Book Review: The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

As a reader and writer, I am constantly searching for the book. Something I can become obsessed with, that will inspire me and make me feel alive. Most of the books I read I enjoy, and write positive reviews of and maybe recommend to people. And that’s fine, but after awhile I begin to crave something more. Something so that when a friend asks me what to read next, I immediately scream in their face and rave about THE book they have GOT to buy and will adore because it’s amazingly special and beautiful and ahhhh the feels!! *rolls around on floor squealing* You get the picture.

Unfortunately, these books are few and far between. But that just means that when you find one, it’s all the more precious.

Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl

When I picked up The Wild Girl, I was expecting to like it. I liked Kate Forsyth’s other fairy tale based novel, Bitter Greens, and was eager to find out about this Dortchen Wild whom I had never heard of before. It never even crossed my mind that it would turn out to be one of those books…

The Wild Girl destroyed me, in the best way. The way that only books can. It made me cry, laugh, want to curl up with it in bed and also throw it across the room. It refused to let me stop turning the pages (apart from when I had to go and get tissues!), and had pulled me into Hessen-Cassel before I even had time to protest. Not that I would have done, anyway!

Part of The Wild Girl’s charm is that it is mostly a true story. Dortchen Wild and her family lived next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, the now world-famous fairy tale collectors. Many picture them as travellers, scouring the country for stories. But in reality, they were poor and initially struggled to gain  interest in their collection. Most of their stories came from reading groups composed of their friends.

Whilst the Grimm Brothers are well documented, little is known about Dortchen Wild apart from that she told them some stories and eventually married Wilhelm Grimm in 1825. By writing The Wild Girl, Kate set about changing this and giving this fascinating woman a voice. In doing so, she has unearthed an epic and little-known love story. For the first time, the Grimms have been portrayed as real people, instead of just household names and old scholars. I have to say, it was very brave of Kate to undertake the task of turning Jacob and Wilhelm into characters. It’s always difficult to fictionalise real people, especially when they’re so illustrious. But she does one hell of a good job! That’s got to be some sort of writer achievement unlocked.

Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl

Dortchen’s and Wilhelm’s relationship feels very natural, showing Kate has taken great care to portray it. The idea of meeting in secret and falling in love by telling stories has got to be the most romantic thing EVER. And knowing that it literally happened makes it all the more poignant.

The Wild Girl is not just a story. It is a story about stories, and ways they relate to real life and can be used to explain it. A variety of fairy tales feature, both well-known ones such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ and also more obscure ones like ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ and ‘The Maiden With No Hands.’ Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but think that Kate must have had fun deciding which ones to use and where to place them. In certain parts, the tales Dortchen tells reflect her own life so much it’s heartbreaking. Moreover, it’s not essential to go into this book knowing a lot about fairy tales. It’s nice if you can recognise them, but if you can’t then you can still understand the symbolism and you get to discover new tales!


Even I didn’t recognise every fairy tale used, which resulted in me hunting down a copy of this as soon as I finished reading:

Jack Zipes The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm
Newly translated by Jack Zipes: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, containing all the stories from their 1812-1815 publications.

The work Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did is inspirational, and they didn’t even know it at the time. They just wanted to collect stories; a noble pursuit in any context if you ask me, but because of them hundreds of fairy tales have been preserved and disseminated. Where would the world of folklore be without these? Maybe someone else would have eventually recorded them instead, but that’s not the point. The Grimms were the ones and I’m glad that their story has been brought to life in such a beautiful way. Behind every fairy tale are its tellers, a fact which is often overshadowed by the tales themselves.

My only grievance with The Wild Girl is that towards the end, the pace speeds up considerably. It feels like it’s rushing towards the conclusion, when there are sections which it would have been nice to have a bit more detail about. This contrasts with the earlier parts of the novel where the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It provides a strong insight into the time period and culture of Hessen-Cassel, but it is much slower so when suddenly things go quicker it’s a little jarring.

However, the slow start means there is plenty of time to get emotionally invested. As a result, I spent pretty much the entirety of the last 60 pages in tears. Another writer achievement right there!

One final thing I will say is that The Wild Girl contains themes may be uncomfortable for some readers. For example, war, sickness, and sexual abuse. None of this is endorsed, but it is present. Also, I definitely wouldn’t say that any of this content is a reason to not read the book.

