Category Archives: folklore

Review: Girls, Goddesses and Giants by Lari Don

Brilliant collection of folk tales, legends and myths with active heroines 

Firstly, I have to comment on this gorgeous cover! Bold and strong, showing a silhouetted girl in action with a sword and decorated with dragon and pretty flowers, it’s wonderfully attractive without playing to cloying stereotypes of femininity (for little girls). What a great job! And, as you might guess, this is absolutely the theme for the collection: bold, clever, resourceful and active girls taking charge and saving the day. It’s the perfect antidote to the many pink and princessy collections out there.

The book features twelve stories, each from a different culture and all focusing on the actions of a central girl character. The stories themselves are quite short, and nicely illustrated with occasional bold silhouettes. The print is quite large, too, so the stories are not daunting for young readers. The book is perfect for bedtime reading to or with a child, and its cover and style make it likely to appeal to boys as well as girls.

There are mythical monsters and creatures of folklore to be defeated or outwitted, challenges to be met and prejudice to be ignored. Lari Don has done a great job in sourcing and retelling these tales. The narrative style is warm and friendly, well suited to reading aloud, and with perfectly judged pace and tension for the target age group (younger readers and pre-readers).

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this. As a beautiful hardback with dustjacket, it would make a lovely gift.

The cover blurb says:

Greedy giants. Unjust emperors. Shape-shifting demons. And the heroines who deal with them.

From China and Japan, the Americas, Europe and Africa, this collection of traditional tales shows girls who win the day, whether by cleverness, courage, kindness or strength. Who needs a handsome prince?

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Published 18 July 2013 by A & C Black
Find more info at the publisher’s website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Review: Hagwitch by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

Mystery and folklore in a theatrical setting for readers of 10+

This novel snagged my attention quickly and kept me entranced. It’s spot on for the older child/younger teen reader and offers them a thrilling story, with enough challenge in the structure to keep them interested without turning them off, and brilliant characters to engage with.

Using a dual narrative to present the weird and creepy hagwitch lore in two separate timeframes, the structure has plenty of interest of its own. With just the right amount of danger and creepiness for the target age group, the novel also explores identity and being an outsider in a gentle and subtle way. I loved both Lally and Flea, each slightly awkward in their own ways. Both are trying to figure out where they belong, while also battling with the knowledge that something isn’t right and the adults around them need their help to first notice and then solve the problem. Lally, living on a canal boat in an unconventional family, is modern and yet isolated – she doesn’t go to school, have friends her own age or use the internet. Flea, a sixteenth-century apprentice is a country boy in London, often out of place and somewhat naive.

The settings are fabulous. London is a well-used setting, but offering a sixteenth century theatre-based setting to contrast with a contemporary timeline featuring a canal barge running a marionette theatre made it fresh and exciting. I’m sure many child readers would recognise some of the details about sixteenth century theatre from learning about Shakespeare (who does get a mention) and the Tudors, and that this would enhance their enjoyment. The puppet barge (based apparently on a real Puppet Theatre Barge) gives a quirky twist to the contemporary plotline.

The core mystery of the hagwitch, drawing on folklore around the hawthorn and bird lore (crows and jackdaws especially), is inventive and enticing. The story as a whole feels highly original and exciting, skilfully weaving folklore elements into both a historical and a contemporary plot.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this for many types of reader, successfully combining historical, fantasy and contemporary elements as this novel does.

From the publisher’s website:

Gothic thriller for 10+ by Irish author Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. Celtic legend, a malevolent faery queen and the dark underbelly of the theatreworld come to life as two stories of 16th-century London and the modern day interweave in this gripping tale full of dark secrets and magic.

16th-century London, Flea Nettleworth, apprentice to a playwright, watches as his struggling master’s fortunes turn, and all of a sudden London is in his thrall. But soon Flea’s master can no longer tell where the imagined world ends and the real one begins. Could the arrival of a mysterious Faery Elder trunk hold the answer?

Modern day, Lally lives on a barge, roaming the canalways and performing shows with her puppeteer father. Then, after Lally’s father pulls an ancient piece of wood from the canal and fashions it into a puppet, his success seems unstoppable. As her father’s obsession with his puppet grows and his plays become darker, Lally begins to wonder if there is something rather sinister, dangerous even, about the wooden doll.

