Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Dreamsnatcher Blog Tour: The Tribe’s Guide to Not Dying in the Forest by Abi Elphinstone

The Tribe’s Guide to Not Dying in the Forest

I thought about having a go at writing this blog post but then Moll told me to shut up because I’m not technically in The Tribe so there’s no way I could know anything of real importance about forest survival. I tried to point out to Moll that in a way I created The Tribe but she was having none of it, and so before she had a chance to set Gryff on me, I decided to hand over to her…

Introducing Moll – outside her wagon

MOLL: If you haven’t already formed a gang or a club or a secret society, you probably should – especially if you’re planning on Not Dying in the forest. We invented The Tribe a few years ago. At first it was just me, Sid and Gryff – then when we let another member in coz he proved good at picking locks and riding cobs. Most of the time we break rules, avoid chores, tell lies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do brave things like rescuing trapped otters and mending owl wings. But the first thing we did was to learn how to get by in the forest – how to build shelter and hunt for food – so if you’re keen on staying alive when you’re out in the woods, it’s probably worth listening to us.

First thing: the den. This is VERY important – for meetings, sleeping and generally keeping out of the way of camp chores and witchdoctor chants. The Tribe has a tree house (we call it a tree fort coz Sid says it sounds better) and it’s perched half way up a yew tree – coz every gypsy knows the spirit of the yew grants protection against evil spirits.

Abi’s brother in their childhood den (not as good as The Tribe’s Tree Fort)

Oak, the head of our camp, helped us make the tree fort, and this is how we did it:
  1. Gathered up as many planks and slats of wood as we could find 
  2. Found a big old yew tree that had a space large enough for a tree house in the middle of its branches. I also checked there was a good swooping branch for Gryff so that he could hang out near us but keep a bit of distance to be all wild and free  
  3. Hauled the planks up into the tree (this was the hardest part, mostly coz Sid kept giggling half way up about Porridge The Second, his earthworm, tickling him inside his pocket)
  4. Hammered nails into the biggest planks to fix the base to the tree first. Then we made the sides and the roof with the smaller slats. We left a hole for a window (so we can spy on stuff down in the glade), and Mooshie, that’s Oak’s wife, leant us some fancy lace to hang over it as a curtain
  5. Collected old jam jars to go in the fort and filled them with funny-looking mushrooms, weird ferns, giant nettles (we tried to pick ALL of these so Mooshie won’t use them to make her disgusting nettle soup) and smooth pebbles for catapulting annoying people
  6. Hung wind chimes from the branch under the fort to ward off evil spirits (then I added a dreamcatcher coz I figured the bright feathers might put the evil spirit in a better mood if it did chance on passing our way). We also hung some other good luck charms to help protect our fort from witchdoctor badness: nails dangling from string, bits of mirror stuck into branches, lemon peel tucked into the hollows and a fox tooth in a jam jar by the trunk of the tree

Abi’s Dad cutting down hazel in a Scottish wood for Moll’s catapult

After we built the tree fort, Oak taught us how to hunt. And it’s a good job he did – coz recently Mooshie and me worked out that most of my bad decisions happen when I’m hungry. So to avoid bad decisions, here are The Tribe’s key tips to finding food in the forest:
  1. Know how to make a fire. Find a flat area in the forest, dig a circle a few centimetres deep and round enough for your fire (about 75cm). Surround the area with dry rocks to box in the fire. Gather dry twigs, leaves and kindling from fallen branches – birch bark is a good fire starter. Build a small, loose pile of kindling inside the stones and make sure there’s space for the air to feed the fire. Make an inwards tepee of dry twigs and small sticks around and above the kindling pile. Then add to your fire with bigger logs to keep it burning. Remember to put the fire out after you’re finished with it as that can lead to all sorts of annoying problems 
  2. Make a catapult. Find a Y-shaped piece of wood (hazel or ash is usually the best as it’s strong), carve it down to shape so that the central base fits into the palm of your hand, use a penknife to make a grove round each of the Y prongs, bake it in an oven for 15 minutes to make the wood stronger, coat it in varnish then fit a strip of strong, thick elastic with a leather pouch in the middle of it over the prongs. Then just find a stone and you’re good to go. I reckon I’m probably the best in The Tribe at catapulting, but Sid’s not bad, and I suppose Gryff is pretty good at hunting and he doesn’t even need a catapult. We get pigeons and rabbits mostly – then we cook them on the fire
  3. Tickle a trout. Wade up the river feeling underneath the banks for resting trout. Using one hand, work your fingers from the trout’s tail upwards, gently rubbing its belly with the tips of your fingers so that it goes all still and trance-like. Once you reach the head, grip hard, lift fish out of the water, cook it on the fire. YUM
  4. Munch some berries and nuts. Look out for blackberries late summer/early autumn as well as plums, damsons, wild strawberries and raspberries which you’ll find growing in hedgerows. And you can’t go wrong with chestnuts – gather a handful from the ground in Autumn, use a penknife to cut away the shell then roast them over the fire. They taste good dipped in salt
Moll’s catapult (carved by Abi – not that Moll said thank you…)

You should be all right in the wild. I mean, sheltering from the rain and finding food is a walk in the park compared to what I got landed with. Annoyingly there aren’t that many rules on how to avoid witchdoctors and their deadly Dream Snatch. But still, I’ve got my catapult – and that’s a start…


Big, big thanks to Moll (and Abi) for guesting on The Book Zone today. The Dreamsnatcher is published on 26th February and you can follow Abi on Twitter where she goes by the name of @moontrug.

Monday 23 February 2015

Review: Vowed by Liz de Jager

A Blackhart can see the supernatural behind everyday crimes. But some crimes hide even greater evils . . .

Kit Blackhart must investigate why children are disappearing from a London estate. Their parents, the police and Kit's fae allies claim to know nothing. And as more children disappear, the pressure mounts. Luckily, or unluckily, government trainee Dante Alexander is helping Kit with the case. Yet just as her feelings towards him begin to thaw, his life falls apart. As Kit struggles to unravel Dante's problems and solve their case, she meets fae Prince Thorn in her dreams - but their relationship is utterly forbidden.

Then Kit digs too deep, uncovering a mystery that's been hidden for one thousand years. It's a secret that could just tear down our world.

Time is tight at the moment due to my involvement in getting the Middle Grade Strikes Back project up and running, so please forgive me for copying/pasting the following disclosure from my review of Banished, the first book in Liz de Jager's Blackhart Legacy trilogy: "as long time readers will know, Liz de Jager is a good friend of mine, and Liz acted as a kind of mentor for me when I was first started blogging. All of this means that this is a very difficult review to write as I need to make sure I retain objectivity, and please believe me when I say I am not a sycophant, for the main reason that Liz was string me up and subject me to every kind of pain possible if she thought I was writing a positive review just because I am a friend."

Over the past few months I have mainly been reading middle grade fiction, but Vowed has been sitting on my TBR pile glaring at me, demanding to be read. Truth be told, I finally picked it up because of my friendship with Liz as although I enjoyed Banished, all these months on I did not feel invested enough in the story to promote Vowed straight to the top of my TBR pile. This is no reflection on the quality of Banished or its story, but more my general feelings towards YA at this moment in time. And now I'm regretting my lateness to the Vowed party - I bloody loved it and I just couldn't put it down.

One of my issues with Banished was the character of Prince Thorn, and in my review I mentioned that I didn't find him particularly believable. Thorn takes very much of a back seat in Vowed, and I do wonder whether this contributed to my enjoying this installment more than the first. In his place, as the potential 'will they?/won't they?' love interest for Kit is new boy Dante Alexander, a young member of the government's 'spook squad'. Even though he starts off as a bit of an arrogant shit at the beginning of the book, as the story progresses Dante becomes gradually more likeable, and there is more than a hint of mystery surrounding Dante's background and character. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Vowed is as much Dante's story as it is Kit's. Fortunately, Aiden is still on the scene, and Kit's continued platonic friendship (a rare thing in a YA urban fantasy story) with the werewolf, a high point of the first book, is developed even further.

Liz de Jager's considerable knowledge of British and European mythology and folk tales is even more evident in Vowed than it was in Banished, as is her love for her adopted city of London. These elements of folklore are so well woven into the story that it is nigh on impossible to determine which are from legend and which are the fruits of the writer's considerable imagination. At times I found myself having to resist from picking up my phone to access Wikipedia to look up a particular reference, and instead had to make a note to check things later. The author also teases her readers with her characters making off hand remarks about previous undocumented events, and also other aspects of the world she has created' leaving us with a feeling that she has so much more to offer beyond this planned trilogy.

Like its predecessor, Vowed has some cracking adrenaline-fuelled action sequences, although they take something of a backseat in this episode. In fact that where I felt that Banished was very much an action urban fantasy story, Vowed is more of a detective/crime story rooted in the author's urban fantasy world.

