Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle // a strangely satisfying second novel

Author: Moïra Fowley-Doyle30079403
Publisher
: Corgi Children’s/PRH
Publication date: 1st June 2017
Category: YA
Genre: magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One stormy Irish summer night, Olive and her best friend, Rose, begin to lose things. It starts with simple items like hairclips and jewellery but soon it’s clear that Rose has lost something much bigger, something she won’t talk about, and Olive thinks her best friend is slipping away.

Then seductive diary pages written by a girl named Laurel begin to appear all over town. And Olive meets three mysterious strangers: Ivy, Hazel, and her twin brother, Rowan, secretly holed up in an abandoned housing estate. The trio are cool and alluring, but they seem lost too. Like Rose, they’re holding tight to painful secrets.

When they discover an ancient spellbook, full of hand-inked charms to conjure back lost things, they realise it might be their chance to set everything right – unless it’s leading them toward secrets that were never meant to be found. 

Beguiling, mysterious and just a little peculiar, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is full of interesting and bewitching things: a town bonfire, missing shoes, a wishing tree, charm bracelets, sprawling tattoos, illicit alcohol, flawed friendships, LGBTQ+ characters and, of course, several dogs named after types of cereal. Penned in what is fast becoming Moira Fowley-Doyle’s trademark style, it’s messy magical realism which walks an audaciously dangerous line between the real and surreal.

Spellbook’s inexplicable happenings are told in alternate narration. Loyal, quick Olive is the most accessible and straightforward, while secretive, tough Hazel works in a pub, trying to outrun her past. Starry-eyed Laurel is being swept away in the whirlwind of an all-consuming friendship with wild, unreliable Ash and dainty, dreamy Holly, turning ominous under the influence of a new forest-dwelling acquaintance. I liked Rowan, Emily and Max, but Ivy was forgettable. Fowley-Doyle pays characteristic attention to toxic and muddled relationships, though the closeness and vibrancy of its family scenes are a pleasant surprise. Olive and Rose are the best of the main cast, while Olive’s father, Daniel – purveyor of puns and daily doses of poetry, like a sort of affectionate, booming Yeatsian alarm clock – is undoubtedly the funniest character in the book.

Atmospheric and rough around the edges, the plot is cleverly woven, with plenty of suspense and scheming to keep the reader engaged. It only wanders off the pace in the second half, but the major twist is terrific – I for one didn’t guess it – and a late resurgence in plot makes for a strong finish. It’s the kind of book you have to read all over again just to put the details together. Fowley-Doyle conjures a world which is richly multifarious, at once recognisable and eerie, modern and uncanny. The titular spellbook is an old, tattered tome of uncertain provenance which is steeped in a blend of earthy enchantments, cultural religiosity and instinctive superstition, but at their best, the most magical elements of the novel spill over into its prose.

Its so-called romances are undeveloped and overly stylised. There’s potential, but the reader can’t help but wonder how much some of the romantically-linked characters actually have in common. Some fairly serious themes are mentioned, including alcoholism, assault and unhealthy relationships, which alongside other content warnings make this one for older teens. Also the drink poitín (described here as a kind of high-alcohol Irish moonshine, and by ‘high alcohol’ we mean likely to cause blindness, hallucinations and/or death) is spelled ‘poteen’ and I really wanted to correct it, though that’s a bit of niche critique.

However, the writing is consistently strong, with moments of striking description (a newspaper ‘flutters like a giant black-and-white-winged bird’, ‘there have always been three of us: a coven, a crowd, a three-headed dog’) and playful humour (‘he looks like a cross between a farmer and a teenage Victorian chimney sweep’). There’s a more satisfying sense of explanation and conclusion than in the otherwise excellent The Accident Season (you can read my review here) but there are still a few questions left tantalisingly unanswered, and, with some unnecessary ‘twists’ which demanded more exploration or better handling, some threads left frustratingly unresolved. It leaves you wondering just what in the story is real, where its magic came from and perhaps most importantly: how old is Mags Maguire and how long  has she had that pub?

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Dark, strange and littered with magic, Spellbook of the Lost and Found is a stylishly written and pleasingly clever second novel from one of the best – if not the best – Irish writers of current YA. As beguiling as it is befuddling, it’s a sometimes imperfect but frankly unputdownable addition to recent YA magical realism. I’m intrigued to see what Fowley-Doyle writes next. 

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Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton // a strong sequel for sassy (and sandy) fantasy

Today on the blog, I’m (finally) reviewing one of the most exciting UKYA fantasy releases of the year – though it is a sequel, so there may be spoilers! If you need a recap, I reviewed the first book in the series, Rebel of the Sands, here.

31574408Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 2nd 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: NetGalley
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage gunslinger Amani Al-Hiza has escaped the dead-end desert town of Dustwalk only to find herself caught up in a rebellion held together by an enigmatic prince and a handful of extraordinary Demdji.

Thrust into the most dangerous place for a revolutionary in their war-torn kingdom, Amani is trapped in the sultan’s palace, far from the source of her magic and from those she cares about. With unlikely enemies as well as unexpected allies lurking around every corner, she must do whatever it takes to help end the tyranny of the sultan’s rule. Or the rebellion, and the hope it brings her people, will be snuffed out at the cold and pitiless hands of a tyrant – father to her rebel prince, a man who would slay his own family before giving up the throne.

