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BOOK REVIEW: WILD WOOD by Posie Graeme-Evans

Wednesday, March 02, 2016



THE BLURB:

For fans of Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series comes a gripping and passionate new historical novel. Intrigue, ancient secrets, fairy tales, and the glorious scenery of the Scottish borders drive the story of a woman who must find out who she really is.


Jesse Marley calls herself a realist; she’s all about the here and now. But in the month before Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 all her certainties are blown aside by events she cannot control. 

First she finds out she’s adopted. Then she’s run down by a motor bike. In a London hospital, unable to speak, she must use her left hand to write. But Jesse’s right-handed. And as if her fingers have a will of their own, she begins to draw places she’s never been, people from another time—a castle, a man in armor. And a woman’s face.

Rory Brandon, Jesse’s neurologist, is intrigued. Maybe his patient’s head trauma has brought out latent abilities. But wait. He knows the castle. He’s been there.

So begins an extraordinary journey across borders and beyond time, a chase that takes Jesse to Hundredfield, a Scottish stronghold built a thousand years ago by a brutal Norman warlord. What’s more, Jesse Marley holds the key to the castle’s secret and its sacred history. 

And Hundredfield, with its grim Keep, will help Jesse find her true lineage. But what does the legend of the Lady of the Forest have to do with her? That’s the question at the heart of Wild Wood. There are no accidents. There is only fate.

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK: 

WILD WOOD is a dual timeline narrative that moves between the Scottish Borderlands in the 14th century and an unhappy young woman in the 1980s who finds herself compelled to draw the same Scottish castle over and over again.

I love stories with parallel timelines, particularly with a good dash of romance, history and magic added in, and I love books set in Scotland, so all the ingredients were in place for a really wonderful read.

I must admit I loved the scenes set in the past more – the story of the mute fairy wife, the battle-hardened warrior and the medieval castle were all so intriguing.

The contemporary scenes did not work quite so well for me, perhaps because the 1980s is not a decade that really inspires me. 

However, the story of Jesse and her eerie connection with the past eventually drew me in, and the story really began to gallop along.

I LOVE TO HEAR YOUR COMMENTS:

BOOK REVIEW: The Observations by Jane Harris

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Summer Holidays!  For me, a time to relax and read for pleasure.  This January I took a stack of books away with me to the beach shack and read my way through them in complete and utter happiness.


THE BLURB:

An extraordinary historical novel about a peculiar friendship between the mistress of a Scottish estate and her irresistibly appealing housemaid.


Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley, a wide-eyed and feisty young Irish girl, takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella, the missus. Bessy lacks the necessary scullery skills for her new position, but as she finds out, it is her ability to read and write that makes her such a desirable property. 

Bessy is intrigued by her new employer but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her mundane chores and most intimate thoughts. And it seems that the missus has a few secrets of her own, including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.


Giving in to her curiosity, Bessy makes an infuriating discovery and, out of jealousy, concocts a childish prank that backfires and threatens to jeopardize all that she has come to hold dear. Yet even when caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex, and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella.

But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and raise the stakes even further, Bessy begins to realize that she has not quite landed on her feet.


The Observations is a brilliantly original, endlessly intriguing story of one woman's journey from a difficult past into an even more disturbing present, narrated by one of the most vividly imagined heroines in recent fiction.

This powerful story of secrets and suspicions, hidden histories and mysterious disappearances is at once compelling and heart-warming, showing the redemptive power of loyalty and friendship. A hugely assured and darkly funny debut, The Observations is certain to establish Jane Harris as a significant new literary talent.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

The Observations is such a delightful read! It tells the story of a girl named Bessy who takes a job as a maid-of-all-work in a gloomy country house in Scotland in the mid 1860s.

Bessy has a past she would rather forget, and so is grateful for the refuge her mistress Arabella offers her. However, she soon comes to realise that not is all as it seems in the house, and that an earlier maid has died in rather mysterious circumstances. 

With naïve optimism, Bessie sets out to find out what happened, and finds herself getting rather more than she bargained for.

The true pleasure of the book is Bessy’s voice – gutsy, wry, and vulnerable – and the clever way Jane Harris weaves her narrative threads together.


I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK!

SPOTLIGHT: A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAIRY TALES

For your enjoyment ...  a brief history of fairy tales!



Myth, Legend & Fairy Tale

The differences between myth, legend, fairy tale & fable can be can simply described as:

Myths: narratives about immortal or supernatural protagonists
Legends: narratives about extraordinary protagonists
Fairy Tales: narratives about ordinary protagonists
Fables: narratives with animal protagonists which convey a moral


History of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales have their roots in ancient oral storytelling traditions.
 
All cultures have their own myths & legends. Many fairy tales wear ‘the easy doublet’ of myth.
 
A.D. 100-200, Ancient Greece – “Cupid and Psyche” written by Apuleius 

A.D. 850-860, China - The first known version of “Cinderella” is written


C. 1300 – Troubadours and travelling storytellers spread tales throughout medieval Europe 

C. 1500 - One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded 

1550 & 1553, Italy - Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes The Pleasant Nights - he has been called the 'grandfather of fairy tales'

1600s, Italy - Giambattista Basile writes The Tale of Tales – published posthumously in 1634. This contains 'Petrosinella', the earliest known version of 'Rapunzel' 



1690-1710  - The French Salons invented and played with fairy tales - Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy invented the term 'conte de fées'

1697 France - Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales is published in Paris 

1697 – Charlotte-Rose de la Force publishes her collection which includes the tale we now know of as “Rapunzel”

1740 France - Gabrielle de Villeneuve writes a 362 page version of “Beauty and the Beast”

 1756 France – Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont publishes much shorter version of “Beauty and the Beast” - first tale written specifically for children.



