My Lockdown Books: Fifty Two

I met Mollie Hunter a couple of times: once at a book festival I organised to mark the Carnegie Medal, held at the original Carnegie Library in Dunfermline.  Mollie was one of three Scots to win the Medal (for The Stronghold) and she was our guest of honour at an Orcadian ceilidh.  The first time I met her, though, was in Edinburgh at the launch of a book called Reading Round Edinburgh.  Mollie used the city as a setting for many of her books and some of them are mentioned in the volume edited by Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.  However, my favourite of her books is not mentioned, although it is entirely set in the city.

I read The Dragonfly Years as a teenager not long after it was published.  I hadn’t read the book to which it is a sequel (A Sound of Chariots) but that mattered not a whit.  I was completely entranced.  It’s set in the 1930s against a backdrop of rising fascism at home and abroad.  Bridie, the heroine, lives with her strict (perhaps narrow) Brethren grandparents and works in the family florist business.  It’s the story of her growing desire to write, to experience more of life, to become her own person – if she can only discover who that is.  And it’s the story of her meeting with Peter McKinley and their developing relationship.

I often reread The Dragonfly Years and every time I do I’m gripped again.  It stays in my head and when I walk round Edinburgh I subconsciously note places mentioned in the book.  I have to let you into a secret.  I still haven’t read A Sound of Chariots.  For me, Bridie will always belong in The Dragonfly Years.

My Lockdown Books: Twenty Three

You were expecting Anne of the Island, weren’t you?  I’m not surprised as I’ve cited it as one of my favourite books, never mind my favourite book by LM Montgomery.  That remains true but Rilla of Ingleside is a book that’s fascinated me since I first read it as a child.  And, of course, there’s so much of interest in it that it stands reading again and again (in common with much of Lucy Maud’s output).

First and foremost for me as an adult reader, it’s a Great War story and I have a particular fondness for those.  What I love especially about it is that it’s a home front story.  And it’s the Canadian home front which makes it unlike novels depicting the British home front which is what appears in most books I’ve read.  The war isn’t just over there; it’s on another continent.  There’s no chance of soldiers or nurses coming home on leave.  So there is distance, both geographically and in the perception of what is taking place in Europe.

It’s also a coming-of-age novel.  Rilla is the youngest child of Anne and Gilbert Blythe.  She’s a bit spoilt, certainly immature and desperate to be grown up and taken seriously.  She’s fifteen at the outbreak of war and the most important thing in her life is what Kenneth Ford thinks of her.  By the end of the war and book she has changed as most teenagers will but some of that change is due to the personal and national impact of the Great War.

First published in 1921, Rilla of Ingleside was written very soon after the war ended when Canada, as other countries, was coming to terms with the conflict and dealing with the after effects.  I’m not a historian but I think that gives us a less revisionist view of life and sentiment on the home front.  LM Montgomery was, of course, to some extent limited by what her publisher would accept in a novel for young people.  But she does show some of the different ways the war was viewed in a small community.  The book is layered and I know that I read it differently now than I did when I acquired my first copy (with Kim Braden on the front cover) in 1981.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

If you were looking for a novel that captures the popular essence of Edinburgh in the 1930s, there’s a fair chance you would light upon The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Whilst it’s possible that more people remember the film than the book, Muriel Spark’s best-known novel lives on in the collective memory.

It’s difficult to understand why yet another edition should be thought necessary; there already exists a plethora.  However, this one, published by Barrington Stoke, another fixture in the Edinburgh literary scene, is slightly different.  Not in terms of the text, I hasten to add.  It is complete and comes to us direct from the mind and pen of Dame Muriel.

Barrington Stoke has produced a super-readable edition.  This is the publisher’s own description.  The weight of the paper is heavier than is usual, the typeface is one that is specially created to assist reading, the pages are yellow and the text black, the typeface is larger than normal and the spacing is generous.  None of this will surprise those who know Barrington Stoke’s work.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the fourth in a series of dyslexia-friendly classics, a relatively recent departure for the publisher and one designed to make more books more accessible to more readers.  Long may it continue!

Carnegie Medal

The nominations for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals were published today.  As a former judge, I’m always excited, interested and sometimes disappointed.  Like any other young people’s book enthusiast I have my own opinions not only of the books that make it but also of the general trends in the award.  It’s a long time now since I was on the judging panel and almost inevitably I have a suspicion that it was better in my day!  However, even if I could define what I mean by ‘better’, the truth is that the entire process is highly subjective.  Yes there are guidelines and criteria but it would be disingenuous to suggest that personal preference is entirely laid aside during the judging process.  After all, the panel is made up of readers who are all affected in different ways by books.

Having said all that, though, there have been some recent nominations and/or longlists that have left me feeling distinctly uneasy about the way the Medal seemed to be going.  In my opinion they were full of worthy books dealing with some kind of topical issue reminding me very much of the didactic novels of a former time that were roundly slated.  I don’t mean to suggest that none of the titles was worthy of inclusion but the lists made me feel weary.

All this means that I was nervous about today’s unveiling.  But I needn’t have been!  With reservations (see below), the nominations list (available at https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2020_nominations_carnegie.html) is one of the best, most diverse I have seen in a long time.  For those who don’t know, any member of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) may nominate one title.  In practice, most of those who do so are children’s and young people’s specialists working in public and school libraries.  They’re the ones who see (and hopefully read) a wide range of books throughout the year.  Many of the nominators are members of CILIP’s special interest group the Youth Libraries Group (YLG), the body that actually makes the award on behalf of CILIP.

