The Girl’s Companion (ed.) Mary A. Carson

The Girl's CompanionThe Girl’s Companion by Mary A. Carson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to tell you how much I love this book. I think we begin with what it this book is; it’s a fairly solid text split into a series of chapters, covering a range of things that Respectable Girls might like to do with their free time. I love books like this because, quite often in their very dry way, they reveal much more about the world than they think. Think about why we don’t have them now really or, if we do, how we don’t easily embrace such extremely gendered dynamics. And if we do write them, then what do we have in them? What’s the thing that we think girls should know? And why do we think that girls should know them?

‘The Girl’s Companion’ has some delightful moments. Split into a series of different sections beginning with ‘indoor arts, crafts and hobbies’ through to ‘the social side’ and the great ‘yeah I ran out of titles’ section known as ‘miscellaneous’, each section then covers things ranging from insect collecting through to lawn tennis and how to change a washer on a tap.

There are some moments of delightful eclecticism. The chapter talking about camping calmly suggests meals such as toad in the hole, and steamed puddings. The illustrations in the gymnastics sessions detail a girl in sensible pinafore (with a tie!) undertaking exercise ranging from bars through to rings, never quite once being allowed to crack a smile. I adore them. I could live forever on illustrations that break down netball into blithe ‘this’ and ‘not this’ instructions. Here’s a few of my favourites that I tweeted..

I think the great wild peak of The Girl’s Companion comes in the riding chapter. It’s written by the legendary Primrose Cumming and the opening paragraph is a thing of utter and somewhat mad joy. I love it. Like I said, these books tell you so much more than they think they do. And in the instance of the riding chapter, it tells you all about the adventures of you and your new horse.

Named Barry.

(Oh ‘The Girl’s Companion’, let me count the way I love you!).

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Judith Kerr’s Creatures : Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's CreaturesJudith Kerr’s Creatures by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to define how beautiful a book this when you’re typing a review in that thick haze you get after crying, but I shall. I shall try.

I love Judith Kerr. There are a handful of authors that I cling to in children’s literature, like somebody who is drowning and in search of a lifebelt and Judith Kerr is one of them. She is my safe space, my shore. I have loved her from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit through to Mog the Forgetful Cat and back again. And, whilst I am on this paragraph in which I confess my love, if you have not seen this documentary on Kerr and her work, give yourself an hour out and do so. It is a joy, she is a joy, and I love her.

Judith Kerr’s Creatures functions as an autobiography, lavishly illustrated and holding many remarkable items relating to a remarkable life. It is graceful and self-effacing and a must for anybody interested in writing, illustration and the life behind books that become classics. Seeing some of Kerr’s earlier work juxtaposed against the proofs of her later work is undefinably wonderful because it allows the reader to trace the development of a brilliant artist. Line, for example, is something I talk about a lot in picture books because you can do so much with such a simple thing. The thickness of it. The thinness. The direction. The boldness. The shape. Try it now, doodle a sad line, a happy line. I’ll bet one curves down and one curves up and that, beyond it, you’ll see the shape of a face tight and sad, or round and full of joy. That’s line, that’s the evocation of line and that’s what we do with it as people. We fill it. We give it context. Kerr’s line is a wonderful thing in that it is human and full of movement. There are sketches in this that sing of movement and of the ability to watch and study people. To find the shape of them, to find the bits that matter in the sketch and to capture that. What skill. What utter, hard-won, determined skill.

I love this book. I am rhapsodic over this book. I love how respectful it is, and how it does not belittle any of Kerr’s remarkable achivements or skill, and how it treats them with the reverence they deserve. This is art and I shall fight you if you say otherwise, for this book is beautiful and we are privileged to have Kerr’s work in our lives.

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The Lost Staircase : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Lost StaircaseThe Lost Staircase by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love this slim, eccentric story that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. I came to it from the Chalet School series which sees two of the characters from The Lost Staircase attend the school. It’s a bravura step and one which happens in the Chalet School books on a fairly regular basis. I always imagine Brent-Dyer inserting these textual Easter Eggs with a slight smugness and well earned sense of satisfaction.

