First Pages : ‘The School at the Chalet’ by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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Front Cover : The School at the Chalet

Welcome to a new feature here on DYESTAFTSA, and what better book to debut it with than one of my beloved Chalet School books?

‘First Pages’ is precisely that. I plan to have a look at some of the first pages of some of the best books in the world, she says nonchalantly, and try and share with you a little bit as to why these books are so good. I also want to tell you a little bit about the book themselves. E-Books are wondrous, mind-blowing things, but they don’t hold the history that the book as object holds. Some of these books have been around the world with me. Some of them are almost as old as me. Some of them have been in the bath, some of them are page-creased and torn, all of them are beloved.

Let’s begin. This edition of ‘The School at the Chalet’ is a “facisimile edition of her first Chalet School book”. Published in 1994, it’s a replica of the first edition of the Chalet School book. That explains the delightful typeface you’ll see on the first page (how evocative can a typeface be? Very, I think, very). The book itself is unedited and features everything that that first edition would have included – but it doesn’t include the pictures. Which is a definite downer. Nina K Brisley’s pictures are vivid and lovely things.

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Page One : The School at the Chalet

Chapter One is called “Madge Decides”. Think on that title a moment. The agency of that chapter is already being placed in the hands of Madge. We don’t know who she is – we just know that she’s in charge. That’s exciting and it’s a note that sets us up so  well for the series. Madge is a woman making a decision – we don’t know what it is yet – but she’s making that decision herself. It’s not “Madge and ‘somebody else’ decide”. It’s Madge.

The first sentence in the book is spoken by Dick. He refers to two girls, and he’s immediately met by Madge’s light-hearted replies. She’s not concerned. Dick is (he’s all exclamation marks) but Madge definitely isn’t. The control, the narrative agency of this page, is all hers. Again, it’s such a beautiful and appropriate note to kick off this series with – a woman being in charge of her own situation.

Have a look at the actions on this page. We can reason fairly effectively that both Madge and Dick are sat down when it begins. The “She got up…” paragraph is fairly explicit on that. And it’s this paragraph that I want to focus on and what comes after. Madge stands up. She walks across the room and Dick ‘lifts up his fair boyish head to look at her’. Take a moment over that. The height issue. The power is all with Madge, again, Dick is looking ‘up’ at her; she’s all affirmative action (even if that action is just a walk – it’s an action). Dick is talking. Madge is doing.

The final note that I want to draw your attention to is in the final paragraph. It’s perhaps the first note of what we could call Chalet School style. Madge is “not pretty in the strict sense of the word, yet … good to look at.” That’s an interesting stylistic choice to take and it’s one that signifies a few things to me straight away. The school story was very well known at this point and people were familiar with it and some of the key hallmarks of the genre. There are books by certain authors where every girl in the school is basically a supermodel with glorious hair, amazing looks and everybody ‘pashes’ on each other. This sentence about Madge, I think, is Brent-Dyer signifying a fairly strong stylistic turn away from that genre. She’s saying that this heroine, this heroine, she’s somebody you should be looking at and she is not cliche. She is not the sort of heroine you’re used to seeing.Everything about this page is coded to make you look at Madge and then here’s this sentence going – think about who you’re looking at. She’s not ‘pretty’. She can’t be classified as easily as that.

Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series eventually went on to sprawl into almost sixty titles and forty-five years. In my opinion, the Chalet School books became the series that defined her. It’s hard, and slightly unnerving, for me to imagine writing a series now that I’d still be writing forty-five years later. But that’s what she did.

And all of that began here.

One : Sarah Crossan

OneOne by Sarah Crossan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admire books like this. No, I think, I admire writers and writing like this. I admire writing that is so resolutely of itself, so careful and crisps and precise and acute and heartfelt with every step it takes. I admire writing like this because it is so conscious of the space in between the words – the pauses – the breaths. Poetry is about breathing, really, at its heart (and what a pounding, emotional, life-filled heart this book holds) and this book is so very full of heart.

‘One’ is a book about love. It is a book about being both one and other; the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace. Friends. Sisters. A part of each other, a whole split into two and one and two and one. And Tippi and Grace must go to school.

Crossan’s style (and for those of who you haven’t experienced her work before, do look at ‘Apple and Rain’ and ‘The Weight of Water’) is such an effortless thing. I’m sure it’s not though. I’m sure that words like this, so fine and careful and clear and sharp as glass, take time to find and I applaud the skill of doing so. The chapters are, as a whole, short and intensely reader-friendly as a result. They also remind me of a question I was asked a long time ago at my university: “When you read a book, do you read the black ink or the white space around the ink?”. I’ve thought about that a lot since. It has, in a way, informed everything I think on literature and how I write personally. It is a quote with a curious applicability to this novel. You read ‘One’ and it is a book about the space in between the words and around them, as much as it is about them. Crossan is so very good at what she’s doing here. So good.

One is due out on 27th August 2015. Save the date. Read her others beforehand. Have I mentioned recently about how good we have children’s / young adult literature right now?

