Vignette No.7 – Moving House

Moving House

The house is restless. It’s always like this when Mother is away.

It began the night she left. Walking through the house, turning out the lights before I went to bed, I could hear the creaks and sighs in the dark behind me. I was doing everything right, but they knew she wasn’t here. They knew I was alone.

For a few days we held an uneasy truce. It was like they were waiting for her to come back, and when she didn’t…

The rocking chair started it, of course. It’s always hated me, ever since that time when I was eight and scratched it (accidentally!) with scissors – and besides, it’s Mother’s chair down to the bolts. No one else would dare sit on it. When she’s not home I give it as wide a berth as I can when I go through that room, but it’s managed to pinch my toes under its rockers more than once all the same. As I hop away, swearing, it rolls slowly back and forth, shrieking with shrill wooden laughter.

Mother says I just have to be more firm. I say, firmer than your bloody furniture?

Then the linen cupboard joined in, swinging open whenever I turned my back and tipping everything from the shelves onto the ground. My feet tangle in towels every time I walk along the hall. The bookshelves are copycats; soon enough they were spitting out books all over the place, and what’s worse, the carpets started slithering over to cover them up. Since then it’s been a free-for-all. The deck chairs snap shut on my fingers like lawn-dwelling crocodiles. The coffee table skitters around the sitting room, hiding behind armchairs so that it is never there when I want it. Even the ottoman is rebelling. I found it hiding in the cupboard under the kitchen sink this morning, wedged right under the pipes. They are so sneaky – that’s what gets me. Can there be anything more insulting than being outwitted by your own mother’s furniture?

All I’ve got on my side is my bed, which has been mine since I was two and is staunchly loyal, and the library bureau, which is too stately and antique to get involved in antics of any description. That doesn’t mean it likes me, though. I swear it shuffles the rubber bands into the wrong corners when it thinks I’m not looking.

Mother is still in Brazil at that conference on sentient wood, but she phoned last night and promised she’d be home tomorrow.

I’m staying away from the knife drawer until she is.

© Faith Mudge 2012

Review No.18 – The Kitchen Daughter

The Kitchen Daughter – Jael McHenry

Gallery Books, 2011

Ginny is in her mid-twenties but has never completed her college studies, lived away from home, had friends or lovers of her own. She panics in a crowd or when she is touched by a stranger. Her entire life is governed by the childhood rules set down by her mother. Then her parents die in a freak accident. Hiding in the family kitchen from the oppressive crowd of mourners, Ginny uses her usual coping mechanism of cooking by painstakingly preparing her grandmother’s ribollita. The last thing she expects is to summon up the dead woman’s ghost and the beginning of a cryptic warning: Do not let her. What Ginny is supposed to prevent, she isn’t sure. It is hard enough dealing with her younger sister Amanda, a married mother of two who feels the entire burden of family responsibility has fallen onto her shoulders and is trying to expurgate her grief by getting their parents’ house ready to sell. The only problem is that Ginny is still living there and doesn’t want to leave. Left without the compass of her mother’s advice, struggling to interact with a world that bewilders her, Ginny seeks answers by cooking the food of the dead. But can they tell her what she needs to know…and will they even come?

I forget how I heard about this book. I think it was a reference on Goodreads. However I found it, I’m very glad that I did. Jael McHenry has created a beautifully original story that is heart-warming without being sentimental and a heroine whose narration is both pragmatically matter-of-fact and achingly vulnerable. McHenry’s portrayal of family relationships is consistent and realistic, her cast of characters believably flawed, and I love her idea of summoning up ghosts with the smell of their beloved recipes. It is the sort of thing you half-hope could be true.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.4 – Patient Griselda

I’ve referred to this story before as ‘Patient Grethel’, but apparently my efforts to forget its existence were of some use after all because it’s actually ‘Patient Griselda’, at least in the 1999 edition of Puffin Books’ Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales I have on loan from the library. For classics like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Cinderella’, we have the retellings of Charles Perrault to thank, so it’s not like I can completely ignore him, but he’s also to blame for retelling this particular story. If you haven’t heard of it before, let this be the warning you need to avoid it for the rest of your life.

