Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ by Joan G Robinson

I first heard of ‘When Marnie Was There’ from Studio Ghibli, a Japanese film studio, who made a film based on the book in 2015 (though I didn’t see it until the following year). Prior to watching it, I had no idea that it was based off of a book, and as I enjoyed the film so much, I just had to see what the book was like too. So when I eventually got round to reading it (my gosh, life gets in the way sometimes!), I knew where the story was headed…but that didn’t ruin it for me at all.

There’s such a richness to this book that I was completely enveloped in the world and characters from start to finish. It’s hard to explain, but it was almost like coming home after being away for a long time – and though I’m sure some of that was down to seeing the film first, I don’t think that was the whole reason.

Let me give a brief overview of the story before I ramble on about how much I loved it. The book is set in the late sixties (it was first published in 1967) and the main character is a girl called Anna. She’s an orphan who doesn’t know much about her family, and finds it hard to get to know people and express herself. She feels like everyone else in ‘inside’, and she’s always on the ‘outside’, even if people ask her to join in with their activities. When she feels uncomfortable around someone, she puts on her ‘normal’ face in the hopes that they’ll lose interest in her and go away.

She is sent away by her foster parents to a small village in Norfolk called Little Overton, for both her health (she has asthma) and a change of pace before school starts again after the holidays. She stays with an elderly couple who are friends with her foster parents, and they let her roam around the village as she pleases, which is how she discovers the Marsh House, a large house on the other side of the marsh that can only be reached by boat. Anna imagines that the house is home to a large, happy family who have parties that go on into the night, but there is no sign that anyone lives there at all.

However, one night she discovers a boat by the marsh, quite empty, as though it’s been left there for her. She rows it out to the Marsh House, and just before she reaches it, a girl calls out for her to throw the rope so she can tie the boat up. The girl’s name is Marnie, and from then on she and Anna become the kind of friends that each of them wished for, but never had. But every so often, Marnie seems to disappear, and soon Anna suspects something strange is going on.

As I said before, there’s certainly a feeling to this book that grabs me (the film has it too, but to a slightly lesser degree). All I can think of to say is that this story is simply beautiful, and one that stays with you for a long time.

Review: Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

Although I bought this book when it first came out last year, I’ve only just managed to get around to reading it, and it didn’t disappoint:

Cogheart is a middle grade steampunk adventure story, revolving around Lily, a thirteen year old who is much more interested in her penny dreadfuls than learning the proper posture befitting a young lady, Robert, the local clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, Lily’s mechanical fox.

It starts out with Lily’s father’s airship being attacked, and as Malkin (who is the only other person on board) has a better chance of surviving the crash, he is sent out in the escape pod to find Lily at her boarding school with a cryptic message from her father. Unfortunately, he is shot by his pursuers, but Robert finds him and fixes him.

Meanwhile, news of her father’s ‘crash’ has reached Lily, and her father’s housekeeper, Madame Verdigris, has come to take her home. Though Lily wasn’t keen on before, when she sees that Madame has let her father’s mechs (mechanical people; a maid, gardener, chauffeur and cook) wind down, as well as rooting through her parents’ possessions, she begins to mistrust her even more. But it’s only when Lily finds out that Madame is searching for an object known as the ‘perpetual motion machine’, which her father had supposedly created, that she learns that Madame’s ambition to be head of the household is just the start – she’s actually working with the men behind Lily’s father’s disappearance.

When Robert, at Malkin’s request, comes to see Lily, he finds her locked in her room with only one way out – the window, where a small vine allows her to climb down mostly unscathed. However, the men working with Madame see her escape, and pursue them both back to Robert’s house, where only the presence of Robert’s Da keeps them away…for a time.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The setting of Victorian London, coupled with the description of the mechs, who work everywhere as servants and helpers, makes for a very rich world, and the integration of this alternate technology is carried out so well that I had no trouble accepting it as the norm. There’s also the moral question regarding how the mechs are perceived – do they really feel emotion? Can you count them as real people even though they’re made of cogs? Which of course carries the theme of acceptance of others, and for me, that’s a good thing.

I also felt that the main characters were strong and interesting – I could identify with Lily and Robert, and I absolutely loved Malkin’s personality. There were also some twists, but I admit I saw one straight away, and had suspicions of the other. Though of course, this book is aimed at a young audience, so it’s possibly just that. Then again, I imagine most kids would pick up on the clues peppered throughout, so it’s hard to say.

