Feb 17, 2014

Brief Reading Notes: Beswitched, The Golden Day, Night Birds on Nantucket, Tell Me a Dragon

Mini-reviews: Beswitched by Kate Saunders, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken, Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie MorrisIt’s only the 17th of February, and already I have a large, precarious-looking pile of books on my coffee table demanding to be written about. On the one hand, hooray, this means I have been reading. On the other hand, leaning piles of books can make me feel overwhelmed, so I thought I’d get caught up with a series of brief reading notes so I can then move on to the books I hope to write about in more detail (like The Scorpio Races and the Emily of New Moon trilogy). Here’s part the first:

Cover of Beswitched by Kate Saunders
Beswitched by Kate Saunders: Verdict: not “the new Eva Ibbotson” (sob). I should have known that the blurb’s promise was too good to be true. At first glance, Beswitched looks exactly like something I’d love: it’s about a girl, Flora Fox, whose parents send her to a progressive boarding school for a semester while they help her grandmother move. Flora is not best pleased with this decision, and she makes no secret whatsoever of the fact. However, something happens during her journey to Penrice Hall, and Flora arrives at St Winifred’s School for Girls instead — in 1935. Flora soon discovers she was summoned to the past by a group of girls led by hot-tempered Pete, and that she’ll need her peers’ friendship and support if she’s ever to find her way back home.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I read about the premise of Beswitched: time travel! boarding school! the 1930s! girls butting heads and having complicated friendships! However, everything about the execution felt forced to me, and as a result I just couldn’t warm up to the story. First of all, there’s Flora herself and her character arc: I don’t have anything against stories where an initially unreasonable, inconsiderate character learns The Error of Her Ways and becomes more mindful of others, but this has do be done organically rather than heavy-handedly, or else it’s going to lose me. It’s obvious that we’re meant to think that Flora is a bit of a spoiled brat when the story begins, and this is done in an exaggerated, cardboard-y way that immediately distanced me from her. It’s not that I disliked Flora; it’s that she didn’t feel like a real person. Furthermore, the 1930’s words and turns of phrase the girls used felt rammed in; and the ending was not exactly what I was led to expect, but in a way that only drew further attention to the puppet strings. The book sets up a deliberate red herring, and when the truth about Flora’s connection to the past became obvious it made me feel manipulated.

I feel like a curmudgeon writing this, but alas, Beswitched was just not for me. Maybe it would have worked if I had more of an emotional connection to the classic school story genre it’s obviously paying loving tribute to? You could very well feel differently, though — after all, as I said above it does feature time travel and a 1930s boarding school and complicated girls. Maybe you’ll have more luck than I did.

Cover of The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky
The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky: Set at an Australian girls’ school in set in 1967, this novel tells the story of a class of eleven fourth-graders whose teacher goes missing during a field trip. Miss Renshaw, who loves poetry and opposes capital punishment and the Vietnam War, takes the girls to the Memorial Gardens to “think about death”. She then has them follow a gardener named Morgan to a seaside cave lined with ancient Aboriginal paintings. Unsettled by the dark cave, the girls leave to wait for their teacher outside — but Morgan and Miss Renshaw never come out, and the girls have to return to the school on their own and alert the authorities. Their sense of loyalty to their teacher prevents them from telling any adults what really happened, and it takes some time for the full story of Miss Renshaw’s disappearance to emerge.

