Book review – The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo

In the year that summer stayed too long, the heat lay upon the prairie with the weight of a corpse.’

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo is a book of fairy tales as they should always have been told. Leigh strips away the fairy tale endings and searches for the real meaning behind the typical fairy tales we all know. They are terrifying, funny and heart warming. And the messages are even more real than those handed down to us over the centuries. Her use of language and understanding of the fairy tale medium is amazing. I was spellbound by each one. Disenchantment is a key theme in fairy tales, but most of Leigh Bardugo’s will surprise you – the disenchantment often comes from the least expected places. Fairy tales were originally meant for adults before somehow becoming children’s stories. The Language of Thorn’s is something of a return to more grownup story telling.

The first trap the fox escaped was his mother’s jaws.’

Not all the characters in The Language of Thorns are beautiful or handsome and waiting to be rescued. Some of the characters are not even likeable. But for all that I think they are more real than a typical fairy tale character. There are more reflections of our own character flaws and bad behaviour than we would like to acknowledge and this makes them so much more relatable.

‘There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls.’

One of the purposes of fairy tales has always been to serve a warning to children, disguised as a seemingly simple story. Leigh Bardugo is not afraid to rework these stories to get at the heart of the message. We all grew up knowing we should be afraid of strangers – usually men – but the reality is that it’s people that are closest to us that are likely to cause the most harm, either physically or mentally.

It is dangerous to travel the northern road with a troubled heart.’

Fairy tales often involve a set of challenges that the protagonist must face in order to grow as a person. Sometimes these come in the form of a journey. Along the way they will face perilous situations, dangerous people, temptations, and all manner of sins that help them learn. Sometimes the purpose of such a journey is to challenge long held beliefs. A common theme in fairy tales often involves a ‘beast’, with whom the protagonist eventually falls in love. Some believe the purpose of such a theme reflects the change from childhood to adult and attitudes toward sex as the female character has to overcome her fear of sex before she can fall in love.

In the end, the clocksmith was to blame.’

In the world of Language of Thorns there is not always a happy ending, as in life. Endings come and new beginnings, but we don’t all end up as beautiful princesses. Sometimes awful people are just that, awful people. Finding meaning in fairy tales is the main challenge for the reader and it is much better that these meanings are more real than spreading the Disney belief in happy ever after.

You wish to strike a bargain, and so you come north, until the land ends, and you can go no further.’

The final story in Language of Thorns is a retelling of the backstory of a well known fairy tale and Disney movie. It shows us the humanity and emotions that drive even the most villanous characters. It is a shock when we find out who the protagonist really is, but I think the most important message is how society attacks women for not conforming to patriarchal expectations.

There is so much in Language of Thorns. It is beautifully written in the style of fairy tales and I can appreciate what sort of skill and effort that requires. These are stories to revisit on a cold, dark, lonely night. Just don’t expect a prince to come to your rescue.

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Book review – Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

I hardly know where to start in reviewing Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I fell in love with it straight away and it is now firmly in my top twenty favourite novels of all time! I have to confess that I love books with magic realism and Practical Magic has it in spades. I was blown away by the depth of understanding Alice Hoffman shows, in human nature, folk magic and all things love. The whole novel is almost a ‘how to’ manual for growing up and falling in love.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.’

The opening sentence immediately suggests this is a story about witches. Of course, the wise women and healers had always been blamed when things went wrong for hundreds of years. It was part of folk superstition. It was the basis of the witch hunts and patriarchal domination of women. So it seems from the outset the women of this story have some ‘magical’ ability – enough to be the subject of the town’s suspicions.

Once a year, on midsummer’s eve, a sparrow would find its way into the Owens house.’

Midsummer’s eve is the time around the summer solstice. Evil spirits were said to wander during the summer solstice. It also marked the beginning of the end as days become progressively shorter. The sparrow itself is a bringer of luck, good and bad. In Greek mythology the sparrow was a symbol of love – fitting for this novel – while in English folk lore a sparrow flying into the home meant a foretelling of death. There is plenty of love and death in this novel so I’m guessing that Alice Hoffman used the sparrow to convey both meanings.

‘Crossed knives set out on the dinner table means there’s bound to be a quarrel, but so do two sisters living under the same roof, particularly when one of them is Antonia Owens.’

Alice Hoffman is brilliant in her understanding of teenage girls. Their capriciousness, self-doubt, half girl, half woman – she captures it all. One moment I found myself falling in love with these characters, the next I could see too much of myself reflected back. Sisters have a special bond, but growing up so closely with someone that is probably going through much the same emotional experiences, possibly just not at the same time, is a recipe for conflict in any house. But it is almost a universal truth that sisters love each other in a way that no two other people can. This is not the fairy tale of never ending love we are fed on as children. This is a love forged in shared experiences. This is a key theme throughout this novel. Although the story is about romantic love everything that happens revolves around the three pairs of Owens sisters, each at different stages of life.

‘On the morning of Kylie Owens’s thirteenth birthday, the sky is endlessly sweet and blue, but long before the sun rises, before alarm clocks go off, Kylie is already awake.’

The innocence of turning thirteen – reflected in the sweet and blue sky – is contrasted with the awakening of womanhood inside. Kylie knows something is different now that she is a teenager. She doesn’t know what it is yet. Is it her? Is it the way the world now sees her? Or is it some combination of the two? There is a magic about being thirteen. A time when you don’t even know who you are yet but there are so many demands placed on a young girl. Parents’ expectations, school teachers… boys!

‘All of the teenage boys down at the Hamburger Shack say, ‘No onions,’ when Gillian takes their orders.’

All of the teenage boys (and later the men) in this novel are obsessed with the Owens sisters. The sort of obsession that makes teenage boys forget what they were about to do. They forget where they were going or what they were about to say. They forget everything because one glimpse of one of the Owens sisters is enough to turn any teenage boy weak at the knees. In this way Alice Hoffman reduces teenage boys and men to gibbering idiots. There are very few men that are worthy of the Owens sisters (and by implication, very few men that are worthwhile, period!). I think in a way she is making fun of popular notions of romantic love and concepts like love at first sight. I see it as a warning to women not to be suckered in by flowers and gifts and words of love because there is something much deeper out there waiting for you. She does this by setting the novel in a world of magic realism that makes us question common conventions of what love is.

‘If a woman is in trouble she should always wear blue for protection.’

Blue is a symbol of many things in folk mythology, including protection. So why does Alice Hoffman think women need protection? Is it from men? Other women? Themselves? Maybe she means it as a symbol of protection against all of those things that drive a woman to be something other than who she is meant to be. This is another example of the magical realism that persists throughout this novel. The notion that we are surrounded by magic if we only know to look for it. The book is loaded with these superstitious beliefs, interwoven throughout the story so they seem like truths.

‘Two hundred years ago, people believed that a hot and steamy July meant a cold and miserable winter.’

Sally is practical and sensible. She spends most of her life trying not to believe the folk myths surrounding her aunts. She denies that anything happening in nature is a portent of something about to happen in her life. But all the while, Sally (and the reader) is drawn inexorably toward her own destiny. When we finally reach this point it seems as though it were always inevitable. I think Alice Hoffman is suggesting that we all have our passions and no matter how much we deny them we cannot avoid our own true natures.

‘Always keep mint on your windowsill in August, to ensure that buzzing flies will stay outside, where they belong.’

The use of mint has a long history dating back to early human civilisations. Historians have suggested mint was brought to England by the Romans. Regardless of its historical origins, it is little wonder mint has a place in folk magic because its strong smell would have suggested mystical powers. The use of mint in the context of Practical Magic suggests that we ignore such folk myths at our own peril. Do you dare not put mint on your windowsill? I know I will.

‘On the eighth day of the eighth month, the aunts arrive on a Greyhound bus.’

In a novel about independence, among other things, Alice Hoffman only gives a sketch of the aunts in the early chapters before turning her attention to the sisters, Sally and Gillian. We get to know them intimately, inside and out. We learn their innermost fears. We learn their secret desires. But overarching all of this is the example set by the aunts while the two girls were young. It is no coincidence that the aunts come back toward the end of the book when they are needed the most. It suggests that we can never run away from our past or our heritage. And ultimately it is this heritage that Sally and Gillian reclaim as they come to terms with themselves and ultimately discover the love they always longed for.

‘On the outskirts of the city the fields have turned red and the trees are all twisted and black.’

Magic realist novels had their origins in Latin and South America before spreading to other parts of the world. In case you couldn’t tell already I absolutely love reading magic realist novels and Practical Magic is no exception. The only way to judge a book is how it makes you feel when you’re reading it. So much of this novel spoke directly to my heart and made me laugh and cry and cry and laugh throughout. Now I’m going to have to watch the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (which I’ve never done) and Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Rules of Magic is high on my wish list!

