Nevermoor: The Trails of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

It’s funny how readers are often contrary people. When a book is really hyped by various marketing forces and reviewers, we so often resist reading it. I sometimes wonder, why? Is because we don’t want to be told what we should enjoy and rave about? Or is that a small part of us fears we’ll be duped and have our high expectations dashed, resent the time and money spent, and bear witness to the poor author being made a bit of a commercial scapegoat? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

I think a little bit of me felt that way with this book, Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend, yet another part of me longed to read it and celebrate in this young woman’s success as her work is likened to Harry Potter and picked up by a major film company. But another part of me thought, what if they’re wrong? I don’t want to be one of those thinking, “yep, I shouldn’t have listened and trusted my cynical instincts…”

Well, now I’ve read it, I understand both the comparisons to Harry Potter (and other children’s classics) and the hype. This is a simply delightful tale that will capture both children’s and adults’ imaginations and succour those who’ve been clamouring for something creatively nourishing in a new Potter story’s absence (despite there being so many magnificent children’s works out there!).

Nevermoor tells the tale of eleven-year-old (and yes, savvy readers will point out the many similarities between the tropes and characters in Townsend’s book and other writers (Pullman, Rowling, Dahl; etc etc.) I have no problem with familiar metaphors and devices being used – after all, they’re staples of kids’ literature and have thrilled generations. It’s how they’re used that’s important and Townsend doesn’t disappoint) Morrigan Crow who, as a “cursed child” is doomed to die upon her next birthday.

The first few chapters give the reader insight into Morrigan’s life, why she’s “cursed” and how she’s very much an outcast, not only in the city in which she lives, but within her own remote family. Blamed for everything from weather events to illness and even deaths, Morrigan is avoided, treated with suspicion and contempt and the reality of her looming death discussed with an unhealthy enthusiasm by everyone around her.

When she’s whisked away by the magnificently bearded and named, Jupiter North to the chaotic and marvellous city of Nevermoor, it looks as though Morrigan’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better. Only, this state of joy is short-lived as in order to remain in the relative safety of Nevermoor, Morrigan has to undergo a series of dreadful trials so she, as an “illegal”, can be admitted to the Wundrous Society – a group that function like the family she’s never had and, deep down, always wanted.

But in order to have that membership she craves, Morrigan needs to demonstrate not only some important personal qualities, but a special talent and, as she well knows, she doesn’t possess one. Even so, there are those who will do everything in their power to stop talentless Morrigan not only succeeding, but even competing for they know something about Morrigan she is yet to learn and which can alter the fate of not just this young girl, but countries.

There’s no doubt, Townsend has an engaging and warm style and it’s easy to not only enter the world she creates, but thoroughly enjoy the lighter and darker aspects of it. I was reminded of Enid Blyton’s books, Mary Poppins, Philip Pullman’s works, as well as the Harry Potter series, for her ability to draw us in and create scenes you could see, smell, touch and taste. Conjuring wonderful images of magic and mayhem, the city of Nevermoor, and those who people it, are indeed, “wundrous” as are the many inventive trials, modes of transport, the organic, sentient buildings and celebrations the citizens enjoy.

From giant cats to zombies, witches, umbrella-transport systems, the “gossamer line”, and vampire dwarves, Nevermoor and Morrigan’s time there is never dull. Viewing this strange world through her eyes, we too come to embrace this charming place and all the strange beings with their stringent rules who inhabit it. While some of the villains are drawn diametrically to the heroes, this is not a bad thing in a series designed for kids (or adults for that matter), and there are still those who confound expectations.

In this case, the book certainly lived up to my initially hesitant expectations and I am already thinking of some young people who would be as enchanted as I was by this really wundrous tale – I cannot wait to introduce them to Nevermoor.

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The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson

This downright original book was recommended to me by a beloved friend who, when I asked her to describe it, struggled to find the words. In fact, she kept using contradictory language and that had me intrigued. Not only because someone who I admire for her use of language found it hard to put this novel into words, but also because those that she chose were binary opposites: beautiful/ugly; horrific/marvellous etc.

