Debutantes, Dragons & John Donne by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

Debutantes, Dragons & John Donne


Sally Nicholls’s latest novel, Yours from the Tower (Andersen Press 359pp £14.99), makes clever and unusual use of the epistolary form. It’s the late 19th century and three friends – upper-middle-class Sophia, whose family are desperate for her to bag an earl (even a minor one) during the coming social season, solidly middle-class Polly, who lives in Liverpool and wants to Do Good, and raffish Tirzah – all leave the safe confines of their school and are thrown into the world. They correspond through a kind of chain letter, which enables each to address the other two at once. 

It’s a fine conceit, allowing Nicholls to explore their worlds in detail. She is keenly aware of social nuance and how dangerous it can seem when proprieties are overlooked. Sophia is in love with Sebastian. His father, unfortunately, is only the youngest son of an earl and hasn’t a bean, living in ‘Bloomsbury, of all places’. Tirzah is locked up with her fearsome grandmother in Scotland, unable to express herself or explore, and is tempted by the local blacksmith. Polly falls for the hard-working, enlightened overseer of the orphanage where she teaches. All three find themselves involved in mysteries that need solving; what’s at stake is the rest of their lives. The ‘tower’ of the title is where Tirzah is literally imprisoned, but it’s also a nod to 19th-century romantic novels, as well as a symbol of the societal prisons that enclose young women.

Nicholls’s writing is fluent and lively. The girls’ plights are dramatic and involving, and the large cast of minor characters is vividly delineated, from Sebastian with his pet monkey to the stiff suitors who bother Sophia. Time is moving on and change is approaching. Soon there will be a world where women can vote, receive a degree and work. The novel is heart-warming, intelligent and exciting, and thoroughly recommended for girls (and boys) hovering on the cusp of adolescence. I loved it. 

The intensity of adolescent friendships is also the main focus of Luke Palmer’s Play (Firefly 355pp £8.99), though this time the leading characters are four boys: Matt, Mark, Luc and (you guessed it) Johnny. As in Yours from the Tower, they represent a wide social range: Matt’s artist father likes growing vegetables and is accepting of his son’s newly revealed homosexuality, Mark is the son of a single mother and gets drawn into county lines drug dealing, Luc’s dad is a rugby coach who pushes him too hard, and Johnny’s parents are rich and absent, jetting off rather than keeping an eye on their increasingly wayward offspring.

Palmer carefully and beautifully details how boys make friends – through building camps and destroying them, through ridiculous shared jokes and through their sweet and sometimes dangerous naivety. Each boy has to deal with a different pressure. Mark’s sexuality is fluid and his dalliance with Matt leaves the latter confused. Meanwhile, he gets into dangerous situations with dealers. Luc’s father wants him to become a mini version of himself, a tough working-class hero, and Johnny drifts, ingesting more and more drugs. Tragedy strikes, but friendship endures. Palmer’s prose, succinct and powerful, shows both the tenderness and the brutality of boyhood with rare wisdom. Readers of twelve and up will find much that is relatable here.

Friendship of a different kind is at the centre of Lauren St John’s Finding Wonder (Faber & Faber 351pp £7.99). Young Roo Thorn dreams of having a horsey companion. Her sights are set on the Wonder of the title, a gorgeous horse owned by a teenage dressage champion. When Roo’s reckless father dies, leaving her a winning lottery ticket, it seems that she might be on course to realise her wish. But many troubles stand in her way: Wonder is stolen from the stables by daring and inventive thieves, and Roo is soon on the trail with her kindly, hippieish aunt. St John is fully immersed in the world of horses: you can almost smell their beguiling scent and feel your thighs ache as you read. Her love (and Roo’s) for the animals is evident on every page and she perfectly transmits the sense of awe riders feel when it’s just them, the horse and the wind. The thrilling plot and the finely realised world will set the imagination of readers of ten and up galloping.

Magical rather than real animals are the subject of Katherine Rundell’s latest children’s book, Impossible Creatures (Bloomsbury 325pp £14.99). This is Rundell’s first move into high fantasy and she has delved deeply into the canon, drawing on ancient myth and modern fiction. The Archipelago, a magical land, is under threat, as the magic that sustains it is fading away, and animals are dying (the influence of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore is acknowledged in a female character’s name, Irian Guinne). The Archipelago is watched over by hereditary guardians, who protect the gate on our side of the world. Young Christopher discovers that he is one such guardian and must, with the help of Mal, a girl with a flying coat, find the source of the malaise and end it. There are many literary winks, to Philip Pullman (Mal has a compass that always shows her the way home) and C S Lewis (in the form of a Reepicheep-like character called Ratwin and an overarching Christian sensibility, seen both in Christopher’s name and in the sense of a ‘power beyond power’), among others. You’ll also find sphinxes who are bored of setting questions, dog Latin and John Donne. Rundell’s stylish prose, imaginative bestiary and ecological message will delight and intrigue readers of ten and up.

Nicholas Bowling’s work has been quietly growing in power. The Undying of Obedience Wellrest (Chicken House 324pp £8.99) is set in the 19th century and riffs on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ned is a young gravedigger who lives with his creaky (in more ways than one) old grandfather. When Obedience Wellrest (a scion of the local impoverished gentry) bursts into his life, Ned is catapulted into a world of graverobbers and Promethean scientists, while also having to deal with his own burgeoning love for Bede, as the title character is known. The villainous Phineas Mordaunt, who sports a bronze nose, is on the hunt for the secret of life itself, and Bede and Ned must foil his dastardly plans. Bowling’s atmospheric prose keeps the scares and the surprises coming. For children of ten and up.

For little ones a few years younger, Helen Cooper’s The Taming of the Cat (Faber & Faber 234pp £14.99) is a delectable tale about cheese and the power of storytelling. Our Scheherazade takes the form of Brie the mouse, who makes up stories based on the pictures he sees on cheese labels; the other, philistine mice shun him. But when he saves his own life by telling Gorgonzola the cat a tale about a magical cat and a princess called Mimolette, he becomes an accidental hero. The tale within a tale sees Mimolette facing down a dragon against the odds. Cooper’s story is about not fitting in and is full of clever touches, such as when Brie is forced by Gorgonzola to continue his story and we witness the compositional troubles of a writer unfolding in real time. You could call it Brie-lliant.

If you’re looking for presents for younglings, then the Folio Society has produced some children’s classics in luscious bindings. If, like me, you balked when Fanny in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree was modified to Frannie, you’ll be delighted to see that the Folio Society edition retains her original name. There are also elegant editions of Diana Wynne Jones’s classic wizarding story Charmed Life and The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore. Each is sumptuously illustrated – just the thing for unwrapping under the Christmas tree.

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