One of my very favourite fictional characters is Permanent Rose, from Hilary McKay’s Casson Family books. She is the youngest of four, living in a rather unconventional and chaotic family, and she loves Art.
Unlike me, she is not fond of reading: “…in her opinion books were for those unable to entertain themselves in any other way. For those who could not draw…or stare out of a window or daydream or suck their knees; these people, she thought, might possibly be able to find a use for a book.”
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been a reader, when I haven’t had at least one book within reach at all times, even if I’ve then chosen not to read it but to daydream or suck my knees instead. My reading recently had been confined to rereads of old favourites, with the occasional addition of a new book by a known author, but now that maternity leave has ended and I’m back at work in a bookshop, my to-read list is expanding by the second.
I also seem to have started my new book glut with a theme: books within books.
I’d managed to miss that the lovely Charlie Fletcher (author of the amazing Stoneheart trilogy) had a new book out last year, but was lucky enough to spot a free copy of it in the staff room on my very first day back.
‘Far Rockaway’ contains stories within a story in one of the best possible ways, by putting the heroine within them. Cat has been involved in an accident, and while her parents hover by her hospital bed, she is involved in a quest featuring characters from the books her grandfather used to read to her. As well as being a fabulous story, and featuring the brilliant cover tagline “Real girls rescue themselves”, Far Rockaway has made me dig out my copy of Treasure Island, and look for copies of Last of the Mohicans, Kidnapped, and The Three Musketeers.
‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton won both the Hugo and Nebula Best Novel awards in 2012, and I’m still a bit unbelieving that I’d managed to miss out on her previous work. It’s the story of Welsh girl Mori, who has been badly injured in an accident that killed her twin sister. They were attempting to stop their mother from using black magic, and now she is marooned in England at a boarding school where she doesn’t fit in and escaping into books to save herself.
I read an awful lot of SF when I was Mori’s age (although not in the 70’s) and so many of the books she references are familiar. Even the unfamiliar ones don’t break the pattern of the narrative though, just made me add them to that to-be-read list. I love the friends that she makes through her reading, and it’s the first time in a very long time that I’ve found a character that resonates with me as much.
Reading these two made me head back to my favourite books within a book book (book); ‘Fire & Hemlock’ by Diana Wynne Jones. There’s a bit where Polly receives a Christmas parcel of books with a note that reads: “…They were the things they told me in the bookshop that nobody should grow up without reading.”
“She read for the rest of Christmas, mostly kneeling on the floor with her hair dangling round the book like a curtain, but sometimes, when a cousin crawled up and tried to grab the book, she took it away behind the sofa and crouched there in the shadows.”
Of the twelve books, only nine of them are named (I secretly allocate the missing titles to be some of Diana Wynne Jones’ other books) but among them is ‘The Sword in the Stone’, the first book in the series published as ‘The Once and Future King’.
This takes us nicely back to Rose, now a few years older, and book free since Indigo (her brother) read her chunks of ‘Morte D’Arthur’ when she was eight. In ‘Forever Rose’ her teacher has just discovered how little she reads, and so Saffron (sister) and Sarah (friend) are attempting to find her a book that she will enjoy. After attempting some HP “reading the book after seeing the films felt like going into black and white slow motion.”, ‘The Wind in the Willows’; “…rodents. Dressed or caged, they are not for me.”, they have some success with ‘Where the Wild Things Are’; “it got into my dreams” (and she draws the forest on her bedroom walls).
Sarah gives her ‘The Once and Future King’ and “Kay was there, and Arthur and Sir Ector. They were talking and I could hear. It was like walking into a strange room and finding it unexpectedly full of your friends. It was hours later when I put that book down again…my brain had the sort of dazed feeling you get when you wake from a very vivid dream. So that’s what they were talking about. Reading!”
That’s it exactly Rose. That’s the feeling I get from certain new books and from old favourites that I’ve had sitting on my shelves for over twenty years (24 for The Dark is Rising). It’s also nicely the feeling that I get when reading about Permanent Rose herself.