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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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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 KNOW RIGHT”

“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?”

“Ah okay. SO COULD YOU 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.”

“POLLY PIGLET HAS NO CLOTHES AND NO FRIENDS, EVERYONE HATES HER UNTIL SHE STEALS SOME CLOTHES OFF THE WASHING LINE, AND THEN SHE GETS PICKED UP BY MISTER PERCY PIG, AND THEN SHE MAGICALLY HAS NINE PIGLETS, GROWS OUT OF HER CLOTHES AND IS LEFT JUST WITH A RIBBON, BUT SHE’S NOT LONELY NOW HURRAH”

“…”

“…”

“I think that’s an ambitious hurrah.”

“THE MOST AMBITIOUS HURRAH OF ALL OF THE HURRAHS THAT HAVE EVER BEEN HURRAHED”

“Can you stop shouting?”

“I’M NOT SHOUTING, THIS IS JUST FOR RHETORICAL EFFECT.”

“…”

“I AM EMPHASIZING THE UTTER LUNACY OF THIS BOOK.”

“…”

” ‘YOU STILL LOOK LOVELY TO ME, THOUGH NOW YOU ONLY WEAR YOUR SKIN’ SAID PERCY PIG”

“…”

“…”

“WHAT???”

“exactly.”




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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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Comics

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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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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Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

Mischief at St Rollo's by Enid Blyton front cover

Mischief at St Rollo’s by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mischief at St Rollo’s is never going to change the world. It’s a typically Blytonian school story; new kids go to a school, thing happen, shenanigans, shenanigans, end of term, I can’t wait to go back! It’s not high literature nor is it quite the same as some of her better work in the Malory Towers books, for example. But what Mischief At St Rollo’s is so fiercely utterly readable that sometimes I can’t quite believe how Enid Blyton manages it.

Let me explain a little what I mean by that. Readability is, I think, something Blyton excels at. She is confident, brisk and blunt in her writing. She never uses two words when one will do. She hits her beats, she gives the briefest of characterisation to her characters, and she gets out of Dodge before they even know she’s there. The first page, for example, is brilliant. We are introduced to Micheal and Janet. They don’t want to go to boarding school (does anybody ever in Blyton land?), but their parents are being nice and sending them to a mixed school so they can stay together. Micheal and Janet decide to make the new school sit up a bit. And that’s all done in half a page. Literally half a page. And that’s Blyton, she goes straight for the narrative jugular and doesn’t care less. We know nothing about the room they’re in, what they look like or where they live; we know the important things: school, school, school. And when we’re there, it’s equally brisk. Everything is fine, everything is great, everything is not great! everything is sorted. Hurrah! See you next term!

I mean, it’s awful on one level but it’s brilliant on another. These are books that will make readers out of even the most reluctant individual – even if they don’t want it. There’s no choice and honestly? I rather love how brazen it all is. Enid gets the job done. And woe betide anybody who stands against her.



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Monica Turns up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Monica Turns Up Trumps  by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer front cover

Monica Turns Up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer‘s connectors, the more I’ve come to realise that she is an author of extremes. She is either very good or very bad, and only sometimes does she land in the middle. Were I a scientifically minded type I’d call this the “Exile-Althea Equation” and murmur lots of things about context of production and the difficulties of a long and prolific writing career, but I am not and so I shall content myself with merely observing this: it’s easy to figure out what you’re going to get. You can feel it within seconds, and by the end of the first chapter it’s definite. You might be getting pink worms and backflipping ninja geography teachers, or you might be getting searing political commentary, but the important thing is this: you know. And I knew within moments of reading Monica Turns Up Trumps that this was relatively early doors Brent-Dyer, and it was good.

Monica Turns Up Trumps sings of first phase EBD; that richness of setting, flawed and lovable characters, a Misunderstanding Father type who is also an Inevitable Doctor (Brent-Dyer bingo! mark your cards!), and argumentative and somewhat stroppy girls trying to figure out who they are in the world. There are not enough stroppy girls in books, and I welcome more. I think we increasingly try to erase girlish misbehaviour – as indeed, do some of the adults in this book – and yet, Brent-Dyer keeps it in. Girls can be idiots. It’s okay. They’re still great.

Plot? Straightforward, and full of delicious Chalet School connectors. Monica is an idiot. She’s figuring out how not to be. Things happen; she turns up trumps. Honestly, there’s no spoiler here: it’s literally the title of the book. There’s an interesting subtext where her brother advises her father on how to handle her – patriarchy in training, perhaps, but I always see something else when it comes to Brent-Dyer and siblings, not in the least because of the childhood death of her brother Henzell in 1912 and Elinor growing up as an only child. There’s always something curiously sad for me about how she leans towards the big, messy families full of love when the parent/ singular child family tends towards a much more complicated representation. A topic for an essay at some points, perhaps.




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Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh man, I loved this! Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore is a new venture to me; new author, much more ‘Guide’ orientated then many of my normal reads, and yet it’s a delight. A rampant, utter, delight. It’s vivid, heartfelt, ferociously readable and fabulously ridiculous (the AMOUNT of incidents Judy gets involved in!); essentially, it’s brilliant. It’s perhaps not the highest of literature nor is it perhaps the most challenging – much of it reminded me of Enid Blyton at her determined best – but it is delightful.

When it comes to books like this, I’m always conscious that I’m reading them from a very modern perspective. I was a brownie and a guide, but that was three million years ago, and the thought of going back to that fills me with an abject horror. But back in the day, this movement was an option for young women and girls to get together and do something that much of society did not wish them to do: make a difference. Patriarchy, convention, sexism. All the usual sorts of oppressive jazz. And you can feel these themes in Judy, Patrol Leader because they’re not really subtly handled – essentially it’s GUIDES IS GOOD FOR YOU. All the way through. And usually I’d be bucking against that not terribly indirect sort of preaching but honestly, Judy, Patrol Leader makes me not care about it because it works. It makes guides seem like the best thing ever. You get involved in the most ridiculous shenanigans but then it’s okay because you’re a Guide. Guides! Guides! Guides is good!

Moore is a prolific author, and I’d like to hope her other books are as delightful at this. I will be searching them out on the strength of it.

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Midnight Is A Place by Joan Aiken

Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken front cover

Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve never wholly clicked with Joan Aiken. I think, sometimes, some of it stems from my preferences; I like stories with a particular taste and style and frame. I like being able to handle them and know what I’m going to get and then being delighted in how my expectations are subverted. Outfox me, please, I long for it. But I think with Joan Aiken, I’m always struggling to understand, trying to figure out what’s going on and where it is, and how I should feel about that. This is no criticism; it’s a testament to her wild imagination and fiercely convincing world-building. Everything feels right and then, suddenly, off. A mirror, cracked. A world remade and reshaped by somebody who is undoubtedly brilliant. I am a little cowed by that, I think, and it’s hard for me to find my place in the text.

And yet Midnight Is A Place is outstanding; fierce, rich, full of detail, but it’s a detail that I chase after and never quite get hold of. There’s so much packed in this novel – family history, dramatic personal change, hogs! in! sewers! – that I ache for time to explore it, to discover more about this and that before being pulled away to study the other. And again this is a testament to how good she is: there’s so much here, whether it’s the nuanced, subtle details of character, or the barely managed wilderness of the landscape, or it’s simply those hogs that roam the sewers that thread like an artery underneath the world.

But here’s the thing: sometimes it doesn’t matter how I feel about a book. I can not be wholly comfortable with something, but I can recognise how great it is. I can recognise the mark of an author who is fine, fine, fine with her craft and I can understand how important this might be to somebody just discovering what language is and what it can be shaped to be. I would recommend this without batting an eyelid because it is good, powerful, bold fiction.

(et aussi j’aime Anna-Marie).

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Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill front cover

Dancer In The Wings by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of the authors I read, the more I become convinced that there is a fine line between ridiculous and genius. So close and yet sometimes, so very much one or the other. It is the problem, I think, of being so squarely located within a series and world that you, as the author, have created, and being unable to find your way out of it. The Drina books suffered from this towards the end, I think, because it was too far in. So did Harry Potter if I’m being frank; I ached for it to be edited so much more towards the end of the series, and yet there they were. Behemoths, character-locked, mythology wrapped islands. Maybe it’s a problem of series fiction, and not one of genre at all. Maybe that’s what series do: leave you wrapped up in a problem of your own making and you’re just left trying to find the way out.

And so to Lorna Hill, and this delightful yet inherently ridiculous affair. Annette Dancy (“dancey by name and dancey by nature” reader, I die) needs to get to Scotland. She has no money but a great idea. Inevitably, none of that matters because everything works out! As you always knew it would! This isn’t a spoiler! You knew it from the moment you read it!

There’s something comforting about Lorna Hill and I do love her, but this is essentially ‘dancer on a boat and then dancer in Scotland’ and she’s done it better elsewhere. Much better. Dancer In The Wings just feels comfortable; a book span out of air, easy as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. And even in that comfortable ridiculousness, there are moments when it’s still perfect, albeit briefly, so very briefly, because Hill does write a bloody good dance scene. You root for Annette, even though she’s an idiot, and you root for dancing on a ship, even though it’s ridiculous, because Hill makes it work. It’s comfortable, comforting stuff, and sometimes that’s what’s needed. It’s not the highest of literature, nor will it last with you very long after it happens, but for a moment? It’s ideal.



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Princess Anne by Katherine L. Oldmeadow

Princess Anne by Katherine Oldmeadow front cover

Princess Anne by Katharine L. Oldmeadow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Princess Anne by Katharine Oldmeadow is a pleasant enough diversion from the world, but it was fairly unremarkable. It reads like a sort of Sara Crewe / Abbey Girls / Pollyanna mash-up, which is delightful but not the sort of thing I’m ever going to be able to review coherently. Because, when it’s done, it’s sort of – just – done. You’ll know the feeling; there are those books in the world that are lovely and satisfying but when you finish them, there’s nothing left. A perfectly good cake that’s perfectly pleasant for a couple of mouthfuls but once it’s done? Nothing, but nothing stays of it.

