Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cogheart is a punky, sparky adventure with hints of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and I enjoyed it very much. Lily and her friends have to figure out what’s happened to her father. Along the way, she’s helped by a cast of mechanicals – automatons that need winding up in order to work – and her friends, Robert, a local clockmaker’s on, and her father’s mechanical fox Malkin. The band is slowly assembled as things go from bad to worse for Lily and then things wind up (pun unitentional!) to a great and spectacular finale.

What’s impressive here is how confident Bunzl is in his world. Every part of it feels very solidly worked out and real and it’s very easy to race through this book and just embrace the adventure. I had a lot of time for the detail of it – the mechanicals speak in a particular language, and there’s a lot of lovely stuff about airships and clockmakers and a world that’s just different enough to spark interest in every step. I liked this. It’s a very genuine thing.

I also think it’s important to note that this book was recommended to me by my Book Penpals school which is most definitely another mark in its favour. Thanks Penpals! You have excellent taste!

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Game on, Super Rabbit Boy! by Thomas Flintham

Game On, Super Rabbit Boy! by Thomas Flintham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. It’s the first of a series of highly illustrated early readers which centre on the playing of a computer game. We follow the lead character – Super Rabbit Boy – as he heads through the levels. Things do not go straight forwardly and Sunny, the person playing the game, needs to find the solution in order to progress onto the next level. If you’re familiar with gaming, then you know how it is. We finish with the baddie being dispatched, a final party for the good guys, and a little page full of reading comprehension questions.

I’m always really interested in the books that try to do something a little bit differently. Whether that’s in subject or in style, I’m here for people who are working things through and trying to carve their own little bookish path within the world. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book like this for this age group and, thinking about some conversations I’ve had recently, I’m also really pleased to see it approaching gaming so positively and genuinely. I’m not here for a ‘them and us’ scenario where the book is one thing and the game is the Evil Other. I think wherever and whenever a young reader finds a text, we should be there to meet them. (So, to sum, I like it. It’s doing good things. Good job).

I suspect that there will be something very productive here as well for readers who are feeling a little bit detached or disengaged with their reading. A genuine, charming book – and what promises to be a very lovely series.

My thanks to Nosy Crow for a review copy.

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Jill and the Perfect Pony by Ruby Ferguson

Jill and the Perfect Pony by Ruby Ferguson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jill series is responsible for many things in my childhood, not in the least the solid belief that ponies should just sort of be given to Earnestly Deserving People like myself. They were everywhere in the countryside. Every family had at least seven. Jill herself had two! And it was all so simple and straightforward! If she needed a new bridle, she got one. If she needed a new saddle, it all worked well in the end. At some point a pony would graze in an orchard. There’d be an orchard in the first place. Oh, the envy, it was real.

Jill and the Perfect Pony is delightful (but also insane in that delicious way that all pony book plots are from this sort of period). The plot is that Amanda has the perfect pony but can’t be doing with staying a week with another family to ride in a team gymkhana. So Jill goes instead. Her mum is all COOL BEANS THEY’RE FRIENDS OF SOME FRIENDS WHATEVS. Her guardian is all COOL BEANS I WAS JUST A PLOT DEVICE ANYWAY. And so Jill goes off to stay with these people she’s never met and pretends to be Amanda. Or Jillamanda because she immediately tells them to call her Jill instead of Amanda. (Covert skills, not our girl’s strength). Anyway, highjinks! enormous teas! gallopy gallopy jumpy jumpy! potential concussion just a tiny one but everything alright by show day!

god, I love it, send me three and four pence, I’m going to buy some soap flakes to wash my pony’s tail.

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My Life On Fire by Cath Howe

My Life on Fire by Cath Howe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am always interested in what Nosy Crow do and even more so when it involves an author that I have a lot of time for. My Life On Fire by the sensitive and gentle writer Cath Howe is due out at the start of April and deals with a young girl in the middle of a crisis. Ren’s home has burnt down and while her family is finding its way back from this seismic event, she finds herself starting to replace her lost possessions with those of others. I’ve not often seen books dealing with these issues for this age range (Howe writes very accessible, very open literature) and I’m very grateful to My Life On Fire for that.

Howe’s writing is very gentle, very open, and it’s very genuine. Ren’s behaviours start to come to light during a school project and we see both the impact of this upon herself but also her classmates. A few moments here were genuinely very moving and I think Howe handles them well. She lets you see why Ren is doing what she’s doing and that it’s not necessarily something that makes her happy – this is in direct response to the trauma she’s undergoing. (Also a gentle plea, dear publishing, for more illustrations in middle grade fiction – I think they’d do nothing but lovely things here).

There’s a lot to appreciate here. Howe gives you so much in a very light and subtle way and deals with a complicated topic without assigning blame or sides. I was particularly appreciative of how she wrote the ‘discovery’ moment and the slow friendship between Ren and another character is delightful. It’s just a very charming and solid and very genuine read from the first page to the last.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson

Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen by Rebecca May Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t sure for a while about Small Fires but then, all of a sudden, I realised that I got it. I was not looking for the next chapter end, but rather reading because I was lost to it, I was hungry.

I wanted to see where this fierce collection of essays (texts? poems? gatherings?) about food and kitchens and about cooking might go next; I wanted to see whether we’d have more of those strangely wonderful segues into discussions about The Odyssey; and because I wanted to have more of the ‘recipe’ being read as poem, as love letter, as something profoundly human.

I was into it. I got it. I wanted more of it. I checked the page number (66) because it always interests me when you get a book. When. How. Where. What happens on the page? Why is there and not elsewhere? I couldn’t pinpoint it for Small Fires (I never can) but I knew that it had something to do with the eccentric joys of this book, the uncontrollability of it, the way that it draws on Judith Butler through to Roland Barthes, the way that it talks about semiotics and tomatoes, dancing and anchovies, love and sandwiches.

I think if you understand this as a collection, something more akin to poetic non-fiction and the text as performance, a group of tiny fiery essays, crafted so smart and carefully, then you’ll not be far wrong. It is sprawling and provocative and sensual and so unique (oh, how I am increasingly beguiled by the books that tread their own path).

*nb: no relation, purchased copy

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Never Forget You by Jamila Gavin

Never Forget You by Jamila Gavin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always had a lot of time for Jamila Gavin. Her writing is always very classy stuff and I admire it intently. She has this skill of restraint and clarity that makes you understand something, whatever that something is, very deeply before you quite realise what she’s done. I will always want to read her work because I think she’s one of the best authors that we have right now, quietly carving out this big and classic stories that feel like they’ve always been waiting for somebody like her to tell them.

Never Forget You is the story of four young women and how their lives are impacted by World War Two. The first thing to note is that it sits a little older than I expected it to sit, based on my first impressions, and so I’d encourage you to read it prior to using it in a classroom or educational context. If your readers are comfortable with things like Back Home, Code Name Verityor Tamar then they’ll be in the right area for this. It is also worthwhile noting that there’s nothing here that isn’t handled with grace and delicacy. Gavin’s with the reader every step of the way.

In terms of style, Never Forget You shifts between four different characters in very different circumstances. We begin with everybody at boarding school before the shattering effects of the war push people into new worlds, new lives. As is the nature of books like this, certain things will happen ‘off-screen’, so to speak, and that can feel difficult some times to swallow. Yet that’s kind of the whole point of it: the style tells you as much as the plot does itself. The sun rose, the sun set, people lived, people died, and the war whirled on.

(I’m thinking a lot about style as storytelling at the moment due to having recently read Tender Is the Night – the way that almost ‘collapsed’ at the end, the lack of interest it showed in anything but the lead, told you everything about his state of mind at that point…)

I loved, very much, how Gavin envelopes you in the wholeness of the story she has to tell. I love it when she lets go – there are some really interesting choices made here. She slips tenses, she uses extracts from The Song of The Stormy Petrel alongside wartime diaries, and she does it all very deliberately to make you feel the totality of this story, the immensity of this. This book really is the work of a storyteller.

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The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had been wanting to reread the Borrowers for a while and then, all of a sudden, started to find it in every bookshop I went into. This happens sometimes. Bookshops, particularly those of the second hand kind that I tend to frequent, go through trends. A while ago it was The Da Vinci Code and then it was Twilight and then it was Fifty Shades of Grey and sometimes, it would be all three at once and a slightly stunned looking volunteer trying to figure out what to do with them. In this case, it was the Borrowers (the Complete Borrowers, to be precise) and I was very happy to take it all as a sign.

If you are not familiar with these stories then a brief precis: the Borrowers is a series written by Mary Norton (1903 – 1992) and features tiny people who ‘borrow’ from the humans and the houses that they live in. The first in the series was published in 1952 and the last in 1982. There was a further short story (novelette? novella?) – Poor Stainless – which was published in 1966 and set just prior to the adventures of the first book: The Borrowers. Norton should also be known for The Magic Bed-Knob: Or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons which was destined to be adapted by Disney into Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

I had remembered something rich in the Borrowers, something that I had loved very much at the time that I had read them, but I also knew that I remembered very little about the content. This did not bother me so much because I tend to remember textures and feelings about the things I read. The way something felt to read. The way that my heart still has a place for it, even now, hundreds of years after actually reading it. Upon my return to the Borrowers, I was struck by how these feelings remained, for the most, unchanged. These are stories with such endless warmth to them. They are so British, so fiercely of their time and place, and at one point the entire story hinges on model villages. I mean, what is not to love about that perfect perfect set of circumstances?

