Fanfic : M*A*S*H / Chalet School

I had one of those days recently where I wanted to write something different. That different turned out to be fanfic and, in particular, the oddly specific pairing of M*A*S*H and the Chalet School. I was interested to see if I could make it work, if I could scratch that odd little tingle of an idea and turn it into something else. Fanfic has always had that appeal to me of being a stretch in language; and this proved to exercise some peculiarly distinct muscles. I’ll add it in at the bottom of this post.

Here’s a link as well to an appropriately seasonal, and somewhat fanfiction-esque, story that was in the news this week. Turns out JRR Tolkien was also Father Christmas in his spare time.… If you’re in Oxford, between June and September next year, I suspect this might be an exhibition to visit. If you do, please tell me ALL about it.

Here’s the piece I wrote:-

‘And all around me, they die’

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The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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Egyptomania : Emma Giuliani and Carole Saturno

EgyptomaniaEgyptomania by Carole Saturno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something very good has been happening in children’s non-fiction over the past few years. This is something to add to that realm of good things. Big, bold and rather deliciously put together, Egyptomania is a look at several key aspects of Ancient Egypt. Where this book differs is that it’s a hybrid of fact and papercraft; nearly every page has a fold out or a tag to explore further.

It’s a beautiful book. Giuliani’s artwork is wonderful; clean, big and rather wonderful, ranging over topics such as temples, pharoahs and the ever-appealing mummification rituals. The mummification page in fact is one of the best in this book, and allows the reader to quite literally peel back the layers of the mummy and discover the processes which have helped to create it. It’s very nicely done, and one of those spreads that makes you realise the benefit of papercraft in a non-fiction book like this.

I would have welcomed a slightly more robust paper quality here, but I do recognise that there’s a balance to be made between the level of engineering that’s gone into making this work and the final price point. Having said that however, in the hands of a careful reader this book’s a gem. It’s distinct, it’s interesting, and it’s genuinely very beautifully done.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Freshers : Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

FreshersFreshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Messy, chaotic, and laugh out loud funny, this is something rather joyous. A dual narrative, crafted by dual writers, Freshers was one of the most refreshing, honest and wildly moving young adult novels I’ve read for a while. There was the slight plus of it being set in ‘York Met’, a thinly veiled University of York with aggressive geese and Betty’s making cameo appearances, but that’s really just the icing on top of the cake.

Not many young adult books head into university. This isn’t a new thing; I work a lot with girls’ school stories, and a common critique is that they don’t deal with their girls once they’ve left school. There sort of is nothing beyond the school. And whilst a lot of that reflects the fact that, thanks to *cough* the patriarchal system of values that they were about to enter there was no future *cough*, it’s also an absence that’s ripe to explore. Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellis do it justice. Beyond justice. They hit on all the big points of those first few weeks of the university experience; bad sex, bad food, bad decisions, some of the best friends you’ll ever make, and then pack it with a little bit more.

And then, just in case you’ve not had enough, there is the most beautifully wonderful usage of Brie within a book that I think I’ve ever seen.

Freshers somehow manages to stay away from the obvious, and the cliche, and rings all the truer for that. It hits all the high points – and the low points – that university is. This is kind of special.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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Joey Goes To The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

(Forgive me, but I’m on a Chalet School kick at the moment… 🙂 )

Joey Goes to the Oberland (The Chalet School, #33)Joey Goes to the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s not my favourite this one, and yet it’s still oddly hypnotic and occasionally rather lovely. Set outside of the school, Joey and her family are moving house. They are to set up in Switzerland and inevitable highjinks will occur before they arrive there. Some of the highjinks are a little more convincing than others (oh my gosh they forgot the macs! wait, they bought some macs!). There is a special place in my heart for the fifteen hundred pages discussing the bathing arrangements in an antiquated French chateau, and yet it’s still delightful. Tedious but delightful. Ridiculous, yet beautiful. Inane, and yet delightful.

This is just past halfway in the series and we’re not far enough into the madness for the wonder of those early books to have been lost. Miss Ferrars and her speedboat remains on the horizon, and sometimes, suddenly, when Simone pulls rank on Joey, or when Robin’s around, everything in this book absolutely sings. Talking of Robin as well, she gets palmed off to the convent a little too quickly for my liking. There’s a lot that happens ‘off-stage’ in this book, to be reported back to the reader after it happened, and I can’t decide whether that’s awful writing or, having not read the unabridged edition, the distinct skill of the Armada editing team.

Also, the language here is peculiar; every other chapter title features the word ‘Surprise’, and Joey’s family is repeatedly referred to as the ‘brats’. Forgive me if I’m forgetful here, but I honestly don’t remember this reoccurring in any of the other books and it’s an odd choice here. Jo’s a lot of things (she says, backing away slightly from listing them all) but I never have her down as somebody who’d call her kids brats.

Also, then there’s the sandwich thing. *looks at camera*

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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