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A Letter To A Young Reader

Almost a year ago, a young reader wrote to me looking for advice on how to become a writer, of SF and fantasy in particular, and what to do if you don’t think you can come up with any new ideas.

Recently, in looking through some old emails, I came across my reply. I thought it was filled with the sort of timeless advice I give everyone who asks me questions like these, and then I thought: why not put this advice on the blog, for everyone to see?

So, here you go. I’ve obviously redacted all identifying information relating to the sender of the original query, but the majority of this post is exactly reproduced from my letter, sent last October. I hope, if you’re full of questions, that it will help you too.

The Eye of the North meets some of its older cousins. (Photo: SJ O’Hart)

How Do I Become A Writer?

I’m delighted to hear you’re interested in writing. I get asked all the time where my ideas come from, and to be honest the answer is ‘from everywhere’. What I mean is, I’m a person who pays attention to the world around me, and I’m insatiably curious. I’m forever asking questions, wondering about things, needing to find things out, and I try to learn all the time. As a kid I loved to read dictionaries and encyclopedias and books of facts (I just loved  to read in general, really) and all the interesting bits would sort of stick to the inside of my brain, where they’d eventually grow into story-seeds. The Kraken from The Eye of the North, for instance, was something I first came across in a book of myths and legends I read as a seven-year-old, and it stuck with me for decades before finding its way out in a story. So, my tips would be:


-Read as much as you can, and as widely as you can. No reading is ever wasted.


-Think about things, daydream, wonder, ask yourself questions and find out the answers, cherish the things you’re interested in and dive into them as deeply as possible. All those nuggets will go into your memory bank and could eventually turn into a story.


-Keep a notebook handy. When you’re out and about, take notes and/or doodle the things you see, hear, and smell. Listen to how people talk. Eavesdrop as politely as possible! Get a feel for the rhythms of language by listening as carefully as you can. 


-Cultivate your curiosity. Notice things. Don’t walk through the world with your head down – look up and see the cat sitting on the window-ledge, or the rainbow peeking through the clouds, or the old couple holding hands in the park, or the runaway dog with one ear turned inside out… look for all the beautiful detail in the world and soak it all in. Ideas are everywhere. Writers are just the people who notice them. (An addendum to this: make sure to use all the senses that are available to you, and don’t neglect your senses of smell, touch, and taste!)


-Whenever you get a little story-seed – so, a character name, or a good sentence, or an interesting image, or a setting, or even a line or two of dialogue – write it down. But if you only get a little ‘flash’, don’t worry, and don’t push it. Put it aside. Lay it down in the warm darkness of your imagination, and let it grow. You’ll find, eventually, that it’ll start bugging you so much that you’ll be itching to write the story!


-Don’t worry too much about originality. There are no new things under the sun! That old saying has a lot of truth in it. Nobody comes up with ideas that are completely unique – I didn’t invent the idea of a girl going after her kidnapped parents, or an Arctic setting, and I certainly didn’t invent the Kraken! But perhaps the way I put them together, and the fact that the story was written in my ‘voice’, made it mine. Anything you write will have your stamp on it, and if you infuse it with the things that are special to you, the things you love and are passionate about, it will always have a fresh feeling to it. 


-Don’t judge yourself too harshly. Write for the joy of it, and know that any story you create is a huge accomplishment. Be proud of it. Don’t throw anything away, even stories that don’t work, because there’ll be something useful in everything you write. And don’t expect things to work first time, all the time. If it’s frustrating you, put it aside and come back to it in a week or a month; don’t give up. Writing can be hard work. It often is. Every story and every published book will have a hundred thousand ‘wrong’ words behind it. I did so many drafts of all my published books, and they were edited in depth by multiple people! They didn’t pop out of my head as they appear on the page. 


– As for tips for writing fantasy/sci-fi/humour – my best tip is to read those sort of books and watch those sort of movies. Every story you take in will teach you something – how stories work, what makes a funny line so funny, and what ideas have been a bit overdone. I really recommend Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Catherine Fisher, Justina Ireland, Karuna Riazi, Hannah Alkaf, Sarwat Chadda and so many more, but those authors are a great place to start. I get a lot of my humour in my dialogue, and the only tip I have for that is to listen to people, enjoy accents, and take pleasure in funny, new words and in language overall.


I hope this helps!


Keep reading, keep wondering, and keep dreaming. The stories will come.


Warmly yours,
Sinéad  

Skyborn Is Published!

Today is June 10th, 2021. For many, that won’t mean much. But for me?