Every year I nominate a book that I deem worthy.  Only once has a book I nominated won.  That was Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.  But I persevere.  It’s tricky though as there are so many excellent books to choose from.  Even in the days when I could nominate two titles I swithered until almost the closing date.  Now it’s almost impossible and I find myself second-guessing what might be nominated by my fellow professionals.  This year I had four titles in the running and actually I was fairly sanguine as I felt they were all books that others would nominate.  BUT I HAVE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!  Two of the four are missing from the list and I want to shout at someone but I’m not sure whom.  Maybe myself.  Did I make the wrong choice?  But who’d ever have thought that no-one else would nominate the superlative Elizabeth Laird’s A House Without Walls?  I’m pretty sure it’s eligible in terms of publication date and it is brilliant.  I’m less surprised that The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth is missing.  Not, I hasten to add, because it isn’t good enough; just because Laura is less well-know than Liz Laird.  As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I loved The Light Between Worlds.  One of the criterion for the Carnegie Medal is that the book should live with you after you’ve finished reading it.  Laura’s book didn’t do that; rather I continued to live in it.

On a more positive note I am relieved that The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay has made the list.  And so have a number of other books I enjoyed: Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon, Clownfish by Alan Durant, The House of Light by Julia Green, The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis, All the Lonely People by David Owen, Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer and Anna at War by Helen Peters.  If you haven’t read these make them your reading list for the rest of the year.

And, of course, to those add my nomination.  The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery.

 

 

Christmas Day

DE Stevenson was a best-selling author of her day, the mid-twentieth century. She wrote romances and family stories often with a bit of an edge. A number of different publishers have re-issued her titles recently but it’s also possible to buy first editions of many of the books. She’s another author that Mum read and collected; I read them intermittently over the years and kept Mum’s collection after her death. I have lots of favourites: Charlotte Fairlie, The Blue Sapphire and Katherine Wentworth spring easily to mind. But my choice for this list settled on Listening Valley. I like the settings, the heroine and the meandering story without any real plot. I feel as though I’ve just stepped into someone else’s life when I read it.

And finally we come to Until We Win. It has so much going for it: written by Linda Newbery, published by Barrington Stoke and with a plot about the campaign for votes for women, it ticks loads of boxes. But actually it’s a self-indulgent choice as it’s dedicated to me. I never ever imagined that an author, a well-respected, prize-winning one at that, would even consider dedicating a book to me. And on days when I feel disheartened by my impending redundancy it helps me to remember that maybe I have made a difference through my work.

Christmas Eve

If you’ve been reading this blog of mine for any length of time you’ll be familiar with my panegyrics on LM Montgomery. I make no apologies for these; she’s a great writer. I recently had the chance to purchase a first edition of my favourite, Anne of the Island, but had to decline due to the ridiculous (albeit realistic) cost. However, I did avail myself of the opportunity to buy a first edition of Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne sequence. For a whole raft of reasons it’s another of my favourite books. It’s the story of four years in the life of Anne and Gilbert’s youngest child, years that see her develop and change from a somewhat spoiled, self-absorbed fifteen-year-old into a fairly mature young woman. I think it’s a wonderful character study. But, as the story begins in 1914, it is also an account of life on the home front of the Great War, the Canadian home front of course. Looking back I realise that it’s the first First World War novel I read. I can’t honestly say that it’s what sparked my interest in the period but it may well have contributed to it.

As I’ve commented on elsewhere I’ve recently started reading detective fiction having eschewed it all my life. One of my favourite newly discovered authors is Jill McGown, author of the Lloyd and Hill series. I’ve read and re-read these a number of times and love the developing relationship between Lloyd and Judy as well as the murder mysteries. I chose Murder at the Old Vicarage (originally entitled Redemption), the second in the series, fairly randomly. It’s set during a snowy Christmas and the descriptive writing is evocative. As well as great characterisation and an engrossing mystery, there are some interesting side issues to consider. It’s an ideal Christmas read, I’d say: involving and gripping without being too complex.

23rd December

My friends Anna and Suzanne, who lived across the road from me growing up, owned a copy of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and kindly lent it to me and my sister to read. It’s one of the few books that Ann and I both read as children that we both liked and still like. Mum also liked it and she went on to collect all of Gwendoline Courtney’s books. After she died and her collection came to me I read these other titles but for a long time it was just Elizabeth and her family that I knew. Its original title was Stepmother which gives a clue to its plot but only a partial one as it turns out. The four Verney sisters are all horrified when their father remarries but Nan, the stepmother of the title, turns out not to be wicked and is, in fact, responsible for changing all of their lives for the better. What I liked, and still like, was the depiction of family life: the squabbles, the fun, the inter-reliance. It’s one of my feel-good books now and I often read it in times of stress.

Okay, cards on the table: I chose to read Summers of the Wild Rose by Rosemary Harris because it is partially set in Innsbruck. A devotee of the Chalet School books from a young age, anything to do with Austria, and Tirol in particular, jumps out at me. This is not the Chalet School by any stretch of the imagination but a diligent reader of the early books in that series will recognise the setting in time as well as place. Part one of Summers of the Wild Rose is set in 1936 in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism. It’s told from the perspective of Nell Dobell an English girl who travels to the Austrian city with her choir to take part in a music festival. There she meets Franz and sees for the first time the corruptive nature of power. The second part of the novel is set well after the Second World War and we meet Nell as a mature woman, still involved in the musical world. And we also meet her niece through whom the past is resolved.