Mini Monday: 7/1/19

Kicking off 2019 with three snowy books (maybe it will bring the actual snow!)*

*The last of these reviews is a tweaked and slightly expanded version of one from WWW Wednesday last week – you can always skip it if you saw it first time round!

First up…

There’s a Yeti in the Playground by Pamela Butchart

Illustrated by Thomas Flintham

It’s snowing and Izzy and friends are hoping they’ll all be sent home early. But then they hear weird noises in the playground, and find a big footprint in the snow… And that’s when they know! There’s a YETI in the playground and it’s HUNGRY!

The young readers in work LOVE these books and it’s easy to see why with plots, plans and action aplenty – not to mention huge dollops of humour that adults will love too.

As a former infant teacher, so much of this made me properly laugh out loud – both supremely silly and totally believable at the same time! Anyone who’s ever been in a school will find plenty of familiar faces, recognisable rules and everyday events here, but bigger, bolder and funnier!

Snow, survival skills and being stuck in school – not to mention a seriously stinky scent! This is observational humour at its best – larger than life and laugh out loud!

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy.

The Missing Barbegazi by H. S. Norup

Cover design by Anna Morrison

Tessa knows that the Barbegazi exist because her beloved grandfather told her about them. So she sets out to prove to her family and friends that her grandfather wasn’t just a confused old man. But Tessa realises that uncovering the truth carries great responsibilities.

This was set on the ski slopes of Austria and is a great example of an author really knowing and loving their setting. It’s clearly well-loved territory, fondly described with little touches of the familiar that help to paint the picture for those of us who have never touched a ski!

Likewise, I enjoyed the fact that it was written from both Tessa and Gawion’s perspectives and the addition of the pages from the guide to Alpine elves was a really interesting and unusual way to add background information and detail.

With themes of friendship, loss and trust as well as protecting the environment and knowing when to keep a secret, this is a story of unlikely allegiances, cunning plots to foil the bad guy, wintry landscapes and daring late night escapades this is a great adventure, perfect for fans of Lauren St John’s Kat Wolfe Investigates or Jess Butterworth’s When The Mountains Roared.

Thanks to Pushkin for my copy.

Snowglobe by Amy Wilson

Cover illustration by Rachel Vale

Clementine discovers a mysterious house full of snowglobes, each containing a trapped magician. One of these is Dylan, a boy who teases her in the real world but who is now desperate for her help.

So Clem embarks on a mission to release Dylan and the other magicians, unknowingly unleashing a struggle for power that will put not only her family, but the future of magic itself in danger.

I finished reading this on Christmas Day. I think this is the first Christmas Day I’ve managed to read since I was little! It was lovely (even if I did have to read stood up!) and the magical feel of this book was perfectly suited to it!

I really enjoyed the characters of Ganymede, Io and Clem especially and the way strong emotions are portrayed and played out through the magic of the book worked really well.

But what I really loved were the magical elements of the book and the world building – so imaginative and exciting.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m still marvelling at the Snowglobes and the setting – at the worlds within a world within a world. The whole concept was such a unique idea and brilliantly described – so tangible and memorable. It made me want to go in and explore!

Thanks to Macmillan for my copy.

Have you read any of these – what did you think?

What are your favourite wintry or snowy books?

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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?

The Lost Magician

I was offered a copy of The Lost Magician for review (thanks to Hachette Kids) and how could I resist with a cover like that?! Courtesy of Ben Mantle, it has a wonderfully magical feel and is a perfect match for the story inside.

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An ode to the world of Narnia:

1945. They have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

I didn’t know about the connections to Narnia when I got this, but as I started reading I was taken back to the first time I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and the countless times I stepped into my grandma’s wardrobe (complete with *fake* fur coat) hoping it would lead me through to a snow-covered Narnia (and imagining it had when it invariably didn’t!).

As in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the story centres around four siblings who unwittingly find themselves key to saving the land they’ve stumbled upon.

As with the original four, here too are four very distinct personalities and everyone will have a different favourite. Personally, I loved Larry and Grey Bear. Evelyn will go down well as a female science fanatic, and Simon’s dyslexia (undiagnosed because of the time period) proves an interesting perspective and its nice to see it represented in a book about books.

Cleverly reimagined, this uses the Narnia stories as its base and leaps off into an entirely new world, albeit one with a war raging – mirroring the one the children have left behind and posing some interesting thoughts, ideas and talking points on that theme.

First we meet the Reads (pronounced ‘red’) and Unreads. The Reads are storybook characters, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a little buzz of excitement as some very well-known and well-loved characters were described, introduced and alluded to.

However, trying to destroy the Reads are the Unreads, led by the White Queen inspired Jana (and yes, she is every bit as icy cold and merciless!) The Unreads represent facts, truth, information and data. Brilliantly imagined and described, they turn what could easily have become a nostalgia-fest right into something original and altogether less cosy, with futuristic robots, vehicles and buildings. They provide a great balance to the comforting idea of the Reads.

And ultimately, that is a key theme of the book – balance and compromise; of needing and benefiting from differences – as is the idea that stories are not just entertainment and diversion, but that despite seeming to be the complete opposite of fact, they too teach us things, help us to learn and develop and bring about change and progress.

Books, adventure, battles and magic – it’s an exciting and modern take on ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ and the perfect homage to libraries, librarians and all things bookish!

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?

 

The Binding

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Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Forever.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this from HarperInsider/Borough Press to review and I’ll be honest, it’s another of those magpie books that I was drawn to, initially solely because of its oh-so-beautiful cover (sadly, I don’t know who designed it, so I can’t credit).

But then I found out that this was a book about books – specifically books which are not so much banned as shunned, feared, locked away, secreted; and specifically books which are created by specialists (some more scrupulous than others) by binding – not works of fiction as we would know them, these books contain memories that for one reason or another someone wants forgotten.

I was hooked before I’d begun.

The fact that it had elements of all my favourite genres without really being confined to any of them only added to this. Even the fact that it is essentially a love story couldn’t deter me (and it shouldn’t – it’s beautiful, full of hope, frustration, guilt and despair: raw feeling and not in the least bit sentimental and squishy).

While this is a work of fantasy, it is hinged on real lives and the everyday, in particular society, class and prejudice. Magical realism if you must. But really I don’t think either of those pigeon-holes are quite right for it. Similarly, it has the feel of the best gothic, historical fiction, but it’s not really that either – there is unquestionably an atmosphere of times gone by but no concrete time period to pin it down.

The setting is richly described and I was drawn right into the thick of it. My favourite part of the book is the time Emmett spends at Seredith’s bindery: the workshop and vaults, the surrounding marshes, the changing seasons and the isolation – all of it felt so tangible. I could happily have had this book go down a completely different route and spent the whole novel there (did someone say prequel – Seredith’s story anyone? Come on, Bridget, you know you’d love to!) But all of it felt incredibly vividly and real.

Likewise, the characters are well-drawn and believable. Though at first I felt some of them were going to be a little stereotypical, with some of their relationships looking to play out in ways we’ve seen before, the way they develop as the story progresses, the way each character is vital to the story and the way we see it from different angles and viewpoints helps bring them much more depth, purpose and realism.

This was a truly captivating book. It is at times dark, horrifying, bleak, but at other times bursting with hope and possibility. It feels both magical and all too real; historical and incredibly relevant. A book that truly swallows you up into its world and has you reading ‘just one more page/chapter/part’ every time you pick it up.

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!

The Storm Keeper’s Island

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Once in a generation, Arranmore Island chooses a new Storm Keeper to wield its power and keep its magic safe from enemies. The time has come for Fionn’s grandfather, a secretive and eccentric old man, to step down. Soon, a new Keeper will rise.

But deep underground, someone has been waiting for Fionn. As the battle to become the islands next champion rages, a more sinister magic is waking up, intent on rekindling an ancient war.

This was sent to me at work as an advance copy of July’s Children’s Book of the Month. I loved the look of it – exactly the sort of MG book that I’d pick up and want to read – but I’ll also admit to being a little apprehensive – partly because, hand on heart, I haven’t been crazy about the last couple of books chosen for our Books of the Month and partly because while it is exactly the sort of MG book I’d pick up and want to read, this automatically makes me worry it will be another book trying to do what others have done before, but failing to come up with anything special enough to make it stand out.

I needn’t have worried.

I liked the writing style immediately. Like my favourite of the characters (Fionn’s Grandfather), much of the day-to-day events and conversations were witty, full of humour and, importantly, realistic – Fionn and Tara’s love-hate sibling relationship was perfectly depicted through their bickering, one-upmanship and silent seething at each other!  Conversely, the more magical elements of the story and its setting were described with a wonderful sense of wildness, mystery and legend. This juxtaposition gave the story a brilliant balance between the fantastic and the everyday, making it both reassuringly familiar and thrillingly unknown.

The book draws inspiration from Catherine’s own grandparents, their home on Arranmore and sea-faring history, as well as Irish legends and history. Her passion for these things runs through the book as much as any of the magic she creates in the story, giving it a real sense of history and depth and transporting you right into the thick of it. I won’t say any more than just – The Lifeboat Scene.

The magical elements of the story feel fresh and unique – with weather, candles, time and memories being its key players. Again, written with subtlety, understanding and an incredible talent for merging real-life with fantasy, it is by turn joyous, heart-breaking, uplifting, nostalgic, hopeful… I could go on!

A highly original and moving adventure, set in a wonderfully well-built world – I can’t wait for the follow up!