The MockingJay (The Hunger Games Book 3) by Susan Collins
The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler
The Book of Learning (Nine Lives Trilogy Book1) by ER Murray
When I picked up the Hunger Games trilogy 18months ago I didn’t know it would be the beginning of a fantastic reading journey. In my twenties I read some children’s fiction and especially loved Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. In the next decade I read a small number of adult novels, but mainly I read non-fiction some for professional qualifications and training and some of my own choosing. I especially enjoyed books that linked different ideas together. Yet, with a few exceptions when it came to adult fiction I struggled to find anything I wanted to read, most were too long and when I looked on the back they seemed to be the predictable: family saga, cheating or double dealing, and a bit too dark. There are some parallels with my daughters experience of starting to read independently, where in her words the books she picked up were “boring or had no plot”. Then she found Hetty Feather, by Jacqueline Wilson. The first book she had chosen that she actually wanted to read. You can read about her journey in another post. These experiences along with conversations with my customers as an indepedent bookseller have led me to wonder:
“Do we take it for granted that once an adult or child has found a few stories they love they we will automatically find another book they want to read?”
For some, including those that would consider themselves ‘readers’, this is not the case. How often as adults do we stop to think about what it was that kept us reading a book? In this blog I explore 3 fantastic stories, which really got my attention, changed my understanding of what I like to read, got me reading again and opened the door to more books.
I chose these books because I wanted to read them as an adult reader, not because I wanted to find out if they would interest my children or other people’s children. When reflecting on what made me pick up each book it struck me how accidental my discovery of them was! I bought the Hunger Games trilogy by Susan Collins when buying some books for my children as it caught my eye. I discovered the Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler, whilst exploring the publishers websites for books I could potentially stock. I have always been interested in history and we were about to go on a family holiday to another ancient settlement in Scotland. I first learnt about E R Murray on Twitter because of her proactive contribution’s to the #CoverKidsBooks campaign. When I saw the front cover the name intrigued me, and so did the fact that Ebony had a rat. But it was the picture of the girl with long flowing hair on a motor bike that did it! So it was a series of coincidences that led me to pick up each of the books, which I am extremely glad I did! This poses some interesting questions about whether children (and adults) are being exposed to enough variety on a regular basis, so that they can discover their next read.
The main character in The MockingJay is Katniss Everdeen. We join her in book three of the trilogy. Where she has survived not one, but two Hunger Games. At the opening chapter her District 12 companion of two games is missing, presumed dead. This book in one sense is how Katniss Everdeen makes sense of all the awful things that have happened to her and find a way forward, along with the other characters who have been on that journey with her. Her journey to get to this point has been horrific and brutal and there are some pretty horrid things that happen in this book too. Yet as an adult friend of mine that has also read the trilogy said “ it manages to stay on just the right side of Ok.”
The Boy with the Bronze Axe, is set more than 2,000 year ago in the Stone Age Village of Skara Brae, on what is the modern day Orkney. It is about a girl called Kali and a boy called Tenko ‘from across the sea.’. The introduction of a stranger is a beautiful way for the reader to understand what life was like many thousands of years ago. With the added tension that from the beginning you know that the village is going to submerged by a storm toward the end but you do not know who if anybody will survive. Of the three books, on the surface this is a much simpler story, with fewer characters and a more local scale, yet at the same time it has some very powerful messages.
The Book of Learning, is about a girl called Ebony and her pet rat. She looses her grandfather at the start of the story and then moves from the countryside to the city of Dublin. Here she discovers an Aunt she didn’t know existed and that Ebony is part of a Secret Order of the Nine Lives, which amongst other things believe their souls are reincarnated. She is the reluctant heroine who at first doesn’t want to know but then curiosity get’s the better off her. E R Murray aptly describes it as “Urban fantasy”. One of several highly talented authors bringing a ‘realism’ to fantasy which I believe is highly relevant to the twenty first century.
The 3 book in many respects are very different from each other. Despite this they do have some things in common in the way they are written and their wider messages. Which I shall explore next, along with some of the things that make the stories unique.
For all 3 books the characterisation was great and the descriptive language was superb. For me both of these are pretty crucial in getting me interested in a story. When it comes to detailed descriptive language that makes you feel like you are actually there Kathleen Fidler accomplishes this brilliantly, and for me has set a bench mark by which others are measured! Another magic quality of the boy withe the Bronze Axe is the strong connection with the land and how central this is to the story too. When I stopped to think about it that later is something that both Susan Cooper and E R Murray do in a different way too. For them it is about the contrast between worlds. In the Book of Learning it is how different the city is to Ebony’s grandpa’s costal cottage by the sea where she grew up. In MockingJay there is the hunting in the forest, and a reminder of the ‘natural world’ emerging from the ruins of the Districts. What the 3 main characters from each book share is they are female, adventurous, strong-minded and love spending time outdoors. That is beginning to sound a lot like me, no wonder I love these stories!
Despite the extraordinary imaginary worlds created its is striking how well all there authors tell the ordinary. From the canteen many floors below the earth’s surface in District 13, to the mad going’s on in the kitchen at 23 Mercury Lane, to sitting round the fire eating in the stone age village of Skara Brae. All 3 authors conjure up very well what their characters are eating and drinking and use all our sense to do this. This brings a realism to the the stories which adds to the feeling that you are actually there. In describing what their characters wear and eat, what they touch, or smell they convey emotions which also turn these ordinary events into something else.
Susan Collins and Kathleen Fidler’s stories are fast paced throughout, usually important to keeping me interested in a story. That was until I read the Book of Learning . This is an intriguing mixture of the other two books but with it’s own uniqueness too. I immediately warmed to Ebony Smart and with the excellent scene setting, descriptive language and shorter chapters I was taken straight into the story. But, then in the middle of the story the pace slows down, before speeding up with lots of exciting twists and turns. There were many magical things about this story that kept me reading. It wasn’t until after I had watched Andrew Marr’s programme on fantasy stories that I understood what some of them are. What is intriguing is when I first started reading the Book of Learning I did not at first think of it as fantasy fiction. I have since discovered E R Murray is one of several talented authors, who are blurring traditional genres, and bringing an ‘earthly’ ‘realism’ to fantasy.
Watching Andrew Marr’s programme about fantasy reminded me how important J R Tolkien’s book was in my own childhood. Whilst Tolkien has created a whole imaginary world on a much grander scale I did have to chuckle to myself when I realised there were some surprising similarities with The Book of Learning, especially in the early part’s of the stories. Both, Ebony and Bilbo are reluctant hero’s who are taken out of a place that they love. Andrew Marr’s rule number 6 for fantasy stories is: “The reader owns the fantasy world”. This is very strong in both stories, the fact that both are not initially at all sure they want to be part of what they have ‘been chosen’ for or ‘indeed what that is!’ means you are kind of learning along with the characters which really did help me the reader own the story.
In Susan Collins, Kathleen Fidler and E R Murray stories there is a seamlessness which links everything together which for me elevates these to 3 exceptional stories. What excited me is that they were fantastic reads, but they all had important messages about what it means to be human and about wider society, which seem highly relevant 21st century Britain. The powerful messages of these stories are tricky to talk about without giving away what happens. So, I will simply say that in the MockingJay and the Book of Learning there are important messages about the ability of power to corrupt. One of the key messages of the Boy with the Bonze Axe is easier to talk about as it appears early on in the book. When Tenko is telling the Kalis family about where his Bronze Axe came from, you get that wonderful sense of the way that knowledge is passed through time and place from one generation to the next, a timely reminder of how many of us are connected to others. For the other messages you will have to read the stories.