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 idea 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 ease 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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How to Be Brave has a US cover!

The US cover of How To Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson
Design by Trisha Previte, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino, loved intensely by me

I am so very happy to share with you all the cover for the US edition of How To Be Brave. It’s been designed by Trisha Previte and illustrated by the amazing Flavia Sorrentino and every time I look at it, I see something different. I love it so much. I have been so lucky with my covers.

The girls will be arriving in America in November 2021, and I honestly cannot wait for that to happen. You can find out more about the book (and pre-order!) on Macmillan’s website.

(Don’t forget that if you’re in the UK, term starts on July 1st 2021 and you can pre-order here!).

The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky

The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky

There’s a fine line to be found in horror /thrillers when it comes to YA, and I think The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky handles it superbly. This is a book that’s not just about what happens – it’s interested in why. The psychology of it. How to manage it – how to master it. How to become lost in it…

The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had a fair few ‘meh’ books over the past few weeks; those books that are the ones that sort of don’t quite work for you, or leave you feeling a little ambivalent about them. And that’s fine – that happens. Sometimes books don’t work for readers, or it’s not the right time to meet them or find them, and sometimes you’ve just got to accept that this is how it is. And then I read The Last Girl by Goldy Moldavsky and I loved it. I’m always interested by books that try to do something different and find their own space in the world (there might only be seven stories to tell, but my goodness you can work how you tell it..) and The Last Girl does that in spades.

Let’s set the scene: a prestigious school, a club, and a new girl trying to find a place to start over. There’s complex, messy friendships; the dark spectre of privilege, pop-culture and a group of people devoted to exploring the scary side of the world. These takes the form of a club devoted to horror films and – no spoilers here. But it’s the sort of thing that feels like it might become something of a franchise and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of more to come here. The framing conceit really is very good.

Though I suspect I prefer the other title of ‘The Mary Shelley Club’ (which should give you some idea as to one of the references here), I thought this was excellent. Moldavsky is a pacey, stylish writer and I loved how fiery and honest her work is here. People are real here – this isn’t about smoothing the edges of people, it’s about exploring them. And with that comes interest; a novel that’s psychological, dark, and gripping. I loved it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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How To Be Brave is now available to pre-order!

What is life, eh? How To Be Brave is now available for pre-order, adding on Goodreads, reading and reviewing via Netgalley, and generally swooning over. (Let us all guess which one I am doing the most of). Thanks so much to the amazing Thy Bui for the cover and the team at Pushkin for making HTBB look so beautiful. I’ve been so grateful at every step of this journey.

Vy’s Special Gift by Ha-Giang Trinh and Evi Shelvia

Let’s start the year off with a good, good picture book. I get a lot of emails from people asking me to review things here and there was something about this one that made me say yes. And oh, I’m so glad I did. Wild, beautiful, fiercely distinct artwork, and a story that’s full of poignant grace. Like I said, it’s a good, good book….

Vy’s Special Gift by Ha-Giang Trinh, illus. Evi Shelvia

Vy’s Special Gift by Ha-Giang Trinh and Evi Shelvia.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vy’s Special Gift took my breath away. I was offered a copy of it to review by the author, and the outline intrigued me so I accepted. The book itself made me have a little moment because it’s very, very good. There’s something rather magical about Trinh’s simple, genuine story, and when it’s paired with the melancholic beauty of Shelvia’s artwork, it goes somewhere rather special indeed.

Based on a true story in Trinh’s homeland of Vietnam, it tells the story of a girl waiting in a line for free rice. As she waits in the long, long line, she expresses kindness and understanding to those about her – something that she’s rewarded for in the story’s conclusion. It’s set during the pandemic and so the vast majority of characters wear masks, personal protective equipment, and also practice social distancing.

The book wears its morals very lightly. Trinh never heads down the laborious route of ‘behaving like this is good!’ but rather lets her story speak for itself. Textually, it’s restrained and more powerful for that. Though there were maybe two or three words I’ve have deleted (I’m always one to push for less rather than more), I found the story an intensely elegant experience. There’s something very soft, honest and beautiful about it.

Shelvia’s artwork is frankly stunning at points, wedding the cultural touchstones of COVID-19 with a poetic use of line and colour. There’s a moment of crisis within the story for Vy, and Shelvia handles it with such beautiful, subtle restraint. I’m always impressed by artists who know when to hold back, and this moment in particular was perfect. I loved this. It was so beautiful, so poetic.

I’d suggest Vy’s Special Gift can be used in discussions about the pandemic, particularly for those who may be experiencing some nerves and social anxiety – the message of kindness, empathy and concern for others is a very relevant one for all ages. I’d also recommend it for people interested in picture book technique and style – I suspect there’s an essay or two begging to be written here.

You can see Vy’s Special Gift being read online here. Basically, I loved this. A lot.

I am (very) grateful to the author for a review copy.

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The Answers to the First Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz

As promised, here are the answers to the quiz I posted on December 24th. How did you do? 🙂

Round One: Boarding School Stories

  1. A lot of H D’s at the S = A Lot of Hot Doctors at the Sanatorium
  2. Eleven M having breakfast at F = Eleven Maynards Having Breakfast At Freudesheim
  3. One L P telling stories in the A = One Little Princess Telling Stories In The Attic
  4. One C S in E = One Chalet School In Exile
  5. One R M playing Tennis at T = One Rebecca Mason playing tennis at Trebizon

Round TwoMid-Twentieth Century Classics

  1. One T listening to a clock striking T = One Tom listening to a clock striking Thirteen
  2. Five F O solving crimes = Five Find Outers solving crimes
  3. One P R left behind = One Pink Rabbit left behind
  4. Two C (and one goose-boy) having adventures at W C = Two cousins (and one goose-boy) having adventures at Willoughby Chase
  5. Four S and Two A not drowning like duffers = Four Swallows and Two Amazons not drowning like duffers

Round Three: Picture Books

  1. One E causing havoc at the P = One Eloise causing havoc at the Plaza
  2. One M-M-M living in the nice white cottage with the thatched roof = One Milly-Molly-Mandy living in the nice white cottage with the thatched roof.
  3. One D being reunited with D = One Dave being reunited with Dogger
  4. Twelve little G in T straight lines = Twelve little girls in two straight lines
  5. One T having T with S = One tiger having tea with Sophie

Round Four: A bit of everything

  1. One H W (and one D W) solving mysteries = One Hazel Wong (and one Daisy Wells) solving mysteries
  2. Six members of the A G dancing in their N pants = Six members of the Ace Gang dancing in their nuddy pants
  3. One K of the Cascade Brumbies = One King of the Cascade Brumbies
  4. Nine M of the F of the R = Nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring. (I did debate with myself whether this is a children’s book or not and turns out I very much think it is. However! I’m conscious that there’s debate on this topic so I’ll give you a bonus point for creative responses)
  5. One H K P the M, one Q S the G, one K E the J, one Q L the V – (or the four P siblings). = One High King Peter the Magnificent, one Queen Susan the Gentle, one King Edmund the Just, one Queen Lucy the Valiant – (or the four Pevensie siblings).

The First Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz

Hello! I have been thinking for a while that I wanted to start a new Christmas tradition on this blog, and this year felt like the perfect time to do precisely that. So! Here is the First Ever Quite Niche Children’s Literature Christmas Quiz! (I am very excited). There are no prizes, other than glorious renown, but if you are looking for something distracting to do over the Christmas period, then this might be it. Bonus points for creative answers 🙂

Here’s how it works. There are a series of sentences with some missing words all you have to do is fill in the gaps. For example Q1: “A lot of H D’s at the S” = A Lot of Hot Doctors At The Sanatorium. To give a little bit of a clue, I have grouped the sentences under topics and any mistakes are my fault, apologies.

Answers will be posted New Year’s Eve…!

Round One: Boarding School Stories

  1. A lot of H D’s at the S
  2. Eleven M having breakfast at F
  3. One L P telling stories in the A
  4. One C S in E
  5. One R M playing Tennis at T

Round Two: Mid-Twentieth Century Classics

  1. One T listening to a clock striking T
  2. Five F O solving crimes
  3. One P R left behind
  4. Two C (and one goose-boy) having adventures at W C
  5. Four S and Two A not drowning like duffers

Round Three: Picture Books

  1. One E causing havoc at the P
  2. One M-M-M living in the nice white cottage with the thatched roof
  3. One D being reunited with D
  4. Twelve little G in T straight lines
  5. One T having T with S

Round Four: A bit of everything

  1. One H W (and one D W) solving mysteries
  2. Six members of the A G dancing in their N pants
  3. One K of the Cascade Brumbies
  4. Nine M of the F of the R
  5. One H K P the M, one Q S the G, one K E the J, one Q L the V – (or the four P siblings).

Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes

Dogger's Christmas cover

Okay. So you know we’re a fan of Shirley Hughes here at DYESTT Towers. There’s nobody out there who can quite do what she does and we are SO lucky to be able to read it.

(You can probably imagine my face when I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Dogger’s Christmas in the post).

But here’s the thing: I don’t review everything that’s sent to me, because not everything works for me. I do, however, review the stuff that makes me have a tiny cry and remember all that’s good. That’s Shirley Hughes in a nutshell. She writes such hope.

Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dogger’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes is:

1. Having the fire on on a cold winter’s day. Snow falling down outside, steadily, softly. A darkening sky. Stillness.
2. Being under the blanket on the sofa, watching a classic movie. Something black and white. Toasty warm from top to toe. Heart, full.
3. Freshly buttered toast. Crumpets, perhaps. Golden, soft. Loveliness.

Every time I read it, I have the tiniest of moments. There’s something in Hughes’ style that gets me – that will always get me. She writes with such soft, gentle richness. Her artwork is full of life and heart (there’s nobody else who can capture ‘light’ quite like her) and every single line sort of sings with this sense of movement. These aren’t isolated snapshots of a distant life; these are moments full of purpose and drive. There’s a before and an after. There’s a story, even in the smallest of details.

A brief word on story. Dogger’s Christmas functions as a sequel to Dogger and I’m always concerned about sequels because they can work to exclude readers who haven’t read that which came before. We’re in safe hands here, however (were they ever anything else?) because Hughes hints towards the prior text whilst never, ever, forgetting her readers which may have come to this first. Such a gift, such the mark of somebody who is very, very good.

This is a year where Christmas may be different for a lot of people. My thoughts are with you if you’ve been impacted by the everything of the past few months and if you’re finding this time difficult. Books like Dogger’s Christmas take on an extra special, beautiful resonance at this point because they stand as this sort of timeless symbol of who we are. We love, we live, we lose things, we find ourselves; we bond over the pages of a beautiful, kind and gentle book. Buy this for your loved ones, buy it for yourself.

Make your buttery toast, find your blanket.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Luna Rae Is Not Alone by Hayley Webster

Luna Rae Is Not Alone cover
Nosy Crow Give Good Covers, pass it on

Luna Rae is Not Alone by Hayley Webster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a lot of new things in Luna Rae’s life. New home, new school, new friends. It’s a lot to deal with and the one she thinks might help would be winning the school’s baking competition with her mum. The only problem is that Luna’s mum has disappeared…

Luna Rae Is Not Alone is something rather special indeed. You should be getting it on your radar now. This is such a gentle, wise and soft book full of advice and guidance for anybody going through complicated family situations. Luna is prone to ‘catastrophising’ – that is, to see the worst possible outcome in a scenario, and Webster handles her anxieties so beautifully and kindly. I loved it. It’s the sort of book where there’s a lot swimming underneath the surface and you just sort of feel it coming through, this sort of warm and gentle and soft honesty. It doesn’t solve everything, nor ‘fix things’ nor does it wrap up everything in a neat bow. It just sort of goes ‘look, this is life’ and presents it to readers with such utter, gentle kindness. Beautiful stuff.

I also enjoyed how Webster handled the adults in her book. I think you can tell a lot about a book in the way it treats the adults and this is perfectly handled stuff. Adults have flaws, same as everybody else, and they’re trying to make things work the best they can. Might not be the right way, might not be the best way, but they’re trying and they’re learning along with all of us. There’s depth and texture in this book, everywhere you look.

February 2021, mark the date.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Accidental by Ali Smith

I’ve been wanting to read a lot more Ali Smith for a bit, and The Accidental felt like a perfect place to start. It’s easy, I think, to be a little bit intimidated by the authors and the books that win all of the awards because sometimes it can feel like you’re missing something if you don’t like them. Your read can feel lesser somehow. But here’s the thing: it isn’t. Your reading is your own and no reading is more important than another. And even if you think you don’t get something, or don’t quite understand what it is you’ve got or are definite that you didn’t like it, then that’s totally fine. Let yourself recognise the value of participating in that story, of experiencing it. Because that’s what matters. Your reading.

Books like this? They live for reading.

Cover of The Accidental by Ali Smith
(this is a v good cover)

The Accidental by Ali Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not often that I reach for the word ‘luminous’ to describe a book but then I read The Accidental and everything changed. This is luminous, this is airy, fiercely stylish writing, and it is full of a bright and unique beauty. I loved it, this story of the long hot summer where everything changes for the Smart family. A visitor arrives, her name is Amber, and she is here to make difference. Each member of the family will be changed by their interactions with her, and the way that Ali Smith capures them is so, so good.

Let’s dwell on that notion of something being luminous for a moment longer, because I always think it’s interesting to do that sort of thing. It’s easy to throw it into a book review because it feels like the sort of space that should have such words. Luminous. Shining. Giving off light. And yes, The Accidental is set within one of those bright, burnished summers that Britain can quite perfectly conjure when the fates allow, but it also captures the quality of that summer through its stylistics. Smith cartwheels through a multitude of character perspectives, shifting style and tone and voice depending on who’s talking and what they want us to know. Some sections come in sonnets that range from self-deprecating through to wry through to laugh out loud; others chapters render themselves as deliciously vivid teenage stream of conscious (some of the best, I think), whilst others just sort of kaleidoscope through reams of cinema and film references. Luminous. Every inch of it.

