The books I don’t review

Oh, that title makes me think of some sort of bookish elephant graveyard! Rest assured, that’s not my intention; this post is to talk about all the books I don’t review. I read a lot of books (a lot, seriously, it’s like my superpower) and I don’t even begin to review half of them. A handful, really, and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the reasons why the ones that Don’t Get Reviewed, um, don’t get reviewed. I am a horrible reader. Consider these my confessions!

  • Really horrible front cover. I thought I could get past it. I couldn’t.
  • You know that habit of making the first letter fancy and a different font in a paragraph? Like This? That.
  • That thing where people don’t use speechmarks and instead use – or nothing. I can’t deal.
  • A stain on one page. A mysterious, please GOD, don’t make me talk about it any more stain.
  • Not being able to say much about it. “This book is good” doesn’t make a review.
  • Being able to say too much about it. “This book is everything that’s wrong with the world” makes the review too much.
  • Books represented by my agent or her agency. A conflict of interests and super weird for me to review them from a critical place.BUT. I will talk about them on Twitter because it is nice to talk about nice books.
  • Oh my god, I stopped one recently because it had horrible feeling pages. Forgive me!
  • Boring book. It took about 300 pages to get anywhere and by 301, I’d had enough. Other things to do, people to see.
  • It dealt with an important issue BUT didn’t deal with it in a way that felt I could use it and talk about it. A difficult one, but any inkling of doubt is something that I take very seriously. Gatekeeper, I know, and that’s something I’ll talk about at a later date.
  • It had an awful pun in.
  • I couldn’t add anything to the critical discourse around it.
  • Forced rhyme. The sort of rhyme that works with a very particular type of English and not, quite, with everything.
  • Bad binding. Forgive me!

 

Next time : a list of the reasons I do review a book. It is a lot less embarrassing:)

 

 

The School in the Forest : Angela Brazil

The School in the ForestThe School in the Forest by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What! Go to school! To boarding-school! I won’t I tell you I won’t!”

So begins The School in The Forest and the story of fourteen year old Jean Langton, a spoilt heiress who is both inevitably orphaned and inevitably romantic. Her life in the remote and isolated Craigness Tower is to come to an end and she is to be sent to boarding school. Prodigously, as “south country air doesn’t suit” Jean, a respectable school has evacuated to the locale and thus she is to be sent there. St Hilda’s is a typical school as far as Brazil is concerned; it is progressive with a naturalistic pedagogy (can you tell I am writing an essay about this book as well as this review?) and has relocated itself to the romantic surroundings of Wildeswood Hall.

I always overuse the word romantic when I talk about Angela Brazil because her books are so resolutely focused upon casting the everyday outside and becoming embroiled in a saga of dancing through the trees and singing songs around a campfire. Even Brent-Dyer, my great literary love, held back from the wholesale passions of Angela Brazil and her obsession with the outdoors world. And I think it’s the way that Brazil approaches the outdoors and forces her girls out there to engage in the world that gives her work a particular and peculiar force, even now, a million miles away. Jean is a musical girl (how rare for the new girl to have a talent! *side-eyes camera) and yet, she’s irrevocably tied to landscape. Her family history, her escapades, her Christmas with real and true and proper friends; all of it steps outside of the school and into the wide world.

Of course, having said that, as ever with Angela Brazil there’s a deeply contrived subplot. And what is a school story without a contrived subplot? It is a quirk of genre and one that is inescapable. This subplot involves gypsies and a mysterious child. It’s a subplot which doesn’t translate particularly well to contemporary reads. As ever, judge the text by the standards of the age and make allowances for those standards, however they may be.

For an author who cut her teeth on school stories, and who indeed must take credit for making the contemporary school story what it is, The School In The Forest isn’t really a book about schools at all. It’s a book about girlhood; about learning to live in a community and to live with yourself. I rather love it. But, then again, I think that I will always love Angela Brazil for a myriad of reasons, and not only for the way I learn a thousand new synonyms for ‘said’* every time I read her work. Brazil was epochal. Still is, really.

