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Exposure by Mal Peet

The lovely people at Walker Books have just sent me a copy of Mal Peet’s new book, Exposure.  I’m a huge fan of his books and I could hardly wait to read this one.  But it might all have been so different had I not been judging the Carnegie Medal back in 2004.

As a judge for the Carnegie Medal, one of the things I learned was how important it is never to judge a book by its cover.  My heart sank a number of times as I ploughed through the longlisted titles.  Often, reading the book didn’t change my initial opinion but there were some glorious exceptions. 

One of those was a thin book with a green and black cover that had a picture of a footballer on it.  The blurb compounded my prejudice by telling me where it was set.  Great, just what I needed:  a story of football in South America.  Not, I thought, my kind of book at all.  However, there was no option but to read it and there wasn’t enough time to put it off.  So I started and found to my surprise that it wasn’t too bad.  I kept going and gradually realised that I was hooked; I really wanted to know what happened and I couldn’t put it down. 

That  book was Keeper by Mal Peet.  In spite of the cover, it is only sort of about football.  I know that’s not good English but it’s true.  One of the main characters is a footballer but, really, that just provides a backdrop for the unfolding action.  The South American setting is more important but that didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment.  We didn’t short list the book but there was general agreement that it was well-written and that we’d like to read more of Mal Peet’s work.

A few months later, I was at the Youth Libraries Group conference where I picked up a proof copy of Tamar, Mal’s next book.  Having a few minutes to spare before the day’s first session, I began reading the first chapter. 

Tamar is a hugely different book to Keeper.  Think of resistance fighters of the Second World War and you will almost certainly have France in mind.  This novel, however, focuses on the intertwined and inter-dependant lives of one cell of the Dutch resistance during the cold, hungry winter of 1944.  It tells two stories: that of the eponymous present-day heroine alongside her SOE agent grandfather’s.  The shift between the two is skilful and unobtrusive, the one often coming as a relief from the other.  For this book is not an easy or undemanding read.  It is powerful and shocking but it is also memorable and compelling.  As Tamar uncovered her grandfather’s tragic and terrible story, I was as surprised and horrified as she was. 

Tamar  was much more obviously my kind of book and I took it into the conference with me and read it all the way through the first session and at other points throughout the day, finishing it before I went to sleep that night.  It has become one of my all-time favourite books and I was delighted beyond expression when it won the Carnegie Medal.  After this Mal Peet came to speak at a number of events I organised and I was charmed to meet him and his wife. 

But back to the books.  Tamar  was followed by The Penalty, the second title (after Keeper) of what are now known as the Paul Faustino books.  It’s much darker than Keeper and, I think, a much more complex novel.  It deals with slavery and the occult as well as football and, like Tamar, moves backwards and forwards in time.

The Penalty  was published in 2006 and so I’ve been waiting more than two years for Mal’s next book.  Exposure is another Paul Faustino book.  Perhaps I should explain who Paul is.  He’s not the main character in any of the books but he always plays a significant role.  He’s a sports journalist working for a respected national newspaper.  He’s a likable character without being flawless.  In Exposure, he plays an important part and was one of the few characters I knew I could trust.

This is another book with a football background; it tells the story of Otello, a brilliant striker who has just joined Rialto.  He is black and from the north of the (un-named) country.  Rialto is in the south and is almost exclusively a white club.  The story is about racism but only partly.  Intertwined with Otello’s story is that of Bush, a street kid.  But the book isn’t just about the chasm that divides these two people.  There’s corruption and deception and lack of trust.  Good people make mistakes and the wicked prosper but the opposite is also true.  And that’s what I liked about Exposure – and what frustrated me.  It’s not neatly tied up and characters don’t all get their just desserts.

