Friday, 23 September 2011

Murkmere by Patricia Elliott

It's really great when something a little different comes along, and this was one of those occasions. I think I had read a review of Murkmere somewhere, though I'm really not certain. Anyway, I was looking for a book swap, and decided to take a chance on it, and I'm really glad I did.

Murkmere is the story of 15-year-old Aggie, who is summoned to Murkmere Hall from her village to be companion to the Master's ward, Leah. Aggie's mother was once a maid at the Hall, but she doesn't know what to expect when she arrives, and she finds a strange, dilapidated house dominated by the compelling Silas Seed, the crippled Master's steward and right-hand man in everything. Not only is he in charge of all the Master's affairs, he oversees the moral welfare of the servants, ensuring that the dictates of the Ministration are adhered to. At first Aggie is overwhelmed by the charismatic Silas, but gradually, as she tries to meet the challenges posed by her position as companion to the troubled, wayward Leah, she begins to question his actions and, almost despairingly, her own beliefs.

What lends this book a haunting quality is its setting in the English fenland, and its bird-inspired religion. Although there's not the technology to make it fit into the category, there's a darkly steampunk feel to it nonetheless, perhaps because we don't really know how the world came into being - there's a hint that it might be our world, changed after humans had somehow transformed themselves into the mysterious and reviled avia; the hypocritical Ministration, constantly on the watch for rebellion, certainly have resonances of the post-civil war period in England and the puritan protectorate. And the author makes clear in a brief note at the start: "The superstitions in this novel are found in British folklore", which makes it, for me at any rate, all the more powerful, harking back to first hearing of the story of the Children on Lir, and the hair rising on the back of my neck, because it seemed more like a memory than a new story. Elliott says of writing the book:
all I had at first was the image of a girl, painstakingly sewing a swanskin back together. I had to find out why. Who was the girl, and why was the swanskin in pieces? 
The winter fenland, the swans that Leah must be kept away from, the Master's painful yearning after forbidden knowledge, the Ministration's duplicity and decadence - all combine to create a lyrical, wistful novel.

There is a sequel, Ambergate, which I shall have to read. I'm sort of afraid that I shan't love it as much, because I find the sere countryside of the setting so compelling in the first, and I know that the second moves to the city. But the Ministration is tantalisingly portrayed in Murkmere, something nasty but intriguing, so I have to know more...

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

I was reading Ana's excellent (as ever) review of Fly by Night the other day and was very pleased that she'd enjoyed it so much, because I think it is one of those really original books that can make you feel happy that someone out there is writing such good fiction; however, I noticed that one of the commenters spoke less than enthusiastically about Frances Hardinge's second book, Verdigris Deep, describing it as Alan Garner/Diana Wynne Jones but not as good. I've had it on the TBR shelf for ages, and frankly, was doing my usual thing of saving it up for some unspecified special occasion - which, since such times occur relatively infrequently chez nous, is just plain daft).

It only took me a few hours to read and, at first, I thought it was okay but nothing special. I agreed about it being Garner/Wynne Jones territory - lots of echoes of Elidor and Fire and Hemlock in the mean streets of Magwhite and the scary way that things start to glow around Josh, the eldest of the three protagonists. Then, about halfway through, I realised that I wasn't being disappointed any more, but had been drawn into the story completely, convinced by the way that Hardinge tackles the children's response to the disintegration of their already shaky world. Because, of course, they are all outsiders: Josh could be popular at school but doesn't choose to be, Ryan is small and speccy and worried, Chelle can't stop talking although no-one listens to her; she's pale and asthmatic and sort of just tags along with the others. They are all drawn to Magwhite precisely because they shouldn't be there and when they don't have any money to pay for the bus home, they know that there will be serious trouble. Which they need to avoid: Chelle doesn't know how to deal with being in trouble, Ryan doesn't want to provoke any more family rows, and Josh will be exiled to his aunts' house where he won't be allowed out. So they steal the money from a long-neglected well. And suddenly it's not just everyday trouble they have to contend with, because they are all changed, in frightening ways.

This book is aimed, I think, at a slightly younger audience than Fly By Night, but it doesn't pull its punches. Hardinge knows that there's a lot going on in children's heads that adults don't realise, and some of it's because they don't have the experience to make sense of the adult world, even when to the grown-ups they look bright and manipulative and sometimes just plain bad. By the end of the story, it's all pain and rain and urgency - in 2007, when it was published, there were massive floods in England that summer and it must have seemed prophetic, with its images of rising waters.

The UK edition (it was published in the US as Well Witched) is a thing of great beauty. The picture here really doesn't do it justice, I think it's one of the loveliest book jackets I've ever seen. The back is as lovely as the front. I'd have included it here, but it's too dark to scan easily - what you can't see is that it really looks like tarnished copper. I'm tempted to take it off the book and put it on my wall.

