Book Review: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Book Review: 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Toot-tootle-oo! (That’s that medieval trumpet sound of oh-hey-big-news, but you’ll have to imagine it sounding more impressive than the phonetic sounds I just typed out…)  The National Book Award’s long list for Young People’s Literature has been announced!  I’ve read three of the books already: Skink – No SurrenderBrown Girl Dreaming (I reviewed it here), and 100 Sideways Miles.  I really badly want to read The Greenglass House (after reading the Book Smugglers’ praise of it), Revolution, and Port Chicago 50.  In celebration of these books getting recognized – congratulations to one and all, by the way – I think I should write a quick review of 100 Sideways Miles, which I actually read on Thursday, not knowing it would be on the list.  I read an ARC of the book, but you should check out the hardcover if you can because the inside jacket has a cool little picture for curious peekers.

Star Ratings for 100 Sideways Miles

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 14 + (Lots of language, talk of sex)

Andrew Smith is a weird-ass writer.  He writes weird-ass books, and they’re not for everyone.  Personally, I think they’re pretty funny.  He has a talent for embodying the voice of a certain type of teenage boy, and he continues to do it well.  Those teenage boys are usually in wack-attack-y situations, think Grasshopper apocalypses and rough boarding school experiences, in some of his earlier books.  And the supporting characters tend to be really, erm, memorable.  100 Sideways Miles continues in this fine tradition, and will probably appeal to fans of John Green’s more outlandish novels or the surprisingly relatable books by Meg Rosoff.

I don’t really know how to go about describing the plot of 100 Sideways Miles.  Finn has seizures, sometimes, and he has an always-inappropriate best friend who has everyone in the palm of his hand, and he has a dad who once wrote a SciFi novel with a cult following.  He has a crush on this beautiful new girl at school, a powerful need to beak free from his father’s literary shadow, and a big scar on his back from when a dead horse fell from the sky and crushed him and killed his mother.  Finn measures time in distance, because in the space of one second the Earth hurtles 20 miles through space, so basically every little thing that happens on the surface moves very little in comparison.  Finn and Cade and Julia break into abandoned buildings, camp drunk, and make terrible dirty jokes.  Finn tries to find a way to free himself from his father’s book, because he feels like too much of that weird story about alien visitors coming to Earth and then eating people is based on him.  Or he’s based on it. Or something.

Even though everyone’s always worried about the possibility of Finn “blanking out” and getting hurt, he and Cade plan a trip to go see a college, but the trip doesn’t go as planned.  The become unlikely heroes, sort of, and come to understand life better, maybe.  The plot doesn’t matter so very much; it’s not what kept me reading.  I liked the strength of friendship between these two rather different boys, and the witty banter.  I’ll remember the occasional striking moment when all of Earth seems to slow down for just a second and make a little bit of sense, just because one confused teenage boy looks at how far it’s carrying us in the grander scheme of things.  There’s a lot of swearing, because that’s how high school boys can be honest with each other without sounding like utter tools.  There’s some awkward condom buying and bizarre sexual favors, because, um, hormones exist.  If it weren’t for the strange parallels to Finn’s father’s writing, or the weird turns of events near the end of the story, I would call this a very solid work of realistic teen fiction.  The stuff about “getting out of the book” seemed a little forced to me, and the pacing was slow in the beginning and then rushed at the end.  Still, it’s fun to read about the comical (and sometimes profound) interactions between characters in situations which are almost like the ones regular teenagers have to face all the time, just skewed a little to be surprising and entertaining.

Grownups aren’t entirely absent in 100 Sideways Miles, and some of them are pretty interesting (Cade loves to torture this one history teacher who dressed up like a Nazi to make history “come alive”, and eventually stresses the guy to death), but they’re not important.  Julia is a very realistic girl, not necessarily quirky or “special” or “not like other girls”. She is like other girls, for the most part, but she happens to be the one that Finn falls in love with.  I liked that.  She’s also black, and the two of them talk about that without making it a big issue.  I liked that too.  She has an unhappy event in her past which I thought could have been treated a little more thoughtfully, and their quick feelings for one another grew out of almost nothing, but I appreciated the natural interactions between the two of them.

Anyway, the relationship that matters most is that between Cade and Finn.  Cade is…well… he honestly steals the show a lot of the time.   Which is kind of the point: he makes people laugh and makes things happen and Finn is ok with that.  Aside from the distasteful jokes and his weird obsession with certain body parts, I can see why people like to be around Cade so much.  He keeps things lively.  And the friendship between the two boys is what keeps 100 Sideways Miles lively, too.  They look out for one another.  They humiliate one another, which made me laugh to remember how much of high school I spent cringing in embarrassment around my own friends.  People and conversations are what Andrew Smith is best at. Luckily, I think that there are plenty of teens who like those qualities to shine in the books they choose.  So this will be a book for them; the readers who write down quotes and see their friends as characters.

