A Fi50 reminder and a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

It’s nearly Fiction in 50 time for March and this month our prompt is…

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If you’d like to join in (and we would love to have you!) just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it and then link your post in the comments of Monday’s Fi50 post.  If you would like more information, just click here.


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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is a wartime beauty that is also a celebration of the strength of womankind in adversity.  We received a copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Summer, 1940. In the Kentish village of Chilbury some are unimpressed at the vicar’s decision to close the church choir, since all the men have gone off to fight. But a new arrival prompts the creation of an all-female singing group and, as the women come together in song, they find the strength and initiative to confront their own dramatic affairs.

Filled with intrigue, humour and touching warmth, and set against the devastating backdrop of WWII, this is a wonderfully spirited and big-hearted novel told through the voices of four marvellous and marvellously different females, who will win you over as much with their mischief as with their charm.

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For the first few chapters of this epistolary, diary-entry novel I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but by the time I’d finished I felt that this book seemed to me for all the world to be a grown-up version of Goodnight Mr Tom.  Since that story is one of my favourites, it stands to reason that I would jolly well enjoy The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir too.

The book switches between the perspectives of a number of the ladies, young and old, of Chilbury.  There’s Kitty Winthrop, thirteen (nearly fourteen) year old sister of the wild beauty Venetia, and dead war hero Edmund, daughter of the brutish Brigadier and rising songbird, whose perspective we are privy to through entries in her journal.  There’s Venetia herself, older sister of Kitty and focused entirely (for the most part) on snagging a handsome, mysterious lover while leading on all the other lads in the village.  We see her side of the story through letters to her friend Angela.  Then there’s the shady Edwina Paltry, midwife of the village and not one to shy away from morally dubious dealings provided there’s something in it for her.  Finally, we have Mrs Tilling, a widow, whose son David is about to leave for the front lines in France and through whose diary we witness the major changes of Chilbury throughout the year of 1940.  We also get to see a few glimpses from Sylvie, a young child evacuee from Czechoslovakia who is living with the Winthrops until her parents can escape or it is safe for her to return, as well as Edith, the Winthrop’s maid.

At its heart, this is a book about personal growth, set against a backdrop of the ever-encroaching threat of invasion and loss, that highlights the strength of women under adversity.  Although each follows a different path throughout the story, the four main ladies whose stories we engage with all become very different people by the end.  It is this growth that reminded me so strongly of Goodnight Mr Tom: while the war and its effects play a large role in the book and in some instances create a shocking and frightening atmosphere, the plot is chiefly about decisions and their ripple effects and ways in which the women of the story choose to stand up in defiance of their situation or roll with the punches.

Funnily enough, the Choir plays a significantly smaller part in the overall story than I expected, but the sections that deal with the ladies coming together – be it for a local competition or to provide respite for a weary community – were always uplifting and provided a lightening of the atmosphere and enough humour to take the edge off some of the darker happenings going on in the plot.  My favourite character, apart from the enthusiastic, indefatigably positive Prim, the choir mistress, had to be Mrs Tilling.  As the only trustworthy adult narrator, I came to trust her judgement (except, of course, in regards to her opinion of the Colonel, her billet) and adored the way in which she grows into herself again as a confident, strong woman and a leader for the village.

This isn’t a light-hearted romp from beginning to end; nor is it a slow examination of the effects of war.  Rather, it is a snapshot of a village at the beginning of World War II, struggling to cope with change already happening and the inevitable change that is just over the horizon.  Hefty as it is at four hundred plus pages, this is one that you would do best to savour over time.  Get to know the ladies of Chilbury at your leisure and you certainly won’t regret that you took the time to visit.

As well as a Top Book of 2017 pick, I am also submitting The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for the Epistolary Reading Challenge, the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge and the Popsugar Reading Challenge.  You can check out my progress toward all those challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Remembering the Great East Japan Tsunami and Earthquake of 2011: Hotaka (Through My Eyes)

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Hotaka: Through My Eyes Natural Disaster Zones by John Heffernan and Lyn White.  Published by Allen & Unwin, March 2017.  RRP: $16.99

It would be remiss of me not to review this particular book on this particular date: At 2.46pm on March 11th, 2011 a massive earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami that inundated 560 square kilometres of Japan’s eastern coastline.  The wave also caused major damage at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.  By the time the final effects of the multiple disasters were tallied, more than 24 000 people are confirmed dead or missing and six years on, hundreds of thousands are still displaced.