And I like my books to stay. I like them to find a place in the world and make it their own. I like being able to think of them in ways that I do not expect, and to find connections between them. A web of words, perhaps, if I’m being fancy, but mainly it’s the memory of them. That moment of the read. The thought that I could have it again. The memory of how good it was.

Princess Anne sort of doesn’t have that. It’s put together very nicely for 1925 but does have an oddly patchwork affair. She is orphaned. She’s sent to stay with a horrible aunt. The horrible aunt sends her to school. Some of it works, particularly the moments where Anne makes friends, but mostly it’s a game of catch-up. She’s perky here, despite the awful circumstances, and then she’s perky elsewhere, despite the similarly hideous situation, and that’s great but it doesn’t really make her particularly interesting. If you think of The School At The Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, published the same year, the difference is remarkable. Grizel (a little bit of a cow at the best of times) is interesting. Anne, on the other hand, sort of skips through everything and finds the best in it. Kittens. Rainbows. Unicorns.

(Though I am fond of the point where she finds a friend by quoting Milton at everyone. It’s the sort of ridiculous whimsy that this genre does so very well).

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A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley front cover

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s interesting how you can sometimes come to the right book at the wrong time. The first time I read this book, I was in the basement of a dusty university library and I was late for my shift. I skim-read and I did not really get it. I suppose you wouldn’t get anything under such circumstances, not when your mind is elsewhere and the sort of book you’re reading isn’t the sort to want to bring you back. I know that A Traveller In Time doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t seek to be heard; rather it wants you to listen, and sometimes it takes a long while to find the moment where that can occur.

But it does occur, that is the thing with these books; moments happen when you least expect them, and I found a copy of this in a seaside town this week and I thought: it is time that I read this again. Properly. Completely. Not with the sort of half mind that looks elsewhere, but rather my whole attention. And so I did, and I realised that this is a fearlessly well-told story in the manner of something very eternal in British children’s literature; complex, challenging, wildly magical, ferociously melancholic, and rather, utterly good. It is also that rare thing: a classic that feels classic, timeless, a pebble thrown into the pond and felt in books like Charlotte Sometimes; Tom’s Midnight Garden; and the Green Knowe books. The reverberations, endless.

Penelope is visiting family at Thackers; the year is 1934, and somehow – even the text lets it happen in a blink, a sentence – she becomes a traveller in time and part of the 16th century. She can move from one time to the next and back again; a ghost, a dreamer, and whilst in the past, she becomes part of something beyond her control. A plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. It is the sort of deliciously big story that only children’s literature of a certain time and place can do, and Uttley revels in it. Her language is complex, challenging, and big. So big. Everything about this story and its fantastical, grey, magic is so very big.

And it is melancholic, as somebody on Twitter described it to me. It is full of a desperate ache for the inevitability of things; the world turns, people live, people die, and to be a brief part of that world is a painful, brutal gift. It is a gift that nobody would ever return; the preciousness of it. The perfection of it. But it is not easy and it is all the better for it. I have increasingly come to think that those authors who can do this understand the brutality of childhood. The raw truth of it. The way perfection and heartbreak can dance together, so close, so tightly wound. The way a day can be beautiful and then desperate, all at once.

It is a book that will wait for you to be ready to find it. And once you are? It will give you everything.

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Dobbin And The Silver Shoes by Elizabeth Clark

Dobbin and the Silver Shoes: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark front cover

Dobbin and the Silver Shoes: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across Elizabeth Clark; I reviewed The Farmer And The Fairy a while back and enjoyed her greatly. She’s a classic sort of storyteller, somebody who delivers stories that feel slightly anachronistic now in our modern world and yet still possess a very particular sort of magic. And so, when I spotted a very charming edition of Dobbin And The Silver Shoes (1941 – tiny, and published in that delicate, fine wartime paper that is so evocative of the time), I was very happy to pick it up. It was also a plus that it was illustrated, as with her other work, by Nina K. Brisley who illustrated the Chalet School books and has such a delightful richness to her work.

As with The Farmer And The Fairy, Dobbin And The Silver Shoes (originally published in 1936) is fairly straightforward. It’s a collection of short stories based around a sort of folkloric / fairy tale vibe. There’s some light moralising here but nothing too overly dramatic (which, let me tell you is a delightful rarity) and Clark is clearly a gifted storyteller. It’s a charming, almost naive collection of stories and there’s a lot to recommend it. It’s not going to change the world, nor is it going to be ever considered as high or groundbreaking literature, but it is very nice. It’s clean, classic storytelling.

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La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

La Bastarda: A Novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono front cover

La Bastarda: A Novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

La Bastarda first came across my radar when I was researching translated young adult literature. I have been wanting to read more of this, not only as a reaction of the increasingly narrow political spheres we seem to be so wrongly moving towards, but also because it felt right. I want to discover new voices doing exciting things, and I want to celebrate the independent ones. The oddities. The books that are raw and wild and something else; something that may not necessarily slide into the cover of the broadsheet reviews on a Saturday but that still demanded, utterly, to be heard. My search for these books bought me to the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI) Translated YA Book Prize 2019 and to La Bastarda.

La Bastarda is the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman – Trifonia Melibea Obono – to be translated into English. That is not a sentence you read everyday and La Bastarda stuck with me ever since I did. This was a book I remembered, for weeks, and so I bought it because I had no other choice. I do not know much about Equatorial Guinea, but I am a reader and this felt like story before I’d even opened a single page.

So, to the book itself. It is not what I expected; anything labelled as YA seems to slide towards a specific blueprint for me, a text full of rebellion and identity and somebody, something, someone figuring out who they want to be in the world. It is not an accurate blueprint, nor indeed a wholly comprehensive one, but I’d suspect anybody who hears the phrase ‘Young Adult’ to think of something very specific. And I do not think La Bastarda is specific. I do not think it is specific at all. It is the story of Okomo, an orphaned teen, a girl who falls in love with somebody she ought not to and in the process and comes to rebel against much of her culture. It is simply written, sometimes stiffly written and unevenly weighted, and yet there’s something here. Something buried, something brittle, something new-formed and not yet flesh.

La Bastarda intrigues me. I do not think it is Young Adult, even though in many ways it is. It reads more as a fable, an allegory, a fairy-tale that slides through themes and metaphor and imagery like a knife through butter. It is not a perfect book, nor is it one that I wholly understand yet. I wanted more, I wanted less, I wanted to split it open and find the story underneath the one that was given me. Because I do think that there’s something there, something that is hinted at throughout this story and never quite fully realised.

Would I reccommend it? Undoubtedly yes; it is an achievement and Obono is a deft, assured writer. Her language is tight, restrained and that restraint sometimes delivers moments of great emotional clarity. There’s something poetic here, also, and though I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation, I think that Lawrence Schimel does an excellent job. It feels like a restrained, careful, respectful translation, and there’s still that palpable sense of the original underneath the translated text.

I think, in a way, I am still trying to figure out La Bastarda. I am intrigued by it and I am beguiled by it, but I do not wholly understand it. I think some of that speaks of my ignorance of the culture and of the setting and I think that some of it also speaks of the great precision of this book. It is not perfect, I think (but then, what is?). Sometimes, however, it says something very perfectly crafted and very much of itself. It tells its story. It shall not be silenced.

It shall be heard.

And that, I think, more than anything, is why I shall come back to this book.




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The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every now and then Lorna Hill can be the very definition of heart-warming and The Vicarage Children is precisely that. I’m never quite sure how Lorna Hill captures so much warmth and heart in her work, and I’m not particularly sure that I want to spend days trying to figure out why. With some books I do – some books make me want to dig down deep into them and figure out how and why they tick. I want to find out how they work, why one word sits next to another, what they say about the world – but with Lorna Hill, I just want to wallow.

I want to wallow in the sunlight and the warmth and the simplicity of it. I want to let the magic work – I want to be transported. This is another world and it’s timeless to me (and not in the sense of that amazing song from Hairspray). There are references to a specific period, to technology and things like that, but they’re few and far between. And, if I’m honest, I skip past them in the manner that I skip past those interminable folklore chapters in Angela Brazil. I won’t let them register. I want the sunlight, the liberty, and the simple beauty that Hill can give me. I’ll let her get away with being episodic and occasionally a tiny bit dull because she can, when she’s got all of her ineffable talent in play, be perfect.

And occasionally, this is precisely that. The Vicarage Children is the first of a series, narrated by the youngest sister Mandy and it’s sometimes a little stiff, sometimes a little pedestrian, but every now and then it is beautiful. Utterly. Endlessly. Who wouldn’t want to live in a Vicarage in the Northumbrian countryside with balconies on several of the bedrooms and a burn rushing through the garden with its rockery of Roman stones and only a doorway separating them from adventure? Who wouldn’t – just – want that?



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Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a modern retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero front cover

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women by Rey Terciero

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this. So much. Little Women is one of those iconic texts and retellings of iconic texts can be challenging things. Do you stick with the iconic or do you go for something new? Do you retell texture or detail, sensation or sentence? It’s a balancing act and one that will never wholly reproduce the original. But it shouldn’t. Books – stories – life – they evolve. Words grow, words shift, words change, and that which broke our heart at age six can turn us into warriors at age thirty-six. Everything changes. Why should our stories be any different?

And so this is no perfect adaptation, because I think no adaptation can be perfect. It simply can’t. It’s never that original, it’s never that point in time, it’s never the moment when we pick up a book for the first time. It’s an echo, a memory, but in the hands of Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo, it’s perfect. I accept the flaws of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (and Peggy!) because it’s so utterly, utterly gorgeous. Yes, the chapters tend to devolve into vignettes, and plots are shifted and detail nuanced, but when it’s as beautiful and rich and lovely as this, I don’t care.

And it made me love Amy. So much. Amy! The actual worst becoming the actual best! Wonders will never cease. This is joyful, and I love it. We should not separate our stories from the world; we should take them and reshape them and make them parts of our lives. And we should give them such an ending as Terciero and Indigo give this book, one of heart, hope and utter, utter power.

