The Skylarks War by Hilary McKay

The Skylarks' War

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Endlessly beautiful, in that way that only Hilary McKay can be, The Skylarks War is perfect. I thought it might be on page ninety-seven, and then when I finished it and let out a great gasping sob at that ending, I knew it was. This is rich, wild and lovely storytelling, and reading it is like reading something you have known your entire life. I wonder sometimes at how McKay can do this, and then I realise that I don’t need to wonder. I simply need to be glad that she can, and does, and that books like this are in the world.

It’s a big book as well, this, it doesn’t shy away from some hard and precise horrors in the world whether they are familial, and of individuals who do not know how to love their children or indeed, whether they can, or bigger, made of people fighting and dying in landscapes far away from home. This is World War One, and McKay does not shy away from its great and dark horrors. Some of her writing here is some of her best, I think, encompassing a curious mixture of numbness and truth and sadness and fear and honesty that makes the pages feel almost like a primary source. That they’re written from that time, from that space, from that darkness.

I am concious that I’ve not told you much about the book itself, and in a way I’m not sorry. I want you to feel the texture of it, that great depth that gives you so much in a single sentence, and does so in a way that only McKay can do. This is deep storying, and it is done in such an unafraid and simple and matter-of-fact way that makes it something else. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of family. It is a story about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world. It is a story about figuring out what the world will let you be.

But most of all, I think this is a story about love. Love for family, love for friends, love for each other, and a love of those summers where nothing is impossible. Love that brings pain and love that brings strength, love that brings hope and understanding and heartbreak and joy. Love that is love and love that is given freely, hopefully, tenderly, painfully. Love, love, love. Always love.

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Binny Bewitched : Hilary McKay

Binny Bewitched (Binny, #3)Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Bewitched returns to the Cornwallis household and sees the family in disarray. Binny herself has misplaced something that wasn’t hers to start off with. James and his new best friend are engrossed in their own adventures, whilst Clem is acting particularly oddly. Coupled with that, the builder keeps coming round to do one last job on the house, whilst their next door neighbour is, pretty definitely, a witch….

Sometimes it’s hard to rate McKay’s work as you rate it within a certain context of wonder that is formed from your experience of her other books. This, the third in the Binny series, feels like an ending to that series and there will never be a part of me that chooses for McKay’s stories to end. She’s such a gifted, genuine, lovely storyteller that I get greedy and hungry and desperate for them to continue. I love what she does. Binny Bewitched then gets five stars, because it is perfect, and yet it’s not because I feel like this is it, but then it is perfect because it is here and it reads like soup and quilts and snow on a school morning.

What makes Binny Bewitched so wonderful is the way it hangs on a cusp of growth. There aren’t many writers who can transition well from one age group to another within the same text; from boyhood to manhood, from girlhood to womanhood. It’s a complicated moment and it’s one that, I wonder now, I haven’t described particularly well. Maybe it’s better to pull it back to the idea of moments; moments when you look at somebody and see a friend, but then, one day, you look at them and see something different. Something new and sharp and wonderful. Something else. Or when you’re walking down the road, and you see something that you’ve seen a thousand days, but then, suddenly, it means something totally different. Shifts. Changes.

Adèle Geras does this well. and Susie Day is, I suspect, another author who gets it. Who understands that moment when the world makes sense and then suddenly reforms to make another sort of sense. A different sort of sense. And that’s what Binny Bewitched captures, so wonderfully, that difference between the self you are and the self you will be. Binny is a wonderful character. She’s stubborn, tempestuous, funny, brave, passionate, confused, perfect. She’s everything, and this book is lovely and I hope this isn’t the end for this series but if it is, what a way to go out. And why we haven’t given McKay the Freedom of Children’s Literature yet, I do not know.

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Binny Keeps a Secret : Hilary McKay

Binny Keeps a SecretBinny Keeps a Secret by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Keeps A Secret sees Binny join a new school. This doesn’t go terribly well, and Binny is thrilled when a bad storm hits the town and wrecks the roof of their house. They have to move to a rented property in the countryside whilst the roof gets fixed. Clearly, this means that Binny won’t have to go to school, but life’s never straightforward for her. Binny has to go to school and she has to deal with the hideousity (tm Louise Rennison) but then, Binny discovers a great secret about their new house…

There are books that live and die on character, I think, books that have a voice so distinct and palpable and intense, that you can you can forgive them those moments where the structure is a little uneven or where the ending is a little sharp because the book itself is so gorgeous, so madly gorgeous, that you don’t care. You’re reading and it is good and you want that moment to live forever. I could read these Binny books forever.

