Kids book review – “Splinters of Scarlet” by Emily Bain Murphy

I chose this novel for my Facebook Reading Challenge in April, the theme of which was a children’s book. I was delighted to have this as a theme; regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post reviews of books for young readers. It has unfortunately been some time since I read a children’s book, however, so I was keen to get started on this one. Splinters of Scarlet is Emily Bain Murphy’s second novel. Her first, The Disappearances, was a huge success, both critically and commercially, and so her follow-up was hugely anticipated. I read The Disappearances as part of this very reading challenge in January 2018 and absolutely loved it. My elder daughter who I insisted read the book, rates it as one of her favourite novels of all time and has re-read it several times. Every music fan will be familiar with the concept of the ‘difficult second album’, and the same may be said of books, except that books are produced and marketed somewhat differently, and first-time authors rarely achieve huge first-time success in the same way that certain pop performers do. I fear, however, that Emily Bain Murphy has not quite pulled off the ‘difficult second novel’. Don’t get me wrong, it is good, but my expectations were perhaps a bit too high.

The novel is set in Copenhagen in 1866-67, initially in an orphanage and then in the home of a wealthy mining widow Helene Verstergaard. The central character is Marit Olsen, an orphan seamstress. Her closest friend is Eve, a younger fellow orphan with a precocious talent for ballet, who is about to be adopted by the famed former ballerina Mrs Vertergaard. Marit adores Eve, loves her friend like a sister, even as a mother might, and has mixed feelings about the likely adoption. She is happy that her friend is happy, but it will be a poignant outcome for her since her father was killed in a Vestergaard mine and she remains bitter at the callous way she and her sister were treated; Helene Vestergaard’s late husband was the owner of the family mining dynasty and Marit blames him for her father’s death. When her father died, Marit’s older sister suddenly became responsible for the two of them, and Marit believes this burden, in turn, killed her.

What we also learn in the opening chapters is that certain people in the country have magical powers. Marit does for example and uses these in her job as a seamstress, and especially in the costumes she makes for Eve. Marit’s sister did too and ‘over-used’ her magic in trying to provide for the family. The over-use of magic is dangerous for its owner as it can lead to that person’s death if they are overtaken by ‘the firn’.

Eve is adopted and Helene Vestergaard decides that in addition to a daughter she would like a talented seamstress and so decides to take Marit from the orphanage too. Despite her mixed feelings Marit agrees so that she can be with Eve. Her lifestyle will be very different to her friend’s, however, for she will be a servant and live among the staff.

Marit becomes close to a number of the servants, most of whom it seems possess magical powers – Marit realises this is no accident; Helene has chosen her household carefully. A foreboding presence in the Vestergaard household is Helene’s brother-in-law Philip. Marit quickly begins to suspect something sinister is going on in the Vestergaard mines and that Philip is linked to it. She also begins to suspect a link with her father’s death and her quest for the truth drives risk-taking investigations.  

Marit shares her suspicions with the servants she has become close to and they agree to help her. Thus they set about various surveillance operations to try and find out what is going on in the mines and what exactly Philip Vestergaard has to do with it. The remainder of the book concerns Marit’s activities, for which she uses her magical powers extensively, as well as her increasing concerns about ‘the firn’ and whether she will fall victim to it. Philip Vestergaard senses Marit’s interest and begins to see that she and some of the others are a threat. He sets about silencing them, even killing one of the servants. The scene is set for the denouement – a showdown between the two opposing forces in the novel – truth and lies.

This novel has quite a complex plot and wide cast of characters, some of whom I found it hard to distinguish. The Disappearances also has a complex plot and a wide cast of characters and yet the author, in my view, handles it more deftly in that book and with greater imagination and coherence. For me, this novel is sometimes confused, and there are some non-credible twists which seem to be made to serve the plot. It is perhaps unfair to compare this novel to the earlier book, which was so good. If Splinters of Scarlet had been the first novel I would possibly be looking upon it more favourably. As it is, I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much. I suspect this book would suit a younger reader, perhaps 11-13 year olds, whereas The Disappearances is more suitable for 12-14 year olds. However, I think it is less good than other books in this age group.

Competent and her fans will love it, but for me it was not as engaging or brilliant as this author’s first novel.

A nice book for kids for the holidays

xmas-1-2Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.

It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.

We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.

Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.

The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.

The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.

It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!