I was impressed with Dubosarsky’s writing from the very first paragraph. Here’s how The Golden Day opens:
The year began with the hanging of one man, and ended with the drowning of another. But every year people die and their ghosts roam in the public gardens, hiding behind the grey, dark statues like wild cats, their tiny footsteps and secret breathing muffled by the sound of falling water in the fountains and the quiet ponds.
The thoughtful, slightly dreamlike prose continues for the rest of the novel. This is the kind of quiet, subtle, bittersweet and unsettling book that I generally love, and I think the fact that I felt mildly disconnected from it probably says more about me than about the book itself. The Golden Day is filled with a pervasive sense of dread that’s never fully resolved, and this ambiguity is part of what gives it its power. It’s also the sort of story I suspect will be read in different but equally rewarding ways by children and adults. As an adult, I can see all the things the parents, teachers and other authority figures are not quite telling the girls in Miss Renshaw’s class. I can see the fear and uncertainty they try to mask; I can see their desperate attempts to be reassuring and look in control of a situation they don’t know how to handle. As a child, I think I would have mainly related to how well Dubosarsky conveys what it’s like to get glimpses of a messy adult world you don’t yet fully understand; to try to trace its borders and make sense of its rules. The little girls navigate Miss Renshaw’s loss differently depending on their histories, and they each attempt to incorporate the summer’s unsettling events into their ever-evolving map of adulthood.

The Golden Day is a brief novel, but it packs a lot. I look forward to reading more of Ursula Dubosarsky’s writing.

Cover of Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken
Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken: The third book in the awesome Wolves Chronicles series features Joan Aiken’s trademark writing plus seafaring adventures — ‘nuff said, right? I can’t even tell you how much joy these books have brought me. I adore Aiken’s writing: her humour, her warmth, her use of intertextuality, and her delightful exuberance and inventiveness with language. I love how she plays with the grammar of storytelling, and I of course love Dido Twite, a clear literary precursor of my beloved Mosca Mye.

In Night Birds on Nantucket, Dido finds herself aboard a ship whose captain is obsessed with following a pink whale, which… come on, of course I was going to be charmed from page one. The ship eventually takes her to Nantucket, which in Aiken’s alternative history universe is an independent nation, where she uncovers yet another Hanoverian plot. Dido, who gleefully says “screw being ladylike!”, is as much of a delight to spend time with here as she was in Black Hearts in Battersea. One of my favourite things about the story, though, is that Dido is absolutely not framed as an excepto girl. Dutiful Penitence, the timid friend Dido spends the first half of the novel drawing out of her shell, proves resourceful and brave and saves the day in the end. Also, you have to read this book for the encounter between the Pink Whale and Captain Casket alone. I can’t wait to see where Dido’s adventures will take me next.

Cover of Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris
Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris: I’ll start by unapologetically admitting that this is mostly an excuse to show you pretty pictures. As I told you the other week, I fell in love with Jackie Morris’ art in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, so when I spotted this at the library I had to bring it home (the fact that it’s dedicated to Terry Pratchett sealed the deal).

Dedication to Terry Pratchett in Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris
For Terry Pratchett, with thanks for the worlds you made from words and for all the dragons that flew out from your imagination.

I really enjoyed this picture book as an adult, but I know it’s one that would have set my imagination on fire as a child. The illustrations reign supreme in Tell Me a Dragon: there’s a brief and evocative bit of text accompanying each one, but the joy in absorbing all the detail in each double-page illustration and then imagining all the dragons Morris doesn’t draw. I was somewhat reminded of Journey, another picture book that uses art to evoke all the joy and excitement and sense of boundless possibilities the best stories give us, and that leaves readers longing to explore all the worlds it hints at.

As promised, pretty pictures:

Inside illustration for Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

Inside illustration for Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

Inside illustration for Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

Inside illustration for Tell Me a Dragon by Jackie Morris

(Have you posted about any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. The pictures of Tell Me a Dragon are so nice! I want to read it now.

    I know how you feel about that stack of read books just staring at you. My stack is next to me now. *sigh*

    I'm glad you gave The Golden Day a try. It amazes me that I've never heard of the author before.

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  3. A definite shame about Beswitched - I really love the sound of it, but the problems you had put me off a little bit. Maybe if I run out of books to read, I'd give it a go, but that's never going to happen so...

    But, as you tempting me with East of the Sun..., the art in Tell Me a Dragon looks stunning. I may have to look into picking it up. I'm a sucker for beautiful, poignant picture books. This looks like one of those.

