3 brilliant middlegrade mysteries

Anyone else feeling totally frazzled at the moment? I’ve been reading quite a few middle-grade mysteries recently as my brain has needed some good old-fashioned adventure and escape from all the heavy grown up thoughts. So, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourites in case you need some time out too (and there might just be a young person in your life who would enjoy a good mystery as well 😊).

The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant. Faber & Faber.

This is the story of Alice, an introverted girl with a passion for story writing. She is grieving the loss of her mum and although she adores her dad, he isn’t around all that much. Her aunt decides that a boarding school in the wilds of Scotland will bring Alice out of her shell – especially as this is rather an eccentric school, with rather an unusual curriculum. Friendships blossom in the form of strait-laced Jesse and mischievous joker Fergus. Together they take part in the yearly school orienteering challenge and use this as an opportunity to meet up with Alice’s father on a remote island, after Alice receives a rather mysterious note attached to a parcel that she must not open…

Why I loved it: It’s a gorgeous contemporary adventure story, full of friendship, quests and mystery. The Scottish setting is beautifully written, and the characters made the child within me want to be friends with them. The relationship development between the friends as well as that  between Alice and her dad felt really genuine in all its complexities and I loved that this is very much a story of finding where you belong and how family is something beyond biology. There is also some fabulous humour in there to lighten the adventure and balance out the more serious aspects such as loss, not fitting in and the consequences of trusting someone you care for, both positive and negative. Plus, the cover is just stunning isn’t it?

A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths. Hachette Children’s Group

My second recommendation takes us back in time to the 1930s, where we meet twelve-year-old Justice, whose very busy QC father has decided to send her to a boarding school following the death of her mother. Having been home schooled by her mum until this point, this new way of life takes a lot of getting used to. But Justice is addicted to solving mysteries (her mum was a mystery writer) and is always on the look out for real ones to investigate; she is soon immersed in the secrets of Highbury House Boarding School and the suspicious death of a maid…

Why I loved it: Justice is such a sparky, determined, intelligent character, who completely draws you into her world. I loved the way Griffiths creates such a sense of time and places; I was right there in the 30s, exploring the isolated boarding school out on the marshes. The mystery itself was gripping with plenty of tension and intrigue and I enjoyed how the darker moments are interspersed with humour and witty observations (something Griffiths also does so well in her adult crime books). I also found the headmistress Miss de Vere most intriguing; she is illusive and difficult to work out; I love a complex character, who may not be all that she seems!

I asked Elly Griffiths on Twitter whether Justice’s adventures will become a series and thank goodness she is in the process of writing book 2 – it’s always the sign of  a great story isn’t it, when you can’t wait to see what happens next?

The Agatha Oddly series by Lena Jones. HarperCollins Children’s Books

Why I love this contemporary mystery series: Above all, it is 13-year-old Agatha as a character that makes this series for me. She is quirky, incredibly intelligent, intuitive and her zest for solving mysteries is just contagious. I love that she is a bit of an outsider, that these books are as much about Agatha discovering where she fits into the world as the mysteries she attempts to solve.  Plus, she adores Agatha Christie (therefore a kindred spirit) and I love that when she is in the process of working something out, she often imagines a tiny Poirot giving her detecting advice. Her adventures involve plenty of clever puzzle solving, a secret society and a mysterious, hidden side of London. It’s a smart, tightly plotted and quirky series and book 3, The Silver Serpent, is out on the 5th September 😊

P.S. I can highly recommend the audio books; the narrator is absolutely perfect as Agatha!

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen: excellent YA historical fiction

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What it’s all about…

Orphan Monster Spy is the story of 15-year-old Sarah, who lives with her mentally unwell mum in Germany at the time of Hitler and the National Socialists. Sarah is a Jew and experiences the racism and isolation that this involves. An attempt to flee Germany ends in her mother being shot and killed at a checkpoint but Sarah’s Arian appearance – blond hair, blue eyes – enables her to escape. On the run, she encounters a mysterious man, the Captain and together they realise that working together could be their way forward in this dangerous world they find themselves in. The Captain sends Sarah on a mission to a National Socialist elite school for girls, where she is to befriend the daughter of a scientist, who has the potential to destroy Germany’s enemies. It’s a story of survival, of deep-rooted inner strength in adverse circumstances, of flawed human beings and the complex dangers of power.Untitled design (4)

Plot wise…

It is a satisfying, page-turning spy thriller with that boarding school element, which is always a great setting for narratives of intrigue and mystery.  I was totally gripped throughout. However, there is so much more to Orphan Monster Spy than its plot alone.