I gave Banished four stars on Goodreads, and as I enjoyed this book even more I just ahd to give it five. However, it is not without fault and so the rating is actually a rounded up 4.5 stars. There were a handful of plot threads that were left dangling, which is understandable given that this is the second book in a trilogy, but for me a few of them felt that their lack of resolution felt unnatural and not in keeping with Kit's character. My other issue comes about more because of my friendship with Liz de Jager: at times Kit's voice (and occasionally that of some of the other characters) just seemed far too much like that of the real life author (both spoken and her 'twitter voice'). Liz is a self-confessed and proud geek, and in my opinion there were a few too many references to geek culture inserted into the dialogue of Kit and some of the other characters, and at times these jarred with me as I didn't feel that they were necessary or added to the humour in the dialogue in any great way.

Vowed has a little something for everyone - fantasy, action, mystery and plenty of thrills. I just hope that when Judged, the concluding part of the trilogy, is released in November someone will point me back at this review so that I don't leave it unread for quite as long. Looking at my middle grade heavy TBR pile it might be one of the few YA books I read in 2015.

Monday 9 February 2015

Guest Post: My Magnificent Seven Animals in Children’s Books by Abi Elphinstone

It is with great pleasure that today I am welcoming Abi Elphinstone to The Book Zone. Abi is the writer of the brilliant The Dreamsnatcher, which I reviewed last month, and also a fellow lover of middle grade books which she blogs about as Moontrug. Abi has joined us today to tell us about her favourite animals in children's books.

My Magnificent Seven Animals in Children’s Books

1. The Whereabouts Wolf in The Black North by Nigel McDowell. One of my favourite heroines, Oona, is given a Whereabouts Wolf to carry her away from danger: ‘a creature flecked with filth and reeking of the wild’. A Whereabouts Wolf has no eyes – Oona must simply whisper where she wants to go and the wolf will take her there. So when Oona says ‘take us to the middle of nowhere,’ that’s exactly what the Whereabouts Wolf does. I want one…

2. Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. One of my favourite childhood memories is watching the BBC adaption of this brilliant book around the fire with my siblings at Christmas. The opening theme tune conjures all the magic of my childhood and I fell asleep every night after listening to it imagining I was riding through Narnia on Aslan’s back. I liked the way Aslan was kind and loyal – that he never let the Pevensie children down – but that he was unpredictable and wild as well, as Mr Beaver said: ‘He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion’. And that’s kind of how I imagine magic to be. 

3. Iorek Brynison in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This was a tricky one. Whilst Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, remains one of my all-time favourite characters, there is something about this ‘outcast bear’ who rises up to be a mighty ice warrior, willing to protect Lyra against the slightest harm. And nothing beats the wonder of imagining Lyra riding Iorek across the Arctic ice plains.

4. Wolf in Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. Torak’s bond with Wolf is one of the most well-drawn, touching and believable child-animal bonds in children’s literature. Wolf begins as a reticent, playful cub but as he takes up his place as Torak’s best-friend and ally, he becomes a brave, loyal and fierce wolf. And the closing chapter of this book shows the wolf-boy bond in a heartbreakingly beautiful way.

5. The White Pigeon in The Last Wild by Piers Torday. This little bird is basically ME in pigeon form – a misdirected ball of enthusiasm, often saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. His malapropisms are laugh-out-loud funny and hopelessly confused lines like ‘Here is your gift – some old sheep’ and ‘Not a bad-looking fat bird yourself’ cement this little chap as a truly memorable character. And it’s comforting to find someone else (even if this someone is a fictional pigeon) whose words tumble out all wrong – because I stutter and mix up words quite a lot, especially when I’m nervous.

6. Saracen in Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. Without doubt the most amusing goose in children’s books. Owned by the feisty Mosca Mye (‘I want my chirfugging goose back!’), Saracen makes a star appearance at the beast fight disguised as King Prael’s Star-crested eagle. Brilliantly funny.

7. Snow Leopard in The Snow Leopard by Jackie Morris. In a world where we move at 100mph through almost everything we do (yesterday I was moving so fast I ran full pelt into a glass door), the Snow Leopard draws you away to a half-forgotten world of peace and silence. The illustrations of this big cat are mesmerisingly beautiful and snow leopards remain one of my all-time favourite animals.

It was so hard to pick just seven animals for this blog post. I mean, I could have gone on for ages about Joe (from The Diddakoi), Hazel (from Watership Down), Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Charles Scallybones (from A Boy Called Hope), Havoc (from The Burning Shadow) Tarka The Otter, The Ugly Duckling and, ummmmm, one more animal I’m very fond of: Gryff, the wildcat in my debut, The Dreamsnatcher. He is fearless, loyal and patient and although he is by nature a solitary animal full of secrets, he forms an extraordinary bond with Moll, a twelve-year-old gypsy girl. And that’s kind of cool.


Super huge thanks to Abi for writing this for The Book Zone. The Dreamsnatcher is due to be published on 26th February, and it's flippin' brilliant.