The Through My Eyes young adult novel series began with the stories of fictional children living in conflict zones throughout the world and has moved on to include the stories of fictional children affected by natural disasters. We received a copy of Hotaka by John Heffernan from Allen & Unwin for review and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A powerful and moving story about one boy caught up in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

When the tsunami strikes the Japanese seaside town of Omori-wan, the effects are utterly devastating. Three years later, much of what happened on that day is still a mystery. As Hotaka sets about convincing local performers to appear at the town’s upcoming Memorial Concert, he finds himself increasingly haunted by memories of best friend, Takeshi, who perished without trace in the tsunami. Then his friend Sakura becomes involved in an anti-seawall movement, and all too quickly the protest gets serious. As the town and its people struggle to rebuild their lives, can Hotaka piece together what happened that day – and let go of the past?

The book begins the morning of March 11th, 2011 with Hotaka and his friend Takeshi on a school trip to the local puppet show.  As the day unfolds and the earthquake hits, the reader is given an idea of how it might have felt to have experienced first the shock of the extraordinarily strong earthquake, the scramble to higher ground and then the chaos and confusion following in the wake of the giant wave.  Rather than dwell on the actual disaster itself, the story soon moves on to three years later, as the residents of Omori-wan try to continue with their lives despite a lack of housing, the mental affects of trauma and an underlying sense of resentment from those who lost much toward those who lost little.

Hotaka and his friends Osamu and Sakura are charged with preparing a memorial concert for the fifth anniversary of the wave that will involve aspects of local culture, with the aim of helping the residents of Omori-wan to let go and move on.  Hotaka discovers that he, of all people, has something that he must let go of if he is to move forward in life, while Sakura – who generally keeps her cards (and her past) close to her chest – is infuriated by government plans to build an enormous sea wall around the town to protect it from future tsunamis.

Events come to a head when Sakura takes matters into her own hands and begins a protest that snowballs to national attention.  As threats from developers and local government start to hit close to home for the three friends, they must decide whether it is worth continuing to speak out for the sake of their town, or instead fall in line with the wishes of the government, as is the usual course of action.

Heffernan has done a good job here of highlighting the difficulties of the townspeople whose lives were irrevocably altered after the wave.  The stress of inadequate temporary housing, the trauma of lost loved ones and the feeling of abandonment are made obvious through Hotaka’s interactions with some of his less fortunate classmates.  The story never veers from the perspective of a young person however, and the kernel of hope that Hotaka and others continue to show lifts the book from becoming depressing at any stage.  The three young protagonists have diverse personalities and characteristics and while their differences do lead to conflict at times, the strength of their friendship pulls them through.

The book includes a timeline of the actual disaster at the end, as well as a glossary of Japanese terms, and overall I think this book would be a great starting point for any young person wanting to read more about this particular disaster in a fictional format.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Picture Books for the Open Minded…

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Saddle up my friends, because I have four picture books for you today that will open your mind, test your heart and generally stretch your imagination!  Let’s ride on in!

A Perfect Day (Lane Smith)

*We received a copy of A Perfect Day from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  a perfect day.jpg

As a collection of animals and one young boy go about an ordinary day, they all seem to find the one thing that makes them most happy.  Until, that is, a big hairy bear comes along to spoil the perfection.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one picture book that proves that perfection depends entirely on perspective.  The beautiful pastel palette of the illustrations reinforces the gentle unfolding of an ordinary day, made special by the simple things.  Of course, in the second half of the book, things become a lot less perfect – unless you’re a big burly bear looking for somewhere to snack, play and nap of course – and there’s a certain delight in seeing the bear making dirt angels in the flowerbed, splashing in the wading pool, flashing a corn-cob smile and generally enjoying himself in a bearish fashion.  The emphasis provided by the font as bear spends his leisure time inadvertently ruining everyone else’s also contributes to the humour and would be perfect for teaching younger independent readers how to take cues from the text when reading aloud.  The final illustration depicting the animals and little boy inside the house looking out, accompanied by the text, “It was a perfect day for bear,” opens up the text for conversation with little ones about how the other characters might feel.  The edition I have received shows a similar image to that of the last page as its cover and I think this image gives a better sense of the book’s content than the one above.  All up, this is a delightful reading experience that is visually appealing and the perfect choice for sharing a gentle giggle before bed.

