Sweet Valley Confidential – Ten Years Later : Francine Pascal

Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years LaterSweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later by Francine Pascal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can understand the feelings behind this, and the urge behind it, but Ten Years Later is a problematic and frankly strange book that seems to deny or barely recognise much of the structure and themes that made the Sweet Valley series work. For those of you who collect a certain other series of books, it reminded me very much of The Chalet Girls Grow Up (a book I find utterly fascinating) and in a way, Ten Years Later is fascinating. It is strange and quite weird and full of a peculiar distaste for happy endings and comfortable resolution, but it is fascinating.

I engaged in the Sweet Valley books with a sort of episodic delight. They were never massively big, nor did my library have a lot of them, but I was entranced by their numerous quality. The mythic nature of Jessica’s hair. Country clubs. Apartments. They sang of a very specific and quite dreamy Americana that could be like catnip, and so when I did come across them, I devoured them. I also have very fond memories of the TV series that was shown during the 90s (?), and the spectacular nature of that theme tune.

But this is not a good book. Not really. It’s kind of hypnotic and fascinating and full of a sort of peculiar loathing for the characters of this world. Pascal could be a good writer, but this would have benefitted from some substantial editing, a massive chat about that hideous little ‘where are they now’ coda that’s tacked on the end of it, and a further massive chat about all of the slightly squicky descriptions of everybody’s looks.

I won’t say don’t read this, because I believe very much that you read what you want, always, but I would say that this might not give you the resolution that you seek for this world. But then again, I suppose, the discussion is whether a book like this was even necessary in the first place. Do you need to tie these big wide worlds off with a neat bow? Or is it better to simply step away ? I’m not sure I know, but I know this: Ten Years Later is one of the strangest and, in a way, saddest books I’ve read.

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Miss Wilmer’s Gang : Bessie Marchant

Miss Wilmer’s Gang by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first ever Bessie Marchant, and after we got to the bit about taxidermy, I realised that we were in for quite a ride. She’s an interesting author is Marchant, always on my radar with her girls full of Strong And Noble attitudes in Far Flung Corners Of The World, and yet I’d never quite got round to reading her. Well, no more.

Miss Wilmer’s Gang is a curious beast, revolting against gender roles whilst ultimately succumbing towards such, with some rather problematic treatments of colonialism and empire. As ever, it’s a symbol of its time in many respects, but it also renders something quite interesting in its treatment of class and girl/womanhood. Miss Wilmer herself has inherited islands in Patagonia

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA)

and has now decided to go and sort them out with the aid of a band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls.

(HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA WHAT IS THIS BOOK)

This band of Hearty And Attractive Single Girls changes a bit before the expedition sets off, as one of those girls has the temerity to go and get married. Once we’ve finally established our group, the book sets off and we’re off to Patagonia. It’s kind of spectacular how nuts this book really is, because the girls are both Capable and Yet Incapable and the local inhabitants of the islands are rendered as Deeply Problematic Individuals Who Just Don’t Know Help When They See It.

I’m being flippant in a way, because these books were groundbreaking. They’ve aged poorly in both representation and style, but the positioning of girls in these narratives of adventure and derring do was a unique thing to do. There’s a genre of stories where boys wandered off and had adventures in the distant corners of the worlds, but the centring of women and girls in these narratives? Not so common. Not so much. There’s something interesting being said about women and girls here, and the tensions that pull upon that will, I suspect, come to fascinate me.

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Black Beauty : Anna Sewell

Black BeautyBlack Beauty by Anna Sewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s talk about Black Beauty then, shall we?

And yet, having swung into this review with such a glorious opening sentence, I’m not sure where to begin. Much of that, I think, stems from the fact that we know Black Beauty. It is a story that’s slid so far beyond what it was that it now holds a rather mythic quality. Of course we know Black Beauty. We might not know the fine, fine detail of it, but we know the feeling of it. The sensation of the text. The way that it’s the story of a horse’s life, and it can be suddenly something rather awful, but you are tied to it, and you have to keep going to find out what happens, and when you finish it, there’s a peculiar sensation of quality and the realisation that you’ve read a classic.

