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!

Molly #23

Stephanie and I walked out of the pavilion and into a world of rides, clowns and show bags. With all the excitement and noise spinning around me I soon forgot to be sad and we lined up for a ride on the dodgem cars. Mum bought some tickets and Stephanie and I climbed into the same car. She steered because she was bigger than me and I couldn’t reach the pedals or steering wheel. The bell rang and we were soon off, whizzing around and around, sometimes bumping into other cars and swerving all over the place. We were laughing our heads off the whole time and I was quite breathless by the end.

My head was still spinning after I got out of the dodgem car and Mum had bought some fairy floss for Stephanie and me. As we walked along holding hands and eating our fairy floss I told Stephanie that I had never had so much fun in my life. We swore we would be best friends forever and I felt my eyes sparkling with joy. We gave each other a big hug and I thought how amazing it was that I felt so perfect and happy when I was with Stephanie.

I was really tired by the end of the day, but I was floating with happiness as I sat in the car. I kept watching the showground through the back window of the car as we drove away and I could see the tops of the ferris wheel and some of the rides poking above the trees. There was still some fairy floss left on my stick and I licked it with my tongue, giggling at the way its sugary spider webs dissolved in my mouth. When I closed my eyes, I could picture the clown’s heads with their wide open mouths turning from side to side in the middle of all that noise and dust.

That night at dinner, the girls were still talking excitedly about the show.

“Did you see how cute the lambs were?”

“I didn’t go anywhere near the animals,” said Samantha. “It was too dusty and smelly in there.”

“Oh, but they were so cute, and the smell wasn’t that bad,” said Jasmine.

“What about the trick riders?” Catherine said, “They were fantastic. There was this one guy that leaned right down off his horse and picked a girl up from the ground and then she climbed on his shoulders as they rode.”

“Yeah, I saw that. They were so amazing.”

“I’ll tell you what was amazing was the rides. Did you go on the zipper?”

“No way! It made me feel sick just looking at it.”

“I nearly was!” said Samantha as she swallowed a mouthful of peas.  “It looked tame but as soon as I climbed in the cage it took off, and then I was upside down and suddenly spinning around. My legs were all wobbly when I got off.”

“Aw yuck!”

There was no way I would have gotten on a ride like that. I thought about how much fun I’d had with Stephanie on the dodgem cars and smiled to myself.

“Well it’s a good thing you all had fun,” said Dad, “Because next year we’ll be at a different show.”

“What do you mean?” Mum suddenly put down her knife and fork and looked sharply at him.

“I just heard this afternoon, we’re moving again. It’s only a rumour, but you know how these things work out.”

“I thought we had decided to stay here while the girls were at school?” I watched Mum’s face because she didn’t look very happy.

“Well, we’ll talk about it after dinner,” said Dad.

The girls had gone quiet and everyone had forgotten about the show.

As I lay in bed after dinner I could hear Mum and Dad talking in the lounge room. Every now and then Dad would raise his voice, not quiet yelling but I could tell he was putting his foot down and wasn’t going to budge.

When Mum came into my bedroom to tuck me in bed, I knew she had been crying. I gave her an extra hard hug when she kissed me goodnight.

“Mum, what’s happening?” I asked quietly.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Molly,” she said. “Just go to sleep, darling, and everything will be all right.” She turned out the light but left my bedroom door slightly open.

That night I had a dream that was full of images of colourful things spinning around. Suddenly I was on the back of a horse, riding over jumps and through hoops; then I was in a dodgem car and laughing my head off, but when I turned to smile at Stephanie it was actually Dad holding the steering wheel and we were driving out of the showground.

Molly #22

When I was seven years old my class at school started drawing pictures and writing stories to enter in the local agricultural show. Mrs Mills made us do them again and again until she thought they were perfect. She ripped one of my stories out of my school exercise book and screwed the page into a little ball. I watched as she threw it in the rubbish bin.

“That is for being so untidy, Molly,” she said. “You need to keep working hard on making your handwriting neater or I will start to make you write with your right hand. I really don’t know what to do with you.” She hadn’t even bothered to read my story and I felt so sad.

