THE WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rundell

If you read just one book this year, read Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder. Her second book, Rooftoppers, was brilliant but this – with its wild landscape, wolves and feisty heroine – is something else… It is a children’s classic in the making.

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Feodora and her mother live in the snow-bound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora’s mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teachers tamed animals for fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans. When the simmering resentment of her neighbours turns to murderous hostility, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of survival and adventure, trust and tenacity, and the toughness that the love between mothers and daughters inspires. And, of course, wolves.

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The opening line – ‘Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl’ – immediately draws the reader into Rundell’s bold and beautiful storytelling. Her character descriptions are exquisite (how about this for the description of Feo’s mother: ‘her face was built on the blueprint used for snow leopards and saints’) and the bond between mother and daughter is stunningly evoked: ‘there was only one person Feo loved properly, with the sort of fierce pride that gets people into trouble, or prison, or history books. Her mother, she thought, could do anything.’ Rundell casts a spell over the reader as she writes. Her narrative voice is uncompromising and original but it is also delightfully funny, particularly when we see the world through Feo’s fierce eyes: ‘Old people like sitting down. And growing ear hair. And… soup.’ And the moment when Feo mistakes agitators for alligators is absolutely genius.

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As the story unfolds, Feo learns about the people and animals worth her trust and about those it is important to stand up to. Her relationship with soldier boy, Ilya, is brilliantly portrayed and at so many moments Moontrug’s heart ached for Ilya: ‘I sleep with a dictionary under my pillow sometimes. Just to remind me that there are more words in the world than “Come here, boy”.’ Feo’s guard is up when she first meets Ilya (‘Feo firmly believed that if ever you told someone you were scared, sooner or later you’d have to kill them’) but as their friendship grows, so does Feo’s trust and the moment Feo discovers there are more children than just Ilya ready to fight her cause is exquisitely written. Moontrug wanted to leap up onto her chair and shout her name out loud. Rundell does that to you. She offers you a brave style of writing that forces you into the story and carries you with its characters – and its wolves. And there is a wisdom in the writing that touches the reader deep inside: ‘eyebrows and nostrils and mouth and forehead – the places humans let emotion leak out’.

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The plot moves forward with urgent energy, from the moment Feo flees her house in the woods to when she hurls snowballs at adult intruders. But amongst the frenetic energy of the chases and the hostility of the Russian army, Rundell offers us a slower, more thoughtful kind of magic. Dancing. ‘A kind of slowish magic. Like writing with your feet.’ The Wolf Wilder is a story of discovery: of Feo learning to fend for herself, to put her trust in the wolves and other children around her and it is a story that champions the child: ‘Children are the toughest creatures on the planet. They endure.’ And Moontrug has a feeling this book will endure. It is effortlessly perfect and there will be children, years from now, who will leap up onto their chairs and shout Feo’s name. A classic children’s book. For sure.

PS: ‘Socks are key ingredients for adventures.’

THE WORDSMITH by Patricia Forde

Two years ago Moontrug read a brilliantly original book by David Almond called My Name is Mina. Mina is full of wonder at the world around her – she loves nature, birds, drawing, William Blake’s poems and WORDS. She says: ‘Words should wander and meander.  They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats.  They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.’ And the same love of words that runs through Almond’s book is present in Patricia Forde’s excellent novel for 9+ years, The Wordsmith.

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Ark is a place of tally sticks, rationed food and shared shoes, where art and music are banned, language is severely restricted and outcasts are thrown to the wolves. Letta’s job is to collect words and dole them out to people who need them. When she discovers that John Noa is planning to rob the people of language altogether and make them Wordless, she has to stop him. But she’s only a young girl and he’s the leader of the known world.