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The Last Wild : Piers Torday

The Last WildThe Last Wild by Piers Torday

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to ‘The Last Wild’ a little blindly. I was conscious that it was a Carnegie nominee for 2014 and that I’d seen a lot of positive talk online about it. And that was pretty much it, and now that I have finished it, I am wondering how best to phrase my feelings about this painterly, immense book.

I think, firstly, it’s useful to know that it’s the first in a series. That I found the ending difficult in that sort of ‘but – but – a sequel?’ sort of thing. A part of me longs for self-contained books in the way that Rooftoppers is and I long for that because I’m a selfish reader. At heart, I think that’s the best way to describe it. I want the story and I want it all and I want it there and then.

And when it is written with such wild imagination and vivid skill as Torday’s ‘The Last Wild’, the knowledge that this story is not ended and that there is more to come is both a wonderful and awful thing to deal with as a selfish reader.

This book is very good. It is wild storytelling (I keep using wild, and I do not know how else to phrase it, it is storytelling on the edge of things, on that blurry edge and it is good and thrilling and wild). The more that I think about it, the more I start to situate this book in a sort of British animal children’s literary canon (and god, how I wish I could phrase that more cogently but I will let it stand). There are moments in this book that sing, so evocatively and so gracefully, moments that sing of Colin Dann and Richard Adams and of Ted Hughes. Moments that are rooted in land and wing, moments of kingmaking and of destiny, and of becoming who you were always meant to be.

I loved The Last Wild and I am full of hate and love for the fact that I have to wait for more.

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**edit** Just reserved the sequels from my local library! Libraries are AMAZING. Have I mentioned this? ***edit***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that every rainy day requires a very good book”

I wish I wrote this sitting in the kitchen sink but I don’t, I write it upstairs and I write it staring out onto a grey and rain spotted day. The sky’s a smudge of sadness and the roofs are slat-dark with the rain that’s pounded on them since first thing this morning.

So what do we do on such days? We read. Books are made for rainy days; for days where the only thing that matters in the world is you and a blanket and a sofa and time, time, time to wallow and read and to lose yourself.

Here’s five of my favourite recommendations for such days.

1. Roland Barthes – “A Lover’s Discourse”

A dipping book this, one to pond-skim and then to dive in wholly and hold your breath until the text releases you. This is a book that reminds you of the quality and power that language can yield. It is a book of constant inspiration for me; a book for breathing, in and out, and realising just what words can do.

2. Frances Hodgson Burnett – “A Little Princess”

There is a part of me that could populate this list with just repeated references to this book. Rainy day reads are reads that should transport you, that should take you to other worlds and times and places, and do so quite ferociously and fiercely and vividly. The tale of Sara Crewe and her attic is that book.

3. Dodie Smith – “I Capture The Castle”

Grace, bold and lovely and heartfelt and awful, this book is full of grace and of heart and of romance and of love. Read it slowly, read it richly, read it slowly and selfishly and when you’ve finished reading it, read it again and remember how perfect a book can be.

4. Michelle Magorian – “A Little Love Song”

To talk of Michelle Magorian and her work, is to talk of a writer who is simply very very good. A Little Love Song is lesser known, I think, than ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ but it is, I think, better. Can books be better when they are all so good? I think so, yes, I think Rose and her seaside coming of age story is one of the most perfect books to ever dawn the world of children’s literature.

5. Susie Day – “Pea’s Book of Holidays”

A classic in the waiting, this series ; all of them are written so beautifully that I fall in love with them afresh each time I read. Day’s books and this one in particular sing of life and of warmth and of love and of people. What better to read on a rainy day than this book of sunshine and of humour and of Enid Blyton and of adventures and wish fulfillment in every sentence? These books are a constant, constant joy and ‘Pea’s Book of Holidays’ is a book that I am feverish with love for.

The Head Girl of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Head Girl of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #4)The Head Girl of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It always fascinates me how early this series shifts things; how early things change. The status quo of the first few books is already being changed at this point. Head girls have been and gone (my beloved Bette Rincini has not had her moment in the sun but this is addressed by Helen McClelland’s excellent Visitors for the Chalet School) and now it is Grizel’s turn. Grizel is a complicated beast, one of the most intriguing characters ever to walk the stage of the Chalet School, and coupled with this – Madge has left the school to get married. Mademoiselle Lapattre (Le Pattre, La Pattre… ;) ) is now the headmistress.

And the problems begin before we even get to school. Joey and Grizel, their fractious and vividly real relationship makes Things Occur. Grizel is hotheaded. Joey is tactless. Brent-Dyer’s writing is superb. She’s so early on in her sprawling, generational saga of school stories that her writing is fresh, sharp and so so lovely. There are of course the traditional ‘oh my god is she dead’ moments that only the Chalet School can carry off, and an amazing cameo from an already established character in the series. (A brief pause: we’re four books in, four!, and yet this series is already so layered and thick and satisfying and Brent-Dyer is quite genuinely throwing everything at it like some gorgeous mad scientist of writing and I love it, I love it).

