Wednesday 30 October 2019

Eleanor Fitzsimons - guest post - Socialism in the Stories of E Nesbit

Today I'm delighted to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of a new biography of  E Nesbit, to tell us more about a relatively unknown side the Nesbit's life - her strong Marxist beliefs and their influence on her stories


Nowadays, we know E. Nesbit as the author of wonderful stories for children and a source of inspiration for writers from C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling. Yet poetry was her true passion. As she told one friend “only my socialist poems are real me”. Nesbit’s close friend and fellow Fabian Society member George Bernard Shaw described her as “a committed if distinctly eccentric socialist”. Her commitment to a fairer society was informed by her experience of genuine hardship when, as a newly married mother, she decorated greeting cards and sold simple illustrations to earn a living for her unorthodox family. She raised three children with her husband, Hubert Bland, and two more he fathered with her friend Alice Hoatson. Although she wrote what the market demanded, Nesbit promoted social reform in her stories for young readers who she regarded, with good reason, as far more open to reforming ideas than their parents.

Before she wrote the books we remember her for, including The Wouldbegoods, The Railway Children and Five Children and It, Nesbit and Bland co-authored The Prophet’s Mantle, a socialist novel inspired by the arrival in London of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Russian exile in The Railway Children is also based on him. Nesbit was keen to fulfill the Fabian society mission, which she defined as “to improve the social system – or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvement of the said SS”. When the children in The Wouldbegoods form a society, Dora describes its aim as “nobleness and goodness, and great and unselfish deeds,” adding: “We wish to spread our wings and rise above the kind of interesting things that you ought not to do, but to do kindnesses to all, no matter how low and mean”.

Nesbit includes a particularly inflammatory public speech in The Story of the Amulet:
Comrades and fellow workers, how long are we to endure the tyranny of our masters, who live in idleness and luxury on the fruit of our toil? They only give us a bare subsistence wage, and they live on the fat of the land. We labour all our lives to keep them in wanton luxury. Let us make an end of it!
Here, her fictional children travel forward in time to a utopian London where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone dresses in comfortable clothing. When the Babylonian Queen time travels to Victorian London she assumes that the workers she encounters must be slaves on the verge of revolt since they are so poorly treated. The children explain that these workers are free and have the right to vote for their government yet they cannot justify why misery persists. Nesbit often exposes the flaws inherent in government policy by having children attempt to explain it.

Elsewhere in The Story of the Amulet, the Psammead points out: “You’ve got your country into such a mess that there’s no room for half your children – and no one to want them”. In The House of Arden, Richard refuses to return to Victorian London, declaring “they make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or be happy in”. The children in The Wonderful Garden persuade an indifferent landlord who owns a castle and a mansion in Belgrave Square to protect one of his tenants, a vulnerable old woman. In The Magic World, when the enchanted crows that inhabit ‘Justnowland’ are changed back into men, they vow “in future we shall not be rich and poor, but fellow-workers, and each will do his best for his brothers”.

The most credible and socially aware of Nesbit’s books is The Railway Children, with its clear message of political criticism and social change. It seems likely that ‘Old Gentleman’ is included to reassure parents reading to their children that wealth and social position are not threatened by socially conscious behaviour. It is not necessary to cede your power, merely to make proper use of it. Victorian literature is not short of moralising tales but Nesbit was never hectoring or po-faced. She often poked fun at fellow socialists and utopian thinkers. The key characteristics of her stories for children are fantasy and humour. She spread her radical ideas on the benefits of a fairer society by embedding them in superbly crafted, gripping stories that continue to resonate with children to this day. 

Eleanor Fitzsimons is the author of The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (Duckworth, 2019)

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley

Jake is one a group of children invited to a special tour of Grimstone Hall. It's a place famous for the number of ghosts sighted there, and the visit has been organised for finalists in a ghost story writing competition.
Mrs Fox, their guide, shows them round, taking them up to the roof and out into the gardens, telling stories of the ghosts associated with each spot, and as the tour progresses Jake realises he's seeing things that the other children appear to not notice - a flicker of coloured silks, something bright and shining moving across the lawn, a girl wearing odd, old fashioned clothing. Jake begins to think Mrs Fox is not telling the whole truth about the ghosts of Grimstone Hall.

