The Years of My Life ~ 1949: The Rockingdown Mystery ~ Enid Blyton

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DNovember has been a busy teaching month and so I decided to take the easy route into my exploration of the literature of 1949 and start with my chosen children’s book, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery.  I was apprehensive about re-reading this, the first in what had been, as a child, one of my favourite series.  Was I going to destroy all my happy memories of time spent with brother and sister, Roger and Diana, their cousin, Snubby and their wandering friend, Barney, not to mention the mad little dog, Loony and Barney’s monkey Miranda?  Well fortunately, no.  I suspect that I have spent too long working in the world of Children’s Literature to be in anyway shocked by the all too transparent snobbery and sexism that was the norm in the novels of the period.  I don’t like it, I wouldn’t give the book to a child today, but I can accept it as a product of its time and consequently read the book simply for the plot and enjoyed a thoroughly nostalgic Sunday afternoon. (It strikes me now that I was remiss.  I should have combined it with a suitable decorous afternoon tea.  Miss Pepper would have approved.).

Miss Pepper is the old family retainer charged with looking after Roger, Diana and the orphaned Snubby when Roger and Diana’s parents have to go to America during the summer holidays.  Ensconced in the lodge belonging to a deserted manor house, the children look forward to long days amusing themselves in the local countryside only to have their hopes dashed when Miss Pepper tells them that they are to have tutoring every morning in order to catch up with school work missed during a prolonged illness. Worse news follows when the tutor they know is unable to come and Miss Pepper has to employ a stranger, Mr King.  All is not lost, however, because as they wait for Mr King to arrive, they meet up with Barney, a wandering teenager, moving from fair to circus to whatever job he can pick up as he searches for his missing actor father.  Barney is not only a figure of delightful mystery, he is also accompanied by his mischievous little monkey, Miranda; what child, fictional or the solitary reader, is not going to fall in love with them both immediately?

As you can no doubt imagine, adventures appear around these children like magic. No sooner have they found their way into the deserted manor house than they discover that it is being used as a base by nefarious wrongdoers who have to be brought to justice. But what is the mysterious Mr King’s role in all this?  Is he friend or foe?  This becomes a vital question when Miss Pepper is called to the bedside of her ailing sister and the tutor is left in charge of the household.

Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that everything comes out all right in the end, or that it is the monkey, Miranda, who valiantly saves the day.  Blyton began the Barney Mysteries after The Secret Seven and The Famous Five were already established and in terms of the social situation she describes there is little to choose between them. We are firmly ensconced in a middle class world which was probably as alien to most of her readers as it was to me.  We accepted it, however, as an example of a fictional world we knew initmately because most of us would have learned to read from books inhabited by exactly the same sort of children.  In my case it was dear old Dick and Dora, but it could just as easily have been Janet and John or the ubiquitous Peter and Jane (not forgetting Pat the dog).  It wasn’t how I lived, it wasn’t even how I wanted to live, but it was how children in books lived; I accepted it and just enjoyed the adventure.  I probably even accepted poor old Diana being the one who automatically cleans up after everyone else.

The rooms were in a dreadful state now. It would need a good morning’s work from Diana to get them straight again.

Feminism hadn’t reached inner city Birmingham in the 1950s.

And, I would have enjoyed then, as I did now, all the wonderful descriptions of food. No Blyton story is complete without at least one picnic and Miss Pepper’s saving grace in the eyes of the children is that she knows they like things like sausages and salad and cold meats and potatoes in their jackets and ice cream.  Oh that ice cream!  One is never enough.  They always have at least two and often three.  I’m surprised that close to the end of the war there was so much ice cream to go around.  Perhaps the rest of the country went without just so that Miss Blyton’s characters could indulge to their hearts’ content.

One thing that did cross my mind as I re-read this story was the dilemma that Barney poses for the writer.  The adventures in this series are all rather more dangerous than those encountered by either the Secret Seven or the Famous Five and the introduction of Barney is what allows this to be the case.  Nice middle class children could not be put in life threatening situations, but a wandering showman, whose antecedents are questionable to say the least, is a different matter.  Bring a Barney into the story and you can widen the scope of the dangers your characters face considerably as long as he is the one actually facing them.  However, he has to be a respectable wandering showman and so Blyton makes Barney almost too good to be true, with impeccable manners, a thirst for learning and a desperate desire to read more Shakespeare.

