“The ghosts of things that never happened are worse than the ghosts of things that did.”― L.M. Montgomery
I really enjoyed this book.
The old saying goes you should never judge a book by its cover, but I have to confess, that I often do – and it actually normally works out in my favour. I regularly pick up a book because I am drawn to the cover artwork – admittedly, I will always check out the blurb too, and if I like the sound of it as well I will normally buy. I’m sure there are books out there with beautiful covers and stinking interiors, but so far this method has worked fairly well for me. The Constant Nymph, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Unforgotten all found their way onto my book shelf because I fell in love with their covers.
This is another one to add to the list. I was drawn to the striking full cover wrap, the slinky fox and personal artefacts hiding amongst moonlit trees. The ‘familiar’ title (I’m so sorry) let me know the subject matter would be up my street, and the blurb reinforced my decision to pop the book in my shopping basket.
The Familiars is an evocative, haunting tale, set upon the backdrop of seventeenth-century industrial Lancashire, and the loosely based on the folklore of the Pendle witches. The place time, and characters are real, though the story is one of Halls’ own – a tale of two women’s fight for freedom in an age of oppression, subjugation and superstition.
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir.
When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
There were two things I loved about this book.
Firstly, the despair – and I don’t mean this is a heartless way at all; I love to be moved by a book. Fleetwood’s anguish was palpable – her fear at losing her child, what this would mean to her as a wife, but also as a mother. The abject terror at having something so personal so utterly out of her control. Combined with this, is the creeping suspicion of her husband. What are his motives? What’s he trying to do? What is his aim? And finally, her utter helplessness when trying to save Alice.
I was anxious for Fleetwood –desperately trying to save her unborn child, and indeed herself, while fighting against the oppressive force of male privilege. Knowing that Alice awards her the best chance of survival and of giving her husband the heir he so desires, but being helpless to save her, bound by the chains of her sex. I felt connected to Fleetwood, a part of her emotions – angry, sad, afraid, anxious, with a final burst of release and acceptance.
I also loved the darker, more mysterious element which emerged through the backdrop of the Pendle Witch Trials. I was drawn into the pages by the secrets which didn’t ever fully emerge: the fleeting familiars in the woods, the oppressive walls of Malkin Tower, the waking nightmares, the unknown horrors in Alice’s prison cell. I like the fact that some questions were left unanswered. Real life is so often mysterious – and though Halls wrote the book to answer some of her own questions, there is much that is left unanswered. This is an open book, for interpretation by the reader.
I’ve been struggling a lot with reading recently, and this book was just what I needed to get myself moving again. It’s engaging, but also easy and enjoyable to read. I consumed the whole thing in a few short days between Christmas and New Year while nursing a particularly fierce head cold. It was refreshing, after a dismal 2019 spent struggling through books I felt I ought to read, to rediscover the delight of a really good book.
I used to pride myself in reviewing every single book I read. When I struggled to find the time to put pen to paper, because I was desperately and incessantly applying for new work, revising for exams, or otherwise indisposed, I diligently stacked all my previous reads aside, awaiting review, as it were.
It took me a long time to shake this habit and to recognise that it is okay to read a book and then put it away, that not everything needs reviewing. While I’m pleased I made this realisation, I can also recognise that recently I’ve gone entirely the other way, and have fallen horribly out of touch with my literary self.
Last year was a particularly bad year for my reading list – though a pretty good year in all other respects. Full time work, marriage, and new, not altogether bad, habits, have somewhat monopolised my diary. And while I still do make time for reading in the hour or so I spend in the bath of an evening – old habits die hard – I don’t ever take the time to share my thoughts anymore.
In 2020, I’d like to make more of an effort to put my thoughts to paper. I’m not one for making grand resolutions that are impossible to stick to – one blog a week is never going to happen so I won’t even think of it. If I can manage one post a month, I’ll have done myself proud. I’ve also recognised the fact that my previous reviews were really long (seriously), so going forward, I am going to try to keep my thoughts to a minimum – concise, to the point, and hopefully worth the read.
