The Head Girl of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Head Girl of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #4)The Head Girl of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It always fascinates me how early this series shifts things; how early things change. The status quo of the first few books is already being changed at this point. Head girls have been and gone (my beloved Bette Rincini has not had her moment in the sun but this is addressed by Helen McClelland’s excellent Visitors for the Chalet School) and now it is Grizel’s turn. Grizel is a complicated beast, one of the most intriguing characters ever to walk the stage of the Chalet School, and coupled with this – Madge has left the school to get married. Mademoiselle Lapattre (Le Pattre, La Pattre… ;) ) is now the headmistress.

And the problems begin before we even get to school. Joey and Grizel, their fractious and vividly real relationship makes Things Occur. Grizel is hotheaded. Joey is tactless. Brent-Dyer’s writing is superb. She’s so early on in her sprawling, generational saga of school stories that her writing is fresh, sharp and so so lovely. There are of course the traditional ‘oh my god is she dead’ moments that only the Chalet School can carry off, and an amazing cameo from an already established character in the series. (A brief pause: we’re four books in, four!, and yet this series is already so layered and thick and satisfying and Brent-Dyer is quite genuinely throwing everything at it like some gorgeous mad scientist of writing and I love it, I love it).

Also it’s Cornelia Flower’s first term. She has yellow hair and a ramrod chin. Still not *quite* sure what a ramrod is, mind, but Corney is awesome.

God these books are good.

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A lyrical emptiness

(Something slightly different today. Normal service resumed shortly!)

The words are too much to bear.

He turns and runs out of the house and begins the climb up the hill towards the castle. Once he hits the woods, he slows down to a walk. He is breathless. Raw. There is an unfinished edge to everything he does. He has walked here for years; a path trod by his feet as a child, as a teenager, and now he walks on the edge of that time with every step. But then he thinks that maybe edges are for jumping from and maybe this is his jumping point. Maybe this is his moment to stand and hold his arms aloft and to take that step forward into whatever may come. Whatever may be. Whatever he may be. Wherever he may be.

He cannot leave this, he thinks. He cannot leave.

The boy climbs. He lets his foot slide on the mud and drag one of his legs back, even as he pulls the rest of himself over it. He remembers how to walk; he has done it forever here. And he has bought others, briefly, painfully, and he has tried to share this space with them. They came here once. Together. They told each other of their fears and dreams, and he pledged to the moon that he would keep her safe but now none of that matters for he is leaving and nothing matters, but nothing at all.

Silence now in the world; a silence split by the tears of twigs and trees at the boy’s clothing as he pulls himself out of the edge of the wood. There are no trees in this castle space. They stop at the edge, a breath of green between them and the stones, and they come no further. They dare not.

But he does. He keeps walking and leaves the trees and he pulls himself up onto the wall, pausing only briefly to dash the tears away from his eyes. He is not crying. He just needs to see. He tells himself this, even though he knows that he would be able to climb the wall in the dark. In his sleep. On the coldest of Winter days with one arm tied behind his back.

No matter. Still the chattering voices inside his head for he is here and it is deserted and it is perfect. He takes a moment to stand, to watch, to just stand, so still, so silent.

He could stay, he thinks. It is Summer now and he is used to camping and nobody comes here. He could stay. He could live in the nook of the wall and in the shadows, and he could fall from the world and be forgotten. He could stand on the wall at the keep and he could watch them leave and he could stay, he could stay, he could stay. He could stay.

He does not know how long he stands there, but he knows that it is not long enough. It will never be long enough.

He lets the sun start to set around him. He lets it. This is quite clear to him. The sun would not set if he did not let it, the trees would come closer if he was not here, and the world would come and raze the castle to the ground. He was the guardian of this space. A king, really, the king of all and everything and he could not leave this how could he how could he?

A bird wings in his throat and he cries out; his words clatter against the walls and echo back at him. “I won’t – I won’t!”

The light, red and thick and fat and heavy, overwhelms him. When night comes, when it rises around him, he stands up once more and holds his arms up to his kingdom,  The sky seems to shift around him; looking, watching. Waiting. Everything is so very still for everything is centred on this boy.