It starts off as many fairy tales do, with a prince who is introduced as ‘youthful and gallant’, his greatest pleasure being in the continued happiness of his people. Or at least 50 % of them. The modern definition of the word gallant is all about courtesy, particularly towards women, but in ‘Patient Grethel’ it would seem Perrault is using a different application of the term, because this prince hates women. Convinced they are all faithless deceivers, he sees every woman as ‘a hypocrite…a cruel enemy whose unbroken ambition was the gain the mastery over whatever unhappy man might surrender to her’. So frail orphans and oppressed widows are okay, but if you’re just a regular woman in this man’s kingdom, watch out. His idea of the perfect wife is someone who will be totally subservient to his wishes without the slightest will of her own. And oh dear, one day while he’s on the hunt, rampaging through the woods after some unfortunate stag, he finds an innocent young sheperdess who offers him directions and a drink of water. She will come to regret that.

Her name is Griselda. She’s pretty and shy, used to living a simple life with her father in the hills, and the prince quickly decides she’s the One. The other girls who have been trying to get his attention start copying this new demure style, hoping to win favour; grandstands and floats are built, ballets and operas are written. The day of the wedding arrives and the prince heads off to propose. Because he hasn’t actually asked her yet. And when he does ask her, his condition is – and I QUOTE – ‘swear that you will never have any other wishes than what I shall desire’. Poor little lovesick Griselda agrees.

Despite her inexperience, she settles into her new role well, displaying homespun wisdom and making herself liked at court. When she gives birth to a beautiful little princess it seems everything couldn’t be more perfect. Her husband, however, relapses into his old misogynistic paranoia, suspecting her of lies and insincerity. His behaviour turns abusive, confining her to her rooms and stripping of the jewels he gave her himself not so long ago. She gives in to his every order, sure it is all just a test to prove her love. When he fails to raise a reaction with imprisonment and humiliation, he comes up with a plan so cruel it actually makes me sick to re-read. He walks in on his wife while she is nursing their baby and tells her that she is such a bad influence that he’s taking the princess away to be raised by somebody else. He isn’t even brave enough to watch when his people come to tear the baby from her mother’s arms. Griselda somehow forgives him for this, broken doormat of a woman that she is, but he can’t seem to resist torturing her. Only days later he goes to her again and says the baby has died. Mistaking what guilt his ugly heart is capable of producing for grief, she then tries to comfort him.

For FIFTEEN YEARS he sticks to this lie, leaving his daughter to be raised by nuns and his wife to grieve over the baby she lost. The princess grows up with her mother’s beauty and her father’s deadly charm, though without that sadistic streak that has totally consumed him. When she is glimpsed by a passing nobleman, it’s love at first sight. Her lover is wealthy, handsome, brave – her father is bound to try and make amends for wrecking her mother’s life by allowing her to be happy, right? Wrong. No, instead the prince announces that he’s marrying again. Marrying his own daughter. You heard me. Not that his poor deluded subjects know she’s his daughter, any more than the princess or her grief-wracked mother. Why is he doing this to everybody, when he knows the truth and has no intention of marrying the girl? Because he’s crazy. Totally, stark raving crazy.

So he breaks three hearts in one blow. He’s very good at that sort of thing by now. He sends Griselda back to her old life as a shepherdess, claiming she’s so ill born that he can’t possibly stay married to her. And what does Griselda do but apologise for making him angry. She hasn’t a clue what she’s done and she’s still feeling sorry for him, sure she’s done something terrible to make her deserve all this – a typical mindset in domestic violence cases, of which this whole story is so staggering an example. Her father is heartbroken at his own fall in stature and it falls to Griselda to be the strong one, insisting they will find peace and rest in their simple cottage. Which they might have done, if the prince could have left her the hell alone. But no, we’re dealing with a full-fledged psychopath here. He summons her back to the palace to attend his new bride-to-be – that is, their daughter. Brow-beaten and oblivious, Griselda obeys. She becomes so protective of her charge that she dredges some grit from somewhere and tells the prince that if he wants to marry this girl, he’ll have to show her more kindness than he ever showed her. The prince, predictably enough, tells her to shut up and do as she’s told.

The day of the prince’s second wedding arrives. In front of his assembled guests, he begins a little speech on how deceptive everybody really is and proves himself to be the ultimate hypocrite when he finally reveals his bride-to-be’s true identity. Griselda almost has a heart attack. All she can do is cry and hold her lost little girl. The princess, meanwhile, realises she’s got her life back. She marries her lover before her father can change his mind again and there’s a huge party in which everybody sweeps the horror story of the past fifteen years under the carpet, holding Griselda up not as a martyr to marital abuse, but ‘a model for women everywhere in the world’.

