Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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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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