I told you it had been reissued: http://robinmckinleysblog.com/2014/02/13/dont-i-keep-trying-to-reinstate-short-wednesdays/ Almost any of Peter’s books, if you mention it suddenly and catch me off guard I will probably say, Oh, that’s one of my favourites! But in Emma Tupper’s case I’m telling the truth.
Here’s a new review by its very own republisher: http://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2014/04/16/reading-like-its-1971/ *
I was already distressingly near to grown up by 1971 and wasn’t hanging out in kids’ book sections any more. I knew about Peter Dickinson, but I knew him for his rivetingly bizarre murder mysteries. It would take several more years and a job at the children’s division of Little, Brown (as it then was), for me to learn what I had been missing. L,B had the back catalogue of its colleague Atlantic Monthly Press on its shelves too . . . including Peter Dickinson’s kids’ books. Including Emma Tupper.
If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? You don’t have to be told a third time, do you?**
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* I wish I’d grown up on a Scottish loch side. ^
^ I’m keeping the five years in Japan though.
** Makes a good gift too.
This is such a good book.
I don’t remember how I managed to notice it; unless I am being even more clueless than usual, which I admit is entirely possible, I don’t think it’s been waved around and shouted about much over here, which is a pity—do the British really think a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south isn’t of interest? But it isn’t a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south, although it’s certainly that too—it’s a novel about what it is to be human. Which is what all the best novels are about, including—and I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating—the ones featuring fuzzy blue eight-legged methane-breathers. Or a Louisiana sugar-cane plantation a hundred and fifty years ago, run by slave labour.
Thirteen-year-old Sophie’s parents have split up (very shocking in 1960 middle-class America) and her mother is taking her back to her family’s old home for the summer to get her out of the way. Sophie’s mother’s family were very grand a hundred years ago, and the house where Sophie’s grandmother and aunt still live is on a remnant of the old plantation. Sophie is miserable; she’d already been outcast by her friends because of the divorce, and the back of beyond in the bayou is nearly the worst fate she can think of. She explores the overgrown—and reputedly haunted—maze that had been part of the Big House’s garden in the plantation’s day. And there she meets . . . a Creature. “There’s no question that there’s strange things around Oak River,” says Sophie’s Aunt Enid, “and if they’re not ghosts, then they’re something mighty like.”
“I warn you,” says the Creature to Sophie, “I mighty powerful juju. I sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, betwixt was and will be, betwixt here and there. . . . ”
But Sophie, reckless in her unhappiness, and having perhaps reread E Nesbit and Edward Eager a little too often, wishes for an adventure. “Adventures just come along natural with going back in time,” says the Creature.
And Sophie discovers that she’s back a hundred years. When her ancestors, the Fairchilds, were plantation owners. And what had been her bedroom in 1960 is the bedroom of the daughter of the family in 1860. Who is understandably dismayed by the strange girl in it. But Sophie, with her frizzy hair and her dark summer tan, is mistaken for a runaway slave. And the only reason she isn’t flogged and dragged away in chains is because she is obviously a member of the family—she has the famous Fairchild nose. She is, it is decided by Miss Liza’s parents, the daughter of Miss Liza’s rackety uncle—and one of his slaves.
Which makes Sophie a slave. Which is not the sort of adventure she had in mind.
The plantation world is brought superbly to life, as are the people in it. One of the things I found particularly effective is sheltered, white-girl 1960 Sophie having no idea what it means to be a slave: that just meeting someone’s eyes because they’re speaking to you is uppity, that any answer at all may be the wrong answer, that it is perfectly acceptable to be expected to wait on table when you are half-sick with hunger yourself, that it is perfectly acceptable to be sent on another errand, and another errand after that when you’re exhausted—because you aren’t really human. And that the white overseer is always right even when he’s wrong, and that a black slave doesn’t know more even when he does—because he’s a slave.
And what this grotesque imbalance of power does to both sides of this criminally bad bargain.
There are so many neat, tucked-away little details in this book, of plot, character and serendipity, none of which I can tell you—but I can tell you to look out for them. I’ve discovered one or two more just glancing through it now to get the names and quotations right—and many of these apparently casual bits and pieces come together beautifully for the climax and denouement.
Give yourself a treat: read it.