I’m still rooting for Brown Girl Dreaming to win the National Book Award, but I’m glad to see that Andrew Smith got some recognition for this fresh and entertaining book.  I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly liked, to prove that there are some real winners scattered throughout the text.  (It’s quoted from the ARC and may have changed slightly since publication.)

“Worry and regret are both useless weights that provide no drag.  They never did anything to slow down the planet for one goddamned second.”

And good luck to anyone who closes this book and would rather forget that the planet is careening through space at a sickening speed.  It took me hundreds of miles to even finish two sentences.  I think that however far the Earth takes you while you’re reading this book, it’ll be a trip worth taking.

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 + (some scares, but nothing wildly inappropriate)

A tenacious young Brit takes on a job as assistant to an awkward-but-brilliant private detective in 19th century New England. We’ve heard a similar story before. A supernatural menace is striking all over town, and the police are too closed-minded to accept the unbelievable and figure out how the macabre cases connect. We know how that is going to end. A clever and bored young lady finds herself swept away on adventures by an energetic man whose world is a lot bigger and more magical than what she had ever imagined before. That show’s been on since 1963. William Ritter has combined a bunch of rather recognizable themes; story lines; and characteristics into a novel which, without introducing anything terribly new, manages to be entertaining and atmospheric all the same.

When I started reading Jackaby, I was a little wary about just how Sherlockian the beginning was. Unorthodox detective gets a new assistant and they mislead the police in order to investigate a murder their own weird way. The police don’t like to admit that they need his help, but he knows better than they do. Tum de tum de tum. But then the mystery turned out to be grisly and saturated in folkloric horror. The dead man was a reporter, and the gaping, gory wound that killed him is worryingly short of blood. In the same apartment building, a man is tortured by the sounds of a woman weeping so bitterly it is driving him mad. No one else can hear the crying, but those of us who like our creepy Irish fairy-tales might recognize the Banshee’s ominous wail. Someone in the police force is hiding something important. And whatever creature has stalked the area around New Fiddleham for a while is now within the city’s limits, threatening to go on a rampage that will have many more people hearing their own death-songs soon enough. Jackaby and his new assistant have to keep their eyes open for clues in both the regular and spiritual worlds if they’re going to stop the mysterious murderer in time.

I liked the main characters, as recognizable as they seemed. Abigail Rook, our narrator, had run away from her stuffy home life to participate in a dig for dinosaur bones, only to find the work less exciting than she had hoped. Rather than slink home to her parents, she boarded a boat to America with no real plan. In need of a job, she answers an advertisement requiring an investigative services assistant. The ad specifies: “strong stomach preferred” and “do not stare at the frog.” And that’s how she comes to work with Jackaby. It should come as no surprise that Jackaby himself is the major show-stealer of the book, since it’s named after him and all. He’s gangly and peculiar, always sporting a giant coat with his pockets full of odd instruments. Jackaby is on a different wavelength than most other people, and he’s often lost in his own thoughts. This leads to some rather amusing outburst and misunderstandings. (His response, when asked if he’s just pulling someone’s leg, is that he hasn’t touched her leg. That sort of thing.)

He can also see the invisible world of supernatural creatures intermingling with our own, and that’s what makes him special. Jackaby is like the son of Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle’s original and the BBC series version combined) and the 11th Doctor.  (I haven’t seen very much Doctor Who, so apologies if I’m wrong about that.) It’s an over-used character type nowadays, one that I predict might get old soon enough. But there’s enough of a difference with the fantasy-as-science aspect of his abilities to keep me from rolling my eyes at the parallels, for now. Abigail even notes the similarities between him and the detective “who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories,” in a nod of recognition which I appreciated. Plus, it’s just too fun to watch frazzled men fail to explain the inexplicable to hardened policemen, while their harassed assistants/companions/friends try to make sense of the vigorous tirades.