And that was what shocked me most as I re-read a story that I must have last encountered nearly sixty years ago.  I had completely forgotten that this was the book that first turned me onto Shakespeare.  If Barney was going to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream so was I.  If Diana could play Titania, what was to stop me doing the same?  When we were offered the chance to see the play at Stratford in my first year at secondary school my name was top of the list.  I’ve never stopped going since.  The Rockingdown Mystery might be snobbish, sexist and completely fanciful, but I discover that I owe it a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

La Belle Sauvage ~Philip Pullman

IMG_0245I want it recorded here that I did not deliberately catch a cold on the day La Belle Sauvage was published just in order to give me an excuse to spend two days curled up in front of the fire reading Philip Pullman’s long anticipated return to the world of Lyra Belacqua.  In fact, I would much rather have read it with a clearer head.  Nevertheless, it certainly made those difficult first forty-eight hours easier to bear and the need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything gives me the perfect excuse to go back and read it through again as soon as the opportunity arises.  I may need to anyway if we have to wait as long for the next volume as we have for this, simply to satisfy my appetite for almost perfect story-telling.

Because, if there is one thing Philip Pullman knows how to do it is tell a story.  From the first page you know that you are in the hands of a brilliant raconteur.  His characters come to life in front of your eyes, the settings are picture perfect in your mind and the story begins to unfold with a logic that seems irrefutable.  We are back in Lyra’s Oxford, a city which physically doesn’t seem to be that much different to the one we know ourselves, but which, in terms of its social structure and the forces which motivate that structure, is very different indeed.  Ten years before the events unfolded in Northern Lights, the power of the Magisterium is just beginning to really make itself felt and when eleven year old Malcolm Polstead is confronted in school by a group calling themselves the League of Alexander, who are there to recruit the local children to be the ears and eyes of Holy Church and report on those in their community who suggest that there may not be a God or who mock the Church, he recognises this as something he wants nothing to do with.

Malcolm is the son of the local innkeeper and has as good a life as a child could wish for, helping out in the Trout Inn, running errands for the nuns in the local priory, and spending time on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.  And, like most eleven year old boys he is naturally curious, so when he picks up gossip in the inn about a baby being brought to the priory he hightails it off to see if this is true.  Sure enough, there is Lyra, just months old, left with the nuns by her father, Lord Asriel, to protect her from Church forces who are seeking the child as a result of a prophecy about her future.  Malcolm, like pretty much all of us who have met Lyra over the years, is entranced by her.  Given the scrapes she will be getting herself into on a regular basis ten years down the line, she is a remarkably good baby, which is fortunate, because when circumstances change and Malcolm is forced to flee with her, through horrendous floods and tracked by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, silence on her part becomes a necessity.

With only a local teenager, Alice, for company, Malcolm, having rescued Lyra from the devastated priory, sets out to find somewhere she will be safe from the machinations of her mother, Mrs Coulter, and of the Church.  His first thought is to get her to Jordan College, where she might be given sanctuary, but the floods don’t allow this and so swept ever southwards in the valiant La Belle Sauvage, the children aim for Chelsea in the hope that they will be able to deliver the baby to her father.

Pullman has said that this novel should not be seen as a prequel to His Dark Materials but as an equal and in some ways I could be pushed to agree with him.  As I’ve made clear, this is a rattling good story which engages the reader completely, just as the earlier books did.  However, for the most part, I can only see this as a forerunner of what is to come.  Most obviously, of course, it tells about events which precede those in Northern Lights. It reveals to us not only how Lyra came to be living under the protection of the scholars at Jordan College, but how the alethiometer found its way there as well. Furthermore, it is also a prequel in terms of what it asks of the reader.  Ideas which had to be given serious thought in the earlier novels, such as the concept of Dust, the relationship between a human and their daemon and most importantly, the question of Grace, are barely touched on here.  And, then there is the question of the underpinning of the story’s structure.  In His Dark Materials the debt that Pullman owed (and acknowledged) to Milton’s Paradise Lost was easily apparent.  If there is such a debt here it would seem to be to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen, which is quoted on the novel’s final page.  However, not only is this work’s influence not immediately obvious throughout the book, but those episodes which it might be seen as having given rise to are, for me, the weakest parts of the story. Their purpose is so unclear that I could happily have lost them altogether.

Of course, there are two other books still to come and it may well be that when we have the completed trilogy more will be made apparent and that cohesive links which seem to be missing now will become obvious.  Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage reads as a far less complex work than any of the books in His Dark Materials and as much as I enjoyed it I hope the forthcoming volumes of The Book of Dust will ask more of me as a reader.

How To Win At Poohsticks

The-Rules-of-playing-PoohsticksAccording to The Times one of the great conundrums of the civilised world has finally been solved.  Armed with the formula

PP = A x ? x Cd

we can now all go out and scientifically select the ideal twig to ensure we will emerge victorious when indulging in the classic English game of poohsticks.

