The Left-Handed Booksellers of London ~ Garth Nix

Now really, I ask you, what self-respecting book blogger could resist a book with a title like that? The questions that it raises! What about the right-handed booksellers of London? What, it eventually becomes apparent I should be asking, about the evenhanded booksellers of London? And why does it matter in the first place?

Nix’s novel does not, however, begin in London. It begins somewhere in the West of England, not far from Bath, at 5:42 am on May Day, 1983. Susan Arkshaw is celebrating her 18th birthday and wondering again just who the father she has never met might have been. Susan is planning to make her way to London, to study art when the new academic year begins but in the interim to try and find out something about this mysterious father of hers. Is he in any way related to the mystical dreams that she has been having or are they simply the product, as she muses, of “a childhood diet of Susan Cooper, Tolkien and CS Lewis”? She intends to start by visiting ‘Uncle’ Frank, who always sends and signs a Christmas card and who might, therefore, just be a possible candidate. However, no sooner does she arrive at the home of Frank Thringley than he is ‘disincorporated’ by a young man who turns out to be one of the left-handed booksellers of the title. Not only is Uncle Frank not Susan‘s father, apparently he is not human at all but what the young man, who introduces himself as Merlin, describes as a ‘Sipper’, a blood-drinker and thus one of the evil mystical folk from the Old World of magic against whom the booksellers, both left and right handed, (‘one for the books and one for the hooks’) are ranged. Why booksellers you might well ask. Well, as Merlin goes on to explain, the ‘normal world is the top layer of a palimpsest’ and ‘under certain conditions or at particular times, the Old World comes to the top…Booksellers can exist on multiple levels at the same time…and for various reasons we’ve ended up…policing, I suppose’.

Susan is confused.  Why should one of the denizens of the Old World be concerned with her? In fact, as she and Merlin make their way across London it soon becomes apparent that Uncle Frank is not the only Old World creature seeking to do her harm. Urchins or goblins surround the couple as they pass along Mayfair and very nearly trap them in the mystical fair ground from which the thoroughfare takes its name.  What is it about Susan that attracts so much Old World attention? Is it to do with her absent father? The Left-handed Merlin and his Right-handed sister, Vivien, set out to help her find the answers.  

‘Merlin’ and ‘Vivien’ – I trust you are making the connection. You should be, because this book is riddled with nods in the direction of other fantasy writers: writers who, presumably, have provided gateways to the Old World for their readers over the decades if not over centuries.

Children’s writers…quite often they discover the key to raise some ancient myth or release something that should have stayed imprisoned, and they share that knowledge via their writing. Stories aren’t always merely stories, you know.

Part of the pleasure of this book for anyone who is as soaked in fantasy and children’s literature as I am, is picking out the references to other works. Susan doesn’t leave home before indulging in my favourite meal, Tolkien’s ‘second breakfast’. Merlin has clearly been spending time in the company of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant as both of them have a tendency to attract what can only be described as ‘weird shit’ and like all good wizards, as teenagers booksellers are sent off to their own very special school ‘at Wooten Hall’.

I am a great fan of Garth Nix’s Abhorson novels, but I’ve never really been able to engage with any of his other books, so although the title definitely intrigued me, I have to say that I picked this up with a little trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried, I absolutely loved it. So much so, that I am disappointed to see that there is no indication that there might be a follow-up, or even a series. I could happily spend a lot more time in the company of the Left-Handed Booksellers of London. Please don’t dismiss this book just because it’s intended for a teenage readership. Anyone who enjoys good fantasy writing will enjoy this, not the least because of the homage it pays to so many of its predecessors, to which it is a worthy successor.

With thanks to Gollancz and NetGalley for the review copy.

The Clockwork Crow ~ Catherine Fisher

flowers on opened bookHaving recently re-read Catherine Fisher’s Snow-Walker Trilogy, I was more than pleased to receive a review copy of her later novel, The Clockwork Crow, and in fact then went on to also read it sequel, The Velvet Fox. Both novels are set in Wales and both concern the orphan Seren Rhys. Seren tells us the outset of the first book that she used to live in India. However,

her parents had both died out there, and she had been brought home on the ship and lived for twelve years at the orphanage of Saint Mary‘s.