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* I read a book over supper last night.^ It was thrilling. I always used to read over meals unless Story in Progress was giving me an unusually ferocious time; but in the last six and a half years if I’m not wrestling with a recalcitrant Story I’m mostly writing the blog at night. Hey. More book recs on the new blog system. Yessssssss.
^ I was also up way too late as a result. Sigh. Well, no system is perfect.
I need a night not mostly moaning about my stupid life.* So let’s have a couple of book recs.**
I have tended to avoid books for the younger end of YA; I’m missing the gene. I can engage with picture books and I can engage with YA, but there are vast swathes in the middle that are to me in a foreign language. Especially that extra-confusing subcategory of young-adult characters written for a slightly younger than young-adult audience. But I’m a sucker for a Kindle promo bargain*** and I have bought several over the last few months telling myself that I’m broadening my horizons. That’s a good thing, right?†
Here are two books that will amuse, divert and cheer you up as you lie on the sofa covered in hellcritters and suffering from germs, rivers where there used to be roads, or, possibly, aggravated carlessness.
Elizabeth’s favourite teacher sees her being kind to a homeless woman and shortly after suggests that she apply for a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository. Which is like a library. Sort of. The interview is a little bizarre . . . but not nearly as bizarre as finding out that the Grimm Legacy, which is held on one of the mysteriously locked floors of the Repository, contains items like worn-out dancing slippers, seven-league boots, invisible cloaks and nasty-tempered talking mirrors. So far so enchanted. And certain carefully vetted customers are allowed to borrow these things–the Repository is, after all, Circulating. But someone is stealing some of the most valuable objects—or draining them of their magic.
It’s Sunday afternoon and Tilly is fidgeting around the house because her Pa is due home from working on the railroads—it’s 1881—and she’s eager to see him, as well as eager for the wages he’ll be bringing, so there will be enough food again, and they can pay their back rent. But there’s a knock on the door and it’s not Pa, but Will the butcher’s son who seems to be sweet on Tilly—she doesn’t like him at all, no she doesn’t—and dares her to come ice-skating with him. Her mother and sister nearly push her out the door but she’s piqued by the dare. But Will is taking her to Frost Hollow Hall, where the young heir died by drowning ten years ago—and where, when Tilly falls through the too-thin ice, she is saved by—a ghost?
Both of these books are page-turners in their different ways. Who can Elizabeth trust? Is the thievery an inside job? And what (or possibly who) is the gigantic bird she keeps catching terrifying glimpses of? Tilly gets a job as a maid at Frost Hollow Hall, where they have trouble keeping servants because of the peculiar goings-on since Kit’s death, because her family needs the wages; but also because she dreams of Kit, who looks at her so sadly: Now it’s your turn to save me, he says.
Oh, and PS: One of my pet peeves about way too many books written for the frelling girlie market is that it’s all about the romance, the Hot Guy or Guys, and there’s way too much flirting and swooning and obsessing and smooching. I know I’m old and everything, but I’ve always been like this: smooching is great but I WANT THE STORY. Both these books have very nice understated romances and while Will is pretty hot, Tilly is not the moony type—and the scene where Elizabeth proves (by satisfyingly magical means) she is not in love with the obvious Hot Guy is one of my favourite bits of the book. Hee hee hee hee hee.
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* I am still a car-free zone and am beginning to suffer existential/automotive despair. They’re now saying Saturday. I’ve emailed Alfrick that assuming I pick Wolfgang up at the end of their working day I can probably still JUST ABOUT make it to my appointment with him. But that’s assuming Wolfgang is ready to be picked up. In the twenty-three years I’ve been using this garage they have consistently done rather better than their forecasts and I’m just not dealing with the current situation because it’s so unexpected. Yes, I should have hired a car—but so much of my Car Life involves hellcritters in the back seat that I’m very reluctant to waste all that money on a car I can’t haul critters in. I was 95% sure hellhounds and I would be hurtling out to Warm Upford today and coming home in Wolfgang. I had my shoes on when I rang up. And the world has been Dark and Tragic ever since I heard the dread word ‘Saturday’.
Also—just by the way—Feebledweeb came round again this morning.
On the other hand . . . Shiny New Carrier Company came through. I checked ‘track your parcel’ at mmph o’clock this morning. Nothing. I checked it again at seven and at 8:30^. Still nothing.^^ Then at 9:30—lo, there was a little pop-up box telling me that my parcel was on the road and due to arrive between 10:53 and 11:53 [sic]. And it DID.