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The Vicarage Children In Skye by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d like you to imagine a very suppressed scream. That’s the noise I made when spotting this in my library’s book-sale. Now, a library must always have a book-sale because they are not ginormous buildings with elastic sides, and books must always be weeded and moved onto their next places, but I’d rather love it if I could cosmically order all those that float my boat to magically end up at my door. It was circumstance, you see, that bought us together; itchy feet and a slight dose of cabin fever, and I came home with a copy of The Vicarage Children In Skye and happiness. (I also bought some fudge but that’s slightly incidental at this point).

So, to Hill! She is a delightful writer for even when her plot struggles (and her plot struggles quite a bit in this book it is fair to say), she is still able to hit you with pages and pages upon richness. It’s not the most exciting title; there is a muppety baby, a muppety sister, a hot local, and Cameos By Dancers. It would not be a Lorna Hill book without the unexpected cameos of somebody, and this is no exception. Where it is an exception, however, is with Mandy King who is a very appealing every-girl sort of character. She does not do ballet (sacrilege!), is saddled with looking after her muppety siblings, but is actually rather fun. She’s lively, genuine and proof of Hill’s ineffable skill with people.

It’s also important to mention that Hill is excellent when it comes to ‘place’. She can write a landscape like no other, and it so often seems to stem from personal knowledge and experience. Her descriptions of Skye almost sing off the page. This edition (9781847450890) has a copious foreword about location and setting, though I’d recommend reading it after the novel (why do people put this sort of thing beforehand? It means nothing unless you know what it’s on about..). These are, however, minor quibbles. This is a solid edition of a lesser-known story from an excellent author. Lorna Hill, ladies and gentlemen, she’s ace.


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The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and her Books by Monica Godfrey

The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Her Books by Monica Godfrey

The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham and Her Books by Monica Godfrey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This isn’t a subtle biography by any means. It’s written from a very particular standpoint; one that I do accept, occasionally understand, but can’t ever describe as high literature. Godfrey is a fan, The World of Elsie Jeanette Oxenham is a fannish text, and Oxenham can do no wrong. And I am the first to point out where Girl’s Literature Of This Period was awesome and ground-breaking but I’m also, I hope, able to recognise when it’s the very definition of ridiculous….

In a series of chapters themed around topics (so not in the sense of a traditionally sequential biography), Godfrey explores issues such as Cleeve Abbey, Real People, and Publishing History; essentially, it’s a series of short essays grouped together in one volume. Which is fine! But! Oxenham! Is! Not! The! Second! Coming!

There are further problems, particularly in the chapter where Godfrey defends the books against common criticisms, and steadfastly ignores or denies all of them. She highlights how the books are often said to ‘hint at lesbianism’ (I’d say ‘reference it with the subtlety of a brick’ but perhaps that’s just my approach), writing that: “Does anyone really think that in the early part of the last century, an unmarried woman living in a very Christian home, surrounded by unmarried sisters, would have known what lesbianism was or meant?”. It’s a hell of a sentence and one that slides substantially away from any sort of objectivity. It also seems to stand at odds with my experience of EJO; that is to say somebody who embraces the power, strength and love to be found in women by women. Though it may never be labelled explicitly as ‘lesbianism’, I think it’s a reach to say that it’s totally absent from the texts. And a reach, I think, is me being super polite.

(Also, so what? Love is love and honestly, who cares? Read what you want into a book, it doesn’t impact my relationship with a text nor should it. I am here for you to read, and I want you to read, and the conclusions you come up – the readings that you have – are perfectly valid for you. Live and let live! Enough with being precious over texts! Enough with ringfencing meaning! Enough!)

However, I digress…

This is a knowledgeable text that, despite its flaws, clearly knows its topic. I learnt a lot about EJO here, and a lot that I honestly could do without. But it is a book written by a fan, and for fans, and it’s a rather fascinating thing. I don’t think it’s great but I do think it’s interesting. I also think it’s beyond time for a comparative biography of Brent-Dyer, Blyton, Oxenham, Brazil and Fairlie-Bruce.

*looks directly at camera*

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The Abbey Girls In Town by Elsie J. Oxenham

The Abbey Girls in Town (The Abbey Girls, #15)The Abbey Girls in Town by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once you do an Abbey reread, you can’t stop. Though I was much more intrigued by the middle-aged spy drama happening in the background of this cover, and disappointed that it did not appear in the actual text itself, this was pleasant. Pleasant! It’s such an empty word and yet sometimes it’s full of everything that something actually is. I could not tell you what happened here, nor could I really remember who is who and what was what, but I can tell you that Mary-Dorothy is a cabbage, Joy remains a moron, the vaguest hint of something naughty (the smallest of things!) is presented as something akin to murdering a puppy, there’s an INTERMINABLE amount of dancing, and then there’s a bit more dancing, and a bit more, and then Maidie’s all I HAVE TO TALK TO JOY and Ros is all MAIDIE YOU MUSTN’T and Maidie is all BUT I HAVE TO ROS IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO, and then everything is okay! We’re all friends! Let’s dance about it!

And yet, it’s really rather pleasant. There’s no other way to describe it. Pleasant!

(I am here to provide summaries of EJO’s entire oeuvre, you really only have to ask).

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The New Abbey Girls

The New Abbey Girls by Elsie J Oxenham front cover

The New Abbey Girls by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have such a love-hate relationship with Elsie Oxenham. When I’m thinking about culling some books, hers are always the first that I look at and yet they’re still here. They’ve been in a bag a few times, and I’ve taken them all the way to the door on at least one occasion, but they’ve come back every time. And I think much of that staying power comes from how I’m increasingly beginning to realise that I find them a very peculiarly enjoyable form of ridiculous.

I mean, let’s take The New Abbey Girls. It’s a delight because it introduces Ros and Maidie, two of the more potent and well-rounded characters within the series. We’ll leave Ros’ adult fecundity out of the question for now. They are good characters. They work well with each other, and any book that talks about them is something that’s good in my eyes.

But then, as ever, there’s the ridiculousness. The amount of time Maidie pants in this book! “Maidline panted”; “Maidline panted” “Maidline panted.” I know she is an emotional and overwrought and Not Abbey Girl Material Just Yet at this point in time, but the panting! The actual panting! And when she’s not panting, she’s breathless and half-sobbing, or she’s gasping, and I know this is meant to convey her High Emotions, but it just makes her sound like a tool.

Oxenham’s exuberantly asthmatic speech-tags aside, this is a fairly standard Abbey book. We dance; Joy’s a muppet; we dance a bit more; Jen turns out to be the best; we have another dance; maybe a bun; everything’s cool. And it is ridiculous, but I do like it. Though it is ridiculous, there’s an odd comfort in it. The world can be solved by a bun, problems can be sorted by a dance, and the panting girl in the corner can Learn To Get A Grip. Like I said, ridiculous, but sometimes it’s nice to believe in that. Just a little. Just enough.

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A Girl’s Stronghold by E.F. Pollard

A Girl's Stronghold

A Girl’s Stronghold by E.F Pollard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Delightfully nutty in the way that only turn of the century children’s literature can be, this starts as something quite typical and then escalates to quite the heights. Were I the sort of scholar to throw around labels in a willy-nilly sort of fashion, I’d label this as Mills and Boon meets Young Adult literature, but I’m not so I’ll settle for calling this dippy and loving it for that. Any book called A Girl’s Stronghold, (with six illustrations by Victor Proud no less), featuring nuns and devoted servants and brave and noble young women would never be the sort of story to mess about.

And it doesn’t. It races from Belgium to England to France; skirting around several wars, one inevitable parental death (as ever, these books do not refrain from knocking everybody off left right and centre) and at the heart of it rests our girl. She’s called Faith (who would have thought it!!!!!!!). She’s devoted to her father, but has A PAST. Honestly, I love how melodramatic these books can be. They have absolutely no shame about them, and about halfway through A Girl’s Stronghold, the plot goes absolutely off the rails. One sandwich short of a picnic. Two stops short of Dagenham. And it doesn’t care one bit. We get death, war (like – about seven? just sort of there?), a couple of beseiged cities, a case of GOSH DOESN’T THIS GIRL REMIND ME OF SOMEBODY ELSE IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER WHO, and it’s great. I thoroughly recommend it.



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“Us” An Old-Fashioned Story by Mrs Molesworth

Us (an Old Fashioned Story)

Us by Mrs. Molesworth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


First published in 1885, ‘Us’ is a fairly typical piece of children’s literature for this age. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the upper classes are full of moral upstanding-ness and the lower classes (particularly gypsies) are the worst. They are prejudices of the time, and though I don’t excuse them in the slightest, it’s important to recognise that they exists and that they colour this book quite substantially. Having said that however, it’s also important to recognise that this is a ferociously well-written book. Honestly, I was surprised by how post-modern it felt at points; Mrs Molesworth engages in asides to the reader, ruminations upon the motives of the characters, and genuinely tells this story in such a fresh and dynamic manner, that it doesn’t feel like an 1885 kind of story at all.

The children, however, are tools. Forgive me, but I can’t describe them in any other manner. Everybody is besotted with their angelic ways and their fair appearance, but then the kids accidentally break a bowl, don’t confess, decide to buy a new one from the gypsies, and then get stolen by said gypsies, and really there’s nobody to blame but their own idiocy at this point. Of course there’s some social commentary at play here and some pointed moralising about how it’s best to confess to your sins otherwise you might be stolen by gypsies and sold to a circus man, but that’s all par for the course for the books of this era. They work to maintain the status quo, whether it’s right or wrong. (I was particularly amused, for example, that the Noble Gypsy Boy Who Helps Out The Tool Children gets the happy reward of being their servant).

Baby speech aside (forgive me, but if you write about “mouses” and “teef”, that will always make you lose brownie points with me), not everybody does this as well as Mrs Molesworth. Us was a real surprise and a solid, solid read.



