Fierce Fairytales – Nikita Gill

I’ve said it before – I’m a very lucky woman. I get to read books as part of my job and, sometimes, get offered free books by publishers (in exchange for reviews, obviously). Sometimes we are given lots of information – a detailed run-down of the plot, characters or the author – and sometimes just a short description. This book was briefly outlined as ‘feminist fairytales’ and, to be fair, I didn’t need to hear much more to make we want to read it.

9781409181590Firstly I should say that I wasn’t previously aware of the author, Nikita Gill.  She is, it appears, a big name on Instagram but I don’t really do Instagram (I run out of time frittering away hours on Twitter and Facebook – if I added another social media stream I think I’d never sleep!) so I went in blind and then was almost startled to find that the book was largely poetry.  It took me a little while to get used to it, to be honest – I quite enjoy poetry but this snuck up on me – but after a little while I began to appreciate what I was reading. Fairytales generally involve beautiful princesses, ancient castles, wicked step-mothers, fire-breathing dragons and valiant princes and evoke a feeling of a distant past: these poems and short tales are about far more modern lives. The evils these princesses have to face are body image, slut-shaming, gaslighting and patriarchy. This sounds like a big ask but these girls are being exhorted to forget being polite, pretty and pliable: we are reminded that girls can be determined, strong and downright bolshie and this is not a failure on their part. Girls can be friends with their dragons – they can be dragons – and sometimes step-mothers are driven into evil by their impossible lives. The boys aren’t forgotten either – girls are warned away from men who will try to break them and the boys themselves are encouraged to acknowledge their own feelings and not be afraid to own their weaknesses. The characters from our well-loved tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan and Alice – all find new ways to resolve their stories: proof, if it were needed, that there can never just be one way of living.

The main message I took from these poems and stories is that girls (and boys) need to be given permission to be themselves. The ‘themselves’ they want to be – not one that society tries to force on them. I’m not sure I would suggest this book for younger children to read on their own – there is a fair amount of darkness here – but I would love to see it in the hands of mothers, giving them the incentive they need to let their girls and boys be as fierce and strong as they can. It would also be a good read for slightly older children (9+?) who have enjoyed books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Jane

Advertisements

The Hazel Wood – Melissa Albert

Even when I’m reading a proper physical book rather than an e-galley I try not to read too much about a title before I start it. I might glance at the blurb but I will avoid other people’s reviews and the like – I quite like doing my own discovering. Often the blurb will give you a very accurate idea of what sort of book you are getting – a historical novel of the 14th century, a Regency romance or a children’s adventure story with rabbits – but sometimes it will appear to be one thing when you start reading and then, rather wonderfully, become something else entirely. The Hazel Wood turned out to be just such a story.

35997403At first the story involves Alice – who is seventeen, lives with her mother, step-father and step-sister, and goes to school and works weekends in a coffee shop. She and her mother spent many years moving around before this marriage: bad luck had dogged them all Alice’s life. Her earliest memories are of leaving – midnight flits, long car journeys and being made to feel unwelcome in a series of spare rooms and sofas. At first I thought this would be a novel about a feisty teen learning how to take her place in the more affluent, privileged world she finds herself in but then, well, it all started to go a lot darker.  The cover suggests that we may be about to enter the world of crime fiction or psychological thrillers but no – this is the world of magic, the supernatural and of fairy-tales.

Alice’s grandmother wrote a bestselling book of dark fairy tales set in a world called The Hinterland. But Alice has never met Althea Proserpine, her grandmother, the book is impossible to find (no matter how much money you offer) and after news of her death Alice’s mother vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Although she has spent her whole life being told never to go near The Hazel Wood, Althea’s home, she heads there with Ellery Finch, a school friend and Hinterland superfan. And this is the point where the Hinterland drags Alice in: the point where she discovers the truth about her identity and fights to escape her destiny.

