Believathon 3 – The Mask of Aribella

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Chain – Read a book with a colourful cast of characters, and it was certainly an excellent choice for that prompt!

Our main character, Aribella, discovers she can shoot fire from her fingertips and, after narrowly escaping the Palace guards after they raid her home and arrest her dad, finds herself taken in by fellow Caannovaccis – masked Venetians who protect the city using their special powers – speaking to animals, walking through walls, reading minds and/or stars and moving or creating objects with their minds…and more. So, yes, colourful!

Honestly, I was a little uncertain going into this. I thought it might be a bit superhero heavy for me, but it wasn’t at all. There’s enough to hook a superhero fan but it doesn’t feel like a typical superhero story.

Instead it’s more of a mystery with a dash of history and a dollop of magic and fantasy thrown in for good measure. And that is right up my street!

The setting of Venice is wonderful. In a serendipitous turn of events, I started this just as I was coming to the end of Katherine Woodfine’s Villains in Venice, which had already seen me captivated by the city, but it was here that I was truly transported there and enamoured by it.

Anna Hoghton’s writing is rich in detail and steeped in the history of the place and its culture and customs. I couldn’t get enough; I was ready to jump straight on a plane!

The characters themselves are likeable and their powers bring a good mix of the light-hearted and the dramatic. There’s some unfortunate sleepwalking mishaps, singed tablecloths and uncommunicative cats, but there’s also a strong message of believing in yourself and some tense and exciting saving of the day.

The mystery element of the book is perfectly plotted and paced too. There’s plenty of intrigue, secrets and uncertainty along with creeping doubts and wariness about just which characters to trust and what was really going on.

As an adult who’s familiar with the genre, I did figure out a fair bit of it, but even so there were things I didn’t see coming and I really liked the way the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘whos’ were gradually revealed.

A thoroughly enjoyable mystery adventure, with an exciting and original slant in its masked protectors, this has strong messages of friendship, courage and being yourself and embracing your differences.

A Secret Of Birds and Bone

A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, artwork by Helen Crawford-White

If you know anything about my reading tastes, you’ll know I’m a huge Kiran fan! I positively bounced to the till showing anyone I passed that “It’s in! It’s in!” when this arrived at work last week and snapped it up and started it that day.

It does not disappoint.

With the most beautiful sounding bone creations, underground tunnels, secret passages and plenty of mystery, this is as atmospheric and enchanting as you’d expect from Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

And with guards assisted by vicious magpies, a duchess who’s never seen, a mother who’s vanished after completing a secret commission and a nun who is not what she seems there is plenty of intrigue and drama too.

Sofia’s mother is a bone builder, crafting the most exquisite creations from bones – from fine furniture to ornate reliquaries to intricate keepsakes to complex locks to Sofia’s entire house.

This was one of my favourite elements of the story – I loved reading and picturing her creations, they really set my imagination alight.

One day though, Sofia’s sees her mother receive an unexpected – and seemingly unwelcome – guest, and from that point on, neither she nor her brother Ermin are allowed in the workshop or to know what her mother is working on.

We join Sofia on her twelfth birthday as her mother heads into the town promising to explain everything when she returns.

However, things do not go to plan and Sofia and Ermin find themselves on a dark journey into unknown underground passages seeking to find out where their mother is and what has happened to her.

I also loved the underground world Kiran created – the caves, pools and clues as well as the darkness and the danger of the chase were immersive and thrilling. The filth of their escape felt particularly believable too and by the time they left the tunnels, I felt almost as dirty, soaked, battered and stinking as they must have been!

Joining Sofia and Ermin is Ghino who they meet hiding in the secret passages of the city. He adds a dose of suburban knowledge as well an element of uncertainty to the group, and I especially enjoyed seeing the dynamic between him and Sofia as their journey progressed.

I thought the way in which we see their relationship, and Sofia’s thoughts towards him change was excellent and really helped to build up to the end of the book too.

The way in which the guards’ magpies and their mother’s bone-building are woven into the story add a wonderful air of fantasy without tipping it into full on magic, which suits the historical nature of the story and adds to the feel of it, without asking us to believe in anything other-worldly.

This has everything you’d expect from Kiran and everything you’d want from a MG adventure – main characters you root for and sinister antagonists, fantastic atmosphere and a unique and exciting setting, not to mention tension, betrayal and twists at every turn. Utterly spell-binding and Helen Crawford-White’gorgeous artwork makes it visually beautiful too.

#MGTakesOnThursday – The Girl of Ink and Stars

#MGTakesOnThursday was created by Mary over at Book Craic and is a brilliant way to shout about some brilliant MG books!

To join in, all you need to do is:

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Today I’ve chosen one of the first MG books I read as a grown up (or certainly for a very long time). When I left teaching and stumbled into my job as a bookseller I had a good knowledge of picture books but not as much recent knowledge of older children’s fiction.