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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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Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

Harriet Takes The Field

Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I loved this, even though I knew nothing about Catherine Christian before I saw it. Turns out she was a prolific author with credits spanning over fifty years and topics as diverse as Arthuriana, Guides, and Egyptian history, and that’s an achievement in itself. I’m ashamed I’d never heard of her before, but better late than never.

The Harriet of Harriet Takes The Field is Lady North and for some reason or another, she’s been lumbered with some ungrateful Guides. Inevitably she manages to turn things around, and they soon worship her in a rather Angela Brazil-esque fashion. Yet Christian manages to shy away from simplistic narratives of hero worship, and instead delivers something complex, deeply political and rather radical. It’s not often you have people discussing how women give birth in a 1940s children’s book for example. Of course the detail is skirted around, but the discussion is present. It’s such a radical, bold move.

These moments of radicalism persist throughout the book. As the war progresses about them, Harriet and her girls become increasingly present participants in a narrative of war and strife. Though much of it remains distant, Harriet herself suffers from the stress and is called up. Again, a lot of this happens off screen, but the effect of it is very much within the text. She’s moved to tears by a child confessing that he wasn’t alive during the last war; she talks to the girls about how to find security within themselves when all is lost, and the suffering of those in mainland Europe is foregrounded to a heartbreaking extent. England must survive, and everyone must do their part.

Much of this is directed towards the reader, and some of it has dated. That’s a caveat you must always apply to books of this nature, but equally you have to recognise those moments when it does something rather brilliant and rather utterly wonderful. There’s a lot of Harriet Takes The Field that slightly misses the moment, but every now and then it gets it. It really, really does. Take the below quote where Harriet muses on the teenagers that she knows:

“They’ve been fine,” she thought, “Fine, all of them. It isn’t for my generation to be proud of them. We’ve thrown our dice and lost. We had twenty years to build a wall against the floods, and we failed. Now these youngsters are fighting knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with us to save what can be saved. It isn’t for us to condescend to our peers.”

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A Stranger At Green Knowe by L. M. Boston

A Stranger at Green Knowe by LM Boston front cover

A Stranger at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a messy relationship with the Green Knowe stories. They’ve appealed to me less than I suspect their components ought. In other words a mysterious story set in a strange house in the English countryside should have been my absolute jam and yet hasn’t ever. I’ve tried The Children of Green Knowe several times now and failed to launch. Resolutely. Intensely. Might I even call it a bit dull? I might. But then, there’s a lot here that doesn’t appeal to me underneath the surface. Magic’s never really been my bag in children’s stories. Occasionally it can be, in the hands of say a Joan Aiken or Eva Ibbotson, but mostly it’s not. Magic just feels like a slight dodge. Don’t even start me on The Box Of Delights.

And so, you might be surprised to see that I picked up A Stranger At Green Knowe at all. I know I was, but it was the illustrations that caught my eye. That slender, determined line. The eyes of Hanno looking out from the page. Those isolated, clean, powerful moments. Peter Boston’s work here is remarkable, dancing as it does between raw intimacy and intense power. He made me go back to Green Knowe and I am glad he did for A Stranger At Green Knowe is something else. It’s the sort of book I want to refer to in every proposal for a project for now on, because I just want to say ‘I want my work to feel like that moment just after you finish reading A Stranger At Green Knowe’.

Much of that moment is driven by the tone of A Stranger At Green Knowe. It’s not unusual for a children’s book to wear its heart upon its sleeve, or to make great statements of intent from the get-go. Somebody like Katherine Rundell has this great gift of giving you the blueprint of a story from page one, spilling out sensation and richness from the first page, before letting you actually discover what happens. And that’s what A Stranger At Green Knowe does. It gives you that texture, that richness, of what it will be from the very start.

This book does not shy away from what it is. It is magic, but it is found and real and vital magic, and it is unsustainable magic and it is magic that hurts as much as it gives. There’s a message here of love and tolerance and acceptance, but there’s also something more. You learn that the impossible simply cannot be. Nothing lasts forever. Every bubble bursts. Even the one about Green Knowe. That doesn’t take away the magic of what can be held within; rather, it asks you to look again at it. To savour that moment. To live.

I will go back to this series again, and it is all because of this book and its beautiful tragic heart.



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A look at Young England (1914-1915)

My speciality is Girl’s Own, but sometimes my interest gets caught by those publications intended squarely for boyish readers. Such it was with Young England, a compiled annual of a ‘story paper’ for boys. I picked up copies of the 1914-1915 and the 1909-1910 editions for an absolute song, intrigued by the size of the volumes and their other-worldliness. These aren’t small things, nor are they subtle. Each is very much orientated towards the boys of the Empire, and ensuring their place in the greater scheme of things. And for somebody who’s fascinated by historical children’s literature, and the way that it can reveal everything about the world, these books are an absolute gift.

There’s an interesting breakdown of the 1914-1915 edition of Young England here [link removed 1/9/2019 as no longer valid], with details of the relevant stories in the volume and also a good luck at the images. I want to offer a slightly different review, focusing instead on the tone of the annual and some of the key themes that come across in it. I also want you to imagine yourself as a ten or eleven year old child reading this. Some of the content is rather remarkable, and Young England certainly makes no bones about the fact that it it sees it as noble to fight a war and noble to give yourself for your country. It’s a difficult read at points, preparing as it is a whole generation for military service and sacrifice, and some of the passages are almost incomprehensible.

This is one such passage. It’s from A Good Samaritan on the Battlefield by Margaret Watson, and it made me stop in my tracks. As with many of the ‘real life’ contributions in this volume, it borders on the edge between truth and propaganda. This definitely steps over towards propaganda, telling the story of a young private named John Smith and how he was looked after by ‘Johannes Schmidt’ when injured. The German keeps John and his colleagues alive, feeding and watering him, until he’s forced to retreat and abandon his wards. Upon subsequent rescue by their own side, the Englishmen pay tribute and thanks to Johannes. I got a little lost in the nature of the tribute itself, as it involves something to do with a cairn and rocks, and I couldn’t work out whether these were metaphorical rocks, actual rocks or indeed some weird ‘I say this but actually mean something quite different’ tic of language back then. I kept coming back to this passage however and wondering over it. Worrying too, I guess, sensing at something beyond the words that I couldn’t ever hope to grasp and trying to figure out the impact of that. As a reader. And as a writer.

I tried to find out something more about Margaret Watson, but she’s not an easy one to find. I wondered if these odd little fables, these morality plays of great and deep import, were all she’d written or if she’d ever looked at doing something else. And, I suppose, I wanted to know how she’d felt being part of this collection that urges young boys so gleefully to a war and to a noble, awful death.

It’s wrong to throw all of this at Margaret’s feet, because she’s one voice out of a hundred here. Young England is dominated by these voices which want players in this great narrative of the Empire and of Plucky Britain Doing What’s Right And What’s Honourable. Many of the stories here involve protracted negotiations of honour, redemption, and I was particularly struck by one serial which sees a young family redeem their father who’s been set up by his business colleagues. There’s another which sees the boys of a nondescript public school sacrifice themselves (metaphorically) so that the other man may benefit from their action. It’s not hard to see the attitude here about the war being a Great Adventure – but it’s also not hard to see why a whole generation of boys believed that.

The war underpins nearly everything in this book. Take a look at this game suggested for the boys to learn. It’s called BUCKET DRILL and it involves being able to throw a bucket of water on anything. Not just throw – actually hit that thing with force. As fires are “in these days” inevitable things, the boys can then help to put out a fire if needs be. They can do their part. (They can also do it by throwing water at a “stodgy, good-tempered boy”, and win points “every time you knock the wind out of him or bowl him right over”, which is a remarkable sentence if ever I saw one). BUCKET DRILL is the subtext becoming text. It’s the palpable fear of invasion being made flesh, and the fact that war is coming to their doorstep. Not if – but when. It’s important to recognise that this was a worldwide publication – as evidenced by stories featuring New Zealand, Canada and China – and so many of the children reading this magazine, and indeed the young adults it suggests that you send it onto – were probably already caught up in the war at some level.

I suspect that hindsight and a fairly liberalistic attitude makes me uncomfortable with what this volume says more than anything. There’s a question to be asked of whether it was actually kind of doing something great. I believe intensely that children need to learn of the darkness of the world in a safe space and in a controlled way. One of my favourite books of all time shows girls a way to fight against the horrors of Nazism and a world determined to eat itself. Why should it be any different for boys?

I’m not familiar enough with the boys juvenilia of this period to answer such a question so I’ll leave that hanging. Suffice to say, this is a powerful volume with some rather moving qualities and should you come across a copy, I’d highly recommend you picking it up. Young England is like a little time capsule of who we were, and what we wanted our children to be. And honestly, it’s rather remarkable.

Reading Young England also reminded me of something I’d read a while back. It took me a moment to dig out the connection, but here it is. Back when he was eleven, George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) wrote a poem called “Awake! Young Men of England” and had it published in his local newspaper:

 OH! give me the strength of the Lion,
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if, when your Country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.

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Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

Return to Gone-Away (Gone-Away Lake, #2)

Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It’s always a little difficult coming to a series ‘second book in as it were’ as you do tend to miss a lot of what’s gone on. It took me a while to figure out who was who, and what was what, and then I simply gave up and enjoyed the wild richness of Enright’s writing. This is a summer like no other, as all the best children’s books are, and full of some absolutely beautiful moments. I have to say I struggled with some of this as it’s not the quickest, nor most ‘open’ of books, but it is rather utterly beautifully done. Enright is a Newbery award winner (indeed, for the prequel Gone-Away Lake), and this book is full of rich quality in every word.

It’s rather interesting to parallel Return To Gone-Away with an author much more familiar to me, somebody like Philippa Pearce and Minnow On The Say for example. Both books have this rather thick, lovely quality of heat about them, and share a distinctly child-orientated eye. And maybe that’s it, that’s the mark of a good book wherever it may be found or whenever it appears in the series, that concern for the childish perspective and making that way of seeing be seen. Maybe there’s more to it, this ability to make your writing actually be felt … I don’t know. I suspect I’m wandering a little here, so I’m going to move on. Suffice to say, language is rather an amazing thing isn’t it?

