Robyn Reviews: All the Murmuring Bones

‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a beautifully atmospheric tale, winding folklore and fantasy together to create something dark and gothic. There are family secrets, lapsed bargains, a crumbling fortune – and at the heart of it all, a young woman who just wants to be free. The tale winds slowly, filled with lingering descriptions, painting a vivid picture tinged with the salt of the sea.

Miren’s grandmother, Aoife, is the last of the O’Malley’s – a family who prospered due to a bargain struck with the mer. All their ships would have safe passage across the sea in return for one child sacrificed per generation. However, pride in the bloodline has become their downfall – generations of intermarriage have left producing enough healthy children impossible, with Aoife only able to bare one child. With the bargain broken, the legacy is collapsing: the O’Malley fortune has dwindled to nothing. Miren is left to bare the burden of the family misfortune. Trapped by her grandmother’s scheming, Miren desperately seeks a way out – but in a family full of secrets, there’s only so far she can go.

Miren makes an excellent protagonist. Shrewd and determined, she fights for what she wants the quiet way – biding her time, outwardly appearing to acquiesce whilst secretly gathering information and plotting her next move. She’s spent her entire life under her grandmother’s thumb, experiencing cool disinterest rather than warm affection – but she loves her family, and wars with contrasting desires to protect the family legacy and tear down every root of it. She has her weaknesses – but she knows them, every last flaw, and she turns them into weapons. Miren might not outwardly seem like the most special or talented woman, but if there’s someone you don’t want as your enemy then it’s her.

The writing takes a little time to adjust to, but once it draws you in it’s exquisite. The first chapters are packed with dense descriptions, and the plot ambles around them like a man picking his way through the fog – but eventually, the book ensnares you and leaves you enraptured. This is very much a novel about atmosphere rather than plot. The story is solid – an arranged marriage in exchange for a fortune, a secret kept for decades, a journey full of magical creatures and ethereal encounters – but not what lingers. Instead, it’s the eerie images of mer watching on from the sea, witches hiding behind herbs and smiles, ghosts of abandoned cottages preying on weary travellers, that make this book what it is.

There’s also an element of story within a story. The O’Malleys have a book of stories, passed down through generations. There are tales of dealing with the mer, of selkies giving up their pelts, of witchcraft and herblore and – above all – the importance of family. It’s never clear how much is fact and how much fiction, but Miren grew up with these stories and remembers them in times of hardship. They’re a source of comfort – the O’Malleys are children of the sea, and the sea protects its own. Each story is as beautiful as the tale which contains them, and they add a wonderful extra element.

The main weakness ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ has is the same thing which creates its lingering atmosphere, and that’s the descriptions. It takes a long time to get past the pages and pages of description and settle into the story, and even once there, it can detract from key moments of the plot. Personally, I found this a very minor thing – the writing is beautiful, and I adore books which create an atmosphere – but I suspect some readers will find it too slow going and tedious. If you’re the sort of reader who wants action to create tension, this isn’t the book for you.

Overall, ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a delightfully gothic tale that would feel right at home in a book of fairytales from several centuries ago. Recommended for fans of eerie stories and classical folklore: especially those which focus on the quiet power of women who have been wronged.

Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th April 2021

Book Review: The Story Keeper

The Story Keeper, by Anna Mazzola, is set on the Isle of Skye in 1857. This setting is key. The Highland Clearances of the time were forcing many to emigrate, robbing the indigenous families of their tenancies, livelihoods and culture. The mass displacement and suffering inflicted created an undercurrent of bitterness against distant landowners, the legacy of which is still felt by many today.

Into this simmering tumult of wealth driven cruelty arrives a young woman, Audrey Hart, who wishes to take up an advertised position as assistant to a lady folklorist, Charlotte Buchanon, the sister of a local laird. The Buchanon’s are disliked for their vicious treatment of the tenants they disdain.

“these people have limited intelligence. How else do you account for the continuing belief in the mystical and for their failure to improve their living standards? They are culturally, and in every other sense, backward.”

“They have no urge to self-improvement, none of what we might call enterprise. They would live in their squalid little huts raking over their famished earth until there is no life left in the land whatsoever.”

Audrey has grown up with a fascination for mystical stories, folklore passed on from her late mother. Audrey remembers happy family holidays on Skye but also a great sadness as it was here that her mother fell to her death. Following this tragedy her father remarried and relocated to London, placing his family within a rarefied society that has always felt alien to his daughter. In trying to push her to find suitable pursuits for an unmarried lady, after she failed to secure a husband, he placed her in what became an untenable situation. Unwilling to accept her version of events he drove her to desperate measures. Audrey seeks independence, a challenge in the societal structures of the day.

Following an accident Miss Buchanon is confined to her family’s decaying mansion so requires an assistant to travel the local crofts for her collecting tenants’ stories before they are lost forever. As an outsider Audrey struggles to gain the trust of the people until she finds the body of a young girl washed up on the shore below her room in the mansion where she is staying. She is invited to attend a ceilidh, but for their hospitality the people ask something in return.

