Eloise and the Bucket of Stars by Janeen Brian

eloise and the bucket of starsTitle: Eloise and the Bucket of Stars

Author: Janeen Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Publisher: Walker Books Australia

Published: 1st June 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 240

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: Left in a pail at an orphanage as a baby, only something magical can save Eloise from a miserable life and give her the one she’s always dreamed of.

Orphaned as a baby, Eloise Pail yearns for a family. Instead, she lives a lonely life trapped in an orphanage and made miserable by the cruel Sister Hortense. Befriended by the village blacksmith, Eloise soon uncovers some strange secrets of yesteryear and learns that something terrible may be about to happen to the village. As troubles and dangers mount, she must learn who to trust and choose between saving the village or belonging to a family of her own. Unless something truly magical happens…

  • A powerful tale of how magic weaves its way into the real world.
  • Explores themes of belonging, what it takes to be a friend and what constitutes a family.

~*~

Eloise has spent her whole life in an orphanage run by the cruel Sister Hortense. Sisters Genevieve and Bernard, Sister Genevieve in particular, try to help Eloise, and make things a little more bearable for her. Eloise has never been adopted – trapped in a cruel place that doesn’t value her. Her only place of solace and friendship with the local blacksmith, and his horse, Dancy. Her lessons with Sister Genevieve are cut shortly after Janie Pritchard, a newly orphaned girl arrives. At first, Eloise wants nothing to do with her, but the two soon become friends, and start to unravel the mystery of the poisoned water, and the unicorn stories that Sister Genevieve has told them.

Eloise wants a family more than anything – but Sister Hortense has a secret that has prevented this from happening and will do anything to punish and break Eloise, making her watch the Littlies get adopted and leave the orphanage with new families, and punishing her when she starts to look happy. But with a curse threatening the village, and whispers about men wanting to hunt the unicorn for their own gain. What will Eloise sacrifice to save the unicorn and her village?

Eloise and the Bucket of stars is a charming, delightful and magical story – set in an orphanage during Victorian times, it shows the hardships faced by orphans, and the treatment they received in places like the orphanage Eloise lived in. It also shows how harmful beliefs can be when taken to the extreme and the lengths people like Sister Hortense will go to protect dark secrets – even from those they work with, just to make sure they’re not outed as what drives her to punish Eloise.

AWW2020At its core, this is a story about friendship, being yourself and family – and what makes a family. How does someone like Eloise find a family, and find love, when every time she finds herself in a place where she is happy, it is taken away from her. The world is shown through Eloise’s eyes – and you truly feel for her. Eloise drives this story, and it is slow and lyrical on purpose – we’re meant to feel the drudgery and frustrations of Eloise’s daily life, and her feelings of hopelessness. It is gentle yet when action is required, it happens when and where it needs to.

Family and friendship are strong themes here, where the characters let their individuality, and bonds of friendship shine through the uniformity that Sister Hortense forces upon them. Sully, the cook, is one of Eloise’s friends. Everyone can see how Sister Hortense treats Eloise – but what will make her realise she needs to stop?

This tender story is about finding family and following your heart, and never giving up on your beliefs or compromising for anyone. Staying true to yourself and your dreams is a message at the core of this novel, and it moves gently and eloquently through towards this goal. It is one of those novels that demands time be spent with it to take everything in and let it sink in properly, following Eloise on her journey – the physical journey to get water every day and her own inner journey to finding family and friendship. It is Janie who sparks this journey and what will happen in the second half of the novel, and Janeen has created a beautiful story that will be beloved by many for years to come.

