Music: Dave Brubeck–Kathy’s Waltz
Five months sounds a grossly long time when it’s your final year of school. Long ‘enough to gain a lot and lose a lot, and go through a lot and end up pretty much where you began (goes without saying that I’ve gleaned vats of maturity and general excellence). All anybody needs to know is that I’m still thinking and breathing and most certainly writing, and do not intend to bury this blog in the near future. So, without further ado,
TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED ME
Miss Alexandrina Brant nominated me for this tag on Facebook a long time ago… The reason I never fulfilled my tag: I couldn’t make do with a simple list of titles. Per book, one paragraph summarising and one paragraph enthusing? That should suffice…
Category One: School Stories
- However I might fan over Springdale and the Chalet School, the standalone school stories are a better representation of the appeal of the genre. Just so you know school stories aren’t just squealing schoolgirls’ feuds, their authors weren’t imbeciles, and their readers aren’t blind disciples of utter lameness.
1. THE LEAGUE OF THE SMALLEST by Clare Mallory
The new Games teacher notices the irregularity of the school ‘crocodile’ (the two-abreast line in which the girls assemble for walks) and reorganises it in order of height. So the shortest (also newest, youngest and least adequate) Prefect, Jane, ends up marooned amidst the Juniors, and an idle Middle, Eve ‘Lanky’ Lancaster, leads the entire school to church. Big deal? In a traditional boarding school, Hell, yes!
Height: one of the simplest forms of diversity, and rarely addressed in any depth in the literary world. Mallory explores firstly the impact on an ordered society of, well, empirically reordering it—but the real consequence of the height-organised ‘croc’ is an idea: the idea that short means inferior. Thus, the girls at the end of the crocodile form a solemn alliance to prove the idea wrong. (Also: weird. I could’ve sworn this one was by Angela Brazil…)
2. EVELYN FINDS HERSELF by Josephine Elder
Evelyn and Elizabeth are so close they’re like one person. But the day their invincible partnership on the hockey field is split up, a rift opens between them. The book charts their last four years of school, during which they meet new friends—Elizabeth a powder-nosed hockey player, and Evelyn a fungi-loving teacher—and finally drift back together, but as different people, rather than two halves of one.
This is a real coming-of-age novel. It’s about friendship and imitation and compatibility, and the awkwardness of growing up and parting ways with old doctrines, but primarily it exults in human variation and finding one’s own niche. Even the extroverted introverts would relate to Evelyn like a kindred spirit.
- And did I mention neither of these books have antagonists? Another of my literary turn-ons.
Category Two: Fantasy
- I’ve never written Fantasy, and never really wanted to, but these three have significantly impacted me both on a personal and writerly level.
3. DRAGONSKIN SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George
When Creel’s aunt abandons her outside a dragon’s lair, hoping it’s the least some handsome prince can do to rescue her and all her family from poverty (oh, and the dragon), Creel is set for a long wait. Instead, the dragon in question invites her to choose a single pair of shoes from his hoard, in return for not bothering him again. Soon she’s on the city road in the hope of finding work as a dressmaker, as she always wanted, starting a war between humans and dragons (not as she wanted)—and, of course, getting her prince.
George is a fabulous children’s author. I can’t read her any more, because I find myself too critical, but SLIPPERS taught me about spunky heroines with unexpected dreams. I don’t know whether it’s the rich, layered (but accessible) world George creates, or the stunning voice, or the undeniable originality of the plot while remaining within the bounds of plausibility. In fact, it may be nothing more complicated than the first paragraph with which I first fell in love: ‘It was my aunt who decided to give me to the dragon. Not that she was evil, or didn’t care for me. It’s just that we were very poor, and she was, as we said in those parts, dumber than two turnips in a rain barrel.’ Tell me it doesn’t have everything.
4. FLY BY NIGHT by Frances Hardinge
Twelve-year-old Mosca is on the run. She burned down her uncle’s mill, and the word-wielding swindler in the town stocks is her ticket to a better life. But when Mosca discovers that her guide is under bribe to accost the pirate printing press goading the public to rise against the Guilds, she is embroiled in the world of lies and crimes she knows best.
The plot of this book is exceptional, but it’s Hardinge’s style—the imagery, oh, my gosh!—that blows me away. I have never read a book so packed with mind-bogglingly original similes and metaphors, without ever becoming cringy or overly poetic. And the style writes the world, the characters, the tone, and everything else. I can’t praise it enough. Plus, floating coffee-houses…a writer’s dreams on water…
5. GIFTS by Ursula Le Guin
Orrec Castro is supposed to have the gift of undoing like his father. But when he accidentally ‘unmakes’ his own dog, his gift is deemed too dangerous and unpredictable to be left to chance. Orrec’s father blindfolds him for three years so he can learn to control his power. But Orrec doesn’t have the gift of undoing at all—he has the gift of doing, of making…of writing. So who killed Orrec’s dog?
