The Story Keeper – Anna Mazzola

Rob and I had a lovely holiday, back at the end of May, in Scotland. We had a few days in the Outer Hebrides (where I failed to read any Peter May but Rob finished a book by Janina Ramirez) and then a couple of days on Skye. We love Scotland but always have to visit in the spring or the autumn as I’m a bit of a midge-magnet which means I wasn’t scheduled to read Anna Mazzola’s Skye-based novel, The Story Keepers, until very recently. Still, at least the trip was recent enough that the places, buildings and landscape were still fresh in my mind – and the island itself is, in many parts, so untouched that I can imagine them being the same back in the 1850s when the novel is set.

9781472234780Audrey Hart has left her home in London to work on Skye as a collector of folk stories. Her background is, from the outside, comfortable and middle-class which is not such a bad thing to be in Victorian England but it not what Audrey wants. Her mother died when she was young and her father and his second wife wish for Audrey to marry, settle down and be normal – she, however, feels a strong connection to her mother’s past in Scotland. She is also running from work she was doing in London, helping young orphan girls, and from the discovery she made there that one of the orphanage trustees was abusing the girls in his care. She throws herself into her work, collecting folk tales, for Miss Buchanan – the sister of a local landowner – but finds that the locals are reluctant to speak out. Girls have gone missing and they fear that speaking of the faery folk will lead to more disappearances. As Audrey delves deeper into these mysteries she faces resistance, danger and the secrets of her own past. And it seems that it is not just in London that young women are seen as fair game to men who should be their protectors. The reality of their lives is the darkest fairy tale of all…





The House With Chicken Legs – Sophie Anderson

Books of the Month, as mentioned in my last post, are not just for adult books. It would be easy to say that it is harder to focus with children’s titles – as they have to cover such a wide range of ages, interests and genres – but I don’t think this is any different from books for older readers. In fact the children’s BOTM (if you’ll pardon me using an acronym) should appeal to an even wider audience since these titles can also be read by the grown-ups. More specifically: me. Even if I still don’t always feel like a grown-up and yearn to define myself as ‘young at heart’.

33832945Marinka, the heroine of The House With Chicken Legs, is 12 years old but doesn’t feel young. She lives with her grandmother and isn’t allowed to have any friends other than her jackdaw, Jack, and their house which, rather unusually, not only has the legs of a rather large chicken but uses them to travel the world so that Marinka’s grandmother can fulfil her role as a Yaga: one whose role is to guide people from the world of the living to that of the dead. She loves her grandmother, and Jack and the house do their best, but she longs for friendship, stability and a normal life. However, when she does defy her upbringing by making friends first with a boy called Benjamin and then a young girl named Nina (who should have passed through the Gate into the world of the dead) things start to go terribly wrong. Her grandmother leaves her, the house – who has nurtured her as much as any person she ever knew – begins to fall apart and she doesn’t know how to make things right…

What I really loved about this book was the way that I can see a young person reading it just because it is a great story with characters you care about but as an adult you can see all the lessons which a young person could be learning without even noticing. Even as a (probable) grown-up I was caught up in Marinka’s problems and was kept turning the pages as I tried to work out how she could solve them. It was only when I reflected after I had finished that I could see the lessons which Marinka learned and which I suspect children may take from the book. Her grandmother tells her, as she helps people of all ages through to the world of death, that the length of a life is less important than its sweetness.  We’d all like to keep those we love with us forever but we can’t – so we need to learn to make the most of the life we do get to share with them. Life is unfair (Marinka is such a realistic pre-teen) but, once you accept that and start to work towards making positive changes things really can get better. Along with Marinka we learn that it is important to learn to love and embrace the things that make you different. The things that make you, well, you. It is then that you realise that others can, and do, love you too.


Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden (and The Bear & the Nightingale…)

As you can imagine my house contains an awful lot of books. There are bookcases in almost every room and even the rooms without actual shelves contain a small stack of reading material – it is hard to get bored here! However, this does result in the fact that I can lose track of what I’ve read and what is still waiting – especially if I’ve got a pile of goodies all at once and I have to squeeze them in to whatever shelf space is free. This also means that, sometimes, I forget to add books on to the right line of my spreadsheet (or even to add them at all). This is what I found had happened when I started reading Katherine Arden’s Girl in the Tower – about 20 pages in and I realised that I had the previous volume in the series (the first in fact) sitting in my living room, looking very lonely. Luckily it was good enough to be a very swift read so this will be a review of both…

33797941In the Bear and the Nightingale we meet Vasilisa, a young girl, and her family. They live on an estate at some distance from Moscow back in the early days of Rus’ (the forerunner of Russia), in the 14th Century. This is not so much a historical novel, although the settings are obviously very well researched and the rise of Christianity plays a very important role, but one of the battle between the old ways and the new. Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known in the traditional way of Russian naming) is a headstrong girl who resists the role she is expected to take up as a dutiful daughter. She has no interest in marriage or love, unlike her older sister Olga, but prefers to run wild with her brothers and to listen to the stories told by Dunya, the children’s nurse. These stories all revolve around various spirits and magical creatures – personifications of Frost, Death and the like and small household spirits who are connected to the hearth, home and stables – but Vasya, unlike her siblings, knows that these beings are real because she can see them. When their father remarries, their devout step-mother tries to quash the old ways (although she can also see the house spirits she believes them to be demons) and the consequences are felt by all. Vasya must fight to retain the old ways and to avoid her stepmother’s plan to either marry her off or incarcerate her in a nunnery. To make things worse dark powers, who were previously kept at bay by the household spirits, are stirring in the forest…

