Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

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USA cover

USA cover

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2015.

Marcus Sedgwick is a prolific and inventive writer. And a bit of a dish, judging by his cover photo. I have really enjoyed his two previous books: Midwinterblood, which won the Printz for 2013, is a collection of unsettling and creepy interlinked stories; and She is Not Invisible, a terrific mystery with a blind girl finding her way in New York, wrapped around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe” and coincidences.

His new collection of stories, The Ghosts of Heaven, has a little of both – connected stories and a fascination with a phenomenon that promises meaning outside ourselves. There are four loosely connected stories, or quarters, set in different time periods. They’re presented in chronological order, though in an introductory note the author suggests that they can be read in any order. Within each quarter, spirals play a significant, though differing role.

In the free verse prehistoric story, Whispers in the Dark, a young woman accompanies an elder to the caves, where paintings are made to bring magic to help the people hunt. In the dark, she sees spirals like the ones she has drawn in the sand with a stick, and she stumbles on the thought of the written word.

The Witch in the Water is set in the 18th century in an isolated English village. A new priest, burning with fervent desire to root out witches, sees a young woman, Anna, dancing in a spiral after the funeral of her mother. Her mother was a “cunning woman” and Anna takes after her – and this, combined with her brother’s epilepsy and some vindictive villagers, leads to an inevitable Thomas Hardy-esque fate.

British cover

British cover

In the Gothic 1920’s tale, The Easiest Room in Hell, a naïve and altruistic doctor keeps a journal when he starts a new job at an insane asylum, which has a massive central spiral staircase. One of the inmates is terrified by this shape, which seems to go into the “darkest depths” at one end and into the “expansive heavens” at the other.

Finally, The Song of Destiny is set on a huge space ship spiraling through time and space as it transports 500 people to a New Earth. Keir Bowman (2001 references!) is a Sentinel who wakes up for 12 hours every 10 years to ensure all is well. On one of his shifts he believes he sees another person, and, on another, he hears a signal from space that suggests there’s another life form out there.

The quarters reference each other and are connected by thematic threads including solitude, both imposed and sought, discovery, connection and death. Though written in different styles, they all share a disquieting atmosphere of dread. I felt that the middle two stories were much more successful than the top and tail – I found the verse rather stiff and uninvolving in the prehistoric story; and the scifi quarter ends up in a swirl of pseudo-meaningful metaphysics.

However, that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure other readers will prefer different stories. But whatever floats your boat, this is a stylish and erudite collection that will appeal to mature teen and adult readers.

She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

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invisibleFar removed from the Gothic fantasy of his Printz award winning Midwinterblood (2013), Marcus Sedgwick’s new YA mystery wraps a contemporary story of a blind girl searching for her father around the idea of “hidden patterns in the universe”.

When 16 year-old Laureth gets a message that makes her believe her father has gone missing in New York, she takes her “slightly strange” 7 year-old brother, Benjamin, and they fly from London to find him. She needs her brother with her because she was born blind. Laureth determinedly tries to hide her vulnerability from the rest of the world with a variety of strategies and she navigates us through their challenging journey so that we can begin to understand how she navigates through life without visual cues.

Her father is obsessed with finding meaning in coincidences, and Laureth becomes increasingly aware of them as they follow his cryptic trail. Pages from her father’s notebook, on topics from Jung to Poe, give the reader more food for thought on the subject.

A growing sense of unease is brilliantly created, though the quest, which puts both Laureth and Benjamin to the test, ends in a more conventional way than you might hope, even as it ties up all the loose ends. This is a well-paced, moving story with superbly developed characters (including the fabulous Mr. Walker), and the end of the final chapter will make some readers want to go back and reexamine everything they have just read.

Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

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still-life-with-tornadoStill Life with Tornado by A. S. King
Dutton, 2016.

As I’m reading a bit less at the moment due to work commitments, I’m having a real struggle choosing between reading new authors, and ones I already know and love. Much as I want to expand my repertoire, there are certain authors that I just can’t pass up. Next week’s review is by one, the always edgy Marcus Sedgwick, and today’s is about a book by another author who just keeps coming up with extraordinary novels, A. S. King.

White 16 year-old Sarah is having an “existential crisis” after an incident in art class and stops going to school. But it is only when she meets up with her 10 year-old and 23 year-old selves that she can begin to understand that there is a much deeper root to her troubles.