Again, the world-building is incredible. But this is an extremely different world to those in the books above. Le Guin’s Western Shore does not have the fantastical creatures of George’s Feraval, nor the bitter strains of poverty, class jealousy and corruption in Hardinge’s Fractured Realm. The Western Shore is a vast continent made up of a host of different people: it is a fantasy of race and cultural relativism, analogous but for the whisperings of sorcery to the City States of Ancient Greece.
I might as well say, GIFTS is the first in the Western Shore trilogy, and my favourite is really the third one, POWERS. It takes freedom, grief and madness to depths that make me shiver simply in remembrance.
Category Three: Contemporary
- My choice genre. Wide spectrum, though.
This appeared in my room one day, thin, with a faded cover and brown pages. I picked it up because that’s what I do with books—and had finished it by the end of the day. It’s about a normal girl with a normal life and normal, fairly mediocre problems. It takes place over three days, during which she looks back on the previous week and resents everything in her life. And finally she gets to the end and…lets go. Cuts loose. This book took my angsty teenager-ness and let me breathe.
It implements another of my choice techniques: the anti-climax. And it taught me that it’s totally okay to write about the mundane, as long as you have something interesting to say about the uninteresting.
7. THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock
Cathy pushes her ex-best-friend off a cliff, gets her favourite teacher fired and eventually escapes the island in secret. Dual narrative with her uncle, who lived (ahem, subsisted) on the starving and tyrannised island during the Occupation in the 40s.
This book captures everything I hate about the place I live. Mary Horlock went to school with my mum, as a matter of fact—and this book was a huge surprise to me, because I’ve never read anything decent that came out of Guernsey (except Les Mis, if we can claim any credit for that). It explores all the horrors of living in close proximity with your enemies, the madness of private girls’ schools in the 80s, and the lies that keep a small island from civil war. Microcosmic settings get me so excited.
8. THE GIANT GOLDFISH ROBBERY by Richard Kidd
Roughly, two boys trying to apprehend the robbery of twenty enormous koi carp end up locked in the van with the carp. A wall of boxes (full of clocks) screens the stolen fish (and boys) from view. Across the journey from Wales to Dover, the boys set eight thousand alarm clocks to go off at the same time, to alert Customs to their predicament.
I was only eight or so, but I have never forgotten ROBBERY. It taught me that wackiness makes for memorability, and it’s for that reason I write whatever extraordinary situations my brain comes up with, and try to live at least one every day; that way, anytime someone asks me how I am, I have an immediate list of unexpected responses.
Category Four: Classics
9. GREEN DOLPHIN COUNTRY by Elizabeth Goudge
Distracted by the delights of China, William accidentally deserts the Royal Navy. Now with a warrant on his head, he escapes to New Zealand, where he can fund himself a new living, and writes back to Guernsey for his wife-to-be. But out of the two sisters Marguerite and Marianne, who both love him, he can never remember which is which. He writes for Marianne, the sweet, happy golden girl; but doth sail halfway across the world to him the real Marianne, ambitious and fractious. Their marriage is fraught with murdering natives and shattering earthquakes, as well as quarrels, whereas heartbroken Marguerite, stuck on the island, takes up the habit.
Quite apart from the tragic mistake that composes the premise, the unrestrained passages of quiet exalting imagery that infuse the text, and the unexpected tale of fierce survival lurking behind the first few hundred pages of ordered Victorian society, Goudge’s chief feat is Marianne. Marianne is irreconcilably despicable and relatable. She is so, so flawed in her intense, famishing passion. She has all confidence that she can achieve anything she wants…except happiness; and in that respect she has zero self-esteem. No matter she’s two centuries old, she’s the most accurate depiction of a teenage girl I’ve ever read.
10. THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins
The instant that drawing master Walter Hartright meets his new student Laura, he sees an uncanny resemblance with the young woman who recently escaped a nearby asylum. When Laura’s new husband falls into financial difficulties, and plots to switch her for the terminally ill Anne and gain Laura’s inheritance, it’s up to Walter to restore Laura’s identity. And there’s someone who’ll burn churches to keep him quiet.
Mystery above mysteries! In legal style, Wilkie Collins writes a succession of narrators in a grand roll of testimonies. Scandal, insanity and arson (and an Italian Count): they’re all there. Apart from the unusual structure and complex plot, Collins’ characters are beautiful. Walter is more willpower than archetypal sleuth, and even Laura, whom one might imagine to be a passive victim, is likeable enough to drive the emotional journey. Every secondary character is distinct; most especially Laura’s half-sister Marian, whose devotion and intelligence are a wonderful testament to Collins’ stance on women in the nineteenth century. Well, the entire book, if it comes to that, declares the disadvantageous position of women, whether clever, married or mad.
- I dare you to pick one of my ten—any one!—and add it to your reading list.
Post coming soon: music and writing, as part of the TCWT February blog chain. I intend to have a decent crack at keeping this blog up to date, so don’t leave me just yet!