Anyway! It was the artwork that caught my eye. I found this in a second hand bookshop that tends to have some super interesting stuff in, and I was entranced. I managed to pick up a UK Children’s Book Club edition (published by Heinemann in 1963, and for sale at 12s. 6d). It’s illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush and my goodness, they know how to handle a line. Every page is full of interest, life and movement. It’s rather fabulous. You can see some samples of their work here.

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A Dangerous Mission by Bessie Marchant

A Dangerous Mission

A Dangerous Mission by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


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. .

Amazing, right?

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.



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No Medals For Guy by Lorna Hill

No Medals for Guy (Marjorie, #6)No Medals for Guy by Lorna Hill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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.

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Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

Dancing Peel (Dancing Peel, #1)Dancing Peel by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s not much I wouldn’t do for one of these glorious Esme Verity covers. The daughter of Lorna Hill, Verity has a great grace to her artwork and I love it. The light. The richness. The softness. This is good, classical artwork and rather beautiful stuff. The book itself isn’t, perhaps, the best thing that Lorna Hill has ever done but every now and then it absolutely sings. But that’s Hill all over; sometimes she gets a little lost in the plotting and circumstance (everybody in Northumberland dances beautifully) but then sometimes, she’ll deliver a page as utterly wonderful and as perfect as anything you’ll find framed in a gallery. She’s an interesting author and one that I think tends to be a little forgotten, and she shouldn’t. Not in the slightest.

So to the specifics; this is the first of the Dancing Peel series. It is fiercely, utterly romantic with its ‘Peel’ tower that looks out onto the moors, dancing siblings that explore Spanish dance and ballet respectively, and the hints of romantic destiny over injured and orphaned animals. The latter is done in the way that only Lorna Hill can do, and I love it. Her writing can be very quiet on the surface but a thousand stories and images and sensations are lurking underneath, always.

One final thing to note about this edition is that it is a very beautiful thing and worth hunting out from a collector’s perspective. I’m always loathe to recommend certain books to collect, as I want them all for myself, but you should pick up a copy of this. The cover, as I’ve already mentioned, is divine, but the endpapers feature a map of Northumberland that is rather wonderful. And good endpapers, as any fule kno, are everything.

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Tales Out Of School by Geoffrey Trease

Tales Out of School: A Survey of Children's FictionTales Out of School: A Survey of Children’s Fiction by Geoffrey Trease

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epochal at its time, this book sought to locate children’s fiction as an object of serious critique. It came during a powerful point in the history of British children’s literature, that mid-twentieth century that saw so many of the classics we refer to on a daily basis take their first breath in the world. Trease, now somewhat lost from popular knowledge, wrote powerful historical fiction for children which merged historical accuracy with characters designed to appeal to both sexes. He wrote for children – not just for boys or girls. Tales Out Of School sees him turn his hand towards theory, and attempt to deliver a critical survey of the last hundred years of children’s fiction, to figure out how it does what it does and why that matters.

It’s interesting to me how many of the books he references as totemic are now relative unknowns, and how some other titles have endured. I suspect that there’s a discussion yet to be had about the great patriarchies that dominate and construct classic British children’s literature, but let’s save that for a day when I’m feeling grumpier. What’s worth celebrating today is Trease’s attempt to rationalise children’s fiction not only to himself but to others. This is a book that looks outwards, incorporating feedback from readers, parents and educationalists. It does so a little stiffly at points, as Trease seeks to relocate his authority as ‘A Writer’ but in the whole, it’s an interesting piece. He’s arguing, essentially, for discussion and action; to try and locate the ‘best of one’s self’ within children’s books, and to write, promote and sell and read the books that do such.

On a side note, there’s a fabulous moment in his chapter about the school story (Chapter IX : Midnight In The Dorm) and forgive me for quoting it at length. He acknowledges a letter he received from the ‘joint-principals of a London school’ who write that “We have looked through several schoolgirls’ annuals… and find they give a very false view of school life. The fourth form seem to run the school – the head-mistress is generally a dignified but distant figure-head, and the assistant mistresses either young, very girlish and so popular, or middle-aged caricatures. In one a party of girls were allowed to go for a picnic some miles from the school without any mistress. Among them was a ‘Ruritanian princess with a gang of international crooks after her. She had been sent to the school for safety and was naturally kidnapped on the picnic.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I take two things from that. Firstly that book sounds an awfully lot like The Princess Of The Chalet School, and secondly those joint-principals sound amazing.

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We Rode To The Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

We Rode to the SeaWe Rode to the Sea by Christine Pullein-Thompson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This was my first book…” writes Christine Pullein-Thompson in the introduction to the 1973 Collins edition, “…It is the book which made my name. I hope you enjoy it.” And how can you not when this is Pullein-Thompson at her delicious best? We Rode To The Sea takes place just after World War Two and in the romantic backdrop of Scotland where German POWs have escaped, a pony trek is happening, and children can breakfast on lobster. Other things happen, of course, and we learn a lot about ponies and people, and everything ends up in the quite perfect space that only pony stories of a certain time can achieve.

Pullein-Thompson was remarkable as indeed all of her family were. Her mother wrote, her sisters wrote, and they all wrote stories that are imbued with this fierce sense of readablity. These aren’t books about unicorns and pegasi, these are books about fraying halters and bluing manes; the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and their remarkable mother Joanna Cannan, wrote stories of practical romance. They were perfect and all of them perfect in their very own particular way.

We Rode To The Sea is a tribute to the romance of Scotland. The landscape is lovingly described, and the children recite poetry everywhere they go. There’s cottars, and fishermen, and noble warm-hearted people who are bound to help the children because they share the same surname. And the lobster breakfast, dear me, the food in this book swings from the sublime to the sublime, and I rather love it. Much of this is a reaction from the world of rationing and restriction, and if the children aren’t eating then they’re talking about it, and everything is rather utterly fabulous.

There’s a lot here for contemporary readers of pony stories to enjoy, though they may need a note or two to explain the historical detail and political situation of the time. They might also need some clarity on the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone landscape that allows the children to so easily get lost. Lost! How long’s it been since I read a convincing ‘getting lost’ scene in children’s books?

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Sweet Valley Confidential – Ten Years Later : Francine Pascal

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years LaterSweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can understand the feelings behind this, and the urge behind it, but Ten Years Later is a problematic and frankly strange book that seems to deny or barely recognise much of the structure and themes that made the Sweet Valley series work. For those of you who collect a certain other series of books, it reminded me very much of The Chalet Girls Grow Up (a book I find utterly fascinating) and in a way, Ten Years Later is fascinating. It is strange and quite weird and full of a peculiar distaste for happy endings and comfortable resolution, but it is fascinating.

I engaged in the Sweet Valley books with a sort of episodic delight. They were never massively big, nor did my library have a lot of them, but I was entranced by their numerous quality. The mythic nature of Jessica’s hair. Country clubs. Apartments. They sang of a very specific and quite dreamy Americana that could be like catnip, and so when I did come across them, I devoured them. I also have very fond memories of the TV series that was shown during the 90s (?), and the spectacular nature of that theme tune.

But this is not a good book. Not really. It’s kind of hypnotic and fascinating and full of a sort of peculiar loathing for the characters of this world. Pascal could be a good writer, but this would have benefitted from some substantial editing, a massive chat about that hideous little ‘where are they now’ coda that’s tacked on the end of it, and a further massive chat about all of the slightly squicky descriptions of everybody’s looks.

I won’t say don’t read this, because I believe very much that you read what you want, always, but I would say that this might not give you the resolution that you seek for this world. But then again, I suppose, the discussion is whether a book like this was even necessary in the first place. Do you need to tie these big wide worlds off with a neat bow? Or is it better to simply step away ? I’m not sure I know, but I know this: Ten Years Later is one of the strangest and, in a way, saddest books I’ve read.

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Miss Wilmer’s Gang : Bessie Marchant

Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first ever Bessie Marchant, and after we got to the bit about taxidermy, I realised that we were in for quite a ride. She’s an interesting author is Marchant, always on my radar with her girls full of Strong And Noble attitudes in Far Flung Corners Of The World, and yet I’d never quite got round to reading her. Well, no more.

Miss Wilmer’s Gang is a curious beast, revolting against gender roles whilst ultimately succumbing towards such, with some rather problematic treatments of colonialism and empire. As ever, it’s a symbol of its time in many respects, but it also renders something quite interesting in its treatment of class and girl/womanhood. Miss Wilmer herself has inherited islands in Patagonia

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA)

and has now decided to go and sort them out with the aid of a band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls.

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WHAT IS THIS BOOK)

This band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls changes a bit before the expedition sets off, as one of those girls has the temerity to go and get married. Once we’ve finally established our group, the book sets off and we’re off to Patagonia. It’s kind of spectacular how nuts this book really is, because the girls are both Capable and Yet Incapable and the local inhabitants of the islands are rendered as Deeply Problematic Individuals Who Just Don’t Know Help When They See It.

I’m being flippant in a way, because these books were groundbreaking. They’ve aged poorly in both representation and style, but the positioning of girls in these narratives of adventure and derring do was a unique thing to do. There’s a genre of stories where boys wandered off and had adventures in the distant corners of the worlds, but the centring of women and girls in these narratives? Not so common. Not so much. There’s something interesting being said about women and girls here, and the tensions that pull upon that will, I suspect, come to fascinate me.

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Black Beauty : Anna Sewell

Black BeautyBlack Beauty by Anna Sewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s talk about Black Beauty then, shall we?

And yet, having swung into this review with such a glorious opening sentence, I’m not sure where to begin. Much of that, I think, stems from the fact that we know Black Beauty. It is a story that’s slid so far beyond what it was that it now holds a rather mythic quality. Of course we know Black Beauty. We might not know the fine, fine detail of it, but we know the feeling of it. The sensation of the text. The way that it’s the story of a horse’s life, and it can be suddenly something rather awful, but you are tied to it, and you have to keep going to find out what happens, and when you finish it, there’s a peculiar sensation of quality and the realisation that you’ve read a classic.

