March Superlatives

I read thirteen books this month, thanks to panic over my review pile, my eighty minutes a day of commuting time, and the four-day Easter weekend. I’ve reviewed eight and a half of them (one of the pieces I wrote this month, a column for Litro that’ll be published soon, was about a book but not precisely a review of it), which means that Superlatives may be a kind of irrelevance. (I also plan to review the final book read this month early in April.) Still, as Vicky of Eve’s Alexandria has it, it’s good to write about everything I’ve read, and there’s a lot to say about these, so here we go.

most seriously unnerving: Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, which features an uncomfortably weird protagonist and a tense noir plot. I found myself uncertain what was going to happen next (unusual) and desperate to find out (even more unusual), but it’s Eileen’s bizarre psychology that really pulls you in.

quietest punch: An odd category, I know, but E.C. Osondu’s short story collection-cum-novella, This House Is Not For Sale, goes down in one sitting and hangs around hauntingly for a while longer. Told through the eyes of a little boy whose tyrannical grandfather is the patriarch of a family house in Lagos, it’s unsparing in its observations of how people wield power in a microcosm.

best Old-Fashioned Storytelling: This, I’ve decided, is a tie between two books. The first is Freya, by Anthony Quinn, which bounds from Oxford to Nuremberg to Fleet Street. It’s not stylistically challenging or innovative, but it’s impeccably written and the plot derives from the complex humanity of the characters and their motives—my favourite kind. The second is Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, which you’d think wouldn’t qualify at all, since it’s composed of film scripts and voiceovers and advertisements as well as just straight prose. It’s all about storytelling, though, and in its own beautiful, extravagant way, its storyline is Good and Old-Fashioned. I loved them both.

most resonant: I’ve been seeing echoes of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ever since I finished it. Exploring artistic representations of, and negotiations with, urban loneliness, it’s a book with incredible contemporary relevance. Even if you don’t like nonfiction (especially if you don’t like nonfiction), I’d really recommend this.

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bit anticlimactic: Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost right after The Lonely City was probably unwise. It’s a completely different approach to a very similar subject, and I felt as though  Laing had simply managed to get more out of it by virtue of her depth. I did get some interesting stuff out of Solnit’s book, about the captivity narratives of European settlers in  North America who were kidnapped by Native Americans (this is a whole subgenre of American colonial literature), but mostly it felt undercooked. Depressing, as I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas. Maybe I should try another of hers.

possibly shouldn’t have been a novel: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days, about riots in south London, felt more like a sketch for a miniseries. An excellent idea that read very visually and that lacked the in-depth characterisation that novels are designed to deliver better than any other art form. Would love to see it on ITV, though.

most heartening re: the younger generation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, a feminist fairy tale of a YA book that I’ll be reviewing in Shiny New Books next week. It’s about an isolationist community composed solely of women, and about how they respond when gender-based violence comes to their front door. The writing had the breathless over-eagerness common to a lot of YA novels, but I’m willing to overlook that for the utter organic wonderfulness of what this book is actually saying. (Which is: girl, you are more powerful than you have ever known.)

best time-killer: It seems like damning with faint praise, but I had two and a half hours to kill in Highbury before my singing lesson last week, and I passed most of them in a Thai restaurant with Jason Gurley’s novel Eleanor and some spring rolls. Time travel, intergenerational conflict, shame, bereavement, and alcoholism all get a look in, but Gurley avoids soap opera with marvelous emotional dexterity. I was quite impressed—though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as the book was apparently in gestation for fifteen years.

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best surprise: I made a start on the Baileys Prize long list with Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which has been lauded to the skies and will almost certainly win. Was terribly grumpy about reading it and spent a good fifteen minutes muttering about how annoying WWII novels are before actually cracking it open. I was so wrong! It’s not really a war novel, although there’s a lot of exploration of how the war affects those who survived it and the subsequent generations. I was a bit disappointed by the ceaseless authorial hatred for one character whose only crime, as far as I could tell, was that she was an imperfect and selfish mother. Obviously not a role model, but the book seemed surprisingly judgmental of her. Other than that, wonderfully fluid writing and characters that jumped off the page, in a convincing way. Bits of it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years.

