The London Eye Mystery : Siobhan Dowd

The London Eye MysteryThe London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s books like ‘The London Eye Mystery’ that make me consider how we use the word ‘good’. Good. It’s such a space of a word. It’s sort of phatic at points; things are good, we are good, everything is good, let’s move this conversation on and talk about other things. Good. This book was good, this film is good, but when we say things are good, we tend to move on. Good is an opener to a conversation. Good begins thoughts and arguments and declarations of love. Good, conversely, is rarely good enough.

So I think that this review and this book is the space where we begin to reclaim the word good. ‘The London Eye Mystery’ by Siobhan Dowd is a book that is so very much on point that it is the sort of book that reclaims space and redefines worlds. It is a mystery set, quite uniquely, in and around the London Eye. Ted and his sister, Kat, take their cousin Salim onto the Eye. For reasons, Salim ends up boarding the Eye by himself. And he does not come down. It’s up to Ted with the help of Kat to find out what’s happened whilst all around them, their family crumbles with the impact of Salim’s disappearance.

This book is so present. It’s hard to define really because all I want to say is that it’s good. I’m rephrasing myself here in so many different ways and realising that they all end up in the same place – it’s a good book. It’s a very good book. It’s a heartfelt, warm-hearted text and one which, do note, has some suddenly intense and poignant moments that are so precisely judged that they sing in a book full of high notes. Revisiting it for my PhD was nothing short of a joy.

And do you want to know why?

Because it was good. The London Eye Mystery is a very good book and reading (and rereading) very good books will never, ever be a chore.

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Curiouser and Curiouser : Looking for Alice in Llandudno

Alice in Wonderland Trail Marker in Llandudno

Alice in Wonderland Trail Marker in Llandudno

There are places in this country that I’ve never been to, and yet know.  They are spaces defined and shaded by others; by the trip my grandparents took there, by my father’s stories, by my mother’s words, and Llandudno is one of them. My grandparents came here on holiday, making the short trip down from Manchester to the edge of Wales; a slim, neck of land before the swell of the Grea Orme and the great beyond of the sea. They went to many other seaside resorts: Weston, Torquay, Llandudno, but for some reason I connect Llandudno with them, quite intensely. The town was a space of gentle holidays, of chips and of sea and of the piers, and it was a space that my grandparents visited often. They were not alone in this. Llandudno flared to life in the Victorian times and was designed specifically as a holiday resort. You can see the appeal of the site; a flat, long length of land, with sea bordering both edges and a climate so hot and still that I burnt within seconds of being there. But I wasn’t just in Llandudno for my grandparents, though they provided a strange marker of the space for me – a footprint, maybe, pressed into the sand and tide-washed away.

I was there for a girl called Alice.

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The River Singers : Tom Moorhouse

The River SingersThe River Singers by Tom Moorhouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rich, genuine and warm-hearted, ‘The River Singers’ is such a lovely book. Moorhouse, as evidenced by this book and also the talk I was privileged to hear him give at the FCBG Conference in 2015, knows the riverside world very well. In this, his debut novel, we are with the River Singers – a family of water voles who live on the side of the river.

The presentation of the water vole’s world is beautifully done; everything feels right. In fact, I think that idea of feeling is key when it comes to a discussion of The Water Singers. You feel so much of this text; it is full of palpable richness. From the teasing chatter of the siblings through to the nobility of the river; you feel it. You’re immersed, very instantly, and very richly into a book that sings of Colin Dann, Richard Adams and of The Wind in the Willows. There’s also a place for this text, with its very specific rural evocation of space, to be considered against something like the Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday; a series which is both very much a part and apart from The River Singers.

There were a few moments where I would have welcomed the tezt to dwell more upon the moment. By this, I mean just allowing things to pause and hold for a moment before shifting onto the next ‘thing’ – it’s through the act of dwelling that the text gets to breathe and give space to its depth of feeling and of tone. I lost a few of the key plot points simply through not-quite-properly-reading them and had to backtrack at a few points to sufficiently connect all of the dots. Moorhouse’s writing is so gloriously solid that it deserves time to be enjoyed before moving onto the next moment of the sequence. Sequence. Ha. I do think of this book as a sequence, perhaps more so than others; it is a sinuous, entrancing curve of a book and it is one that is – just – good. Despite those brief lapses (and brief, I might add, is key here – I’m referring to only a couple of key moments), The River Singers is such a joy. It’s like a love letter to nature and it’s written with such vivid passion that it’s hard to ignore.

