2017 Book Discovery, 3: Elizabeth Hale’s pick

Today, it’s the turn of Elizabeth Hale to write about her book discovery of 2017.

I’ve made a number of lovely rediscoveries this year, including Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone​, about three children who become enmeshed a chase to find Arthurian objects, while on a family holiday in Cornwall.   It’s full of fascinating characters (the seemingly benign housekeeper Mrs Palk is my favourite), and gorgeous scenery, and an allusion to the Helston Furry Dance, which I’d heard of many times but not really looked up.  I spent a happy evening watching youtube clips of the Helston Furry (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNdo6wT9Ers), and it brought back memories of reading all sorts of mid-century British fiction in which folk dances, mummers, and other mystical happenings feature.
Another rediscovery is Alan Garner’s wonderful The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I found while tidying up bookshelves at my parents’ house.  I read it over and over as a child; I think it was the first fantasy novel I really read by myself.  It’s set in Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, and again, the natural features of the land connect with a very plausible set of old folk beliefs and old magic.  I don’t think I breathed, while reading the scene where the children go through the underground (and sometimes underwater) caves that feature in that landscape.
And last rediscovery is Norton Juster’s divine The Phantom Tollbooth, another of my fantasy favourites as a child.  Here, Milo, a bored child, finds a phantom tolbooth in his apartment, and, getting into a mechanical car, pays the toll, and drives into the allegorical kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, where he works to bring back Rhyme and Reason to the warring kings.  I’ve always loved wordplay, and the wordplay in this is clever and keeps on coming.  A great book for literary kids.
Elizabeth Hale runs the Antipodean Odyssey: Explorations in Children’s Culture and Classical Antiquity​ blog as part of her role leading the Australasian Wing of the Our Mythical Childhood Project.  She teaches children’s and fantasy literature at the University of New England.  
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2017 Book Discovery 2: Kathy Creamer’s pick

Kathy Creamer is writing about her 2017 book discovery today.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 It was a world full of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.

I first discovered Cider with Rosie when I was fourteen, and I was immediately hypnotized by the glorious visions that Laurie Lee’s deliciously descriptive language created in my mind. Through his words, I can go back to the Cotswolds, re-enter childhood and remember the taste of snowflakes on my tongue, glimpse the shimmering icicles that once hung down from thatched roofs, smell the enticing spices of Christmas and touch the gentle face of my long departed grandmother.

I’ve read all of Laurie Lee’s other works, As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, I Can’t Stay Long, Village Christmas, and most of his poetry, but Cider with Rosie has remained one of my favourites, a feast for the senses, and it’s a place I like to go to for comfort. I’ve never been without a copy. This Christmas I shall be re-reading, and remembering that long ago, there was once a place as sweet and intoxicating as apple cider.

Kathy Creamer is an illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in numerous books, in Australia and overseas. Most recently, she has illustrated the new edition of Max Fatchen’s A Pocketful of Rhymes(Second Look, 2017) and her work has also appeared in the anthologies A Toy Christmas(Christmas Press, 2016) and A Christmas Menagerie(Christmas Press,2017).

2017 Book Discovery 1: Natalie Jane Prior’s pick

Today, Natalie Jane Prior is writing about her book discovery of 2017.

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1913.

I’d never heard of this book, or its author for that matter, but a passing reference in something else I was reading piqued my interest enough for me to download the ebook.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are at the end of their resources. Middle-aged former servants, their London lodging house has failed, and they have been reduced to surviving on furtive trips the pawnshop, when miraculously, a new lodger arrives and takes all four empty rooms in the house. Mr Sleuth is a gentleman of quiet habits, much given to Bible reading, an educated person who needs the space for his unspecified scientific “experiments”. Best of all, he pays his account regularly in gold sovereigns.

Of course, it’s all too good to be true. Mr Sleuth may be quiet, but he also has a habit of creeping out of the house in the middle of the night, and he does strange things like turning all Mrs Bunting’s chocolate box pictures of ladies to face the wall (so their eyes don’t follow him around). There is also the matter of sinister little bag he arrived with, his only luggage, which so mysteriously disappears soon after his arrival, and the horrible smelling smoke he creates in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It doesn’t take long for the Buntings to start suspecting there may be a link between their perfect lodger, and the Avenger, perpetrator of the string of horrific murders of women that is currently terrifying London.