One of the things to mention as well is that it took me some time to read this, because there’s a lot of it to read. That seems a slightly ridiculous thing to say, but let me explain (it’ll make sense, I promise). A book like this is something of a web that connects not only to itself but things located in the wider world, both fictional and real. And so, for example, the pages and references to film connect not only to the film but also the story of that film, the moment of that film, the weight of it. A sentence, then, can include a thousand others. A word, a thousand worlds. The great joy of The Accidental is that you can pause from the book itself and slide through all those worlds (my joy, for example, over a reference to Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida in ‘Trapeze’!) before coming back to the story of The Accidental itself. (But maybe, now that I think about it, you don’t ever leave this story, and you’re just travelling the web and the weft of this luminous world).

(I said I’d make sense. I’m not sure I have in the slightest!)

Perhaps the trick to The Accidental is to take a joy in just experiencing it. There’s so much here to lose yourself in. So much light, so much style, so much, so much.

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A Christmas In Time by Sally Nicholls

A Christmas in Time by Sally Nicholls

[There are not enough timeslip books in the world, and so when Nosy Crow sent me this to look at, I was thrilled. I love what Sally Nicholls does and any book with fancy shiny lettering is absolutely up my street (you can’t see it on this image but I promise you it’s there). So! Enough of me babbling, let’s get to the book. It’s LOVELY]

A Christmas in Time by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something intensely appealing about what Sally Nicholls does in A Christmas In Time, and that is to tell a really good story. It’s something we ask a lot of people to do but not many people can deliver on. Telling a story is hard. Telling a story that has pace, roundness, accessibility, satisfaction, and some very delicious descriptions of food, is super hard. But Nicholls is good at it and this is such a solid, good treat.

A Christmas In Time sees Alex and Ruby head back into a Victorian Christmas to solve a historic family crisis. It’s part of a series of timeslip adventures but able to be read in its own right (always a good sign) and reads in an immensely accessible manner. In terms of timeslip books, it’s younger than perhaps something like the blessed Tom’s Midnight Garden and Charlotte Sometimes and so presents a really gorgeous opportunity for readers building their confidence and skill in tackling bigger books.

I really loved this. There’s very little here you can pick at because it’s just all so well done. Nicholls manages to drop some nicely handled commentary on gender attitudes, whilst also making the historic seem intensely present. It’s so very easy to see people ‘from history’ as part of that – cold, static and distant, but here they’re lively and lovely and really rather wonderful.

I have no hesitations about this book, none.

My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Some Carefully Curated Lists of the Best Children’s Books To Buy This Year

Hello! I have been putting together some lists of children’s books to buy which, I suspect if you’re reading this blog, might be up your street. One of the things to mention is that these are affiliate links which mean that I do get a referral fee but I’m not doing it for that. I really just want to share the cool and lovely books that exist in the world with you right now. There will always be time for that sort of thing here, I promise.

Also! Because we’re of a classics bent on this blog, these will be delightful and beautiful classic children’s books – perfect to start your library off or to begin to build a library for the little ones in your life. (Talking about libraries – take the list to your local library! Nothing better than stashing up your reservation list…!)

Click on the images to find out more…

Several book covers with the caption 'Christmas Classics, Old and New'

Several book covers with the caption 'A Classic in the Morning, A Classive in the Evening, A Classic at Supper time'

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

Once when I was very little, I got press-ganged (they called it ‘being part of the Brownies’ and ‘community action’ but honestly, press-ganged) into helping clean up the local station. Can you imagine the sight? A gang of four foot nothing children in brown outfits depressedly cleaning windows. Amazing. A hundred years ago, and I’m still not quite over it. However the point of this anecdote is to tell you that I imagine I would have found it a LOT more fun, if I could have read these books beforehand. The Adventures On Train series absolutely sing with train-based excitement….)

Adventures! On! Trains! (I love it).

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love in Kidnap on the California Comet. It’s a richly adventurous sequel to The Highland Falcon Thief and I enjoyed every inch of it. This series is starting to have such a gorgeous texture; it reads like a little bit like Agatha Christie, a little bit like an older Famous Five (but with a damn sight more nuance and tact), and a little bit ‘let’s all just go on an adventure’ and I love it. It’s a really strong series and the quality of it is marked: these are excellent stories, well told, and I rather love that. Good books, done good.

So! It’s a sequel, yes, but Kidnap on the California Comet is infinitely accessible as a standalone novel which is – again – another mark in the authors favour. It’s really important to make every entrance point to a series as accessible and as readable as you can, otherwise you lock readers out and I am not here for a series that does that. Leonard and Sedgman use structure as their friend here – we go somewhere, something happens, we return – and I love their confidence with it. It’s a pattern that has worked for a long time in children’s lit and it works, especially when it’s in such good hands. The authors pull absolutely everyone they can along with them on the journey. No passengers left behind. Adventures for everyone!

A quick note of recognition as well for Elisa Paganelli’s delightfully vibrant illustrations. She has a quickness of line and a lightness of touch that really captures the moment. Her artwork is lived, immediate, real – it’s such an important part of these books. The whole package is just so good.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The Most Popular Girl In The School by Bessie Marchant

The Most Popular Girl In The School by Bessie Marchant cover
I’m blue, dabba dee, dabba dy

You know when you just finish reading a book and go ‘huh, so. what. just. happened?’. That’s The Most Popular Girl In The School in a nutshell. I read it and had to have this little moment where I flicked back through to check that I hadn’t imagined it all. But I hadn’t. Honestly, everything I’m about to tell you is true…

The Most Popular Girl in the School by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bessie Marchant always surprises me. You can often predict what happens with many of the books of this type from the early twentieth century because there’s a pattern, lord love them. Here’s the pattern for a typical Angela Brazil, for example: somebody misplaces a will, somebody finds the will, everything’s okay, we’re all still posh. A generalisation, yes, but nobody loves a probate-themed plot quite like Angie. Bessie Marchant’s version of this is a revolution. Big, small, bloody, political, in the middle of it, or on the edges, she properly loves them. Of course this is just a big metaphor for the benefits of the British Empire, and even if you’re in Patagonia or Russia or somewhere that there’s never been any vestiges of British colonies, there will always be some Hot And Noble (potentially impoverished due to the foul deeds of others) English Chap to help out our heroines.

Delightfully, The Most Popular Girl In The School is right up there with the rest of her work. It’s not what I’d call particular readable (were I to be frank I’d call it a ‘right state’) but that sort of quality judgement is a bit sweeping on my part, because it totally denies the spectacular power of these books. The Most Popular Girl In The School seems to be a boarding school story but in fact, it’s a story about revolutionaries in Brazil. Trunks full of cartridges end up at the school! The sentence ‘To 50 cases of T.N.T sent as best Heather Honey, and carefully forwarded through usual channels’ actually exists!! Mary helps “unmask the secret of her father’s birth” which is 1920s children’s book speak for ‘don’t worry, she’s been a member of the upper class all along, that’s why she’s so great”!

Honestly, the hysteria, I die.

So, do I suggest you start your Bessie Marchant adventures with this? I do not. I don’t think it’s particularly ‘good’ nor is it ‘coherent’ nor is it, in fact, what you might call ‘linear’ or ‘particularly comprehensible’. However it does have a particular appeal in that, I think, it’s tied quite specifically to real world events. I came across Tenentism and the details of a 1922 revolt – which, bearing in mind that this was published in 1924, feels about right. Tell me again how children’s literature isn’t political. Go on. I’ll wait.

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Dimsie Among The Prefects by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Among The Prefects cover
“oh how we laughed”

I review a lot of school stories on this blog. I even write them. They are, as you’ll be aware, my jam. But so far, my jam hasn’t really included Dorita Fairlie Bruce. She’s one of the ‘big five’ authors alongside Angela Brazil, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Elsie Oxenham and Enid Blyton. Sometimes it’s the ‘big four’ and Enid Blyton gets dropped – for reasons we shan’t get into here! – but I hope that my point’s clear: Dorita Fairlie Bruce (often abbreviated to DFB) is a big cheese. And – confession time – I didn’t think I liked her….

Dimsie Among the Prefects by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t think I enjoyed the Dimsie books. I have vague memories of reading one, many moons ago, and giving up within the first few chapters. Something about it simply didn’t click and so I placed Dorita Fairlie Bruce as an author who just wasn’t for me. I had no inclination to find any of her other books because that reading had left me so indifferent over them. That was then, however, in a pre-2020 environment where things like lockdowns and widespread shop closures didn’t leave me grasping at great handfuls of books on the shelves while I can. I bought Dimsie Among The Prefects just before the second lockdown in the United Kingdom, conscious that I’d need something to distract me and consoling myself with the fact that I could sell it on after.

Reader, I won’t be selling it.

I realised this somewhere about the rather spectacular first few pages which involve a chap scowling through his monocle (a+++ work DFB, keep it up) and then the even more spectacular chapters which follow. There’s a new girl prone to biting who promptly tests out her powers by chowing down on the beloved prefect (do not do this at home) who then resolves the issue by tying up the child. Amazing.

My interest piqued, my hysterical laughter working over-time, I had no choice but to read on. And there’s a lot here that’s rather worth the effort. I knew of many of the characteristics of DFB’s work here (the anti-soppists league and so on) but I’d never quite actually enjoyed it. And I did! This is great! Terribly eccentric and deeply ridiculous and then the ending throws in an absolute classic of the genre! I was so happy, honestly, this ticks all my boxes. It’s very rich, rounded, and very classic school story stuff.

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Girls In Green by Elisabeth Morley

I’m going to apologise in advance for this review of Girls In Green, but honestly – this book. It starts in a normal place and then BOOM we’re up a tree and BOOM there’s stitched up pillowcases and BOOM somebody’s about to cark it in the pond. What I’m trying to say is there’s a lot and it’s kind of crazy but also kind of utterly fascinating in the process….

Girls in Green by Elisabeth Morley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know absolutely nothing about Elisabeth Morley, nor did I know anything about Girls In Green. It was one of those books that I picked up out of interest, attracted as much by that delightfully Robin Hood-esque front cover as I was by the fact that it was published in 1949 and thus at a key point for children’s literature within the United Kingdom. This is the time of the century where the school story was, I think, starting to shift into something else, and so it can all be super interesting to see what happens and how people handle that.

So let me tell you this: Girls In Green is not without its faults, but it’s actually pretty fun. The principle is fairly straightforward: a new girl joins, makes a hash of things at first, before realising she is a True Chalet School Girl. Wait, no, she’s realising she’s a true Southfield High School but it’s the same thing. And what’s more her name is Stephanie Hunt-Smith so she has the same initials and honestly, wasn’t it always meant to be? Of course IMPEDIMENTA stands in the way (and no, I’m not referring to some unfortunately named middle) but Everything! Works! Out! For! The! Best!

(Ridiculous, yes, but I do love these books.)

It’s also rather fascinating how much this feels like a book of two halves; a tautological way to express it yes, yes, but the best way to describe it. Several of the incidents are right of the Chalet School or Malory Towers but some of them – I’m thinking in particular of the plate being smacked on somebody’s head with enough force to shatter it (!!!!) and the Headteacher’s magnificently careless “Yes you are a bit spoilt” to Stephanie (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) – hint towards the more realistic edge and social immediacy that children’s fiction was just about to embrace.

Morley’s prose is rather stylish at some points – there’s a delightful moment where she writes some siblings bickering that’s done so well, I had to do a little double take at it, and later she has some other rather splendid one-liners. I always think with writing you can tell when something steps up to be Noticeably Good, and there’s some really strong stuff here. I just don’t think it’s sustained throughout the book (the plot gets a little messy and things start to not make sense) but honestly, this is a lot of (slightly off its noodle) fun. I’d definitely recommend it as a later representative of the school story genre, and a marker of how much things were about to change for said genre.

What else do I need to tell you about this? Perhaps nothing other than the fact that the new girl is described as ‘a cross between Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth’ (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! x a million) which is an absolute FIRST for the genre.

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Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril

[Can I tell you a secret? I only discovered in the last few years that Jean Estoril was a pseudonym for the legendary Mabel Esther Allan..and I’m still not quite over it. Fun fact: “Jean Estoril” is almost an anagram for “neorealist” and this has entertained me ever since…]

Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read the Drina series many moons ago and didn’t really think that much of them. Though I devoured titles by people like Noel Streatfeild and Lorna Hill, the Drina books always felt a little bit more pedestrian to me. They were pleasant pedestrian, if such a thing could be, but they were definitely pedestrian. Enjoyable to read, but when you were done, you were done.

Ballet For Drina, plus a handful of other titles from the series, recently surfaced in a nearby shop to me and I picked them up – partially to see if I still thought they were pedestrian, but also to simply read something pleasant. Something simple. If ever a year demands such books to have their time, it is this. And so Ballet for Drina, Drina Dances in Switzerland (you know you’re in a classic kid’s series when you get to Switzerland my friends), and Drina Goes on Tour made their way home with me.

And yes, Ballet For Drina still had that slightly pedestrian edge to it, but it also had something rather wonderful and that was the bones of a very classic ballet story. Girl discovers talent, works at it, deals with problems in her way, becomes good. It won’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but it does what it does in a real solid and rather satisfying fashion. I also found it pleasing that the difficulty of this path is emphasised: being a ballerina is not easy and requires sacrifice from all concerned. Yes, some of the moments are Slightly Ridiculous, but all good classic children’s lit has that mildly ridiculous edge. We allow it because we believe in the world, and the world of Drina – even though it’s full of balletomanes on every corner and she goes to dos wearing a little white dress with a scarlet capes (ugh, I love it) – is believable. It really is.

There’s a lot here to love; it has that Blytonian quality of being almost grimly readable and accessible, and I think the earlier books where Drina is young, could still provide a lot of appeal for contemporary young readers. And that’s because, in many ways, this is still a stone cold classic piece of children’s literature.

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Chester House Wins Through by Irene Smith

“Don’t forget the white sauce!”

