Stories of World War One : (ed) Tony Bradman

Stories of World War OneStories of World War One by Tony (Comp) Bradman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard of this compilation several weeks ago and the names of those involved made me sit up and pay attention. Anything which features Adele Geras is something great and joyful to me. Anything which features Adele Geras, Jamila Gavin, Malorie Blackman, Geraldine McCaughrean, Nigel Hinton and more, is something that is guaranteed to grab my attention.

Edited by Tony Bradman, it is a collection of short stories that address the first world war from a world of diverse and astute angles. Each story is introduced by the author, and I was struck by the personal connections that so many of us still retain to these events, one hundred years ago. Families are torn and scarred and affected by war, and these are not things which are lightly forgotten. Nor should they be forgotten. Children’s Literature (and by children’s, I am sweepingly including Young Adult so do forgive me for the generalisation) has a great power in how it can give you awful things, painful things, but also give you a framework in how to deal with, and to understand, and to live through those things.

There is a lot in this book, and a lot, I feel, which can and should incite discussion. Though I’m no historian (I get a little too, how shall we say this, creative with the facts), it’s clear to see that each story has been carefully researched and is full of detail. It’s not obnoxious, didactic detail either, and it would never be with authors of this calibre.

These stories are also about love. The people we love, the places we love, the sacrifices we make for who and what we love and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves in the name of love. There are moments in some of the stories (I’m looking at you Malorie Blackman) which are so simple, so awful, that I finished them and had to pause to think and breathe and think and breathe and then to read again.

That’s what a good compilation like this can do. The shortness of the stories, and what’s more, the accessibility of the stories, makes each a beautiful little moment in an awful, painful world. They are painterly, and lovely, and very much worthwhile.

(And I still adore how Adele Geras writes love. There is nobody out there, quite like her, who can catch that moment when you look at somebody and then look at them again and realise that they are everything, but everything that you have ever wanted).

View all my reviews

Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

It’s hard sometimes to quantify the influence that Brent-Dyer has had on my life. Clearly there are the obvious factors, such as my longing for every doctor to be both good in a crisis and rather dashing (and also a solid lump of comfort), and the fact that I now know enough German to order coffee and cakes and that I need to be careful of how much a cup of coffee costs in Swiss stations.

But on a more serious note, I think it’s in the way that she told me that children’s literature could do great and magnificent things.

I believe, very much, in the power of literature. You find your voice through reading. You find yourself through reading. You find yourself and your voice and you find out who and what you can be. I read children’s literature for a long time, but it was only in the past few years that I came to realise, and to be able to verbalise, how important that is.

And that, so much of that, is built on Brent-Dyer and her school of nations, her families of a hundred or more children with different coloured hair and eyes, her St Bernards, her ‘girls which keep falling off of mountains’ and of a voice that spoke in the darkness of world war two of acceptance, forgiveness, and truth.

The Chalet School was a multilingual school. A multi-faith school. A school where girls were allowed to be bold, and brave, and who they were and who they could be. That empowerment still astounds me. The way that Brent-Dyer, even in her painful, tired, last books was so concerned with letting her girls grow up and be strong, confident woman (and not spineless jellyfish).

She has given me so much. She has given me the support to write books about girls. About girls, and about women, and the golden, brilliant, lovely relationships between them. She has given me moments that have still, somehow, never been surpassed in my reading life. She has given me other moments which have made me cry and fold and hunt for my own vibrant orange handkerchief to stem my tears.

This is what a good author can do. Heck, this is even what a bad author can do and Brent-Dyer had her moments of both. This is what an author can do when you connect with them. This is what happens when you read and the gap between the page and you narrows to the extent that

This is why I believe that books are an opener of doors. That they are a gateway to the world and to beyond. This is why I will fight for the right for people to read, and to read what they want. It is for moments like this when I think back to the Chalet School that I dropped in the bath by mistake and patched it back together with tape and panic. It is for moments when I think how a reader can be made. How they can be formed. How they can be built and how they can be helped and how they can be saved, even by a woman who I have never met  and who has been dead for 18,827 days.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, you and I, and it is right to raise a glass every now and then.

Thank you EBD.

Trouble : Non Pratt

TroubleTrouble by Non Pratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trouble is the debut novel from Non Pratt and tells the story of Hannah and her pregnancy. There’s no spoilers here; this is a book about pregnancy and identity and inevitability, in a way, all summed up through the glorious, glorious front cover. You can’t see from the image, but the reverse of the book is pink and it is just a perfectly put together book.

So Hannah is pregnant. She has a reputation. She has a father who doesn’t want to know about his soon to be born child. But she also has Aaron; new boy, transfer student.

Father.

Aaron volunteers to act as father to Hannah’s child for reasons that are revealed throughout the book (sensitively, beautifully so) and Hannah says yes. It is a situation which surprises both of them. It is a situation which makes both of them.

It’s a sort of perennial topic in young adult literature I think, the unplanned for pregnancy, and yet I can maybe count on one hand the books that do it well. That explore the truth to the topic; that give both light and shade to it. That acknowledge that every decision has a positive and a negative, and that there are real people involved, every step of the way. Mary Hooper’s Megan books do this, but I struggle for others. I struggle so much.

Until now. Trouble is a book with so much heart in it, so much love, and so much respect for the characters. Pratt writes with a sort of lovely truth (there is language, there is sex – bear this in mind if you need to in your context) and she writes it all with a sort of intensely sensitive and light brilliance that makes great waves of this story crash into you. I cried, several times, at this book, and I did so at moments that I was not expecting. Moments that span out of the text and hit me and made me think – well, yes, that’s exactly what character x would do.

Trouble is the sort of story that I think tells you who and what people are – and believes in what they can be and what they could be.

View all my reviews

Follow the people who say “Morpurgo” – a day out @oxfordlitfest

I went to Oxford Literary Festival yesterday. For those of you who may have missed it, I’m a bit smitten with Oxford. It’s one of those cities where which sort of beats with story and history – it’s a fascinating and oddly humbling place.

The first event I went to was an event with Kevin Crossley-Holland talked about the history of the wizard. Wait, no, I got that wrong. The first event I attended was Merlin himself talking about wizards and magic in his timbre-filled voice, echoing through the hall and up through the stained glass wizards. There is something spellbinding about the buildings in Oxford, and Christ Church Hall is full of story. It is almost tangible and to sit there with a bunch of people that you’ve never met, all of you with arms resting on tables and bodies leaning forward, chanting: “Set him Free” as Merlin crept down towards the dais – it was something quite spectacular. I am still full of awe for that moment.

Image

Image: Wikipedia

The other event I attended was very, very different but rather spellbinding in its own way. Chaired by Tony Bradman, this event saw him and three other authors – Bernard Ashley, Jamila Gavin and Marcia Williams – talk about the issues on and around writing about World War One. Bradman has just edited an anthology of stories around the first world war and I was particularly keen to hear about this (talk about a dream team – the authors include Adele Geras, Jamila Gavin and Linda Newbery!). To my shame, I’m not hugely read on Ashley’s work, nor Williams’ but I think that will be changing fairly swiftly. Marcia Williams’ ‘Archie’s War’ is one that I’ve already got out from the library and Ashley’s ‘Shadow of the Zeppelin’ sounds fascinating too.

Hearing these authors talk made me a bit emotional actually (yes, there is a reason why I try to go to these sorts of things by myself). All of them spoke with such power and conviction about their work. It was impossible to not gain a sort of fervent faith in the validity of storytelling and the importance of it and to understand history remain accessible to us all. Bradman, in particular, spoke about how, when editing the anthology, that it was important to him that the reader understood the experience of others in it – such as the German experience, the Irish experience and the experience of fighting in the East.

I particularly loved hearing Jamila Gavin speak. I’ve been privileged enough to hear her talk before but really, she is such a graceful speaker with a very quiet eloquence, she is one to fight through crowds to hear again. As part of her research for her story, she told of how she looked through a world of photographic evidence from world war one in order to try and find an Indian soldier – she found one.

I can’t reccommend this sort of stuff enough. It makes me believe, so much, in the power of literature and of books and of the sheer weight and import that children’s books hold in the world. And it made me think a lot of the trust we place in them, how societally vital they are, and how there are people everywhere who want to get these books to the right people at the right time. A joy. A humbling, moving, beloved, joy.

(And oh, oh god, Jamila Gavin is so good you guys!)

Dancer’s Luck : Lorna Hill

Dancer's Luck (Dancing Peel, #2)Dancer’s Luck by Lorna Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second of one of Lorna Hill’s ‘other’ series, Dancer’s Luck is a fascinating read to somebody very much entrenched in the Well books. You’ll have to forgive me if I make any faux pas about this series as Dancer’s Luck is my introduction and, well, it’s a bit … stretched, is it not?

Oh, I’m leaping ahead and that is poor of me. It is wrong to address the issues without acknowledging first the strengths, for no book is wholly one or the other. They may be weak, or they may be strong, but they will always have (I hope!) something in them that they do well.

So Lorna. Lovely Lorna Hill. I have a great passion for her writing when it is at its best. It is light, loving and fiery all at the same time. It’s a curious skill to have, but I’ll defy many others of her contemporaries to be able to balance a great, passionate, almost pastoral love for life and dance against the banal practicalities of a career in the theatre. Her first Wells books are full of this, this sheer joy in existing and dancing and being.

Maybe it’s that that makes this book pale for me, because in a way it’s all been done better elsewhere. And she’s done the ‘flight to an audition’ already, and better, with Veronica, and she’s done the quietly attractive Scot better with Robin and his kitten rescuing powers. And she’s done the bad girl (Sheena is a bad girl, right?) better with poor foolish Fiona. It all feels a little bit … retrod. Like the curtain has been drawn up and the show must still go on even though nobody’s quite ready.