Seven Ghosts is a great ghostly read for Halloween (or any other time). The seven stories divide the book up into nicely sized 'chunks' to be read at one sitting, while the link sections, following the prize-winners on their tour, keep the chill factor going as Jake's suspicions rise.
Chris Priestley is the author of one of my favourite ghost stories, The Dead of Winter ,which although intended as a teen read is spot on for me, and here he's written and illustrated a brilliant collection of stories for a younger age group. These tales are spooky and menacing, but without being scary - just right for the intended readership of 8 years and older. They're the stuff to grab a child's imagination and send a cold shiver up their spine, not send them to bed with nightmares.

As always with Barrington Stoke books, it's printed on cream paper in a dyslexia-friendly font to make it accessible to all, and, in addition, has full- and part-page illustrations throughout from the author himself, to bring the ghosts of Grimstone to life (if that's the appropriate word)

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - ghost stories, 8+, dyslexia-friendly 

Thursday 24 October 2019

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

This latest work from Cynan Jones is something a little different - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in the (probably not so far off) future. A future where weather patterns have changed; despite almost constant summer rain, water is in short supply. No more long luxurious baths, not even a quick shower in the morning or even flushing loos! Supplying London with water has become a major undertaking. Pipes no longer feed it to the city, instead it's transported from distant reservoirs by the Water Train, but the service is increasingly under threat of sabotage. As an alternative, a huge Ice Dock is to be built - icebergs towed south to it, and their melt water collected - but construction work will displace more of the population that originally planned for, and people are taking to the streets to protest. 
Against this grim backdrop the reader follows people going about their lives -  a journalist obsessed with his search for a big scoop, an elderly man facing death, a woman persuaded by nature's beauty that there must be more to life that her dull relationship with her husband, young boys playing with a dog in the rubble of waste ground, and Branner (the main character, if the collection can be said to have one), a police marksman protecting the Water Train, his thoughts dodging back and forth to when he first met his wife, to his shock and disbelief on hearing her terminal diagnosis, to how he can attempt to go on without her. Within the stories, they change positions, reappearing in different roles - the central character of one becoming a bit-player or walk-on part in another - so that, although each section reads as a standalone piece, there's a underlying cohesion between them forming a greater story.

This isn't just a story of doom and gloom. Despite the bleak man-made conditions, nature is showing its resilience, its capacity to take hold and flourish in even the most inhospitable places, reclaiming waste ground and construction sites. People too are trying to improve their lot with rooftop allotments and small 'new-farms'; a personal way to overcome shortages from the 'mass-produced' sector.

It's all brought to life with Jones' familiar precision, his attention to detail, and ability to get under his characters' skin - focusing on the small things of life to build an image of the whole. Butterflies dancing in the park, the shape left as a bird darts away, the feel of limpets being prised from the rock, or the guts spilling out of a fish.

It's breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning. If you haven't discovered Jones' work yet, then do; you're missing a treat. And don't anyone try telling me that dystopian fiction can't be literary

Although the concept had been mulling around in the author's mind for a while, it was a commission from Radio 4 which brought it to life. If you prefer to listen rather than read you can still (October 2019) find it online

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult literary fiction, dystopian

Thursday 17 October 2019

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Christopher and his mum Kate never seem to stay in one place very long. He's just started yet another new school, and having trouble finding friends and fitting in.
Then he 'meets' an imaginary friend, the Nice Man, and follows him into the woods near his home; the same woods in which a young boy disappeared 50 years ago. Christopher, too, disappears, but only for six days. On his return, he isn't the same boy. He's suddenly much cleverer than before and now has an obsession with building a treehouse in the middle of the woods - a treehouse which will provide a link between worlds, letting all sorts of evil out ...

