The Yellow Room : Jess Vallance

The Yellow RoomThe Yellow Room by Jess Vallance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from this. I picked it up because of the cover, and for some reason came home from the library with a handful of yellow books. Perhaps colour-based selection will be my new method when I’m not sure what to get; after all, it worked perfectly here. This is a hell of a book and it is surprising. It’s not often that I get to use that about a thriller because we are so familiar with what they do. We are trained to look for twists and turns and lies and deceit but sometimes a book just throws itself in a direction that you don’t expect. And when it does it well, oh that’s a good moment indeed.

The Yellow Room is outstanding.

The central protagonist, Anna, received a letter from her father’s girlfriend, Edie. It is unexpected: her father is dead, and Edie would like to meet her. The two start to form a close relationship and Edie provides much of the mothering that Anna lacks and needs – her own mother is preoccupied with work, and their relationship is deeply fractured. Yet Edie has problems and secrets of her own;, and secrets always have a way of being found out…

Vallance’s writing is calm and controlled and wickedly strong. It’s hard to write something like this because the temptation is to strew it with Conscious Things That You Should Pay Attention To. Vallance doesn’t do this; she laces her work with a sort of conscious believeablity throughout and everything that is within it is sort of normal and okay and then, when the shifts come and Things Happen, you sort of can’t process it because it’s so out of the blue and yet, in a way, it was there all along. That is an awful sentence but it’s the nearest I can come towards conveying the experience of this book. The last third, in particular, is vital and tense and brilliant.

I also loved how Vallance didn’t seek the easy way out. I’m starting to cleave towards these texts that treat every individual within them as human. Adults, child, all of them. No character left behind, no character placed in just as a cardboard cut out. Everyone has motivation, depth and when they do the things they do it is understandable. It is sympathetic, even when they are awful and unconscionable things. Give me depth, and I will follow you to the moon and back. I really will.

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The State of Grace : Rachael Lucas

The State of GraceThe State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace, the titular heroine of The State of Grace, has Aspergers. She also has a horse, and a boy that she sort of likes but doesn’t quite know how to act with. Coupled with this her dad is on long work trips overseas, her mother is starting to act weird, and her sister has secrets of her own, there’s a lot going on. Throw in a horse, some nice little nerdy in-jokes, and you’ve got quite a charming story driven by an intense sense of heart. I liked The State Of Grace. It’s a little messy, a little tumbly, a little disjointed, but unerringly driven by a sense of love and a determination to let Grace tell her story.

I really appreciate Lucas for centring Aspergers within this. People look for reflections of themselves within literature, and even more so when it comes to children and young adult. Whether that’s a drive driven by the adults or the young readers themselves is a debate for another time, but it happens. It’s one of the most consistent questions I get asked, irrespective of context. “Do you have a book about…?” Where The State Of Grace shines is both in its frankness of discussing Aspergers but also in the additional material at the back which covers more about the issue.

I also really loved the horse element in this. Grace has an Arab called Mabel, and that’s something we don’t often see in contemporary young adult. Her relationship with Mabel is sensitively told, and gives Grace both a sense of power and responsibility. It comes towards the fore at the end of the book and though I won’t spoil the incident in question, the reaction on Grace’s part is immensely true to life.

Tonally, The State of Grace has a lot to pay back towards the old Pullein-Thompson books but also towards a modern sort of romance vibe. It’s very genuine and somewhat innocent in feel, but really sort of determinedly charming with that. I liked this. Also, on a slightly tangential note, I would definitely welcome more male representation in texts of this nature. I really hope The State Of Grace signifies the start of that movement and of that discussion.

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Wuthering Heights : Emily Brontë

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s odd, sometimes, how a book holds a consciousness in your brain before you have ever read a single page of it. Wuthering Heights is embedded somewhere in there, somewhere near Kate Bush and somewhere near the moorland that turns to grey and steel on an Autumn morning.

A while back I read my first ever Jane Austen. I have now read my first ever Brontë. These aren’t books that sit comfortably within my world; I am somebody who reads a lot, but I, as everyone does, have my grooves. So I went to Emily and to Wuthering Heights, prompted somewhat by To Walk Invisible in the hope to finally read a Brontë and to step out of those grooves once more. It’s good to do that every now and then.

So.

How long can I put off telling you what I thought about this book?

Everyone is horrible. Everyone is horrible and Northern with a capital By ‘Eck (I am Northern and stuggled substantially with the dialect of the novel), and everyone just gets horribler (forgive me, but it’s the only way I can express it) throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. It also somewhat baffles me as to how I had grouped Heathcliff in ‘Fictional Attractive Gentlemen Whom Everyone Has A Crush On’ because he too is hideous. And the dog thing! I admit that I got to a point with Wuthering Heights where I grabbed the nearest person to me and said, “Do you know what’s gone on now?” and told them and then we discussed how on earth that sort of thing goes on and then the weather and the buses, for we are British and that is what we do.

I shall take a deep breath now, and restore a semblance of normality to this novel. Emily Brontë can write, undoubtedly. She burns with this sort of wild anger and love, so often the same thing here, and her description of landscape is superb. Ineffably so. These are lived in moors and known spaces; and I think it is in those moments that the novel worked for me. I write about the representation of landscape in my thesis and so it is a topic close to my heart. The setting of a scene can tell you everything before anyone has even opened their mouths.

But Heathcliff is not a hottie. Everyone else is moronic. Everything else is angry.

This isn’t a book about love, not really.

It’s a book about selfishness. It’s a book about locking the door and locking the world far away, and for me, as a reader located within that world, I felt invasive. Wuthering Heights screams to be read and fights, furiously, to hold its story to itself. Perhaps that’s it, right there. Perhaps that’s it.