The Lost Staircase itself is a standalone novel which tells of the adventures of young Jesanne Gellibrand, heiress to the Dragon House. The Dragon House is a stately home that reads, at times, with a delightful giddiness and over-excitement and following the death of family, Sir Ambrose brings his young cousin and closest heir home from New Zealand to come into her inheritance. And then there’s a bit about a Lost Staircase which is supremely wonderful because of its grimly committed presence within the novel.

It’s an odd one this but, as I say, deeply charming. Some of it rests on the tangibility of the book itself; it’s smaller than a traditional Chalet School hardback and much of that is due to it being printed in the economy standards that the second world war. The paper is thin, the text closely typed, and it’s all a rather evocative experience. I always find the object of the book as much interest as the book itself and for this to be published in 1946 and to talk so deeply of richness, of heritage and tradition and of wealth, is fascinating.

Textually, it takes a while to get to the point. Much of this seems to centre on Brent-Dyer’s slight tendency to go a bit Angela Brazil and to revel in the romantic context a tad too much. Yet somehow this is still rather lovely because when Brent-Dyer hits it, she hits it square on. The Dragon House is overwritten but madly appealing. Jesanne rides around, romps with dogs, battles with a governess, and gets one of the best Christmas presents ever depicted in a children’s book. It’s gorgeous. But then, having said that, there’s that traditional moment of eccentricity to be found in a Brent-Dyer book, and in The Lost Staircase a plot point turns upon a banana skin.

The Lost Staircase is ridiculous but wonderful; a sort of dizzying mix of the deeply romantic and practical tips about dog keeping. It’s eccentric. It is gorgeous.

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Girl In Dior : Anne Goetzinger

Girl in DiorGirl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been treating myself recently to a wallow in the things I love. (As everyone should do, no?). One of these has been reading about mid-century fashion and France; I am a Francophile and there is nothing better than nibbling the edge from a freshly baked baguette or sinking your teeth into the curved edge of a palmier. I have other loves, not just food related, but they are the most potent right now. Madeleines. You know.

So, to Paris and to the fashion that forms the spine of this city. The rather excellent and well-told Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation was my first stop on this journey and Girl In Dior was the second. This slim, slender graphic novel interweaves a fictional journey of a girl into the House of Dior alongside facts and moments from Dior’s life. It’s an undoubtedly slender story and one that bears much tribute to a fairy tale aesthetic. And there are moments in the world where such an aesthetic is undoubtedly welcome.

Don’t come to this for narrative; rather, come to this for a rather wonderful twist on fashion history with art that sings of a love for the subject. Goetzinger’s use of line; the quavery lightness of gazue and her use of colour; the unfurled bolt of brightly coloured material, laid starkly against a bright white page, are wonderful things. Girl In Dior is something rather wonderful and poetic and aching and softly told and I really rather loved it. Maybe it’s the nipped waists, or those full skirts, or the exuberant “New Look!” cry; or maybe it’s because I rather love these books that seek to tell the human edge of story. The moments of Dior in his country house, designing; there’s not enough of them, because they are poignant, heartfelt, and suddenly, intensely brilliant.

I want more from this boook because there’s not enough of it and I suspect that’s its main problem. A lot happens, swiftly; there’s not enough time to savour it, nor to develop rationale nor character, but then – does such a book need this? I’m not sure I can answer that here. What I can say is that what this book gives, it gives with utter and absolute joy.

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No Castanets at the Wells : Lorna Hill

No Castanets at the Wells (Sadler's Wells #3)No Castanets at the Wells by Lorna Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are the most beautiful books I own. The hardback editions of the Chalet School come close to them (that is, when I can sell my liver to afford one) but somehow they never quite reach the great grace of the Sadler’s Wells books. I think it all centres on that front cover and the way that they, all of them, catch light so well. These are sunlight, morning books full of warmth and glowing life. The artist, Esme Verity, is actually Hill’s daughter working under a pseudonym. And she’s gifted, incredibly. These are such painterly, eloquent books.

