A quirky twist on the ‘first words’ format for babies and toddlers and where others may stray toward the traditional and expected, Aleph embraces the deliciously surreal. The images are big, often falling off the page, with more than a hint of those thick felt-tip pens about them, and cover everything from a circle through to a toucan. Every now and then named characters- Popov, Romi, Cyrus and Aleph – appear for their own little moment, before disappearing again. It’s a weird lovely and kind of spectacular mixture of modernism, with a distinct hint of the old masters about it. There’s more than a touch of Matisse in Coat’s handling of line and colour for example.
What I loved about this is that there’s some sort of narrative coherency – a big thing to ask of a book of this nature – but there is. Chick goes to cat goes to car and then toucan. Words echo each other aurally or thematically or sequentially. It’s not consistent – bunny / cupcake / wolf – but then, in those sequences, shape or colour picks up the narrative bat. There’s a lot of care under the surface of this, and it shows. There’s also a lot of opportunity to extend the images in diverse directions – there’s a lovely page with a baby’s dummy on it, for example – which the list of words names as ‘shhh’ rather than ‘dummy’ or something along that line.
Aleph would be a literally perfect gift to a young reader, but it’s also got a substantial appeal to those interested in the power of illustration for this age-group. It uses a rather unusual neon tone throughout, giving the whole book this quality of being barely contained within the page. I loved it. It’s distinct, it’s unusual and it’s fun.
Until We Win by Linda Newbery is a slender, accessible novella touching upon a key point in suffragette history. It’s framed through the perspective of Lizzy, an everygirl who comes across the work of the suffragettes and becomes a passionate supporter of the cause. Believing in Deeds Not Words, she undertakes action until she – like her sisters – is imprisoned. The backdrop to all of this is the build up to World War One, and there’s a little introduction and prologue delivered retrospectively by Lizzy where she looks back and talks abut the Summer that was and the years that followed.
Barrington Stoke deliver, in their words, ‘super readable’ texts and this is a worthy addition to their list. It’s deeply accessible, both through format and style, and there’s a lot to give somebody here. It’s perfectly pitched for those who may feel unable or intimidate by thicker, heavier books and could work as a nice lead-in and confidence booster. I also enjoyed the note from Stewart Easton which explained his reasoning behind the cover design. This sort of thing is so important because it tells you who’s ‘behind’ the book, as it were, but also encourages readers to question and think about the book as a whole. It’s never just about the words on the page.
I was impressed at how much Newbery packs into this. I have such a lot of time for her as a writer, and love what she does. I found some of the beats she touches here a little familiar and thus not as startling as they could be, but if you’re new to the topic then that may slide you by. I’m also going to take this moment to suggest that you head towards Newbery’s kind of remarkable back catalogue. Here’s a few I’ve reviewed.
There’s always been something special about Robin Stevens’ work for me. I’ve been a fan of her since Murder Most Unladylike, a book that features in my thesis and a paper I’m working on and a presentation I’ll be doing in a couple of months. I get a lot from her work, and I enjoy working with it. I enjoy reading her books. I love them, in point of fact. She writes golden stories full of such utter quality and they’re great. They’re also fiercely committed to representation, diversity and equality and some of the steps made in Death in the Spotlight are beautifully handled.
I found the context for Death In The Spotlight to be a little artificial, but once I moved past that I remembered how good these books are. Stevens has the great gift of pulling you on the journey with her. And you can have doubts, and moments when you question it, because Hazel or Daisy are doing the precise same thing all along, but then you solve the crime. Figure out the murderer. You test yourself against the book at every step and when you finish it, you end up in such a good and satisfied place that you forget any of the doubt you had. I love how Stevens does that. She allows you those moments to question and doubt, and she says that it’s okay. It’s such an expression of faith and trust in her readers, and I love it.
I have my suspicions for the future trajectory of this series, as we’re moving towards a tumultuous period in British history, but I’ll not dwell much on that. I shall simply say that I’ll be there with these books and waiting to see what happens. I love them a lot, I really really do.
The more I read of Bessie Marchant, the more I enjoy her. She is a writer who hybridises Elinor M. Brent-Dyer at her Ruritanian best with the entirety of the Boy’s Own Genre, and makes it her own. She is rather fabulous, and her books are a joy.
Here’s the Wikipedia summary for A Dangerous Mission: Tatna is a young school teacher in Petrograd, Russia. She gets caught up in a bread riot and escapes, disguised as another teacher who is bound for a school in the remote countryside, where she discovers that she has a talent for teaching the local people about responsible government. .
Published in 1918, this is naturally a story which is trying to say a particular thing in a particular point of time. There are certain elements which stick from a more contemporary reading; the notion of the uneducated masses being told what to do is just a little problematic, and the sub-plot with the Baroness (there is always a subplot of this sort of nature in this sort of book) sticks just a tad. Marchant manages to get away with all of that because she is so utterly, utterly devoted to making this readable.
A Dangerous Mission is popular fiction from one hundred years ago, and it wouldn’t have won any prizes then, and it wouldn’t now. This isn’t the highest work by any means, but it is rather fabulous. Tatna is a spirited heroine and somewhat richly impetuous; she doesn’t quite think as much as Marchant clearly wants her to, and there’s something delightful about an author struggling to catch up with one of their creations.
The final movement of the book rather escapes both Marchant and Tatna; there’s some shenanigans, some Fortunate Appearances At The Right Time, and some Problems Getting Resolved, but honestly, it’s hard to be negative about this. This is such a richly readable, rampantly nutty, kind of fabulous story about a girl who changes the world about her, and I will always love such things.
(A brief note from the editor; this is a blog concerned with children’s and young adult literature. Circe is arguably neither. Yet it is remarkable and this blog will always find a home for the remarkable story. This is something to give to those readers breaching the edge of young adult and looking for something else , something remarkable. We often forget about those readers. We should not.)
Lyrical, poignant, powerful and ferociously unashamed of what it is and the story it has to tell, Circe by Madeline Miller is something else. As I do with many of the ‘big’ books, the ones that win the awards and are talked about at length by everyone I know, I began it with fear. I stray carefully into books that are out of my specialisms, because I don’t want to read bad things. I don’t have time for that. Nobody does. Reading is a brief, beautiful marriage and to have one that doesn’t work out? That’s the worst of things, the worst of times.
Circe works out. And it is the best, the best of times.
It is the first book by Madeline Miller that I’ve read, but it will not be the last. Miller’s eloquent and lyrical prose seeks out the roundness of Circe’s story and presents it with such utter truth. It is a remarkable book, evocative of those epic poems that tell stories of long lost and distant heroes; Circe, however, is as present as the keyboard that I type this on. You feel her, you know her, and you live her every breath. There’s something rather remarkable happening here; a story of a woman being told in an intimate, powerful, believable manner – the story of her survival, her loves, her losses, and her rampant, raw bravery.
A powerful, graceful and eloquent story, told with truth, honesty and love. I read this in a handful of days. I would go back to the start of those days all over.
I’ve been looking for something like Girl Squads for a very long time. This smart, chatty and furiously honest book is a treat because, unlike so many of the others out there, Girl Squads acknowledges the truth about women’s history. It is complex, fought for, and often overwritten by a cultural system which privileges other voices. I’m trying not to write The White Western Patriarchy here, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.
What I loved about Girl Squads is that it’s not afraid of offering an opinion. There’s no romantic hagiographies here; history is rendered as a messy, knotty and occasionally deeply unsatisfying thing. The style is chatty, conversational, occasionally sliding a little too much towards the informal, but as a whole works perfectly. This is big sister history, told to you by somebody who wants you to think about the world and to fight for your place in it. And the women covered are remarkable. It’s split into sections covering Athlete Squads, Political and Activist Squads, Warrior Squads, Scientist Squads and Artist Squads, and covers women’s groups as diverse as The Haenyeo Divers to The Blue Stockings.
Interspersed throughout by Jenn Woodall’s sensitive and richly detailed illustrations (a small cameo to introduce each woman, and a lovely page to introduce each section), Girl Squads is a vibrant, powerful thing. It pays tribute to the complex lives of the women it celebrates and it manages to keep that complexity intact. Being female is a complex, wonderful thing. Not many books recognise that challenge or celebrate it. But Girl Squads does.
I finished this book last night, and ever since then I’ve been trying to figure it out. I was excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher as Celia Rees is one of those great and powerful voices in children’s and young adult literature that you should always be excited for. She is a wild and wonderful writer and when I heard that she was writing something inspired by the early work of the Brontës I was thrilled.
And I am still thrilled in a way, but in that knotty sort of confused manner where you think you should be happy for something but aren’t quite sure if you are; the sort of emotion that makes you question everything about you and do actual real life brow furrowing. Celia Rees is an outstanding writer, but I don’t think this is a good book. It is furiously impenetrable at points, strangely balanced, and full of odd pacing and sudden shifts of tone. When I finished it, I stared at it and realised that I didn’t know what to think of it. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoyed it, even though I knew I loved the parts where Rees wrote about Haworth and the sisters; the intimacy and power of her work here and the way she explored the landscape of these writers was good, strong, wild writing. But I also knew that I’d struggled with the first half, got quite lost in the middle, and then bounded through the final third in as greedy and keen a read as I’ve ever done.
A contradiction, then, but a contradiction that keeps working on you after you’ve finished it. I am done with this book but it’s a book that’s not done with me. I’ve thought about it all morning, I’ve begun this review a thousand times and I’ve begun it a thousand times again. I suspect that Glass Town Wars is a story that’s not just about the book. Does that make sense? I suspect it doesn’t, but I’m going to try and explain myself. Sometimes when we experience story, we can read it and it’s done. Page turned, book closed, job done. But sometimes the story lingers and we can make connections with it in the real world. We turn it over in our thoughts, we think it through and we start to realise that the book we’ve read was just the part of a journey. It’s matured into something else.
And that’s Glass Town Wars; it’s not the best read, but the moments after it are sort of remarkable. When I reviewed Wuthering Heights, I talked about how this was a book that wanted to be read and to desperately hide away, all at once. Glass Town Wars has something of that quality, delivering a narrative of fantasy and of the Brontës which sometimes makes perfect sense and sometimes anything but. It’s a curious contradiction, this beautiful and impenetrable and longlasting thing.