For Amani, freedom is blood and sweat and sand. It means friendship forged in fire and the tantalising possibility of a life with mysterious rebel Jin. If they can make it out of the war for Miraji alive, and bring a new dawn to an old desert.

Rich, exciting and enthralling, Traitor to the Throne – the second book in what is rapidly becoming one of current UKYA’s most dramatic and action-packed fantasy series – is a commendable follow-up to last year’s Rebel of the Sands. This brisk but immersive foray into the world of Miraji – where rough wild west meets mysterious desert sands and long-hidden magic abounds – sees heroine Amani once again elbow-deep in fighting for her freedom and that of her people.  Hectic, pacy and bursting with plot, it’s driven by sparky bravery, simmering revolution, outrageous treachery, daring rescues, thrilling escapes, surprise re-appearances, and more powerful magic than ever before, and I was gripped from start to finish.

Tough, courageous, reckless and not afraid to get her hands dirty, the badass Amani crowns a cast of ragtag rebels, menacing enemies and palace spies. Among my favourites were well-written newcomers Sam and Rahim, royal prince turned noble rebel Ahmed and returning warrior Shazad, whose acerbic skill and general ferocity have been joined by fantastic flashes of friendship and loyalty. Amani’s love interest Jin also returns, though Hamilton is forced to squeeze their romantic moments into the unlikeliest of narrative places – and of course there are tempestuous tiffs and tricky complications to consider. The secondary cast is overbusy and difficult to keep track of even with the help of a character list. Hamilton resists the temptation of the traditional book two love triangle, however, and I am absolutely intrigued to see how intense the finale may be after such a fizzing installment.

Ideal for fans of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Kiersten White’s And I Darken, this undoubtedly feels like the middle book of a trilogy but is still full of twists (some I guessed and some I didn’t), and if you haven’t read Rebel of the Sands, it’s well worth doing so. In world-building that is efficient yet sweeping, Hamilton takes the opportunity to show more of the creations she’s spun, from Miraji’s neighbouring nations to the sumptuous and treacherous palace. Opening with a jump in time allows for the avoidance of some second book pitfalls, but sacrifices potential emotional power and resolution.

I would’ve liked more description in the prose as it’s become noticeably more punchy and dialogue-heavy, with, dare I say it, almost too many quips? The first half is basically a bunch of teenagers trying to take over the desert armed only with sarcasm and quick comebacks, which while awesome, doesn’t make for the most substantial of reading experiences. Occasionally the series’ wild west element is forgotten amid the unquestionable glitz and glam of magic, but then that magic is beguiling – and if anything, it leaves the reader longing for more. Particularly pleasing is the weaving of folk-tales and myth-style storytelling into the high-stakes, highly entertaining plot.

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One of the best UKYA fantasy fiction offerings of recent years, Alwyn Hamilton’s tales of rebellion and magic, though not flawless, are pacy and full of action. Dramatic, exciting and unputdownable. I really enjoyed this one.

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman // in a land of myth, and a time of shiny book covers

Author: Neil Gaiman30809689
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: February 7th 2017
Category: short stories
Genre(s): fantasy, mythology
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

In an arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants,  Gaiman stays true to the myths which envision the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, incredibly strong but perhaps not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and Asgard’s perpetual trickster. 

Through deft and witty prose emerge gods with fiercely competitive natures, a susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and a tendency to let passion ignite their actions. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, he must disguise himself to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people. Long inspired by ancient mythology, Gaiman brings to life a distant world for a brand new audience.

Neil Gaiman’s tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Norse myths announced itself with unsurprising bombast. The built-in thrill of this being the new Neil Gaiman project was used to full effect. It reached me in autumn with glossy confidence, some rather overzealous cover copy, and titled simply Norse Mythology, as if to declare well, this is it. The only one you need. Why on earth would we call it anything else?

And it is often brilliant. It’s a tremendously enjoyable book. The prose is distinctive, the tales are memorable, the pacing is clever. The mythology is rich, splayed across the pages like a hoard of jewels. It is vivid and varied. There are some fantastic story choices, each broken into bite-size short fiction-style pieces, which illustrate a wealth of long-ago myth and legend. There is loyalty, betrayal, injustice, punishment, reward and achievement. This is a veritable cacophony of courage and cowardice, magnificence and misadventure. And of course, these were once the beliefs, the foundation even, of entire peoples and societies. There is acknowledgement that what we know of them now is just a fraction of what has been lost, but there’s plenty of keep up with and get your teeth into.

The gods and goddesses of Asgard – Thor, Sif, Loki, Odin, Freya – are joined by allies and enemies alike. Many leap into life with distinctive flair and personality. They are given histories, as with the creation of the tree, Yggdrasil, on which the nine worlds rest; backstories, as with the recounting of how Odin lost his eye; families, as with Sif as Thor’s wife. I particularly liked tales in which lesser known gods played a starring role alongside more familiar figures. They’re not exactly real as characters (they’re very fond of superlatives, these gods) but that’s not the point. These are not tame gods. They are larger-than-life even in their imperfections. Several have fatal flaws. Some are just troublemakers. If you take them for what they are then you can experience this collection for what it is: lush, sweeping, flamboyant, brutal, ridiculous, entertaining.