29981261Basically, the novel focuses on a young woman named Maya who is rescued from what’s clearly a protracted and shocking abusive environment by the FBI. From the outset, the reader is plunged into the first of many interviews between two agents, Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison and the frank and bold survivor of this abuse, Maya.

Kidnapped years earlier, Maya is one of many young women who find themselves trapped in what’s, aesthetically at least, a paradisial garden. Fed, clothed and cared for by a man they call “The Gardener”, the girls are given new names and tattooed with elaborate butterflies before being raped. From that point on, they’re expected to be at the brutal but also charming and considerate (in his eyes) man’s beck and call and that of his vicious son, Avery.

The story of the continued abuse and the relationships that develop between the girls unfolds slowly throughout the interviews with the agents as does Maya’s background.

While the tale itself is utterly awful, the writing – and the way Maya tells it to the FBI agents and the way her history and that of the other girls, as well as the awful fates some meet – is tragically lyrical, sometimes humorous and even, as odd and distasteful as it sounds, lovely. Not what The Gardener or his son do to the girls, but how they manage it – how Maya copes and the strategies she and the other butterflies put in place to simply survive and not be broken by the circumstances they find themselves in – even when they know the only way to escape the heavenly hell they find themselves in is to die.

Some of the girls have fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome; most, however, rely on each other for fortitude and friendship and that deep bond that arises through sharing tragedy and when hope is but a distant dream. It is this – the close attachments formed between the girls, the ways they use memories to sustain themselves and willingly adopt the identities given to protect their “real” selves that is both powerful, incredibly moving and beautiful.

I have never read a book quite like this and it’s hard to put down. I know it will haunt me for days. It has twists and turns, and operates much like a psychological thriller, but it’s also expressive and literary. I once described J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy as the most wonderful book about the most awful people I have ever read. I think The Butterfly Farm is similar in that it is a mesmerising book that manages to be both poetic and dreamlike when it covers a subject (and introduces characters) that is the stuff of nightmares.

My friend was right to struggle to describe this book, and to use contrary words when she did. It is a contradiction, a powerful one that works so well and is very original. Four and half stars.

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Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

25737010The third book in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), Career of Evil, is an absolute cracker of a read.

The book opens with Robin Ellacourt, Strike’s very able assistant, receiving a grisly package as she’s about to enter the office building – a woman’s severed leg. Appearing to be a not-too subtle comment on Strike’s disability as well as arousing fear in Robin, Strike tries to work out who among those from his chequered past would seek to send such a macabre message and deadly warning.

While the police become involved, and despite being in their bad books due to inadvertently revealing incompetency within the force in his last very public case (the model, Lulu Lantry), and being told to back-off, Strike doesn’t leave anything to chance. Determining upon four likely suspects whom he once dealt with in varying degrees either personally or professionally, he and Robin begin their own investigation, one that takes them both into danger and earns Strike further wrath and even contempt from those whose services he also needs.

With the media reporting what’s happened and work drying up, Strike needs to find out who’s determined to destroy him and threaten to kill Robin before they succeed.

Wonderfully plotted, rich in character development (more of Strike’s past and Robin’s are revealed, especially as Robin battles to balance a jealous and anxious fiancé, forthcoming wedding plans and satisfying her own professional desire to not only help her employer – for whom she cares deeply – but get to the bottom of his ghoulish mystery. Likewise, Strike has to try and juggle keeping Robin safe without causing offence or implying she’s not capable or hasn’t earned his trust over and over, using her undoubted fine skills and all the while keeping his rapidly sinking business above water.

Segueing in point of view between Strike, Robin and the killer, the novel is full of surprises – some made me jolt upright in my seat and even cry out, as well as scenes of pathos and familial tensions. The dialogue is realistic and drives a great deal of the tale; the writing is sublime and allows the reader to immerse her or him self in different times, places and heads. Allowing Robin to really shine in this book, Galbraith has forced Strike to take a bit of a back seat – but not so much that we don’t also appreciate the finer nuances of this ethical, honest and determined man. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Robin and what drives her – particularly her relationship with Matthew.