The Wild Girl weaves fairy tales, reality, and love into something so deep and profound that you won’t ever want to leave it alone. From looking at the Goodreads reviews, literally all of them are 4 or 5 stars so clearly it’s not just me who was enchanted. If you want a book to lose yourself in and restore your faith in love, then this is it.

You can find out more about Kate Forsyth and the work that went into The Wild Girl on her blog. I also recommend you check out her other fairy tale inspired novel Bitter Greens, which is just as amazing! My review of that is here.

 

Book Review: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End is a YA retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ When a princess is born, the king and queen hold an extravagant party to celebrate her name-day. In every town of their kingdom, lots are drawn to decide who will attend. Far from the palace, out in the country, a young girl called Katriona is chosen. She makes the long journey, but returns with more than she expected. After the evil fairy turns up and curses the princess, in an attempt to keep her safe she is secretly entrusted to Katriona’s care.

Spindle's End Robin McKinley

Princess Rosie grows up ordinary. She cuts off the beautiful hair her fairy godmothers gave her, and refuses to engage in any of the activities they blessed her with a talent for. She is kept ignorant of her heritage, until her 21st birthday approaches and the curse begins to catch up with her. Rosie, Katriona and her family, their friends, and an assortment of helpful talking animals set out to thwart the curse and prevent the evil fairy, Pernicia, from destroying the kingdom. But Rosie isn’t sure that she wants to be the princess, or if their plan be enough to save them all.

Sounds good, right? I thought so too. Until I started reading it. Now, to be fair, to this book isn’t awful… I managed to get to the end of it, which is something. And I have most definitely read a hell of a lot worse. But, putting the things I loved about it aside, Spindle’s End has some MAJOR issues.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Let’s start positive. I’ll talk about the things I loved first. 

The world McKinley creates for this story is one of the most intricate I have ever encountered. She spends a lot of time filling in details – the geography, what the weather is like in certain areas, what kinds of plants grow, and how the natural supply of magic affects everyone and everything. These establish a strong sense of place. I could feel the world as I read; it was tangible, and I was there. Although, in places there was also an overabundance of description which I felt slowed the story down. There’s a fine line between fleshing out a setting and spamming readers with irrelevant information, and McKinley just about manages to stay on the right side of it. However, with all the random information she took the trouble to include, you would think she could have at least given the world a name. But oh no. Every time the phrase ‘in that country’ was used I wanted to scream.

The thing I loved most about the world Spindle’s End is set in is that McKinley clearly thought about the impact the events in the story would have on it. Other versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ focus on the main characters and their motivations and reactions to the curse, but in this book the repercussions are felt throughout the kingdom. Animals pass on the story of the lost princess they must protect from evil, people speculate about Pernicia’s whereabouts, and the curse itself is almost a character, slowly draining the life from the land and its inhabitants. One of the biggest effects the curse has is to alter the way spindles are made. In an effort to prevent Rosie from pricking her finger, needles are discarded. Spindle ends become shorter and fatter, and carved with elaborate designs. People go into business making spindle ends, and they become regarded as an art form. As well as a very appropriate title for the novel! 

Now for the not so positive stuff…

The writing style. The first half of this book is literally all telling, which needless to say I found pretty dull to read. Whenever I picked it up I was full of hope that something would happen, but little did so I’d get bored and try again later. During this part of the book time also skips backwards and forwards quickly without warning. At one point Rosie goes from being 16 to 18 years old in the space of a paragraph. I wouldn’t mind so much, but with all the telling and random details about the world thrown in Rosie hasn’t actually done much by this point. Then two years of her life get thrown away, just like that. This puts a great distance between the reader and characters. Plus, with all the telling, I felt that their relationships to one another were under developed. Readers are constantly being told how they are, that Rosie didn’t like this and didn’t do that, and Katriona liked these people and wanted to do this & that, without getting the chance to find it out for themselves. It felt quite patronising.

Once Rosie finds out she’s the princess, everything changes. Suddenly stuff is happening; the plot finally begins, as though it’s been patiently waiting for its chance to take over. It’s like a different book! I got hooked then. One particular plot point I saw coming a mile off is that Rosie and her friend, Peony, swap places. Peony becomes a decoy princess, and their lives become magically intertwined as a way of trying to confuse the curse. Even though I guessed it, I still loved the idea. I loved how Rosie and Peony almost become one person, and that the princess is both and neither of them at the same time; an entity hovering between them as they hide from Pernicia. Hats off to McKinley for doing something completely new with the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ I was excited to see how things would turn out after this. With such a crucial event, such potential created, such mystery waiting to climax, I thought that perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps this would turn out to be a bombshell of a book after all.

