Round-Up

Never too old for Narnia. About Lucy, Lucy and Me.

lucybannerI’ll never be too old for Narnia. I’ve said it all my life, and I’ll say it again. I can’t tell you how cool it was to find a play about a late 20-something woman encountering the same img_3347dilemma. The moment the world tries to force you to grow up and face you will never get that call from Aslan. 

Lucy, Lucy and me was a sell-out hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and came to Carlisle courtesy of  Borderlines. Borderlines is my local book festival. It may not be the biggest festival in the North, but it does exactly what you would hope. It brings a range of arts events to one area for a weekend, and promotes authors, actors, musicians and poets to bring them to a wider audience. This is my second year in Carlisle, and my advice from two years of attendance is go for the most obvious, and the least obvious. Last year I was lucky enough to win a day ticket to one venue. Borderlines has a wide range, and it is the place to find a new interest. 

Back to Lucy, Lucy and Me. I knew I had to see this, as a kid-lit fanatic and lifelong Narnian. It is about Lucy Grace, the woman behind the one-woman show, and Lucy Barfield, the Goddaughter of CS Lewis to who The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is dedicated. Disenchanted with the world after a youth spent dreaming of Narnia, it img_3348documents Lucy Grace’s search for information about Lucy Barfield. Famous for the dedication, information about Lucy Barfield runs cold at the point she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, despite the fact she lived another 40 years. The question posed by Lucy Grace is can the sum total of 40 years of life be seen as ‘nothing’? 

Told with humour and respect to the memory of someone who cannot speak for themselves, Lucy, Lucy and Me is a gentle performance with a big heart. If you get the opportunity to see this, snap it up. (I also love the 90s Toys which act as props – Fisher Price Casette Player, anyone? Also love references to BBC Narnia, a programme which my sister and I watched first on video, then on DVD. Def. a nostalgia fest for those born in the late 80s or early 90s.)   

 

 

 

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Young Adult Reviews

The Old Stories Put Fire in the Dragons. The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

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Extract:

Dragon numbers had been dwindling for years and it was getting harder to bring their heads back to her father. It was why she’d turned to telling the old stories in secret. The old stories drew dragons the way jewels drew men. No dragon could resist one told aloud. 

But stories didn’t just lure dragons. They made them stronger. 

Hence, the fire. 

It went like this: where the old stories were spoken aloud, there were dragons; and where there were dragons, there was destruction and betrayal and burning. Especially burning. Asha knew this better than anyone. The proof was right there on her face. 

(The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli. P6.) breakbirdSynopsis:

Asha is a dragon slayer. She is also drawn to forbidden things, like the old stories told by her mother. The stories which lure dragons. As a child, Asha was blamed for an attack on the village by the dragon Kozu, an attack which killed many people. Her father protected her from the people’s hate by naming her the Iskari, the deadly one, after the old God.

Asha’s marriage to Jarek draws closer. Jarek, who sees his slaves as property. Jarek, who designs his future wife’s wedding dress so she cannot take it off herself. The King gives Asha an ultimatum. Kill Kozu, and the old ways will die. Kill Kozu, and the people will see it as an act of atonement. The marriage with Jarek will no longer be necessary.

With days until her marriage, Asha sets off on a mission to kill Kozu and end the old ways. The Old One has other plans for Asha.

breakbirdReview:

A story of self-belief and manipulation. I love the Last Namsara. The relationship between dragons and storytelling is a fantastic metaphor for the power we gain from listening to stories – how recognising our own truths in a story gives us power to speak up, and act against tyrants. Aside from that, the dragons are described so vividly, I can smell the smoke.

 If you enjoyed The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, or Ink by Alice Broadway, you will love this. Alongside Asha’s story, we hear the old stories she whispers to the dragons. Stories which have been passed down the generations. These are not only great stories, they make the reader think about why stories are told in the first place.

I love the presence of dragons in the world, and their relationship with The Old One, the God-like figure who acts through his heroes, the Namsaras. Asha believes that, as the Iskari, she is the opposite of these Namsaras. Her contact with them – with the old world, and the old stories, makes her question what she knows about herself. I loved this concept. It was like Asha took herself inside a story, and came out a different person, which is the effect reading can have on a person.

