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.
I will defend Lorna Hill to the end of time, but I will not defend this book. It isn’t great, and it hurts me to write that but it’s true. No Medals For Guy is the book that finally convinced me of the great fact that Guy Charlton is a douchebag. Grown up Guy is kind of great if you squint a little and concentrate on him being a dashing rescuer type, but juvenile Guy is the sort of boy you want to throw things at and lock your doors against. And the curious thing is that Lorna Hill is rather besotted with him; this is a book about Guy, and she’s determined to make him rather fabulous, and she’s going to – but she sort of achieves the opposite.
And in expending all this effort to make you love Guy Charlton, Hill manages to rather neglect the others. The things I could tell you about Marjorie and Esme and all the others (two of which I’ve just had to look up the names of) wouldn’t fill more than a minute, and even then I’d be tentatively reaching out at best. There’s an odd subplot involving a girl that the gang make friends with, and an even odder subplot about a ghost and a reporter just gaily spending the night in somebody else’s house, and then there’s this weird and rather over-handled thing about swimsuits.
It’s a strange book this, and a little too blindly convinced in its own merits. Hill was always at her best with stories of the individual, and her early Sadlers Wells stories – of Veronica and Caroline in particular – are transcendent things. No Medals For Guy doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of that for me. It hits similar beats for sure, but never quite with the same conviction or indeed the same heart. It’s a shame because Hill could be something else; but here, she’s not. She’s so very definitely not.
Frequently charming and really rather beautifully done, this 90th anniversary edition of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories is a lovely thing. It’s been a long time since I read Milly-Molly-Mandy and if you’re the same, here’s a brief refresher. Written in the 1920s, MMM is a little girl who lives with her sprawling family in a pleasant little village, and she gets into several very small and rather adorable adventures. They were written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley who was the sister of Nina K. Brisley who illustrated the Chalet School stories – and this is something that, in a nicely worded afterword, this edition told me and I made a proper ‘I did not know that’ face. The edition includes several of the short stories collected together and as mentioned has a lovely afterword that does something quite remarkable – it speaks to the child. It’s not often you see an afterword that remembers the child audience as much as the adult, and Macmillan are to be commended for this.
The stories themselves are adorable. Simple, soft and very small adventures that even though they involve a lot of language that might not be familiar to a contemporary reader, these are stories that work because of how they feel. They are charming and gentle and simply told things, often centring around a task or an errand or a circumstance, and I did enjoy them. It doesn’t mater if some of the phrases are unknown because these are good stories. Gentle, rich and lovely stories. Lankester Brisley could write, she really could.
An important thing to note is that this book also includes a lot of full colour illustrations. These are richly rendered things, full of lush and gentle detail and rather intensely evocatively. The village and the nice white cottage with the thatched roof are all there and it’s all lovely. Harsher voices might call this sort of thing twee or outdated, but they’re idiots and we know better. The Milly-Molly-Mandy books are gorgeous, gentle things, and in a world where that sort of thing seems somewhat hard to find, they shine. They really, really do.
Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.
Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)
Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.