Book review (sort of): my top 20 most beloved books

My top 20 most beloved books

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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There is little I could say about Pride and Prejudice that you probably don’t know already but I first read this novel when I was in Year 12 at high school. I hated it. It was dull, boring, I didn’t understand it at all. I remember having this rant to my English teacher when he *patiently* tried to explain why it was an important novel. My 17 year old self refused to listen, refused even to read it all the way through. I wrote my exam essay from the movie rather than the novel. There! I was finally done with Pride and Prejudice. That was until one day after finishing high school that the novel caught my eye in a bookshop. I bought it, took it home – and couldn’t stop reading it. How had I found this novel boring? What was wrong with me? Now Jane Austen is my favourite writer. She is witty, smart and incisive. Just how I wish I could be.

  1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

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Wuthering Heights didn’t carry the scars of being a school text that plagued Pride and Prejudice. I discovered Wuthering Heights through my girl friend Rose. Such a wild, breathless novel captured my teenage imagination. So bleak. So passionate. So intense. What teenage girl hasn’t fallen in love with the tale of Wuthering Heights. Catherine and Heathcliff, the moors, unrequited love, hatred, revenge… Gosh, this book has it all and is written so brilliantly!

  1. Persuasion – Jane Austen

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I think Anne Elliot is my favourite of all Jane Austen’s heroines. I saw a lot of myself in her – strong opinions, an underlying hurt, not so well appreciated by her family – and that agonisingly drawn-out love affair with Captain Wentworth. A novel for a time when I still believed that true love was for everybody.

  1. The Pickwick Papers – Charles Dickens

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Of all Charles Dickens’ novels, it is The Pickwick Papers that I come back to most often. It is Dickens at his hilarious best in a long rambling novel that breaks all the rules of novel writing. Rather more like a series of episodes from a sit-com, The Pickwick Papers still makes me laugh out embarrassingly loud in public.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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A badly scratched cover, water marked pages and a painfully bent spine didn’t detract from the way The Grapes of Wrath caught my imagination. I found The Grapes of Wrath just as I was discovering my own social sensibility and this novel of injustice, poverty, and ordinary people resonated strongly.

  1. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

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Along with Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, Charlotte is in my top three favourite writers. I loved Charlotte’s underlying passion and the tension between this and her own sense of responsibility and the social expectations of a young woman in the 1800s. Through Jane Eyre, Charlotte captures that wild nature of the child, later maturing into a respectable young governess who is faced with a difficult choice between respectability and passion.

  1. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

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While I could have listed all of Jane Austen’s novels in my top ten, I restricted myself to my three favourites. Oh, Emma, you came so close to being included and I loved your zaniness! Catherine Morland and her fascination with gothic novels, Fanny Price’s excruciating shyness and the terrible way she was treated by her adopted family, but it is Sense and Sensibility that is my next favourite. The contrast between the two sisters – Marianne, impulsive and idealistic, and Elinor who deals with the family struggles and her own hurt in a quieter, more thoughtful way. The contrast between sense and sensibility. One sister needs more sense, the other needs more sensibility. While social restrictions now are not what they were in Jane Austen’s day, there are still restrictions on how girls are allowed to behave and still lessons there for a modern young woman.

  1. For the Term of His Natural Life – Marcus Clarke

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I read For the Term of His Natural Life when I was thirteen. There were three things I loved about this novel. First was the identity with place – it was one of the first novels I had read that was based in Australia and Marcus Clarke’s descriptions of the landscape and its effects on the characters felt real to me. The second thing was the sense of wrong as Rufus Dawes was first sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit and then suffered later injustices as a consequence. Finally, was the unrequited love between the convict, Rufus Dawes, and Sylia, the daughter of the Port Arthur commandant and later wife of Rufus Dawes’ nemesis.

  1. High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

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I love music as much as I love reading and writing and Nick Hornby’s story is the best novel set to a soundtrack that I have ever read. Similar to, but even better than the movie, High Fidelity follows Rob as he tries to understand why his relationships keep falling apart, using songs as his guide. I think we have all done that!

  1. My Friend Flicka – Mary O’Hara

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Rounding out my top 10 is My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara. First published in 1944, My Friend Flicka is a classic young adult novel before there was even such a thing. While the writing is a little old-fashioned now, I fell in love with this novel (and the rest of the trilogy) when I was 11 years old. At the time it helped me escape the loss and loneliness I was struggling with when my older brother died and therefore has a special place in my heart.

  1. The Shiralee – D’arcy Niland
  2. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  3. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
  4. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  5. Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  6. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Ray Lawler
  7. Macbeth – William Shakespeare
  8. King Lear – William Shakespeare
  9. From Here to Eternity – James Jones
  10. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

Book review – Ink by Alice Broadway

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Ink was such an interesting book that I was captured immediately. In the world of Ink a person’s every action is tattooed on their skin. I had to close my eyes to imagine what this must look like – actually, Ink would make a fabulous graphic novel. While I have never even thought about getting a tattoo this premise of the novel made it sound like such a beautiful concept. I couldn’t stop thinking about what tattoo would represent my story.

But then there was the sadness. The book started out with Leora mourning the loss of her dad, and this thread ran through the entire novel. At the end of their life a person’s skin was flayed (didn’t want to think about that for too long!) and turned into a book of their life, tattoo’s and all. The trouble begins when your story needs to be assessed by the government (never a good thing!) and there seemed to be something wrong with Leora’s dad’s story.

As if dealing with her loss wasn’t bad enough, Leora had to learn some things about her dad that might mean he wasn’t the perfect guy she thought he was. And what did that mean for Leora herself?

There were dystopian undertones to this novel, although I felt it wasn’t so strong that I would call it a dystopian novel. All the right ingredients were there – an overbearing government, too much public scrutiny of individual actions and lack of privacy, severe consequences for stepping out of line, and, of course, outsiders that had been banished from society and treated as a threat to the proper order of things. These people were the ‘blanks’. They didn’t have tattoos. Their skins were unblemished and for this they were hated by the society of Ink. To be a blank was the worst thing in the world so what if you found yourself sympathising with the blanks?

There were also religious undertones. Throughout the novel Leora questioned her beliefs. Everything she had ever been told might well be a lie. What if her dad had committed some crime? What if she didn’t want her story written on her skin? What if she wasn’t who she thought she was?

I was surprised by the ending (which is a good thing) but at the end of the novel I wasn’t quite sure what message Alice was trying to convey. I think it is okay to question your beliefs, to search for your true self and what is most important to give your life meaning. Perhaps it’s that the people who are different from you are not so different and not as bad as they seem.

I hope there is more to come from Alice Broadway. She is such a beautiful atmospheric writer. I know I wanted more of Leora’s world. Perhaps an Ink 2 where Leora discovers more about her true self by moving out of the confines of her society.

Fantastic book. You should definitely read it!

Book review – Torn by Amanda Hocking

Torn (Trylle, #2)Torn by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to hate it when characters swore undying love for another, only to discover in a later book that their feelings for the first guy weren’t so strong after all when they meet someone else. But reading Torn made me realise that this is just the way love works in real life, particularly when you are only 18. You meet someone, they make your heart flutter and then after a while the excitement dies down until you meet someone else. Amanda Hocking does an amazing job of telling this story. There is no great climax to the story. It just quietly builds builds builds, but somehow she kept me reading. I had to keep reading because after a very short while I had become so invested in Wendy, the flawed and real to life heroine of this story. It’s the characters that drive this story along rather than the plot. Okay, so there is an evil king. There is a princess, a queen, they have powers, there is a handsome guy that sweeps Wendy off her feet (actually, several of them), a palace, beautiful dresses… But it is the connections between the characters that has kept me enthralled. The hint of menace as Wendy tries to decide what to do with her life is overshadowed by her relationships. I can’t wait to start reading Ascend.

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Book review: Switched by Amanda Hocking

Switched (Trylle Trilogy, #1)Switched by Amanda Hocking

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was immediately captured by this book. What’s not to like about any story that starts with an awkward teenage girl with an unusual past? Wendy was instantly likeable and her feelings were so real it was easy being in the story with her. She was an interesting character with a range of emotions, not always doing the right thing, falling for the wrong guy, confused, angry… all of it. There was enough mystery in the story that I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next and who can resist a love triangle? If I had a little criticism it is that I kept wishing Wendy would use some of those magical powers she was meant to have. Did they only work on humans? It didn’t seem like that was the case but she was so easily overpowered and kept relying on Finn to save her that I would have like her to fight back a little more rather than just being confused and angry. My other criticism, sorry, was that the ending came to soon and left everything unresolved. Luckily I have Torn, the second book in the trilogy so I can start reading it straight away. Happy reading! 🙂