I’ll kick things off this month with an amazing book I found, and subsequently inhaled, over the Christmas period – The Familiars by Stacey Hall.
The first in a series of illustrated children’s books, aimed at encouraging children to take an interest in visiting museums, has been launched by an independent group of adventure-seeking artists, just in time for the summer holidays.
Riddle of the White Sphinx is the first of the ‘Hidden Tales’ – a series of adventure stories with inbuilt treasure hunts, where children are invited to trace the journey of characters, follow clues, crack codes and uncover a hidden artefact located somewhere within their city.
More than 300 young bookworms attended the launch event at the Historic Sedgwick museum on 29th June, where they were joined by author Mark Wells, producer Sorrel May and illustrator Jennifer Bell.
Attendees were able to get their hands on a pre-release copy of the book, as well as take part in themed activities and competitions being held across the museum – though many were seen heading into town, eager to get stuck into the treasure hunt.
Speaking about the inspiration behind the book, author Mark Wells said that he hoped the book would instil a “spirit of adventure” in all those who read it.
“When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them,” said Wells. “The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together.”
To find out more about the inspiration behind the Hidden Tales, check out my interview with the author.
The book follows the adventures of two children, Nina and Leo, who discover a dark secret lurking in Cambridge after they hear a mysterious, bodiless voice, calling out to them from a museum exhibition.
The story guides readers on a journey through the city streets, to locate secret portals in seven of the city’s historic museums, identify a trapped historic figure and discover the artefact that binds them there.
Want to know more? Click on the image below to open up a handy Hidden Tales infographic for a rundown of how the book works.
Speaking at the launch event, producer Sorrel May said: “Seeing so many children and their families gather for the launch of the Hidden Tales was a wonderful feeling. The excitement on the faces of the children as they opened up their new books made all the hard work we had put into the project over the last two years feel worth it.”
It’s not just children who couldn’t wait to see what the book had in store, check out my video review below:
The launch was also attended by a small group of lucky ticket holders chosen from schools around Cambridge, who were given a special tour of the Sedgwick with the first clues to the treasure hunt whispered to them over the museum’s audio guides.
“The launch was really fun,” said Kim Wheeler, a trained teacher, and one of the many Cambridge locals who attended the event. “It was great to see so many things for the children to get stuck into, to leave them raring to start the puzzles in the book afterwards.”
“I really love how the clues you need are embedded in the story,” she continued. “It makes you dig deeper and think about the writing more. It would be great for getting children to use their comprehension skills in a really meaningful way.”
If you missed out on the launch, you can still get a copy of the book online or from Heffers bookstore. The Hidden Tales are also planning a series of fun and immersive events relating to the launch throughout the summer – check out the website for more information.
I am delighted to be able to share with you my exclusive interview with Mark Wells, author of the new children’s series Hidden Tales.
The first book in this exciting new series, Riddle of the White Sphinx, was launched on Saturday 29th June in a themed event held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge’s historic city centre.
I caught up with Mark ahead of of the launch to discuss the inspiration behind the book, how the project came together, and more.
Where did the idea for the Hidden Tales come from?
A couple of summers ago, Sorrel and I were sitting outside her mum’s house, chatting about our childhood. We both remembered reading books like Kit Williams’s Masquerade and going on adventures with our friends or exploring different places with our parents and grandparents. Sorrel was worried about the time children spend nowadays in front of a screen and wondered if it would be possible to do a treasure hunt book for children in today’s digital age. A few weeks later, Sorrel came around for a cup of tea to discuss the idea further. In the subsequent months, we kept meeting up in the evenings around the kitchen table to chat about the possibility of turning it into a series of illustrated children’s books. I suggested that it might be sensible to test the idea in one city, like Cambridge, and Sorrel asked if I could come up with a storyline. That was probably the moment when the Hidden Tales was born.
