The Positively Last Performance : Geraldine McCaughrean

The Positively Last PerformanceThe Positively Last Performance by Geraldine McCaughrean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some authors who have this fierce richness about them when they work. They tell story; words that run together and layer something wonderfully thick and dense about you and you don’t quite know what’s happening until you finish it and realise that that was good. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of those authors and The Positively Last Performance is a classy, classic sort of tale.

The Royal Theatre at Seashaw now only plays to ghosts; the humans are long gone, and the theatre is not what it was. One day, a stubborn little girl and her parents arrive at the Royal; Gracie and her Mum and Dad are there to bring it back to its former life. Whilst Gracie makes friends with the ghosts, her parents try to restore the theatre…

Inspired by the Margate, and the theatre there, this is a book that both renders that sense of place superbly but also catches the peculiar joy and sadness of the British seaside. There’s love here, for both what was and what is, but also a recognition that these resorts face complex lives and hold complex, wonderful people. There’s a lot in this book and I don’t think it quite lets you see this until you’re well into it. You have to work past the slightly brittle opening, the defence of rhythm and chapter, until it lets you see the truth of it.

People, really, people. McCaughrean is interested in people, the shape of them and the stories of them, and what happens when they mingle and touch on lives that are not their own. As Gracie gets to know the ghosts and their stories, she learns about the black and white minstrels, mods, artists and librarians who lived and worked in Seashaw. One thing to note is that the n- word does make an appearance in the book (particularly when relating to issues of blackface) but is challenged, rebuked and analysed appropriately. It did stick out for me though, so it’s worthwhile mentioning and taking note of.

I was concerned about this getting repetitive (the rhythm of ghost – backstory – ghost – backstory) but then there’s a sudden, wrenching, movement in the middle of the book that turns all of that on its head. It’s beautifully, horribly, done and the sign of a writer who is simply just very good at what she does. I liked this a lot. I devoured it.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna ComeA Change Is Gonna Come

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Change Is Gonna Come is a compilation of short stories and poems from 12 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, ranging freely over a series of topics and themes, and pretty much all of them are rather wonderful, powerful contributions. What really struck me about this collection is the care that’s been taken over every element in it; from the striking and wonderful cover design (for more on that, have a look at this, to the note in the introduction from the editorial mentee (a good thing, publishing world), and the inclusion of debut writers, A Change Is Gonna Come feels like it’s been loved. And that sensation of love is powerful when it slides into the hand of the reader, so very powerful.

A frank highlight for me was Tanya Byrne’s lyrical and incandescent love story ‘Hackney Moon’. Byrne is a writer whose debut Heart-Shaped Bruise was something I called kind of spectacular, and Hackney Moon is right up there. An aching, tender, and fiercely told love story, it’s honestly, one of the best things I’ve read for a long time. I finished reading it and did one of those little ‘oh that was good’ pauses. (Don’t you love them?)

Another highlight for me was Aisha Bushby’s ‘Marionette Girl’, a distinctive, eccentric and powerful story of growth. Bushby’s writing is sympathetic and kind, but also full of a very subtle sense of drive. The sense of a character pushing up against barriers all around her mixed with the knowledge that she’s going to break through. Does that make sense? I hope it does. This is a story full of drive and determination and power, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once.

What a way to start the year this is!

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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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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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My Little Pony : The Ultimate Guide

My Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little PonyMy Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little Pony by My Little Pony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am very much here for the firmly feminist message that is the My Little Pony series, but I am also here for very nicely done media tie-ins. It’s very hard to judge this sort of thing objectively, because it is so often done poorly. You’ll know the sort of thing; they appear suddenly at Christmas and have whatever it is slapped across whatever was left over at the back of the store room. And they’re poor ; thin paper and even thinner pages, with the sort of font size that you used when you were trying to convince your teacher that you’d done a longer essay than you had.

This is great, genuinely, and it’s not often I’ll say that about this sort of book. It’s immensely good value for the price point, delivering an encyclopedic dissection of Ponyville whilst throwing in some smart and beautiful messages about empowerment, friendship and self-belief. That’s the sort of thing I can get behind, and when it’s wrapped up in something as well put together – and as genuinely good – as this is, then it’s a pleasure to do so.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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