Brand it with:

Bears in them there hills; Bear necessities; simple pleasures

Old Pig (Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks)

*We received a copy of Old Pig from Allen & Unwin Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

A grandmother and granddaughter pig share their days and nights in a comforting rhythm of chores, food and relaxation.  When grandmother pig begins slowing down, the two confront together the spectre of a final goodbye.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this 20th anniversary edition classic children’s tale is almost achingly poignant in places and deftly broaches that hardest of topics, the death of a loved one.  As it becomes apparent that Grandmother Pig is facing her final days, the two pigs take solace in spending time together and appreciating the small, simple things in life and the rhythms of each day.  While death isn’t explicitly mentioned, it is obvious that the book is about leaving and leaving behind.  The final illustration, featuring granddaughter pig on her own is awash with hope, and allows the reader to leave the story on an uplifting note.  As much as this story would be a useful tool in gently opening up discussions with young readers about reality of death, it is also a celebration of a life well lived and the connections that we make with those dear to us.  If this book doesn’t tug at your heartstrings and make you appreciate the small moments of joy in the mundane, then you must have a colder, stonier heart than even I do.

Brand it with:

Grief, sensitively handled; quality of life; inter-generational connections

There’s a Tiger in the Garden (Lizzy Stewart)

*We received a copy of There’s a Tiger in the Garden from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  theres-a-tiger-in-the-garden

In an attempt to cure her granddaughter’s boredom, a grandmother casually mentions that there is a tiger in her garden.  The resulting, fruitful search is enough to dent the certainty of even the most sceptical of child explorers!

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is the kind of book that will have you doing exercises to expand your imagination.  While the concept of children “discovering” untapped worlds in the garden isn’t new to picture books, the ambiguous ending of this story provides a fun twist.  As Nora and Jeff (her toy giraffe) take a turn about the garden, the illustrations become more and more detailed and jungle-like, blending a sense of magical realism with the richly coloured sense of adventure inherent in nature in all its glory.  The deep greens that permeate most of the illustrations are so lush and inviting that I just couldn’t help plunging on in to this story. Within Nora’s imagination, her grandma’s small garden morphs into the home of butterflies the size of birds, a grumpy polar bear fishing in the pond and some extremely robust (and hungry) plants.  Young readers will love trying to spot the tiger in the earlier pages of the book and there is plenty of visual humour for older ones to notice and enjoy also.  If you have a young explorer in your midst, they will revel in this tale that celebrates things that are more than they seem on the surface.

Brand it with:

Wild green yonder; imagine that; grandma’s secret garden

My Friend Tertius (Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan)

*We received a copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

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My Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 February 2016.  RRP: $24.99

A WWII code breaker working in Singapore for the British takes a gibbon for a pet.  When the war forces him to leave Singapore, he makes the decision not to abandon his friend, but smuggle him along on the journey.

Muster up the motivation because…

…for one thing, there certainly is a dearth of war related picture books featuring a gibbon on the market, so My Friend Tertius fills that niche nicely. The washed out colour palette is reminiscent of the tropical heat of the southern hemisphere, and there are many historical clues hidden in the pictures for keen-eyed young readers to inquire about – the radio set in Arthur’s room for instance, Arthur’s neatly initialed gladstone bag and the fact that most pictures of people show at least somebody smoking a cigarette.  This was a bit of a strange beast of a tale for me – on one hand, it is fascinating, unexpected and had me immediately questioning the hows and whys of the story. On the other, the picture book format meant that I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. The narrative begins abruptly with a question that presupposes a knowledge of the social context of war generally – that people might have to leave – and the War in the Pacific specifically – that people did have to leave Singapore, with or without their loved ones.  The book has no afterword giving more information about Arthur Cooper and the eventual fate of either man or gibbon, and the book finishes on the rather cryptic statement “He [Tertius] taught me how to love.”  This is cryptic because nowhere in the previous pages of the book is there any mention of Arthur having any particular difficulty with human emotions, so I found myself asking, “How? How did he teach you to love? And why didn’t you know how to love in the first place?!” These questions, as well as my inner pedant’s shock at Arthur’s laissez faire attitude toward animal quarantine issues, meant that this wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me as an adult reader, and I wonder how it might be received by the upper primary age range for which it is intended.  To be honest, I would have loved to have seen this story told in a chapter book format because I suspect there is so much more to the story than is being shown, and it is a pity not to be privy to it.