Today’s the day my third – third! – novel publishes with Little Tiger Press. *shocked and amazed emoji face*

Skyborn is released into the world today. It’s available wherever you get your books (ideally, a bookshop… a real one, in a proper building, with tax-paying staff and proper toilet breaks and all that stuff… but no judgement if you choose otherwise) and I very much hope this book reaches an audience, that it’s read and enjoyed and that it brings a sparkle of magic and wonder to the world.

Skyborn cover, designed by Sophie Bransby and drawn by Sara Mulvanny, published by Little Tiger Press, 2021

Skyborn is a prequel to my first book, The Eye of the North, and tells the story of Thing (who you might remember from The Eye of the North) during his earlier life, before we get a chance to meet him in Eye. If you’ve read Eye you’ll know that, in that book, we follow Thing – a mysterious character with no proper name, and fragmented recollections of his family – as he travels to Greenland in the company of the brave Emmeline in order to try to save the world. Skyborn takes the reader back to those fragmented recollections, fleshing them out into the full-bodied story of Thing’s childhood in a circus and his discovery of a deeply-buried secret from his mother’s past which threatens his own future, and that of everyone he loves…

As Skyborn is a prequel to The Eye of the North, please don’t feel you have to have read the earlier book in order to read Skyborn. In fact, they work better the other way around! It’s great to finish one book and have the sequel ready to go.

All my books have been fun to write, and I’ve loved the creation of all of them in different ways, but Skyborn has been such a wonderful journey. It’s a book I never thought I’d write, a story that I discovered as I put it together, one that draws on the deep loves of my childhood in the same way as everything else I’ve ever written but which had the added benefit of being about a character I’d already created, and one that I already loved. Its circus setting comes straight from the circuses I found so magical as a child; the walled city with its long-held secrets is excavated from the stories and movies I adored growing up; the characters – particularly Crake, who I love so dearly – have threads of my own beloved people in them. All these shining flecks of the story were taken from my own strange story-cauldron where I keep all the ideas I get in the hope they’ll germinate into something wondrous. I think, in Skyborn, they truly have.

This is a book I’m proud of. Thank you, so much, for all the support you’ve given me since I began this writing dream almost a full decade ago. I’m (incredibly) on my fourth book – my third full-length novel – and I have no intention of stopping just yet. I hope you’ll stick with me as I figure out where to go next.

Now. Roll Up, Roll Up – you’ve got a front-row seat! The performance is about to begin, and The Skyborn Boy is ready to fly… Alley-oop!

Five Cool Facts About SKYBORN

My new book, Skyborn, is coming from Little Tiger Press in just over three weeks – on June 10th, to be precise! So, I decided to make a short video: Five Cool Facts About Skyborn, to introduce you to the book and its story world, and to give you a flavour of what it’s about. I hope you enjoy!

And don’t forget: if you pre-order your copy of SKYBORN from Halfway Up the Stairs Bookshop in Wicklow or from the Rocketship Bookshop in the UK, you’ll receive a signed and personalised bookplate to stick into the book, thereby transforming it (ta-daaaah!) into a signed copy. But, of course, you can pre-order SKYBORN just the same as you can pre-order or order any book: by calling into, or phoning, or emailing, or using carrier pigeons, or in any other way contacting your favourite bookshop or bookstore and asking them to organise getting a copy of the book to you. Booksellers are magicians, people. They can find literally anything. Try it!

Anyway. Without further ado, here are FIVE COOL FACTS ABOUT SKYBORN!

WonderFest!

In case you hadn’t heard…

There’s a brand-new Festival in town!

Well. Technically, it’s in every town, everywhere, because – yes! – it’s Ireland’s First Digital Children’s Literature Festival. It’s called WonderFest. It’s happening very soon – like, next week, November 20th to November 22nd! It’s a celebration of Irish children’s literature, particularly of all the amazing books that have been published in 2020 so far. And it’s full of brilliant things like Go Animal Crackers – Animal Tales and Draw Along with Alan Nolan, Margaret Ann Suggs and Jennifer Farley! There’s also Eggcorns and Bumbumbees: Word and Art Play with Chris Judge! There’s Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with PJ Lynch, Kieran Fanning, Marianne McShane and Lindsay Sedgwick! There’s a Live Q&A with DEREK LANDY! There’s a Dead Zoo Draw-Along with Peter Donnelly! There’s another Lunchtime Tales of Wonder with Celine Kiernan, Eve McDonnell and Catherine Doyle!

I mean… I need to sit down after all that excitement. While I’m recovering, here’s a photo of the fab Alan Nolan, on the hunt for stories (as is his wont).