1812 Germany - Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Vol 1 of Childhood and Household Tales

1823 Great Britain - Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of the Grimms' tales in German Popular Stories. The book is illustrated by George Cruikshank

1825 Germany – Grimms’ first edition for children - known as The Small Edition - illustrated by Ludwig Grimm

1835 Denmark - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children

1889 England - Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book -  the first multicultural fairy tale collection 


1890 Russia - Tchaikovsky's “The Sleeping Beauty” premieres in St Petersburg 

1893 Great Britain - Marian Roalfe Cox publishes her book, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O' Rushes’- the first fairy tale scholarship



1910 Finland - Antti Aarne publishes ‘The Types of the Folktale’. Later, Stith Thompson translates and expands it into English in 1961


1937 United States - Walt Disney's first feature length animated film is released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



Now – fairy tales have never been hotter! They dominate our TV and movie screens, and influence advertising, music, and fashion. Plus of course ... fairy tale retellings ...



Fairy Tale Tropes
Pure distillation of plot

Setting is anywhere and nowhere

Traditional sentences & archaic language: Once upon a time ... Long long ago … Once, twice, thrice …. 
‘Abstract style’  - dark forest, brave youth, golden bird

Fairy tale numbers and patterns: the numbers 3 & 7 & 13 i.e. the third sister, the thirteenth fairy

Magic & metamorphosis – talking mirror, prince into frog, girl into bear

Binary oppositions i.e. good & evil, rich & poor, beautiful & ugly, strong & weak

Memorable language i.e. rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia 

Motifs & metaphors: ‘the language of the night’

Structure – a series of trials & tribulations (often three)

The Fairy Tale ‘happy ending’ .. 

(Though not all fairy tales end happily. Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are very sad, for example) 



FURTHER READING




THE SEAFORTH DOOM: A true Scottish curse which helped inspire my novel THE PUZZLE RING

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Yesterday was Halloween - a time that has its roots in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-un), and was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland. 

Earlier this week I wrote about THE PUZZLE RING, my children's time travel adventure set in Scotland, as it has a great deal in it about the old Celtic festival of Samhain (I think of it as the perfect Halloween read!)  THE PUZZLE RING tell the story of Hannah Rose Brown, who was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed …

I thought I'd share with you my strange and magical inspirations for this novel:



People always ask me where I get my ideas from.

Llike most writers, I find this a difficult question to give an easy answer to. You need lots and lots of ideas to create something as complex and sophisticated as a novel.  Some ideas just come like a flash of lightning. Other ideas you have to find with a whole lot of digging, like a miner scrounging in the dirt for opals. 

I normally need two or three strong ideas before I know I’ve got a novel on my hands. I start with one, which can come from anywhere – an overheard conversation, something I read about in a book, a stray thought that pops into my head while I’m doing the washing up – and then I think about it for a while. I might put it together with a few other ideas I’ve had and see if they seem to belong together. 

The very first idea for this novel came when I was waiting bored in a doctor’s surgery.  Unusually for me, I hadn’t brought a book to read and so I flicked through a few gossip magazines, then picked up a jewellery catalogue. It was mainly pictures and not much text, but on the back page it had a very brief history of the puzzle ring, which I found fascinating.

Basically, the article said that the puzzle ring was first invented by an Arabian king who was mad with jealousy over his young and beautiful wife. He challenged a jeweller to make a wedding ring that would show if the ring was ever taken off his wife’s finger. After many attempts, the jeweller invented a ring that would fall apart into separate loops if removed from the finger, and could only be put back together again if you knew the secret of the puzzle. Of course, the wife did take the ring off one day ... and was promptly killed by her furious husband. 


I thought at once, in an idle sort of a way, what a great thematic device this would be for a quest story ... a desperate search for a puzzle ring that had fallen apart. When I got home, I wrote it down in my ideas book but that was all I did with the idea for quite a long time, as I was very busy writing my historical adventure novel THE GYPSY CROWN ‘The Gypsy Crown’. Every now and then, though, I’d wonder ... WHO would be searching for a puzzle ring? WHY?

Then one day I was browsing in a second-hand bookstore and discovered an old book called ‘The Book of Curses’. When I sat down to look through it, the page fell open, of its own volition, at a chapter about the famous Scottish curse ‘The Seaforth Doom’. 



This is a very chilling and creepy story about a warlock called Kenneth the Enchanter who was burnt to death in the 16th century by a jealous and vengeful woman, Isabella, the Countess of Seaforth. 

Kenneth had a magical fairy stone, or hag-stone, and the countess had asked him to look through his hag-stone and tell him what her husband was doing. Kenneth had laughed, and then told her "Fear not for your lord, he is safe and sound, well and hearty, merry and happy". Angrily she demanded to know why he had laughed, and when he would not tell her, threatened him with a terrible death. At last he confessed he had seen her husband on his knees before another woman, kissing her hand. The countess was so furious that she ordered Kenneth to be thrust headfirst into a barrel of boiling tar. As he was led out to his execution, the warlock lifted his hag-stone to his eye and cast a terrible curse on the Mackenzies of Seaforth. 