To sum up, Verdigris Deep lacks the wondrous inventiveness of Hardinge's first book, but it's still a well-told story, atmospheric and exciting, firmly-rooted in a nice urban grittiness, and a classy example of the genre. I recommend it.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Troll Fell and Troll Mill by Katherine Langrish

Troll Fell is the first of a trilogy by Katherine Langrish who blogs at the fabulous Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. So it's no surprise to find it full of familiar tropes and characters, but I love the new directions in which these are taken. On one level this is conventional fairy story, on another it's immediate and relevant to a modern-day audience.

When his father dies, Peer Ulfsson is sad and lonely, but preparing to make the best of things by moving in with family friends and continuing his training as a woodcarver. So he's appalled when a hideously brutish uncle turns up at the funeral and claims him as kin. Peer is taken back to his uncle's mill on the edge of Troll Fell, where he's neglected and mistreated. But at least he has his dog Loki with him, and he does manage to make new friends - with young Hilde, a neighbour, and with the Nis, the household bogart, who is equally neglected (and we all know from fairytales that that's not a good idea!). The Nis is sly and mistrusting, and often sulky, but at least he's a source of information about what's going on outside the mill. It's important information, as it turns out, because the trolls who live under the Fell are expecting to celebrate a wedding between their prince and the daughter of the king of Dovre Fell, an event of great significance and one which will have enormous repercussions for Peer and Hilde.

Troll Mill picks up the story some time later, and I don't want to say too much about the plot, except that new characters are introduced while old ones return in a deliciously scary and atmospheric story. Along with Hilde I agonised for Kersten and Bjørn, and I thought the troll baby was tremendous! Peer and Hilde are both struggling with the pangs of growing up and undergoing all sorts of feelings which will be familiar to a young audience. The action is fast-moving though, and these are books which would be wonderful to read to a younger child -- scary, but not oppressively so, exciting and funny, and with the true fairytale emphasis on the resourcefulness of its young heroes. An adult reader, meanwhile, can appreciate the deft interweaving of the elements of the folk tales on which Langrish draws, and the light touch she brings to the exploration of the feelings of her main characters. There are some superb writers working with this traditional material these days - what makes Langrish stand out, I think, is that her love for it shines out of her writing and lends a wonderful freshness and authority.

The trilogy continues with Troll Blood, which I haven't had a chance to read yet. I read both on my Kindle. And, I should add, I enjoyed Troll Fell so much that I downloaded Troll Mill straight away!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

Although there was a sliver of gold in the eastern sky, the sun was not yet up as I barrelled along the road to Bishop's Lacey. Gladys's tyres were humming that busy, waspish sound they make when she's especially contented. 
Low fog floated in the fields on either side of the ditches, and I pretended that I was the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw flying to Heathcliff (except for the bicycle) across the Yorkshire moors. Now and then, a skeletal hand would reach out of the bramble hedges to snatch at my red woollen sweater, but Gladys and I were too fast for them.
In The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second Flavia de Luce mystery, Alan Bradley has come up with another book that I desperately didn't want to finish - young Flavia is so refreshingly acerbic about everyone around her, yet at the same time beset with private fears. Was she, as her sisters claim, responsible for her mother's death? She's had to develop a tough exterior to protect her against such accusations, and some readers have complained that the apparent malice between the sisters is unconvincing or unpleasant, but Flavia comes from a more buttoned-up era when it was quite usual for all sorts of resentments to fester beneath the surface (actually, a good deal of festering still goes on, viz. any agony aunt's advice about the dangers of family get-togethers like Christmas, but these days we are encouraged to express our feelings more openly, which may or may not be a good thing). Domestic tensions aren't helped by a father who is largely disengaged, a family retainer with a tenuous hold on mental health and a Wodehousian aunt. Add a rather nasty suspicious death, a policeman who's keen to discourage amateur interference and some dodgy substances, and you have a recipe for a classic crime story.

The precocious Flavia's voice carries the action deliciously - Bradley so evidently adores his young heroine, and his writing resonates with the atmosphere of a bygone England. I suspect Bradley might have spent the odd happy hour, himself, absorbing the acid delights of Nancy Mitford, because I detect in Flavia and her sisters a blood-tie with the young Radletts, while their ex-army Father is clearly an admirer of Lord Alconleigh. Inspector Hewitt, on the other hand, might have emerged from the pages of Georgette Heyer or Marjory Allingham, and is a worthy adversary for Flavia - he'd be an evener worthier ally, if only he could see it, because he infuriates Flavia by thwarting her attempts to help, thereby forcing her to embark on her own investigations, which she pursues with dogged determination and considerable deviousness. She is pure joy.