#YA Review: Her Dark Wings by Melinda Salisbury

Publisher: David Fickling Books, July 2022

I will start this review by quoting from the blurb on my proof copy of this YA novel, due to be published in July 2022:

Her Dark Wings is a potent, passionate modern-day take on the Persephone myth, beautifully told by an exceptional writer.

back cover blurb

If I was in my late teens, free of exams and responsibilities, I would have devoured this novel in one sitting. As a full-time librarian with family responsibilities, I had to pace my reading which had the advantage of allowing me to savour every perfectly constructed sentence and passage of this gripping story. Steeped in Ancient Greek lore, the narrative has a mythical feel; set on an unnamed, agricultural island where Ancient Greek rituals are observed by a contemporary population, the effect from the earliest pages plunges the reader into an unsettling space where the veil between real-life and the mythological realm appears to have been lowered. Author, Melinda Salisbury, has clearly steeped herself in research and writes so lyrically, that she transports her reader into this modern day fable with the same ease that an Olympian might summon a mortal from the earthly realm.

Our narrator, Corey Allaway, is a broken seventeen year old, submerged in the misery of first teenage heartbreak from which she does not seem able to resurrect her former self. She is totally overwhelmed by the joint betrayals of her first boyfriend, Alistair and her childhood best friend, Bree. Consumed by jealousy, rage and obsession she narrates in a voice of heightened emotion which compels the empathy of the reader as she explores her inner turmoil and reconstructs the events leading to a night on which everything will change. The appearance of a beautiful boy with golden lips at the Island’s Thesmophoria festival sparks a chain of events which encompass gods, furies, and mortals. The permeable border between the human and mythical world is used as a backdrop to interrogate the fine divide between love and hate, obsession and attraction and friendship and betrayal.

Corey’s affinity with the earth, her uncompromising sense of justice and gift for propagating new life produces enlightening results in a narrative that takes your breath away with both its plotting and prose. It becomes clear quite early in the story that the shattering of a life-long friendship is the ultimate betrayal in Corey’s mind and her feelings are examined with poetic beauty. I honestly could quote from virtually every page, but here are two examples taken from Corey’s imprisonment in the Underworld. Firstly as she returns to the care of one of the Furies after an encounter with Hades:

She folds her wings back once more. Even in the few moments she’s been away my mind has sanded down the edges of her, letting me forget how different she is compared to me, with her black quartz eyes, her talons and her feathers. 

p130

And just a few pages later, whilst still in the cave of Erebus, with Alecto the Fury, this meditation on friendship:

Friendship is built on stories – secret for secret, confession for confession, and each one weaves invisible threads between you, binding you to each other. The more threads, the stronger the friendship.

p135

This book is targeted at the YA market and I can see it being very popular amongst the older teenage audience. Those 16 – 18 year olds who were amongst the earliest readers of Maz Evans’ Who Let the Gods Out MG series, are likely to be intrigued by the reacquaintance with familiar names. I will certainly be adding it to my own teen’s TBR stack ready for the end of the public exam season. For those regular readers of my blog, who often come here for primary school recommendations; this is very definitely an older teenage book, with language and adult references not appropriate for the younger audience. As an adult, many years older than the target market, I thoroughly enjoyed Her Dark Wings and would categorise it in the same bracket as Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles or Circe and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in terms of thoroughly immersive writing infused with classical content.

I am most grateful to David Fickling books and Liz Scott PR for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for my honest review.

Review: Aftershocks by Anne Fine

I have read, or listened to my children reading, many of Anne Fine’s books over the past 20 years, so I was fully aware of her prowess as a creator of absorbing and thoughtful stories. I am certain that Aftershocks, due for publication on 10th February 2022, will only add to her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of fiction for young people. This story deals primarily with grief, and Anne Fine has crafted a story which is gripping, atmospheric, deeply moving and full of wisdom which, at the moment they need it, could be a comforting and enlightening read for anyone of 10 years and above. It is often through fiction that individuals recognise their own or others’ deepest emotions and the publication of Aftershocks could not be better timed, given the dreadful individual and collective loss of lives experienced in the past two years.

