Back in the days when Moray Libraries still needed me and my expertise, I had some responsibility for our Facebook page. For a while we ran a Friday challenge spot where people had to suggest book titles that had something in common. Easy stuff, like titles with names in them or a type of building. It was really just another way of getting people talking about books. There was nothing at all deep and meaningful about it. Anyway, I thought I might revisit the idea here. So today, let me offer you, from my bookshelves, fiction with colours in the title.
The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery
I’ve been living with this book for the last few months along with others taking part in the online LM Montgomery Readathon. It’s the story of Valancy Stirling who lives with her mother and cousin in a small town in rural Ontario. Her large extended family stifles her and her existence is narrow and uneventful. But her imagination is strong and she dreams of a castle in Spain and a hero who will rescue her. In the meantime she seeks out the nature books of John Foster and expands her horizons through them. After some hardship, miscommunication, exposed secrets and the passage of time, Prince Charming appears and he and Valancy live happily ever after.
That’s the book I read as a young teenager and hadn’t gone back to again. So I was quite pleased when Andrea and Benjamin chose it as our third readathon novel. The general readathon plan is that various people give video readings of a chapter and they are posted on YouTube at regular intervals. Each chapter is followed by discussion starters and NO SPOILERS are allowed. I’ve never been the kind of girl to read a chapter at a time, though. In primary school I frequently got into trouble for reading ahead in class books. I know! (You’ll understand why I have very mixed views about schools and reading.) Fortunately we’re all grown ups in the readathon and are allowed to read at whatever pace we like. So I re-read the book in one sitting – or maybe two. And what I discovered was, well a completely different book to the one I described above.
Valancy Stirling lives a constrained, limited life with her joyless mother and cousin. She is bullied and controlled at every turn by her narrow-minded, mean-spirited extended family. The only place she can live at all is in her imagination and she dreams of a different life where she can be free and give and receive love. Her one joy (although it is unsuspected by her bitter mother) is that she is permitted to borrow books from the local library. Not fiction for it is, if not sinful, then next door to it. But John Foster’s books about nature are considered to be improving and are therefore grudgingly allowed. Fortunately no other member of her dreadful family has read them.
And then a train of unrelated and unexpected events gathers pace. Valancy steps aboard and her life changes out of all recognition. The changes are of her making but they are fuelled by another person’s actions. Romance finds her but that is not the end of the story. In real life Prince Charming comes with secrets and a history. Valancy has to deal with those as well as the realities of her own life before the happy-ever-after can begin to be worked at.
And that is the beauty of LM Montgomery’s writing. Both of those descriptions are accurate (if brief) readings of the novel. Much of what the reader makes of her novels depends on each individual’s own experience, background and age. It’s why I enjoy her books so much and why I am so defensive about them. Certainly they can be read by children but they were written by a complex woman whose life was far from plain sailing. And that experience is there in the books alongside the lightness, romance and joie de vivre for which they are much better known. If a publisher were to retitle them and give LMM a nom de plume so that the books were not recognisable from the cover, they would fit right in on the adult fiction shelves of libraries and book shops
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
And now for something completely different. This is the first in a four book series starring Ottoline, a little girl who lives in a flat high up in the Pepperpot Building in Big City. Her parents are world travellers who collect interesting things. One day, when she is older, she will be able to join them on their travels but in the meantime she stays at home looking after their collection, while she in turn is looked after by Mr Munroe. The two of them are quite happy living there and keeping their eyes and ears open for interesting or unusual things to investigate.
The book is hilariously absurd and allows Chris Riddell’s imagination full rein. It’s told in large part through illustrations that blend seamlessly with the text. As an adult I love the series for its wry humour and ridiculous premise. Children love the books for their sense of adventure and freedom. Like LM Montgomery (in this, if nothing else) Chris Riddell understands how to write in levels which work in unobtrusive parallel and are treated equally so that no reader feels patronised.
Oh, yes, and I also love the allusions to all things Norwegian.
Red Sky in the Morning by Elizabeth Laird
I am a huge fan of Elizabeth’s writing. I am fortunate enough to have worked with her at book festivals and other events over many years. It’s always a pleasure to see her (and her husband David McDowall) and to talk about what is uppermost in her mind at that time. As she’s a woman who takes an intelligent and hands-on interest in the world, her conversation is always stimulating. And that spills over into her books.
Red Sky in the Morning was her first novel and, as she says on her website, it’s the only one that comes straight from her own life. The character of Ben is based on her own brother, Alastair, although the other characters come from her imagination. Anna is twelve when her brother is born, just on the awkward cusp of adolescence, where the strangest of things seem vitally important, embarrassing or significant. The novel is in the first person and we see everything from Anna’s point of view. (I love her voice; she’s at that wonderful stage in life where she knows herself fairly well, thinks she’s being mature and grown-up, and is sometimes, but still doesn’t have much life-experience.) Ben is born with hydrocephalus and although Anna loves him and spends as much time as possible with him, she is reluctant to let her classmates know the truth about him. For two years she keeps his condition a secret but inevitably the truth gets out and Anna is surprised by the reactions of her friends.
Reading it again now, I’m amazed that Red Sky in the Morning is a first novel. It’s so accomplished and insightful, capturing perfectly the precarious emotional life of a teenager as well as the stresses of family life. I’ve only ever read it as an adult so I instinctively look at the dynamics sympathising with Anna’s parents. However, Anna’s voice is so clear and strong that I also remember how difficult it was to be a teenager, certain and uncertain of life at the same time.