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I loved…

Matt Killen really captures the German setting, the National Socialist period in history, in an accessible and engaging way. I like a book that fully and authentically draws you into a place in time and this book certainly does that!  With my German family background, a German Studies degree and a whole lot of reading about World War 2 behind me, both fiction and non-fiction, it takes a lot to win me over and Killeen definitely did.

The relationship between  Sarah and the Captain is brilliantly written – there’s a real spark there, a genuine raw and equally complex connection as well as a passion to change the horrific world they live in.

The elitist fascist school for girls is a really interesting concept and isn’t something I have really given much thought to before, nor have I come across much about these schools until now. Such schools did exist, though there were only a few girls’ schools due to the juxtaposition of an academic education with the Nazi belief that women were destined to be wives and mothers and should therefore be given an education to reflect these roles. I’m really interested to find out more  – I love a bit of research!

The exploration of loyalty and betrayal is a powerful theme running throughout the narrative. I especially liked that Sarah’s response to her life in Germany is complex. Although she is a victim of Nazi ideology and experiences horrific things, she also considers herself German first and foremost and wants to be loyal to her country. She thinks long and hard about the consequences of her actions, whether her work with the Allies is for the greater good.

The appeal of belonging is equally well explored, Killeen shows that life is not black and white, that powerful regimes play on the human need to belong and that it can be an immense struggle to stay true to your beliefs in the face of what is offered: Sarah recognises how easy it would be to give in, to belong to the German Youth Movement due to her looks, how appealing the choreography of the Nazis movement is and especially for young people who are still trying to figure out their place in the world.

A real-life scientist of the time called Lise Meitner makes a significant appearance in the story based on her contribution to the discovery of fission and again, I learned something new. I hold up my hands and admit I know little about science throughout history and I certainly hadn’t come across this fascinating woman, who was part of changing the world forever but who was denied a Nobel Prize for Chemistry as she was forced to flee Germany and also  because she was a woman in a man’s world.

I really appreciated  Killen’s author note at the end where he explains his own experiences and motivation behind writing this book. He writes of summers spent with his mum’s German best friend and family, who he describes as gracious, loving and intensely pacifist and the challenges of getting older,  learning about the Holocaust and wondering, “Exactly how could these gentle people allow this to happen?” The message that human beings are incredibly complex and that history also depends on who’s telling the story, comes across with passion.

In the same end note, Killeen tells the reader of the amount and depth of research involved in writing Orphan Monster Spy and the quality of this is evident throughout the book. Yes, Sarah’s story is fiction but its fiction with a lot of sensitivity and a sound factual structure.

There is an abuse story line and I tend to disconnect with such content because of personal reasons, plus I also find that they are generally rarely written well/with meaning. In his note, Killeen talks about how Sarah’s world lives on today in insidious ways, how children and vulnerable people are still abused, how it is still so often concealed and even dismissed. I can see why Killeen has included this subplot (he has handled it well) and I stress that I think it’s an important topic to tackle, to create awareness of.

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And finally…

I love that there is so much yet to be explained and discovered and I can’t wait for the next in the series: Devil Darling Spy, published January 2020.

Shedunnit: my dream bookish podcast

Today, I want to share my favourite bookish podcast with you. It’s called Shedunnit and its premise is “to unravel the mysteries behind classic detective stories.”. If you are into Golden Age crime fiction, the authors behind the books and the real crimes that influenced their narratives, then this is most definitely for you.

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What strikes me each time I listen is the quality of the research, the depth of content (all the books mentioned are listed in the show notes and full transcripts are available on the website too)  and just how compelling it is to listen to. It is produced to an exceptionally high standard by Caroline Crampton, who also writes the content and is the narrator of the podcast.gg98405682 (2)

I absolutely love the period music Caroline uses to intersperse the sections, it really adds to the atmosphere and I also really appreciate her voice; its clarity and engaging quality – as we all know, I am so fussy when listening audio. Of course, the content is pretty special as well. To give you a taste of what you can expect, here are a few of my favourite episodes so far:

01: Surplus Women (single, independent women after the First World War 

03: Queer Clues (the portrayal of queer characters)

04: The Lady Vanishes (on Agatha Christie’s missing days)

08: Dining with Death (the pivotal role of food in golden age mysteries)

13: The secret life of Ngaio Marsh

 The podcast includes interviews with lovers of the genre, experts and with authors who set their books during the Golden Age of the 20s and 30s . Recently, two of my favourite ever authors have made appearances and were such a treat to listen to: Jacqueline Winspear (writer of my much loved Maisie Dobbs series)in episode 15, focusing on period style and Robin Stevens (creator of the gorgeous Murder Most Unladylike series)  in episode 19 looking at school as a perfect murder mystery setting.

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A couple of months ago, Caroline set up a membership option as a way to create a community around the podcast but also as a way of keeping the podcast on air. When you listen you will get some idea of the amount of work and time that goes into making each episode.  At this point I must mention that I ‘m writing about this purely because of my love for the show, my post is in no way sponsored.

Membership package 1 enables you to be part of the members only Shedunnit online book club and message board, to access extra content that isn’t included in the main podcast plus there’s an extra monthly episode. Membership package 2 included all of the above PLUS a monthly subscription box containing goodies curated by Caroline and including a rare or unusual second had detective novel. I am personally subscribed to this and absolutely love my monthly murder mystery bookish post. I had a lovely email to begin with, asking me about my reading tastes, books I’ve read/want to read in future etc- that personal touch makes all the difference. Find more info here.

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And speaking of which, this month’s package has just arrived so I’ll stop now and find out what this month’s treasures are…

Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff: a review of a forgotten gem

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My wonderful, all things Scottish loving, bookish friend Mel made me aware of Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff through the Scotland Street Press Instagram account. She said that it felt like  “a very Milena-like book” and oh how well she knows me! I’m a passionate auntie, I love reading children’s adventure stories from the 1930s/40s plus I have a love of Scotland too. There is also a rather lovely personal aspect to the republication of Auntie Robbo as Jean Findlay, the founder of Scotland Street Press, is actually Scott Moncrieff’s granddaughter, who wishes to delight a new generation with Robbo and her grandnephew Hector’s adventures. Like Scott Moncrieff, My Omi (German grandma) was also a talented storyteller and I so wish her stories had been published to make the world that little bit richer too. So, to get to the point, I of course said yes to a proof copy and to taking part in the blog tour.

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Synopsis: This is the story of eleven-year-old Hector, who lives with his rather quirky great aunt Robbo (Robina) in the Scottish countryside near Edinburgh. Their lives are turned upside down when an ominous woman presenting herself as Hector’s stepmother arrives, causing great aunt and nephew to escape to the Highlands, where they also pick up three homeless children along the way. Plenty of adventures ensue as they travel the Scottish landscape, hoping to stay ahead of the dreaded Merlissa Benck, who is determined to get her own way.

For me, the challenge of reading this book lay in consciously not reading from an adult perspective and not analysing everything to high heaven as I usually do but letting the joy and the adventure take over and remembering what it was like to read as a child. There was so much to enjoy:

I adored Auntie Robbo: I hope that I have her spirit, quirkiness  and energy when I am in my 80s and that my nieces care for me as much as Hector does. She is like an old version of Pippi Longstocking (a childhood heroine of mine)  with that same zest for life, the same heart of gold and the ability to cause confusion, chaos and disapproval from other adults wherever she goes. I think it’s fabulous how Scott Moncrieff challenges the stereotypical image of what being old looks like and the way she illustrates just how much an older person has to offer a child.

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The relationship between Robbo and Hector: This is deep and tender and very much on an equal footing. They care for each other and this is portrayed so beautifully: Hector very much looks out for Auntie Robbo in her more eccentric moments and Auntie Robbo in turn makes sure Hector is loved and installs an awesome love of nature and independence in her nephew. Here I must also mention Hector himself, who is also quite special; rather than being a typical boy character as found in many stories of the period, he is sensitive, intelligent, compassionate and often introverted. I loved him.

