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Book(s) of the Month: July 2015

Dinsdale and Novik covers This must be forest month – as well as getting on with writing my own book, which has a tree-loving protagonist, I’ve read two wonderful novels in which forest is not only a vital part of the setting, but an integral part of the story. Both the authors understand the power of folklore and the blurred margins between mythology and history.

I’ll start with Uprooted by Naomi Novik, author of the well-regarded Temeraire fantasy series.  The Temeraire series is set in an alternative Napoleonic era, with dragons. Uprooted also includes a Dragon, but he’s a man: a wizard whose work is to protect the locals from the malign influence of the Wood, an evil forest whose shadow lies over all. Every ten years the Dragon chooses a young woman to live with him in his isolated tower and serve him. Fifteen-year-old Agnieszka believes, along with the other villagers, that this time around the Dragon  will choose brave and beautiful Kasia. But his eye falls instead upon Agnieszka, and her life is changed forever.

Naomi Novik draws on the her Polish cultural heritage in creating the world for Uprooted, and this gives the setting depth and authenticity. The reader is quickly drawn into the story, which is told in first person by Agnieszka. The characters are vibrant and real, and the story is fast-paced, action-packed and original, as well as beautifully written. There’s a lot of magic in this book, and none of it is cliché stuff – the author makes it fresh, original and convincing. The story combines an epic quality – battles, power struggles, threats to the fabric of civilisation – with a strong and compelling personal story.

Uprooted is a great adult read and is also suitable for young adults who are mature readers – I’d say about age 14 upwards. I recommend it!

The other novel is a masterpiece of writing, a blend of thriller and folk tale, a dark story of the relationship between man and the wild. Read on to learn more.

Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale drew me in quickly and completely. Although I like my sleep, I found myself reading the last pages at 3am. There’s a great quote from James Long on the cover: ‘Matches the rigour of McCarthy’s The Road but as if the Brothers Grimm had hijacked it.’

In Belarus, an orphaned boy heads out into the forest with his grandfather to scatter his mother’s ashes. On the way, he is sustained by the last precious pieces of Mother’s special gingerbread, and his grandfather’s magical tales. But the journey becomes something different, and both boy and old man face a desperate struggle for survival. Darker and more terrible than the physical challenges of living wild in the forest are the challenges of Grandfather’s past and the terrible secrets that slowly unfold as his tales turn from folklore to history to desperate personal accounting.

The writer combines scenes from the boy’s point of view with Grandfather’s storytelling, in which, eventually, we come to learn about the old man’s tortured past. Most of the book is carried by these two characters, but we see others through the boy’s eyes – his beloved mother, his schoolteacher, and a family that comes to live on the edge of the forest.

Gingerbread is a grim and emotionally challenging read, not for the faint hearted. It’s a story that unfolds at its own pace, like a puzzle with many layers. Although it’s told mostly from a child’s point of view, this is definitely for adult readers. Gingerbread is fantasy, history, psychological journey and thriller rolled into one brilliant package. This went straight onto my Keepers shelf.