, I love it. God knows why, but I do.
I think sometimes Eva Ibbotson can be so perfect that you can’t quite figure out how she can be better, and then she writes: “At which point there entered a deus ex machina. It entered in an unexpected form: that of a lean, rangy and malodorous chicken.” and you just realise that she can get better, and it’s kind of blindingly brilliant how she does it, and just worship every inch of this glorious, glorious book.
A Company Of Swans is stunning. A whimsical, wild, romantic delight. Harriet lives a dry and ineffably dull existence in scholarly Cambridge, set to be married to a rather dry and ineffably dull man, and the only light in her world is her ballet classes. One day when she is offered a job with a touring company on its way to the Amazon, the light in her world seems to grow a little brighter. But her family refuses. It is not appropriate for her to go and so she shall not.
Will she go? Of course, for this is an Eva Ibbotson and such things were never in doubt. I loved the scenes of the dancers together for Ibbotson’s eye for lived and real detail here is a marvellous thing. She makes it all burn with life and realism, and her ability with character is so, so on form here. En pointe, perhaps. Her description of the elderly women who fiercely chaperone Harriet and make sure nothing untoward happens are delightful, and I adored how she wrote the ballerinas. It’s easy to slide into caricature, I think, but it’s hard to make even the complex and challenging characters lovable and real. And yet Ibbotson does this because she’s very, very good.
And then there’s Rom! The mysterious hot hottie love interest! Proud, complicated and fiercely dashing, he is EXCELLENT, honestly there’s a scene at the end which is literally the very definition of fabulous. In the pantheon of Ibbotson Hot Hotties, he is very near the top.
I was sent a copy of this in its new and rather beautiful packaging from Macmillan. My thanks to them for that, and my apologies that it took me so long to get round to (re)reading it.
I have such time for what Holly Bourne does. I like how smart and fearless and honest her writing is. I really like how she’s unafraid of giving people complex endings. Life isn’t neat. Things don’t cleanly web together. We knot, we fray, we find ourselves in the bumps in between. And so to The Yearbook, a stand alone young adult novel with some fierce dark truth at its core, and a girl who’s just trying to find her place in the world.
Paige Vickers exists. Barely. Life at home is complex, her family a web of darkness and lies, and the only thing that keeps her from sinking into a sea of loneliness is the school library and her Aunt Polly. (Polly is EVERYTHING. I cannot emphasise this enough. She is one of the best characters and I adored her entirely). Paige’s parents are locked in a complex and often violently abusive relationship. Her golden child brother is at university and even when he’s at home, he’s plotting how quickly he can leave. Things are not well. And all Paige can do is write down her hurt and pain in the books she reads.
And then one day somebody responds.
I always know a book is going for well when I have to literally stop everything to read the last few pages. And although it’s not necessarily the conclusion I would have chosen, it is a conclusion that stays true to the rules of the world. Things aren’t easy. Not everything gets tied up in a neat bow. I feel like Bourne gets that and that’s why I love her work so much. She’s just truthful and kind and honest and lovely, and I thought The Yearbook was excellent.
I also really appreciated support resources being listed in the back of it. There are some dark scenes here particularly about the relationship that Paige’s father has with his family. These escalate towards the end of the book and provide some challenging reading throughout. Usborne make a good call here in signposting the additional support for readers right from the first pages of the book, and it’s something that I’d welcome more publishers doing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of book collecting. It is an art, I think, for it comes with its own peculiarities, rhythms and language, and one can spend a thousand years studying it and yet still somehow not quite understand the twists of fate and circumstance that bring a book into your life. I suspect that there’s such a thing as serendipitous book collecting; those days when you turn left instead of right and find a bookshop tucked away down a lane with a name you recognise from somewhere long ago, and an attic absolutely full of school stories. The stairs are never big enough in such shops, and the roof is always too low, and yet the promise of something yet to be discovered draws me in, always.
Slowness, I think, matters as well. Book collecting can be quick these days if you have the means to make it so. I could walk down into the centre of town and find a bookshop with all the titles I’ve ever dreamt of right now, and even if I had the budget to make that happen, I don’t think I would. There’s something about the chase that matters. That list that you folded up on a scrap of paper and stuffed deep inside your bag. The way it travels with you, just in case, just if there’s a bookshop that you pass and one of them might be in there.
I had one of those moments the other day. Or, to be more precise, I bought a book that I didn’t even realise I was collecting. When I first left home and went to university, I began a slim collection of ICONS books. These were an A5 series from Taschen, printed somewhere around 2000 – 2002, and I bought them intermittently from the local bookshop. I used them as part of my work and as inspiration, and sometimes I just sat and loved them. These were my introduction to the notion of a coffee table even though they were barely the size of a coffee themselves. They glowed with the promise of a world I was just discovering.
One of my favourites was – is – ART NOW. I was an art student who did not yet know what she wanted to do was art, and I still have that book. I’m looking at it now. There’s a part of it that I covered with clear plastic for some reason, but the plastic didn’t quite fit the book itself. The corner of the covers poke out in unprotected splendour. I don’t know what I was thinking but I’m so fond of it. It reminds me that I crafted with this book – that I had that thought process for some reason – that I wanted to look after it.
One of my other favourites was Atget’s Paris. I loved the dominance of the title. I didn’t know who Atget was, nor why he had a claim on Paris, but I was starting to understand story. The thickness of it, the texture of it. The way that we find it buried in the simplest of things. The way that it’s never just about words on a page. The way that story is art and art is story.
Looking back now, these books represent a period of exploration within my life. They signified that moment of otherness that I longed for, they showed me a space in the world for the kind of writing and the kind of art that I wanted to make. The sort of thing that I’d longed to do forever but had far too many teachers slap down. There is a fear, I think, in stepping beyond that which you know, and I felt that for a long time. But art is about following your journey and giving yourself the power and strength to do that. These books were my stepping stones.
And so, this week, when I came across a copy of See The World in my local charity bookshop, I did a little double take. Suddenly, I was transported back to a small bookshop in Devon and me, browsing the shelves, seeking books as my cultural anchor in the world, looking for a way to orientate myself and to find out what my next step would be. I wonder if I’m now at the point where my foot is lifting, or perhaps I’m even mid-stride with my eyes looking towards the horizon and my foot just about to graze the earth. All I know is that I’m still taking that step that began so long ago.
Life, it takes time.
And when the realisation hits, that collection you started a lifetime ago, a collection that you didn’t even realise was a collection, can suddenly become something that you want to add to and grow. Because it’s not just a fixed point in time, it’s suddenly about then and it’s about now, and everything that’s happened in between.
But this is what collections do and when you become a book collector (by the way, you never know when, you just know that you are), you become a book collector for life. You’re in it for the long haul. And your collections are never fixed nor are they precise and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re collecting until that something reveals itself to you. Sometimes you take the quick road, and sometimes you take the slow.
And maybe, perhaps, it’s all the more perfect because of that.
I recently finished a substantial bit of writing (finished, I say, in that way that Substantial Drafts Are Never Finished Oh God Oh God) and I decided to celebrate by sleeping for three weeks and then reading Peggy’s Last Term by Ethel Talbot. I had picked it up from a local bookshop a while back, stealing out in the brief moment where I got my first vaccination and the lockdown had lifted, and I’d never got around to it since. This felt like a perfect time.
And it was.
Reader, I loved this book. It’s everything. It slides from absolutely ridiculous to really rather amazing, and in doing so demonstrates the absolute power and joy of the school story genre. Consider the facts: Peggy is being sent back to school for her last term. But! She! Has! A! Secret! She is being expelled! Naturally there is another girl who knows this secret of hers, but then there is GUIDES because GUIDES we like GUIDES THEY ARE GOOD GUIDES YES MORE GUIDES ALL OF THIS BOOK LOVES THE GUIDES.
Honestly, fabulous. For a moment I thought that the whole expulsion thing was going to be a red herring and that the authorities were using it to make Peggy Reform Into A Good Egg, but it wasn’t, and I was wrong, and then the ending just went to a PLACE. I mean, let me tell you: there’s echoes of the whole “be brave” speech from The Chalet School In Exile, the sudden arrival of The War, and then there’s the most hysterical last line in existence, and I LOVED IT.
Sometimes these books can be absolutely ridiculous (in the absolute best way) and then all of a sudden, they can tear your heart out. This is Talbot telling a whole generation of girls what to do in the middle of wartime and how guiding can help you out with that – and even though it’s loosely done and the writing’s not particularly great at parts and there’s a lot of GUIDES GUIDES WE LOVE GUIDES, there’s something about this book that absolutely works. How can it not when you get points like “you shouldn’t be scared of the sounds of the guns – you should be scared when you can’t hear them”? Amazing, amazing, I love it.
Publishing is so strange. Everything seems to take forever – there’s things you can’t talk about to people for aaaaaaages, and then all of a sudden, you’re writing a post telling everybody that your debut children’s book is out in precisely one month (July 1st for the UK; July 6th for the US). Strange, yes, but also utterly, endlessly, unbelievably glorious and I’m so thankful for every moment.
So! A couple of quick announcements to follow. First up is this: I will be talking with Susie Bower and Sarah Odedina at this Brave Girls And Boarding School Books event (June 16th). Sarah is my editor at Pushkin and lovely, and I’m really enjoying The Three Impossibles by Susie, so I’m looking forward to this a lot. Bonus points if you ask a question that gets me to reference The Chalet School In Exile.
And the final thing is this: I’m very conscious that pre-ordering / buying a book isn’t an option for everybody and so, if you’re in those circumstances, there is always your local library as an option. It might be that they can purchase a copy in for their stock and get you on the reservation list for it. And of course, this works for any book that you’re interested in – don’t be shy about talking to librarians about books! We love it immensely. Honestly, it’s one of the best parts of the gig.
