Freshers : Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

FreshersFreshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Messy, chaotic, and laugh out loud funny, this is something rather joyous. A dual narrative, crafted by dual writers, Freshers was one of the most refreshing, honest and wildly moving young adult novels I’ve read for a while. There was the slight plus of it being set in ‘York Met’, a thinly veiled University of York with aggressive geese and Betty’s making cameo appearances, but that’s really just the icing on top of the cake.

Not many young adult books head into university. This isn’t a new thing; I work a lot with girls’ school stories, and a common critique is that they don’t deal with their girls once they’ve left school. There sort of is nothing beyond the school. And whilst a lot of that reflects the fact that, thanks to *cough* the patriarchal system of values that they were about to enter there was no future *cough*, it’s also an absence that’s ripe to explore. Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellis do it justice. Beyond justice. They hit on all the big points of those first few weeks of the university experience; bad sex, bad food, bad decisions, some of the best friends you’ll ever make, and then pack it with a little bit more.

And then, just in case you’ve not had enough, there is the most beautifully wonderful usage of Brie within a book that I think I’ve ever seen.

Freshers somehow manages to stay away from the obvious, and the cliche, and rings all the truer for that. It hits all the high points – and the low points – that university is. This is kind of special.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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Joey Goes To The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

(Forgive me, but I’m on a Chalet School kick at the moment… 🙂 )

Joey Goes to the Oberland (The Chalet School, #33)Joey Goes to the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s not my favourite this one, and yet it’s still oddly hypnotic and occasionally rather lovely. Set outside of the school, Joey and her family are moving house. They are to set up in Switzerland and inevitable highjinks will occur before they arrive there. Some of the highjinks are a little more convincing than others (oh my gosh they forgot the macs! wait, they bought some macs!). There is a special place in my heart for the fifteen hundred pages discussing the bathing arrangements in an antiquated French chateau, and yet it’s still delightful. Tedious but delightful. Ridiculous, yet beautiful. Inane, and yet delightful.

This is just past halfway in the series and we’re not far enough into the madness for the wonder of those early books to have been lost. Miss Ferrars and her speedboat remains on the horizon, and sometimes, suddenly, when Simone pulls rank on Joey, or when Robin’s around, everything in this book absolutely sings. Talking of Robin as well, she gets palmed off to the convent a little too quickly for my liking. There’s a lot that happens ‘off-stage’ in this book, to be reported back to the reader after it happened, and I can’t decide whether that’s awful writing or, having not read the unabridged edition, the distinct skill of the Armada editing team.

Also, the language here is peculiar; every other chapter title features the word ‘Surprise’, and Joey’s family is repeatedly referred to as the ‘brats’. Forgive me if I’m forgetful here, but I honestly don’t remember this reoccurring in any of the other books and it’s an odd choice here. Jo’s a lot of things (she says, backing away slightly from listing them all) but I never have her down as somebody who’d call her kids brats.

Also, then there’s the sandwich thing. *looks at camera*

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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My Little Pony : The Ultimate Guide

My Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little PonyMy Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little Pony by My Little Pony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am very much here for the firmly feminist message that is the My Little Pony series, but I am also here for very nicely done media tie-ins. It’s very hard to judge this sort of thing objectively, because it is so often done poorly. You’ll know the sort of thing; they appear suddenly at Christmas and have whatever it is slapped across whatever was left over at the back of the store room. And they’re poor ; thin paper and even thinner pages, with the sort of font size that you used when you were trying to convince your teacher that you’d done a longer essay than you had.

This is great, genuinely, and it’s not often I’ll say that about this sort of book. It’s immensely good value for the price point, delivering an encyclopedic dissection of Ponyville whilst throwing in some smart and beautiful messages about empowerment, friendship and self-belief. That’s the sort of thing I can get behind, and when it’s wrapped up in something as well put together – and as genuinely good – as this is, then it’s a pleasure to do so.

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The Murderer’s Ape : Jakob Wegelius

The Murderer's ApeThe Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The titular Murderer’s Ape is Sally Jones and she’s also our narrator for this gently told story of murder, double-crosses and false imprisonment. It’s an interesting note to take for such a dramatic series of topics but then again, Sally Jones is an interesting figure. She’s the best friend of the Chief, and together they run a cargo boat. She’s the engineer, who lives with humans, and although she doesn’t speak she can understand everything that they say. The Chief and Sally Jones take on a job and it ends badly; the Chief is accused of murder, and Sally is forced to go on the run. Can she clear his name? Can she survive?

I read the hardcover edition from Pushkin Press (my thanks to them for the review copy), and it is a beautiful edition. I bang on a lot about the importance of design when it comes to books and this is perfectly and distinctly done. A book can look good, but one that looks good and distinct? That’s important, and it’s nicely done here.

Quietly and lengthily told, The Murderer’s Ape isn’t, perhaps, the quickest of books. It took me a while to read, but it wasn’t a traumatic process in the slightest. Narrated by Sally Jones, this is a quiet tale of peril and trauma that skates the edge of some nasty topics (anarchism, forced imprisonment, the idle rich, revolutionaries, and abusive relationships) whilst never quite wholly engaging with them. Some of this distance comes from Sally’s position of remove, never quite accepted for who she is except for when she’s with her friends, and the overall effect is rather one of gentle disturbance.

That’s not to say that this book doesn’t pose some big questions. Far from it. Sally is constantly required to assert her presence in a world that is not wholly comfortable with her, and that question of negotiated identity is something very important to children’s and young adult literature. The best of these books allow our protagonists to find out who they are and, more to the point, who they can be. Sally is aided and abetted on her quest by a variety of characters who illustrate both the good and bad sides of humanity. It’s up to Sally to decide how to live, and to survive.

For me, The Murderer’s Ape sits somewhere on the lower edge of Young Adult, and on the higher edge of Middle Grade literature, and that is something I welcome very much. This is a book which should be placed into the hands of those who want meaty content, but may be, perhaps, unable to deal with the darkest edge of what young adult can (and indeed, should!) provide. The short and precise chapters, told in Sally’s clean and clear prose also would fit very nice as a bedtime read. There are eighty so it may be a lengthy process, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a slow read and in fact, it’s something that might prove quite appropriate to this rich and classic tale.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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