(Photo Credit: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Loads of the events have already sold out, but never fear. There’s so much more still to explore. If you (or your grown-ups) have access to Zoom, then you’re all invited to take part in WonderFest. It’s going to be WonderFul, and so much fun. Get your tickets through the website, tune in at the right time, and a world of Wonder awaits…

Some Recent Reads

I’m lucky enough to be on the radars of several Very Important Publicists (and fellow authors), so occasionally I’m contacted and asked to read proofs, and/or early copies, of forthcoming books. I can’t always say ‘yes’ to these generous offers, but I do my best to accommodate requests as often as I can. It’s a huge privilege, for which I’m very grateful.

The cover of the proof of GLASSHEART, by Katharine Orton, art by Sandra Dieckmann, to be published by Walker Books UK in November 2020

Glassheart

One of the brilliant books I’ve read in the past few weeks was Glassheart, by Katharine Orton, which is coming from Walker Books UK in November this year. I loved Katharine’s debut, Nevertell, and her second novel is even better – a heartfelt, poignant and powerful story about grief, and war, and the power of sadness to both build up and to destroy. It tells the story of Nona, niece to a master glazier, who helps him work to try to repair the damaged windows in buildings torn by war. On a new job in Dartmoor, they encounter strange and inexplicable magic, which seems to have taken over Nona’s uncle. It’s up to Nona to get to the bottom of the mystery of the wild power, and to unravel its connection to the windows her uncle is labouring to complete. This book is a solid 5/5 for me – I loved it, and I can’t wait until it’s out for everyone to enjoy.

Return to Roar

Anyone who (like me) loved Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar last year will absolutely devour the sequel, Return to Roar. Crowky, one of the best and scariest villains around, makes a welcome – or unwelcome – return, and the story is stuffed with the same spills, thrills, and wildly imaginative adventures as the first book. Arthur and Rose are on a week’s holidays in Grandad’s house, and so what better way to fill their days than to make a return visit to the land of imagination they cooked up as younger children, and which somehow exists for real through the special portal in Grandad’s attic. They think Crowky is gone, but then they realise he may not be – and that the key to him finding his way back through the portal and into the Real might be dangerously close… Another 5-star read for me, Return to Roar is currently available.

The Hungry Ghost

H.S. Norup’s The Hungry Ghost is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – certainly, it’s one of my favourites from this year. Telling the tale of Danish girl Freja, who arrives in Singapore during Hungry Ghost month, it’s an incredibly well-crafted story of family, loss, grief, and love – as well as having a healthy dollop of adventure, mystery, and intrigue, too. Freja meets an enigmatic, mysterious, and not a little spooky girl in a white dress during her time in Singapore, and alongside her new friend discovers hidden secrets in this new city, as well as an entirely forgotten chapter to her family history. You may need tissues by the end… The Hungry Ghost is genuinely stunning, with evocatively-written settings and extraordinary character building. An absolute 5-star read.

The House at the Edge of Magic

Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic is a delight. Coming next January from Walker Books UK, it’s a genuinely funny story, but not one lacking in stakes, excitement, or pathos. We follow Nine, a pickpocket who lives in the Nest, a run-down ‘shelter’ for pickpockets like her, where their bed and board must be paid for with trinkets and treasures. Nine only has one treasure, which she’s had since she was a baby, and she hasn’t been lucky, lately, with the pockets she’s tried to pick. Then, she sees a young lady in the streets and tries to steal from her, only to discover a tiny house in her pocket – which very rapidly grows into a huge house, home to Flabberghast the magician and his motley crew of raggle-taggle beasties. This story had me glued to the pages, with a grin on my face throughout. If you’re a fan of Diana Wynne Jones, particularly Howl’s Moving Castle, this book should definitely appeal.

Elsetime

Eve McDonnell’s debut novel Elsetime is nearly among us! In fact, I think my pre-ordered copy is already on its way to me… *excited face* I was lucky enough to be asked to read the proof of Eve’s book several months ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. Her characters – particularly her gorgeous-hearted, brave, stalwart Needle, and feisty apprentice jewellery-maker Glory Bobbin – are wonderfully crafted, and this twisty, fast-paced story will keep you guessing right to the end. A time-slip adventure, utilising a very clever mechanism for travelling from one era to the other, Elsetime is the tale of Needle, a mudlark, who discovers a very unusual treasure in the muck one day – a treasure that brings him somewhere he could never have imagined, tasked with saving people from a flood only he knows is going to happen. Based on real events around the Great Flood of London in 1928, this is a unique and memorable book – which should be available very soon!

These are only a flavour of the excellent books I’ve been treated to over the past few months, but I hope they’ll give you some inspiration to go out (or stay home) and support your local independent bookshops; they need the help, and your brain needs these stories. Happy reading!