Audrey befriends one of the Buchanon’s servants and is permitted to take the girl along to assist in her story collection. The more dark tales she hears the further she is drawn into their portents and fearful superstitions. When more girls go missing, accompanied by flights of dark bird-like creatures, Audrey starts to sicken. Unable to return to London, from whence threats are emanating, she pushes on with the tasks Miss Buchanon impatiently sets.

Audrey’s preconceived notions and susceptibility to suggestion causes her to miss clues plain to the reader. This does not, however, detract from the enjoyment of a tale that has layers and depth. Apparent weaknesses in her come to be explained. A lucky escape demonstrates the extent of the risks women ran when they tried to be heard by men. It is sobering to reflect on the patriarchical power and complicity, the ease with which they dismissed any view that did not bolster their privilege.

The local minister frowns on Miss Buchanon’s endeavours believing such notions should be replaced by adherence to the beliefs he preaches. The laird expresses his view that folklore is harmless, although could be made more useful by reshaping to impart a moral lesson. These men retain control by whatever means necessary – of family, locals, foreigners in lands invaded.

“Audrey imitated a smile. Of course women should not be exposed to such things. Their delicate constitutions could not withstand it. Except that she had already read of the Cawnpore massacre. Women and children butchered; bloody handprints on walls; the dying thrown into a well. The darkest fairy tale of all.”

The denouement held few surprises, other than the final twist which I had not guessed. The insidious danger Audrey faced offers a better understanding of why women could not risk complaining too loudly about their treatment.

The folk tales offer a chilling backdrop alongside the lessons from history that resonate in the political climate of today. A story of mystery and suspense that I enjoyed for the place and period insights.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Deep Water

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Deep Water, by Lu Hersey, is a children’s novel (age 12+) set in Cornwall, England. Taking myth, folklore, witchcraft and ancient beliefs as inspiration, it weaves a contemporary tale about a group of teenagers caught up in a legacy of family secrets. Puberty is a time of change. What if that change also involved the mastering of mysterious abilities?

The protagonist, fifteen year old Danni, comes home from school one day to a cold and empty house. When her mother fails to return from work, and has still not appeared by morning, Danni knows that something is wrong. Such a disappearance with no explanation is out of character. Her mother fusses about the smallest of things and would not leave her only child alone for so long without contact.

Danni moves in with her father and starts to uncover clues as to what may have happened. She learns that the town in which she is now living is close to where her mother grew up. Realising that she knows little of her mother’s past she determines to find out more.

Danni encounters people who remember her mother and some of them react to her with hostility. She befriends her father’s assistant, an older teenager named Eliot, and discovers that he too comes from a family with mythical powers. As the town’s history is revealed Danni begins to understand why her mother left. She embraces her newfound knowledge but finds herself in danger. The inexplicable is regarded as a threat by those who seek power and control.

The writing is assured and original. The disconnect between adults and teenagers is well represented as are the relationships between the children. Although the story requires an acceptance of possibilities, it is interesting to reflect on those things in life which are given credence and those which are dismissed. The Christian church may be powerful and have written much of this island’s history, but there have always been other beliefs.

An enjoyable read and one which I would recommend to young teenagers. The what ifs may inspire some pondering.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Usborne.

Book Review: The String Diaries

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The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, succeeds in finding an original space in the popular genre of fast paced thriller. As with many good books the plot is not constrained by this single label, touching on horror, mystery and folklore as the tale unfolds. The bare bones of the climax may be inevitable, but the denouement is not.

The story moves across Northern Europe, between the late nineteenth century and the present day. It describes how generations of a family have been hunted and killed by an elusive being of which little is known outside of a series of diaries, which are guarded as the only means of warning for those left behind when the killer strikes. Historical records mention a tale that is widely believed to be fanciful folklore; the family diaries detail the frightening truth.

At times the actions of the present day hunted can appear overwrought. I did not warm to the heroine, finding the supporting cast more rounded and believable. Having said that though, she was the one to have suffered the most, she had the most to lose. None of us can know how we would act under such circumstances.

The book is long at well over six hundred pages, but the writing is tight and the build up and background added authenticity. If anything I would have welcomed more detail on some of the groups which became key as the plot progressed. The world that the author created captured my interest and imagination. I am left wondering how the society functioned prior to the initial time frame described in this book, something that is touched on only briefly. I wonder why they evolved as they did, what purpose they served.

I felt ambivalence over the denouement. The lack of satisfactory explanation detracted from the potential for plausibility. I wanted to know how the apparent contradiction could have happened. The whole tale required a leap of faith, but I did not find this an issue due to the details provided which were lacking at the end.

This did not, however, spoil what had gone before. The author has created an intriguing world in which I was happy to immerse myself. The String Diaries is a riveting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.