The story is set in the fictional Federation, a land quite recognisable in its similarities to our own, with familiar technology and societal structure and is told as a first person narrative by Louie, a boy in his early teens dealing with the loss of his older brother, Toby, and parental separation. When a mix-up in his parents’ diaries results in him accompanying his engineer father to inspect a water pumping station in the remote Endlands, his family’s microcosm of grief becomes absorbed into a far larger trauma. The pumping station lies inland of a high ridge which separates it from the coastal community of the Endlands, populated by a minority group who have been broken and conquered by The Federation years earlier. In the middle of their first night at the industrial building, Louie and the engineering team are lucky to escape with their lives as an earth-splitting earthquake completely destroys the complex. Far worse is to befall the Endlanders, as a tidal wave wreaks destruction on their community. This scenario is brilliantly envisioned from Louie’s mind’s eye as he and the engineers hear the roar of destruction taking place on the far side of the ridge, which protects them from the in-rushing currents.

Events are portrayed with such immediacy and lucidity by Louie’s narrative that the story is utterly gripping and pulls the reader through all of the emotions felt by the protagonist and the characters surrounding him. The aftermath of a community’s collective loss and grief opens up an analysis of his own and his parents’ different ways of dealing with Toby’s sudden death under the wheels of a tearaway teenage driver. Such is the quality of the narrative that we are able to see the protagonists experiencing different stages or manifestations of grief without ever losing the pace and flow of the absorbing story. Thus we feel the mother’s visceral anger, Louie’s aching loneliness and the father’s denial and immersion into work to distract him from his thoughts. So loss and its aftermath have caused a breakup in the family and this is then brilliantly interwoven into the macroscopic bereavement of an entire community.

In creating the Endlanders as an imagined group with a unique set of beliefs, the author is able to examine collective rituals and different understandings of ghosts and lost souls. Louie’s Dad has remained on the coast with engineers and volunteers to help rebuild the infrastructure and Louie rejoins him during his school holiday. There have been reports on the internet of ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the bereft survivors of the tsunami and it doesn’t take long before Louie encounters his first ghost, a young boy drenched in muddy water, leaving a trail of wet footprints before vanishing. The sense of a haunted landscape, crowded with lost souls is vividly rendered and there are scenes set at the pumping station ruins which sent shivers down my spine. As Louie begins to learn of the tradition of Malouy, the necessity of the bereaved to repeatedly tell the story of their lost loved ones to appease their unsettled spirits he finds the courage to talk to his father about the loss of Toby. There are some incredibly moving passages as the logical, scientific, engineer who has always had the ability to fix things, begins to understand that the more spiritual beliefs of others which he had previously dismissed as irrational, are in fact worthy of respect. Further, as Louie completes his understanding of the haunted community he is driven to an ultimate act of courage.

I am astounded by the power of this book. The imagery of loss as an earthquake, shattering all that had been complete and alive; the aftershocks of grief in all its forms; and the tsunami as a flood of emotions and tears which can be as devastating as the initial shock are all perfectly realised. Anne Fine’s writing style is very straightforward but packs a huge emotional punch, so perfectly does she express the inner lives of her characters and highlight the extreme difficulty experienced by some people of talking about bereavement. There is much wisdom packed into this dramatic work of fiction which could open up discussion, and I highly recommend it to all secondary school librarians and Year 6 classroom libraries as well as to anyone working their way through the loss of a loved one. I am certain that this will be a book that I recommend repeatedly in the years to come.

I am most grateful to the publishers Old Barn Books and to publicist Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of Aftershocks in exchange for an honest review.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Blog Tour: I Am Winter by Denise Brown

Cover design by Anne Glenn, published by Hashtag Press 11th November 2021

This newly published YA mystery is a gritty, contemporary, whodunnit quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. Denise Brown’s writing is exquisite and utterly compelling, placing the reader completely inside the head of her fifteen-year-old first-person narrator, Summer. She has structured the story with such skill that I honestly could not tell where it was heading; hints are dropped from the erratic machinations of Summer’s mind, which has been damagingly fragmented by her under-age drinking, drug taking and as we gradually discover, years of irresponsible parenting.

Summer lives a life of school truancy, duvet-wrapped daytime TV, and nights spent hanging out at the local playpark with a group of older teenagers – drinking alcohol that they have taken from their parents or purchased with fake-IDs and taking pills. Her best-friend Courtney (Cee) is always the life and soul of the party and Summer clearly revels in her friendship and basks in its reflected glory. She also has a massive crush on Cee’s older brother Ritchie, who acts like a protective figure to the girls but appears to only view Summer as his sister’s friend while he dates a string of older girls. Whilst Summer has no responsibilities in her home life, Cee is relied upon by her mother (known around the estate as “The Ovary”) to care for her troupe of half siblings, all of whom have different fathers. This is the scene that is set out in the opening chapter, before Cee’s dramatic death. She has been travelling in the back of a car with Summer, both girls high on alcohol and pills and singing at the top of their lungs when the car crashes and Summer witnesses the vitality drain from her only real friend.

On her own release from hospital she is swamped with grief and guilt for persuading Cee to join her on the fateful journey, which is compounded by the gradual realisation that she is being unjustly blamed for supplying the pills which caused Cee’s heart to fail. This revelation is played out over social media, where the degree of love and loss for Cee is measured in likes and comments. Sadder than Summer’s grieving process is the image of lives validated or ruined by their perception on social channels. The cruel comments on her social posts develop into threatening notes through the letterbox, followed by foul deliveries and even an angry, abusive and foul-mouthed visitation from The Ovary warning her to stay away from the lantern ceremony organised in Cee’s memory. 

As the countdown to this ceremony ratchets up the tension, my heart was breaking at the lack of support that Summer is given by the adults around her. Apart from platitudes about how strong she is and how everyone knew that she loved Cee more than anyone else, Summer’s mother is far too obsessed with losing the baby-weight she gained with half-brother Jonah and enjoying nights out, to pay any attention to her daughter’s feelings. At one point, Summer describes her mother as follows:

She’s buried her eyes in hollows above her cheekbones, and her hair clings to last night’s cigarettes.

Chapter 26

Mum’s boyfriend; Jonah’s father, Mac, attempts to offer some advice about her unreliable friendships and her lack of school attendance, but it is clear that his main concern is his baby son who we learn has Down’s Syndrome. Mac provides the nurturing to his own offspring that “Mum” fails to provide to either of her children. As a reader, you comprehend the cause of Summer’s sofa-based stupor but desperately hope that she can find the impetus to break free from it and uncover the real identity of the drug-pusher.

This story is hard-hitting and tackles a number of social issues, including under-age sex, and the lack of self-respect and self-control exhibited by some youngsters when they have not benefited from a loving parental relationship. The difference in the level of care given to Jonah by Mac compared to Jonah and Summer’s mother is stark. This awakens Summer’s own caring side and you begin to hope that her love for her half-brother will be her salvation. She considers his experience of the world and concludes:

Whatever Jonah’s soul is made up of, it’s pink, and pure, and honest, and he follows me with his eyes wide open and trusting.

Chapter 33

Another wonderful relationship is the portrayal of platonic care between Summer and her friend from primary school, Kofi. He is a noble figure, undaunted by his step-father’s homophobic physical abuse, and proves to be a steadfast voice of reason and love when Summer needs an ally.

Throughout the story, Summer makes reference to her bear-wolf, a furry beast living in a hollow tree in the woods beyond her estate. I was never entirely sure whether this was indeed a real animal or a drug-induced delusion. By the end of the tale I could best rationalise it as her longing for a comforting, warm figure who would provide love and protection to her lonely soul. In my opinion, great books are those which leave an imprint after you have read them. This one left me wondering just how many teenagers face the daily reality of the lives portrayed here in fiction, facing the consequences of poor decisions because they have not had reliable guidance from those who should provide love, boundaries and aspirations. 

I highly recommend this book to a readership of 15+ and I am most grateful to Helen at LiterallyPR and  Hashtag Press for providing me with an electronic copy and inviting me to join the blog tour; do check out the other stops on the schedule.