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BOOK REVIEW: Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

On the night that Aunty dies the Raggedy Witches come for Mup's mam. Pale, cold, relentless, they will do anything to coax Mam back to Witches Borough. When they kidnap Mup's dad, Mup and her mam must leave the mundane world to rescue him. But Mam is strange on this side of the border - striding, powerful, and distant. Even if they can save Dad, Mup is not sure anything will ever be the same again...

My Thoughts:

Celine Kiernan is an Irish writer, illustrator and animator best known for her wonderful Moorehawke fantasy series for young adults, which I read and loved many years ago. Begone the Raggedy Witches is aimed at a younger readership, but it shares the vivid and atmospheric world-building, the strong and empathetic characters, and the powerful plot engine which keeps the story whizzing along.
The story begins when Mup realises that their car is being followed home from the hospital by a troop of dark, raggedy, malevolent-looking witches. Her great-aunt has just died, and the raggedy witches want to seize Mup’s mother Stella, who is the heir to the throne in a magical land that presses close against our own.

Celine Kiernan’s writing is exquisite, but done with such a light hand it does not impede the progression of the plot at all: ‘The witches were gone. That was certain. There was no taint or tincture of them to the night, no trace of them in light or shadow.’

The ghost of her great-aunt saves Mup’s mother, although she is ‘nothing but a silver outline … filled in with the night.’ The witches then kidnap Mup’s father, to set a trap for Stella. Mup sets out with her mother, baby brother and pet dog to save him. Yet the magical world is ruled by a cruel and terrifying witch – Mup’s grandmother.

Mup is a delightful character. Funny, quirky, kind-hearted and brave, she stands up for what she thinks is right. After deciding to cross into the other world, she dresses herself in rainbow-striped tights, lime-green gumboots with frog faces, a pink tulle tutu, and an orange hat with rabbit ears. As Celine Kiernan writes: ‘There was something about the witches – their cold, dark eyes, maybe, their fluttering black clothes – that made Mup want colours.’

The action hurtles along, with lots of surprising twists and revelations, culminating in a petrifying denouement with the queen, in which Mup triumphs because of her goodness and kindness and trust in the world.

This is the loveliest children’s fantasy book I’ve read in a while, with a delightful heroine supported by memorable characters (including a tongue-tied raven who is really a boy), and the promise of more adventures to come. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

If you're interested in Children's Fantasy, you might like to read my review of Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend. Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts! 

BOOK REVIEW: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There by Cheryl Strayed

Friday, March 02, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

My Thoughts:

This is a difficult book to review, because it is such a difficult book to categorise. Basically it's a collection of columns written by the American writer Cheryl Strayed under the pseudonym Sugar. The columns are written in response to people with problems who wrote to ‘Dear Sugar’ for advice. In other words, Sugar is an Agony Aunt.

(In a complete aside, I was so fascinated by the history of the term ‘agony aunt’ I had to go and look it up. Did you know the first newspaper to offer life advice to readers was The Athenian Gazette, in 1691? And that John Dunton, the man who established it, once advised a woman afraid of a lonely old age to get herself down to the docks and hook up with a sex-starved sailor? And that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was the agony uncle for his magazine, The Review, in 1704? And that the term itself was not used until the 1950s? No, neither did I …)

Cheryl Strayed wrote the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column for the online literary magazine The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, and garnered a strong following. I first heard about her when her advice to a young wanna-be author, ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’, made the rounds on the internet. I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing, and loved that she quoted Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Then, of course, her memoir Wild was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and released in December 2014. Suddenly Cheryl Strayed seemed everywhere.

Each of the columns in Tiny Beautiful Things are indeed advice offered in response to true-life dilemmas sent in by readers, but they are not at all like what I used to read in the back of Dolly when I was a naïve teenager. Firstly, the tone is warm, intimate and startlingly frank, as if the reader and Sugar had been friends for years and years. She shares stories from her own difficult past, including the death of her mother, her marriage breakup, her infidelities, and struggles with drug addiction. Some stories are funny. Most are poignant and even heart-breaking. I have been where you are, she seems to say. I know what is hurting you.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can't cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It's just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”

Here is another:

“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is indeed beautiful, but not, I think, tiny. It’s big-hearted and big-thinking and warm and wise and sad all at once.

You might also be interested in my review of Elizabeth Gilbert's book The Signature of All Things. 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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