Blackout : Sam Mills

BlackoutBlackout by Sam Mills

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of difficulty with dystopian books, which is why you’ll find I review them very rarely. At their worst for me, they tend to slide into one, a sort of malleable ‘future’s bad but X can sort it out’ plot which barely shifts from text to text. It’s rare to find ones which get that but – make it their own, you know? That make this future, this hideously real future actually – real. Too real. Like, blink and it’s here real.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you Blackout by Sam Mills. I came to this a bit blindly really, picking it up off the libray shelves by happenstance, and it was a little bit of a blank canvas. I didn’t know the author, I didn’t know the book.

Well, I do now. Mills has given us a scarily plausible future where books are rewritten, where reading banned books is a crime, and Stefan, the son of a bookshop owner, has just discovered that his Dad is hiding the author of one of the ‘worst’ in his house. It reads like a YA spin on 1984, with elements of Children of Men thrown in there for the mix, and it is a proper good book.

It’s also one that’s difficult to precis, in that the plot twists and folds upon itself, but if you know the references above, you’ve got a good idea of where this is going. Blackout also has some very skillful moments where the actual ‘danger’ of reading is discussed and the potential of a book to change the world – for good or for bad. There’s a lot here that could be used in a classroom context or in a discussion of banning books.

What I love in Mills’ prose is the way this all seems so, scarily, possible. This is skill, to make the horrific believable and actual. Though there are parts of this which sag, just a little, Blackout is a really really good book.

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Linnets and Valerians : Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and ValeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been in a bit of a slump with reading at the moment, reading books that have left me wanting, and reading books with a tight, tense, uncharitable air. This has not been productive; rather so, it has left me hungry for something. That hunger was sated, briefly, by my glorious Noel Streatfield but it stayed with me after that and it made itself known.

And when I feel like this, when there are things needling at the edge of my mind, or a closed, grey feeling to my senses, I need a very specific sort of book. I need Noel Streatfield. I need Michelle Magorian.

I need Elizabeth Goudge.

I need her buttery, fat prose, her Jam and Jerusalem books of England and English magic and children who make the world a better place through their simple belief and instinctive actions. I need her yellow stories, the stories shot through with sunshine and meadows and hills that must be climbed and stories that must be told.

I need books like this and I need to read them selfishly for when I finish reading them, I am whole. I am content and complete.

Linnets and Valerians is about people. Round, solid heartfelt and heartsore people. It’s about the shapes families make with each other, the fitting, jarring shapes that occur when a piece is torn away, and the shapes that are made when a connection occurs, right on the edge of despair. It is also about hope, really, and redemption. It is romantic, naive, and occasionally foolish. It is about magic, faith and an almost idyllic English countryside.

In a way it is about Love, which to be fair, is about all of those things and often all at once.

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Ballet Shoes : Noel Streatfield

Ballet ShoesBallet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book and I, we’ve known each other for a long long time. It is one of those books that has been in my life for forever, really, I can’t quite remember a time without it. Without Noel Streatfeild, without the Fossils and without Cromwell Road and Madame Fidolia. It is something I cannot quite conceive of, the unknowing of these things.

Ballet Shoes is beautiful, iconic in its way, a story of stage and screen and of destiny. It is a story about impact, about the value of that impact, and about making your mark on a world who barely notes you exist. It is wonderful. It is my heart and oh how it fits.

Pauline, Petrova and Posy (“Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true”) are foundlings, brought home by Great Uncle Matthew to his niece and her nanny. He is an adventerous soul, rather edibly Eccentrically English in his ways, and manages to bring the first of the girls home because “he had meant to bring Sylvia back a present. Now what could be better than this?” Petrova and Posy appear in similarly unusual circumstances and are promptly adopted into the swelling nursery.

It is then that Great Uncle Matthew (GUM) disappears for several, several years. With girls to look after and money running scarce, the newly named Fossil sisters, Sylvia and Nanny have to look into alternative strategies for funding. They get lodgers in (one, to Petrova’s delight, brings their car: “it was a citroen car, and it’s coming here as a boarder”) and it is because of those lodgers that the Fossils’ world is changed forever.

Streatfeild’s great skill as a writer is that she has purpose in her prose. It is a sort of intensely matter of fact style of writing; her children have a place to be and a purpose in their being there. Every child in a Streatfeild book has a vocation, found by hook or by crook, and they are intensely content once finding it. Petrova, in Ballet Shoes, is a revelation. It’s rare even now to see a girl in a book being surrounded by engines and cogs and yet Petrova is that girl and she’s being written in a book which first saw life in 1935.