A small-ish cast of minor characters, including a lovely ghost who shares Jackaby’s house and an ex-assistant who has been transformed into a “temporary waterfowl,” rounds out the story nicely. The police force contains a few men who break the skeptical brute model so common in these far-fetched detective stories. One young policeman, in particular, is remarkably understanding to Jackaby’s suspicions and catches Abigail’s interest right off the bat. (I was pleased to see that she didn’t fall for her eccentric employer after a day at his heels, which is so often the case when fictional ladies – usually written by men – meet such a figure.) Chief Inspector Marlowe isn’t a very inspired character: basically just a gruff-er Lestrade who doesn’t know how to behave when women faint. But there is an intimidating Commissioner to make procedures more tense, and even the bit-part jailer became memorable when he offers a bit of cake to the folks in custody. The judgmental women who keep rankling at Abigail’s life choices don’t add much to the story and come off as a half-hearted attempt to set Abigail apart from other women, which annoyed me. But, this being a mystery story, the characters who really matter are the detective duo and the various suspects. Abigail and Jackaby pulled their weight and kept me amused. And since the list of suspects/informants consisted of Banshees; small trolls; a mostly-invisible woman; a werewolf; and something even more horrifying, I was intrigued to find out how everyone fit into the deathly puzzle.

I also liked the setting: a fictional port town in snowy New England with plenty of ghosts and beasties hiding just out of sight. Jackaby’s office and lodging at 926 Augur Lane (oh, look, a street for supernatural detectives) had some nice little surprises hidden away. And I really appreciated the appearance of fairies, monsters, and spirits from various European traditions. Here’s hoping that if Jackaby gets a sequel (and I think it deserves one, though the mystery was solved to satisfaction by the end), we will meet some creatures from folklores in other parts of the globe, as well.

The plot would have been a fairly typical murder mystery if it weren’t for the unearthly bent. Predictable, but the twists were exciting just the same, thanks to the spooky tension. It’s not all nerves and murder in this book, though. The dialogue and funny mishaps along the way kept things jolly enough, except in instances when characters find themselves battling for their lives in the winter darkness. I spent more time chuckling at witticisms while I read than I did in white-knuckled suspense.

I recommend Jackaby most fervently to members of particular fandoms who want more of the same: outlandish one-liners, magical gadgetry, and charged banter. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Ritter had exactly that audience in mind when he was writing the book. For those of us who can’t keep up with SuperWhoLock enthusiasms, but still like a bit of magical weirdness in our Victorian mysteries, Jackaby is a quick and amusing read. Fans of Neil Gaiman’s story “A Study In Emerald” will see parallels here, too. Like I said before, there’s nothing incredibly new to be found here, but Jackaby is a satisfying addition to that genre. I’m interested to see if we get to revisit New Fiddleham anytime soon.

Similar books which I’ve reviewed:

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Book Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up. (Drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.)  Adults will really like this one, too.

I don’t understand old music, or teenage crushes, or Australia. These are not my areas of expertise. But Girl Defective got to me, even though it was about all of those mysterious things. Skylark Martin lives with her little brother Gully (short for Seagull – their mother liked birds) and Bill, her “analogue” Dad (who gets mopey when he drinks), in St. Kilda, where the summer is hot and things aren’t as simple as they seem. A dead girl, a wayward friend, sinister rockstar parties, and two boys looking for very different answers turn St. Kilda into the setting for an understated mystery that can never really be solved.

Sky “used to be such a sweet kid.” I feel bad for each and every teenager who has ever had to react to that loaded statement. She takes care of Gully, who has some social behavior issues and always sports a pig snout on his face to disguise his facial expressions. Gully wants to be a spy, and treats everyone he likes as though they were secret agents. Sky wants to be like her friend Nancy, a wildcard of a girl who is three or four years older and sometimes speaks as though she were living in a black and white movie, then at other times hooks up with famous musicians and looks right through her young friend. Sky wants to be like Nancy, and at times it seems like she might want to be with Nancy, too. And who could blame her? With her magnetic personality and crazy schemes, Nancy’s hard to resist. From the start of Howell’s new-ish YA novel, Sky is torn between the growing need to indulge in some misguided teenage shenanigans and her long standing duty to look after Gully and keep an eye on her dad, too. So when tragi-hot” Luke starts working for her father and plastering some girl’s face all over town, our candid narrator has a lot of trouble deciding what (or whom) she wants, let alone how she would even go about getting it.

Bill Martin owns a record shop that doesn’t get much business, and a great deal of the book’s action takes place amongst the vinyls and cardboard cutouts at the quirky shop. It’s the sort of place you can picture straight away. There used to be one in every major town, and now shops like these are getting rarer and rarer. Simmone Howell writes about Bill’s Wishing Well record shop so lovingly, with an eye for the silly details which make a place special. Since Sky and Gully’s mother left them to go become an experimental pop star in Japan, the record shop is sort of like another parent to them, and maybe the only reliable fixture in their lives. Descriptions of the regular customers were funny and a little sad; very true to life.

