The Explorer – Katherine Rundell

The ExplorerThe Explorer by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief moment of context.

I didn’t wholly connect with The Wolf Wilder as much as I did with the rhapsodic and blissful joy of Rooftoppers, and so The Explorer was a book that I read with a little bit of nervousness. Rundell is transcendent, capable of paragraphs that feel like the first footsteps in new fallen snow, but sometimes I connect with her work less than I’d like to. Much of this comes back to my position as reader and my natural predilection for the things and contexts that I love. The Paris of Rooftoppers, for example, is something much closer to my heart than the snowy wilderness of The Wolf Wilder and that’s, perhaps, inevitable. We are readers after all, all of us, and each of us come to a book with a different story of our own. Each book will connect with a reader in ways almost unfathomable to understand. Sometimes it will hit home, and sometimes it will hit home. It’s important to understand this, this aesthetic of reading, because it’s something that can be almost disassociated from the stylistics of the text itself. As I said, Rundell can be transcendent, furiously so, but sometimes it’s the content that fails to connect. You can appreciate something so very much, and be envious – desperately so! – of such skill, whilst also recognising the ways in which it does not wholly hit home for yourself. Though it sounds decrepit to say this, the more I read, the more I recognise the legitimacy of disconnect. You can love something. You can also recognise the beauty in something but not, perhaps, find it life-changing.

So, having said that, and given you some context as to where I was for this review, The Explorer hits home for me. So beautifully, so powerfully, so genuinely so. For me this is Rundell’s texture, these stories of children being bold and brilliant in the most unusual of circumstances and fighting against a world that does not seem to wholly recognise their wonder. She is an author with a childist point of view, that not only positions children as beings of power within their world but also as beings with agency. Power, for me in Rundell’s work, and agency are quite different things. The ability to do something, and the actual doing of that something can often be miles apart. The love, really, that Rundell has for her characters, and the belief that they can do what they need to do.

This is a story of survival, and it’s one pitched for the middle grade audience, so we have moments of terror and furious delight, often tumbling together within a matter of sentences. Nothing is certain in this forest other than the love and faith and strength that friendship and belief can bring. The children are delightful, Max – the youngest – is furiously perfect, and the book sings of the sheer need to have an adventure. As one of the characters comments at one point, “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle. You never know when you might meet an adventure.” The Explorer is touched with a little bit of madness, that feverish urge to look beyond the far brow of the horizon, and I loved it. It’s a book that reminds us to be prepared for adventure, whenever and wherever it may come.

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A Wrinkle In Time : Hope Larson, adap. Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read (she says, channeling Franco Moretti) and one of them is A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve a strange antipathy towards classics, and fantastical classics tend to slide towards the bottom of that pile of antipathy. I’m mixing my metaphors quite hideously here, but generally I don’t head towards the classics and I head towards the fantasy classics even less. Some of that stems from the fact that I don’t tend to read much fantasy, and also from the fact that I’m a selfish reader. Honestly, I am. I talk a lot about books and I love books in a furious, forever sort of manner, but sometimes I want to have my reaction be my own. And the classics, in particular, are coloured so very much by what they come to stand for, that sometimes reading them can feel like a futile act. How do you read something when everybody’s already read it for you? It’s for reasons like this that I have a mad sympathy with any child who’s told to stop reading what they want and to instead read what an adult thinks they read. Ten books you should read by the age of ten? Bite me. Eternally.

I’ve been very aware of A Wrinkle In Time for a while without quite knowing the details of what it was. Something to do with something about space, and time, and that was about it. I didn’t really want to read it, but I wanted to read Larson’s adaptation of it. It caught my eye in the bookshop and I was feeling flush. The colours intrigued me; a palette of blues, greys, blacks. Colours of twilight and the thin grey dawn. And so I read it, and then I loved it, and I wept in the bath over the ending.

I can’t tell you how well Larson adapted the original text, not whether this was a faithful or divergent adaptation, but what I can tell you is this. Sometimes it’s good to come into a classic in a different way, and when you’re guided by a wide-eyed Charles Wallace or the unknown strength of Meg Murry, rendered in Larson’s expressive, precise and heartfelt lines, it’s a pretty good route to try. What a lovely, unexpected joy this was.

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Stardust : Jeanne Willis & Briony May Smith

StardustStardust by Jeanne Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s talk about confidence.

Confidence is hard for big people, let alone little people, to maintain, let alone figure out if they even have it in the first place. The world is an intimidating space and circumstance conspires to place people in intimidating positions. Whether that’s your first day at school, a birthday party where you don’t know anybody, or simply walking past some bigger and scarier children at the park, life as a child is hard. And it’s easy to want to make this easier, it’s easy to want to wrap up a child and say – look, stop, this is not your life. Not yet. You don’t have to feel like this, because I am not going to let that happen. I won’t let you feel that way, not yet, not ever.

Let’s talk about realism.

It’s going to happen. At some point, your child or the children you look after or see in the bus, will feel intimidated by life and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. Life is life is life. One of the biggest things that children’s book do is help in such circumstances. And when these books are shared in loving situations, savoured slowly and closely, that’s when you help your child deal with those moments that you’d maybe rather they didn’t have to deal with. You give them models of behaviour, of potential reactions to model, and to maybe think about when they’re in the nursery and having to deal with the world by themselves.

Let’s talk about Stardust. I don’t need to tell you about the quality of Nosy Crow books at this point; just remember that they can handle books well. And that’s so important because a beautiful book tells you that what is inside is important. A child, especially those who are developing their literacies, might not be able to fully verbalise why, but they’ll get that this is an important thing.

