Reads – The Mermaid of Black Conch

*looks to the heavens for help*

I’ve been trying for a whole week to think how I can review The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey in a way that will do it justice.

But I don’t think I can.

Put simply, this book is utterly, utterly beautiful.

‘The flat dark sea broke open. The mermaid rose up and out of the water, her hair flying like a nest of cables, her arms flung backwards in the jump, her body glistening with scales and her tail flailing, huge and muscular, like that of a creature from the deepest part of the ocean.’

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey.

The Caribbean, 1976. David Baptiste, a fisherman, is out in his boat one morning – not fishing, but smoking, singing, and playing his guitar. His music lures an ancient mermaid – the legendary Aycayia, a young woman cursed to live as a mermaid centuries before. Over time, David and Aycayia form a tentative bond. He, a hopeful performer; she, an intrigued spectator. But the arrival of two American fishermen in the town spells trouble for the star-crossed pair, and the effects of those troubles ripple through the whole community.

‘David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, grey sea…’

This is the sort of book that’ll leave you bereft when you finish it – it’ll leave your emotions all at sea, your heart achy, and your soul spellbound. It’s the sort of book that’ll make you look at your TBR pile and sigh forlornly, knowing your reader’s heart is spoken for. It’s the sort of story that’ll sink down into your skin and weld itself to your bones; the sort of story that’ll leave you listening for cackles of laughter in the wind and have you double checking for silvery scales on your legs.

‘What had happened?… Had she done her time in exile?… Men had pulled her from the sea, where she’d been safe but lonely. Now she was contending with another life, one with reggae music, peacocks, cake and people who wore clothes.’

People who wear clothes, cake, peacocks, and reggae music – plus love, trust, curses, pride, jealousy, and a mermaid.

Together, they make one magical book.

away with the fairytales

‘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.’ said J.R.R Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories.

And recently, one of the beasts to be found there has been me.

I’ve been venturing forth into those wide and deep and high realms on a quest for story treasures – armed with a notebook and pen to document my findings (when I remembered to be organised), and an embarrassing amount of tea to keep me going (which I always remembered because tea is life).

Here are a few of the treasures I discovered…

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Colleen Doran)

‘I think of her hair as black as coal – her lips, redder than blood – her skin, snow-white.’

This book was dark, gruesome, macabre, explicit, and disturbing. And I loved it.

It’s an unsettling reimagining of the Snow White fairytale by Neil Gaiman, in graphic – sometimes very graphic *blushes* – novel form. First published in the nineties, it was rereleased earlier this year with illustrations by Colleen Doran.

The story itself is a wonderfully twisted take on the more traditional version of the tale, but it’s the illustrations that really make this book. They are stunning.

Definitely not one for the kids, though.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Colleen Doran, 2019 edition

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

‘He is the fear in the dark, the monster under the bed. He is a thing out of stories, and he is here in my house…’

Anna is our heroine here – an eleven-year-old Greek refugee living with her emotionally distant father in 1920s Oxford. The pair are the only members of their family to have survived an attack on their home city, and not only is Anna still grieving for the friends and family she lost in the attack, she’s also struggling to fit into her new life in England. She’s incredibly lonely, cast adrift. But she’s also adventurous, wanting to follow in the footsteps of all the great characters of Greek mythology, and that spirit of adventure draws her into a world full of supernatural dangers.

This was an unusual gem/rough diamond of a book. It’s a hard one to define. There are a few things that aren’t quite right with it – it sits uneasily across genres and target audiences, the narrative voice seems to wander about at times, the pacing feels slightly off, plus there are awkward cameos from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. And, technically, all of those things put together should have made for a bad reading experience… but *throws hands up in the air* I actually really liked it.

What can I say?

It’s by no means perfect but it’s by a lot of means enchanting.

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

‘In an ancient inn on the Thames the regulars are entertaining thenmselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps and injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to?’

This was an interesting book. I liked it a lot, especially its magical, folkloric elements.

I loved the ever-present spectre of Quietly the ferryman. ‘He appeared when you were in trouble on the water… He spoke never a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day. But if you were out of luck… it was another shore altogether he took you to…’

Ferrymen who guide souls to the otherworld are a favourite mythological figure of mine. *taps pen against nose secretively*

And all the living characters are richly drawn too. Their individual stories intertwine and twist and turn beautifully. But the plot is quite a slow-burner, a meanderer like the Thames itself, which felt a little disappointing.

Although it was certainly an enjoyable world to meander through.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield book review

♦ Have you read any of these? ♦ What did you make of them if you have? ♦ What fairy-story realms would you recommend to a bookish explorer? ♦ The Tolkien quote at the start of the post is one of my favourite quotes on fairytales… what’s yours? ♦

Let me know in the comments!

Reads – The Haunted Coast

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray, published by the Caedman Storytellers.

Ghosts and the sea.

The only four words in the whole wide world that can guarantee I will read a book – no other information needed, no questions asked.

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray was the perfect November-Sunday read for me, curled up by the woodburner, snuggled inside a big woolly jumper, toasty warm but full of a horrible cold that just won’t go away and leave me alone to breathe like a normal human being. The book was forty-six pages of spooks and Yorkshire legends that whisked me away from my runny nose and aching sinuses into a world of ghosts and ghouls, mermaids and monsters, and a howling, churning, wild North Sea.