I was all chirpy and delighted till I opened the parcel. And discovered they’d screwed up my order. . . .
^ I may have mentioned that I am Not A Good Sleeper?
^^ And that I take Astarte the iPad to bed with me?
** People. It is pathetic how (not) often I post book recs. Nag me. If I could get it through my tiny frantic mind that I’m not writing reviews^ I’m just saying this is a good read I might be able to bring myself to do it more often.
^ And risking SAYING THE WRONG THING.
*** And doesn’t frelling amazon know it. ‘Other customers with your browsing history have bought . . . [HOT LINK WITH ADDED PHEROMONES]’
† Not when it involves finding excuses to buy more books. Even cheap buy-it-FAST-before-we-put-the-price-back-up ones.
I bought nine roses last week.* AND I PLANTED THE LAST TWO OF THEM TODAY. It’s only been a WEEK.** And I’ve already got ALL OF THEM them in the ground.*** Are you impressed? Trust me, you should be impressed.
So I thought I’d give myself a Slightly Short Blog Day to celebrate.† And maybe I’ll do a little work. Or go to bed early.†† Or something.
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* Hey. I need more roses.
** I can’t remember if I told you this story or not^. I’d ordered from a rose nursery that isn’t impossibly far from here and said I would pick them up. When they rang me that my roses were ready I suggested to Peter that he come too and we’d go on afterward to the big public garden nearby and have a wander. So that’s what we did. Except that by the time we got to the big public garden . . . we were too tired.^^ So we didn’t walk around it. Ho hum. Life in the Slow Lane. But I did get my roses.
^ And the Footnote Labyrinth makes trying to look back and check somewhat challenging.
^^ In my case all that frelling driving was aggravated by a long conversation I had with one of the rose-nursery proprietors about, how surprising, roses. She was full of embarrassing information I should have known.+ I have, for example, never had any luck with the symbiotic fungus stuff that you put in the hole when you plant your rose, and it colonises the roots which then develop like crazy in all directions and your rose is very, very happy. Except it didn’t and it wasn’t. I thought it was another fashionable scam. Nobody told me that root fungi don’t like blood-fish-and-bone which is the traditional rose and general perennial shrub food. You ALWAYS put BFB in the hole you’re planting a rose in. Not when you’re using mycorrhizal fungi. Oh. –So I bought some more of the frelling stuff and have used it. Except I’ve only used about half the packet and it only keeps for about a year and it’s stupidly expensive, you wouldn’t want to waste it nooooooooooo. . . . .
+ Although we did a little mutual howling about people who don’t get it that roses are, you know, living things. I told her a story I know I’ve told you, from when we were still at the old house and opened our garden on the National Gardens Scheme. I had someone at least once every open day saying, your roses are amazing, how do you get your roses to be so amazing? My roses are barely struggling along. And I would say, well, what do you feed them? And they would look at me blankly and say, Feed them? FOR PITY’S SAKE, GUYS. HOW DO YOU THINK ROSES PRODUCE ALL THOSE FLOWERS? MAGIC? How can anyone look at a modern, repeat-flowering rose, frelling bowed down by the weight of its flowers, not least because it’s been overbred for flower production at the expense of everything else like leaves and stems and good health, and not realise it’s going to need a little more help than scratching a hole in the ground and plonking it in?? That’s like buying a racehorse and feeding it straw. GOOD GRIEF.
*** Well. Mostly not in the ground. Not in the All the Plumbing in Hampshire cottage garden. Most of them are in pots. I suspect I have rather good drainage, between the builder’s rubble and all the plumbing in Hampshire, but most roses that aren’t major thugs, in this garden, do better in pots, possibly just because they don’t have to fight off the thugs. But I lost a few this wet winter that I don’t think I should have lost so . . . more pots. A few of the new intake are in pots smaller than they’ll stay in forever . . . but they’ll do for a year or two. Or three. Just keep feeding them.
† Also because I took Peter to the ex-library again today and we battered our way through all the other media and went and hung out in the small dark corner where the books now live. I found a little trove of knitting books . . . and then read one of Peter’s thrillers over tea. During which I absent-mindedly ate a Very Nasty gluten-free pistachio cookie. I think I object to a book so absorbing that you can eat nasty food without noticing till it’s too late. That’s the problem with thrillers: they make you forsake all rationality and keep turning pages.