[This has been on my TBR pile for a while, and today I felt like it was the time. I sort of thought it might be brilliant – I rather like it when books tell me off for waiting to read them – but reader, it wasn’t. However, Chester House Wins Through does have the the first ever ‘japes involving white sauce’ episode I think I’ve ever seen in children’s literature. Honestly, I can’t quite decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing…]

Chester House Wins Through by Irene Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m always fond of finding school story authors who are new to me; it’s a journey full of potential and hope and sometimes it works – as it did when I discovered Bessie Marchant. Now, I appreciate that Marchant isn’t technically a school story author, but rather a “LET’S GO EXPLORE THE EMPIRE GELS” kind of author but she does serve to make my point here and that’ll do for now. Sometimes picking books up randomly – especially when they look to be ‘your thing’ – can be incredibly productive. Sometimes, however, it isn’t.

And that brings us to Chester House Wins Through, a book strangely concerned with Talking About Things rather than Doing Things. There’s “hysterical” twins who make everybody laugh and marvel at their foolish ways (the amount of Suppressed Laughter in this book, my god, get a grip everyone). There’s a lot of girls talking meaningfully about things such as uniforms and hat badges and how this will bring honour upon the school, and there’s this Head Girl who Sagaciously Knows Things But Nobly Looks Away Whilst You Cry Old Thing, and it’s all sort of school story by the numbers without ever quite connecting. Nothing ever hits home (even the physical altercation between two of the juniors is resolved within a page) and so the overall effect is fleeting at best.

And yet there’s some interest here because books like this are indicative of the position that school stories had back in the day and how that position struggles to deal with things like “the sixties” and “liberation” even though the girls inside the book are in a post-war environment and refer to the war and to rations. Even that’s interesting because it suggests the key period for these books – they worked in the forties and they worked well. They just didn’t quite work well here.

Also, they work even less with subplots involving ‘somebody accidentally eating a whole dish of white sauce just to be polite’. I mean, you’d notice, right? You wouldn’t just eat a whole dish of white sauce to save somebody’s feelings? Would you? I mean, I don’t even know if you literally even could eat an entire dish of white sauce without having to stop and – you know – visit the bathroom with immediate effect.

Honestly, this book. I’m going to have to go and sit down to get over it all.

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The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first thing to recognise about The Monsters of Rookhaven is how beautiful it is. It’s a really rather perfectly put together book, which is always a good sign. It tells you that the publisher understands this book, that they know what they want from it, and that they know what the book can support. Packaging, artwork (Edward Bettison is playing a blinder here), even the choice of paper – it’s all thematic: it tells us about what’s to come. That suggestive lure on the shelf. That thing that catches your eye and makes you think ‘this one’s for me’. The Monsters of Rookhaven does that with such, such style.

And that style’s not just superficial, it goes all the way through this and helps deliver a read of curious and affecting power. I am not the sort of person who picks up this sort of book (I just – I’ve never really been a ‘let’s read about monsters and the gothic’ type of person) and so when the publishers sent it to me, I was doubtful. But then I was convinced, almost immediately, for Kenny’s prose is strong and confident and wildly imaginative. There’s elements here that remind me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, yes, but also early 90s children’s fantasy and in particular The Woven Path (the first of the remarkable Wyrd Museum trilogy from Robin Jarvis).

One of the strengths of The Monsters of Rookhaven is that it’s a book with intent: you have the hoary old cliches of the gothic solidly inverted and tested and broken through with such determination, buttressed all the way along with that vividly soaring artwork of Edward Bettison). I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something of a sequel on the way – or at least, something else set in that same world. I wouldn’t be able to let it go easily, I know that.

There’s a lot here that might scare particularly nervy readers (especially with the introduction of one particular character in the second half of the book), but Kenny asks us to look past that and see what and who people really are. It’s a potent message and one that’s done with a lot of style and purpose. Family is family; however, whoever, wherever and whatever you may find it. This is a stylish thing and one that has such a distinct air about it. It’s worth the time.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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22/10/201 update: This review was featured on Twinkl as part of their Great & Ghostly Guide to Halloween. Thanks Twinkl!

A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt

[Back when lockdown ended, and the world opened up again, one of my first visits was to a street in my town that’s full of charity shops. Each charity shop has its own character. One is very good for antique crockery (I’ll save my blog on cake-stands for another day), another is curiously obsessed with knitting, and another quite often turns out to have a whole stash of children’s classics tucked away in a corner. I’d grabbed a ton of the Tillerman books from there on a visit just before lockdown and then, when I went back several months later, driven by the weeks without books in lockdown (did we all read our TBR pile in the first week or was that just me?), A Solitary Blue was there to greet me. Reader, I bought it. And I loved it…]

A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I tweeted about reading this book, I said that Cynthia Voigt was increasingly proving to be all that I want from a writer. I’d written about my fairly recent discovery of her work , a journey which had made me fall in love with her crisp and clean writing, so full of clarity and heart and texture at every inch, and I had realised that I would read more of her work. And so I did, for some things are inevitable and Voigt’s writing makes me ache with an absolute jealous and love for it is perfect. I don’t quite understand how she can find the emotional nuance of a moment and exploit it, so acutely, without you even noticing what she’s doing. It is magic, perfect stuff.

I’ve read much of the Tillerman saga out of order, picking them up from charity shops and libraries as and when circumstance allowed. I’m conscious that there is an order but I rather love this way of discovering her world, of discovering the echoes within it. A name pops up that’s familiar or a circumstance and suddenly the book becomes a panopticon and I’m stood in the middle of a moment seeing it from a thousand different angles. On a practical level, I’m dazzled by Voigt’s efficacy and memory, but on an emotional level, I’m in the scene and living every inch of it.

What’s particularly remarkable about A Solitary Blue is that it’s a story of becoming, told in a way that I don’t think many other stories are. Jeff’s mother leaves him when he is seven and a half years old. Melody leaves a shattered world behind her: a boy coming to terms with the trauma of her leaving and, as we soon learn, her husband engaged in very much a similar state of affairs. But that’s what Melody does, she leaves shards behind her and they cut. Jeff deals with this by withdrawing so far that he might be nothing more than a dot, until the world and his father and life and Dicey Tillerman start to pull him back.

Voigt has an eye for adolescence and for rendering the complexities of life with such a subtle, sure hand. There are great stretches of quiet here, punctuated only by the briefest and most telling of detail, and it’s beautiful. I read this after Sons from Afar and found some sharp commonalities between the two texts; though Sons From Afar is later, it still has that nuanced, soft, gentle understanding of life and the problems it can throw at you. Of young boys learning who and what they are and what they can be, even when the world works against them.

A Solitary Blue makes me envious and happy in almost equal measure, and this series reminds me how painterly writing can be. Every time I find one in a shop, it shines like gold.

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Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

[Hello! I’ve been reading some not great books recently – hence the great gap between the last review and this. You know the sort of thing I mean? The book that you read a couple of pages of and realise instantly that they’re not for you. That. A lot of them, suddenly, all at once like London buses. For a moment I was wondering if I was going to hate everything from now on but then along came Penelope Lively and everything changed. Thank heavens…]

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know Penelope Lively mainly from her remarkable children’s books (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is very indicative of her thoughtful, frank writing) and I’ve been meaning to read more of her adult work for a long while. Moon Tiger is an excellent place to begin, for as I was reading it I was thinking of how much I envied every inch of it. This is a wild, beautiful, and rather ferociously elegant book, and it is impressive. So very much.

Claudia Hampton is dying. She is of a certain type of lady, redoubtable, fabulous, vain, complex, unknown, and she has decided that it is time to tell her history. She has spent her lifetime writing and so it is a fitting thing to do now that she has so very little time left. And so she tells her story: she spirals from memory to memory, from perspective to perspective, seeing things from one person’s point of view and then another. A paragraph here, a paragraph there, and Penelope Lively giving us an absolute lesson in writing in the process.

Full of wicked, sharp humour, and desperate, utter longing, this is such a remarkable book. Everything is just there, almost mercilessly so, and rading it is rather like looking through a kaleidoscope and into the heart of somebody sitting opposite you. It’s spare, straightforward, and rather more devastating at points than you can imagine.

I envy books such as this, because they define the idea of craft. Every inch of this feels almost three-dimensional, as though it’s cut from marble or chipped away from stone. A block of something transformed into everything. Such skill, such craft.

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Welcome To Your Period! by Yumi Synes and Dr Melissa Kang

Welcome To Your Period cover

Welcome to Your Period! by Yumi Stynes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Welcome to Your Period! is funny, frank and fearless and I loved every inch of it. Even though I’m roughly three thousand years old at this point (hello 2020!), it took me back to the sex education classes we all received at school. All of the girls were taken into a separate room (with our parents!!!) and told that lots of things would soon be happening to us, have fun with that, here’s a tampon.

I mean, what was life? If only I could time travel back to that room of increasingly baffled children and give them this. Welcome To Your Period! is like a paperback big sister – it covers everything you need to know. It really does cover everything: there’s information here on period poops through to how to manage your period while swimming. The information! The glorious, lovely, accessible information! And all of it madly, beautifully put together!

(I’m going to pause here to tell you and my librarian friends in particular, to stop reading this review and get a copy of this on order now. It is absolutely made for library shelves).

I also loved how this inclusive this book is. Jenny Latham’s illustrations are a delight with their fat, luscious use of colour and detail. She depicts people of all shapes and colour, people with body hair, people with period leaks on clothing (! the frank delight of this book!) and smiling period undies with a delightful, thick roundness. This is fine inclusivity, and I was so pleased to spot this attitude throughout the book. It refers to “people who menstruate” and has a very welcome trans-inclusive attitude throughout (with specific advice given to young people in this situation). So good. Well done.

I’m grateful to Little Tiger (who are publishing this in the UK) for the review copy. It’s a good, timely, important book and I’m pleased it’s coming here.

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A Future Chalet School Girl by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Future Chalet School Girl cover

A Future Chalet School Girl by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It recently hit me that there were still a few titles to do in my review of the Chalet School series and, that A Future Chalet School Girl is quite poor in every definition of the word, so where else to start but there? We all know this part of the series is not great, so any review of these books from this period need a star knocked off on principle. But then, there’s an argument for whacking a whole ton of stars onto this book and that argument is this:


There is not enough minibus content in children’s literature and I, for one, enjoy detailed descriptions of sitting arrangements. And seatbelts. And hammocks slung between the aisles for the babies to sleep in. And how many miles it does to the litre (hysterically sidestepped by EBD who just writes “the man told him” and moves on). I LOVE IT. I love it because it’s all so delightfully ridiculous. And the amount of drama that we get from it? Amazing.

The plot, for what it’s worth, is thin. We’re on holiday! A new girl randomly joins up with everybody for a couple of weeks and she has the most amazing connection to the Chalet School that you’ll never guess (you will guess, you will adore it, you will loathe it)! An old girl cameos (who, what? oh my gosh you’ll never guess where she lives!) and I am being mean here because it’s all so silly but utterly wonderful at the same time. I love it, immensely, even when a recovering invalid has soup followed a jam omelette and washes it all down with a glass of milk yellow with cream (none of that meal is a good thing, none of it). It’s adorable, but so, so dull all at the same time, which is quite the fascinating achievement in my book.


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The Red King’s Dream : Or Lewis Carroll in Wonderland by J. E Jones and J. Francis Gladstone

The Red King’s Dream: Or Lewis Carroll in Wonderland by J.E. Jones

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, before we begin: I am no Alice scholar, nor am I particularly fond of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I enjoy it but it’s never been one of those books that has particularly resonated with me nor left any especially life-changing effects. It is what it is for me, and it does what it does for others, and that’s good enough for me.

I am, however, fond of those books that try to do something a little differently when it comes to theory about the totemic classics of the children’s literature scene, and even though The Red King’s Dream is both infuriating and slightly ridiculous, I am somewhat in love with it. It hinges on a simple premise, namely that the Alice books are embedded with a code whereby the characters within are caricatures of real-world individuals in Victorian England. Thus the Unicorn is Gladstone, the Gryphon John Ruskin, the White Knight Tennyson and so on.

It sounds a rather straightforward proposal but it’s not without its flaws and there are a lot here. The “could this mean this” moments were probably the main offenders. You can read anything into anything if you try hard enough to do so. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s there. (I’m conscious I’m being Quite Sweeping about semiotics and interpretation there, but forgive me, I’m soapboxing).

Anyway! I also struggled where words were revealed to be an anagram of somebody else’s name but with several letters missing, or when a word can be an anagram of something related to somebody else, and this didn’t make much sense until we figured out this! It’s like the Da-Vinci Code but with White Rabbits, and I know that much of it works but again: it is possible to make anything work if you work hard enough to make it happen.

(I also had a few difficulties with “we found this mysterious item in this mysteriously catalogued and ordered collection of books could it be that we were the first to find it” attitude – last time I checked, libraries don’t magic themselves out of nowhere nor do catalogues nor shelving systems. Librarians!)

However – and here’s the counter-argument – I enjoyed this a lot and I think there’s a lot here for other readers to discover, but I don’t think it’s quite what the authors intended. This isn’t a book about Alice but rather a book about books themselves – what they make us do, what they set on fire inside of us, and the passions they unlock and the doors they open. It reminded me a lot of How The Heather Looks : A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books. Both texts have this strange appeal about them; they are thin and they are flawed, but they are also kind of fiercely wonderful in how much they love their chosen texts and aren’t remotely ashamed about that.

Sometimes the most interesting books that are out there tell quite a different story than the one they intend.

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The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s always a good sign when a book looks as stunning as The Black Flamingo does. This is a treat of design, all the way from that luscious front cover full of colour and style and power through to the pages themselves which play around with ink, typography and illustration. This is a book that sings with time and effort and care, and all of that is before you’ve even got to the first page. Like I said, always a good sign and Anishka Khullar (the illustrator) needs recognising for their vital, wonderful work here. It’s beautiful stuff.

And all of that care and craft pays off because The Black Flamingo is excellent. It’s a wild, rich verse novel that details the birth of The Black Flamingo, Micheal’s drag persona. The Black Flamingo is powerful, bold, and brave – and full of all of the stories and experiences that Micheal’s had to get to that point. Atta’s writing is sensitive, subtle and fearless; a fine balancing act that manages to craft something utterly beautiful in the process. Micheal’s part Greek-Cypriot, part Jamaican. He’s a thousand different things to a thousand different people. He’s viewed through the filter of his gender, his racial identity, his sexuality, his hair, his choices, the colour of his skin and so very rarely understood for who he is. But this is a book about seizing that moment of being who you are and owning it. Fearlessly, unapologetically, remarkably.