This story is disturbing on so many levels. Like, the prince survives, completely unpunished. Why didn’t his daughter’s boyfriend do the honorable thing and cut off his head or lock him up or something, like they do to all the other monsters in fairy tales? I would absolutely rather be kidnapped by dragons or ogres than live with someone like that. This is, at least, one of Perrault’s most obscure fairy tales. I was in my early teens when I came across it during a raid on my local library’s folklore and mythology section. Reading to the end in the naïve expectation that the evil prince would get his comeuppance, I was left in a state of dumbfounded outrage. My only comfort, re-reading it for this review, is remembering the immediate reaction of my younger self. That was, essentially, ‘Screw you, prince. I’m going to write my own fairy tales and you are going down’.

Here’s to impatient women everywhere.

Review No.17 – The Ragwitch

The Ragwitch – Garth Nix

Allen & Unwin, 2006

It is just a rag doll, hidden among the feathers and broken shells, but from the moment Julia picks it up she is possessed. Her brother Paul watches on in horror as her stolen body passes through fire into another world and in a moment of blind bravery he follows, stumbling into a kingdom where old magic rules the forests and stories of a terror from the north have been eroded by the passage of time into nothing more than a children’s nightmare. But the North-Queen who once ruled has returned as the Ragwitch to spread that nightmare once more, one from which she does not intend to let the kingdom ever wake. While Julia fights to exist inside the Ragwitch’s poisoned mind, Paul searches desperately for a way to set her free – but what if the only way to save the kingdom is to sacrifice his sister?

I had seen The Ragwitch around before but it was only when I was fortunate enough to meet Nix himself at a recent talk in the State Library of Queensland and heard him talking about his inspirations that I bumped it to the top of my list to see what it was like. First published in 1990, it is one of his earliest works and quite clearly based on the Narnian model, with children stumbling from our world into a magical land in dire peril, but Julia and Paul are quite a different set of siblings from the legendary Pevensies. There’s a darkness in Nix’s work that you won’t find in Narnia. Unlike Lev Grossman’s very adult The Magicians or Neil Gaiman’s deeply disturbing short story The Problem of Susan, however, this is still definitely a children’s book that celebrates the magic of a quest. With so many British and American children’s fantasies out there, I also appreciated the distinctively Australian references, from the Aboriginal midden in which the Ragwitch is discovered to the Water Lord’s great white sharks. This wasn’t a fast read for me – somehow, Nix never is – and it took me a while to invest in the story, but I liked it and hope one day he writes some more about the Patchwork King. That name is just too good not to use again.

Review No.16 – Dealing with Dragons

Dealing with Dragons – Patricia C. Wrede

Magic Carpet Books Harcourt Inc., 2002

There are books you read when you’re little and you love them, but then you get older and can’t quite remember why. You can outgrow them. Then there are books like Margaret Mahy’s The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Alison Uttley’s Rainbow Tales – and Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. If I ever grow out of any of these books, it will be time to look at the path behind me and wonder where on earth I went so wrong.

The kingdom of Linderwall is a traditional sort of place, where princesses learn embroidery instead of Latin and frogs that talk are probably princes under a curse. It is entirely unprepared for Princess Cimorene, who wants to know how to fence and make cherries jubilee. When faced with marriage to a bland young prince hand-picked by her parents, she runs away to live with a dragon and becomes immediately embroiled in a wizardly plot, encountering along the way a witch, a jinn, and frankly more knights than she knows what to do with, none of whom will believe she does not want to be rescued. If anyone is likely to do some rescuing, however, it may well be Cimorene herself…

First published in 1990, Dealing with Dragons – the first book in Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles – has become something of a classic, and deservedly so. I don’t think any girl should grow up without reading this, and generations of boys would probably be more interesting people if they read it too. It cheekily borrows from fairy tales and folk lore alike, including references to The Wizard of Oz, without ever being either obscure or jarringly modernised. Cimorene herself is a marvellous heroine – calm, practical, well-mannered but extremely determined and an all-around useful person to know. Her adventures continue in book two, Searching for Dragons. If you or your kids like Wrede’s style you may also enjoy books by Kaye Umansky, Jean Ure and Lloyd Alexander.