I loved this book – it evoked the same sense of wonder that The Secret Garden did all those years ago, with an orphaned child discovering magic beyond what she could ever imagine in a mundane world that didn’t appreciate her at first. Orphans are common in children’s literature and dealing with them in gentle ways, and each story is of course different, and this one had a sense of magic and wonder about it that many don’t, which is what made it so special and why I really enjoyed it, and hope that younger readers do as well.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, MinaLima Design (Illustrator)

alice in wonderlandTitle: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Author: Lewis Carroll, MinaLima Design (Illustrator)

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: HarperCollins Australia

Published: 21/10/2019

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 320

Price: $39.99

Synopsis: Lewis Carroll’s beloved classic stories are reimagined in this deluxe illustrated gift edition from the award-winning design studio behind the graphics for the Harry Potter film franchise, MinaLima-designed with stunning full colour artwork and several interactive features.

Originally published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s exquisite Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass have remained revered classics for generations. The story of Alice, an inquisitive heroine who falls through a rabbit hole and into a whimsical world, has captured the hearts of readers of all ages. Perhaps the most popular female character in English literature, Alice is accompanied on her journey of trials and tribulations by the frantic White Rabbit, the demented and terrifying Queen of Hearts, the intriguing Mad Hatter, and many other eccentric characters.

Lewis Carroll’s beloved companion stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are reinvented on one volume by the talented design firm MinaLima, whose fey drawings of some of Western literature’s most famous characters will delight and enthrall, In addition, they have created interactive features exclusive to this edition, including:

  • Alice with extendable legs and arms
  • The rabbit’s house which opens to reveal a giant Alice
  • The Cheshire cat with a pull tab that removes the cat and leaves the cat’s grin
  • A flamingo croquet club that swings to hit the hedgehog
  • A removable map of the Looking Glass world

This keepsake illustrated edition-the sixth book in Harper Design’s series of illustrated children’s classics-will be treasured by for years to come.

~*~

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have been enjoyed by readers all over the world since their publication in 1865 and 1871 respectively, and began what is now known as the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, where books for children moved away from didactic religious and educational tracts, and into a world of fantasy and imagination, of nonsense and fairies, and characters who did the most unimaginable things as they moved between the real world and worlds of fantasy and imagination, doing things they’d never have done prior to Alice entering the world.

Originally, the first time Alice was published, Sir John Tenniel illustrated the books, and these will always be my favourite illustrations for this book – so far, no others have come close. These are the ones cemented in my imagination. However, the MinaLima Design book is exquisite and fun – its interactivity and bright colours make the story just as engaging as the Tenniel illustrations and for me, come a very close second in my favourite depictions of Alice. Whilst there is a whimsy in the Tenniel ones, these ones have a bigger sense of the nonsensical aspect of Wonderland, and what it brings to the world of children’s literature.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are two books that have been loved for over a hundred years, never out of publication, and loved for many reasons. It is their nonsensical nature that is appealing, as it draws the reader into a world where anything can happen, and where nothing makes sense, even as Alice tries to make sense of it. Things get more and more ridiculous as time passes, and as she meets each character from the Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter and the chess game in Through the Looking Glass.

Where most editions have standard illustrations – either in black and white or colour, depending on who the illustrator or illustrators are – this edition has colourful illustrations on each page, as well as interactive elements – a growing Alice, maps, a Humpty Dumpty that can be revealed by sliding a tab, and many more that make reading this edition a bigger adventure than reading any other edition. It makes it fun, and I admit that I did savour this edition for this reason – so I could enjoy every aspect of it, whereas reading my original Tenniel illustrated one would be devoured within a couple of days.

This is perfect for all ages – to be read to, or read alone, and to share with people of all ages this Christmas and beyond. This is a story that has a special place in the history and creation of the world of Children’s Literature, and is one I could probably write an essay on. I loved this edition and these MinaLima editions are beautiful.

 

The Starthorn Tree (The Chronicles of Estelliana  #1) by Kate Forsyth

starthorn treeTitle: The Starthorn Tree (The Chronicles of Estelliana  #1)

Author: Kate Forsyth

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

Published: 1st May 2002

Format: Paperback

Pages: 500

Price: $16.95

Synopsis:

Under winter’s cold shroud, the son of light lies.