What I was struck by, however, was the sense of peril that underpins this book. Norton creates a world that’s so convincing and so real that you feel the constant danger that the Borrowers must wrestle with. It is remarkable. And it’s not just the truth of this world that gets you involved, it’s the way that Norton does it. She is classy and subtle and trusts that the reader both can and will follow her. She believes that you will believe and is full of such confidence in this, that you can’t help but believe her.

I think about that idea of ‘trusting a reader’ a lot, about how to balance what I give the reader on a page versus what I ask them to find out or fill in the gaps by themselves. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong, but I’m always trying to work out that dance between what you need to know, right now, and what you can’t live with out and what you can bring to this story yourself. The shades of grey, perhaps, between writer and reader. The twilight at the edge of the page. I want to know what happens there and I want the reader to be part of that. For Norton, for the Borrowers, this twilight is full of constant flux. Things change. The safe becomes the dangerous. The lost becomes the found. And she trusts you to understand that, to realise that there can be threat and danger in a footstep, that the sound of somebody answering the phone could be the most terrifying on earth, and that a cat might be the stuff of nightmares. She does not hold back and the books are stronger for it. Everything in these books are strong. Character, plot, tension, everything.

I devoured all of these stories with joy, rolling from one into the other with a sort of delirious joy. When you read somebody who’s good, you want to keep reading. I loved it entirely. I could not get over how well done it is and for how long Norton did this for.

(It’s also important to note that there are maybe a handful of references that have dated poorly but that’s always something to bear in mind with books from this period. It’s literally just a handful and if you’re reading this aloud as a bedtime story – as indeed you should because the chapters will sing in these circumstances – just step right over them. You’ll be rewarded with something utterly rich and wonderful and lovely, and an author at the utmost of her powers).

(Also the final few paragraphs of The Borrowers Avenged are some of the best I have ever read).

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Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s interesting to come in at the end. This is the first book I’ve read by Fitzgerald and the last novel he completed. I’m aware of his others but I’ve never read them. I wonder if I should write something apologetic about that but I’m not apologetic, not in the slightest. Sometimes you get to the big books, the big authors, when you get to them and sometimes you don’t and that’s all fine.

And so to Tender Is The Night which is, every now and then, remarkable. It’s acute and sharp and beautifully written, achingly so. The talent of Fitzgerald is inescapable. There’s a bit at the start where he writes about two characters walking to somewhere, together, and it’s so simply and brilliantly done that I stopped in my literary tracks to savour it.

I’d like to say that sentiment continued but it didn’t. This took me a long, long time to read because (essentially) not much happens. Everybody is happy and then unhappy, fulfilled and then unfulfilled, hot and then not hot, and throughout it all is a man coming to terms with the fact that he’s kind of messed it all up. I wasn’t surprised to read about the personal circumstances around its publication. There’s an immense, aching sadness to this.

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Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry

Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was thinking about how to review this and indeed, if reviewing was even going to be a productive act for the book, myself, and for the slightly perplexed and slightly confused and often quite intrusive experience of reading it. But then, I began to think about how sometimes reviewing and writing about literature can help to pull that apart and figure out what it is and why it made me feel so … off. And then I began to think that the first part about this review is this: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing is not necessarily what it thinks it is. At first take, it’s a memoir, a fairly typical thing which details the life and experience of a very famous individual in very famous circumstances. And that individual, Perry, can write. Sometimes he writes too big and sometimes he writes too little but sometimes he writes just right and those moments are sharp, nuanced things. I liked it. I disliked it a lot as well. Some of it, I frankly skipped. But others, I read and thought: that is the good stuff, right there, that is writing and that is smart.

A book of contrasts, then, but also of mess and also of love but not quite necessarily the sort of love that you might think of when you hear that word. This is a book about loving and needing and wanting the things that will kill you if they can, if you take your eyes off them for a moment too long, and Perry knows that. He writes about his lows and his highs (in all of the senses of that word) and how he has found his hard-fought way through. Some of it is not easy to read, some of it is frankly discomforting, and some of it aches with a near-Faustian edge to be heard as much as it wants nobody to listen.

There are points when I longed for structure, for some more clarity and rigour to it, but I suspect that it was never going to be the sort of text to have it. Whilst I understand the thematic impulses and the stylistic impact of this, it makes it … thin, at times, a book that’s running away from itself as much of the author is. And yes, subtext, but also the point is made and then the point is made all over again, and I understood that but then I began to think of why and who and what this book is in the world for.

One key reason, I think, is for others who need that journey and to see it in somebody else’s life and to realise: they are not alone in this, and I welcome it for that. Perry holds nothing back and he is bare-boned with his truth. And yet, some of it could be held back, some delicacy, some love, perhaps, for himself, for others. He hints at this throughout but it’s coy, uncomfortable stuff; his admiration for Matt Le Blanc, for David Schwimmer, struck me in particular, and yet these were so briefly rendered that they were like threads of sunlight in a fog.

In many ways, I don’t think Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing is what it is dressed up to be. Instead, it is something else, something stubborn and difficult and distinct and raw and red, something faint and lost and hopeful and found. Were I to be presented it by one of my students, I’d be asking them to find structure and to edit and to cut, cut, cut, but I think I’d also be asking them to think about what this meant for them to write. Because sometimes, sometimes, it’s not about the story that you’ve told but rather the fact that you’re here to tell it.

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A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to write any review of this gentle and elegant classic without simply repeating the word “perfect” for quite some time. Nevertheless, I shall persist and try to give something of a review that does not mention how perfect it is on every line. A Bear Called Paddington is the first in Michael Bond’s series about a young bear. The bear has emigrated from Peru to England, and his only Aunt has gone to live in a home for retired bears. Upon his arrival at Paddington Station, the bear meets The Browns who are destined to become his new family. He also receives a new name: Paddington.

When I finished this book, I kept thinking of the idea of clarity. There is a point in British children’s literature (and it is somewhere around the mid-twentieth century) that authors found a very precise space. They were supported by liberal and often quite radical publishing ideas and indeed, a world that was busily remaking itself. Their stories have this very specific quality about them (you see it very much in authors such as Philippa Pearce and Lucy M. Boston), and it manifests itself on the page as a kind of clarity. They’re often not big stories nor super dramatic ones and they hinge perhaps on a clock that strikes thirteen or a marmalade sandwich, but they are somehow so, so acute in what they say about the world. In what they hope for it.

In a long and round about way, this is me telling you that I love this book. I love it for the kindness that it sees in the world, that it expects to be there just because it should be, because the opposite is too outlandish to even consider. I love it for the gentle softness of the stories, the way that it really is all about marmalade sandwiches at the right time, just when everything feels new and ready to be experienced for the first time. I love it for how it captures London and brings it to life, for the way it makes not only the Browns wrap their arms around this young bear and bring him home, but for the city to do it too. And I love it for the way it does all of this with such subtlety, such grace.

Like I said, it’s perfect.

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The answers to the Third Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Quiz

How did you do?

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my!

  1. One G, one B B, one M all together at Birtwick Park = One Ginger, one Black Beauty, one Merrylegs all together at Birtwick Park (Black Beauty)
  2. One F and one V falling in love on their way to F W = One Fox and one Vixen falling in love on their way to Farthing Wood (Farthing Wood)
  3. One S turning a somersault at F = One Sweetbriar turning a somersault at Flambards (Flambards)
  4. One S J trying to solve a murder = One Sally Jones trying to solve a murder (The Murderer’s Ape)
  5. One J lurking deep in the sewers below Deptford = One Jupiter lurking deep in the sewers below Deptford (The Deptford Mice)

People Doing Things

  1. One hot C C exiting through the window and dazzling M A in the process = One hot Commander Christie exiting through the window and dazzling Miss Annersley in the process (Changes for the Chalet School)
  2. One H and his U N having adventures on trains = One Hal and his Uncle Nat having adventures on trains (Adventures on Trains)
  3. One M S calmly inventing a whole new genre because she is the coolest of all = One Mary Shelley calmly inventing a whole new genre because she is the coolest of all (Mary And Frankenstein)
  4. One P falling through time at T = One Penelope falling through time at Thackers (A Traveller In Time)
  5. One L L forgetting that her hot bath was running = One Lavender Leigh forgetting that her hot bath was running (Lavender Leigh / Laughs at the Chalet School)

A little bit of everything

  1. Ten E L on how to become a W = Ten Easy Lessons on how to become a Witch (Bedknobs and Broomsticks)
  2. One K T and her great idea to set up a B S C = One Kristy Thomas and her great idea to set up a Baby Sitter’s Club (Kristy’s Great Idea)
  3. One naughty L S and B H = One naughty Little Sister and Bad Harry (My Naughty Little Sister)
  4. One K M falling in love with a horse called F = One Ken McLaughlin falling in love with a horse called Flicka (My Friend Flicka)
  5. One P and one P trying to catch a woozle = One Piglet and one Pooh trying to catch a woozle (Winnie-the-Pooh)

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came to this story through the film of the same name which was something I watched almost by mistake and then enjoyed intensely. I spend a lot of time in the early twentieth century but primarily through the filter of children’s literature, texts written for young girls, and the work of female authors. The story of a man who spent his life exploring the Amazon before, ultimately, losing his life to it, fascinated me. It felt like a real world Boy’s Own adventures but one with a sad and tragic edge (and that’s something that the fictional Boy’s Own stories I read rarely have…).