(page 55: ‘asked’ / ‘mocked’ / ‘laughed’ / ‘nodded’ / ‘sniggered’ / ‘decided’.
I love these books)

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The drum

I am good in libraries, in bookish spaces. I understand how they work and I’m comfortable in them. It’s a skill honed over many, many years of being bookish. A commitment to the spine, to the folded edge.

I am equally conscious that those spaces that I inhabit are, quite often, full of privilege. A library can be an intimidating space. It should never be, and we should stand against such demarcation of public spaces and fight against the barriers established therein. But it can be intimidating.

Every new is new, until it’s old. Every fear is fear until it’s known.

I’m a writer, a critic, a student, and yet I find myself defending that too much in some spheres. I research children’s literature. I find it an important worthy topic. I find it fun, relevant. Exciting. And yet: pauses.

Somebody told me the other day that there are only two things which never let you down: music and books.

I think they’re right, but I think that statement needs something else adding onto it. Music, and books, and story. That last word, that great intangible edge that defines our lives. That we perform, every day, with ever step we take and whether we choose to go to Asda or Tesco, the bus or the train.

Story is in everything, quite clearly. Define a story for me, quickly, loosely. Your first instinct. For me, I return to the idea of beginnings. Endings. A start, an end. Something in between. It’s a structure that was taught to me in junior school. It’s a structure that left me in tears once, in front of the class, as I wasn’t able to follow it.

Instinct. Patterns. Returning to what you know, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it’s not right. Yours. Familiarity. A regularity of rhythm, of expectation. The prince needs to find his one true love. The evil needs defeating. We need our patterns. Our familiar spaces.

Narrative; that great drum beat. We march to it, we echo to it, we search for it. We love, lie, live to it.

I study children’s literature because it is the drum. It is the first drum, and often the loudest. The most present. The most recurrent. The story that’s passed down through the ages, from parent to child, from shelf to hand. These are the beats which define us, which make us. And when we know them, we know them intimately. Lovingly.

I had an argument about a film once. Independence Day. Aliens, explosions and Will Smith. It’s a film made by numbers, almost, if you break it down to the morphological level. The level of breath, of beat.

Doesn’t make it a bad film though.

The narrative of Independence Day is one that fills the gaps. Same with a thousand other films, novels. Story. The constancy of story, the way it fills us and edges our bricks with a neat and solid mortar. Being given the skills to recognise those narratives is a gift; and one that I live to share, every day.

Learning how to read is a superpower. Learning how to read the markers of story; the tropes, the archetypes, the figures that make the story what it is, is also a superpower. Sometimes learning to read isn’t enough. It takes you to the edges, the ring fenced space of books that are suitable for you and the great morass of those that aren’t. The tempting otherness. The wild beyond.

We look for patterns as humans; we exist for rhythm and pattern and structure.

Working with, talking about, living with children’s literature allows us to interrogate what those patterns are and to enable readers with the strength to challenge them. Us. Everything.

Defy the fears.

And change the world.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone : JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So this is where it all begins.

This is a slim, tight story about a boy who is a wizard, and it is a story which has come to provide a bedrock to contemporary children’s literature. Not just British, I suspect, but globally; a pebble thrown into the pond, the ripples of which are still felt today.

It’s been a long time since I read this, and the experience of the reread was blinding, really. This is where it all begins. This is where it all began. Both past and present; the promise of a whole new world, the promise of rediscovering that world. Harry Potter exists both in and out of time, I think, a Charlotte Sometimes of genre; a book that is there, as though it has always been, and yet reads as fresh as a dawn-damp daisy.

I’m not sure if there’s anyone in the world untouched by these books, this phenomenon, and so I think this is a review for those of you who circle back to these books or come to them after the films or after seeing pictures online or hearing somebody talk about Hogwarts. This is a review for those moments when you are in the magical world before knowing of it; walking past Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station (which has always been there, you know it has) and for those moments when you walk down Charing Cross Road and try to spot the Leaky Cauldron. This is for those half-felt moments made flesh; those moments of coming to the series and realising just what an utter joy a character like Hermione is; and how straightforwardly wonderful Ron is, and how the great ripples of this book are marked in matter of fact prose that doesn’t mean anything at the time, but means everything now.