While Marie Belloc Lowndes has loosely based her story on the Ripper murders of a generation before, The Lodger is surprisingly bloodless. It’s a psychological parlour piece, taking place almost entirely in the claustrophobic setting of the Buntings’ sitting room, bedroom and kitchen, in which first the wife, and then the husband move from relief and delight in their good fortune to unease, concern, suspicion, fear and finally, guilt and complicity. For underlying everything is the Buntings’ own vulnerability as respectable working class people with limited resources. The failure of their lodging house has pushed them to the very brink. They’ve stared the poorhouse in the face. Where will they find themselves, if they’re revealed to have harboured a monster?

It’s easy to see why this scenario attracted a young Alfred Hitchcock; he evidently made a silent film based on the book. I remain mystified, however, that The Lodger is not better known. I sat up until the small hours reading it, and my first reaction was to wonder why, when there are books like this about, anyone would bother reading modern period crime fiction. Not only because the novel itself is so good, but because a modern author, relying on research and bringing contemporary prejudices to the exercise, could not hope to get the nuances that are so effortlessly reproduced here. For example, one can immediately see why Buntings have failed to get lodgers just from the description of the furniture and interior decoration. They’ve taken a house in a “better” part of town to attract a “better” class of lodger, but the ugly secondhand Victorian furniture Mrs Bunting has filled it with (both because she can afford it, and because it will last—which indeed it does, because I’ve got a houseful of it) would clearly have been a total turnoff to her prospective clientele. Then there’s the Buntings’ precarious situation. Mr Bunting was a middle aged butler who married a middle aged maid. How could a modern author possibly latch onto the fact that their options are limited because positions in service for married couples are invariably for a manservant and cook?

 The Lodger is available as an ebook in the Gaslight Crime series. I hope lovers of crime fiction are tempted to give it a go; it deserves to be better known.

(Note from Sophie: it’s also available as a paperback online)

Natalie Jane Prior is the author of many books, and is best known for the Lily Quench series, which has half a million copies in print around the world. Her most recent titles are the picture book Lucy’s Book  and the picture story book The Fairy Dancers: Dancing Days, both illustrated by longtime collaborator, Cheryl Orsini. 

2017 Book Discovery: introduction to a new blog series

Today’s the start of a new series featuring the reading picks of writers and illustrators: their book discovery of 2017. It can be a new book out this year, or an older one discovered for the first time, or an old favourite re-read and re-discovered. And in the introduction today, I’m featuring a book I hadn’t read since childhood, but which I re-discovered, in a new edition, after this year visiting the place where it was actually set: the place which is so much more than a setting in the book, but is a character in its own right. Having been there now, I understand exactly why that is.

The name of the book? It’s The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M.Boston. And the name of the place? It’s the Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire. I always remembered reading that book with its dramatic wintry opening in the middle of floods and snow as seven year old Tolly, whose parents are overseas, arrives to stay for Christmas with his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, the ancient family home. And there he gets to know and love his great-grandmother, the ancient, friendly, extraordinary house and the secret life of its ghostly inhabitants, the children of Green Knowe who lived there through the centuries and who are there still.

There was nothing frightening about this evocation of a haunted house; instead it was enchanting,  comforting and beautiful. I took to it immediately as a child not only because it’s very well-written and engaging and vivid but also because I think unconsciously it reminded me of our own ancient house in rural France, with its haunted yet warm atmosphere. Getting there for a holiday was always so exciting and I could totally identify with Tolly’s feelings. The book stuck in my head all those years because of it, but I had no idea that Lucy Boston had written it around an actual place.