Full of magical objects, strange creatures and dangerous quests, it has the unmistakable air of folktale – the bardic style, the recognisable characters, the stylised numbers – but wrapped in crisp white paper, a glittering cover and straightforward prose. It is at once both old-fashioned and modern. It takes liberal creative licence, but this isn’t supposed to be accurate summary or academic collection of Norse myths. It’s pure storytelling, crammed with detail but trimmed down so only the good bits are left. There are flashes of fantastic humour, too: “When something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is: it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

It’s a little light on the world-building (slightly ironic given that a sizeable chunk is dedicated to, you know, the actual building of worlds) and description. Some readers may find the style grating. It’s definitely more retelling than guide. I would’ve liked more on goddesses, or a longer work generally. And for a time, I couldn’t quite figure out who the audience was supposed to be. It’s simple enough to be shared with children, except for the gore. It’s too consistent for connoisseurs of the short story anthology. It’s too contained for audiences used to sprawling high fantasy. And then it clicked: this book doesn’t need a target age range or style, because its target audience is simply fans of Neil Gaiman. And why not? A man who is fiction’s favourite genre-hopping novelists, SFF’s favourite multi-talented medium-dextrous contributor and television’s go-to drama scriptwriter at once has his pick of the projects, and this isn’t a bad one to have chosen.

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Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a retelling of myth and legend from one of literature’s most versatile writers. It’s lush, entertaining and brutal. t’s not the most earth-shaking or unprecedented of collections but it’s a very enjoyable read. 

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Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton // an accomplished, action-packed fantasy adventure

249340651Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Publisher:
 Faber & Faber
Publication date: February 4th 2016
Category: YA
Genre(s): fantasy
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam its barren wastes, and rumour has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the suffocating town talented sharpshooter Amani can’t wait to escape from.

When she meets the mysterious, devastatingly handsome Jin at a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route – but in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that it would lead her to secrets that could alter the face of her world forever.

Rebel of the Sands is at once rough-and-ready, tooth-and-nail action adventure and intriguing epic fantasy. It has the bite of a merciless desert and the guile of a magic-laden kingdom.  The vivid collision of two very different worlds – the tough, gunslinging wild west in which Amani has fought to survive meets the ancient, mysterious realm of dangerous power and receding magic she’s rarely seen with her own eyes – is undoubtedly the most distinctive feature of this series opener. A highly-anticipated addition to UKYA, I first read it last year and it’s a solid début, with a fabulous cover to boot.

Led by the inimitable Amani, it stars a ragtag collection of heroes, rebels and, of course, lots of villains. Amani is kickass and courageous but her recklessness and smart mouth have a tendency to get her into trouble, particularly when she’s assuming the role of the Blue-Eyed Bandit. She’s a fitting lead for the book but there’s a definite sense that she has a long way to go from here in terms of development. Other notable cast members include the friendly, somewhat reluctant rebel Bahi and the unreliable, sometime-enemy Noorsham. My favourites, however, were the mysterious, charming Jin (love interest, prince, often on the receiving end of the Bandit’s barbs) and the strategic, brutally efficient warrior Shazad, who probably has a heart there somewhere, though she keeps it well hidden, at least at first, from the rebellion’s newcomer Amani. Unfortunately, the minor characters are a little harder to distinguish, as Hamilton seems to rely more on the reader remembering them by their abilities than by their individual personalities.

This is action-packed fantasy of the fairly short variety; it’s high impact, flash-bang, relatively contained stuff. If you’re a fan of Sarah J. Maas-level flowing prose and rich backdrops, you won’t find them here. It’s written in quite a concise style, with just a touch of the quips, sarcasm and verbal sparring YA readers will love overflowing where you might expect more lavish descriptions or ponderous musings. I would’ve liked more world-building beyond that which is established by this surface skirmish with Hamilton’s undoubtedly inventive Miraji, but if you’re looking for a fast, highly visual fantasy début which is light on techniques that sometimes slow down epic fantasy, like complicated histories or meandering detail, this punchy, cinematic alternative may be for you.

The plot is strong, too, with plenty going on and enough twists that it’s very difficult to review without giving away a whole sandstorm of spoilers. High stakes and an unravelling series of complications take Amani’s tale from mere escape to all-out rebellion. Hamilton expands Amani’s narrative horizons in familiar fantasy style as this kickass heroine finds herself reluctantly drawn into a fight for her kingdom. The climactic battle has a particularly pleasing sense of scale.  Its focus sometimes gets muddled and the pacing is occasionally uneven but the plot and intrigue keeps you reading.

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Striking, dramatic and memorable, this action-packed fantasy adventure sees a clash of two worlds woven together by magic, mirage and plenty of plot. It’s not without fault and it’s not the deepest of epics but it’s a well-contained, highly readable début. 

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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