When Winnie the Pooh dropped that first pine cone over the side of a bridge he set in motion a passion for the pastime that has only increased as the years have gone by.  You don’t have to be a Bear of Very Little Brain to enjoy dropping your twig into a gently flowing stream and then rushing over to the other side of the bridge to see if it will emerge before those of your competitors.  Bears of Great Brain like to play regularly, not to mention those humans who share a home with them.

The formula has been devised by Dr Rhys Morgan of the Royal Academy of Engineering and we can only rejoice that our great minds recognise the national importance of breakthrough research in vital areas such as this.

Dr Morgan has ascertained that the main variables are cross-sectional area, density/buoyancy and drag coefficient.  Thus, the formula for the Perfect Poohstick (PP) states that you need a twig which has a good cross-sectional area, that is, length multiplied by width (A), because the water will have more to push on.  (Much to Pooh’s relief this means that tubby is good.)  It should be of as dense a wood as you can find (?) so that it will sink a bit and not be influenced by the wind.  And, finally, it needs to be rough, because that will create more drag (Cd).  Bark is good as well.

Equipped with this knowledge how is it possible that each and every one of us will not in future emerge triumphant from round after round of our favourite pastime?  Except, of course, as those Bears of Great Brain with whom I share my home point out, by the time I have applied the formula and found the ideal twig they will have finished not only the game but also the picnic that inevitably accompanies it and be ready to pack up and go home.

Rooftoppers ~ Katherine Rundell

STL1040KIDS_328906kThis week has been one of those periods when I have only had short stretches of time in which to read and so I’ve turned again to children’s fiction and have been laughing and crying over Katherine Rundell’s novel for, I would say, a Key Stage 2 audience, Rooftoppers.  

Rooftoppers is Rundell’s second novel and earlier this month it won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.   It tells the story of Sophie whose life has been saved by kind, intelligent, but other worldly, Charles Maxim, when the ship in which she and her mother were crossing the Channel goes down.  As far as anyone knows Sophie’s mother was drowned and Charles takes the child into his own home and brings her up as if she were his daughter.  However, the evil Miss Eliot, representative of all those authorities who set out to bend the world into their own po-faced image, is not happy about the situation and when Sophie reaches her twelfth birthday it is decreed that she should no longer be allowed to live with a single man to whom she is not related. Desperate to escape being separated, Sophie and Charles take off to Paris in search of the mother Sophie is convinced is still alive taking with them little more than the girl’s beloved cello.

Does Charles really believe that Sophie’s mother can be found?  Probably not.  But as his maxim in life is the oft repeated never ignore a possible he aids and abets his surrogate daughter as she tries to tackle the French bureaucratic system.  When they are unmasked as renegades from British Justice (?) however, drastic measures are called for.  Charles cannot see any way forward but to ask Sophie not to leave her room while he continues the search alone.  Unable to accept this, Sophie finds her own way around the Parisian scene by taking to the rooftops.

Once out of her attic bedroom skylight, Sophie gains entry to a world inhabited by a group of intrepid children who have made the roofs of the French capital their own. Inspired by her own time as a rooftopper while studying at Oxford, Rundell explores the reasons that have led these homeless wayfarers to make their homes in the sky and the ways in which they manage to survive in what to most of us would be a perilous environment.

Do they manage to find Sophie’s mother?  Well, that would be telling.  But, whether or not their Sophie’s quest is successful, the journey is sublime because Rundell has such a wonderful way with language that no one who loves words can fail to be captivated.  Who amongst us would not agree, for example, that

Books crow-bar the world open for you.

Or wish that this could be said about ourselves.

His jersey was threadbare, but his face, she thought, was not.

And would not many of us agree that

most lawyers seem to have the decency and courage of lavatory paper.

I’m sure Shakespeare said something very similar, although possibly not half as well.

When Sophie’s anticipatory excitement almost gets too much for her we are told that

her heart was hummingbirding

and I, for one, am much reassured by Charles’ belief that

everyone starts out with something strange in them.  It’s just whether or not you decide to keep it.

Let’s hear it for those of us who opted to not simply keep the strange, but to nurture it as well.

Charles is full of wisdom of the very best sort.  As the story draws to a close he tells his adopted daughter that

It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things.  It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it.

As far as I am concerned it is difficult to write extraordinary books for children but it is certainly a talent that Katherine Rundell has been blessed with and I will certainly be looking out her earlier novel, The Girl Savage and be putting in an advanced order for her August publication, Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms.

