Frozen Charlotte : Alex Bell

Frozen CharlotteFrozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first thing that caught my eye about Frozen Charlotte is that deliciously stark and scary cover. Eyes, staring, and the eternally terrifying premise of dolls. It’s a brilliant cover and one that stood out, rather immensely, from the rest of the shelf. And that’s where I began with Frozen Charlotte; unaware as to anything about it save that distinct, unnerving cover.

I like books like this; books that know their context and revel in it. There’s a lot to be said for the scary novel, the terror text, that knows restraint. I think we’re starting to see a bit of a backlash against it in the wider media; the superheroes who destroy entire cities, the supernatural battles which erase thousands of lives in the blink of an eye.

Frozen Charlotte positions itself at the other end of the spectrum, squarely, it’s a horror novel but one which centres on a family torn apart by death and tragedy, and a friendship shattered by death. It’s a fiercely written novel, one that doesn’t shy away from the horrific or the terrifying, but it earns these moments. Bell gives us family and friendship and though I’d have welcomed more of this grounding, I did love what we were given. An ex-girl’s school in Scotland. A family with secrets and twists and turns. And itchingly unnerving scenes that make you pause, just a little, to glance around as you turn the page.

I liked this a lot, this blunt and immediate and strong book. Bell writes with pace and verve (verve! I haven’t written a sentence with that in for years!) and Frozen Charlotte is something quite distinctly unnerving and precise. It’s a sharp book too, one which constantly twists and turns, and horror doesn’t tend to survive in such scenarios unless you believe the world it’s part of. And I believed the world of Frozen Charlotte; it’s rooted, believable, too-close horror.

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Good books, bad books : discussing value in children’s literature

I  had an interesting chat earlier this week with a colleague. She asked me to show her an example of good illustration, versus an example of bad, and whilst I could easily fulfill the request for the former, I struggled with the latter.

Bad. Bad books. We think about that a lot with children’s literature; it’s a space of competing agencies and ideologies. It’s a sector of publishing that has to be almost everything and nothing, all at the same time. For a book to work within children’s literature, for it to even get to the child, it’s got to pass a thousand boundaries.

Author. Agent. Editor. Publisher. Marketing. Libraries. Teachers. Parents. Child.

A thousand steps; a thousand leaps. There’s more in that journey, I know it, but I think the point is made. That book in your child’s hand, that book on the shelf at the library, it’s come a long way baby. And seeing it there says something quite distinct about both itself and also the process which has enabled its presence.

Somewhere, somehow, that book has been given value.

It’s not a cheap process publishing, nor is it swift. Ditto having the book in the library, in school. It’s taking space that could be used up elsewhere, always. Each book in the library, each book on the shelf in the bookshop, they are all on their notice. At some point, their space will be used for something else. Stock rejuvenation. Circulating titles. Value being given to this book that might find another usage somewhere else.

I keep coming back to that idea of value, when  I think about the good / bad dichotomy. I argue, a lot, for the good books. For the books that deserve to be revelled in and loved, and yet, can these exist without the ‘bad’?  Can good exist in isolation or does it always need the ‘bad’ before it can be understood as good?

Think of a chair with four legs. And now, think of a chair with two legs. Is it still a chair?

I think, perhaps, I’m talking about relationships and about the dialogue of books between books.The way that no book exists in isolation, the way that even the bad book (for what that definition is worth) holds value. Importance. Weight.

There are good books out there that I will not touch, for I do not see them as good, but I recognise their value. They are not bad books then for me, but rather they are other books. The chair with three legs. The chair with two. They are still books, but books which exist in an other space. A space that is laden with value and ideologies and agencies, but not a space in which I find myself.

Bad. Good. It’s a simple sequence, and yet, maybe I think it’s the hardest one out there.

And I suspect that maybe, that the bad book might not exist at all.

 

Jolly Foul Play : Robin Stevens

Jolly Foul Play (A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, #4)Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes I think back to that first moment I read Robin Stevens. Murder Most Unladylike ticked all of my literary boxes in a way I wasn’t sure was ever really going to happen. Of course there are books out there that I love, books out there that fire my brain into strange and wonderful places, books that make me gasp and weep at their perfection, but then there’s the Wells and Wong books and the way they fit into something very perfect for me and my bookish ways. I am a school story fan; I read a lot of authors who aren’t the ones you’d find in shops today. Angela Brazil. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. I love the roots, I suppose, of British children’s literature. Of those books that live in schools or windswept moors or in the attics of deepest London with nothing but dreams to keep you alive in the darkness.