I enjoyed the ending, though at the time of reading, I found it a little anti-climatic. But again, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, when I’m tired or distracted, I don’t enjoy things as much as normal, and I was very tired when I read the climax. The last chapter tied up all the loose ends nicely, and overall gave me that satisfied feeling of reaching the end of a good book.

So, would I recommend Cogheart as an exciting read for both kids and adults alike? Absolutely.

Review: Miss Prince by Alicia L. Wright

‘Vampires don’t belong in fairytales…’

‘Miss Prince’ is a young adult fantasy that tells the tale of Lucinda, a fifteen year old who seeks a part-time job so she can save up enough money for a plane ticket to America to meet her internet friends.

Unfortunately, when she sees a sign advertising for a ‘general assistant’, little does she know that dragon slaying, pretending to be a prince, vampire hunting and witch seeking are part of the deal. Oh, and she’ll end up with a runaway fairy hiding in her bedroom, too. You see, in the Otherworlds, the worlds of legends where all manner of magical things exist, stories have gone wrong. They’re breaking, and Lucinda has been hired to help fix them.

This book is a very easy read, and has just as much excitement and adventure as you’d expect from a book of this genre. I loved the twists in the tales (there’s a witch who won’t use magic, and a vampire who flatly refuses to terrorise the villagers like he’s supposed to), and the characters are fun and likable.

It’s also part of a trilogy, so I’ll have to pick up books two and three at some point.

A great read for any YA fantasy fan.

Review: Arma-garden – The Diary of my Allotment During the Zombie Apocalypse by Tracey J Morgan

Arma-garden is a light-hearted, fun take on the popular zombie apocalypse trend of horror stories.

As the name suggests, the story follows the diary of Susie, a young woman who keeps an allotment to grow fruit and veg as a way to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Except that one day, she sees an old woman attacked by a youth. Not just attacked, but thrown to the ground and having her face gnawed off. Immediately, Susie knows something’s wrong, but she’s lost her keys to the gate and can’t get out to help the old woman – the metal fence surrounding the entire perimeter of the allotment is too high, and spiked to boot. However, as soon as realizes the reason for this attack, that the youth is actually a zombie, she’s quite grateful for that impenetrable fence. To her luck, the allotment happens to have all the supplies to survive – fresh food, running water, and a few sheds for shelter, and, in the form of the old woman’s dog, who squeezed through the fence in sheer terror, a companion.

As the story progresses, we’re introduced to more characters who add a lot of humour and I really did laugh aloud several times while reading this piece. There’s a mysterious jogger always running past listening to several on point songs (really, one of them is ‘Thriller’) despite the crowd of zombies, a vegan zombie, the girlfriend of the vegan zombie, Susie’s boyfriend, a cat, and a 100 year old bed bound woman who always asks for sweet food to eat.

I really, really enjoyed this story and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and other tongue-in-cheek zombie tales. It’s well written, well thought out, the main character is likeable and witty (despite her desperate survival situation)

Review: Three short stories by N C Stow – The Leshy, The Kupala Night, and Voopyre

All of these short stories are based off of Russian folklore, which I’ve never explored before, and as well as introducing me to new concepts and ideas, I learnt a few new words too:

Izba – a traditional log house of rural Russia, with an unheated entrance room and a single living /sleeping room heated by a clay or brick stove.

Pech – a large stove used not only to cook with, but also to heat the izba. They normally have a nook (the small space between wall and stove) where small children can sleep to stay warm.

Although these terms aren’t explained in detail, you get the idea of what they are quite quickly from their usage, so it doesn’t interrupt the story flow in any way.

Now let’s get to the actual review (before I get distracted and end up running away with the fairies). I’ll start with The Leshy, which is the first one I read and I believe the first one to be published. This story was very poetically written, with beautiful imagery and strong characters, despite its length. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot focuses on the onset of Winter, a spirit. Winter kills the Leshy, a tree spirit, and Mavka, a young girl, wakes up having seen this happen in her dream. She the ends up being summoned by Winter herself, a summons that she can’t refuse.

I felt there were a lot of whimsical, magical touches to this piece that reminded me a lot of more well-known fairytales, but this story had the edge in that it stayed with me for a long time after I’d finished reading it.