This was one of the first MG books I picked up – it was our Children’s Book Prize winner and it wasn’t hard to see why; it is definitely at least partially what got me hooked on MG!

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, cover design by Helen Crawford-White

My favourite sentence from page 11:

“Governor Adori had rebuilt it from stone, twice as big, because if his daughter was going, it had to look grander.”

This is such a gorgeous book – both visually, with its stunning cover, maps and page decor and in its lush, myth-rich island narrative.

I love maps in books, again both visually and in their use, so the main character being a cartographer’s daughter desperate but unable to follow in his footsteps really appealed.

Amidst some dark goings on on their island, Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, disappears. Undeterred by the fact that the majority of the island – and anything beyond it – are out of bounds, she sets off to find her with an old map, myths and the stars as her guide.

A tale of friendship, family, loyalty and love woven with threads of folklore, history, politics and power. Embedded in a rich and mysterious setting, both dark and beautiful in turns, this is an absolute must-read MG book for me and one those of you who know me and my tastes will be utterly unsurprised to hear I love!

Writing this has also made me think it’s time for a re-read…

In three four words (sorry Mary!): maps, magic, myths mystery.

WWW Wednesday 10/10/18

Hosted by ‘Taking on a World of Words’, every Wednesday we ask and answer the 3 W’s:

It’ll be a short one this week as I’ve not managed much reading at all. I don’t know where this week has gone!

What are you currently reading?

I pre ordered this, having been ridiculously excited about it since it was announced. I picked it up early, at the end of September. And up until today, I still hadn’t started it! I think I’d built it up so much I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to begin! So, I’m taking the plunge today…

What have you just finished reading?

I didn’t know what to expect from this and hadn’t realised at all when I requested it that it was predominantly poetry, but it was a pleasant surprise – especially in light of my recent decision to read more poetry and dedicate Thursdays’ posts to it.

I enjoyed it, though it felt a bit like a book of two halves and I definitely preferred the first half. The latter part of the book did feel a bit ‘filler’, but on the whole it was a really creative and interesting take on the fairytale-retelling that seem very popular at the moment.

Full review to follow.

What are you planning on reading next?

I’m probably going to go on an MG spree, but as I’ve only just opened The Way Past Winter, I’m not sure yet, so instead of what I’ll read next, I’m asking/answering

What books were added to your TBR this week?

I received an absolutely bumper bookpost parcel from OUP this week and am very excited to dive into these, especially the Michael Morpurgo Myths and Legends.

I also received these gems from Harper Collins – I’m especially looking forward to Hubert Horatio.

I ordered both of these after seeing them on Read It Daddy and they both look fab!

And this is a treat to myself! I absolutely love it when a book has a map in it, so I just couldn’t resist!

Did you get any exciting book deliveries/purchases this week?

Have you read any of the books here? What are you reading at the moment?

Storm-wake

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Moss has lived with Pa on a remote island for as long as she remembers. The Old World has disappeared beneath the waves – only Pa’s magic, harnessing the wondrous stormflowers on the island, can save the sunken continents. But a storm is brewing, promising cataclysmic changes.

I received a review copy of this from Chicken House and wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s taken me a while to get round to reading and I wish I’d read it sooner. It was wonderful.

Classed as YA, it is in one sense a classic ‘coming-of-age’ narrative. We see Moss as she grows from a ‘Small Thing’ into her teens, and watch as her relationships with both “wild-boy” Cal and Pa change as she does. However, there’s a lot more going on here, and in some ways I’m not sure where or how I’d categorise this, which is no bad thing.

Let’s start with the island and its stormflowers – described in Lucy Christopher’s beautiful and lyrical style, there is a dream-like feel to the place, the flowers and the magical qualities that surround them. But are things as idyllic as they seem, or is there a darker side to the flowers and their effects? There’s a heavy, heady link to poppies and their opioid connections made, but we’re left to draw our own conclusions as the book progresses.

Much of the book feels like this: the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as changeable and shifting. There is a wonderful balance between the real and the fantastic: the real often seeming to be written between the lines of the magic on the page, which I thought was so cleverly done and only added to the sense of foreboding and doubt that gradually creeps in as Moss begins to realise that perhaps not everything is how she has grown up believing it to be.

While not a retelling as such, I loved the many parallels with The Tempest in the book. I want to say more, but am loath to give any spoilers away. Suffice to say – the influence is there with similarities carefully woven into the story. If you don’t know it, it won’t matter: it stands as a well-crafted story in its own right.

This is a book for being swallowed up in – immersed in stories, stormy seas, stormflower smoke and the tingle-fizz of petals on tongues, scales on skin and whispers of another world. You could easily find yourself going as mad as Pa if you try to wrap your head round what’s really real, what’s magic, what’s illusion, what’s lies, what’s truth, what’s a version of all of these… and that’s partly why I loved this book as much as I did. It’ll definitely be a book to come back to and one that will withstand multiple readings.

I’ve not read any of Lucy Christopher’s other books, but will be looking out for them: have you read any? Which would you recommend?

 

On A Scale of One to Ten/Whistle in the Dark

These books, and consequently this review, contain references to: mental health, depression, self-harm and suicide.

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In the last week, I’ve read both ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ by Ceylan Scott (thanks to Chicken House for the arc) and ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healy (thanks to Penguin Random House for that arc). The first is aimed at YA, the second adult fiction.

When I started this blog, my plan was to only review/blog about books I’d especially enjoyed – those I’d rate as 4 or 5*. I rated both of these 3*, but both resonated with me in various ways and got me thinking for various reasons. So, I’ve decided to post about them anyway, and as it’s Mental Health Awareness week too, it seems pretty fitting.

Whilst they approach it from very different perspectives and are otherwise nothing alike story-wise, both books deal with teenage mental health, and contain references to self harm and suicide (although, interestingly, only the YA one mentions this explicitly on the cover). As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety on and off over the years, but starting during my teens, I’m always interested in novels that deal with this, so was intrigued by both of these.

It was the title that first made me want to read ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ – 7 words that I hate. I don’t remember much about the various assessments and appointments I had as a teen when I was first diagnosed and rotated through a variety of tablets, but I do remember my most recent bout of anxiety and how frustrated/annoyed/angry I felt at this oft-used ‘assessment tool’ which didn’t come close to finding out anything about what was actually going on in my head, let alone helping with it.

So, when I saw the title I thought ‘here’s someone who gets it’ and delved a bit deeper. Written when Ceylan Scott was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital, it tells the tale of Tamar, who “is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers, where she is asked endless questions…But there’s one question Tamar can’t – won’t – answer: what happened to her friend Iris, who died at the weir?”

This really sums up both what I did and didn’t about the book. First the good:

Judging by the goodreads reviews so far, it’s struck a chord with many others too – being hailed as a realistic take on what life as a young person with a mental illness/in a psychiatric hospital is like, and I have to agree with much of this; I’m lucky to have never needed to be admitted to hospital, but there were certainly plenty of parts of the book that described so well my feelings or actions or thoughts at various times, especially (but by no means exclusively) when I was younger

And, while much of the book focuses on Tamar cutting to self-harm, I was pleased (I’m not sure that’s the right word) to see her write about Tamar banging her head against the wall repeatedly too – doors and walls and fists and heads and scratches and nails and pinches etc. that play a big part in my own experiences and it was refreshing to see this represented. I suspect that, through the variety of characters and their many and varied illnesses in the book, there will be moments like this for many readers who’ve been through similar.

However, there were also things I didn’t like as much: mainly the Iris at the weir plotline. I get that there had to be some sort of ‘other’ plot, but the ‘her friend died and she won’t say/we don’t know what happened’ thing just felt a bit tired (to me, personally), and I would have so much preferred this to be a book where there was no ‘major event’ triggering the illness – a representation of someone who has a mental illness just because they’re ill and not one triggered/worsened by – an external factor. Similarly, the Toby storyline, which I won’t go into in detail as I don’t want to slip into spoiler territory, but this storyline also left me unsatisfied and feeling like maybe opportunities were missed for this book to do something different.

I suspect though, this is very much my take on it as an adult; who knows how I’d have felt if I’d read it as a teen?

Which brings us to ‘Whistle in the Dark’. Although this also deals with teenage depression, in the form of 15-year-old Lana, it is written from an adult perspective, namely that of Lana’s mum Jen. Lana has suffered from depression for a long time and part of what I loved about this book was how well it showed the effects of this not just on Lana, but also on those around her, especially her mum and sister. It certainly took me back to my relationship with my mum during my younger years, and led to a fair bit of reflection. As much as ‘On A Scale of One to Ten’ felt like a wonderful insight into teenage mental health as it’s experienced, this felt like a window onto the world of those who live with/love someone who’s unwell and how upsetting/exhausting/frustrating it can be for them too.

I loved the relationships in this, if it had been focused solely on that, I’d have probably rated it much higher. The relationships between Jen and Lana took me back, while her relationship with older daughter Meg felt so relatable now, and the relationship between Meg and Lana was also incredibly easy to relate to.

However, the book focuses on the period shortly after Lana is found after having been missing for four days. Lana refuses to say what happened, and Jen becomes increasingly concerned about it. Some of this, I thought was brilliantly written, especially Jen’s worries about it. However, there were also elements that just felt unbelievable and the ending and resolution of this were ultimately what brought this down to 3 stars for me.

So, two mixed reviews on two similar and yet completely different books. The one thing I stand by for both of them is their portrayal of various aspects of mental illness, which I think – in very different ways and for very different audiences – they each captured and depicted incredibly well.

More information and support of mental illness can be found via the Mental Health Awareness website.