First Pages: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Every now and then, I like to look at the first pages of some very good children’s books and analyse just how and why they achieve that goodness. Today’s post is on the wonderful Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and you can browse some of the previous entries in the First Page series here .

I love Murder Most Unladylike. I am an avowed fan of what Robin Stevens does in her contemporary, classic and delicious school stories. Murder Most Unladylike and the sequels have been of such a standard that I’ve been both frankly envious and madly in love with. These are good, good books and if you do not know them then you should. They are books that tell girls to be what they are and should be and does so in such a wonderfully empowering (and occasionally murderous) manner that they are just lovely.

And so to the first page of Murder Most Unladylike (MMU). It’s a book that actually starts a long while before this page; there are cast lists, a map, and some other lovely little details. I particularly adore how this book uses paratexts (fig 1). What are paratexts I hear you ask? Check out this post on ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith and you’ll see what I mean.

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Figure One: Paratexts! Paratexts! My Kingdom For Delicious Paratexts!

I’ve come back to MMU recently because I hope to use it in the third chapter of my thesis. I’m looking at representations of childhood and how it ties into space and place. As those of you who know this blog might not be surprised to read, I’m concentrating mainly on school stories. School stories are a fascinating beast because they remain somewhat critically neglected. The big titles, of course, have a presence but work on popular fiction like Malory Towers or St Clare’s or Trebizon remains fascinatingly rare. One of the drivers of that, I suspect, is the great introspection of the genre. It’s a genre which thrives on barriers; children are sent to school. They usually stay there. Even if they run away, they usually end up going back. The school itself is usually something stately or castle like; fortified against the world both through the nature of its building but also through location. To all intents and purposes these stories don’t fit within society, they fit next to it.

They are isolated constructions; a macrocosm.  And here’s the thing about this first page; it speaks so knowingly and so smartly within that frame, but also outside of it.

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Figure Two: Best. First. Paragraph. Ever.

Let’s take it step by step and begin with that first paragraph (fig 2). There’s a great potential for this sort of series to turn into some sort of substandard Daisy Pulls It Off affair. Jolly hockeysticks. Cliches and overwrought writing. As much as I adore Angela Brazil, she doesn’t read well today. But this does, precisely because it both recognises the frame of the schoolgirl story but also the great humour of it. That last line ‘I suspect that the solution to this new case may be more complex” is glorious and so deeply funny. But here’s the thing; it’s not overtly funny to Hazel. I might be wrong here, but I don’t suspect it is. I find this deeply matter-of-fact and rather practical and all the funnier because of it. Hazel’s a rather wonderful character here, showing such a delicious sense of practicality and inescapable logic that you can’t help but fall in love with her. This is the way things are. And it’s just a good job she has a new notepad to record the adventures. (Seriously, what a character..)

There’s a lot of work done in these two paragraphs. The first one does much of the context, but the second one does the heavy lifting that’s specific to this particular narrative. We have Daisy introduced, and Hazel named, and the reference to Sherlock Holmes and Watson made. Then there’s that delicious ‘Daisy says…’ sentence which immediately positions Daisy as the more dominant individual of the two. Isn’t it amazing how two words can do so much work? Daisy’s presence is established before she’s even appeared.

The final sentence of this book “After all I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” is spectacular. It both couples with the ‘Daisy says…’ element, whilst also introducing a whole host of elements. The invocation of Hazel’s background is deliberately done; her otherness marked, and noted as something that’s apparently incompatible with this overarching image of Sherlock Holmes and Solving Mysteries. And yet, as we can see from this page and her calm unpacking of The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie, it’s clear that Hazel’s actually pretty awesome.

So just think about that for a moment. One page, and we have a thousand things established. Context. Genre. Humour. Character. Cultural Touchstones. Intent. This is such a well-crafted book and this first page is almost palpable with narrative drive. This sort of thing matters, and Murder Most Unladylike does it so well.

 

First Pages: Cowgirl by G.R Gemin

Today’s book in the slightly-more-intermittent-than-I’d-like first pages series is Cowgirl by G.R Gemin. For those of you who don’t know what this series is about, I have a look at the first pages of books and analyse just how they do what they do. You can look at the previous posts in the series here.

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Cowgirl : page one

I have a lot of love for Cowgirl. I first came across it two years ago and read in a slightly feverish burst of joy. I’m revisiting it now as part of my PhD and I was so struck by the lovely first page that I had to share some of that with you. I love this book. It’s eccentric, delightful and lovely. And yes, I shall repeat that word a lot in what follows. Do be prepared!

The first thing to note about Cowgirl is that delciious, almost abstract black splodge on the top right of the page. It’s a brave thing to do, to give half of your first page to a design note, but I think it’s very vital for this book. It clearly echoes the notes of the front cover, that focus on the pattern of a cow’s skin, and starts to bring that inside the book. This design starts to show something very distinct about Cowgirl; there’s a heart to this book, and this book is about cows. Who they are, what they are, and what they come to mean. It’s all done quite unapologetically and quite unashamedly and quite brilliantly. It’s delightful. It’s brilliant. Cowgirl is a book that revels in its distinctness and so much of it is trapped in that delightful abstraction on the first page.

So! The text. I’m struck immediately by the first sentence: “I was screaming for my life.” Loud, sound-laden sentence that it is. Not – “I was running for my life” but rather, I was “screaming”.  A vocal passivity. A contradiction. Unable to stop what is happening, but rather still trying somehow. Speaking up. Using your voice. And in its abstraction, it starts to signify something else about the book; that maybe this is about voices, and speaking up and being truthful to who you are regardless of the nature of the narratives that propel you.

It’s joined by a thick paragraph – quick, sensory developments, all of them with a sense of inevitability – until they’re stopped by that deliciously isolated, blunt, marvellous sentence of: “Then I heard a moo” The movement of this paragraph bought to such a definitive, flat halt by the presence of cows. Cows define this book and they’re all over it, even before we’ve reached the second page. I love that definitive, almost defiant air about Cowgirl. It is what it is, and it is rather brilliant.

The last bit to focus on is that little fragmentary “and I” at the end of the first page. I won’t tell you what happens, but I rather highlight it as being a beautiful – what if? moment. It’s the definition of a page turning moment; that niggling wonder in the back of your mind as you try and figure out what happens to that protagonist and just how, how the cows are involved. Because you know they are. You know that the cows are involved so madly in what happens in this book that they are part of what comes, they are embedded in what comes, and it’s just how…?

This is such a good first page. And a good book!  A very good book. Moovellous, one might say. (I’m going to stop there, my cow based puns are all out….)

 

First Pages : Eustacia goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia goes to the Chalet SchoolWelcome back to another one of my intermittent looking at the first pages of books series. I’ve chosen the great Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School for today’s post, and a lot of it hinges on that near legendary first sentence:

“There is no disguising the fact that Eustacia Benson was the most arrant little prig that ever existed.”

What a sentence. What. A. Sentence. It’s one with at least two words that I remember not understanding the first time that I read this, but my word, how I understood that sentence. It’s full of authority; and it’s an authority which almost breaks the third wall. This is the great authorial voice speaking and it’s one that, at this point in the series, is full of strength and vigour. Brent-Dyer is pretty much speaking straight to her audience. Eustacia is awful, she’s saying, and you need to know this before you know anything else about her.

(For those of you who remain unsure – and I grant, I just had to double check I was getting the meaning of ‘prig’ right – it means “a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others” according to Google. So there we are. Eustacia is horrible. Even Google says so).

That’s such an odd way to introduce a protagonist to the series. We know that Eustacia is to be the protagonist of this book; she’s named in the title, she is the title of the first chapter, she is in the first line. She is central and yet, hated. She is a character constructed – and “subjected” – to a childhood that is defined by the absence of normal things. There’s a lovely little line towards the end of the first paragraph where Brent-Dyer groups herself with the reader and muses: “We have little difficulty in guessing the effect of those theories when we meet Eustacia for the first time…” Have a look at the construction of this sentence in conjunction with that opener. Eustacia is an arrant little prig. She is not pleasant. We know this, you and I, because I (the author) am standing on the side of you (the reader) and we’re studying this strange “unfortunate” creature together.

I find Eustacia such a fascinating individual. She’s introduced as somebody quite horrible and yet somebody who’s going to go to the Chalet School. Note the construction of the title: “Eustacia goes to the Chalet School.” It’s not “Eustacia at the Chalet School”. It’s not “Eustacia of the Chalet School” (The of and at constructions are titles used liberally throughout the series, but goes only occurs twice when related directly to school based adventures, and once in the ‘fill-in’ episode of Joey goes to the Oberland). That title suggest a girl who is being sent and yet, will not belong. A destination, but one that is not welcoming. Previous to this episode in the series, we’ve seen another new girl introduced – The Princess of the Chalet School – and Eustacia’s not destined for a similar experience. She is alien, really, to everything in this series and around her, and she is fascinating.

Brent-Dyer at this point in her writing career was so, so strong in how she could draw a character and context together. Eustacia is, for me, one of her more enduring and complex creations and it all centres around that opening sentence: “…the most arrant little prig that existed”. I think it’s madly intriguing that she set this book around such a resolutely unlikeable heroine – and one that she only, very briefly, admits is not to blame for being so unlikeable. She is the “unfortunate Eustacia”, who has been “subjected” to her childhood.

And maybe that’s the crux with this page, that little brief coda in the depths of the opening paragraph, that little mark of humanity and careful word choice that shows that maybe, underneath it all, Eustacia isn’t that bad a thing. She’s a victim. She’s obnoxious and superior and, as one might phrase it nowadays, rather full of it; but she is not to blame.

That’s such a careful nuance and it’s one that, I think, this whole page hinges upon. Eustacia’s character is laid out for all to see here, mercilessly so – but it is not all that she is. It is well for both the author and reader to see the cracks in it, even at this early point. It is the smallest of moments but it is so indicative of what is yet to come. Eustacia is a victim. And this book is going to explore just exactly what that victimhood has created.

First Pages : ‘The School at the Chalet’ by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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Front Cover : The School at the Chalet

Welcome to a new feature here on DYESTAFTSA, and what better book to debut it with than one of my beloved Chalet School books?

‘First Pages’ is precisely that. I plan to have a look at some of the first pages of some of the best books in the world, she says nonchalantly, and try and share with you a little bit as to why these books are so good. I also want to tell you a little bit about the book themselves. E-Books are wondrous, mind-blowing things, but they don’t hold the history that the book as object holds. Some of these books have been around the world with me. Some of them are almost as old as me. Some of them have been in the bath, some of them are page-creased and torn, all of them are beloved.

Let’s begin. This edition of ‘The School at the Chalet’ is a “facisimile edition of her first Chalet School book”. Published in 1994, it’s a replica of the first edition of the Chalet School book. That explains the delightful typeface you’ll see on the first page (how evocative can a typeface be? Very, I think, very). The book itself is unedited and features everything that that first edition would have included – but it doesn’t include the pictures. Which is a definite downer. Nina K Brisley’s pictures are vivid and lovely things.

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Page One : The School at the Chalet

Chapter One is called “Madge Decides”. Think on that title a moment. The agency of that chapter is already being placed in the hands of Madge. We don’t know who she is – we just know that she’s in charge. That’s exciting and it’s a note that sets us up so  well for the series. Madge is a woman making a decision – we don’t know what it is yet – but she’s making that decision herself. It’s not “Madge and ‘somebody else’ decide”. It’s Madge.

The first sentence in the book is spoken by Dick. He refers to two girls, and he’s immediately met by Madge’s light-hearted replies. She’s not concerned. Dick is (he’s all exclamation marks) but Madge definitely isn’t. The control, the narrative agency of this page, is all hers. Again, it’s such a beautiful and appropriate note to kick off this series with – a woman being in charge of her own situation.

Have a look at the actions on this page. We can reason fairly effectively that both Madge and Dick are sat down when it begins. The “She got up…” paragraph is fairly explicit on that. And it’s this paragraph that I want to focus on and what comes after. Madge stands up. She walks across the room and Dick ‘lifts up his fair boyish head to look at her’. Take a moment over that. The height issue. The power is all with Madge, again, Dick is looking ‘up’ at her; she’s all affirmative action (even if that action is just a walk – it’s an action). Dick is talking. Madge is doing.

The final note that I want to draw your attention to is in the final paragraph. It’s perhaps the first note of what we could call Chalet School style. Madge is “not pretty in the strict sense of the word, yet … good to look at.” That’s an interesting stylistic choice to take and it’s one that signifies a few things to me straight away. The school story was very well known at this point and people were familiar with it and some of the key hallmarks of the genre. There are books by certain authors where every girl in the school is basically a supermodel with glorious hair, amazing looks and everybody ‘pashes’ on each other. This sentence about Madge, I think, is Brent-Dyer signifying a fairly strong stylistic turn away from that genre. She’s saying that this heroine, this heroine, she’s somebody you should be looking at and she is not cliche. She is not the sort of heroine you’re used to seeing.Everything about this page is coded to make you look at Madge and then here’s this sentence going – think about who you’re looking at. She’s not ‘pretty’. She can’t be classified as easily as that.

Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series eventually went on to sprawl into almost sixty titles and forty-five years. In my opinion, the Chalet School books became the series that defined her. It’s hard, and slightly unnerving, for me to imagine writing a series now that I’d still be writing forty-five years later. But that’s what she did.

And all of that began here.