The Midnight Swan

I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this from the publishers on netgalley, in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

The Midnight Swan by Catherine Fisher, cover art by

This is the third book in Catherine Fisher’s Clockwork Crow trilogy (you can read my reviews of the first two here) and, while they do make sense as short, magical adventures read on their own, I’d recommend starting with book one and reading them in order, especially to get the most out of Seren and Crow’s stories.

Bearing that in mind, this review presumes knowledge of the first two.

If you’ve read the first two, you’ll be pleased to see both of their tales reach satisfying conclusions here, but not before another encounter with the Tylwyth Teg, who are back to cause mischief again.

However, this time they’re not the only magical beings at play as we finally hear the true account of what happened to Crow and meet The Midnight Swan.

I won’t say too much about the plot, as like the previous books it’s short – small but perfectly formed as they say – and I don’t want to give anything away.

Suffice to say, with a magic mirror and a thicket of thorns; vanishing places and changing paths; enchanted objects and a secret garden; bargains, promises and curses; wishes, courage and gifts this has absolutely everything fans of folklore and fairytale could wish for. And more.

There’s symbolism and reference to other tales in abundance and a gloriously Wonderland-like feel to the whole book. And the parliament of birds was just inspired. I loved it.

Squeezing an exciting midnight quest (complete with river rapids, pursuit and capture) into such a short book alongside all of this is skilled indeed and made for thoroughly gripping reading.

Magical, immersive and steeped in folklore, I absolutely LOVED this and can’t recommend this trilogy enough. Yes it is short, but that makes it even easier to read back to back and I promise that’s exactly what you’ll want to do once you’ve begun!

The Restless Girls

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When I was younger, Twelve Dancing Princesses was one of my favourite stories. Something about the midnight trips out, the worn out shoes, the boats to magical forests and dancing maybe.

As a huge fan of Jessie Burton’s adult novels ‘The Miniaturist’ and ‘The Muse’, I was very excited to hear she was writing a modern version of this.

Especially since I revisited it myself last year as part of some artwork, and was struck by how little autonomy the Princesses have.

Twelve Dancing Princesses

And it is this lack of autonomy, and the sexism that dominates traditional fairytale kingdoms, that is put right in The Restless Girls.

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There’s a real energy and spark to both the girls and the story – with some fantastically impossible events (a dance hosted by a lioness and a peacock with a wild animal band for starters) alongside some fantastically important ones – namely the girls being in charge of their own choices and futures, and being a force for change in those around them too.

Rather than just stumbling across the party in the woods, the girls use their skills, talents and knowledge to find it – each demonstrating their unique personality and strengths, from science to languages to sports.

There is an inspiring sense of determination and loyalty in the sisters and their relationship with each other is portrayed with warmth and understanding; youngest sister Agnes is described affectionately as “their little walking popcorn” which I loved!

It is little phrases and details like this which I really enjoyed in the book – adding depth at times (“The dark was simply the beginning of new things. The dark was necessary.”) and humour at others (the excuses they found for the holes in their shoes are brilliant and there’s a perfectly placed “It’s bloody freezing!” which made me smile too.)

Truly a fairytale for modern times, this keeps all the magic of the original, with midnight feasting and dancing in glittering forests, but throws in a large helping of adventure, independence and resourcefulness too.

Wonderfully detailed illustrations from Angela Barrett complete the package and make this a stunning book to give, gift and keep!

Poetry Thursdays: Fierce Fairytales

So, a couple of weeks ago, on National Poetry Day, I posted about how much I enjoy poetry, but rarely choose to read it. This evolved into the idea of making my Thursday posts (weekly when I can, fortnightly when life takes over!) poetry posts.

In strangely serendipitous timing, I had just started reading ‘Fierce Fairytales’ by Nikita Gill, which I was sent by Trapeze in exchange for an honest review.

Drawn in by the fairytale theme (anything linked to a fairytale gets me!) and that gorgeous cover by Tomas Almeida, I hadn’t realised when I requested it was that the majority of the book is poetry (though some ‘chapters’ do take the form of prose).