most heartrending:  Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A graphic novel with almost no words, by a Belgian artist, about a lonely middle-aged Belgian man who visits art museums and barely ever talks to anyone. It can be devoured in a single sitting, or pored over at leisure; Gijsemans’s drawings are plain at first glance but full of detail the longer you look. Hubert is a wonderful creation. His sad little face and glasses do the same thing to my heart that Wall-E’s character design did (i.e. stomp on it). This is also a great book to read in conjunction with The Lonely City, since it’s basically a case study of how individuals medicate their own isolation with art. It’s really beautiful and made me all sad and hopeful at the end.

biggest disappointment: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, director of the National Gallery.  It was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize, though it won’t win, and hopefully won’t even make the shortlist. It’s a sweet idea (a down-on-her-luck woman finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone in the art world decides they want it) but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like “I will do this” or “You do not see that”, instead of “I’ll” or “You don’t”. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last. Do trade fiction editors even turn up to work anymore? grump grump Positive aspects include the fact that there are divine descriptions of food in it, and the “mild peril” (as film ratings boards say) is rather fun.

and, getting in under the wire: Relativity by Antonia Hayes, which I finished this evening and can’t think of a superlative for at the moment because it’s still percolating through my head. I have to come up with a few questions for Hayes, whose publicist has kindly granted me a Q&A with her; I think about half of them will be to do with this specific book, and half will be to do with writing (especially as a debut novelist) more generally. For now, you should know that it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who was badly shaken as a baby and who is now growing into his intellectual gift for maths and physics, trying to piece together the truth about his estranged father. The writing is tidy and competent and the plot is pretty good stuff too. More on this soon.

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what next: I’ve borrowed Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North from a colleague (it was published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), and have borrowed the Chaos’s mum’s Kobo, which has The System of the World on it. I also want to get through more Baileys Prize longlist books–maybe The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet next?–and have got a few books from publishers for April, including Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which looks amazing. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.

Q&A with Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!

Shirley Barrett is an Australian screenwriter and film director whose work has won multiple prizes, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize. Rush Oh!, her first novel, is a story of whaling, rural life, and first love, set on the west coast of Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. I reviewed it here, and was hugely impressed by its balance of a light comedic voice with serious personal and political material. Its depiction of the mutual respect between a whaling crew and a pod of killer whales made it stand out–and it’s all based on a true story.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Shirley some questions about Rush Oh!, and she kindly answered them below.

 

 

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George Davidson with the body of “Old Tom”, leader of the Eden killer whales

How did you first come across the story of the Eden killer whales?

It’s such a long time ago that I barely remember, but I think I learned about them at the Australian Natural History Museum, here in Sydney. I love an animal story, and I liked the way the whalers had given them all names, identifying them by their dorsal fins.  So I went down to Eden (about six hours south of Sydney) to find out more. Eden is very proud of its unique whaling history, and there is a lovely little museum in which Tom’s skeleton is the centrepiece. He is surprisingly huge, and has what looks suspiciously like a rope groove on one of his back teeth, which is possibly from his high jinks towing fishing boats out to sea and hanging off the whale line.

 The book is especially impressive to me because of the way it engages with Aboriginal Australians. As part of the whaling crew, they’re treated equally and with respect, but as a potential husband for Louisa, Darcy is considered completely off the cards. Did it surprise you to find that race relations in 1908 were so inconsistent? Or is that artistic license?

White Australia has a terrible record in regard to its treatment of the indigenous people, and the only surprising thing really is that the Aboriginal whalers do seem to have been treated well by the Davidson family, and certainly they worked closely together for many years.  But to be honest, there’s so little documented material on the Aboriginal whalers that no one really knows for sure. Certainly particular Aboriginal whale men returned every season to work for the Davidsons. As for Darcy running off with Louisa, it seems that would have been extremely unusual.  While there were many documented marriages between white men and Aboriginal women, the reverse was very seldom seen (or at least, documented) at the time. It seems to have been considered much more scandalous – and perhaps consequently hushed up.

Mary’s voice is marvelous: evocative of her era without being too stilted. It reminded me of the technique used in the recent remake of True Grit (removing all contractions, and doing very little else, so that the language sounds more formal and old-fashioned but not silly.) How did you find or develop that voice for her?  

