Last Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

Last Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #6)Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s maybe three or four books locked up in this finale to the Malory Towers series, three or four other stories waiting to be told in this tale of pace and speed and so important moments are lost in chapters, and characters are written in and out with that characteristic Blyton panache. This book is so much bigger than what it is and so, it is both disappointing and perfect.

Blyton is a writer who is determined that you shall have a good time. In writing about this before, I have described it as a ferocious readability. She is so very determined to have speed and pace and addiction that sometimes the finer points of her writing go aside. This isn’t a space for high literature or post-modern musings on life, but it does not mean that Last Term At Malory Towers is not full of something rather delicious and rather wonderful. This series is perhaps Blyton at her best; ferocious, stark, fearless, and to truly understand that, it’s vital to place these books within a context. They are school stories; a genre defined by rules and limitations, and yet each and every story of this series involves girls questioning and challenging those rules. Very subtly, Blyton is teaching the value of independence and the option of alternative options of womanhood. Nurse, mother, riding school owner, writer. Be what you should be, not what you have to be.

And Last Term at Malory Towers doesn’t skimp from that. Blyton is unstinting and swift in her justice; she is severe, sharp, but always understandable . That person has done wrong so they must be punished. This person has done right so they will get a positive outcome. It’s blunt, unsparing, but it is the ideology that marks Blyton’s work.

I’m always reminded with Blyton of another quote I’ve come across in my research: “If a whole age appears critically naive and subliterary in its tastes when judged against a later standard, then the standard, not the age is called into question” (From The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction fact fans). That’s Blyton, right there. Question the standard and distinguish that standard. Don’t deny the great achievement that these books were in their time. And, I suppose, don’t deny that these books with their defiant air of completion and satisfactory plot resolutions, don’t mean anything. Last Term at Malory Towers is a complex, frustrating, wonderful, moving, challenging and ferociously readable book. In a way, it couldn’t ever be anything but.

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The Riddlemaster : Kevin Crossley-Holland & Stéphane Jorisch

The RiddlemasterThe Riddlemaster by Kevin Crossley-Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was intrigued to receive this review copy from the publisher; Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I’ve had a strange relationship with. I admire his writing, greatly, yet often feel quite distanced from it when reading. When spoken though, or performed, I would wed it in a heartbeat. Language is strange like that, it shifts depending on the space it is. This is how I write here, tentatively, reaching my way into this review, but speaking – ? No. Difference. Form, space – content. Language shifts; writing is not speaking, speaking is not writing, but then sometimes, writing is all things and all things are writing. A world of contradiction caught in a few quick dashes on the paper, and held as tight as a kite string in a wicked Autumn storm.

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“I’ve got a riddle,” spat Wildcat.

The Riddlemaster holds the key to a marvellous island, full of treasure. In order to get to the island, Anouk, Ben and Cara must solve seven riddles. If they don’t solve them, they face the grim fate of being eaten by the animals on the boat; “Beast, and Wildcat, and Wolf, the three Bears, and Dragon / surrounded the three children. They licked their lips.” The children manage to solve the riddles and eventually arrive on an island full of stories: “So now you’re ready to meet the islanders and they’re all / waiting to share their stories with you. Anansi and Anne of Green Gables, Ali Baba and Arthur ….” The final scene sees the children racing excitedly onto a island full of books, and the land scored with letters from the alphabet.

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“Again Wolf, and Wildcat, and the three Bears, and Beast, and Dragon pressed round the three children. They licked their lips and bared their teeth.”

Though I found a few of the moments between the pages jarring (a book like this lives on rhythm and sometimes that rhythm skipped) and would have happily pared down several paragraphs, there is much to enjoy in The Riddlemaster. It’s a paean to stories and libraries and I see some substantial opportunities for related play and activities with it. I also applaud the way it flirts quite happily with disaster; the children are almost eaten several times when they almost can’t quite figure out the riddle in time. Crossley-Holland’s skill in strong, powerful language remains deeply pronounced and rather lovely: “Cara blew out her cheeks like a teapot” and “The boat’s mast was a soaring word-tree. It had thousands and thousands of leaves and each fluttering leaf had one word painted on it.”

Where this book absolutely sings is in Stéphane Jorisch’s illustrations. Jorisch gives us a tapestry of almost medieval characters; those twisting, fanciful half-dreamt, half-believed outlines of animals and characters that twist into each other and curve around the page. His children are perfect; three distinct, diverse characters, and they’re each rendered with such movement that they’re a delight. These thin washes of colour, dark and light, thin and fat, balance deliciously against the white background of the page, and it’s a delight. I want a wordless picturebook from Jorisch because there’s so much in his work; the question of a line, the expression of doubt in his finger. It’s the artwork that pulls this book together for me; great dreamy, fantastical washes, and movement filled lines. I need to find out more about Jorisch.

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Maid of the Abbey : Elsie J. Oxenham

Maid of the Abbey (The Abbey Girls, #28)Maid of the Abbey by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m so intermittent with the Abbey Girls that it always takes me a moment to orientate myself and figure out where I am in the series. Is Maidlin old or young? Is Joy a muppet or vaguely appealing? Is Mary Dorothy around and just which cook called Anne is it? Has Rosamund had her ‘fifteen children within two weeks’ yet?

Having orientated my way through that period of adjustment, I then always find the Abbey books a little – saturated. I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe them, and I’m very certainly not meaning that they’re damp, so let me try to explain what I mean. Perhaps another word will show itself as I do so. My heart belongs with the raw edge of the Chalet School, that moment where it could be searing or hideous; the unfinished moment of books that teeter wildly on the edge of brilliance or fall into utter tedium. There’s not much of an in between in Brent-Dyer’s world; these books are wonderful and they are lovely or they are Althea.

The Abbey books don’t have that unfinished edge for me. They’re rounder, and glossier, but they don’t have that sense of trepidation. That nervous unknown edge of what might lie behind the corner. That’s what I mean by saturated; it’s all too bright, too colourful. It’s a world without fear, without edge. Maybe that’s because of the books I’ve read, and the way I’ve read them. Journey toward literature often means as much as the literature itself.

But then, here I am recommending a book that makes my theoretical side twitch, that makes all of that that I have spoken about come forth, here I am giving it five stars and here I am about to rave about the very things I have marked out as problems. Maid of the Abbey is lovely. It’s gorgeous. If it were a Friends episode, it would be The One Where Maidlin Gets Married Off And Everything Is Perfect. Oxenham has this great unease with letting her gifted and talented characters exist in isolation (something I wrote about, slightly rubbishly, aeons ago here). Marriage is the ultimate goal, in this world defined by women and inter-female relationships, and it makes me itch but I don’t care here, because this book is lovely.

Oxenham writes with just a wildly entrancing verve; this is a thick slice of cake and slippers by the fire sort of a book. It’s just good, comforting, warm literature. I loved it. I really did. And I think Maid Of The Abbey shows that skill at its best; Maidlin is married off, yes, and we all fawn around Joy for reasons I am yet to figure out, but we do all of this because the writing is so convinced that this is the best thing for these characters. Authorial drive. Love, really. And to go against that, to stand up against that sheer tide of certainty and rich, delicious, writing – I can’t. Not now. Not today.

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Killing the Dead : Marcus Sedgwick

Killing the DeadKilling the Dead by Marcus Sedgwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently picked up a batch of old World Book Day titles from my local second hand bookshop. World Book Day, for those of who are unaware of what that means, publishes a series of slim novella-esque titles each year for the princely sum of £1. Schoolchildren are given £1 booktokens and thus able to select their own choice from the range of titles on offer. It’s a lovely scheme and, for many, their first chance at ‘owning’ their own book.

Killing The Dead was one of the 2015 titles and it is one that forms a companion piece, of sorts, to Sedgwick’s wild and big The Ghosts of Heaven. Set in an exclusive girl’s boarding school in the 1960s, each chapter is delivered from a different perspective and explores the aftermath of a girl’s death by the “dark, dark water”. Sedgwick’s writing is deliciously wild and untrammeled, as ever, although admittedly it is slow to work here. When the novella shifts up a gear, as it does after the first few chapters, the whole narrative starts to thrum with the delicious note of story; girls and secrets and lies and hidden spirals that connect them all to each other and to the “ghosts of heaven”.

The ending of Killing The Dead, that great final, piercing end of the spiral, is sharp and painful and beautifully written. I’m starting to wonder if Sedgwick is one of those authors who has endings; some writers sing in the beginning, but fade away, or deliver half-formed endings with the madly annoying promise of ‘to be continued’. Sedgwick is one of those authors who delivers gutpunch endings; piercing, bright, brilliant endings that leave me breathless.

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Oxford, The Story Museum and Alice’s Day

Due to the eternal loveliness of my long suffering family, I got to spend the weekend in Oxford. There was a particular rationale behind being there for this weekend: the 4th July commemorates the the day that Charles Dodgson told a story to Alice Liddell and her sisters, and the Saturday nearest to that date sees Oxford turn into Wonderland for the day – “Alice’s Day”. The event, run by the Story Museum and held there and in venues across the city has been on my wishlist for a while. And this year, reader, I did it.

The Story Museum is gorgeous. Really, it is. I appreciate I come from a very nerdy and quite niche perspective, but there’s something intensely magical about a space that is working very directly towards children and allowing them to own that space. Exhbitis are low, pitched for interactivity, and there’s signs everywhere of an organisation that wants children to become involved. I don’t think there’s many places where one can have a conversation with volunteers along the lines of “Have you seen Wonderland?” “No, but I’ve been to Animal?” “Come back when you’ve Been To Bed and we’ll take you to Wonderland.”. There’s some intense pleasures to be found in this higgledy piggledy colourful  building; Narnia’s hidden away in one corner, Philip Pullman’s sketches of the chapter headings to Northern Lights are in another whilst in a third, Katherine Rundell’s on the TV talking beautifully about wolves. It’s beautiful.

I have to share with you a further example of how great the Story Museum is (and it is one, I fear, that might be a bit more information than you require – but skip, gentle reader, if needs be!). The ladies toilets were three cubicles: one was big enough for a parent and child to get in, and even involved a little toy toilet (though I didn’t check if it actually worked!), a toilet with raised seat and grab arms for those in need of mobility help, alongside a third toilet cubicle. Such things I know are a little strange to tell you about but for me, they’re very important. They speak of care for detail and of a care for sharing their message and ethos with everyone. Accessibility, equality, openness. You can tell everything about somewhere by their toilets, I think.
But, enough about toilets! Back to Alice’s Day and the great joy of seeing a city flip into somewhere unexpected. Alice was everywhere, from tiny blue-dressed children dancing a lobster quadrille in the courtyard (adorable) through to seeing a white rabbit peddling bubbles in the street through to seeing a giant Alice ‘walk’ slowly around the Radcliffe Camera or finding the Cheshire Cat in the Botanic Gardens; this is story spilling out in the city and I was exhausted and I was exhilarated and I love it. If you’re an Alice fan you have to visit; there’s something so wonderful about the entire day.

 

 

And I can’t tell you how much I almost cried at everything; there’s something so perfect about hearing children insist that they’re called ‘Alice’ (I checked, she wasn’t actually called Alice) and seeing families dance along to horn bands. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Go next year if you can. Trust me, it’s worth it. Maybe we should all dress up for it wherever we are. Wonderland for everyone. Anyway, I’m rambling because I’m still in love with everything, so I’ll finish this post here. Here are some pictures and this is the end of my tail…..

 

 

 

A brief bit of housekeeping

Consider this the blogging equivalent of the part of the conference where people tell you where the fire exits are located and what the plans are for lunch…

  • The index of authors is now up to date. Want to see if I’ve reviewed a particular author? Check here first 
  • The about me section has been updated. This also now includes a handy e-mail me link. Talk to me if you think I can help you out with anything (unpaid, paid, exchange of respective mutual admiration..).
  • The FAQ / About section is also a bit clearer.
  • I’m looking to increase my publication credits elsewhere. That means, if you’d like to rent-a-critic / librarian / general all round body on children’s literary manners, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

And now , about that lunch ….:)

Europe, Brexit and children’s literature

I think it was this morning  that this post finally came into some sort of focus for me. I believe, very much, in children’s literature and the ability for it to tell stories that cannot be told in any other way. I also believe that sometimes we need literature, books, to be our poles in times when there’s nothing else to hang on. It’s an airy, intangible statement to make, but it’s true. Stories give us hope. Storying gives us hope. You only have to look at the context behind some of the great pieces of literature; the stories of authors and of the writing, to find the great hope that lies behind the act of writing words down on a page and believing, knowing, needing them to be read one day.

(A friend over lunch: I feel like I’m not wanted here)

I voted Remain on Thursday and ever since, I’ve felt a little twist of discomfort in my stomach, a great unease at the state of my country. I am English. I am British. I am European. I am a citizen of the world, of the worlds. I have a foothold in Narnia, a foothold in the Chalet School, and I’m proudly a fan of esoteric English boarding school stories until the day I die. None of those identities are mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct. I voted remain.

(A parent on the bus: how do I tell my child about something that I don’t understand?)

These are some of the resources I have come across over the last few days which may be of assistance to those of you who have or are working with young people and children. Sita Brahmachari and the Guardian have been collating books to ‘help young people find hope and strength in these unsettled times’. Nosy Crow posted a wonderful blog post on their stance post-Brexit. In light of the nature of the voting demographics articles like this top 10 list of political books to inspire action or this Goodreads list of Political YA fiction might be of interest. This storify from last year on political reads might also be of interest.

(A friend on Facebook : this was my home)

(And here, I blog in answer : it still is, you are needed, you are wanted, you are home).