I found this book hard to put down; the ending is so apt and marvellous it makes you long for the next book.

For anyone who loves character-driven crime books that are beautifully written – this is for you. But I would recommend reading the series from the start so the depth and subtleties as well as the context of the characters can be fully appreciated.

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Book Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

After reading Cuckoo’s Calling, I couldn’t wait for the next installment in the life and foibles of the wonderfully named ex Special Branch Operative, PI Cormoran Strike and hisThe Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2) eager and quite adorable side-kick, Robin Ellacourt.

Well, The Silkworm didn’t disappoint. It opens with Cormoran dealing with the influx of clients (wealthy) he’s attracted as a consequence of the fame his last case brought him – tracking down infidelities, finding proof of betrayal, things that he does because they keep the till ticking over but are not very fulfilling. When he’s asked by a worn down and quite ordinary woman who arouses his sympathy and protective streak to track down her missing author husband, Owen Quine, and with a fairly obscure promise of payment, Cormoran (much to his surprise) agrees.

Flung into the literary world where egos reign and revenge is lexically bitter-sweet (the adage, don’t piss of a writer, you may well appear in his or her next book rings so true here), Strike cannot find the narcissistic and selfish Quine, though he does discover that the man has written a book set to turn the publishing world upside down. Taking the notion of the “poison pen” literally, Quine has written a terrible expose of all those who ever wronged him in his long and with one exception, not very successful career.

Learning the limits of this unattractive (in terms of personality) and flamboyant writer, both through his unpublished manuscript and anecdotes from those who knew him, Cormoran also discovers many people with a motive to kill him. When a horrendously brutalised body is discovered, what was once a sick literary fantasy fast becomes a shocking reality and Cormoran understands he’s dealing with a psychopath who will do anything to protect their identity…

 

Wonderfully paced, filled with fabulously drawn characters who are flawed, angst-ridden, funny, acerbic and also naive, The Silkworm is a terrific sequel to Cuckoo’s Calling. While Quine’s book is filled with metaphor and allusion based around Pilgrim’s Progress, there’s a sense in which Strike undergoes his own progress – him and Robin who is keener than ever to establish her credentials as not just Strike’s PA, but a professional partner. Encountering the bizarre people who populate the literary landscape, fiendish personalities and some very gory and weird scenarios, Strike has to deal with egos, intellect and lexical word games, dissembling and lies (or are they simply versions of the truth?) in order to uncover the killer.

As in the first novel, Strike’s personal life and his awareness of own weaknesses feature and this makes him such an attractive character. His self-reflections, his understanding that he occasionally uses people and the way this pricks his conscience, are beautifully drawn. You feel Strike’s physical and emotional pain, but also his stoicness in the face of forces beyond his control. Thus, you engage with him even when you don’t necessarily approve of his decisions – how can you not when the most critical judge of Strike’s choices is himself?

Robin really comes into her own in this novel as her personal life throws up questions and challenges and she’s forced to make some clear cut choices. You can feel the relationship between her and Strike grow – but it’s also organic, respectful and extremely gratifying, even when the lines of communication fail.

Found this book very hard to put down – clever, eminently readable, and for a genre that’s well trod, highly original as well.

 

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

Why is it that when a songwriter or singer changes genres we applaud their daring, write, and speak about how multi-talented they are; how fortunate we are to gain so much pleasure from their creativity? But, when a famous author dares to switch genres, there are rumblings and grumblings and unfair expectations placed upon them – before the work is even published? Warning the marketplace that The Casual Vacancy would be nothing like the Harry Potter books, that it was for adults and quite depressing, Rowling was nonetheless encumbered with criticisms and snubs for having the literary presumption to leave Potterworld. Yet, she was blunt: if you were looking for Hogwarts and wizards, she warned, they would not be found in the pages of her new book. Yet, so many reviewers have come to the novel with the expectation that, for some reason, they should be there, even if just a glimmer, whisper or peek. They practically accuse her of letting readers down, of abusing her position as a world-famous writer instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt and congratulating her for demonstrating such imagination and lexical dexterity.