I have to say that this did make me wonder initially if we were going to get some sort of retelling of The Secret Garden but this didn’t turn out to be the case. Nevertheless, Seren does find herself travelling to a new home, a house called Plas-y-Flan, to live with a family she has never met, in this case her father’s oldest friend, Captain Arthur Jones, his wife the Lady Mair and their son, Tomas. Her journey is hardly uneventful. Travelling by train in a period that feels around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, she encounters a strange man who speaks in terrified terms of ‘Them’ and who leaves behind him a mysterious parcel which Seren takes with her, hoping to be able to return it, but which she is eventually forced to retain. She arrives at Plas-y-Flan only to find a house inhabited solely by servants and in a state of gloom and despondency. Tomas has disappeared and unable to bear his loss the Captain and his wife have departed leaving Seren in the hands of Mrs Villiers, the housekeeper, Denzil, the general handyman, and Gwyn, the garden boy.

Much dismayed, her dreams of a Dickensian Christmas dashed, Seren unwraps the parcel that she has brought with her and discovers the pieces of what turns out to be the Clockwork Crow of the title. Once reconstructed and his key well and truly wound, he comes to life, informing her that he is a prince, magically ill-used and forced to live his life in the guise of a rumpled old mechanical bird. Seren is sceptical about the prince claim and we should be as well. However, he does turn out to have some idea of what might have happened to Tomas, explaining that he is almost certainly been taken by the Fair Family, the White People, adding you don’t mess with ‘Them’.

Seeking further information, Seren asks Gwyn who tells her

The Tylwyth Teg. The Fair Family. Everyone knows that’s what happens. They take children…They are magic, secret creatures. They never get old, and they can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and twisted and wild. They live under the ground. Or maybe in the lake. This used to be all their land, thousands of years ago, until people came. I think that’s the reason. The Joneses took their land. So They took the boy. My nain says it’s happened before, over and over, with the children. They take them to a place where they never get old.

There is only one hope for Tomas and that is if, a year and a day after he was taken, he can be rescued by someone brave and bold enough to make the attempt and Seren and the Crow are on hand to try.

Well, the very fact that there is a sequel in the shape of The Velvet Fox should tell you that they are successful and for almost a year Seren and Tomas live happily, becoming great friends, indeed such good friends that at the beginning of the second book Tomas gives Seren a bracelet that he has made for her with a secret sign imprinted on it in water from the spring. However, The Fair Family are not to be so easily robbed of their prey and onto the scene comes Mrs Honeybourne to be the governess that Captain Jones cannot even remember engaging and bringing with her a magical carousel and vast quantities of knitting. Clearly evil from the moment she steps through the door, Mrs Honeybourne sets about poisoning Tomas’s mind against Seren and making it appear to the rest of the family and household that the girl has become disruptive and destructive. Recognising that she cannot battle the magical characters from the carousel – the juggler the dancer, the soldier and the velvet fox – alone, Seren remembers the words of the Clockwork Crow, who, when he departed at the end of the previous tale, left with her a feather and the instructions if you’re ever in trouble, write a message to me with this quill. I will probably come.

Well, come he does, and together he and Seren defeat the juggler, the dancer and the soldier but then find themselves facing the most powerful and evil member of the foursome, the velvet fox himself. Can they rescue Tomas a second time or will the fox and Mrs Honeybourne, knitting ever at the ready, prevail? Perhaps the answer lies in the bracelet given by Tomas to Seren, while they gathered horse chestnuts for conkers, as a symbol of their fast-bound friendship.

Like The Snow-Walker Trilogy, as well as an emphasis on magic and myth these books celebrate the power of friendship and the fact that a strong female lead character can achieve pretty much anything that she sets her mind to.  Again, I would be reading these to classes of nine and ten year olds and good, independent readers of the same age should lap them up.

With thanks to Firefly Press and NetGalley for the review copy of The Clockwork Crow. 

Review Catch-Up ~ July 11th 2020

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This is the second of a series of catch-up posts with short reviews of books that I’ve read over the past couple of months but haven’t been able to get round to writing about in any great detail. It’s not meant to imply that the books are any less worthy than those that get a post to themselves, just that I tend to read faster than I can blog about and it seems better to provide a brief comment than nothing at all.