I’ve seen a few reviews for this book (after I’ve written this far in mine) which are quite negative. They find Alice to be an unlikable character, full of anger and privilege, and they don’t like the fact that, although the book is a YA fantasy it is in a very real and contemporary setting for much of the book. They have issues, in particular, with how Alice relates to Ellery Finch – who is mixed race – and feel she considers her early life of poverty and drifting to be worse than the attitude he faces as a person of colour. I’m not denying any of these things occur but, without giving away any major plot twists, they are there on purpose. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. She’s just written that way…

Jane

 

The Hidden People -Alison Littlewood

For someone who thought she didn’t read horror/ghost stories I certainly seem to be getting through a few of them recently. To be fair it is October – the time of year when all the creepiest books are released onto readers eager to balance Halloween sweeties with some spine-chilling stories. Of course what I have read quite a lot of in the past are 19th century novels, full of Victorian manners, so how could I not be intrigued by a book which promised to tell me a Victorian tale of suspense (but written in the full knowledge of our twenty-first century world?)  Because as well as being an age of rationality, science and moral rectitude the Victorian era was also an age of fairy tales and folklore – culminating in Bradford’s very own Cottingley fairies in the early part of the 20th century. Alison Littlewood seems to be known as an author of horror and ghost stories but I would say this book, The Hidden People, is more of a dark fairy story. Nothing sparkly or delicate but the kind of fairies who think of humans as something to be used and then discarded. If you’ve ever read Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies you’ll know the sort of thing.

hiddenWe start this book on the rational, scientific side of the age – at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – where young Albie meets hit pretty young country cousin Lizzie. Despite an initial attraction Albie follows his father’s wishes, joining the family firm and marrying a sensible, suitable girl. He forgets all about Lizzie until, shockingly, he hears of her death. In fact, her murder at the hands of her young husband. Albie decides to travel to the little Yorkshire village of Halfoak where Lizzie lived and died and this is where he comes up against what he thinks is superstition and ignorant belief in fairies. Lizzie was killed because her husband believed she was a changeling (and by burning alive because that’s one of the only ways to guarantee killing a fairy). We 21st century readers tend to agree with Albie’s rational view – fairies aren’t real and changelings don’t exist – and yet we, like him, are sucked into an otherworldly atmosphere where the impossible becomes almost believable.

I really liked the way that the reader is kept on edge – Albie, and his wife Helena when she joins him, are changed by Halfoak. Are they bewitched by fairies or do they just suffer some inexplicable breakdown? Early in the story Albie notices that the village clock has three hands so that it can tell local as well as railway time – the whole book leaves us unsure which timeframe we are in: whether we are in a rational or a fantastical world.

Jane

The Beginning Woods – Malcolm McNeill

One of the aspects of fantasy fiction – for adults, young adults or children – which most appeals to me is the worlds they are set in. Narnia, Discworld, Middle Earth or Hogwarts: what they all have is a fully realised world with greater (or lesser) links to our own and, my personal favourite part, they have detailed mythologies and back-stories to back them up. People never believe me but I really love the Silmarillion because it contains so many legends and stories which fill in the gaps in the Lord of the Rings trilogy for me. They act on Middle Earth in the way that fairy stories and folk tales do for the real world – ways we explain the inexplicable to ourselves. This is a need which continues all through our lives so it has always seemed a shame to me that so many adults turn their backs on speculative fiction (or even fiction altogether). Of course a large number don’t – fantasy, sci-fi and horror are always good sellers and have some of our bestselling authors. Tv and film adaptations help but I like to think that escaping to other worlds is the main attraction.

30795484The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill is a book which certainly ticks the world-building box. We start with the fact that there has been a spate of disappearances, people vanishing and leaving just a pile of empty clothing. This intrigued me – I started to think of Boojums and Squonks* – and then I was led further into the story by hints of science and witchcraft and an abandoned changling-like child. The plot became more and more complex but also quite philosophical – at the heart of the story is the orphan child Max who needs to find who he is and why he is there. This book is listed as a children’s title but I would say there is enough depth there to interest any adult with a liking for fairy tales and myth. And, in terms of children, it would best suit an older, more thoughtful child who doesn’t need the story to be full of fights and excitement.