This is a book, this, one that quietly changed the world, and one that continues to do so. It is a classic, really, and it is one that I am amazed by, even now. It is a book that opens a series, but opens once more at the close. A Moebius Strip of a book; a never-ending saga, this world is blindingly everything.

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The CBBC Book Club

Bit of a short post today, but a very important one.

CBBC have a book club. I am SO happy about this; and even the comments on the link make me happy. Every Sunday afternoon, the CBBC Book Club talks children’s books on the telly.  How exciting is that?  Please do try and watch it, or use it in school, or in the library, and shout about if you can; this sort of thing matters so much. And well done CBBC. This is a madly vital thing to do, and you have my utmost admiration.

 

Update 18/4: Saddest of times. I can’t find this anywhere on the schedules and I’m wondering if the page I linked to up above had out of date info.😦 Prove me wrong, internet, and tell me this show is still on and I’m making a mistake *crosses fingers, toes, nose, etc*

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”

I bet you know where that comes from.

I bet you remember the first time you read it; maybe not the precisions of it, the exact thing you had for lunch, or what colour socks you had on, but I bet you remember that moment. I bet you remember how it felt.

For me; Leeds, and a nondescript shopping centre. WHSmith, maybe. One of the high-street stores; one of those that look like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. We were passing through. I had a book token.

(Book tokens, oh my lord book tokens, the eternal love of the bookish child)

The shelves were at the back of the shop; tucked away. I bought the first three titles in the series, titles twisting on my tongue. Familiar. Unfamiliar.

I have a habit of being late to things; I am a library lover, a librarian, I read what the library has, and sometimes some libraries are more prompt than others. I picked up His Dark Materials in Totnes, all three of them, another deal, more clean-edged spines; the crisp, indulgent pleasure of newness.

Of a book that has never been read before; a book waiting for you.

Only you.

I am rereading this book now, this book that begins with a suburban couple in a suburban street, perfectly normal thank you very much, and I am thinking of those moments and the way that first read contrasts with the second. The third, fourth, fiftieth.

We read; we connect. That first read, that self-making read.

We read again; we reform, we reconnect, we rediscover. We affirm those bonds of ourselves, hard fought and hard forged.

And sometimes; we rediscover a classic. A book that aches with resonance, with sentences that sound a note something far beyond that which they sounded so many years ago.

This is rereading; this is us, this is the story of who and why we are. This is your first love, your first kiss, first loss, first – moment.

And it all comes from

this.

this tiny, tiny thing

this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dirty Dancing; sexuality and young adult literature

There’s a film called Dirty Dancing; you may know of it, you may not.

My rapturous rewatching of it last night made me think of sexuality in literature, in media, and how afraid we are of it. I write about young women finding their place in the world; finding who and what they are going to be, and who they can be. I write about selfhood; about those aching edges of you; of those points where you touch somebody else, and those points when your edges curl up and recoil; I write about edges. 

Dirty Dancing is all about edges, I think, it’s all about an unabashed and perhaps unparalleled exploration of sexuality. It’s about Baby, Frances, and that moment where she suddenly starts to realise who she is. Who she might be.

Who she is when she dances.

baby.gif

I think a lot about dance and movement which is odd for somebody who writes and is devoted to the power of the written word, but movement, I think, is something quite vitally important towards literature. Sexuality is about movement; it’s about raw, breathing movement, it’s about – pauses – and looks, and gaps and absence and togetherness.

Sometimes I think we’re afraid of seeing that on the page; of seeing the arc of the back, the caught-hand, the look.

I think, sometimes, we’re afraid of that – particularly for young women – ; afraid of the hard-edged definiteness that comes with text. Afraid of the role of the gatekeeper, afraid of the reader, afraid of the blunt blunt truth that sometimes comes within story.

I don’t think we should be.

I would like more books that explore that edge of ourselves, please, I would like more books that explore that movement, that live on the space beyond a touch, beyond a breath.

I would like there to be more books that help us to learn how to fly.