The Finisher ~ Peter Lovesey

Murder is only the beginning. The real question is how do you get rid of the corpse? That’s the job of the finisher: tidying things up when they start to get nasty. As the most recent of Peter Lovesey’s DS Diamond series begins the finisher’s immediate task is overseeing a group of illegal Albanian immigrants, a job which includes disposing of the bodies of any who try to make a break for freedom. When Spiro and Murat take their chance to get away they know that their only hope is to run as fast and as far as they can. They are not the only people with running on their minds, however. The Bath alternative half marathon, known as the Other Half, is on the horizon and Maeve Kelly is out training for it. This is not Maeve’s preferred way of spending her time but a series of unexpected events mean that she is using it as a way of raising money for the British Heart Foundation. Her self-appointed trainer is a fellow teacher from the primary school where she works, Trevor, a man who appears to have an interest in more than Maeve’s running style. Also in training for the race is Belinda Pye and when she fails to record a finishing time and is subsequently not to be found in her lodgings, Diamond’s interest is piqued, especially when CCTV footage shows her to have been pestered by Tony Pinto. Diamond put Pinto away several years previously after he took a Stanley knife to a woman who had complained about his behaviour. The DS is horrified to know that Pinto has been released and given his presence in the proximity of the missing woman he automatically becomes the chief subject. But Pinto has gone missing as well and the search leads Diamond into the underground caverns left by decades of stone quarrying in the area where the race took place.

I’ve only recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s work. I was given the first of his novels this time last year. I wasn’t completely convinced by that and now I’ve decided to try a second, I’m not sure that I’m convinced by this either. Lovesey starts too many hares for me and I’m not sure that all the strands come together as well as they might. I’m also not sure about the tone. At times there is a sense of irony which doesn’t sit well with the subject matter. However, if you have read his work in the past and enjoyed it then this one does seem to me to be fairly typical and I’m sure you will relish it as well.

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK Sphere and NetGalley for the review copy.


The Gift: The First Book of Pellinor ~ Alison Croggon 

Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series deserves to be as well known as any of the works of high fantasy written with a young teenage audience in mind and yet I still find that this Australian author is far too rarely spoken of despite the fact that her books are every bit as good as those of authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper and even Ursula Le Guin.  As part of my re-exploration of the works of children’s literature that I remember most fondly I have just re-read the opening volume, The Gift (also published as The Naming) and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I first discovered the series.

When Maerad discovers a stranger hiding in the steading, Gilman’s Cot, where she is a slave, she can have no awareness of the fact that his presence there will change her life forever. Cadvan is a Bard, a term used to describe those who hold the power of the Light against the evil of the Dark, who maintain the world in Balance, terms which will be more than familiar to those who have read the Earthsea and The Dark is Rising sequences.  And the Dark is rising, which is why Cadvan is so far north of his usual haunts, seeking the source of the evil which seems to be penetrating even the Schools of learning where Bards are trained.  His progress is being hindered by an evil force which inhabits the mountainous area where Gilman’s Cot is situated and when he discovers that Maered possesses an inner strength which, when combined with his own, enables him to escape the area, he realises that she too is a Bard, but one in whom the power has yet to fully manifest itself.

As he learns more of as he learns more of Maered’s background and experiences further evidence of the inner strength she possesses, Cadvan begins to suspect that his young charge may be more than simply a ‘baby Bard’. Prophecies speak of someone who will appear during a time of intense crisis, someone able to defeat the ultimate evil, the Nameless. Is Maered that person, the one that those Bards who still serve the Light have been waiting for? The only way to be certain is for them to make the perilous journey to Norlac, where the highest council in the land can admit her into the circle of Bards at which point Maered’s true name and destiny will be revealed. Of course, their journey is long and dangerous and some of the tribulations they meet along the path force both of them to question who can and who cannot be trusted. Neither are their travels made any easier when Cadvan is forced to add another ‘baby Bard’ to his entourage.  Who is Hem? And why does Maered feel such a strong connection to him?

I have just spent two very happy days back in the company of Maered and Cadvan and I’m only sorry that I didn’t buy the other three books in the sequence at the same time as The Gift, as it means I will have to wait a while for the second volume to turn up. I could quite comfortably have read straight through all four from beginning to end. If you enjoy the works of Wynne Jones, Le Guin and Cooper and haven’t yet read Alison Croggon’s novels then I very strongly recommend that you get hold of copies and set aside a long weekend when you can immerse yourself in some first class storytelling.


