Magical Middle Grade in a Mouldering Setting: Wormwood Mire…

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wormwood-mire

Subtle magic, family mysteries and mouldering old houses are the cornerstones of Wormwood Mire, the second Stella Montgomery intrigue by Aussie author Judith Rossell. If you are into historical fiction for young readers that embraces a bit of the ol’ unexplained, then you should probably jump on board with this series if you haven’t already.  The good news is that you don’t have to have read the series opener, Withering-by-Sea, to enjoy this second offering – I myself had forgotten much about the plot of the first book, except for the major points, and found that the small references to the happenings in the first book really provide all a new reader would need to know.  Enough blathering though.  We received a copy of Wormwood Mire from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Stella Montgomery returned to the Hotel Majestic cold and wet but exhilarated by adventure, the Aunts were furious.

Now they are sending Stella away to the old family home at Wormwood Mire, where she must live with two strange cousins and their governess.

But within the overgrown grounds of the mouldering house, dark secrets slither and skulk, and soon Stella must be brave once more if she’s to find out who – or what – she really is …

From bestselling writer-illustrator Judith Rossell comes the thrilling and magical sequel to her multi-award-winning novel, WITHERING-BY-SEA.

Let me start by reiterating that I really don’t think that one has to have read the first book in the series in order to fully appreciate this one.  I found Wormwood Mire to be a much more intriguing and multi-layered story than Withering-by-Sea, and overall would have to say that I enjoyed the reading experience much more.  Stella, whose is alone in the world but for a collection of cranky aunts, is sent away to live with her as-yet-unmet cousins, Strideforth and Hortense, at the crumbling estate of a long-dead relation, after the shenanigans of the first book.  Stella, having never met her cousins and never attended proper lessons at all, is understandably nervous about the move, but hopes that spending time at the estate will allow her to discover more about some of the mysteries surrounding her family and her strange new-found abilities.

Happily, while Stella’s cousins possess a few interesting personality traits, the trio gets along famously and we become privy to the real mystery of the book – the bizarre collection of plants and creatures kept on the estate by their ancestor, Wilberforce Montgomery.  This is not the only mystery that Stella hopes to shed light on though; she is also much interested in finding out more about her mother and two children in a photograph, who Stella suspects are herself and a long-lost sibling.  Add to this set of puzzles a rather unorthodox (and quite shady) dentist and travelling showman, a ghostly figure flitting about the place and townsfolk whispering about history repeating and you have all the pieces in play for a particularly intense game of discovery and derring-do.  As with the previous book, the pace and overall tone is quite sedate, but the multiple, interconnected mysteries add plenty of depth to the story and I was drawn further in to the search for answers with every passing chapter.

The house itself was a wonderful addition to the story and almost a character in itself, with secret passages and exotic artifacts squirreled away by Wilberforce Montgomery.  Hortense’s collection of truly outlandish animal friends also adds colour (and chaos!) to the story, with a disagreeable and downright naughty mollyhawk who squawks in fluent latin and an extremely bitey ermine just two of her unusual menagerie.  Another highlight of the story is the multiple references to Stella’s book of cautionary tales, received, of course, from the nefarious aunts, A Garden of Lillies, in which children who stray from following the instructions of their elders meet various unpleasant ends, recounted in rhyming couplets. I’m fairly sure that thwormwood-mire-interiorese little interludes are a nod to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies and provide just the right amount of comic relief.

Once again this tome contains some gorgeous ink wash illustrations, some as whole page images and others fitting around the text throughout.  The style of illustrations, as well as their greenish tones, add to the sense of place and the historical setting in which the story unfolds, and as I always say, any book – every book – is better with pictures.  The chunky hardback format and the included ribbon bookmark make the reading experience satisfyingly tactile too.

I am very interested to see what happens next in this series, as this book ends on an unexpected and revealing note.  Given that this story was so different to the last, I am sure that Rossell will have something equally diverting for Stella Montgomery’s next intrigue!

Until next time,

Bruce

Scaling Mount TBR: The Whitby Witches…

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Thank you for joining me as I claw my way up the teetering goliath that is my current TBR pile. Today’s book is one I picked up second-hand after having placed it on my wish-list very soon after Mad Martha returned from a memorable sojourn to the seaside town of Whitby in the UK, declaring that we should now search out and read every book ever written with Whitby as a setting. And there have been a lot. Although we still haven’t read the most famous by far.

Here’s a picture of Mad Martha enjoying the B&B in which she stayed. If you squint, you can just see a bit of the Abbey in the distance out the window:

mad martha whitby

And here she is enjoying a long-awaited wash in the Whitby Laundromat washing machine:

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And just for fun, here’s one of the Abbey that looks like it’s screeeeeeeaaaaammmming!

abbey screaming

But I digress. Today’s book is The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis, a rollicking and surprisingly dark (in places) tale that was first published in 1991, although it has the ring of a book published much earlier. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At first glance, the small seaside town of Whitby seems quiet and charming, but eight year-old Ben and his older sister Jennet soon learn that things are not always as they seem. Moved about from foster home to foster home, Ben and Jennet hope to make a fresh start in Whitby. But Ben sees things and people others cannot. There’s something unusual about Alice Boston, their new guardian. And what is that horrible howling Jennet hears late at night? Something wicked’s brewing in Whitby. Can Ben and Jennet put it to rest?

whitby witches

This was an unexpected reading experience for me because there was just so much story packed into the pages. There are the witches and witchiness of the title of course, but then there are fantastical creatures, an ongoing (and progressively more deadly) murder investigation, a strange nun that might not be what she seems, an ancient curse, pregnant cats, as well as an astoundingly action-packed climax that features time-travel along with everything else.

And does anyone else think that Alice Boston bears a striking resemblance to one of the TV versions of Miss Marple??

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Extraordinary!

So I didn’t expect there to be quite so much going on in this book, but I really appreciated how the author gives the young reader enough credit to put in some pretty creepy content. For a start, there’s the terrifying hound on the cover of this edition. Then there’s quite a lot of violence directed towards old ladies. I was genuinely surprised at a few points that Jarvis was brave enough to pen the deaths of the aforementioned old ladies in such vivid, atmospheric detail.  Actually, now that I think about it, there are a number of scenes that had me thinking, “Oh, that’s a bit shocking!” and this disposed me fondly toward the author for having the gumption to trust that younger readers can handle some grisly, scary stuff and come out the other side unscathed. I suspect this is why the book felt like one that was published before the 90s, because there doesn’t seem to be any coddling through the difficult bits.

Overall, this is one of those stories that has all the classic elements – abandoned siblings, a setting oozing with its own character and history, mysterious magic and just plain, unadulterated adventure! As this is part of a series, I will now add the others in the set to my ever-growing TBR pile and hopefully get to them in the not-too-distant future.

I recommend The Whitby Witches to anyone (especially mini-fleshlings of the upper middle-grade persuasion) looking for good old-fashioned feats of danger and derring-do.

Until next time,

Bruce

Stella by Starlight: An MG Haiku Review…and Giveaway!

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Hello my little book-loving chooks! It’s time once again for one of my haiku reviews, and today I have one of those books that leaves a deep feeling of cuddly special-ness in your heart-cockles after you’ve finished reading.  I was lucky enough to receive a beautiful hardback copy of Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper from Simon & Schuster Australia for review…and since I enjoyed the story so much, and the edition is so beautiful (with dust jacket and everything) I am also offering it in a GIVEAWAY at the end of this post.  But the giveaway is for Australians only. Sorry everyone else.

Stella is a young girl just trying to get along during the Great Depression in Bumblebee, South Carolina.  Her head is full of ideas but she has all sorts of trouble putting them down on the page, so Stella creeps out of her family’s shack each night to practise that troublesome writing.  On one of her night-time jaunts, Stella and her younger brother Jojo spot a burning cross across the river, surrounded by men on horses, dressed in white sheets.  The Ku Klux Klan has come to Bumblebee.

As the adults worry and keep watch over the neighbourhood children as they go to and from school, all Stella wants is to win the writing competition at school and have her words published in a real newspaper.  But when Stella’s daddy is among a few local men who decide to register to vote in the upcoming election, the danger posed by Klan members in the town comes to a terrifying head.  Will Stella be brave enough to do what needs to be done, or should she keep her head down to keep her family safe?

stella by starlight

This revolution

can be fought with pen, paper

Solidarity

Stella By Starlight is a thought-provoking piece of historical fiction that is all too relevant to contemporary young people.  Stella is an immediately relatable character – a cheeky but protective big sister, a keenly intelligent student who wants to be heard, and a sensitive member of a community that is brought low by persecution.  Draper has done a wonderful job of pitching these quite scary and disturbing historical events at a level that will best engage the intended age-group.  The scenes involving the Klan are (rightly, I think) frightening, but are tempered with the presence of steadying adult characters, so that the children (and young readers) aren’t left to process the implications of these events alone.

I also appreciated the depth that Draper has delivered in the various character groups – not all the white folk are horrible, violent racists, and not all the African-American folk are lion-hearted revolutionaries – so the story reflects the graduations of feeling and action found in any community, and particularly in a community in the grips of conflict.

Throughout the book there is a pervasive feeling of familial love and affection, driven by the closeness of Stella’s family.  It was in these parts that I really became most engaged, and enjoyed Stella’s attempts to put her thoughts down on paper.  The passages in which Stella gains access to a typewriter were quite funny, as both her thoughts and her commentary on the difficulty of wrangling the machine are collected in the one essay.

I think this is an important book for youngsters to read from a historical perspective, as it is vital for the building of peaceful communities that young people know what went before.  But just as important, this is a warm, winsome and witty story that will draw young readers in through the strength and diversity of its young characters.  I highly recommend Stella By Starlight and I wish there were more novels in this style, pitched at this age group, that deal with Australia’s difficult history from the perspective of our indigenous people.

So as this book is too good to keep to myself, on to the GIVEAWAY!  Many thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia for providing the giveaway prize.

If you live in Australia, you can enter using the Rafflecopter link below.  The winner will receive a hardback copy of Stella By Starlight.  Rafflecopter will choose a random winner and I will contact the winner at the end of the giveaway. Ready? Set? Enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck to all!

Until we meet again, may your days be filled with the simple warmth of a homespun haiku,

Mad Martha