He nods, understanding everything even though he does not want to. “I’ll come back,” he says softly. He says it to the wind and to the grass and to the pigeons asleep in the tower. He says it to the stars and moon and world. “I’ll come back, you mark my words, I will come back to you. I will always come back here.”

He bites his lip. He turns, he walks away.

He does not look back.

She Shall Have Music : Kitty Barne

She Shall Have MusicShe Shall Have Music by Kitty Barne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first came across ‘She Shall Have Music’ during my Masters when I started to collate a list of children’s books featuring gifted and talented characters. It’s a topic that still fascinates me; this balance of the incredibly unique individual with talents far beyond comprehension with the needs and necessity of the form. How do you write difference when, in a way, every book is about difference? (Sweeping, sweeping, let me sweep with such statements).

‘She Shall Have Music’ is an odd, rich little gem. It’s not the easiest to read at parts; some elements have dated quite immensely, there’s a bit of ‘gosh let’s get to the point’ and, in the edition that I got out of the library, somebody had luridly coloured in all of the illustrations. Books of this age (published 1938) and ilk are lived-in titles; reflections of the world we live in and the readers we have been. They reflect what was and not what is and it is hard to judge a text by the standards of one age when it has been written in the standards of another. And so, I acknowledge the difficulties of it whilst letting them be, I read over them and acknowledge my reactions whilst recognising them for what they are.

And it is, in a way, when we slide past these awkward moments and really get going on the story that ‘She Shall Have Music’ begins to play its tune loud and strong. Books featuring gifted and talented characters often have this arc, this long and stiff assemblage of elements and characters and Hurdles To Be Overcome, and you sort of just have to get through it.

When Karen, the central character, starts to discover her talent, we gain some charming and vivid moments and the story begins to get quite confident. It also gets quite pointed too. Barne is clear on what is Good Style and What Is Not. There are some intensely humourous points and Lessons To Be Learnt before Kitty ‘shall have music wherever she goes’. A direct, complex and yet still oddly appealing book. And one with an awesome cast of supporting siblings.

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Too Close to Home : Aoife Walsh

Too Close to HomeToo Close to Home by Aoife Walsh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I described this on Twitter as one for the ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’ crowd. And it is; it’s a book full of complicated and complex and Casson-esque characters, all of them bumping against each other in their complicated and complex lives. Too Close To Home isn’t really about much on the surface (except, in a way, it’s about everything and perhaps that surface stillness is so very metaphorical for the book itself) but underneath it’s peddling away like mad. There’s Minny; central character (and oh I am full of semi-colons and punctuation in this review, but that’s this book – thoughts and movements and emotions and people all jumbling against each other and trying to find their space in life).

So. In an attempt to be precise:

1. Walsh’s prose is very classic in tone. It’s like eating a big authorial cake (stay with me) and finding it full of Streatfeild and McKay and Smith, and it takes a moment to sink in and when it does, you don’t want to let it go. It’s rich, vivid and rather timeless. Contemporary yet classic. Classic yet contemporary. That sort of thing.

2. It is a sympathetic and genuine book. It speaks of complex issues and does so in a way that is neither didactic nor “here is the issue and now you should pay attention.” In a way, it reminded me of the Susie Day ‘Pea’ series (it’s sort of a textual elder sister to Pea) which is a very huge thing for me. (I love the Pea books, they are beautiful and smart things and now I’m creating a family tree of books and need to move on).

3. If you are into the Chalet School series, there is a moment on p77 which will make you understand this book and everything that it is saying about the world.

4. Too Close to Home is out in July. This is an early review. I debated whether to write it now or to save it for a while. And, as you can see, I wrote it now. This is because sometimes books leave you feeling full of them and in love with everything that they are and wanting to share that and wanting to talk about it all now. It is such a lovely book this, wise and smart and funny and sarcastic and joyful, and it should not fly under the radar. Save the date.

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A brief bit of housekeeping

I have updated my review policy / about page. I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do every now and then because it provides you with up to date info about the context of this blog and of the author (Ed: who she?). Whilst the information there is worth a read (please do, if you’re wanting to understand the rationale behind what I post) I wanted to take a swift moment to reiterate a few key points.