The One and Only Bob ~ Katherine Applegate

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Back in 2012 anyone and everyone on my birthday list  received the same book, Katherine  Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  The book tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla captured at birth and brought to America where, for twenty-seven years, he has lived a caged existence in a shopping mall which, as he points out, is not as easy as it looks. There he is befriended by, in the dog’s own words, a mutt going under the name of Bob. Together they battle against the odds to protect a small baby elephant, Ruby, and the book has a moderately happy ending when both she and Ivan are taken into the local zoo and are able to become part of families of their own kind. If you haven’t read it then go out and buy a copy immediately because you are missing one of the great children’s books of all time.

So, what, I can hear you asking, happens to Bob? Well, he goes to live with Julia and her parents, George and Sara. George works at the zoo and so, as long as he is prepared to suffer the indignity of being pushed into Julia’s backpack while they go through the entrance gate, Bob is able to visit his friends on a regular basis. And they are doing fine. Ivan has found himself a lady friend. Girlfriend? I’ve never been sure what they call it in gorilla. As for Ruby, the elephant family have taken her to their hearts and are keeping her excesses of enthusiasm under control. Much easier for them than for a human. You try putting a two-hundred pound baby elephant in time out. Bob, however, while he is happy living with Julia and her family, still has, well I suppose you’d have to call them issues. You see Bob and his puppy brothers and sisters were placed in a cardboard box and thrown out of a moving car onto the side of the road and as far as he knows Bob is the only one who survived. While the world might think that men and dogs are each other’s best friends, Bob is not so sure; Yes, he definitely has trust issues.

And then there comes the day when there is a storm warning and the town is threatened by a tornado. The zoo is devastated, animals are injured, some escape, and for a time Bob is unsure about the safety of both his adopted human and animal families. But what is that voice he hears? That woof so well remembered, so longed for, but surely gone forever. Could it possibly be the voice of his true sister, Boss? Bob has to find out and in doing so he also has to learn a great deal about trust and about forgiveness. I figure if I’m going to forgive myself, I better be ready to cut everyone else some slack too.

This is another wonderful tale from Katherine Applegate. I cried and I laughed and I cried again as I read it. It is full of kindness, warmth and real love shown on the part of both the humans and the animals in the story. Be warned, if you’re on my birthday list you are definitely going to get a copy! And for everyone else, may I leave you to ponder this very profound thought, which might just possibly have a lot to say to bloggers: peeing without a potential audience is like talking to yourself.

With thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books and NetGalley for a review copy.

Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings.  I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes.  I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.

In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.

The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.

There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:

she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on doing just those things.

Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.

Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:

she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.

As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining

she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.

Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.

I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.



The Snow-Walker Trilogy ~ Catherine Fisher

beverage blue breakfast brownCatherine Fisher is one of the children’s authors I most regret not having kept up with since I retired. Her works always explore the darker side of human nature in worlds that, while differing from our own in many ways, are nevertheless recognisably similar to the one that we inhabit. I’ve just been sent a review copy of one of her most recent books (I’m not quite sure why it’s being made available for review at the moment, given that it was first published in 2018, but nevertheless!) and I thought that before I read that I would reacquaint myself with the earliest of her works that I remember reading, the three books which make up The Snow-Walker Trilogy.

Set in a world of snow and ice that, with its sea coast and fjords, inevitably brings to mind Norway, the trilogy opens with The Snow-Walker’s Son and introduces the main character, from whose point of view most of the action in all three books is seen, the young girl, Jessa Horolfsdaughter. Jessa and her cousin, Thorkil, both of them orphans and the last in their family’s line, are banished from the court, ostensibly by the Jarl, but in reality as the result of the antipathy towards them of his wife, the witch, Gudrun. They are sent to the far north, to Thrasirshall, following in the footsteps of Kari, the son of the Jarl and Gudrun, a child reputed to be a monster, who lives there accompanied only by his guardian, Brochael Gunnarsson.  In fact, Kari, is no monster at all, facially he and his mother appear to be identical. However, the runes have said that Godrun’s own reflection will destroy her, so, as well as avoiding all mirrors, the witch has dispatched her son to a place from which she thinks he can never return, the land where the White People, the Snow-Walkers live.

Jessa and Thorkil both belong to the family of the Wulfings, the true rulers of the land,  and this appears to be the reason behind their banishment. However, there is one other who has an even better claim to the title of Jarl, Wulfgar, and along the way they meet up both with him and with a man who appears to be a peddler, but who turns out to be Wulfgar’s skald or bard, Skapti Arnsson. With their arrival on the scene, the main characters involved in the trilogy are almost all gathered together.