Mal Peet’s writing is excellent and the way he manages the different strands of his plot is masterly.  I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  As far as I’m concerned, this is the best of the Paul Faustino books and nearly as good as Tamar.  If it’s not at least short listed for the Carnegie I’ll be outraged! It’s emotionally compelling and realistic and there’s no jarring happily-ever-after ending.  Or, at least, not for all the characters…

Morris Gleitzman

A few weeks ago, I was at the Youth Libraries Group conference in Lancaster.  It was a great conference, probably the best YLG conference I’ve been at, and one of the highlights was meeting Morris Gleitzman and hearing him speak.

I’ve always liked his books, especially Two Weeks with the Queen, which I often use with school groups in my Ways Into Reading sessions.  I like it so much that I bought another copy of it at the conference so that I could get it signed.  I’ve never really lost my excitement at meeting authors even after all these years as a librarian.  There’s just something so special about talking to the people who’ve created the books I love.

However, Morris was at our conference at least partly to promote his forthcoming book, Then.  It’s the sequel to Once which tells the story of Felix and Zelda, two children in 1940s Poland.  Once is a good book (I feel I should maybe give that capitals) and it’s a deceptively simple one.  The language is simple and the plot is simple but there’s nothing simple about the book.  It deals with horrific situations and dreadful choices and real-life history.  I think the power of the book lies in its simplicity.  But Then is even more powerful.  It’s published in the UK in January but I have a proof copy.  I have no intention of spoiling the story for you but I do want to encourage you to read it.  I also want to warn you that some of the scenes will haunt you for a long time.  The words might be easy but the book is a very difficult read.  But read it – and remember that some people lived it.

Anne on Film

Being in Canada has rekindled my desire to visit Prince Edward Island and re-awakened my passion for LM Montgomery’s books.  My long-suffering sister had to listen to me burbling on about both.  She also had to listen to my memories of the BBC productions of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea from the 1970s.  If I remember correctly, I read Anne of Green Gables after having seen the show.  I know, however, that I read Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island before I saw them dramatised (together as Anne of Avonlea).  I still have my copies of these books with the dates I acquired them written on.  My memory was that I’d read them when I was very young but I can hardly believe just how young I was!  Maybe that’s partly why I’ve always been able to re-read them and find something new in them.

I loved these series and wrote to the BBC to tell them so and to ask them to repeat them.  They never did as far as I remember but they did send me some stills which I still have.  I think UK Gold has shown these programmes but I’ve never had access to it so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that Anne of Avonlea is available on DVD.  Needless to say, I placed my order immediately and last weekend I settled down (slightly warily) to watch.

Of course it’s showing its age and naturally there’s much missed out but for me age has not withered its appeal.  Kim Braden was always Anne to me and she didn’t disappoint as I revisited old memories.  And crucially, the scriptwriters didn’t mess around much with Montgomery’s stories.  And why would you?  They’re excellent novels at whatever age one reads them.

At the same time as I bought this DVD, I also splurged on the Kevin Sullivan trilogy.  I had seen them when they were shown on tv in the late eighties (I think) and enjoyed them so I was looking forward to watching them again.  Let’s just ignore the third part of the trilogy which is wrong on so many levels and makes me cross even though I think Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie give good performances.  But it’s not based on any of the books even though there was plenty of material to use.  The first film is, in my opinion, the best of the three.  Whilst not sticking completely to the book, it is recognisable as the novel Lucy Maud published one hundred years ago.  The Sequel is good too but it mixes up Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Willows.  I understand that film and books are different media but, even so, I don’t think it was necessary to do that.  As I’ve said elsewhere, Anne of the Island is my favourite book and I was sorry that all of the Redmond years were ignored in this adaptation.

However, what these films do have is the emotion and spirit of the books.  LM Montgomery has the power to make me laugh and cry (even on the umpteenth re-reading) and so do the Kevin Sullivan films.  The cast is excellent and technically they seem to me superb.  In my view, Megan Follows is wonderful as the young Anne but not quite so perfect in the Sequel.  But she probably suffers from my comparison with Kim Braden who will always be Anne for me.  Jonathan Crombie, on the other hand, is ideal as Gilbert and I can only wish that he had a bigger part in the second film.  He seems to have completely got under the skin of Gilbert as I perceive him in the books and manages to convey both his conflicting emotions towards Anne and Gilbert’s personality beautifully.  To my knowledge, I haven’t seen Jonathan Crombie in anything else but, on this performance, I’d be glad to!

