Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Processed with VSCO with  presetTo save her child, she will trust a stranger. To protect a secret, she must risk her life . . .

I first became aware of The Familiars when it was acquired after a nine-way auction and applied for an advance copy as soon as I could. Being partial to a bit of sorcery, I was instantly drawn to this historical re-imagining of the Pendle witch trials told from the perspective of pregnant 17-year-old noblewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth.

From the outset, I could understand why so many publishers battled for this story. The writing is incredibly fluid, pitch perfect with just the the right amount of lyricism.  We see Fleetwood’s world so clearly – her decadent lifestyle juxtaposed against the real fear that a third miscarriage could lead to her death.  With such high stakes, it’s inevitable that she becomes desperate for help even if it arrives in the form of Alice Gray, a mysterious and impoverished woman who has ties to the hated Pendle witches.

The growing bond between the two women forms the backbone of the story while events twist and turn around them.  The pace is handled nicely – enough plot to move the action along but also richly descriptive.  I felt for the characters, particularly Fleetwood who never gives up although she is at the mercy of her husband and her own body throughout the novel. Although Alice isn’t as clearly drawn, there are reasons for her enigmatic nature which become evident later on. These are women whose lives are restricted by society and they must tread carefully if they are to survive.

Unusually for me, I flew through the book which says a lot about the writing.  I was compelled to find out what would happen and although the ending seemed a little rushed, it was also satisfying on a number of levels.  I was left with a sense of wanting more – always a good sign. One thing I would mention though is that despite the title, don’t expect a paranormal novel. There is a suggestion of witchcraft, but the references are incredibly subtle.  The role of the familiars is a minor one and never quite explained so if you’re hoping for overt magic you won’t find it here.  However, if you’re looking for an atmospheric historical read with touches of weird then this is perfect for dark evenings and windswept days.

The Familiars is due to be published 19 February 2019. You can pre-order here.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Thriving Child by Dr William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

Mum and daughter balancing on a tightrope

I read a whole bunch of parenting books when Martha was a baby and then stopped – mainly because nothing really seemed to answer the questions I had and partially because there was too much choice, but as soon as I spotted The Thriving Child in a Penguin Random House Instagram giveaway, I sensed that it could really help our family.

Like many 5 year-old kids, Martha is a child of two halves fluctuating between being fiercely independent and pretty clingy.  She also has a wild imagination which can make her prone to anxiety so I was keen to see if this book could offer any tips on how to encourage resilience.

And did it?

Yes and more. What I love about this guide is how it veers away from trying to force your child down the standard path of academic achievement.  Instead it advocates letting them make their own choices (within reason!) and learn the art of self-motivation.  It sounds fairly radical, but when you sit down and work through it, there’s a lot of common sense in the advice.  The parent takes a consultancy role rather than being a micro-manager and there are lots of case studies in the book to explain how to apply the approach in real life situations. The authors have bags of experience when it comes to helping children achieve their full potential and you get the full benefit of their knowledge as you read the book.

The bulk of the guide focuses on older children and is written for the US market, but the tips can be applied to all children and I’m really glad that I’m aware of these techniques while Martha’s still young.  I’d much rather that she has the tools to develop her own passions than be pushed down a route that might not suit her skills. And if she learns how to cope with and push through inevitable setbacks on the way then even better.

We won this copy of The Thriving Child: The Science Behind Reducing Stress and Nurturing Independence by Dr William Stixrud & Ned Johnson (published by Penguin Books). All words and pictures are our own.

 

 

 

Book Review: How to Help a Hedgehog and Protect a Polar Bear by Jess French and Angela Keoghan

Child Saving the PlanetIf there was a prize for the book that’s had the most impact in our house this year then this would win it!

How to Help a Hedgehog and Protect a Polar Bear introduces the reader to thirteen different habitats – from gardens to mountains – then gives them practical advice about how to protect each one.  Dr Jess French’s tips are really accessible and 5 year-old Martha was instantly hooked by the plight of the wildlife facing extinction – so much so that she decided she was going to make some changes straightaway (no more plastic straws for a start).

As we read the book together, we worked out which of the 70 tips we’d already adopted and made a list of the ones that we still needed to do.  Martha also enjoyed spotting the creatures she recognised and learning about new ones that are depicted in Angela Keoghan’s beautiful illustrations.  There’s so much detail on each page that it’s possible to read it many times over and not get bored.

What astonished me most though was how excited Martha was to protect the planet after finishing the book.  She felt as if she could actually do something to make a difference and the great thing is – she can! (See her garden tips video on our IGTV channel)

Whether you have a future green crusader in your family or just want your kids to become more aware of the environment then I’d highly recommend this title.  It’s essential reading for the next generation.

We were sent a review copy How to Help a Hedgehog and Protect a Polar Bear by Jess French and Angela Keoghan (published by Nosy Crow/National Trust). The words and pictures are our own.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine DoyleWhen Fionn Boyle sets foot on Arranmore Island, it begins to stir beneath his feet …

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 island’s next champion rages, a more sinister magic is waking up, intent on rekindling an ancient war.

Who could resist such an enticing cover (illustrated by Bill Bragg) and blurb? Not me – that’s for sure! So when Bloomsbury offered me a review copy of The Storm Keeper’s Island I jumped at the chance.

Initially, I was drawn in by the idea of overlapping worlds in this middle grade novel. I’ve always been fan of low fantasy where magic intermingles with reality and the tale really delivers on that score. From the outset we know that Arranmore is enchanted, especially for Fionn and this sense of power is richly developed as the story unfolds.  Doyle casts us into a landscape that’s full of gods, myths and half-buried histories.  At the centre of this, Malachy – Fionn’s grandfather and the current Storm Keeper – is trying to hold everything together from his homely cottage filled with mysterious candles, but his strength is waning and so a successor must be found.  Malachy is a beautifully drawn character, one of my favourites in the book, full of humour and kindness – very much like Fionn who is also incredibly witty.  The sparky dialogue between the characters is a real highlight of the novel. I’d read more by Doyle just for her banter alone!

Of course, where there are heroes, there are also villains.  The island has a motley crew of unlikeables topped by Morrigan, an evil sorceress who wishes to rise again. This is where it got a bit more complicated as different timelines began to interweave but I enjoyed the intricate plot and will be interested to see how the author brings everything together in the sequel (out July 2019).

A compelling summer read for 9-12 year olds and fans of old-school novels such as The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things.

I expected love, jealousy and nostalgia from Tin Man. And I found all those things, yet not in the guise I’d imagined.  The novel is short, less than 200 pages, but Winman manages to encapsulate entire minds and lives within this compact story.

It’s told from two perspectives – that of 46-year-old Ellis, who’s dissatisfied with his working-class existence after losing his wife Annie in a car accident and from Michael, his closest friend, whose wistful recollections are detailed in a journal that Ellis discovers.  Both are historical in the sense that the ‘present’ takes place in 1996 – an unusual choice, but poignant for a reason that becomes apparent later in the book.

With the promise of a love triangle, I anticipated drama, but the novel steers away from high action and veers towards contemplation; the pleasure of living life to the full and savouring the moment.  The relationships are complex and sexuality fluid. There is jealousy, but there is also kindness, respect and mutual affection. Love binds the characters together throughout the decades, beyond death itself – finally bringing redemption.

It’s impossible to share this review without praising Winman’s skill as a writer. Her words are brilliantly concise, and her subtle handling of emotion brought tears to my eyes more than once. The patterning was deft too with clear motifs that steer the reader to key themes – sunflowers, Walt Whitman’s line O Captain! My Captain! (also used to moving effect in Dead Poets Society) and panel beating (the tin man). The structure is intricate with many flashbacks but it holds together convincingly, giving a rounded feel to the novel.

Tin Man isn’t for those who seek plot, but if you are searching for a bittersweet reflection on life and love, then this novel is pretty perfect.  As a new Winman convert, I’m looking forward to reading her other books and will relish my summer days even more after following Ellis and Michael’s journeys.

 

 

 

Book Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Processed with VSCO with l4 presetI enjoy getting lost, literally and metaphorically. I love that sensation of disorientation followed by discovery,  a frightening freedom. Sometimes, on a family day out, we’ll follow unmarked lanes and see where we end up. I also lose a lot of things – keys, tickets, shoes – much to the irritation of my nearest and dearest so was very keen to read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a collection of essays about loss, losing and being lost.

There are nine meditations in total, inspired by a quote from Meno, one of Plato’s dialogues “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” If you just had to read this several times, you’re not alone! It’s a thought-twister, but as you join Solnit in her contemplations, you begin to get a sense of what she’s searching for.  Only by surrendering to uncertainty, do we find out new ways of being.

This is my first encounter with Solnit’s writing and I was unprepared for the sheer amount of recollections, ideas and information that she covers in a small distance.  Four of the essays are titled The Blue of Distance for “Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance to us.” It is “the light that gets lost”, but the subjects in each essay are diverse – touching on art history, captivity narratives, country and western music, cartography.  In the fourth, there is a fascinating piece about the post-war artist Yves Klein, famous for his exploration of the void.  After reading this, I suddenly remembered how I’d been struck dumb by one of his blue monochromes as a teenager.  I experienced these flashes of insight many times while reading Solnit’s essays. She has a knack for linking moments and facts so that they set off chain reactions that continue beyond the page – taking you into new territories.

But don’t expect sharp clarity here. This is a beautiful, often tragic landscape of meanderings, dreams and musings.  It’s not for one sitting, rather a series of short, intense immersions – a loose invitation to living a curious and expansive life.  As Solnit writes –  “Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is loss.”

 

 

 

Book Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

I’ll start by confessing that this is the second time I’ve read this book. When I first attempted it, I simply wasn’t in the right mood , and I’m so glad that I gave it another go because this is yet another Rundell triumph.

The story begins with a plane crash and four children – keen explorer Fred, spiky Con and Brazilian siblings, Lila and five-year-old Max.  Alone in the jungle, they have to pool their scant knowledge in order to survive. Despite the terrible odds (snakes, caiman, piranha…yes there are some nasties in the book, but this is the Amazon rainforest after all), Lila’s optimism helps to buoy their spirits and they manage to stay alive.  But they also need to find a way to return home, and this is where the Explorer comes in.  I won’t give too much away – needless to say that Rundell has once again fashioned a truly memorable character capable of both anger and kindness, not entirely likeable yet with good reason.  His voice lends a wider perspective to the novel – touching on subjects such as the environment and colonialism without beating the drum too loudly.

The writing is satisfying as always.  I found the prose cleaner than in Rundell’s earlier works but her trademark inventiveness can still be found in phrases such as ‘The ants were so small it was like being covered in full stops, ‘ and ‘The jungle was an infinite sweep of green: a Turkish carpet for a god.’ Personally, I preferred this simpler style and it carried me swiftly through the book, deftly revealing how the children become mentally and physically stronger, as well as closer to one another. There’s a sense of repressed emotion throughout the novel, which made the ending all the more moving. And I loved the epilogue. It was the perfect way to end this exciting tale and leave us hoping that there might be another story to follow.

I’d recommend The Explorer for fans of survival and discovery stories – think Bear Grylls meets The Lost City of Z.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!