Sadly, no.

When Pernicia makes her curse, she specifically says that ‘on her one-and-twentieth birthday she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel; and this prick will cause her to fall into that poisoned sleep from which no-one shall rouse her’ (she also says that the curse could come into effect at any time up until her one-and-twentieth birthday, but according to Katriona’s aunt she only said this to scare people because magic doesn’t work like that in ‘that country.’ How it does work is never mentioned, though. Woohoo).

So, what do the royal family and all the citizens of ‘that country’ go and do? Arrange a 21st birthday party. To be held on the princess’ birthday. Y’know, the exact day Pernicia said she would fall into a poisoned sleep. And they all think it’s fine, because the princess is still alive to turn 21 so Pernicia has failed already.

Why hold the party on the day of the curse? JUST WHY?! Didn’t you listen when it was cast? Clearly everyone in ‘that country’ is a moron. So, they have a party, and the party attracts Pernicia. She conjures up a spinning wheel with a needle and Rosie is like ‘oh, that’s a funny shape for a spindle end, I must take a closer look.’ But Peony beats her to it. But that’s okay, because this was the plan all along. Confuse the curse, and it won’t take effect. If Peony pricks her finger, it won’t harm her. But it does! Peony falls into the poisoned sleep! I’d be willing to let this one go on the grounds that her and Rosie’s lives had been previously entangled by magic, but then everyone else falls asleep as well! Apart from a fairy called Narl, who is also Rosie’s lifelong friend. Apparently the sleep didn’t get him because he’s a blacksmith and metal blocks magic… or something like that, to be honest I didn’t really get it (plus it’s later revealed that the sleep curse is extra effective on fairies, furthering the this-makes-no-sense argument). And the only person he can wake up? Rosie.

WHY? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!

Rosie is the one the curse was targeting in the first place! Surely she should be the hardest to awaken? Why can she wake up from the spell when no-one else can? We never find out.

So okay, we’re hitting the climax of the story here. Narl and Rosie run off to find Pernicia, assisted by a group of talking animals. Firstly, they have to break through the rose bushes which have grown up to protect the sleepers – a nice touch, nice nod to the original story. The animals are pretty cool too, full of personality and a good addition to the story. Although I had no idea why or how they suddenly became magical.

Now, Pernicia lives in a floating castle, which is in no specific location. In ‘that country.’ Narl, Rosie, and the animals get there by jumping over the rose bush… Don’t even think to ask how they do that, because it’s not explained. They just jump, and suddenly they’re there. Pernicia sends minions after them, but the animals take them out with a little help from Narl’s spell casting skills (which are also not explained). The castle itself they squeeze until it falls apart, using a hair transformed into a rope by Narl. Seems legit. In fact, this whole section of the book resembles an account of someone’s acid trip, but I went along with it still hoping that the final showdown with Pernicia would finally offer explanations.

Erm, still no.

The castle collapses. They all make it back to the ballroom filled with sleepers. Rosie and Pernicia become locked in a deathly battle whilst Narl watches helplessly, wishing he could do something. Well, it turns out he doesn’t need to. Because a bird (called a ‘merrel,’ which I don’t think even exists) flies down from the ceiling, grabs Pernicia, and shoves her into a hole in the floor which is conveniently opened up by the suddenly sentient ballroom. There is then some sort of earthquake, and the hole is filled trapping Pernicia inside. That’s it. Climax over.

I’m not even sure what to say about this… Give me a minute.

A bird. A freaking bird?! Pernicia is meant to be super powerful. Her curse has tormented ‘that country’ for 21 years, and not even the finest magicians and the most reputable fairies together have been able to stop it. But a single bird can, apparently. Lesson to all fantasy writers out there: If your main protagonist is in a sticky situation with an evil sorceress, bring on a bird! Problem solved!

I almost threw the book across the room. This seems like a major cop out. It’s also not feasible that someone with so much power cannot make their way out of a hole in the ground. Okay, if she had fallen down a canyon lined with spiky rocks, poison, and flamethrowers or something more elaborate she might have a bit of trouble. But a regular hole under a ballroom? Seems a bit fishy. So okay, moving on from what it possibly the most disappointing final battle in the history of anything ever, Pernicia is gone. Everyone starts to wake up, because presumably her curse disappeared with her (we’re never told exactly). Everyone apart from Peony (and again, we’re never told why exactly). Peony is woken up by Narl, Rosie, and Katriona placing a spindle end on her chest & putting their hands over it. Then Rosie kisses her, and in doing so passes on her part of the princess. Excellent twist on the whole ‘true love’s kiss’ thing, but I don’t understand why any of this wakes her up.

