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Review: ‘The Phantom Tree’ by Nicola Cornick

I Blame Wizards - The Phantom Tree

Nicola Cornick’s The Phantom Tree, while not perfect, was a pleasant surprise.  It was an easy read with some fantastic elements of historical fiction that were believable and genuine. It had similarities to A. S. Byatt’s Possession but lacked its literary focus and genuine depth, yet despite this it was an enjoyable read, if not entirely convincing in its narrative.

The Phantom Tree tells the concurrent stories of two friends, separated by time.  Allison Bannister is a woman living in the present, ripped from her family and stranded in a time that isn’t hers.  Mary Seymour is a woman lost from history who holds a secret she needs to communicate through time itself.

Tudor historical fiction is a dime a dozen these days.  It’s always been popular, so the fact that Nicola Cornick tried to do something different with the formula is commendable.  Her descriptions of the period are emotive and beautiful and gave a deep sense of what life would have been like for the ‘forgotten’ aristocracy of the Tudor period.  It was less about the large political machinations and big personalities that punctuate what we know about the time, and instead put these elements in the background of a much more personal story.  They gave a sense of time and place, rather than becoming the focus of what is, essentially, a very personal story.

It’s a shame then that the modern-day narrative didn’t have the same heart or depth as the historical narrative.  Cornick’s love is obviously history, and that love showed through every word where the Tudor period was concerned.  The modern elements simply felt flat and lifeless in comparison.  We are introduced to Allison when she is already well established in our time.  She has a job, an apartment, has already had a serious relationship (which is rekindled with absolutely no spark or romance) and so we never get to know the difficulty she must have had adjusting to modern life having just come from a time that is so far removed from our own as to be a different planet.  Despite Allison being the protagonist, it was Mary who had all the characterisation and soul.

I think one of the reasons this may have been the case is that there is no internal logic or believability to the central premise of magic and time travel.  At no point is it explained why it is possible.  All the characters simply shrug and seem to say ‘that’s just the way it is’.  There wasn’t enough in it that could suspend my disbelief at the fantasy elements.  If it had been as simply as ‘time travel exists’ I probably could have been ok with that, but there are so many other elements jammed in there that didn’t heighten the narrative at all, that it did bear some kind of explanation. There are visions, precognition, telepathy and a weird telepathic romance that left me a little confused as to why it was necessary.

The ultimate resolution to The Phantom Tree was far too neat.  All Allison’s modern day compatriots simply accept her story of time travelling without even a blink of disbelief.  In only ten years we are meant to simply accept that she perfectly came to grips with modern life, learns to drive, studies abroad with a university despite having no documentation to even prove that she exists and lands a dream job with a start-up travel company that people would probably kill for, despite there being countries on the itinerary that hadn’t even been discovered at the time she was born.  Even the answer to the plot’s great mystery somehow just seems to appear in her mind, despite the plot being set up as a tale of sleuthing through time.

There was a lot to commend The Phantom Tree as a work of historical fiction.  But the fantasy elements and blind acceptance of the fantastical situations by the books characters were a little hard to swallow.  Where the historical elements flowed naturally and worked as a believable narrative, the modern-day and fantasy elements felt somehow forced and made the book in to something that I don’t think it should ever have been.

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Review: ‘The Creeping Shadow’ by Jonathan Stroud

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan StroudPrepare yourselves, because The Creeping Shadow ends in one hell of a cliff hanger!  Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series goes from strength to strength, widening its scope with even novel and hooking me in with every page.

Not often can we say that middle grade fiction rises to the strength of the Harry Potter series, but I honestly believe that Lockwood & Co. is just as good.  And finally, with this new installment we are entering the territory surrounding the root of ‘the Problem’.

Lockwood & Co. are a small, independent agency dealing with the problem of ghosts that have been plaguing the UK.  No one knows why the problem began and only children are equipped with the psychic talents to deal with the infestation.  The small agency must battle internal politics, external politics between the largest rival agencies, navigate the criminal underworld, the paranormal otherworld and eat cake!

