Title: Withering-by-Sea (A Stella Montgomery Intrigue #1)
Author: Judith Rossell
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Publisher: ABC Books/HarperCollins Australia
Published: 19th August 2019 (First published 2014)
Synopsis: WINNER ABIA BOOK OF THE YEAR FOR YOUNGER READERS
‘Fans of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events will eat up Withering-by-Sea’
— Shelf Awareness
High on a cliff above the gloomy coastal town of Withering-by-Sea stands the Hotel Majestic. Inside the walls of the damp, dull hotel, eleven-year-old orphan Stella Montgomery leads a miserable life with her three dreadful Aunts.
But one night, Stella sees something she shouldn’t have … Something that will set in motion an adventure more terrifying and more wonderful than she could ever have hoped for …
Discover the gorgeously illustrated series that’s loved by tens of thousands of readers!
Withering-by-Sea (Book 1)
Winner — 2015 Indie Awards, Book of the Year: Children’s & YA
Winner — 2015 Australian Book Industry Awards, Book of the Year: Older Children
Winner — 2015 Davitt Awards
Honour Book — 2015 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards
Shortlisted — 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards
Shortlisted — 2014 Aurealis Awards
Shortlisted — 2017 Australian Book Design Awards
Orphan Stella Montgomery lives with her three aunts – Aunt Condolence, Aunt Deliverance and Aunt Temperance in an old hotel in Withering-by-Sea. She’s never known anything else but being expected to live up to what feels like their impossible standards. The novel starts with Stella exploring the conservatory of the hotel as the Amazon, when she meets Mr Filbert, a guest, who later passes something onto her to take care of, and from here, Stella’s adventure begins as she tries to discover what she has been given, and why someone is trying to take it away. Why did someone want Mr Filbert dead, and who did it? What is the secret that her aunts are keeping from her about her mother? Stella is encouraged to remain quiet, never ask questions and above all, become a polite young lady who will be an exemplary member of society.
But no matter how hard Stella tries, she cannot make the aunts happy – but why would she want to, when they’re always being horrid to her, and punishing her whenever they get a chance? It is when Stella meets Ben and Shadow that things start to change, and she is suddenly on the run, and trying to uncover a mystery. I love mysteries – all kinds of mysteries and there are many ways to write them for all age groups and readerships. With its fantasy setting, and magic infused mystery, it is a great way to introduce middle grade readers who enjoy mysteries to younger readers, and even as an adult reader, I found myself swept up by it and loved reading it. I cannot wait to get the next two books and find out what happens next with Stella and hope that we get to see Ben and Gert again, as well as several other characters who had an awesome role in the story. I’d love to see them appear again to help Stella or for Stella to help them. Also, it has an abundance of singing cats, and who doesn’t like singing cats?
Stella’s adventure is filled with magic and danger – but not too much danger and is set in a time that evokes a Victorian sense of time and place, which contributes to the magical sense of this book and the characters that populate this novel. In a world where girls are trained to do certain things, and where they are expected to fall in line, characters like Stella and Gert flout the rules and turn the whole world upside down, proving that they are just as capable of the boys. There is a delightful twist at the end that has a fairytale feel to it, as does the whole novel, which makes it very exciting and interesting to see how various fairy tale tropes and characteristics have found their way into children’s literature today. Having won many awards, I can see why this book won them – and as it begins a series, it answers enough questions to wrap the first book up but at the same time, leaves enough unanswered that readers will want to read the next book to find out what happens and get those answers. There is at least one that I wonder if is going to be a thread throughout the series and will be revealed at the end.
Overall, I loved this book. It is probably one that I would have loved to have read as a kid, and it seems like many of the books and series I am discovering these days for middle grade are what I would have enjoyed. Australian authors are bringing out some brilliant middle grade books at the moment and I’m working on reading any that grab my attention. Looking forward to more about Stella!