Though the summer sun burns high in the skies.

With the last petal of the starthorn tree

His wandering spirit shall at least slip free…

Nothing can save him from this bitter curse,

But the turning of time itself inverse.

The young Count of Estelliana lies sleeping as still and cold as if he was dead. His mysterious slumber has subjected the people of his land to the harsh rule of Lord Zavion, the cold and ruthless Regent.  But when Durrik, the son of the town’s bell-crier, involuntarily prophesizes the count’s death before the entire starkin court, he catapults himself and his best friend Pedrin into the adventure of their lives.

Pursued by starkin soldiers, they must seek refuge in the Perilous Forest, home to the dangerous and unpredictable wildkin. It is only when they are forced into the company of the spoilt starkin princess, Lisandre and her servant-girl Briony that they begin to realise the meaning of Durrik’s riddle. But if they are to waken the count and save their people, they must survive the hazards of the forest where the sinister Erlrune of Evenlinn awaits them…

~*~

The Starthorn Tree was one of those books I just happened to stumble across at the age of sixteen during a visit to the big three level Dymocks in the city. I was looking for something new to read when my eyes fell on this book in the children’s section. It was the first Kate Forsyth book I picked up, and had an autographed edition sticker on it – my first for both, and as I found out from Kate over the weekend after showing her a picture, it is also a first edition – I will be hanging onto this one!

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The Starthorn Tree begins with Durrik and Pedrin listening to orders from the bell-crier, set forth by the Regent for the coming summer for all boys their age to help build a tower. But during a dinner at the palace, Durrik has a vision of the death of the count, stuck in an everlasting sleep in the palace, unable to be awoken by any remedies. He has been struck down by the same mysterious drink that took the life of his father and several others. Fleeing their home, Durrik and Pedrin soon stumble across Lisandre and Briony – and together, they venture deeper into the Perilous Forest, searching for a way to save Lisandre’s brother, the count. But with Zavion’s spies after them, and danger looming from the wildkin – can the four children – a combination of starkin, wildkin and hearthkin, find a way to work together and save their beloved country?

With each of her novels, Kate Forsyth works fairy tale motifs into them. Towers, those stuck in an enchanted sleep, princesses, and many more to create her stories. Drawing on this rich and diverse fairy tale history, she creates worlds like Estelliana that are captivating and when reading, it feels like no time has passed and as though you are within the story itself, so it felt like the pages just flew by. In this one, she sets everything up well, and the journey is both exciting and filled with peril, creating a fantasy world that has everything from Australia’s master storyteller. The amount of fantasy novels written by Australian authors has boomed since 2002 – but Kate Forsyth’s Starthorn books and her Eileanan books are the first ones I remember seeing, buying and reading – though I am sure there were others. It was these books that were my gateway into Kate Forsyth’s books and works as a whole, and I have a great many on my shelf today.

I could not put this one down and am starting the second one as soon as I am able to over the next few days. This was Kate’s first book for children as well – so many firsts with this book for her and me – which makes it really special. I am keen to see where The Wildkin’s Curse takes us – and how things have changed in Estelliana since Durrik, Briony, Pedrin and Lisandre’s original journey.

The Silver Well by Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins

the silver well.jpegTitle: The Silver Well

Author: Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins

Genre: Historical Fiction/Short Stories/Fantasy

Publisher: Ticonderoga Press

Published: 22nd November 2017

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 263

Price: $30.00

Synopsis: The Silver Well marks a milestone achievement for two best-selling legends of Australian fantasy, having both published their first novels in 1997. Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins have teamed up in this collection of 7 incredible stories, all original and never-before published.

One English village. Two thousand years of stories.
People have always come to make wishes at the Silver Well: in Pagan times and Christian, during revolution and war. When Rosie arrives in the tiny village of Cerne Abbas with a broken heart, she becomes connected across the centuries with others who have yearned for something. Seven stories, set in seven time periods, reveal the deepest longings of the human heart.