I think perhaps, what I love with the Wells and Wong series is how it fits. How it talks back to those books and how it talks forward to the books yet to come. These are complex, tightly plotted books and they are, I imagine, not easy to write. But they are so easy, so delightful, so addictively gorgeous to read. And though this book is perfect to read as a standalone, I would reccomend that you take time to read them from the start because the series is evolving. Stevens, I think, is getting stronger and more rooted within her characters and for somebody who was good at the start of this series, I suspect you can realise what I think of Jolly Foul Play itself. Reader, I loved it. It’s a gift this series, one formed of perfect slang-tipped edges and girls being girls and revelling in their strengths as girls. As friends. As detectives.

The great joy in this book comes from that added little edge of Hazel’s increasing maturity. It’s subtly done, cleverly, but through their investigation of the murder of Deepdean’s despotic headgirl, Hazel and Daisy’s friendship is challenged and questioned. Is this it for the Detective Society? Are Hazel and Daisy through? Can their friendship survive this case with its strange edges and familiarities?

I love what Stevens does. I love this classy and classic series; I love the strength of it, and the competencies of it, and that the girlhood within it is presented as messy and honest and terrifying and fun, gorgeous, powerful, fun. Jolly Foul Play is perfect, really, there’s very little else to say.

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My Brother Is A Superhero : David Solomons

My Brother Is A Superhero (My Brother is a Superhero, #1)My Brother Is A Superhero by David Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had my eye on this for a while; this debut from David Solomons which is steadily racking up some very big award wins, and upon finding it in the library I leapt upon it with eager hands. I possibly shrieked a little, because this is a vibrant and deliciously packaged book, with a front cover that is a statement of intent if ever I saw one.

It’s a lovely story, this, one which recognises the key tropes of the superhero novel and respects them and understands them. There’s something to be said for trusting the tropes of the genre; a trope is a trope because it works. And whilst there is a space for novels to break these dominant themes, these recurrent motifs, I don’t think you can do so without understanding what it is that you’re breaking. To defy the limits of something means understanding what those limits are. I’m not sure I’m being particularly clear about this, so let me give you a quick example. The princess needing rescue by a prince That’s a trope. A tired one, but a trope nonetheless. The princess rescuing the princess, now that’s interesting.

My Brother Is A Superhero is a story of superpowers. Luke and Zach are brothers, and one day, when Luke needs to go for a wee, he manages to miss Zach being given superpowers. Zach is destined to save Earth from the mysterious Nemesis, whilst Luke is pretty much going to have to come to terms with the fact that his brother has ended up with the superpowers and not him. Luke knows his comics. He also knows that if Zach is going to be a superhero, he should pretty definitely have a cloak. It’s what they do.

It’s little moments like this that position My Brother Is A Superhero very firmly in its genre; it is a book about superheros and comics, and it gets that and it has fun with that. God, does this book has fun. It’s sparked throughout with injokes and witticisms and puns and it’s just an exuberant joy. Solomons handles his characters deftly, and smartly, and quickly. This is a book that revels in what it is and through that sense of fun and exuberances manages to bring something new to an oft-explored genre.

Now, just who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman?

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Geo-locating the pony story (or, mapping Victoria Eveleigh, Lauren St John and Patricia Leitch)

So I got a book signed by KM Peyton and I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling…

Big boots and adventures

This weekend was a busy weekend. I presented some of my research at Horse Tales; a one day conference held in the lovely surroundings of Homerton College, Cambridge. One of the great highlights of this day was getting to hear KM Peyton speak. Goals. I adore her.

The title of my paper was Geo-locating the pony story : a distant reading, which, for the Moretti afficionados amongst you, should give an idea of the theoretical leanings of such a paper. I spoke about the process of mapping the work of Victoria Eveleigh, Lauren St John and Patricia Leitch and integrating these into the distant reading philosophy.

As part of my paper, I presented several custom maps and visualisations – one of which I’m sharing below. This map covers the UK locations of the One Dollar Horse trilogy by Lauren St John, and  A Stallion called Midnight  and the Katy and Joe books by…

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Spaces; edges; the parts in between

Hold out your hand. Hold out your hand and look at it, at the way the fingers curve and shape themselves towards holding something that’s not even there. Look at the way it ends; at the horizon of your palm, the sunset edge of your nail against the thing beyond; look at your ending and the beginning of something new.