Brand it with:

Monkey business; BFFs in wartime; gibbons on the run

Bet you weren’t expecting any of those mind expanding picture books, were you?  I hope there is something here that tickles your synapses and causes you to add it to your TBR pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

#LoveOzYA : Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact

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I’ve been waiting excitedly for a year for this, the second book in Alison Goodman’s historical, fantasy, ass-kicking, demon-slaying Dark Days Club series to drop and thanks to HarperCollins Australia, I finally got my grabby paws on a copy of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact.  In case you haven’t come across this series before, we boldly claimed it as a Top Book of 2016 on January 1st last year, for its extraordinary blend of meticulously researched historical content and original and creepy paranormal elements.

If you haven’t read the first book, you really need to do that now.  Go on, we’ll wait.

The second book serves up more of the same delightful Deceiver destruction and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The second novel in the thrilling LADY HELEN series sees Helen following orders that could bring about betrayal and annihilation. 

Summer, 1812

After the scandalous events at her presentation ball in London, Lady Helen has taken refuge at the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where she is training to be a Reclaimer with the covert Dark Days Club.

As she struggles to put aside her genteel upbringing and take up the weapons of a warrior, Helen realizes that her mentor, Lord Carlston, is fighting his own inner battle. Has the foul Deceiver energy poisoned his soul, or is something else driving him towards violent bouts of madness? Either way, Helen is desperate to help the man with whom she shares a deep but forbidden connection.

When Mr Pike, the hard bureaucratic heart of the Dark Days Club, arrives in Brighton, no one is prepared for the ordinary evil he brings in his wake. He has a secret task for Helen and Mr Hammond, and the authority of the Prince Regent. They have no choice but to do as he orders, knowing that the mission will betray everyone around them and possibly bring about Lord Carlston’s annihilation.

Society takes a back seat in this second offering as Helen’s Reclaimer training begins in earnest.  Almost immediately though, spanners are thrown in the works as the Duke of Selburn appears in Brighton on a not-very-subtle reconnaissance mission on behalf of Helen’s older brother, while the man in charge of the Reclaimers, Mr Pike, turns up unexpectedly and changes the course of Helen’s loyalties irrevocably.  We also see a return of Delia, Helen’s much-maligned friend, and Pug, who provides equal parts wingwoman and comic relief.

The tone of this book is one of underlying disquiet as events seem to conspire against Helen and her band of Reclaimer friends at every turn.  Helen is forced to make decisions on the fly, the consequences of which could end up endangering people she loves, no matter which course she chooses.  Essentially, this book is Helen’s coming-of-age in the Reclaimer world. No longer is she a young lady to be protected and promenaded; Helen must now take her place as an active Reclaimer or risk her own life and the lives of those she loves.  The events of the story do a great deal to advance the world-building and “rules” surrounding the bond between Deceivers and Reclaimers and as such, there is a lot of new information for readers to absorb and join the dots around.

Action is portioned out throughout the story, with subterfuge, underhanded deals and espionage more the order of the day, although the final few chapters certainly make up for any lack of chase, escape and derring-do that might be lacking in the earlier parts of the story.  There are some important reveals in this story that will absolutely change Helen’s role in the Dark Days Club as well as her role in life generally.  Other parts of the story will make your skin crawl and the “ick” factor is certainly in play where particular characters of ill-repute are concerned.  For the romance fans, you can cut the sexual tension between Carlston and Lady Helen with a knife (and between another pairing that you might not expect!)  but for readers shipping that particular couple, it should be noted that the course of true love never runs smooth, particularly where demon-slaying is involved.

Once again, this is a hugely entertaining story with meticulous attention to detail for the time period and innovative fantasy elements from a strong voice in Australian YA fiction.  If you are a fan of either historical fiction or fantasy, you really are missing out if you haven’t added Lady Helen’s adventures to your nightstand reading pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Mondays are for Murder: The 12.30 from Croydon

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As promised, here is the first of two Murderous Monday posts for February.  Today’s book is going to count toward the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge under category six, a book with a mode of transport in the title.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here. The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Croft is a bit of classic British crime fiction with a twist.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?”