She Is Not Invisible ~ Marcus Sedgwick

IMG_0669One of my January ‘not quite resolutions but outcomes I’d like to achieve during the next twelve months’ was to read more fiction aimed at children and young adults.  As you probably already know, I spent almost twenty years lecturing in this area, having spent the previous twenty running various school libraries, so perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that for a time I veered away from the category.  However, sitting in the basement at Heywood Hill (that shop has so much to answer for) and pouring over their wonderful selection of children’s literature I realised how much I was missing being up to date, especially in relation to picture books and YA material.  Inevitably, during my ‘sabbatical’ a whole new raft of writers has come onto the scene and I shall need to do some research before I dip into their work, so initially I’ve gone for the more recent publications by authors whose work I already know and love, including Marcus Sedgwick’s fascinating novel, She Is Not Invisible.

One of the most remarkable features of Sedgwick’s novel is the fact that he writes it almost completely without reference to what anything in the setting looks like.  This comes about because the first person protagonist, sixteen year old Laureth, is blind and as a consequence can’t tell us anything of the visual impact of the world around her.  What description we do get of the journey that she and her very much younger brother undertake comes from Benjamin’s point of view and as he doesn’t always understand what he is seeing this can be as disorientating for us as it is for Laureth, indeed, probably more so as she is used to interpreting her surroundings through limited and possibly distorted information.  It’s an interesting take on the concept of the unreliable narrative and a lesson in what that can mean when a literary feature steps out of the pages of fiction and into the real world.

Sedgwick takes this theme of interpretation of the world around us further in the story he unfolds.  Laureth is worried because she cannot contact her father, the author, Jack Peak.  After a successful early career writing humorous fiction, Jack has become obsessed with writing a novel to do with coincidences, or ‘co-inky-dinks’ as Benjamin calls them.  But what is a coincidence?  Is it something remarkable or is it a phenomenon easily explained when you actually look at the science and mathematics behind the likelihood of the event occurring?  Well, whatever else it is, it is the impetus that has driven Jack Peak’s life over the past number of years and that has also driven a wedge between him and his wife, so when he goes missing Laureth’s greatest fear is that this is the beginning of the end for her parents’ marriage.  Until, that is, she receives a mysterious communication from someone in New York who offers proof that he has found her father’s precious writer’s notebook and claims the reward advertised therein.  With only Benjamin (and Stan, but you’ll have to discover him for yourselves) as a guide, Laureth sets out to discover if this is indeed the truth.

As this is most definitely a thriller that is as far as I’m going in respect of the plot but some of the themes are worth considering further and again I ask, what is a coincidence?  Mathematicians will frequently explain away specific apparent coincidences by showing us that when the numbers are crunched the chances of that coincidence occurring are actually quite high. Any teacher knows that in your average class of thirty children there will be two who were born on the same day.  I don’t think I’ve ever taught a group where that wasn’t the case.  But what about the coincidence that happened to me on Christmas Day?  During the afternoon my god-daughter and I were discussing a play we’d been to see and completely out of the blue she drew an analogy between it and Churchill allowing the bombing of Coventry to go ahead during the Second World War so that the Germans wouldn’t know that we had broken their codes.  Then, later that evening, in the middle of a crime novel set in Canada, what did I come across but exactly the same reference.  What are the mathematical odds against that?

Coincidences have fascinated many of the world’s greatest thinkers.  Both Jung and Einstein wrote about them.  Einstein claimed that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.  That sounds really profound, but I’m not sure what it means.  Jung, on the other hand, made what seems to me to be a physics related statement when he claimed that;

the connections that occurred during a coincidence were not due to cause and effect, but … were acausal, which means that one thing had not caused the other thing to happen. Instead of causality therefore, he explained that things could be connected by their meaning; so the link between seeing a picture of a salmon just as you’re talking to a man called Salmon is that they share the same meaning.

This sounds to me to be describing a field relationship as opposed to the more linear relationship by means of which we tend to understand our lives, a concept that Einstein, as a physicist should have appreciated.  All of this, and a great deal more is explored in Sedgwick’s text but the author couches it in a manner that is guaranteed to catch the interest of any teenager who picks the novel up.