Now, I haven't read The Perks of being a Wallflower, but I've seen the film and assumed that this new novel from Stephen Chbosky would be something in a similar vein. Well, fair to say Imaginary Friend wasn't at all what I expected. What you've basically got here is a horror story. It's not a genre I'm a huge fan of - the right story can make my hair stand on end, but so many seem to overdo the build up of tension and I just get irritated with it, and start skipping huge chunks. Sadly, Imaginary Friend falls into the second category. And then God and the Devil somehow got involved, and I really lost interest.

It's far too long. Reading a e-copy I hadn't realised just HOW long - 700+ pages - I'd just felt it dragging on and on. Maybe, just maybe, if it had been shorter it would have held my attention, but it wasn't and it didn't, although I did struggle on till the end.

Maryom's review - 2 stars - though horror fans will probably love it!
Publisher - Orion 
Genre - adult horror, fantasy

Thursday 10 October 2019

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag

At some future point in time, the world has been engulfed by water due presumably to global warming and rising sea levels. Only extremely high mountain peaks remain as scattered islands, with small makeshift communities on them, but many people took to the sea for safety as water levels rose, and have nowhere to settle on land.

Myra and her daughter Pearl live on their boat, catching fish and trading with island communities. It's a precarious, hand to mouth existence but they're doing more or less okay. Then Myra hears a rumour about her other daughter, Row, who was taken away by her father in the early days of the flood. She'd always hoped that somehow, somewhere, their paths would cross, but now, with a specific location to head for, Myra decides to attempt to track her elder daughter down despite the vast distance of ocean that separates them. It's a voyage filled with danger and betrayals, with only hope to keep Myra going.

After The Flood started well, despite its similarities to Waterworld. Its strange flooded 'landscape' intrigued me, and the author seemed to have thought through the ways people would have found to survive. Myra's a gritty, practical heroine, fiercely attached to her daughters, and devastated to have lost one. If there's any way of seeing her again, Myra will grab it.

But somewhere along the way, my interest waned. Maybe there's a point, somewhere around the middle of the book, where the ending becomes too predictable but I didn't feel the last chapters lived up to the earlier ones. Events seemed hurried and plot devices just too convenient.

Maryom's review -  3 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (The Borough Press)
Genre - Adult fiction, dystopian, post apocalyptic 

Friday 4 October 2019

The Stolen Spear by Saviour Pirotta

illustrated by Davide Ortu

 Wolf is a little bit of a misfit. He's no good at fishing. He's easily upset by the sight of blood, so will never make a hunter. He gets distracted or daydreams, and doesn't protect his family's sheep. One thing he's good at is climbing cliffs to collect eggs from the nesting auks - but even there he's trapped by the tide and has to be rescued by a stranger, a girl from a neighbouring island. The girl, named Crow, is welcomed by his family, but, after she has returned to her home, a sacred spear belonging to a dead shaman goes missing, and Crow is the only suspect. Wolf is blamed for bringing her to the village, and he vows to recover the spear, even though it means making a perilous journey to the other islands.

The Stolen Spear is a thrilling adventure story for children aged 7 and over. Set on the Orkney Islands at the end of the Neolithic period, in the world famous (now ruined) village of Skara Brae, it brings both the remoteness of the islands, and the way of life of its Stone Age inhabitants vividly to life. I always feel that historical fiction makes the past more accessible; lets us understand that people long ago were no different to us (an especially important point for younger readers). Wolf may be a Stone Age boy, but his problems of fitting in, of being bullied, of trying to prove his worth to his father, are all themes that young modern readers will relate to. Wolf's story is told in the first person from his point of view, letting the reader share Wolf's frustrations and fears, while at the same time he seamlessly explains aspects of his life which are undoubtedly strange to us today.

The story moves along quickly, with tense moments as Wolf  faces danger at sea and from the people he encounters on the other islands, but he also forges new friendships along the way, and ultimately finds his special role in life.

 While primarily an adventure story, The Stolen Spear ties in nicely with KS2 history on the late Neolithic period. There are discussion points at the back to encourage readers to think more about certain aspects of the story - concepts such as change or courage, or why people have different opinions and points of view - and of course the Neolithic period itself.

Publisher  - Maverick Books
Genre - Children's historical fiction, 7+, KS2, Orkney Islands,