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Published March 2013 by Orion Children’s
for more info, visit the publisher’s website
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing a beautiful review copy

Review: Hidden Among Us by Katy Moran

Brilliantly creepy YA urban fantasy with old-school fairies 

I loved this action-packed clash between our contemporary world and the old stories of the Fair Folk (here known as The Hidden). Deliciously menacing and utterly uncanny, there is no shirking from the fae’s famed cruelty and absolute lack of humanity here. Yes, they are seductive, in that people can be dangerously beguiled by them, but there is no pretence at compassion or any kind of emotion from them. This is back-to-basics fairy lore.

The story is shared between three main narrators in alternating chapters (clearly headed with names). Rafe’s is the first voice we encounter, describing the disappearance of his baby sister, Lissy. Most of the novel takes place fourteen years later, by which time Rafe has matured into a fascinating character, focused on his private mission to find out more about what happened to Lissy, which isolates him from other characters. The second chapter is narrated by Miriam, Rafe and Lissy’s mother, whose voice we then hear only occasionally. Her viewpoint always reveals something tantalising though!

Lissy’s own fourteen-year-old voice plants us firmly in the real world, with her normal teenage worries about her overprotective mother and how to gain more freedom. The third main narrator is Joe, the son of Miriam’s boyfriend. I loved Joe. His mix of feelings as his family changes shape and he finds himself mixed up in Lissy and Miriam’s drama is endearing and entirely convincing.

The plot is fast moving and in many ways thriller-like and yet Katy Moran still manages to find time to create atmosphere. The novel is eerie and chilling, just like The Hidden it centres on. The setting: the house of Hopesay Reach, built on sacred ground and with a complex history, has as much presence in the story as other famous settings such as the two houses in Wuthering Heights. The mystery element of the novel was another plus point for me. The writer does a great job of weaving clues and information about The Hidden throughout the story, maintaining tension and keeping our attention on the potential danger the human characters face.

Overall, I’d urge you to read this if you like a creepy tale and enjoy folklore. I would recommend it to those who don’t usually choose ‘fae’ books, as these are not the watered-down fae you sometimes find and are always disappointed in: there are no doubts here about the danger they represent.

From the Back Cover:

When Lissy meets a mysterious and strangely beautiful boy on her way to Hopesay Edge, she is deeply unsettled by their encounter.

She discovers that the boy, Larkspur, is a member of the Hidden, an ancient group of elven people, whose secrets lie buried at Hopesay Reach. Before long, Lissy and her brother Rafe find themselves caught by a powerful magic and fighting to escape a bargain that can never be broken.

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Published 7 March by Walker
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a proof for review

Happy Halloween: marking the festival creatively

Are you trick or treating with the kids? Waiting in, prepared for the trick-or-treaters? Looking for something to do to tap into the spirit of Halloween but not sure what? Here are a few suggestions.

Decorate your windows

with simple paper cut outs for silhouettes and tissue paper to get a nice glow. Simple, strong outlines work best: orange tissue for a no-mess pumpkin face (use black paper or black marker to make the features so the orange face glows) or a circle of white tissue with a black wolf or bat silhouette against it also looks good, as do spider and bat silhouettes in black paper straight on the window.

Remember the dead

This time of year has always been about honouring those who have gone before. A simple and unobtrusive altar or shrine can easily be created using photographs, momentos or items which symbolise loved ones, perhaps together with a candle for focus.

Write something seasonal

Here’s a couple of fun exercises I’ve used with a keen student creative writing group around Halloween:

  • Practice ‘show, don’t tell’ by writing a paragraph in which a character is scared. You must demonstrate their fear as many ways as possible and avoid the word ‘scared’ and its synonyms.
  • Write a poem, a brief monologue or a flash fiction piece inspired by an unusual phobia. A handy list of phobias is available online at the phobia list.

Practise divination

Again, this is traditional at this point in the year, when the veil is said to be thinnest. If you’ve got divination tools such as tarot or oracle cards tucked away somewhere, now is a good time to pull them out and give them a go. If you’ve never really got to grips with them, try shuffling and concentrating on being open to whatever you most need to know right now. Draw a single card and see what it says to you. Don’t reach straight for the book or leaflet – what does the image mean to you? Do take notice of ideas that appear in your mind; a lot of good information is too easily dismissed.
For the more practised, here’s a great Halloween spread, working on the principle of Samhain as a beginning and an ending and seeking guidance for the coming year. Simply draw three cards: what to cast off, what to hang onto, what to bring in. This can be done as a simple three card spread, or made more complicated by applying these three ideas to different areas that you want to focus on such as love, career, family etc.
What do you do at this time of year?