  • Prologue – The Wishing Tree
  • The Blessing
  • My Sister’s Ghost
  • The True Confession of Obedience-to-God Ashe
  • The Cunning Woman’s Daughter
  • The End of Everything
  • The Giant
  • Epilogue – The Past is Not Dead

“One tale at a time, Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins immerse us in the fabled waters of Cerne Abbas, plunging us deeper and deeper into the lore of this village, further and further into its past. Here we meet a cast of characters whose lives span two millennia–charming artists and shopkeepers, forsaken lovers, cunning-women, severe Puritans, proud warriors, shell-shocked soldiers, bereft parents, fierce and fragile children, and many generations of Brightwells. Across the ages we hear their carefully hidden thoughts. Their worries and fears. Their hopes and losses.” — From the introduction by Lisa L. Hannett

~*~

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In 2017, Rosie Brightwell arrives in Cerne Abbas following being left at the altar. Here, she meets Isobel at the markets, and a young man, who begins to tell her a series of stories going back through the years and centuries, back two thousand years, going backwards in time from the Second World War to 44 AD, all centred around the same village and well.

Each story is linked by the village, the well, and the women of the Brightwell family. From artists, to warriors, shopkeepers, and lovers. To a Puritanical story where the family is hauled into the world of the witch trials. Throughout the stories, the village grows, but as they cleverly move backwards throughout time, it feels like as a reader, you are an archaeologist, peeling back the layers of time, century by century, and across one thousand years. It is as though with each layer of the archaeological site, such as at Knossos or Troy, new secrets are revealed and linked to what is already known, until the origins look as though they might be discovered, and they are each told in first person as the ancestors and layers are uncovered and revealed, and Kate Forsyth and Kim Wilkins have brilliantly crafted this selection of short stories, invoking history, magic and fantasy, linked together by one family, and it is Rosie’s opening and concluding stories that connect the centuries and years together, solving a mystery she never thought she had as she talks with the mysterious young man who tells her about the Brightwell family.

The one story not told from a female perspective, but still linking the village of Cerne Abbas with the other stories is My Sister’s Ghost, narrated by Joseph. This one is a little less clear on the Brightwell connection, but it is still there, in the background as Rosie digs and finds out about the village. My Sister’s Ghost has a larger paranormal element than the other stories and revolves around a family tragedy that eventually connects to the Brightwells, but in a less obvious way than the other stories. Nonetheless, they are all connected by people and place, and this is what makes them work together as each historical layer is revealed, as though through a time machine or archaeological dig.

This is Kate Forsyth’s fortieth book, and the thirtieth book for Kim Wilkins. I’m more familiar with Kate’s work, but the seamlessness of the stories shows that Kate and Kim work well together and have carefully crafted each story so they not only flow into and towards each other but are also their own worlds and stories within a larger one. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the magic within the stories. It is a wonderful addition to my Kate Forsyth collection, and one that I definitely hope to revisit sometime.

The Nutcracker by Alexandre Dumas

the-nutcracker.jpegTitle: The Nutcracker (Barnes & Noble Leather-bound Pocket Editions)

Author: Alexandre Dumas

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Publisher: Barnes and Noble Inc/Fall River Press

Published: 1st September 2018

Format: Leather bound

Pages: 152

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Discover the real story behind the Disney holiday film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and the famous Nutcracker Christmas ballet, as told by Alexandre Dumas

‘How could you imagine, silly child, that this toy, which is made of cloth and wood, could possibly be alive?’

The nutcracker doll that mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer gives to little Marie for Christmas is no ordinary toy. On Christmas Eve, as the clocks strike midnight, Marie watches as the Nutcracker and her entire cabinet of playthings come to life and boldly do battle against the evil Mouse King and his armies.
But this is only the start of the tale.