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

I’ve been reading books by Eva Ibbotson since I was about sixteen.  Whilst browsing the adult fiction in Elgin Library (by this time I was a member of both Lossiemouth and Elgin Libraries) I happened upon A Countess Below Stairs, took it home, read it and loved it.   A few years later, I had a summer job with Moray District Libraries and I spent the first money I earned on all of Eva Ibbotson’s adult novels then available.  Yeadon’s bookshop in Elgin ordered them in specially.

But it wasn’t until much later, when I was working as a school librarian, that I read her children’s books.  They were a great find.  I’ve been reading, and raving about, them ever since.  I like them for lots of reasons but mostly, I think, for the quality of Eva Ibbotson’s writing.  She uses language so well; she almost doesn’t need to describe how someone is feeling or the atmosphere of a situation.  You can feel mood and emotion in the way she puts words together.

I was excited when I read about The Dragonfly Pool and gutted when Macmillan didn’t send me a proof copy.  However, I bought a copy as soon as it was published and then hoarded it for a few days.  I almost couldn’t bear to read it because then it would be over.  Strange?  Well, maybe.  But that’s how I felt.  Was it worth all this high drama?  Of course.

I’m not here to recount the story for you.  Go to the library and borrow a copy if you want to know what happens.  I am here to tell you that The Dragonfly Pool is every bit as good as anything else she’s written (well, The Star of Kazan might be slightly better…).  And again it’s the way that Eva Ibbotson crafts the English language that makes the book so memorable.  She makes her readers feel the innocence and freedom of the English boarding school and contrasts that with the lurking and pervading evil of Nazi-ism in Bergania before returning us to England and exposing us to Tally’s (the main character) despair.

Eva Ibbotson never has to point any of this out to us.  She shows it.  She also shows us places we’ve never been and never can be so clearly that we feel that we know them.   Whenever I talk about Eva Ibbotson’s writing I almost forget to mention that she writes cracking stories filled with believable characters.  She does, of course.  But I might read her books even if they didn’t have great plots just for the joy of living in her sublime language for a while.

New Old Books

I’ve just finished (in the last hour) reading Lady of Letters by Josephine Elder.  It was excellent.  Strictly speaking, it has no place in this blog as it’s an adult novel.  However, Josephine Elder is probably best known for her children’s books, published mostly in the twenties and thirties and still being read and collected today.  One of them, Evelyn Finds Herself, was recently republished by Girls Gone By.

Lady of Letters, first published in 1949, has been re-issued by Greyladies, an imprint of The Old Children’s Bookshelf in Edinburgh.  Firms re-issuing books seem to be springing up all over the place these days and this one is the latest to come to my attention.  Greyladies are bringing back into print adult novels written by authors best known for their children’s books.  Their other current title is by Noel Streatfeild.

As an enthusiastic collector and reader of books from a bygone era, I’ve revelled in this wave of publishing – even if my bank balance has suffered!  I’m doing my small bit to encourage it by including in Stirling Council Libraries’ forthcoming book festival an event entitled Once Upon a Time which will feature representatives from three publishers: Fidra, Girls Gone By and Jane Nissen Books.  Have a look at the website for all the details.  www.stirling.gov.uk/offthepage

But back to Lady of Letters.  I admit I was sceptical about it.  I had a dreadful feeling that it would just be an adult version of a school story.  But it really isn’t.  I was completely drawn into the story of Hilary Moore and found myself empathising with some of it on a completely grown-up level!  And I was astonished by some of the emotions and situations it dwelt on, not because of what they were but because of the book’s original date of publication.  How surprising it is in context I’m not really sure, though, as I haven’t read all that much adult fiction of the period.  And I don’t think the context matters if you’re just looking for a good read.  Go and find yourself a copy.