The question that Jack Peak has to answer is both more and less profound than those tackled by Einstein and Jung.  He has to decide whether or not he is going to let his obsession shatter his family life.  To find out which way he jumps and whether that jump is literal or figurative you will need to read the book.  Don’t be put off by the fact that it is aimed at a Young Adult audience. Like so many books with a YA designation this novel has much to say to an adult readership as well.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight ~ Christopher Edge

image.phpOne of my New Year non-resolutions was to try and read more YA literature in 2014.  There was a time when it was my job to know what was new in the Children’s Literature world and because I reviewed for a number of related magazines it was reasonable easy to keep up with whatever was being published.  However, since I retired I have lost touch with current trends and have had to admit, when friends have asked me for birthday and Christmas recommendations, that I don’t know what today’s children are reading.  So, one of the first things I did when the new term began and the city centre was rather quieter than it had been over the holiday period was go and have a real mooch around the children’s book section of our local  branch of Waterstones to see what was current and demanding to be read.

I have to admit that I automatically avoided anything that looked as if it was infested with vampires.  I am definitely vampired out!  Nevertheless there was plenty that looked interesting, some by writers I already knew and relished and others, like Christopher Edge’s Twelve Minutes to Midnight, by authors I had yet to read.

Edge’s series about Penelope Tredwell, the thirteen year old heiress and owner of the magazine The Penny Dreadful, is now well underway, the third instalment The Black Crow Conspiracy having just been published.  Twelve Minutes to Midnight is our introduction to this feisty young heroine, who may live two hundred and fifty years later and come from an entirely different strata of society but is surely a direct descendent of Joan Aiken’s irrepressible Dido Twite.  The Penny Dreadful  has known hard times but has been rescued by the serialisation of a series of thrilling stories penned by the reclusive Montgomery Flinch.  Flinch is such a retiring character by necessity because in fact the tales that captivate the magazine’s readers are being written by Penny herself but, of course, Victorian England is not a place in which it is possible for a young lady to make such an admission.  However, public opinion, no doubt fed by memories of Charles Dickens, demands that the author should make an appearance and read from his works in person, so Penny has hired an actor, Monty Maples, to stand in for her and appease the demanding readership.

Unfortunately, ‘Flinch’s’ appearance in public prompts the Physician Superintendent of Royal Bethlam Hospital (Bedlam) to seek his aid in discovering why it is that every evening at twelve minutes to midnight all the patients rise up from their beds in what appears to be a catatonic trance and start writing on whatever surfaces they can find.  Monty Maples is insistent that this is not what he signed up for but Penny forces him to visit the hospital so that she can accompany him and attempt to discover what lies behind this disturbing set of circumstances.  Although she has to fight to get the Superintendent to admit that she is even there, it is Penny who thinks to ask what the patients are writing and while it makes no sense to the characters in the book it is clear to the reader that somehow the afflicted are foreseeing the future and predicting what will happen in the twentieth century.  Why they should be doing this and what use the information might be to the villain of the piece I have absolutely no intention of telling you, although I might just drop a hint by saying that this is a book that Ron Weasley should definitely not read.

This was a good read and a perfectly decent way of spending a Sunday afternoon.  It was certainly a book that I would have recommended to my Year Six classes (10-11) and possibly one that I would have read to them in that precious last twenty minutes of every school day.  However, it didn’t really meet my criteria for the very best of children’s literature in as much as I didn’t feel that it was anything more than a rattling good tale.  Not that there is anything wrong with a rattling good tale and I’m sure that children who have read the first in this series will eagerly pick up subsequent volumes, but I like a bit more bite in my children’s literature, something that will get us talking about ideas in the book that reach out into the wider world.  I’m afraid that this didn’t offer that which is a pity because otherwise I might have gone out and ordered the next two in the series.  As it is, I am glad to have made Penelope Tredwell’s acquaintance but I think I’ll leave it at just the one meeting.

Malorie Blackman ~ Children’s Laureate

imagesYou might have noticed that it’s rather quiet here at the moment.  This is because the anti-histamines that I take on a daily basis regardless of the time of year have now been joined by the second dose of a different variety which I have to take once the hay-fever season begins.  Said season has been late in arriving this year, but last Wednesday I had to admit defeat and as a result I am now dropping off at the most inopportune moments.  I haven’t as yet slept through an entire twenty-four hours, which did happen on one memorable occasion, but nevertheless, I am finding it hard to get any sustained reading done and most of my waking time is being spent working my way through Cranford for next Wednesday’s Reading Group.  More about that at a later date.  However, I simply couldn’t let pass without comment the very welcome news that the new Children’s Laureate is to be Malorie Blackman.

Malorie Blackman is one of those authors whose work I automatically read as soon as it is published regardless of what it might be about or what the critics might have said.  She is a courageous writer who is never afraid to tackle a difficult subject just because her audience is generally under the age of fifteen.  You are most likely to know her through the Noughts and Crosses sequence in which she explores the tensions in a State where the colour of a person’s skin is recognised in law as a mark of rightful discrimination.  I don’t think that even now I have got over the shock that I received around fifty pages in when one simple sentence made me completely rethink not only what was happening in the book, but also what my own position was in respect of colour prejudice.  Saying any more would give the game away but if you haven’t read Noughts and Crosses then I can only say “do” and if you’re nor forced to reconsider your attitude towards prejudices of all sorts I shall be surprised.

