“Christmas ought to be brought up to date, Maria said. It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.” – John Masefield, The Box Of Delights
My Christmas fascination with this particular book may owe more to the BBC adaptation, broadcast in the run up to Christmas in the Sunday teatime slot, than it does to the book. Although I do still have a copy, one I bought with a gift token I’d won at school for trying hard, sometime in the mid 1980s. I read the book after the series aired and was captivated by this strange tale of wolves, clergymen, gangsters and Herne the Hunter. I think it captured my imagination because this was Christmas, but not the Christian version of events. This tale owes more to pagan winter festivals, fairy folk and ancient magic. I have always felt there’s something magical and transformative about Christmas Eve. I’ve never celebrated Halloween, we belonged to a restrictive church that frowned upon any sort of occult meddling, so we had to go to ‘Light Night’ instead. Instead of the magical witching hour, I felt that anything could happen on Christmas Eve. Before our swap to a ‘happy clappy church’ I’d been brought up Catholic. For me there was nothing like the excitement of being woken up late at night, bundled into the car and travelling to Midnight Mass in the frosty cold when others were in bed. I felt like a nocturnal creature, up and about just as rabbits and badgers were popping up from their burrows and sniffing the night air. My brother and I would press our faces up against our windows, looking up into the sky as far up as we could, just in case we saw Father Christmas. Miraculously, he would always have been when we arrived home again. We loved seeing everyone’s Christmas lights on and landscapes turned a glittery white with frost. I had a sense that the veil between this world and others was very thin at this time of year. That there was still magic afoot in the world and I might see something mystical and strange, much like Kay does in this novel as he travels home by train for the holidays.
In fact Kay’s adventure starts as soon as he sets out on his homeward journey by steam train. Kay thinks he hears wolves, but that’s impossible. He does meet an old Punch and Judy man though, who inevitably draws him into an adventure.
“And now, Master Harker, of Seekings,’ the old man said, ‘now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?”
The wolves he speaks of are not the howling ones outside. The wolves are Abner Brown and his dastardly crew of henchmen. They’re after a magic box that the old man uses to go small (shrink) or go swift (travel), and which he now gives to Kay so he can keep it safe. This box sets Kay off on marvellous adventures and although I don’t remember it all, there are parts that have stuck with me. I remembered a mouse who enters Kay’s room via tiny archway in the skirting board. As Kay shrinks to avoid Brown’s henchmen, he finds himself having to navigate the ‘rapids’ in a paper boat and then disappears for a while after finding a fairy door. He’s welcomed into a fairy gathering, attended by the King and Queen of the fairies. He’s not completely alone in his adventures either and new friend Maria is a plucky little character who wants the exciting Christmas quoted above. She’s incredibly posh, cut from the same cloth as the ‘boy’s own’ heroes and has an excellent line in slang.
‘They know better than to try that game on me. I’ve been expelled from three and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear my name breathed. I’m Maria Jones, I am: somewhat talked of in school circles, if you take the trouble to enquire.’
Such intrepid characters are needed to foil the plans of Abner Brown and his men, who seemed truly evil when I first saw them. What I loved though was that sense of ancient magic – ‘I do date from pagan times’ – mixed with the public school language and sensibility. There’s a sense of Kay’s quest turning him into a man or at least trying it on for size. It’s hilarious when he adopts an important tone and asks the family servant if she knows how to make him a posset. There’s also the wonderful vocabulary that sounds like it’s come from a Roald Dahl novel, with words like splendiferous, scrobbled and purple pim. This truly is a little magic box of a novel, with richly painted scenes of nature and fairies as well as unnerving moments like the boy trapped behind a waterfall. The best thing is that every time I think about this book a huge wave of Christmassy nostalgia washes over me.