Review No.15 – The Haunting

The Haunting – Margaret Mahy

Puffin Books, 1999

In honour of Book Week I will be posting up a few reviews of children’s books that I’ve lately either discovered or re-read. If I like an author I don’t give a damn about recommended ages and having grown up loving Mahy’s books, I have this year been trying to track down and read the classics of hers that somehow passed me by. It’s a bittersweet discovery now, knowing that Mahy has recently passed away, but in a way that makes it all the more important to me to appreciate all the amazing things she wrote. The Haunting is one of those books that is integral to the Mahy canon.

Barney is happy with his life. The imaginary friends that comforted him during the lonely years after his mother’s death have disappeared, replaced with a loving stepmother and a newly attentive father. But when a great-uncle dies and his dead mother’s family gather together, old secrets begin to surface. Barney is about to be haunted again. And this ghost is only a harbinger of the chaos yet to come.

First published in 1982, The Haunting doesn’t date. The family dynamic is vibrant, chaotic and totally convincing in a story that manages to be creepy and comforting as only Mahy could achieve. It isn’t my favourite of her books – I would have liked it to go deeper, and predictably enough, longer – but it is of the same high quality as everything else she wrote, just as charming and eccentric and utterly readable. In a way, it reminds me of The Tricksters, another novel of hers about ghosts and magicians. I like to think maybe the Scholars and the Carnivals met someday. Magic calls to magic, after all…

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.3 – Tatterhood

My copy of Ruth Manning Sanders’ A Book of Witches is a creased 1986 reprint complete with the very memorable Robin Jacques illustrations and a peculiar hot pink cover. There are twelve stories inside and I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite, but Tatterhood might be on the hypothetical shortlist if I did. It’s a strange story about sisters, witches, identity and the dangers of eating flowers that grow under your bed.

Once upon a time, a royal couple who cannot conceive meet with a kind witch who takes pity on the weeping queen and offers her what must be the all-time most bizarre advice for falling pregnant – to wash in two pails and throw the water from each under the bed to grow two polar-opposite flowers, one beautiful and one ugly. The queen is warned to eat only the beautiful flower, but predictably enough cannot resist and eats both. The witch’s warning is quickly explained; the queen soon gives birth to two daughters, the exquisitely beautiful Berenice and the hideous Tatterhood. The royal parents attempt to lock their ugly daughter in a room alone, but the girl has ideas of her own and as charming Berenice adores her sister there is not much that can be done to separate them.

The sisters are nearly grown when one Christmas Eve a pack of less civically-minded witches arrive to hold a raucous party in the castle itself. The queen has always just endured her uninvited guests, but Tatterhood decides enough is enough. Instructing her mother to lock all the gallery doors, she heads off to do battle with nothing but a wooden spoon. Amazingly, she is winning – but her mother has a history of ignoring advice. A door to the gallery has been left unlocked and Berenice comes into the room to find out what is going on. The one remaining witch steals her beautiful head, replacing it with a calf’s, and flees before she can be stopped.

Tatterhood is furious. She demands a ship and sets off with her disfigured sister to get back Berenice’s head. When they find the witches’ castle, Tatterhood rides out alone on a goat with her wooden spoon, fighting her way to retrieve the beautiful head and returning to give it back to her sister. Understandably loathe to return to her parents’ kingdom, Tatterhood suggests a long voyage and the two sail alone together for three years until they reach the shores of a new country. Its unmarried king is intrigued by the travellers and on being introduced to Berenice, falls instantly in love, so much so he pledges his adult son’s hand to Tatterhood if she will only allow him to marry her sister. The prince has to be threatened with execution before he will agree, but eventually the double marriage takes place. During the procession to church, Tatterhood finally reveals herself to be even lovelier than the beautiful Berenice (and tellingly, her wooden spoon to be a wand). The prince quickly abandons his plans to lock his new wife in a dungeon and the wedding ends in a grand bridal feast.

I love how this Norwegian fairy tale refuses to pit beauty and ugliness against each other as metaphors for good and evil. Tatterhood is hideous because she chooses to be. So what? She is an indomitable fighter and loyal sister. Beautiful Berenice, while not powerful herself, has more perception than anyone else in the story – she is the only one left unsurprised by her sister’s transformation at the wedding, having always seen Tatterhood that way. Nor are all those wicked witches described as ugly – in fact their physical appearances are not described at all in the actual story, and while the illustrations portray most of them as crone archetypes there is one spectacularly pretty one wielding a broomstick, so clearly there’s a solid equal opportunities policy here. And that advice the first, helpful witch gave? The queen flouted it and things turned out okay anyway. I don’t know if there is one other fairy tale I’ve ever read where that’s the case. Life isn’t set in stone. Myself, I’d take that as moral of the story any day. It’s a pity Tatterhood had to turn stunningly attractive at the end in order to win her prince’s affections, but to be honest I don’t think any woman with the option of magic would choose to keep an ‘ashen grey face’ for the rest of her life. And she did pick the prince in the first place. Somehow, you know, I don’t think he was ugly at all.