35004343In the second book, the Girl in the Tower, we move to Moscow – not yet the city it is today but still the home of the rulers of Rus’ and also of Vasya’s married sister, Olga. This is a vastly different world – women are confined to their luxurious homes, apart from visits to church, and politics and intrigue are at the front of everyone’s mind. Religion is of great importance – Olga is waiting for the return of her favourite brother, now a sort of warrior priest – and the old ways are nowhere to be seen. Into this world bursts Vasya who has run from her home, dressed as a boy, after tragic events have left her without most of her family and accused of witchcraft. Her actions against a group of bandits who are roaming the countryside, burning villages, stealing young girls and then vanishing, bring her to the attention of Dmitri – the Grand Prince of Moscow and, coincidently, her cousin. He assumes she is a boy, as does everyone else aside from Sasha (the warrior monk brother), and brings her back to Moscow as a reward. Sadly, dark forces once again follow Vasya and worse, she falls foul of Moscow’s strict gender rules when her true identity is discovered.

Both of these books are an almost seamless blend of Russian history and folklore set in a world where both the magical and the grimly political are very real. The characters are all beautifully well-drawn (and you have to pay attention to them all – even the seemingly minor can reappear as major sources of danger and romance), and the plot is richly detailed. The love story, which began tentatively in Vasya’s childhood, grows with her and she faces both passion and peril with intelligence and fortitude. I’ve not been so gripped by a series for years – I really hope the final volume comes out as promised in August: I can’t wait to see how this story ends.



A Quick Pre-Pullman Catch-Up

I got a little bit behind on my reading and blogging recently – I decided to take a couple of weeks out to read the whole of the His Dark Materials before the publication of the new book today – so here’s a quick catch up on some of my recent reading. Not themed because, as you may have noticed, I’ll read just about anything that catches my eye…

Malala’s Magic Pencil – Malala Yousafzai

31932921Malala Yousafzai continues to be an inspirational young lady.  The determination which led to her being targeted by Taliban enforcers has sustained her through writing her life story, continued activism for the education of girls and her own education. I can’t be the only one who felt oddly proud to see that she has just taken her place at Oxford – she has become a sort of symbol for what girls and young women can achieve. Although her autobiography was issued in an edition for younger readers in 2014 she has not previously written directly to the very young. This book changes that – it is, through the simply told story of a girl who decides that, if she had a magic pencil, she would draw a world where life was fairer. Malala’s story is one that children understand – life really should be fair – but the reality of her experiences are the sort of thing that we would hope to shelter primary-aged children from. This book allows her to encourage youngsters towards the sort of activism they can appreciate – kindness and fairness to all and not keeping silent about inequalities. Nobody is too young, or too old, for that.

Everything You Do Is Wrong – Amanda Coe

9780349005058Set in a North Yorkshire coastal town where nothing ever seems to happen this is the story of Melody, a teenage girl who really wishes that something would happen to her. Her mother is absent – sometimes away, sometimes just too ill to get out of her bed – and her step-dad always seems to be working. Home-schooled (or rather mostly left to her own devices) she is working towards her GCSEs and what she really wants to happen is that her maths tutor will fall in love with her before her final exam. We also have Melody’s aunt Mel, trying to be in charge of everyone and everything, who finds a mysterious girl washed up on the local beach in the middle of a storm.

This book looks like it is the story of Storm, the name given to the mystery girl, who doesn’t speak or communicate in any way – she is certainly the focus of most of the town – but really it is about Melody.  She is adrift – her short experience of mainstream schooling mainly involved being bullied – and has very little contact with other young people (apart from her cousins).  Melody lives in a bit of a fantasy world – one where her tutor will fall in love with her and take her away from her boring, yet messy, life – but by the end of the book she is starting to grow a little. The story involving Storm ended a bit disappointingly (just a hint of the Bobby Ewings, if you know what I mean) but, once I reminded myself that, for me, this was just an also-ran of a plot that seemed to matter a lot less.

Pocketful of Crows – Joanne Harris

9781473222182Finally on this round-up is the latest from Yorkshire author, Joanne Harris. (Interestingly, well, to me anyway, she is another in my list of authors who add an initial M to their name to differentiate between the two genres she writes in)  This is one of her many books based on myths and folklore and a perfect short read for the dark nights around Hallowe’en. The main character is one of the ‘travelling folk’ (who we would probably refer to as witches, faeries or the like), a girl who lives wild in the woods. She is nameless and free, experiencing life through the eyes and bodies of various animals, until she steals a love token and then falls for its intended target. This is a book about a rather female folklore – maidens, mothers and crones – and our nameless heroine is bought low by the young man she falls for (especially when he gives her a name – naming confers power over the named). But revenge at hand and the wheels of both the seasons and life turns full circle. This book feels like a new version of every classic folk tale – as old as Old Age but fresh as springtime.



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.


*And I was right about the squonks too…