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The joy of nature and pride in Scotland: The description of the natural world that Robbo and Hector adore and explore has been written with such love and in a way that totally transported me into the story’s landscape. Scott Moncrieff’s  love of the sea shone through especially brightly for me.AR Cover Image 1

The sheer adventure of it all and the simplicity and freedom of a slower time: I think that this really appeals to me as an adult as well as the child within;  it is what I wish for my nieces and younger, tech-savvy generations in general  – to rediscover the natural landscape, to wholeheartedly enjoy themselves, to experience that sense of freedom and let their imagination roam free. Plus, I love it when children save the day in an adventure 😊AR Cover Image 1 (2)

The comedy: This book made me chuckle at several points and the dry sense of humour really added character to the narrative. To name just one example: what’s not to love about a disgruntled one-horned goat out for revenge?!

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The suspense: the atmosphere Moncrieff build up in the second half of the book when the setting changes is a delight and would certainly have made me read under the covers past my bedtime as a child – I can’t really say more without spoiling the reading adventure.AR Cover Image 1 (2)

A book of its time: With my adult hat on I will say that it is a book of its time, just as all books of the past are, and this is worth noting if you plan on sharing Auntie Robbo. The pace is slower than today’s middle grade fiction tends to be and sometimes the language feels more complex/more adult orientated than today’s children generally come across (and this  is by no means a criticism but something to be aware of).

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My final thoughts:  I think Auntie Robbo is very much a forgotten gem and I hope that this republication will allow it to be as enjoyed and loved as it deserves to be. My nieces are over at the weekend, I think its time they got to meet Auntie Robbo 😊

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{I think this is a rather lovely photo of Ann Scott Moncrieff}

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing: a Polish Mystery

Translated Polish historical fiction and a murder mystery with a female amateur detective plus an incredible cover – just my cup of tea. Thanks to NetGalley and Oneworld for my arc – this book is now available to buy.

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Before I even looked at the content as such, I was already all for reading this book as there isn’t nearly enough translated fiction out there. The book has been supported by the European Council as well as the publishers and it is part of Oneworld’s fab translated fiction catalogue, which you can find here. Mrs Mohr has been translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

So Milena, what is the book actually about, I hear you say: This is the first amateur detective mission for Zofia Turbotynska, a 38-year-old, middle-class, married woman living in Cracow in 1893. Always wanting to improve her social standing and determined to relieve her boredom, she becomes involved in a charity project connecting her with the nearby Helcel House, a new retirement home run by nuns. Zofia is pulled into (or rather, she actively involves herself in) the hunt for the murderer of one of the old ladies there (Mrs Mohr of the title) and of course, there is more death to follow. Zofia, reminiscent of Miss Marple, discovers that her talent and passion lies in detective work.

I enjoyed…

The setting is a fresh take on  Golden Age crime themed mysteries: Although I know a fair bit about Golden Age crime, I know very little indeed about Poland’s history and next to nothing about Krakow itself. I really appreciated the preface with a very brief description of that period in Polish history. I thought it incredibly interesting to see what was going on elsewhere in Europe in Victorian times i.e. Emperor Franz Joseph Habsburg, ruler of Austria-Hungary. Plus, the entire book has that almost indefinable East Europeanness that I adore in books – I am very much drawn to fiction set in these parts.

So, without going into a history lecture, I will keep it brief and say that Krakow was a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions. It was a place of divided loyalties, those loyal to Austria and nationalists increasingly longing for independence. Like so many other countries, it was also a place of inequality in terms of gender and the class system. All of this becomes apparent, mostly in a dry humoured, digestible fashion that reminded me of other Victorian narratives focusing on witty social commentary. This isn’t a book to challenge, it is a light read but the awareness is very much there and to be honest, I just really enjoyed the snarkiness and often witty commentary.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe sheer quirkiness of the narrative and especially the main character of Zofia: I will be honest and say that at first, I couldn’t connect with Zofia; she felt rather two-dimensional and was just incredibly unlikable. But I gave her a chance and as the story progressed, there were some glimpses into her character that showed the potential of a much more complex character. She may hide that side of herself well but there is definitely something intriguing about her below her bourgeois surface. Zofia is definitely a force of nature and I admired that in what was very much a man’s world. She uses the tools available to her, playing the social system to get to the complicated truth of her case. The fact that she hides it all from her professor husband and her work is never publicly acknowledged, illustrates perfectly the double life she leads in order to find herself. I also loved the chemistry between Zofia and her two sidekicks, her cook Franciszka and the wonderful nun, Sister Alojza at Helcel House. She by no means sees them as equals, there is much superiority and naive thinking on Zofia’s part, but nevertheless, these women unite and use their intelligence and skills to solve the mystery together.

It could have been better…

The overplaying of stereotypes and the often too obvious nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction: Whilst I read the book as a humorous ode to Golden Age crime, sometimes it felt too over the top, it borrowed too much, and this affected the story’s originality.  A lot of the characters were types too, with very little depth apart from their function within the plot or to support the social/political statements being made. I thought this was a shame.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eToo many internal monologues: Sophia has a lot of internal conversations where she keeps retelling the story so far, trying to work out what has happened and where this will lead her. It felt pretty repetitive at times. And she never reaches any conclusions or even hints of conclusions but then suddenly at the end, she knows everything. For me, this made  both the flow and coherence of the narrative disjointed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe highlighting of Cracow’s Jewish inhabitants: I’ll be honest and say I didn’t understand what the authors (incidentally, the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa is pseudonym for the writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski)  were trying to achieve with Zofia’s haphazard way of regularly and noticeably pointing out which characters were Jewish. This didn’t seem to go anywhere and felt odd. The preface tells us that a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, but most were not assimilated and led separate lives, even those assimilated into society were treated as second class citizens. I felt that an opportunity to explore this was missed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe translation of the local/national accents/dialects: It felt too much of a caricature. As a reader and translator, I think that such things are rarely done well and often choosing to leave the accent to the reader’s imagination is a more effective option. When dialect is done well it can add a valuable layer of meaning, but this was not the case here. Again, I wasn’t quite sure whether there is an element of  parody to the dialect – if so, I can see why it’s there, but it still didn’t work for me.

So, overall…

It is the first book in a series, and I think there was enough there to hook me and for me to hope that the things I wasn’t too impressed with will be developed and straightened out as the series continues. I will certainly give book 2 a go when it is translated. And I hope the next cover is just as wonderful 😊

Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson; a story that captured my heart

Every now and again a book comes along that totally captures your heart; Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson is most certainly one of these.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Upson’s Josephine Tey crime series for years (which deserves a blog post all of its own) so when the proof for this book popped up on my twitter feed, I was immediately intrigued to see where this standalone with a very different sounding direction would take me.

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{I was incredibly lucky to receive a proof copy  from Duckworth Publishers}

So, what is Stanley and Elsie about? It is the story of artist Stanley Spencer and his unique friendship with his housemaid Elsie, who comes to live with Spencer and his young family after World War I. We meet Stanley as he is in the process of working on a commission to paint the interior of a memorial chapel for those lost at war and we accompany the years it takes to create his masterpiece of  trauma, loss and redemption. We also follow his complex marriage to fellow artist Hilda, his tangled relationship with his daughters and later on how he navigates temptation and obsession. At the heart of the Spencer family is Elsie, who does her utmost to keep them all together, offering care, wisdom and friendship.

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{I need an Elsie in my life. This is a painting of Elsie by Hilda Carline}

Spencer was a real artist, as was his wife Hilda, who later signed her work as Hilda Carline. I knew Stanley and Elsie was based on real people and on their artwork but that was pretty much all the background knowledge I had going in. And what a discovery this book was – it opened my eyes to incredible art that I didn’t know existed. What struck me in particular as I researched Spencer afterwards, was how Upson has taken a character, who is so often portrayed as a great artist but a pretty awful human being, and has dismantled this polarised image with such skill to reveal a complex man, who lost his sense of self during the war and spent most of his life trying to work out who he actually was – through his art and also through his relationship with women. A man who was capable of great kindness but who could be equally self-centred and hurtful, who could be charming and grounded in life but also naive, manipulative and detached from reality.brusha7.png

Whilst I’ve started with Stanley, it is the women in this novel who shine through for me. Upson writes each character with so much depth that I felt incredibly invested in their development:  The absolutely lovely, observant and vibrant Elsie, who I wish I could be friends with. Hilda, who struggles with finding her own identity as an artist, who struggles with being a mother and is so consumed by loneliness and her love for a man who cannot give her what she needs. Stanley’s sister, a side character but a striking one, who gave up her art to look after her parents and lost her sense of self in the process, her mental health deeply affected. And of course, Patricia and Dorothy – who I can’t say to much about as it would spoil your reading experience – who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t as they were battling their own personal and societal demons too.

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And then there’s the very special relationship between Stanley and Elsie, which felt so real, so genuine and which I still think about now. It is a friendship which navigates both social and gender divides – it is messy and frustrating and warm and at times very sad; I felt all the emotions!brushA7

Alongside Upson’s wonderful characters is the equally wonderful interweaving of Stanley and Hilda’s art. I absolutely loved how the plot was shaped around the artwork, crafted with such care and detail; Upson must have done an immense amount of research for this. The description of the different parts of the chapel are stunning, enabling me to visualise each piece in such detail that when I came to look up the chapel paintings online, it was like I was returning to something I had already seen before. The chapel is a National Trust property now and can be visited – of course I have a road trip planned for the summer.brushA5

I can’t finish without mentioning how brilliantly Nicola Upson captures those seemingly small, ordinary moments, which hold so much more. There were several times I annotated a page with “ such beautiful sadness” and I was left in tears at several points towards the end because of how an interaction or an observation was written. As I said, this book left a mark on heart.paint-set

 

The Burning by Laura Bates and The Furies by Katie Lowe; a double review

I’ve been in the mood for a bit of YA recently and it just so happened that two books with very similar themes (though completely different in content and writing style) crossed my path. A promise of witchy elements, an exploration of what empowerment can look like, insights into what it means to be a teenage girl today and the complexity of female friendships, plus a touch of history thrown in for good measure – needless to say I dove right in. You might want to get yourself a cup of tea before you read on, I’ve got a lot to share with you 😊

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The Furies by Katie Lowe

(thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the arc. Publication date: 2 May 2019)

What it’s about: This is the story of Violet, looking back at the mysterious death of a girl she knew in her school days in the late nineties and her life leading up to this event. In a run down, quiet coastal town, the teenage Violet starts at the sixth form of a private girls school. She is befriended by a group of girls and also becomes part of their secret club, which is led by a very intriguing, charismatic art teacher known as Annabel, who is following a centuries old tradition. And incidentally, the school’s history is connected to the witchcraft trials that took place there in the 17th century – the exploration of magic is something these girls are fascinated by. I won’t say any more than that 😉

Some of my thoughts…

*I loved the premise of this book and especially its exploration of intense anger and its consequences,  the potential of female power- both liberating and destructive as well as the question of what lengths a person is capable of going to in order to find a sense of belonging.hand*The Furies has some absolutely stunning descriptions; really vivid, evocative settings and character insights.hand*For me, it captured all the angst and intensity of being a teenager really well (and a touch of 90s nostalgia in the process as I was a teenager then too). Beyond the mystery and the possible witchcraft there are four girls trying to make sense of themselves and their world. I think there is a lot to identify with for YA readers and Lowe knows her audience well.hand*I really liked how art, folklore and the history behind the school were interwoven with what happens to the characters in the narrative. Three of my favourite interests all in one book, each contributing their own layer to the story being told.hand*The witchy element made me smile as I adored The Craft and the like when I was younger (still do if I’m honest)  and can totally see why The Furies is being described as its successor.hand*Katie Lowe makes Violet (the narrator), and therefore the reader, constantly question what is going on and that uncertainty works really well. What is in fact real? Is there magic involved? Are there mental health and alcohol/drug abuse issues at play? In fact, is Violet reliable as a narrator?

What didn’t work for me…

The following is based on personal preference and I feel like I need a disclaimer stating that I am also not the target audience – but I do read quite a bit of YA.