In the Lost City of Z, David Grann explores the life of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. One of the last “great explorers” who spent his years exploring the Amazonian rainforest, Fawcett became increasingly convinced that this place hid a secret, long-lost city. He dubbed this city ‘Z’ and devoted his life towards finding it. On Fawcett’s last expedition into the rainforest, where he was accompanied by his son and his son’s friend, the three of them disappeared. Along with exploring this story and how Fawcett’s disappearance scandalised the early twentieth century (and inspired a whole host of deeply unsuccessful ‘rescue’ expeditions), Grann also shares his own journey into the Amazon whilst also offering some ideas as to what may have happened to Fawcett’s expedition.

I liked this. Grann’s style is deeply readable, engrossing, and his subject matter burns with interest. Even during the more fantastical and unreal moments, Grann is careful to provide references and sources and remind the reader that this did all, in fact, happen. There’s a substantial section where these sources and his methodology are laid out in detail and I was satisfied to see that, for example, he had taken much of the quotations he used in the book directly from source material. It’s a well-grounded book.

From a readerly perspective, it’s an eye-opening narrative and one that reveals how brutal and horrific the attitude of the Victorian explorer could be. Grann shares some horrific incidents and attitudes ranging from a little bit of murder to a lot of murder and then doing a bit extra murder and then doing everything else besides. It is an understatement to say that explorers of this book often earned their knowledge at the cost of the people who lived there. Grann is careful to recognise how often Fawcett was horrified by such incidents but I wondered if there was some more critical work to do here (there is something, I think, to realising how much such things appal whilst also realising that the individual you’re writing about is still cut from a very similar cloth..).

It does end a little briefly, a little suddenly, but I think that was always going to be the nature of the beast. We literally don’t know what happened to them, for sure. Grann offers a persuasive reading but still, there’s that unknown edge. What remains, however, is a fiercely vivid and often heartbreaking story of loss and Grann helps us to understand the magnitude of that. The expedition is lost but that loss is felt keenly, sharply, by a thousand other people beside. A poignant, powerful book.

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2022 : a year in books

One of the things I like about Goodreads is that, at the end of the year, you get a fairly nifty round up of your reading. Admittedly you do have to remember to put the ‘read date’ in and admittedly that took me quite some time to remember to do (!), but it does all pay off. I’m always interested to see where I’ve been and how my reading has worked out in terms of things like gender, genre, and translations and so on.

One of the things that does amuse me is how there’s a mixture of some very, very historic and niche titles and some very contemporary ones. I am, at point of writing, the only reviewer of The Last Weapon, a rather remarkable and searingly sad anti-war novel from the dawn of the twentieth century, and the first person in six years to post a review of Hilda At School. I’d heard of neither title before I discovered them this year so they were interesting things to explore. (Also, I think, it’s rather interesting about how books find readers in the world and how that happens..)

Stand out titles from this first block are Putin’s Russia, a nonfiction graphic novel which provides a deft and terrifying expose of Putin, and the smart, chatty delicious Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans. My lovely penpal school introduced me to the charming Shine and I thoroughly enjoyed Managing Expectations by the witty, wise and very charming Minnie Driver. You’ll also see the beginnings of an L. M Boston theme here – she’s been one of the authors I’ve really loved to explore over the past few years.

I think Always, Clementine is probably my best book of the year in terms of new releases. I’m always in favour of books that try to do things differently and do it well and Clementine really does. It’s emotional, thoughtful and really well done. It’s also risky in terms of style and I like how it really goes for it.

The Philippa Gregory era! Ha! I read a lot of them all at once and then read The Lady of the Rivers twice during a hotel stay when I ran out of books. I do like Philippa Gregory a lot though I wonder if sometimes they get a bit samey for me. Nevertheless I do like how she handles history and how she centres women and their agency. (Also I really loved The Lady of the Rivers actually, I was V Here for Jacquetta).

Stalking The Atomic City was a standout here and one that gained some horrific relevance as the year progressed. It now feels like a memorial to a place and time in its own right and I would encourage those of you who haven’t come across it yet to do so. The writing is big, wild and unforgettable.

The graphic novel versions of The Baby-Sitter’s Club are a JOY and I recommend them entirely. They’re so happy and heartfelt and really very beautiful. The other standout here for me was Catwings – it’s very slender but rather beautiful, and reminded me that I wanted to read much more Ursula K Le Guin.

And that’s it! A year in books! I suspect I’ll add a few more by the end of the year but this is pretty much it for now. I love how it’s a bit of everything and that I managed to discover some very stylish new authors and artists to me. I’ll be returning to Daryl Cunningham in particular – I really love how he handles information and image and the topics he covers are so fascinating and well done. I also want Minnie Driver to write more. She’s so, so interesting to read and really was a genuine delight to discover.

The Third Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Quiz

Hello! It’s that time of year again where I get to enter my final form as a bookish Pokemon and set you all a Quite Niche Christmas Quiz. If you are going “wait, what?” then you can catch up on the previous quizzes here: the first and the second. The answers will be linked from those respective posts, I promise.

All of the books that are featured have been reviewed or talked about on this blog or on my social media and the principle of the questions is this: I will write something like “Twelve L G in T straight lines” and all you have to do is fill in the missing words. In this instance, the answer is: “Twelve little girls in two straight lines” and the book that this references is the incomparable Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.

There are three rounds and the title of each should give you some additional help as to what the answers might be (but beware! they are niche!!!)…

Answers will be posted on New Year’s Eve!

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my!

  1. One G, one B B, one M all together at Birtwick Park
  2. One F and one V falling in love on their way to F W
  3. One S turning a somersault at F
  4. One S J trying to solve a murder
  5. One J lurking deep in the sewers below Deptford

People Doing Things

  1. One hot C C exiting through the window and dazzling M A in the process
  2. One H and his U N having adventures on trains
  3. One M S calmly inventing a whole new genre because she is the coolest of all
  4. One P falling through time at T
  5. One L L forgetting that her hot bath was running

A little bit of everything

  1. Ten E L on how to become a W
  2. One K T and her great idea to set up a B S C
  3. One naughty L S and B H
  4. One K M falling in love with a horse called F
  5. One P and one P trying to catch a woozle

Eventing Trilogy by Caroline Akrill

Eventing Trilogy by Caroline Akrill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think that when you were a pony girl, there will always be a little part of you that will remain a pony girl. She’ll make herself known in strange, subtle ways throughout the rest of your life. Like when you see a picture of horse and rider and hear the long forgotten voice of your instructor mutter “reins like washing lines” inside your head. Or when you still know how to measure the right length of your stirrups despite not having touched a stirrup for a long while. Little things. Tiny, fragments of memory. Still inside of you, and forever will be.

This book is one of my fragments. It’s a trilogy (comprising ofEventer’s Dream, A Hoof in the Door and Ticket to Ride) but save yourself and hunt out this collected edition because a) you’ll want to read it all at once because b) it’s better that way. There’s something so delicious about every inch of Caroline Akrill’s lived, eccentric, vivid world that you want more of it and more of it and denying yourself that would be daft, so don’t.

Now that I’ve said that, it’s time to tell you a bit about what actually is going on. Very generally (very), pony stories of this particular era have two kind of key plots: 1. girl gets horse or 2. girl loses horse. Sometimes they’ll flip that by throwing different genders or ages into the mix or throwing in some kind of External Driving Circumstance but at the heart, it’s pretty much the same. Somebody wants / keeps a horse and the world is conspiring against them to make that Not Happen. (And this isn’t a criticism by the way: I am so fond of these books and I love them entirely because they work. They are primal and pure and rich forms of storytelling that very often centre the voices of young women and do so with all honesty and joy).

This trilogy focuses on the experience of Elaine. She is a girl with a dream: she is going to become an eventer and make it on her own. For Elaine, this is a financial necessity but also, as the books slowly reveal, something of a personal cause. She needs to make it work for her because there is no other option. And she will not take the easy path to do so.

The path that she takes leads her to the impoverished and deeply eccentric Fane family. Henrietta and Nigella run a livery stable which is full of all of the horses that everybody else passed on or didn’t want anything to do with. There is the mare-who-slips-a-stifle, the bad-tempered chestnut, and the noble yet rather pro-bolting The Comet. Henrietta and Nigella have made things work with their stable of misfits by selling off their belongings and bits of their ancestral home and kind of just a little bit avoiding paying the bills.