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Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

Only Ever YoursOnly Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished Only Ever Yours last night and laid there for a while, thinking about how I could review this book. There is a problem for me here, and it’s one concerning my own narrative. It’s taken me a long time to figure out who I am. It’s a process which is ongoing and one, I think, which has not yet ended. And so, as a result of that (and I’m sure it’s a process a lot of other people are similarly undertaking) a lot of this text hit home. Too close to home, maybe, and for that I loathe and admire it deeply.

Only Ever Yours makes me both love and despair; it is a fierce book. It is a searingly acute book, one which cuts very very deep. The space that this book exists is bordered with fire and flame and rage and it is perfect and it is awful. Oddly enough, it reminds me of some of the thoughts I had over The Bunker Diary. There’s some commonality here, and its a commonality I need to reflect on.

So. How to review Only Ever Yours? Perhaps bullet points, for my thoughts are still incoherent and turbulent with fever over it.

– There is a part of me that wants to thrust this into the hand of every young person who’s watching and reading narratives that do not feature who they are.

– O’Neill’s writing took a while for me to get into but once I did, I was very much part of this story. There are some vividly stark stylistic touches: the female characters all have lower-case names, the men do not. The subtlety of this text at points is perfect.

– The female characters, in their lower-case situation, are bred and designed as partners for men. Those who are not good enough (not slim enough, not pretty enough, not docile enough) either then act as concubines or return to the school to teach as chastities. The story follows the build up to this choosing ceremony.

– This book is very, very searing. It is so sharp. And now, post reading, as I begin the process of disentangling it from myself, I am not sure that I want to let it leave. I don’t think I should.

– There is a scheme called Books on Prescription that runs with a lot of public libraries. These are books that are written out on prescription by a GP. I quite genuinely think that Only Ever Yours should be amongst them.

– This book is so awfully good. There’s a part of me that thinks it might be held up as a classic some day.

– Somebody shared a quote on my Facebook the other day. It seems fitting to share it here.

“You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” – Erin McKean

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Minnow on the Say : Philippa Pearce

Minnow on the SayMinnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s odd to be able to describe a book as thick and dense with summer heat; a sensation somewhat removed from the cold practicality of reading the printed page, but Minnow on the Say somehow achieves that. It is a story full and dense with aching warmth and heat and slow, steady movements that occasionnally jerk into something quite sharp and brittle and tense. It is a book that reminds us just how good Pearce could be.

Set in the area around where Pearce grew up, Minnow on the Say is the story of David and Adam and their summer-soaked adventure. They are looking for treasure and, inevitably, turn out to be not alone in this task. Soon the time comes when things start to get out of control. Treasure, it seems, has an awful habit of not being very easy to find – just when you need it to be.

Pearce writes so gracefully. She’s almost stately; her text flows and ebbs and slides along the page, just doing what it needs to do at the right time, and it’s almost effortless. The first paragraph is a perfect piece of understated scene setting and I hope you’ll forgive me for repeating it here:

“David Moss lived with his family in the last house in Jubilee Row. Their house was like all the others, but their garden was something quite out of the ordinary: it ran straight back for the first twenty yards, like all the other gardens; then, when the others stopped, this took a sudden turn to the right, and in another minute, it had reached an unexpected destination. When the other gardens ended in a hedge, a fence, or a stretch of wire-netting, the Mosses’ garden was brought to a stop only by the softly flowing waters of the River Say.”

How – perfect – is that? The river, the way it practically sings with promise of adventure, the ‘out of the ordinary’ nature of the Mosses’ garden and the way that this leads you, quite perfectly, to pay attention to David who lives in this different place and is therefore, by virtue of association, something quite different himself. It’s a beautiful marker of allowing an environment – a place, space – to code you into reading the characters in a certain way.

Pearce’s writing is a slow and subtle joy. Minnow on the Say is such a classic example of the golden age of British children’s literature; it is a book which somehow seems to stand separate from its years and context to exist in a space of its own, a space that is replete with heat and excitement and the slow gentle curve of an oar into water.

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Eloise in Moscow : Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight

Eloise in MoscowEloise in Moscow by Kay Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are times when you realise that defining something as a ‘five-star’ book and thus ‘amazing’ in the Goodreads schemata, is a process that could be interpreted in many ways. And thus, we come to ‘Eloise in Moscow’ which is most definitely amazing but amazing in a very distinct sort of sense of the word.