In terms of the power of the writing, I actually think that the second major novel in the sequence, Knife Edge, is a better book.  For part of this novel we are asked to inhabit the mind of one of the major villains of the piece and if you had told me at the outset that I was going to have to spend time living inside Jude’s head I might have considered seriously whether or not I had the strength to read the work.  As it was I came away if not exactly sympathising with him, at least feeling that I understood what motivated him and indeed how strong any individual would have had to be to turn from the path of revenge that he takes.  It is relatively easy to make an audience empathise with the Romeo and Juliet figures of the first novel, but to bring about that same response for a man who will take a life sooner than thinking is a different matter altogether.

My favourite amongst Blackman’s works, however, is an earlier book, Pig-Heart Boy.  Blackman has spoken often of the disappointment she felt as a child that none of the books that she read featured children like her.  Cinderella was always white.  In many respects Pig-Heart Boy is as controversial as anything she has ever written, certainly at the time when it was published, but that controversy stems from what the book is about  and has nothing to do with the fact that the main characters are black.  This is a book about animal organ transplants, about whether or not, in the absence of a donor organ from another human, we should be prepared to use a heart from a pig.  The fact that Cameron, the youngster who needs a new heart, is black is as totally irrelevant as it would be if he were white.  I have read this book with classes of eleven year olds and it has prompted heated debate about both animal rights and the right to demonstrate in support of deeply held views. None of them have ever mentioned the colour of Cameron’s skin.  If you want a book to get any reluctant reader involved in both the action and the outcome of the fictional world, this one fits the bill.

So, if you’ve wondered who this new Children’s Laureate is, or if you’ve not even given it a second thought because children’s books are not your ‘thing’, please do take time to read some of her work.  I promise you you won’t be disappointed.  In fact it’s likely that you will be moved more deeply than you could have ever imagined possible.

How To Fall ~ Jane Casey

How to Fall, Jane CaseyHaving given myself a dressing down for falling behind in terms of what is current in children’s literature suddenly I find myself reading YA fiction at every turn, although if I’m honest this latest venture into the realms of teen lit came about by accident.  Amongst the quite substantial number of women writers recently entering the field of the police procedural one of those I’ve appreciated the most has been Jane Casey with her tales of DC Maeve Kerrigan.  I’ve seen Maeve described as a young Jane Tennison, which I think is a bit over the top.  She is nowhere near that hard.  I’m not certain, however, that this isn’t a description that might well be applied to the   female ‘detective’ in her most recent book, How To Fall, even though Jess Tennant is just fifteen.

I ordered How To Fall from the library assuming it would be another in the Kerrigan series (and for anyone reading this and is worried that Casey has given up on Maeve, there is a fourth volume coming later in the year) only when I got is home to discover that it is a YA thriller with young Jess as the heroine who sets out to discover the truth behind the death of her cousin, Freya, the previous summer.  Jess and her mother, Molly, have been estranged from the rest of the family since Molly left the village of Port Sentinel to marry and it is only the breakup of that marriage that takes her and Jess back to the place of her birth and into the very welcoming arms of her identical twin sister and the rest of her large family.  However, Jess finds it hard to settle in the small coastal community not the least because she is Freya’s double and her presence brings back disturbing memories, reawakening the teenage rivalries that may possibly have lain at the root of Freya’s death.  For even though the inquest has determined that Freya died accidentally the rumours that she may have taken her own life have never quite gone away.

Well, Jess may be physically like Freya but she is nothing like her in character.  Feisty is a mild word for young Jess and she is determined that she is going to find out precisely what did happen to her cousin; the more so after her first encounter with the town bully, Natasha, who, to put it mildly, is a nasty piece of work.  Get on the wrong side of Natasha and your life is going to be hell.  Ostracism is the least of your worries.  And, Freya had certainly got on Natasha’s wrong side by attracting the attention of Ryan, the young man Natasha sees as her own personal property.  Casey is excellent both at conveying the sheer evilness of cyber bullying and how insidiously it invades the lives of young people and also at exploring the way in which just one dominant character can take over the lives of those around her and destroy their ability to think and act for themselves.  As Jess learns more about what happened the previous summer she becomes more and more convinced that Freya’s death was no accident and even begins to question whether or not her cousin was murdered.