I’ve talked before about the Adventures On Trains series before (reviewing The Highland Falcon Thief and Kidnap on the California Comet and loving them both intensely) and so, when Macmillan sent me a review copy of Murder On The Safari Star, I was incredibly excited. It’s a brilliant series. I have pretty much negative interest in trains (I mean, I just do not find them remotely interesting) and yet here I am, living and loving every inch of these books.
They ache with adventure and every single title is an utter delight, holding not only a very particular texture and characteristic of its own, but also being beautifully produced. A key part of that is Elisa Paganelli’s gorgeous artwork that’s allowed to spread throughout the book in a loose and rich style, filling pages with light and lovely detailed work. These illustrations never feel heavy. They talk back to the story and the story talk to them and it’s all rather gorgeous. Just a beautiful, beautiful package.
Murder on the Safari Star sees Hal and his Uncle Nat on board a train in Southern Africa, crossing from from Pretoria through Zimbabwe to the Victoria Falls on the edge of Zambia. There’s a distinct Murder On The Orient Express vibe which I rather loved. Leonard and Sedgman handle this so well, giving each character their own recognisable personality so you can keep track of everybody nicely. Paganelli’s illustrations also help immensely – I was particularly fond of a beautiful double page spread detailing the carriages and everybody’s location with them. It was also good to see a note from the authors referencing the impact of the British Empire and colonialism upon the continent and the importance of understanding how the railways often came at great human cost to the local populace.
I really love how well-crafted and thoughtful these books are. There’s such a lot here to latch onto – the adventure, the friendships, the trains (even if you’re like me – these books make them interesting!), or the sheer joy of a solid, bold, and brilliantly told adventure story.
My endless thanks to the publisher for a review copy. I love these books very much.
This is the story of one very challenging night in the lives of Myra and Rohan. Born within seconds of each other – and dying, too, before the doctors bring them back – they celebrate each other’s birthday/deathday each year together. The only problem is that it does not normally go very well. And this year, it’s gone particularly not very well. Rohan’s younger sister, Shilpa, has been stolen by the Fairy Queen who isn’t very keen on giving her up…
Otherland is the very best sort of chaos. A lot of stuff happens, but we navigate it tightly and with a lot of focus. There’s a quest, the quest must be done, order must be restored. That’s not to say that we can’t have some particularly fantastical moments along the way with some sharply funny moments. I had a lot of time for the sensible and slightly ‘What On Earth Is Happening Here Am I The Only One Who Can See This Honestly You Lot’ Rohan.
This is a lovely, pacey book (with some refreshingly frank humour) that won’t let you stop reading it without a fight.
There’s a point in the Jinny books where they step up into a whole new gear, and I rather suspect that it’s here. The Night Of The Red Horse picks up the themes that have been within the series and flips them all over and over again and sees what happens. It results in something that’s part pony story but part supernatural-timeslip-spooky-Other, and it’s all the more spectacular for it.
But let me step back a little and talk about the series as a whole. Jinny Manders is twelve years old, and due to circumstance, her family now lives in Finmory House in Scotland where the landscape comes to function as practically another character within the books. The first book in the series For Love of a Horse tells of how Shantih – a chestnut Arab – comes into Jinny’s life, and the two of them are inseparable from that book onwards. There are not many authors who get that desperate urge of the young girl for the universe to just help her out by giving her a horse, but Patricia Leitch gets it.
Night Of The Red Horse is the fourth book in the series and in it, Jinny is required to deal with something strange. A mural of a Red Horse in her room haunts her dreams, and she’s starting to experience things that she cannot understand in her everyday life. It looks like the archaeological dig over the moors may be connected – but how?
It sounds unusual, because it is. Leitch weaves in elements from Celtic legends and the Epona myth in particular. Jinny finds herself with one foot in the present and one in the past, and as she navigates the circumstances she finds herself in, Leitch does not skimp on the atomosphere of the moment. Seriously, there are parts of this that very much unnerved me as a younger reader and even now, I can feel their power.
(Also, upon rereading, certain of the spookier elements reminded me very much of Marianne Marianne Dreams and that might be an interesting reading to pair this with).
In many ways, this book is like a little capsule of everything that’s perfect about good children’s books. It gives you something strange, something beautiful, and something that makes your heart ache with longing, all of that, all at once.
The stories that we read as children stay with us. Sometimes practically: dishevelled, bruised, cracked-of spine; or sometimes more metaphorically as a memory, or a feeling we can’t describe or even fully realise. This is because literature is a continuum: everything we read talks to everything we’ve ever read before and to everything we’re yet to read.
Connections. Collisions. Creations. Children’s literature reads us and we read it, a moebius strip of reading that never ends and never begins and never pauses. That continuous twist of experience, of finding a story within ourselves and remaking it and telling it anew and retelling it.
A useful way to visualise this is think about dropping a pebble in a pond. The ripples it forms. The way that, even after the ripples stop, the memory of them remains. The way that everything is changed, everything is different – transformed. The stone is where it was not before: it has been transformed by the interaction with you. And you have been transformed by the interaction with it: you’ve felt the weight of it in your hand, and the memory of the movement of dropping it in the water remains.
One of my accidental lockdown projects – a slow catch up on the wonderful films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli – has had me thinking a lot about this sort of thing. Miyazaki has often spoken about his understanding of story and how they work. What’s really interesting to me is that he often speaks not only of story as a thing but also as a thing with a potent, particular charge.
“I do believe in the power of story. I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”
The notion of ‘charged’ stories is something that has become increasingly interesting to me. I often think that it’s not necessarily about the story itself but rather the forces held within that space. The act of writing – the material charged act of making words. Collisions. Creations. Connections. Marking. Making. Texts. Textures. Textuality. All similar, interwoven things and all of them possessing force and charge and change.
What does it mean to us as the reader to experience that?
Miyazaki’s also spoken about the influence of children’s literature – of story – on his work, and back in 2010 even went so far as to pick out fifty of his favourite children’s books for an exhibition in Tokyo. It features titles as varied as Flambards by KM Peyton, Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, through to A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
There’s some common themes here that intrigue me. The sharp, wistful edge of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. The everyday adventure of The Borrowers by Mary Norton and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. (Mary Norton’s due a bit of a resurgence isn’t she? I do rather love her and pick her out as being influential on How To Be Brave in this list).
(I’ve had this article bookmarked for a while on Japanese children’s literature and just starting to slowly read through. I’m increasingly convinced of the benefits of slow, thick reading and a piece like this really is worth taking the time over).
I’m always delighted to find people working with children’s literature – specifically classics – and not being precious with them. Canonisation can be an arbitrary thing, so often decided by the privileged and their particular, niche concerns. There’s something empowering and rather delightful about getting your hands dirty with something that’s been dubbed a classic and seeing how it works for you and indeed, if it will work for you. Some of them won’t and that’s to be expected. Some of them will, though, and that’s where the fun begins. Transform them. Remix them. Find the new way to tell that story and make it your own. And through that, make it speak once more.
Discovering that Studio Ghibli had adopted When Marnie Was There – based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson – was a pivotal moment for me. It’s a soft, quiet film and one that gets what it is to be a lonely child. Loneliness is hard to capture and it’s easy to deny the importance of it. How does one visually represent such an abstract thing? How does one adapt a story from medium into another and retain the integrity of it? It’s no easy thing to do, and yet this film manages it.
I also enjoyed Mary And The Witch’s Flower which was the first film from Studio Ponoc – an animation studio founded by Ghibli alum Yoshiaki Nishimura . It’s adapted from another classic of British children’s literature The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. And in the process of looking it up, I discovered that it was illustrated by Shirley “actual legend” Hughes so isn’t that lovely? Please join me in swooning….
Both The Little Broomstick and When Marnie Was There have a very peculiar strangeness about them (the sort of strangeness, incidentally, that one finds in Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr) and I’d really recommend hunting them out. It’s fascinating to see how they’ve been adapted and worked with – and how respectfully those adaptations have been done. The ripples of impact from that original reading of the book, that first encounter with the text – all of those moments of change and transformation and encounter traced with such care and love and understanding – until a film forms itself, and the story is told once more.
“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.”
I was trying to explain why Guantanamo Voices worked so potently for me to somebody and I think it centres on the inescapability of the image. If I were to say to you, for example, the word “cat”, it might mean a thousand things. A tabby, a grey, white, ginger; stood, walking, sleeping, whatever. Your idea of that word is yours and I can’t ever quite know what that is. We’ll have some commonality, sure (I’ll say “cat” and you’ll know I mean a “cat thing” as opposed to, say, a “hammer”) but your image of the word is yours and yours alone.
But when it comes to graphic novels, we have to see what’s there; the image becomes this dominant lens of interpretation; it is what we see and we both see the same thing and we can’t escape that. And that’s where Guantanamo Voices does something remarkable: it presents these awful, hideous, challenging, ‘don’t look away’ stories, and it makes you see them. It makes you not look away.
And there’s a lot here to not look away from. Guantanamo Voices is a collection of interviews with key players; the journalist, the prisoner, the social worker and more. Each interview is put together by a different artist, whilst Mirk’s experience as a visiting journalist functions as something of a bookend. There’s some savvy editing work at play here; the art throughout adopts a similar, cohesive palette, whilst the individual artist is still able to inject their own style and dynamism to the text.
An unflinching piece of work with some wise, transparent curation.
I’m increasingly conscious of the narrowness of history. Growing up in Britain in the nineties meant that our history was a very specific thing. You would have been forgiven for thinking that Britain had historically hopped from period to period; romans! tudors! victorians! the! modern! day! everything else in between just sort of happened! (Or, perhaps, that we had all stood still for a good hundred years until the Next Thing On The Curriculum had occurred). I think one of the reasons I’m so interested in historical girls fiction is that it covers the stories we don’t hear from, the stories that are told by voices that are marginal(ised) to begin with and thus become slowly and steadily erased from history. And yes, that bolding there is deliberate…
The Lost Café Schindler was mentioned to me by somebody on Twitter (thank you!!) and I was instantly intrigued, not just in that it promised to illuminate early -mid twentieth century Innsbruck – an area that features heavily in a beloved book series of mine – but also in how it had a café at the heart of it all. Food matters in history. It’s a point of connection. It’s a point of entry to a story because even if you don’t understand anything else about that story, you can understand what it means to eat something. What it means to feed your family. Or, in the case of the Lost Café Schindler, what it takes to make the original sachertorte...
