Where the River Runs Gold

I requested and received a free copy of this from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews. Opinions and views are all my own.

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Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Evan Hollingdale

I was initially dubious of this. I’d heard from a friend what it was about and it sounded remarkably similar (I’m putting that kindly) to How To Bee, a less well-known book that I loved, so I was worried that this was going to be a bit of a rip off but one that totally over-shadowed the original (Waterstones Book of the Month, more well-known author and publisher etc.)

Luckily, I needn’t have worried. While both books stem from the idea that crops, insects (particularly bees and other pollinators) and flora/fauna in general are dying out and while there are some overlaps because of this (children being used as pollinators for example) they take very different approaches and are written in very different styles, with different themes and directions.

In fact, far from hating this the way I feared I might, I really, REALLY loved it – it’s gone straight into my favourite books of the year (along with Rumblestar and Wild Folk Rising – I think while totally different from Wild Folk Rising it has that same love of nature and folklore that is present in the Stargold Chronicles, which is possibly why I feel the same way about it).

This is one of those books that’s incredibly frustrating (in a good way) as I’ve really struggled to put anything into words about it (indeed my procrastination about this review is one of the main reasons I’m currently so behind!)

Simply put, I just thought it was excellent – beautifully written with well-drawn characters you absolutely get behind and feel for, as well as complex themes and multiple layers. It was at once soothing and angering; full of a folkloric magic and disturbingly plausible; believable bleak but full of hope.

With environment, nature and climate change are at its core, there are also questions raised about power, wealth, inequality and freedom. About fairness, society and childhood. About family, friends and roots. The way it draws on nature, folk tales, cultural heritage and the arts as well as celebrating differences, talents and togetherness is inspired.

Just wonderful.

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?

Jess Butterworth’s Books

Jess Butterworth is one of my favourite new authors of the past few years and I’m so excited for a new book from her next year. Ahead of that, a belated review of her two books to date…

Both are beautifully designed, illustrated and laid out with gorgeous covers from Rob Biddulph and patterned pages to mark each chapter.

With a truly original and enjoyable style – Jess’ writing is a perfect example of ‘less is more’ and of how sometimes short, sparse sentences can be just as effective as long, adjective-filled passages.

I devoured this book – it’s not a long read, but a brilliant one.

Set in the Himalayas, this is a story steeped in culture and tradition, and I was transported right into the heart of the it.

When Tash’s parents are captured by soldiers, Tash and Sam embark on a dangerous journey out of Tibet to find the Dalai Lama and ask for his help.

It is a tale which shines a light on real issues in an immensely approachable and sensitive way: what could be an overbearingly heavy tale of censorship, control, lost freedoms and protest is instead a book filled with hope, bravery, friendship and family.

With incredibly likeable and relatable characters, a richly described and detailed setting and an important but perilous journey at its heart, this was definitely one of my favourite children’s books of 2017 and remains a favourite now.

Ruby and new friend Praveen set out on a mission to protect the local leopards from some very disagreeable and suspicious types they suspect of poaching.

Unsurprisingly after ROTROTW it is the vivid descriptions of the setting in the story that I like best about it too. The mountain landscape and its flora and fauna, and the bustling city and its busy river will have you sighing, gasping and wondering at the sights along with Ruby as she discovers her new surroundings!

With perilous trips through the mountains, midnight stake-outs, bustling trains and floods this is a thrill-filled adventure that nature-loving readers in particular will relish.

I am so excited for Jess’ new book next year – she has such a distinct and effective writing style creating books that are easy to read in short bursts, but that you’ll want to read all in one go.

The List of Real Things

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Grace knows the difference between what’s real and the strange ideas that float around in her little sister’s mind.

Their parents died – that’s real.

A secret hotel on the cliff-top where their parents are waiting – definitely NOT real.

So when grief strikes again, Grace is determined not to let her sister’s outlandish imagination spiral out of control. But the line between truth and fantasy is more complicated than it seems…

This was a quick read, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. A real one-sitting-somewhere-comfy-with-a-cup-of-coffee-and-cake sort of book.

Yes, some of what was likely to happen was easy to guess early on, but the how, where and why of it wasn’t. And, yes, the secondary characters felt like a slightly predictable assortment at times, but a wonderfully endearing assortment at that: a bit like when you get a box of chocs – you expect to find a caramel, a strawberry, a truffle, a praline etc. …there’s no real surprises, but that’s because it works and it’s what we want. It also gave the main characters and their very well-drawn and unique personalities chance to shine.

The story is told from Grace’s point of view: she’s 14 and since their parents died has been her little sister, Bee’s most loyal and caring protector. But as she starts to become interested in make-up, boys and popularity, she finds herself increasingly conflicted between her absolute love of and concern for Bee, and being embarrassed and annoyed by both Bee and her unconventional, not-especially-well-off family life.

It’s a testament to how well Grace was written that she drove me nuts at times: she’s a teenage girl starting to push away from her family and find her place, if she wasn’t frustrating and at times incredibly dislikeable, she wouldn’t have been at all believable.

I thought the challenges she was facing were very well written: trying to be the grown up one, looking out for her sister and taking on too much at times, whilst simultaneously struggling with all the usual teen issues too: belonging, friendships, fitting in and, of course, boys. I loved seeing her mature and find herself as the book progressed.

Bee herself was a wonderfully quirky and loveable character. 6 going on 60, her best friends are her Grandfather and the eccentric old librarians the Misses Allen. Which perhaps explains her rather odd way of speaking, even odder mannerisms and the very strange ideas she has which may or may not be real…

…which leads us to the fantasy element of the book. This is by and large a contemporary piece of fiction, set in the everyday lives of Bee and Grace as they come to terms with deaths in the family. However, when Bee starts talking to the family dog, seeing ghosts and trying to find out about an old hotel that absolutely does not exist any more, what’s real and what’s not becomes increasingly blurred.