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A different sort of book review

the cow in the canal

I have always been a book worm. Ever since I learned to read I carried a book with me everywhere I went. Mum sewed me a pretty library bag so that I could borrow books from the school library. I wish I could remember all those early books but they are buried somewhere deep in my memory dump. One book that stuck in my memory, though, was The Cow Who Fell in the Canal. I don’t know why I remember this book. All I know is that it was a library book and the picture story was about a cow who was bored with life and wandered onto a barge and floated down the middle of the canal (it was set in Holland, by the way). She then floated through fields of tulips and past other cows until she ended up in the city. Maybe it was the idea of adventure that appealed to my five-year old mind, or maybe it was the rhyme of cow/canal. Amazingly, thanks to the powers of the internet, I have been able to track the book down after all these years and find that it wasn’t just my imagination. There really was a cow who fell in the canal! Along with that cow, my adventures in reading (and later writing) began at that very moment. Thank you Phyllis Krasilovsky wherever you are.

Molly

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Book review – Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

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I came to Shirley by Charlotte Bronte with low expectations. I had read a few reviews and none were particularly complimentary. It was an uneven novel, they said. Its beginning, middle and end were not meant to fit well together. On top of that it was meant to be Charlotte Bronte’s least popular work and, interestingly I found, it has never been turned into a movie.

So after continually shuffling it to the bottom of my reading pile it was with some trepidation that I finally picked up Shirley and began reading. Immediately I was struck by the ironic tone and the clearly satirical picture Charlotte painted of the curates gathered in Mr Donne’s lodgings. Against this was a background of social change and unrest as mill workers were being replaced by machinery. Then we have the unlikely (and unrequited) romance between Miss Caroline Helstone and her cousin Robert Moore. Robert—the mill owner—has his eyes more on the business than on his young cousin so he misses the obvious cues. Typically for a Charlotte Bronte heroine—not to mention the expectations of a young woman in the 1800s—Caroline remains silent about her love for Robert and waits patiently for him to make her an offer. That Robert is more interested in his business is Charlotte’s satirical comment on the patriarchal views of men’s and women’s social roles—the woman belonging in the domestic sphere while men are more concerned with more worldly affairs. After setting up this scenario Charlotte brings Shirley Keeldar into the story. Shirley completely breaks all the rules of patriarchy—she is an independent and rich young woman who continually scorns the many offers of marriage she receives. On top of that it is Shirley that provides the financial rescue for Robert Moore’s mill. It is Shirley that encourages Caroline to sneak out at night and help with the fight against the rioters. It is Shirley that does everything that would normally be expected of a male character is a Victorian novel.

So what did I think of this novel? Of course I loved it. It hurt knowing that Charlotte Bronte wrote this novel over the period that she lost her sisters and brother. I know she struggled at times to finish the novel with what I suspect was a severe bout of depression. But she wrote the novel she wanted to prove that women could write social and satirical novels. When viewed in this way I think it is a great novel.

Happy reading

Molly

xx

Monday books – Jane Austen among Women

Jane Austen among Women – by Deborah Kaplan

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I found this book in an academic remainders bookshop the other day and, of course, as soon as I saw it was about Jane Austen I just had to buy it. I fell in love with Jane Austen when I was fifteen after a friend introduced me to Pride and Prejudice. The more I have learned about Jane the deeper that love has grown.

The premise of Jane Austen among Women is that there was a cultural duality in Jane Austen’s time where women carved out – sometimes subversively – a space for themselves within the existing social patriarchy.

Back then (1775 to 1817) women were meant to remain in the domestic sphere.their education was intended to prepare them to become wives. Beauty and the attainment of ‘accomplishments’ – playing the piano, singing, embroidery – made young women more appealing in the marriage market. Once they had been snared as somebody’s wife they were meant to oversee a happy home, produce babies, be the husband’s ornament at social events…

But within this patriarchal portrait of women’s lives there existed a network of women that encourage and supported each other, either through personal visits or extensive letter writing. There were two types of letter: those that might be read by husbands or brothers. In these letters women portrayed the dutiful wife and any subversive comment against men would have been heavily coded. The second type of letter was more openly critical of the patriarchy and supportive of women’s endeavours among close friends.

It is within this world that Deborah Kapan shows that Jane Austen maintained a network of friends and family that supported her writing.

Jane never married and remained firmly within the women’s culture, I suspect by choice. Had she married – and she did receive offers – it likely would have meant a significant curtailing, if not the end, of her writing.

I find this idea of a woman’s culture within the prevailing patriarchal society particularly appealing. It mirrors the support networks I see today for women writers and it provides and alternative view for understanding Jane Austen’s novels.

Have a fab Monday

Molly

xx

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