So, to No Castanets at the Wells, the third in this vibrant series. As with many of the authors I love, Hill was at her best early on in her series and this is joyful. Without giving away much of the plot, Hill inverts the ideal of the ballet story and points out the diverse nature of talent. Everyone has something special about themselves and to discover this isn’t easy, but it is most worthwhile.

I love these books. I love the poetics of them, the edge of space, the way that dance – music – artistic expression, all of it, is something serious and artful and important and worthwhile. There are certain sequences in this novel which are borderline epochal, both on a personal level but also with regards to the wider sector of children’s literature. There is love, there is fought for and tempestuous love, but there’s also character and nuanced, sharp reading of people.

I love this book. I love this series. Is that repetitive? I fear it is, but I don’t care. Hill is an education in the poetics of story; that graceful, carved edge of character and of space and place and of movement. When she is at her best, as she is in several points during this book, she is outstanding. Effortless, outstanding, peerless.

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The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and the Island (The Chalet School, #25)The Chalet School and the Island by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.

I didn’t. Not really.

Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.

The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.

Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.

And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child : JK Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s complex to rate Harry Potter and the Cursed Child because it’s a complex piece this. It is rather wonderful, rather strange, and rather odd all at once. I suspect it’s perhaps a little bit of a paradigm shift in the nature of children’s publishing – as, again, so much of the Harry Potter universe is now. It is a play. A play, published and packaged with such beauty (it is quite gorgeously designed) and it’s being sold at supermarket tills. I’ve never seen that, and I suspect I may never see that again. This is landmark stuff and it is stuff that, I think, is rather thrilling. There are things happening right now in children’s publishing that are unique and important.

So, here we are. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. As the blurb describes it, this is ‘The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later.’. Everybody and everything is older. Our core triumvirate have grown and got married and had children and it is upon those children that much of this story hangs. But again, it’s a story about never escaping story, I think, and the fact that so much of it hinges upon an understanding of how where we have been colours where we are now reflects that. That’s one thing I do like; though the play is written by Jack Thorne and based on JK Rowling’s story, there’s a lot of truth to it. This feels real and it feels rooted. And it feels older. We’ve grown with Harry and Harry has grown with us. It’s a complex thing with a series; do you hold it, firm, fixed, or do you let it breathe and let it evolve (or, perhaps, devolve?).

There’s some delightful moments in this, but there’s also some complicated ones. Complex. I keep returning to that. I am reviewing a new Harry Potter text. How strange that is. How strange that really rather is.

Thorne’s dialogue is delightful. He writes for the ear, for the words to be spoken, and that’s the great strength of this piece. There are moments in it where the words are heard rather than read; the quickness of language, the bond of words and action formed with the shift of a sentence or the look between two characters. There are also moments which echo the world before; moments which translate a bit hesitantly onto the page and retold in words and stage directions but will, I suspect, sing on stage. So then is this half a text? In a way, yes, but then – isn’t everything? Isn’t everything we read half of what we make it when we read? This, perhaps, is more overt than most in that it needs you. And it needs you to embrace its conceits; to imagine that stage and the setting, and to gasp at the twists and be moved – for there are moments in this that both caught and moved me deeply.

So where do we end this? How do we end such a tentative and soft-edged review of such a fascinatingly complex piece? Perhaps we end with Scorpius, one of the new characters and one who is a joy. Scorpius is a delight and a wonder and he is maybe one of the best characters in the entire series for me. Maybe we end with Scorpius and on his story. Maybe that’s where we end, with Scorpius and Albus, and the knowledge that Harry lives, that he survives and that survival – life – is complicated and complex and it is worth fighting for. Because it’s what comes after the big moments, that’s what matters. That’s what makes you who you are.

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