After a series of adventures the first novel ends with Gudrun’s defeat and Wulfgar coming into his own with Kari by his side. However, Gudrun’s final act is to curse Kari with the knowledge that no one will want him or trust him because they will always see her in his face and at the beginning of the second book, The Empty Hand, we see that this is indeed the case. Now a monster truly does haunt the land, a monster built by the exiled Gudrun out of runes, a magical being that is driven by hunger and which grows more substantial and more dangerous with every kill as it inexorably makes its way towards Wulfgar’s hall and its inevitable final prey. Only Kari has the wherewithal to defeat this monster and even he cannot accomplish this without the help of Jessa, Wulfgar, Skapti, the faithful Brochael and newcomer, Hakon, the Empty Hand of the title. Hakon, having been cursed by Gudrun and consequently losing the use of his right hand, is thrall to a nasty piece of work, Skuli Skulisson, who is in league with the villain of the piece, Vidar, Wulfgar’s councillor. Vidar tries his best to turn the Jarl and those around him against Kari and when he fails, takes desperate action. Subsequently, despite the worst that his mother and her followers can throw at him, Kari manages to defeat the monster, at which point Gudrun realises that she is going to have to take even more decisive action and live up to her other name, The Soul Thief.

The Soul Thieves, the third book in the trilogy, brings the conflict between Kari and his mother to a climax after Gudrun steals the soul of Signi, Wulfgar’s bride-to-be and sets in motion a curse that will eventually engulf all those who live under Wulfgar’s protection. Jessa, Kari, Skapti, Brochael and Hakon set off for the farthest north, the land of the Snow-Walkers, where they will either defeat the witch and free those caught in the enchantment or perish themselves, knowing that they are playing directly into Gudrun’s hands by bringing Kari to her.

I really enjoyed going back to these books, which I would suggest you give to any nine, ten or eleven year-old readers that you know. They recall many aspects of Norse legends, for example Odin’s ravens, Thought and Memory, they have forceful things to say about the importance of loyalty and friendship and perhaps most interestingly they have that which is still very rare in fantasy novels, an impressive young woman who is the strongest and focal character.


Challenges and Projects ~ Blah!

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photographt

From time to time I will be tempted either by a challenge or a project that someone else in the book blogging world has suggested or even one that I dream up for myself. And every time it turns out to be a mistake. Perhaps this is because I spent the best part of fifty years of my life having texts prescribed for me, sometimes because they were on the syllabus I was studying, more often, latterly, because they were on the syllabus I was teaching. Whatever the reason, the moment I feel obliged to read a book it becomes the last one in the world that I want to pick up. Not that I have anything against the idea of people devising, taking part in and completing challenges. I love the idea of the 20 Books of Summer, for example, but every time I draw up my list, books that I thought I really did want to read suddenly become toxic. Then there was my own self imposed challenge, The Years of My Life, whereby I set out to read three books from each of the years in which I had lived: one intended for children, a crime novel and a piece of literary fiction. I got as far as 1951 (and I was born in 1949!) before falling at what I suppose you would call the third hurdle when I discovered that they really weren’t any books published that year that I wanted to read; certainly not that I wanted to have to read.

So, why did I find myself, over last weekend, drawing up another list?

I think I have a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ve had a real hankering lately to go back and explore again the world of children’s literature: a world in which I spent much of my professional career but which I’ve neglected over the last dozen or so years. As a result of said hankering, a couple of weekends ago I re-read Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post and loved every word of it. So many happy memories were evoked and, perhaps because of the times we are living through, that was the sort of read I felt I needed at that moment. The act of re-reading was another spur. I know that readers vary widely in their reaction to the idea of re-reading. Some see it is a total waste of time, time that could be given to books that they haven’t already encountered. Others, and I would number myself among them, see it as a chance to revisit old friends, friends in whose company we already know we are comfortable. Then, there are those twelve missing years. What’s been published in the time that I have let elapse? Which directions has children’s literature taken? Are the current crop of writers as good as, even better than, the ones I remember? And mark my words, many writers of children’s literature produced works every bit as good as those aimed at an adult audience. Some of them, of course, are one and the same. Jane Gardam and Helen Dunmore have both written extensively for children and young adults. And did you know that Jane Casey, one of our leading crime writers, has also written three excellent books for teenagers?

