In Praise of Books! In Praise of Libraries!

Daisy Chapter and Verse

Daisy is one of the Chapterhouse directors. She loves libraries, family sagas, and children’s fiction.

When the first lockdown came along in March 2020, I’d just finished reading the books I’d been given for Christmas and for my birthday and was planning a major trip to the library. Alas, the books I’d reserved waited for me on the shelves for many long months, and in the meantime I started rereading old favourites.

Where to start? Some favourite writers, obviously. Comfort reading? Definitely yes: some of the choices I made were comfort reading, but not always, except in terms of my having already read most of the books at least once, but not always in terms of the subject matter.

Kate Atkinson’s long been a favourite of mine, and I rapidly worked my way through all the Jackson Brodie novels, revelling in her attention to details and ability to weave together highly complex strands of plot, all with a light but deft touch, an elegant use of language and gorgeous sense of humour. As I said, not exactly comfort reading in the conventional sense, with some pretty gruesome deaths being investigated by the apparently fearless detective, who must surely have the complex private life of any fictional private investigator. While I was still in Kate Atkinson mode, just for good measure I reread Life After Life – definitely on my personal shortlist for Desert Island book.

Moving through the alphabet, there were a couple of Helen Dunmore books I couldn’t resist rereading (Burning Bright and Mourning Ruby) before alighting on Penelope Fitzgerald’s fabulous books (The Bookshop and Human Voices are particular favourites of mine).

Moving down the bookshelves, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet series of novels was my next major project; dealing with the fortunes of the members of the Cazalet family:  “elderly” parents, three brothers, their wives and young children and their sister, starting in the between-war period and moving over the course of the series to close in modern times. Again the author handles a huge range of characters, their lives mingling together, in London and at their parents’ home in the country, the difficulties they face trying to keep the family business going in increasingly turbulent and challenging times. The Radio 4 adaptation of the series is a delight, too, if you can find it!

Delving back into children’s books, I was tempted to reread the Harry Potter books, but stuck mostly to older classics including my old favourites by Frances Hodgson BurnettThe Secret Garden and A Little Princess; the former is the better known of the two and has been adapted into classic films (four times, no less) and various television versions, including a new film released in 2020 (which I revelled in watching) starring Julie Walters and Colin Firth in the central adult roles as Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper, and Lord Craven. To be honest, though, A Little Princess is my favourite of these two Hodgson Burnett books, and the sad tale (riches to rags and back again) of little Sarah Crewe never fails to move me.

Having started to work my way through children’s books, modern award-winning books like Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War called out to be read again, as did some of my really old favourites: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was another must-read (there was a fabulous television version in 2007) as were E Nesbit’s Five Children and It and The Railway Children. (Cue more re-watching of the much-loved filmed versions of these.) 

Interspersed with all the children’s fiction, I read psychological thrillers by writers including Nicci French, Minette Walters and Clare Mackintosh. When the library re-opened partially and I could reserve books, I discovered new works I’d never read before by writers like Claire Fuller, Fredrik Backman, John Banville, Emma Donoghue, Anne Enright, Deborah Moggach, Colm Toibin – what a delight to find books by contemporary writers I’d not previously read.

Now the library here has fully re-opened, there’s a whole new world of books out there, just waiting for me to chance upon them as I walk through a safe new one-way system (I never knew there was a back door!). The librarians are marvellous too and know which authors will be likely to appeal to which of their readers. I can’t sing their praises highly enough for their patience and understanding of their customers, whether it’s the families whose children are just being introduced to the world of reading or the 90-year-olds who love having the latest large print and audio versions of books old and new put aside for them. Thank goodness for books and thank goodness for librarians!

The Time of Green Magic – Hilary McKay

Pan Macmillan

Rating: 5 stars

There’s nothing better, I find, than reading children’s fiction at a time of stress, and the last year has found me reading and rereading large quantities of books aimed mostly at children, but often with quite challenging themes and appealing equally to adults. So I’ve read again classics like A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Railway Children by E Nesbit (and, yes, I watched the classic film again, too, one particularly grey Saturday afternoon), and modern classics like Five Children on the Western Front, with which Kate Saunders won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2014, and The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay, which won the same award in 2018.

the time of green magic

This new book by Hilary McKay is in a similar mould, tackling the difficulties faced by families trying to blend together, children feeling displaced and unsettled, having to share things and people they are unused to sharing. But in The Time of Green Magic, there’s an added element which gives many unexpected twists and turns to the tale of Abi and her new step-brothers Max and Louis, when they move into an old rented house completely covered in a thick layer of ivy. At least each child has a separate room, but this is in some ways only going to make their coming together more difficult.

