Aleph by Janik Coat

Aleph

Aleph by Janik Coat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A quirky twist on the ‘first words’ format for babies and toddlers and where others may stray toward the traditional and expected, Aleph embraces the deliciously surreal. The images are big, often falling off the page, with more than a hint of those thick felt-tip pens about them, and cover everything from a circle through to a toucan. Every now and then named characters- Popov, Romi, Cyrus and Aleph – appear for their own little moment, before disappearing again. It’s a weird lovely and kind of spectacular mixture of modernism, with a distinct hint of the old masters about it. There’s more than a touch of Matisse in Coat’s handling of line and colour for example.

What I loved about this is that there’s some sort of narrative coherency – a big thing to ask of a book of this nature – but there is. Chick goes to cat goes to car and then toucan. Words echo each other aurally or thematically or sequentially. It’s not consistent – bunny / cupcake / wolf – but then, in those sequences, shape or colour picks up the narrative bat. There’s a lot of care under the surface of this, and it shows. There’s also a lot of opportunity to extend the images in diverse directions – there’s a lovely page with a baby’s dummy on it, for example – which the list of words names as ‘shhh’ rather than ‘dummy’ or something along that line.

Aleph would be a literally perfect gift to a young reader, but it’s also got a substantial appeal to those interested in the power of illustration for this age-group. It uses a rather unusual neon tone throughout, giving the whole book this quality of being barely contained within the page. I loved it. It’s distinct, it’s unusual and it’s fun.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Girl Squads by Sam Maggs

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History by Sam Maggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking for something like Girl Squads for a very long time. This smart, chatty and furiously honest book is a treat because, unlike so many of the others out there, Girl Squads acknowledges the truth about women’s history. It is complex, fought for, and often overwritten by a cultural system which privileges other voices. I’m trying not to write The White Western Patriarchy here, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.

What I loved about Girl Squads is that it’s not afraid of offering an opinion. There’s no romantic hagiographies here; history is rendered as a messy, knotty and occasionally deeply unsatisfying thing. The style is chatty, conversational, occasionally sliding a little too much towards the informal, but as a whole works perfectly. This is big sister history, told to you by somebody who wants you to think about the world and to fight for your place in it. And the women covered are remarkable. It’s split into sections covering Athlete Squads, Political and Activist Squads, Warrior Squads, Scientist Squads and Artist Squads, and covers women’s groups as diverse as The Haenyeo Divers to The Blue Stockings.

Interspersed throughout by Jenn Woodall’s sensitive and richly detailed illustrations (a small cameo to introduce each woman, and a lovely page to introduce each section), Girl Squads is a vibrant, powerful thing. It pays tribute to the complex lives of the women it celebrates and it manages to keep that complexity intact. Being female is a complex, wonderful thing. Not many books recognise that challenge or celebrate it. But Girl Squads does.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.



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Glass Town Wars by Celia Rees

Glass Town WarsGlass Town Wars by Celia Rees

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book last night, and ever since then I’ve been trying to figure it out. I was excited to be offered a review copy from the publisher as Celia Rees is one of those great and powerful voices in children’s and young adult literature that you should always be excited for. She is a wild and wonderful writer and when I heard that she was writing something inspired by the early work of the Brontës I was thrilled.

And I am still thrilled in a way, but in that knotty sort of confused manner where you think you should be happy for something but aren’t quite sure if you are; the sort of emotion that makes you question everything about you and do actual real life brow furrowing. Celia Rees is an outstanding writer, but I don’t think this is a good book. It is furiously impenetrable at points, strangely balanced, and full of odd pacing and sudden shifts of tone. When I finished it, I stared at it and realised that I didn’t know what to think of it. I wasn’t sure I’d enjoyed it, even though I knew I loved the parts where Rees wrote about Haworth and the sisters; the intimacy and power of her work here and the way she explored the landscape of these writers was good, strong, wild writing. But I also knew that I’d struggled with the first half, got quite lost in the middle, and then bounded through the final third in as greedy and keen a read as I’ve ever done.