Was it a sudden ‘aha!’ moment, or a gradual coming together of ideas?
After agreeing to come up with an outline, one Sunday morning I left home with a notepad and pen and went walking around the city looking for inspiration. I wandered into a museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child and decided to hire an audio-guide to look around the exhibits. As soon as I put the headphones on, something magical happened. The sounds of the other visitors became muffled, and a disembodied voice began speaking to me about the exhibits around me. And that’s when I thought – what if I was the only person the voice could talk to? And what if the voice was not coming from the headphones but from another entity entirely. A soul, trapped here, hiding from a sinister keeper. A Hidden.
An hour later, I was back at my desk typing away, and I didn’t stop until the early hours when I finally went to bed. The next morning, I read through what I had written, and the hairs rose on the back of my neck. I sent what has become Chapter 1 to Sorrel and asked her to tell me what she thought of it. Later that evening, Sorrel called me back to say she had read it to the girls and they loved it and could I write some more? Each weekend after that I went to another museum and wrote another chapter, sending it through to Sorrel for another reading, and before long we had our first book: Riddle of the White Sphinx.
In your bio, you speak very fondly about your time studying in Cambridge, and, in particular, about your curiosity about the secrets of the older buildings around the city – are there any buildings, in particular, that stand out in your mind as having offered the most intrigue?
There are so many! Everywhere you look in Cambridge there are iron-studded doors, archways or parapets concealing all manner of secrets, while from the rooftops, gargoyles and grotesques watch your every move. In my own college, St John’s, it’s hard to beat New Court with its Eagle Gate and cloister leading to the Bridge of Sighs as a setting for a gothic mystery like College of Shadows – particularly at night with the moon shining through its iron-barred arches. But the Fitzwilliam Museum can look equally mysterious, especially at night when its darkened windows peer out at passers-by like sunken eye sockets.
I understand that you have written several books before now, how has your experience as a writer so far influenced this latest work?
Before coming back to Cambridge, I used to work for Games Workshop, and I loved the dark gothic fantasy worlds of Warhammer. When I left, they published a couple of my short stories set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe before I decided to switch to urban fantasy and set my debut novel College of Shadows, here in Cambridge. Ever since reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of parallel worlds, and when the opportunity came to create one for the Hidden Tales, I took it. The World of Secrets, which is where the Hidden come from, is definitely dark, gothic and mysterious, and it has been great fun imagining a place where those lost souls are trapped.
What did you enjoy most about writing the Riddle of the White Sphinx? Are there any aspects that you didn’t enjoy?
Discovering museums that I didn’t know existed has been brilliant. There are 13 museums in Cambridge, and I visited all of them before focusing on 7 of my favourites for Riddle of the White Sphinx. But to be honest, the whole project has been a joy. Working with the museums, who have been incredibly supportive, local teachers, as well as the rest of the creative team has been wonderful, like seeing the first illustrations come through from Jennifer Bell, our illustrator. One of the most memorable moments was when we applied to the Arts Council to fund the first book, and we received the email telling us they given us the grant. That was special. It has been hard work at times but in a good way.
What would you like children to take away from the experience of reading this book and cracking the codes? Is there any particular message you are trying to convey?
A spirit of adventure. When you open a book or step out your front door, there are so many things to discover – but you have to open your mind to see them. What saddens me is how many people walk around this fantastic city, with their faces buried in a mobile phone, ignoring the buildings and people around them. The Hidden Tales is all about going outside and embarking on a real-life adventure, one where you physically visit places and work collaboratively with others to solve a mystery together. When designing the book, for example, we included a Passport page where you can get your book stamped at each museum. These stamps each contain a word that spell a sentence that will help you find the missing artefact hidden somewhere in the city. We did this to reward those readers who make the effort to go to all seven museums. The true heroes of the tale.
I see from the website that the book has a ‘producer’ as well as an author – how did your roles differ when creating the Riddle of the White Sphinx?