I went back to writing my story and tried to remember as much of it as I could. It was about a girl falling asleep at her desk and dreaming that she woke up in a strange world a thousand years ago. There were knights and kings and princesses and the girl had to find her way back home, before she eventually woke up back in her own classroom. I wrote really slowly so that it would be neat enough for Mrs Mills and eventually she said it was okay and that she would let me put it in the show.

Everybody at school was talking about how exciting the show was going to be. I had never been before so I was really looking forward to it and every day I could feel my excitement rising and I had trouble sleeping at night because I kept dreaming about clowns and rides and fairy floss.

When show day finally arrived, I wore a pretty white dress and nice sandals. Mum said it was important that I dressed nice because there would be lots of people there. There was excitement in the air as we crossed the river to the showground and parked the car, then followed the crowds in through the dusty gates. There were lots of people lined up to buy tickets and Mum handed over the money and suddenly we were inside the showground.

Stephanie was waiting for me just inside the gates and we wandered off together to take in the sights, smells and sounds of the farm displays and the sideshow rides.

The first thing I saw was a display of vintage cars and antique motors sitting in the warm spring sunshine, and then we were off to the noisy poultry pavilion. All the different coloured birds were amazing to see, and so noisy with all their crowing and clucking. Stephanie and I then headed to the main ring to watch the show jumping as the horses went up and over, through the water and past the barrels again and again. We lingered amongst the cattle displays, watching the deep red and white cows, while I liked looking at the dainty Jersey dairy cows best with their big sad brown eyes. I thought they must have been feeling sad to be locked up in that smelly shed when it was such a beautiful day outside and they would much rather be roaming around green grassy paddocks. I stood there staring into those sad eyes for ages, until the sound of galloping hooves attracted my attention and Stephanie and I hurried over to watch the horses.

Next stop was the woodchop, where big men in singlets were preparing their logs. The clock started running and with axes swinging, chips flew through the air and the logs disappeared before my eyes.

Then we moved off to the pavilion full of arts, crafts and local produce, and it was there we found our drawings and stories from school. Stephanie’s drawing had a blue ribbon on it and we jumped up and down in excitement. I gave her a big hug and then looked for mine. My story was pinned to the wall, partly hidden under some other pieces of paper. It didn’t win a ribbon.

“Don’t worry, Molly,” said Stephanie. “I loved your story and I’m sure you will get a ribbon next year. Maybe they just forgot to read it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said doubtfully.

Molly #21

It finally stopped raining after a few weeks and eventually everything dried out. There was a loud cheer in the classroom one day when Mrs Mills announced that we would be going on an excursion to a rainforest. She frowned at the noise and then said we wouldn’t be going anywhere if we couldn’t control ourselves better than that. When the boys at the back of the room eventually settled down, she told us about how we would be visiting a very special place that was one of the last patches of big scrub rainforest that used to cover most of the coast before it was cleared for timber and farms. At recess, Stephanie and I were excited to think we were really going to be explorers.

I could hardly sleep for the next week until the day of the excursion arrived. Mum packed sandwiches for my lunch in a bag and she made me wear sturdy shoes and long pants, even though I thought it would be too hot in the rainforest. She drove me to school and kissed me goodbye before I hopped out of the car and joined all the other children waiting on the footpath for the bus. It was running late and Mrs Mills was trying to keep everyone quiet and sensible, but there was just too much excitement about the trip. Eventually the bus came around the corner with a cloud of greasy smoke and some of the children cheered. Mrs Mills frowned at them and told us to line up and be quiet.

Stephanie and I sat together on the bus and watched the world passing by outside the window. It felt like we were making the first steps on our journey of being carefree explorers of the world. That was until I started to feel car sick. I closed my eyes and rested my head on Stephanie’s shoulder as we drove along, trying to ignore the way my stomach churned as though it had been dropped into a washing machine. This wasn’t how explorers were meant to feel.

Soon I was in a magical place with a dense leafy canopy, unusual birds and the sound of rushing water that made me feel peaceful. There was nobody else around and I wondered where Stephanie and the other children were. I started to feel a little afraid when I realised I was all on my own, but explorers should be determined to be brave so I started to look around my surroundings. The dense atmosphere of the rainforest was closing around me and the path was wet and slippery. I knew I was lost, but I had to keep moving through the seclusion and smell of decay, carving my way through the scrub and searching for a hidden kingdom. When I got tired, I sat down on a log and started to feel hungry. I thought about the little snack Mum had packed in my school bag and closed my eyes to rest. I could feel the log swaying and I started to feel car sick again.

Suddenly I opened my eyes and Stephanie was right there beside me, resting her head against mine and the school bus was pulling into a car park. I grabbed my bag as we all piled out of the bus and lined up like little soldiers while Mrs Mills read the roll. I could already hear the wind whispering high up in the trees and an occasional cracking noise like something was moving through the bushes. It was just like in my dream.

“Sounds like there are monsters in there,” said Darren. I didn’t like the sound of that but I couldn’t think of any other explanation for the noises in the bushes.

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” said Stephanie. “You’re the only monster here.” Some of the other boys laughed and Darren pulled an ugly face.

“Well you better watch out for snakes then,” he said. “They like to eat girls, particularly cry babies like Molly. They sneak up when you’re not looking and take you in one big bite.” He made a biting action with his hands right in front of my face and nearly knocked me over, but Mrs Mills came over and saved the day.

“That is enough of that,” she said sternly. “Okay everybody, take your buddy’s hand, we are going for a walk on the nature trail first. Make sure you walk carefully and don’t get lost.”

I grabbed hold of Stephanie’s hand and we followed Mrs Mills down the path, surrounded by towering trees that went so high I couldn’t see the tops. Ferns hung over the path and I had to brush them aside as I walked along. I was looking carefully for snakes because, although I didn’t really believe Darren, I wasn’t taking any chances.

As the morning went on we looked at all sorts of strange plants and Mrs Mills explained to us how they all lived together in the rainforest and some plants protected other plants from the heat and how the plants were home to lots of little animals. She told us how the early settlers were timber getters that chopped the trees down with axes.

Suddenly we came to a clearing that opened onto a river. There was an old wooden wharf and Mrs Mills told us this was where the timber getters had once loaded logs onto boats and sent them down the river. She said we could rest here on the grass and eat lunch before heading back toward the bus.

High in the trees I could see dried grass and broken branches and the trunks were covered in mud. Mrs Mills said it was from the floods recently and I was amazed at how high the water had been and what it must have been like here when the water was rushing past. Now it was nice and peaceful by the side of the river and I could hear the water burbling along. I was glad to sit down and rest my legs and I thought how nice it would be to paddle my hot feet in the cool river.

As I ate my lunch I kept trying to imagine what the countryside must have looked like all those years ago before the bush was cleared away by the timber getters. I started thinking about the people that had lived here before the timber getters and what had happened to them.  I turned to Stephanie after finishing my sandwich. “Steph, what do you think happened to the people that were here before the timber getters? You know, the Aboriginals.”

“I don’t know.” Stephanie looked at me over the lid of her drink bottle. “Why don’t you ask Mrs Mills?”

“Oh, it’s okay,” I said, not wanting to attract any attention to myself.

“All right, I’ll do it.” She turned around to face our teacher. “Excuse me, Mrs Mills, Molly and I were wondering what happened to the Aboriginal people that were here before?”

“Well that is a very good question, Stephanie. I’m glad you asked. You see, once upon a time there were a lot of people living along the coast. They moved around for food depending on the season and they had many sacred grounds. A lot of it was destroyed by the timber cutters and the Aboriginal people were hunted away. Around this area they were known as the ‘Bundjalung’ and a lot of them were killed by the white settlers in the early days. Any way children, it is time we started heading back to the bus.” Mrs Mills stood up and told the class to pick up any rubbish from the ground and line up with our buddies.

I sat looking sadly at the water and thinking about what Mrs Mills had said. I wanted to know more; I wished I could say I was sorry to all those vanished people. I wanted to understand what it had been like for them.

“Come on, Molly.” Mrs Mills called. “It’s time to go.”

We walked back along the same path past all the tree ferns and strange plants, until suddenly there was a lot of yelling from behind me. One of the boys had brushed against a stinging fern and was screaming from the prickles in his leg. Mrs Mills took him by the hand and we were all marched back to the bus as quick as we could. I was glad that Mum had made me wear long pants after all.