Unfortunately it is not only the teenage inhabitant of Port Sentinel who want to see Jess let matters rest, the police, in the presence of DI Dan Henderson, Molly’s one time boyfriend, are also disinclined to reopen the case and here I think is an indication of the one feature that doesn’t quite work in this novel.  If you are going to write a book for children or teenagers you always have the problem of what are you going to do with the adults.  Your readers certainly don’t want them hanging around and traditionally they are despatched on holiday or taken off to hospital or got rid of in some other convenient if not very convincing way.  The kind of questions that Jess is asking, the problems that she finds herself facing, should mean that she has contact with more adults than she does and certainly that her mother, Molly, should be taking more of an interest in what is going on.  But, there are sections of the book where Molly seems to conveniently disappear and whereas a YA reader might accept this, I’m afraid I don’t.  If you’re going to write a serious crime novel and that is what this is, then you can’t dispose of or ignore your prime witnesses just because they are over the age of consent.

Other than that, this is a cracking good crime novel with a plot that is unfortunately all too believable and a sparkling protagonist who might well grow up to be the next Jane Tennison.  And we will have the chance to find out because the blurb on the back of the book promises that this is the first Jess Tennant thriller.  Now that would be interesting, to take a character through from teenage fiction, introduce her into the police force as a career and then move her into an adult series.  I wonder if that is what Casey has in mind?

The One and Only Ivan ~ Katherine Applegate

imagesIndulging in a spot of idle web-browsing the other day I came across a review of a book for children by Katherine Applegate called The One and Only Ivan and, given that I have been complaining about losing touch with the world of children’s literature, I paused to read it.  If I’d realised sooner than I did that it was an animal book then I would probably have stopped reading, because as a general rule, unless they are of the quality of Charlotte’s Web, I don’t ‘do’ animal books.  However, I didn’t register that fact until the reviewer quoted the novel’s opening lines:

I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

and with those three short sentences any antipathy I might have been about to feel was immediately washed away. How can anyone resist such a wonderful narrative voice?  I searched high and low round our local libraries and when I finally found a copy sat down and read it in a single sitting, which is precisely what I’m going to urge you all to do, because this is a very remarkable book indeed.

Ivan, as you will have gathered, is a gorilla.  Although he can just remember some aspects of the life he led in the wild with his parents and his twin sister, Tag, he has, as we discover quite late on, blocked many of his memories in order to accept the life he now leads in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he and several other animals, including the elephant Stella, put on shows three times daily.  Now a giant silverback, Ivan is a wise and patient animal, somewhat bemused by humans:

I have learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.

It took me some time to recognise all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient.

Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.

Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.

It seems as if Ivan has become resigned to, even accepting of, his lot.  He has his friend Stella and also Bob, a small terrier-type dog, who finds his way into the enclosure that Ivan calls his domain, and sleeps every night on the great ape’s stomach.  (It has a tendency to make Bob sea-sick – all that up and down as Ivan breathes – but the warmth is nice.)  What is more, he has his art.  Ivan loves drawing things and the small daughter of the Mall’s cleaner, Julia, who is also an artist, keeps him well supplied with the necessary materials.  Perhaps nothing would ever have changed in Ivan’s life if Mack, the Mall’s owner, had not introduced a second elephant into the mix, this time a baby by the name of Ruby.  And, as Ivan watches Ruby’s gentle spirit being systematically broken he comes to a momentous realisation;

Ruby taps her trunk against the rusty iron bars of her door.  “Do you think,” she asks, “that I’ll die in this domain someday, like Aunt Stella?”

Once again I consider lying, but when I look at Ruby, the half-formed words die in my throat.  “Not if I can help it,” I say instead.

I feel something tighten in my chest, something dark and hot.  “And it’s not a domain,” I add.

I pause, and then I say it. “It’s a cage.”

And so begins Ivan’s campaign to ensure that Ruby has a better life than the one that he has known.  I can’t say any more without giving too much away, which is bitter indeed, because I could happily go on quoting from this book all day.  Suffice it to say that this is a novel about friendship, love, bravery, determination – I want to say about the unquenchable nature of the human spirit, except, of course, Ivan isn’t human, he is a gorilla. He is also one of the most remarkable and heroic characters that you will ever meet in literature.

It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I discovered that it has just been given this year’s Newbery Award for Children’s Literature.  As far as I’m concerned this book is well enough written, true enough to the emotional world of its characters and deep enough in its exploration of matters of far reaching consequence to hold its own in the short lists for any award you care to mention.  I will be giving a copy of The One and Only Ivan to every child I know and I can only urge you to do this same, if only so that you can read it for yourself before you wrap it up and pass it on.