Thank you! Mary’s voice came to me so easily and effortlessly that after I finished Rush Oh! I feared I’d never be able to write in any other voice. Perhaps because Rush Oh! existed as a feature film script first (see below), Mary was already a fully fleshed-out character in my mind before I had to commit to writing a first-person narrative.

You made your name as a screenwriter; would you ever consider adapting Rush Oh! into a miniseries? (I’d watch it…)

 Rush Oh! started out as a feature film script – a much more bare-bones version of the story that culminated in the Plain and Fancy Dress Ball. I tried for years to get producers interested, but all those whaling scenes would have to be computer-generated, of course, so it would be horribly expensive – certainly much more than the usual budgets of Australian films. In the end, I gave up, but I loved the world so much, I decided to have a crack at it as a novel, never having written a novel before. But yes, it would be lovely if a nice producer with access to vast pots of money wanted to turn it into something…

Do you know (or have your own private suspicions about) what/who John Beck really is? 

 That’s a good question!  I think I am as mystified as Mary as to who he was and what his intentions were… certainly I feel reluctant to commit to any one particular version, even just for myself! I’d come across the story of ‘The Missing Clergyman’ in the Eden newspapers of the time (Mary refers to this story in the book), and I loved the idea that this Methodist minister just took off with another woman, and sent his wife a telegram from Suva announcing that he’d drowned!  I suppose I especially loved the idea that it was so easy – apparently – to “shape shift” at that time, perhaps especially in Australia – just change your identity and start out as someone else…  Who knows? Perhaps John Beck has returned to the Church and is the new minister that Mary is about to meet over cheese and celery sandwiches [at the end of the book]…

The relationship between George Davidson and Old Tom is one of my favourites in the book (“He’s a good fish is Tom”! Preserving and polishing his skeleton! It’s wonderful.) How many of these details came from contemporary sources, and how many did you invent?

I really tried not to embellish anything about the killer whales because the story is amazing enough as it is. Tom was very, very well loved in Eden (the obituary and poem written in his honour are all straight from the Eden newspapers of the time). There are many newspaper accounts of his exploits, and he does seem to have been a bit of a scallywag – towing hapless fishermen about the bay, hanging off the whale line so he could be dragged about by the whale, jumping out of the water and crushing George’s hand in his teeth! Tom kept returning to Eden even when whaling had stopped and the other killers had stopped coming, and his body washed up in Twofold Bay when he died, by then a very old killer whale. There was definitely a feeling in the town that Tom’s death marked the end of an era, and needed to be commemorated somehow.  George stripped down the carcase and preserved his skeleton, and funds were raised within the town to build the museum that houses his skeleton. (The photo above is of George on Tom’s carcase.)

 How did you approach the challenge of writing fiction based on a true story? How do you decide what to leave in, what to keep out, even just how to consolidate all of the information from the primary sources?

I made a decision early on that I would keep the character of George Davidson because I wanted to use actual newspaper accounts within the book, and George of course is frequently mentioned. But I invented a whole new set of offspring for him so I could be unconstrained and write the sort of exuberant romp that I wanted the story to be. The actual story of the Davidsons is very rich and very interesting but much sadder – there was a good deal of tragedy, and I didn’t want to venture there. So I was aware of taking a huge liberty, and I was very nervous about the reaction of the Davidson descendants, some of whom still live in the area. They have never made any kind of formal response, but I get the feeling they are not too thrilled about it – and I can’t really blame them. But I tried only to be respectful of George in my writing, and I hope that as some kind of compensation, the book brings more attention to him, the Davidsons, and the killer whale story in general.

What are you working on now?

I work as a television director/scriptwriter, so mostly I have been doing that! I am itching to stop and get back to novel-writing, because I had the loveliest time writing Rush Oh! and I miss it.  But I have just finished a horror novella, which was fun – of course then when I finished, I realise there’s not much of a market for novellas, so now I’m not really sure what to do with it! 

Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February, by Virago Books. You can read my (glowing) review of it here.