My favourite relationship was between Asha and Jarek’s Slave. I will not tell you his name – he isn’t named until part way through the book, and this is part of the story. As the story progresses, Asha questions what she has always been taught about slaves being property, about the things slaves should and shouldn’t do. I love how this relationship changes Asha as a person, and gives her a wider perspective on the world.

The politics of the world changes with the course of the story. I hope there is a sequel, or more from this world. I would love to hear from these characters again, and to know where they go beyond the bounds of this story. I will certainly read more from Ciccarelli – this is a new favourite.

 

With thanks to Stevie Finegan and Gollancz for sending an advance copy. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

 

 

 

Chat

So the Hogwarts Letter Came. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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Tickle tickle little pear – Maisie dreams of the Hogwarts kitchens

Aside from the minorly inconvenient points, like I’m in my late-20s, and the school is fictional. Fictional schools is they give us freedom to imagine, and anyway. You’ll always find a home at Hogwarts. I will, even when I’m old and grey. 

Like lots of Millennials, I’ve spent the past 20 years watching the doormat. And the fireplace, and the windows, but especially the doormat. Most of us have never got beyond the disappointment and the hope. What if it actually came? Ignoring the obvious, practical stuff, would you really be happy at Hogwarts?

Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve thought about it from the flip-side. Here are some of the things that could cause problems if I packed up my trunk and headed for Platform 9 3/4.breakbird

Cat or owl? I have two cats I am very fond of, but would I take them to Hogwarts? Aside from the fact the rest of the family would complain, I would never see the cats again. Willow would spend her days hunting in the Forbidden Forest, which carries all kinds of health and safety rules. Maisie would make her way to the kitchens, then never leave. Those house-elves seem obliging, and Maisie loves her food. Come to think of it, Willow would probably hunt the house-elves, too.

 

Stomach Ache – with the range of magical sweets available, and passages out of the school which lead straight to Honeydukes, I would have constant stomach ache. And toothache. Then again, Madam Pomfrey might leave me with a bottle of stomach solution. Imagine. All the sweets, none of the pain. I’d be Dudley-sized before the end of the first term.

 

How would I ever leave the library? Odds are, I never would. Some dangerous herbology book in the Restricted section would swallow me whole when I tried to take it without permission.

 

Following on from that thought, I’d lose too many house points to have friends. I would take issue at the idea of restricted books, and stage protests. Read-ins. Aside from the damage to other pupils, I would be very unpopular.

 

Peeves. If that poltergeist played a prank on me, I’d try to prank him back. He’d probably frame me for his activities for the rest of my student days.

 

Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. Always pleased to meet a fellow Gryffinclaw. I want to be a Ravenclaw. I’m an overthinker, and I’m bright, but I’m also impulse. Determined. I make decisions not on logic, but on what feels right and true. Online tests put me in Ravenclaw, but I always think they fail to find that Gryffindor streak. The trouble isn’t that I don’t know where I belong – the sorting hat would suss that out. The trouble is, I have an allegiance to both. How could I ever belong to one?

 

Sit in the Quidditch stands when there is warm fire in the common room? You do realise this is the Highlands? It’s a wonder the players aren’t blown off their broomsticks. My general attitude to sport is one game and I’ve seen it all.

 

Dumbledore would lose his pensive. I’m such an overthinker, it would probably be a school-wide benefit to leave it in my possession.

 

No Wi-Fi. An embargo on the non-magic world ever finding out about magic. OK, so you’ve got a world of magic at your fingertips, but how frustrating would it be not to share it on Twitter?

 

 

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review – Shadowblack by Sebastien De Castell

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Extract:

‘Wait,’ I said to Rosie. ‘If Seneira doesn’t want to go home, why are you going there?’

It was Seneira who replied. Whatever goodwill I’d bought myself by my concern that she might be a prisoner had evidently been spent. ‘How thick are you? I’m neither Jan’Tep nor am I a student of magic, but somehow I caught the shadowblack.’ She pointed to Rosie and Ferius. These two weirdos are Argosi, which means that anything strange happens in the world and they feel a burning need to go paint a card about it. Obviously they think the markings mean something.’ 

