Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”

 

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

Book Review: They Threw Us Away

Although I am posting this review well into November, They Threw Us Away, by Daniel Kraus (illustrated by Rovina Cai), was my Halloween read. A story about teddies waking up in the middle of a massive and putrid rubbish dump instead of in the warm bed of a loving child looked to be the perfect horror story for an arctophile such as myself. The tale turned out to be not quite what I had expected.

In the same way that Watership Down features rabbits but is not exactly about rabbits, so They Threw Us Away features a small group of intrepid teddy bears but is not exactly about teddies. Rather, it is an allegory about what is granted value by contemporary humans and the way we too often ignore, discard and put in danger that which should be cherished.

There are certainly horror elements in the story. A scene in the back room of a store is particularly disturbing, evoking as it does images of survivors in the mass graves of genocide victims. The innocence and cute factor of teddy bears soon gives way to recognition of how people can come to be treated when viewed as an unwanted mass, and thereby dehumanised.

They Threw Us Away opens with Buddy, a blue bear made by the prestigious Furrington Company, waking up in a rubbish dump with no memory of how he got there. Finding himself able to move, freed for the first time from the confines of his packaging, he investigates the unpleasant surroundings. Close by he finds four other bears and sets about releasing them too. Together they try to survive the dump’s many predators before deciding they need to escape.

A teddy bear exists to be chosen by a child whose loving hug will send them into Forever Sleep – the teddy equivalent of Happy Ever After. This is the dream that every bear sitting on a shelf in a shop harbours – that they will be chosen and thereby find fulfilment. They may long for a child rather than a Prince Charming but do not give due consideration to life beyond that moment of bonding.

One of the bears, Reginald, is older and has therefore acquired more knowledge. He tells stories of: the Mother; her personal teddy, Proto; and the eight Originals. Reginald remains calm, willing to join the others but morbidly fatalistic. Buddy and his sidekick, Sunny, remain more hopeful that they can somehow return to the world from which they were so inexplicably cast away. All take care of Sugar, who is the most damaged but retains her sweetness. Perhaps in a hat tip to Watership Down, she has a scary vision that her friends cannot yet interpret.

The bears in this story have innate skills such as an ability to read. Bravery and loyalty feature along with an appreciation of hugs and being there when needed. The longer their quest to find children takes, the more their personalities anthropomorphise. Naturally, this leads to damage and distress.

The voices given to some of the bears did not always sit well with the usual image of a teddy as a gentle and loving creature. Proto in particular is portrayed as rather coarse and self-centred. The rest of the sleuth enabled an exploration of the value to be found in differing characteristics.

The images of the city were particularly well rendered – viewed through the lens of small, now rather grubby beings, who understand the danger of being treated as garbage. People emerge as more threatening than the rodents or vehicles (although headlights in the dark are recognised as a warning to flee). The teddies encounter many dangers and do not survive unscathed.

This is the first story in a proposed trilogy. It stands well alone, with a denouement that offers scope for further developments and adventures. Not every thread is tied up neatly, although from hints given much can be inferred. It is not a difficult read, excepting certain distressing scenes. The numerous illustrations are welcome additions, especially when the story appears bleak. Unlike Robyn (this blog’s intern), who reviewed the book here, I would be wary of recommending this to young readers. It is marketed as a children’s book but has a darkness they would need to be capable of dealing with.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, although it took a while to catch the writing’s cadence. I will be interested in finding out what happens to the teddies next.

They Threw Us Away is published by Henry Holt (Macmillan).  

Book Review: Orfeia

“There’s wisdom in an old wives’ tale, and magic in a story.”

Orfeia, by Joanne M. Harris, is the third of the author’s folklore-inspired novellas. Like the previous two – A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road – it is beautifully illustrated throughout by Bonnie Helen Hawkins. Based on two Child Ballads – Ballad 2: The Elphin Knight, and Ballad 19: King Orfeo – it is also a reworking of the Orpheus myth.

The protagonist is Fay, a widowed mother who is now grieving the death of her daughter, Daisy. The story tells of her journey through modern London to London Beyond and then London Beneath. She seeks an audience with the Hallowe’en King.

While out running one evening, Fay is shown a vision of her daughter, asleep in a bed of bluebells. She enters a liminal world, where strange songs seem familiar and guises change. Whatever the warnings, she will risk all to travel to the Kingdom of Death to barter for Daisy’s release.

The gossamer world created is both fabulous and fearsome. Fay cannot know who to trust, nor what price must be paid for the answers she seeks. There is beauty in abundance, to delight each of the senses, but it is used as a distraction by those whose aim is manipulation. The Kings Fay encounters may not be entirely cold-hearted but their aims remain selfish.

Fay’s nebulous grasp of how to navigate through the world of Fae is made more difficult when her memories start to fade. To conclude her quest she must answer riddles, harness the power of music, and unravel dreams. The concepts of time and reality grow ever more equivocal.

The writing style is perfectly calibrated to weave the world of a modern fairy tale whilst retaining the darkness inherent in the genre’s long history. Unlike many contemporary equivalents, moralising is limited to understated warnings over consequences. The language is rich with a plot that remains compelling.

The book is beautifully bound and contains artwork that deserves full attention.

Imaginative and uncanny, this is a tale of a mother’s love – and its cost – from a consistently adept storyteller.

Orfeia is published by Gollancz. 