But that’s to do a lot of Dancer’s Luck a great disservice, for there is one thing that I think remains one of Lorna Hill’s huge and glorious talents, and that is to make you fall in love with the world. Hill loves her worlds. She writes nature, and the countryside, and the world of her characters with such passion and adoration and yes, a little overly romantically at points, but it’s hard to resist the sheer charm of it. She has such skills in translating the beauty of the world that, even with all this twice-told story, will always make me come back to her.

One additional thing to note is that I rather love Hill’s Noel Streatfeild-esque stylistics in Dancer’s Luck, what with having the cross references to Madame Boccaccio…

View all my reviews

Murder Most Unladylike : Robin Stevens

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You may know by now that I have a thing for school stories. School stories are one of the great joys of children’s literature in that they do what they do so well. They tell a story in a frame which is familiar to the majority of children, and they do it with a sort of glorious constancy irrespective of date of publication. There is a part of me that wants to see Murder Most Unladylike read with books like The Princess of the Chalet School or Beswitched because it fits so comfortably and solidly into the genre. Because it is, quite possibly, the start of a very new and very lovely and very contemporary spin on the school story, despite the setting of 1930s England and tea houses and pashes.

Murder Most Unladylike is a (Daisy) Wells and (Hazel) Wong story. It’s a sort of hybrid of Angela Brazil meets Agatha Christie all mixed up with some Sherlockian tips and winks that made me snuggle down and read with a contented smile. It is a jacket potato on a winters day book; warm, satisfying, filling.

And can I tell you what I loved most about it? What made me actually adore and fall in love with it? It is Stevens’ kind and funny and lovely writing which features references to pashes and to Angela Brazil, but does it with a sort of love and respect and belief in the genre and what it can do when it’s done well (which it is here, very much so).

This is such a glorious book and it is one which has reinterpreted the school story for the contemporary reader and opened it up with a swift moving and accessible plot line. In Star Trek terms, it is the next generation as compared to the original series. It is very, very gorgeous. Daisy is glorious. Hazel is awesome. I want more, please. It’s as simple as that.

Murder Most Unladylike is published on June 5th by Random House, I would suggest we all save the date, yeah? I think that Wells and Wong are very definitely worth keeping an eye on.

View all my reviews

“Nobody needs me” – “I do.” A few thoughts on space, relationships and children’s literature

Catching Fire is one of those films that I fear I might be thinking about for a long time. It aches inside of me and I love it. I love the furious pain of Jennifer Lawrence in it (that end shot!). The layers beyond layers of story and doublespeak and intrigue. The beautiful honesty of Josh Hutcherson. Mags.

I am, as I was in the cinema, struck by this exchange between Peeta: “Nobody needs me.” Katniss: “I do.”

There’s so much there. This complex, difficult, pained relationship borne from bread and honed through the hunger games is something quite graceful and wondrous in both the books and the film. Better people than I have written about the complex wonder of Katniss as a heroine, but I want to take a moment and talk about relationships. The potential of them. The space of them.

I talk a lot about space, I know, and in a textual sense, I use it quite loosely. There are many different types of space. There is the space between you and the book; the dynamic of reading it, how you feel, how it changes throughout the reading, how you change and so on. There is the space of the book itself; the dynamics of the words in the text, how they play and shift and push against each other. There is the space outside of the book; the world that the book inhabits, the way that it relates to other books, to those that have come before and those who will come after it. In a way, when I talk about space, it can be one or all or none of these and instead that little, desperate clutch inside your throat as you realise that the character you care about will falter, will fall, and it will happen because this book is written and this book has an end and you are locked in with it now until the death.

That is space. The everything. The nothing. The heartbeat. The eye-blink.

This is the space of literature and it is a space new-formed with every reader and with every page turn. Think about the potential of that. The utter, endless potential of that. A new story given to every reader from one book. A new experience.

And that is where I think my interest in relationships and the potential of them in children’s literature comes from. I read this excellent piece about relationships and sexuality earlier. The final paragraph of that article is the kicker:  “YA literature has a responsibility to make a space for girls to think about sexuality on a broad spectrum. We owe it to girls to give them something we don’t have—more than one ideal Relationship Narrative. Open space where there used to be claustrophobic one-path hallways. A chance to decide for themselves what love looks like, and what sex looks like in all its forms

Boom. We owe it to readers to present a space where sexuality, where relationships, happen. In all of their messy, wild, heartfelt, angsty ways. We owe it to readers to give them the chance of seeing themselves in literature. We owe it to readers to give them the potential of seeing themselves and what they are, and were, and will be, reflected in the space of literature. We owe it to readers to give them the chance to find the threads of their life reflected in this mirror shaped in ink and paper, and we owe them the opportunity and the actuality to find that in whatever shape and whatever pattern that thread may take.

For it will breathe there, so comfortable, so quiet, so small, in the space of that book until it is found and it will ache with longing until it is given life.

Until it is read.