Book Reviews: Girl in a Cage, The Witches Feast, The Mouse and His Child, and The Stone Book

As part of my PhD research, I do a lot of reading these days! Not all of it is academic (although a good portion of it is). I am constantly looking for stories that reflect my topic. I'm also busily trying to catch up on the UK canon of classics, as they are constantly referred to in my classes. I thought I'd share a few of my recent reads with you. The full reviews are on Goodreads.

Girl in a Cage (Stuart Quartet, #2)Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Girl in a Cage is an exceptionally well-done peek into life in the 1100s and a good history lesson of Robert the Bruce's reign in Scotland, that was hard-won and cost him and his family dearly. The book is historical fiction, so some liberties are assumed with the known history. That said, the story is based on reasonable conclusions. Marjorie, Robert's daughter and only heir, is captured and kept on display in a town as a prize of war. She is regularly visited by King Longshanks (so nicknamed because of his extreme height). Longshanks is dying and his decline is reflected in 'Jo's' decline in the cage. Even so, as his temperament collapses, hers is fortified. Each small kindness she marks as victories towards her own eventual success. For instance, a girl who brings her a comb is named her 'Lady Enid'. When her brothers bring her food, she knights them and names them her army. The monk who brings her food and shows her kindness becomes her clergy. Truly, her determination, hope and positivity is worth the story alone. The story brings history to life and would be an excellent companion to Scottish history studies, although it is an excellent read for its own sake.

Tom & Tallulah and the Witches' FeastTom & Tallulah and the Witches' Feast by Marta Kissi (illustrator) Vivian French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vivian French makes writing stories look easy. This is a simple tale, perfectly told and perfect for the early mid-grade or chapter book reader. The witches in this story are assumed to be good, which is a lovely opposite to the approach of most books involving witches. "I thought all witches were good," Tom said, "just like Grandmother." (p94) Indeed, the evil witch is the outlier. The story reads a bit like the witches coven from Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books (beginning with The Wee Free Men) and would make a wonderful companion or precursor to those books. It has a sense of community, family, initiation for Tallulah, while sharing a love of family and cooperation to achieve the necessary goals - in this case, the creation of a witch's feast within a week's time, which would seem an easy enough task. However, Tallulah must figure out the favorite dish of each witch in the coven, and prepare them, even though she can't cook. Part mystery, part adventure, part cookbook, this is a delightful read.

The Mouse and His ChildThe Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my new favorite book of all time. It reads as an adventure story - a wind-up toy (a father and son mouse) are purchased from a toy store, and journey through families and Christmases, until they are finally old and broken and end up in a dump where an enterprising but evil rat rebuilds wind-up toys as his personal army of laborers. The son longs for home, for a mother, for a sense of belonging somewhere (his 'territory') and that is his primary directive throughout the story - to achieve that. The father, on the other hand, is cynical and loses hope again and again. It is the son's optimism that keeps them going. As a unit, they represent the dual motivations in any one human being. The nature of their being - being wind-up toys reliant on others to wind them up to make them go, is an obvious allegory to mankind's reliance on fate, economies, war, etc to make any progress in life. It is a statement to our vulnerabilities, or utter helplessness and lack of any real control of our lives. Indeed, each bit of their journey is instigated by an outside force rather than by their own doing. It is only their hope that keeps them alive as they wait for the next thing to occur. This book came into my life at an interesting time - in the midst of Trump and Brexit - when I think most of us feel like wind-up toys, victims to forces greater than ourselves and out of our control. The story does end on a high note, the son's hope is rewarded, friends are reunited and a home/territory is indeed established. As such, the story leaves one with a sense of positive hope alongside an intense awareness of our own fragility.

The Stone BookThe Stone Book by Alan Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*spoilers* I think it may be important to read the entire quartet to get the full impact of these stories. As a stand-alone, The Stone Book is a bit odd. The language is a strong unidentifiable dialect perhaps during the 1800s. The race of the characters is unclear, although the girl's desire for a book or to learn how to read might suggest they are recently freed slaves, or poor settlers in a small, but growing town. The father is a stone mason and in response to his daughter's request (she wants a prayer book in which to press flowers as the other girls, who also cannot read, do), he takes her into an old mine. He tells her to follow the malachite, and other types of rock. She knows these after a lifetime of observing her father's love of rocks. In the mine, she finds old cave paintings from long-lost civilizations. The rite of passage (her father saw them too when he was her age - stonemasons in their family only go once to see them) connects her to the earth and to things greater than herself. She leaves the mine a changed person. Still, her father gives her a prayer book, one carved from stone that contains all of the stories in the world. As an aside, her uncle lives in the home with the family. He is a deaf weaver, obviously symbolic of time and the history of mankind. The Stone Book is a very short read, but one that will stick with you for a long time.

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