Stardust is the story of a young girl who feels overshadowed by her sister. Her sister’s the best at everything, and the younger sister never quite manages to be number one. But one night, her grandfather tells her a story about how the whole world is made of stardust, and how she’s always been a star in his eyes. The lesson obviously sticks, because the final spread sees the now grown up girl on her way to the moon as an astronaut. This final image, my friends, is a kicker.

Briony May Smith’s artwork is joyful. It’s very calm and quiet; round, thick lines, with the constant evocation of something other in that dark sky, blues and blacks and dotted with pinprick sharp stars. She’s got something of a serene quality to the spreads too, a sort of timelessness that’s not going to allow this book to date. I really loved one spread in particular which depicts big sisters and little sisters across the world, using a variety of skin tones, cultures and costumes, yet all of them connected by the quiet consistency of line and shade. It’s subtle and yet delightful. My only sadness with this book is that it needs endpapers; there’s space for something exuberant here, particularly after that end note of the book, and without them, there’s an unfinished note in the music of the book.

So let’s talk about confidence again. What Stardust does is it models a situation of empowerment for the reader; the grandfather who believes in her, and the little girl who grows up, becomes an astronaut and flies to the moon. It is powerful stuff, and it’s perfect for anyone who feels a little wobbly with life. Adult, child, dog, cat, whatever, whoever. This is generous, powerful work and it’s hard to not be moved by it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Diary of a Tokyo Teen : Christine Mari Inzer

Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid CafesDiary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something immensely charming about this slender yet lovely memoir of a trip that Inzer took to Tokyo by herself at the age of sixteen. Diary of A Tokyo Teen documents this trip and captures those moments when the Japanese-American Inzer begins to understand and rationalise her place in the world as somebody who is, as she phrases it, always”halfway home”.

I picked this up on Amazon, pushing a gift voucher to the very edges as is the way with such things, and I was delighted by it. There’s an undoubted naivete to some of Inzer’s work; a few of her panels feel a little isolated and disjointed, but it’s easy to forgive this when you consider the book as a whole. There’s such a rich sense of heart here; thick and emphatic lines, fat and bold colours and some utterly delightful glances into the Japanese culture. What’s also delightful is that Inzer does not deny her perspective as a teenager. This book crackles with honesty, whether it’s wishing that the hotties on the train would look up from their phones or to doodling a cartoon face over hers on a photograph.

This is early stuff from Inzer, but it’s full of promise and joy. It’s hard to deny the richness of her work and I suspect, hope, she’s got immense things to come for her in the future. Diary of a Tokyo Teen is a delight, and one that I suspect might be inspirational.

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Malibu Summer – Sweet Valley High: Francine Pascal

Malibu Summer (Sweet Valley High Super Edition, #4)Malibu Summer by Francine Pascal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been a long while since I read a Sweet Valley book, and even longer since I’ve seen the TV adaptation, but I’ve got neither out of my head. There’s something about these books that I’ve grouped with something like The Babysitters Club, Bug Juice, and A Horse Called Wonder, those stories and shows of glossy sunlit Americana that did nothing but appeal to somebody who was more familiar with rain and bare, grey days. And the TV show! That theme tune! Could there be two different girls who look the same as Sweet Valley High ?! These are my madeleines, Proust, deal with it.

The delight of the Sweet Valley books comes in their matter of fact bluntness; they are what they are and they make no bones about it. Elizabeth is sensible, Jessica is not. Everyone is incredibly foxy, and spend much of their day foxing about the beach or foxing at the shops, looking foxily at beautiful and expensive yet foxy clothes. There’s usually some sort of slender moral, but mainly there’s foxiness, and it’s oddly spectacular. We, the adults, the patriarchy, whatever, we often denigrate books like this, all too easily, because we’re simply not comfortable with the fact that there’s a space for romance and simple, bold brushstrokes in young adult literature. In young adult life, really. We laugh at the way people obsess over bands, and find comfort in fandoms, when really these are all just facets of life and have no reason to not be in literature. I will fight you, Britishly, with severe looks and tutting, if you suggest that they should not be.

Malibu Summer is spectacularly unapologetic in doing what it does: there’s romance, several jaw-dropping subplots, some delightfully nutty nuance on Lila’s choice of swimming costume, and I loved it. Yes, certain aspects may have dated at this point, but as a whole the book is wonderful. Nothing makes sense. Everything glows. Everyone is foxy. Everyone gets a job or a hottie or some sort of moral fulfillment. It’s brilliant. I loved it. What a ridiculous, gorgeous, honest book this is.

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The Secret Of the Old Clock : Carolyn Keene

The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, #1)The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to consider just how old this series is now. The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the mythic Nancy Drew series, was originally published in 1930 with a substantial revision in 1959. That’s a fair while, even for me who quite enjoys the more ancient side of children’s literature. Yet this edition of The Secret of The Old Clock is fresh, breezy and reads rather as if it could have been written yesterday. There’s still a space for this ferociously girl-positive novel, even when you pause to consider and dissect its Blytonian morals and broad paintbrush approach to society’s morals.

Nancy Drew herself is a delightfully persistent girl with nothing better to do than wander around and solve mysteries, and occasionally deliver papers to her father’s clients. She’s one of those characters that makes a thousand points of sense within a book and yet, outside of it, is so rampantly confusing that you can’t quite figure out where to begin. But you believe her, and this book takes you with her, every step along the way. Yes, The Secret of The Old Clock blithely trots from crisis to crisis and Nancy skips from problem to resolution without barely messing up her hair, but you do not stop reading. It’s kind of fascinating to realise how purely, vividly readable this book still is.

As I said earlier, there’s a space for Nancy Drew in the contemporary world of children’s literature and that space is this: alongside Robin Stevens, Clementine Beauvais, Katherine Woodfine, because Nancy is still awesome. Horrendous, too, in a myriad of ways, but underneath it all, still pretty fabulous.

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Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

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