(Shadowblack by Sebastien De Castell. P76.) breakbirdSynopsis:

It seems Kellen is not the only one cursed with the Shadowblack.

Kellen hasn’t found his calling. He travels with Ferius and Reichis, but he makes as good an outlaw as he did mage. Ferius has saved his back too many times, and Kellen is impatient to find his destiny. Could Kellen’s future be with Seneira? Seneira is the daughter of Beren Thrane, who runs the Academy in the Seven Sands. Rich and powerful families send their children to the Academy, where they become future leaders. Now Beren Thrane’s children have black marks around their eyes. Trouble is brewing in the Seven Sands

Spellslinger Dexan offers to cure Seneira, but only if Kellen can find the mage responsible for the curse. Kellen isn’t going to leave Seneira until he has the answers, but there are people who would rather he wasn’t in Seven Sands.

A sequel which lives up to Spellslinger. Kellen’s story continues, but he has no idea which direction he should take.

breakbirdReview:

Shadowblack, like Spellslinger, is a pacy, original story. The plot keeps you guessing until the final pages. It is clear something is wrong, but the answers unfold slowly, and I didn’t guess the full truth. 

Our knowledge of the world’s geography widens. The Academy and The Seven Sands were interesting additions. The Seven Sands isn’t accepted as a nation by the nations around it, even though the rich and influential send their children to The Academy for an elite education.

Beren Thrane was my favourite minor character. As with Kellen’s family in book one, we see different sides to Thrane – we see the successful and influential man who runs the academy, and the father who would do anything to cure his children. His different faces made him a believable character.    

Kellen’s story develops well. At the end of Spellslinger, it appeared he had found his destiny, wandering as an Argosi with Ferius, but the series challenges the notion finding your place, so it was never going to be that simple. I think this is important at a time when young people are under more pressure than ever to tick the right boxes. The world is so obsessed with life choices, we have forgotten how to live. The narrative doesn’t discourage hard work and sound morals, but it challenges people to think for themselves and to take the world as it comes.

Ferius Parfax is my favourite character of 2017, possibly of all time. She challenges stereotypes about women without resorting to the super-grumpy-superwoman image which is becoming too familiar in YA. Ferius is tough talking, but she doesn’t run from her own feelings, she follows them. Shadowblack adds depth to her character as we learn more about the Argosi. The introduction of Rosie gave us a counterpoint to Ferius. Rosie’s big on sticking to the rules and traditions of Argosi life, while Ferius lives up to the Argosi ideal without spouting rules left, right and centre. I love her Argosi name, The Path of the Wild Daisy. We learn that what Ferius is most afraid of is losing her freedom – her freedom to roam, to find her own way and to act on her own decisions.

If you read Spellslinger, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t, check out my review here and get started. This new fantasy series is something special, and the journey begins here.

 

waiting on wednesday

Waiting On Wednesday – The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson

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Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

35216519Every Christmas, Wren is chased through the woods near her isolated village by her family’s enemies—the Judges—and there’s nothing that she can do to stop it. Once her people, the Augurs, controlled a powerful magic. But now that power lies with the Judges, who are set on destroying her kind for good.

In a desperate bid to save her family, Wren takes a dangerous undercover assignment—as an intern to an influential Judge named Cassa Harkness. Cassa has spent her life researching a transformative spell, which could bring the war between the factions to its absolute end. Caught in a web of deceit, Wren must decide whether or not to gamble on the spell and seal the Augurs’ fate. breakbirdWhy I can’t wait to read The Wren Hunt: 

  • Warring factions remind me of Romeo and Juliet. There is so much possible conflict, and the most interesting question isn’t why would she use the spell, it is why wouldn’t she? 
  • Wren sounds like a headstrong, independent character. I am interested in the research she has done, and why a young girl is doing this rather than elders within the community.
  • The hunt reminds me of S.T.A.Gs, one of my favourite YA reads of 2017. I want to know what agenda there is to the hunt, and whether there is something Wren has to learn about herself. Why is Wren hunted, and not other members of her clan?
  • If there are spells to end the war, what other magic exists? Is there a limit to magical power within the world?
  • The wren hunt is a real folk tradition from Britain. As you know, I love my folk history. I love the current spate of folksy books – old traditions are being given a bite for the YA audience. 