Frustrated by attitudes, stories and some reviews (which were not reviews because it was clear the book hadn’t been read, rather they were more rebukes) the publication of this book produced, it was hard not to let them tarnish the reading experience. I tried to approach this book as I would any other by a beloved author who decided to try their hand at something different and read and rate it on its own merits – and I was not disappointed. But, as Rowling warned, it’s no Harry Potter: the only magical thing is the writing, which is superb.

The Casual Vacancy is, frankly, brilliantly awful. Set across two English towns, Pagford and The Fields, one with a very acute awareness of its history, the other a by-product of late modernity, they are inhabited by a cast of mostly toxic characters who illustrate, through their small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, the pettiness that can exist in supposed idyllic English village-like communities. As I read, I kept thinking of a quote about academia that’s been attributed to Henry Kissinger (among others), that “the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low” – I think this sums Rowling’s book up nicely.

After the death of a member of the local council, Barry Fairclough, various members of the Pagford community vie for his vacant seat. As they do, the reader is drawn into the complexity and ugliness of what should be simple lives, albeit, affected by mourning and loss. Populated by ego-centric, gossiping, classist, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, drug-taking self-interested people, Pagford and The Fields appear to be governed by folk who can barely function in their own lives, let alone make decisions that will affect others. And, as the council move towards another election, it becomes clear that one person’s loss is potentially another’s gain.

Not even the children in this miserable tale are spared the less attractive qualities the adults so readily exhibit, and is it any wonder when the grown-ups are their role-models? The kids have learned their lessons well. Dishonest, thieving, sneaky and risk-takers, they are both effect and cause of the outcomes.

As the story progresses, Rowling demonstrates her uncanny ability to mine a character’s emotions and psychology, to peel back layers to explain even the most unlikely or heinous of behaviours, to provide a context for understanding (but rarely approving). Piecing together the jigsaw of individuality, family and community, she mercilessly flays the characters, forensically dismantles their psyches and leaves them in the equivalent of a mortuary for us to gaze upon in horror.

For example, there’s Simon, violent, bad-tempered and his ineffectual wife, Ruth; their two boys, Andrew (called “pizza-face” by his aggressive, abusive father) and “Pauline”; Parminder, the local doctor, surprised by her reaction to a fellow-councilman’s death and who appears to understand the bodies and minds of all the townspeople in her care but not her own children. Her dashing heart-surgeon husband, Sukhvinder, regarded as a hero by those he loathes, especially the Mollisons – a work of gruesome art  – for whom Rowling shows very little sympathy. Empathy is reserved for some of the residents of The Fields as well as the children in the novel who can do little more than suffer their parents and their foibles, until they discover the means to revenge – not served cold, but molten hot.

The race is on to secure the vacant council seat and, as the story progresses, skeletons are exposed, secrets uncovered. Everyone in this novel is damaged – severely and, when terrible tragedy unfolds, it’s only the myopic townsfolk who didn’t see it coming.

The writing is what makes this bleak book. While Rowling does head-hop (a cardinal sin in most author’s hands), she does it with aplomb and there’s a sense in which this becomes a stylistic of the narrative. We drift from one character’s thoughts to another’s, caught in the current of activity, the plots and plans of little men and women. In terms of the tone, I was reminded of Elizabeth George’s marvellous and heart-rending What Came Before He Shot Her, only this book is firmly rooted in the middle classes (though there are those who feature who can no longer claim a place there) and the life decisions that can affect generations. Also, George’s book redeems some characters – see if you think the same happens here. I have also heard, again before publication, that the book was likened to Midsomer Murders. The Casual Vacancy make Midsomer Murders seem like Narnia – before the White Witch.

Drugs, suicide, rape, incest, adultery, criminal activity, violent abuse, shocking neglect, fear, anxiety, OCD, dark fantasies, cruelty, it’s all there – relentless, but darkly fascinating at the same time. Rowling really raised (or lowered) the writing stakes with this book.

No, this wasn’t what anyone expected… but how marvellous is that?

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