 

Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett

Only now did I understand why John Beck had returned from his first whale capture straining to recall that passage from the Bible. I imagine he was trying to find some way to live with what he had just witnessed.

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~~here be (a few) spoilers!~~

The first thing that struck me about Rush Oh! was: this is a happy, happy book. That doesn’t mean it’s a book with a happy ending (although I would say that this isn’t a book with an unhappy ending, either). It means simply that the writing was obviously done with  great pleasure and good humour, and the effect is contagious. In an industry that can seem saturated by serious, hard, important reads, Shirley Barrett’s glorious debut—about a whaling family in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, based on a true story—is a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t shy away from difficult reality, but she doesn’t let the plot twists diminish the joy and the comedy that suffuse its pages. It’s unbelievably lovely.

Its narrator is nineteen-year-old Mary Davidson, the oldest daughter of the Davidson whaling family of Eden in Western Australia. The year is 1908. Davidsons have been whaling in Eden for the past two generations, but last season was the worst in living memory: only one whale was captured in the entire six months. Now her father, George, needs more men in the boats; otherwise, his family of six will be in dire financial trouble. Their mother is long dead, and Mary has been forced to take on her shoulders the responsibility of feeding not only her siblings and father, but the dozen or so whalemen whom her father employs.

John Beck, then, is something of an answer to prayer. He appears at the whaling station wondering if Mr. Davidson might need an extra oarsman, and although he has no rowing experience whatsoever, his arms are strong enough and he’s willing to work a hard job for low pay, so of course he is hired. Mary almost immediately begins to develop a crush on him that she initially doesn’t recognize as such, although we do. She’s a great creation: spirited and indignant, bookish, very funny, and very hardworking. Her initial conversation with John Beck occurs before he even applies to her father—he comes to the house when the men are out in the boats—and at one point they discuss one of Mary’s paintings, a depiction of a whale hunt entitled Stern All, Boys!, which failed to secure first prize at the Eden Show:

I suspect the real reason Stern All, Boys! was deemed unworthy of a prize is that the subject matter was considered unsuitable for a young lady. Far better that I had employed my talents depicting three cows in a paddock at sunset, as did Miss Eunice Martin of Towamba, for which effort she received the coveted blue ribbon.

…”Well, sir,” I ventured at last, turning to the stranger. “Are you still up for adventure, or has my painting put you off?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, yes. In truth, it has scared the bejesus out of me.”

The dynamic of their relationship is marvelously like this: he quietly accepts Mary for who she is, while she finds herself (much to her dismay) occasionally exhibiting behaviour of the sort that she remembers being listed in a newspaper article on “The Woman Who Ought Not to Marry.” Fortunately she seems to put very little store by what the newspaper article has to say on the subject, and her interactions with John Beck—which could easily have been of the whimsically-scatty-heroine-is-immediately-understood-by-Mr.-Right variety—are instead pleasingly nuanced. John Beck himself is not all he appears to be; he has arrived claiming to be “a former Methodist minister”, but this, as you may gather immediately, is not the whole story.

The descriptions of whaling, and of whaling culture, are fantastic, and the book has many of them. I read Moby Dick in my Finals year at university and was deeply frustrated by it (though this may have been because I had chosen to read it for pleasure at a time when my non-pleasure reading was purely composed of academic monographs); Rush Oh! succeeds in returning my interest to the subject. It is, after all, basically incredible: that twelve men in a thirty-foot open rowboat could and did succeed in chasing and killing whales the smallest of which were at least the length of the boat itself, and the largest of which was nearly twice that. The Eden whalers are aided in their task, however, by a pod of orca whales, known as the Killers, who live in the area and who form a kind of guerrilla team, working with the men in the boat to worry and weaken the whale as dogs might a wild boar. Barrett hasn’t made any of this up: three generations of Eden whalers did work in conjunction with this orca pod. It’s not clear why they did this, apart from the fact that they were traditionally allowed to consume the whale’s lips and tongue after a kill. In any case, Barrett’s descriptions of the hunts are excellently paced (unlike, say, Anthony Trollope’s hunt passages, which are charming but tend to bog down) and completely gripping:

Once stung by the harpoon, the whale—who had seemed a placid creature up to this point—put up a ferocious battle for its survival. At once, it executed a series of short, sharp turns, as if attempting to dislodge the boat now suddenly attached to it; then, when this tactic did not achieve the desired result, the creature stopped suddenly and elevated its great tail flukes to a height of some twenty feet above the water, before sweeping them most deliberately across the length of the boat. Fortunately, my father, who was of course standing at the bow, and Arthur Ashby (at the steer oar) had had the wherewithal to hastily duck down, thereby avoiding what could undoubtedly have been serious injuries. (By all accounts, the whale’s tail span was twelve feet across, and of exceptional thickness.)