She Dreams of Paper Mountains

I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains…I might find somewhere quiet where I can finish my book.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book Week, something I should probably have known about but didn’t until I saw Tansy Rayner Roberts’s post ‘Book Week Blog Challenge’ on her blog here at http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/book-week-blog-challenge/. Her idea is to celebrate Book Week by blogging about the books of her childhood and collating the posts of any bloggers who want to contribute to the same theme. It is a FANTASTIC IDEA. I get to ramble through the yellowed, nostalgia-scented pages of my favourite childhood books and rant about how marvellous the authors are. How fun is that?

The thing is, the books you read when you’re small are important. They will probably affect the way you read for the rest of your life, whether you realise it or not. They create a world of personal touch points, more so now than maybe any other point in literary history. I mean, look back a century or so and many people couldn’t actually read, or if they could, the only books they were likely to own were schoolbooks, the Bible, a few classics if they were lucky. Meanwhile the classically educated upper class, at least in the West, were likely to share a familiarity with the same works. Everyone had to know their Shakespeare, their Chaucer, their Dickens, walking the straight and narrow road to a collective literary identity. Not so much now. There are a million genre off-shoots to explore, mainstream paperbacks sharing a paper and ink ecosystem with small press and self-publishing. A reader burrowed into the endless caverns of fantasy or romance or crime is, in my opinion at least, just as relevant as those who walk the highlands of Tolstoy and Woolf.

My point is, this is a world that is teeming with stories. Every kid will be drawn to something different. I was the sort of child who learned to read more or less by osmosis. For context’s sake, the house where I grew up had books in almost every room, crammed into the limited number of shelves with increasing creativity. When we ran out of space for bookcases, we put one in front of a window. Because who needs sunlight when you have nowhere to put your history section? The first thing I can remember playing with is this thick brick of a book that I used to carry everywhere. I couldn’t actually read it. I still can’t. It’s an anthology of early Middle English verse and prose, for pity’s sake, but the little three or four year old me just loved the way it looked and felt in my hands. I suppose for a book to count as the favourite of my childhood, however, I should have managed to get past the front cover.

So what to choose? There are so many. I read so much Enid Blyton that for a while I made a serious attempt to rebrand dinner as ‘supper’ (yes, it failed). I competed with my siblings over who could finish reading each Harry Potter first and drew up my own broom catalogues, inventing my own models to exist alongside the Nimbus Two Thousands and Silver Arrows. I pilfered my mother’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles and kept borrowing the Wonderland sequel Through the Looking Glass until she broke down and gave me one. More than once I re-read my way through the entire series of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, plotting survival techniques for a long winter that might have come in handy if I had lived on the Dakota prairies but ended up being a little superfluous in south-east Queensland, where temperatures dipping below 20ºC are our cue to dig out the woolies.

If I have to choose, though, and choose just one book to define my childhood, it must be The Hobbit.

I was a lucky child. My mother read to us so much when we were little that my brain must have accepted it as aural wallpaper, because I don’t really remember any of it. The only thing that I have concrete memories of hearing read aloud is Tolkien. I don’t know whether she’s reading Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring in those memories – yes, she read us both – but it was Hobbit that stuck with me. It’s the first book I can remember reading for myself. I can remember thinking something along the lines of ‘Finally! I can read the best bits as many times as I want!’ I did, too. Still do.