Everything starts, everything ends, but everything connects. There’s a point in between; a space of challenged hierachies and unsure spatiality, a point where it’s neither one thing nor the other but rather the space in between. The shadow of a pen. The curve of a coffee cup. The moment just before your cat walks across the laptop, typing their own novel in their own peculiarly persistent semiotics.

I am returning more and more to these moments, these edges. These endings, these beginnings. These spaces where a book finishes and another stops, and I am becoming convinced that everything happens in the space in between. The pre-read. The post-read. The read itself.  Perhaps everything is reading and thus we are all texts, all of us, being read and making readings of each other every day.

My skin, your skin, the poetics of us. The poetics of our space, our performed, lived lives, the poetics of love and loss and hate and happiness. We exist in moments but we exist between them as well, and oh we are made of such serendipity.

Fall in love with a book, fall out of love, be part of a whole expression of love, a semiotics of passion, and you are part of it before, after, always. Literature is love, living. It is the language that we are given to understand the world; it is given for us, to us, by us, from us : Apart, a part, parted; amo, amas, amat.

We are such wonders in this world, and in such, we are lost and we are found, and the ties that bind, that break, that make us are word-formed and cursive-cut. Language; loss, life. It’s all here, always.

The books I do review

So, the other week, I explored the sordid truth around the books I don’t review. This post is to explore the other side of things; the books I do review. Again, it’s in no particular order, nor does everything apply to each particular decision to review,  but one thing I can definitely say is that this post is a lot less embarrassing than the first…

  • An emotional response. Good, bad, anger, joy, weeping on the bus. Whatever it triggers when I read it, I want to know more. I want to write about.
  • It’s about something that’s never been done before.
  • The PR person is lovely. Polite, friendly, realistic and it’s a pleasure to deal with them. They know my name. They know the sort of things I review and what I can review (ie: children’s. You’d be surprised at how many don’t). This means nothing to the content of the book review, but it means everything to that initial decision to read.
  • The author is lovely. Polite, friendly, constructive. Again, this means nothing to the actual book review which is always as objective as I can get it, but it does mean everything to that initial decision to read. If you are nice, if you’re interesting, I want to see what you write like. Simple. I’m fascinated as to the stories that people hold and I want to find out what they are.
  • The book is beautiful. You read with your eyes, so much, and if a book has been crafted and put together with love, it means that there are a lot of people invested in it. Hope. Money. Dreams. Artforms. A valued object that looks valued piques my attention. Production values matter.
  • I have time to review them and do the work, the author and the publishers justice. I don’t ever want to skimp on my reviews nor do I want to rush them out. It’s a value thing; I value each and every book that reaches this point and I want to give it them time its worth. Another story in the world excites me, every day, and I can’t ever not pay tribute to that.
  • Something different. Something that makes it stand out from the crowd. Again, this is difficult to quantify as it could be anything. But what I’m looking for is a book that knows its space, that knows exactly what it wants to be and where it stands in the world. My supervisor speaks a lot about knowing the context of your work and he’s absolutely right. Know the books you’re shelved with; know the authors, know the game. And carve out your own space in that game.
  • Boarding schools. Pretty much a guaranteed pass to the first place in the queue.
  • Ditto pony stories. My Thowra / Misty of Chiconteague heart is still in existence and I love these.
  • If I’ve read a book by the author before and enjoyed it. Simple as.
  • If I can talk about it and add something to the discourse around the book. Maybe something that’s been missing beforehand, something that my read can add to that book and benefit that book. When I review something, I want that book to do well. I want it to live and to thrive. And in the case of the Angela Brazil’s, the Brent-Dyer’s, I want the relevance of that book within the world to be reasserted.
  • If I like it. If it makes my heart beat, makes me cry, makes me wonder how the world existed without it beforehand. If it makes me feel like it’s been in the world a long time. That’s what I hunger for.
  • If it’s clever. If it plays with the page edge, if it does something interesting with the copyright notice, the front cover, or the bibliographic information.
  • If it’s in the library. I don’t buy much as I think it’s important to support my library but I also would be be bankrupt if I bought everything I wished. That’s why I review a bit of everything; the contemporary and the classic. The books that came out quietly and the ones that came out with a bang.I review what catches my eye there, alongside the things I pick up and am sent from people.

 

Really, this all boils down to one thing. It is a GOOD book.

And we are so very lucky right now to have so many of them!