Because Black Beauty is a classic. Stylistically it’s somewhat heavy when read with a contemporary, critical eye, and I’ll grant that I slid over some of the passages, but then I dallied with a sort of indulgent joy over the moments presented in others. Over Merrylegs, mainly, but also over other characters and of the determined grace to be found in Sewell’s writing. For it is a graceful book, no doubt, but it is also a hard one for it does not run away from the darkness. Do I give you spoilers? No, but I tell you that if you don’t know the detail of this book, then you will find it darker than you expect and should you present it to a new young reader for Christmas, as a benevolent and book-loving adult might do, you will probably emotionally scar that child for life. But that is what this book does, and you’ll just have to welcome them to the club.

What’s really interesting about Black Beauty is that it presents the reader, even in its grimmest points, with a methodology for change. It tells you about the world that is what it is, and offers you a chance to impact that, to change it. There’s a resonance there for a modern reading, one that I didn’t quite expect.

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A Pony For Jean : Joanna Cannan

A Pony for JeanA Pony for Jean by Joanna Cannan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.

Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?

A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.

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The Three Jays Against The Clock : Pat Smythe

The Three Jays Against the ClockThe Three Jays Against the Clock by Pat Smythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.

Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.

So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.

One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time:
“Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.

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The School by The Sea : Angela Brazil

The School by the SeaThe School by the Sea by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is great. It bounces along in that determinedly vivacious sort of way that Angela Brazil does (“Girls! Girls Everywhere!”) and then completely forgets about plot and has a natural history interlude that goes on for about three hundred pages, before plot reasserts its ugly head and everything gets resolved and sorted out in about five pages. It’s a joy, really, this ridiculous and beautiful and furiously of its time book, and I devoured it.

Deirdre and Dulcie are bosom friends, in that bosomy sort of way that Brazil did so well; one is slender and one is stout, one is picturesque and one is a redhead who is “somewhat obtuse” and a new girl has been put into their bedroom for the new term. Crisis! Inevitable tensions! Moreso when the new girl has lived in Germany and can speak fluent German!

Published in 1914, this book is very much of a particular time and bent. Angela Brazil had such a lengthy and prolific career that she wrote across two world wars (how awful that is, to have experienced that sort of thing twice…) and her work changes quite dramatically in my opinion. The first world war is greeted with a sense of wild patriotism, where the girls hunt out spies and knit socks and all that sort of thing, but the second? That’s a quite different story; the girls are secluded from the world in countryside mansions and asked to believe in themselves. The books look inward, I guess, as opposed to outwards. The visible acts of patriotism in WW1 shift to some sort of internal stiffening of ones resolve. And so, The School By The Sea does engage in some distinctly complex social dialogue. More complex than I think the book quite realises; Gerda is frankly bullied by some of her compatriots before the truth is revealed and the truth itself ties into some typical themes and tropes of Brazil that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, there’s a subtle challenge presented towards a blanket anti-German sentiment and that’s interesting to me because I’ve not seen it elsewhere in her work. That nuance of understanding identity.

And, on another note, the opening to this is iconic. Forgive me for copying the first few lines below, but it’s really rather something and speaks of Brazil’s new blueprint for the genre:

“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl. No! Buzz-hum-buzz!”

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The Children At Green Meadows : Enid Blyton

The Children At Green MeadowsThe Children At Green Meadows by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes Enid Blyton could be rather brilliant. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop the other day as a treat to myself. I had a vague memory of the title and, what’s more, I had the odd ache for something simple and rich; a Blyton of the most Blytonian sort, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the morals are bluntly rendered and the world is forever sunlit. The Children At Green Meadows delivered all that and more. It is a delight, and it kind of put me back together a little bit.

The family at Green Meadows is having difficulties. Granny refuses to sell their ancestral home, and Father is invalided, which means that Mother is having to keep everything going. Things change though when a new block of flats opens nearby and the inhabitants realise that they can’t keep pets there. These pets, inevitably, find their way to Green Meadows and everything spirals from that point. It’s a book of wish fulfillment and sudden, sharp emotion (particularly in the subplot of Father who has been invalided after an act of mysterious Great Bravery).

Sometimes Blyton could be rather brilliant, and she is very much that here. The story bowls on in a gloriously rich and blithe sort of manner; everything and everyone is lovely, and even though horrible things may happen, lovely things subsequently happen, and she gets that desperate urge for a dog, so much that you may even come to imagine that faithful companion. There’s some blunt moralising, as there is with much of Blyton’s work, but here it’s a justified bluntness and I rather appreciated the point that she makes. This is lovely, and it’s a perfect introduction to Blyton and, indeed, reading itself. I often talk about how Blyton is furiously readable and this is the perfect example of it. There’s not one inch of The Children At Green Meadows that feels flabby.

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Home Fetters : Raymond Jacberns

Home FettersHome Fetters by Raymond Jacberns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a bit of an interesting time in a bookshop recently, spotting a vast pile of those books that you just know are the sort of books that you want. Luckily enough they were also the sort of books that clearly didn’t sell that well in this bookshop, considering by how much dust were on them and the price they were, and so I scooped them up and ran away home, cackling wildly to myself.

Many of the authors in that pile were new ones to me, and my eye was drawn to Home Fetters by Raymond Jacberns as a suitable place to start. Upon hearing the name of this author, my mum turned to me and said, “That’s a pseudonym.” “Is it?” I said, “How do you know?” “I just do,” she said, and then I googled and she was right. Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Mary Isabel Ash, and my mum has psychic powers.

Home Fetters was published by the Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1904 and as such is inculcated with a very particular form of values. The moralising is sometimes quite hamfisted, and somewhat unfathomable, but then again this isn’t anything unusual in this particular type of literature. What is unusual about Home Fetters is how good it is despite its marked weaknesses. Not much happens, and that which does happen is a bit episodic, and a little bit ‘wait, why is this all ‘character x’s’ fault’, but what does happen is told in a really genuine and vivid style. Jacberns (Ash) has this great gift of vibrancy which, when it’s allowed to happen, can absolutely shine.

I suspect in a way she’s too early with her style. You can almost feel it fighting against the restrictions of the form to make itself known, and I wonder what we would have had from her if she were writing and working in the context of twenty or thirty years later. She’s a great writer; and when she can express it, this book is surprisingly good.

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Caldicott Place : Noel Streatfeild

Caldicott PlaceCaldicott Place by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I suspect that, along with ‘Duvet Days’, there should be ‘Streatfeild Days’ where those people who feel a peculiar ache at their soul that they cannot quite identify should be allowed to take a day off to read a Streatfeild of their choice. I picked this one up from a charity shop recently, delighting in that front cover and its peculiar potent sense of time and place, and it’s a joy. It’s perhaps not her strident and raw best but when you consider what her best could be, you realise that those books which are simply ‘good’ are rather transcendent in themselves.

Tim’s family isn’t having a great time of it; his father has been hurt in a car crash, and money is proving immensely tight. Circumstances conspire to see Tim and his family relocate to the countryside with an old house and several new additions to take care of, whilst the father slowly recuperates from his injuries. It ties everything up appropriately, as stories of this nature ought to do, and there’s a few sudden moments of breathless beauty in it; particularly in the rehabilitation of Tim’s dad.

What Streatfeild manages to achieve here, and always, is this sense of the children stepping up and playing their part – in ways that, perhaps, the adult figures of the book do not realise. She had such a wonderful eye for letting children participate and own the movement of their lives that Caldicott Place sings with this sort of increasing childish strength and power and weight the more that the book develops. Streatfeild also had an eye for the adults in her books, rendering them as flawed and realistic characters full of worries and concerns of their own, whilst never, not once, allowing them to be unsympathetic. I think what I’m trying to say is that she understands people, and her books taste like buttered crumpets on a cold, sharp winter’s morning. They make everything alright again.

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Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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Ottoline Goes To School : Chris Riddell

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline, #2)Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for somebody who reads a lot of books to miss an author. And yet, equally, it’s also very easy to have a consciousness of who and what that author is and how they do what they do. This is where I stood with Chris Riddell; conscious that I hadn’t really read much of his work, but conscious that his work was good. And I’d come to that decision for a variety of reasons, not just for the quality of his art work which burns from his books like fire, but also because of the children I knew who pretty much swallowed each and everything he’d published. Sometimes the biggest thing for me, as an adult who’s involved in children’s literature, is to step back and recognise my position as a guest in this space. And if an author’s work is devoured, furiously, hungrily, then that’s an important thing to take note of.

I picked up Ottoline Goes To School after Chris had delivered a charming and annoyingly inspiring lecture at Homerton College. I didn’t possess the persistence or elbows to get to the bookshop first and grab the sumptuous Travels with my Sketchbook which I’ve had my eyes on for a while, but Ottoline Goes To School was an appropriate, and by no means secondary, choice. I was intrigued to see what Riddell did with the school story because they are sort of my thing. And when I got it signed by him, I did my traditional slightly incoherent stare and babble because that too, is also my sort of thing.

This, the second of the Ottoline series, is a delight. Ottoline is off to the Alice. B. Smith School For The Differently Gifted; a boarding school for children with a special an often quite peculiar gift. As she’s trying to figure out what her gift might be, a ghost starts to haunt the school…

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe this lovely book and the idea I kept coming back to was cleanliness. That’s perhaps a little bit of an odd phrase to use and one, I suspect, which doesn’t crop up in children’s literature criticism that often so let me explain a bit more about what I mean.

Ottoline Goes To School is one of those books that balances word with image and does so without compromising the integrity of each. In fact, it’s so beautifully and carefully balanced, this mediation between the visual and the textual, that every page is a delight. And it’s challenging too! Whilst Ottoline is engaged in the complexities of a new school and a Slightly Tremulous New Friendship, Mr Munroe is carefully scouting out the school and trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the cleanliness, right there, that ability to balance and deliver whole, heartfelt, narrative in word and image without compromising or pressing on the space of the other elements within the spread. This book is so clean, so crisp and sharp, that it’s a joy.