A sense of community and place

Some time ago I wrote an article for Folly, a journal written and read by children’s literature enthusiasts.  It was one of a series of Desert Island Books and in it I outlined the books I couldn’t live without.  As I wrote, I realised that they all had one thing in common: a strong sense of community and/or place.  I also realised that, for me, that was a huge part of their appeal.

One of those books was Anne of the Island by LM Montgomery.  Paradoxically, it’s the only title in the series that’s not set wholly in Prince Edward Island.  In it, Anne goes to study at Redmond College in Nova Scotia (at least, I think Kingsport is in Nova Scotia but I’ve never been totally sure) and much of the action takes place there. 

I’ve said before that it’s my favourite LMM book.  Why?  Because I want to be part of Anne’s group of friends and live in Patty’s Place with them.  Stella, Priscilla and Philippa are bright, funny, caring girls and are an excellent foil to Anne’s daydreaming nature.  The book effortlessly captures their joys and disappointments, their successes and disasters.  And it makes Patty’s Place real.  The camaraderie between the four girls and Aunt Jamesina creates a strong sense of community.

But the place that we are given a strong sense of isn’t Kingsport or Redmond College; it’s the Island.  The book starts and finishes there and we see glimpses of it in between.  As she sails away for her first term, Anne says ‘one’s native shore is the land one loves the best, and that’s good old PEI for me’ but she only fully realises how much she loves it after four years spent largely away from it.  It’s during these years that she grows up and becomes more mature, finally completely understanding what is really valuable.

It’s clearly significant that Anne refuses Roy Gardner but I think it’s also important that she only accepts Gilbert Blythe’s proposal once they are back home in Avonlea.  When he proposes in Kingsport, Anne is confused about many things (and I can’t tell you how annoyed I was with her when I first read the book!) but one of them is where she belongs.  By the time she finishes college, she has visited Bolingbroke, the place of her birth, and realises that she feels no tie to it but that her heart really belongs to PEI. 

It is a cliche that one has to leave something to discover what is truly precious but that doesn’t make it any less true!  And Anne of the Island exemplifies it beautifully.  It takes a bit longer and another cliche in the form of a deathbed revelation for her to see with whom her future lies but the two are inextricably linked.  Only with Gilbert in Prince Edward Island can Anne be completely happy.  And the tone, as well as the content, of the last chapter demonstrates that.

Maybe you’re wondering which other books I can’t live without (or at least couldn’t when I wrote my article).  Well, I think I’ll have to leave you to wonder!  Perhaps, over time, I’ll tell you about some more of them…

IFLA

Yesterday I met Anne Shirley.  Well, not really, of course, but someone from Library and Archives Canada dressed up as her.  This year, of course, is the centenary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables and in honour of that LAC has an exhibition in Ottawa.  I`m a huge fan of the Anne series and I had a very interesting conversation with the heroine!

I`m in Canada (although not for much longer) attending the World Library and Information Congress, the annual conference of IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations).  I`m thrilled to be here, both at the conference and in Quebec City.  Obviously Prince Edward Island would have been my first choice of destination but Quebec is a beautiful and historic city – more French than Paris, however, and I hide my Higher French very well!

It`s been a great opportunity to attend the conference courtesy of CILIP (I know, too many acronyms; this one is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals).  I`ve only been at one of IFLA`s conferences before this one and it was in Glasgow.  Don`t get me wrong; it was just as good a conference (in fact, it might have been better) but there`s an extra something being in a different country.  I`ve been to some excellent sessions but for me the best bit has been meeting librarians from all over the world: a lecturer from Nigeria, school librarians from Norway, a health services librarian from New South Wales and a university librarian from PEI amongst many others.

It`s almost time to go home now and I will be glad of a rest but I am so glad to have been here.  I`ve learnt lots from my colleagues worldwide and am looking forward to putting some of it into practice in Scotland.