Eventing, however, is expensive and so they and Elaine are forced to find more funds. The overall effect is rather if Tom Sharpe met Christine Pullein Thompson (and indeed the rest of her remarkable family). It’s eccentric, wildly over the top, full of hunting and galloping madly over hedges, bolting horses, ridiculous episodes, heavily dated references, madly moving moments that suddenly knock you sideways, a strange and deliciously peculiar pony story that doesn’t do ANYTHING you expect of it, and it’s all deeply, utterly wonderful.

I first read this a hundred years ago, and I loved it then. And now? I love it all over again.

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Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans

Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps best known for the eternally joyful Madeline, Hotel Splendide allows Ludwig Bemelmans to showcase another side of his personality. This strange, slender and occasionally deeply melancholic book is the story of his time at the Hotel Splendide in the 1920s. Bemelmans moves up the ranks of the hotel staff to become an assistant manager and, as he goes, chronicles the eccentric lives of the staff and guests. At its heart, this is Mitford type stuff where the social detail tells us so much about the people and the world he’s in (I rather loved the episode where he spoke about the Hispano Suiza, a car I have only ever seen mentioned in the Chalet School books and full of a rather evocative imagery in its own right) but it’s also a chronicle of big lives lived at the edge of excess. Characters have enormous, out of control banquets full of glitter and panache and then there’s these counterpoints of the staff who make these moments happen, while living their own wildly eccentric and often deeply poignant lives right alongside them.

It’s perhaps more productive to think of this as a short story collection rather than something sequential or as a pure piece of memoir. Not all of this feels true but then all of it might be, and that gossamer edge between fact and fiction is rather interesting to me. Even the stories that we’re in, the stories that we know, can be given a thousand different interpretations depending on time, perspective, and speaker. Bemelmans gives us a sort of detached interest which tells us little about himself (but almost, conversely, everything…) Focus in particular on The New Suit but also The Magician Does A New Trick, absolute melancholic perfection both. I kept returning to that idea of melancholy throughout this. There’s something deeply melancholic about all of this, a sort of longing and realisation that what Bemelmans is chronicling is so so specific to this time and place and moment, and even amidst the wit (and there is plenty of that), there is always, always this melancholic edge and that intrigues me so much.

One final thing to emphasise is this: this is not a children’s book, so detach it from his other work. Certain terms and attitudes used have also dated.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Putin’s Russia, the rise of a dictator by Darryl Cunningham

Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator by Darryl Cunningham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My goodness, this is a heck of a book. I finished it and had to make a mixture of ‘wait, what’ faces at the wall to calm down. Putin’s Russia has been on my wavelength for a while (I very much enjoyed Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide from the same publisher) and I finally managed to pick up a copy of it at a recent comics fair. I was not disappointed. Cunningham delivers a searing and unrelenting breakdown of how Putin has become who he is and the people who have been pushed – often violently – out of his way.

One of the benefits of Cunningham’s approach, a nuanced mixture of text and art that is graphic non-fiction and fiercely acute acute, is how he works chronologically. He draws together all of these events that can seem isolated and disconnected from a distanced perspective to make you realise how everything actually fits. Everything is connected. And everything is basically horrible. Like, my god, there’s some horrible stuff spoken about here. Cunningham is very good in how he gives you the space to let it all sink in. He lets you breathe, in a narrative full of tightness and discomfort, he lets you breathe.

I can see why some may ask for more here; it is slender, and I did want more but I think much of that is from just being greedy with Cunningham’s style. I enjoy what he does and I want more. There is a restraint about some of his moments but I think, really, the book gains a lot of strength from that. You can almost feel the form and aesthetic strain at the leash and the idea that there is more to say, that the book itself is appalled and disgusted by much of the story it has to tell, can be almost palpable.

A precisely told and deeply well-crafted story, this is an exemplary expression of graphic non-fiction and what it can do. Smart, smart stuff.

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Rereading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I have a list of the books I want to reread and one of the constants on it for the last few months has been a reread of the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. If you don’t know of these books, then they kind of marked a point where young adult literature spilt very firmly into the wider popular culture. A huge amount of young adult literary property kind of became a film very quickly (forgive me, young adult specialists, I’m generalising immensely here!) because a lot of people wanted to recreate the success of the Hunger Games. This year marks ten years since the first film in the series came out, and fourteen years since the debut of the trilogy came out, and then I found the entire trilogy in a local bookshop and thought: well, that’s a sign if ever I saw one.

(Sidebar: The problems of a lovely new bookshop opening up on your way home! The delightful problem of it all!).

And so I read and I devoured because 1. flu but also 2. these books are so good and well-crafted and rather deceptively brilliant. I say deceptive because I’m increasingly convinced that simple and ‘straightforward’ prose is the hardest thing to write. I can write big and emotional and blousy with my eyes closed and as much as that can be a good thing for the right place and the right time, it can also be very problematic. The emotion can dominate. If you’re writing something sad, then it can drain everything else around it. It can weigh down the page. Make it heavy. Make it weigh so, so much to read let alone write.

(The secret is to just write the thing. Just to write the thing. Don’t dress it up, don’t euphemism, don’t dance about it – just write it).

(The secret is also to listen to your agent who tells you to Be More Spock and Less Kirk).

And that’s what Suzanne Collins does on every page in the Hunger Games. She writes the things. She writes the boned and bare truth of it, and even when she’s dealing with worldbuilding detail or some stunningly horrific incident, she gives you it in such a straightforward manner that it can feel like the easiest thing in the world. Here’s the thing. Read the thing. React to the thing.

(oh mags).

But books like this work so, so hard. They work underneath the surface to give you everything in the right way at the right time in the right order. Consider the way that you know things in The Hunger Games, and the way that you know just enough for the world to make sense and the actions to fit. You discover the world with Katniss and Peeta, and you discover it just as they do. The brutality of it. The potential of it. The little moments where it will allow them to be who they are. The awful moments when it won’t.

It’s always interesting to revisit a book because you are, in a way, revisiting the memory of who you were when you read it last (lovely work from Alison Waller on this topic here by the way). There’s something of who you were and something of the person you’re yet to be in it; you know that this rereading isn’t the last of this text. It’s a moment in your time together, and the story will continue. The story does continue. Even now new people are picking up the Hunger Games books and discovering these stories and starting them anew.

(I always find it rather remarkable how stories survive. The way that the form of story – the patterns and structures and textures – can be remade in a thousand different ways – but the story, the essence of it – twists and shifts and survives.)

Next on my list of rereads? Joyce Stranger. I grabbed a handful of her books a few years ago, prior to Covid, from a charity shop in Whitby, and I devoured them, then. Now’s the time to find some more, I think. I could buy them easy as pie online but that’s not the same, is it? The hunt, that’s what matters, the search and the finding and that delicious, delicious moment when they’re all there for you. Waiting for you to reread them. Waiting for you to come home again.

The gang’s all here

The US Covers of How To Be Brave and How To Be True

I got some very special post this week, namely my author copies of the US edition of How To Be True. I wanted to share it with you because pretty books are always a good thing to share, right? (lol, we all know that’s not a question!).

If you’re not sure what an author copy is, then they are precisely what they say on the tin! As part of a publishing contract, an author is given copies of their book. The amount varies and after that, you’re able to buy copies at a reduced price directly from the publisher. I gave mine to family and friends and librarian chums (hello!) but also keep a few on a little shelf where I sit and work (because encouragement, always a good thing).

Both covers are by Flavia Sorrentino and I love what she’s done here so much. One of the common things in both the US and UK editions (and something I’m so grateful for) is how unabashedly character led they are. These are books which make no bones about what they are – stories of girls in the world, doing what only they can do best. Thank you to both Macmillan and Pushkin for making my nerdy little book dreams come true.

You can find out more about Flavia’s work here and the US edition of How To Be True here.

The complete Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, illustrations by E. H. Shepard

The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had a sort of sudden realisation the other day (driven, might I add, by the discovery of an excellent boxed set in the charity bookshop) that I had never really sat and read the Winnie-the-Pooh stories all the way through from the start. I knew them of course because everybody knows Winnie-the-Pooh, right? It’s one of those franchises that is kind of so embedded into the world culturally that it’s hard to escape. You know this bear. He’s had films made about him, stories told, cartoons made. You know this world.

But I didn’t know the writing, I didn’t know the way these stories felt.

I didn’t know how the wry and lovely little twists in Milne’s language dance off the page and I definitely didn’t know how he uses this stylistic to (so smartly! so well!) develop a completely unique way to tell a story. It looks simple. It isn’t. There’s something very clever and perfect going on here, and even though people will try and emulate Milne’s style for years after this, nobody will ever be able to do it quite like this.

Sometimes I get a little bit lost when it comes to the classics because I spend so much with the books that never got that label. It can be very easy for me to doubt the books that did and do get that status because, quite often, there’s so much in their favour to allow that to happen. They were written at the right time. They were written by the right man. They were lauded by the right critics. The circumstances were good to them.

Sometimes it’s productive for me to remember that a classic can be all of that and more, but it can also be good. Humans contain multitudes, our literature should be no different. And so it is with Winnie-the-Pooh which is good and it is funny and it is incredibly (incredibly!) poignant and it is graceful and it is gentle and it is full of a rather beautiful, endless sunshine. I loved it. I needed it.