When I climbed back on the bus I saw Darren’s leg all covered in red spots and Mrs Mills was putting ointment on it. There were some tissues covered in blood on the seat beside him and I could see tears on his cheeks and he was sobbing. His face looked sad as he sat on the bus seat and all of a sudden I could feel tears building in my own eyes. As I walked past his seat I stopped and offered him a lolly from my bag of snacks to make him feel better.

Molly #1

When I first began to be conscious of the world around me, there was a quiet house during the day when it was just my mother and I, then she would take me with her tucked up in a pram on the way to give my father his lunch. From the pram, the world outside the house was all sky and occasional tree branches stretching their fingers out to try and catch birds.

In the afternoon my sisters and brother would come running into the house in a whirlwind of noise and excitement. The air seemed to swirl with laughing children as I was such a tiny baby and they always seemed so big. A smiling face would suddenly appear in front of me, squeezing my hand then running off again. Sometimes they would sit and nurse me for a moment, as I gazed up and listened to their voices talking and laughing.

Night time was much quieter after my father got home from work. As I fell asleep each night I could hear the muffled sounds of the television coming from the next room and the rumble of trains passing by as my mother read stories to me.

I never felt as loved as those moments snuggled on the lounge next to my mother’s warm body where I was safe. I watched her lips moving as she read; pink and gentle, they changed shape so often, and every now and then I could see the tip of her tongue. I moved my lips too, pretending that I was reading silently along with her. As she turned the page, my mother looked at me and smiled.

I smiled back but my head was feeling heavy, like it was full of cotton wool. The cushions were soft against my face, with little buttons that I traced with my fingers. I wondered if tiny little people like the ones in the story lived in villages under those buttons. Then I became tiny as well, so tiny that I could crawl under the pillow button and feel long strands of cotton tickling my face.

The girl with pink hair

I was fifteen years old the first time a boy asked me out to the movies. I was so surprised and nervous when he asked me that I forgot to say no. And that is how I found myself in the queue waiting to buy a ticket next to an awkward boy with greasy hair. He kept hopping from one foot to the other as the line slowly inched forward.

The Avengers. That is the movie we are going to see. I don’t know anything about it. We move forward another place.

The smell of popcorn is strong in the air. It makes my tummy grumble and I quickly look up to make sure Tony hasn’t noticed. He is busy looking at his watch. I see a drop of sweat roll down his neck and disappear under his collar.

He looks up. ‘We’re next. Do you want popcorn?’

I nod.

He turns toward the girl behind the counter and orders our tickets. I don’t know whether I should move forward with him or not, so I just hang back.

Then I see her.

She is from another world.

I stare at her pink hair and leather jacket. Pink painted fingernails. The way she raises her eyebrow at the ticket girl. Mocking.

She turns and looks straight through me.

Suddenly I am aware of the space between us. My limp brown hair. Baggy jeans. Cracked fingernails.

I hear Tony sniff. ‘Look at her! She thinks she’s so great.’

But so do I. I want to be her. I want to know what it feels like to move so confidently through a crowd.

The line moves and then we are in the theatre.

Tony takes his seat. I sit beside him. My hands clench in my lap.

I wonder where the girl with pink hair is sitting. Who she is with.

Then she is there, in the seat next to mine.

I try to make myself as small as possible as she places a cup of Coke in the armrest holder.

From the corner of my eye I can see her smooth brown arm. Tiny little golden hairs.

I can’t stop myself from wondering what it would feel like to touch.

The lights dim and loud music fills the theatre. I try to follow the movie but it’s all happening to fast. None of it means anything to me.

I glance at the girl beside me out of the corner of my eye. She is placing popcorn in her mouth. She turns her head slightly and looks at me. I quickly turn my eyes back to the screen.

She tilts the popcorn my way, as though she is offering me some.

I pretend not to notice. Hot prickles rise beneath my skin.

Tony stretches and tries to place his arm around me but I move slightly so that he misses. He hand brushes my arm as it returns to the armrest. It makes me shiver.

I try to make myself even smaller, moving away from Tony but not too close to the girl to be obvious. I imagine her swallowing me whole. My whole body feels heavy. Foreign. Confused.

I can hear Tony breathing through his mouth. I want to run. Why did I ever come?

The girl beside me whispers something but her words are lost against the sound of the movie.