  4. Library programming tip: someone at my library has done a program with Tell Me a Dragon, where the kids made "dragon eggs" (painted salt dough, I believe) and then wrote up descriptions of what their dragon would be like when it hatched. HUGE success. Love that book to bits.

    I don't think I'd heard of either Beswitched or The Golden Day; too bad about the former, but thanks for letting me know about the latter. Loved the quote you included.

  5. Dragons looks so great. Files it away from when friends start having kids.

    And The Golden Day could be one for me. Have you read Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is about a similar incident?

  6. Those stories about people disappearing in the Australian countryside send chills down my spine. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock. That theme also appears briefly on Kafa on the Shore. I'll need to check The Golden Day. Thanks for posting about it.

  7. Gorgeous pictures, so definitely no need to apologize. :)

  8. I am a fan of British School Girl stories, and enjoyed Beswitched very much indeed!

    Are you reading the Aiken's in the order of the series, or the order in which they were written? If the later, you get The Cuckoo Tree next, which is a favorite of mine!

  9. YOUR THOUGHTS ON EMILY OF NEW MOON OH I CANNOT WAIT FOR THOSE. (Not intended to rush you. Just, I am excited.)

    I read but didn't review The Golden Day -- somehow I couldn't think of what I would say about it. I didn't not enjoy it. I love stories that are successful at conveying why children are acting in a way different to what adults would want, and The Golden Day certainly was, but I didn't love it. The story was, I think, too slight for me. Not enough about the girls, maybe?

  10. The picture book sounds charming. Dragons ♥

  11. Vasilly: I've wanted to read Dubosarsky for ages because Margo Lanagan is always mentioning her when asked about favourite authors. Now that I've read The Golden Day I can definitely see how she'd be her kind of writer. I have The Red Shoes on my TBR - hopefully I'll get to it sooner rather than later.

    Lulu: Like I said, it could be me! Charlotte below loved it as she has very good taste. Jackie Morris' art is just the best, isn't it? I'm in love.

    Kiirstin: OMG I looooove that! The theme of this year's summer reading challenge is myths and legends and dragons are mythological creatures... I wonder if I could fit that in?

    Bookgazing: I was hoping to temp you into the Aiken, actually - adorable Moby Dick references, girls + sea adventures, and you could easily start the series there. And I haven't, no, though several reviews of this book mentioned it.

    Nicolás Diaz: It's been too long since I read Kafka on the Shore - I'd forgotten about that! And I'm now curious about Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    Trisha: That's good to hear :P

    Charlotte: I wish I had too! But I guess you can't love them all. As for Aiken, I was following the order of the series and have The Stolen Lake out of the library right now... do you think it would be okay to skip ahead and then go back?

    Jenny: THEY ARE COMING, I PROMISE! Dean made me stabby as you'd predicted, but I loved the books anyhow <3 And yeah, I can see how it all being over too soon could prevent someone from loving The Golden Day. I didn't love LOVE it either, but I was very impressed with the writing and I liked how Dubosarsky suggested so much with so few pages.

    Starryempress: Right? <3

  12. Aiken - I read the first one a million times when I was littler but was stupid and let people talk me into giving my copy away (you can't keep all the books Jodie - scowls). Had no idea there were more until Jenny mentioned it a while ago. These seem like the kind of thing the library might have. I will look into it!

  13. Hi Ana - I am finally able to catch up with some blogs. I am delighted that you are enjoying the Joan Aitkens books so much! I read at least the first three many years ago as a young girl. You reading these is making me want to reread them myself, and I am busy hunting for them now. I do like Dido so much as a heroine.

    I absolutely must find that dragon book by Jackie Morris! I recently found her blog so I have been following her over the past month.

    The Golden Day sounds interesting. I read Picnic at Hanging Rock many years ago when I was a teenager, and it chilled me. This sounds like it's similar. Lovely reviews, and like your other commentators, I can hardly wait for your thoughts on Emily of New Moon!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.