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Here I Stand : Amnesty International UK

Here I StandHere I Stand by Amnesty International UK

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this pained, poised collection of short stories and much of that comes from its careful and classy curation. The authors, ranging from Frances Hardinge through to Sarah Crossan, and Chris Riddell, sit alongside a foreword by a human rights lawyer and an afterword, of sorts, consisting of an interview with Chelsea Manning. Most contributions to the collection have a brief afterwood explaining the context behind the piece, though one of the strongest – ‘Barley Wine’ by Kevin Brooks doesn’t have one and I wonder if it’s actually stronger without such. That brief quibble aside, this is a smart collection and one which hits home, immensely.

‘Here I Stand’ has the subtitle of ‘Stories That Speak For Freedom’, and covers a wide range of topics including genital mutilation, human trafficking, terrorism and racism. An obvious caveat applies around the element of trigger warnings here, but as I recommend with every book of this nature, read it yourself and use it sympathetically and with an eye towards being led by the relevant child’s response. Books like this offer such a valuable spotlight on those issues which often don’t get spotlit and when carefully and considerately mediated, that spotlight can often be revelatory.

I don’t want to speak of highlights here because somehow this doesn’t feel appropriate, but rather I want to look at those pieces which sang out for me. The collection is immensely powerful, but as I said previously, Kevin Brooks’ contribution was something quite remarkable. Ditto ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ from Chibundo Onuzo, a story on the topic of child soldiers, which instead of taking the more expected motifs of its theme delivers something quite astounding. This is the gift of collections like this, the gift of perspective. Sight. A new eye on the familiar. Sometimes stories do become familiar and thus unseen; to deny that familiarity is a great thing. Onuzo’s bare, pained eloquence here speaks volumes.

I like this volume, and I like the careful craft that lays behind it, from Chris Riddell’s beautiful artwork through to the stories, poems, and especially the graphic contribution from Mary and Bryan Talbot with Kate Charlesworth. I think it’s important to recognise that stories, particularly of this nature, aren’t just these neat things tied up in bows and that embrace of diverse form is another point in Here I Stand. It’s a tired phrase to call something important, but then again, so many of the books being published at the moment are. Here I Stand stands firmly with those, and indeed manages to carve a space of its very own.

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Looking for Enid : Duncan McLaren

Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid BlytonLooking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is possibly the strangest and yet, maybe, one of the most brilliant biographies of an author I’ve ever read. It’s an approach that I don’t think would have worked for anybody but Enid Blyton and so, perhaps, the unorthodoxy of Looking For Enid was always destined to work when its subject was such a furiously unorthodox figure herself.

Looking For Enid sets out to discover the truth behind the myth. Enid Blyton for me has always been one of those authors who controlled her brand. Image was all, irrespective of that which went on behind the scenes. The most immediate example of this is her utobiography, The Story Of My Life which still remains one of the most audaciously artificial texts I have ever read. Enid didn’t – doesn’t – give away her truth easily.

Yet Enid Blyton is an author we all know, and much of that’s due to the cultural shorthands that now, rightfully or wrongfully, surround her name. A ferociously readable writer, possessed of an almost Sisyphean urge to write, she produced bluntly workmanlike narratives that often denied elegance but could be read. Undoubtedly, those narratives are also often coloured of problematic social, gender and ethical characteristics, and I don’t deny nor seek to excuse that. I’m not a fan of Blyton (though I’ll fight the corner for Malory Towers and St Clare’s to be considered as expressions of feminine potential within a society designed to not recognise such), but I do find both the author and the reach her work still has upon British children’s literature utterly fascinating. I’d never heard of Looking For Enid and so was intrigued to see what

Looking For Enid visits locations connected with Blyton; Beaconsfield, Beckenham and Bourne End, with a sort of madly ecccentric metafictive fanfiction element in which the Five Find-Outers attempt to solve the mystery of Enid Blyton’s lost books and in which McLaren slightly Mary-Sue’s himself into the role of Fatty. Along the way, you learn perhaps a little bit too much about uteruses (seriously) and McLaren’s sex life (honestly) and a lot to do with carp (I’m not making any of this up). There’s a lot of Freudian-esque reading into the subtext of Blyton’s work, which, to be frank, always makes me slightly jaded. You look hard enough, you can read a phallus into everything.

Plus the uterus business, really.

But I’m still giving this four stars, and that comes from a recognition of this book’s mad brilliance. It’s infuriating, yes, and could do with stepping away from the socratic exposition that McLaren does tend to engage in with his partner, but it’s sort of fabulous and vividly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this that is so – madly honest – about what it’s like to be a fan, and to love something, and to also just want to find out more. Looking For Enid certainly concludes by finding her; I’m not sure that it’s my Enid, but I do know that the ride towards that point is kind of unforgettable. Mad, weird, totally bizarre, and a bit super odd at points, but also, sort of brilliant.

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A Wrinkle In Time : Hope Larson, adap. Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read (she says, channeling Franco Moretti) and one of them is A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve a strange antipathy towards classics, and fantastical classics tend to slide towards the bottom of that pile of antipathy. I’m mixing my metaphors quite hideously here, but generally I don’t head towards the classics and I head towards the fantasy classics even less. Some of that stems from the fact that I don’t tend to read much fantasy, and also from the fact that I’m a selfish reader. Honestly, I am. I talk a lot about books and I love books in a furious, forever sort of manner, but sometimes I want to have my reaction be my own. And the classics, in particular, are coloured so very much by what they come to stand for, that sometimes reading them can feel like a futile act. How do you read something when everybody’s already read it for you? It’s for reasons like this that I have a mad sympathy with any child who’s told to stop reading what they want and to instead read what an adult thinks they read. Ten books you should read by the age of ten? Bite me. Eternally.

I’ve been very aware of A Wrinkle In Time for a while without quite knowing the details of what it was. Something to do with something about space, and time, and that was about it. I didn’t really want to read it, but I wanted to read Larson’s adaptation of it. It caught my eye in the bookshop and I was feeling flush. The colours intrigued me; a palette of blues, greys, blacks. Colours of twilight and the thin grey dawn. And so I read it, and then I loved it, and I wept in the bath over the ending.

I can’t tell you how well Larson adapted the original text, not whether this was a faithful or divergent adaptation, but what I can tell you is this. Sometimes it’s good to come into a classic in a different way, and when you’re guided by a wide-eyed Charles Wallace or the unknown strength of Meg Murry, rendered in Larson’s expressive, precise and heartfelt lines, it’s a pretty good route to try. What a lovely, unexpected joy this was.

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Diary of a Tokyo Teen : Christine Mari Inzer

Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid CafesDiary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something immensely charming about this slender yet lovely memoir of a trip that Inzer took to Tokyo by herself at the age of sixteen. Diary of A Tokyo Teen documents this trip and captures those moments when the Japanese-American Inzer begins to understand and rationalise her place in the world as somebody who is, as she phrases it, always”halfway home”.

I picked this up on Amazon, pushing a gift voucher to the very edges as is the way with such things, and I was delighted by it. There’s an undoubted naivete to some of Inzer’s work; a few of her panels feel a little isolated and disjointed, but it’s easy to forgive this when you consider the book as a whole. There’s such a rich sense of heart here; thick and emphatic lines, fat and bold colours and some utterly delightful glances into the Japanese culture. What’s also delightful is that Inzer does not deny her perspective as a teenager. This book crackles with honesty, whether it’s wishing that the hotties on the train would look up from their phones or to doodling a cartoon face over hers on a photograph.

This is early stuff from Inzer, but it’s full of promise and joy. It’s hard to deny the richness of her work and I suspect, hope, she’s got immense things to come for her in the future. Diary of a Tokyo Teen is a delight, and one that I suspect might be inspirational.

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Malibu Summer – Sweet Valley High: Francine Pascal

Malibu Summer (Sweet Valley High Super Edition, #4)Malibu Summer by Francine Pascal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been a long while since I read a Sweet Valley book, and even longer since I’ve seen the TV adaptation, but I’ve got neither out of my head. There’s something about these books that I’ve grouped with something like The Babysitters Club, Bug Juice, and A Horse Called Wonder, those stories and shows of glossy sunlit Americana that did nothing but appeal to somebody who was more familiar with rain and bare, grey days. And the TV show! That theme tune! Could there be two different girls who look the same as Sweet Valley High ?! These are my madeleines, Proust, deal with it.

The delight of the Sweet Valley books comes in their matter of fact bluntness; they are what they are and they make no bones about it. Elizabeth is sensible, Jessica is not. Everyone is incredibly foxy, and spend much of their day foxing about the beach or foxing at the shops, looking foxily at beautiful and expensive yet foxy clothes. There’s usually some sort of slender moral, but mainly there’s foxiness, and it’s oddly spectacular. We, the adults, the patriarchy, whatever, we often denigrate books like this, all too easily, because we’re simply not comfortable with the fact that there’s a space for romance and simple, bold brushstrokes in young adult literature. In young adult life, really. We laugh at the way people obsess over bands, and find comfort in fandoms, when really these are all just facets of life and have no reason to not be in literature. I will fight you, Britishly, with severe looks and tutting, if you suggest that they should not be.

Malibu Summer is spectacularly unapologetic in doing what it does: there’s romance, several jaw-dropping subplots, some delightfully nutty nuance on Lila’s choice of swimming costume, and I loved it. Yes, certain aspects may have dated at this point, but as a whole the book is wonderful. Nothing makes sense. Everything glows. Everyone is foxy. Everyone gets a job or a hottie or some sort of moral fulfillment. It’s brilliant. I loved it. What a ridiculous, gorgeous, honest book this is.