There are so many aspects to the Hidden Tales, it wouldn’t have been possible for one person to do it on their own. If self-publishing an illustrated hardback book wasn’t enough, we always wanted to make the Hidden Tales as immersive and accessible as possible for children and families. This meant taking it into schools, organising events for families throughout the holidays and creating a unique launch event at the Sedgwick Museum in the style and character of the Hidden Tales. Add to that the importance of liaising with the Cambridge museums to ensure the story, illustrations and outreach activities worked for each of the venues was a massive task. Without a producer of Sorrel’s experience and abilities, it would never have happened.
Were there any aspects of writing this book that you found particularly challenging?
A couple of the artefacts and characters from the original draft had to be changed after consulting with the museums. One exhibit, for example, was only on loan to the museum, and there was always the risk that the owner would want it back, which would have been a problem! Another aspect was ensuring the level of difficulty in the clues was sufficiently challenging without being impenetrable. The Hidden language for example, which was designed by Fiona Boyd of the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, is introduced through a series of messages in the illustrations. It took me several weeks to work out how best to reveal the identity of the letters in each chapter. I even went to Bletchley Park to look at some of the techniques that they used to crack ENIGMA to get the approach right.
What stands out to you as the most memorable part of writing this book?
There have been so many, from getting the first illustration through from Jenny to seeing the colour proofs running off the press for the first time at the Lavenham Press. But for me, it was probably my first reading to an assembly hall of children and looking up at the end to see their wide-eyed faces, wholly immersed in the story. For a writer, that makes all the hard work worth it.
Where do you expect the next Hidden Tales adventure to take you?
That’s an excellent question! We haven’t decided yet, but we are open to suggestions. If it works well in Cambridge, we would love to do it in other cities. There may even be a sequel here. The Keeper of Secrets is not going away without a fight!
Is there anything else that you would like say?
One of the features of the Hidden Tales is that it is all produced locally. Other than Jennifer Bell who is based in Nottingham (though she is often in Newmarket teaching equine art workshops) all of those involved in the project live in and around East Anglia. From the Cardoza Kindersley Workshop, the Lavenham Press, book designer, editors, teachers and volunteers, we are all based here. Even the cakes for the launch event came from Fitzbillies!
Riddle of the White Sphinx is available to buy online or instore at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge. If you would like more information on the Hidden Tales including the quest, events, schools programme or AHA! Club (Association of Hidden Adventurers) just visit www.hiddentales.co.uk.
Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to sit and chat with me.
Authors and illustrators Celina Buckley, Jessica Meserve and Puck Koper came together to celebrate the publication of their new books ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’, ‘What Clara Saw’ and ‘Where Is Your Sister?’ at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge on 24th April.
The Cambridge-educated authors and illustrators secured book deals following the successful completion of master’s degrees in children’s illustration at the prestigious Cambridge School of Art.
Their books, which each have something unique and appealing to offer young readers, were launched in an intimate ceremony attended by local Cambridge book lovers, and regulars to Heffers Children’s Bookshop.
I caught up with the authors before the ceremony, to talk about their inspiration for being a children’s book author and, crucially, the advice that they would give to anyone wanting to follow in their shoes.
About the authors and their books
‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Puck Koper
‘Where Is Your Sister?’ by Dutch illustrator Puck Koper is a revamp of the classic children’s search and find adventure – a set of ‘Where’s Wally’ training shoes for the next generation of puzzle heads.
Picking through the colourful madness on each page, readers set out to find Harriet, a young runaway, lost, or hiding, in a manic department store. The madness intensifies on each page, as more and more people join in the hunt, before Harriet is finally reunited with her family.
The book’s author, Koper, an illustrator from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, previously illustrated several children’s books, before writing and illustrating ‘Where Is Your Sister’ as part of an MA in Children’s Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art.
The book is a crafty riot of patterned dots, stripes, squiggles and checks, and was printed using Pantone ink to ensure that none of the colourful madness in Koper’s original illustrations is ever lost during production.