The characters are strong and flow with personality.  They each have a unique voice and represent archetypes to which we can all relate.  Watching Lockwood, Lucy, Holly and George (with the newest addition of Quill Kipps) fight side by side is an absolute joy.  The way they interact with each other, their humour and their individual ideals make them the perfect team.  You can’t help but be invested in them.

The plot of The Creeping Shadow finally leads us down the path to resolution.  The source of the ‘Problem’ has been hinted at since the beginning, but the events of this novel really make it feel like we’re reaching a climax.  People we trusted turn out to be up to no good, and characters who we’ve learned to distrust save the day!  Everything happens for a reason, nothing is incidental, and the descriptions of ghosts, ‘sources’ and other paranormal activity are visceral and spooky.  The way the story unfolds is like a puzzle, with all the pieces coming together right at the end to reveal the big picture.

I finished The Creeping Shadow in a day, and I’m desperate for more.  Jonathan Stroud is the reason I look forward to September.

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Review: ‘The Dead Boyfriend’ by R. L. Stine

The Dead Boyfriend by R. L. StineWow, I mean I remember Fear Street books being pretty bad in a tacky, yet fun way, but The Dead Boyfriend, R. L. Stine’s fifth instalment in the Fear Street reboot was just a whole new level of trash. The plot was on rails with a completely nonsensical twist and characters that barely bothered to show up.

There was something almost visceral, and sexy about the old Fear Street novels. The Fear Street Saga is still one of the trilogies I remember most from my childhood.  There was gore, romance, horror and thrills galore! I re-read them recently and found myself laughing at how implausibly silly the whole thing was, bit I still had fun reading them. The Dead Boyfriend just left me disappointed and nostalgic for some Point Horror.

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Review: ‘The Haunting of Jessop Rise’ by Danny Weston

The Haunting of Jessop Rise Book CoverThe Haunting of Jessop Rise was an entertaining read.  It was an unassuming, simple haunted house story with elements of gothic horror that neither excited nor bored.  It simply waswhich in some cases is exactly what you want as a reader.  I read the whole book in a few hours so it never overstayed its welcome, and for a middle grade novel it did have some pretty effective moments of fear.

William, the protagonist is a surprisingly deep character.  Weston actually does a great job of building a pretty decent character profile in a very short amount of time.  The main characters felt read and the satellite characters didn’t have too much fleshing them out that the novel felt bloated.  My only issue with the characters though was that they felt too much like characters from other novels.  There was nothing particularly unique about them to set them apart from better works of the 19th century, or more involved haunted house stories.  There were elements of Jane Eyre, The Woman in Black and even Great Expectations.

Using North Wales as a setting for was originally what drew me to The Haunting of Jessop Rise.  Wales is a country rife with folklore and mystery.  It is a place where tales of witches and fairies become almost believable and the countryside almost seems to sing with the voices of ancient civilisations.  There was potential here, but a potential that was completely unrealised.  The one element of the particularly Welsh supernatural was actually pretty unnecessary to the plot, and most of the action took place in the confines of the titular Jessop Rise meaning that the setting of Wales was largely unnecessary.  The local Welsh were represented as menial and superstitious, whereas the English characters somehow seemed superior, going so far as to scoff at the Welsh language.  This bothered me.  I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the author, and indeed was probably pretty historically accurate in the way perceptions lay at the time, however that’s the benifit of writing fiction.  Weston simply could have done more.

All in all, The Haunting of Jessop Rise was a short read and one that I must admit I enjoyed despite its shortcomings.  It’s an entertaining middle grade horror if nothing else.

 

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Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildThere are no words to express how tragically disappointed I was by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This is not a story or a play that can stand on it’s own feet. It relied completely and utterly on an audience already engaged in the Harry Potter novels and did nothing but rehash the stories already told. It felt…lazy. There was nothing new, nothing interesting. Even the ‘new’ characters were just re-skins of the characters that we already knew and loved, even the villain was simply a repetition of the ones we’d already put to bed long ago.