(I’ve talked before about how the right book finds you at the right time).

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Felicity’s Fortune by Bessie Marchant

Felicity’s Fortune by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very late stage Bessie Marchant novel, Felicity’s Fortune is also a rather interesting thing. It begins with Felicity who (over)works in an office and lives a relatively impoverished life with her widowed mother and the rest of her family. It is, as ever with many books of this era, a life where the Noble Poor Poorly Noble in the best way that they can and full of ‘even though we don’t have much, we’ve got each other and that’s what counts’ vibes. Out of the blue, they receive a letter from the husband of Felicity’s aunt. He is lonely asks for Felicity to come and live with him (I know, it’s a lot, right?). He will pay her a handsome salary and leave her everything when he dies. Felicity is all “bit weird” and her mum’s all “but your Aunt was noble!” and so Felicity goes “still a bit weird but cool beans” and hops on the next boat. But! Her Uncle Dirk is SECRETLY A BAD EGG (this was published millions of years ago so just deal with some spoilers) and Felicity takes literally the entire book to figure it out (not the quickest, our girl).

So! So far, so Marchant. And a lot of it is very icky from the modern perspective. Not only is the relationship between Uncle Dirk and Felicity a bit ick, but the representations of the indigenous peoples is more than a bit ick, and then there’s the colonialism side of things which is also, you guessed it, ick. It moves around in terms of location and features Singapore and Java before focusing much of its attention on a small island named “Balin”. For somebody who never left the United Kingdom, Marchant gives a good try at describing some of these locations but she’s much comfier in terms of writing people than she is place.

Yet despite all the ick, and despite all of the ‘god, can we try to not be a little bit hideous’ thoughts you will have when reading this, Felicity’s Fortune gives you – essentially – a tale of restitution. Felicity makes right the wrongs of Uncle Dirk (BOO HISS, etc, etc) and I honestly think this might be the first book I’ve ever read of that period where somebody goes “look, I know we’re British and clearly THE BEST in everything, but maybe we’re wrong in this and these people actually know best let’s give the thing back to them”. I suspect some of this subplot stems from Marchant’s religious connections but even if it doesn’t, it’s still rather startling to see from a writer who has spent so much of her career going “empire, empire, rah, rah, rah.”

Do I recommend this book? Both yes and no, really. It’s very uncomfortable for the most until all of a sudden it throws everything absolutely on its head in about three pages. And then it ends with her going home to meet the hottie she’s destined to marry (and who she had previously saved from a head injury on a boat which crashes a little but doesn’t sink, honestly, what on earth are these books).

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Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a moment, about a quarter of the way through reading, that I realised something very precise about Further Adventures of the Family From One End Street. I think it is better than The Family from One End Street which won the Carnegie and that realisation, sharp and sweet and intoxicating as it was, fascinated me. This book is better than the first and it was published nineteen years after it. That’s interesting.

So what makes this work so well? At first read, it’s a fairly straightforward book. The family from One End Street have adventures. Some of the children get measles and are sent to the countryside to recover. There’s a wedding to attend, a mishap involving a pig, and an outstanding conclusion set back in the house involving Mrs Ruggles, her youngest child and a – no, I won’t spoil that yet. But the secret about straightforward books – those books that feel simple and clean and easy – is that they are doing an enormous amount of clever and sharp and nuanced work just below the surface.

Consider a trip to the countryside. It is a whole new world into being, full of richly coloured characters to meet and new adventures to have. But we’re never dislodged from the story because we see it all from the perspective of the characters. Garnett stays with them so tightly that we meet the new world entirely through their perspective. The sound of a cow mooing in the distance in the middle of the night. The creak of a wooden floor. The mean lady who runs the local shop. It’s so simple and so, so smart. We’re never left with the other characters – we’re always, always with the Ruggles.

It’s also important to recognise that The Ruggles remain one of the few working class families to be represented in the literature of this period and to have their representation done with a lot of love and respect. (I am conscious that Garnett herself came from a middle class background and as such, will have made certain decisions here. I’m also conscious of the paucity of working class authors of children’s literature of this period. These are issues that publishing is still working on today.). Not only do these books document a way of life that is pretty much lost now, they also do it with a lot of fun and joy.

There will be detail that doesn’t make sense (especially for modern readers unfamiliar with the period) but most of it can be deduced through context. The other stuff doesn’t really matter. This is just rich and gentle and good storytelling, cleverly done and funny and smart and simple and so, so well done. I loved it, entirely.

(Also, if you’re wanting a modern readalike, this begs to be read alongside something like Binny for Short or the Casson family series from the great, great Hilary McKay).

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An interview with Sarah Todd Taylor and Jo Clarke

Today’s post is an interview with Sarah Todd Taylor and Jo Clarke and I am super excited to share it with you! When I was thinking about it, my idea was basically ‘Paris Middle Grade Authors Assemble’. I knew that we were all authors who have set middle grade books in Paris (How To Be True; Alice Éclair : Spy Extraordinaire; Libby and the Parisian Puzzle) and I thought it might be fun if we had a chat about that….

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DMJ – Hello everyone! My first guest today is Sarah Todd Taylor. Sarah is the author of the Alice Éclair : Spy Extraordinaire books, the Max the Detective Cat series amongst many others, and somebody whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years. Hi Sarah! Thanks for being here! 

Sarah – Hi Daisy, I’m utterly thrilled to be here, and to be chatting with you and Jo (I LOVE the Libby series and your How to Be series and am sure that Libby and Alice would be friends if they met).

DMJ – My second guest is Jo Clarke who I’ve known and admired for a long while as “bookloverjo” – a blogger and reviewer  of children’s books (bloggers are great, we love bloggers here). She’s now also the author of the Travelling School Mysteries – a middle grade series which travels the globe and has ADVENTURES (also something we love entirely here!). Welcome Jo!

Jo – Hi Daisy, such a treat to here chatting with you and Sarah about all things Paris. I can’t resist a book set in Paris so was so excited to read both of yours and see how you explored my favourite city.

DMJ – Let’s start with the obvious. Why did you choose to set your book in Paris?

Sarah – Originally, Alice was going to be set in London, but as I’d set the Max the Detective Cat series there, while chatting with my amazing editor at Nosy Crow, Fiona Scoble, we discussed moving the action to France. As Alice was a pâtissière, this made perfect sense, as there are so many gorgeous French pastries for her to make, and I knew that I wanted her first adventure to be on a luxury steam train, so the beautiful Train Bleu  that ran from Paris to the Mediterranean became my inspiration for the Sapphire Express, and Alice’s Paris adventures began.

Jo – The inspiration behind The Travelling School Mysteries came from a chance conversation at work. A supply teacher mentioned her daughter was going to school in Japan so she could learn about the culture. I’m obsessed with boarding school stories so it seemed like the perfect place to set a mystery but I wanted to do it with a twist so I decided to create an extraordinary school that travelled the world. Paris was my first location choice as it’s my absolute favourite city in the world and it’s the place I have visited the most. I fell in love with Paris when I took my boyfriend (now husband) there for his 21st birthday.

DMJ – And can I ask as well about the writing process? With publishing timelines being what they are, I was wondering whether either of you wrote your books during lockdown – and if so, how did you manage writing the city at a distance? I know for me, I watched a lot of Youtube (thank you Paris and plant youtube! you’re the best!) and ‘streetviewed’ my way around the city…

Sarah – The first draft of Alice was actually well underway by the time lockdown began. I drew a lot on photos I had taken on a trip to Paris way back in 2017 as well as steam train rides I have taken. I found some wonderful books about luxury train travel and also reached out to friends on Twitter who write about trains, who were very helpful. I wrote quite a bit of Alice’s next adventure in lockdown, using maps and documents of the event it is based around that I found online. I’d love to go back to Paris, though, to refresh my memories – and to try more of the pastries that I’ve been writing about.  

Jo – The first version of Parisian Puzzle was written over four years ago and I had travelled to Paris the previous year so it all felt quite alive in my mind. Unfortunately I had no agent interest and put it away in a drawer, it was only two years later when I entered it into a writing competition that I decided to rewrite it. By then we were heading into the first lockdown and my memories were slightly more hazy. I used children’s travel guides to Paris in the hope that they might help me with the child’s eye view of Paris that Libby and Connie were seeing. I also had a map above my desk with all the key locations plotted out. I created Pinterest boards with all my favourite places as I really need visual clues when writing.

DMJ – My research for How To Be True involved street mapping my way around the Arc De Triomphe and figuring out how to get there from the Ladurée shop on the Champs Elysées (a vital cameo in the book!). Did you do any particular research before you started writing? What are your top tips for people wanting to write about Paris?

Sarah – A big part of Alice is the cakes, so that was another set of reading up that I had to do. Thankfully there are lots of youtube videos from talented cake makers so I was able to look up the techniquest she uses. I wanted to make sure that the Sapphire Express’ journey through France was convincing so I based it on the journey made by a real luxury Train – Le Train Bleu. There is quite a lot of action in the book that is dependent upon where the train is at certain times so I had to make a lot of calculations about how fast it could travel, and at several points, how fast a car could travel to meet it. I think my top tip, if you can’t actually visit Paris, would be maps and YouTube. As Alice is set in the 1930s, I can’t actually visit ‘her’ Paris anyway, but there is so much footage available on the web so I was able to get a feel for the fashions and look of her world from that.

Jo – When I’m running creative writing workshops I always tell children to pick imaginary locations if they want to make things easy for themselves, using real life locations is really tricky. You have to pay so much attention to detail otherwise someone is bound to catch you out. I checked the timings of Metro journeys, the facilities in the library they used and used estate agent websites to check details about what they would be able to see outside their bedroom window. Street views, Pinterest and maps have been invaluable to my research. Also I had a French reader who used to live in Paris read the first draft and highlight any glaring errors.

DMJ – And were there any locations that you knew had to feature in your work?

Sarah – The Eiffel Tower. I fell utterly in love with it when I visited and I knew that I wanted it in the book. Alice doesn’t actually go to the tower in A Recipe for Trouble, but her Eiffel Tower cake centrepiece kicks off the action, and the tower appears in all her glory in the next adventure. 

Jo – As I was rewriting Parisian Puzzle during lockdown and had no idea what the world would be like I wanted to take my readers on a virtual tour around Paris and include as many as the landmarks as possible. I was thrilled when Becka Moor (my illustrator) created a map of Paris so that my readers could visualise where the events were unfolding. The thing I love the most about Paris is when the Eiffel Tower sneaks up on you and you spot it in the most unexpected of places, Libby glimpses it near the beginning hiding behind clouds but we never see her actually go up to the top. I did want to have the ending of the book set at the Eiffel Tower but because of the increased security from when I first visited, I knew it wouldn’t have been realistic.

DMJ – On a related note, what are your top tips for people wanting to read about Paris? I am going to sneak in a couple of my picks here as well: Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba; Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky; and the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans (bonus points if you spot the Madeline reference in How To Be True!)

Sarah – Obviously, Jo’s and your gorgeous books, which are utter treats. I also love the Madame Pamplemousse books by Rupert Kingfisher, a delightful mix of magic and food. Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers is another wonderful Paris book, with the action set high above the city. Katherine Woodfine’s Peril in Paris is a rollocking spy adventure that I adored, and Sylvia Bishop’s The Secret of the Night Train combines a brilliant heroine with a brilliantly plotted adventure and I loved it. 

Jo – I have a whole shelf dedicated to books set in Paris including Alice Eclair and How To Be True of course. I absolutely love Salvatore Rubbino’s A Walk in Paris picture book, it has the most exquisite illustrations and fascinating facts, it’s a beautiful walk through the city.

DMJ – And finally, if you were going to recommend one place in Paris for writers to visit, where would it be and why?

Sarah – Ooh, that’s tricky. I loved climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and exploring the museum within it, but  I think I would say the river bank, just because there is so much going on there and it’s such a wonderful slice of the city, passing by the bridges, seeing life pass by on the boats, the gorgeous churches and the tower rising above it all. There are so many stories that could start from anything you pass by. 

JoShakespeare and Company. in Paris is the place literary lovers flock. Pop in and buy a book set in Paris and find a cafe nearby and read it with a hot chocolate and delicious pastry, just like Libby would. Avoid visiting during the Summer months when it will be very crowded and you will feel rushed. I think the perfect time is in Spring when the air is cold and the crowds are small. It has the most wonderful atmosphere and a career highlight for me was discovering that they stocked my book. 

The Guardians of the House by Lucy M. Boston

The Guardians of the House by Lucy M. Boston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After many years of not understanding her work, I am increasingly obsessed with Lucy M. Boston. I found The Sea Egg a remarkable thing, and A Stranger At Green Knowe transformative. I think it is the stubborn strangeness of her work that appeals to me. They are not necessarily the easiest books to read nor those with the more straightforward of message but they are so fiercely and utterly themselves and I love them for that. They are persistent stories which tell the story that they want to tell, irrespective of the world about them. I like that. I like that a lot.

The Guardians Of The House is a slender story concerning a boy who breaks into a house and if you have read some of Boston’s other work, you will have an idea of what happens next. But in a way, you really don’t. This is a story where the familiar is made strange and paragraphs twist in and out of themselves, transporting you somewhere else within a heartbeat before even you or even they have quite realised what is happening. There are moments when this works better than others and a few moments that work stiffly from a modern perspective but all of them work in a way that only Boston (or perhaps Philippa Pearce) can do. This is a book that explores the edges of the world.

(I have always described myself as somebody who did not quite understand fantasy and now I wonder if it is because I have just been reading the wrong sort of fantasy, all along…)

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Managing Expectations by Minnie Driver

Managing Expectations: A Memoir in Essays by Minnie Driver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A “memoir in essays” is an interesting thing because it’s always going to be more selective than the – already selective – form of the autobiography. It’s a challenge to set for yourself and it’s one that Driver answers very well. Her essays pick out key moments in her life; the birth of her son, a rave in a farmer’s field, her first visit to the US, and are frank and funny and often very beautifully written. There’s a few moments where I think an editor might have pulled a few sentences back but equally, there’s interest in seeing them go off and say something very particular. Driver has a voice and she’s ready here to use it. Fearless too, I think, but paradoxically often very private. She’s very precise in what she reveals here and it’s elegantly done stuff.

Her final essay moved me to tears. It’s really one of the standout pieces in the book, along with the one where she writes about the birth of her son. Driver is very good at seeing the moment in the world and giving you everything that happens there, within it. She is also very good at capturing the essence of people and giving you that in a very precise and economical style. She’s a good writer, she really is.

I did have some issues with how this book is presented though. It’s a little too fond of the the double line break and the big white space between a paragraph. I get the stylistic reasoning behind these and indeed, the aesthetic decisions, but equally it feels a little bit like unnecessary padding. This is a book that doesn’t need that artifice and an extra essay would have helped fill up this space a little bit. Plus it would have helped to fill in a few of the blanks that the reader is left with.

(a selective form, inevitably, leaves blanks, and I don’t know if they should have attention drawn so firmly to them).

Also, I don’t think I shall ever look at scrambled eggs again in the same way. I shall not explain further about this because spoilers, but I am increasingly convinced of the connections between love and cooking and food and how they are all so intimately wed to the other.

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A Small Person Far Away by Judith Kerr

A Small Person Far Away by Judith Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Small Person Far Away is the third of Kerr’s thinly veiled autobiographies. It begins with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and after that: Bombs on Aunt Dainty, and then here: Berlin, post war, and Anna being called to her mother’s side after she is taken into hospital.

I had first read this trilogy a long while ago and then again a couple of years since and not thought of rereading them much since. They were good things, I knew, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit remained sat in a precise and clean corner of my heart marked ‘classics that we love entirely, forever’, but I had not really thought of rereading the others. But then I saw all of them in a library while I was doing an event and then again in a charity book shop the next day, for the first time in years, and knew it was a sign. Sometimes you come to books and sometimes the books come to you.

I was glad that I did for they are complex and frank things which see Anna figure out how to live in a post-war world that is still trying to figure it out for itself. The impact of the war is there, subtly in the background, always lurking and ready to pounce again. Houses have changed, buildings are being built up again, brick by brick, and people constantly tell Anna that they were never Nazis, oh no, not them. It’s a tense book, I think, and deceptively so because of Kerr’s great grace in her writing. She is very precise and clean in how she works and that can make it feel ‘simple’, almost. That’s there’s no depth. And yet, if you just pause a moment, it’s all there and always was. I love that about her work. The elegance of it, the subtlety.

This is a book that isn’t afraid to be unlikeable, and I think that’s also interesting. Anna finds herself reflecting on how good certain situations would be if she wrote them and castigates herself, almost, for thinking about them like that. Her relationship with her mother is not particularly pleasant nor positive on either side, and even the side-characters become a little bit awkward, a little bit stiff. And I think there’s something in here about how life as a refugee impacts you (there is a conversation with her brother that touches very beautifully on their life) and how it must have been to go back to a world that you had to escape from. How it felt to be back in the city that tried to kill you and your family.

I think what I’m trying to say is that this isn’t Kerr’s best writing by any means, nor her best book, but I think it might be one of the most complex and adult. It doesn’t succeed all the time, nor does it feel particularly reader-friendly nor indeed comfortable with what it’s saying but underneath all of that, there’s still something sharp and nuanced and fascinating to me.

I suppose it all boils down to this: Anna persists. In all her messy and raw honesty, Anna persists.

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Always, Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak

Always, Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I finished reading Always, Clementine for the first time, all I could think of was if I was nominating a book for the Carnegie then this would be it. There is something very special here and it might even be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It begins at the back of your head, thoughts like that. That little tingle on your spine that creeps all the way up until all of a sudden you realise that you’re reading something good, something good and beautiful and heartbreaking and wonderful all at once. That’s this book. That’s the way it works and I fell in love with it entirely.

Clementine is a lab mouse who escapes. She is also a genius. This book is as much about her life in the free world, with a team of human helpers at her side, as it is her journey towards selfhood. Her life has meaning. She has meaning. And even though there’s a lot of people trying to recapture her and send her back to the lab, there’s also a whole world of new friends to be made and family to be found. It’s time for Clementine to live.