One of the rather beautiful moments in this comes when The Black Flamingo, in her act, recognises those who have paved the way for her. She pays tribute to a whole world of writers, performers, and personalities who have explored blackness, queerness and otherness. And in doing so, in placing that so very carefully within the climactic moment of this story, the reader is told that they are not alone. You are part of a continuum of voices, of people being who. they. are. Such an important thing, so excellently done and oh so beautifully handled.

I had such a lot of time for Atta’s work here. You can really feel Micheal start to find himself as the book develops; lines become firmer, words become steadier, and the absolute heart that beats in every inch of this becomes more and more wonderful. It’s difficult to define what empowering literature is and sometimes I think we throw the word out in the hope that it will stick because we don’t know quite else to do with it. But I think this is empowering stuff because every inch of it is full of heart and power and joy. Atta has this great gift of making Micheal both wise and naive, old and young, brave and terrified.

It’s all there and you feel every inch of it. There’s not an inch of this book that you don’t feel.

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“When you can’t speak, you sing, and when you can’t -” : musical theatre, Glee, and Naya Rivera

I never wanted to perform myself. Still don’t. The amount of interest I have in getting up on the stage can be measured in one hand. Musical theatre wasn’t – isn’t – for me. But watching it? I can’t imagine anything better. There’s something so intoxicating about watching people sing and dance their way across the screen to me, whether that’s the impromptu neighbourhood getting down to Shake Your Tail Feather (the dancer at 1:44 gives me life every time), or the iconic finale to Dirty Dancing*, where Baby realises that she can be whatever she wants to be (and the dancer at 3:31, I adore her so much), or the great legend that is Gene Kelly simply being his perfect self (I adore how the kids are actually cracking up all the way through the clip here). In fact, I’m going to pause for a moment there and let you watch the clips in question.

It’s difficult to define what makes these moments work so perfectly, for not everything in the world of musical theatre does. I could insert the whole of Showboat as evidence here, but I’m going to refrain. My point is that it’s difficult to capture perfection. Fred Astaire worked at it, so did Gene. Tales of their perfection are immense. Here’s a clip that took seventy-three takes to get right (!). Look at how Frank watches Gene all the way through it, just a brief – almost imperceptible – second behind him. They’re both amazing here, but Gene is – as ever – transcendent. His athletic, powerful dancing style is intoxicating:

We sing and dance in musicals because there’s no other way to express the feelings that we feel. It requires something more than what we have and so we rise to the occasion, singing and dancing and putting something magical together in order to wholly capture that moment. And it’s difficult to know what makes that moment work. I can snooze through a vast amount of Oklahoma (it’s a beautiful morning, we knooow), but I can’t take my eyes off Seven Brides For Seven Brothers** when it’s on.

When Glee first broadcast in 2009, I devoured it. I remember telling my friend at work about how perfect it was, about the sheer audacity of this show. It was sharp, sarcastic, and then – suddenly – iconic. Here’s Rehab by Amy Winehouse, as performed by the rival Glee club. (Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what a glee club was but I knew it was perfect when I saw this).

Glee fell off the rails fairly swiftly from that promising beginning, but two people in particular kept me watching. Amber Riley*** and Naya Rivera. And just over a week ago, Naya Rivera died.

I have been revisiting Naya’s performances in Glee ever since, emotional over many of them as I remembered and rediscovered the vibrant power and fierce eloquence of this remarkable performer. It is hard to know what makes somebody work on camera, but Naya’s performances worked every time in a way that I could barely understand:

It was when I reached the following clip in my rewatch that some thoughts (and indeed this post) began to crystallise themselves. A moment of context: Santana – Naya’s character – is gay. She has been recently outed to the school.

It’s the little moment at 0.56 that breaks me. “Don’t forget me, I beg.” The way she stands. The way she sings. The way she holds everything, all of it, so very precisely within herself. The way that even though she holds it, we know it’s there. Sadness. Heartache. Power. Don’t forget me, I beg. Remember me. Be aware of who I am.

And as I rewatched that moment, once, twice, a hundred times more, I realised how much that’s influenced me. I want to write stories full of girls who are remembered, who make themselves be remembered because they’re so wonderful that they can’t be forgotten.

There’s a quote from Firefly that is relevant here.

“When you can’t walk, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”

When we can’t express feelings, we look to the world about us to make that happen. To help us communicate. We paint, we sing, we read, we dance. We look to find the expression of ourselves within things, we look for mirrors and reflections, for modes that express the feelings that can’t be expressed any other way. And those things that we find, they help us. They let us live.

That’s what all of these moments do. When we’re watching Gene Kelly, we’re not really watching him. We’re watching a man explore the infinite potential of his self, we’re watching emotions made whole. The same with Patrick Swayze and the way he could suddenly shift from vulnerable to raw, fierce confidence with only a slight change of bearing. When you can’t talk, you sing and you dance and you tell the truth of yourself in doing so.

Naya Rivera was a remarkable performer, and her vivid vulnerability astounds me, even now. She carried us. She gave her truth.


*Technically I know Dirty Dancing isn’t a piece of musical theatre in this incarnation, but I’m having it because of the later adaptation and because this is iconic stuff for girls of a certain generation. Plus that bit where Baby’s mum goes “I think she gets it from me” makes it worthy of inclusion in all lists, ever.

** Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the most perfect and most offensive musical ever. There’s a whole separate article in that musical (and it would begin with a fifteen thousand panegyric to that incredible Barn Raising scene).

***Treat yourself if you haven’t, and watch Amber Riley here. She is a force of absolute nature:

The Last Word and Other Stories by Graham Greene

The Last Word and Other Stories by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I’m in love with Graham Greene now and I’m not sure how to feel about that. In many senses, I’d written him off as somebody who wrote about things that I wasn’t interested in. A sweeping statement I know, but that’s what we do and honesty in such things is important. I only came to realise very recently, driven entirely by this volume, that short stories by Greene are a revelation to me and this is a cornucopia of delights. Witty, smart, provocative and fiercely distinct, this is a lovely, lovely collection.

And here’s the thing: I only picked this up because of a film, which in turn I only watched because I caught somebody tweeting about it. The serendipity of reading intrigues me, the way you can tumble into a text because of another, because of circumstance and the things you catch in the day. In many senses, I rather love that – that dynamic sense of movement and finding things anew (and in the state of literary fiction, finding them and understanding them in a way that is not dictated to you by others). The film was Went the Day Well? and it is a remarkable, brilliant thing. (The reason the tweet about it caught my eye was that I love 1940s / 1950s films and the tweet mentioned the remarkable sight of Thora Hird wielding a machine gun which really did just sell the entire thing to me).

Went the Day Well? was based on The Lieutenant Died Last, a story of twenty four pages (!), and one of the highlights of this volume for me. I also absolutely loved The Last Word (the way it grew! the power of it!) and The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower is so, so brilliant. There’s some moments of utter wonder here. As with every short story collection, there’s one or two that really didn’t work for me and I found Murder For The Wrong Reason and Work Not In Progress pretty skippable, but The Last Word, The Lieutenant Died Last, and The Man Who Stole the Eiffel Tower are absolutely, utterly, brilliant.

A final note on Graham Greene, as I’m still trying to figure out how I can cope with absolutely loving his work after It Being Not For Me for so long. A member of staff at my undergrad university had the same name and on a day when we were giving tours to prospective student, a parent asked about staff. One of the other student guides mentioned Graham. The parents: THE GRAHAM GREENE?????????????????????. The guide, blissful, conscious of there being only member of staff with that name: er yes?

The hysteria, endless.

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The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I reread The School by The River for a lecture I attended online this week, one concerned with the role of memory and how the act of reading is in itself situated across our lives. What does it mean to remember a book that you read as a child? What does it mean to reread it now? Fascinating stuff and one that drove me to the work of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, an author whom I have read for a long time, and to The School By The River. Interestingly enough, the last time I read this book was for an essay for the speaker of this week’s lecture, and I didn’t realise the connection until I sat down to listen.

I remember the first time I found The School By The River. I was a member of a fan journal at the time, and I remember receiving the little order supplement with the journal as it came through the post. A bright colour too, I think, perhaps blue or red. I went through a flurry of ordering ‘additional’ titles by EBD at that time, though it rapidly wore off. I couldn’t keep up with the amount of reprints and fill-ins that were published, and so I think I maybe bought this, Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer and Visitors for the Chalet School around the same sort of time and that was about it. Collecting was a long term project, and I was in it for the duration. Besides, my pocket money didn’t stretch to it.

The School By The River was a good book to pick. It was lost for many years, the circumstances of a small initial print run plus air-raid damage to the printers during WW2, and it’s a standalone. Brent-Dyer was terribly fond of series (even though she approached issues like consistency and detail with an airy – and rather delightful – irreverence) and her standalone titles are, for me, not the best of her work. They sort of act as a sampler to the others – this is what you’ll get, and it’s quite likely I’ll recycle the names as well and half the plots elsewhere.

Some of The School By The River does suffer from such a tendency towards being already seen elsewhere, but then Brent-Dyer throws in a revolution halfway through and things go full crazytown and I love it. I can’t tell you how much I adore her talking about things like Bolshevism and Student Revolution because they’re clearly such alien concepts to her. (Redheads at the Chalet School I’m looking at you). And so we get some rather wonderfully ambitious writing here with talk of politics, Bolsheviki agents, revolution and uprising, and it’s all utterly off its noodle in a way that only Brent-Dyer can do. Singing in the cellars! Gunshots! Stale bread with honey whilst the proletariat swim through floods! I have never known an author so keenly devoted to hybridising ridiculous and wonderful in her work as this one.

Plot. I suppose we should talk plot briefly, because that’s what we do in such things like this. Jennifer’s talented with the piano, weirdly pretty if you do her hair right, very British, destined for great things and also an orphan (naturellement). She’s got chums, gets a bit wound up when there’s a storm on, there’s also a bad girl who turns good, some terribly overwrought social drama, and a magnificent ruritanian Kingdom where everybody goes about by horse and carriage and wears national dress 24/7. Honestly, what is life when you have a book as delightful as this?

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The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was only when I finished The Year Of The Runaways that I managed to figure out what wasn’t working for me. There’s a lot here that does; it was nominated for the Booker in 2015 and rightly so, it’s a big story of social realism,almost incomprehensible in scope and vision, attempting to tell the story of several youthful Indians who leave their homes and attempt to start over in the United Kingdom. It is hard, brutal and unforgiving, and this book shines a spotlight on the people at the heart of that. It made me think a lot about the Great American Dream and “The Great British Dream”, the shape of it and the truth of it. This isn’t a story that provides answers to that, instead it attempts to understand the grim and horrific edge of it. Life isn’t easy for our protagonists. It is psychologically, emotionally, bodily taxing. It takes from them as much as it gives. And sometimes what it gives is so very little.

Like I said, there’s a lot here that works. Sahota is a powerful and competent storyteller, though I wish he’d found a little more solidity at points. There were several key moments I missed because I just didn’t pick them up and ended up rereading, and those moments felt often intensely fragmentary and brief – when in fact, they proved definitive for the characters in question. I found a lot of interest in his story about the female protagonist – Narinder – and rather ached for more on her. Sahota is good and strong and this is a great book. It brings humanity into politics and asks us to see beyond the stories we are told. To the truth of them, however awful or wonderful it may be.

But it’s those fragmentary moments in the text that bothered me, those bits where the story shied away a little from delivering on the promise or the situations that it presented. It was as if it didn’t quite have the time to spare for them when, in some senses, dwelling on them was precisely what needed to be happen. There’s a balance to be found of course, in every story, and sometimes the pace or the scope can pull away from the moment at hand. When we go big, it’s so very easy to neglect the tiny precise moments. The small, brief stuff. And yet, when we go big as storytellers, when we write a story that is as immense and as scopey as this, it’s the tiny stuff that matters.

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The Cage by Alberts Bels

The Cage by Alberts Bels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My journey into Latvian literature continues, thanks to my friends at Latvian Literature who hooked me up with a review copy of The Cage by Alberts Bels. As problematic as it is to classify a nations output on the very few titles I’ve read (here’s my review of In The Shadow Of Death), I’m very much in love with the introspective philosophical edge that I keep finding. These are books that think very much about what they are, and what they want to say – there’s a care in every word, and The Cage is a perfect example of such. I loved it. There’s so much here to think about, to hold, to consider.

The Cage is a mystery novel set in Riga, and concerns itself with the disappearance of a local architect. And yet, as with many novels that can be summed up in such a way, it’s about everything other than that. It’s about the people in the story, their lives and loves and intersections. It’s about a society that’s tightly woven to prevent this sort of Unusual Thing happening – there’s some very deep and pointed political commentary here which gains extra resonance when you learn that The Cage was first published in 1972, during the time when Latvia was under Soviet rule. And it’s about the cages that all of these people – and us, ourselves – live in. Real, metaphorical or otherwise.

I liked this a lot. There’s some big philosphical questions here but it wears them lightly, and you’re able to savour it at a whole range of levels. If you want to figure things out you can, but if you don’t – if you just want a superbly crafted and rather fascinatingly told mystery – then you can have it. It’s the sort of book that lets you come back to it (I’m on my second reading at the moment, fascinated by the twisting edges of it – the way it dances and slides always a little bit ahead of me) and I think there will be a third. The Cage is the sort of book that can give you that. It’s very worth hunting out.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf edited by Susan Dick

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am circling around the work of Virginia Woolf, dipping in my toe every now and and then and trying to figure out what this author is for me and what her work can be. I struggled a lot with some of her longer texts and still do, and so I wondered for a while whether we were ever going to wholly click.

But then I found this, this collection of shorter fiction – some that barely even make a page – and it is a wonderful and fierce treat. For me, this is where her strength lies. There’s something so utterly appealing about the way she can capture mood and place and space within a few lines, something so rather wonderful about how she can spin a piece completely on its head with a final sentence, and I loved every inch of this collection. And the final lines! Woolf knows how to end a piece!