Peony becomes the princess, as she is more suited to it than Rosie who just wants to resume her ordinary life. So in this respect, the ends of the story are tied up fairly well. Except for one final thing which irritated me: Rosie marries Narl. Remember all the telling I mentioned in the first half of the book? Well, somewhere in that it’s announced that Rosie suddenly realises she is in love with Narl. We never get to see this, we’re just told. And I can’t help feeling that it’s a little creepy… Rosie has been friends with Narl since she was around four years old. He’s significantly older than her, and helped look after her and watched her grow up. I find it difficult to believe romance would have grown between these two under such conditions. Maybe if McKinley had shown us their relationship develop it would have been more credible, but as it is it just appears out of nowhere and feels really random.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I didn’t hate it, but I was extremely disappointed with it. McKinley makes some wonderful innovations on the story, and has such a good setup. Her world and characters are well fleshed out, but the way she presents the story robs it of a lot of its potential. The ending doesn’t deliver enough, and way too much is left unexplained. I can’t help feeling like I’ve only been told half a story. This is an interesting take on Sleeping Beauty, but all of its issues make it fall short. I’m glad I read it, and it’s provoked several thoughts of things I can consider for my own retellings. Like having a random villain-defeating bird. Or not.

 

Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Last year I began to feel as though I was inhabiting a literary desert. Of the many books I read, nothing grabbed me enough to warrant recommendation. I wanted something to restore my faith in the power of stories. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth was that book.

Kate Forsyth Bitter Greens

‘Rapunzel’ is one of favourite fairy tales. I have encountered so many versions of it that I thought I had seen everything, until I picked this up. The tagline says it all: ‘You think you know the story’. Well, think again. Even the most avid folklorists could not predict the plot twists and beautiful, extra details given here. Kate has taken the classic tale and made it her own, fleshed it out, and given it new meaning. It’s so much more than just a girl locked in a tower, it’s about redemption, love in its many forms, and the acutely human fear of passing time which all of us can relate to. A beautifully woven three-strand narrative follows Rapunzel, the witch, and one of the real-life tellers of the tale, Charlotte-Rose de Caumount de la Force, making it informative as well as fantastical.

It is one of the great mysteries of literature, how Charlotte-Rose came to know Giambattista Basile’s tale ‘Petrosinella,’ published many years before she wrote her own version entitled ‘Persinette.’ Kate offers a plausible explanation for this in the form of a nun at the Abbey of Gercy-en-Brie, where Charlotte-Rose was sent after being exiled from the court of Versailles by King Louis XIV. Readers discover the stories of the girl in the tower and the witch who put her there at the same pace as Charlotte-Rose, creating scandalous cliffhangers that make you keep reading.

The main characters are unquestionably alive throughout, despite each of their stories vastly differing from one another. It is easy to identify with them all, and the triple narrative is not at all confusing. In particular the witch, named Selena Leonelli, comes across strongly. Whilst not presented as the most desirable person, her motives are clear and I found myself sympathising with and hating her at the same time. Few writers can create that contrast effectively, and Kate is definitely one of them. Selena’s ambiguous personality makes her exciting and controversial; a great discussion point for book clubs.

Whilst it is somewhat of a fairy tale, Bitter Greens is definitely not for children or even the lower tier of the young adult genre. Many of the themes and issues raised, such as religion, politics, and prostitution, place it firmly in adult fiction. But overall, this is a seductive read which fans of both historical fiction and fantasy will not be able to resist. Kate has also written another fairy tale novel called The Wild Girl, which I have reviewed here. I highly recommend this one, too!

You can find out more about Bitter Greens and the research Kate carried out for it on her blog.

 

Book Review: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

For some reason, when I edited my blog this review disappeared. Can’t have that, since it’s my favourite book EVER. And I mean EVER EVER EVER, out of ALL THE BOOKS. EVER. So, I’ve written this new review. Which is actually borderline incoherent gushing about witches and Scotland and all of the awesomeness that this book has.

On the surface, Witch Light appears to be a historical novel. It takes place in Scotland in 1692, in the aftermath of the Glencoe Massacre. So it is based on real events, and most of the people in it are people who really lived.