  1. I very, very rarely do content submitted by third parties. I think I’ve done it once in the five years I’ve had this blog posted. This isn’t a comment on the quality of third party work; rather, it’s a comment on what I want this blog to be. The independence of it is very important to me. And whilst I acknowledge that its independence is an independence that is quite niche (cough elaborate discussions on the minutiae of the Chalet School cough), it’s an independence that I am happy to be responsible for and accountable too. And I should be. Everything that you see on this blog I stand by. Everything. Even the slightly poor html formatting. Even that.
  2. I receive books that I do not review and usually that’s because I can’t find the space in the discussion around that book to say what I want to say. The discourse around certain books sometimes becomes quite tight and it’s difficult to add something new to that discourse. The books that I do write about are books that I’m excited about. Thrilled about. Books that I want to write about and books that both let me write about them and need to be written about.
  3. And finally, a quick note about the reviews themselves. I believe very much in the nature of books being able to change lives. The right book at the right time can split worlds asunder with the force of a few printed words. That’s a miraculous, magical thing, and it’s something that I support. I hope that you get that, really, I hope that you get that because that’s what I want to give and that’s why I do this. I write about books, I blog about books, and I write books myself in order to get that moment to and for people. I don’t want people to be ever scared of books and I blog and write about them in order to break down that fear. I write about children’s books because literacy is one of the greatest superpowers we can ever have. I write about children’s books because they’re fascinating, complex beasts. I write about them because they excite me. I write about them because I can. And because I love them. It’s that simple.

Thanks for listening. Here’s a congratulatory Pikachu. Normal service’ll be resumed shortly :-)

Lyra’s Oxford : Philip Pullman

Lyra's Oxford (His Dark Materials, #3.5)Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book contains a story and several other things.”

So opens this slim and quiet little volume of Lyra’s Oxford, a book that truly contains a story and several other things, but maybe Other Things is how we should think of these latter objects for: “They might have come from anywhere. They might have come from other worlds. That scribbled-on map, that publisher’s catalogue -they might have been put down absent-mindedly in another universe and been blown by a chance wind through an open window, to find themselves after many adventures on a a market-stall in our world.”

(This quote, these ideas, they are perfect to me for they talk of the split between our world and the world of the literature, the ephemeral nature of reading, identifying and *living* a text, the shift between fiction and fact, the blurred edge of books, the cliff-edge of reading…)

The central story of this rich volume concerns Lyra and Pantalaimon. It is set after the events of His Dark Materials and so certain things have occured. Certain shifts in the world have happened. And for every action there is a reaction. For every pebble dropped in the water, there is an echo upon the shore. This is that echo. This is that reaction.

The fascinating edge of this story, this collection of thoughts and ideas and of fragments, is the idea of literary space and place here. Pullman’s Oxford is a wild-edged space, shifting through identities with the effortless skill of something very old and wise and powerful. It is as much a character in the books as Lyra and Pan and Will and all.

And the thrilling and terrifying edge to this Oxford is that it is visitable. One can drive up the road and into this city full of story and richness and of the darkest edges. This is something acknowledged in Lyra’s Oxford as the book provides you with a map to the centre of the city. The tangible joy of folding out this map is not to be underestimated. And the conceptual groundbreaking of such a move! To unfold this map of Lyra’s Oxford is to lay this Oxford (accessible by Train and River and Zeppelin) against *our* Oxford – or is it our Oxford? Are the two not one and the same? Is our Oxford simply a face of the city; a reflection caught in glass, and is this its true face? A city full of museums and of zeppelins and colleges and Botanic Gardens with one lonely bench underneath a low-branched tree?

And even now as I write this, I am drawn back to my memories of Oxford and of walking those streets, and seeing a glint of something fly across the roof and of seeing a small girl in the doorway of one of the colleges. I am pulled back into this space of Other Things; this edge, this cliff-edge, and I am lifting my arms and I am flying, I am gone.

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(I write further on the map in Lyra’s Oxford here)