 

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Autumnal Covers

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Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today’s theme is autumnal covers. 

Autumn in all its colours. Orange and red and black and purple and blue. Not so obvious, the last three, until you think of crisp skies and crows feathers. Autumn is my favourite season, but it also my favourite publishing season. Summer relationships and sparkling seas? Over like a dropped ice-cream cone. It’s all about bonfires and sorcery and long dark nights indoors with a book. 

Here are some of my favourite autumnal covers of 2017. Regular readers have heard about some of the books so many times, that instead of a round-up as such, I will focus only on the covers. 

Images go top to bottom for each row. breakbirdThe Invincibles And The Beasts Of Bramble Wood by Caryl Hart. Illustrated by Sarah Warburton: autumn begins with blackberry picking, so I was sold on this one from the title. I love how the traditional Halloween black-and-orange is broken with splashes of bright green. It looks spooky in a really cosy way, just scary enough for a middle-grade audience. 

 

Hide And Seek by Anthony Browne: This is the most sophisticated, beautiful autumn you have seen, and the most beautifully observed. This book shows how quickly a child in the woods goes between joy at a game, and fear at being ‘alone’ in such a large outdoor space. At the strange noises, and things which look like they might be other than they are. Read my review here

 

Vlad The World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson Another spooky-but-safe middle-grade read. Vlad’s cartoon style face is ridiculously cute, while the spindly trees hint and bats hint at some spooks and scares.

 

Curse Of The Werewolf Boy by Chris Priestly More Halloween, more orange. Literally more orange. This must be the most orange cover I have ever seen, but look how spooky those ghoulish faces are against it’s backdrop. 

 

The Wizards Of Once by Cressida Cowell. Exactly how beautiful is this, with its purple cover and the lettering like it was burnt in by a sparkler or a wand? The crow in the centre is intriguing. I know wizards and warriors feature in this story, but crows? What is the connection? 

 

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M Harris I love the gold border. It reminds me of a historical tapestry. The crows here look as if they are coming in to attack. 

 

Nevermoor: The Trials Of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend And did I mention, it is divine? I can’t stop raving about this book. Morrigan looks like Madeline in negative. It is almost, but not quite, cartoonish, and I love the burst of light around the lettering, as Morrigan has burst out of nowhere. Read my review here. 

 

The Rise Of Wolves by Kerr Thompson A touch autumnal, a touch wintery, I love the detail. The smoking chimney pot suggests a cosy retreat, while the gathering wolves hint at something deeper going on. 

 

Witch Born by Nicholas Bowling How divine is this cover? It hints at hedge magic, gypsy magic, with the dried flowers and the detail of the crow’s earring. I love the palette. It manages to be a bold colour with a subtle palete, and I think that is quite special. 

 

Leaf by Sandra Dieckmann This manages to be autumnal with very few splashes of orange, and I think it is a truer representation of the outdoors as we see it. For all the leaves that turn, there are plenty of evergreens and wheat, not to mention the fact the leaves don’t turn at once like someone turned on the Technicolour. Love the texture and brush-stokes, something which adds to the realistic effect.

 

Do you have any favourite covers this autumn? Any all time favourites? Let me know in the comments below.

Middle Grade Reviews

One kick and it could all be over. Kick by Mitch Johnson

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Extract:

Dad works in a factory that makes smart shirts for businessmen, and even though he doesn’t have to, he always wears a short-sleeved shirt with a collar to work – either his white one or the one with yellow and blue checks. He’s says its important to be proud of yourself. He’s always telling me: ‘Budi, if you don’t respect yourself, nobody will. You must be proud of who you are.’ Today he’s wearing the shirt with yellow and blue checks, and it sticks to a sweaty patch on his chest. As he gets closer he smiles and sits down on the step beside me.