This is what he said:

‘I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and in sorrow. 
I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished forever, and that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule ...  the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-hooded lassie from the East, and she is to kill her sister. 

And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds ... one shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. 
(They) shall be the allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth; and when he looks around him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death ... and that his race shall come to an end.’

Kenneth the Enchanter then threw away his magical hag-stone and was cruelly killed.

The curse had been cast against the wife of the third Earl of Seaforth. Apparently she only laughed at Kenneth’s words and micked him. For several generations all seemed well. 

Then the ninth Earl of Seaforth, called Francis Humberton Mackenzie, was born in 1794. An attack of scarlet fever when he has twelve left him deaf, but he still married and in time had four sons and two daughters. Among his friends and neighbours were four great lords, one of which was buck-toothed, one had a cleft palate, another stammered and the fourth, unfortunately, was not very bright. 
One by one his sons died, and in his grief the Earl turned his face to the wall and would not speak. He died soon afterwards, leaving only his two daughters. The elder, Mary Mackenzie, had married a man called Sir Samuel Hood who lived in the East Indies. Recently widowed, she returned from the East to take possession of the estate wearing her widows’ weeds – a black dress and white cap – and named Lady Hood, an uncanny fulfilment of the prophecy. Some time later, while driving her sister out in her carriage, the ponies took fright and both sisters were thrown out. The younger sister was killed.
So did the Seaforth Doom come at last to pass. 





As soon as I read this story, which is very famous indeed in Scotland, I was electrified. What must it have been like, I thought, to be Francis Humberton Mackenzie, living out his life with that shadow hanging over him? Having four sons and hoping the curse could not be true. Imagine what it must have been like to be those two sisters, knowing one must kill the other. I bought the book, and as I walked back to my car, my brain was on fire. I saw the whole story unfolding in my mind’s eye ... a jealous husband, a puzzle ring, a faithful wife tricked into taking the ring off, the curse she casts on the castle as she dies ... and then generations later, a girl who decides she must break the curse and sets out on a perilous quest to find the four lost loops of the puzzle ring ...

And that is how I came to write THE PUZZLE RING.

You can buy THE PUZZLE RING at BooktopiaDymocksCollinsAngus & Robertson Bookworld, or read it on your Kindle



PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

THE PUZZLE RING: A Story of Curses, Castles, Fairy Folk & Mary, Queen of Scots

Friday, October 30, 2015



It is Halloween, a time when we celebrate the turn of the world towards darkness and winter, a time when we fear the dark unknown forces of our universe.

Halloween has its roots in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-un), and was once widespread in Scotland and Ireland. 

I thought I would celebrate by talking about my own magical Scottish book, THE PUZZLE RING. A time-travel adventure for children set in Scotland, THE PUZZLE RING tell the story of Hannah Rose Brown, who was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed …



It seemed a day like any other day. Yet for red-haired Hannah, it is the day when her ordinary life is changed forever, a day when she discovers a past full of secrets and a future full of magic. 

Hannah lives with her mother, Roz, who is a science teacher. Her father Robert died before she was born, and she and her mother are all alone in the world. Or so Hannah has always believed. Yet one day a letter arrives, from the Countess of Wintersloe, Loch Lomond, Scotland. 

The letter is from Hannah’s great-grandmother – someone she never knew existed – begging Hannah and her mother to come to Scotland.

"I would very much like to see Robert's child before I die," the letter read. "Do not think me maudlin. I have not been well this past year ... sitting here day after day, thinking about how the curse has destroyed all I loved, and worrying about the shadow it must cast over Robert's child too ...'

And so Hannah discovers that her family was long ago cursed, and that its dark shadow still lies over her.

She is determined to go to Scotland, meet her great-grandmother, and do what she can to break the curse.

At first her mother Roz does not want to go – she had sworn never to return to Wintersloe Castle. ‘There’s nothing but bad memories for me there,’ she tells Hannah, ‘for that’s where your father died.’ In the end, though, they decide to go, leaving their old life in Australia behind them.



Wintersloe Castle is an old house, built on the ruins of a medieval castle, overlooking the waters of Loch Lomond. It is surrounded by a wonderful old walled garden, with hornbeam corridors and yew trees cut into the shapes of chess men and animals. On the northern wall is a strange gate, built through the hollow trunk of an ancient yew tree. Through the gate, Hannah can see the round hill that rises behind the house, crowned with nine old thorn trees. This is called Fairknowe on the maps, but the locals call it the fairy hill. 



Hannah’s grandmother is very old and very frail, but her mind is as sharp as ever. She tells her granddaughter that the name Hannah is a palindrome – that it is the same spelt backwards or forwards. Hannah says, “I know. My father called me that because I was born on the twenty-first of December ... a mathematically perfect date.' 

'Your father liked palindromes,' Lady Wintersloe said. 'He thought they were magic. The Fair Folk are either drawn to them, or repelled by them, according to their nature. The Seelie Court love order and symmetry, but the Unseelie Court hate it and are confounded by it.'

And so Hannah learns about the Sidhe, the Scottish fairy folk, who are said to live in the hollow hills of Scotland. 

Strange things begin to happen. 

A toad spits up a round holey stone at hannah's feet. The castle cook Linnet tells her it is a fairy stone and will reveal things that are hidden from sight. When Hannah looks through it, the world seems different. Shadows seem to stalk her. 

One stormy day, Hannah discovers the way to her father’s old room, where she finds his old diary. It is all written in code, however, and she cannot understand it. Hannah also discovers more of the history of the Curse of Wintersloe Castle, which has blighted the family and the house for centuries.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Lord Montgomery Rose of Wintersloe Castle fell in love with a fairy maiden called Eglantyne, when he saw her ride out of Fairknowe one May Day. He wooed her and won her, and she left the fairy realm to marry him, even though she was the only daughter and heir of the King of the Fair Folk. 

Eglantyne was very beautiful, and Lord Montgomery was consumed with jealousy. He had a ring forged for his new wife, a puzzle ring which would fall apart when removed. Made of four bands that interlocked to make a golden rose, its secret was known only to him and the goldsmith who made it.
 


Regarded with suspicion by those in the castle and the village, and yearning for her homeland, Eglantyne was not happy. She had only two consolations – her dog, a white hound with red ears - and the garden where she loved to walk. In time, she made friends with the gardener’s son who loved all green and growing things, as she did. 

Eglantyne had a cousin named Irata who had encouraged Eglantyne to elope with Lord Kenneth, because she wanted to become queen of the fairy realm in Eglantyne’s place. However, as long as Eglantyne lived there was the chance she may have a child who could lay claim to the throne. So Irata plotted to have Eglantyne killed, but all her schemes failed because Lord Kenneth kept his beautiful young wife so well-guarded. 

So Irata killed Eglantyne’s dog, making it look like one of the villagers. Eglantyne took off her wedding ring so she could bury her dog in the garden but, not knowing the secret of the puzzle ring, she could not put the ring back on again. Weeping, she was being comforted by her friend, the gardener’s son, when her angry husband appeared. He refused to believe in her innocence, and cast her out of the house. 

Eglantyne cried:
‘Break, break, golden ring,
like my heart, like his word,
Out, out, golden ring,
                 To the four corners of the world.’

The four interlocking bands of the puzzle ring broke apart, and were swept up into a whirlwind and flung in the four directions of the compass. Then Eglantyne said:
‘By fever, fire, storm and sword,
Your blood shall suffer this bane.
No joy or peace for Wintersloe's lord,
till the puzzle ring is whole again.
The thorn tree shall not bud
The green throne shall not sing
Until the child of true blood
Is crowned the rightful king.’

It was Samhain Eve. Samhain is one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the year was divided into the time of darkness and the time of light. Samhain was the dark doorway, a time of danger and mystery. 

Many people believed Samhain was the time when all the witches of Scotland gathered together to work black magic. And so when the cutlery folk saw the strange elfin wife of the lord, they accused of witchcraft and burnt her to death. 

Ever since, there has been no true love or happiness in Wintersloe Castle. Tragedy has stalked the Rose family, and misfortune shadows everyone who lives in the valley. Some say it is because Irata still rules the fairy realm, and there will be no peace until the true king of the hollow hills is found and returned to his throne. Yet Eglantyne died, and her unborn child with her, and any attempt to find the four lost bands of the puzzle ring ends in sorrow. 

Hannah realises that her father Robert had devoted his life to breaking the curse, so that he and his one true love, Hannah’s mother Roz, can have a life of happiness. 

Robert believed that the fairy realm is a real place, a parallel world that touches against our world only at certain times, such as Midsummer or Halloween. He believed the gate through the hollow yew tree in the garden is a way of crossing from one realm to another and, he theorised, a way of travelling through time, since it is often recorded how time moves at a different pace in the fairy realm.

Raising that her father is lost in the past, Hannah sets out to follow him backwards in time, find the broken rings of the puzzle ring and break the curse.

And so Hannah and her friends begin an extraordinary adventure that takes them back to the perilous days of Mary, Queen of Scots, a time when princes could be murdered and queens beheaded ... and red-haired women were through to be witches ...



You can buy THE PUZZLE RING at Booktopia, Dymocks, Collins, Angus & Robertson Bookworld, or read it on your Kindle

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadowfell Trilogy by Juliet Marillier

Monday, July 07, 2014

Nothing makes me happier than a new Juliet Marillier book! She is best known for her gorgeous thick historical fantasy novels for adults, but she has also written smaller novels for young adults (no less gorgeous, however!) 

Today on the blog I am reviewing the three books in her YA fantasy trilogy SHADOWFELL. My review of the first book was published in The Sydney Morning herald, and the reviews of the second two on my blog: 




J.R.R. Tolkien once said, ''The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things. All manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords''.

Of all the fantasy writers in Australia and, perhaps, even the world, I think Juliet Marillier best captures this view of the realm of the faerie as a place of beauty and wonder and danger.

Her latest fantasy novel for young adults, Shadowfell, is an exquisitely written tale of love, fear, faith and difficult choices. It is set in a world where the Good Folk - fey creatures with strange, magical powers - live hidden in the trees, rocks and shadows.

One young woman, named Neryn, has the gift of Canny Eyes, which allows her to see the Good Folk even when they wish to stay out of sight. But this gift puts Neryn in peril, for her world is ruled by a usurper-king who fears and despises any magic. The king's soldiers hunt down fairy creatures and any human who has a magical gift, subjecting many to the terrible practice of mind-scraping, which turns them into halfwits.

The king knows of Neryn and her gift, and has set his soldiers to hunt her down. A young man, Flint, helps her escape the soldiers, but his past is shadowed with mystery and Neryn must choose whether it is safe to trust him. Her journey towards the rebel stronghold of Shadowfell becomes a series of tests, in which she must prove herself worthy of an old prophecy for the salvation of the land.

Reduced to a few lines, the plot of Shadowfell seems familiar to anyone who has read a great deal of young-adult fantasy, but as with any novel, it is the execution of the story that makes it sing. Marillier is a consummate craftswoman.

The book is perfectly composed, and the writing is lyrical and full of grace. Fifteen-year-old Neryn's confusion and fear will speak to any girl of the same age, and the mystery around the true identity of her rescuer is handled masterfully.

Born in New Zealand but now living in Western Australia, Marillier has won numerous awards, including the YALSA 2007 Best Book for Young Adults for Wildwood Dancing, and in 2008 the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Young Adult Novel for its sequel, Cybele's Secret. She has also won numerous Aurealis Awards for her adult historical fantasy novels, including Daughter of the Forest and Heart's Blood.

In a lifetime of reading and study, Marillier has steeped herself in myth, legend and folklore, and her intuitive knowledge of the patterns and motifs of storytelling underpin the whole novel.

Marillier has said, ''Many fantasy stories … tap into the archetypal themes of mythology, which involve the highest stakes - defeating evil, saving the world, being happy ever after … [however] that need not involve slaying a dragon or saving the whole of Middle Earth, it can be an individual, personal journey to enlightenment''.

Since Shadowfell is both a heroic quest and a coming-of-age story with a gently handled romance element, it is bound to appeal to any girl aged 13 or above. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite authors and a new book from her is always reason to celebrate. So when Raven Flight appeared in my mailbox, I gave a little jump of joy and read it straightaway. Raven Flight is Book 2 in the Shadowfell series. I loved Shadowfell and it made my List of Best Books 2012 - the books are classic old-fashioned high fantasy with a quest at its heart. The writing is beautiful and limpid, the setting is an otherworldy Scotland, and the story mixes danger, magic and romance - sigh! I loved it. This is YA fantasy at its absolute best.  



The Caller – Juliet Marillier
This is the third and last book in Juliet Marillier’s gorgeous YA fantasy Shadowfell trilogy. I have really enjoyed these books, which are, as always with Juliet’s books, filled with wit, warmth and wisdom. You must read them in order – Shadowfell, Raven Flight, then The Caller – as the books tell the story of the continuing adventures of Neryn and her journey to understand and control her magical talents as a Caller. Set in a land very much like ancient Scotland, with all manner of extraordinary faery creatures, the Shadowfell books weave together history, fantasy, folklore and ancient wisdoms to create a beautiful and powerful story. These books are a perfect read for a dreamy, romantic teenage girl – I love them now but oh! How I would have loved them when I was fifteen. 

You may enjoy an interview I did with Juliet Marillier a couple of years ago ... and later this week I'll be running a guest post from her on ways to improve your writing, plus another quick interview.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! 

SPOTLIGHT: Two Selkie Tales from Scotland

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Today is Launch Day for my new picture book, TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, gorgeously illustrated by Fiona McDonald.

To celebrate, I’m devoting the blog to Selkie and other fairy tales for the next few days. Enjoy!



The Story Behind the Story of TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND ...

My grandmother’s grandmother was Scottish. 

Her name was Ellen Mackenzie and she grew up on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Her home was edged on all sides by the waters of rivers and firths leading out to the sea. 


Ellen’s mother was called Margaret McPhee, and as everyone in Scotland knows, the McPhee clan was descended from Selkies. The name McPhee is derived from an older version of the name MacDuffie, which comes from the Gaelic term MacDubhSithe, meaning ‘son of the dark fairy’. Family legend says that the first McPhee took a Selkie as a bride! 

Ellen emigrated to Australia in the 1850s and, apart from some books and clothes and a sprig of heather, she brought a head stuffed full of old tales. She told these stories to her daughter Jinny, who told them to her daughters, Clarice, Gwen and Marjory (nicknamed Joy), and they – my great-aunts and grandmother - told them to me. 

I always loved the tales of selkies, who were seals in the water and humans upon the land. It seemed the best of both worlds. People drowned if they sank beneath the waves, and mermaids could only flop about helplessly on land. Selkies, however, could plunge through the fathomless deeps, and then shed their sealskin and run and dance on the shore. I loved wondering if I had Selkie blood in me, and if one day I’d find the way to transform into a seal. 

Like many Scottish fairy tales, ‘The Selkie Bride’ is full of love and loss, magic and mystery. A Selkie woman is seen dancing on the shore. A man steals her sealskin and hides it from her and so she is trapped in human form. 



Though the Selkie bride pines for the sea and her own kind, the man marries her and they have children. Eventually, the Selkie bride finds her sealskin – often with the help of one for her children – and so she returns to the sea, leaving her human family bereft. In many tales, her descendants are seers and singers, poets and players. Often they have webbed hands and feet, or may have been born with a caul of skin over their heads. If so, their families hide or destroy their caul so that they will not run away to the sea. I always loved that story, and wished that I had been born with Selkie blood so that I could swim through the waves with all the sleek grace of a seal, but still dance in the moonlight whenever I wanted. 



A lesser known tale is ‘The Seal-Hunter and the Selkie’. A man who makes his living by slaughtering seals finds himself transformed into a Selkie for a night, and charged with the task of saving the life of one he has injured. He is overcome by remorse and promises to never kill a seal again. This was always one of my favourite tales, for I’ve never liked the idea of killing such beautiful creatures. It was also, I thought, more joyful and hopeful than many of the Selkie tales, which are often tragic, and so was a bright counterpoint to the melancholy feel of ‘The Selkie Bride’. 


I loved retelling these two old tales, and tried to recapture some of the lilt of my grandmother and great-aunts’ voices in the story’s cadences and rhythm.  They are stories I will love to tell aloud.

All the illustrations above are by Fiona McDonald for the book - here's the link to her blog.

Want more Selkies? Check out this blog I wrote last year ...

INTERVIEW: Elisabeth Gifford, author of Secrets of the Sea House

Friday, November 08, 2013

A story set in the Scottish islands, that draws on selkie fairy tales, and moves fluidly between the past and the present  ... anyone who knows me will be able to guess how eagerly I grabbed this book! Yet when I find a book I think I'm really going to love, I open it with trepidation as well as eagerness, afraid the book will not be as good as I had hoped.

Well, not this one.

I loved THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE truly, madly, deeply. It was one of the best books of the year so far.



When I really love a book, I write at once to the author to tell them so. And you want to know something eerie and wonderful? Elisabeth Gifford, the author of THE SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE, wrote back to me saying that she was so excited to hear from me as she had just finished reading my novel THE WILD GIRL! We worked out we must have been reading each other's books at much the same time (except, with the time difference, she was reading my book while I slept and I read her book while she slept. The universe is a magical and mysterious place sometimes).

So Elisabeth is a very special guest on the blog today. Please make her welcome.

 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. 

My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. 



A photo of Harris, an island in the Hebrides, by Elisabeth Gifford

We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. 

But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 


How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Are you a daydreamer too?
By nature that’s my default setting. It used to get me into a lot of hot water as a child as I was generally facing the wrong way and with the wrong equipment at school - but having great thoughts. I don’t intend to give it up any time soon.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes I have, but it took a while to find the time and the confidence to decide I was allowed to spend lots of time writing. I began taking creative writing courses because I loved the process so much. From the Oxford diploma and the London University MA I found that I ended up with material for two books – and lots of inspiring friends, and now write full time.
 
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
My father was a vicar in the industrial midlands so I’m very grateful for a rich and varied childhood. I hung around a lot of churchyards and loved the history of the old churches and cathedrals. Dad would stride around in a black cassock and sometimes go off to do an exorcism in a haunted house. I lived in France for a year, and in several parts of England and am now settled in Kingston, near London. My husband’s family comes from Scotland so we’ve spent a lot of time there. I adore the way that writing allows you to explore and evoke time and place and love being absorbed in a book project. I love visiting places for research and so have been to China ( for a book on Chinese orphanages), the Hebrides, Spain, Sweden and soon, Warsaw for a new book.  
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book? 
We took the children to the Hebrides several times while they were growing up, looking for somewhere quiet and unspoilt so they could run wild a bit – rather spoiling the quiet once we got there! It was like going back in time on Harris and I fell in love with the island. The scenery is stunning and Scots Gaelic is still spoken. I couldn’t believe that here was a part of the UK but with such an ancient and unique culture still in place, and its own language. We made some wonderful friends who shared stories of the last century. I loved the stories of selkies and mermaids that my small daughter told me, from her friend on the island. Then I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and found that the legends were a form of oral history; there was in fact something very real behind the seal people myths. Through him, I came across the letter to the Times newspaper reporting a mermaid sighting by a Victorian schoolmaster in 1809 and it all began from there. But underlying that was an awareness how in Ireland and Skye the old Gaelic culture had been inevitably suburbanized. I felt it was important to try and record Harris as it was, because with improved access via the Skye road bridge now meaning you only have to take one boat to get there, it risks the same process. 




How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I would firmly advise planning a novel before you start it, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. I begin with some ideas and some scenes. When I see where things are going I begin to channel the work towards a story arc. Eventually I have to be strict about adding and subtracting as some things may become backstory, only for you as a writer, and don’t help the plot. Once you have a voice that begins to speak and boss you around, as happened with Moira, it can sometimes feel like the story is out of your hands! If you hold too tight, the air can go out of things. When you think the book is done, then that’s a good time to stand back and see if you need to tighten the story line. That last stage is really important.
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I certainly find that I can dream what I’m really thinking about a situation and I wake up with a better understanding of it. I’ve had some surprising moments of clarity that way. The mind doesn’t always think in words! Sometimes, I like to go to bed having read some notes on a scene so that in the morning it feels active and live when I sit down to write. Once or twice, a clear dream has opened a door to the beginning of a story. I find that it’s important to value an almost dreaming attitude when creating a new scene so that you can imagine the richness you need to evoke a place. 


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I’d finished Secret of the Sea House I was thrilled to find that there is in fact an archeological site in Arctic Norway for the vanished Sea Sami who once visited the shores of Scotland – giving rise to the sea people legends. The reported mermaid sightings died out conclusively 200 years ago and I couldn’t understand why they suddenly stopped. Then, after the book was published, I found that the Sea Sami culture also died out at exactly that time, under intense pressure to assimilate into mainstream culture in Norway and that made a lot of sense.

Through researching the new book that I’m editing now, I found that a relative had been part of a silent conspiracy around the British Embassy in Madrid to rescue Jewish refugees in 1940. A large circle of the most glamorous people there got together to rescue thousands of Jews and stranded allied soldiers who were escaping from France through the Pyrenees into Spain. It is hardly known about because of the conspiracy of silence that endured for many years after the war; the Spanish rescuers were risking a great deal defying Franco’s regime, and of course he stayed in power until the end of the seventies. 
 

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a laptop and move around the house depending on the sun and who is at home making noise! I can tune out quite a lot. My husband is an illustrator who works at home and has his own room, but I don’t want to feel I can only work in one place in case it becomes too limiting. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love story and the magical way it has of telling us so much about who we are. I loved how, in The Wild Girl, the fairy tales are shown to be the source of healing for some of the characters in a very real way. I read Talking of Love on the Edge of a Precipice by Boris Cyrulnik. As a Jewish child he was hidden for years in solitude during the Second World War. Now he uses story to help people tell their traumatic pasts in a way that helps them build resilience. We tell stories as entertainment of course but they can also do a deep, healing work, helping us understand ourselves, where we come from and where we want to go.


What do you do when you get blocked? 
I read. It’s so exciting to see how other writers go about things sometimes, and the way they use words. Or I might research pictures, films, and places. If I can I visit a new place that helps. Another way in is to let yourself write freely without censoring, from whatever inspires or interests you. Something can come out of that sort of writing that is fresh and exciting - it may be messy but you can go back and edit it into something with a shape. Or I write ‘in voice’ to see what a character has to say.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
I used to feel guilty about how much time I spent paying attention to the wrong things, but I love being in the moment and taking in the sounds, sights and smells of a place, getting a feel for a person or a situation. Imagery comes out of those impressions, so you have to spend time being aware of your own experiences in order to top up your bank. Also, reading around a subject is such fun and keeps on opening new doors - that you then want to explore. When writing the Sea House I was lucky to be able to spend several summers on the island itself in various locations and cottages and I think I read almost all the books available about the Outer Hebrides!
 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
I’ve sort of banned rituals in case they become too essential, but some things really do help. A quiet space is vital. I write in the morning, as that’s when I’m most fresh mentally, and I try and get enough sleep and exercise - with varying success. In the first stages I might wander around imagining scenes and get the writing down quickly. For the structuring phases I will sit at a desk so that I can spread out notes and schemes. Then I’ll read everything very critically to see what it feels like for the reader - lots of reading out loud to see how it runs at the editing phase. I suppose I have processes more that rituals.


Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Marilynne Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tan Twan Eng, Flaubert, Alice Munroe, Seamus Heaney, Annie Proulx, Hilary Mantel, Catherine O’Flynne and Matthew Kneale. They are all writers who make you want to read their work over and over again and who have a wonderful sense of narrative – and humour.
 

What do you consider to be good writing? 
People write as individually as they sing or talk! So I’m pretty open. I love writing that is energetic and full of texture, where the words evoke the story through the senses, the images and the detail. But I also love story and plot and read plenty of detective novels too. 
 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
 First of all check you like to spend an awful lot of time writing. Write and read lots and lots. Keep a notebook and don’t be too critical with your initial outpourings. Read all you can about the writing process, find a group of fellow writers to workshop with, and then learn how to put on your editor’s hat and shape your writing to where you want it go. Don’t be quick to bin things. They may be the start of something that you come back to later!
 

What are you working on now? 
It’s a family saga that spans two world wars and begins with a bride who runs away from her wedding. Part of it has been published as a short story, largely about my mother’s experience as an orphan after the war – with her permission. Without realizing it, you soak up a lot of family experience from your parents and their parents. I think I wanted to hold some of the textures and history of the last century, and explore how war deeply affected our parents and grand parents. It’s also about how families keep secrets.

It sounds wonderful! I'll be looking out for it eagerly. 

SPOTLIGHT: Selkie fairy tales from Scotland

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

I have always loved stories about selkies. 

I have actually just re-written two selkie tales from Scotland to be published in May next year by Christmas Press, beautifully illustrated by the wonderful artist Fiona McDonald. 





One of my favourite books published last year was a selkie-inspired fantasy - Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan - and I have just read, and fallen in love with, a brilliant selkie-inspired family drama set in the Scottish Hebrides that moves between the present and the past. The book is called Secrets of the Sea House and is written by debut author Elisabeth Gifford, who has joined us today to talk about her own fascination with the selkie myth:




The secret history hidden in the Selkie story.

The legend of the Selkie is told along the Western coast of Scotland and as far down as Ireland. 

Selkies are seals in the water, but once on land, they take off their skins and become human. If an ordinary mortal sees a Selkie in human form, they will inevitably fall in love. 

The Selkie legend has several variations but never ends happily. The husband or wife of a Selkie may hide away their seal skins, but once their hiding place is discovered the Selkie is powerless to resist the call of the sea. He slides back into his skins and departs, leaving behind any children.

It’s a sad and spine tingling legend that I first heard while on holiday in the Outer Hebrides with my children. But as I read and researched the history of the islands, I began to realise that the Selkie story was much more than just a fairy story. 

In his book on the seal people, Gaelic historian John MacAulay puts forward an interesting theory, that the Selkie stories are actually a very old form of oral history. He suggests that for thousands of years, Eskimo type kayakers in sealskin canoes have been travelling down to Scotland from remote Arctic Norway. The Sea Sami, now extinct, were a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers that used Eskimo kayaks and technology to hunt and fish.

Now imagine how such a kayaker must have looked to someone who had never seen a kayaker before. A sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged after eight hours and so lies just below the surface of the water. All you would see from the shore would be the top half of a man and below the water, the shape of a long tail wavering in the refracted light. It must have looked remarkably like a creature that was half man, half seal. And imagine the islander’s shock if that creature came ashore, took off its sealskins and became entirely human. 

There are several families from the Outer Hebrides who came claim direct descent from sea people. The famous poet MacOdrum was said to be one of the seal people and to get his skill in song writing from the seal’s gift of singing. 

I was amazed to find that there were also many sightings of mermaids around Scotland’s shores, recorded by highly respectable people, among them, a letter to the London Times in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a schoolmaster in Sanday. There was even a record of a funeral held in 1830 for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula in the Hebrides. 

It could well be that such mermaid sightings were describing sightings of the same kayakers from Norway. 

The Times mermaid was seen seated on a rock inaccessible to any human, combing its long hair. It’s interesting to note that a seal skinkayak has to haul out onto a rock every so often to dry out the kayak. 

A female kayaker would no doubt take the chance to comb out her hair. As soon as it saw it was observed, the long-tailed creature launched back into the water, as a kayak would from a rock. 

The Sea Sami tribe that once lived in Norway has now disappeared. Almost none of their fragile artefacts or kayaks have survived to prove that they ever visited Scotland. Two hundred years ago, under intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream culture, the Sea Sami way of life disappeared. The last recorded mermaid sighting was also two hundred years ago – both mermaids and Sea Sami disappeared at exactly the same time.
 
The Selkie stories are probably the clearest evidence we have that Sea Sami ever visited the islands of the North Scotland. 

Most of the island families that claim to be descended from Selkies are now in Canada or America following the mid Victorian clearances in Scotland, when entire communities of Gaelic crofters were evicted to make way for the landlord’s sheep. 

In Secrets of the Sea House, Moira’s struggle with eviction in 1860 reflects that sad time. In a strange parallel, it seems that the mermaid and Selkie sightings stopped because the Sea Sami culture was banned in Norway, just as the Gaelic culture of the Outer Isles was once supressed for many years. Secrets of the Sea House is a mystery story, but it is also a way to celebrate and hold on to some of the history of the Western seaboard of Scotland, and in particular the magical Selkie stories.


BOOK REVIEW: Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford

Monday, November 04, 2013




Title: Secrets of the Sea House
Author: Elisabeth Gifford
Publisher: Corvus
Age Group & Genre: Parallel Contemporary/Historical Novel for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:
Based on a real letter to the Times by a Victorian schoolmaster reporting a mermaid sighting, Secrets of the Sea House is an epic, sweeping tale of loss and love; hope and redemption; and how we heal ourselves with the stories we tell.

Scotland, 1860. Reverend Alexander Ferguson, naïve and newly-ordained, takes up his new parish, a poor, isolated patch on the Hebridean island of Harris. His time on the island will irrevocably change the course of his life, but the white house on the edge of the dunes keeps its silence long after Alexander departs. 


It will be more than a century before the Sea House reluctantly gives up its secrets. Ruth and Michael buy the grand but dilapidated building and begin to turn it into a home for the family they hope to have. Their dreams are marred by a shocking discovery. The tiny bones of a baby are buried beneath the house; the child's fragile legs are fused together - a mermaid child. Who buried the bones? And why? But can the answers to Ruth's questions lie in her own past. 


What I Thought: 

I absolutely loved this book!

Intriguing and atmospheric, SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE is set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, with the narrative moving between the contemporary story of Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.  

Ruth and Michael are living in, and renovating, the ramshackle Sea House on the Hebridean Island of Harris. Ruth is haunted by feelings of fear and grief, and worries they have made a mistake in sinking all their savings into this remote and run-down house. Then they discover, buried beneath the floorboards, the tiny bones of a dead child. Its legs are fused together, its feet splayed like flippers. The discovery unsettles Ruth, reminding her of her dead mother’s strange tales of a selkie ancestry. She begins to try and find out how the skeleton came to be buried under the house. 

The story moves to 1860, and the alternating points of view of the young and handsome Reverend Alexander Ferguson and his intelligent yet illiterate housemaid, Moira. Alexander’s obsession with mermaids and selkies, and his forbidden attraction to the daughter of the local laird, lead to grief and betrayal and death. 

The book is full of the windswept and isolated beauty of the Hebrides, and I particularly like the way in which the author has researched - and possibly explained - the origin of Selkie tales in Scotland. I had never heard of this historical basis for these beautiful myths and so I learnt something new, which always makes me happy.

I also really loved the way in which the protagonist, Ruth, has to struggle with her own tragic history and try to find some way to overcome fears that felt very real.

Secrets of the Sea House is one of my favourite reads of the year - it is haunting, beautiful and magical. 




Writer’s website: http://www.elisabethgifford.com/
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK



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