And this leads us in turn to my only sticking point with this book, which is the age it is aimed at. As an MG book I thought the fantasy element was very effective, both as part of the plot and as a way of tackling the more sensitive issues of loss and grief that the book covers. Similarly, the characters themselves and the way the issues the family are facing are touched on but not really delved into in great depth felt just right for MG readers, but Young Adults may be left wanting a bit more.

So, although it’s technically YA, but I would say it sits much more comfortably at the top end of MG or as a good bridge between the two. I don’t like to pigeon-hole books into age and this is an enjoyable regardless that I’m by no means writing off for older readers (I’m in my mid-30s so categorically not MG or YA!). But, I’m also conscious that a lot of teen readers expect certain things from contemporary YA fiction and a lot of young readers and their families can find it hard to know what to read as they start to want to move on from just MG books.

So, I mention the age thing as a guide and as something which struck me as I read it with my bookseller hat on. Whatever your age, it is a great read to settle in for and consume all t ones (a bit like those chocolates I mentioned earlier!) and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s books to add to my TBR pile!

Map of Salt and Stars

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Even a review quote from the Mail on Sunday couldn’t put me off this one (although the idea of the Mail positively reviewing a book whose main characters are Syrian refugees is still making my head spin). I loved the sound of it from the start and was thrilled to receive a copy to review from Orion, thank you!

 

“The Map of Salt and Stars is the moving and magical story of Nour, a young Syrian girl who must journey as a refugee in search of a new home – a journey that will mirror that of Rawiya, a fabled map-maker’s apprentice, many centuries before. This is a novel about hope, the power of imagination, and what it takes to find your way home.”

We first meet Nour in her New York home, grieving after losing her father to cancer and remembering the stories he used to tell her, in particular the story of apprentice Rawiya and map-maker al-Idrisi and their adventures attempting to map more of the world than ever achieved before.

We soon see Nour moving back to Syria with her two older sisters, Huda and Zahra, and her map-making mother, where they have comfort and support in the form of family friend Abu Sayeed; for her family, this is a return to home, but for Nour, who was born in America, it is an entirely alien country and language. This struggle for identity sets the scene brilliantly for Nour’s personal journey towards adulthood, something which I think is portrayed so well throughout the book in her thoughts, feelings, reactions and encounters.

Not long after returning to Homs, bombing and threats of war see Nour and her family once more on the move: this time as refugees after they are left homeless. And it is here that we start to see Nour and Raiya’s stories really start to intertwine.

As Nour’s journey unfolds, we are told the story of Rawiya’s journey alongside it. I loved the contrast between the two stories – the bleak and unflinching realism of Nour’s life as a refugee and the folklore-heavy tales of Rawiya’s adventures, as well as the many parallels between them – the strong heroines forced to disguise themselves as boys, the long and arduous journeys with many unknown dangers to be faced, the locations they travel through, and of course the central themes of the book: belonging, home, family, identity and courage.

I’d read mixed reviews elsewhere, with many saying they couldn’t see the parallels and found the two narratives disjointed or jarring; personally, I found entirely the opposite. I loved the way the stories mirrored each other, whilst also being very different in tone and style. Alongside the broad parallels between the stories, there were so many moments when smaller, symbolic references between the two popped up which I thought worked so well (in particular the stars and stones) and I thought the way the stories came closer and closer together towards their endings was very effective. It worked brilliantly for me.

The author notes at the end of the book show just how much research went into writing this, and it shows. The modern-day story of Nour is harrowing, tense and devastating by turn and feels incredibly raw and real; the historical tale of Rawiya feels firmly rooted in tales and characters passed down through the generations: it reads like a story that should be told in the oral tradition (which is of course how we are introduced to it, as a tale told to Nour by her father), and the characters and events are, as with Nour’s story, to greater or lesser degrees based on real people and events.

Then there is the writing itself: lyrical, poetic, clever and captivating. As with the history and people, the landscapes and places are clearly well-known or researched, and more importantly well-loved (the shape poems at the start of each chapter are simply stunning). The use of colour is magical and again, very effective. Nour has synaesthesia, but unlike other books I’ve read recently where characters have this condition, it is not ‘a thing’; it is normal for her and reads as such, but also adds tremendously to the rich descriptions which take us with her on her journey (not to mention the story in a clever, but again under-stated way that I won’t spoil). I found myself wishing for a map, or more specifically, the talent and time to create one as I read: the visuals that accompanied this story in my mind were wonderful.

This was a book I expected to devour, race through, inhale. Instead, it took a long time for me to finish: I savoured it, became immersed, journeyed slowly. I read much of it in short bursts, rather than long spells, pausing often to let each part of the story sink in and spending time digesting it, mulling it over, thinking back to it.

It’s also a book that deserves to have incredibly broad appeal. While it is an adult fiction book, there are elements of younger fiction within it, notably the young main characters, the fantasy elements and the themes of growing up and finding out who you are, all familiar to so many younger books. Yes, there are some truly upsetting events (including a sexual attack, although not one described graphically) and it is unflinching in describing the devastation of war and the refugee crisis. However, I think many young adult readers would also enjoy this – it is by no means exclusively an adult book. The viewpoint of the protagonists makes it very accessible to a younger audience too.

A simply beautiful book that I’m already looking forward to re-reading (despite having a proof copy, I have ordered the hardback as a copy for The Bookshelf). Full of compassion, wonder and hope, I can’t recommend this enough.