The Green Wave

This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for ages now, but somehow never managed to find the time. Recent events – specifically, the EU elections here in Europe, which have seen (particularly in Ireland, my home country) a surge in support for the Green Party (or its equivalent in other countries) – have finally given me the impetus I’ve been searching for. So, buckle up, buttercups: here are some of my personal top tips for living a greener life and, particularly, reducing the amount of plastic you consume – because, when you think about it, is there anything more important facing us as a species? I don’t think so. These tips are all things that I have personally done, which means they’re all things you can do too. I hope you find them useful.

Right. At the risk of sounding like a po-faced monstrosity, let’s get started.

1. Change Your Toothbrush

I don’t just mean ‘buy a new one’. No. What I mean is: change it from a plastic-handled one to one made from more sustainable, renewable and (importantly) biodegradable/compostable materials, like bamboo. I’ve been using a Humble Brush for a few years now (no, not the same one. Ew! Don’t be disgusting) and I find them absolutely amazing.

Image: funkymonkeypants.com

The Humble Brush works, feels and performs exactly as well as any plastic toothbrush, but it has one important difference: the handle is made from bamboo, which disappears (under the right conditions, i.e. in landfill or compost) within a year. Considering it takes between 800 and 1000 mindboggling years for a plastic toothbrush to ‘biodegrade’, this is a no-brainer. I’ve also recently started to use the Bambooth toothbrush, which is even fancier than the Humble Brush; it has a colourful bamboo handle, variegated nylon bristles, and it comes in its own cardboard carrying tube. Bambooth’s absolutely brilliant tagline is ‘Change the Handle, Change the World’, which sums it up for me.

2. Change Your Detergents/Soaps

This one is super-easy and will save you money, too. Instead of using plastic boxes filled with plastic pods to wash your clothes – you know the type, the ones filled with gunky detergent which you toss into the drum of your washing machine – try using the simple, old-fashioned cardboard box of loose washing powder. Admittedly, if you’re unlucky (as I often am) sometimes you’ll have spillages – but it’s worth it. When you run out of powder you have a very recyclable box, and that’s all. No plastic. No nonsense.

I also use solid hand soap at all the sinks in my house – you can get an endless variety of scents and sizes and colours and shapes, and anti-bacterial ones for the bathrooms. Try to get ones that come in cardboard and paper wrapping, which means you have brilliant soap which lasts for ages, costs a fraction of what the fancy plastic squeezy liquid soap bottles do, and leaves no lasting waste behind.

3. Think About Using Solid Shampoo/Shower Bars

This one’s a bit more tricky, as not everyone is going to like solid shampoo. Those of us with thicker hair, or longer hair, mightn’t be too enamoured of the feel of a solid shampoo, but if it suits you to try it, then please do. Some I’ve used (SoapNuts, in particular) have given a great lather and a wonderful clean. Of course, using soap in the shower instead of (or alongside) plastic bottles of gel is a huge help.

4. Change Up your Sanitary/Babycare Shop

Back when my little one was a baby, we made a choice to use washable/reusable and/or biodegradable nappies/diapers. We used several brands of washable nappies – Little Lambs, Charlie Bananas, and G Nappies primarily, all of which worked fantastically well – and at the end of our nappying/diapering journey we supplemented our stash with biodegradable nappies. The brand we used was Kit and Kin, but there are loads of brilliant options available now. Just think: babies are a small-ish percentage of the overall population, but nappy/diaper waste is a huge problem. Every baby in diapers is changed perhaps ten times a day, or more; every single one of those diapers/nappies goes into the bin, and into landfill.

Where they do not disappear. Just imagine the sheer numbers.

When I was pregnant with my child, I went for a walk one hot summer’s day. I passed a bin filled with used nappies, and the smell made me retch. It was then I swore we’d try to find the greenest option possible for our own child’s diapering needs. If you have a bum (or bums!) in nappies in your house, maybe look into greener options. They exist in abundance. I’m very happy to help if you have questions!

The same principle applies to things like baby wipes, sanitary protection, cotton buds, plasters/bandaids, and so many small things we take for granted. Baby wipes are a scourge to our waterways, beaches and pipes; never flush them, even if the packet says you can. Try not to use them if possible (though I do admit they’re extremely handy, out and about), and look for biodegradable ones. We use Kinder by Nature, widely available in pharmacists nationwide. Sanitary protection (like sanitary pads/liners, tampons and so on) should also never be flushed, and there are loads of brilliant options available if you want to get away from plastic. Mooncups and reusable/washable sanitary protection work brilliantly for loads of people, but the option I go for is to use the Natracare range, which is very easy to find in most pharmacies and shops, and which is fully compostable. It’s plastic, chlorine, and bleach free, and the range works just as well as any plastic-packed alternative. I also swapped out my cotton buds/Q-Tips with plastic free alternatives, and I use plastic-free plasters/bandaids.