A part of me wants to give Hilary McKay the freedom of children’s literature. I know there’s no such thing, but McKay’s books make me want to scream and shout and be all “just go look, look at how good she is, and how good these books are”. Binny Keeps A Secret is a little older, a little wiser, but still delightfully Binny. Binny is voice, I think, tumultous, life-living, complex, chaotic, vivid, beautiful voice. She’s an astonishing character. She makes me want to have written her and yet, I know I never could do her justice in the way that McKay does.

This is a book of voice. Of character. Life. It is messy, pretty, beautiful, foolish. It’s full of people. Family. Laughter. Loathing. And Hilary McKay is one of the best, the very best.

Now let’s talk again about that freedom of children’s literature thing…

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Indigo’s Star : Hilary McKay

Indigo's Star (Casson Family, #2)Indigo’s Star by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second in the Casson Family series by Hilary McKay. It reads well as a standalone (an understatement, it reads perfectly and joyously and richly, like the best slice of cake at the best possible time on the best possible day) but treat yourself and read the others. It has been too long since I read these books and I have reserved them all at the library to wallow in on a rainy day. Or a sunny day. Any day, really, for these books are worth cancelling worlds for.

Indigo’s Star focuses on Indigo and his return to school after a long bout of illness. He is not keen to go back but go back he must and face the bullies who are there and seem centred on him. That is, until a new boy arrives to join Indigo’s class and Tom, as the blurb on the back says, “will make all the difference.” Alongside this plot, we have Rose being vividly gorgeous and writing letters to make her dad come home: “Darling Daddy. This is Rose. The shed needs new wires now it has blown up. Caddy is bringing home rock bottom boyfriends to see if they will do for Mummy. Instead of you. Love Rose.”

I love what Hilary McKay does. Sometimes I think through reading so much and simply having so much to choose from, we can miss the great perfect things that are here for us and just aching to be read. Reading McKay is like therapy. This book is full of a tumultuous joy. She captures family quite perfectly; the layering of relationships, the mixture of love and hate and awkwardness and pain and secrets that is family and she does it quite perfectly.

This book (and, to be fair, all of her books) are joyful, joyful things. Indigo’s Star shifts from hilarity through to intense vivid pain and right back again and oh God, how you miss it when it’s done.

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Binny for Short : Hilary McKay

Binny for ShortBinny for Short by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to write about family, I think sometimes. It’s a thing that a lot of people do for families, in their odd and pained and viciously real shapes, are part of all our lives and they are something which remain intensely personal. You have secret words, shared histories, internal jokes that nobody, despite however hard they try, may ever fully understand. And you can’t ever understand theirs, even if you understand the full shade of their humour, cut from their life, you may never fully see the shadows in that.

It’s hard to write about family but I think, perhaps, that Hilary McKay is superlative in how she does it. There’s nobody quite like McKay in how she catches that oddly loving and vibrant family dynamic, the way that you love-hate-love your siblings and hate them again, all in the same breath. And there’s nobody quite like McKay who swings you from laughter, through to a rush of love for the entire world, through to catching your breath with tears and wanting everything to just be alright and okay and for them to make their way through this.

McKay is a joy, pure and simple, and in Binny for Short she’s on fine and almost masterful form. The titular Binny (Belinda – Bin, Bel, Binny for short) is a fiery and rather lovely creation. She’s stubborn and grumpy and resolutely of herself. Her childhood is rather idyllic and lovely but following the death of her father, everything changes. Her beloved dog, Max, is given away due to the machinations of Binny’s hated Auntie Violet. Things rise to a head between Binny and Auntie Violet at a funeral, and following a series of unfortunate events (TM Lemony Snicket) Binny is left with Auntie Violet’s home by the sea.

The idea of a home by the sea is something that’s been explored in children’s literature before; the wild and entrancing ‘otherness’ of the seaside will remain eternally glorious but I think here, coupled with Binny’s frenemy Gareth(I loathe that expression but it rather fits her initial encounters with him), her wide-eyed love of the gorgeous Liam and of her love of her new world in general, McKay has created something rather ridiculously lovely.

This book is rich story-telling, ridiculously so, and it is full of life and it is almost a joy to read and I want more, please, for I am greedy for work like this.

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