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Plot Summary:

A tale of murder told from the point of view of the murderer, this book is an in-depth study of the carrying out of a “perfect” crime.

The Usual Suspects:

For the second time this year I am bringing you a “not your typical” murder mystery, in the sense that, from the very beginning – or thereabouts – we know who the murderer is.  This is because the book follows the main character as he plans and carries it out. This book is also different in the sense that it carries the reader through two inquests and a full trial before the story is done.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Even though we know who the killer is, it is fascinating to watch through his eyes as the police investigate here and there, seemingly moving closer and then further away from the clues that might give the murderer away.  The second half of the book deals with the murderer’s keen interest in the hunt put on by the police.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the roller-coaster of emotions of a murderer wondering whether or not he will be caught.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting into this one, even if the “mystery” element of the murder-mystery equation was thoroughly absent.  It was fascinating to follow the protagonist’s – Charles Swinburne’s – train of thought as a convenient solution presents itself to his financial and personal difficulties.  Despite being a murderous murderer, Charles is quite a likable and ingenious bloke, with a real knack for malice aforethought, once he gets going.

Some readers may find the story a tad repetitive.  Because we are privy to all Charles’s pre-planning, the information brought out at the inquests and trial is not at all new to us as readers, and by the end I did find it a bit odd that I was sitting through what amounted to a detailed retelling of the story that I had already read.  By that stage I was thoroughly invested in the outcome however, and putting the book down was no longer an option.  The ending is something of an anti-climax, in that it wraps up quite abruptly, but the author has done a fantastic job of tying up every possible loose end.

I would highly recommend this if you are in the mood for a bit of classic historical mystery, from a slightly unexpected angle.

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: Past and Future War

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I’ve been diving into the graphic novels with gusto so far this year and today I have two eye-pleasing tomes that deal with the spectre of past and future conflict.  One is realistic in tone, while the other pits three young mages against a world in which futuristic machines have resulted in the downfall of humanity.  We received both titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley for review.

The Lighthouse by Paco Roca

From Goodreads:

Francisco, a wounded, despairing sixteen-year-old Republican guard in the Spanish Civil War, is trying to flee to freedom by crossing the French border. In his escape, he encounters an old remote lighthouse, far from the warring factions. He is granted shelter by Telmo, the aging operator of the lighthouse. As Francisco recuperates, Telmo’s tales of epic adventurers who sailed the lost seas and discovered worlds unknown reignite the spark of life in the young soldier.

the-lighthouse

The underlying dark themes of war and violence are reflected in the monochromatic art in The Lighthouse.  The story opens on the escape attempt of Francisco, a young soldier who is offered sanctuary by elderly but cheerful Telmo, the keeper of a lighthouse.  As Francisco learns more about the lighthouse and its workings, and assists Telmo in building a boat from the flotsam that washes up on the beach, he begins to heal from his experiences and question his commitment to his cause.  When events take an unexpected turn for Francisco later in the story, he is forced to take his fate into his own hands and decide what kind of life he wants to lead.

The Lighthouse deals with the sort of choices that, when made, define a life.  Telmo has made his choices in life and is content to keep the lighthouse in order in anticipation for the day when the government will send a new bulb to restore the lighthouse to full function.  Francisco, who was previously unwavering in his commitment to his ideals, begins to think for himself under Telmo’s fanciful guidance.

This is not an overly long read, but it certainly packs a punch and will generate discussion about loyalties to duty and to self, and the sacrifices that individuals make to attain their goals.  This would be an interesting inclusion in a secondary or university course focusing on ethics.

The Castoffs V.1: Mage Against the Machine by M.K. Reed, Brian Smith & Molly Ostertag

From Goodreads:

It’s Mage against the Machine! Magic vs technology in Roar’s newest graphic novel. When three apprentice mages are sent to help a neighboring guild, they reignite a decades-old war with a robot army that has destroyed the world.

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This opening volume of The Castoffs seems like it will be a welcome addition to the collection of graphic novels being released that feature strong female protagonists and characters from diverse backgrounds.  The story opens on a historical battle between mages and “surrogates” – machines that were created to assist humanity but have caused chaos and carnage.  Our three protagonists, Charris, Ursa and Thrinh, are from a later period in history, when the use of technology has been largely abandoned and mages are free – mostly – to use their skills.  The three young women are chosen to fulfill what seems to be a simple delivery job, but on arriving at their destination it becomes apparent that there is much more afoot than the trivial errand on which they were sent.