A good balance is struck in the retro vibe of Girl Defective. There’s a pleasure taken in remembering the vintage, but the narrator always keeps her head above the waves of nostalgia that keep her dad from really living in the moment. The internet plays a part in their adventures (in fact, a weird party-photo website is one of the creepier and more memorable details in the uncovering of weird circumstances), and most of the characters are able to separate their artistic interests from real life. Those that can not struggle to function in the real world. Gully’s not the only one living in a fantasy, but at least he has Sky to look after him.

As times get tough and the record store is threatened, Sky daydreams about ways to keep it afloat. She’s also started daydreaming about Luke an awful lot, even though he’s an interloper at the store and might keep her from getting the recognition she deserves for all that responsibility. And Mia Casey, Luke’s dead sister, also takes up a lot of space in her brain. The tragic circumstances of Mia’s death don’t sit entirely well with Sky. So while Agent Gully Martin investigates the ne’er-do-wells who through a brick through the shop’s window at the beginning of the book, Sky tries to put together some sort of explanation to ease her own concern. But finding answers is hard for Sky and Luke when Gully needs constant watching, Bill seems to be hiding something big, and unreliable Nancy keeps leading Sky into troublesome situations without helping her friend get back out of them again.

Gully might think he’s a secret agent, but there’s a reason the title doesn’t read “Girl Detective.” Most of the mysteries in this book go unsolved, or have unhappy answers like: people make mistakes and situations can be dangerous. Sky’s quest for Mia Casey is just a distraction, a way to keep her mind occupied. The real story, here, is about how Sky’s perception of her town changes. The dark underbelly of St. Kilda’s doesn’t resemble those Film Noir movies Nancy loves to quote. Nothing is black and white. The sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-distressing interactions between the Martin family and the people Sky meets are where the real plot can be found. I liked how certain characters seem all cool and tough but turn out to be hiding embarrassing depths of immaturity. I also liked how peoples’ reasons for lying, or pretending, or hiding sometimes ended up being entirely understandable. The creepy concerts, secret parties, and gross landlords were enough to keep this story under pressure. Nancy’s caprice and Gully’s eccentricity ensure that Sky’s year will be interesting.

I liked Girl Defective even though it ended without some personal growth instead of swift justice. It’s a good, realistic YA book that could easily be enjoyed by adults. Especially old rockers and people who have convinced themselves that the old days were better. Sky’s internal narration were spot-on for a teenage girl questioning everything she thought was obvious. The other major characters were fun, too, especially the predictably unpredictable ones. Very short chapters and a conversational writing style make Girl Defective the sort of book you can blow through in an afternoon. The plot might be a little slow for teen readers who want their mysteries to be explosive and the drama to be clearly defined, but I ended up enjoying the lifelike mess of experiences Sky goes through in St. Kilda’s. No one’s home town is normal, and nothing really makes sense when you’re just turning sixteen. At least Skylark has got some entertaining company and good tunes to get her through.

Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)

Book Review: Daughter Of The Forest by Juliette Marillier

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15 and up. (The main character might be quite young, but there’s torture and sexual violence.)

I had no idea that such a spellbinding, heartbreaking re-telling of “The Wild Swans” existed until I read this review on my blog feed.  Thanks, Elizabeth, for drawing my attention to what has become one of my new favorite historical fantasy books!  Daughter Of The Forest sets the fairy tale of the “Six Swans”/”Wild Swans” (depending upon the source) in 9th century Ireland.  The plot follows the important landmarks of it’s fairy tale inspiration, but the historical setting and extraordinary characters turn the story into something new and breathtaking.  Daughter Of The Forest is the beginning of a trilogy, but it stands quite well on its own.  It took me a few days to get through the book, mostly because – after a slow start – it kept crushing my heart and I didn’t want to get too emotionally compromised.  The sorrow felt by Sorcha as she weaves stinging plants into shirts to save her brothers, never saying a word despite the awful things which befall her, made me walk around sighing tragically myself. I was left feeling mute and weepy with my head stuck in Marillier’s tale, but also very much in love with the story.

The Kingdom of Sevenwaters is sheltered by forests: the sort of old Celtic wilderness that confounds anyone who wasn’t invited and may contain otherworldly spirits.  Sorcha and her six older brothers grew up half wild, raised more by the woods and each other than by their father Lord Colum.  The Lord of Sevenwaters is respected and brave, but not a very caring father.  So Sorcha and her brothers rely on each other for good advice, for games, and for sympathy.  She should have been the seventh son of a seventh son – particularly magical associations in the Irish beliefs which flesh out this re-located fairy tale. Instead, she will finish her childhood by becoming part of a more tragic story. 

