So it is with some chagrin that I am forced to admit that Andrew Daddo's Just Breathe is really good. (This is his 26th book, so I guess he is more of a writer than an actor by now.) Hendrix is a runner, with every aspect of his training, his food, even his breathing, regulated by his controlling father. Emily has moved from Benalla to be closer to her doctor... yes, it's not good, Emily has a time-bomb in her head. I'm not giving anything away to reveal that Emily and Hendrix fall in love. The obstacles to their togetherness all come from outside -- Hendrix's ambitious dad, and Emily's illness.
I became hugely invested in the young lovers. Maybe I felt Emily's situation all the more keenly because of my friend Sandra's recent swift death from a brain tumour, I don't know. Daddo writes really well, though the occasional teen term seemed slightly off to me, maybe his kids speak a different dialect from mine! (My kids would never say 'gatho', except ironically.)
But one thing which continually pulled me out of the story and actually made me really angry was the number of typos and outright spelling mistakes in this edition. For example: eek for eke (twice!), Sherin for Sherrin, antioxidents for antioxidants, misplaced apostrophes, taught for taut... and sadly, many more. Aaargh! I am told that a high level of these mistakes tends to de-bar a book from award consideration. If that happens to Just Breathe, it would be a real shame.
Though I preferred reading aloud to my own children, when we were in the car I sometimes resorted to making up stories -- something I found surprising difficult, considering it's supposed to be my day job! The favourite tale was called the Story of the Coin, which was a tedious, endless, rambling adventure of a coin which found itself variously swallowed by a crocodile, spent by a small girl on lollies, swept down a drain and out to sea -- you get the picture.
I guess my point is that stories we make up for our children don't have to be inspired masterpieces for our kids to enjoy them. And the fact that our kids enjoy them doesn't mean we should necessarily inflict them on the rest of the world.
There is nothing wrong with Marge in Charge by Isla Fisher, about whacky baby-sitter Marge who enjoys making mess and noise and turning the rules upside down. A lot of children would delight in these amusing tales. They are the kind of stories that made me desperately anxious as a child -- Pippi Longstocking and the Cat in the Hat disturbed me for the same reason. But I can't help a nagging suspicion that if Marge's adventures hadn't been invented by Isla Fisher, they might not have made it into print.
Four year old Romoschka, abandoned by his family, is adopted into a clan of wild dogs scraping an existence on the edges of Moscow. Initially we see everything from Romoschka's point of view -- the loving comfort of the mother dog, the wary sibling relationships he establishes with Black Dog and Golden Bitch, the loving bonds he establishes with the other puppies. As he grows older, he feels keenly his inadequacies as a dog; he can't match his canine brothers and sisters in smell or tracking. But gradually his strength and cleverness establishes him as the leader of the pack.
It comes as a shock when our point of view suddenly shifts to a pair of researchers who have discovered the existence of the 'dog boy.' Now we see Romoschka's life with new eyes -- the squalid den, the abominable stench, the feral, hairy child. There is a creeping sense of doom; Romoschka's life is impossible, and one way or another, it has to come to an end.
Dog Boy is not a happy book, but it is an extraordinary, moving experience.
This is a sweet story, whose charm is enhanced by the Garth Williams illustrations (Little House on the Prairie for me will always look the way Williams drew it, just as Narnia will be forever filtered through the vision of Pauline Baynes). However, the charm is marred by a couple of chapters where Mario meets a pair of venerable Chinese gentlemen who sell him a pavilion for his cricket. The characters themselves are treated with respect by the text, but sadly there are pages and pages of dialogue where they speak in supposed Chinese accents ('Velly solly' etc) which these days reads as horribly racist. Perhaps newer editions of the book have had this dialogue altered; it would be easy enough to do, and it would make me feel much more comfortable about sharing this otherwise lovely story.
My favourite scene comes towards the end of the book, where Chester the cricket plays music which drifts up out of the subway and onto the street, and a section of the city falls still to listen. Just gorgeous.
Alas, when I tried to share the Nesbit magic with my own children, it didn't cross the generation gap. Perhaps her humour was too subtle, perhaps the Victorian-era setting was too far from my daughters' world, or maybe I was too eager and tried when they were too young. All my favourites sit on my bookshelf, but they haven't been read for many years.
Then I found The House of Arden in the local op shop. I hadn't read this one, but for fifty cents, it was worth a punt. (I must say that Edith's prolific output did produce a few duds, and I'd been disappointed by Wet Magic and The Magic City.) But The House of Arden, I'm pleased to say, was right up there with her best.
It's a time slip story, in which two children (unfortunately named Edred and Elfrida) travel through their own family history, encountering highwaymen, the Gunpowder Plot and a mysterious South American civilisation among other adventures, as well as a random fellow traveller from their own time (who is a loose end left dangling -- perhaps resolved in the sequel, Harding's Luck). They are searching for treasure, and eventually find it, though not in the form they were expecting.
I'm delighted to add The House of Arden to my collection, and it's reminded me how much fun Nesbit's books can be. She also had a very complicated personal life, (which possibly explains her fascination with absent fathers??) and I've been promised her biography to read (thanks, Kirsty!) I can't wait...
Ellen and the Queen is a very slim little book -- hardly more than a short story, really. It's the tale of fiery, red-haired Ellen, whose home village is turned upside down when Queen Victoria comes to stay at the Great House. The very naughty Ellen trespasses into the grounds of the House; then into the House itself; and by a series of misadventures, eventually penetrates the bedchamber of the monarch herself...
A slight volume in every sense, but great fun.
First published in 1973, the novel is narrated by 12 year old Patty, daughter of small town storekeepers in middle America in the middle of World War II. A group of Nazi prisoners of war is stationed nearby, and when one of them escapes, Patty makes the momentous decision to shelter him.
I expected a lot more of the book to be devoted to Patty and Anton in hiding, but in fact she only shelters him for a very short time (though with huge consequences). Much of Patty's background is autobiographical, including the loving Black housekeeper Ruth, who stands in stark contrast to Patty's cold and frankly brutal parents.
I was actually really shocked by how cruel Patty's father is to her; he regularly beats her with a leather belt to the point where she loses consciousness. The obvious parallels are drawn between the domestic brutality of Patty's father and the political cruelty of faraway Hitler. The power of love is raised to counter the horror, but with only limited results. Patty's parents never give her the love she craves, Ruth is helpless to save Patty from the consequences of her actions, and Anton's story has a tragic end.
This is a powerful, sobering story, though old-fashioned in the telling. I'm glad I finally gave it a go.
This was an interesting reading experience, and historically educational, because many of the stories in this volume turn on a single plot trick, often centred on a quirk of 1930s technology -- the specifics of a pair of telephones connected in parallel, to enable someone to fake being miles away while they were actually in the next room; a 'repeating' alarm clock, which apparently chimes the last hour gone if you wake in the night and can't read the clock-face. Even my ancient mother had never heard of that one.
I do honestly believe that reading books like this are the best way to immerse yourself in the everyday detail of the period -- the way households run, the way people talk to their peers, to their doctor, to their servants. Often modern stories set in the past strike a slightly 'off' note, particularly around social mores. It's the things that are left unsaid, the unspoken assumptions, that are the most fascinating element of stories like these.