Clean : Juno Dawson

CleanClean by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.

Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.

Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.

I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.

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The NCRCL Open Day 2018

I had a lovely opportunity the other weekend to revisit the University of Roehampton where, seven (!) years ago, I studied my MA in Children’s Literature. It’s a course that changed my life, not only through the legitimisations of the interest that I had but also through the groundwork it gave me to explore those further. It is also a course that I fell into somewhat by accident; I found it a week before the course launched, wrote an essay that basically said “I QUITE LIKE BOOKS”, sent them a copy of my undergraduate dissertation, and Bob was my proverbial Uncle.

Roehampton Sign.JPG

Made it!

I was invited to share a panel with the lovely Mat Tobin of Oxford Brookes, to talk about potential career paths after the degree, and it was a genuine pleasure to do so.  In a way, it took me a while to find what I do now because I did not realise it was an opportunity. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it does so let me try to explain a little. I come from a background where academia was never really part of the conversation. I was not the first member of my family to go to university, but I have been the first to work towards this as a career. As a choice. And finding that break, realising the procedures that led towards it, it took a while. Practicalities. Paying the bills. Little things.

So, now I have a portfolio career. I write, I research, I teach. I temp. I blog. I run my own publishers (scream, etc). I sell articles. I pitch. I poke, in a very Britishy fashion, at every door that might be happen and though I might have to screw my courage to the sticking post, I do. It’s a work in progress, and there’s things I could do better and things I could do more of, but I am happy. I am, I really am.

Roehampton Library Dusk.jpg

The library at dusk

And visiting Roehampton gave me a delicious opportunity to reflect on that. I stopped the night before the talk, and managed to spend some time on campus that evening. It was a peaceful, hot evening and it was only the second time I’d ever been there.

That’s the curious dichotomy of being a distance student; you study, intensely, with somewhere and maybe never visit. But when you do, you get refreshed. You get, in a way, a metaphorical shot of thoughts and creativity and recognise the agency that you possess as a student. Students are powerful creatures and I think that sometimes, when you’re a distance learner, it’s easy to forget that. I’ve experience of being one, but also of supporting them in a professional context so trust me, I know what it’s like from both ends. You work in isolation, connecting through forums and online media, and maybe that’s about it. Your host institution remains a name. Opportunities like the NCRCL open day, and the wide range of lectures and events that Roehampton do (some of which that made me very jealous!) allow you to connect to the community that you are a part of – a community that you’ve always been a vital part of. There’s a way to be a distance learner but also to be a part of the world of campus, and I think they’ve got that really nicely figured out.

Manifesto For Learning

Manifesto for Learning

The Open Day itself was lovely. I got to chat with a lot of the current students, and get very envious of their poster skills (seriously, I belong to the ‘just whack a picture up and hope for the best’ school) and also to hear Dr Zoe Jaques of the University of Cambridge speak. She’s great, and her talk reminded me that you’re always learning. There’s always something to be found in the research of others that will apply to your own. I celebrated this by having a very indulgent late lunch and writing my own personal manifesto for learning. An affirmation of sorts, I guess, but also a reminder that I can never remember yourself/yourselves until it’s too late. But then, isn’t that the thing about learning? You’re always in a dialogue, and even if it’s just with yourself, then it’s enough. Because, at the end, you’ll be something more than you were before.

Many thanks to Alison, and the team at NCRCL for such a lovely day. Here’s to the next.

Wave : Suzy Lee

WaveWave by Suzy Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.

As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.

In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.

Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

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Home Home : Lisa Allen-Agostini

Home HomeHome Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point towards the end of the first chapter of Home Home where I got The Feeling. You’ll know what The Feeling is; it’s that moment when you read something, maybe a word or a sentence or a metaphor, whatever, but you know that it’s good. Your spine tingles. Something settles inside your head. The conscious recognition of skill, there, bubbling beneath the surface. The realisation that you’re in good hands.

Home Home is the story of a depressed Trinidadian teenager, Kayla, who is sent to live with her Aunt in Canada. Whilst there, Kayla must come to terms with her mental health, her new family and indeed her new home. I received it for review from the publisher and was grateful for the offer: I want to find these sorts of books and see them participating within the world, and Home Home more than holds its own. It’s worthy of attention on a thousand different levels.

My only caveat with Home Home is that it is a relatively slender piece, and as such seems to almost finish before it starts. There’s an undoubted element of frustration there that I need to acknowledge because, I suspect, were it given some more space, this could be something kind of great. At present, it feels like there’s not enough space for it to fully explore its potential but, equally, it offers a ton of potential for follow up activities and close reading exercises.

I also don’t want to deny the fact that what is in Home Home is kind of fascinating, occasionally rather beautiful, and kind of great. Home Home exists somewhere between raw, Tumblr-esque truth and a whole hearted stream of consciousness vibe. There’s power here, particular in its honest and vivid truth and the way that it sometimes tumbles together and makes itself known at the least opportune moments. It feels in fact like something that you might find tucked away on a blog somewhere by somebody who feels the need to express themselves and to feel out the edges of that expression, and in the process to find themselves. I don’t think that’s a bad legacy for a book to have.

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A Pony For Jean : Joanna Cannan

A Pony for JeanA Pony for Jean by Joanna Cannan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.

Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?

A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.

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A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.

 

The Three Jays Against The Clock : Pat Smythe

The Three Jays Against the ClockThe Three Jays Against the Clock by Pat Smythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.

Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.

So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.

One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time:
“Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.

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