Review: City of Crows by Chris Womersley

City+of+Crows+Cover+copy.jpgChris Womersley’s latest novel sucks you in from the opening passages. Set in 1600s France this is a gothic masterpiece firmly based in the historical realm but will have you believing in magic, witchcraft and maybe even the devil himself.

It is 1673 and The Plague grips the countryside. Charlotte Picot has lost three of her children to fever and her husband has also just passed away. She decides to flee her small French village with her remaining son Nicholas and set off across the countryside to seek refuge in a larger town. They are attacked upon the road and Nicholas is taken by slavers and Charlotte is left for dead. Desperate to save her son Charlotte is makes a deal with a woman claiming to be a witch to summon forth help in her time of need.

Meanwhile a man is freed from the prison galleys having served a brutal seven year sentence. He is desperate to return to Paris and retrieve a buried fortune but he cannot recover his treasure alone. His path will cross with Charlotte’s and they will both find more than they bargained for in the dark and uncanny underbelly of 17th century Paris

While on the surface setting a book in 17th century France seems to be a far removal from Chris’s previous work there has always been a gothic undertone to his novels. At one point in Bereft I was almost convinced the main character was possibly a ghost and Womersley uses similar devices to keep you off balance about where reality ends and magic actually begins.

Rooted in historical fact this is a novel that entrances you, bewitches you and keeps you thoroughly enthralled.

Buy the book here…

5 Books About Twins

I love books about twins so much I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favourites.

  1. Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews
    This was the book that started my love affair with twins in literature and is the story of 4 young children locked in an attic by their Grandmother. Their father has died and the children are living in their gothic grandparent’s house waiting for the Mother to successfully acquire some money from her strict Grandfather who detests the children. Gradually their mother visits less often and the children are largely left to their own devices. This is a classic YA novel with gothic undertones and themes of greed and betrayal.
  2. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
    This book is in my Top 10 favourite books of all time. Vida Winter is a successful author and has decided to tell her life story now that she’s dying. She’s given many interviews over the course of her life, but each time she tells a different story. This time she’s serious about revealing the dark truth about her past and Margaret Lea has agreed to be her biographer. But it won’t be easy.
    The novel makes countless delicious references to stories, books and reading and I revelled in the language.
    Here’s a sample from the book: “Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so.
    Naturally the plot includes twins and the wonderfully haunted Angelfield House forms the backdrop of the novel in a charming and menacing way. In addition to being a brilliant book, The Thirteenth Tale is also major BBC film starring Vanessa Redgrave and Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones).
  3. Beside Myself by Ann Morgan
    Beside Myself is a psychological thriller and suspenseful read looking at themes of identity and mental illness. Twin sisters Helen (domineering) and Ellie (submissive) play a game one afternoon to swap identities, but Ellie won’t change back. What happens next is an ever growing divide between the sisters and the subsequent decline of one of them. As the consequences of the game last a lifetime, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done in Helen’s situation
  4. A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne
    Continuing the suspense theme, A Dark Dividing is about conjoined twins born 100 years apart and how they’re connected. Alternating between the past and the present, and across 3 different periods, the novel reveals a number of shocking secrets as it progresses.
    Author Sarah Rayne loves to include a creepy building at the centre of her books and this time it was the suitably scary Mortmain House. Originally used as a workhouse for men and women who would otherwise die of starvation, the living conditions at the house were horrendous. Children abandoned at birth or born to families unable to care for them all ended up here and suffered terrible treatment as a consequence.
    As the title suggests, A Dark Dividing is a dark read and I enjoyed finding out how all the characters were connected.
  5. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
    Another gothic novel featuring twins in a creepy estate is historical fiction novel The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. Edie is a book publisher and when her mother receives a long lost letter originally posted in 1941 from Milderhurst Castle, her curiosity is piqued. Her mother is secretive about her past, but Edie finds out she was billeted at the castle for a short time during the war.
    Edie visits the crumbling castle and meets the three elderly sisters residing there. Twins Percy and Saffy live together with their younger sister Juniper and the reasons they each chose to stay at the castle after the war and why they never married or had children inform the plot. Something happened to bond the sisters together for life and it was a thrill to discover. The characters love to read, write and tell stories, and all shared a love of books. The reference to the library in the castle made me weak at the knees.

I hope you enjoyed this list, but I’ve just noticed that almost all the twins in my list are female. I can’t even think of a novel with male twins, can you? Further reading: The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne and The Silent Twin by Caroline Mitchell.

I’m not loafing, I’m doing research

Is it too late to say – Happy New Year! I hope you’ve had a great start to the year.