‘What’s happened here then?’ he asks, kissing me on the head. 

‘I cut my leg playing football.’ 

Dad leans over and grimaces as I show him my knee. The cut glistens with fresh blood. 

‘Make sure you get all the grit out. We don’t want it to get infected.’

I nod and keep brushing it with the cloth. 

‘Was it a foul?’ Dad asks.

‘No, but I scored the most amazing goal, so it was worth it.’

‘Good boy! Keep it up and you’ll play for Madrid one day.’ 

Real Madrid, Dad. If you just say Madrid it could mean Atlético Madrid, and I would rather never play football again than play for them.’ 

(Kick by Mitch Johnston. P16.) breakbirdSynopsis:

Budi is Twelve. His dream is to play football for Real Madrid like Kieran Wakefied. Budi practises in all his spare time: in his work break, and if the factory foreman doesn’t keep him over time.The rest of the time he sews football boots together, unless the foreman is cross enough to stick Budi on the boxing section.

Life in Jakarta is hard. There’s talk of a pay rise, but most people say it will never come. Without a pay rise, there is no money for Budi’s education, or Grandma’s medicine. Budi lives with his parents and Grandmother. There was an uncle, but nobody ever speaks of people who go to prison. There are only two ways out of prison: keeling or standing.

Then there’s The Dragon, the main Landlord and money lender. Cross him and he’ll chew you up and spit out your bones.

When a bad kick puts a football through the Dragon’s window, Budi finds himself in the Dragon’s pocket. If the Dragon kills him first, he’ll never play for Real Madrid.

breakbirdReview:

I took interest in Kick for two reasons. Initially I was interested to see a well-written children’s book about football. Don’t mistake me. I’m not interested in football. However, since I sorted books in a charity shop nearly ten years ago, I have been interested in how some subjects in children’s literature inspire poor quality writing. What do I mean? Well, there’s Mal Peet’s series, and lately Tom Palmer has won a lot of fans. How many well-written books about football have you seen? How many poorly-written? I don’t think it is that the good stuff isn’t written. I think there is just a proliferation of books. If you want to see this illustrated, check out one of Palmer’s books on Amazon, and look at under the words ‘customers who bought this item also bought’. Point made.

When I saw Kick in the shop, I knew I had to buy it. The second reason I took interest was the Amnesty International endorsement. Every children’s title I have read this year which has been endorsed by Amnesty has been well-written, and offered me a different perspective on the world. Kick was no exception.

Budi is so optimistic and so determined. I liked what Mitch Johnson said in the interview at the back of the story. Maybe we can’t truly know what it is to experience Budi’s daily life, but we can understand shared hopes and dreams. Football becomes a powerful link between Western comfort and an impoverished life in the East. So does the theme of aspiration in general. We all have hopes and dreams, although too often we ‘outgrow’ these. Get too tired. The message is loud and strong: if you want something, never stop working for it. This message, written for the readers, helps us to empathise with Budi.

Budi has some shocking experiences in the course of the book, which offer a window into that life, and show us how much Budi is up against. The moment which will help child readers get some sense of Budi’s life, and how unfair it is, isn’t an event at all. It’s number-crunching. How long would Kieren Wakefield have to work to earn Budi’s salary? I found it so poignant, that Budi hadn’t grasped the disparity between their lives. It is a clever way to interest children in an issue which might be frightening to think about. Children too young to think about the brutality are capable of understanding those numbers are unfair, and wrong.

I loved Budi’s friendship with Rochy. Rochy has dreams too, but he thinks they are over. His mother and sisters are so worn down, they barely speak. It would have been a distressing and bleak read if Budi and his family felt the same way, but by making him so close to Rochy, we are able to think about how such a life would wear you down, then take comfort in Budi’s dreams. At MG-age, this is hugely important, but I think something similar is true for adults. I might read a few pages of non-fiction on such a difficult subject, but if I’m investing time in it, I need something uplifting.

Masterfully written, yet still accessible. It is interesting to see a story which isn’t about football, but uses football to open an important conversation. I look forward to anything else which comes from this talented debut author.