I’ve written about Eloise before, and I won’t thematically repeat that here because, to be frank, Eloise in Moscow is quite different (and amazing) beast. It deserves it’s own space.

So what is that space? Well, it’s gloriously eccentric and RAWTHER appealing but also distinctly gobsmacking at points. It is a book which is very much a product of its time (published initially in 1959), and opens with the vividly ominous sentence of “They were expecting me” It’s not quite what I expect from an Eloise book; these meshes of the vivid and wild and exuberance, and so Eloise in Moscow starts in an odd place for me. A self-conscious place, exacerbated by the row of Russian faces ranged across the bottom of the double page spread and all of them looking at Nanny and Eloise. Behind Nanny and Eloise stand more faces, caught in the evocative movement of black lines on grey and white, the swift curve of a wind in snow. It is a heck of a statement to begin with: this text is eyes and watching and deliberate self-awareness.

This odd, jerky tone continues throughout the text. Lines are isolated as they are quite often in an Eloise text, but in comparison with something like the joyous abandon of Eloise in Paris (which I adore), Eloise in Moscow (note the deliberateness of that location; the capital, the centre, the heart of this alien landscape) is a book full of sentences which are very clearly saying more than they are meant to say: “You only go to Moscow once”, “Everybody watches everybody in Moscow” and “It was rawther chilly”. This book is fascinating. It’s madly appealing, as every Eloise book is, but this book is fascinating and amazing and something that I keep returning to in a sort of ‘maybe this time I’ll be able to figure it out’. It’s a palimpsest of sorts as I keep seeing this text written on others texts and written on by others, all of them disconnected and connected, and yet somehow caught in this continuum of Eloise.

The colour scheme of Eloise in Moscow is muted; greys and blacks and whites, all of which contrast against an exuberant, constant yellow (consider the implications briefly of that colour note) which features throughout. This continues up to the centre of the text where there’s an utterly beautiful fold out map of the Kremlin. This is joyful, madly so, and it’s a moment that sees Knight on fine form. It’s the only spread which involves red and green and blue and these all collide in a vivid snapshot of the Kremlin against the fluffy, snow-tinged borders of the Moscow River.

So then, how do we begin to sum up this intensely brilliant and more than a little bit of its time text? I mean, I haven’t even begun to talk about the constant spy references; the spy who follows Eloise and Nanny throughout the text, the shadows cast by characters listening in but stood just out of frame, the sequence where Eloise wanders through hotel rooms and hears lots of people coughing before finding “all of these machines / twirling around by themselves.” Naturally, Eloise turns these off before meandering insouciantly off down the corridor (God, I love her).

Maybe that’s the right way to sum up this book – by acknowledging its context as a book written during a very specific time frame, but also by remembering just what it is about Eloise that is so lovely. The text itself is intensely richly evocative and exuberance and the book itself is a thing of utter, utter fascination. In a way it rather transcends what it is and reminds me of the intense power that picture books have. They are things which capture the world. It’s up to us to decide how we look at it.

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“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us” : finding ‘sequels’ for children’s literature classics

“We don’t bury ourselves in books – books bury themselves in us”

Let that just hang for a moment. It was something that I heard today at the York Festival Of Ideas. I was at a talk about the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland and Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst was discussing the idea of how a text can survive and thrive over such a long time frame.

Now, this got me thinking (partially because he also mentioned the great glory that is Rooftoppers), why do we expect that of certain books? Why do we, for want of a better phrase, stick them so firmly in their context – but then bring them along to ours. I’m not sure that makes sense so let me explain a little. Something like The School at the Chalet is very dear to me. It was originally written in 1926 but for me remains a beautiful snapshot of issues we still deal with today. Issues that affect my attitude towards my own work and writing: identity, selfhood, responsibility and growth. Eternal issues. But this book is very much not a book that would thrive if written today (forgive me for sweeping sweepingness). I bring it to a present day context with my reading but in the same reading, I’m reading it ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. All of those reads captured and recaptured every time I read this book. An ocean of readings, from the now, the past and the futre, and one that I navigate each and every time I read. That’s what happens when we read. We’re occupying a position in space and time between ourselves and a text and that position is madly unique and transformative on both sides. Every time. Every single time.

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