I can feel myself hurtling through space. Solar winds howl past my ears. I close my eyes, suddenly feeling nauseous.

She is still there. Watching me. Waiting.

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

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 43

Ailis ran until her feet were sore. She was deep into the forest now, further than she’d ever been before. Every now and then she had to stop, leaning against a tree and panting until she had gotten her breath back. The forest stretched on and on around the edge of the lake, further than she could ever have imagined.

Surely she had lost the soldiers by now. They had nearly caught her this time. She was merely floating, just like she did every day when she could sneak away from her chores. She stood on the rock at the edge of the lake and just let herself hover in the air. She never went too far or too high. She didn’t want anyone seeing her or discovering she had magic. It was peaceful in the air. She felt more like herself—where she could imagine she was secretly a princess rather than just a blacksmith’s daughter.

But this time she had gotten careless and had drifted lazily toward the treetops. That is when she first saw the men in black cloaks. She had heard all about these men that wore black cloaks. The villagers were all terrified of them. And the worst of the lot was that sergeant with the scar on his left cheek. Three jagged lines—almost like someone had scratched him viciously, or in desperation, Ailis thought. She had made the mistake of looking up as he rode through the village once. He had stared at her with those dead eyes as though he wanted to devour her.

When Ailis saw the horsemen through the trees she quickly returned to the ground and started to run. She knew she could have flown away from them but she couldn’t be seen in the air.

Ailis heard a noise and began to run again. Her plan was to circle back around to the village and return by the coastal path. As Ailis neared the village she stopped running. She ran her hands over her skirt and blouse to straighten it and adjusted the scarf around her hair. She stopped by a wild apple tree and filled her basket. It would be a ready excuse if anybody stopped her. She tried to calm the fear in her stomach.

The sun rose high in the sky when she caught the scent of wood smoke from the village. Ailis heaved a sigh of relief. Just over the next rise and she would be back in the village safe and sound.

Ailis left the forest and walked across the field of heath that ran down to the beach. In the distance she could see the village’s fishing boats bobbing on the open sea. They wouldn’t return until evening with their catch.

She could hear hammering from the blacksmith’s forge and she smiled. It wasn’t so bad being the blacksmith’s daughter. It could have been worse. Bryn was a highly respected artisan in the village and that afforded Ailis more freedom from menial chores than some of the other girls her age.

Ailis took an apple from her basket and was just about to take a bite when she saw the four horsemen blocking her path.

‘You there. Girl. Stop.’

Ailis shuddered when she saw it was the man with the scar. She was frozen to the spot.

‘What business do you have out here? We have been hunting a young girl seen in the forest. What do you have to say for yourself?’

‘I—I was just fetching apples. To make my Da a pie.’ She tried to control the nervousness in her voice.

‘A likely story. Who is your da?’

‘The—the blacksmith—Bryn—the blacksmith.’

The sergeant looked at her more closely, searching her face. His black gloved hand involuntarily stroked the scars on his cheek.

‘How old are you, girl?’

Ailis felt tears well into her eyes but forced them back down. The pendant between her breasts was turning hot.

‘Just take her here, Hom. Nobody need ever know.’ The second horsemen leered at her. Ailis fought back the urge to wet herself.

‘This little one is not worth your effort.’

A woman appeared behind the horsemen. Hom turned in his saddle to see who dared address the black cloaks. It was just another peasant woman. Hom drew his sword. The sun glinted wickedly on the blade. He smiled viciously to feel its familiar weight in his hand.

‘Why don’t you go about your business, old woman, before I slay you right here.’

‘You don’t want to kill anyone today.’ She moved her hand from under her cloak. ‘Return to your camp.’

Hom looked at her uncertainly for a moment before sheathing his sword.

‘Come, men. Let us return to camp. We will take the wench another day.’

He glared at the woman and turned his horse. The four men rode away in a cloud of dust.

Ailis collapsed to her knees with shock.

The woman cupped her hand around Ailis’ chin and raised the girl to her feet.

‘Run home, child. You need to take more care with your gift. It’s not your time yet, but soon.’

Ailis looked questioningly into the woman’s eyes. They were dark but flecked with blue, like snowflakes.

‘Go.’

Ailis found her feet moving quickly toward the village. She looked back over her shoulder.

The woman was gone.

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