The Lost Café Schindler is out in May. It’s moving, innovative, and endlessly fascinating. I even reactivated my long dead Netgalley account for it…
I was intensely grateful when somebody mentioned this book to me because it covers a lot of areas I’m interested in. I collect a series of books set around Innsbruck and during many of the periods that The Lost Café Schindler covers, and I also write books with a lot of cake and food references in them. The story of an Austrian café and the lives that had wrapped about it was all very much up my street – and indeed it was. There’s something rather moving and unusual here, and I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.
What also interested me here was the way in which this is written. Schindler hovers somewhere between family history and personal memoir, literary non-fiction and present day travel guide. It’s an intriguing, intoxicating mix of form and style and sometimes it hits rather deeply. There is a lot here to read and reread in the hope that you read it wrong first time round and then, when you realise that you haven’t, you read it again because you still can’t quite believe it’s true. Schindler’s research is meticulous and rich, giving as much of herself to the story as she does with the information that she founds out, and you can almost feel her reactions in the archives or the reading rooms as she comes across something new. It’s as much a journey into the present as it is into the past and that rather works for me.
My thanks to the publisher for access to the early copy via Netgalley.
I’ve had a lot of time for Kirsty Applebaum’s previous work, so when Nosy Crow sent me a proof of The Life And Time of Lonny Quicke, I was fascinated to see what she did with it. The premise is remarkable: what would happen if you could save a life with the touch of your hand -and what if it meant that you got older each time you did it?
I mean, what more of a hook do you need?
Lonny Quicke is a philosophical treatise on what it takes to love and lose and live. The people who can give life at the cost of their own are known as ‘lifelings’ and they can hear when something is about to die. The people of Farstoke hold a regular festival to celebrate these near-mythical individuals, praying that one will turn up for them when they most need it. And this year, for one family, one does…
Sometimes middle grade literature can pose the biggest questions with such grace, and this is one of those titles. Appelbaum writes with a almost avant-garde stylistic that I really loved. She lets the text do the work, embracing the potential of what the printed word can look like and how that can add to meaning. She lets it work and uses everything at her disposal to make it happen. It’s a perfect book to share with young readers and talk about what a book can do. I loved it. I’m here for those books that test the limits of form and shape, always.
Get this one on your pre-orders. There’s really nothing else out there like it.
Oh this is nice. Eland’s carving herself something of a delightful and rather elegant niche here, discussing complex and often challenging emotions with a lightness of touch and a beautifully wistful style. Having previously looked at sadness in When Sadness Is at Your Door, she’s now focusing on happiness and how it’s been with you, all along.
There’s a deeply philosophical edge here and I felt like this would pair well with something like The Yes, particularly in the hands of somebody skilled, for both books embrace the strangeness of knowing oneself. These are big and complicated emotions, even for adults, and here Eland delivers her message with an appealing, beautiful softness. Some of the sentences are complex, but there’s a sense of reward throughout. This is a book that wants to be read languidly, so go softly, go slowly, go gently into it.
The artwork is a treat as well. Rich and subtle; her use of saturation really appealed to me as well. How does one draw happiness? Here she plumps for something round and rich and solid, coloured in a vibrant, unusual peachy orangey pink. (A precise description, I know, but I’ll explain all in a second). It’s a colour note that continues throughout the book, sometimes thinner and fainter or fatter and thicker and brighter until the colour almost neons off the page. Neon isn’t a verb normally, but it is here. I loved the clarity of her vision, the way that she trusts the reader to piece the story together and figure out what’s happening and trust in that.
A beautiful, wise look at emotions and one to treasure. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
There are some stories that tell you what human experience is and what it will be. Myths. Legends. Folklore. I love them. They’re the DNA of the human experience and there’s always something fresh and thrilling to be found in the telling of them, whether it’s Vikings, or Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis (and his amazing legs). And now there’s How To Be A Hero to add to the list….
Some of the earliest stories I remember reading are myths and legends, and I rather love seeing them reinterpreted and remade for a new generation. All stories are remade in the telling of them (and indeed they should) but myths and legends always seem particularly fitting for such a thing. We reinvent them, we remake them (a quick shout out here to the remarkable Wyrd Museum trilogy by Robin Jarvis: The Woven Path) and in reshaping the exterior, we reinforce the heart of them. Does that make sense? It’s like the telling of it – the way we dress it up and present it to make it understood by our audience – makes that central point even clearer still. The story may be being told in 1820 or 2020, but Odin still hangs from the tree. Fire is still stolen from Olympus. Loki is still … Loki. And so these stories endure, survive.
And in How To Be A Hero these stories thrive. I realised it when we got to the door of Asgard which has the message “Frost Giants Keep Out” and, underneath it, “Loki smells of PoOo”.
I mean, perfect.
Weldon’s well into her stride at this point and things only get better from there. We get a rich and boldly told story which sees a Viking thief team up with a trainee Valkyrie and a very talkative cup. Their adventure takes in the nine worlds and more besides; Vikings who dislike travelling minstrels, a familiar trickster God, and a ‘not terribly happy at being disturbed’ dragon. It is the first of a trilogy so while there’s an ending, it’s not as definitive as it might be. Having said that, I found every inch of this a treat and loved it. It is such a distinctive, fun effort.
I always struggle with age recommendations but if you have a confident young reader who still likes the break of illustrations every now and then (Katie Kear’s work is lovely here!) then this will be perfect. I’d also recommend pairing it with some non-fiction if you can because Weldon picks up a lot of stories and ideas that a voracious reader would enjoy exploring further. There’s a lot here to enjoy.
I think that sometimes there are stories that you do not meet at the right time in your life, that somehow neither you nor it are right for each other at that moment, but that you will meet again at some other point and be ready for each other then. Being ready for that reunion is what excites me; it is not necessarily about liking them when you do meet again, nor them you, but it is about being ready for that moment and bringing all that has gone before to it.
Reading is a continuum; we are points within it, and everything that we are is influenced by everything that has gone before. The memory of a copy of Pride and Prejudice that I bought on the train from the fancy bookshop in London, before putting it aside for a Bernard Cornwall. The way that when I came back to Pride and Prejudice earlier this year and started to slowly read it for the first time, a part of me was still one-foot in the Napoleonic wars.
All of this is to say that, for a long time, I did not read the Brontës. A part of me felt like I did not need to read them for what else was there to say? They were so deeply embedded into the literary fabric of the world that there was no space for my reading of them. I did not feel like it mattered; new editions would be made, tv adaptations would happen, and my interest in them would be minimal for I felt like they were not interested in me. I wanted books that needed to be read, that ached with urgency to be read, and yet I wanted that feeling to be mine alone. Selfish, perhaps, and yet true: this is what I wanted. Then.
But times change. People change. We walk through the world and we find new stories, and they find us.
And this time, when I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I was ready for it. I could see the storm that lies inside this raw, brilliant book, and I could find myself within it. I saw the raw, ragged edge of Anne’s work ; the burning rage against the world, the endless, burning rage; the storming heart of hope; the tight, precise control of a story that’s almost too-full, too close to burning and breaking and crumbling away into nothing. The unrelenting edge of fear. The slow destruction of self. The bravery, found deep down within when there’s nothing else to give. The wild loneliness of marriage, of living in a house on top of a hill, of living in a world that’s taken everything from you.
Where does one begin with a book like this? It is the story of a relationship, a pebble cast into the water and everything the ripples touch from that point on. It starts, and then it starts over, and then it starts all over again, a thousand little thread all of them tying and twisting and tautening against each other until the inevitable happens and one of them snaps. It is nuanced, smart, and so – utterly – unrelentingly honest. The brilliance of it, the brilliance.
I am so very happy to share with you all the cover for the US edition of How To Be Brave. It’s been designed by Trisha Previte and illustrated by the amazing Flavia Sorrentino and every time I look at it, I see something different. I love it so much. I have been so lucky with my covers.
The girls will be arriving in America in November 2021, and I honestly cannot wait for that to happen. You can find out more about the book (and pre-order!) on Macmillan’s website.
(Don’t forget that if you’re in the UK, term starts on July 1st 2021 and you can pre-order here!).
There’s a fine line to be found in horror /thrillers when it comes to YA, and I think The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky handles it superbly. This is a book that’s not just about what happens – it’s interested in why. The psychology of it. How to manage it – how to master it. How to become lost in it…
I’ve had a fair few ‘meh’ books over the past few weeks; those books that are the ones that sort of don’t quite work for you, or leave you feeling a little ambivalent about them. And that’s fine – that happens. Sometimes books don’t work for readers, or it’s not the right time to meet them or find them, and sometimes you’ve just got to accept that this is how it is. And then I read The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky and I loved it. I’m always interested by books that try to do something different and find their own space in the world (there might only be seven stories to tell, but my goodness you can work how you tell it..) and The Last Girl does that in spades.
Let’s set the scene: a prestigious school, a club, and a new girl trying to find a place to start over. There’s complex, messy friendships; the dark spectre of privilege, pop-culture and a group of people devoted to exploring the scary side of the world. These takes the form of a club devoted to horror films and – no spoilers here. But it’s the sort of thing that feels like it might become something of a franchise and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of more to come here. The framing conceit really is very good.
Though I suspect I prefer the other title of ‘The Mary Shelley Club’ (which should give you some idea as to one of the references here), I thought this was excellent. Moldavsky is a pacey, stylish writer and I loved how fiery and honest her work is here. People are real here – this isn’t about smoothing the edges of people, it’s about exploring them. And with that comes interest; a novel that’s psychological, dark, and gripping. I loved it.