It was when we were staying in Cambridge for a month this year that my friend and fellow writer Adèle Geras, who lives in Cambridge, told me about the house. So one beautiful June day we set off for

Green Knowe, aka the Manor, Hemingford Grey

Hemingford Grey and there, in that 900 year old house–the oldest continually inhabited house in Britain, apparently!–the book I’d loved came to life again in the most magical way. There, right there, was what Tolly had seen when he arrived that wild winter’s night, what he’d found when he explored that extraordinary house from top to bottom, what he’d seen when he looked out of the window at the glorious garden(though, granted, it was summer when we were there, not winter–but the Green Knowe series continued for another 5 books, and the summer garden certainly appeared in them.) Lucy Boston’s imagination had, it seemed, made visible what was there in those ancient stones, waiting to be evoked. And the fact that not only had her son Peter created the charming illustrations for the books on the spot as it were, but that his widow Diana still lived there and acted as tour guide for the pilgrims who came to the house, added to the wonder of it all. The strange thing was though that of all the people in the motley group Diana took around that day, we were the only ones who’d come for Green Knowe, for Lucy Boston the writer: all the others, mostly Americans, had come for Lucy Boston the patchwork artist! Her patchworks were famous it appeared…as famous as her books. At first it was disconcerting to me–and then I remembered Mrs Oldknow making patchwork by the fire and thought how extraordinarily apt it all was–a patchwork book of stories about a patchwork house whose elements from different centuries did not jar but worked as a harmonious whole..

I bought a new edition of the book from Diana at the Manor shop, as well as a couple of other books in the series. She told me that though the first two were still in print, the others had fallen out of print and so she’d taken the step of republishing them herself, and they sold ‘like hot cakes’. Back at our Cambridge flat, I re-read The Children of Green Knowe, and found its re-discovery deepened enormously by the experience I’d just had. Yet the original enchantment remained too. True reading magic indeed.

(I’m not the only one who loves this book; see this lovely review in The Guardian.)

Exciting See Monkey first reveal of draft copy!

It was so exciting today to meet over a very convivial lunch with the fantastic Kathy and Peter Creamer from Little Pink Dog Books and be handed a draft copy/dummy book of See Monkey, my forthcoming picture book with Kathy, to be published by Little Pink Dog Books in early June next year. Here, with their permission, is a bit of a sneak peek at a few elements. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the warm, lively and funny visual world Kathy has conjured up to bring my text to full colourful life and can’t wait to see the book out next year!

(By the way the finalised book will be in hardcover–and the photos don’t do the final colours justice)

Kangaroos: a memoir piece

 

Childhood, Australia. Left to right: younger sister Camille, brother Louis-Xavier, little sister Gabrielle, and myself holding baby brother Bertrand! Older sisters Dominique and Beatrice were in France.

And to follow up on the previous memoir piece I republished earlier this week, here’s another. Titled Kangaroos, it’s about the experience of being a schoolchild suspended between two school cultures, in Australia and France.

Kangaroos

In Sydney, school plodded on, seemingly never-ending. Every day, walking down the hissing shore of the Pacific Highway, we followed the same path, exclaimed over the same landmarks. Down the highway, plod, plod, till you came to our street, then down its eerily quiet and shady length to our house. On the way was a house, covered with creepers and with a magical garden full of beautiful old-fashioned flowers, presided over by two old sisters in cardigans, twinkling spectacles and blue-rinsed hair, whom I thought looked just like the good fairies in my favourite Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. And there was a creepy bit past which you had to run, before the mythologised figure of evil that might be lurking in it, caught you.

There was the block of flats, next door, filled with rich old people who mostly tried hard to ignore us noisy woggy interlopers in their hushed retirement. (Once, amusingly,  Dad got an anonymous letter, which had been shoved through our letterbox, and which asked ”the Frenchman with the loud voice” to ”kindly desist” from shouting too early in the morning at the kids! He didn’t obey…) There was one notable exception, though, a lively old lady whose late husband had once been an important diplomat. She owned a huge, ancient Rolls Royce that she once took us out in for a ‘spin’–actually a sedate procession– down the street, magnificent as a ship, with her tiny figure behind the wheel. She liked us so we were also invited back to her flat to exclaim over all the quaint souvenirs she’d collected in her long life, over all the continents. I remember particularly a flotilla of beautiful little ivory elephants of different sizes. She’d give us a piece of cake and say to Maman, “Well, you people really have been places, too, haven’t you?” And I’d think, well, but just to Empeaux, really, and Biarritz, and Toulouse–places mostly familiar, a little mysterious, sometimes. But mostly familiar. Not like her, with her exotic list of postings!