So, as I say, last weekend saw me drawing up yet another list. This time a list of children and young adult authors whose works I would like to revisit. But, and I can’t emphasise this enough, this is not a challenge, neither is it a project, it is simply an aide memoir, so that when I feel the need I can check back, remember a particular past pleasure, and seek out a copy of the work in question.

I’m sure that if you take the time to look over the list, you will think that I’ve missed some obvious people out. There is no Roald Dahl, for example. But, with the possible exception of Danny, the Champion of the World, I really didn’t enjoy Dahl’s work and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back and re-read any of it. That would make the whole thing a chore. It would become ‘a project’. It would become ‘a challenge’. Nevertheless, if you have any suggestions to make, or if the list simply brings back memories you would like to share of your own past reading, then I would be more than happy to hear from you. How many of these authors I will get round to exploring for a second time, I have no idea. A lot, of course, will depend on just how accessible some of the books turn out to be. Children’s literature doesn’t stay in print for all that long and even some of the best received novels can prove difficult to find. Not everything has the shelf life of a Harry Potter or a Dark Materials.  However, I’ve already managed to track down two or three old favourites which should be arriving over the course of the next couple of weeks. One I think some of you will remember, but the other two I’m not so sure about. One of the joys of having been so involved in the world at a professional level was getting to know authors that were not household names.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suddenly flood the pages of this blog with reviews of children’s books. It will probably be no more than one a month.  But, on days when I just feel like indulging myself I’m going to allow a saunter down memory lane and hope that while doing so I can remind some of you of the books that may well have encouraged you to become lifelong readers yourselves.

Arthur Ransome and Pigeon Post

used red coffee cup and saucerAs many of you know, a large part of my career was spent lecturing in children’s literature and although I’d rather let the association drop over the last decade, I’ve been feeling a real hankering to go back and start to explore the area again. Obviously, I want to catch up with what has been published in recent years, but with the times as they are it’s also very comforting to go back and re-read old favourites. With that in mind, I checked back on the winners and, where possible, the shortlists, for the Carnegie Award, the leading British prize for novels targeted at children and found that the very first was presented in 1936 to Pigeon Post, the sixth in Arthur Ransome’s series featuring the children known collectively as the Swallows and Amazons.

It is almost exactly sixty years since I first read Swallows and Amazons. I was nine years old and was completely captivated by the entire series. I loved the detail that Ransome provided about sailing and camping and cooking and doing all the things that I, as a city bound child, simply didn’t have the opportunity to do. An avid library member already, I read them all again and again and was convinced that if I were to step into one of those small boats I would know exactly how to sail it. And do you know what? Ten years later, as a nineteen-year-old student, that is precisely what I did. Whether it was bravado born of overconfidence, I don’t know, but I was not a Duffer and I did not drown! (I did, however, have a very interesting experience with a herd of cows that decided to swim across the river just as my friends and I were sailing down it! But that’s a story for another day).

Of course, there was a lot more to Arthur Ransome than he is remembered for most clearly today. Having gone to Russia in 1913 to study its folklore, at the onset of the First World War he became foreign correspondent for the Daily News, covering the conflict on the Eastern Front. He also reported on the Russian Revolution of 1917 coming to sympathise with the Bolshevik cause. He was personally close to a number of its leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, and during this time met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia, then working as Trotsky‘s personal secretary. He provided information to the British Secret Intelligence Service and at one point was very near to being exposed as an agent. Influential in bringing about the peace between the Bolsheviks and Estonia, Ransome and Evgenia set up home together in the Estonian capital, Reval, (now called Tallinn) before returning to England after his divorce enable them to marry.

Swallows and Amazons was published in 1929 and featured the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger and Nancy and Peggy Blackett as the eponymous Swallows and Amazons. By the time Pigeon Post was written the original six had been joined by Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the Ds, and in many respects Dick is the leading character in the 1936 publication. Having fought for the right to lead the fleet, camped both on Wild Cat Island and in Swallowdale, climbed Kanchenjunga and built igloos on a snowbound fell, in a long hot summer when drought has reduced the River Amazon almost to a trickle, the combined forces of Swallows, Amazons and Ds decide that the time is right to search for gold. Slater Bob tells them the story of a young man who was said to have discovered gold in one of the old mine workings before going off to war and dying without having given up the secret of just where the precious metal was to be found. With the summer holidays stretching out before them and unable to sail for another fortnight, the children decide to capitalise on Dick’s love of all things scientific, discover the mother lode, mine and extract the metal and turn it into an ingot before Captain Flint (otherwise known as Uncle Jim) returns from his own failed expedition to find gold in South America.

