Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Michelle Harrison, author of ‘A Pinch Of Magic’, talks about curses in folklore.

Blog Tour: Michelle Harrison, author of A Pinch Of Magic, talks about curses in folklore.

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Author Michelle Harrison with a copy of ‘A Pinch Of Magic’. 

About A Pinch Of Magic

Betty Widdershins longs to leave the family home on the island of Crowstone and explore the world. Crowstone is bleak and oppressive with its marshes and tower and prison and Betty is certain there must be more to the world. Then she learns that she and her sisters are bound by an ancient family curse to stay on the island for the rest of their lives …

I have been a fan of Michelle Harrison’s work for years. Her novels combine the folklore and old traditions which I knew and loved as a listener of folk music with page-turning adventures. A Pinch Of Magic is no exception. To read my full review, click here. 

I wanted to hear more about the curse which inspired the story, and what draws Michelle Harrison to folklore. She has not only answered those questions, but she has also made me think more deeply about what the curse in her story meant to its caster. 

Thank you to Michelle Harrison for your time. 

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Curses in Folklore by Michelle Harrison 

Folklore has featured in every book I’ve written to date, whether it’s wishing, witches, or ways of protection against malevolent fairies. As a horror-loving teenager I was obsessed with folklore in its modern form of urban legends. I was also terribly superstitious – something I’ve managed to get under control over the past few years, although it’s still an effort not to salute solitary magpies!

The concept for A Pinch of Magic came from the Essex village of Canewdon. It’s said that there will always be six witches there, and whenever one dies a stone falls from the church walls. The thought of stones falling out of an ancient building to warn of approaching death was something I found incredibly eerie, and evolved into the idea of a family curse. In my story, Betty Widdershins learns of the curse on her thirteenth birthday: no Widdershins girl can ever leave the island of Crowstone. If they do, they’ll die by the next sunset. Along with her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, Betty sets out to break the curse with the help of three magical items which have also been passed down the family: a hand mirror, a set of nesting dolls, and an old carpet bag. But are the objects enough to help them, or will they lead to more trouble?

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of a curse within a story. Many of us believe in luck, and we’ve all had times when it seems nothing more can go wrong or, conversely, we’re having such a run of good fortune we start to worry that it’s all about to crash down around us. The idea of curses plays on our fears; what if there are forces we can’t control working against us? Or, more frighteningly, someone who wishes us harm? We know the intent to curse is real enough – witch ladders and wax figures in museums all over the country are proof of the malevolent workings of dismissed servants and spurned lovers.

With our childhoods steeped in tales of spinning wheels and pricked fingers, it’s no wonder curses are rooted in our consciousness. Yet perhaps there’s another reason we find them so fascinating, even if we don’t like to admit it; they feed our desires for good old revenge – and gossip. Because curses aren’t thrown around lightly. There’s usually a reason, whether its jealousy, rivalry, or payback. When I created the Widdershins curse, I knew what it was, but not why – or with whom – it had begun. I only knew it would have come from a serious grudge against the family, and as I unpicked the knots and worked it all out the lines between villain and victim blurred. As Betty discovers, the wicked witch is not always what she’s made out to be, and perhaps anyone is capable of casting a curse, given the right motivation . . .

Check out the other stops on the tour: 

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Thank you to Simon And Schuster UK for arranging this piece as part of a promotional blog tour and for providing me with a proof of the book. Opinions remain my own.

 

 

 

Blogmas 2018 · Non-Fiction

Review: Bestiary by Christopher Masters

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Exploring the collection of The British Museum, this book looks at objects relating to animals. From porcelain jugs to spear-throwers, jewelry to watercolor-paintings humans have included other animals in their art for centuries. 

Divided into five sections – wild animals, domestic animals, exotic, symbolic, and mythical creatures – the book uses the museum collection to explore the different relationships humans have held with the natural world over the centuries. One of my favourite things about the format is how it encourages readers to look at museums differently. It is easy to trail around a museum or to do a gallery, but museums were designed to preserve human knowledge. Entering with a question or a theme (‘What do we know about human relationships with animals?’) encourages us to get so much more from a visit. 

The introduction tells us how the relationship with animals has developed over time. I was particularly fascinated to learn about early societies where there was less distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ than there is in the modern day. It gave me a greater empathy with and understanding of societies which believed in spirt-animals. 