Whenever it came time for us to go away on our French holidays, other kids at school would be envious. “It’s not fair!” they’d chorus. It was one of the few times that I was pleased to be different, to have a chaotic, unusual family scattered every which way.”You lucky things!” the kids would moan. “Missing out on school!”

And I’d say, “Yes, but we have to go to school there,” but nobody really believed that. France was a mythical country. There could be no real school there, with teachers and chalk and homework. My friends merely indulged my repeated assurances that indeed there was a school in the village, and that we had to go there, at least some of the time.

But school there was, set just across the road from the driveway at the back of our house. The school consisted of a rendered brick building of two storeys, the first storey being the schoolroom, the top storey being the teacher’s house. There was a courtyard, fenced in with wire and cement, and discreetly to one side, a couple of ghastly, smelly squat toilets. In the schoolroom, there were rows of desks, pegs to hang up your coats and hats, maps, and a large blackboard.

At the beginning of our time there, each desk came equipped with ink bottles. As a small child, you first had to write on slates, with chalk, then progress to the ink. You had to write with pens dipped in the ink. We never used slates in Australia, or ink pens–those had gone out before our time–just pencils and later biros, and I struggled, especially when it came to the ink pens, for my writing wasn’t of the tidiest–eager, yes, but not tidy. In France, you had pieces of pink or blue blotter to work with, as you formed the unfamiliar curly letters in the exercise books whose pages reminded me of check aprons. Even the exercise books were different, with their thick glossy covers and their checked-apron pages. And if you smudged, oh heck! Madame Lafforgue would be behind you, sharp words at the ready, maybe if you were persistently hopeless, a clip around the ear, too.

One of the things that made our friends in Australia suspicious about the existence of the Empeaux school was the fact that no-one wore uniforms. Instead, you had to wear a nylon overall over your ordinary clothes. How I hated those things, which seemed to me the height of dagginess, worse even than school uniforms!

To the other children in the school at Empeaux, we were known as ‘les kangorous’. Barely believable, rather comic figures who suddenly bounced into sight, and just as inexplicably, bounced away again.

In Australia, I was sometimes singled out for cringe-making praise by the teachers(‘See, English is not even her native language, and yet see how well she speaks and writes it!’)In France, Madame Lafforgue often singled us out for special mention, too, so that in both places, we had the sense of being there, and yet not quite there. We could not be the same as the others, here or there. To the children of Empeaux, the very notion of school in Australia was as ridiculous as French school had been to our Australian friends. Those who knew where Australia was–and there were very few of them–imagined something that we couldn’t even begin to picture in our minds, let alone recognise.

The school was full of farmers’ children–Gisele, with her bright red cheeks, her voice which was an uncanny younger imitation of the way the older people spoke, as if they had a mouthful of the rich cake called fougasse in their mouths; Raymond and Alain, two strapping boys who marked time in the last grades of primary school–no way did they want to have to go to the town high school; Veronique, who was really friendly until the day I discovered she was copying all my work. I’d stared at her, rather embarassed, but Madame Lafforgue had noticed. Her withering tongue made poor Veronique cry, so that I felt cold with reflected humiliation, myself. I tried to show her that I didn’t care if she had copied my work, but she wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me, after that.

And then there were the others. Children as foreign as we were, and yet less. Their parents had come to the village, attracted by the work in the ceramics factory. There were two Portuguese families–Antonio and his two brothers; and Maria and Manuel. And then there were the Algerian boy, Mohammed, and his little sister, Aisha. Antonio and his brothers were as rough as the crewcut hair on their heads, dressed in tattered blue clothes, voices grating and harsh.

Maman, whose father was from Portugal, smiled and said they were from the ‘fin fond du Portugal”, the depths of Portugal, the harsh, distant, backward countryside. They lived in a dilapidated old barn on the outskirts of the village, without electricity or running water. Some of the villagers turned up their noses at them, even though it was barely 20 years since they’d got these self-same conveniences.