Also it’s Cornelia Flower’s first term. She has yellow hair and a ramrod chin. Still not *quite* sure what a ramrod is, mind, but Corney is awesome.

God these books are good.

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A lyrical emptiness

(Something slightly different today. Normal service resumed shortly!)

The words are too much to bear.

He turns and runs out of the house and begins the climb up the hill towards the castle. Once he hits the woods, he slows down to a walk. He is breathless. Raw. There is an unfinished edge to everything he does. He has walked here for years; a path trod by his feet as a child, as a teenager, and now he walks on the edge of that time with every step. But then he thinks that maybe edges are for jumping from and maybe this is his jumping point. Maybe this is his moment to stand and hold his arms aloft and to take that step forward into whatever may come. Whatever may be. Whatever he may be. Wherever he may be.

He cannot leave this, he thinks. He cannot leave.

The boy climbs. He lets his foot slide on the mud and drag one of his legs back, even as he pulls the rest of himself over it. He remembers how to walk; he has done it forever here. And he has bought others, briefly, painfully, and he has tried to share this space with them. They came here once. Together. They told each other of their fears and dreams, and he pledged to the moon that he would keep her safe but now none of that matters for he is leaving and nothing matters, but nothing at all.

Silence now in the world; a silence split by the tears of twigs and trees at the boy’s clothing as he pulls himself out of the edge of the wood. There are no trees in this castle space. They stop at the edge, a breath of green between them and the stones, and they come no further. They dare not.

But he does. He keeps walking and leaves the trees and he pulls himself up onto the wall, pausing only briefly to dash the tears away from his eyes. He is not crying. He just needs to see. He tells himself this, even though he knows that he would be able to climb the wall in the dark. In his sleep. On the coldest of Winter days with one arm tied behind his back.

No matter. Still the chattering voices inside his head for he is here and it is deserted and it is perfect. He takes a moment to stand, to watch, to just stand, so still, so silent.

He could stay, he thinks. It is Summer now and he is used to camping and nobody comes here. He could stay. He could live in the nook of the wall and in the shadows, and he could fall from the world and be forgotten. He could stand on the wall at the keep and he could watch them leave and he could stay, he could stay, he could stay. He could stay.

He does not know how long he stands there, but he knows that it is not long enough. It will never be long enough.

He lets the sun start to set around him. He lets it. This is quite clear to him. The sun would not set if he did not let it, the trees would come closer if he was not here, and the world would come and raze the castle to the ground. He was the guardian of this space. A king, really, the king of all and everything and he could not leave this how could he how could he?

A bird wings in his throat and he cries out; his words clatter against the walls and echo back at him. “I won’t – I won’t!”

The light, red and thick and fat and heavy, overwhelms him. When night comes, when it rises around him, he stands up once more and holds his arms up to his kingdom,  The sky seems to shift around him; looking, watching. Waiting. Everything is so very still for everything is centred on this boy.

He nods, understanding everything even though he does not want to. “I’ll come back,” he says softly. He says it to the wind and to the grass and to the pigeons asleep in the tower. He says it to the stars and moon and world. “I’ll come back, you mark my words, I will come back to you. I will always come back here.”

He bites his lip. He turns, he walks away.

He does not look back.

She Shall Have Music : Kitty Barne

She Shall Have MusicShe Shall Have Music by Kitty Barne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first came across ‘She Shall Have Music’ during my Masters when I started to collate a list of children’s books featuring gifted and talented characters. It’s a topic that still fascinates me; this balance of the incredibly unique individual with talents far beyond comprehension with the needs and necessity of the form. How do you write difference when, in a way, every book is about difference? (Sweeping, sweeping, let me sweep with such statements).

‘She Shall Have Music’ is an odd, rich little gem. It’s not the easiest to read at parts; some elements have dated quite immensely, there’s a bit of ‘gosh let’s get to the point’ and, in the edition that I got out of the library, somebody had luridly coloured in all of the illustrations. Books of this age (published 1938) and ilk are lived-in titles; reflections of the world we live in and the readers we have been. They reflect what was and not what is and it is hard to judge a text by the standards of one age when it has been written in the standards of another. And so, I acknowledge the difficulties of it whilst letting them be, I read over them and acknowledge my reactions whilst recognising them for what they are.

And it is, in a way, when we slide past these awkward moments and really get going on the story that ‘She Shall Have Music’ begins to play its tune loud and strong. Books featuring gifted and talented characters often have this arc, this long and stiff assemblage of elements and characters and Hurdles To Be Overcome, and you sort of just have to get through it.

When Karen, the central character, starts to discover her talent, we gain some charming and vivid moments and the story begins to get quite confident. It also gets quite pointed too. Barne is clear on what is Good Style and What Is Not. There are some intensely humourous points and Lessons To Be Learnt before Kitty ‘shall have music wherever she goes’. A direct, complex and yet still oddly appealing book. And one with an awesome cast of supporting siblings.

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