I realise that using a play as a medium already puts limitations on the in depth story telling that so many Harry Potter fans have come to expect, but conveying that depth is part of the talent in writing a script. From the stage directions Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already relies far too heavily on a huge budget and special effects. This is why it feels lazy. Rather than using a limited medium to be truly special and unique it feels like it’s trying to be a novel, spliced with a film and getting neither right. I don’t doubt for a moment that the play will be spectacular. I’ve heard great things about the actors, and even better things about the direction, but that’s the problem for me. It will be good because it had a budget and not because it’s actually good!

The story is exactly what you might expect. Adults with parenting problems, children under the shadows of their parents legacies. My main issue was that there was no uniqueness to the characters. Albus and Scorpio felt like mixtures of James/Harry Potter and Severus Snape/Draco Malfoy. The entire plot revolved around revisiting events from the previous Harry Potter novels. There was scope to give the new generation and indeed the old generation a new villain to fight, but instead we just repeated the same old moments and movements with the same old characters. It was all just more of the same!

I don’t want to spoil anything, indeed I don’t even think I could. The time travel angle has been discussed to death in countless films, books and video games that what you think might happen does happen. It held no surprises or unique points of interest. Everything had been done. This wasn’t simply a play set in the Harry Potter universe. It was a slight retelling of stories already set in the Harry Potter universe!

Do I want to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the theatre? Sure I do! I’m sure it will be a feast for the senses in every way possible. But the truth is that I, like many people, might never get that chance. I’ve read countless plays that manage to be deep, dark and atmospheric without all the extra trappings which were such a joy to read. This was not one of them.

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Review: ‘Eight Rivers of Shadow’ by Leo Hunt

Eight Rivers of Shadow book coverEight Rivers of Shadow, while an improvement on Leo Hunt’s first book in the series Thirteen Days of Midnight, still proved itself to be an overwhelmingly shallow novel with little characterisation or originality.  Most of the novel felt like a rehash of Thirteen Days  mixed with some Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orpheus and the Underworld with our protagonist, Luke Manchett, growing as a character on a scale of ‘very little’ to ‘none at all’.

After the events of Thirteen Days, Leo Hunt was in the perfect position to develop Luke Manchett’s character in a way that would help him discover his power in a world where magic and Necromancy exist.  Instead, Luke bumbles his way through his new found powers relying on everyone around him who appears to be more capable than him on almost every single level.  The idea of Necromancy is such a great premise and one that’s been pretty under-utilised in genre fiction that this could have made the book about a thousand times more interesting!  Luke has these powers, but what do they mean, how do they develop, how can he harness them for good, evil, anything?  These questions weren’t asked in the first book, and while Eight Rivers does raise some interesting moral questions, they are outside of the bounds of Luke’s newfound skills.

My main issue with Eight Rivers of Shadow is that we are given characters that we already know from the first book in the series, and yet they are simply not developed any further.  The lives of Hunt’s characters remain largely static and most of the plot’s development seems to rely wholly on Luke being completely inept and slightly stupid.  This issue is exemplified once more in one of the biggest criticisms I had about Thirteen Days and that is the complete lack of adult supervision in these novels.  Parents are either just rubbish at parenting or completely absent during the whole series creating a world where it essentially feels there are no adults around.  While this can be an interesting plot device as we’ve seen in books like Michael Grant’s Gone series, it is painfully clear that Leo Hunt has not put this in to his narrative intentionally.  Instead he’s tried so hard to create a realistic teenaged boy who his readers can relate to, but instead created a limbo world that neither adults nor young adults will feel any kinship.

From a pacing perspective the bland and lifeless characters make it pretty difficult to invest in the plot in any kind of meaningful way.  This book should have been an easy read, but I felt myself so poorly invested in its narrative that three weeks later and I’d barely grazed 75%.  It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself when I was reading it in at least a superficial way, I just didn’t feel motivated to make the time to pick it up.

Ultimately I think Eight Rivers of Shadow didn’t differentiate itself in plot and scope enough from the first book in the series.  It felt pretty same, only without developing anything.  As far as YA literature goes there are numerous better books out there.  This one wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough for me to want to recommend it to anybody.  Reading it was an entirely ambivalent experience, as is its memory.

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