Literary Fiction Reviews

Blog Tour: Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize).

Blog Tour: Folk by Zoe Gilbert (Longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize).

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Extract:

This is not at all what he thought Gertie Quick would turn out to be either, who never makes a squeak on the school bench, and what’s more, she has just called him stupid, twice. 

(Folk by Zoe Gilbert. P37.) 

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Synopsis:

Every year and every generation, the same traditions are observed on the island of Neverness. Boys run through the gorse hunting for arrows fired by girls to determine their future partner. A boy dressed in ox-skin waits behind the waterfall to answer questions girls have on love and marriage. Every winter the tale of Jack Frost is told. Lives are lived in accordance with nature and folklore.

Characters recur and age, their relationships with each other woven together in a web of history and love. 

A collection of short stories which come together to show how myths and stories represent a deeper truth inside ourselves. 

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Review:

A small island ruled by tradition and steeped in its own history. This collection of short stories, which are as dark and quietly gory as the best of fairytales, shows us a place which is both unfamiliar and yet startlingly like our own country. Inhospitable, inward-facing and dictated by the outcome of its own ancient rituals.

The stories are separate and yet tied together by a cast of characters and a set of locations and rituals which recur across the collection. It is neither novel nor a traditional book of stories, but something which plays with form to great effect. By introducing us to the customs of Neverness, Zoe Gilbert paints a picture of one generation and how it fares across time. 

As a real folkie, I was keen to read this and I fell in love with the language. This is a land of gorse tunnels and ox-hide, fish scale and hare skin and wattle and daub. It is like getting to know England not by its pop culture or city life but by taking a walk along the hedgerows. 

My favourite story was The Neverness Ox-Man where young Harkley Oxley takes his turn at the family tradition of dressing in an ox hide and hiding behind the waterfall to answer questions about love. It is his role hide his true nature from the girls, but he too is unaware of exactly what the girls on the other side of the waterfall are like. 

The stories may be whimsical, even fantastical, but they stop short of being straight fantasy. They paint a portrait of past lives and past ways of life, and much of their commentary on the way women have struggled as a result of social structure is astute. Fishskin, Hareskin, for example, shows a woman in the depths of postpartum depression caught between being scolded by her husband and by her father. She wraps her baby in a hareskin, the only remains of the wild and wonderful animals she had felt an affinity with as a girl. Her action shows both her desperation for the baby to lead a different life and the futility of it when the hare has already been skinned by a man. 

A striking and unusual collection which lingers in the mind like the best of stories – a word here, an image there, until it demands to be reread and looked at in a different light. If you love old stories, wild spaces or beautiful language look no further. It’ll inspire you if nothing else to ramble through some outdoor spaces. 

 

Read the International Dylan Thomas Prize longlist and follow the blog tour:

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Thanks to Midas PR for gifting my copy of Folk as part of a promotional blog tour.

 

 

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Chat · Monthly Wrap Up

Four things I learned in October

October. It has gone quickly, leaving the branches bare.

I travelled across the country to see a friend, blew out the candles on my birthday cake and edited, edited, edited my middle-grade manuscript. It is coming to six months since I began this work and the changes it has seen in that time are ginormous. There is no way to explain to someone who hasn’t written a story of this size how much it takes to make it even vaguely like those things you see on the bookshelf. 

This also marks the first full month of GrasmereBulletJournal – a blog about literature, bullet-journalling, and stationery. I began the blog in consultation with The Wordsworth Trust, who loved the idea of Dorothy Wordsworth as a bullet-journaller. I have translated parts of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals into bullet-journal form, and this is the journal at the centre of the blog. The first month has given me new experiences – such as making a YouTube video – and put me in touch with wider networks. 

So begin the dark nights and the countdown to Christmas. Snuggle up, find time for yourself and decide what is really important to you rather than being swept along by the festive-tide. 

Let me know what you’ve been up to this month – I love hearing from my followers. 