“I loved making the busy scenes,” says Koper, while chatting about the method behind her illustrations. “For example, I have a toy department in [the book], and I really loved to think about what should be there, and who should be there.”
“I have all the characters listed in the endpapers of the book, at the front and the back, so you can look out for them, and check out their little stories and follow them,” she says. “There is actually a thief in the book that you can follow – and as a little clue, he isn’t on the last page, he doesn’t make it to the end.”
The illustrations in Koper’s book are certainly unique, but the author hopes that some Dutch readers might be able to notice one particular illustrator from whom she takes some inspiration – “Her name is Fiep Westendorp, she’s a hero,” she says, laughing.
“Really, I think you get inspired by everything, by movies, by things you see in the street – by people you see in the street,” she says. “My book is filled with people I saw somewhere, matched up with things I saw and people I know – I get inspiration from everywhere.”
‘Where Is Your Sister?’ is published by Pan Macmillan, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.
‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ by Celina Buckley
‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is a beautifully and creatively illustrated children’s picture book which retells an Irish legend about an enchanted salmon with the power to impart all the knowledge in the world to the first person who eats it.
A much-beloved tale among children all over Ireland, the original fable was a childhood favourite of illustrator and author Celina Buckley, from Rylane in County Cork. A primary school teacher by trade, Buckley says that she has always loved art and illustration, but was never sure how to truly develop her passion.
“When I was training to be a teacher, I remember looking through some picture books for teaching practice and I just thought, this is something that I could do, and I would absolutely love it,” she says. “I did the week-long summer class at Cambridge School of Art, and I loved it, and then I applied to do the children’s publishing MA and I was accepted.”
Buckley completed her masters in illustration while on sabbatical from her teaching job – she developed ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ as part of her final project.
“Irish legends are often word heavy, they are mainly text with just a few illustrations, so I wanted to make it into a picture book that younger children could read from start to finish,” she says, when asked about her inspiration for the book.
“This one had a big impact on me when I first heard it. So I decided to start with that story. I would like to do a series of Irish legends – and then write and illustrate my own as well. I want to keep going… and improving,” she says.
A traditional legend that children are sure to love, it is the illustrations in ‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ that really make the book stand out. Buckley used observational drawing to develop her artwork, using collage to build up individual scenes and experiment with colour and texture.
“The forest in the beginning of the book is the forest by my house, and it’s really nice… to draw it from observation, and then to collage it, and then see it in the book – all those places mean something more to me,” she says.
It’s not just the artwork that benefitted from Buckley’s love of collage, as she also created her own font to compliment the book’s interior. Each letter in the alphabet was intricately cut out, before being and scanned in and edited to create a font that is truly unique to her style.
‘The Salmon Of Knowledge’ is published by Starfish Bay Children’s Books, and available to buy online from Amazon and Waterstones.
‘What Clara Saw’ by Jessica Meserve
Taking inspiration from a true story about a unusual relationship between a tortoise and a baby hippo, ‘What Clara Saw’ is a clever and charming tale about one girl’s enlightening trip to a wildlife park, and the lessons she learned from the animals.
Having previously published several children’s books, and illustrated several more, Jessica Meserve embarked on an MA in Children’s Book illustration from Cambridge School of Art in a bid to further develop her artistic personality. ‘What Clara Saw’ was developed as part of Meserve’s final project for the MA.
“I was really inspired by a book [about] unlikely friendships between animals” says Meserve, smiling. “There was this lovely story about… this little baby hippo [that] was taken to an animal reserve [and] became enamoured with a 150-year-old giant tortoise.”
“Scientist always try to say that it is because the tortoise was about the size of a female hippo, or there is some other reason, and I think there are just some relationships that you just can’t explain,” she says. “This is one thing that I wanted to get across in the book.”
“The other thing that I wanted to get across is a celebration of children being able to see these things which adults sometimes over analyse, or try to explain, and children can sometimes see them more clearly.”