Of course, their plans are not without opposition. The land is tinder dry and all the natives (a.k.a. the adults) are concerned about the possibility of seriously damaging fires. Mrs Blackett is also worried because she has responsibility for all eight of the children until various other parents turn up later in the holiday. However, Homer, Sophocles and the unreliable Sappho save the day, enabling the system of pigeon post to be set up so that messages of reassurance can be sent on a daily basis. A pigeon a day keeps the natives away. Then there is the question of the ubiquitous Squashy Hat, who seems to turn up wherever the children want to explore and who they are sure is out to jump their claim and make off with the gold for himself. And what about the mysterious Timothy, sent on ahead by Captain Flint? Why hasn’t he turned up? Has he died at sea? What, for goodness sake, is he? It all makes for what can only be called a rollicking good adventure.

Inevitably, time has dealt less kindly with some aspects of the book than others. Susan still does all the cooking, helped by Peggy, but never John. However, there is always Nancy to tip the balance in favour of a feminist reading. And, during this excursion through the book’s pages, I was away for the first time just how different the upbringing of these children was when compared with mine in a backstreet in Birmingham. I have to say that at nine the class issue really didn’t bother me at all. Something else which struck me this time round was how attuned Ransome is to the character of Titty. We see into her thoughts and emotions to an extent that simply isn’t the case with the other characters. This is particularly true during the episode when they are dousing for water, but it comes out at other points as well, for example, as the book draws to a close:

Titty slipped off into the dusk. The bramble thicket had been saved from the fire, but the little hedgepig, she thought, might have died from fright, with all the smoke, and the roaring of the flames, and the trampoline the firefighters…And then she heard the stirring of dry leaves, away under the brambles. She heard a sniff…a grunt… a sneeze. Perhaps some of the ash blown down from the Topps was tickling its nostrils. Then, in the dim light, she saw it. With steady lumbering trot it was making for the well. She watched a little dark lump work itself down the steps. It was drinking. The water got into its nose, and she heard a small impatient snuffle. It climbed out again and trotted off. She lost sight of it in the shadows. But she had seen enough and slipped back to the camp.

I’ve not been well this week (NOT the virus) so this trip down memory lane has been a really relaxing way of spending some time. The following year, 1937, the award was won by Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street. I remember enjoying that as well, although ironically, given that the background of the children was much more like my own, not as much as Ransome’s tales. Maybe I’ll add that to the list for June’s reading.



The Truth About Lies ~ Tracy Darnton

Once, long ago and probably in a land far away, I used to lecture in Children’s Literature. For the best part of forty years, if you wanted to know what was current on the children’s/YA book scene I was the person to whom you turned.  However, over the last decade I have gradually left that existence behind and very much lost touch with what is being published in a field that dominated my reading for most of my adult life.  Then, a couple of weeks ago Waterstones sent me one of their regular emails announcing the short lists for their Children’s Book Prize for 2019 and just out of curiosity I glanced through it to see if there were any names I recognised. What I wasn’t expecting was to see my own surname there.

Now, if your name is Smith or Jones coming across someone with the same surname as you must be pretty much a daily occurrence, but when you share that name with less than two hundred people world wide it rather takes your breath away.  So, out of sheer nosiness for the first time in over ten years I found myself ordering and reading a YA novel and, thank goodness, very much enjoying it.

Jess Wilson is a relatively new student at Dartmeet College in Devon. Like many of the other students there she has been traumatised by the fate of her roommate, Hanna, who has fallen to her death from the window of the room they shared.  The relationship between Jess and Hanna had been fraught, not the least because Hanna had started a romance with Ed, the boy that Jess fancied, and Jess, when we first meet her, is clearly concerned that her subsequent behaviour towards Hanna was responsible, in one way or another, for her death.  However, Jess has far more to worry her than that, because she carries secrets from her past life that isolate her not only from the other students but from the wider world as well.  Blessed or cursed (take your pick) not only with a photographic (eidetic) memory but also with hyperthymesia, the type of memory that allows an individual to recall everything that has ever happened to them, Jess has run away from a programme led by one Professor Coleman where she has been more or less used as a lab rat to find out whether or not it is possible to erase traumatic memories from people’s minds.  No more PTSD – or at least that is the more anodyne of the possible outcomes of the Professor’s research.  Of course, if you want to test a theory like that then the subject involved has to have a traumatic memory for you to erase and Jess’s memory of her mother’s death in a road traffic accident fits the bill perfectly.