Something I discovered as my child grew older, too, was how often things like glitter and balloons feature in their lives. Glitter is a horror for the environment (I bought some biodegradable glitter, but it’s an expensive option) and balloons are even worse. At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, try to limit these things when you can.

I also replaced my clingfilm/Saran wrap with beeswax wraps, which I find to be very useful and easy to clean, though not really suitable for use with meat leftovers. (Don’t beat yourself up over a little clingfilm.) Another small change I’m happy to have made is swapping out plastic straws for paper ones, and bamboo ones for more sturdy challenges.

5. Shop Clever, and Remember the 3 Rs

It’s not always easy, but something you can do which really helps is to cut down on the plastic you buy in the supermarket. Some supermarkets provide biodegradable bags for loose fruit and veg; if yours doesn’t, then bring your own. If you buy fresh meat at a butcher’s, then bring your own (scrupulously clean) plastic box, with a perfectly sealable lid (a lunchbox is perfect) and ask them to put your raw meat products in it instead of in two or three throwaway plastic bags. Always bring your own bags to carry shopping home – I have a collection of cotton totes large enough to hold everything I own, and which I invariably forget to bring when I go shopping – and try to be aware, as you purchase, of how much waste the item will create, and buy accordingly. Try to buy meat and fruit products in clear plastic packaging, as opposed to black (it’s harder to recycle black plastic), try to buy packaging which is already recycled (companies like Ecover and Innocent are good for this), and try to buy cardboard packaging as often as you can.

We recycle scrupulously in my house, as I’m sure most people do, but the more important of the 3 Rs is the first one – Reduce. It’s easy to lessen the amount of rubbish leaving your house if you don’t use it in the first place! Reuse whenever you can – yogurt pots as planters for seeds or paint-mixing pots, fruit trays as storage boxes for small toys or crafting materials, plastic wrap (where it’s unavoidable to buy) as binliners – there are loads of things you can do. And then Recycle as much as you can. Please do wash out your containers before putting them in your recycling, and squash them down to maximise space.

Phew. So, if you’re still here, thank you. I’m (in case you hadn’t guessed) passionate about the environment and protecting it for future generations. I know it feels like we, as individuals, don’t have a lot of power – but that’s not really true. If every one of us made an effort to be mindful about plastic, waste and recycling, it would make a huge difference. If – as we’ve seen – we vote in large numbers for parties and politicians who will prioritise dealing with climate collapse, everyone will be better off. Governments and corporations need to move the dial, of course, but never feel like your own small effort is worthless. It’s not. I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful, and if you have any of your own, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from fellow Greenies about the tips and tricks you bring to living a bright, green, clean life on this beautiful planet we all share.

Cover Reveal for THE EYE OF THE NORTH!

Meeting your book’s jacket for the first time is a heady experience. People compare it to having a child, but it’s not 100% the same (and I should know…) When you meet your child, you’re bound to think it’s the most beautiful baby the world has ever known. There has never been a bonnier child. No eyes have ever been sparklier nor any nose more buttony, and so on.

But with a book jacket? Well. You have no idea how it will look (unless you’ve been heavily involved, which is unlikely); you sometimes don’t know the artist or their work, and you wonder if they’ll be able to ‘get’ your vision (if that doesn’t sound too precious). You worry that they’ll draw your heroine all wrong, or that they’ll put her in a flouncy gown when the book very clearly states she wears a studded armour-plated suit at all times, or whatever.

In my case, the artist (Jeff Nentrup, by the way – check him out, he’s aces) created a cover which was exactly like the one I wanted but which I would have had no chance of creating myself. It was precisely what I dreamed of in terms of layout, style and colouring. The lettering is amazing. It just smacks of professionalism, skill and – dare I say it? – a total cohesion of my vision and his for what the book is about. And all this, without me ever having had a conversation with, or even having met, Mr Nentrup. If he’s reading – *waves* – you’re awesome!

In short, I was blown away.

And now, without dragging this out any further, I present to you (tah-dah!) the cover for my book, The Eye of the North, which is forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers in August 2017. Isn’t she a beaut?

eye-front-cover

Cover image for THE EYE OF THE NORTH (Knopf BFYR, 2017), artist Jeff Nentrup.

Thanks to you all for still being here, for bearing with me during the last few chaotic months, and for sharing this wonderful journey. The first place I shared the seeds of Emmeline and Thing’s story was on this blog, and now here we have the cover of their very own book. Life, sometimes, is an amazing and funny thing.