Jane

*And I was right about the squonks too…

The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote – Dan Micklethwaite

I work in what is possibly the loveliest bookshop in Yorkshire (modesty forbids we claim anything more – but if you all want to insist we will accept all accolades). It should come as no surprise then that authors enjoy doing events for us. Or even just popping in for a coffee, to be fair. We love to do talks, signing sessions and even film shows in store but one of my favourite formats is a book launch. Mostly because it usually means that the author is local (but a little bit because there is an outside chance of a glass of vino…). And if the book is a debut that’s even better – we’ll be able to brag that we did the launch for their debut when they win the Booker/get a huge movie deal/marry royalty. Or just get them to come in and sign more stock later, whatever. This week we have a double whammy – a book launch for a Yorkshire author from a publisher based less than 20 miles from Bradford.  The launch is on Thursday night, starting at 7pm – come along if you like!

dan-micklethwaite--donna-creosote--paperbackAnyway, onto the book itself. Donna Crick-Oakley lives on the top floor of a block of flats in Huddersfield and, it seems, wishes the world could be more like the books she reads – which are largely tales of chivalry, of knights and princesses. In the early part of the book she decides to brave the outside world by costuming herself as a knight-errant (okay, she doesn’t have any actual armour but gets very creative with a range of kitchen metal ware). This doesn’t go well but does reconnect her with Sammy, a boy she knew at primary school and who gave her the nickname she uses in her fantasy life: Donna Creosote. A large part of the story is, it seems, Donna’s daydreams of her adventures which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Don Quixote. This is no coincidence – Don Quixote is, famously, a man driven mad by his overindulgence in chivalric literature – and you quickly realise that Donna is a very unhappy, troubled young woman.

Dan Micklethwaite has previously written poetry and short stories and, interestingly, this novel reads like a short story. But, rather wonderfully, a short story which has enough time and space to develop properly and just enough poetry to remind me of the fairy tales Donna loves. And it isn’t all about the fantasy world either – the problems that beset Donna are very real ones about her relationship with her parents, with men and with alcohol. Donna Crick-Oakley seems to have very little self-esteem: Donna Creosote is stronger and more confident. She just isn’t real. I was expecting this to be a funny, quirky little story with, possibly, a developing romance and although it was all these things it was much more. Sad, a bit frustrating, and thought-provoking too. And (hooray) no happy ever after.

Jane

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

In my opinion Naomi Novik’s novel, Uprooted, is a modern classic. I haven’t read her other books, which were sold to me as “naval warfare with dragons”, as I like dragons but naval warfare is not my thing. What I do like is fairytales.

The current trend is to retell old classics, but with a twist in the tale. These range from cyborgs in Marissa Meyer’s retelling of the eponymous rags to riches fairytale in Cinder, to offerings such as Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner. However, it takes some real talent to craft a brand new fairytale, one that only gives a brief nod to the well-known stories and instead carries a charm all of its own. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a prime example, and now Uprooted can be added to this list as well.

uprootedI was initially drawn to this by the synopsis. But that only gives away the first few chapters; it sheds no light on how the rest of the novel pans out. Agnieszka is a young girl who expects her best friend, Kasia, to be taken by the Dragon, a powerful magician who lives in a nearby tower. The Dragon works ceaselessly to hold back the corruption of the living, sentient Wood which borders Agnieszka’s village. Only it turns out that Agnieszka is taken instead; Sarkan (the Dragon) has seen power in her and he knows he must teach her to harness and control that power before the Wood seeks to corrupt her untapped power for its own malevolent uses. That’s pretty much all the synopsis gives away, making it impossible to write a review without any spoilers at all, but I’ll do my best to keep them minimal.

Kasia is beautiful, graceful and educated in etiquette; Agnieszka is plain, clumsy and with no training in the ways of a lord’s serving girl. At first, her clumsiness, mistakes and fear really irritated me, but Novik quickly turned that around by making Agnieszka’s mistakes and lack of education the crucial key to unlocking her own powers. Many European fairy tales involve a forest with something evil lurking in it, but Novik instead makes the forest itself a threat – and just how to you defeat a whole forest? It’s a joy to watch the characters develop as they try to work on this problem. There is love and conflict at every turn, and the relationships between the characters manage to satisfy the reader’s expectations while at the same time not following predictable paths. My favourite was the relationship between Sarkan and Agnieszka. I kept expecting him to mellow, to bend his unyielding principles in the light of Agnieszka’s successes, but Novik didn’t let him succumb to my modern, post-Darcy expectations. For me, that made Sarkan’s character all the more refreshing and endearing.

There were two miniscule flaws that I found with this book. One was forgivable, and the other I could live with. Firstly, I felt there was too much left unexplained. There were references to rituals and customs, mentioned only in passing and lacking any kind of detail. That irritated me a little, but then I appreciate that it was unavoidable: to build a kingdom in the reader’s mind as strange and vast as Novik creates, it is essential to have a rich history to it. However, some details needed to be glossed over in order to keep the book to a reasonable length, otherwise it would spiral out of control with tangential details. And adding in all the details would detract from the excellent pace of the main story, so the omissions were forgivable. Secondly, was a flaw which carried on throughout the novel without explanation: Sarkan would appear to answer Agnieszka’s thoughts when she hadn’t spoken them aloud. I thought this might be because Sarkan was a mind reader. Yet if he had been, I would have expected Agnieszka to have been fazed by this. Since she is not, I don’t know what to conclude. It might seem like sloppy writing, yet the rest of the narrative is so tightly written, with not a word seeming out of place, that I find that hard to believe. In the end, it was a minor flaw which, while noticed, did not detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole.

Authors sometimes come across books that they wish they’d written; this is a book that I wish I had written. It’s unique, beautiful and engaging. The story works on so many levels. Believe it or not, it was a month or so after reading it, as I was working on crafting my own fairytale, that I realised that Uprooted could be read as a new take on the old “dragon capturing the maiden” tale. This was simply not an aspect I picked up on while reading since it isn’t hammered home but is left to the reader’s own interpretation.

This book works beautifully as a stand-alone novel and while I want Novik to write more like this, I almost don’t want her to move the characters away from where she left them or change them in any way. One thing’s for sure though: this book should be on your reading list, if it isn’t already, and Novik’s next novel will be top of mine.

Charlotte

In Darkling Wood & Snow Sister – Emma Carroll

It has beenin-darkling-wood a while since I was a ten year old girl but I think I can remember enough to see that Emma Carroll’s stories are ideal for that age group. You are still a child so there is an awful lot going on which you are aware of but can’t quite understand – in In Darkling Wood the heroine Alice, possibly like any child with a very sick sibling, knows far more about heart transplants than a girl her age ought to but she can’t quite understand why she can’t stay home alone when her little brother is rushed into hospital. And you just know, like Alice, that you are too old for silly fairy stories.

Luckily this is not that kind of fairy story. These fairies are not cute and sparkly – Daisy Meadows would not recognise them at all – and they will do anything to save their home. The book alternates between plans to save Darkling Wood, which Alice’s grandmother wants to cut down, and a series of letters written at the end of the First World War. There are some nice parallels too as the letters are from a young girl to her soldier brother which contrasts nicely with Alice’s concerns for her own brother, Theo. The fairies, if you want to be all grown up about it, could probably be seen as a metaphor for something but to me they just seem to be something which helps a young girl make good decisions during a very stressful time.

That said this book is not preachy. Everybody makes mistakes and bad choices at some point, tempers are lost and harsh words are spoken. Alice resists the idea of fairies – she is, after all, a sensible and modern girl – but she does fall under the spell of the wood and joins in local plans to save it from destruction at the hands of her grandmother. At the end of the book family tensions are largely resolved (but the characters don’t suddenly become perfect, which is a relief) and throughout there is humour. There is, obviously, a certain amount of tension over Theo’s health – at some points you really doubt if he will make it – but nothing to make it unsuitable for readers over about nine years old looking for a story with mystery and real-life perils.

snow sisterI also read a novella which is being published this week called The Snow Sister (think Giovanna Fletcher’s Christmas with Billy and Me for pre-teens) which would fit nicely into any Christmas holiday reading plans. This time we are in a Victorian setting but again the main character Pearl is a sensible girl who worries about her family, their sadness at losing her little sister Agnes and their worries about money. In the long tradition of Christmas stories there is snow, ghosts and a will but, unlike Dickens, I really enjoyed it. It was, for me, a very quick read but that could make it ideal for 9-12s looking for a quick read in between family visits, present-opening and the post-dinner blockbuster family film.  The ending is slightly schmaltzy but if you can’t do that at Christmas when can you?