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MG Leonard at the Guildford Book Festival

We’d be dead without dung beetles

Really. MG Leonard told me and she is the undisputed queen of beetles. 

It was a pleasure to get to an author talk with my friend Christina, especially because our long talks about children’s literature are a special part of our friendship. My visit to the South East coincided with the Guildford Book Festival, so we booked tickets to see M.G. Leonard. 

What a fabulously interesting morning. 

Leonard’s trilogy is about a group of children who befriend genetically-enhanced beetles and uncover the plot of fashionista and scientist Lucretia Cutter. One of Leonard’s early thoughts was that there were no books in which beetles were the heroes. We think of insect life as creepy and other, when in fact our planet wouldn’t be the same without beetles.

Take the dung beetle. By gathering rolling dung into balls, burying it underground and feeding on it, dung beetles take it away from the surface of the environment. Without them, there would be far more parasites, and large areas would be inhabitable. 

This is one of the true joys of children’s literature – it teaches us so many interesting things about our world. 

 

Lights, Camera, YouTube

I am camera-shy. Painfully so. A good picture emerges every six or eight years but mostly when I see a camera I stop acting naturally.

But you know what? I took part in a YouTube video

I filmed this with the team at The Wordsworth Trust, to promote the GrasmereBulletJournal blog and the bullet journalling station which we’ve created at the museum. The whole experience has been tremendous and the video explains everything I would have hoped.

New experiences are pivotal – they give us a taste of other disciplines and encourage us to think more widely about what we can do. I have learned so much about other social media over the past two years and have totally embraced content-creation. It was amazing to learn about creating for YouTube. 

 

How to make a hedgehog from an information booklet 

There has been lots of discussion on the Twittersphere about what should happen to old proofs. Several weeks ago I came to the conclusion that the proofs I didn’t want to keep were perfect for crafting. 

Following on from that, my friend and I checked into her local library for a session on paper folding. 

Without scissors, without anything other than folding, I turned an information booklet into a hedgehog. It certainly took patience – there were a lot of pages to fold and the action was the same every time – but it was a lovely craft for a Saturday morning. Two googly-eyes later and my hedgehog came to life. His name is Harold and he lives on my shelves. 

Papercrafting is a brilliant solution to the proof question – so brilliant that I hope to feature some posts in the run-up to Christmas. 

 

CS Lewis never considered the mental health of his characters

You’re eleven years old. World War Two is raging around you, so you’re sent to live with a total stranger. All that is traumatic enough. While playing with your siblings, you find yourself trapped in another world. A world which is also at war, and by the way, only you and your siblings can end that war. Although you solve the war, the door to your own world is shut, so the only option is to stay in that realm and grow into an adult.

Then suddenly you are eleven years old again. The Blitz is still very real. 

The characters in The Chronicles Of Narnia showed unswerving loyalty to this other world. Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen. The exception was Susan Pevensie, a character derided as shallow and vain.

This month I read  The Light Between Worlds, a book which takes up the same narrative through different characters, and considers the impact such an experience might really have on different people. Susan is vindicated as the one who was able to adjust back to her past reality. 

I will always love Narnia, but the questions posed by The Light Between Worlds are valid. I wonder whether CS Lewis imagined how this experience might affect his characters? The assumption that they would become good, loyal Narnians never considered the impact this would have on their other lives. 

 

What have you been up to this October? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

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Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth. 

 

Synopsis:

One minute the three siblings were huddling in the bomb shelter. The next they had been called out of this world to serve as Kings and Queens in a woodland realm.

The Hapwell siblings – Evelyn, Phillipa and Jamie – had an experience like no other. They spent years in another world, growing into young adults, except when they returned to their own world they found their adventure had taken no time at all. They were children once more.

Five years on from that experience, the siblings are divided, most particularly Phillipa and Evelyn. Elder sister Phillipa would rather pretend it never happened. She was never comfortable in the Woodlands and always wanted to return home. For Evelyn, the Woodlands is sanctuary and home. She won’t be happy unless she finds a way to return.

A fantasy which shows the flip-side of adventures in other worlds.

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Review:

The Light Between Worlds has been on my radar for months. What I was most excited about was the parallels between this story and Narnia, and the commentary which Weymouth makes on the Pevensie siblings. I wasn’t disappointed. As well as being a touching story about mental health, trauma, and healing, the book re-examines the experience of going into a portal world and returning to exactly the same point in time. I cannot do this review justice without referencing another series of books –some of the most famous books in children’s literature. I am talking about The Chronicles Of Narnia by CS Lewis.  

The Hapwell siblings – the characters in Weymouth’s novel – experience something so similar to the Pevensie siblings that it is Narnia in all but name. Woodland realm, ongoing war, omniscient-but-slightly-hands-off God – tick, tick and tick. These similarities work for me because I think Weymouth has offered significant commentary on a common trope in children’s literature.

In the Narnia books, most of the children return to this world as loyal subjects of Aslan, ready to answer his next call. The exception to this is Susan Pevensie, who returns first reluctantly, then not at all. In the final book, it emerges that Susan grows older to deny her whole experience. She is derided for this choice as someone shallow and ignorant. The Light Between Worlds examines in greater depth what Susan might have been feeling and challenges the original evaluation.

Evelyn Hapwell – like Lucy Pevensie – is at home in the Woodlands. Her heart belongs to the Woodlands and her only thought it Cervus’s next call. A call which isn’t coming. While she may be true to her heart and her own values, Evelyn is also unwell. She has never recovered from her forced return our world.

Phillipa, meanwhile, is determined to hide her experience and make a life in this world. The difference in opinions has divided the sisters.

The narrative is split in two – we hear first from Evelyn, then Phillipa. This form is unusual for YA but allows us to consider both stories, and re-evaluate Evelyn’s experience after seeing it through Phillipa’s eyes. Both characters feel real and I think this is because of our close view of their internal lives.

A story which is worth reading on its own merits, but doubly-interesting for the commentary it makes on a famous trope. This book is sure to provoke discussion and make us think deeper about how fantasy-experiences would really affect our characters.  

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: A Darkness Of Dragons by S.A. Patrick

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Extract:

When the Hamelyn Piper was finally caught, he refused to reveal what had become of the children. Many wanted to see him die for what he had done, convinced he would never reveal the children’s fate, but the council kept him alive and gave him the cruelest punishment they could devise. The Iron Mask: fastened around the head of Hamelyn Piper, it prevented him ever using his abilities again, as no magic could escape it. 

(From A Darkness Of Dragons by S.A. Patrick. P94.)

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Synopsis:

After a song on his magical pipe goes terribly wrong, Patch is sentenced to life in jail. That’s where he meets Wren, the girl turned into a rat by enchantment,. It is also where he first encounters the Hamelyn Piper. 

The Hamelyn Piper is a notorious criminal. He was locked in the dungeons at Tiviscan after his attack on the children of Hamelyn and the dragon children.

Then Patch learns something terrible. The Hamelyn Piper is on the loose. Can he uncover the secret around the Hamelyn Piper before something catastrophic happens? Alongside Wren and a dracogriff called Braver, Patch sets out to prevent the biggest battle of all time.

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Welcome to a world of dragons and griffins and magical pipes. A world where magical piping is overseen and policed by a council of elders. The story about the Piper of Hamelyn is not as you know it, and that story was just the beginning …

I adore books which put a twist on myths and fairytales but this story has been told particularly well. At its core, it is the narrative we all know about dark power and corruption, but it is told in such a way that you won’t figure out what is going on until exactly the right moment. The climax will take your breath away.