The Complete Shorter Fiction Of Virginia Woolf is gathered into years; we have the ‘early stories’ before moving to 1917-1921, 1922-1925, and then 1926-1941. A certain preoccupation can be felt in these sectons with similarities of theme or colour or style, and the hints towards her wider work can be palpably felt at points. Yet even without this sort of contextual, scholarly edge, these are wildly wonderful stories. Some work better than others, some have more plot whilst others barely even hold the notion of ‘plot’ (whatever that may mean) in their grasp, and some storm off the page with heart and sentiment and fire.

Favourites included Memoirs of a Novelist, a fierce and somewhat heartbreaking story about a female biographer of the late ‘Miss Willett’; A Haunted House, which sees a ghostly couple walk through the shadows of their fomer life in searching of something; A Society, a brilliant (god it stopped me in my tracks) breakdown of the idea that men are smarter than women (it’s so, so brilliant); and the outstanding Lappin and Lapinova, a relationship based around the fantasy (roleplay?) that both partners are rabbits (amazing, amazing, amazing).

I talk a lot about elasticity when it comes to a text, the notion of stretching the page and the book itself to become something unknown, something different, something new – of pushing at form and shape and texture to find that edge of a book that can be completely made yours. Woolf’s short stories are an education in how to make that happen. God, they’re good. So good.

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Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.

Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

In the Shadow of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[I am very grateful to my friends at Latvian Literature for securing me a review copy of this. As ever, my opinion is my own. I’d not be writing this if it weren’t…]

First published in 1899 and based on a then contemporary newspaper account of several fisherman who were lost at sea after the ice floe they were on broke away, In The Shadow Of Death by Rūdolfs Blaumanis is pretty much the perfect short story. It is a quick read and yet, in many senses, not; I keep looking at it and wondering just how it does what it does. It’s like one of those pebbles you drop into water, the ripples echo out from it and the landscape is forever changed by its presence. A big book, a little book, a haunting book. A good book, yes.

Blaumanis is new to me and I didn’t know who he was or what to expect of him. And so, if you’re like me, here’s some facts from the edition itself. Blaumanis (1863-1908) is “noted especially for his numerous short stories and plays, and for his command of literary realism”. Later it talks about how “energised by the social issues of the day, he honed a deep sympathy for the lives of ordinary Latvians”. And that’s a really good point to link back to In The Shadow Of Death itself, it’s a story of the everyday person. The people who make the world turn – the people who carry out their jobs because they have to, and who deal with all of the dangers and difficulties that simply living may bring. This is such a tense, unnerving story because it feels so real. So immediate. So brutally matter-of-fact.

Blaumanis writes with an incredible restraint, and reminded me in many ways of Hemingway’s frank directness. There’s also a hint of Virginia Woolf in here, that nuanced, deep eye for style and structure and theme; these are characters that you get to know very briefly but intimately somehow, people made flesh and truth in a moment of a paragraph. It’s so subtle this book and so clever, so small and yet so, so big.

My thanks again to the team at Latvian Literature for hooking me up with a review copy.

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Fracture by Andrés Neuman

Fracture: A Novel by Andrés Neuman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been making a deliberate push for a while to read more translated fiction, a reaction, I suppose, to the world we find ourselves within at the moment and the way that even the bottom of the road seems a little unknowable and a little distant. I want to connect, I think, I want to read about the cultures and the worlds that I can’t go to just yet, I want the barriers to fade away into nothing, I want to live.

And living comes through literature, specifically translated literature, the sort that takes language and gives it something new and fresh, each word paying tribute to the story it translates but also the story it wants to tell, this delicate narrative formed somewhere in between two worlds and giving me a snapshot of the world within its pages. Translation is hard, and I admire those who do it. I also want more of it, more of these books that challenge me to read outside of my experience and my worlds, and I am so grateful for those books that make me pause and realise something new, something acute and sharp and deliciously big about life.

My first such moment came in the opening chapters of Fracture, a novel I picked through nothing more than some determined searching on Netgalley, and it was a sentence that made me pause and think: so you are to be this sort of book, are you? A line, so simple, but one that shot through all of the mugginess I’ve been having whilst reading lately, a line that made me sit up and really see Fracture for what it was. For what it was going to be.

And it is good this book, it is good and big and full of being. It is about those things that connect being, those lines that form between us all and connect and pull and tease and fracture, those moments that echo for years and worlds to come.

Mr Yoshie Watanabe is a survivor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And when an earthquake strikes Tokyo in 2011, triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, his memories of those prior disasters bring him to make a decision that will change his life. During all of this, four different women share their memories of their time with Yoshie, reflecting on a life lived and loved across the globe. And through it all, the memories of conflict, of disaster – of moments that reverberate for so long, too long, not long enough.

I liked this a lot. Neumann’s writing is lyrical, artistic, and though at some points I felt it got away from him, they were few and far between. The overall impression is of a writer who knows what he wants to say about the world and how he wants to say it; these are big, moving questions and to be able to articulate them is a gift. Fracture is a big, big book that pushes the world open and lets you see it for what it is. Highly recommended.

My thanks to the publisher for approving me on Netgalley.

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The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy by Peter Jackson, the art of storytelling, and season eight of Game of Thrones

It’s not a good sign when you watch something and think, quite clearly, of something else that did it better. But that was what happened on my watch of the final season of Game of Thrones, a season that was derided by pretty much every critic I read and person I know as appalling. They were not wrong. This was a season that folded within itself, grossly rewriting characters and forgetting years of slow and rich growth. But you know this, we all know this, and my finally watching these episodes will only serve to confirm how right we all were. Stories cannot be shot in almost total-darkness, characters cannot blink their way across the country, and goodwill can be lost – so, so easily.

It was The Long Night that broke me, an episode that should have been the pinnacle of so, so much and the way that it was not. The way that none of the marquee actors died (although here’s to you hot knight), the way that other characters just went off to the coast for a while on their dragons before popping back to see what was going on, and the way that the Red Witch just became the Red Witch Of Plot Convenience. And as the episode finished, I knew one thing very clearly: I had to rewatch The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy.

And I had to rewatch one very particular part of it.

Continue reading “The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy by Peter Jackson, the art of storytelling, and season eight of Game of Thrones”

Pennington by KM Peyton

Pennington by K.M. Peyton

Pennington: A Trilogy by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this primarily because of the hideous cover, dazzled as I was by this rendering of Patrick Pennington in a way I had never quite imagined him before. And for a long while it stayed unread and at the bottom of my TBR pile, occasionally beaming at me in all its awful glory without ever quite being read.

Of course, I knew the Pennington books and had read them all before in singular editions. In many senses, I was telling myself that I didn’t need to read this, that I knew the books, that I knew what KM Peyton could do. And that – perhaps – this cover, this brilliant monstrosity, was all I had this edition for. I knew the books well enough. I did not need to go back to them.

And then, I did. Weeks of lockdown and a slowly diminishing TBR pile, and this – the survivor – greeting me at the bottom of it. I hadn’t read anything properly for weeks; in a way, I was the pond-skimmer, an insect moving my way along the top of the water and never quite fully reaching that which lay below. I read, but I didn’t. I turned the pages, but I didn’t.

But it is for such moments that KM Peyton is made for. She is a writer who can find the elasticity of a moment, stretching it until everything that it could be and everything that it is has been explored. And although, perhaps of the three, Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer feels its age a little, this is a remarkable, brilliant collection of stories. It is life, it is love, and it is written with such a beautiful and eloquent fluency that I reread whole chunks of it in a slow stupor of wonder. Her eye for detail! The nuance of emotion! The way she can see everybody and allow them to simply be!

Oh the glory of a writer at the peak of her powers, the glory.

(Cover’s still awful though).

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Some News

A slightly “more coherent than yesterday” post about my news…. 🙂

Big boots and adventures

My debut children’s book HOW TO BE BRAVE will be out in 2021 in both the UK and US, and I am SO excited to introduce you to this world. Here’s a few tweets on the topic..

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Seven Men of Gascony by R. F. Delderfield

Seven Men of Gascony by R.F. Delderfield

Seven Men of Gascony by R.F. Delderfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(And what do we do in a a pandemic, but turn to the stalwart classics of the bookshelf?)

I do not remember the first time I read Seven Men of Gascony but I know that it was a long time ago. It was first published in the late 40s, and the work of an author whom I have never quite learnt to love anywhere else but in this book. But this book is enough, this sprawling tale of the last few years of the Napoleonic Wars, it is occasionally trite, occasionally a little manipulative, but rather utterly, endlessly good. I return to it regularly, particularly when I need stories of people being people, of nobility in the darkest of places, of emotion so thick and so painterly that it might be a sunset, and I needed it recently so I did. And I love it still, and I am so glad.

Seven Men of Gascony (those magnificent seven) is written from the French perspective, from the viewpoint of seven men brought together in the chaos of the last few years of the First Empire. It crosses battles, continents, skirmishes in the field, skirmishes in the bedroom, and it is old-fashioned but it works. It’s a classic, one that lets you see into why the French did what they did, why they followed who they did, and because of Delderfield’s background in the RAF, it is a classic which never lets you forget the man on the ground and the blood, sweat and tears that he poured into making the world happen.

You’ll like this if you are forgiving towards boy’s own adventures, or a fan of the work of Bernard Cornwell, or perhaps even in lockdown and desperate for a good old-fashioned roaring adventure. I like it. I like it a lot. And the ending, also, makes me cry. Every time.

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Trials For The Chalet School, an audio review

I’ve been contemplating doing some audio content for a while (I feel like I need to hashtag that liberally but I honestly can’t bear it, so forgive me). The current situation in the world has given me that opportunity and so, here we are with a review of Trials For The Chalet School – a short and somewhat eccentric (play to your strengths, I know) look at some of the most intriguing aspects of this fascinating book. Forgive me my neophyte audio-editing ways, but I hope you enjoy!

Trials for the Chalet School (19:07)

(Music: Xylo-Ziko, used under creative commons).

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lyrical exploration of tragedy, The Other Americans is an incredibly poised and eloquent novel. One night Driss Guerraoui crosses the road and is killed by a speeding car; the novel follows what happens next, spiralling through a series of chapters told by different voices in and out of the neighbourhood. These are the people impacted by Driss’s death – his wife, his daughters, but also the neighbours, the police, and the community at large. It’s a powerful read, and one that works with a lot of subtlety and control to figure out issues of identity, representation and otherness. What is America? Who is America?

Reading this as an outsider to America is a fascinating exercise and a rewarding one; stylistically Lalami is incredible here, working her way through a tightly structured polyphonic text – albeit one where certain voices and characters work better than others – and delivering a restrained and somewhat elegiac examination of identity. I would have welcomed much more about certain characters but I also recognise that there’s a balance to be formed here, and certain things will always remain underplayed or unresolved. There’s only so much we see and, in a way, this reflects much of the journey of grief itself. We see flashes in others, fragments of truth spilling to the surface, but our journey remains our own however much we may wish that it doesn’t.

In trying to characterise this narrative, trying to recognise the texture and feel of it, I keep coming back to the notion of a scalpel. The Other Americans is slender, sharp and so precise in its reach. It cuts so specifically to the heart of the matter, and the truth unfolds so precisely, so slowly, and with such control. It is a powerful, impressive book.

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Cynthia Voigt, Americana and the texture of literary things

“Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it.”

I don’t remember the first time I read Cynthia Voigt. I do, however, remember what it was that I read. A book called Homecoming. A title that bore little resonance to my rural childhood, more concerned with ponies than proms, but it stayed with me for years. And it stayed with me in a particular kind of way; I would struggle to tell you much of the plot now other than a brief precis, but I would not struggle to talk to you about the way that book felt. Not how I felt when reading it, but the way that the book felt. Books hold a quality about themselves, a texture within. Some are spikey, some are loving, and some sing of endless blue skies and a country almost too rich and too big to be understood. America. A land I had not visited but could feel within these pages, an introduction to another world.

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About that secret project I've been working on…

Hello! So, over the past few months, I have been working on a small secret project and now I can tell you all about it. Essentially, I got increasingly grumpy and decided to do something about it. Grumpiness is a very good motivational factor! My grumpiness centred about the increasing realisation that the women writers I collected and loved were so often erased from literary histories. Much of this I think comes from out conceptualisation of literary history itself and how it is so driven by patriarchal concerns and the like. You hear a lot about people like Charles Dickens, right, but you very rarely hear about people like Angela Brazil who basically defined the term popular bestseller. E Nesbit only just got the really decent biography she deserves (here’s an affiliate link to the one I mean – it’s really a very good book and I do recommend it). Bessie Marchant was the GA Henty of her day, but there’s like three articles on her in the entirety of Google Scholar and a ton of him. And The Chalet School In Exile is begging for a Netflix adaptation, but I’ll bet you good money that nobody there has ever heard of it.

So! What to do in such circumstances?

You set up a micropublisher, call it Hot Pot Press, and teach yourself how to publish and publish these stories. You teach yourself how to do it (this is no vanity press btw) and you undertake projects for friends and family until you figure it all out.

And when you do, you launch herstory, which is a range of formerly out of print and forgotten children’s classics by female authors – the first of which is Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant – and you give them a new introduction and a further reading list and all of the added content you can stuff into them on the tiniest and most non-existent of budgets.

You tell people that this is about rewriting wrongs, about bringing these women back into the critical picture, about making them part of the literary world once more. You adopt the mantra that publishing is a feminist act. You realise that this is your academic attitudes made flesh, that research is nothing unless you bring people and stories with you.

You set up options for people to support your publisher by micro-donations or simply following it on Twitter as the world is a lot to handle right now and support is welcome in all and any forms, and when you’ve done all that, that’s when you draft a post all about it on your blog.

And then you press publish.

Miss Wilmer's Gang by [Marchant, Bessie]

Unexpected Archive Delights : 1920s Children’s Book Adverts

I am constantly surprised by archives. I know that’s an incredibly strange thing to say and one that sounds even stranger when you are supposed to know what you are looking at, but it’s true. I am surprised by archives; the way they give me something that I request that comes with a thousand other delightful things. Much of this is the nature of research itself, that need to pursue one thread of thought whilst ignoring the others that tug at your senses – but sometimes, it’s nice to look at those other things. And so I did and I do, because they tell you everything. They tell you about the texture of that thing you’re looking at. They tell you about the readers, about the writers – everything, really. It’s all clues towards understanding the thing that you’re interested in.