One of Meserve’s main passions, she says, is drawing children, and developing her characters based on the ‘quirky’ behaviour of those around her – particularly her own daughters, whose individuality and unique world view are a source of constant inspiration.
“I have two lovely girls of my own, and one thing they struggle with is having differing opinions from teachers, and I really wanted to celebrate children being able to question authoritative figures,” she says.
The ‘authoritative figure’, or ‘bad guy’ in ‘What Clara Saw’ is a primary school teacher – aptly named Mr Biggity. “He’s not really a bad guy,” laughs Meserve, “but he is a little bit narrow minded!”
“I want children to feel like they are allowed to question grownups, and they can make their own judgements about the world. Children’s opinions really matter, and sometimes they can see things much more clearly because their judgment isn’t clouded by what they think they can see.”
‘What Clara Saw’ is published by Pan Macmillan and available to buy from online from Amazon and Waterstones.
I am a little late to the party with this one – but I love it all the same!
It was the cover that first drew me to this book. Some might call it clichéd, a sparse bedroom, complete with gas lamp, lit only by the pale glow of the moon, a wrought iron bed, a tiny, pale figure peeking above the heavy sheets. I think it’s timeless. This is exactly the kind of cover, and theme I would like to have for my children’s book – if I ever get around to finishing it…
I know when the Grotlyn’s been
Slipping through your house unseen…
The Grotlyn is a new(ish) rhyming picture book by lyrical genius and acclaimed children’s author Benji Davies. This is more than a book about things that go bump in the night though, it’s beautifully illustrated, playfully constructed and comes complete with an important life lesson for all children afraid of the dark.
As much as parents might like to try to stop their little ones watching scary movies or frightening YouTube videos, some ghostly goings on in story books is almost like a rite of passage. You know as soon as you see the cover of a creepy children’s book that it’s not going to be ~that~ scary, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of children who own this book were hoping it would be…
The story itself, though short and sweet, is loaded with suspense created by Davies atmospheric Victorian-esque illustrations, and simple, almost creeping, rhyming style. The two combine to create a spooky yet playful scene – a mysterious shadow slinking through the smog slicked city streets, slipping from page to page, raising the neck hairs of all it passes.
This mysterious creature is causing quite a stir among the townsfolk, and has even stolen a pair of PC Vickers’ knickers.
So what could it be?
Don’t worry, the Grotlyn isn’t some horrific Babadook type – and this book is not going to make any little Klaus’s dance with the likes of Freddie Krueger. As the, equally magnificent, trailer for this tale so cleanly alludes:
But what at first we think to be
The eye does blindly make us see.
So don’t be scared to sleep – to dream!
For things are not quite what they seem.
Rest easy with the knowledge that the creeping, crawling, knicker-stealing culprit in the story poses no harm, and will be easily, and perhaps hilariously, revealed to be something much less scary than the name ‘Grotlyn’ conjures up.
I can say no more.
I don’t like to judge a book by its cover – but I 100 per cent did with this one and it completely paid off. I won’t be gifting my copy of this book to any little people, quite simply because I want to keep it for myself. That said, I think that ‘The Grotlyn’ is the perfect book for sharing with little ones who like a thrill.
A very short introduction to a very big subject, Big Data: A Very Short Introduction by Dawn E. Holmes is arguably the most topical of this book series. Big data is everywhere, and not just in the sense that it is constantly being gathered and amalgamated to carry out all manner of market-based and statistical analysis – it is also an immensely overused buzzword, present everywhere from the daily news to popular culture, and all points between. This very short introduction is perfect for anyone who is a little bit baffled by the very concept of big data. Holmes introduces the subject in a format that is both concise and manageable, drawing on the fields of statistics, probability and computer science to illustrate the power of big data in everyday life, the associated security risks of such information falling into the wrong hands, and the issues surrounding the use of big data by companies and businesses today.