The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

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A flooded world. A floating circus. Two women in search of a home. North lives on a circus boat with her beloved bear, keeping a secret that could capsize her life. Callanish lives alone in her house in the middle of the ocean, tending the graves of those who die at sea. As penance for a terrible mistake, she has become a gracekeeper. A chance meeting between the two draws them magnetically to one another – and to the promise of a new life. But the waters are treacherous, and the tide is against them.

This atmospheric YA novel is a cross between dystopia and magical realism, full of ethereal imagery that gives it a magical quality. The world has flooded and only small pockets of lands are left- the population is now divided between landlockers, the wealthy who live on the land, and the damplings, who live on the water. North is a dampling who performs extravagant circus events with her bear in order to survive, while Callanish is a landlocker with a secret, living apart from her people as a gracekeeper.

Kirsty Logan’s prose is strikingly beautiful and I would read the book again just for that.

“The apple was a perfect sphere, green speckled with red, shiny as a bird’s eye. Avalon pulled a silver knife from her dress pocket and cut the apple’s softening flesh into quarters, exposing the pips tenderly. Its scent exploded in the air: sweetly souring, past its best but still with a sheen of juice.”

The narrative shifts to various different viewpoints, which was refreshing and allows for a free-flowing plot. The characterisation is vidid and colourful and brings each individual to life, oozing glamour, hatred and sex. It was this that made me so impatient to get back to the book when I wasn’t reading it.

The world-building- when it exists- is intriguing, but falls short by leaving so many unanswered questions. The origin of the practice of gracekeeping, starving birds to death above water graves to indicate the period of mourning, is never explained. As a gracekeeper, Callanish must live separate from all others, but there is never a hint of who has decided this and who governs the world she lives in. I would have liked to have known the backstory to the segregation between damplings and landlockers, and what place the religious sect had in the narrative.

“Spectacle is grounded in the illusion of control.”

Themes of the rituals of life and death, pregnancy, gay relationships, Scottish selkie mythology and Shakespearian play on gender make this novel unique. However, the ending was a little lacklustre, with a tragic event not causing nearly as much grief as it should have, which made the relationship involved less authentic. People have suggested that one of the main themes of this book is female bodily autonomy, but I found it odd how a scene in which a selkie impregnates a character in what realistically should be defined as rape didn’t seem to be a matter of concern to the victim.

Despite some of the slightly disappointing aspects, this is still a compelling, artisitic novel and one that I would recommend to lovers of The Night Circus and Church of Marvels. Next on my list is Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Down who died of breast cancer before she could write it into a story, A Monster Calls is a young adult novel brought to life by Patrick Ness. A book that is raw in emotion, it tells the story of Conor, a teenage boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose father has left him for a new family in the US and who is bullied at school. Conor is terrified of losing his mother, but his true nightmare is something he’s hiding deep within himself. A monster calls at Conor’s home and tells him three stories that are true. Then Conor must tell his own truth or be eaten.

This is a modern day fairytale which captures the anger of a child facing his mother’s imminent death in such an authentic, gritty way that it’s painful to read. As an aspiring children’s author, I feel that touching just one child with my stories and allowing him or her to relate to a particular situation or emotion and draw comfort from them would be the greatest achievement there is. Patrick Ness has done this with A Monster Calls. The novel is a validation of grief and anger and the unfairness of death. The author is telling the reader: it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be sad. Death isn’t fair. It’s a validation of the guilt you can feel when a loved one passes away, because the worse that could happen has happened and you don’t have to fear it anymore.

“You be as angry as you need to be,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not your grandma, not your dad, no one. And if you need to break things, then by God, you break them good and hard.”

This book reminds us of the complexities of human emotion.

The monster always visits at 12.07 and tells Conor three stories that could be interpreted as representations of Conor’s relationships with the main people in his life. Through these, Conor must look at himself and face his most darkest, secret truth.

“There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.”

Despite Conor’s pain and the darkness of the book’s themes, there’s still room for lighthearted humour and teenage sarcasm that makes you laugh.

“Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.

“You look like a tree,” Conor said.”

By the end, the story comes full circle and all the loose strands meet together in a satisfying and meaningful way. This novel deals with such important concepts; the acceptance of death and the anger that follows. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and if you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, I would urge you to read it.

The monster called to heal Conor, but he’ll heal you, too.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

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Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins

A unique middle-grade novel, this is the story of Tash, Sam and their escape from Tibet to India to find the Dali Lama and save Tash’s parents. I loved it first of all for its diversity. Jess Butterworth brings us into contact with Tibetan and Indian culture, and with the religion of Buddhism. I think this kind of diversity is so important in children’s literature. The political backdrop of the story, occupied Tibet and the propaganda it entailed, was enlightening and I finished the book feeling like I had learned something.

The prose is short, sharp and colourful and propels the plot forward at an action-packed pace. The chapters are also short and snappy and break the story up into chunks that are easy to read- encouraging for children who may feel intimidated by reading. The last paragraph of chapter 1 is perfect. It hooks the reader and sets the atmosphere for the rest of the novel.

“There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I think these words often. Sometimes, I even say them. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them.
‘Dalai Lama’.”

The depiction of these foreign places and cultures awaken the senses and make them feel authentic. We know that they are, because Jess spent much of her childhood living in the foothills of the Himalayas! The Himalayas are where a lot of the story takes place, and the journey across them is accompanied by irresistible descriptions of intricately painted prayer bowls, long-haired yaks and Tibetan food! Yak cheese, spicy curries and momos, a type of south-asian dumpling.

I liked how Tash and Sam grow as people throughout their adventure. One thing I would say is that it would have been good for their personalities to have been developed a bit more, and that I would definitely enjoy reading more about them in a further story to get to know them in a setting where survival isn’t their main priority. The ending of the novel was very moving, and I think it’s great that some facts about Tibet were included on the final page.

This is a fantastic book which is relevant to today’s crises: refugees, conflict and children growing up in war zones. Although there’s danger, gruelling journeys and battles to survive, there is also hope, and hope is the essence of Tash’s story.

What I’m Reading in June

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness & Siobhan Down

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming… The monster in his back garden, though, this monster is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth. Costa Award winner Patrick Ness spins a tale from the final idea of much-loved Carnegie Medal winner Siobhan Dowd, whose premature death from cancer prevented her from writing it herself. Darkly mischievous and painfully funny, A Monster Calls is an extraordinarily moving novel of coming to terms with loss from two of our finest writers for young adults.

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The Five Realms: The Legend of Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood

Podkin is the son of a warrior chieftain. He knows that one day it will be up to him to lead his warren and guard it in times of danger. But for now, he’s quite happy to laze around annoying his older sister Paz, and playing with his baby brother Pook.

Then Podkin’s home is brutally attacked, and the young rabbits are forced to flee. The terrifying Gorm are on the rampage, and no one and nowhere is safe. With danger all around them, Podkin must protect his family, uncover his destiny, and attempt to defeat the most horrifying enemy rabbitkind has ever known.

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Moonlocket by Peter Bunzl

Storm clouds gather over Lily and Robert’s summer when criminal mastermind the Jack of Diamonds appears. For Jack is searching for the mysterious Moonlocket – but that’s not the only thing he wants.

Suddenly, dark secrets from Robert’s past plunge him into danger. Jack is playing a cruel game that Robert is a part of. Now Lily and Malkin, the mechanical fox, must stay one step ahead before Jack plays his final, deadly card…

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The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives on Culion Island, where some of the inhabitants – including her mother – have leprosy. Ami loves her home – with its blue seas and lush forests, Culion is all she has ever known. But the arrival of malicious government official Mr Zamora changes her world forever: islanders untouched by sickness are forced to leave. Banished across the sea, she’s desperate to return, and finds a strange and fragile hope in a colony of butterflies. Can they lead her home before it’s too late?

The Huntress: Sea by Sarah Driver

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In the sky, the fire spirits dance and ripple. Grandma says they showed our Tribe that I’d be a captain, before I was even born.

Ever since Ma died, Mouse has looked after her little brother, Sparrow, dreaming of her destiny as captain of the Huntress. But now Da’s missing, Sparrow is in danger, and a deathly cold is creeping across Trianukka . . .

Sea-churning, beast-chattering, dream-dancing, whale-riding, terrodyl-flying, world-saving adventure. 

The best book I have read all year, The Huntress reminded me of why I want to write for children and filled my heart with longing for more of Mouse’s world and adventures. Sarah Driver has written the book she wanted to read and it is epic.

The Huntress: Sea is a middle-grade novel and the first in a trilogy. It tells the story of Mouse’s first adventure on perilous, icy seas, fighting to save her brother and crew from a villain who wants to take Mouse’s place as future captain of The Huntress. It’s vivid, colourful, mythical and action-packed.

Sarah Driver has dreamt up an incredible world, inspired in part by research in Iceland. Trianukka is inhabited by different tribes and creatures such as the evil terrodyls whose blood will burn holes in your skin, moonsprites who are created from drops of moonlight that escape lanterns and whales whose songs keep the terrodyls away and shine bright and blue in the air.  She’s created an entire culture complete with language, beliefs and traditions that is so authentic it could be real. I loved the descriptions of all of these and of life on board a ship. This is a place for fur cloaks, seal-skins, golden eggs and heavy chests of precious stones.

The language used by those aboard The Huntress is unique in its structure- heart-gladness, fear-scratched -, almost a type of dialect that belongs to Mouse and her people. Mouse is an incredible protagonist and made me laugh out loud. She’s scrawny and brave and sometimes brash and overconfident, as many young teenagers are. Another favourite character was Mouse’s hard as nails grandmother and captain and their tough-love relationship. “Mouse! Get down from there or I’ll shoot ye down, little fool!”

The book is full of beautiful, individual ideas like the idea that ships have souls, that a small boy can sing to whales and ask them to guide his ship, and that the will of the sea-gods can be found in the aurora. Even more irresistible is that Mouse has the beast-chatter and can communicate with the creatures of Trianukka.

There are so many more brilliant aspects to this novel that I won’t reveal, but you can purchase it and discover them for yourself here. The next book in the trilogy is out in September and is available for pre-order here. A novel reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but still unlike anything I’ve read before, it will set children’s imaginations on fire.