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Step into this world of empowering, reimagined fairytales where the stereotypes of obliging lovers, violent men and girls that need rescuing are transformed.

Opening it to find poetry inside was a lovely surprise – what an original way to examine these characters and tales. And ‘examine’ I think is the key word there: for that is what this feels like – rather than a reimagining (although there are reimagined versions of tales in there), it’s more analysis, speculation and possibility: why did the characters act like they did? What if this had happened instead? Could it be possible that the way we were told it was not quite how it was? What lessons can we learn from them?

The book features everyone from from Jack and his magic beans to Cinderella to Peter Pan to Red Riding Hood – each with a new angle or twist; but standing alongside them are the villains cast against them – each giving their side to the story, their reasons and their own misfortunes.

Tradition and perception are challenged with humour, defiance and reason. There is rage in these words, but there is also hope. There is caution, but also inspiration.

If I was being harsh my only minor issue was that I felt some of the later poems in the book were rather repetitive or contrived in their links to the fairytale themes. Personally, I’d have rather had a slimmed down collection with a strong, specific fairytale link, as many of these had, and seen some of the others that linked more broadly to the feminist/mental health/societal themes in a separate collection.

But that’s just me, and I still loved it overall.

However, whether grouped here or separated, within these poems you will find one that speaks to you (most likely more than one) – maybe, like Baba Yaga, you are ageing ungracefully and proud; maybe you’ve encountered your own Prince Charming (spoiler: this is no Disney romance); maybe, like so many of the characters here, you know the power of words to build or destroy:

“They used to burn witches because of stories. A story is no small thing.”

(Belladonna)

Personal favourites included Cry Wolf, The Hatter, The Woods Reincarnated and The Miller’s Daughter. But the one I love best of all, so much so I’d like it printed and framed is the opening poem, Once Upon a Time:

Are you a fairytale fan?

Have you read this – what did you think?

What do you think of the poem I’ve shared here from it?

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?

WWW Wednesday 3/10/18

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

Last time, I snuck an extra W in there too with what Peapod and I had read that week, but I’ve decided to do a regular “Peapod’s Picks” post each Friday instead – picture books/board books new and old!

This week’s WWW, then:

What are you currently reading?

I’ve only just opened this, so no idea about it yet, though it begins with a poem that I thought was beautiful so it’s a promising start…

What have you just finished reading?

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I finished The Lost Magician by Piers Torday. I’ve been meaning to read his ‘Wild’ books for quite some time and still not got round to them, but if this is anything to go by the hype surrounding them is justified!

It’s a fantastic, modern take on ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ and the perfect homage to libraries, librarians and all things bookish!

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Talking of modern takes on classic books, I’ve also read this beautiful modern version of ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ which was one of my favourite fairy tales growing up.

Full reviews of both will follow…

What are you planning on reading next?

These are the most pressing of my TBR pile:

But I also have this which I’ve been waiting months for…

Which would you choose?

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

WWW Wednesday 15/8/18

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

WWW Wednesdays

What are you currently reading?

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I need to start timing these WWW Wednesday posts better! Just like last week, I finished my current book – Storm-Wake by Lucy Christopher – in bed with a coffee this morning (there may or may not have also been biscuits!), so technically I’m not reading anything at the moment again! But close enough! Full review is here, but I thought it was wonderful.

What have you just finished reading?

I’ve not got through loads, but it’s been a mystery-filled MG sort of week with:

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Kat Wolfe Investigates by Lauren St John (‘Middle-Grade/MG’): This was my introduction to Lauren St John (the shame!) and a very welcome one. While animal stories are generally not really my cup of tea, this was a very well-written, fun mystery with layer upon layer to keep you guessing til the end. It deserves to be hugely popular with its target readers and would make a perfect pressie for any MG mystery/animal fans in your life! You can see a full review here.

Agatha Oddly: The Secret Key by Lena Jones (‘Middle-Grade/MG’): The first in a new detective series for MG readers, this just didn’t do it for me, sadly. I know it will grab others with its mysterious red slime filling London’s waterworks, a sassy and confident female MC and a mysterious underground society, but it just didn’t come together for me.