I read The Kupala Night next, and as with The Leshy, spirits/gods played a large part in the story. This time, however, the focus was on Night looking for his true wife, Day. Kupala refers to a night of traditional celebratory dances, of which there are six. However, Varvara, a girl who has just come of age to go to the Kupala games, is warned by her grandmother (or ‘Baba’) not to stay for the seventh dance, which confuses Varvara because there isn’t one…at least not one that she knew of.

This wasn’t written as poetically as The Leshy, but there was still a lot of strong imagery and a soft touch of romance, too, plus a nice twist at the end.

Voopyre is the newest of these three stories, and though I did enjoy it, something about it just didn’t click as strongly with me as the other two. I can’t fault the writing, it’s just as good as The Leshy and The Kupala Night, but there’s still something that didn’t gel. Then again, I was very tired when I read it and I did get interrupted quite a bit…

Anyway, in Voopyre the story focuses on Zverovoy, the beast master/spirit as he takes an interest in a girl who walks through his forest. But he can’t get to her, so he calls upon the Voopyre, a creature that can tear apart the Kerchief of the world, to do just that. Zverovoy knows that to save her friends, the girl will need to call on him to find the Voopyre to replace the torn part of Kerchief, and thus he will see her again.

It was interesting and the idea that “‘Earth is a headscarf, and we are the thread'” really gripped my imagination, as did many other parts of this story. So, even though it wasn’t my favourite of the three (my favourite is The Leshy, because it’s just so beautiful both in how it’s written and what it’s about) it’s still worth a read.

They all are, in fact.

 

 

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Broken Window by William Todd

First of all, The Mystery of the Broken Window is a novelette (or long short story), and not a full length novel, and took perhaps an hour to read, so it’s great if you only have a short time to get your Sherlock Holmes fix (like me). However, it is broken up into short chapters, so should you wish, you can split up your reading time, and as with the original tales, it’s narrated by Doctor Watson.

Despite its length, the opening pages spent time delving into Watson’s thoughts about Holmes’ more emotional side and hinting that this case might have an effect on that not-often seen side of him, which piqued my interest straight away. It then introduced the client, one Stanley Hopkins (it’s been a while since I read the originals, so while I recognized the name, it took me a while to work out why). Before I get into Stanley’s plight, I want to mention that there was the familiar back and forth between Holmes and Watson on how Holmes knew they were about to receive a visitor before anyone even knocked on the door, which I thought was very well done, and in fact Todd’s style throughout this piece felt very authentic and well thought out.

Anyway, back to Stanley. He’s a young man at this point and apprenticing as a blue dyer at a printing shop, and is seeking help to find his younger sister who has recently gone missing, with the fear that she’s been abducted. Now, without going into spoilers, Holmes and Watson investigate in their usual way and find the clues leading to her whereabouts. What surprised me, however, is the reason why she was missing, which I think is mostly due to my naivety of those particular circumstances occurring in that time period. For me, it’s more of a modern concern, but again, it’s probably because society as a whole is more aware of it now. There’s also a slight twist at the end, and though I had no idea it was coming, it did wrap up the whole affair nicely.

The only qualms I had with this story were a few clunky sentences and typos, but overall it’s well written and engaging – definitely an enjoyable read for any Holmes fan.

Review: Pooems by Nicola Winsland

Pooems is a small anthology of children’s poetry based on that always amusing topic: poo.

It mainly focuses on animal poo, and the beginning few pages have a breakdown of what the poo from different animals is like, written (as you would expect from a book of poetry) in verse, and hilarious verse at that, before moving on to large poems detailing the strange things animals, humans, and even dinosaurs do with poo. Here’s the blurb from the back cover, complete with extract:

Contrary to all the hype,

Zebra poos don’t have a stripe,

So it’s conceivable of course,

That you could muddle them with horse!

 

From the unstripy poo of a Zebra, to the pungent pong of a piggy’s poo,

this little book of pooetry rhymes about it all.

And if you’ve ever pondered where a mole does his business

or what a pigeon gets up to on the London Underground,

then this collection of hilarious pooems is just for you

The tag line is ‘A fun read for children and adults alike’ and having read it in the staff room only to giggle out loud and have my co-workers stare at me, I can attest to that. This is a very fun book, and the poems would not look out of place in a bigger book of children’s poetry (such as my childhood favourite, ‘The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry’).

The illustrations are fantastic and add to the humour, and are drawn by the author. All in all, I believe that this book is worth every penny and would make a great addition to any collection of poetry.