Read on for enchantment and transformation; enter a world by turns fantastical and sinister, a kingdom of dolls and spun-sugar palaces, and learn the true history of the brave little Nutcracker.

~*~

The Nutcracker is one of those stories that is inexplicably linked to Christmas, whether it is the E.T.A Hoffman version, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, one of the many movie adaptations, including the upcoming Disney film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and finally, the version being reviewed here, by Alexandre Dumas, who also wrote The Three Musketeers. Marie, or Mary as she is referred to in this version, is given a nutcracker doll for Christmas by Godfather Drosselmeyer, but unlike her doll, Clara, is magical, and when the clocks strike midnight on Christmas Eve, Marie watches the Nutcracker and her dolls come to life, battle the evil Mouse King, and take Marie/Mary on a journey through a world of magical dolls, and sugar-spun palaces, and many more realms that show the fantastical and sinister world that the Nutcracker is truly a part of.

The Nutcracker is one of those stories – whether in the written form, a movie or as the ballet – that is quintessentially linked with Christmas, much like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and the associations with a world of magic and toys often sung about in a myriad of Christmas songs, and is one of those stories that sets the mood for Christmas perfectly and nicely. Originally published in 1847 as The History of a Nutcracker, this new edition introduces people to the Nutcracker anew as they go in a journey with Mary/Marie (depending on which translation and author you read) through the world that the Nutcracker, the toys and the Mouse King inhabit – a magical world of wonder and joy, where Mary/Marie is destined to help the Nutcracker bring order back to the world and kingdoms she enters in her dreams.

For a long time, I only knew of the Nutcracker as a ballet by Tchaikovsky, and have the score, or at least, the main piece of music, somewhere. I also knew about it from a movie I once saw, so when I found it as a novel, I knew I had to read it, and I was not disappointed. It really sets the mood for Christmas and is entertaining – though Mary is admonished for staying up after midnight on Christmas Eve, it is the magic of the world Mary/Marie enters, and that the reader enters too. Reading this book has really put me in the mood for Christmas and the new Nutcracker movie coming out later this month, just in time for Christmas.

I’m getting ready to do some Christmas reading of other books and the usual movies, but read this one early so I could see the movie after reading it. I look forward to seeing the movie and reading this book again soon.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

sealwoman.jpgTitle: The Sealwoman’s Gift

Author: Sally Magnusson

Genre: Literary, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette/Two Roads

Published: 13th February 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A woman’s story lost from history – in 1627 Icelandic islanders were abducted and sold into slavery in Algiers; but what happened to the women and children and, specifically, to the pastor’s wife?

‘A remarkable feat of imagination… I enjoyed and admired it in equal measure’ Sarah Perry, author of THE ESSEX SERPENT

In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards. It was a time when women everywhere were largely silent.

In this brilliant reimagining, Sally Magnusson gives a voice to Ásta, the pastor’s wife. Enslaved in an alien Arab culture Ásta meets the loss of both her freedom and her children with the one thing she has brought from home: the stories in her head. Steeped in the sagas and folk tales of her northern homeland, she finds herself experiencing not just the separations and agonies of captivity, but the reassessments that come in any age when intelligent eyes are opened to other lives, other cultures and other kinds of loving.

THE SEALWOMAN’S GIFT is about the eternal power of storytelling to help us survive. The novel is full of stories – Icelandic ones told to fend off a slave-owner’s advances, Arabian ones to help an old man die. And there are others, too: the stories we tell ourselves to protect our minds from what cannot otherwise be borne, the stories we need to make us happy.

Icelandic history has been brought to extraordinary life..An accomplished and intelligent novel’ Yrsa Siguroardottir, author of WHY DID YOU LIE?