In a prison cell in Inverary, a young girl named Corrag is being held for witchcraft. But that’s not all — she was also a witness to the massacre, and had her part to play in the gruesome event.

Charles Leslie, an Irishman trying to uncover the truth behind the massacre, visits Corrag to interview her. She agrees to tell him what happened on the night of the massacre, but only if he will listen to the rest of her life story first. Leslie reluctantly agrees. What follows is a story so wise, humble, and heartbreaking that it obliterates any preconceptions you may have when you initially pick up this book.

Also, just a note before I continue: Witch Light has also been published under the titles Corrag and The Highland Witch. So if you see them all, don’t get confused. They are the same book.

I’ve always been drawn to stories about witches (maybe because I’m certain that I would have been burnt as one back in the day…) I picked this up and thought ‘ah, witches. Magic, then. Some history, cool.’ Two chapters in and I knew I’d gotten way more than I bargained for. This is more than a story about the massacre, or about witchcraft. It’s the story of a girl, who loves and learns and follows her heart. The prose style is bold and charming — okay, a little heavy going at first until the novel settles in to Corrag’s life story, but once it gets there then it takes off and that’s that.

Glencoe Massacre Monument
The Glencoe Massacre Monument. Image my own.

The novel is narrated alternately by Corrag and Leslie, through letters he writes to his wife back in Ireland. This works well, because it offers two sides and in particular, two impressions of the label ‘witch.’ Obviously ‘witch’ was a dangerous thing to be called in the 1600s. As a religious man, initially Leslie is all for burning Corrag at the stake. But as he discovers more about her, his opinion begins to change. He comes to realise that Corrag is a human, and that ‘witch’ does not take that away from her. From Corrag’s point of view, we hear about the prejudice she and her mother face. Judgment is thick is this novel, with undesirable words like ‘whore’ and ‘hag’ following closely behind ‘witch.’ I think this an important aspect, as it implicates society for branding people unfairly. Because Corrag is seen to fit the criteria for being a witch, therefore she is also a whore and a hag because that’s just how witches are thought to be. But, reading her story, we can clearly see that she is neither.

Corrag’s narrative voice makes it very easy to identify with her. I don’t think I have ever connected with a main protagonist as much as I did with her. Her outlook is simple and optimistic, and she values little things like the wind blowing off the sea and how a wolf sounds when it calls. She also has feelings which are easy to relate to — loneliness, fear of pain, longing, and affection. Once in Glencoe, she gives the mountains her own nicknames which really brings the place alive. Regarding setting, I have to say that it’s pretty spectacular. I mean, come on. A place which looks like this is just BEGGING for a story.

Glencoe Scotland
Glencoe Pass by Andi Campbell-Jones

In fact, once I finished this book I lent it to my mum. Once she had finished it, she came rushing into my room and we shared this look that said ‘damn, now we have to go to Scotland!’ Proof of this book’s power right there — if makes you enthusiastic about a 10 hour car journey then it must be good. And we actually did go!

Dad found a little cottage in Glencoe to rent for a week, and when we got there we mentioned Witch Light to the owner. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically, and then told us that Susan Fletcher had rented the same cottage and lived in it whilst writing the novel. Cue the biggest fangirl freak-out of my life!

This is the cottage – the little bit of the house on the right. It had a log fire, deer came into the garden, and we got to look out of the window and see the mist on the mountains every day! Image my own.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this book. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I fell completely, totally, and irrevocably in love with it. I’m ending my review here because I can’t think of coherent words to explain how amazing it is. Just please, go and find out for yourselves. I think that everyone can get something out of this story. If you like historical fiction, you should read this. If you like witches, you should read this. If you like words and paper in general, you should read this. You get the picture. Witch Light defies all genres and definition. Corrag’s words will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page and nestled the book onto your shelf.

To end, here is my favourite quote for a little taster:

‘Your heart’s voice is your true voice. It is easy to ignore it, for sometimes it says what we’d rather it did not – and it is so hard to risk the things we have. But what life are we living, if we don’t live by our hearts? Not a true one. And the person living it is not the true you.’

For more information about Susan Fletcher, Witch Light, and her other books, you can follow her on Twitter @sfletcherauthor.

Also, I’m curious! I’ve said this is my favourite book, and it is (along with a couple of others which destroyed me around the same amount) If you had to pick just one or two books to be your favourite, could you do it? Why would you choose them?