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Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

Book review by Morgan, originally posted on Navigating The Stormy Shelves, September 7, 2014.

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)

Filed under cartwheeling in thunderstorms girl savage katherine rundell rooftoppers africa zimbabwe children's book review british lit british children's book will silver london england boarding school books

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Book Review of Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Review by Morgan.  Also posted at my own book review blog, The Bookshelf Pirate.

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. InThe Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toopwhich I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters inArtemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

Filed under lockwood & co the screaming staircase jonathan stroud book review ya children's books ghost story supernatural thriller review ghosts London english literature children's lit young adult lockwood stroud bookshelf pirate morgan

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Book Review: The Quick by Lauren Owen (to be released June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Review by Morgan

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

Filed under Morgan the quick lauren owen book review review gothic victorian gothic literature london dickens dracula supernatural fiction random house ARC vampire literature books England English Oscar Wilde

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In which Morgan writes a review for her University’s Newspaper…

Greetings, virtual readers one and all.

While I’ve been mostly trapped in dissertation-land, researching all there is to know about violence in children’s literature, I’ve had a few moments to read some novels of my own choosing as well.  One such novel wasDodger,the new Terry Pratchett book.  As it was a new release and rather atmospheric for the darkening days and dreary weather Scotland is currently experiencing, I wrote a review of the book but ended up sending it to the university newspaper’s Arts and Culture blog, because I do crave literary legitimacy every now and then.  I’ll put the review up here too, though, because it may be one of the only reviews I get to write this month.  A critical analysis of Peter Pan is just waiting to ensnare my attention for eternity.

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As an avid fan of Pratchett’s Discworld series and of Mr. Dickens’ novels I spent a torturous few days staring longingly at Dodger as I passed Waterstones before I finally gave in and bought the hardcover.  From the off, it is obvious that this novel was set in Dickensian London – a fact which should be obvious given the title and main character, who was one of Dickens’ many creation – and I resolved not to search for the outlandish, farcical elements of Discworld in Dodger.  It is important that any previous fans of Terry Pratchett become comfortable with this idea before they dive into the murky sewers and shadowy corners of Dodger‘s London, because this novel is quite different from Pratchett’s hilarious fantasies, though it does retain his warm humor and wry view of humanity.

The story itself is an adventure and a mystery, starring young Dodger with guest appearances by Dickens, Henry Mayhew, and some other familiar names.  Dodger is a ‘tosher’: someone who scavenges the sewers of London for dropped riches and trinkets, and a popular rascal amongst the less-washed citizens of Victorian London.  When he rescues a girl from some violent men, he finds himself wrapped up in political intrigue (not to mention emotional turmoil) well above his head and his status.  We join Dodger as he works out the mystery girl’s origins, navigating through some awkward upper class dinner parties, gets himself into scrapes only to talk himself out of them.  Occasionally the main character seemed a little too smooth and unnaturally lucky, but the somber and often enlightening presence of his wise landlord Solomon served well to keep the tale from losing its grip on the reader.  While the book is an enjoyably easy read, it makes gentle observations of poverty and misery which would make Mayhew proud; and indeed, it is to Henry Mayhew that Terry Pratchett has dedicated his book.

In his acknowledgements Pratchett describes Dodger as ‘a historical fantasy, and not a historical novel,’ and while there is no magic of the hocus-pocus variety to be found, the fantasy comes in a form I can only describe as a historically-minded literature nerd’s daydream.  Characters from Victorian legend, literary giants, and historical figures all mingle together in this atmospheric mystery story.  It’s got adventure, romance, and a wink or two from the author to his readers as he sends his hapless protagonist to Fleet Street for a shave or places the young vagabond next to Sir Robert Peel at a dinner party.  I was so fully absorbed into the story as it twisted through the sewers and streets of London that I didn’t have time to miss the oddities of the Discworld novels; Dodger may not be as funny, but on a dark October night it is the perfect book for history and literature enthusiasts as well as long time fans of Terry Pratchett.

The article on The Saint’s blog can be found here: http://www.thesaint-online.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Terry_Pratchett_Dodger_cover.jpg

Read-on, my friends, while the days are still long!

—Morgan

Filed under Terry Pratchett St Andrews Dodger The Saint Book Review Discworld Lit London Charles Dickens University morgan

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Review of Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

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Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 15+
Review by Morgan
             
This will be a short review, as Morgan still has a few hundred pages of T.S. Eliot criticism to slog through before the weekend. “A short review from the ever-so-rambling Morgan?” I hear you ask, “Hallelujah! We thought she’d never learn to shut up!” Well, today is a day of miracles.

The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort.  However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.

The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves.  I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.

The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures.  People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost.  If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)

The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.

Filed under Mr Toppit Charles Elton Hayseed Chronicles Luke Hayman Laurie Martha Rachel Arthur Hayman Fiction Lit Book Review Dark English London morgan

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Book Review: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding


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Star Ratings
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:***1/2 (3.5 stars)

Review by Morgan.

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)

Hello my poor neglected readers.  I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now.  However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name.  In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.  

The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts.  Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London.  London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked.  When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia.  This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych.  The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.

Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel.  The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet.  He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect.  With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel.  He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic.  The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up.  Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired.  The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.

Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction.  He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers.  The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last.  Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares.  Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.

Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors.  The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer.  The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum.  Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner.  The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.

With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves.  Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan.  And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes.  Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders.  Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer.  Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above.  “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree.  Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.

So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy?  The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique.  It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent.   It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary.  Go and read it quickly, before November is over!

Filed under The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray Chris Wooding Stitchface Thaniel Fox Wych-Kin Wych Gothic Fiction YA Book Review YA Fiction Fantasy Steampunk Horror Monsters Victoriana Alternative History Fog London London Victorian Airship Cults morgan