And sometimes, they tell you about the books you have on your shelves, even now.

Here’s some rather lovely adverts for then-new publications from WR Chambers, a firm of publishers based in Scotland. They are a publisher that may be well familiar to a lot of you. These adverts and book reviews come from the Life Of Faith – a weekly religious newspaper that covered ‘spiritual life’. It cost twopence and covered everything somebody involved in religion may wish to know – whether that’s the details of the nearest service, or what books to buy the younger members of their family. There were many other adverts from Chambers but I picked out the ones with the most notable titles and authors.

First up is this lovely advert from November, 1927. I particularly enjoyed the strapline underneath THE SEVEN SCAMPS (did the copywriter give up at this point, we wonder?). I’m also very fond of the title to Josephine Elder’s latest…

A 1927 advert for books from WR Chambers.

Now it’s time for November, 1930, and a slightly longer write up of the new titles (two pictures). The Life of Faith featured books regularly but children’s books only seemed to creep into these end of year round ups. It’s interesting that they did! It tells you a lot about who the reader of the Life Of Faith was – that they had enough disposable income to buy books as (presumably) Christmas gifts, and that they cared about “good, healthy stories”. I think my favourite here is again the rather “I’ve given up and gone home for tea” description of the Chalet School books…

A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.
A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.

And now, an advert from 1927. It’s the prices that are the most interesting here I think – look at that distinction between “new books” and “cheap editions”. There’s also a story here in how Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is listed under the ‘New Books For Boys And Girls’ section.

A 1927 advertisement for new books from WR Chambers.

I was also very much delighted to find connections to another popular girlsown author. Here’s an advert from the Life Of Faith in 1916 and in the top right hand corner is a poem. Have a look at the author. Do you recognise that surname? (It’s Elsie Oxenham’s dad…).

A 1916 advert from The Life Of Fait featuring a poem by John Oxenham.

And now for something completely different. Let’s end with a look at a Bovril advert in 1927, and a marketing department that’s decided “go big or go home”.

A 1927 advert for Bovril reading "DRINK BOVRIL ONCE IT'S IN YOU IT'S SINEW"

(Amazing, right?).

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books you know – or at the very least, think that you know – before you get anywhere near to reading them. Bridge to Terabithia is one for me, and Marianne Dreams is – was – another. I thought I knew it, I thought I understood it, I thought I recognised its place within the world and then, at last finding a copy, I read it and realised I understood nothing. (I especially did not understand how any child reading it could ever draw anything again after reading it, but that’s by the by). This spooky, strange, and viciously tense book is a remarkable thing and I rather loved it.

Marianne is bedridden through illness, and she draws. She draws a world into life and enters it through her dreams – finding everything that she’s drawn on the page coming to strange and peculiar life. A house. A landscape. A world. A boy at a window, looking back upon her. There are connections here to be teased out; who, what, and why, until suddenly things are almost beyond her control and a brave and bold fight against the forces of darkness must begin.

This is one of those deliciously unclassifiable books that the fifties did so well. Children’s literature was entering a phase of peculiar and radical richness (for more on that, Kimberley Reynolds’ Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction is a treat) and Marianne Dreams sings of power in every inch. The children are no virtuous angels; they are unhappy and peevish and angry and true, and they learn that even in their isolation, they are not alone. They learn that actions have consequences, that events can spiral out of their control, and that – even when all seems lost- they have an agency and a power that can work against it.

And we, as the reader, learn to never look at a sketch in quite the same way again. The unnerving wildness of this book!

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Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always interested when a book does something differently, and this really does. Orion Lost is a big, meaty science-fiction story set aboard a space-ship where everything suddenly goes wrong. And the only people who can put things right are the kids – thirteen year old Beth and her friends. Being in charge is never easy, and it’s particularly uneasy when your crew is panicking, you’re responsible for the lives of every one on board, you’re ricocheting from crisis to crisis, and the AI might actually be evil.

There’s a clear heritage here to things like Firefly, Star Wars and Star Trek, but what really appealed was how Chisholm handled his characters. They’re real people, flawed and fascinating and this is a story that you don’t want to put down. I had no expectations about this when I started it, but then I really couldn’t put it down. It’s a big, powerful, hooky read.

Also, I was pleased that it’s as big as it is – there’s a lot of story here, in a way that’s perhaps unusual for middle grade books, but it’s all there for a reason. I thought that the ending could perhaps have done with a little more and that’s again an unusual thing for this age-group. Stories sometimes strain against circumstance and genre, but this is a story that fits so very well into its situation and could even give more under the circumstances. I really do want to say something about the engines being able to take it but I’m not sure I can write that in an appropriate ‘Scottish engineer on the Enterprise’ tone of voice so just consider it as implied, thank you.

This is a really great read. I was happily surprised and I’m delighted to be; this is something fresh, unique and rather well handled indeed. And it surprised me – a lot – and I love that.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town cover by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës by Isabel Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am increasingly conscious that I am moving closer to the world of the Brontës, falling in love with it, and not being remotely mad about this, not at all. I would have fought against this a few years ago, I think, reading them as something distant from what they are. Something dull, something ‘bonnety’, something related to distant schooldays and the memories of tearing a text from limb to limb and leaving little to nothing left there to love, to lose onself in. But I have learnt how to read since then, and by ‘read’, I mean to read for myself. This isn’t about literacy nor the understanding of shapes and comprehension of words, it’s about reading. Selfishly, wholly. Completely. Reading not for the reaction of others but for the reaction of myself. And to trust in that. It’s something I took a while to figure out: my reading has validity. And also, that it doesn’t matter what route I take to get to a text. It just matters that I take it.

My route to the Brontës began with Emily and Wuthering Heights, and the slow realisation that I could not ignore storytelling as fierce as this. And so I worked my way into their world, reading books about them and books by them and books like Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg, books that are something so magical and wild and weird and delicious that they spill out of simple classifications and into something else entirely. Technically this is a graphic novel, a blend of fact and fiction, a story of the Brontë juvenilia and the stories held within, and it is that. But it’s something else entirely, and I think that something is magic.

Magic. We read it as one thing, but it’s so often another. Opening your eyes. Picking up a pen. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat. All magic, magic things but infinitely different. The act of conjuring. The act of making. The act of faith. A thousand different things in this world are magic and they are intoxicating, teasing, all-enveloping. Writing was the Brontës magic, a way to slide from one world into another, and the moors were their magic, a way to stand on the edge of the sky, and each other were their magic, these small potatoes in their cellar, these sisters.

I think that’s what happens here in Isabel Greenberg’s book, magic. Worlds slide into worlds, lives fold into each other, stories map landscapes, oceans are formed, stars are made, stories are told. Greenberg’s art borders on a spectral edge, capturing the tense edge of life on the edge of the moor, a life fighting against everything that happened, another world haunting the skies above Haworth, a castle in the sky built by words and stories and dreams.

The other great part of this book is Charlotte’s story. There are moments here that are intensely saddening, handled with a great and subtle restraint, and it is remarkable. I loved it. A lesson in dreams, a lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in imagination. A lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in love, a lesson in life. This book really is a stunning achievement.

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other cover by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(The dizzying joy of finding a copy of this in the charity bookstore, when you’re still the 449302nd reservation on the library copy…)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel of such utter articulacy that I scarce know how to handle it. In fact, I didn’t quite know how to handle it when I finished it and instead did an attractive ‘stare into the ether and realise that I’ll never write anything as good as this’ type thing, and then I got my act together and began to write this review. Because this is a book, a book of such utter craft and perfect skill that it’s almost a lesson in how to be brilliant. Confident, competent, crafted to within an inch of its life and never – ever – feeling overworked, this is a remarkable and wonderful thing.

It is mostly a story of women of colour, a story of identity and faith and peoplehood, a slow and subtle and rich investigation of what makes us the people we are, what makes us tell the stories we tell, what makes those stories live and love and survive. At one level, you could read Girl, Woman, Other as a collection of short stories – each focused on one individual – but then you realise that you can’t. They all reflect and cast light upon each other and, at the end, bring you home in a way that you could never have quite expected. It is beautiful, beautiful.

There is also pain here, and it is unflinchingly rendered. Women are angry, women hurt, women fight, women live. Feminisms are made and torn apart and remade. Evaristo handles it all with such an amazing skill that I’m made breathless by it; there is poetry, there is light, and at the worst moments, there is a restraint that peaks so much of her talent as a writer. It’s easy to overwrite something. It takes strength to pare a text back to the bones. A balance, found, hold. Savoured. It’s just – impressive. Utterly, utterly so.

(Finally. I do not see how this could ever share a prize for anything: it wins, it wins, it always wins.)

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The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Here’s the thing: I admire what Pullman can do; I admire the way he can articulate things; I admire the worlds he has creates with all of their wild wonder and glory; but I do not admire this book. It is overlong, overwrought and often – frankly – dull.

I wanted to like it a lot. I’d waited for it for a long time, due to a reservation queue of thousands, and I was excited to get my hands on it. But that excitement faded, it faded so swiftly, for this is not the best of his work. Pullman is a good writer but this is something like fifteen books packed into one, and all of them begging for an edit in a way that I have not witnessed for a long time. There is a story here. There is always a story with Pullman, often a powerful and wonderful one, but here it’s drowned in noise. Theory. Metaphor. Commentary. Politics. And all of this is fine, providing it’s managed. Providing at some point it stops – simply, briefly – to let the book breathe.

But it doesn’t. We have characters stopping to info-dump with each other for three hundred pages before wandering off and never being heard of ever again. Important Things Being Discussed In Impenetrable Manners Between Important People With Increasingly Incomprehensible Symbolic Fashion. Tired tropes of sexual violence being used to little to no effect. Messy subplots. Fifteen page arguments about theory. And then there’s the characters who swim in and out every ten chapters so that you can never quite grasp who and what they are or even, really care.

This feels like a book that has been told that it’s important and begun to believe it.

And oh, I did not care about it. I cared at first because I loved the story of Lyra (oh that past tense, that past tense). I have sat on her and Will’s bench in Oxford, I have trod in her steps, but now I do not care. I just don’t, and that saddens me so much. She is one of the biggest, wildest characters to take part in the literary world and yet here, she’s neutered. Every single step, every single breath. And I know (hope) that this is the stutter before the step of her journey, the moment where the world beats her down before she rises, but I do not care any more. I am done with these, I think, and so there we are. I am tired of this series and I am done.

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The Highland Falcon Thief by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a lot of fun. I went into The Highland Falcon Thief thinking well, I am ancient and absolutely have no interest whatsoever in trains, and I came out and realised that I loved it. There is a scene, for example, where they fill up the train with water (this is a thing!) and it is pretty much one of the best scenes I have read for a long while. It’s breathless, visceral and genuinely good storytelling – and one that actually made me look up steam-trains on Youtube for the first time in ever.

Harrison Beck has been invited to join his Uncle Nat on the final journey of the royal steam-train: The Highland Falcon. Things go awry, as they do in all stories, and suddenly Harrison finds himself making friends and investigating the mystery of the Highland Falcon Thief. Told by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, this is such a vibrant and well-crafted story and one that gives you an incredibly rich mystery/adventure in the process. Mystventure? Forgive me, I am fond of tenuous portmanteaux.

Evocative of Robin Stephens’ delicious mysteries, with a side-order of Agatha Christie – and a little bit of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure – the Highland Falcon Thief is the perfect title for confident, independent readers. If they’re not, then it’s perfect for a bedtime read as well but be warned – you’ll have to deal with a fair few ‘just one more chapter’ requests. And, I suspect, not all of these requests will come from the child…

Vibrant, fun and just really really good storytelling, this is one of the best books I’ve read for a while. I loved it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Animal Farm : The Graphic Novel by Odyr

Animal Farm graphic novel cover by Odyr

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel by Odyr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a part of me that can never quite cope with Animal Farm, having read it as a pony-loving child and immediately bonding with Boxer. For those of you who know the story, you’ll know now why I can’t quite cope with this book that promises one thing on the surface and gives you something quite different instead. It’s a lot to handle at an impressionable age. It’s a lot to handle at any age, I think, this book. It is rather, endlessly, brilliant.

(I also remember being marked down in a test about Animal Farm. We were asked how we knew Snowball was a pig – a reading comprehension passage – and I put “because I’ve read it”. And I got told off! The injustice! I suspect Orwell would have found it rather amusing though…)

But this isn’t the book, it’s a graphic novel adaptation of it and as such, there’s an almost separate story being told. It might be easier to refer to it as a translation, because that’s what you have to do. You have to find the heart of the story, those beats that echo, and you have to relocate them. Find space for them. Make them talk to art and make art that talks back and, in that conversation, deliver that indefinable thing that makes a graphic novel work. It is a dance, a spell, magic. And I am so in favour of people doing that with classic texts, because it does not matter how you find a story or what version of it you read. It matters that you find it. That’s it, that’s all.

And this is such a finding; Odyr’s work here is boundless, rich and there’s no frames throughout which is such clever work. Frames stop something. They capture it within a moment. They hold it. And this is a story that doesn’t need that – in fact, works actively against it. Moments bleed into moments, the message falls off the page, and – when it gets to those darker moments – there’s nothing to save you from them. Lines are powerful things, but the omission of them is equally so: a purge occurs and the pages are split with red, the moments fall off the page and into the world. Odyr’s loose, rich, emotional art seeks for the edge of that world and finds it. I found evocations here of JMW Turner, and that intrigued me. That pastoral edge turned dark. The ever-England turned black. The darkness in the light. Fascinating, powerful work.

I still couldn’t quite deal with what happens to Boxer.

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Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer is a lot of fun and, I suspect, worth five stars for the fabulously awful “JO BETTANY IS MY FAVOURITE AUTHOR I HAVE ALL HER TITLES AND OH YES SHE IS ALSO A FAMILY FRIEND WE LOVE HER WE’RE BESTIES” reference. Honestly, what’s not to love about Brent-Dyer becoming self aware and feeding the intertextual scholars of the future?