And then I went bell ringing at Crabbiton for the second week in a row. I haven’t been ringing, I’m too tired, and the idea of facing eighty-six bells and a ringing chamber the size of a ballroom at Forza is too much for me. Crabbiton has six bells, and a pretty laid-back and low-level band, and I found out by accident that Wild Robert has started teaching there pretty regularly again. So I went along last week and made bob minor possible—they generally only have four inside ringers, and bob minor requires five—and so this week they were really glad to see me. It’s a hoot being one of the big kids. Although Felicity had to go and wreck my feeble glow of self-satisfaction by inquiring if I wouldn’t like to make up the number at Madhatterington on Mothering Sunday. Nooooooooooooo.
So . . . after all this febrile self indulgence . . . work would be good.
†† No! No! Not that!
I’m usually late to the party with big books, even big books that interest me; generally speaking I’m ploughing a furrow in some literary field no one’s ever heard of and probably lost besides. But I noticed this book because it’s about netsuke (sort of), and netsuke is/are one of the things I came back from five years in Japan as an American military brat loving—and missing. I can’t even remember where I saw them in Japan*; my memory cuts in with seeing them in American museums and longing to pick them up. They’re tactile. They’re meant to be handled. But museums of necessity keep them locked up in glass cases.
So I clocked the HARE, and I also clocked that it became a Very Big Deal, a best seller, winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award. When it came out in paperback I bought it. And put it on a shelf. And . . .
It turned up on Audible; I bought it and put it on another shelf. . . .
Two suggestions: Read it.** And don’t read any of the reviews first. I cannot BELIEVE the spoilers reviewers throw out there—I think it may be worse with nonfiction?? Because it’s, you know, facts?*** I think I did read a few of the reviews when the book was new and for once I am proud of my terrible memory because I didn’t remember a single salient story-harming fact.
I loved the beginning, when the young (English) de Waal is given a grant to go to Japan for two years, and while he is there he takes the opportunity to get to know his great-uncle Iggy, raised in Vienna, who now lives in Tokyo—with his impressive collection of netsuke (including the hare of the title). When he dies, the netsuke comes to de Waal, who decides to research its history; it has been in his family for several generations.
Now Pollyanna is tapping her foot at me here, because I want to warn you that I personally found this first section, after the introduction about how de Waal came to have the netsuke, heavy going. The branch of the family it belonged to were very, very, very wealthy Jewish bankers and there is rather a lot of description of clothing and furniture and the way the aesthetes of the family spent their time (and money)†. There’s an uncomfortable thread of anti-Semitism through all of it††; but the Ephrussi clan can afford to ignore it—or to insulate themselves from it.
And then the First World War.
And then the Second World War.
It is with de Waal’s great-uncle’s generation and their parents that the story comes horrifyingly, unbelievably, appallingly to life. I’ve read about the fate of the European Jews before, of course—my father fought in WWII, my best friend is Jewish, I can’t not be interested in that history—but somehow my very lack of empathy with these beyond-the-dreams-of-avarice wealthy people makes their ruin and despair more shocking because ruin and despair I can understand. They’re human at last, human like the rest of us are human, poor things. I cried kind of a lot during these chapters.††† And when Iggy’s sister Elizabeth‡ goes back to Vienna after the war and meets her mother’s Gentile maid, Anna, who by Hitler’s government hadn’t been allowed to go on working for the family she’d been with since she was fourteen . . . I cried most of all.
I recommend it very highly. Slog through the first section, if you find it needs slogging. Keep going. And don’t read the reviews.
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* I thought old people are supposed to remember their childhoods vividly. Hmmph.
** Or listen to it. Michael Maloney does a great job. I tend to listen and reread, listen and reread.
*** Like cheap genre tricks like suspense and empathy have no place in nonfiction????
† De Waal is a very stylish and elegant writer; I’m not sure but what this does him a disservice in this section when everyone is so frelling exquisite. But the grace and refinement totally come into their own later on when he’s describing things that are the antithesis of grace and refinement.
†† Which ironically is the only time the—for me—rather crazy-making preciousness of this section comes alive. With the reminder that all is not perfection in silk and satin and furbelows.
††† Mostly while pruning rose-bushes at one-quarter speed because I was too absorbed in what I was listening to.
‡ Elizabeth, by the way, Edmund’s grandmother, is a heroine to conjure with. He doesn’t make a big issue of her, any more than she made a big issue of herself, but she shines.