I hope you like the cover! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know!

Book Review Saturday – ‘White Feathers’

In the interests of full disclosure, I want to say that the author of this book is a person I know. We have only met in person once, but we are regular correspondents over social media and I have followed her work for some time. That said, I have done my utmost to remain objective both in my reading of the novel and the construction of this review, and I have not let any personal opinions cloud my judgement.

So. Let’s begin, shall we?

Image credit: S.J. O'Hart

Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

White Feathers is a historical romance, based in Britain and Ireland at the outbreak of the Great War, and in its observation of the time, it is note-perfect. I am passionate about the history of the First World War, and the societal mores which governed this period, so in that sense White Feathers played right into my interests. The very idea of giving someone a white feather – the notion that women were encouraged to think of themselves as being the arbiters of social justice on one hand, while the real issue, the fact that they were disenfranchised and in all real senses denied the human rights which should have been theirs without question, was left to fester on the other – is fascinating, and tragic, and terrible. Eva Downey, the heroine of this novel, isn’t a woman who takes what she is given, though, and for that reason (among many) her story is worth reading.

The Prologue of this novel gives a great sense of the story’s feel and setting. We are introduced to a young woman, sitting in a train carriage in a beam of golden light, trapped like a fly beneath amber – both in terms of her era and her story, and her literal position – and we know a tale is about to be told, one in which someone feels they deserve to take the blame for something as yet unnamed. We know that a war is taking place, and that it has taken a huge toll. This encapsulated moment of pain bursts as we begin Chapter 1, and we enter another train carriage carrying another two women, one of whom is Eva Downey and the other her guardian, Mrs Michael Stewart. Eva is being sent to a finishing school in London, which has been paid for out of a legacy left to her by a Mrs Elizabeth Jenkins as thanks for Eva’s work on a publication entitled The New Feminist. This reality has caused huge uproar in Eva’s family, not only because her stepsister Grace has not been afforded the same luxury, but because her younger sister Imelda is seriously ill with consumption, and Eva’s removal from the family throws the burden of her care onto her deeply unpleasant stepmother and largely absent father. This is on top of the fact that Eva is seen with distaste by practically everyone, being a young woman who has expressed an interest in women’s suffrage and who is, in general, no fool.

Eva settles into her new school, meeting Sybil Destouches, the great-niece of the woman whose legacy has allowed her this expensive education, as well as other girls who can’t quite get over the fact that Eva is Irish, having been born and raised in Cork. Letters home reveal that Imelda’s condition is worsening, her odious stepmother isn’t helping, and Mr Cronin – a dreadful man who wished to marry Eva, but who was rebuffed – is still hanging around. Meanwhile, in London, Eva’s feelings for her English Literature teacher, Mr Shandlin, develop from intellectual regard into something deeper, and slowly – encouraged by the incorrigible (and brilliant) Sybil – they reveal their feelings for one another.

All the time, the war hangs in the background, waiting to pounce.

Then, Imelda’s health worsens and Eva is summoned home. A pioneering new treatment exists in Switzerland for tuberculosis patients, one which plugs the holes in their diseased lungs with tiny pellets – but it is ludicrously expensive. Grace, Eva and Imelda’s stepsister, is willing to devote half her sizeable dowry to ensuring Imelda can receive this treatment, but it hinges on one huge condition: Eva must present her beloved Mr Shandlin (a man of whom her family does not approve, both because he is a mere schoolteacher as well as a ‘Conshie’, or conscientious objector, for heartfelt personal reasons) with a white feather of cowardice. If she does this, Imelda’s treatment will be paid for and her life, possibly, saved.

It will also spell the end of Eva’s own happiness.

Eva’s decision, its consequences, and the life which unfolds for her after this pivotal moment plunge us straight into the bloody, brutal heart of war. Eva and Sybil volunteer as medical aides, going to the front and witnessing the worst of humanity; Eva goes down avenues she never would have expected, bringing her into contact with a woman whose presence in her world will later bring Eva a crumb of redemption. A scene in which Eva and Sybil are in a lifeboat, abandoning a sinking ship whose propellers are still churning, was – for me – the best passage in the book, summing up the tension and needless destruction of life, and the bodily horror of what people all over Europe were experiencing at that time.

There were things I didn’t like so much, primarily the unrelenting evil of Eva’s stepmother, the way in which Grace’s story was wrapped up, and the fact that several very important parts of the novel were narrated ‘after the fact’, either in letters or simply dropped into conversation as though they were nothing. Without wishing to give away spoilers, one of these (which came near the end of the book) made me slap it shut for a while, until I recovered from my feelings of being cheated, before continuing. Having said that, perhaps it’s designed to mimic the experience of people who lived through the war, only learning important things about their loved ones once weeks or months had gone by – but I can’t say it pleased me as a reader. I also felt, perhaps, that there were a couple of coincidences too many – people being related to people, or showing up just when they were needed – but that was only a small quibble.