The book is beautiful, full of high-definition photographs, including many full-page pictures. If you left this book out on a coffee table or in a school book-corner it would be picked up and thumbed through. It has high ‘flickabilty’. Much of the pleasure is in thumbing through the pages to look at the images. 

Bestiary would make a lovely Christmas present – for fans of Newt Scamander, for museum-goers and for people who are insatiably curious. A beautiful look into the collection of The British Museum which encourages us to think deeper about museum collections. Brilliant. 

 

Thanks to Thames And Hudson for my copy of Bestiary. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Frostfire by Jamie Smith

Review: Frostfire by Jamie Smith

Extract:

Sabira jumped at the sound, for there was no one but the three of them there. Except, of course, there was another as well, hanging around Tserah’s neck.Her fraction of the mountain god. Her frostsliver.This was the first time it had spoken to Sabira – they rarely talked to anyone they were not bonded with.‘Thank you, I think,’ said Sabira, looking at Tserah, for the cleric’s senses were shared with her bonded frostsliver. Tserah smiled and touched her hand to the blue glow in her clothes.

.They all seemed to have such confidence in her. It scared Sabira. Her life had been full of uncertainty and it was hard to believe that now would be different. She turned to face the last stretch of the path, the glacier clouded by fog. For a moment, she stood still, gathering her courage. This was it. This was where she followed in the footsteps of every Aderasti that had come before . . .and the footsteps of her brother, Kyran. She blinked away a tear. She didn’t feel ready at all. Sabira took her first step.

 

Synopsis:

At fourteen, Aderasti children are tested for the honour of bonding with a Frostfire – a fragment of ice with great power. A year after her brother goes missing, Sabira begins her journey up the mountain to bond with her Frostfire, but her plans are disrupted by an avalanche.

In order to survive, Sabria must face natural and man-made disasters and face up to the truth about what happened to her brother. A story of survival and heroism.

 

Review: 

Snuggle up under a blanket and enter Sabira’s icy world.This book for me was all about the journey. The landscape felt so real that Icould her every footstep and see every cloud of breath hanging in the frozen air.

 This story will be hit with fans of Frozen. Five years on from release, the original audience is getting bigger and looking for more complex wintery-stories. Frostfire holds the same magic of glaciers and tribes and mythical beings, but it has an edge – this is no harmless landscape. The very first sentence tells us that The mountain had murder in mind and this summarises the tone of the story.

Sabira is a tenacious heroine and also a realistic one. She is uncertain about her destiny. Even when she is chosen for the great honour of bonding with the Frostsliver and takes on the quest, she has other ideas of where she wants her life to go. We bond with her because she sees dreams beyond the walls of her village and her head isn’t turned by the offer of a prestigious future.

There is more than one opposing force in the story. Both human greed and natural disaster get in Sabira’s way, and there is more out on the mountain than she has ever realised. The political backstory gives us a sense of a world beyond Sabira’s borders and we know there are people who will go to great lengths to take the Frostslivers for themselves.  

If you like highly-developed fantasy worlds and epic quests this is the story for you. A heroine who must face a journey and decide who she wants to become. The descriptive-writing is so strong it will leave goosebumps on your arms.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books and Laura Smythe PR for my copy of Frostfire. Opinions my own. 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

Review: City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

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Extract:

I’ve seen people on TV – ‘ghost whisperers’ – talk about crossing over, connecting with the other side like it’s flipping a switch or opening a door. But for me, it’s this – finding the part in the curtain, catching hold of the fabric, and pulling.

Sometimes, when there’s nothing to find, the veil is barely there, more smoke than cloth and hard to catch hold of. But when a place is haunted – really haunted – the fabric twists around me, pulling me through. 

(City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab. P13.)

birdbreak Synopsis:

Cass can see through the veil which separates the living from the dead. She’s also best friends with a ghost, Jacob, who has been by her side since he saved her life. If that wasn’t weird enough, her parents are obsessed with ghosts, even though they can’t see them at all.

When Cass’s parents start filming a new TV show, the family relocate to Edinburgh – one of the most haunted places in the world. When Cass meets a girl who shares her gift, she realises how much she doesn’t know about the veil, like what she’s supposed to do there and how dangerous some ghosts can be.birdbreakReview:

If you like ghost stories but don’t want your spirits to be totally bad, this is the book for you. Victoria Schwab (AKA VE Shwab) is one of the best-known YA authors of recent years. Her fantasy novels have attracted a dedicated following. This is the first book of hers I have read, and my immediate impression was that it was written by a fluent and confident storyteller. The story hooked me and I read it in one evening. It was hard to put my finger on exactly why except it was exceptional storytelling. Every chapter opening, every plot point grabs the reader in and keeps them turning the pages.

Cass survived a near-death experience, and since then she has been able to see the veil which separates the living from the undead. She’s also been followed by Jacob – a ghost who has broken all convention and come out into the living world. I loved the constant tip-toeing the pair do around the subject of death. That one of them is living and the other dead is a sensitive issue between the friends. As a survivor, Cass is constantly aware of herself as a living thing. Her experiences were explored with sensitivity and insight.

Edinburgh was the perfect setting for a ghost story and I am excited to think there might be more stories set in other cities around the world. The book really got into the history and folklore of Edinburgh. I love it when stories inspire interest in real places.

There is a ghost causing trouble in Edinburgh, and I did enjoy that story, but what I loved more was the setting – the many ghosts Cass encounters behind the veil and their different stories. I hope we’ll learn more of Jacob’s story. I loved the details about his character, like how he has Cass turning the pages of comic books for him so he can keep up his hobby from beyond the grave. Jacob is incorporated in a clever way – instead of talking in dialogue, Cass hears his thoughts in her head. This makes Jacob feel more otherworldly, for all that he likes the same things as most modern children.

A great start to a new series full of ghost-hunters and creepy historical stories. This would be perfect for any tween or younger teen with a touch of gothic. I look forward to seeing where Cass and her family travel next.

 

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

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Extract:

There was no refusing this man. Malcolm led him out of the Terrace Room and along the corridor, and out onto the terrace before his father could see them. He closed the door very quietly behind them and found the garden brilliantly lit by the clearest full moon there’d been for months. It felt as if they were being lit by a floodlight.

“Did you say there was someone pursuing you?” said Malcolm quietly.

“Yes. There’s someone watching the bridge. Is there any other way across the river?”

“There’s my canoe. It’s down this way, sir. Let’s get off the terrace before anyone sees us.”

(The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman. P186 – 187.) 

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Synopsis:

Malcolm lives in his parents’ pub in Godstow, where he helps with the customers and works on his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

One night, Malcolm finds a message which puts him in touch with a resistance spy. When he agrees to keep her updated on the things he sees, Malcolm becomes aware of the powers that dictate the world around him.

The Magisterium holds power over all and it operates through different branches. The Constitutional Court Of Discipline is in charge of surveillance and discipline, while another branch goes into schools and persuades children to turn on their family and neighbours. 

Then there is Lord Asriel, clearly on the run, and there is Mrs Coulter with the evil demon, and the man named Coram. All these people are asking about one thing – a baby called Lyra who resides at the priory near to the inn.

With a storm brewing, and different sides all taking an interest in Lyra, Malcolm vows to be her protector and do what it takes to deliver her to safety.

birdbreakReview:

Set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials and featuring characters from the original trilogy, La Belle Sauvage has to be one of the most anticipated books in the history of children’s publishing. It tells the story of Lyra’s early childhood but centres on a new protagonist, Malcolm Polstead who takes it upon himself to watch out for Lyra.

Although the story is set in Lyra’s world, it features a far-smaller geographical area – the riverbanks of and around Oxford. The most interesting aspect of this was the magic specific to the location – it is a place of fairies and enchantment which draws directly on the English canon. The location, although ostensibly set close to our time-period, is more reminiscent of the Oxford known by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This can be explained by the fact that Lyra’s world is not our world but at times comes across as nostalgic.

Malcolm is a likeable character – he’s a nice boy who is handy to have around in a crisis. He questions what he is told when other children around him accept blindly the words of the Magisterium and he never takes what he sees at face value. I liked the parts of the story which focused on the new characters – at times it felt like they were new players in the same story, but this added a new depth to the original conflict.

I first read the original trilogy when I was nine and have read it at different points in my life. The books of the original trilogy have grown with me – I see more in them at every read, but at the same time I wish I could recapture that first reading which was so much about the adventure and the magic of the world. Reading La Belle Sauvage, although I was aware of the conflict between church and resistance, I recaptured that childish wonder as I was caught up in the descriptions of the chase downriver. At times it is less important to know why things are happening than to simply enjoy the journey.

I love the illustrations – the line-drawings suit the story and bring to life the riverbank landscape.

Described by Pullman as an ‘equal’ rather than a prequel or a sequel, the first book in the trilogy certainly gains depth with an understanding of the original books but I don’t think it is necessary to have read them to enjoy La Belle Sauvage. I look forward to seeing where the trilogy goes next – with the events of the next book take place after the events of the original trilogy, I am interested to find out what draws the series together.

 

Thanks to Riot Communications and David Fickling Books for my copy of La Belle Sauvage. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

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Extract:

What else was out there for me? The thought of leaving, of somehow making my own path, seemed a daunting impossibility. I was the follower, not the leader, and I truly had no idea where to go next. The Cardew House – even in its dilapidated state – felt like an answer.

(A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood.)

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Synopsis:

Summer 1929. Lou’s sister has married, and now seventeen-year-old Lou is under pressure to do the same. Lou isn’t ready to marry. She wants one glorious golden summer of freedom before she thinks about her future.

The Cardew House has stood empty for as long as Lou can remember. She trespasses, eating apples from the trees and reading detective novels from the library. Now the Cardew family are home and all eyes are on young Robert Cardew and his American fiancée.

Lou befriends Robert and his sister Caitlin, and her summer is filled with parties, but can a farmer’s daughter remain friends with aristocrats in a world obsessed with social division?

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Review:

A brilliant and beautiful book reminiscent of I Capture The Castle and the works of Daphne Du Maurier. If you love big house novels set in the inter-war years, this is a must.

The first word which comes to mind is atmosphere. Laura Wood captures the atmosphere of the era. Think swinging parties and smokey jazz-bars and obsession with the upper-classes. She also captures the protagonist’s age. Lou is on the cusp of adulthood and wants to enjoy her youth. She is thinking about the future but not ready to live adult life. She alternates from very mature feelings to very childish ones at a second’s notice. Anyone who remembers being sixteen or eighteen will remember both wanting the future and wishing it would never come.

I adore the relationships. There is the sibling relationship between Alice and Lou, which is being renegotiated in light of Alice’s marriage and emerging adulthood. Robert Cardew is protective of his little sister Caitlin, and wants to do right by her but can’t see beyond society’s expectations of the upper-classes. Then there are the other relationships – the marriage of convenience between Robert and Laurie and the flirtations between Lou and wealthy bore Charlie. Other relationships shift and emerge over the course of the story. I found myself caring desperately about the outcome.

This is the story of a girl given a taste of a world to which she doesn’t belong. It is also about renegotiating what we thought we knew about society and about other people. It is pure escapism and the writing is exceptional. I can’t wait to get my paws on Laura Wood’s middle-grade detective novels. After reading A Sky Painted Gold, I want to read every word she has written.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my arc of A Sky Painted Gold. Opinions my own.

Chat

Chat: Updating My Instagram

 

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I’ve finished spring-cleaning and there is no dust in sight.

 

Cleaning is an accepted part of spring. I have unhauled books, dusted the shelves and sorted my desk area. I thought I had a good job done. Then I logged on to my blog. A tired header, a boring Instagram feed and a whole host of misplaced commas.

 I may have finished cleaning my shelves, but my digital spring-clean has barely started.

This week I have worked on my Instagram feed. Instagram has never been my strong-point, but it had never occurred to me that it might be about more than the individual photographs. A quick Google suggested that I needed to think about the order of my feed. Google, that wise old genius, was right. My feed showed book after book after book, often in the same position.

Top tip: There are heaps of apps which allow you to preview your photographs as if you have loaded them to Instagram. Download one and play with different layouts. 

My first change was to mix book photographs with other objects. Bath-bombs, biscuits, and sunsets. I’ve got them all on my iPhone. I chose to use regular splashes of pink – one of my favourite and most photographed colours – between the book pictures. This broke up the book pictures but was still fairly restrictive in terms of subject. I chose to add a free choice for every fourth photograph.

I have been delighted with the response. I’ve had a couple of compliments, and more comments in a day that I used to get in a week. My Instagram may not be swoon-worthy, but it looks less sorry for itself. It allows more flexibility in terms of subject and reflects my ethos that being bookish goes beyond books themselves.

 

Are we following each other on Instagram? Check mine out at  @BookMurmuration, and leave your handle below. Look forward to seeing your pictures.