Patch, Wren and Braver may be my new favourite team. Patch is the archetypal underdog. After failing to win a place to train as an elite piper, Patch ran away from his magical academy. Remember Harry Potter realising that Hogwarts was his true home? Tiviscan is the opposite of that. It is delightfully creepy and authoritarian and we’re rooting for Patch from the get-go because although he breaks the rules, his intentions are better than the people in charge.

I loved the worldbuilding, from the magical pipes to the politics between humans and dragons. Every culture within this world has a separate history and political stance. I love how important these histories are to the plot and how they make the setting feel real.

An unmissable fantasy from a talented voice. I loved the characters, the plot and the setting. I’m certain Patch and his friends will remain with me even now I’ve closed the book.

Announcements · Chat

Chat: About my second blog and why I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Love literature? Love stationery and bullet journaling? Check out my new blog.

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The secret is out. 

As secrets go, it wasn’t very well kept. I hinted several times during Twitter chats that I was involved in a project with a literary heritage group. I shared pictures with two of my very closest blogging friends. 

The blog was up in the webosphere from June 2018.

Nevertheless, it was my project but now it is out in the big wide word. I’m so pleased to finally share Grasmere Bullet Journal with you. This is my new blog which I am going to run along with BookMurmuration.

Grasmere Bullet Journal began, as all good projects do, with a conversation. I was having a cup of tea with a friend, and pouring over her books when I told her something which had been on my mind.

If Dorothy Wordsworth was alive today, she would make a killer blogger. 

Dorothy Wordsworth was a journaler, pioneering walker and sister of the Romantic poet William. She kept journals throughout her life, most famously the Grasmere Journal which she kept during her time at Dove Cottage from 1800 – 1803. 

Her journal wasn’t a private diary. It was a place where she recorded her observations as well as tracking her daily activities. As I wrote here, this is very much the same thing people do in their bullet journals today. If Dorothy Wordsworth was alive today, I said during that conversation in March 2018, she would be a bullet journaler. 

An idea was born. An idea which I’d had all along without recognising it until I said it out loud. 

One bullet journal and a set of brush pens later and I set to work. 

GrasmereBulletJournal is two things. Firstly, and at its heart, it showcases my creative project – to present information from the Grasmere Journal in bullet journal form. 

Secondly, it is a blog which covers stationary, bullet journaling, and literature. Inspired by the exhibition as Dorothy Wordsworth as a walker, and proud of my own muddy walking boots, I would like to branch out and include posts about walking and nature. 

I would *love* to hear from you over on Grasmere Bullet Journal, as well as right here on BookMurmuration. There are people who comment regularly on my blog who talked to me when I had ten views per post. I value your feedback as much as I did then. As much as always. 

Here’s to our creative pursuits, to blogging adventures and to online friends. 

 

Do you keep a bullet journal? Are you currently working on any creative projects? Let me know in the comments below.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash by Chloe Seager

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Extract:

How is it possible that just because Steph’s busy and Faith’s away, I have no one left?! Literally no one. How pathetic is that?! How do I only have two friends in the entire globe?! The entire globe of nearly eight billion people? TWO? Out of EIGHT BILLION?

Is that normal??!!

I’m Robinson Crusoe, sitting out on a tiny island all by myself. And no one’s coming to rescue me. 

(From The Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash by Chloe Seager.) 

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Emma’s given up on love but all her friends are in relationships. Suddenly Emma isn’t sure what to do with herself and she misses the old dynamic of her friendships. This puts her on a mission to make new best friends. 

The school fashion show seems like the perfect opportunity to meet new people.

The result is a series of hilarious situations and mishaps. Emma is back online and she is unafraid to share all. 

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Review:

Editing Emma was one of my surprise hits of 2017. By surprise, I don’t mean there was any reason the book shouldn’t have been fab. I mean I wasn’t certain it would be for me. I was late the party with contemporary YA and had just discovered what it fabulous genre it is when I read Editing Emma. The book had a distinctive, chatty voice and the characters stayed with me long after I opened the book. It reminded me what it was really like to be the teenager and its themes about online identity were totally up to date. 

Guess what? The sequel is fab too.

Lots of seventeen and eighteen-year-olds have to confront shifts in their friendship groups. Partners come and go, groups expand and reshape as young people move into sixth-form and there is the great big end-of-school looming over everything. That’s what is happening to Emma Nash. She may have sorted out her own love life but with her friends in relationships, she’s feeling pretty lonely. 

So Emma logs back online. 

I love how these stories explore the role of the internet in modern friendship groups. This is something which – until the past couple of years – wasn’t acknowledged in YA. It was like the unspoken taboo. Teens had a whole world online but people were afraid to encourage it. It is great to see books which honestly reflect how teenagers use the internet. Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash covers everything from trawling through profiles of people we vaguely know to awkward emails to how it can feel when the internet turns nasty. 

This book is also upfront about the things teenagers really talk about. Periods. Sex. This book is unafraid to visit the supposedly-taboo topics. Emma is unafraid to share everything – and I mean everything. She’s like that real girl you knew as a teenager who would give you regular updates on bra-size and period flow. The reader is reminded that these subjects are totally normal and hopefully this will give them confidence to have open conversations and challenge stereotypes. 

Another hit. Laugh, cry and nod your head in recognition. Emma is every-girl and she is your new fictional BFF. 

 

Thanks to Nina Douglas PR and HQ Stories for my copy of The Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash. Opinions my own.

Literary Fiction Reviews · Uncategorized

Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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Extract:

I was handed over to Odysseus like a package of meat, A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood-pudding. But perhaps that is too crude a similie for you. Let me add that meat was highly valued among us – the aristocracy at lots of it … 

(The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. P39.) birdSynopsis:

Everyone knows the story of Odysseus the hero. Odysseus the bold adventurer who sailed the seas. His wife is remembered for her devotion. Although Odysseus disappeared for many years, Penelope refused to marry one of the suitors who begged for her hand. She wove a shroud, refusing to marry until it was done, and unpicked her work every night to keep the suitors at bay. This is her role in the Odyssey.

Now Penelope wanders the underworld she is free to tell her own story. Her version of events is quite different. It begins with the father who tried to drown her at birth, moves to the husband who disappeared for twenty years and then to the son who grew to assert his dominance over his mother.

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Penelope. Immortalised as the devoted wife of Odysseus, Penelope is best remembered for weaving and unpicking and reweaving a shroud as she awaited her husband’s return. Margaret Atwood gives Penelope her own voice. As Penelope wanders the underworld she tells her own story, freed for the first time from the shadow of men.

Good retellings should bring something new to existing stories. Make us see something in a new light. The Penelopiad is fearless and feminist. It shows us what life was like for Penelope and how little value a woman’s life had in Ancient Greece.

Poetic and lyrical, Penelope’s story is woven around regular songs from the hanged maids. While Odysseus was away – looting and pillaging and having affairs – Penelope’s home was overrun by men seeking her hand in marriage. The twelve maids were hanged for their affairs with these suitors. The way in which the songs interrupt the narrative is haunting, precisely what Atwood seems to have been aiming for, as the voices are meant to haunt the men who think they can get away with rape and murder. Odysseus, who killed the girls for the shame of their crimes, was free enough in his affairs with other women.

Penelope recounts her life in relation to men – the father who tried to drown her before he realises the material worth of marrying a daughter, the husband who left her for years to conduct affairs with other women and the son who grew up to believe his voice was the most important in the household. The maids’ songs remind us that Penelope was lucky – a noblewoman was safer because her life had material worth.

These themes are not all retrospective. The trial at the end of the novel reminds us that the same issues are still present in the world today. This is an extraordinary work because it not only brings a female voice to the myth but a female agenda. Poetic and bold and one of my favourite retellings.  

 

Thank you to Canongate Books for my copy of The Penelopiad. Opinions my own. The Canongate Myths – new takes on old myths by leading authors – are available now.