Told in a series of letters to somebody I shall not spoil yet (for their relationship will break your heart), Clementine shares her entire soul on the page. She is a genuine and optimistic and warm-hearted soul who, despite seeing the worst of the world, is so ready and willing to see the best of it. Sorosiak writes her with such love. And such poetry! There are some beautiful moments here where Sorosiak’s writing somehow embraces such a poetic form that it almost shimmers.

This is a book for your heart, and I loved it entirely.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Cherry Tree Perch by Josephine Elder

Cherry Tree Perch by Josephine Elder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cherry Tree Perch is the second in a series and sometimes it feels it: you are launched into the premise with very little preamble and asked to simply catch up. It works, for the most, but there are quite a few moments where new readers (such as myself!) will struggle to figure out quite what is happening. Once you’ve worked out what’s happening and who’s who and what’s actually going on, you’re presented with a very interesting and rather charming novel that is a little bit Antonia Forest at its best and a little bit Enid Blyton “shut up, I’ve got to get this done by lunch” at its worst.

The premise is a farm school where the children learn animal husbandry and all of the practical skills that running a farm involves. Upon first reading, this focus on real world skill felt very post-war to me and I was so interested to realise that this was published in 1939. That’s not to say that books like this did not exist at the time but rather to say that they weren’t all doing this sort of thing. Elder positions the children here as the future (that should be a song, right?) but also as the makers of that future. There’s interesting.

What’s also interesting here is how the adults are understood as being a little bit messy. That’s not a description that can be applied to all of the adults, because this is still children’s literature of a certain period and time and there are certain politics that it needs to accord to, but there are adults here who don’t quite know everything. And everybody knows that they don’t need everything. That’s also interesting.

One of the girls develops an admiration for an adult in a way that, only thirty or so years earlier than this in an Angela Brazil, would have had her swooning over every other page. But Elder doesn’t go for that. She goes for the much more interesting angle of letting her have the admiration, the pash (so to speak), and examine this through the filter of her established friendship with people of her own age. There’s some strong character work here and this book is so good and indeed, rather spectacular, when it just allows two young children to talk about friendship.

It’s important to note that there are certain elements here, such as the treatment of the disabled elder brother Kenneth and the way people refer to him, that read very poorly now. Please bear this in mind prior to reading.

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The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett

The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are times, I think, when the world sends you the right book for the right moment. We’ve all dealt with piles of books to be read and sometimes a book can sit on that pile for weeks if not years. And it’s never personal because you know that when you need it, when you want it, and just as you reach for it, you know that it was always meant to be this book for this moment, nothing else, only this.

(That’s one of the great appeals of classics for me because they understand that journey more than most. They slide in and out of hands, out of shelves and into bookshops and into somebody else’s home, moving through the ownership of a thousand readers and always, somehow, being there at the right time, knowing when it is needed, ready for it, so ready).

I picked up The Family From One End Street on a hot, hot day when my brain needed to read but could not quite cope with the effort of it. The exertion of making sense of the word, of even turning with the pages, all of it, too much. But I read because that was what I needed to do and I picked up The Family From One End Street.

Oh, the gentle charm of it! I had remembered a like sensation this from my first read, hundreds of years ago, but I think I felt it more this time. The heat maybe. The heavy, heavy heat. Or perhaps because of reading this only days after visiting the seaside. The perfect time for a book that feels like an endless Summer.

I am splicing this review, running from one idea into the next, because I think that’s a little bit of the magic this book. Each chapter focuses on the adventure (so close to a mishap, so close!) of one member of the family and yet the connections run deep. The Ruggles are full of love and chaotic heart, messy and honest and funny and so chapters exist, yes, but they’re people and this is life and it is rather utterly, utterly lovely. Lovely is something we look for a lot in children’s literature and yet sometimes, I think we do not know quite how to find it. All you need to do is read this, I think, and just let yourself sink into the sweet gentle charm of it. Let this book be enough, be everything, for it really is.

(Also it beat The Hobbit to win the Carnegie Medal in 1937 and that’s interesting stuff right there, dig into that literary historians and let me read your work when it’s done).

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Kristy’s Great Idea by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier

Kristy’s Great Idea by Raina Telgemeier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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The Sea Egg by Lucy M. Boston

The Sea Egg by Lucy M. Boston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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A few updates


I have one of those ‘news in brief’ posts to share with you today so let’s get down to it. 😊

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh

Carbonel: The King of the Cats by Barbara Sleigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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?

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Happy Birthday How To Be True

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.


Purchase: Amazon UK / / Hive / Pushkin Press / Waterstones

Artwork: Thy Bui

Writes Of Passage : words to read before you turn 13 by Nicolette Jones

Writes of Passage: Words to read before you turn 13 by Nicolette Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Chalet School and the Lintons

(This isn’t the hardback edition but it is, nevertheless, an excellent cover)

The Chalet School and the Lintons by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Chalet School and Rosalie and The Mystery at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Rosalie & The Mystery at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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The New House at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New House at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls by Emma Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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The Girls’ Crystal Annual 1952

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.

Guest Post: Rebecca Mills on ‘Grand Tours and Great Escapes in the Early Chalet School Books’

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 The Princess 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.


1 Rebecca is grateful for comments offering further details about settings in the UK and on the Continent, and will absolutely consider these in any future work on the topic. 


Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Princess of the Chalet School, W. & R. Chambers Ltd., 1941 [1927].

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Head-Girl of the Chalet School, W. & R. Chambers Ltd, 1960 [1928].

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet, W. & R. Chambers Ltd, 1955 [1925].

Vesna Goldworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, Yale University Press, 2013.

News from Abroad : Letters Written by British Travellers on the Grand Tour, 1728-71, edited by James T. Boulton, and T. O. McLoughlin, Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Project Gutenberg edition, 2019 [1794].

Karl Baedeker (firm), Tyrol and the Dolomites: Including the Bavarian Alps : Handbook for Travellers, Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, 1927.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Secret Garden on 81st Street by Ivy Noelle Weir and Amber Padilla

The Secret Garden on 81st Street: A Modern Retelling of the Secret Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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The Years of Grace edited by Noel Streatfeild

The Years of Grace by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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…!).

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How To Be True is available for pre-order

Cover: Thy Bui

(Isn’t she lovely?)

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.

You can shop the books behind How To Be True here (affiliate link), and also the books behind How To Be Brave.

All that remains to be said is a big thank you 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.

Looking at The Deptford Mice books by Robin Jarvis

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.

And then, whenever it is, I’ll cancel everything.

Max Counts To A Million by Jeremy Williams

Max Counts to a Million by Jeremy Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Girl Who Lost A Leopard by Nizrana Farook

The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrana Farook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Thank you to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Alchymist’s Cat by Robin Jarvis

The Alchymist’s Cat by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Tom Tackles The Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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?

Tom Tackles the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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A French Alphabet

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.

Book Aid for Ukraine

Hello everyone,

This is just a quick note to say that the Book Aid for Ukraine auction is now live and, if you’re able to bid, there are some great literary offers on there. I have a signed and personalised copy of How To Be Brave listed (you’ll get your very own personalised duck doodle) and there’s also some amazing other children’s literature related items (not in the least a Worst Witch extravaganza).

Changes for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Changes for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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”.

Ugh, I love it, I love it.

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Sabotage on the Solar Express by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman

Sabotage on the Solar Express by M.G. Leonard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Judith Kerr (the illustrators)

Judith Kerr by Joanna Carey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Stalking the Atomic City by Markiyan Kamysh

Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and the Depraved of Chornobyl by Markiyan Kamysh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Introducing How To Be True

I have some news 😊

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 here for every inch of it.

How To Be True is available to pre-order now.

The Adventures of Alice Laselles by Alexandrina Victoria aged 10 3/4

“On Wednesdays we wear pink!”

The Adventures of Alice Laselles by Queen Victoria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Last Weapon by Theodora Wilson Wilson

The Last Weapon by Theodora Wilson Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

Killing and Dying: Stories by Adrian Tomine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Susan Kendall, Student Nurse by Patricia Baldwin

“Tommy, I’m sorry, I appear to have superglued myself to your bedsheet”

Susan Kendall, Student Nurse by Patricia Baldwin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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The answers to the Second Quite Niche Children’s Literature Quiz

As promised, here are the answers to the quiz I posted on Christmas Eve! How did you do?