But I digress: a review of Brent-Dyer is not just about ‘hey here’s the awful bits’ (for there are, quite often, rather a lot), it is also about recognising the good and the charm and the wonder of an author who could be very very good on her day. Transcendent at points, and one whose longevity and continued appeal is not a mystery once you find those moments. Lorna is a good book, not because of Lorna herself but because of Kit and Aunt Kath. They are family relations, Lorna is sent there for reasons that don’t make much sense, there’s a thousand other subplots, everybody has ridiculous names and even more ridiculous meals (sardines and chips, with cake for dessert???), there’s far too much information about wool (!), and because it is Brent-Dyer there is a moment of mortality thrown into the mix for good measure.

(It is a moment, by the way, that is quite beautifully handled)

But here’s the thing: it works. Brent-Dyer is in a good place here, comfortable and charming and vibrant, and she rolls the whole thing along with a lot of skill. Of course there are moments when she stutters, but they’re few and far between. This is a solid, good read.

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d waited a while to read An American Marriage, forced by a long reservation queue (always a good sign), and I was not disappointed. It’s a novel that I went into a little blind, conscious of the noise about it and the fact that it had hit a lot of big lists, and in a way I’m glad I kept that distance. And so I shall try to keep it here, conscious of the way this book shifts and slides under your feet until you are not quite sure what’s happening other than to know that it hurts. It hurts, and it’s also – somehow – inevitable. It’s painful and sad and it hurts. Oh how it hurts.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, until circumstances rip them apart. This is the journey of that moment, a lifetime together and apart, emotions trying to mend themselves after the impossible, people trying to continue, people trying to live. Jones is an impressive writer here, suffusing every word with a kind of indefinable sadness. This isn’t a life lived by Roy and Celestial, this is the two of them fighting to survive in a situation that neither of them made nor remotely chose. And so they make choices, good and bad, happy and said, painful and magical, and life flows about them until – well, I shan’t say.

This is a novel that you think has ended, and then realise that it hasn’t, and then realise again that it really hasn’t and this ache – this desperate, painful, raw ache of life is endless. It is a powerful book. It’s also one that I had to put aside halfway through and step aside from, partially because of that powr but also because of the sweeping inevitability of it. There’s a movement here towards a resolution – I couldn’t figure out what, or for who, or how or why – but I knew it was coming. That it couldn’t be sidestepped. That it couldn’t be escaped.

It’s been described as a great American novel this, and I don’t think that’s far wrong. It draws on some palpable traditions within American literature and some stylistics that felt familiar (evoking a memory of Alice Walker’s work in particular, though I’d be struggling to pin down the precisions of that). I twist, slightly, at referring to it as the great American Novel as it’s a text that bucks under such a label. It feels historic, for me, rather than achingly present (and prescient) and perhaps I’d describe this as Life Literature (lifelit? is that a thing?). A life lived. A life that hurts, that’s taken from you, that’s found where you least expect it, that is, that is, that is.

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Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

Polly Piglet

Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“And what did you do when you finished reading Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton?”

“Well, my imaginary friend who has been invented to help me make a rhetorical point on the internet, I screamed. And then I screamed some more and a little more and a little more because what the actual hell is this book”

“I mean, that’s a reaction.”


“I’m not sure what else I’m meant to say here”

“Perhaps you could give me a prompt in order to explore this book further?”


“Indeed I could, my rhetorical friend! I bought it because I had never heard of Polly Piglet by Enid Blyton. I knew she had a propensity for this sort of jazz, but I never knew that it could be so blunt and so – awfully – amazing.”

“I feel you’re skirting around the point a little.”




“I think that’s an ambitious hurrah.”


“Can you stop shouting?”










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Children’s Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling front cover

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A revised edition of their original 2012 text, Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles ‘Children Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling‘ (2019) occupies a space somewhere between academia and coffee table. It offers a general introduction to the world of picture books whilst occasionally pausing to dive deeper into the theoretical issues about them. It is a beautiful, big volume (and one with a reasonable price point, she says, conscious of the ridiculous cost of many of these things) and also one that delivers copious and rather beautiful imagery. Some of the text gets a little lost against the artwork – particularly in the case studies, I felt – but the art is often so strong that I suspect this is a rather inevitable thing. And there are some pages that are simply breathtaking, focusing on risk-taking and wonderful artwork that hasn’t yet broken through the restrictions of the general UK publishing market. Please can somebody publish an English language version of Håret til mamma? It made me stop in my tracks.

Children’s Picturebooks is a valuable foundational read, to study and use as an inspiration for creative work and research. Practicalities preclude me recommending it as a lightweight, quick read – it is a hefty, big beast of a book that covers everything from a brief history of the picture book through to non-fiction, boutique publishers, and much much more. Interleaved throughout all of this are some fascinating case-studies focusing upon the work of particular artists, writers and publishers. These are an immensely important and valuable selling point and one that make this book very interesting. It’s so important to see page dummies, initial sketches and outlines – developmental media – and hear from the creative in question. I was a little concerned at first that many of the interviewees seemed to be drawn from the same pool (no pun intended) but this broadened out as the book developed.

The academic bibliography is also incredibly useful, though I’d have also welcomed a bibliography of the picture books featured in the text. I was also conscious that this book does focus quite heavily on European / Western titles – though a distinct effort is made towards non-English language titles (particularly in the chapters detailing difficult / challenging topics), it does tend to lean towards UK specificity. This is no bad thing, but I’d have welcomed it to wear its context a little more overtly on its sleeve and also have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes. Everything should have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes.

So, to sum: a valuable, broad, big introduction to the world of picture books. A little picky in its approach (but then, you have to be if you’re doing something that offers an introduction to the world of picture books and don’t have three hundred million pages to do so…), but still an incredibly interesting and fascinating read, particularly if you’re new to the sector. And the artwork! Superb.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have had complicated feelings about The Testaments ever since it was announced, ever since it was nominated for the Booker, ever since it shared the prize with Girl, Woman, Other, ever since all of this and more. It is not that I disliked it, nor that I did not want it, but rather I felt uncomfortable about the position it was coming to occupy in the world. I wondered if we were looking towards this to answer questions and to resolve issues in a way that we would not ask many other books to do and if, perhaps, we were reading more the cultural discourse about this book rather than the book itself. Messy thoughts, I know, but present and vital to acknowledge in my understanding of this book.

I came late to The Handmaid’s Tale, reading it after I had watched and loved the series itself. I am sometimes dazzled by visuals and the high art of the adaptation hit home for me in a way that the book never quite did. The Testaments feels like a book that would not have existed without the series, and it feels filmic and big and global in a way that the tight, claustrophic horror of The Handmaid’s Tale did not.

Is one of them then better than the other? I’m not sure, nor do I think that’s a useful rubric to apply. They are simply different and, I think in the case of the Testaments in particular, one could reach so far as to say that it is good but not particularly great. Parts of it feel rushed, parts of it feel strange, and the motivations of one of the big leads in it are difficult to manage or, at the least, understand.

Did I like it? I did, I think. It was alright. It was satisfying, though I do not think it was revelatory. And the ending felt too quick, too clearly obvious for the world that it lived in.

Like I said, I have complicated feelings about it.

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Merry Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of this blog this year! This is a very good corner of the internet and you are one of the lovely community of readers who makes it so. I am very happy that you’re here.

I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas, doing what you love best and being with the people who make that happen. And I wish you a particularly peaceful Christmas if this time of the year is difficult for you. Be kind to yourself, you are valued, you are loved.

See you next year x

In The Grip Of Winter by Colin Dann

In the Grip of Winter

In the Grip of Winter by Colin Dann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been picking my way through the Farthing Wood series, driven by an urge to revisit these emotionally scarring books of my childhood. Though somebody like Richard Adams will always have the crown of accidentally emotionally traumatising children (Plague Dogs! General Woundwort! the! horror!), books like The Fox Cub Bold are right up there with them. This isn’t a situation where everything always ends up well. Dann was a naturalist and wrote from experience and although the Farthing Wood animals remain bound by a vow of mutual friendship, others do not. There’s a blunt honesty to these books that even now I am rather fond of.

In The Grip Of Winter is the second book of the series. The animals of Farthing Wood have relocated to White Deer Nature Reserve, a space of safety and sanctuary. Everything is going well until winter arrives. It is one of the coldest and hardest winters on record and the animals suffer. Not only do they have to deal with the fierce temperatures and the lack of food that brings, but they also have to face poachers breaking into the park. The poachers are armed with guns, and killing – inevitably – occurs. It’s down to the wiles of Fox, supported ably by Vixen, to sort things out…

Upon rereading this, I had quite the memory realisation. When I was a child, I had an intermittent cast of imaginary friends that would join us on car journeys, running along the side of the road at the same pace of the car. I don’t think I ever imagined them to anybody but there was White Rabbit, White Horse, White Tiger and – you get the picture. But I realised that this naming comes from the Farthing Wood books – a series where animals are mainly named things like Hare, and Ginger Cat, and Tawny Owl until mates, children and friends of the same species turn up and start to complicate things. My adult feminist side kicks slightly at Whistler’s mate – a heron, so named because of a hole in his wing – being called Whistler’s mate throughout this book but that’s a small point to pick.

In The Grip of Winter is an impressive piece of work and functions as an honest and good introduction to stories about animals for young readers. It feels different to much of today’s children’s literature and I suspect much of this comes from Dann’s naming style – Fox, Vixen, Kestrel etc – but also from his matter of fact knowledge about the natural world. The domestic animals remain domestic, the wild – wild. The biggeranimals eat the smaller (though, as I say, the Farthing Wood creatures abstain from eating each other) and Simba, we eat the antelopes and then we turn into grass and the antelopes eat the grass and it’s the circle of life.

I don’t think we write children’s books like this any more, and I suspect there’s a space in the world for a reprint of at least the first in the series. But, for now, I’ll continue picking them up when I find them in the charity bookshops and continue to savour this intriguing, occasionally brutal, and somewhat rather fascinating series.

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Burt Lancaster : a watching and reading guide

I remember the precise moment I understood Burt Lancaster. Or, at least, I remember the precise moment I understood that person he was on screen – the person he wanted to let me see. It was From Here To Eternity (1953) and it wasn’t the scene you might think. Though the film is justifiable notable for a thousand moments, let alone that iconic moment between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf, it was a scene in the bar that got me. The soldiers are on temporary leave, carousing and partying. A simmering tension explodes between two of them in a bar. Warden – Burt Lancaster’s character – breaks it up.

There is a lot of talent in that room. Montgomery Clift. Frank Sinatra. Ernest Borgnine. And then there’s Burt Lancaster who just takes all that star-power and eats it for breakfast. He is a big man at this point, all muscle and height and power, and yet he moves with a lightness that I still can’t quite understand. Look how he places himself in this scene, how he handles himself – how he smashes that bottle only when he has to. This is West Side Story but with soldiers; a ballet of power, force and raw, sudden anger, and Lancaster the passionate, mad, desperate heart of it all.

Image: Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster perform on the parallel bars. (Library of Congress – public domain)

Burt Lancaster was discovered in an elevator. Anybody who looked like him – a tall, handsome guy – was bound to be an actor, reasoned the producer who rode those few flights with him. He invited Lancaster to an audition, the audition was successful, the rest is history. But every history comes with a story of what happened beforehand, and Lancaster’s story comes from the circus. He was an acrobat and together with his friend, Nick Cravat, formed Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brother’s Circus. Although injury formed a halt to his act, Lancaster and Cravat stayed close friends. You can see Cravat as the mute Ojo in The Crimson Pirate – mute, only because Cravat’s broad New York accent would have been somewhat out of place on a pirate ship on the high seas. A fascinating film in many respects – not only in how it gleefully goes past stupid and all the way back to brilliant – The Crimson Pirate sees Lancaster and Cravat leap and swing their way through the rigging, pausing only to break the fourth wall and address the camera directly, or to smile in a devilishly handsome manner at the local ladies.

A bodily actor at the best of times, Lancaster’s movement and grace could shift from elegance to pain and suffering in a heartbeat. Pent up in a small room, or limping down a traintrack, Lancaster could give you a man that’s done with the world and everything in it without a word. But when he does speak, he talks quickly, sharply. He talks in the manner of somebody who knows he’s going to be listened to. Who knows that he should be heard.

“Here’s this great big aggressive guy that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of—who were those first philosophers of equality?—Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal.” Tony Curtis, qtd. Burt Lancaster : An American Life.

Titanic in every sense, Lancaster had a prolific career that ended more recently than I realised. Forced to retire in 1990 after having a stroke, and passing away in 1994, his final role was in Field of Dreams in 1989. It’s easy to see actors of his ilk as belonging to another generation and so it’s rather strange to see him on the same screen as Kevin Costner. But time is tighter than we realise it to be, and even though he’s older, it’s his voice that makes the scene for me. Lancaster tells a story like it’s the first and last time he’ll ever tell it. There’s a cadence to his work, a rhythm. A song. In a way, he’s balanced on the bars and working the moment, same as he always did. But that’s Burt. That’s what he does.

It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner

It's a no-money day

It’s a no-money day by Kate Milner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to tell you how important this gentle, soft book is and so I hope you will forgive me if I jump straight to the punchline: It’s A No-Money Day by Kate Milner should be on your shelves. And if you run a library or you are in a school or if you are anywhere that has shelves that are accessed publically, this book should be there twice over. We live in complex times that are often brutal for those living in precarious circumstances, and one of the duties of any librarian or educator is to work to understand and support those in such a situation. To allow their stories to be heard, supported and understood. To allow the children living within such situations to be heard, to be seen. And having books like this on the shelf is important. It just needs to be there. It should be there.

We often work to privilege the adult within children’s literature, to make ourselves feel better and be able to remember those times when the most important thing was what we’re going to have for tea. Those times when nothing mattered but finding the perfect stick, or simply standing and staring for hours at the bright bright blue of the sky. And books like this challenge that sense of comfort – they challenge the notion that everything should be kittens and rainbows because they represent something else. A childhood that is experienced by a whole world of children every day, right now. The truth of an uncomfortable and sometimes quite horrific world. This isn’t a book that channels Rousseau and puts the children in some unattainable Garden of Eden; this is a book that has curled wallpaper on the walls and mum silently crying in the background because she does not like going to the food bank.