I’ve been flat out working all summer. My friends and family would probably say otherwise, that I’ve been lazing around on holidays, that I’ve barely had my laptop open. But that’s just the point.

Paradise, NZI’ve been travelling, gazing out plane windows, eavesdropping at restaurants, chatting with strangers, watching movies, gathering characters, uncovering settings, and generally getting inspired. It’s called research. It’s a tough part of writing, but it has to get done. What can I say?

The Moth DiariesI’ve also consumed a lot of books. I read everything with a highlighter in one hand and an analytical eye, looking for ways to improve my own writing. That sometimes takes the fun out of reading, but I definitely appreciate a well-written book, more than I ever did.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rachel Klein’s menacing YA gothic tale – The Moth Diaries. It’s no ordinary teen vampire story. The tension is between the girls at an exclusive boarding school. The sixteen-year-old narrator records her thoughts – diary-style, as questions start to mount about the identity of new-girl, Ernessa, and her intentions towards the narrator’s best friend, Lucy. It’s a compelling and haunting read.

A toxic friendship is also at the heart of Rebecca James’ YA page-turner, Beautiful Malice. Beautiful MaliceThe book hooked me right from the first line – I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral, and kept me racing right to the end, as it flicked between three different time periods. The main thread focuses on the blossoming friendship between two girls in their final year of high school. But Katherine’s hopes of escaping her tragic past sour as her new friend Alice’s motives start to look sinister.

State of GraceMeanwhile, utopia is not quite what it seems in Hilary Badger’s debut YA novel, State of Grace. This clever story puts a group of teenagers in an earthly paradise, where everything and everyone is beautiful. But when Wren starts having visions of another life, she has to decide whether to investigate what lies beyond the idyllic garden or continue to live in perfect ignorance. An intriguing read.

Happy researching!

Julie

Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River adventure series for young readers, Choose Your Own Ever After, a pick-a-path series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.

 

 

Gothic Tales for Christmas

Withering-by-SeaThree gothic novels by Australian authors will intrigue primary-school aged (and slightly older) readers who enjoy reading about danger cloaked in mystique and how children can overcome this.

Withering-by-Sea (ABC Books) is written and illustrated by Judith Rossell, whose talent is really taking wings. She has also illustrated picture books, which include Ten Little Circus Mice and Too Tight, Benito and she wrote and illustrated Ruby and Leonard. Withering-by-Sea is the first of the ‘A Stella Montgomery Intrigue’ series – what a fascinating name for a series. Stella lives in the Hotel Majestic at Withering-by-Sea with her formidable aunts. The scene is set for skullduggery when Stella witnesses new guest, Mr Filbert, bury something in the conservatory, the lush garden Stella regards as her Amazon playground. She is thrown into a diabolical situation when she witnesses a burglary and murder.

Another atmospheric gothic tale is Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee (Hot Key Books). Foxlee’s debut was a novel for adults, The Anatomy of Wings. She followed that with The Midnight Dress (one of my 2013 best books for young adults) and now she has triumphed with an original story set in a snowy city’s museum. With a countdown to Christmas Eve, Ophelia’s father is Ophelia and the Marvellous Boypreparing a sword exhibition. The museum where he works is a fantastic maze of exhibits and displays: the exhibition of elephants, the pavilion of wolves, an arcade of mirrors, a room full of telephones, a gallery of teaspoons, a checkerboard floor, paintings of girls in party dresses and, most importantly, The Wintertide Clock. The whole building is like an enormous cabinet of curiosities and this is where Ophelia discovers the Marvellous Boy, whose story intersects with that of the evil Snow Queen. Ophelia must race time and winter to save those she loves from the Snow Queen but she is invested with the power to be the defender of goodness and happiness and hope.

N.J. Gemmell’s sequel to The Kensington Reptilarium for both girls and boys, The Icicle Illuminarium, is also structured loosely around Christmas. The Australian Caddy children, who are living in England, are preparing an extravaganza for the Twelfth Night of Christmas when the story begins. But when their father’s health declines, they set off to find the mother who is presumed dead but may actually be alive. Their quest takes them to the mysterious, moth-eaten Icicle Illuminarium.

See more about this book at http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/meet-n-j-gemmell-author-of-the-icicle-illuminarium/2014/10.

These three stories are well written and imaginative, with elements of the macabre, but they ultimately reward hope, love and goodness over evil in true Christmas spirit.

Icicle Illuminarium

 

What Is It? Genre Part II

Hopefully you enjoyed What Is It? Genre Part I, it’s now time to delve a little deeper.

Let’s take a look at the differences between: biography, autobiography and memoir? Often confusing, are they all the same?

A biography is the life story of a person written by someone else.