Or does it?  As Jess finds herself, however unwillingly, becoming more and more involved in the life of the College and her fellow students she, and the reader, begin to question the accuracy and the completeness of her recall. If there is no one against whom you can test your memory how do you know what you remember is what actually happened; how can you be certain that there aren’t things that you have forgotten?  This is a first person narrative.  When I am being told that the narrator is as reliable as it is possible to get, perhaps I should be asking if really, however unwittingly, Jess isn’t the ultimate unreliable narrator.  Was she involved in Hanna’s death?  Is Professor Coleman actually the monster she makes out?  This is what Jess and the reader have to explore.

The Truth About Lies is an extremely interesting exploration both of how our memory can define us and how it can deceive us as to who we truly are.  Coming immediately after my reading of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, where memory is set against thought, Tracy Darnton’s book pits it against feelings, suggesting that while it may be possible to wipe out recall of events, erasing the feelings attached to those events is neither possible nor desirable.  This is an excellent first novel and if I baulked a bit at the dénouement I pulled myself up short and reminded myself that many an adult thriller has an ending that seems a bit too neat.  Will it win the Waterstone’s prize?  I don’t know.  Maybe I should return to my roots and read the other contenders. This book has made me recall why I chose to specialise in Children’s Literature in the first place.


The Years of My Life ~ 1950: A Dream of Sadlers Wells ~ Lorna Hill

Ah, yes, well!  Let this be a lesson to me in the follies of revisiting books I loved as a child.    For my children’s literature 1949 pick I re-read Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery and I would have predicted that that would have irritated me far more than anything I was likely to chose later on.  However, I was wrong. The Blyton at least had a fairly decent plot to it and I found it interesting, reading it as an adult, to see how the author was trying to extend her range of possible adventures by introducing a character (Barney) who came from a troubled enough background to be allowed to have the sort of experiences the Famous Five would always have to be denied.   Not so Miss Hill.

A Dream of Sadlers Wells is the first in a series of books about young women who have some sort of struggle to be allowed to make their way in the world of dance.  For the most part this is not because they lack talent but because, like Veronica Weston, the dreamer in question, their personal circumstances are such that they are denied the opportunity.  Forced by the death of her mother to move from London to live with relatives in Northumberland, Veronica is prevented from even mentioning, let alone pursuing, her ambitions by the swift realisation that as far as her aunt is concerned people like ‘us’ simply don’t go on the stage.  I suppose I should be pleased that it is clear from the start that Hill has no time for such an attitude and that Veronica’s Northern relatives, with the exception of her cousin Caroline and sort-of-cousin Sebastian, are roundly condemned, but they are such stereotypes, especially cousin Fiona, that it is hard to take that condemnation seriously.  And, faced with one such obvious stereotype, I couldn’t help casting around and realising that everyone else, Veronica included, was completely stereotypical too.

But, you will say, that is true of Blyton as well, and that is hard to deny.  However at least Blyton’s characters have adventures. Barney got kidnapped and locked in a ruined castle, for goodness sake.  The most that happens to Veronica is that she sets up a wayside stall to raise money to hire a pony so that a year later she will have something to ride across the moors on a foggy night in order to catch a train to the audition.  (She isn’t clairvoyant, but the reader is.  That pony is clearly there for a purpose right from the start.)  I’m sorry but the book is just downright dull.

What was I thinking, setting myself up to destroy my childhood memories this way?  At least I am no longer wondering whether or not I can afford to buy the rest of the series. (None of my three local library authorities have kept copies – it’s good to know that some sense prevails in the library system.) I shall be much warier about future picks in this category. And yet some of the children’s books coming out in the not too distant future, certainly by the 1960s, were tackling really important issues, albeit often through the means of fantasy.  Were the fifties really such a dearth?  I notice that the list I had for 1950 didn’t offer me a Chalet School novel.  I’m sure there must have been one.  Now that was an interesting series which, although it was packed with stereotypes and some very dubious attitudes towards married women, had some quite remarkable things to say about international cooperation.  Maybe I can dig out one of them for 1951.