I have such time for what Kate Milner does. My Name Is Not Refugee is a remarkable thing, deftly handled and sensitive and kind. It’s A No-Money Day is similarly remarkable; Milner balances the hard truth of this story with some wonderfully intimate moments of kindness. This is a family on the edge but they are still a family full of love and heart for each other. They are human, and I think that’s Milner’s great gift. She finds the humanity in these painful, big stories and makes them accessible and real for very small people. And, I think, for big people too. There is something to be said here for the lessons that this book can give us all. It is important, it is awful, it is necessary. Milner is doing immense things here.

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Annotated: Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald

My research has been recently turning towards juvenilia – stories written by girls, for girls, and what that tells us about being a girl – and it bought me to an extract of Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald (in: Where Texts And Children Meet, eds. Bearne and Watson). It is an extract that stopped me in my tracks and one that I do not think I’m quite over yet. Or maybe ever.

Kathleen Herald is perhaps better known under her married name of KM Peyton. Still writing today, Peyton is a remarkable figure. She is perhaps even more remarkable when we consider that she wrote Sabre… when she was fifteen. Fifteen! Forgive me but I’m going to have to shriek over that a little bit more before we continue. When I was fifteen, I could barely write a coherent sentence let alone deliver something as sophisticated and as fiercely wonderful as this.

Sometimes when I am obsessed over something like this, I have to investigate it. It pays for me to dig beneath the surface of what a story is and how it’s been presented. It’s my first stage of understanding – I need to figure out those intertextual points of reference, those beats that connect to another story in the world, and figure out why this story works the way it does for me. Whether that’s punctuation, or sentence structure, I can only figure it out when I burrow into the text itself and make it my own.

I also thought it might be something fun to share …

Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

Walking Distance

Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Existing within the city – within the world – is often no simple nor straightforward thing, particularly for a woman and Walking Distance by Lizzy Stewart is no simple nor straightforward thing. It is a complex, challenging, reflexive, and occasionally deeply wonderful meditation on life within the city. On taking the streets that “would make your parents uneasy”. On taking up space. On being.

There’s a rich heritage to this sort of thing ranging from Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin through to A Room Of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, and, I think, those eternal stories see a young woman trying to figure out who she wishes to be in the world whilst the world threatens to move on without her. I’m trying not to say ‘things like Bridget Jones’ but I am essentially saying ‘things like Bridget Jones’. Some of the spreads where Stewart looks at herself as much as the world about her are precious moments of story where her lines and colours move as much as the text itself.

I think that notion of movement is key here; this is a comic that moves, whether that’s those delicious moments of abstraction that conjure stormy skies and the Thames in the same breadth, or a panel with a figure in the distant corners of a housing estate. A woman existing, with something she is moving from and something she is going to. A woman with story, whether that’s Meryl Streep or Nola Darling. I was intrigued to see how Stewart navigated her story; this is a text that could be read as being “of woman” (in those readings that we see so often and sometimes so reductively applied to women writing about womenish things…). Stewart works hard to question that kind of globalist reading, recognising that she can not speak for other women’s experiences within the city and only her own. And yet there’s a strength in that singularity, a fascination in it that the book almost seems shy or nervous of recognising.

I think what I’m reaching for her is the notion of an echo, a ripple. A pebble dropped in the middle of an ocean. An impact made. An articulation of a moment; a parallel found. A slight, slender thread in the messy, complicated dark. A story of the individual, but also a story of us, of all of us.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I like to do is tweet about when I’m going to a comics convention and ask for advice on what to buy. I know what I like – feminist, girl-focused comics – and I know what I’d really want – a boarding school based comic that is good and does something akin to Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike for the genre – but I grant that sometimes we do not always get what we really want. However, I did get the creator of the Dead Queen Detectives tweeting me with the words “like the Four Marys” and that, my friends, was enough to send this to the top of my shopping list.

The Dead Queen Detectives : The Crown Jewels by Bevis Musson is a treat. It’s basically the Four Marys meets Corpse Talkt and I loved it. The Dead Queen Detectives are Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. There are also the Dead Queens Detectives : International Queens who are Hatshepshut, Isabella, Catherine and Marie-Antoinette. And then, there’s also The Legion Of Substitute Dead Disputed Queen Detectives who are Boudicca, Empress Matilda, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Stuart. I mean, there’s a cast, right?

I had a few reservations about the font and lettering choices – the cover font doesn’t work for me at all on a thousand different levels, and it’s repeated within so I found that a tad problematic to work with. There were also a few moments in the text and captions that I felt could have benefited from being revisited and either tightened up or dropped. And yet, I massively enjoyed this and would go back to it in a heart-beat. I am here for comics doing intriguing, strange and delightful things and The Dead Queens is all that and more. It’s a fourth-wall breaking, deliciously anarchic thing and every now and then it absolutely shines.

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Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My stance is clear, I think, and has been so for a while: children’s literature is important and to assign a value judgement upon it, indeed to assign a value judgement upon any form of literature is an exercise full of redundancy and wasted effort. Books are important, and no genre or age-group or vaguely ambitious grouping thought up by somebody with too much time on their hands should impinge upon your reading of whoever and whatever you want. And yet children’s literature is undoubtedly marginalised; we adopt, as Katherine Rundell recognises in this potent volume, an attitude that takes us away from such things. We read one way, not the other; we reach for increasingly complex and challenging things when, I suspect, a night reading a picture book would be of much more benefit.

It is this at this point that the slender sized and lengthily titled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though Are So Old and Wise places itself; it seeks to question that movement of “readerly progression” from and away from children’s literature and to remind readers of just what is that they’re giving up and the somewhat misguided rationales that may be driving such. Katherine Rundell is a beautiful writer and this is a book that burns not only with grace, passion but also with knowledge – it quotes everybody from Martin Amis through to John Donne without pausing for breath.

It’s because of this that Why You Should… felt like something of a tease to me; it is a book that left me wanting more. Rundell is a brilliant, brilliant writer and critical thinker, and I would love to hear more about why she moves more towards “children’s fiction” than “children’s literature”, for example, or what she actually thinks about the influence of adults upon children’s literature – a debate that is very present within academia but somewhat delicately stepped back from here. There is a bright and burning and fiercely eloquent core to this text, and it shows itself fleetingly – but when it does, it is so very worth holding onto. I think that I just wanted a little bit more of that edge.

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Sensible Footwear : a girl’s guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl's Guide

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to talk about Sensible Footwear by Kate Charlesworth without telling you what an utterly wonderful book it is. It is simply wonderful, this powerful, personal and political story of LGBTQI+ history within the United Kingdom from the 1950s to the present day. I was very young and in the first years of school when section 28 was enacted and I do not ever remember being taught about histories like this. Though I can’t directly link it towards the act itself of course, what with being tiny and not present behind the scenes in any of the schools I subsequently attended, it is important to note that at least one classroom grew up without the awareness of things like this. Stories. Culture. People. And it is never just one classroom, never.

And so we turn to stories to fill those gaps, and to provide those narratives of histories and lives lived so beautifully, so brilliantly in a world that was not yet ready or willing to hear them. Charlesworth delivers here not only just a personal memoir that documents her own realisation of her sexuality but also the stories of a thousand others. Each decade is introduced with a contextual double spread that talks about the LGBTQI+ events of the period and Charlesworth handles these stunningly, juxtaposing events such as the opening of Gay’s the Word bookshop in 1979 (still trading! go!) with John Curry’s performance at the 1976 Winter Olympics. These are people – places – things bursting from the pages, bustling against each other, and it is rather, utterly brilliant.

Charlesworth is also somebody who knows how to handle a page. She packs the decade spreads with information, but then – when she has to – she knows how and when to give space. I was moved to tears by several of the pages in the 1980s, for example, and I loved her engagements with pop culture – there’s a part where she discusses Doris Day and Calamity Jane and it is remarkable, wonderful stuff. It’s full of power, every inch of it, and it’s an education on more than one level.

Would I recommend Sensible Footwear? Undoubtedly. It’s a memoir on one level, a history lesson on another, and a tribute to those who had to live in a world that was not ready or willing to let them do precisely that. It is a staggering achievement.

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Adapting literature for television: (or, why doesn’t The War of The Worlds work for me)

My house has been watching the recent BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and we have been disappointed. It is not that the story itself is at fault, for it is not. There isn’t much of HG Wells’ work that is. The problem resides in that notion of adaptation, of taking something that works in one medium and making it fit for another, and how sometimes a text exerts considerable effort against allowing this to happen. I write of a text as though it is a thing, capable of feeling and thought and reason, and in one way it is. “Language is a skin”, says Barthes, “I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” Words seek for connection, for sustenance. Language does not exist in isolation. Neither do texts. They yearn for connection, for completion. For readers, yes, but also for each other.

I’m reaching slowly here towards the notion of intertextuality, that is, to turn to Barthes once more, the “quotation without quotation marks”, the point of connection within one text to another without perhaps either of them ever quite knowing it. Of course, sometimes they do and those connections are made with a sly look towards the camera and a knowing wink, but sometimes those connections are like smoke in the wind. Solid, for a brief moment, seen only by a privileged few, and then gone, changed into something else –

It’s that point where adaptation lies. Do you hold onto what was – the memory of that moment of solidity – or do you yearn back towards the text that was and not the text that shall be? Do you craft something that echoes the memory of itself, or do you try and remake that thing however imperfect or laboured that remaking might be?

I remember being terrified by the War of the Worlds album when I was younger; I remember the precise point

I’m listening to it now, remembering that moment. The way that it’s layered, so thickly with story and sound, the way that it gives space to the action and the way that it gives space to the utter madness of what’s happening. There’s a risk in adapting something in that we want to fill every inch of the silence with something. It’s a risk in anything, teaching for example. I have taught myself to not fill the silences when I teach, to let other people step into that gap and provide the answers that I’m asking for, rather than providing them myself. Rather than filling the silence.

The War of the Worlds is a quick book, pacy in that way that so much of Wells’ work is, but it is a book also full of silence. How can anything concerned with an invasion from another world not have silence? Horror – fear – terror. It’s noise, but it’s also silence. You don’t think when you’re scared but then, once you realise what you’re scared about, that’s the point where it becomes horrific. That’s the point of realisation. That’s Thunder Child disappearing and the knowledge that there’s nothing else out there that can save you. That’s knowing that the Earth belongs to the Martians.

That’s silence.

The War of the Worlds BBC

And I think that’s where the BBC series struggles. It is an adaptation concerned with filling the gaps, with giving you big set pieces that are undoubtedly well done, but there is nothing in between but circumstance. Characters are parted, characters reunite, and roofs fall in conveniently specific manners to kill off secondary characters. A scene is reminiscent of Dunkirk; a character says ‘we’re sailing to Dunkirk’; an echo becomes a bludgeon, the quotation becomes no longer silent but bold, underlined and framed on the wall for all to see. This is not a book that should be seeking for such moments, it is the book that made the echo happen.

We shall prevail with this adaptation and watch the rest of it, out of morbid curiosity I suspect rather than anything else, but I do not think that it will be good.

(His Dark Materials, however, is rather transcendent.).

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

Ducks, Newburyport

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fact that it’s a book consisting of an internal monologue of a housewife, the fact that it’s juxtaposed against the story of a lioness in the wild, the fact that ‘the fact that’ reappears so much in the first few pages that you almost recoil in horror at the thought of reading this for the next three million pages, the fact that this is not a slender book, the fact that it’s enormous and makes the TBR pile at the side of your bed swell to twice its size, the fact that ‘the fact that’ starts to disappear within moments, the fact that you think you might hate it but then realise you love it, the fact that this reads like Oulipo meets Sarah Kane meets GBBO, the fact that it’s a stream of consciousness, a stream of feminine domestic noise in a way that just doesn’t exist in literature, the fact that the first time this is broken by something more formally punctuated and structured that you almost feel it in your gut, the fact that for pages this can spin into something avant-garde and borderline ridiculous before spinning right back into the world and making all your senses come alive, the fact that the thought of editing this makes me terrified in a way I cannot begin to articulate, the fact that I would have edited this, just a tad, if I had that thankless job, the fact that this book is, despite that, stylistically remarkable, the fact that it is still rather marvellous and terrifying and brilliant all at once even with its flaws, the fact that it is all of this and so much more besides.

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Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think towers

Hello! I’ve been thinking about this for a while and circumstances (more of which in later posts) have helped me come to a bit of a decision. Things are going to be changing a little bit at Did You Ever Stop To Think and I wanted you to know the rationale behind that. The first thing to say is that I am not quitting. I love this blog! I love writing it and I love talking to you. I have met many of the people I have come to know online and you are all great. This is a good corner of the internet full of good people, and I like that it exists.

What will be changing is this: Did You Ever Stop To Think will no longer be covering just children’s books. You might have noticed a few new titles sneak into the reviews over the last few weeks and they have been tests, of a sort, to see how I can figure it out. To see how they fit. To see what I want the next version of this blog to be.

I started writing this blog a fair few years ago now, and it’s right that every now and then I consider who and what I want it to be. I have evolved since I began and so have you and so has the world and so has literature. I’ve been wondering how to best capture that – and how to best capture the things that are saying increasingly important and relevant things.

There are also some other things happening for me personally which I shall share with you when I can – exciting things! – but they are not necessarily things which fall under the neat umbrella of children’s books. But they are things that I think will interest you and I’d like to share them with you when I can.

And so because of all of that this blog is going to broaden. Children’s literature – good, brilliant, brave and bold children’s books – will continue to form a key part of what I talk about here. I will never let that go. But alongside that, I’ll also be writing about literary fiction, feminist texts, educational classics (my entire PhD realigned after reading The Tidy House by Carolyn Steedman for example), comics from small and indie presses, books about being a woman, books about being a girl, books about writing, theoretical classics, people doing exciting research and anything else that falls into these categories.

There are so many literary things that I’m interested in and want to talk to you about. I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride. x