However, I enjoyed the setting, the unflinching look at historical reality, the character of Sybil (with the exception of one scene, which left me shouting ‘No, Sybil! What are you doing?’ at the pages), and Eva’s gentle love story. I think the strongest praise I could pay this book is to say that it kept me reading – and I’m not a person who normally goes in for grand romances. It’s a timely, touching, intelligent and lovingly written book, and it’s worth the read.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Witch Child’

Image: celiarees.com

Image: celiarees.com

I seem to be having a ‘colonial New England’ sort of summer. First, I read (and enjoyed) Ghost Hawk, and then I noticed Witch Child sitting on a stall at a booksale, unloved, and I decided to bring it home. It’s not a new book – my edition bears the proud publication date of 2000 on its fly page – but it was well worth the purchase price.

This book tells the story of Mary Newbury, a mid-seventeenth century girl of about sixteen. It is framed within a clever narrative structure – the book purports to be an academic study, with a prologue and epilogue written in the voice of a woman who is doing research into Mary’s life, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The entire novel (excepting this prologue and epilogue) takes the form of a diary, written by Mary, which has survived almost four centuries, and its first-hand, primary-source feeling pervades the story. From the outset, Mary tells us she is a witch, or that she is believed to be – which amounts to much the same thing. She lives with her grandmother, who is accused of witchcraft and executed at the novel’s opening; after this, she is taken in by a benefactor who arranges, hastily, for her to be sent to America on board an emigrant ship as part of a group of Puritans escaping religious persecution. She goes, both because she knows she has no choice, and because there is nothing for her to go home to. Her sense of loss is palpable, and her memories of her grandmother are poignant, catching her by surprise at points through her tale, just like grief is wont to do.

On board the ship she meets and becomes close to a middle-aged woman named Martha, who becomes a sister-mother figure to her, as well as an apothecary and his son whose fates become linked with hers. Others among the Puritans are not so friendly, but Mary tries to keep to herself, hiding her diary from prying eyes despite the fact that her literacy, and her ‘fair hand’, draw a lot of unwelcome attention. She is aware of the tinderbox nature of the living arrangements – not only are the passengers living on top of one another, but she understands that the merest sniff of any connection to witchcraft will spell her doom, and everyone seems to be hyper-aware of it; Mary therefore lives in fear of being ‘found out.’ She also becomes close to one of the young sailors on board, which is met with disapproval and questioning by some of her fellow emigrants, and this theme – that of the strictures of Mary’s life restricting her carefree nature – recurs throughout the novel. When the emigrants eventually arrive in New England, they do not find the rapturous welcome they expected, and they face into their first winter with no crops, no homes and the knowledge that they must make a long journey inland, during which they will be dependent on their Native guides for survival.

I really enjoyed so much about this book, including Mary as a character, of course, as well as Martha, and the realities of their lives in England, on board the ship and also in the New World. Celia Rees’ writing is rich and detailed, and Mary’s voice is wonderful. I felt the pain of her loss, the fear of her voyage and the bittersweet nature of her feelings for Jack, the young sailor, and when her ability to write brings her into the circle of the creepy Reverend, I felt my flesh crawl at the fate I felt sure was laid out for her. I also loved the secondary characters of the apothecary and his son, and how their plots intertwined with Mary’s. There is also a fascinating interplay between the young women of the colony, inspired by the real-life Salem witch trials of course, but which is also so much a part of any group of young women forced to live together in a highly pressured, unnatural environment where their only means of advancement lies in finding a husband. I thought this aspect of the novel was handled very well, and at several points I read with my breath held.

Where the book wasn’t as strong, for me, was in its depiction of its Native American characters. They are portrayed quite stereotypically, albeit extremely positively, but I felt the story skimmed over them as people rather simplistically, seeing them solely in terms of their ethnicity. As with Ghost Hawk, the horrors of the interactions between the settlers and the Native population, as well as the terrible treatment meted out by the Puritans on one another, is a strong (and strongly handled) theme here, one which I found wrenching and engaging to read. I loved the issues surrounding women and their agency, literacy, and power which the book raises, and I thought the means by which Mary’s journal is saved (through being stuffed inside a quilt) was fascinating due to the history of quilt-making as a ‘feminine art.’