~*~

1627, Iceland. A remote island is ravaged by Barbary pirates, and 400 Icelanders were taken captive, and transported to Algiers, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, to be sold into slavery to sultans and council members and their families, and into harems or to whomever can pay the right price. Families are ripped apart, children taken from their parents. Many die in the coming days and weeks from fevers and diseases they’ve been isolated from on their island. Ásta is separated from her eldest. Egill, and her husband, Ólafur, and it will be almost a decade before she is reunited with her husband. Her younger children, Marta and Jón are able to stay with her – though the slave master’s whims must be met swiftly, and without questioning. As Ásta and her fellow enslaved Icelanders await a ransom payment, they do their best, and what they can to survive. Ásta finds solace in the Icelandic sagas she heard as a child, and eventually, the tales of Scheherazade and the Arabian nights. Time passes, and she begins to question where she came from, and who she is as she uses the Icelandic sagas to tame her master and calm herself. hoping one day for freedom, a freedom that could come with a price she may never forgive herself for paying.

The clash of Icelandic and Arabic culture and religion are a shock to Ásta, who watches as the other enslaved women who survived the journey and initial few days and weeks take on their new culture to fit in and survive, and as her children take on the religion of the enslavers and have their entire identity reshaped. It is a story about slavery, yes. It takes an instance of slavery that I had previously not known about. The image most people have of slavery is linked to colonisation, and The American Civil War – but there are many stories of slavery, of the worldwide slave trade that are not always spoken about. Like other slave masters, Cilleby tries to justify the actions of the Barbary pirates by saying it had been done to other groups before, suggesting that throughout human history, all groups at one stage or another have tried to enslave each other for their own purposes and power. I found this to be quite interesting, and it embarked on a journey for Ásta of survival and love for her children, and a longing to be home. It speaks to the pain of being ripped away from all you know, from home and family, and displaced in an alien world that does not feel so welcoming to you. The raw feelings of Ásta’s isolation come through explicitly and clearly for the reader, as does her horror at the way the other women she came over with so willingly take to the life they’ve been forced into, take to marrying those who buy them and converting to Islam because it means freedom from being a slave – her horror at turning her back on her own religion and her own family is apparent, and is executed effectively.

Whilst the history of the enslaved Icelander’s becomes the backbone to this story, at the heart is the role of women and their voices, lost in the original sources. Ásta’s name is found in a record of the ransom, but not referred to in the Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egillsson: Captured by Barbary Pirates in 1627, and its translation that the author has referred to. Using the sources available to her and a little creative licence based on these sources, Sally Magnusson has raised Ásta’s voice, and made her the primary story teller through, dipping in and out of other perspectives of the slave owners and Ólafur to tell a well-rounded story about the times and the complexities of human nature. Through Ásta, the life of a slave is revealed, though it is the life of a female slave, unable to participate in certain areas. The trepidation and fear she feels in her new life reverberates throughout, and as she loses herself and loses hope in her own faith and family is eloquently dealt with, and sensitively shown. Each element of the story has been carefully thought out, researched and written to give scope to each of the characters, and reveal their flaws and their positives. They are human, and they show human emotions and are subject to how they feel at the time, and not how people tell them to act or feel. I found this to be very effective and it ensured a story with a decent pace. The settings of Iceland and Algiers are excellent contrasts, the cold and hot, the barren and the lively, and the feeling of home and the different ways each are a home to the characters. Though it shows very strict gender roles. Ásta’s attempts to move out of what is demanded of her but at the same time, use it to her advantage, were written with great detail and interest.

Understanding that slavery has many layers and has affected many countries at different times is something that this book highlights, using an example not often heard about. In the author’s note, Sally mentions that slave trade as happening all over the world at the time of the 1627 raid on the coast of Iceland, that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Telling the diverse stories of slaves and the slave trade shows how vast it was across the entire world, not just the stories and histories we hear about and are taught.

I found it hard to find a favourite part as each section was all so different and each had something I enjoyed about it, though Ásta’s chapters were ones I always looked forward to, and what she did in circumstances she had no control over. It was a great story, and one that shows a different side to the history of slavery and the power of traditional stories and storytelling.

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