Because Black Beauty is a classic. Stylistically it’s somewhat heavy when read with a contemporary, critical eye, and I’ll grant that I slid over some of the passages, but then I dallied with a sort of indulgent joy over the moments presented in others. Over Merrylegs, mainly, but also over other characters and of the determined grace to be found in Sewell’s writing. For it is a graceful book, no doubt, but it is also a hard one for it does not run away from the darkness. Do I give you spoilers? No, but I tell you that if you don’t know the detail of this book, then you will find it darker than you expect and should you present it to a new young reader for Christmas, as a benevolent and book-loving adult might do, you will probably emotionally scar that child for life. But that is what this book does, and you’ll just have to welcome them to the club.

What’s really interesting about Black Beauty is that it presents the reader, even in its grimmest points, with a methodology for change. It tells you about the world that is what it is, and offers you a chance to impact that, to change it. There’s a resonance there for a modern reading, one that I didn’t quite expect.

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A Pony For Jean : Joanna Cannan

A Pony for JeanA Pony for Jean by Joanna Cannan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a reason I practically fainted when I found this in the pound shop and that reason is this: A Pony For Jean is a stone-cold classic, rich and evocative and unapologetically ponyish and it should be in the hands of anyone who is interested in ponies, children’s literature, or those curiously timeless stories that bubbled up in the 30s; stories of girls and families who survived troubling times simply by being themselves to the utmost and most emphatic ways.

Forgive me for being disjointed, but books like this are history and Cannan is a pivotal figure in the world of pony stories. She was one of the first (perhaps the first? I’m not sure) to write from the individuals perspective, stepping away from that Black Beauty-esque point of view, and stories sing of practical and foolish and passionate and realgirls who just burn from the page with presence. And of course, she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and delivered one of my favourite ever quotes where, upon the birth of Diana and Christine, she was asked “Are your twins normal?” Her delicious reply was, “Good God, I hope not.” What is there not to love about this person?

A Pony For Jean is one of those awful books that will give you the impression that the world is like this, that this is what it does, and if circumstance conspire and your rich cousins are just rich enough, you too will end up with a pony of your very own. It’s the stuff to scar you for life. It’s perfect.

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The Three Jays Against The Clock : Pat Smythe

The Three Jays Against the ClockThe Three Jays Against the Clock by Pat Smythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been aching for a reread of Pat Smythe’s pony books for quite some time, and so, dear reader, when I found a copy of The Three Jays Against The Clock in the bookshoop I clutched it to my chest and practically skipped all the way home. It’s difficult, sometimes, to understand the place that a series can hold in your hearts but for me, these Pat Smythe books were everything. They were full of that intense detail that only the small and ponyish child can wallow in and they were never that easily available so they became something of the Chalet School of the pony world, to be read and devoured on those fleeting moments when they appeared back in the world.

Much of these fleeting appearances stem, I suspect, from the fact that they were not as brilliantly rendered as some of the pony books that were in the world at that time. And there were a lot of pony stories making their presence felt, from the Pullein-Thompsons through to Ruby Ferguson. Pat Smythe is no P-T sister, and I’ll take that critique and live with it, quite happily because I don’t think that’s the space that she ever should be considered in. Smythe has this habit of being most practical with her work; a conundrum is introduced, a cliff-hanger posed, but then we are all sorted and back with the ponies and jumping clear rounds. And I love that, God, I love it so much. You can’t remotely consider these as high literature but you can absolutely worship at their altar of readability.

So this is the second in the series, and it’s resolutely Blytonian in its furious efficiency and blunt style. The Jays decide to go on a pony trip, calling in every now and then to let Pat know that they’re alright. They inevitably run into problems on the way, and a lot of Useful Pony Knowledge is imparted with not the least hint of subtlety. We learn how to make string from a ball of hemp (seriously, even typing that sentence sounds like witchcraft) amongst a thousand other pieces of information ranging from how to walk a course to why you should never judge a book unless you’ve read it. It’s delightful. It’s resolutely of its time at certain points, but then you read these sorts of books with an awareness of the differing – and by no means appropriate – cultural standards of those times.