Book Review: The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is: a work of art, an object of beauty, a story of hope in a world that at times feels geared towards stifling any form of positivity. There is nothing saccharin in the musings. Rather, the story of the titular protagonists offers reflections on the difficulties inherent when living, and how one may try to cope when feeling lonely or anxious. The central message is about the importance of kindness, and that love exists in unexpected places if one is brave enough to let it in. Mention is made of friendship and its importance, and that good friends may be found outside the human race.

 

The story opens when a lonely boy meets a cake loving mole and they strike up a conversation. They exchange views on a variety of topics and the problems they each face.

When the fox comes along the mole is scared, but this does not stop him performing an act of kindness. The underlying feel of the book is that it is beneficial for all if we look out for others as well as ourselves. Self-care is important. In talking of love, this is where it needs to begin.

 

More is said in the illustrations than in the words. They are deliberately messy in places. Imperfections are a part of everything in nature, including ourselves, and beauty can still be found and appreciated. There is no shying away from difficulty in these pages. Accepting that life can be hard but all things pass is a recurrent theme.

In his introduction the author states that he wants readers to be able to dip in and out of the book. It is not necessary to read it in any order, or indeed to read it all – although I suspect readers will, at least first time through. The characters accept each other as they are. They are seeking a home and find it after what feels like a long journey.

 

Just as the book is mostly about the art, so I have tried to give a flavour of what it offers with these pictorial examples rather than in words. There is so much more than I have included here. The story will resonate in a visceral way for those who find their innermost concerns reflected. Its power is in the simplicity with which it represents complex issues.

 

For the lonely, the anxious, the sad and those who feel out of place;
for the worried who look at our world and despair of the careless cruelty and wanton waste;
for those whose worries feel overwhelming, for whom the future looks bleak;
this is a warm hug of a book that I urge you to read.

   

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is published by Ebury Press.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

Book Review: Captain Pug

Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas, by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans) is the first in a series of humorous action adventure stories for children. Pug the dog is loyal friend and companion to Lady Miranda, a young girl who lives with her friendly attendants at No. 10, The Crescent. In this story she is invited to a birthday party at a boating lake. Excited by the prospect of a seafaring adventure she declares that she will make Pug a captain. Pug is unsure of his suitability for this role but determines to try his best.

Once at the lake things do not go to plan. Pug is distracted by a picnic basket while Miranda sends her footmen to fetch her a stranded pedalo. Before anyone realises what is happening Pug is being taken away!

With Miranda in hot pursuit the little dog makes some new friends. They take him to a river where he seeks opportunities to learn how to be a captain. Quite unexpectedly he discovers that he can be a useful coxswain, at least until he is distracted by ice cream. From here he travels by canal, sinking along the way, before ending up in the sea.

All ends well after a dramatic rescue. Pug is pleased to be safely home, but Miranda is already thinking of their next adventure.

  

The story is packed full of fun and frolics, the font and illustrations adding much detail and enjoyment.

A delightful story with its intrepid young girl and her ever hungry companion. The agency and horizons enjoyed by Lady Miranda are sure to ignite any modern young child’s wistful imagination.

Captain Pug is published by Bloomsbury. 

Book Review: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

warrenwhisperingwoods

Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods is the second book in a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at middle grade children (ages 8-12). It is a delight for any age to read. Written by Tania Del Rio and illustrated by Will Staehle, it mixes an almost comic book style presentation with double column text. The book is a near square shape with an eye-catching, gothic design – truly, the aesthetics deserve appreciation.

The story told is a deliciously dark take on old style fairy stories. It features a small and somewhat ugly, twelve year old hero determined to do his forebears proud. There are wicked witches, talking trees, a snake oil salesman and loyal friends with intriguing powers. Warren must solve riddles, decipher codes, and save the lives of monsters who threaten to cook him over an open fire. All the while he is trying to ensure that his beloved inheritance, the Warren Hotel, survives that he may humbly serve its guests as did the twelve Warrens before him.

warren-final-cover-web   warrenhotel

The first book in the series, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, ended with the discovery that, amongst the many secrets hidden within the run-down and ominous looking hotel, were a set of mechanical legs which enabled it to, quite literally, rise up and walk away. The sequel opens with the hotel restored to its former glory, travelling around the land of Fauntleroy filled with delighted guests – until a malfunction causes it to trip and fall over. Disgruntled and dismissive of apologies, the guests demand refunds and abandon the now sideways building. When Warren goes in search of a potion to put right the controls, the hotel is hijacked by a doppelganger intent on delivering it to a powerful witch who has offered a reward to anyone who brings it to her lair – a mile wide crater known as the Black Caldera.

As the hotel marches through the dangerous Malwoods towards the Dark Queen, Warren determines to follow it on foot. He discovers that his hotel is not the only thing Her Royal Darkness wishes to control. To thwart her wicked plans he must face every danger lurking within the shadows of the mysteriously damaged wood. There are bats and snakes, whisperings in a forgotten language, and hungry creatures who must kill to survive. The wood is home to witches intent on freeing their peers, captured by Warren’s friends and hidden within the travelling hotel.

The book is due for release in the spring of 2017 so my copy was an early proof with the artwork representative but incomplete. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is going to be a stunning addition to any imaginative child’s library. The humour and play on words adds to the enjoyment for all ages. If you are a fan of Tim Burton’s films, or of the Unfortunate Events series of books, you should seek out these stories.

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