The author has a great knack of taking what is a fairly prosaic and unoriginal story – in this case, a highly creative and smart teen girl dealing with the fallout of her dysfunctional family – and adding in a wildly original fantasy element that spectacularly illuminates the main plot.

Sarah has all the self-absorption of her age, and the main thread of the story follows her on her wanderings around Philadelphia. Woven into that is the detailed recollection of a family holiday in Mexico when she was 10, which was a pivotal point for them all,  particularly for her older brother Bruce. The third element is the backstory to the family’s dysfunction, told from her mother’s perspective.

Sarah frequently and thought-provokingly threshes through the question of what art is, and what originality is. Whether she’s following a local homeless man, going to school in her head, or eating out of trash cans, Sarah is an engaging and intelligent narrator. The tornado of the title is a metaphor for all that is contained inside the emotions whirling around inside of Sarah (and the cover rather clunkily explicates that).

Though smaller and more intimate than Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014), King beautifully blends Sarah’s rooted-in-reality breakdown with the freshness and creativity of the doppelgangers.

A. S. King is something of an acquired taste, and her straight-faced mix of reality and fantasy is certainly not for everyone; I’ve heard her books described as “weird” in not always a complimentary way. However, sophisticated teens with an eye out for a new angle on an old story may well enjoy this.

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Happy Anniversary!

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Me and Patrick Ness.

Me and Patrick Ness.

It’s the first anniversary of bibliobrit – a year in which I have written 106 posts and reviewed over 100 books. Rummaging through the stats of my blog, here are some first year facts:

Most popular posts

  1. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is by far the most read review. I meet Ms. Nelson recently at the ALA conference and she was quite charming. She is very excited about the upcoming movie of this novel, though I have to say I have my concerns.
  1. The Perfect Letter by Chris Harrison is the gift that keeps on bringing people to my blog. They don’t usually stay for very long though.
  1. Wild Rover No More by L. A. Meyer is the last book in a hugely popular and well-loved series, though bibliobrit readers often appear to be looking for spoilers.

Least popular posts

Here’s your opportunity to go back and read them. They’re really not that bad, and they’re about books that are really good.

  1. She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick is a terrific book by an author who always delivers something thoughtful.
  1. The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier is a cracking good fantasy/horror story. It did bubble around the edges of Newbery discussions too, though is perhaps a bit too genre for that award.
  1. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is a funny, raunchy scifi thriller that won a Printz honor.

So, let’s cut the cake and pop the cork! and here’s to a second year of bibliobrit. Feel free to let me know if there’s anything you like or don’t like about the blog, and if there’s some books you think I should add to my TBR pile.

Hayley

The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War; illustrated by Jim Kay

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greatwarThe Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War; illustrated by Jim Kay
Candlewick, 2015.

It is hard to make World War One relevant to contemporary kids, particularly American ones; this handsome collection, is a valiant attempt to do that by focusing on the short and long-term effects that the war has on different children.

These eleven exceptional stories, written by authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Marcus Sedgwick and Tanya Lee Stone, are each inspired by a military or civilian object. These come mostly from the Imperial War Museum collection and include a war-time butter dish with an inscription from the prime minister, a Victoria Cross, sheet music and a soldier’s writing case.Great War Warhorsefield

Most are set in England, but there are also stories from Ireland, France, America, and Australia. Some take place during or immediately after the war and others in more contemporary times. Each looks at the toll, both direct and oblique, that the conflict has on a child, and how it transformed everyone’s life, rarely for the better. This is particularly poignant in Sheena Wilkinson’s quietly moving “Each Slow Dusk” as well as A. L. Kennedy’s more immediate “Another Kind of Missing”.

great war tankBinding the collection together are Jim Kay’s (A Monster Calls, 2011) exquisitely beautiful ink and charcoal war scenes, which are shown both as double page spreads and then as shards and splatters across other pages.

Back matter includes photographs of the objects with accompanying information, and short bios of the writers.

Like the similarly intentioned Above the Dreamless Dead, this was originally published in the U. K. in 2014 to mark the centenary of the start of the war and is also a worthy addition to middle and high school libraries, as well as public library collections. However, I think both short stories and historical settings can be a hard sell, so the combination probably means few kids will pick it up, though Jim Kay’s illustrations could reel some in.