I love so much about Hobbit. I love the homesick dwarves singing of the mountains while Bilbo listens, bewildered but more than a little seduced by the adventure of it all. I love the mutton-hating trolls and mocking elves and foul-tempered goblins, who have serious territorial issues and make up sadistic rhymes to scare their prisoners like subterranean rappers. I love the riddles in the dark and the spiders in Mirkwood. And who reads that book without warming to Smaug, a dragon who is ancient and intelligent and actually just wants to sleep now he’s collected all the gold for miles around. Talk about a cushy retirement – until the dwarves turn up with their burglar, that is. I love the politics of it all, how good people do bad things and scary people can do good ones. Most of all I love that battle at the end. The Eagles are coming, the Eagles are coming

There is a film version coming out in December. I have my doubts. Dividing the story into two parts, let alone the rumoured three, sounds a really stupid idea from where I stand – this is not LOTR and trying to make it more epic than it is could very easily wreck the gentle charm that makes me love it. I’ll be watching it anyway, of course, because Peter Jackson has made it and after watching the LOTR trilogy as many times as I have, including deleted scenes and documentary footage, I have immense faith in his abilities where interpreting Tolkien is concerned. I really, really hope he makes it work.

Even if he does, though, even if he brings it to life with such remarkable aplomb no one ever dares approach that book for a remake throughout the remainder of cinematic history, it won’t be my Hobbit. Every time I pick up that book, you see, I step into the world I made inside my head when I first read it. In that world – probably somewhere in Mirkwood – there’s a little girl who dreamed mountains out of printed paper. Mountains that soar skyward where the Eagles fly, with roots so deep even the goblins don’t know where they end. Mountains out of a myth.

I have always loved books. I always will. But it’s books like The Hobbit that remind me why.

Vignette No.6 – Sonnet

Sonnet

I found poetry pegged on my clothesline yesterday.

The envelopes are not always in my garden, and never in my house. He is nothing if not imaginative. I find them dangling from branches by a length of gold ribbon, tucked into train seats, pinned to a community noticeboard in the local library, even taped to a changing room mirror once. I think he knew I didn’t like it that time, because he never did it again. But the envelopes keep coming, and I keep opening them.

No one else ever does. I don’t know why. Perhaps my name written on the front is distinctive enough for no mistakes to be made; perhaps there is a spell in the ink that I can’t see. They are always the same. A small blue envelope in an unlikely place with my name in silver ink on the front and his seal in black wax on the back. When I slide my thumb under the flap and slit it open with my nail, there will be scraps of paper inside, snippets of poetry copied out in the same silver ink on the back of sheet music or photocopied library pages. Sometimes there are pressed flowers that drift out and crumble against my fingers with all the sweet ephemerality of a kiss. Other times there are ornate brass buttons, magpie feathers, typewriter keys.

He knows me very well.

I read and re-read his words, trying to decipher the messages he is trying to send. I keep them in my pockets until they are crumpled soft with creases. I kiss them until I can taste the bitterness of the ink. It isn’t easy loving him. It isn’t easy for me to hold onto his reality while the rest of the world denies he ever existed, when the only times I see him he has all the solidity of a ghost, all the permanence of those crumbling flowers. If I can only hold on long enough, maybe that will be enough to bring him back, but it’s hard when every day the world tells me I’m wrong.

Today’s envelope is floating inside a water lily at the pond’s edge when I stop at the park to read in the long summer evening. As my trembling fingers tear the flap open golden glitter streams out into the grass, shining in the sunset light like magic dust.

I can see his hand silhouetted in the glow. For a moment, I can almost feel it against mine.

It’s close enough.

© Faith Mudge, 2012

Review No.14 – White Cat

White Cat – Holly Black

Gollancz, 2010

In prohibition America, magic has been banned for decades. Everyone wears gloves, because all it takes is one touch from a curse worker and you could die. Or forget who you are. Or be transformed. The only non worker in his criminal family, Cassel Sharpe stands out for all the wrong reasons. He committed a murder when he was fourteen and he doesn’t know why. His brothers don’t want to see him, his sister-in-law thinks she can hear angels, and his dreams are haunted by a white cat who bites out his tongue. Suspended from his school after a sleepwalking episode that ended with him almost falling off a roof, Cassel knows the only way to claw back his normal life is to convince everyone he is normal. But how can he do that when he can’t even convince himself?

White Cat takes place in an incredibly detailed alternative world that feels both familiar and strange. Cassel makes for an intriguing anti-hero protagonist, deeply flawed yet still sympathetic, and in fact every character in the book is given a similar level of complexity, spanning the spectrum of moral grey. Like Cassel himself, I wasn’t sure who to trust right up until the end – and possibly afterward, since this is the first book in Black’s Curse Workers series. White Cat is a dark, punchy urban fantasy that had me reading compulsively when I should have been doing other things and wishing I’d thought of this stuff first. I can offer few higher compliments.