Round One: Boarding School Stories

  1. One M-L hanging off a sturdy young sapling = One Mary-Lou hanging off a sturdy young sapling
  2. Two O’S T not caring at S C = Two O’Sullivan Twins not caring at St Clare’s
  3. One K F flipping from speedboat to speedboat = one Kathy Ferrars flipping from speedboat to speedboat
  4. One C N having quite the first term at the S O T G S = one Calla North having quite the first term at the School of the Good Sisters (forgive me for putting this one in!).
  5. Three R’s being adopted by the M’s = Three Richardsons being adopted by the Maynard’s (please congratulate me for not making any Hot Roger jokes at this point…).
  6. One D I M on her way to the J W F = One Daphne Isabel Maitland on her way to the Jane Willard Foundation
  7. One Inspiring Speech from M G at M T = One inspiring speech from Miss Grayling at Malory Towers
  8. One sensible S H = One sensible Sally Hope
  9. One rubbish proposal from R E to L M = One rubbish proposal from Reg Entwistle to Len Maynard
  10. One P W causing engine issues =  One Pink Worm causing engine issues

Round TwoPony Books

  1. One J M rescuing S from the circus = One Jinny Manders rescuing Shantih from the circus
  2. One V B riding T P to victory =  One Velvet Brown riding The Pie to victory
  3. One A R and T B making friends on a deserted island = One Alec Ramsay and The Black making friends on a deserted island
  4. One C D living out his retirement at F F = One Cobbler’s Dream living out his retirement at Follyfoot Farm
  5. One J with her ponies B B and R = One Jill with her ponies Black Boy and Rapide
  6. One P on the 12th floor = One Pony on the 12th Floor
  7. One R H meeting the Hot and Complicated P P = One Ruth Hollis meeting the Hot and Complicated Patrick Pennington
  8. One Smouldering Slow Burn Romance between H and N, members of the W B pony club = One Smouldering Slow Burn Romance between Henry and Noel, members of the West Barsetshire pony club
  9. One M of C = One Misty of Chincoteague
  10. One H and his B = One Horse and His Boy

Round Three: A little bit of everything

  1. Three P cycling to Paris = Three Piglettes cycling to Paris
  2. One A falling down the R H = One Alice falling down the Rabbit Hole
  3. Three F trying to put their name in the H B = Three Fossils trying to put their name in the history books
  4. One C M writing this in the K S = One Cassandra Mortmain writing this in the kitchen sink
  5. One S hitching a lift on a W tail = One Snail hitching a lift on a Whale’s tail
  6. One B who wants his H back = One bear who wants his hat back
  7. Two S meeting at G K = Two Strangers meeting at Green Knowe
  8. Five C and One P = Five Children and One Psammead
  9. One P R in M M garden = One Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s garden
  10. One R taking a walk  = One Rosie talking a walk

The Second Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz

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

  1. One M-L hanging off a sturdy young sapling
  2. Two O’S T not caring at S C
  3. One K F flipping from speedboat to speedboat
  4. One C N having quite the first term at the S O T G S
  5. Three R’s being adopted by the M’s
  6. One D I M on her way to the J W F
  7. One Inspiring Speech from M G at M T
  8. One sensible S H
  9. One rubbish proposal from R E to L M
  10. One P W causing engine issues

Round TwoPony Books

  1. One J M rescuing S from the circus
  2. One V B riding T P to victory
  3. One A R and T B making friends on a desert island
  4. One C D living out his retirement at F F
  5. One J with her ponies B B and R
  6. One P on the 12th floor
  7. One R H meeting the Hot and Complicated P P
  8. One Smouldering Slow Burn Romance between H and N, members of the W B pony club
  9. One M of C
  10. One H and his B

Round Three: A little bit of everything

  1. Three P cycling to Paris
  2. One A falling down the R H
  3. Three F trying to put their name in the H B
  4. One C M writing this in the K S
  5. One S hitching a lift on a W tail
  6. One B who wants his H back
  7. Two S meeting at G K
  8. Five C and One P
  9. One P R in M M garden
  10. One R taking a walk

The Chestnut Filly by Primrose Cumming

The Chestnut Filly by Primrose Cumming

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Michelle Obama by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara and Mia Saine

Michelle Obama by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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The Rivals of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is such a good cover!!

The Rivals of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.


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!


(Banging cover, though. Good work Nina K Brisley).

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Robins in the Abbey by Elsie J Oxenham

(THIS COVER, my days, I love it).

Robins in the Abbey by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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?

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Finishing my Goodreads reading challenge

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.

In January, I chose fifty books because it seemed like a vaguely approximate number to take. It was arbitrary at best, as I often think these kind of things can be, but I can’t say that I didn’t have a sense of satisfaction at achieving it. What’s interesting to me is the patterns that recur. Macmillan and I have had a good year with Danger At Dead Man’s Pass, A Company of Swans and Murder on the Safari Star being all perfect, perfect things (nb: these were all gifted copies but I hope you know that doesn’t influence my thoughts in the slightest). I’ve come across some startlingly timely and thought-provoking non-fiction with The Transgender Issue being up there alongside How To Be Ace and Invisible ‘every other page gonna make you mad’ Women. This Much Is True by Miriam Margoyles was a lesson in authorial voice (I mean, the brand) and Confessions of a Bookseller was a wry and rather lovely thing even when it didn’t want to be.

An illustration of fifteen book covers from my 2021 Goodreads reading challenge

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.

An illustration of fifteen book covers from my 2021 Goodreads reading challenge

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.

An illustration of five book covers from my 2021 Goodreads reading challenge

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.

Fifty books done! Let’s see what comes next!

How To Be Ace by Rebecca Burgess

How to Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual by Rebecca Burgess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Three Elizabeths by J.M Page

The Three Elizabeths meet the local guides who go “what, you’re all called Elizabeth Graham? Bit weird dudes” (I paraphrase, I paraphrase).

The Three Elizabeths by J.M. Page

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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.

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How To Be Brave has been nominated for the 2022 Carnegie Awards

Buy now: / amazon

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!

Parsing Piranesi: on books and reading and time

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 what the 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.

Dulcie’s Little Brother by Evelyn Everett-Green

Dulcie’s Little Brother by Evelyn Everett-Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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!

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Rescue In Ravensdale by Esmé Cartmell

Rescue in Ravensdale by Esme Cartmell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh this was interesting.

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.

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Welcome To The New World by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan

Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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).

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Danger at Dead Man’s Pass by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

Danger at Dead Man’s Pass by M.G. Leonard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was just looking back at my prior reviews of this series and every single one 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.

My thanks to Macmillan for the review copy.

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The House on the Edge by Alex Cotter

The House on the Edge by Alex Cotter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to Nosy Crow for a review copy.

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An artist’s date

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).

Bilbrough Mcdonalds to the A1 Junction, 18/8

2. Poems

(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).

The ways people view ‘Distend’ by Ashley Holmes, Leeds Art Gallery, 18/8

Wonder Pony by Marie Spénale

Wonder Pony by Marie Spenale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Guest Post: Rachel Playforth on The Melling School series by Margaret Biggs

[I am so thrilled to bring you this guest post today on the Melling books from the lovely Rachel Playforth. Rachel is a poet, editor, crossword setter and librarian. She has poems in the recent anthologies:  Night Feeds and Morning Songs by Ana Sampson (Hachette UK) and These Are The Hands – Poems from the Heart of the NHS (Fair Acre Press), and co-edited the wild swimming anthology Watermarks. You can find her online at]

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.

Rachel Playforth

July 2021

The 1933 Girl’s Own Annual

(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.

The Admirable Crichton by J M Barrie

The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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).

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The Abbey Girls Go Back To School by Elsie J. Oxenham

The Abbey Girls Go Back To School by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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.

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A Company Of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

It’s a good cover this, yep.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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The Yearbook by Holly Bourne

On Tuesdays we review pink

The Yearbook by Holly Bourne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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On slow book collecting

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.

Art Now, Taschen ICONS series.
I mean, look at this fabulous cover.

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.

Atget’s Paris, Taschen ICONS series.

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.

See The World, Taschen ICONS . Jug models own.

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.

Peggy’s Last Term by Ethel Talbot

Peggy’s Last Term by Ethel Talbot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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How To Be Brave is out in one month!

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.

The second thing is this: The Book Nook in Hove are offering signed & dedicated copies of How To Be Brave. They are amaaazing booksellers and it’s lovely to be able to support an indie bookseller like this. Pre-orders are, of course, available elsewhere as well and I really value your support if you do such a thing. I promise buns, jokes, and an entertaining adventure (seriously: here’s the Kirkus review).

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.

Murder on the Safari Star

Murder on the Safari Star by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is just so good. SO good.

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.

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Otherland by Louie Stowell

The cover of Otherland  by Louie Stowell

Otherland by Louie Stowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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You can now pre-order signed editions of How To Be Brave

We are now officially on the countdown to 1st July when my debut How To Be Brave is out and I am very happy to have some news to share with you. If you pre-order through the delightfully lovely Book Nook in Hove, you will get your book signed! personalised! and also support a gorgeous indie bookstore in the process!

(I mean, honestly 😭😍)

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Ponds, children’s literature, and Hayao Miyazaki

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.”

Hayao Miyazaki (source).

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.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

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.”

Hayao Miyazaki – (source).

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison, edited by Sarah Mirk

Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Lost Café Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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…

The Lost Café Schindler by Meriel Schindler

The Lost Café Schindler: One family, two wars and the search for truth by Meriel Schindler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum

The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Where Happiness Begins by Eva Eland

Where Happiness Begins by Eva Eland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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How To Be A Hero by Cat Weldon

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….

How to Be a Hero by Cat Weldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I mean, where do you begin with a book like this….?

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall cover
do you think she Brontë saw us

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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 no fan of Gilbert though, my goodness).

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