Abi retreats into books in her attic room, Max and his best friend mend bikes and wash cars to earn some money, little Louis feels lonely and keeps watching out of his bedroom window for owls, leaving food on the windowsill to encourage them to appear. What comes to visit him, though, is something so extraordinary that any reader is likely to feel bewitched. And Abi finds at times her books seem to be coming to life in remarkable ways. Even Max sees faces at the window.

McKay brings true magic to the story – it’s gripping, heart-warming, thrilling and tense, but The Time of Green Magic is also very funny on the challenges the children face, individually and together. The real and the fantastical blend; the struggles of the parents aren’t ever over-looked, but the main focus is always definitely on the children and the magic which suddenly enters their lives. The power of family and friends is always handled sensitively, as is the struggle of first love or infatuation.

I loved this book and will be passing it on to adults and children alike.

Daisy Chapter and Verse

Reviewed by Daisy

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The Skylarks’ War – Hilary McKay

Rating: 5 stars

the skylarks' war.jpg

My secret trick for dealing with winter blues: children’s fiction, both classics like The Secret Garden and Ballet Shoes, and modern classics in the making like Five Children on the Western Front (Costa Children’s Book Award winner 2014). I’ve been delighted during this winter’s long, dark evenings not just to reread some of my old favourites, but to find some new treasures, like this year’s Costa Children’s Book winner, The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay. Hilary McKay had already won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Exiles, the Smarties Prize for The Exiles in Love and the Costa Award for Saffy’s Angel.

And The Skylarks’ War is a very worthy second Costa winner for Ms McKay, another fine work which I’m sure children will enjoy for many years to come, and one which parents will delight in reading alongside their youngsters.

It’s a simple tale, beautifully told, of Clarry and her older brother Peter, who spend their summers staying in Cornwall with their grandparents and much-loved older cousin Rupert. Each September brings a return to normal humdrum life with Rupert and Peter at boarding school, while Clarry is stuck at home. Her father is often out, and when he is in he seldom seems to notice her presence; and when he does it never seems to be in a favourable light, seeing no need for her to receive a good education. Instead she is sent to

Miss Pinkses’ Academy for Young Ladies …. bare walls, shabby paint and dark windows … ‘It’s those three rooms at the top,’ said Clarry’s suddenly ruthless brother, pointing (while Clarry lurked miserably behind). ‘She’s been going there for years, ever since she was six, and she has never learned a useful thing. Sewing handkerchief cases, that’s all she did last term!’

When Peter’s school friend Simon Bonnington comes into their lives with his sister Vanessa, Clarry sees that there might be another way for her to live, and secretly applies to take the entrance test at Vanessa’s grammar school, much to her father’s annoyance and disappointment when he learns that she has been awarded a place.

In August 1914 Rupert enlists as soon as he possibly can with his school friend Michael and they go off to France together; Peter will never be able to follow them, having badly damaged his leg jumping from a moving train in the summer of 1912, in the hope of avoiding being sent to boarding school. Instead Peter leaves school and goes to Oxford on a scholarship, and encourages young Clarry to apply for a place as soon as she is old enough.

McKay writes brilliantly about the difficulties faced by young people during the First World War, whether it’s men struggling to be themselves at school, then being forced to grow up rapidly in the trenches of France, or women – particularly intelligent, clear-minded young women like Clarry and Vanessa – wanting to find a new way forward in life, despite the low expectations for girls at the time. The Skylarks’ War is realistic in that while Peter becomes a professor, Clarry is a teacher, enjoying her life, but clearly capable of doing just as much as her older brother. And it’s Clarry who, during the war, has to learn to run the household, cook and clean, as staff gradually leave her father’s house for war work.

This is no fairy tale, a happy-endings-all-around children’s book: Clarry and Peter’s father remains a remote and distant figure, attending neither Peter’s final school speech day nor either child’s Oxford graduation, and he is clearly not part of their adult lives; much-loved friends and relatives are dead – characters we have come to love and appreciate. The Skylarks’ War is a wonderful work, which I’m sure will stand the test of time, and will be added to my own personal set of “essential rereading” books.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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