Petrova is, I think, my favourite. She is vividly practical in her skills and her “yes, well, you can dance but I’m going to finish building my submarine now” attitude is an intense delight. It’s worth contrasting this attitude towards giftedness (the air of practical use and applicability of her skills) and contrast it against the more showy and impractical (I’m not sure if I mean that, but I’ll leave it for now) skills of Posy and Petrova.

It’s also interesting to note the crumpety-warm feeling of contentment that purveys this book. There are worrisome moments, yes, plenty, but there’s never quite the feeling of concern that things Will Go Wrong. Because they don’t, I don’t think, not in a Streatfeild book. They may go wrong initially but then, it is through that wrongness, that we find the right.

And, to be frank, if it did go wrong and remain wrong, Petrova would be more than capable of fixing it.

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The Tiger Who Came To Tea : Judith Kerr

The Tiger Who Came to TeaThe Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kerr was the first author to genuinely, utterly terrify me. There are moments in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit that brought home the impact of war to me like no other. She is rich and warm with her writing and yet unafraid to inject anarchy and darkness. She is one of the grand dames of children’s literature and I love her lots. (And I would also like a reality show where she and Shirley Hughes and KM Peyton sit and talk shop with each other and occasionally eat cake.)

The Tiger Who Came To Tea is eloquent and mischievious and, underneath it all, a poignant tribute to childhood and the roar of an unfed stomach. It’s hard to not read a little bit of Kerr’s background into this book, her life as refugee, as immigrant to London, and as mother.

The story itself is very simple. A tiger comes to tea. The tiger eats everything and then leaves. Daddy comes home and as there’s nothing left for him to eat, he takes Sophie and Mummy out for tea. And whilst they’re out, they make sure to buy a big tin of Tiger food.

The tiger himself is a beautiful creation. Somehow Kerr manages to inject a courtly, gentlemanlike air into her creation; the bold orange and black lines curving politely into place whilst Sophie, in bright excitement, rests her hair against his fur. But this isn’t the sole joy of Kerr’s tiger: his eyes, oh his eyes. There’s an edge to him and it’s conveyed in his eyes, the way he surveys the room looking for more food and drink.

I also love how this book demonstrates another aspect of the role a picture book can play. Kerr’s artwork, beat-like against the white space of the page, is incredibly evocative of the city and the way we lived in the city at that time. The shops nestled brightly against each other and glowing in the lamp light, the kettle balancing on the rings and the way the grovery boy bikes down the road with his basket of goods on the front. This is picture books acting as archive, as history and as cultural repository. The way Daddy wears his hat. The way the milkman has his blue overcoat and the open sided van. It’s lovely, and I think this aspect of picture books is something that can easily be forgotten.

The final thing to note of this book is Kerr’s precise and beautiful prose. She’s so simple and so confident in her writing that you can’t help but wonder when the Tiger will come to tea at your house. Every sentence is laden with a sort of stunning conviction. Of course there’s not enough food in your house to feed the tiger (and will he end up eating you?) The way she teases us, always, with that danger and then gives us the satisfying ending – a full stomach both metaphorically and textually – is nothing short of perfection.

I love you Judith Kerr, I really do.

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Blood Red, Snow White : Marcus Sedgwick

Blood Red, Snow WhiteBlood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Segwick is such a writer. Such a writer.

I have always struggled with the bald facts of history and the way that whilst precision and figures are all very good, somehow all I want to see – all I need to see to understand this moment – is the look on the girls face as she watches her love walk off to war. History resides in people. We are our story. We walk in the feet of these stories every day. My problem with history was that I loved it, but what I loved, wasn’t history. It was something out of story and of imagination and of stepping far, far away from the truth.

And here Sedgwick does something quite spectacular. Framing his story around facts, around crystal clear moments of fact and of names that burn through history, he tells a story of love and of loss and of intrigue and double-crossing and of twisting words and lies in the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution.

He is good, good, good is Sedgwick, in the way that he has a tapestry of story and the way the threads all, eventually, come together in the right way. He is not an easy read in places for he is so unexpected in his prose. Blood Red, Snow White slides through a whole world of genre, quite dizzyingly so, and shifts from fairytale to spy drama to love story and back again, often within a heartbreak of a heartbeat.

I like him. I like what he does. This is history span and reshaped and remade with a great and envy-inducing skill. It is not fact, as Sedgwick quite happily admits, but it is story. It is so very much story.

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