A contradiction, then, but a contradiction that keeps working on you after you’ve finished it. I am done with this book but it’s a book that’s not done with me. I’ve thought about it all morning, I’ve begun this review a thousand times and I’ve begun it a thousand times again. I suspect that Glass Town Wars is a story that’s not just about the book. Does that make sense? I suspect it doesn’t, but I’m going to try and explain myself. Sometimes when we experience story, we can read it and it’s done. Page turned, book closed, job done. But sometimes the story lingers and we can make connections with it in the real world. We turn it over in our thoughts, we think it through and we start to realise that the book we’ve read was just the part of a journey. It’s matured into something else.

And that’s Glass Town Wars; it’s not the best read, but the moments after it are sort of remarkable. When I reviewed Wuthering Heights, I talked about how this was a book that wanted to be read and to desperately hide away, all at once. Glass Town Wars has something of that quality, delivering a narrative of fantasy and of the Brontës which sometimes makes perfect sense and sometimes anything but. It’s a curious contradiction, this beautiful and impenetrable and longlasting thing.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

Milly-Molly-Mandy StoriesMilly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frequently charming and really rather beautifully done, this 90th anniversary edition of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories is a lovely thing. It’s been a long time since I read Milly-Molly-Mandy and if you’re the same, here’s a brief refresher. Written in the 1920s, MMM is a little girl who lives with her sprawling family in a pleasant little village, and she gets into several very small and rather adorable adventures. They were written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley who was the sister of Nina K. Brisley who illustrated the Chalet School stories – and this is something that, in a nicely worded afterword, this edition told me and I made a proper ‘I did not know that’ face. The edition includes several of the short stories collected together and as mentioned has a lovely afterword that does something quite remarkable – it speaks to the child. It’s not often you see an afterword that remembers the child audience as much as the adult, and Macmillan are to be commended for this.

The stories themselves are adorable. Simple, soft and very small adventures that even though they involve a lot of language that might not be familiar to a contemporary reader, these are stories that work because of how they feel. They are charming and gentle and simply told things, often centring around a task or an errand or a circumstance, and I did enjoy them. It doesn’t mater if some of the phrases are unknown because these are good stories. Gentle, rich and lovely stories. Lankester Brisley could write, she really could.

An important thing to note is that this book also includes a lot of full colour illustrations. These are richly rendered things, full of lush and gentle detail and rather intensely evocatively. The village and the nice white cottage with the thatched roof are all there and it’s all lovely. Harsher voices might call this sort of thing twee or outdated, but they’re idiots and we know better. The Milly-Molly-Mandy books are gorgeous, gentle things, and in a world where that sort of thing seems somewhat hard to find, they shine. They really, really do.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.

Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)

Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

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Mary And Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà

Mary, Who Wrote FrankensteinMary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a long time since I have read something so perfect as this, and if it doesn’t win the Kate Greenaway Medal this year, or at the very least make the shortlist, then I’ll hand in my badge. I’m not sure that I have an actual badge, so to speak, but I’m trying to work on a metaphor that tells you how great this book is and how blindingly, utterly, brilliant it does what it does, and so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me my delirium and go out and buy it straight away. Because it’s good. Honestly, it’s more than that. It’s perfect, and I’m delirious over it and I feel like I want to write a love letter to Andersen to say thank you for letting me take look at it (their edition is out in October 2018, it has the slightly different – and better – title of ‘Mary And Frankenstein’, and have I mentioned you should buy it?). This is a gift, this book, and here’s the part where I tell you why.