Cue the discovery of a resurgence of surrogate use and the difficult decisions that follow: do the girls attempt to put down the uprising alone or return to the Guild for help?  Can the three get along for long enough to obtain a result?  And what skills are some of the girls hiding and why?

After a start that didn’t exactly draw me in, I warmed to the characters and became absorbed in the intrigue unfolding before them.  The bickering between the girls was by turns amusing and irritating, but by the end of the book most of that had been put aside in favour of interesting reveals and kick-ass magic skills.  I think this will greatly appeal to readers of graphic novels aimed at the YA market, as well as those who just love a good story featuring magic versus technology.  The diverse female protagonists will also be a drawcard for those specifically seeking out wide representation in their reads.

Overall, this was a promising, action-packed start to the series and I am interested to see where some of the cliffhanger plot points go from here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Today’s book is one that I definitely didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did.  It features an absorbing story, flawed characters, a bleak, unforgiving landscape and intricate, fleshed out folklore, and for these reasons and more it is our first Top Book of 2017 pick for the year!  We received our copy of The Bear and the Nightingale by debut author Katherine Arden from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

the-bear-and-the-nightingale

I was a little afraid on starting this book that it would turn out to be a bit like wading through molasses, but although its a hefty tome the narrative voice is so compelling that I could have happily gone on reading for another hundred pages once it had finished.  The book begins before protagonist Vasya’s birth and the reader is made aware of the fact that there is something special about this child.  Even though her birth results in her mother’s death, we are aware that this is something Vasya’s mother chose, because Vasya will be the key to…something…in the future.  As the tale progresses we find out that Vasya has the ability to see household and woodland spirits and she, like the people of her village, ensures that these spirits are kept happy with small offerings of bread and the like.

Later, when a charismatic priest is sent to the village, the delicate balance between the people and the spirit world is upset, resulting in catastrophic changes for the village – crops fail, children die, and the muttering of the villagers begins to turn against Vasya, with the aid of her stepmother’s urging.  From here the story takes on more of a traditional fantasy atmosphere, as Vasya ventures further into the spirit world in order to save herself and her loved ones.

The greatest thing about this book is the fact that the author has remained true to the humanity of the characters while intertwining indispensable parts of the narrative that feature fantasy.  This gives the overall story an incredible feeling of authenticity even as winter demons and the walking undead plague Vasya’s village.  Real lives, innocent lives, are at stake, through folly brought about by flawed human behaviour, yet at the same time the ethereal, and the way it has been traditionally linked with the mundane by the villagers, is the key to a return to normalcy.

Vasya is a well-developed heroine, growing from the headstrong and flighty young girl into a determined young woman who is not afraid to take risks in order to secure her own path.  The women in the story are confined by the roles assigned to them by society but Vasya is different and refuses to be hemmed in, even when it seems impossible for her to resist.  Alongside Vasya are two women who are foils for each other – Dunya, the long-standing nurse of the household, who protects her charges as if they were her own children, even to her death; and Anna Ivanovna, Vasya’s stepmother, who cares more for herself than even for her own child, unless that child, Irinya, is reflecting credit on her mother through her beauty.  The male characters of Vasya’s family are both strong and gentle, fiercely protective of their daughters and sisters, yet bound to societal expectations.  The priest, Konstantin, is deeply flawed and blinded by his ego and need for attention.

While the fantasy elements of this tale, drawn from Russian folklore, are fascinating and terrifying by turns, the real heart of this story is in its humanity, and the decisions that individuals make when adversity falls in their lap.  I honestly thought that the fantasy creatures, the household spirits and the completely creepy upyr would be the highlight of the book for me but the ordinary characters were so engaging that while I thoroughly enjoyed the fantasy elements, it was Vasya and her family that tipped this story over into brilliance.

I have to say that if this is the first offering from Katherine Arden, she is certainly going to be an author to keep on my watch list from now on.  If you are looking for a totally absorbing fantasy tale that never loses sight of its humanity, and have the time to devote to an epic story, I highly recommend getting lost in The Bear and the Nightingale.

Until next time,

Bruce