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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What Does An Anteater Eat? : Ross Collins

what does an anteater eatWhat Does An Anteater Eat? by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picture books are a performative thing. Every book is, in a sense, but picture books are perhaps more performative than others. They are made to be shared and talked about and enjoyed by multitudes of readers. They are made to be read aloud, to inspire funny voices, and to have their corners chewed on by babies who are figuring out this wide, wide world that they live in. I always think that it’s a good thing when you can feel this edge of performance to a picture book, where you can sense the parts you’d emphasise or the parts where you’d tease out the tension to that almost unbearable point, and I always think that it’s a good thing when you read a picture book and can hear the reaction that it would get.

What Does An Anteater Eat? is a book that’s full of that third space, that performative edge, that raw, hysterical laughter that really only little children can do and when they do it, the world laughs with them. And I felt that when I read this book, and that’s something quite remarkable. This is a relatively slender story; an anteater wakes up from a nap, is hungry, and tries to remember what he eats. He asks several other animals who provide both useful and useless answers, before happening upon an ants nest and – well, let’s just say that anteaters don’t actually eat what you think. There’s a nice little note in this about not judging on appearances, and Collins’ art is full of a vibrant, thick sense of colour. He’s an artist doing good things, and his characters sing with this sense of lovely honesty. This is lived art, primal and potent. I also do love a cover that sets itself apart from many of those on the shelves at the moment.

I’d have welcome a little more work being done with the lettering, as I always feel that simply shifting from text into italics is a relatively easy default to choose in a picture book and one which shies away from the added quality good lettering can provide, but that’s a small note for a book as potently performative as this.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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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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Stories For Boys Who Dare To Be Different – Ben Brooks

Stories for Boys Who Dare to be DifferentStories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have promised to be, above all things, honest in the reviews that I write and so it’s for that reason that I must confess that I wanted to dislike this a lot more than I did. These books at the moments for rebel girls and boys who dare to be different conceptually bother me; they speak to ideas of gender in children’s literature, for this is what this is, really, and they speak to the state of those ideas being in a somewhat complicated and, perhaps, quite a troubled space. And, because I am somebody rooted in the classics of British children’s literature, it seems to all stem from the mid-twentieth century and the notions we have of girls and of boys in the books of that second golden age that still so heavily comes to influence the state of children’s literature today.

And yet, and yet –

That strapline bothered me. Boys who changed the world without killing dragons? It’s so specific, so madly, utterly, wilfully specific in tone that by perpetuating said tone, that surely it perpetuates a myth of masculinity that the book itself is trying to defy –

And yet, and yet –

That title. Why stories for boys who dare to be different. Different from what? Why is it daring? The transgressive act only becomes transgressive when rendered as such; perhaps this should be a form of normalcy that we should be trying to understand as such. Surely in making something the other, we perpetuate that otherness –

And yet, this isn’t a bad book. To be frank, it’s actually pretty good.

But I still have questions to resolve, and I will resolve them and I will do so with the full and frank acknowledgement that this is a good, kind and thoughtfully constructed book. It is representative, inclusive and frequently moving, encompassing characters such as Nicholas Winton, Taika Waititi and Lionel Messi. There’s elements of it still to challenge, and on fully legitimate circumstances and not ‘grumpy scholarly’ circumstances. Louis Braille is included and yet there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that much of his entry cannot be read by those he sought to help. Similarly, the entry for Junot Diaz suffers from recent events, and I was concerned by some of the looser rhetoric involved in other entries such as “It’s time to take their country back”. That’s a problematic phrase, not in the least for its implicit politicking, and it’s a phrase that, really, means very little. And sure, a very young reader might not pick up on that angle, but they’ll pick up on the language. The phrasing. And it’s that sort of thing in this book that matters and should be fought over, fiercely.

These books are having a moment and I welcome the effort that Brooks has done towards making his contribution a pretty damn good book. I suspect much of its problems come from the hobbles of frame and circumstance, and that I’m maybe demanding a lot of it that perhaps it can’t quite achieve in such a context. And yet, I’m unapologetic in doing so because these books – as evidenced by their raw and fierce popularity – are clearly needed. I just ache for them to, somehow, become something more than what they are at present.

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Pony on the Twelfth Floor : Polly Faber, illus. Sarah Jennings

Pony on the Twelfth FloorPony on the Twelfth Floor by Polly Faber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about what Polly Faber does and I, for one, hope she continues to do it. I had, and continue to have, so much time for her work on the Mango and Bambang series ( which I review here), and Pony on the Twelfth Floor is an utter, rich delight. Faber is very quietly producing a canon of classy, rich and rather delicious children’s stories and they all have that classic edge of timelessness about them. They’re rather like a slice of cake that gives you everything you need, and a little bit more besides, and when you’re finished, it’s all good. Everything is good. Frankly, everything is lovely.

This is a pony story steeped in pony stories, and I will always respect those who both know and love their genre. There’s a Sweetbriar reference (!) alongside several deliciously knowing references, and really, that was enough to have me fall in love with this book. But it’s not just about jokes, and Faber knows that for this book is underpinned by heart. Kizzy wants a pony in that desperate, endless way you do when you are a certain type of person of a certain type of age. (And note, how I do not specify that age because I think it is an ageless sort of love.). But because she lives in a twelfth floor flat, in the middle of a very urban environment, it seems as if she won’t get one. That is until she sees one munching on flapjacks in the supermarket.

And that’s how it begins; a twist of circumstance, a love of the most fierce kind, and this book roars from that point onwards. Kizzy is true and real and lovingly drawn; she’s the child who used to comb the ‘win a pony’ competitions (not, says I, that I did or anything) and the child who practices cantering down the street. And none of this is rendered as something to laugh at, or something to be embarrassed by, because it’s right. There’s nothing wrong with love and faith and believing that one day the world might conspire to give you your hearts desire.

Another thing to note is the illustrations done by Sarah Jennings, because they’re lovely. They’re just the right side of Thelwell, and full of a delicious sense of humour in every line. Flapjack is distinct, and lovely, and it’s hard to not fall in love with him because you get it. You get it. Look, I know I’m burbling, but honestly I don’t care. I like this book. I love it. It’s so rich and so honest and so heartfelt, and it’s utterly well done. What a time, what a world.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy.

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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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Clean : Juno Dawson

CleanClean by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.

Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.

Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.

I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.

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