What is life, eh? How To Be Brave is now available for pre-order, adding on Goodreads, reading and reviewing via Netgalley, and generally swooning over. (Let us all guess which one I am doing the most of). Thanks so much to the amazing Thy Bui for the cover and the team at Pushkin for making HTBB look so beautiful. I’ve been so grateful at every step of this journey.
Let’s start the year off with a good, good picture book. I get a lot of emails from people asking me to review things here and there was something about this one that made me say yes. And oh, I’m so glad I did. Wild, beautiful, fiercely distinct artwork, and a story that’s full of poignant grace. Like I said, it’s a good, good book….
Vy’s Special Gift took my breath away. I was offered a copy of it to review by the author, and the outline intrigued me so I accepted. The book itself made me have a little moment because it’s very, very good. There’s something rather magical about Trinh’s simple, genuine story, and when it’s paired with the melancholic beauty of Shelvia’s artwork, it goes somewhere rather special indeed.
Based on a true story in Trinh’s homeland of Vietnam, it tells the story of a girl waiting in a line for free rice. As she waits in the long, long line, she expresses kindness and understanding to those about her – something that she’s rewarded for in the story’s conclusion. It’s set during the pandemic and so the vast majority of characters wear masks, personal protective equipment, and also practice social distancing.
The book wears its morals very lightly. Trinh never heads down the laborious route of ‘behaving like this is good!’ but rather lets her story speak for itself. Textually, it’s restrained and more powerful for that. Though there were maybe two or three words I’ve have deleted (I’m always one to push for less rather than more), I found the story an intensely elegant experience. There’s something very soft, honest and beautiful about it.
Shelvia’s artwork is frankly stunning at points, wedding the cultural touchstones of COVID-19 with a poetic use of line and colour. There’s a moment of crisis within the story for Vy, and Shelvia handles it with such beautiful, subtle restraint. I’m always impressed by artists who know when to hold back, and this moment in particular was perfect. I loved this. It was so beautiful, so poetic.
I’d suggest Vy’s Special Gift can be used in discussions about the pandemic, particularly for those who may be experiencing some nerves and social anxiety – the message of kindness, empathy and concern for others is a very relevant one for all ages. I’d also recommend it for people interested in picture book technique and style – I suspect there’s an essay or two begging to be written here.
You can see Vy’s Special Gift being read online here. Basically, I loved this. A lot.
I am (very) grateful to the author for a review copy.
Nine M of the F of the R = Nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring. (I did debate with myself whether this is a children’s book or not and turns out I very much think it is. However! I’m conscious that there’s debate on this topic so I’ll give you a bonus point for creative responses)
Hello! I have been thinking for a while that I wanted to start a new Christmas tradition on this blog, and this year felt like the perfect time to do precisely that. So! Here is the First Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz! (I am very excited). There are no prizes, other than glorious renown, but if you are looking for something distracting to do over the Christmas period, then this might be it. Bonus points for creative answers 🙂
Here’s how it works. There are a series of sentences with some missing words all you have to do is fill in the gaps. For example Q1: “A lot of H D’s at the S” = A Lot of Hot Doctors At The Sanatorium. To give a little bit of a clue, I have grouped the sentences under topics and any mistakes are my fault, apologies.
Answers will be posted New Year’s Eve…!
Round One: Boarding School Stories
A lot of H D’s at the S
Eleven M having breakfast at F
One L P telling stories in the A
One C S in E
One R M playing Tennis at T
Round Two: Mid-Twentieth Century Classics
One T listening to a clock striking T
Five F O solving crimes
One P R left behind
Two C (and one goose-boy) having adventures at W C
Four S and Two A not drowning like duffers
Round Three: Picture Books
One E causing havoc at the P
One M-M-M living in the nice white cottage with the thatched roof
One D being reunited with D
Twelve little G in T straight lines
One T having T with S
Round Four:A bit of everything
One H W (and one D W) solving mysteries
Six members of the A G dancing in their N pants
One K of the Cascade Brumbies
Nine M of the F of the R
One H K P the M, one Q S the G, one K E the J, one Q L the V – (or the four P siblings).
Okay. So you know we’re a fan ofShirley Hughes here at DYESTT Towers. There’s nobody out there who can quite do what she does and we are SO lucky to be able to read it.
(You can probably imagine my face when I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Dogger’s Christmas in the post).
But here’s the thing: I don’t review everything that’s sent to me, because not everything works for me. I do, however, review the stuff that makes me have a tiny cry and remember all that’s good. That’s Shirley Hughes in a nutshell. She writes such hope.
1. Having the fire on on a cold winter’s day. Snow falling down outside, steadily, softly. A darkening sky. Stillness. 2. Being under the blanket on the sofa, watching a classic movie. Something black and white. Toasty warm from top to toe. Heart, full. 3. Freshly buttered toast. Crumpets, perhaps. Golden, soft. Loveliness.
Every time I read it, I have the tiniest of moments. There’s something in Hughes’ style that gets me – that will always get me. She writes with such soft, gentle richness. Her artwork is full of life and heart (there’s nobody else who can capture ‘light’ quite like her) and every single line sort of sings with this sense of movement. These aren’t isolated snapshots of a distant life; these are moments full of purpose and drive. There’s a before and an after. There’s a story, even in the smallest of details.
A brief word on story. Dogger’s Christmas functions as a sequel to Dogger and I’m always concerned about sequels because they can work to exclude readers who haven’t read that which came before. We’re in safe hands here, however (were they ever anything else?) because Hughes hints towards the prior text whilst never, ever, forgetting her readers which may have come to this first. Such a gift, such the mark of somebody who is very, very good.
This is a year where Christmas may be different for a lot of people. My thoughts are with you if you’ve been impacted by the everything of the past few months and if you’re finding this time difficult. Books like Dogger’s Christmas take on an extra special, beautiful resonance at this point because they stand as this sort of timeless symbol of who we are. We love, we live, we lose things, we find ourselves; we bond over the pages of a beautiful, kind and gentle book. Buy this for your loved ones, buy it for yourself.
There are a lot of new things in Luna Rae’s life. New home, new school, new friends. It’s a lot to deal with and the one she thinks might help would be winning the school’s baking competition with her mum. The only problem is that Luna’s mum has disappeared…
Luna Rae Is Not Alone is something rather special indeed. You should be getting it on your radar now. This is such a gentle, wise and soft book full of advice and guidance for anybody going through complicated family situations. Luna is prone to ‘catastrophising’ – that is, to see the worst possible outcome in a scenario, and Webster handles her anxieties so beautifully and kindly. I loved it. It’s the sort of book where there’s a lot swimming underneath the surface and you just sort of feel it coming through, this sort of warm and gentle and soft honesty. It doesn’t solve everything, nor ‘fix things’ nor does it wrap up everything in a neat bow. It just sort of goes ‘look, this is life’ and presents it to readers with such utter, gentle kindness. Beautiful stuff.
I also enjoyed how Webster handled the adults in her book. I think you can tell a lot about a book in the way it treats the adults and this is perfectly handled stuff. Adults have flaws, same as everybody else, and they’re trying to make things work the best they can. Might not be the right way, might not be the best way, but they’re trying and they’re learning along with all of us. There’s depth and texture in this book, everywhere you look.
I’ve been wanting to read a lot more Ali Smith for a bit, and The Accidental felt like a perfect place to start. It’s easy, I think, to be a little bit intimidated by the authors and the books that win all of the awards because sometimes it canfeel like you’re missing something if you don’t like them. Your read can feel lesser somehow. But here’s the thing: it isn’t. Your reading is your own and no reading is more important than another. And even if you think you don’t get something, or don’t quite understand what it is you’ve got or are definite that you didn’t like it, then that’s totally fine. Let yourself recognise the value of participating in that story, of experiencing it. Because that’s what matters. Your reading.
It’s not often that I reach for the word ‘luminous’ to describe a book but then I read The Accidental and everything changed. This is luminous, this is airy, fiercely stylish writing, and it is full of a bright and unique beauty. I loved it, this story of the long hot summer where everything changes for the Smart family. A visitor arrives, her name is Amber, and she is here to make difference. Each member of the family will be changed by their interactions with her, and the way that Ali Smith capures them is so, so good.
Let’s dwell on that notion of something being luminous for a moment longer, because I always think it’s interesting to do that sort of thing. It’s easy to throw it into a book review because it feels like the sort of space that should have such words. Luminous. Shining. Giving off light. And yes, The Accidental is set within one of those bright, burnished summers that Britain can quite perfectly conjure when the fates allow, but it also captures the quality of that summer through its stylistics. Smith cartwheels through a multitude of character perspectives, shifting style and tone and voice depending on who’s talking and what they want us to know. Some sections come in sonnets that range from self-deprecating through to wry through to laugh out loud; others chapters render themselves as deliciously vivid teenage stream of conscious (some of the best, I think), whilst others just sort of kaleidoscope through reams of cinema and film references. Luminous. Every inch of it.
One of the things to mention as well is that it took me some time to read this, because there’s a lot of it to read. That seems a slightly ridiculous thing to say, but let me explain (it’ll make sense, I promise). A book like this is something of a web that connects not only to itself but things located in the wider world, both fictional and real. And so, for example, the pages and references to film connect not only to the film but also the story of that film, the moment of that film, the weight of it. A sentence, then, can include a thousand others. A word, a thousand worlds. The great joy of The Accidental is that you can pause from the book itself and slide through all those worlds (my joy, for example, over a reference to Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida in ‘Trapeze’!) before coming back to the story of The Accidental itself. (But maybe, now that I think about it, you don’t ever leave this story, and you’re just travelling the web and the weft of this luminous world).
(I said I’d make sense. I’m not sure I have in the slightest!)
Perhaps the trick to The Accidental is to take a joy in just experiencing it. There’s so much here to lose yourself in. So much light, so much style, so much, so much.
[There are not enough timeslip books in the world, and so when Nosy Crow sent me this to look at, I was thrilled. I love what Sally Nicholls does and any book with fancy shiny lettering is absolutely up my street (you can’t see it on this image but I promise you it’s there). So! Enough of me babbling, let’s get to the book. It’s LOVELY]
There’s something intensely appealing about what Sally Nicholls does in A Christmas In Time, and that is to tell a really good story. It’s something we ask a lot of people to do but not many people can deliver on. Telling a story is hard. Telling a story that has pace, roundness, accessibility, satisfaction, and some very delicious descriptions of food, is super hard. But Nicholls is good at it and this is such a solid, good treat.
A Christmas In Time sees Alex and Ruby head back into a Victorian Christmas to solve a historic family crisis. It’s part of a series of timeslip adventures but able to be read in its own right (always a good sign) and reads in an immensely accessible manner. In terms of timeslip books, it’s younger than perhaps something like the blessed Tom’s Midnight Garden and Charlotte Sometimes and so presents a really gorgeous opportunity for readers building their confidence and skill in tackling bigger books.
I really loved this. There’s very little here you can pick at because it’s just all so well done. Nicholls manages to drop some nicely handled commentary on gender attitudes, whilst also making the historic seem intensely present. It’s so very easy to see people ‘from history’ as part of that – cold, static and distant, but here they’re lively and lovely and really rather wonderful.
Hello! I have been putting together some lists of children’s books to buy which, I suspect if you’re reading this blog, might be up your street. One of the things to mention is that these are affiliate links which mean that I do get a referral fee but I’m not doing it for that. I really just want to share the cool and lovely books that exist in the world with you right now. There will always be time for that sort of thing here, I promise.
Also! Because we’re of a classics bent on this blog, these will be delightful and beautiful classic children’s books – perfect to start your library off or to begin to build a library for the little ones in your life. (Talking about libraries – take the list to your local library! Nothing better than stashing up your reservation list…!)
Once when I was very little, I got press-ganged (they called it ‘being part of the Brownies’ and ‘community action’ but honestly, press-ganged) into helping clean up the local station. Can you imagine the sight? A gang of four foot nothing children in brown outfits depressedly cleaning windows. Amazing. A hundred years ago, and I’m still not quite over it. However the point of this anecdote is to tell you that I imagine I would have found it a LOT more fun, if I could have read these books beforehand. The Adventures On Train series absolutely sing with train-based excitement….)
There’s a lot to love in Kidnap on the California Comet. It’s a richly adventurous sequel to The Highland Falcon Thief and I enjoyed every inch of it. This series is starting to have such a gorgeous texture; it reads like a little bit like Agatha Christie, a little bit like an older Famous Five (but with a damn sight more nuance and tact), and a little bit ‘let’s all just go on an adventure’ and I love it. It’s a really strong series and the quality of it is marked: these are excellent stories, well told, and I rather love that. Good books, done good.
So! It’s a sequel, yes, but Kidnap on the California Comet is infinitely accessible as a standalone novel which is – again – another mark in the authors favour. It’s really important to make every entrance point to a series as accessible and as readable as you can, otherwise you lock readers out and I am not here for a series that does that. Leonard and Sedgman use structure as their friend here – we go somewhere, something happens, we return – and I love their confidence with it. It’s a pattern that has worked for a long time in children’s lit and it works, especially when it’s in such good hands. The authors pull absolutely everyone they can along with them on the journey. No passengers left behind. Adventures for everyone!
A quick note of recognition as well for Elisa Paganelli’s delightfully vibrant illustrations. She has a quickness of line and a lightness of touch that really captures the moment. Her artwork is lived, immediate, real – it’s such an important part of these books. The whole package is just so good.
You know when you just finish reading a book and go ‘huh, so. what. just. happened?’. That’s The Most Popular Girl In The School in a nutshell. I read it and had to have this little moment where I flicked back through to check that I hadn’t imagined it all. But I hadn’t. Honestly, everything I’m about to tell you is true…
Bessie Marchant always surprises me. You can often predict what happens with many of the books of this type from the early twentieth century because there’s a pattern, lord love them. Here’s the pattern for a typical Angela Brazil, for example: somebody misplaces a will, somebody finds the will, everything’s okay, we’re all still posh. A generalisation, yes, but nobody loves a probate-themed plot quite like Angie. Bessie Marchant’s version of this is a revolution. Big, small, bloody, political, in the middle of it, or on the edges, she properly loves them. Of course this is just a big metaphor for the benefits of the British Empire, and even if you’re in Patagonia or Russia or somewhere that there’s never been any vestiges of British colonies, there will always be some Hot And Noble (potentially impoverished due to the foul deeds of others) English Chap to help out our heroines.
Delightfully, The Most Popular Girl In The School is right up there with the rest of her work. It’s not what I’d call particular readable (were I to be frank I’d call it a ‘right state’) but that sort of quality judgement is a bit sweeping on my part, because it totally denies the spectacular power of these books. The Most Popular Girl In The School seems to be a boarding school story but in fact, it’s a story about revolutionaries in Brazil. Trunks full of cartridges end up at the school! The sentence ‘To 50 cases of T.N.T sent as best Heather Honey, and carefully forwarded through usual channels’ actually exists!! Mary helps “unmask the secret of her father’s birth” which is 1920s children’s book speak for ‘don’t worry, she’s been a member of the upper class all along, that’s why she’s so great”!
Honestly, the hysteria, I die.
So, do I suggest you start your Bessie Marchant adventures with this? I do not. I don’t think it’s particularly ‘good’ nor is it ‘coherent’ nor is it, in fact, what you might call ‘linear’ or ‘particularly comprehensible’. However it does have a particular appeal in that, I think, it’s tied quite specifically to real world events. I came across Tenentism and the details of a 1922 revolt – which, bearing in mind that this was published in 1924, feels about right. Tell me again how children’s literature isn’t political. Go on. I’ll wait.
I review a lot of school stories on this blog. I even write them. They are, as you’ll be aware, my jam. But so far, my jam hasn’t really included Dorita Fairlie Bruce. She’s one of the ‘big five’ authors alongside Angela Brazil, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Elsie Oxenham and Enid Blyton. Sometimes it’s the ‘big four’ and Enid Blyton gets dropped – for reasons we shan’t get into here! – but I hope that my point’s clear: Dorita Fairlie Bruce (often abbreviated to DFB) is a big cheese. And – confession time – I didn’t think I liked her….
I didn’t think I enjoyed the Dimsie books. I have vague memories of reading one, many moons ago, and giving up within the first few chapters. Something about it simply didn’t click and so I placed Dorita Fairlie Bruce as an author who just wasn’t for me. I had no inclination to find any of her other books because that reading had left me so indifferent over them. That was then, however, in a pre-2020 environment where things like lockdowns and widespread shop closures didn’t leave me grasping at great handfuls of books on the shelves while I can. I bought Dimsie Among The Prefects just before the second lockdown in the United Kingdom, conscious that I’d need something to distract me and consoling myself with the fact that I could sell it on after.
Reader, I won’t be selling it.
I realised this somewhere about the rather spectacular first few pages which involve a chap scowling through his monocle (a+++ work DFB, keep it up) and then the even more spectacular chapters which follow. There’sa new girl prone to biting who promptly tests out her powers by chowing down on the beloved prefect (do not do this at home) who then resolves the issue by tying up the child. Amazing.
My interest piqued, my hysterical laughter working over-time, I had no choice but to read on. And there’s a lot here that’s rather worth the effort. I knew of many of the characteristics of DFB’s work here (the anti-soppists league and so on) but I’d never quite actually enjoyed it. And I did! This is great! Terribly eccentric and deeply ridiculous and then the ending throws in an absolute classic of the genre! I was so happy, honestly, this ticks all my boxes. It’s very rich, rounded, and very classic school story stuff.
I’m going to apologise in advance for this review of Girls In Green, but honestly – this book. It starts in a normal place and then BOOM we’re up a tree and BOOM there’s stitched up pillowcases and BOOM somebody’s about to cark it in the pond. What I’m trying to say is there’s a lot and it’s kind of crazy but also kind of utterly fascinating in the process….
I know absolutely nothing about Elisabeth Morley, nor did I know anything about Girls In Green. It was one of those books that I picked up out of interest, attracted as much by that delightfully Robin Hood-esque front cover as I was by the fact that it was published in 1949 and thus at a key point for children’s literature within the United Kingdom. This is the time of the century where the school story was, I think, starting to shift into something else, and so it can all be super interesting to see what happens and how people handle that.
So let me tell you this: Girls In Green is not without its faults, but it’s actually pretty fun. The principle is fairly straightforward: a new girl joins, makes a hash of things at first, before realising she is a True Chalet School Girl. Wait, no, she’s realising she’s a true Southfield High School but it’s the same thing. And what’s more her name is Stephanie Hunt-Smith so she has the same initials and honestly, wasn’t it always meant to be? Of course IMPEDIMENTA stands in the way (and no, I’m not referring to some unfortunately named middle) but Everything! Works! Out! For! The! Best!
(Ridiculous, yes, but I do love these books.)
It’s also rather fascinating how much this feels like a book of two halves; a tautological way to express it yes, yes, but the best way to describe it. Several of the incidents are right of the Chalet School or Malory Towers but some of them – I’m thinking in particular of the plate being smacked on somebody’s head with enough force to shatter it (!!!!) and the Headteacher’s magnificently careless “Yes you are a bit spoilt” to Stephanie (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) – hint towards the more realistic edge and social immediacy that children’s fiction was just about to embrace.
Morley’s prose is rather stylish at some points – there’s a delightful moment where she writes some siblings bickering that’s done so well, I had to do a little double take at it, and later she has some other rather splendid one-liners. I always think with writing you can tell when something steps up to be Noticeably Good, and there’s some really strong stuff here. I just don’t think it’s sustained throughout the book (the plot gets a little messy and things start to not make sense) but honestly, this is a lot of (slightly off its noodle) fun. I’d definitely recommend it as a later representative of the school story genre, and a marker of how much things were about to change for said genre.
What else do I need to tell you about this? Perhaps nothing other than the fact that the new girl is described as ‘a cross between Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth’ (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! x a million) which is an absolute FIRST for the genre.
[Can I tell you a secret? I only discovered in the last few years that Jean Estoril was a pseudonym for the legendary Mabel Esther Allan..and I’m still not quite over it. Fun fact: “Jean Estoril” is almost an anagram for “neorealist” and this has entertained me ever since…]
I first read the Drina series many moons ago and didn’t really think that much of them. Though I devoured titles by people like Noel Streatfeild and Lorna Hill, the Drina books always felt a little bit more pedestrian to me. They were pleasant pedestrian, if such a thing could be, but they were definitely pedestrian. Enjoyable to read, but when you were done, you were done.
Ballet For Drina, plus a handful of other titles from the series, recently surfaced in a nearby shop to me and I picked them up – partially to see if I still thought they were pedestrian, but also to simply read something pleasant. Something simple. If ever a year demands such books to have their time, it is this. And so Ballet for Drina, Drina Dances in Switzerland (you know you’re in a classic kid’s series when you get to Switzerland my friends), and Drina Goes on Tour made their way home with me.
And yes, Ballet For Drina still had that slightly pedestrian edge to it, but it also had something rather wonderful and that was the bones of a very classic ballet story. Girl discovers talent, works at it, deals with problems in her way, becomes good. It won’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but it does what it does in a real solid and rather satisfying fashion. I also found it pleasing that the difficulty of this path is emphasised: being a ballerina is not easy and requires sacrifice from all concerned. Yes, some of the moments are Slightly Ridiculous, but all good classic children’s lit has that mildly ridiculous edge. We allow it because we believe in the world, and the world of Drina – even though it’s full of balletomanes on every corner and she goes to dos wearing a little white dress with a scarlet capes (ugh, I love it) – is believable. It really is.
There’s a lot here to love; it has that Blytonian quality of being almost grimly readable and accessible, and I think the earlier books where Drina is young, could still provide a lot of appeal for contemporary young readers. And that’s because, in many ways, this is still a stone cold classic piece of children’s literature.
[This has been on my TBR pile for a while, and today I felt like it was the time. I sort of thought it might be brilliant – I rather like it when books tell me off for waiting to read them – but reader, it wasn’t.However, Chester House Wins Through does have the the first ever ‘japes involving white sauce’ episode I think I’ve ever seen in children’s literature. Honestly, I can’t quite decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing…]
I’m always fond of finding school story authors who are new to me; it’s a journey full of potential and hope and sometimes it works – as it did when I discovered Bessie Marchant. Now, I appreciate that Marchant isn’t technically a school story author, but rather a “LET’S GO EXPLORE THE EMPIRE GELS” kind of author but she does serve to make my point here and that’ll do for now. Sometimes picking books up randomly – especially when they look to be ‘your thing’ – can be incredibly productive. Sometimes, however, it isn’t.
And that brings us to Chester House Wins Through, a book strangely concerned with Talking About Things rather than Doing Things. There’s “hysterical” twins who make everybody laugh and marvel at their foolish ways (the amount of Suppressed Laughter in this book, my god, get a grip everyone). There’s a lot of girls talking meaningfully about things such as uniforms and hat badges and how this will bring honour upon the school, and there’s this Head Girl who Sagaciously Knows Things But Nobly Looks Away Whilst You Cry Old Thing, and it’s all sort of school story by the numbers without ever quite connecting. Nothing ever hits home (even the physical altercation between two of the juniors is resolved within a page) and so the overall effect is fleeting at best.
And yet there’s some interest here because books like this are indicative of the position that school stories had back in the day and how that position struggles to deal with things like “the sixties” and “liberation” even though the girls inside the book are in a post-war environment and refer to the war and to rations. Even that’s interesting because it suggests the key period for these books – they worked in the forties and they worked well. They just didn’t quite work well here.
Also, they work even less with subplots involving ‘somebody accidentally eating a whole dish of white sauce just to be polite’. I mean, you’d notice, right? You wouldn’t just eat a whole dish of white sauce to save somebody’s feelings? Would you? I mean, I don’t even know if you literally even could eat an entire dish of white sauce without having to stop and – you know – visit the bathroom with immediate effect.
Honestly, this book. I’m going to have to go and sit down to get over it all.
The first thing to recognise about The Monsters of Rookhaven is how beautiful it is. It’s a really rather perfectly put together book, which is always a good sign. It tells you that the publisher understands this book, that they know what they want from it, and that they know what the book can support. Packaging, artwork (Edward Bettison is playing a blinder here), even the choice of paper – it’s all thematic: it tells us about what’s to come. That suggestive lure on the shelf. That thing that catches your eye and makes you think ‘this one’s for me’. The Monsters of Rookhaven does that with such, such style.
And that style’s not just superficial, it goes all the way through this and helps deliver a read of curious and affecting power. I am not the sort of person who picks up this sort of book (I just – I’ve never really been a ‘let’s read about monsters and the gothic’ type of person) and so when the publishers sent it to me, I was doubtful. But then I was convinced, almost immediately, for Kenny’s prose is strong and confident and wildly imaginative. There’s elements here that remind me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, yes, but also early 90s children’s fantasy and in particular The Woven Path (the first of the remarkable Wyrd Museum trilogy from Robin Jarvis).
One of the strengths of The Monsters of Rookhaven is that it’s a book with intent: you have the hoary old cliches of the gothic solidly inverted and tested and broken through with such determination, buttressed all the way along with that vividly soaring artwork of Edward Bettison). I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something of a sequel on the way – or at least, something else set in that same world. I wouldn’t be able to let it go easily, I know that.
There’s a lot here that might scare particularly nervy readers (especially with the introduction of one particular character in the second half of the book), but Kenny asks us to look past that and see what and who people really are. It’s a potent message and one that’s done with a lot of style and purpose. Family is family; however, whoever, wherever and whatever you may find it. This is a stylish thing and one that has such a distinct air about it. It’s worth the time.
[Back when lockdown ended, and the world opened up again, one of my first visits was to a street in my town that’s full of charity shops. Each charity shop has its own character. One is very good for antique crockery (I’ll save my blog on cake-stands for another day), another is curiously obsessed with knitting, and another quite often turns out to have a whole stash of children’s classics tucked away in a corner. I’d grabbed a ton of the Tillerman books from there on a visit just before lockdown and then, when I went back several months later, driven by the weeks without books in lockdown (did we all read our TBR pile in the first week or was that just me?), A Solitary Blue was there to greet me. Reader, I bought it. And I loved it…]
When I tweeted about reading this book, I said that Cynthia Voigt was increasingly proving to be all that I want from a writer. I’d written about my fairly recent discovery of her work , a journey which had made me fall in love with her crisp and clean writing, so full of clarity and heart and texture at every inch, and I had realised that I would read more of her work. And so I did, for some things are inevitable and Voigt’s writing makes me ache with an absolute jealous and love for it is perfect. I don’t quite understand how she can find the emotional nuance of a moment and exploit it, so acutely, without you even noticing what she’s doing. It is magic, perfect stuff.
I’ve read much of the Tillerman saga out of order, picking them up from charity shops and libraries as and when circumstance allowed. I’m conscious that there is an order but I rather love this way of discovering her world, of discovering the echoes within it. A name pops up that’s familiar or a circumstance and suddenly the book becomes a panopticon and I’m stood in the middle of a moment seeing it from a thousand different angles. On a practical level, I’m dazzled by Voigt’s efficacy and memory, but on an emotional level, I’m in the scene and living every inch of it.
What’s particularly remarkable about A Solitary Blue is that it’s a story of becoming, told in a way that I don’t think many other stories are. Jeff’s mother leaves him when he is seven and a half years old. Melody leaves a shattered world behind her: a boy coming to terms with the trauma of her leaving and, as we soon learn, her husband engaged in very much a similar state of affairs. But that’s what Melody does, she leaves shards behind her and they cut. Jeff deals with this by withdrawing so far that he might be nothing more than a dot, until the world and his father and life and Dicey Tillerman start to pull him back.
Voigt has an eye for adolescence and for rendering the complexities of life with such a subtle, sure hand. There are great stretches of quiet here, punctuated only by the briefest and most telling of detail, and it’s beautiful. I read this after Sons from Afar and found some sharp commonalities between the two texts; though Sons From Afar is later, it still has that nuanced, soft, gentle understanding of life and the problems it can throw at you. Of young boys learning who and what they are and what they can be, even when the world works against them.
A Solitary Blue makes me envious and happy in almost equal measure, and this series reminds me how painterly writing can be. Every time I find one in a shop, it shines like gold.
[Hello! I’ve been reading some not great books recently – hence the great gap between the last review and this. You know the sort of thing I mean? The book that you read a couple of pages of and realise instantly that they’re not for you. That. A lot of them, suddenly, all at once like London buses. For a moment I was wondering if I was going to hate everything from now on but then along came Penelope Lively and everything changed. Thank heavens…]
I know Penelope Lively mainly from her remarkable children’s books (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is very indicative of her thoughtful, frank writing) and I’ve been meaning to read more of her adult work for a long while. Moon Tiger is an excellent place to begin, for as I was reading it I was thinking of how much I envied every inch of it. This is a wild, beautiful, and rather ferociously elegant book, and it is impressive. So very much.
Claudia Hampton is dying. She is of a certain type of lady, redoubtable, fabulous, vain, complex, unknown, and she has decided that it is time to tell her history. She has spent her lifetime writing and so it is a fitting thing to do now that she has so very little time left. And so she tells her story: she spirals from memory to memory, from perspective to perspective, seeing things from one person’s point of view and then another. A paragraph here, a paragraph there, and Penelope Lively giving us an absolute lesson in writing in the process.
Full of wicked, sharp humour, and desperate, utter longing, this is such a remarkable book. Everything is just there, almost mercilessly so, and rading it is rather like looking through a kaleidoscope and into the heart of somebody sitting opposite you. It’s spare, straightforward, and rather more devastating at points than you can imagine.
I envy books such as this, because they define the idea of craft. Every inch of this feels almost three-dimensional, as though it’s cut from marble or chipped away from stone. A block of something transformed into everything. Such skill, such craft.
Welcome to Your Period! is funny, frank and fearless and I loved every inch of it. Even though I’m roughly three thousand years old at this point (hello 2020!), it took me back to the sex education classes we all received at school. All of the girls were taken into a separate room (with our parents!!!) and told that lots of things would soon be happening to us, have fun with that, here’s a tampon.
I mean, what was life? If only I could time travel back to that room of increasingly baffled children and give them this. Welcome To Your Period! is like a paperback big sister – it covers everything you need to know. It really does cover everything: there’s information here on period poops through to how to manage your period while swimming. The information! The glorious, lovely, accessible information! And all of it madly, beautifully put together!
(I’m going to pause here to tell you and my librarian friends in particular, to stop reading this review and get a copy of this on order now. It is absolutely made for library shelves).
I also loved how this inclusive this book is. Jenny Latham’s illustrations are a delight with their fat, luscious use of colour and detail. She depicts people of all shapes and colour, people with body hair, people with period leaks on clothing (! the frank delight of this book!) and smiling period undies with a delightful, thick roundness. This is fine inclusivity, and I was so pleased to spot this attitude throughout the book. It refers to “people who menstruate” and has a very welcome trans-inclusive attitude throughout (with specific advice given to young people in this situation). So good. Well done.
I’m grateful to Little Tiger (who are publishing this in the UK) for the review copy. It’s a good, timely, important book and I’m pleased it’s coming here.
It recently hit me that there were still a few titles to do in my review of the Chalet School series and, that A Future Chalet School Girl is quite poor in every definition of the word, so where else to start but there? We all know this part of the series is not great, so any review of these books from this period need a star knocked off on principle. But then, there’s an argument for whacking a whole ton of stars onto this book and that argument is this:
There is not enough minibus content in children’s literature and I, for one, enjoy detailed descriptions of sitting arrangements. And seatbelts. And hammocks slung between the aisles for the babies to sleep in. And how many miles it does to the litre (hysterically sidestepped by EBD who just writes “the man told him” and moves on). I LOVE IT. I love it because it’s all so delightfully ridiculous. And the amount of drama that we get from it? Amazing.
The plot, for what it’s worth, is thin. We’re on holiday! A new girl randomly joins up with everybody for a couple of weeks and she has the most amazing connection to the Chalet School that you’ll never guess (you will guess, you will adore it, you will loathe it)! An old girl cameos (who, what? oh my gosh you’ll never guess where she lives!) and I am being mean here because it’s all so silly but utterly wonderful at the same time. I love it, immensely, even when a recovering invalid has soup followed a jam omelette and washes it all down with a glass of milk yellow with cream (none of that meal is a good thing, none of it). It’s adorable, but so, so dull all at the same time, which is quite the fascinating achievement in my book.
So, before we begin: I am no Alice scholar, nor am I particularly fond of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I enjoy it but it’s never been one of those books that has particularly resonated with me nor left any especially life-changing effects. It is what it is for me, and it does what it does for others, and that’s good enough for me.
I am, however, fond of those books that try to do something a little differently when it comes to theory about the totemic classics of the children’s literature scene, and even though The Red King’s Dream is both infuriating and slightly ridiculous, I am somewhat in love with it. It hinges on a simple premise, namely that the Alice books are embedded with a code whereby the characters within are caricatures of real-world individuals in Victorian England. Thus the Unicorn is Gladstone, the Gryphon John Ruskin, the White Knight Tennyson and so on.
It sounds a rather straightforward proposal but it’s not without its flaws and there are a lot here. The “could this mean this” moments were probably the main offenders. You can read anything into anything if you try hard enough to do so. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s there. (I’m conscious I’m being Quite Sweeping about semiotics and interpretation there, but forgive me, I’m soapboxing).
Anyway! I also struggled where words were revealed to be an anagram of somebody else’s name but with several letters missing, or when a word can be an anagram of something related to somebody else, and this didn’t make much sense until we figured out this! It’s like the Da-Vinci Code but with White Rabbits, and I know that much of it works but again: it is possible to make anything work if you work hard enough to make it happen.
(I also had a few difficulties with “we found this mysterious item in this mysteriously catalogued and ordered collection of books could it be that we were the first to find it” attitude – last time I checked, libraries don’t magic themselves out of nowhere nor do catalogues nor shelving systems. Librarians!)
However – and here’s the counter-argument – I enjoyed this a lot and I think there’s a lot here for other readers to discover, but I don’t think it’s quite what the authors intended. This isn’t a book about Alice but rather a book about books themselves – what they make us do, what they set on fire inside of us, and the passions they unlock and the doors they open. It reminded me a lot of How The Heather Looks : A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books. Both texts have this strange appeal about them; they are thin and they are flawed, but they are also kind of fiercely wonderful in how much they love their chosen texts and aren’t remotely ashamed about that.
Sometimes the most interesting books that are out there tell quite a different story than the one they intend.
It’s always a good sign when a book looks as stunning as The Black Flamingo does. This is a treat of design, all the way from that luscious front cover full of colour and style and power through to the pages themselves which play around with ink, typography and illustration. This is a book that sings with time and effort and care, and all of that is before you’ve even got to the first page. Like I said, always a good sign and Anishka Khullar (the illustrator) needs recognising for their vital, wonderful work here. It’s beautiful stuff.
And all of that care and craft pays off because The Black Flamingo is excellent. It’s a wild, rich verse novel that details the birth of The Black Flamingo, Micheal’s drag persona. The Black Flamingo is powerful, bold, and brave – and full of all of the stories and experiences that Micheal’s had to get to that point. Atta’s writing is sensitive, subtle and fearless; a fine balancing act that manages to craft something utterly beautiful in the process. Micheal’s part Greek-Cypriot, part Jamaican. He’s a thousand different things to a thousand different people. He’s viewed through the filter of his gender, his racial identity, his sexuality, his hair, his choices, the colour of his skin and so very rarely understood for who he is. But this is a book about seizing that moment of being who you are and owning it. Fearlessly, unapologetically, remarkably.
One of the rather beautiful moments in this comes when The Black Flamingo, in her act, recognises those who have paved the way for her. She pays tribute to a whole world of writers, performers, and personalities who have explored blackness, queerness and otherness. And in doing so, in placing that so very carefully within the climactic moment of this story, the reader is told that they are not alone. You are part of a continuum of voices, of people being who. they. are. Such an important thing, so excellently done and oh so beautifully handled.
I had such a lot of time for Atta’s work here. You can really feel Micheal start to find himself as the book develops; lines become firmer, words become steadier, and the absolute heart that beats in every inch of this becomes more and more wonderful. It’s difficult to define what empowering literature is and sometimes I think we throw the word out in the hope that it will stick because we don’t know quite else to do with it. But I think this is empowering stuff because every inch of it is full of heart and power and joy. Atta has this great gift of making Micheal both wise and naive, old and young, brave and terrified.
It’s all there and you feel every inch of it. There’s not an inch of this book that you don’t feel.
I never wanted to perform myself. Still don’t. The amount of interest I have in getting up on the stage can be measured in one hand. Musical theatre wasn’t – isn’t – for me. But watching it? I can’t imagine anything better. There’s something so intoxicating about watching people sing and dance their way across the screen to me, whether that’s the impromptu neighbourhood getting down to Shake Your Tail Feather (the dancer at 1:44 gives me life every time), or the iconic finale to Dirty Dancing*, where Baby realises that she can be whatever she wants to be (and the dancer at 3:31, I adore her so much), or the great legend that is Gene Kelly simply being his perfect self (I adore how the kids are actually cracking up all the way through the clip here). In fact, I’m going to pause for a moment there and let you watch the clips in question.
It’s difficult to define what makes these moments work so perfectly, for not everything in the world of musical theatre does. I could insert the whole of Showboat as evidence here, but I’m going to refrain. My point is that it’s difficult to capture perfection. Fred Astaire worked at it, so did Gene. Tales of their perfection are immense. Here’s a clip that took seventy-three takes to get right (!). Look at how Frank watches Gene all the way through it, just a brief – almost imperceptible – second behind him. They’re both amazing here, but Gene is – as ever – transcendent. His athletic, powerful dancing style is intoxicating:
We sing and dance in musicals because there’s no other way to express the feelings that we feel. It requires something more than what we have and so we rise to the occasion, singing and dancing and putting something magical together in order to wholly capture that moment. And it’s difficult to know what makes that moment work. I can snooze through a vast amount of Oklahoma (it’s a beautiful morning, we knooow), but I can’t take my eyes off Seven Brides For Seven Brothers** when it’s on.
When Glee first broadcast in 2009, I devoured it. I remember telling my friend at work about how perfect it was, about the sheer audacity of this show. It was sharp, sarcastic, and then – suddenly – iconic. Here’s Rehab by Amy Winehouse, as performed by the rival Glee club. (Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what a glee club was but I knew it was perfect when I saw this).
Glee fell off the rails fairly swiftly from that promising beginning, but two people in particular kept me watching. Amber Riley*** and Naya Rivera. And just over a week ago, Naya Rivera died.
I have been revisiting Naya’s performances in Glee ever since, emotional over many of them as I remembered and rediscovered the vibrant power and fierce eloquence of this remarkable performer. It is hard to know what makes somebody work on camera, but Naya’s performances worked every time in a way that I could barely understand:
It was when I reached the following clip in my rewatch that some thoughts (and indeed this post) began to crystallise themselves. A moment of context: Santana – Naya’s character – is gay. She has been recently outed to the school.
It’s the little moment at 0.56 that breaks me. “Don’t forget me, I beg.” The way she stands. The way she sings. The way she holds everything, all of it, so very precisely within herself. The way that even though she holds it, we know it’s there. Sadness. Heartache. Power. Don’t forget me, I beg. Remember me. Be aware of who I am.
And as I rewatched that moment, once, twice, a hundred times more, I realised how much that’s influenced me. I want to write stories full of girls who are remembered, who make themselves be remembered because they’re so wonderful that they can’t be forgotten.
There’s a quote from Firefly that is relevant here.
“When you can’t walk, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”
When we can’t express feelings, we look to the world about us to make that happen. To help us communicate. We paint, we sing, we read, we dance. We look to find the expression of ourselves within things, we look for mirrors and reflections, for modes that express thefeelings that can’t be expressed any other way. And those things that we find, they help us. They let us live.
That’s what all of these moments do. When we’re watching Gene Kelly, we’re not really watching him. We’re watching a man explore the infinite potential of his self, we’re watching emotions made whole. The same with Patrick Swayze and the way he could suddenly shift from vulnerable to raw, fierce confidence with only a slight change of bearing. When you can’t talk, you sing and you dance and you tell the truth of yourself in doing so.
Naya Rivera was a remarkable performer, and her vivid vulnerability astounds me, even now. She carried us. She gave her truth.
*Technically I know Dirty Dancing isn’t a piece of musical theatre in this incarnation, but I’m having it because of the later adaptation and because this is iconic stuff for girls of a certain generation. Plus that bit where Baby’s mum goes “I think she gets it from me” makes it worthy of inclusion in all lists, ever.
** Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the most perfect and most offensive musical ever. There’s a whole separate article in that musical (and it would begin with a fifteen thousand panegyric to that incredible Barn Raising scene).
***Treat yourself if you haven’t, and watch Amber Riley here. She is a force of absolute nature:
I think I’m in love with Graham Greene now and I’m not sure how to feel about that. In many senses, I’d written him off as somebody who wrote about things that I wasn’t interested in. A sweeping statement I know, but that’s what we do and honesty in such things is important. I only came to realise very recently, driven entirely by this volume, that short stories by Greene are a revelation to me and this is a cornucopia of delights. Witty, smart, provocative and fiercely distinct, this is a lovely, lovely collection.
And here’s the thing: I only picked this up because of a film, which in turn I only watched because I caught somebody tweeting about it. The serendipity of reading intrigues me, the way you can tumble into a text because of another, because of circumstance and the things you catch in the day. In many senses, I rather love that – that dynamic sense of movement and finding things anew (and in the state of literary fiction, finding them and understanding them in a way that is not dictated to you by others). The film was Went the Day Well? and it is a remarkable, brilliant thing. (The reason the tweet about it caught my eye was that I love 1940s / 1950s films and the tweet mentioned the remarkable sight of Thora Hird wielding a machine gun which really did just sell the entire thing to me).
Went the Day Well? was based on The Lieutenant Died Last, a story of twenty four pages (!), and one of the highlights of this volume for me. I also absolutely loved The Last Word (the way it grew! the power of it!) and The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower is so, so brilliant. There’s some moments of utter wonder here. As with every short story collection, there’s one or two that really didn’t work for me and I found Murder For The Wrong Reason and Work Not In Progress pretty skippable, but The Last Word, The Lieutenant Died Last, and The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower are absolutely, utterly, brilliant.
A final note on Graham Greene, as I’m still trying to figure out how I can cope with absolutely loving his work after It Being Not For Me for so long. A member of staff at my undergrad university had the same name and on a day when we were giving tours to prospective student, a parent asked about staff. One of the other student guides mentioned Graham. The parents: THE GRAHAM GREENE?????????????????????. The guide, blissful, conscious of there being only member of staff with that name: er yes?
I reread The School by The River for a lecture I attended online this week, one concerned with the role of memory and how the act of reading is in itself situated across our lives. What does it mean to remember a book that you read as a child? What does it mean to reread it now? Fascinating stuff and one that drove me to the work of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, an author whom I have read for a long time, and to The School By The River. Interestingly enough, the last time I read this book was for an essay for the speaker of this week’s lecture, and I didn’t realise the connection until I sat down to listen.
I remember the first time I found The School By The River. I was a member of a fan journal at the time, and I remember receiving the little order supplement with the journal as it came through the post. A bright colour too, I think, perhaps blue or red. I went through a flurry of ordering ‘additional’ titles by EBD at that time, though it rapidly wore off. I couldn’t keep up with the amount of reprints and fill-ins that were published, and so I think I maybe bought this, Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer and Visitors for the Chalet School around the same sort of time and that was about it. Collecting was a long term project, and I was in it for the duration. Besides, my pocket money didn’t stretch to it.
The School By The River was a good book to pick. It was lost for many years, the circumstances of a small initial print run plus air-raid damage to the printers during WW2, and it’s a standalone. Brent-Dyer was terribly fond of series (even though she approached issues like consistency and detail with an airy – and rather delightful – irreverence) and her standalone titles are, for me, not the best of her work. They sort of act as a sampler to the others – this is what you’ll get, and it’s quite likely I’ll recycle the names as well and half the plots elsewhere.
Some of The School By The River does suffer from such a tendency towards being already seen elsewhere, but then Brent-Dyer throws in a revolution halfway through and things go full crazytown and I love it. I can’t tell you how much I adore her talking about things like Bolshevism and Student Revolution because they’re clearly such alien concepts to her. (Redheads at the Chalet School I’m looking at you). And so we get some rather wonderfully ambitious writing here with talk of politics, Bolsheviki agents, revolution and uprising, and it’s all utterly off its noodle in a way that only Brent-Dyer can do. Singing in the cellars! Gunshots! Stale bread with honey whilst the proletariat swim through floods! I have never known an author so keenly devoted to hybridising ridiculous and wonderful in her work as this one.
Plot. I suppose we should talk plot briefly, because that’s what we do in such things like this. Jennifer’s talented with the piano, weirdly pretty if you do her hair right, very British, destined for great things and also an orphan (naturellement). She’s got chums, gets a bit wound up when there’s a storm on, there’s also a bad girl who turns good, some terribly overwrought social drama, and a magnificent ruritanian Kingdom where everybody goes about by horse and carriage and wears national dress 24/7. Honestly, what is life when you have a book as delightful as this?
It was only when I finished The Year Of The Runaways that I managed to figure out what wasn’t working for me. There’s a lot here that does; it was nominated for the Booker in 2015 and rightly so, it’s a big story of social realism,almost incomprehensible in scope and vision, attempting to tell the story of several youthful Indians who leave their homes and attempt to start over in the United Kingdom. It is hard, brutal and unforgiving, and this book shines a spotlight on the people at the heart of that. It made me think a lot about the Great American Dream and “The Great British Dream”, the shape of it and the truth of it. This isn’t a story that provides answers to that, instead it attempts to understand the grim and horrific edge of it. Life isn’t easy for our protagonists. It is psychologically, emotionally, bodily taxing. It takes from them as much as it gives. And sometimes what it gives is so very little.
Like I said, there’s a lot here that works. Sahota is a powerful and competent storyteller, though I wish he’d found a little more solidity at points. There were several key moments I missed because I just didn’t pick them up and ended up rereading, and those moments felt often intensely fragmentary and brief – when in fact, they proved definitive for the characters in question. I found a lot of interest in his story about the female protagonist – Narinder – and rather ached for more on her. Sahota is good and strong and this is a great book. It brings humanity into politics and asks us to see beyond the stories we are told. To the truth of them, however awful or wonderful it may be.
But it’s those fragmentary moments in the text that bothered me, those bits where the story shied away a little from delivering on the promise or the situations that it presented. It was as if it didn’t quite have the time to spare for them when, in some senses, dwelling on them was precisely what needed to be happen. There’s a balance to be found of course, in every story, and sometimes the pace or the scope can pull away from the moment at hand. When we go big, it’s so very easy to neglect the tiny precise moments. The small, brief stuff. And yet, when we go big as storytellers, when we write a story that is as immense and as scopey as this, it’s the tiny stuff that matters.
My journey into Latvian literature continues, thanks to my friends at Latvian Literature who hooked me up with a review copy of The Cage by Alberts Bels. As problematic as it is to classify a nations output on the very few titles I’ve read (here’s my review of In The Shadow Of Death), I’m very much in love with the introspective philosophical edge that I keep finding. These are books that think very much about what they are, and what they want to say – there’s a care in every word, and The Cage is a perfect example of such. I loved it. There’s so much here to think about, to hold, to consider.
The Cage is a mystery novel set in Riga, and concerns itself with the disappearance of a local architect. And yet, as with many novels that can be summed up in such a way, it’s about everything other than that. It’s about the people in the story, their lives and loves and intersections. It’s about a society that’s tightly woven to prevent this sort of Unusual Thing happening – there’s some very deep and pointed political commentary here which gains extra resonance when you learn that The Cage was first published in 1972, during the time when Latvia was under Soviet rule. And it’s about the cages that all of these people – and us, ourselves – live in. Real, metaphorical or otherwise.
I liked this a lot. There’s some big philosphical questions here but it wears them lightly, and you’re able to savour it at a whole range of levels. If you want to figure things out you can, but if you don’t – if you just want a superbly crafted and rather fascinatingly told mystery – then you can have it. It’s the sort of book that lets you come back to it (I’m on my second reading at the moment, fascinated by the twisting edges of it – the way it dances and slides always a little bit ahead of me) and I think there will be a third. The Cage is the sort of book that can give you that. It’s very worth hunting out.