*The sections of lectures given by teachers were really interesting and relevant to the plot but they were often lengthy and felt disjointed within the narrative. It pulled me out of the story at times and I wonder what a younger me would have thought about these sections.hand*The animal sacrifice. There are just certain things I cannot read about and this is one of them. Yes, it is part of ritual in this narrative but no, I still don’t think it needs to be there.hand*The mother daughter relationship. This felt flat to me and I personally would have liked more depth – it is clear how important this relationship is for understanding Violet as a character, and I know that the girls are the focus of this narrative and not Violet’s home life, but I still feel there was just much more potential for development there.hand*There was an amount of repetition in terms of descriptive character phrases, of imagery and behaviour. This niggled, especially as I can see the writer is capable of much more.hand*I was really disappointed that the art teacher, Annabel, was not explored further as a character as she was one of my favourite elements; the Miss Jean Brodie-esque figure with her select group of girls. For me, she remained too distant as a character and her story rather fizzled out when there was so much more to explore.

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The Burning by Laura Bates, published by Simon & Schuster

What it’s about: This is the story of Anna, who has just moved to rural Scotland with her mum, completely leaving her old life and everything associated with it behind. A horrendous social media experience and the death of her father have had huge impacts on Anna, and this is the chance for a fresh start. But social media is never truly erased from existence and human behaviour is never that straight forward. As Anna tries to work out what true friendships look like and how she can deal with the soul-destroying challenges she faces on a daily basis, she gets drawn into a history homework project. She is drawn to the story of Maggie, accused of witchcraft centuries ago, who was also targeted for not conforming, and suffered the consequences of other people’s views and actions.

Laura Bates is well known for being the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which you can find more about here and her feminist non-fiction Everyday Sexism and Girl Up ( both of which I have heard such high praise for but haven’t read yet).  This is her first adventure in translating her work into a YA fiction format, a new way to reach audiences and start those all-important conversations. I had a feeling it would be a fierce, intelligent and engaging read and I wasn’t disappointed!

I think this is an incredible book; powerful, thought provoking and compelling all at the same time. Here are my thoughts…

*Anna: I was utterly engaged with Anna as a character. I was routing for her throughout, worrying about her, feeling proud of her – you name it, I felt it! Bates has written a character that I believe teenagers from all walks of life can relate to and connect with. And do to this well, isn’t as easy as Bates makes it look! I also thought the friendship that develops between her, Alisha and Cat was gorgeous and genuinely captured the essence and complexities of teenage friendships. A younger me would have longed to be part of such a friendship group.match*Maggie’s story is equally as engaging. It is beautifully told and interweaves brilliantly with what Anna is facing in the present day. The witchcraft aspect has clearly been thoroughly researched and I like that a teenager could go into this knowing very little of this part of women’s history and truly learn something through the narrative. I read an interview with Laura Bates on the Bookseller website, where she speaks of the message she wants to put across through these two young women separated by time, When I talk about the reality of what girls are facing in UK schools, people have a tendency to shake their heads sadly and bemoan all the problems the internet has caused for young people. But looking at Anna and Maggie’s stories side by side, I hope it becomes clear that these are not new or ‘technological’ problems: this is the way we have always treated women and girls and it won’t change unless we act!match*Bates tackles the dark side of social media head on – once Anna’s photo has been posted without her permission it is beyond her control as the image takes on a life of its own, fuelled by viciousness. The portrayal  of online abuse and real-life bullying is raw and real. Those who bully either don’t care about their impact or are there for the thrill of the ride regardless, or just don’t stop to consider the impact they are having. Here it is worth noting that, because of the issues this book addresses, the language and imagery is honest, sometimes brutal and explicit. It has to be. But I think it is only fair to warn you if you are giving this as a gift so that you are aware of the content and are prepared to address any arising questions.match*The handling of grief is explored so well: how loss winds its way into every aspect of your life, the vacuum that is left when someone you love dies, how difficult it is to find a way forwards and how easy it is to get lost along the way, how hard it can be to communicate grief and especially  if others are hurting too.match*The ending: It is very much a statement ending, a couple of rich scenes that really leave a lasting impression in different ways. Some reviewers have said how this may not have been the most realistic of ways to end the book, but I disagree. Reading this ending is inspiring and inspires action, it is positive without a sugar-coated happy ending, it gives hope and will hopefully help young women to not feel so alone. I think it is also a disservice to young women, to assume they are not capable of Anna’s determination and strength at the end because there are incredible young women out there.matchTo finish, here is a quote that pretty much sums up this reading experience for me:

‘The Burning lights a fire in you – one that makes you want to fight for change and ignite sparks in others so the fire spreads and spreads.’ HOLLY BOURNE