One final thing to note is that this book contains one of my absolute favourite sentences at all time:
“Nuts,” said the simple child simply. . And if ever a sentence captured style, and the thrust, and the sheer lovable frankness of these books, then I think that this may be that sentence.

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The School by The Sea : Angela Brazil

The School by the SeaThe School by the Sea by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is great. It bounces along in that determinedly vivacious sort of way that Angela Brazil does (“Girls! Girls Everywhere!”) and then completely forgets about plot and has a natural history interlude that goes on for about three hundred pages, before plot reasserts its ugly head and everything gets resolved and sorted out in about five pages. It’s a joy, really, this ridiculous and beautiful and furiously of its time book, and I devoured it.

Deirdre and Dulcie are bosom friends, in that bosomy sort of way that Brazil did so well; one is slender and one is stout, one is picturesque and one is a redhead who is “somewhat obtuse” and a new girl has been put into their bedroom for the new term. Crisis! Inevitable tensions! Moreso when the new girl has lived in Germany and can speak fluent German!

Published in 1914, this book is very much of a particular time and bent. Angela Brazil had such a lengthy and prolific career that she wrote across two world wars (how awful that is, to have experienced that sort of thing twice…) and her work changes quite dramatically in my opinion. The first world war is greeted with a sense of wild patriotism, where the girls hunt out spies and knit socks and all that sort of thing, but the second? That’s a quite different story; the girls are secluded from the world in countryside mansions and asked to believe in themselves. The books look inward, I guess, as opposed to outwards. The visible acts of patriotism in WW1 shift to some sort of internal stiffening of ones resolve. And so, The School By The Sea does engage in some distinctly complex social dialogue. More complex than I think the book quite realises; Gerda is frankly bullied by some of her compatriots before the truth is revealed and the truth itself ties into some typical themes and tropes of Brazil that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, there’s a subtle challenge presented towards a blanket anti-German sentiment and that’s interesting to me because I’ve not seen it elsewhere in her work. That nuance of understanding identity.

And, on another note, the opening to this is iconic. Forgive me for copying the first few lines below, but it’s really rather something and speaks of Brazil’s new blueprint for the genre:

“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl. No! Buzz-hum-buzz!”

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The Children At Green Meadows : Enid Blyton

The Children At Green MeadowsThe Children At Green Meadows by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes Enid Blyton could be rather brilliant. I picked this up in a second hand bookshop the other day as a treat to myself. I had a vague memory of the title and, what’s more, I had the odd ache for something simple and rich; a Blyton of the most Blytonian sort, where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the morals are bluntly rendered and the world is forever sunlit. The Children At Green Meadows delivered all that and more. It is a delight, and it kind of put me back together a little bit.

The family at Green Meadows is having difficulties. Granny refuses to sell their ancestral home, and Father is invalided, which means that Mother is having to keep everything going. Things change though when a new block of flats opens nearby and the inhabitants realise that they can’t keep pets there. These pets, inevitably, find their way to Green Meadows and everything spirals from that point. It’s a book of wish fulfillment and sudden, sharp emotion (particularly in the subplot of Father who has been invalided after an act of mysterious Great Bravery).

Sometimes Blyton could be rather brilliant, and she is very much that here. The story bowls on in a gloriously rich and blithe sort of manner; everything and everyone is lovely, and even though horrible things may happen, lovely things subsequently happen, and she gets that desperate urge for a dog, so much that you may even come to imagine that faithful companion. There’s some blunt moralising, as there is with much of Blyton’s work, but here it’s a justified bluntness and I rather appreciated the point that she makes. This is lovely, and it’s a perfect introduction to Blyton and, indeed, reading itself. I often talk about how Blyton is furiously readable and this is the perfect example of it. There’s not one inch of The Children At Green Meadows that feels flabby.

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