But it was no good feeling sorry for Antonio or his brothers. They would hit out wildly in all directions, and were much feared. Antonio protected his little brothers through thick and thin, and his attitude to us was of aggression mixed with fear. Just when he’d sorted out the French, thought he understood, along we came, of the place yet not of it, smelling of privilege and a life he could not even imagine.

So I came home one day with a tooth smashed in by Antonio, violence I hadn’t courted or understood. He’d been in the playground and had brought out his snack, a vanilla pod carefully wrapped in brown paper. I’d said, “What’s that?” And then he’d hit me. I didn’t understand, and the shock and pain of it was almost as frightening as the blood running down my chin.

Papa had waited for Antonio, the next day, after school. “Come here, boy,” he’d called out, in Portuguese, and after one horrified glance at him, Antonio fled. It wasn’t just the threat of retribution that had frightened him, though; he gave the impression of someone well-used to kicks and blows. It was the fact that my father, that stranger, the senior kangaroo, spoke Portuguese! Antonio never bothered me again.

The other Portuguese children, Maria and Manuel, lived in the village, in Monsieur Martin’s old house, when the latter died. They were from Northern Portugal, Maria never tired of explaining to us, waving a deprecating hand towards Antonio and his brothers from the ‘fin fond’. In her descriptions of her life there, their old home was a marvel, a place of marble floors and stone courtyards and fountains. “We were so rich!” she’d sigh, stroking our dolls’ hair. Because she and her brother were quiet and well-behaved, they were allowed to come to our place to play, and Maria would tell us stories of the wonderful places they used to live in. I half-believed her, but wondered why she and her family had come to live in Empeaux. One day, though, she was in full flow, telling us these stories, glancing around her as she spoke, so that her Portuguese palaces took on the atmosphere of our house. Then Maman came in, and said something to her, in Portuguese. Maria flushed scarlet, and stammered something.

I thought then that Maman had made a tart comment; but no, it had merely been to ask her what time their mother was expecting them. Like Antonio, she hadn’t expected my parents to speak Portuguese, and this sudden discovery withered her tall tale-telling. I was sorry; I’d liked her stories, and even though I hadn’t really believed in them, I missed the perfumed gardens and the almonds always in blossom, and the marvellous kinds of sweetmeats done up in silver or gold foil, that she’d told us about…

The Algerian children clung to each other, stepping carefully in the minefield of village society. They were the first of a new wave of settlers, and even the Portuguese children knew, in the instinctive, cruelly defensive way that all children soon learn, that they were at the bottom of the pecking order. Most of the children ignored them, but one or two, like Antonio, were actively vicious.

Mohammed was small and thin, his sister with a great shock of black hair, frightened eyes, and a nose that seemed to be always running. Of course, the children seized on this as a visible sign of difference, a reason as to why it was alright to persecute them, with Antonio as the ringleader. They were careful, of course, not to do it within earshot of Madame Lafforgue, who couldn’t abide bullying, but in the playground away from her eagle eye, it was a different matter.

You couldn’t help seeing it, hearing it, and I wished often that I  could be brave enough to stop it. And then, one day, quite suddenly, it did. I still don’t know what happened, but one morning, there were Mohammed and Antonio in the playground, throwing a ball at each other. At recess, they joined up again, and Mohammed’s little sister followed them. I said to Gisele, “I wonder how they managed to patch it up,” and Gisele, incuriously following my glance, shrugged her shoulders. She never wondered about other people. She couldn’t understand why anyone might do so.

My paper introducing contemporary YA afterlife fiction

I’m very pleased to announce that my paper, Mapping the undiscovered country: a brief introduction to contemporary afterlife fiction for young adults, has just been published in the excellent journal The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature. It is a short overview of some of the books I’ve been examining for the exegesis part of my PHD, and introduces some of the work I’ve been doing as I look at this fascinating sub-genre of YA speculative fiction.  (By the way, the paper only looks at that part of it, not at the creation of my own novel The Ghost Squad–the exegesis deals with that as well, it’s just not covered in this paper.)

Would be very interested to know what readers think, so do feel free to let me know!