A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10

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Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

Bryony and Roses – T Kingfisher

“She was going to die because of the rutabagas.”

Bryony may just have found herself trapped in a magical manor house with a surprisingly eloquent Beast, but if there’s one thing she’s not it’s a ‘beauty’. She is, however, a gardener, and as things in the House take ever darker turns it might just turn out to be far more useful to have skills over looks. Can she figure out what’s going on in an abode that creates dresses and gardening tools out of thin air, and which throws a strop if the other resident – the mysterious Beast – tries to answer any of her questions?

I’ve loved Ursula Vernon for years, following her from her time on the art site, Elfwood, to her own blog (recommended – it’s a lot of fun) and from artist to writer. One of her skills is telling gentle, fairy-tale-like stories that are somehow so much more. And, along the way, she’s done a few ‘retellings’ of classic fairy tales, like Bluebeard, The Snow Queen, and this version of Beauty and the Beast.

One of the strengths of all of these books is the sensible, no-nonsense heroine. Bryony reacts to the magical house and resident Beast in ways that seem much more likely than most fairy tales. And while the dangers faced are fantastical, the solidity of the garden (which the author knows more than enough about to have read very authentically) is a great counterpart.

Of the three retellings mentioned, this is my absolutely favourite – I absolutely loved it! Okay, there’s no talking hedgehog (always a great feature in a book!), but Bryony is so pragmatic and real and just had me rooting for her from the get-go – not to mention getting twitchy green fingers! The Beast, too, is rather more relatable than some other versions, particularly as his story very slowly reveals itself

The plot has a few subtle twists on the classic version, more than enough to keep interest, even had it been a much longer book. At around 200 pages, this is a perfectly sweet, lovely little volume which I recommend wholeheartedly.

Kindle: 216 pages / 33 chapters
First published: 2015
Series:  none (although could be loosely linked to The Raven and the Reindeer and The Seventh Bride fairytale retellings)
Read from 29th August – 1st September 2017

My rating: 10/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

The Raven and the Reindeer – T. Kingfisher

“Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.”

Her whole life, Gerta has been infatuated with the boy who lives next door, Kay, despite him being rather cold and inconsistent and just a little bit cruel. When he is spirited away in the night by the Snow Queen, a creature of dark myth, Gerta feels she has no choice but to go and rescue him.

As she journeys to the far north she encounters witches, plant dreams, a talking raven, and a magical reindeer (sort of). Oh, and a bandit girl who kisses her, quite unexpectedly 😉 No matter what happens when they reach the Snow Queen’s palace, Gerta will never be the same again.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read the Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, and if so I don’t remember all that much. And the movie Frozen is probably best glossed over, tbh 😉 None of that really matters, though, because Ursula Vernon (writing here as ‘T Kingfisher’ to keep the darker works separate from her children’s books) puts her own – invariably far better – twist on everything.

I’ve followed Ursula’s blog for years, so I know well her love for plants and animals, and both shine through her work. Thus we get a raven who can speak, but remains resolutely raven-ish and all the more fun for it. He – aka ‘The Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God’ (I mean, how fabulous is that?!) – provides some much-needed levity in an otherwise rather dark tale.

Despite the dark overtones, I really enjoyed this tale. A little bit of research shows that most of the original elements are present, but given a modern spin and thus far less objectionable to the poor women involved! Indeed, all the main characters, and most of the minor ones, are female here, with the main male reduced to the role of ‘princess who needs rescued’. Refreshing!

Kindle: 191 pages / 40 chapters
First published: 2016
Series: could be loosely linked with other fairy tale retellings, Bryony and Roses, and The Seventh Bride
Read from 19th-21st December 2016

My rating: 8/10

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

“It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”

Deep in rural Rus(sia) – some 200 years before the rise of Ivan the Terrible – Vasilisa is the youngest child of the local lord, allowed to run somewhat wild after her mother dies in childbirth. Life is hard in the cold North, but Vasya’s (yes, prepare for all those strange Russian pet-name forms!) life only grows difficult with the arrival of her new, young stepmother. The two are the only ones who seem to see the domovoi, the household spirits, but their reactions couldn’t be more different.

When an ambitious and charismatic young priest is sent to the village, hell bent on driving such superstitions out of the local populace, it isn’t long before darker forces begin to gather, looking for a way in…

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely mix of a fairy tale and a history lesson. With all the classic elements – evil stepmother, helpful sprites only the heroine can see, etc – it would be easy to turn this into a cosy folklore retelling, which would be interesting enough especially with the Russian setting.

However, the story becomes something that much more powerful by being full of excellent (or so I’m told) historical detail. The sense of this being a real place and period of history stops the fairy tale taking over, giving the whole thing that much of a darker edge.

That too, though, is the weakness. It took me several chapters to settle into reading this, largely because the history and level of detail makes for a rather slow read. As Vasya grows up, there is a very unwelcome hint of sexual violence, particularly as girls became women at an age we’d find shocking now, and just the general less-than-pleasant treatment of women ‘back in the day’ (hah!). That she overcomes so much and remains so staunchly a feminist hero as she takes on all the real and un-real worlds can throw at her just feels a little like wish fulfilment.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The pacing is a little slow, and the occasional switch of viewpoint doesn’t help with a consistent tone, but overall the world building is superb, and the story both sweetly familiar and nicely just a bit different.

NetGalley eARC: 480 pages / 28 chapters
First published: January 2017
Series: the author says on GoodReads that there will be two sequels – yay!
Read from 22nd November- 6th December 2016

My rating: 8.5/10

The Seventh Bride – T. Kingfisher

“Her name was Rhea.”

Re-tellings and re-imaginings of fairy tales have been all the rage for quite a while now, and to be honest, if you’re feeling a little bored of all that then I don’t blame you. But perhaps you could put that aside for just a few minutes, and consider T.Kingfisher – the pseudonym for the wondrous Ursula Vernon’s not-for-kids work – and this charming little tale.

For a start, it really helps that the fairy tale in question isn’t one of the obvious ones. Bluebeard is a typically nasty children’s tale, about a serial groom and his string of vanished wives. Kingfisher’s version adds a good twist to the idea, a large dollop of magic, and a hedgehog.

While this definitely isn’t for younger readers, as per Ursula Vernon’s e.g. Hamster Princess series, it inhabits that odd place between that and a ‘grown up’ book. It’s still very much in the fairy-tale realm, with an added dark sensibility. If I had to compare it to anything, it’d be Neil Gaiman, and possibly his slightly younger-skewed work. Which is a compliment!

Although the ending felt a very little flat compared to the bulk of the book, and I can see how I’d have to be ‘in the mood’ again to really enjoy the style, I did love the language and telling enough to want to go and buy the rest of the T. Kingfisher catalog.

eARC from NetGalley: 183 pages / 29 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: could be linked together with Bryony and Roses and The Raven and the Reindeer
Read from 18th-20th February 2016

My rating: 7/10