It’s also been a week for picture books and board books, and there’ll be plenty of posts to follow about these too, but in brief, this week I’ve also read:

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Ten Little Robots by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty (picture book) – the latest in the ‘Ten Little…’ series and every bit as bold, bright and busy as the rest. Thumbs up!

Some Birds by Matt Spink (picture book) – simple rhyming text matched with the most BEAUTIFUL illustrations. Such a gorgeous book. There should be a colouring book of it…

100 Dogs by Michael Whaite (picture book) – this one has been buzzing around in my twitter feed for some time so I picked it up yesterday – it’s fantastic! Perfectly executed rhyming text (something which can be so hard to get right), wonderfully detailed and expressive illustrations and as many different dogs as you can think of (well, ok, 100 of them) – absolutely spot on.

Baby Lit A-Z and Alice in Wonderland (board books) – I’d not seen this series before, but I am now on a mission to collect them all! Classic characters in contemporary illustrations teaching everything from colours to weather to the alphabet.

Little Gestalten’s Grimm and Andersen Fairy Tale Collections (fairy tales) – GORGEOUS!! I’ve been on the hunt for a fairy tale collection with just the right illustrations for years now: nothing too old-fashioned, colour, but not too childish and with the right text rather than simplified for children or minute and closely packed for adults. These were shrink-wrapped so I had to take a bit of a punt, but they are perfect!

What are you planning on reading next?

Like last week, that is still a very good question!

I still haven’t started Katherine Rundell’s Into the Jungle from last week (I think it’s becoming one of those that I want to read so much I keep putting it off!) and I still have that whole shelf full of adult fiction to start on, so maybe some of those. Though

But yesterday, I went to the library for the first time in an embarrassingly long time and picked up some books there too, so I may have to prioritise those so that I don’t get side-tracked, forget about them and end up with a stupidly huge fine!

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I picked up Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys because I LOVED her book ‘Salt to the Sea (it’s a phenomenal YA/Adult fiction told via several converging fictional narratives based on the true story of the sinking of the German military transport ship the Wilhelm Gustloff in WW2). Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has been one of those books I’ve meant to read for ages, but not got round to and I think Egg and Spoon might be one of the only Gregory Maguire books I’ve not read: I love his twisty takes on fairy tales.

So, I think Egg and Spoon might pip the others to the post, but what do you think? What should I read next?!

Have you read any of the books I’ve read this week? What are you reading at the moment?

Spinning Silver

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Miryem was brought up in a snowbound village, on the edge of a charmed forest. She comes from a family of moneylenders, but her kind father shirks his work. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, his family faces poverty – until Miryem intercedes. Hardening her heart, she starts retrieving what’s owed, and her neighbours soon whisper that she can turn silver into gold. Then an ill-advised boast attract the cold creatures who haunt the wood. Nothing will be the same again, for words have power.

Loving all things fairy-tale based, I’ve meant to read Uprooted by Naomi Novik for years, but still not got round to it somehow. So when I was offered a copy of Spinning Silver for review by Macmillan, I jumped at the chance to sample her fairy-tale retelling skills!

I say ‘retelling’ but it’s really so much more than that. This is a fantasy novel which puts down its roots in Rumplestiltskin particularly, but which references a multitude of more general fairy tale tropes throughout (the rule of three, relationships and roles, poverty and riches, wishes and bargains etc.). But it is the subtle, skilful and original ways in which Novik weaves these into her tale that elevate this from being either a simple retelling or veering into cliche: they feel integral to the story, the fairy-tale similarities almost coincidental. Similarly, alongside it’s rich fairy-tale and mythological background sit societal themes of race, debt, class, equality which are as relevant today as ever.