When the malicious Lady Oonagh entrances Lord Colum and gains control of his household, she turns Sorcha’s brothers into swans. Sorcha goes into hiding. She must weave six shirts from the painful starwort plant to break the curse, as she learns from a mysterious forest lady (a sidhe or fey woman very much like the Tuatha De Danann). But we’re playing by fairy rules here, often cruel and complicated just for some amusement. Simply weaving the shirts would not be enough; if Sorcha speaks one word, makes one sound, signifies any part of what she must do to save her brothers, the curse will be eternal and her brothers will always be swans. If she can remain silent and brave and true throughout all the tribulations which may befall her (and oh lord are there some difficult times ahead), then Sorcha can have her brothers back. Alas, when she gets half rescued/half kidnapped by a Briton Lord – the Britons being enemies with the Irish and with Lord Colum especially – Sorcha’s diligence and fierce love might not be enough to keep from speaking. Life on Lord Hugh’s land is brutal for a young, half wild, Irish girl. Between the rumors that her weaving is witchcraft and suspicions about her political purpose at court, it will be a miracle if Sorcha can finish the shirts without crying out in fear, snapping in frustration, or giving up hope entirely.

So far, so like the fairy-tales by the Grimms or Andersen. Daughter Of The Forest is a nice re-telling of the tale we already know. But the historical details, the setting, the characters, and the writing really turned it into a book I would read and love even if I didn’t already adore “The Wild Swans.” It follows the same general plot, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the huge plot twists. I was often surprised none-the-less. Aside from the business of curses and occasional meddling by fairy folk, the book is richer in historical atmosphere than in fantasy. Even before Lady Oonagh cast her dark cloud of influence over Sevenwaters, the plot wheels were a’ turnin’.

The initial set-up took a little while to get going; we had to meet Sorcha and all her brothers, and learn how to tell them all apart . But then – calamity! A young Briton – possibly a spy, and definitely uninvited – is captured in the Forest and brought to Lord Colum. The methods used to coerce information from foreign intruders back in the 9th century were pretty horrific, so Sorcha helps her brother Finbar free the boy and bring him to safety. Aside from establishing Finbar as a thoughtful-yet-rash young lad (you can see why he’s sort of Sorcha’s favorite), this gives us an idea of the turmoil which was always churning in the Celtic lands back then. Sorcha’s family follows the old religion, yet they hide the Briton with a trusted and beloved Christian hermit. They have been brought up to fear outsiders, yet can feel sympathy for a boy who is caught up in the endless madness of ongoing war. The historical climate which gets introduced through this early harrowing experience sets up for really important conflicts later on. Without all the details about medieval Ireland and religion and general distrust, the drama would have to ride on the powers of love alone. Love is pretty strong in this sort of tale, but the bigger picture made it all feel real, and made Sorcha’s struggle all the more urgent.

Six brothers are a lot to keep track of. Six brothers, one sister, a hermit, various mythological presences, and a castle full of noblemen and women are an even bigger crowd. So it’s a testament to Juliette Marillier’s skill as a writer that I felt so connected with the entire cast of characters throughout the book. I do think that Lord Hugh’s villainous uncle was a little too nauseating to be believed, but he did fit into the fairy-tale mold quite well. Nearly everyone else had depth and an important role to play.

In the end, though, it’s Sorcha and her brothers who I’ll be remembering the most. For a group that spends over half of the book either silent or transformed into birds, they really played hacky-sack with my emotions. The too-short nights at each solstice, when the boys could turn back into humans, broke my heart and made me cry every time. It was just too unfair that Sorcha couldn’t tell them how she intended to help, and that they didn’t have enough time to help her in return. The romance and fighting in this book were moving, but nothing could compare to the bond between these siblings. Any time that bond was threatened I wanted to weep and wail, though I found myself trying to stay silent as long as our heroine had to bite back her own anguish.

I knew how the book would end. I’ve read so many versions of this story. All the same, I was surprised and enchanted by Juliette Mariller’s vision of the brothers turned into swans, and the sister who would do anything to save them. If you like old fairy tales or historical fiction steeped in folklore, go get Daughter Of The Forest from the library. (Or buy it from an independent bookshop!) If you are ok with getting your head stuck in medieval Ireland, and don’t mind worrying about these brothers as though they were your own, start reading this book. It now has a home on the same shelf as my other favorite re-told fairy tales, and I think they’ll find it’s very good company.

Some other fairy tale books I’ve reviewed:

Boy, Snow, Bird

Thorn Jack

Tam Lin

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Black Thorn, White Rose