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Forde’s concept of an apocalyptic world repressed of language is both original and superbly done. On the one hand, you have Letta’s fascination with words: ‘…words she’d learnt in school flying about her head, fireflies from some magical place’ and the author’s own intrigue with language: ‘words slipping and sliding between two men’. Then you have Ark, a place where language is being drained away, despite Letta’s best efforts to preserve it. The world-building is hugely convincing (streets patrolled by gavvers, woods full of wolves, a Wordsmith’s home with secret Monk’s Room) and provides a fantastic platform for the plot to play out. By page 28, Letta is already harbouring a dangerous intruder, a young boy injured by the gavvers, and by page 89 she realises that beneath the ‘truths’ she has been told lurk a string of shocking lies…

Forde develops Letta’s character from obedient wordsmith to enraged rebel and her relationship with Marlo is lovely – something to root for amidst the horror of Noa’s regime. The plot is full of twists and turns and tension is high as Letta mixes ink from beetroot to mark a trail to her friend in the forest and when she sneaks out into the outlaws’ hiding place. Forde’s writing is beautiful (‘a hushed kind of waiting clung to everything’) and set alongside Ark’s squalid prisons, torture scenes, murders and the repressive List language, a huge sense of anger bubbles inside the reader as the plot progresses. Moontrug was willing the illegal colour-catchers (musicians, painters and dancers) on and as the book reached its conclusion, the tension was so high Moontrug had to read the last few chapters pacing the room. A fantastic book – original and compelling – and Moontrug is looking forward to what Forde has in store for us all next…

 

FIRE GIRL by Matt Ralphs

Moontrug first heard about Matt Ralphs’ debut for 9+ years, FIRE GIRL, through superstar Waterstones bookseller, Jo. She said: ‘It’s fast-paced, with a feisty heroine and a dark streak. I think you’ll really like it.’ And she was right…

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Twelve-year-old Hazel Hooper has spent her whole life trapped in a magical Glade created by her mother, Hecate. She’s desperate to meet new people and find out about the world. And, more than anything, she wants to be a witch. But when her mother is kidnapped by a demon – everything changes… Suddenly Hazel is alone in the world. Well . . . not quite alone. For it turns out that Hazel does have magic – she’s just not very good at controlling it. And she may have accidentally created a grumpy familiar in the form of a dormouse called Bramley. Determined to rescue her mother, the young witch and her mouse set out to track down the demon and find Hecate. However, it turns out that life outside the Glade is far more dangerous than Hazel ever could have imagined. Witch Hunters are everywhere – and the witches are using demons to fight back! Luckily for Hazel she manages to enlist the help of a handsome boy called David, and his drunken master, Titus White, who are expert demon hunters. And witch finders . . .

 

Right from the first sentence: ‘Mary Applegate awoke with a lump of fear lodged in her throat’ we realise Ralphs is hurling us into a world full of tension and danger. The Prologue comes complete with owl screech, whispering trees and old bones stirring in the night – a suitably eerie platform to launch the dramatic action that follows. By Chapter 2, Hazel’s mother has been stolen and we are set to encounter demon grinders, Wielders, Bladecatchers and Gullahtooths. Ralphs’ England is one where witches and their familiars (think odious spiders loaded with silver venom) lurk and Witch Hunters are out to kill…

Watch the FIRE GIRL trailer here

The action scenes are brilliantly described, and often genuinely frightening, especially when demon Rawhead is involved: ‘Clammy, long-fingered claws closed around Hazel’s neck, shoving her back against the wagon and cutting off her breath. She stared past rows of teeth into the ridged flesh on the roof of Rawhead’s mouth’. And Witch Hunter Titus White, with his blunderbuss, wagon and unpredictable sidekick apprentice are fabulous additions harking back to classic children’s adventure books. But in amongst the drama there are moments of real beauty as Ralphs describes the countryside setting: ‘Wychwood shimmered in the sun, rolling and swaying like an ocean. Leaves hissed like waves on shingle, branches creaked like masts.’

Perhaps one of the things Moontrug liked most about the book though was Hazel’s relationship with her dormouse familiar, Bramley. Stubborn and grumpy but with a heart of gold and unparalleled courage (especially as the plot reaches its climax), Bramley is a fantastic character. He adds a welcome touch of humour to the plot: ‘Now, I’m going to make a nest in your hair’ and from the tangle of Hazel’s red curls he offers some of the best one liners in the book: ‘I hope there’ll be apples there.’ Hazel is a dynamic main character – impetuous, loyal and brave – and Ralphs perfectly captures her progression from sheltered daughter to practising fire witch: ‘That’s right, witch-child, burn it all down.’ Fire Girl is a tremendous adventure of a book, full of nail-biting moments and packed with memorable characters, and Moontrug can’t wait for the sequel…