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Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

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The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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Shocks for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Shocks for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #29)Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point somewhere around Peggy that the Chalet School series seems to start to mark time a little. The novelty of the Island setting has worn off, a batch of eminent faces have been shipped off to the Oberland and Canada respectively, and so we’re left with a school that doesn’t quite have the right feel to it because it’s waiting for the status quo(s) to be restored. But then there’s Emerence, and everything comes back right again.

Shocks is the debut of Emerence Hope, a little “firebug” from Australia, and she’s obnoxious and brilliant. I’d forgotten how much I loved her, but then, really, she does everything that she does in this book and it’s a delight. It’s so easy for Brent-Dyer to present girls who adapt and thrive, but she steps back from this with Emerence. She’s allowed to be hideous; and it’s interested to read this sanctioned bad behaviour against somebody like Eustacia who, simply, isn’t allowed to get away with anything remotely similar without being badly physically punished. (I adore Eustacia, she is my secret star of the series).

One of the great things about having so many characters removed from the forefront is that it allows some others to step up. There’s some lovely character work here for Jack Maynard and Captain Christie respectively, whilst the book also contains one of my favourite moments in the entire series. It’s a moment of ferocious particularity but one which has always stuck with me. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it was the first thing to teach me what tautology was. Vocabulary tuition! Plus a lifelong concern about dying from hiccups! What a series this is!

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The Girl’s Companion (ed.) Mary A. Carson

The Girl's CompanionThe Girl’s Companion by Mary A. Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to tell you how much I love this book. I think we begin with what it this book is; it’s a fairly solid text split into a series of chapters, covering a range of things that Respectable Girls might like to do with their free time. I love books like this because, quite often in their very dry way, they reveal much more about the world than they think. Think about why we don’t have them now really or, if we do, how we don’t easily embrace such extremely gendered dynamics. And if we do write them, then what do we have in them? What’s the thing that we think girls should know? And why do we think that girls should know them?

‘The Girl’s Companion’ has some delightful moments. Split into a series of different sections beginning with ‘indoor arts, crafts and hobbies’ through to ‘the social side’ and the great ‘yeah I ran out of titles’ section known as ‘miscellaneous’, each section then covers things ranging from insect collecting through to lawn tennis and how to change a washer on a tap.

There are some moments of delightful eclecticism. The chapter talking about camping calmly suggests meals such as toad in the hole, and steamed puddings. The illustrations in the gymnastics sessions detail a girl in sensible pinafore (with a tie!) undertaking exercise ranging from bars through to rings, never quite once being allowed to crack a smile. I adore them. I could live forever on illustrations that break down netball into blithe ‘this’ and ‘not this’ instructions. Here’s a few of my favourites that I tweeted..

I think the great wild peak of The Girl’s Companion comes in the riding chapter. It’s written by the legendary Primrose Cumming and the opening paragraph is a thing of utter and somewhat mad joy. I love it. Like I said, these books tell you so much more than they think they do. And in the instance of the riding chapter, it tells you all about the adventures of you and your new horse.

Named Barry.

(Oh ‘The Girl’s Companion’, let me count the way I love you!).

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Judith Kerr’s Creatures : Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's CreaturesJudith Kerr’s Creatures by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to define how beautiful a book this when you’re typing a review in that thick haze you get after crying, but I shall. I shall try.

I love Judith Kerr. There are a handful of authors that I cling to in children’s literature, like somebody who is drowning and in search of a lifebelt and Judith Kerr is one of them. She is my safe space, my shore. I have loved her from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit through to Mog the Forgetful Cat and back again. And, whilst I am on this paragraph in which I confess my love, if you have not seen this documentary on Kerr and her work, give yourself an hour out and do so. It is a joy, she is a joy, and I love her.

Judith Kerr’s Creatures functions as an autobiography, lavishly illustrated and holding many remarkable items relating to a remarkable life. It is graceful and self-effacing and a must for anybody interested in writing, illustration and the life behind books that become classics. Seeing some of Kerr’s earlier work juxtaposed against the proofs of her later work is undefinably wonderful because it allows the reader to trace the development of a brilliant artist. Line, for example, is something I talk about a lot in picture books because you can do so much with such a simple thing. The thickness of it. The thinness. The direction. The boldness. The shape. Try it now, doodle a sad line, a happy line. I’ll bet one curves down and one curves up and that, beyond it, you’ll see the shape of a face tight and sad, or round and full of joy. That’s line, that’s the evocation of line and that’s what we do with it as people. We fill it. We give it context. Kerr’s line is a wonderful thing in that it is human and full of movement. There are sketches in this that sing of movement and of the ability to watch and study people. To find the shape of them, to find the bits that matter in the sketch and to capture that. What skill. What utter, hard-won, determined skill.

I love this book. I am rhapsodic over this book. I love how respectful it is, and how it does not belittle any of Kerr’s remarkable achivements or skill, and how it treats them with the reverence they deserve. This is art and I shall fight you if you say otherwise, for this book is beautiful and we are privileged to have Kerr’s work in our lives.

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The Lost Staircase : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Lost StaircaseThe Lost Staircase by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love this slim, eccentric story that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. I came to it from the Chalet School series which sees two of the characters from The Lost Staircase attend the school. It’s a bravura step and one which happens in the Chalet School books on a fairly regular basis. I always imagine Brent-Dyer inserting these textual Easter Eggs with a slight smugness and well earned sense of satisfaction.

The Lost Staircase itself is a standalone novel which tells of the adventures of young Jesanne Gellibrand, heiress to the Dragon House. The Dragon House is a stately home that reads, at times, with a delightful giddiness and over-excitement and following the death of family, Sir Ambrose brings his young cousin and closest heir home from New Zealand to come into her inheritance. And then there’s a bit about a Lost Staircase which is supremely wonderful because of its grimly committed presence within the novel.

It’s an odd one this but, as I say, deeply charming. Some of it rests on the tangibility of the book itself; it’s smaller than a traditional Chalet School hardback and much of that is due to it being printed in the economy standards that the second world war. The paper is thin, the text closely typed, and it’s all a rather evocative experience. I always find the object of the book as much interest as the book itself and for this to be published in 1946 and to talk so deeply of richness, of heritage and tradition and of wealth, is fascinating.

Textually, it takes a while to get to the point. Much of this seems to centre on Brent-Dyer’s slight tendency to go a bit Angela Brazil and to revel in the romantic context a tad too much. Yet somehow this is still rather lovely because when Brent-Dyer hits it, she hits it square on. The Dragon House is overwritten but madly appealing. Jesanne rides around, romps with dogs, battles with a governess, and gets one of the best Christmas presents ever depicted in a children’s book. It’s gorgeous. But then, having said that, there’s that traditional moment of eccentricity to be found in a Brent-Dyer book, and in The Lost Staircase a plot point turns upon a banana skin.

The Lost Staircase is ridiculous but wonderful; a sort of dizzying mix of the deeply romantic and practical tips about dog keeping. It’s eccentric. It is gorgeous.

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Girl In Dior : Anne Goetzinger

Girl in DiorGirl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been treating myself recently to a wallow in the things I love. (As everyone should do, no?). One of these has been reading about mid-century fashion and France; I am a Francophile and there is nothing better than nibbling the edge from a freshly baked baguette or sinking your teeth into the curved edge of a palmier. I have other loves, not just food related, but they are the most potent right now. Madeleines. You know.

So, to Paris and to the fashion that forms the spine of this city. The rather excellent and well-told Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation was my first stop on this journey and Girl In Dior was the second. This slim, slender graphic novel interweaves a fictional journey of a girl into the House of Dior alongside facts and moments from Dior’s life. It’s an undoubtedly slender story and one that bears much tribute to a fairy tale aesthetic. And there are moments in the world where such an aesthetic is undoubtedly welcome.

Don’t come to this for narrative; rather, come to this for a rather wonderful twist on fashion history with art that sings of a love for the subject. Goetzinger’s use of line; the quavery lightness of gazue and her use of colour; the unfurled bolt of brightly coloured material, laid starkly against a bright white page, are wonderful things. Girl In Dior is something rather wonderful and poetic and aching and softly told and I really rather loved it. Maybe it’s the nipped waists, or those full skirts, or the exuberant “New Look!” cry; or maybe it’s because I rather love these books that seek to tell the human edge of story. The moments of Dior in his country house, designing; there’s not enough of them, because they are poignant, heartfelt, and suddenly, intensely brilliant.

I want more from this boook because there’s not enough of it and I suspect that’s its main problem. A lot happens, swiftly; there’s not enough time to savour it, nor to develop rationale nor character, but then – does such a book need this? I’m not sure I can answer that here. What I can say is that what this book gives, it gives with utter and absolute joy.

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No Castanets at the Wells : Lorna Hill

No Castanets at the Wells (Sadler's Wells #3)No Castanets at the Wells by Lorna Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are the most beautiful books I own. The hardback editions of the Chalet School come close to them (that is, when I can sell my liver to afford one) but somehow they never quite reach the great grace of the Sadler’s Wells books. I think it all centres on that front cover and the way that they, all of them, catch light so well. These are sunlight, morning books full of warmth and glowing life. The artist, Esme Verity, is actually Hill’s daughter working under a pseudonym. And she’s gifted, incredibly. These are such painterly, eloquent books.

So, to No Castanets at the Wells, the third in this vibrant series. As with many of the authors I love, Hill was at her best early on in her series and this is joyful. Without giving away much of the plot, Hill inverts the ideal of the ballet story and points out the diverse nature of talent. Everyone has something special about themselves and to discover this isn’t easy, but it is most worthwhile.

I love these books. I love the poetics of them, the edge of space, the way that dance – music – artistic expression, all of it, is something serious and artful and important and worthwhile. There are certain sequences in this novel which are borderline epochal, both on a personal level but also with regards to the wider sector of children’s literature. There is love, there is fought for and tempestuous love, but there’s also character and nuanced, sharp reading of people.

I love this book. I love this series. Is that repetitive? I fear it is, but I don’t care. Hill is an education in the poetics of story; that graceful, carved edge of character and of space and place and of movement. When she is at her best, as she is in several points during this book, she is outstanding. Effortless, outstanding, peerless.

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The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer