Mapping Room 13 by Robert Swindells

I’m looking at Room 13 by Robert Swindells at the moment as part of my PhD. It’s one of the books I hope to reference and work with in some depth as I look at literary tourism in the United Kingdom. Room 13 is one of those greatly plotted and written books that it’s a pleasure to work with so I thought I’d share the first stage of this research.

What is below is a map of Room 13. There are several different layers which detail the various events and journies of the book; the key events are higlighted in green stars, the location (approximate) of the Crow’s Nest is picked out and the locations of other key events are also detailed on the map.

So what does this show? Well, it’s early days, but what it does tell us is that if you wanted to go on holiday to Whitby and relive the journey of Fliss and her friends, you could do so quite easily. (Though I’d recommend doing it without the whole scary ‘sorting out Room 13′ bit, right?). But what it also is starting to show me is something about the linearity of the plot, the tightly controlled narrative and the subtle interweaving of the Important plot elements along with the Everyday plot. It’s a piece of plot mastery, really, this slim immense book and what it creates is, very much, this unsettling air of the everyday. The world of Room 13 is unnerving precisely because so much of it occurs in the ‘normal’ everyday space of Whitby.

As I said, it’s early days, but one of the key aims I want (and have always wanted to do) is share some of this research with you when and where I can. Hence map. Enjoy :-)

Where was Wonderland? A Traveller’s Guide to the Setting of Classic Children’s Books : Frank Barrett

Where Was Wonderland?: A Traveller's Guide To The Settings Of Classic Children's BooksWhere Was Wonderland?: A Traveller’s Guide To The Settings Of Classic Children’s Books by Frank Barrett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My reading of the slim canon of children’s literary tour guides (the others I’ve come across are listed here) continues with ‘Where Was Wonderland?'; a quick, problematic and yet strangely appealing read.

Written in 1997 and suffering, awfully, from the passage of time (the chapter on Dick King-Smith offers the painful titbit that tourists may be able to see the author at his local agricultural shows), Where Was Wonderland is structured in a similar manner to its contemporaries. Each chapter deals with a specific book – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘Watership Down’ and so on before deviating wildly from this established UK based discourse with two chapters on ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘The Little Prince’ respectively.

Each chapter offers a recap of the relevant story, a brief biography of the author and then a suggested tour for readers to follow. Quite charmingly, the tours themselves are usually accompanied with hand-drawn maps which are probably the book’s biggest selling points. It’s a quick, transitory read without these maps but with them, gains an oddly appealing element that distinguishes itself from its peers.

‘Where was Wonderland’ does adhere quite ruthlessly to the rules, if we can call them that, established by its contemporaries in the genre. The selection of texts is consciously established as being of, and dealing with, classic children’s books but then includes chapters such as ‘Rob Roy’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Cider with Rosie’ which slightly sit at odd with this. It’s interesting in that with guides of this nature they do tend to reflect a very personal agenda (I know, for example, should I write one, I’d be tempted to do it all in Austria and be terribly self-indulgent about it all).

Whilst acknowledging that is vital and quite understandable, it’s also worthwhile considering the impact of that bias upon the book itself. What is this a guide too? Is it a guide to the classic children’s books that can be ‘found’ in real life? Is it a guide to texts that have an established geographical context? Or is it, rather, a guide to texts that have impacted upon the author and thus created this situated response of their own, manifested in the geography of our lived-in existence? Or is it me, perhaps, who’s reading these from my own context and affixing this personal context and subtext to these guides in a way that I’d never do with, say, the Rough Guide to Paris?

I don’t know, yet, but I do know that these odd niche tributes to children’s literature and their roots in the real world remain vividly appealing to me in a way that perhaps not many other books are. They feel symptomatic, somehow, of our hope in literature and of our faith in reading and that will never not call to me.

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Arsenic for Tea : Robin Stevens

Arsenic for Tea (Wells and Wong, #2)Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a little in awe of Stevens’ debut in this series, the rather glorious and as good as Christmas Murder Most Unladylike, and so when Arsenic For Tea came onto NetGalley, I did a tiny shriek of joy. And by tiny, I mean rather substantial.

Arsenic For Tea is a joy. A multi-layered sandwich cake of joy. There’s really very little else to be said other than this book is gorgeous and it’s something rather special.

It is the second in the Wells and Wong series; Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, schoolgirl detectives, are at Daisy’s house for the holiday and as it’s Daisy’s birthday, the whole family and a couple of extras are invited along for a birthday tea of splendid proportions. However – it’s a birthday party that somebody won’t see the end of.

A closed house mystery; a party of people, all with their reasons for doing the deed, stuck in the house together due to bad weather. Somebody has something to confess – and it’s down to the Detective Society to solve their second case before something very bad happens.

Glorious, really, a book where the stakes are high and the mystery wraps around them a little tighter with each step taken. Daisy and Hazel remain a delight (Hazel’s little revealing one-liners are a joy), and the supporting cast remains ineffably perfect (Lord Hastings – Daisy’s father, Felix and Miss Alston all provide particular highs).

Sometimes, with a second book in a series, there’s always that risk of ‘second book syndrome’. Will it be as good? Will you still like it as much as you did the first time round? Will the characters have grown or will it be a pale rehash of the first?

Arsenic For Tea feels stronger, somehow, and deeper too. It’s glorious and worth cancelling everything for. Stevens feels like she’s settled more into her groove and that groove is producing stylish, charming, witty and delightful stories. I am a fan of this series and a fan of her work and I think this is again a title that feels a little bit like Christmas.

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Heroism, heroes and heroines in children’s literature (or, the one where I talk about Edmund but not Peter)

I watched Prince Caspian last night. It is, as is nigh tradition with my relationship with the Narnia books and films, a complicated thing but even amidst that complexicity, I was struck by something. I was struck by Edmund and his wry growth as a character in a way that I’ve never quite realised before.

Edmund is somebody who’s lived and lost and been subject to the moods and madness of life in a way that, I think, not many of the other characters in Narnia are. His journey is the fall, the rise; and it is perhaps worth nothing that those that fall often rise harder than those who have not. He’s perhaps one of the few perfect notes in the film, commenting wryly that: “Last time I didn’t believe Lucy, I looked pretty stupid.” He is, I think, a bit of a hero.

I’ve talked about heroism before on the blog, about characters such as Ruth Hollis from KM Peyton’s work and Roberta from the Railway Children by E Nesbit and it’s a topic that I keep coming back to. I think the recursive nature of this thought process centres around my belief that children’s literature allows us to engage in the process of ‘creating’ heroes, but I think another part of this thought process centres around the idea of flaws. Good literature, truthful dark and honest literature, acknowledges those flaws. It acknowledges the Katniss, the Ruth, the Roberta and the Edmund through letting them be flawed but also letting them learn from those flaws and letting them grow. Letting them live. Letting them be.

There’s a reason that Peter the High Pain In the Posterior never ever hits home with me and I think that a lot of that comes from his perfection. He is an exalted character, both in the books and the films and the television adaptations; the noble elder brother who Decides Things and Looks After Family and Does The Right Thing. He isn’t real to me somehow. He’s lost in a melee of ciphers and metaphors and implications and I never quite manage to find him in that.

But I found Edmund. Oh God, it’s taken me far too long but I have, at last, found Edmund Pevensie. I’ve found his bravery, his foolishness, his complexicity, his realism, and I am giddy with the implications of that finding. It’s as though I’ve known somebody for a thousand years and only now have I come to see his true face.

Character does that; characters who hide from you and give you the something that you expect them to see, whilst the reality of them is hand-held somewhere dark and deep inside them and they’ll only let you see it when you’re ready, willing and able to see it. And that moment, oh that moment when you do, it is intoxicating.

Emma Hearts LA : Keris Stainton

Emma Hearts LA (Hearts Series Book 2)Emma Hearts LA by Keris Stainton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sequel, though happily not in that ‘you must have read and rememembered every inch of the first title in the series’ sort of way, Emma Hearts LA is rather delightful. It’s the story of the eponymous Emma who has moved with her mother and sister to LA; her mother is taking up a new job at UCLA as an astrophysicist, her sister has inclinations towards stardom, and Emma is just trying to figure herself out and her rocky relationship with her father, living in the UK with his new girlfriend, forms rather a big part of that.

Stainton’s writing here is quiet and lovely. I was trying to understand my feelings about the style of Emma Hearts LA and I realised that what I responded to well was the straight-forward ‘storyness’ of it. That’s an awful thing to say without elaborating upon, so I’m going to give it a go and hopefully clarify that statement. Emma Hearts LA is a read that is very purely written as a read; it’s sort of the story that you would expect to pop us as a ‘story’ should you look up the term in a dictionary. And that’s a great thing; it’s a thing that rewards readers because there’s no wasted space here, it’s taut, clear and transparent storytelling. There’s nothing being held back from you. The story wants you. It needs you, and that’s such an important thing.

Plus, I think, Stainton has such a skill in handling a cast of characters and giving you character each and every time and that is something quite special and worthy of note.

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Facebook’s Book Club : Children’s Literature edition

You may have heard of Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that 2015 will see him read a new book every other week with “an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.”.

Well, Mark, here’s your chance to add some children’s literature to the mix. Children’s literature changes worlds, each and every day, and you should seriously think about adding one or more of the following titles to your list. I guarantee that they’ll teach you about the world in ways you never thought possible.

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Briony Hatch : Penelope & Ginny Skinner

Briony HatchBriony Hatch by Penelope Skinner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Briony Hatch is a slim graphic novel, coloured in black and whites and reminiscent of something doodled in pen and ink on the inside of an exercise book. It’s definitely a story of two halves; the intense teenage ennui of life and the struggle of Briony to figure out where she fits in, coupled with a rather intensely poignant (and sardonically true to life, oddly enough) tale of love and ghosts and regrets. Overlaying both stories is Briony’s devotion to the book series ‘Starling Black’ and her deep and pained reading of the final book in the series. Think Harry Potter and Fangirl and you’re about on point with that one.

The big key point about Briony Hatch is twofold (and I apologise now that I seem to be splitting everything about this review into bifold reasoning, but hey-ho, maybe it’s the weather or something) and the first is the art. Briony is very much herself, from her tumultous and haphazard hair through to the butterfly wing bulge of her stomach and her intense and scene-dominating eyes. It’s quite the thing to have all of this conveyed in black and white and it’s a little startling at first, but once you come to terms with it, it’s hard to not love it just a little bit.

The second bright strength of Briony Hatch rests in the humour. There are a few moments when Briony meanders off into daydreams, blurring her life with that of Starling Black, and when the daydreams become rather pleasurable,she comments: “This fantasy is better than I thought!” There’s a few other rather delicious asides throughout: “I am of the internet generation … So even though I’ve never had sex … My imagination is extremely graphic”

Where Briony Hatch does suffer though is with the lettering and stylistics of that lettering. It’s all delivered in a, whilst appropriate, personal and handwritten style that does fit but does, also, seem somehow jarring for the wider tones of the story engaged in in the second half. Whilst that is worth noting, it’s worth noting in the context of a story that’s rather deliciously unique and a little bit of a surprise and a lot of pleasure.

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