Seraphina ~ Rachel Hartman

imagesOne of the things I really regret now that I am no longer at work is that I haven’t kept up with what’s new in the field of literature for children and young adults.  I’m still an active member of communities working in my other areas of interest, language studies and Shakespeare, but there is no children’s literature department in the University I’m now associated with and gradually my knowledge of what is current has begun to falter.  I would probably do more about this if I wasn’t aware that recent trends in the field aren’t particularly to my taste.  I’m not big into vampires and some of the more gritty realism is a bit too gritty for my liking.  However, over the past couple of months I’ve seen several excellent reviews for a first fantasy novel by an American born, Canadian resident, Rachel Hartman.  Called after its teenage heroine, Seraphina has won acclaim from critics and readers alike and has been shortlisted for several awards.  Now, fantasy I do like and so I put a claim in for this as soon as my local library ordered a copy.  It hasn’t disappointed.

I sometimes think that for fantasy to work it almost has to out realism realistic fiction.  While the world created might differ substantially from our own, it is imperative that we believe completely in the internal logic of what we are reading about.  The setting has to be consistent, we have to be able to see it in our mind’s eye and find no gapping holes in the fabric constructed.  The characters have to be three dimensional and if their circumstances dictate that they behave in ways that wouldn’t be possible in our reality they must at least be acceptable in theirs.  Psychologically their thoughts and acts need to bear witness to their back story and be seen to result from what happens to them as the story progresses.  The plot doesn’t simply have to hang together, it must have an inner rationality true to the probability laws of the setting in which it takes place.  And, perhaps most important of all, there needs to be an unswerving ethical thrust, because if fantasy is about anything it is about asking the reader to question the moral stance of their own society and culture.  Let one of these slip in the world of fantasy fiction and you’re lost.  Readers might just forgive an act of inconsistency in a realist novel (do better next time) but one false step in the world of make believe and the edifice the author has striven so hard to build in the mind of his or her audience will crumble irretrievably.

Hartman does not stumble.

The world she offers us is one in which the warring factions of dragons and humans have lived together in an uneasy alliance for forty years following a treaty made by Queen Lavonda and the Ardmagar of the dragons, Comonot.  But, Lavonda is old and Comonot is loosing the support of those dragons who regret the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and their traditional prey.  So, when the Queen’s only son, Rufus, is found dead with his head missing there is concern on both sides.  Was the murder committed by a rogue dragon or was it the action of the Sons of St Ogdo who, emphatically opposed to the treaty, might well have staged the crime to implicate the dragons and bring the fragile peace to an end?

Into this investigation, however unwittingly and unwillingly, steps Seraphina, daughter of the lawyer most closely concerned with maintaining the treaty and, as a court musician, witness to much of the heart searching and intrigue that the murder reveals.  Seraphina is talented, intelligent and deeply lonely, lonely because she carries a terrible secret which prevents her from allowing any but her closest family to come too close.

And there I have to stop, because if I say any more I shall give away too much and spoil the pleasure you might have if you choose to read this book.  I did, however, want to say just one thing about how Hartman manages to create a world that is so alien and yet so completely real because I think it says something about the different ways an author can set about presenting his or her world to the reader. Basically, you can show or you can tell.

J K Rowling takes up the latter option.  By creating a hero who himself  knows nothing about the world he enters she has the perfect excuse to have other characters explain everything to him and thus to us at the same time.  Think about the scene on the island when Harry first encounters Hagrid. The gentle giant kindly explains enough about the wizarding world for both Harry and the reader to make sense of what the young wizard is about to encounter and what he misses out Ron Weasley soon fills in for us.

Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, however, opts to show us.  His opening words, Lyra and her daemon, thrust the reader into a world which needs no explaining to the characters that inhabit it and it is up to the author to provide enough information, at the right pace, for the audience to build up a picture they can understand.  No one ever gets round to telling us precisely what a daemon is.  Why would they?  They all know.

Hartman follows the same path as Pullman and she does it very skilfully.  To give just one example: the musical instruments in this world include the flute, the ord and the megaharmonium.  Now, I know very well what a flute is and I’ve heard of the middle eastern, lute-like ord, so I am moved from the familiar, to the unusual, to the invented, which I have no difficulty in accepting because it has its place in a set I know and can connect with.  Besides, a megaharmonium is exactly what the word says it is and the noise is superb – at a distance.

For a first novel this is a very well crafted work and I’m only sorry that I have to wait until September for the next instalment.  Which is probably the best thing of all about really good fantasy, it never comes single handed.