This has been a difficult reading month and I haven’t read as much as usual, but these were my favourite reads. Two members of the family have had surgery this month so a lot of the usual routine has been a bit upside down. The last week, while winter has started to bite a little, I’ve had a lot more pain and stiffness, as well as being plagued by MS symptoms of vertigo and fatigue. Some days I’ve felt like I only open my eyes when someone wakes me to have a meal. The countdown to Christmas also started in earnest, so I’ve been ordering early to avoid disappointment. I do the majority of my shopping online these days so it’s really a pleasure rather than feeling sweaty and unwell in a shop packed with other people. I did venture out with my stepdaughter last weekend to buy new decorations for our Christmas tree. It’s a tradition I set up to get to know them better and now it’s annual mission. Since it’s our first Christmas in the new house and our living room colour scheme has changed we decided to go pink and blue. We did well and how have an eccentric collection of tigers, monkeys, tiny pink Minis and VW Beetles with Christmas trees on the roof, slices of cake and topless unicorns wearing just a tutu! Mainly though, with my lowered immune system I’m trying to avoid large groups of people. Thankfully my booster is now booked, but it’s not until the end of December so I’m keeping to my strict bubble again until we know more about the new variant. So, that’s me. Out of the books I’ve read there have been some brilliant reads and don’t forget to check last Sunday’s Spotlight post which featured the books I’m buying as gifts this year.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
We open in Kerrigan Falls with Lara on the eve of her wedding as she starts to enchant her wedding dress to make it perfect. However, in the morning the groom has disappeared, mysteriously leaving his car behind at the scene where another young man disappeared thirty years before. Both men have links to Lara and her family. In her search for answers, Lara finds her great- grandmother’s diaries and reads the tale of a circus so secret it can’t be seen. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
Oh my goodness, my heart did break for the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm is at odds with her romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly. She will not be satisfied until she flies out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. She doesn’t care where she goes, as long as she’s free and lives happily ever after. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? I am probably a similar age to Delaney so I felt an affinity with Mary and understood her. Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? When Finn’s hospital announces all leave is cancelled they know the virus is coming. Diana asks what they should do with the Galapagos holiday and he tells her to go without him. So she arrives on the last boat just as everything shuts down and she has to take the kind offer of an apartment from a cleaner at the hotel called Abuela. This is just the start of an amazing and uplifting adventure for Diana, in a paradise separate from the COVID-19 nightmare happening in New York. The joy of this book is that it takes the reader in several different directions, some of them very surprising indeed. This is my first full on pandemic novel and it was tough but surprisingly uplifting too. A real return to form from Picoult who I absolutely love.
On the Edge by Jane Jesmond
I was thoroughly gripped by this tense thriller set in Cornwall and concerning Jenifry Shaw – an experienced free climber who is in rehabilitation at the start of the novel. She hasn’t finished her voluntary fortnight stay when she’s itching for an excuse to get away and she finds one when her brother Kit calls and asks her to go home. Sure that she has the addiction under control, she drives her Aston down to her home village and since she isn’t expected, chooses to stay at the hotel rather than go straight to her family home. Feeling restless, she decides to try one of her distraction activities and go for a bracing walk along the cliffs. Much later she wakes to darkness. She’s being lashed by wind and rain, seemingly hanging from somewhere on the cliff by a very fragile rope. Every gust of wind buffets her against the surface causing cuts and grazes. She gets her bearings and realises she’s hanging from the viewing platform of the lighthouse. Normally she could climb herself out of this, most natural surfaces have small imperfections and places to grab onto, but this man made structure is completely smooth. Her only chance is to use the rapidly fraying rope to climb back to the platform and pull herself over. She’s only got one go at this though, one jerk and her weight will probably snap the rope – the only thing keeping her from a certain death dashed on the rocks below. She has no choice. She has to try. I was already breathless and this was just the opening! What follows is a thrilling debut that is so incredibly addictive you’ll want to read it in one go.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine
This is a disturbing and beautifully written horror novel about Mina, a young woman living alone in urban Ireland. She is largely a loner, except for her friend Peter who is a collectibles dealer and often pays Mina cash to travel and deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway, but the day trip becomes something she lives to regret. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises that the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, but sees a woman with a lamp standing by a concrete bunker and although that seems odd they hurry inside. As the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This really is terrifying and you won’t be able to stop reading until the very unnerving end.
Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough
This is a sneak preview of a release for next year and one I couldn’t resist reading on NetGalley as soon as I was approved. This book hooked me straight away, which isn’t surprising considering this author’s talent in creating nerve-tingling domestic noir. Emma has survived childhood trauma to make a success of her life and is now a well-respected solicitor with a lovely family and beautiful home. The only thing is she can’t sleep. As her fortieth approaches her insomnia gets worse and she is terrified, what if this is just the start of the breakdown her mother suffered at the same age? She always said that Emma had the ‘bad blood’ and as her symptoms increase Emma is coming apart. I read this in two sittings, engrossed by Emma’s story and trying to work out whether she is being set up and if so, who by? Look out for this one at the end of March 2022.
The first daughter is for the throne. The second is for the Wolf.
Every so often I venture into reading fantasy and have been enchanted by some of the books I’ve stumbled upon, often because of their stunning covers in the first instance. When I think of my favourite books – The Night Circus, Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series and Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – all come up very high on the list. Yet I certainly don’t think of myself as solely a fantasy blogger, I don’t have enough knowledge of the genre. I love that sense of total escape and I often read with a smile on my face because I’m so charmed by the audacity of these writers and how they bend the rules of our world with some magic realism or create a beautiful wild new world for the reader to explore. I was drawn to this book by a very beautiful cover and the thought that someone would be playing with the boundaries of a well known fairy tale.
Redarys has always known her fate. As the kingdom’s second daughter, she is doomed to become a sacrifice to the wolf who keeps Wilderwood’s gods captive in the forest. Red seems to have acquiesced to this fate and her mother’s cool and distant attitude tells Red that she too has prepared herself for this moment, by never becoming close with her daughter. Red’s sister Neve wants to rage against the kingdom and tempts Red to run away that night, as far as she can. She has even spoken to the man who loves Red and sets up a secret moment where he can declare his plans to help her run away. He is promised to Neve, but vows to help Red escape her fate. But does she want to? Red has a hidden power deep within that scares her, and she never wants to hurt someone she loves again. She feels the woods luring her and her power is exactly what they need. The stories she’s been told from childhood are not the full truth. The spirits have weakened. The wolf is just a man, as pushed into his fate as she is. Can Red use her power for good and set them all free?
From the very first pages I was drawn into this other world by the author’s use of detailed imagery. She builds an incredible new world, from words: the sumptuous clothing and the meaning behind their colours, the rooms of the castle and even the dark woods beyond are all rendered beautifully. As guests gather for a celebration on the eve of the sacrifice, Red has chosen a blood red dress contrasting strongly with her mother and sister’s choices and making it very clear who she is. There’s a certain pride in her, of who she is and the role she’s decided to accept. I enjoyed the sisterly love between Red and Neve. We do have sections narrated by Neve to give some contrast from Red’s point of view. Although they’re quite different Neve and Red are incredibly close, they have each other’s backs and in a difficult situation I have no doubt each would fight for the other. I liked both characters, but Red is definitely the more dominant sister despite their opposing fates. Her bravery in accepting her fate and her sense of duty to the kingdom were very admirable. She has some attitude too and I loved that feistiness in her. She’s also a voracious reader and the magnificent library was like something out of my dreams.
There is romance too, a slow burning attraction between Red and her unusual beau. I liked that it wasn’t overdone or flowery, and that Red didn’t lose any of her feistiness in the relationship. She wants to be loved for the person she is, not to change. I won’t reveal her love interest, but it’s their feeling of being trapped into a life they didn’t choose that brings them together. They are bound by blood and sacrifice. He’s a proper Gothic hero too, just as strong and fierce as Red but with an edge. He’s definitely the boyfriend you wouldn’t take home to Mum. It’s a complete awakening once Red enters the wood and she learns that the myths she’s been told about the world are far from the truth. I really enjoyed my foray into the world of fantasy. We all need a brooding love interest, with dark woods and crumbling castles. This isn’t all romance though, it’s more reminiscent of the original blood thirsty fairy tales where women are willing to saw off their own toes to fit a glass slipper or where an enchantment forces them to dance every night till their feet are bleeding. There is blood, so if you’re thinking of sweet, fluffy, fairy tales it might be better to imagine Disney meets Game of Thrones. This is a well written Gothic fairy tale, with a heroine who can not only save herself, but the world as well.
Meet The Author
Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, she figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat.
Sometimes all you can say when you finish a book is ‘Wow’. When that happens I close the book and have a moment of reverence. I need a few moments, in silence, to take in what I’ve read. I often need overnight before I can start a new book. I suppose you could describe it as being haunted – the thought of a scene or a letter in a book that invades your thoughts when you least expect it. It stays there, sometimes forever, to become a part of you. In the same way a particular aria or love song might forever float through your head. Some books lie on the surface, they pass the time, they amuse, and I do enjoy them but they don’t stay. Others get into your brain, like a complex puzzle you have to keep fiddling with, this way and that, until you find a solution. Some books enter your soul, they make you feel real physical emotions, they make you wonder in the same way you did as a child when a book took you away on a marvellous adventure. They touch you soul deep. This is one of those books.
Nydia Hetherington is a sorceress. She has conjured up this box of terrors and delights from the depths of her imagination and it is incredible. We follow Mouse as she crawls, peeps, stumbles and walks around the incredible show that is a circus. Billed as a tale about the Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived I was expecting glitz and glamour, the front of house show. However, the author cleverly goes deeper than that, far behind the curtain. Incredible descriptive passages draw us in to Mouse’s world from the smell near the big cats enclosure, the feel of a llama’s fur against your skin, the cramped but colourful quarters of the circus folk and the volatile relationship between her mother Marina and father Manu. So focussed on each other, her parents seem barely aware of her existence as she watches the drab and grubby circus folk become stars of the ring with their make-up, sequins and feathers. Her freedom gives us access to every part of this wondrous world, but freedom has its dark side and for Mouse this is really a tale of parental neglect. She is brought up by the circus, by the mother of the company Big Gen and her husband Fausto and eventually by Serendipity Wilson, the flame haired high wire artists who takes Mouse under her wing. Under her tuition Mouse becomes an incredible tightrope walker, able to take her place under the spotlight like her parents.
Serendipity with her flaming hair that glows like amber is from the Isle of Man and brings with her all the mythology of the islands. She weaves incredible stories for Mouse, who now sleeps in her wigwam, in much the same way as mystical fog weaves around her according to her mood. She thinks that Manu and Marina barely notice she’s gone, but Manu enlists her help to get Marina performing again. They coax her into the tank to perform as a mermaid for the crowd. Even so, there is no discernible warmth between Mouse and her mother, Marina’s focus is always inward to her own problems. It is after her mother’s death that Mouse is handed a letter from her mother, in which she admits to never feeling love for her child and explains why. For me this was the most powerful part of the book, and brought me to tears. The author has cleverly placed this moment of stark reality within the magic and it gives the letter huge emotional impact. It hits home the idea that all freedom has a price. Mouse has never had a mother, except the warmth and care she’s had from Serendipity and never questions whether that will change.
Bookending these stories is an elderly Mouse, recounting her life to a journalist. Living in New York, she recalls her arrival in the city and her expectations of Coney Island. She is older and recounts her past from a distance, but what comes across is terrible regret and sorrow around the disappearance of a child from the circus family. She is haunted by a flame haired Serendipity Wilson who, like all mothers, lives on as a voice in Mouse’s head; her inner critic commenting on all she does, only silent when Mouse truly lives in the moment. It’s in these sections that we see what the book is truly about. I expected a book about the spectacle of the circus, the showmanship and all that glitters. Instead this is a meditation on what it is to be human. The journalist asks the questions that go beneath Mouse’s surface and see the gritty truth; we are all flawed and we all make mistakes. This is a beguiling mix of myth, magic and human frailty. Truly brilliant.
You may also enjoy:
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman