The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 : Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delight.

The second of two boarding school histories that I’ve breezed through recently, Terms & Conditions is an absolute delight. The first – Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class was a much more different experience, focusing as it did upon the male experience of boarding school life and wrapping this around his own experiences. I found Stiff Upper Lip a dry read; interesting, yet I skipped over a substantial chunk of it.

Terms & Conditions, however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough. I loved it. I devoured it. I suspect my different reaction to the two books is partially due to my own research interests and angle of interest, yet Maxtone Graham writes with a sheer verve and narrative drive that can’t be denied. This is an honest, warm-hearted, genuine and sympathetic book.

Ending just before the popular arrival of the ‘duvet’, that blessed piece of night-time warmth, Maxtone Graham ranges through a series of tightly structured chapters constructed around the recollections of her interviewees. Being a big children’s literature fan, I was delighted to find that Judith Kerr functioned among these. What’s great is that Maxtone Graham admires these women that she works with and talks to, and she admires them openly. It’s so interesting to me, this complex ideal of the boarding school woman – of women, generally – because as they grow older, they are expected to be less visible. Less forthright. Yet as Maxtone Graham comes to articulate, these are the women that have remarkable stories – ranging from being pummeled outside in the dark as part of a new girl ritual, through to spending the night on the Kings Road with boys and making it back to the convent school in time for morning. I welcome anybody who works to make these stories visible, I really really do.

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“Not just a children’s book”

I attended a talk the other week, one of many that came all at once as these things to do, and whilst I was there I took some notes. I take notes often at this sort of thing, because my brain often reaches a point of fullness that means I can’t take anything else in. I write the words down, let them sit there on the page, and then I come back to them later and reread them. I don’t often think about what I’m writing, but sometimes a phrase hits me and I am blinded by it.

“Not just a children’s book,” they said, before moving onto another point. The phrase was throwaway, careless, and I suspect that the ramifications of what it meant were barely considered. But it’s a phrase I hear often at talks, and it is one that has come to concern me.

Language, you see, is a precise and clean thing. We make it inept, we make it fuzzy, because we are inept and fuzzy individuals. We bring a thousand different interpretations to a word because we have lived lives. Stories. A ‘cat’ is a ‘cat’ but it’s never just a cat. That ‘just’ is almost redundant there, do you see how? A cat is a cat but it’s never a cat.

Nothing is ever just anything.

A children’s book is never just a children’s book because it’s that ‘just’ that colours the object with a sense of distaste. It’s an apologetic just, an excuse to escape the label of ‘children’s book’ and to apologise for what that might mean for the content of the talk. But to do so, to explain that your topic is not ‘just’ a children’s book implicitly denies the value of the term itself.

Am I about to try and define what children’s literature is? I’m not sure. A part of me wants to slide towards that age old cheat of defining what something is not; a definition of exclusions and oppositions. But perhaps I can cheat that desire as well and instead tell you that quite often, I simply think of the idea of an intended reader. An intended reader is that fuzzy individual for whom a book is intended to be read by. For children’s books, that intended reader is a child. And note the looseness of that phrase; intent, child – they are immense terms and one’s which I have used deliberately lightly. What is a child? What is intent? What is language? Do we even exist right now?

Excuse my hyperbolic self-questioning, but I’m trying to make a point. Labels come from people as much as they do from the language itself. A word is a half-formed thing, to paraphrase Eimear McBride, and without the reader to provide some form of concretization (cf. Wolfgang Iser), the thing remains unformed. Does a word make a sound if it falls in the forest?

So: to children’s books, and the way they are not ‘just’ children’s books. It is that just that rankles with me; an individually placed value judgement on that which follows. Not just a “children’s book”. But what is? What isn’t? How are you so uncomfortable with that book being intended for a juvenile readership that you feel the need to absolve it of that labelling? What do you do to the books that you leave behind?

In writing about the mystery genre within children’s literature, Adrienne Gavin and Christopher Routledge suggest that “perhaps because adulthood is a mystery to children and childhood has become a mystery to adults and neither can ever ‘solve’ the other state, mystery has a particularly strong presence in children’s texts.” (2001 : 2). It’s a quote I’ve been wrestling with for my thesis, but one that holds relevance here. If a book is “not just a children’s book”, then that’s a perspective that comes from adulthood. It suggests the awareness of some sort of other book that may exist, a wider taxonomical understanding of literature, and also the awareness that you – as an adult – are supposed to not read this books.

To call something “not just a children’s book” is a deleterious act of adult appropriation that damages not only the very idea of children’s books but also, indelibly, the subsequent critique of them.

Like I said, I find it problematic.

 

 

 

 

The Hate U Give : Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is remarkable.

The debut novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a ferociously crafted and brilliant and startling novel. It’s hard to not exhaust myself of superlatives for it but it is something else. I’m often a little nervous about those books that get a lot of good press because I don’t want to be the one who goes ‘actually..’. I really don’t. I don’t review to shoot things down, I review books for their bookish ways. For what they can say and do and how they say and do it.

Page two. That’s how long it took for me to know that I was going to review this book; that’s the moment when I read a sentence so utterly perfect that reader, I stared at it and marvelled at how wonderful a thing language is. I stared at the sentence in the way you do when you read a lot of things, when reading is your quote unquote job and you have seen it all before but you have never seen this. The Hate U Give gave me something new, something so fiercely beautiful and resolute that I’ve had difficulty stepping away from it. Thomas’ use of language is immense. Firmly, fiercely, immense.

Starr lives in two worlds; high school and home, poles apart. When she is the only witness to a shooting, those barriers start to crumble and Starr must figure out how to live her life and how to find justice. I read this, I devoured it, and it made me think of that maxim often trotted out in creative writing classes. Write the story you need to tell. Not the story you think people want to hear, nor the story that you think people might be able to sell, but the story you need to tell. And that’s what Thomas achieves here; every word cracks with fury and pain and beauty. It is remarkable. It should be epochal.

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Shocks for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Shocks for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #29)Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point somewhere around Peggy that the Chalet School series seems to start to mark time a little. The novelty of the Island setting has worn off, a batch of eminent faces have been shipped off to the Oberland and Canada respectively, and so we’re left with a school that doesn’t quite have the right feel to it because it’s waiting for the status quo(s) to be restored. But then there’s Emerence, and everything comes back right again.

Shocks is the debut of Emerence Hope, a little “firebug” from Australia, and she’s obnoxious and brilliant. I’d forgotten how much I loved her, but then, really, she does everything that she does in this book and it’s a delight. It’s so easy for Brent-Dyer to present girls who adapt and thrive, but she steps back from this with Emerence. She’s allowed to be hideous; and it’s interested to read this sanctioned bad behaviour against somebody like Eustacia who, simply, isn’t allowed to get away with anything remotely similar without being badly physically punished. (I adore Eustacia, she is my secret star of the series).

One of the great things about having so many characters removed from the forefront is that it allows some others to step up. There’s some lovely character work here for Jack Maynard and Captain Christie respectively, whilst the book also contains one of my favourite moments in the entire series. It’s a moment of ferocious particularity but one which has always stuck with me. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it was the first thing to teach me what tautology was. Vocabulary tuition! Plus a lifelong concern about dying from hiccups! What a series this is!

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