Written by Linda Bailey, Mary and Frankenstein explores the story of Mary Shelley. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the creator of modern science fiction, the girl who loved Percy Bysshe Shelley, the girl who lived, Mary Shelley is a fascinating and complex figure. And in the hands of somebody lesser, her story might have suffered. It might have been reduced to one of those hagiographies we see so often at the moment in children’s literature, and it might have been sidelined for the stories of those people she lived and loved with. But Bailey doesn’t. I knew we were in good hands when I read her author’s note and saw that she’d thanked an academic for critiquing the manuscript. This is everything, my friends, because it shows somebody who takes this seriously. It is a privilege to write these sorts of books, and it is a skill to write them well. Bailey does that. She does that so well. She has a clean, simple, and deeply restrained style that delivers such calmly beautiful lines as:

“Mary’s mother was a great thinker. She wrote books to say that women should have the same rights as men. She died when Mary was only eleven days old.

Can you miss someone you’ve never known?

Mary does”

Just, let that sink in a little. The great grace of that, the restraint of that. The way it gives you everything and manages to hold itself back from giving you too much. It’s brilliantly done. And it’s smartly done. It gives children a chance to find something else out on their own, to fill in the absence with their facts and stories, to look up into the sky and tell their own story. After all, “Writers dream stories, awake and asleep.”

It’s beautiful. And it’s even more beautiful when it’s paired with the incomparable artwork of Júlia Sardà. I’d encourage you to have a look at her website and this review about the process of illustrating this little gothic masterpiece, as her artwork here is almost incomparably done. It’s immense, it’s ferociously unique and particular, and it makes me breathless. Her use of line and colour is so wonderfully done, and she has this great gift of being able to centre her images and find the humanity of them (an apt skill when we consider the topic!). There’s a lot going in in this amazing book and yet, even as the wind whips the trees or as owls fly through the sky, your eye’s drawn to Mary. Her red hair, her white face, her story. She will be heard, she will be seen, she will be told.

Oh this book, I could write for days about it…

I will teach it in my classes, and I will hand it to those who tell me that children’s books are the easy options, and I will nominate it for the Kate Greenaway and I shall will it to win every award on the planet, because it’s outstanding. It’s one of the best picture books I’ve ever read.

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Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Dear Evan HansenDear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think that to understand this book, you need to understand the context of Dear Evan Hansen itself. Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that’s rather wonderful, even when you just listen to the soundtrack and have to hit Wikipedia to work out what’s going on. It’s been on Broadway for a while now, and is due in the West End in 2019.

The musical is eloquent, fiercely potent, and beautiful put together, and touches upon issues of grief, mental health, anxiety, loss, and the impact of social media in navigating all of this. These are increasingly present and potent issues in today’s society, and Dear Evan Hansen is rather outstanding in how it handles this. I like my musicals, and I like what this one does. It marks its space in the world in a particular way, and it does it with a lot of style, honesty and precision.

This book is the adaptation of the musical, commissioned by the creators, and thus something rather interesting in itself. You can see television and film being adapted easily, readily, into prose, but it’s rather less common with the musical. Much of that sings (badumtish) of the way that musicals themselves are constructed, adapting an already published text, or the difficulty one might find in say translating an iconic visual into prose, let alone the precision and honesty of young adult fiction.

There’s a part of me panicking already at the thought of adapting a Gene Kelly number into text, for example, and I suspect I wouldn’t have touched this commission with a bargepole. Emmich is to be praised for taking this on, and with what he delivers, because it’s a decently rendered thing. It is, however, not the best book I’ve ever read. It could do with a little clarity at some points – particularly to those who are new to the musical – and there’s a curiously forgettable air to the prose, which slightly threw me. Dear Evan Hansen is anthemic, but I suspect this isn’t the best form for that anthem to take. (Sidebar: a part of me longs for a graphic novel version)

But, I do think you should read this and here’s the part where I tell you why.

This is a book that functions as part of a moment and should be considered within that context. I think it might have struggled being told by itself, but when you read it and recognise what it’s part of, then it’s easy to see that it’s something kind of fascinating. It’s telling a story to an audience that, perhaps, may never get to Broadway or the West End, and that in itself is something to applaud. It’s telling a story of people at their worst and best, and it’s touching on topics that so very rarely are exposed with such candour. It’s a good story. It’s a brilliant story. It’s just not that great a book.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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