Friday 30 October 2020

The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

For two hundred years, on a small island just outside Oxford, the Kendrick family have been making exquisite dolls. As each is finished a hex is placed on it, giving it an emotion, from terror to bliss, which can be felt by anyone who touches the doll. It's a close-knit family business, with few outsiders allowed to join (and they are usually marrying into the family) The placing of the hex is a closely guarded secret even within the family, one which, although the company was founded by women, is now guarded by the men of the family; women may design and build houses and sets for the dolls but only men are 'sorcerers' allowed to fix emotions in the dolls.

Into this tight community comes a young man, Larkin, claiming to be a descendant of one of the founding sisters. He too is a maker of dolls, and now wants to claim a rightful place in the family business. Unusually for the Kendrick family, he's accepted on trust and given a position in the company, though no access to the vital magic that makes a Kendrick doll unique. His presence soon causes stirrings in the quiet lives of the Kendricks' world. Persephone Kendrick believes the dolls she creates are as beautiful as any made by the men, but as a woman she's not allowed to make 'Kendrick's' dolls but is relegated to the shop. Through Larkin she sees a way out of her stifling circumstances; a chance of a life where she can follow her ambition to create dolls of her own. 

Meanwhile a valuable irreplaceable doll is stolen, and only a family member with a knowledge of their magic could have executed the theft. There are various suspects, including Persephone's father, but most of the extended family seem happy to blame the fabled 'thief on the winged horse' - a magical character deemed responsible for much of the good - and ill - fortune of the Kendricks. 

I loved this book, from its magical elements to its all-too-real family rivalry and jealousy. Two elements lie at its heart - the daring theft, and the upheaval created by Larkin. At first he seems to slide smoothly into the family's way of things, but soon it's apparent that his arrival has caused a ripple-effect bringing long-held discontents to life.

With its mix of family secrets, betrayals and love, the tracking down of whoever committed the theft, of  Persephone's determination to challenge the status quo and follow her dream, there's something for almost everyone. This isn't 'fantasy' as such; the influence of 'magic' is slight, and for me the appeal was in its characters and their loves and deceits. The characters are well-drawn and realistically brought to life (more so then even a Kendricks' doll), while underpinning their action and the story is a knowledge of human frailties and desires.


Wednesday 21 October 2020

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

 Growing up in a small Ugandan village in the seventies, Kirabo's world is far removed from modern 'western' life. Her father, Tom, and Aunt Abi visit from the city but life at home in Nattetta is still strongly traditional, following a way of life that has remained largely unchanged. Tribal hierarchies are still firmly in place, with men in charge as the owners of the land and animals which represent wealth, but the women still tell stories, passed through the generations from mother to daughter, of when they were as powerful, if not more so, than men. Kirabo wants more from life than her village can offer, and when her father sends her to boarding school she looks well on the way to achieving it, but two things still unsettle her - the identity of her unknown mother, and her love for a village boy, Sio.

The First Woman is a coming of age tale with strong themes of women's friendship and independence. It's one of those titles that you start out assuming it refers to the heroine, Kirabo, but could equally belong to others - the Ugandan version of Eve in the creation myth, Kirabo's mother (as the mother of Tom's first child), Nsuuta the first love of Kirabo's grandfather, or the country's first female president ( a role Nsuuta believes Kirabo could achieve). As the titled is multi-layered, so is the story itself.

 The story centres on Kirabo, on one girl finding her own way to adulthood, and understanding her place in the world by discovering both her past through her mother's identity, and that of her family through the friendship and rivalry of grandmother Alikisa and the 'witch' Nsuuta. On the side though I learned a lot about Ugandan history - from the influence of missionaries, Idi Amin's dictatorship and the war which ended it, to its culture and traditional way of life, and the conflict, at both a personal and wider level, between that culture and the new 'modern society' of the cities.

I hadn't heard of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi before I caught her event at this year's online Edinburgh Book Festival. Hearing her talk about and read from The First Woman, I decided to track it down and explore more by this author billed by the festival as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. I'm really glad I did.

Maryom's review -  5 stars
Publisher - Oneworld Publictions 
Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction, African fiction 

Friday 9 October 2020

World Burn Down by Steve Cole

 illustrated by Oriol Vidal

Carlos is at home, impatiently waiting for his mum to return from work, when door of his flat is broken down, and he is kidnapped. His mother's job with IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental Authority, involves protecting the Amazon forest from illegal clearing by farmers or miners, and her actions have annoyed some very ruthless men. Carlos is taken far into the Amazon forest where his abductors plan to hold him to teach his mother a lesson, but an accident gives him chance to escape. He isn't safe though as fires are raging out of control all around him. Will he be able to outrun them? or will he find himself running straight back into the clutches of his kidnappers?

This latest book from well-known children's author Steve Cole is a fast-paced adventure set against a backdrop of the destruction of the Amazon forest. Primarily it's an action story, with Carlos attempting to escape his captors, but seeming to run from one danger straight to the next. Behind the action though are important things to be learned about the destruction of the rainforest, and the reader gets to share Carlos' horror at what he sees, and his realisation of the importance of the work done by people like his mother. Till now he's seen it as just a job, something that takes her away for long hours, without maybe fully realising its global significance. His previous experience of the forest has been of sanitised tourist-trails designed to delight and enthrall; now he's seeing first hand the realities of land-grabbing, the fires which lay waste to huge areas each day, and the gold mines which turn jungle into a sterile moon-scape. It's an excellent mix of fact and fiction which will both entertain and educate.

Aimed at 8 year olds and over, as always with titles from Barrington Stoke, the presentation - font, colour, chapter length - is designed with reluctant and dyslexic readers in mind, but none of this detracts from it being a gripping, nail-biting read, with Oriol Vidal's illustrations bringing the story vividly to life.