Arthur Ashby, the abovementioned harpoonist, is Aboriginal, as are four other men in the boats. The way Barrett deals with race relations throughout the book is one of its best aspects. As far as whaling is concerned, the Aboriginal crew members are equal. They are as good as, if not better than, the white Australians; the youngest one, sixteen-year-old Darcy, has exceptional eyesight, while Arthur Ashby is known to have the best aim and the strongest arm. They eat with the white men, sleep with them, bathe with them, and are paid the same as them. In the social circle of Eden town, however, things are different. There’s no violent racism: Darcy, his father Percy, Arthur and the Albert Thomases both Senior and Junior, are all present outside the Arts Club during the dance that precipitates the book’s crisis, and no one has a problem with them being there. But the key to this apparent harmony, of course, is that they are outside, and never attempt to come in.

All of this is brought to a head by the Arts Club dance, for Louisa, Mary’s sixteen-year-old sister (a great beauty who is, fortunately, not sketched as a complete imbecile, though she is somewhat self-centered), is in love with Darcy, and they run away together. Introducing something this serious into a book that has, so far, been fairly light-hearted is a big risk, but it pays off  because of how beautifully Barrett handles it. The family is devastated; there is no sense in which everything will be all right in the end, because interracial marriages, while not unheard of, are still essentially unthinkable. Mr. Davidson’s grief at the loss of his daughter is portrayed with subtle sympathy; Mary notes that when a well-meaning neighbour pays a visit and begins to discuss the iniquities of the Aborigines (“these people are several rungs below Palaeolithic man”), her father simply leaves the room and does not return until the visitor has departed.

Similarly, the Davidsons’ slow decline in fortunes is dealt with gently, but poignantly. The loss of the two boys—to war and estrangement—and the long-ago death of their mother is conveyed in language straightforward and sad; it makes you pause and reflect and feel moved, and because these asides are sprinkled throughout the narrative, you can then go back to a description of the farm dog ruining a cake or what-have-you, without feeling utterly weighed down by sadness. My favourite of these asides is a story Mary tells about her father, who, after selling the whaling station in 1912, does little more than putter about in the old try-works. Evidently, several years before he dies, he spots a whale off the headland, takes an old dinghy out, and actually harpoons it himself. (It floats up a few days later near a local lighthouse.) When Mary finds out, she is furious:

“Why did you do that?” I repeated, and I realised I was angry. I was so angry I felt I could fling something at him, especially since he sat buttering his bread and not responding to my question. He wore a faint, silly smile upon his face, and I noticed his hands were trembling; I suspect he may also have been privately wondering why he had done it, and was unable to provide a satisfactory answer.

Oh, it’s heartbreaking.

The book ends with the possibility of reunion with Louisa, many, many years later; I won’t spoil it entirely for you. There is loss and sadness (it’s made clear from the beginning that Mary doesn’t end up with John Beck, though finding out why is half the fun), but there’s also hope and perseverance and absolute hilarity. It is a wonderful book (especially for the February blues); wholeheartedly recommended.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February.

 

Top Ten Books to Revisit From Childhood

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten books from my childhood that I’d like to revisit.

1. The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. The same goes for all the Chronicles of Narnia except for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gets enough attention. The Horse and His Boy is the stand-out of the series because it’s set not in Narnia but in a neighbouring country, Calormen. Shasta’s flight from his adoptive father with the talking horse Bree is adventurous and exotic–one might say “exoticizing”, in fact, because Lewis has been frequently accused of anti-Muslim sentiment in this book. Which is why it would be particularly interesting to read again, now, with an adult awareness.

