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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