I am interested in the history of witchcraft and witch-trials anyway, and this book definitely fed into those interests, but it’s also an excellent story, well told, which should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It’s not a ‘typical’ YA novel, so don’t let that put you off! If this book is new to you, I’d say give it a go – and don’t forget to let me know what you think.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Giver’

The Giver is a book I should have read years ago.

Image: thingsideembloggable.blogspot.com

Image: thingsideembloggable.blogspot.com

I wish I’d had this book as a younger person. Reading it as an adult is, I’m sure, better than nothing – but reading it as a teen (which I was in 1993, when it was first published) would have been fantastic.

But then, everything happens as it must.

The Giver is a masterclass in world-building. As we read the book, realities about the world that Lowry creates come effortlessly (on our part, at least) to the fore. She expertly paints a world which is recognisable, but very different from ours – and the means by which she gradually reveals it are magnificent. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers (though I’m sure a lot of you will have read this book already!), but suffice it to say that I was impressed.

The novel tells the story of Jonas, who is preparing to ‘become a Twelve’, which means he will no longer be considered a child in his community but will be bestowed with the societal role he will bear for the rest of his adult life. He will enter training, he will socialise for the most part with his fellow trainees, and the gradual process of splitting away from his ‘family’ will begin. He lives with his parents and his younger sister Lily, who is about to become an Eight. She, too, is facing her own milestones of development – her ‘comfort object’ (a stuffed elephant) will be removed when she becomes an Eight, and she will be given – for the first time in her life – a jacket with small pockets to symbolise her growing maturity and the fact that she is now trusted to look after her own small trinkets. Nobody has ‘birthdays’; a ceremony held every December marks a child’s changing from a Three to a Four, or a Seven to an Eight or, most significantly, an Eleven to a Twelve.

Jonas’ community knows no pain, nor hunger, nor suffering, nor strife. Everyone has a role, to which they are suited. Everyone serves. Everyone is exactly the same. Everyone takes pills from the onset of adolescence – including Jonas, early in the book – to counteract what is referred to as Stirrings, and which can be understood as nascent hints of sexuality; I preferred to think of the pills as emotional anaesthetics.

The community, which initially seemed such a Utopia, slowly reveals its darker face.

Image: 7bbs.edublog.org

The Giver meets the Receiver. Image: 7bbs.edublog.org

During the ceremony in which Jonas becomes a Twelve, the leader of the community calls each child in turn and gives them the role they will fulfil for the rest of their lives. When she comes to Jonas, she skips him – and the disconcerting effect is felt by everyone. At the ceremony’s end, the leader brings Jonas before his people and tells him that he has been designated as the new Receiver of Memory, a role which has remained empty since a failed successor was appointed ten years before. Nobody wants to discuss this failure: it seems to cause great pain and discomfort, and the topic is avoided. Jonas is afraid, and unsure of what is facing him. All the other children have had experience of the roles they will now be fulfilling, and they don’t have to deal with the unknown as he must.

He reports for duty and finds the current Receiver of Memory – an aged man, working alone, with shelves filled with books and the ability to switch off the surveillance which all other citizens are subject to – and he begins to understand the scope of the task facing him. Now that Jonas has become the new Receiver of Memory, the old Receiver becomes the Giver – and giving memories is exactly what he does.

Jonas gradually learns, with the help of the Giver and his own natural abilities, that all is not well in his world. He begins to see and feel and think things which are unacceptable, and the inner struggle this creates is expertly expressed. Jonas begins to see everyone – his parents included, most particularly his father – in a strange and terrifying new light, and the truths behind his life, and that of his community, which have never been faced up to before, begin to torment him.

I have rarely read a book which deals with huge universal themes (morality, good and evil, authority structures and power) as expertly as it does with the quieter, more personal themes of growing up; certainly, I don’t think I’ve read a better one than The Giver. It’s really hard to review it without giving away all the community’s secrets, and without spoiling the gradual way in which Lowry builds not only her world but also Jonas’ growing knowledge of it, but all I can say is that it is reminiscent of the learning process itself, the gradual changing from ignorance to knowledge. Some of it happens in chunks, and more of it happens gradually, just as it is for Jonas in this story. The book’s conclusion was, I felt, perfect – though my frustration at its ambiguity was tempered when I learned that sequels exist. However, even as it stands, I think The Giver is a monumental work. I can understand why it creates such controversy, and why it has been challenged and banned in schools; because I understand it, however, does not mean that I agree.

The Giver is a book that made me think. That is what the best literature is supposed to do. Anything less – anything which coddles us into believing our own perfect little Utopia is eternal, never-changing, safe and unassailable – is what needs to be challenged, to my mind.

I’m grateful for The Giver. It will live beside Ursula le Guin and Madeleine l’Engle on my bookshelves, and I hope I will always remember its message.