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.

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 

 

Two magical reads: The Disappearances and The Memory Trees

I came across both The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy and The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace through my monthly Book Box Club subscription. These boxes full of bookish loveliness are imaginative and incredibly well thought out. If you want to find out more, have a look at their website here and their blog is a great place to have a look at past unboxings.

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I read the books one after another as I’m really enjoying a themed reading approach this summer. And here the theme is magic -but not in terms of witches, wizards and spells – more of a subtle magic embedded into our world and an element of mystery thrown in for good measure.

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I adored The Disappearances in so many ways. It is the story of Aila and her younger brother Miles, who go to stay in the rather mysterious, remote town of Sterling. As their mother has recently died, and their father is called up to serve in the second world war, they go to live with their mother’s best friend and her family. Every seven years something disappears in Stirling such as people’s reflections, the stars and the ability to dream.  Aila realises that this is all somehow connected to her mother’s past and sets out to find the truth and stop any further disappearances from happening. There is a rather lovely romance too.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the gorgeous characters, especially Aila. Each character is individual, there isn’t a trope in sight and there is also a complexity to the characters that makes them feel very real and easy to engage with.

…the World War II setting. The period fitted into the narrative beautifully, the subtle details adding to the richness.

…the theme of searching for belonging and how it feels to be an outsider. Each of the characters searches for their place in the world in their own way; they are united in their longing for human connection. This theme was beautifully explored and really invited the reader to see events and characters from different perspectives.

…the interweaving of Shakespeare and his texts as clues for the mystery. I thought this was brilliant, using snippets from his works to guide the mystery of the disappearances. What a great way to entice young adults into reading Shakespeare!

…the exploration of how much we take for granted in the world we live in. This wasn’t done in a preachy and obvious way, more like gentle nudges to notice the world around you. Imagine not being able to see the stars at night, use colours to create or hear music.

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I had more of a mixed reading experience with The Memory Trees, absolutely loving parts of it but also feeling rather confused at times. This is the story of Sorrow Lovegood set against the background of her strong female line of ancestors, who settled in a rather unusual apple orchard many years ago. Sorrow’s mum leads a very alternative lifestyle and struggles severely with her mental health, but Sorrow has her older sister Patience to look out for her until one day Patience dies in a fire. Returning to the mysterious orchard when she is 16, having lived the intervening years with her father, Sorrow is determined to rebuild a relationship with her mother and unlock her memories to find out the truth about Patience’s death.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the premise of a mysterious family legacy with strong female ancestors. This really intrigued me. There is a beautiful family tree image at beginning of the book to refer to as the ancestors emerge in the book and linked with this is the presence of the orchard, almost a character in itself,  which leaves mysterious trinkets for Sorrow to find.

…the exploration of what home is. Sorrow searches for belonging, a theme I always identify with. She feels compelled to return to the orchard and her past, to the memories of her sister, yet this home is also an incredibly difficult place, full of challenges. Sorrow is also very much an outsider, looking in and this aspect was written with great insight.

…the mother/daughter relationship. This is very much influenced by her mother’s mental health and Sorrow’s response to it. The portrayal of Sorrow’s mother is incredibly well developed, she really comes across as a complex character. A character who you can see is ill and who is constantly dealing with her mental health, whose thought processes and emotions you want to understand and empathise with, yet, at the same time also feeling such anger for some of the choices she makes in her role as a mother. It is Sorrow who takes it upon herself/is forced to be the calm and rational one, she is in many ways the parent in the relationship and loses a part of herself in the process. Fantastic character dynamics!

My problem with this book was…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…that I think the author included too many themes so that many were not developed in the detail I craved. There were parts that I didn’t feel connected or that didn’t have enough information for the reader to reach her own conclusions. The stories of the ancestors for example seemed like separate inserts instead of being interwoven in the story with the contemporary characters, meaning I couldn’t quite see what their purpose was. Another example is the hint of a lesbian relationship – this fades out and almost feels like an afterthought, yet it could have added so much to both narrative and character development.