While I love fairy-tales and all that goes with them, I’m not a big fantasy reader. So, for me, the first half of this book was by far my favourite – it had much more of the fairy-tale and less of the fantasy, whereas the balance had flipped a little by the end. Not that this stopped me from enjoying it: I was still very much immersed in its world, but while the beginning of the book felt like an old friendship rekindled after years – almost unrecognisable, but still themselves – the second took a bit more effort on my part, and I found the Chernobog elements of the storyline hard-going at times.

But, it was worth it. Atmospheric and vividly depicted, the world sucks you in. As so much of it revolves around the frosty lands of the Staryk, it did feel a little odd to be reading it mid-‘heatwave’ in July, but I can’t wait to re-read it in front of the fire with plenty of hot chocolate come winter! Without wanting to give away too much, it was the little details that really did it for me – the description of everyday family life (both good and bad), the seemingly abandoned cottage in the woods, Stepon’s white nut…

The book begins with Miryem as our main protagonist, but soon develops to incorporate two more female leads, as well as other important if more minor female characters, not least in the roles of mothers. The differences between them, and their differences with each other as their stories begin to come together serve as a useful mirror for women in society as a whole: the variety of ways in which women are strong, cunning, protective, brave; the choices they make for the sake of themselves, their family or others; as well as both their wisdom and folly – these women are not infallible and some of the most interesting twists and turns of the story come as they deal with the fall-out from their own or others’ decisions. It’s not just the women though: the male characters are equally well-developed and nuanced, and also challenge/provoke thought on stereotypes and expectations.

The thing I loved best was the building up of the narratives in the book: each chapter from someone else’s point of view, flitting between viewpoints, worlds and characters frequently but without ever becoming confusing or distracting from the various plots. Indeed, for me, it was this which served to bring the various characters’ tales together so well.

An incredibly well-crafted, magical and thought-provoking book. I look forward to finally getting round to reading Uprooted soon, and to whatever Novik writes next!

P.S. On adding my review to waterstones.com, I’ve just found this interview with Naomi Novik about the book which I thought was a really interesting read!

Hansel and Gretel

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This is another one of those books I’ve been excited about for ages! I finally bought it this week and I think it’s my favourite in Bethan Woollvin’s wonderful fairy tale series so far.

“The good witch Willow only uses good magic, and NEVER gets angry. But Hansel and Gretel test her patience to its limit…can Willow stop the naughty twins from destroying everything?”

Re-inventions, re-tellings, re-imaginings, re-workings: call them what you will, new versions of old tales are nothing new. There are a plethora of fairy-tale-turned-on-its-head stories out there. Some are great, some are awful, most lie somewhere in between and serve their purpose as texts for primary teachers with objectives to cover (call me cynical).

Bethan Woolvin’s series falls firmly into the first category: humorous, strong takes on well-known stories and characters. Each book provides us with something fresh and inspiring: Little Red gives us a bold heroine (with something of a nod to Roald Dahl’s Red Riding Hood in Revolting Rhymes); Rapunzel gives us a similarly brave and self-reliant damsel whose distress is taken firmly into her own hands (although we can’t help but wonder how she gets back into the tower?) and in Hansel and Gretel we see that no-one, no matter how good, is perfect and everyone’s patience has their limits!

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The success of these retellings is down in no small part to Bethan’s fantastic illustrations. With a striking and distinctive style, her artwork is worth a look all on its own, but as a partner to these modern versions of classic tales it’s a perfect match.

Clear, straightforward text with no beating around the bush, fussy description or unnecessary extras leaves plenty of space for the pictures to do most of the talking. Similarly straightforward with an incredibly limited colour palette; big, bold images and clever use of simple lines and marks to add texture and detail, the illustrations are full of life and the facial expressions (despite their deceptively basic features) speak volumes (personal favourites being Hansel and Gretel’s eyes on meeting the witch; their full, hamster cheeks on feasting in her house and Willow’s reactions to their antics!).

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read – children will love Hansel and Gretel’s shenanigans (and adults will no doubt recognise the witch’s shortening fuse!). And as for the ending – well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s dark, delicious and absolutely delightful! Go and get the series now (speaking of which: Rapunzel has just been released in paperback, so you really have no excuse not to!)