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A Library of Lemons : Jo Cotterill

A Library of LemonsA Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is a beautiful day and I would like to talk to you about beautiful things. I would like to talk to you about quiet and gentle and sympathetic and kind books and A Library Of Lemons is all of that and so much more.

I have a lot of time for Jo Cotterill. I adored Looking At The Stars, a wise and sensitive and graceful book about living in the worst of times, and I loved A Library Of Lemons. Absolutely, furiously, painfully loved it.

Calypso and her dad live alone in their big, dusty house. Her mother died, and they don’t really talk about it. Instead, Calypso’s dad preaches the values of inner strength and self-reliance and then mainly just locks himself away to work on his book. There’s never any food in the fridge, and Calypso is forced to look after herself. A lot. She withdraws into her love of books and fiction and the gap between her and her dad seems to widen. The arrival of a new girl at school, Mae, changes that. Calypso and Mae become friends. And, upon seeing how life can be in a normal house, Calypso starts to realise that her and her Dad have some serious problems to address.

I talk a lot about kindness in middle grade fiction because I think it’s a very important element to consider. It’s not that I want everything to be hugs and roses because nothing is. It’s more that I want the awareness of people being people, and that not everything in the world is as cut and dry as people being good and people being bad. People are people. And I think to realise that; to portray adults as fallible, to portray children as participants within a world that isn’t black and white, and to do that kindly is an immense gift. Cotterill writes stories that don’t leave people behind. Everyone earns their space and fills it, and it’s all done in such a subtle, nuanced way that is remarkable.

One thing to note about A Library Of Lemons is that it deals with some very serious issues, including bereavement, grieving, depression and young carers. It does all of this in a very gentle, honest way that I suspect would be immensely helpful to those needing to articulate such issues and I would immensely recommend it to those working in such a context. But, as ever, please read it yourself beforehand. I always say this because it’s vital to know a book and the issues it touches upon before dealing with it in a sensitive context. Plus, it is a joy. A Library Of Lemons is one of those books that reaches out to those on the edge of society and pulls them back in. And I think that is something rather beautiful indeed.

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Prisoner of Night & Fog : Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1)Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Prisoner of Night and Fog is set in extraordinary, awful times. It’s 1930s Munich and Gretchen Müller has grown up under the protection of her Uncle ‘Dolf’. ‘Dolf’ is Adolf Hitler and Gretchen is his beloved pet. The daughter of a Nazi martyr, Gretchen has been bought up in the parties ideology. Yet one day she meets a Jewish reporter, Daniel Cohen, who tells her that her father was not martyred. He was murdered – by somebody in the party. Together, Gretchen and Daniel set out to discover just what happened to her father….

It’s the story that got me with this. There’s something incredible here, but I don’t think Prisoner of Night and Fog quite manages to follow through on the vivid, awful truth. Though several characters are identified as fictional, many aren’t and Gretchen comes into contact with a wide range of actual people. Hitler. Rohm. Eva Braun. Angela “Geli” Raubal. It’s a vivid context and one that should make a young adult novel burn. I’m not sure that this one does that. There’s a lot of running from one plot point to another, which becomes oddly repetitive, and Gretchen herself is somewhat toneless.

Sometimes I recommend novels more for the context of what they deal with. I do think Prisoner of Night and Fog is worth a read because the setting and the historical narrative is fascinating. I suspect in a way that it might have worked better were the novel itself less safe. That’s an odd thing to say in the context, and bear with me for a second whilst I explain it.

Let’s say ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch and gets up again’.

Now, let’s say something like: ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch, and then the table eats her.’

It’s a farcical example but I’m trying to make the point that sometimes a narrative needs to startle and snap when you least expect it. And when it doesn’t, and when I’m longing for it to be brave and reckless and unpredictable and it doesn’t – then I end up feeling somewhat disappointed. There’s a big story here and it’s one that would sing in young adult work; Prisoner of Night and Fog makes a good attempt at telling that story, but doesn’t quite succeed.

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The Girl’s Companion (ed.) Mary A. Carson

The Girl's CompanionThe Girl’s Companion by Mary A. Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to tell you how much I love this book. I think we begin with what it this book is; it’s a fairly solid text split into a series of chapters, covering a range of things that Respectable Girls might like to do with their free time. I love books like this because, quite often in their very dry way, they reveal much more about the world than they think. Think about why we don’t have them now really or, if we do, how we don’t easily embrace such extremely gendered dynamics. And if we do write them, then what do we have in them? What’s the thing that we think girls should know? And why do we think that girls should know them?

‘The Girl’s Companion’ has some delightful moments. Split into a series of different sections beginning with ‘indoor arts, crafts and hobbies’ through to ‘the social side’ and the great ‘yeah I ran out of titles’ section known as ‘miscellaneous’, each section then covers things ranging from insect collecting through to lawn tennis and how to change a washer on a tap.

There are some moments of delightful eclecticism. The chapter talking about camping calmly suggests meals such as toad in the hole, and steamed puddings. The illustrations in the gymnastics sessions detail a girl in sensible pinafore (with a tie!) undertaking exercise ranging from bars through to rings, never quite once being allowed to crack a smile. I adore them. I could live forever on illustrations that break down netball into blithe ‘this’ and ‘not this’ instructions. Here’s a few of my favourites that I tweeted..

I think the great wild peak of The Girl’s Companion comes in the riding chapter. It’s written by the legendary Primrose Cumming and the opening paragraph is a thing of utter and somewhat mad joy. I love it. Like I said, these books tell you so much more than they think they do. And in the instance of the riding chapter, it tells you all about the adventures of you and your new horse.

Named Barry.

(Oh ‘The Girl’s Companion’, let me count the way I love you!).

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Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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