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

AR Cover

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.

AR Blog Tour 3

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.

AR Cover Image 1

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.

AR Cover Image 1 (2)

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?!

AR Cover Image 1

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).

AR Cover Image 1

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 😊

ann-scott-moncrieff0003

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

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 😊

the furies

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.

the burning

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 

 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I honestly don’t know how I feel about Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; I’m finding it difficult to organise my thoughts and feelings but try I shall! This is the first book I have read by Sarah Moss, I’ve heard so many people talk about how much they love her work and thought it was high time that I formed my own opinion.

51WWWSzTqmL

Synopsis: Set during an unusually hot week in summer in rural Northumberland, this is the story of 17-year-old Silvie, whose father has decided his family will take part in a university research project to recreate and experience Ancient Briton life – an exploration of rituals, foraging and very stripped back living conditions. Silvie’s working-class father, an amateur historian when not driving buses, has approached this experiment in all seriousness, passionate about the past and intent on making it an authentic experience at all costs. His intensity causes increasing friction between the participants and a dark sense of unease develops – his opinions and actions have far reaching consequences. It is also the story of a nameless Iron Age girl, who is sacrificed as a part of an ancient ritual in the opening scenes and how her death weaves into the characters’ contemporary narrative.

What I loved/ found intriguing…

gwhall flourish

The portrayal of the natural world: Moss creates an in-depth sense of place so that I felt I was walking the paths of the present-day characters as well as their ancestors over two thousand years ago. Nature is that close, that powerful, that rich and that crucial to survival. I also really liked that Moss sets this story just before the explosion in technology that took over towards the end of the 90s. Mobiles, laptops and tablets are missing and this is such a clever way of allowing the plot to feel contemporary in so many other ways whilst also creating a sense of intense nature-focused isolation.

The complex, deep and often twisted daughter father relationship: This was so interesting to explore and figure out. There is pride and connection and even fondness as well as manipulation, coercion and violence. It makes for uncomfortable reading and challenges readers to examine our own perceptions.

Silvie as a character: I loved Silvie as she comes of age, how her strong passion for nature and curiosity about the world beyond her experiences develops and how she finds her sexual identity too. I think Moss portrays Silvie’s position so well as a young woman still dependent on her parents in terms of everyday life and still with a need for approval yet also longing for independence and the opportunities to challenge others and express the person she is becoming.

The northerness of Silvie’s family: I could literally hear the voice of Silvie and her father as they spoke and really connected with the snippets of their life back home. In connection with their background, I also really liked the questions Moss explores regarding class and education- gritty, relevant stuff indeed.

The intertwining of past and present until they merge: This was so well written; the haunting, eerie connection between Silvie and the Iron Age girl gives me the shivers just thinking about it and it is so subtly crafted that it never tips into a fictional time travel type plot device. The exploration of what being British actually means in terms of the present interpreting the past is also so poignant when viewed from our  Brexit-filled days. Silvie’s father is intent on finding his ideal “Britishness” away from any outside influences – he is desperate for a sense of place and power and channels all of this into a project, which ironically cannot be as pure as he desperately wants it to be because of the very present-day rooted students involved and the fact that the Britons were made up anyone present at that point in time – mostly immigrants in fact.

The suspense: I really enjoyed the way Moss makes us constantly question what is in fact going on, only giving a tiny bit away at a time and leaving so much to our interpretation. The dynamics between the characters in general also adds brilliantly to this suspense, the friction and intensity becomes increasingly tangible as the story progresses.

The elements I personally struggled with…

gwhall flourish

The mother: The portrayal of Silvie’s mother left me angry and so frustrated as she felt stereotypical and I couldn’t get near her as a character because of this. This was such an opportunity to go deeper than the trope of the abused wife, who stands by as her child is abused, who often tries to lessen the impact yet so frequently makes excuses for her husband’s behaviour.

The violence and coercion displayed by the father: This is very much a personal perspective as I try to stay away from this kind of violence in my reading due to my own experiences. And because of this, Ghost Wall often felt too personal and hard to digest. From an objective perspective,  I know there is a point to the violence being there, it certainly adds to the narrative’s power and produces a very visceral reading response.

It. Was. Too. Short: Yes, I know it is a novella and a tight narrative structure has been crafted on purpose– it grips and takes you along on a tense ride, leaving you feeling almost breathless at the end. I read it in an afternoon.  but there was so much more I was desperate to find out more about. Whilst some themes and events are wonderfully rich and detailed like the landscape, others are only briefly mentioned, meaning that sometimes I was absolutely gripped and other times I was left feeling detached from the narrative.

The dialogue doesn’t have speech punctuation: Although this is a minor stylistic point, it never the less affected my experience as I was unsure who was speaking at times and, as a result, had to reread certain sections, losing the flow of the text in the process.

So, what do I think about Ghost Wall overall?  It was haunting, deeply disturbing, mesmerizing and thought provoking. But at the same time there just wasn’t enough depth for me, I wanted so much more, and the abuse was hard to read on a personal level. One thing I can say with certainty is that Ghost Wall has stayed with me since I finished reading it; I’m still thinking about it, digesting, questioning – and that in my opinion is a sign of a strong piece of writing! I first marked it as a 3-star read on Goodreads but have since changed it to a 4 for this reason and  I will definitely pick up another Sarah Moss book to see where it takes me.

P.S. I read a really interesting interview with Sarah Moss about her motivation behind Ghost Wall over on the Waterstones blog. Here is the link, it is well worth a read.