An autobiography is the life story of a person written by themselves.

A memoir is a collection of memories from a person’s life, told in the first person. It’s different from an autobiography, because it does not tell the entire life story.

Now that we’ve got that straight, what is the difference between an authorised or unauthorised biography?  An authorised biography is a biography written about a person with the subject or family’s permission.

An unauthorised biography is just that.  A biography that has no approval from the subject, which naturally means the subject has not contributed information or personal material to the biography.  A well known unauthorised biography is Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley.

Just when you thought that was the end, I bring you fictional autobiography.  Essentially, it’s when an author creates a fictional character and writes a book as if it were a first person autobiography.  Sound confusing? A popular example of a fictional autobiography is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This also brings us to the controversy of autobiographical fiction.  This is when an author will write a book and claim it is their autobiography, although it contains falsehoods and may not be true at all.  A great example of this is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, originally sold as a memoir but later found to contain much fiction.

Many readers will suspend disbelief in order to enjoy a good fantasy or fairytale, but if an autobiography is found to contain false claims or fiction, is it any less enjoyable?  I like to know what I’m reading beforehand and resent it if I find out later that a book was not all I thought it was.  What about you?

Let’s look at a few more genres before I close off this What Is It? article on genre.

The Hunter by Julia Leigh is an example of Tasmanian gothic literature

Gothic literature is very popular and includes such novels as Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Gothic novels contain some of the following elements: horror, secrets, romance, madness, death, ghosts, supernatural and gothic architecture including haunted houses and castles.  Characters in a gothic novel will often include: women in distress, tyrannical males, maniacs, heroes, magicians, angels, ghosts and much more.

Gothic horror or gothic literature is a great genre, but what about Tasmanian gothic literature?  Yes, you read right, there are a number of novels now classified as Tasmanian gothic literature and if this tickles your fancy, you may want to check some of them out: The Roving Party by Rohan WilsonThe Hunter by Julia Leigh and Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.

Whatever your reading tastes may be, you are bound to enjoy some genres more than others and at some point in your reading life, continue to read from your favourites.  Just remember to keep exploring and venturing into new reading territories because you never know what you’ll find.

Angels in Literature: Who Dares Disturb Their Slumber?

I noticed recently that Boomerang Books had twittered about a book trailer for The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson. Released back in 2008, I read the book as soon as I could get my hands on it because the blurb just sounded so damn good:

The nameless narrator of The Gargoyle is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and wakes up in a burns ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned. His life is over – he is now a monster. One day, Marianne Engel, a wild and compelling sculptress of gargoyles, enters his life and tells him that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. As she spins her tale, Scheherazade fashion, and relates equally mesmerising stories of deathless love in Japan, Greenland, Italy and England, he finds himself drawn back to life – and, finally, to love.

This strange debut offering – which had such a high-falutin’ storyline – turned out to be compulsively readable. From the first sentence the book leapt free of the Gothic Classic narrative I’d been banking on, and was testing its wings in an entirely more modern context. And it may have been more of a shock, because the narrator wasn’t some damsel-in-distress wooed by a chance at love, it was a Hollywood heartthrob with a face of ash, being wooed by an excaped patient from the psychiatric ward next door. So yeah, romance can happen in all places, to all types of people. And this message gave The Gargoyle its ability to enter massmarket fiction for adults. Indeed, it was the first time since the 90s (when angels were popular for the ‘Hard Rock Goths’), that I sensed the concept of a winged being had embarked on a dark road: one to commercial success (excess).

Gargoyles; vampires; angels; demons; concepts of heaven and hell, have all experienced a resurgence in literature. Gothic is all the rage right now, for some reason. You could perhaps, credit Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Gothic poem Christabel (one of me faves) as the stirring of vampires in the 1800s. From there, friend and contemporary Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein, Sheridan Le Fanu was inspired to write a cracking novella titled ‘Carmilla’, and this in turn is said to have partly influenced a book you may know: Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

While Twilight may have awoken the sleeping dead for teenagers and starry-eyed 20- and 30-something women, word around the book blog traps has been that angels, riding on the coattails of the humanised vampire, are ready for a descent themselves. Not only a descent into the world of teens, mind you, but with a plan for fantasy fiction world takeover (including all its subgenre cities).

I don’t know just yet if angels are indeed the new vampires, but the whole religious idea and how it has been translated into popular culture definitely deserves some further investigation. Why are they popular again? How do they differ from their original concept? Religious connotations of heaven and hell, as alluded to in The Gargoyle, also requires some exploration.

Grab a shovel, and get ready to do some digging. Stay tuned for future angelic/demonic posts – it’s a heaven/hell extravaganza!