2. The Alanna and Daine books, by Tamora Pierce. I’ve talked about these before, and I’ll talk about them again. They’re the best books I can think of to give to the little girl in your life, whether she be angry, shy, or somewhere in between. The stories of Alanna, who at eleven disguises herself as a boy to learn the skills of knighthood at the palace of the King of Tortall, and of Daine, who is half-mortal and can speak to and through animals, are not only cracking fantasy; they’re also political thrillers, wonder tales, and accounts of friendship and loyalty. They’re beyond great.

3. A Murder For Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner. I barely remember any of this, but what vividly stayed with me was the idea of a girl (disguising herself as a boy, again–there’s some thematic coherence here) becoming a chorister at York Minster in the late sixteenth century. Alice, a witness to her father’s murder and afraid that his killers were agents of the Queen, becomes Pup, one of the minster’s choirboys. This, plus seeing a Charlotte Church concert on PBS at a young age (don’t mock; my tastes matured), was what set me on the path to choral singing.

4. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is the kind of author you give to children who are already hooked on the mid-century Enid Blyton “jolly good” aesthetic. If your kids are very keen on their Xboxes, they won’t like or understand anything she wrote. But if they like the idea of running away from a mean grandmother to find ultimate acceptance with an eccentric uncle, his one-legged gardener, and the unraveling of a very bucolic English mystery, then they’ll love her. I was in the latter camp.

5. The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Another one that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, this is the story of six urban children whose obsession with Ancient Egypt leads them to play a game where they imagine themselves to be Egyptians; eventually the game seems to be bleeding over into reality. We did Ancient Egypt for practically our entire second grade year at school, but I must have thought the book was too spooky because I’m not sure I ever finished it. I’d love to go back and read it again.

6. Feeling Sorry for Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty. This probably qualifies more as a YA book than a children’s book. Set in Australia, it’s about Elizabeth, a high schooler whose only friend, Celia, begins to drift away from her. It deals with some impressive issues–emotional manipulation, mental health, self-hatred and self-doubt–without ever losing its light touch. I particularly love how Elizabeth’s own insecurities about how other people see her appear in the forms of letters from institutions such as the Association of Teenagers.

7. Glinda of Oz, by L Frank Baum. For some utterly bizarre reason, I read and reread this over the course of the fourth grade. I haven’t the slightest idea why, other than that it was weirdly thrilling: there was an underwater city enclosed by a giant bubble, an evil queen whose name sounded like a hunting cry, a super bright pink cover, and some evocative line drawings by way of illustration. It would be illuminating to go back and read it again, if only to try and work out why it obsessed me so.

Absolutely matchless early noughties cover design, too.

8. Fearless, by Francine Pascal. “A girl born without the fear gene”–childhood wish fulfilment, check. There are about seventeen thousand of these books and they constituted my introduction to young adult literature. Kickboxing! Sex! Cigarettes! New York City! The very act of reading them was an orgy of rebelliousness. How I would love to go back and do it all again.

9. The Cuckoo Tree, by Joan Aiken. And all of the other books that feature the incomparable Dido Twite, but this is probably the best. Set in an alternative England where James III is on the throne and the “Hanoverian faction” plots to replace him, all of the books are masterpieces, but I particularly loved The Cuckoo Tree because its opening scene is in a carriage traversing the South Downs, where my grandparents live. It’s sort of like Jamaica Inn for kids. Phenomenal.

10. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. The more I think about our assigned reading at primary level, the more I appreciate the way we were stretched by our nerd-school’s ethos. I would never, off the top of my head, consider recommending this book to a nine-year-old. And yet it was one of our choices for summer reading when I was nine, and I read it, and loved it. It’s heavy. There’s poverty in the New York Irish community, a fading marriage, parents who play favorites, and a really horrifying attempted rape scene. (At nine, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t recognize this for what it was, although it still thoroughly creeped me out.) But Francie, our heroine, and her mother Katie, as well as her father Johnny and brother Neeley, always shine through as real characters, who feel and suffer and work hard to survive. It’s just a wonderful book. I’m sure I still have a copy at home in Virginia…