The perfect getaway.

Green

If you look too long into the green the green will eat you up. It will wind its way around your heart and its splintered roots will lodge inside your bones. Underneath your skull, a whole forest will unfurl and make your thoughts a muddle. You’ll try to leave it, try to live beyond it, but you’ll find your soul ensnared, find it calling you back, pulling you back, painting your blood and staining you through.

Smoky light beams in a woodland, Dorset.

Reads – The Girl in the Tower

Oh. My.

I don’t have enough words to describe my feelings for this book. I just have lots of long, drawn out, unintelligible, half-language/half-noise things that I can’t figure out how to spell, which is making writing a review tricky.

Basically, in conclusion (introduction?), I really really, truly truly loved it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Book cover. Book review.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Why? Well, let me get out some trusty bullet points and give you a few reasons.*

  • The writing. Ah gosh. It’s magical. Captivating. Bewitching. [Insert all other synonyms here.] The descriptions are beautiful without being overbearing. Characters pop out of the page, right into your heart and brain.
  • The setting. The Girl in the Tower evolves brilliantly from the small town setting of The Bear and the Nightingale. Things are no longer exclusively lush and natural and wild – they’re also golden and glittering, bewilderingly human.
  • The relationships. They spark, falter, realign, flourish, and die – believably, joyously, and painfully. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of the best kind.
  • There are consequences. There were points when I worried that everything was all too easy and convenient, but the easiness was snatched away. It was perfectly timed and excruciatingly brutal.
  • Vasya. I’ve read criticism that Vasya is too headstrong, too stubborn, and too selfish. She is absolutely headstrong, absolutely stubborn, and sometimes she’s selfish. That’s the point of the story though, right? She’s growing. She’s learning to balance being resolute in her wants, beliefs, and dreams, and the world(s) she lives in. She’s learning how to navigate herself towards a life of freedom, without veering into selfishness and without harming others. She’s always gone with her heart and gut, now she’ll have to step up and factor in the cool, calm calculations of her mind too. She’s a great and flawed protagonist.

So as you might have guessed, I thoroughly and heartily (right from the bottom of it in fact) recommend this book. And if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale please go read it now. Pretty please. Then read this one. If you like fairytales and wonder and magic, or even just snow and ice and winter, you’ll love the world Katherine Arden has created.

You’ll love it.

Really really, truly truly.

Right, now it’s back to the noises I can’t figure out how to spell.

*Disclosure: I am still completely and utterly book drunk at this point. Mixing bullet points and book drunkeness is not generally advisable.

Camellia Stars

The day was silver; cloud flooded and icy cold.

The ground was speckled white with snowdrops, sometimes pink with cyclamen, sometimes even yellow with daffodils. A great big shiny promise of spring.

Soon. One last winter-soaked breath.

We escaped away from the crowds, away from the drops of snow, away from accidentally photobombing people’s flowery snaps, and wandered into the woods.

Wandering into the woods is always a good idea, despite what the fairytales tell you.

We found no wolves or witches.

Only petals fallen to the path and camellia stars stuck to the sky.

Pink camellias and tree silhouettes in winter.
Camellia stars + naked trees + silver skies

What I’m Reading – The Bear and the Nightingale

The weather for the last week here has been beautiful – sunny and warm, the air filled with bumbling bees and dancing butterflies, the ground bubbling with bluebells. When it has rained, it’s been a gentle rain of blossom trickling to the earth.

And every chance I could snatch throughout the week I was outside in the garden clutching my copy of The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden, being transported to the wilds of northen Russia.

The Bear and the Nightingale book review. Book cover. Folklore, fantasy, fairytale.

The story follows Vasya as she tries to keep her community safe from forces they themselves have awakened after they abandon the old folktales and instead rely on the fearmongering of an ambitious, beguiling priest.

The story brims with creatures and magic – it had me keeping an eye out for Domovoi in the kitchen just how The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe had me checking the back of my wardrobe (plus pretty much any cupboard in the house, just to be sure) for another world.

I absolutely loved it. It’s enchanting, beautifully written, and the creatures and characters – especially Vasya – come alive on the page.

I didn’t really want it to end, so I’m very happy to hear that it’s the first book of a series.

Happy reading and happy Easter!

What I’m Reading – The Faerie Thorn

The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot is a collection of seven short stories inspired by folklore, fairytales and magick. They’re deliciously dark and gruesome – full of faeries, trolls, mermen and maids, shapeshifters, spells, dastardly deeds, bittersweet bargains, nightmarish consequences, and satisfying comeuppances.

I’ve found the stories both enchanting and unsettling. Their short length gives them an addictive energy that’s made a refreshing change – kind of apt at the beginning of springtime – after struggling my way through Dracula.

The style of writing is unlike anything I’ve read before – it has a lyrical, slightly poetic feel to it which I really enjoyed. In my head I felt like I was listening to the stories being told around a flickering fire, sat right forward, barely blinking, hanging on every word.

Captivated.

It’s definitely worth reading. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put it down!

Book review of The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot.