Tag Archive for Harrison Michelle

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

a pinch of magicThere’s a purposeful foggy dark atmosphere to this magical new adventure from Michelle Harrison, award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures, which makes it all the more mysterious and adventurous. Set on a series of fictional islands, often enveloped by a ghostly mist, and surrounded by marshes and rocks with the nearest neighbour an eerie prison, this is a tale of curses and sorcery, of magical objects and imprisonment, and yet through the fog, a tale of sisterhood and teamwork, boldness and bravery shines brightly.

The three Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, dazzle like a ray of sunshine in the mist, living and working with their grandmother in a busy pub. From the rowdy beginning on the night of Betty’s 13th birthday (unlucky for some), she and Charlie are first encountered galloping down the stairs, Halloween costumes billowing, dancing happily. The sisters are bubbly, proactive protagonists, particularly Betty, the novel’s focus, and she’s an absolute gem of a heroine. On her birthday, Betty learns that her family is cursed, and she endeavours to break the curse and set them all free.

The three sisters each possess a magical object that has been passed down to them through their family heritage – a carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror – all of which they can use to help break the curse. In children’s literature there are many enchanted objects that have a role in directing plot or character, and the more ordinary the object, the more exciting their magic. A wardrobe perhaps (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), a ring (Lord of the Rings), or a mirror (Snow White). Here, the bag feels Mary Poppins-esque, and does indeed go deep. The mirror may be seen to be vain, but holds power, but Betty’s object is the wooden nesting dolls – which have always felt slightly spooky and enchanting to me – the hidden quality, the addictive nature of lining up the seams.

Harrison has great fun weaving the objects’ magic abilities into her narrative, but the bulk of the plot centres around the strangely powerful and dark prison. Believing a prisoner holds the key to breaking the curse, Betty endeavours to bargain his freedom for the answer, only to discover that it’s very easy to make mistakes on a prison break. With a delightful cast of prison villains, shadowy wardens, and suspicious townspeople, the atmosphere simmers with menace.

To embellish the story, and the atmosphere, Harrison has a special attachment to names. The three sisters live in The Poacher’s Pocket on the isle of Crowstone. Their surname, Widdershins, means to go in the wrong direction and is considered unlucky. Crowstone belongs to the Sorrow Isles, among which are the isle of Repent on which lies the prison, and the isle of Lament with its graveyard. These small details punctuate the text providing atmosphere and portent.

But with three intrepid brave girls working together, a rat called Hoppit and a cat called Oi, the darkness of the setting is always going to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the girls’ inner natures – their ability to help others when necessary, pull together in times of conflict, and use their wit and intelligence to break their curse. Harrison writes with more than just a pinch of magic – this is a compelling magical adventure that spellbinds the reader into believing in a whole other world, and understanding that envy, betrayal and prejudice are the real evils, whereas foggy marshes and spooky crumbling prison towers are merely landscapes.

A rich, charming tale for ages 9+.

Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

Winter Magic curated by Abi Elphinstone

winter-magic

Since the publication of the Mystery and Mayhem (Crime Club) children’s stories anthology, I’ve been looking for another book of short stories for children that really hits the mark in the same way. Luckily Simon and Schuster publishers, together with the esteemed children’s author Abi Elphinstone, have crafted a truly marvellous collection in time for Christmas.

The collection is magical in many ways, firstly of course, because it is packed with wintry stories, bound in the most beautiful egg blue fabric cover, complete with snowflakes and wintry trees, so that it feels like a Christmas gift, but also because the stories themselves are penned by a distinguished group of children’s authors, from Michelle Magorian – author of Goodnight Mister Tom, to Lauren St John, Berlie Doherty, Geraldine McCaughrean…and so many more.

The anthology kicks off with Emma Carroll’s beautiful historical tale of a Victorian frost fair, incorporating some magical realism, and a beautiful frozen Thames river. Carroll’s writing is always transportative, easily leading the reader into the past and creating a swirling atmosphere of bustle and intrigue. It’s a short story that’s both perfect escapism but also brilliant for teaching – and a wonderful start to the book.

Michelle Harrison takes inspiration from her longer novel, The Other Alice, to write a fairy tale about a stolen voice. Harrison has an immense talent for weaving an emotive atmosphere in the shortest passages, leaving the reader tingling with a sense of magic.

Woodfine borrows from a ballet long associated with the time of year – The Nutcracker, which has its own connotations of darkness and light, sugar plums and Christmas gifts. Marvellously, she evokes the warmth and nostalgia of Christmas, using a Russian setting to take the reader back in history to the first performance of the ballet. It’s a lovely tale, and well worth re-reading with the same zeal with which one re-watches the ballet each year.

Further in, there’s a beautiful poem about snow by Magorian, which pictures a child looking out onto a snowy landscape. Pure childhood delight.

In between there are tales of sneasles: a magical tale of the outbreak of snow measles involving elves; a brilliant boarding-school adventure from Lauren St John; new twists on The Snow Queen and Pied Piper; and a cautionary tale from Piers Torday about Christmas wishes and gifts.

Elphinstone herself brings up the rear with her usual affinity for bravery in the face of adventure, with a magical tale about a snow dragon.

Although there is a winter theme running through the collection, each author has their own unique style and imagination, so the reader really gets a feel for their writing as a whole. In this way, it’s a great sampler for each author, leading the reader to explore more books from the stories they most enjoyed. Personally, I couldn’t pick a favourite – this is a wonderful collection from a talented bunch.

The stories are for confident readers, but for this family time of year, they are also perfect as bitesize chunks to read aloud to a young family. My other delight about bringing together talent in this way, is for teachers to be able to teach a full story text, rather than just an extract. Many of the stories within this collection lend themselves to that.

There are eleven stories in all, each one perfectly crafted, each one a great taster for its author. The overall feel is one of snowy landscapes, magical witches, wishes and wolves, with families, fairies and fireside glows.

Featuring stories by Michelle Harrison, Piers Torday, Lauren St John, Amy Alward, Katherine Woodfine, Geraldine McCaughrean, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Magorian, Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone.

You can buy it here.

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.