Magical Monday: Here Be Dragons

Since it’s St George’s Day, I thought I’d celebrate with some dragon lore.

How cute are these wallpapers?

The story of St George and the Dragon is very similar to that of Perseus and Andromeda. A beast (in this case the dragon) is appeased by the people by means of a regular sacrifice. In the St George story, this was a sheep, then two sheep, then eventually humans were offered, chosen by lots. When the Princess was selected to be offered to the dragon, the King pleaded for it not to be so, but it had been his decision to use lots and the people were unsupportive, since many had lost their own children. It is at this point that St George appears and steps in. Some stories simply state that he killed the dragon and the people then converted to Christianity, (presumably since George was such a great example) but in some versions he requires people to be baptised into Christianity before he will slay the dragon, effectively holding them hostage to his demands. The dragon can therefore be seen  as an allegory the devil, or of the ‘false’ way of paganism. This religious appendix is not present in the Perseus and Andromeda myth.

I suspect that for most Westerners, dragons are fire-breathing winged lizards with four legs, but there are also stories of water dragons, often known as ‘worms’ (or wurms, or wyrms), which are more snake- or eel-like and are not credited with fire power. In stories like that of the Lambton Worm, such creatures can emerge from water and attack livestock and children. In this legend, John Lambton caught the worm when he was fishing and was warned not to throw it back, but he dropped it down a well instead. Trapped, the creature grew huge and the well water became poisoned and murky. Eventually, it grew to full size, left the well and wrapped itself around a hill, leaving only to attack livestock until the villagers realised that they could appease it with a regular offering of milk. After seven years of this, John Lambton returned from the Crusades to be told by a wise woman that he was the only one who could kill the worm. He had to get special armour made, covered in spikes, and was warned that once the worm was dead, he must also kill the “first to cross his path” to avoid cursing his family. He arranged to blow his horn three times as a cue for his dog to be released so that he needn’t kill a person. Of course, this didn’t work out as he planned and his father ran out to greet him before the dog was released. He killed the dog rather than his father and seems to have triggered the curse, as many generations of Lambtons after met unnatural ends.

In a lot of recent fantasy literature, dragons are portrayed as wise creatures with positive attributes. I haven’t read much with dragons lately. Anyone got any good recommendations for dragon novels?

Magical Monday: Spring Equinox

This week sees the Spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and the signs are definitely out and about. We’ve been seeing snowdrops, daffodils and the odd crocus around, and on our walk at the lovely Watermead Country Park this weekend saw plenty of green shoots on the willows. It was noticeably greener than last weekend around the lakes. We’re also seeing an increase in activity in the birds in the garden and have been puzzled by the odd behaviour of long-tailed tits who’ve been pecking at the kitchen window and the glass in the back door. It seems (having prowled around the birdie forums) that they’re warning off their own reflections who appear to them as challengers for their territory. Perhaps we’ll get nesting long-tails this year!

This equinox, which falls on March 20th this year, represents the time when the light begins to overtake the dark as we move from the shortest day in the depth of winter towards the longest day at the height of June. This is the midpoint of the Oak King’s reign in the symbolic annual struggle between the Oak and Holly Kings, representing the waxing and waning energies in the year.

Old names for this point, celebrated as a Pagan festival, include Ostara and Eostre – both associated with goddesses of fertility and growth (and with etymological echoes of Easter). This sense of everything developing and growing and preparing to bloom is easy to pick up, and the idea that this energy could be harnessed and translated into human lives via sympathetic magic isn’t difficult to imagine.

We no longer routinely spring-clean to sweep away the winter darkness, but the sense of renewal is still infectious. I’ve noticed that although I tend to make new year plans (let’s not call them resolutions, okay?), it’s at this time of year that I tend to start really putting things into practice.

What about you? Do you find yourself buzzing with Spring energy?

Love and Magic

So, it’s Valentine’s Day. The day that the birds traditionally pair up for mating, and people celebrate the idea of love and romance (or fertility, since ‘true love’ seems to be a relatively modern idea).

There’s a ton of information around about love spells, for example:

  • different coloured candles can be used to focus on different kinds of love (e.g. new love = pink; faithfulness = green; passion = red)
  • over 150 different herbs have been associated with spells to attract love over at least the last few decades
  • contemporary books on magic tend to emphasise the need not to remove someone’s free will, and often advise creating a spell to facilitate meeting the right person, rather than a spell that asks for a particular individual’s love

I think the existence of love spells reveals a desire to make love certain and predictable. But perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps what makes us value ‘true love’ (or genuine commitment) is precisely the difficulty in finding it? Finding true love requires a leap of faith in making oneself vulnerable and even this cannot guarantee that love will be reciprocated. How much safer it would be if we could control the process and not have to risk so much! But then, would we put so much value on love?

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Hollow Pike by James Dawson

This creepy read is excellent. It’s far more subtle than I expected, and extremely satisfying.

Author: James Dawson

Title: Hollow Pike
Genre: Chiller (YA)
Series: no
Publisher: Indigo (Orion)
Published: Feb 2 2012
Source: Kindly sent for review by the publisher
Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
Something wicked this way comes…

She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly that someone is trying to kill her.

Lis thinks she’s being paranoid – after all who would want to murder her? She doesn’t believe in the local legends of witchcraft. She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her. You never do, do you?

Not until you’re alone in the woods, after dark – and a twig snaps…

Hollow Pike – where witchcraft never sleeps.

My verdict: A fabulous debut that had me looking over my shoulder while reading. Strongly recommended.
I was really excited about this one, having first seen the cover in the summer – and what a cover! Witchiness, forest, birds – it’s all there and all are important in the story. As I stated above, this was an excellent read which was more subtle in its witchiness than I expected, and all to the good. Sometimes the books you’re most excited for can disappoint, but not so here. This debut demonstrates skill and control, above all: control of plot, character, setting and tension.

This is, primarily, a chiller which had me doing that horror film thing where you wait for the jump moment. James Dawson, you owe me for a shoulder massage to get rid of the tension you put there!

Lis is an engaging character who gains our sympathy immediately, as we meet her in the throes of one of her nightmares. The sense that she knows what’s coming, the dread she feels and yet her complete inability to prevent it are palpable and guarantee you’ll want to read on.

We soon also learn that she is moving to the country to get away from bullies. As the new girl, there are also attempts to bully her in her new setting. The teen relationships are a real strength of this book, portrayed realistically, as is their speech. It’s clear that Dawson is familiar with kids this age (as a former teacher). I loved the ‘weird kids’, Kitty and Jack, and their attitude towards the ‘in crowd’. The contemporary setting and believable characters intensify the tension in this perfectly-paced tale filled with misdirection.

As well as contemporary teen culture, Dawson also knows his folklore. The witchy elements to the story are well-researched and avoid any overblown or romanticised ideas, making certain that the novel retains the maximum creep factor. This is not a paranormal romance, even though it features both the paranormal and some romance – it’s darker than that and the romance is not the main plotline.

Overall, I’d readily recommend this to lovers of chillers and witchy tales.

Magical Monday: 10 Fabulous Full Moon Facts

  1. Today’s full moon is known as the Old Moon, the Wolf Moon or the Ice Moon. (NB: different traditions have different names for each moon).
  2. Violence and crime is said to increase at the full moon, with more cases of assault, murder, arson and suicide.
  3. The rutting season for deer (and other herbivores) appears to be related to the full moon.
  4. More babies are said to be born at the full moon.
  5. Trying to conceive at a full moon is supposed to increase your chances of a son (it’s the new moon for a daughter).
  6. The Old Moon is said to be a good time for spells and rituals relating to the home and family and material matters.  
  7. Salmon and other animals are noted to migrate in greater numbers at the full moon.
  8. Cutting your hair at the full moon is claimed to make it grow more quickly.
  9. The full moon is associated with the Mother aspect of the Goddess.
  10. Herbs harvested at the full moon are believed to be more potent, as they contain more essential oils.
So, which of these have you heard before?

Family Friday: Peace and Love

As we near the midpoint of the traditional twelve days, a period of ‘time out of time’, I hope you’re all enjoying the holidays in whatever fashion works for you.

Here are some of the aspects of Christmas/Yule holiday tradition that I particularly enjoy:

  • all the light/fire references, reminding us that it all stems from a celebration of the return of the sun as the balance shifts from dark to light again
  • the greenery decking the halls, a lovely piece of sympathetic magic encouraging the non-evergreen life to remember that life goes on
  • the rich, warming, spicy food and drink (as I write this, I can smell a ham boiling away merrily in apple and orange juices with cinnamon, cloves and allspice) to nourish ourselves for the coming winter
  • the sense of self renewal which has become the tradition of New Year Resolutions, possibly stemming from a natural inward-turning impulse in these longer and darker nights

This is my last post for 2011, so: whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope you’re making great memories and that 2012 will be a great and positive year for you.