Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Blood Red, Snow White: A Review

“There was never a story that was happy through and through, and this one is no different.”

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus SedgwickArthur Ransome left his family and his home in England to travel to Russia where he found work as a journalist. His love story with Russia started the moment he set foot on its snow-covered ground and continued as he compiled his first published book–a collection of Russian fairy tales.

Over the years Russia would continue to draw Ransome back to it through the first murmurings of unrest in Tsarist Russia, into the first bloody revolution, and beyond. Reporting on the turbulent political climate for an English newspaper draws Ransome unwittingly into the middle of the conflict between White and Red Russia as he is courted to be both a spy and a double agent.

All Arthur wants is to hide away and marry the Russian woman he loves. But that proves difficult with her position as Trotsky’s secretary and his own murky sympathies. With history being made and the world changing from moment to moment, Arthur will have to choose a side and make hard choices to survive in Blood Red, Snow White (2016) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blood Red, Snow White was originally published in the UK in 2007 and made its first appearance in the US when it was reprinted in 2016. This book follows the sensational real story of novelist Arthur Ransome during his years in Russia as a suspected spy before he would write his Swallows and Amazons children adventure novels. Blood Red, Snow White was originally written shortly after Ransome’s MI6 file was made public–details Sedgwick relates in an author’s note which includes excerpts from those files.

This novel is broken into three parts. The beginning, written in third person, relates the beginning of Arthur’s life and journey to Russia as well as the early stages of the Russian Revolution as short fairy tales. The second part of the novel, in a closer third person point of view, follows Arthur over the course of one night in Moscow as he decides if he will agree to act as a British spy. In part three Arthur narrates his story in first person as he tries to make his way back into Russian and extricate himself and Evgenia from the political machinations around them.

This fast-paced, literary novel looks at a moment in history through an unexpected lens. Readers familiar with Ransome’s own books will, of course, find this novel fascinating. Although some of this novel is, necessarily, speculation it is well-researched and thorough with detailed information about Russia during Ransome’s time there as well as key details of Ransome’s life.

Blood Red, Snow White is an approachable and ambitious novel filled with atmospheric settings and a gripping story of love, adventure, spies, and Russia.

Possible Pairings: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson, Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Ghosts of Heaven: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It was all the same thing; the same sign, and now she knew what it meant.”

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus SedgwickIn a time before modern history, a girl tries to use a charred stick and ochre to make magic with disastrous results. Staring at the spiral shapes found everywhere in nature, she begins to grasp the enormity–the power–that can be found in written marks.

Centuries later, Anna hopes to care for her brother after her mother’s death only to have the entire town turn against her. As she fights rumors and increasingly vocal accusations that she is a witch, Anna too begins to see hidden meaning in the spiral found in their traditional spiral dance that begins to appear everywhere.

In the twentieth century an American poet watches the ocean from within the walls of an inhospitable asylum. He can see the shapes there too. Spirals. Helixes. Shapes that have become emblematic of the horrors he can scarcely fathom.

Keir Bowman knows, in the distant future, that he will become an astronaut on a desperate mission to colonize a new planet. He knows he will keep looking forward. What Bowman can’t guess is that in hurtling himself through space, he will also move toward his destiny and an understanding of these spirals that march through history in The Ghosts of Heaven (2015) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a standalone novel in the same style as Sedgwick’s Printz Award winner Midwinterblood.

After an introduction from the author, The Ghosts of Heaven includes four short stories titled “Whispers in the Dark,” “The Witch in the Water,” “The Easiest Room in Hell,” and “The Song of Destiny.” As the introduction explains, these stories can be read in any order. (I read them in the order given in the book which is also the order listed above.)

The Ghosts of Heaven is an incredibly smart and ambitious novel. The stories here span a variety of genres and forms as they work together to convey a larger meaning.

“Whispers in the Dark” is told in sparse verse as a girl begins to make sense of written words and forms.

“The Witch in the Water” returns to more traditional prose as the story watches the hysteria and fear that fed the fires of witch accusations and  trials in the seventeenth century. This segment also demonstrates how much of the novel deals with unequal power dynamics–in this case as Anna tries to work around much unwanted attention.

“The Easiest Room in Hell” brings readers to an asylum on Long Island where supposedly revolutionary treatments highlight the arcane and unfeeling nature of much mental health care in the early twentieth century. This story also underscores the fine line that can exist between creativity and madness.

Finally in “The Song of Destiny” Sedgwick brings the golden ratio (and the Fibonacci sequence) to the forefront in this solitary and meditative story as all of the vignettes come together in a conclusion with surprising revelations about the spirals and their ultimate meaning.

Sedgwick weaves subtle references between each quarter to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts as readers–along with the characters–move toward a larger understanding over the course of the entire novel.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a startling, clever and life-affirming novel that pushes the written word to its limit as Sedgwick expertly demonstrates the many ways in which a story can be told.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Folly by Marthe Jocelyn, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, In the Shadow of Blackbirds of Cat Winters

You can also read my interview with Marcus Sedgwick about the book.

*A copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*

Author Interview: Marcus Sedgwick on The Ghosts of Heaven

GhostsOfHeaven-BlogTour

Marcus Sedgwick (photo credit Kate Christer)Marcus Sedgwick is here today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel The Ghosts of Heaven. It’s early days but I’m confident enough to say that this is already one of my favorite (and most-anticipated) books from 2015. It should definitely be on your radar ASAP. Read on for my interview with Marcus and be sure to check out my giveaway (US/Canada only) for a hardcover copy to call your own!

Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for The Ghosts of Heaven? Why spirals?

Marcus Sedgwick (MS): For years I’d had a growing fascination with the spiral form, and alongside that the desire to wrote a novel about them. But how can you write a novel about spirals? That’s clearly absurd, and so I had to wait a long time to work out what I was going to do – the result being the four quarters, four different stories that make up the book. Why do I like spirals? They are such a beautiful shape – most people seem to find them so, but they are also mysterious I think. They seem to often be used as a symbol for spiritual things and I think that’s because they imply infinity.

MP: The Ghosts of Heaven is broken into four stories, or quarters, that can be read in any order. When you started writing, did you know that the book would be organized in this way?

MS: I knew there were going to be four quarters for a long time, but I didn’t know the exact order for a long time. I didn’t want to specify the order in which they should be read but of course in a physical book you have to. Of the 24 possible ways of reading the sequence of four stories, there are two sequences that are significant for me; one is the order in the book, and the other is one that alters the overall meaning of the book. But I’m not saying what that order is :)

MP: What was your writing process like for The Ghosts of Heaven? Were there unique challenges given the structure? Where did you start?

MS: It was a wonderful book to write – I enjoyed the writing of each stage, how different each part is, and the way those different voices would play against each other was fascinating to consider. Having decided to have four stories, it became great fun to work out what would be in each part and how each part would work. When I actually came to start writing though, I wrote the stories in the order that they appear in the printed book.

MP: This book spans history with your stories set in four very specific time periods. How did you choose which points in time to use as settings for each quarter?

MS: I knew I wanted a story set in the far future and one in the distant past, because I wanted to see how the spiral has been with us always and will always be with us, and how it affected and will affect my characters’ thinking in different times. The spiral is always the same, of course, but what we think it means may well change over time. I chose a story in prehistoric times for the reason that I wanted to talk about the birth of writing, and I chose the far future because I wanted to talk about our future as a species. The stories in the 18th and 20th centuries are therefore much closer together, and they are closer to our own time. I chose those dates because in the 18th century story, we see a young woman accused of witchcraft, and her brother has ‘fits’ which are held to be magically induced. In the story set in the early 20th century, we see a patient in an insane asylum, in an era when we are trying to understand such matters through science. I wanted to show that only a couple of hundred years is enough to have altered entirely the way in which the things are viewed; firstly through the lens of magic, then through the lens of science. And I did that because I wanted to suggest that we can never know for sure whether we’re thinking the ‘right way’ about things; that truth is very hard to be sure of, and that our attitudes might change again as the years progress.

MP: In addition to spanning a variety of time periods, the stories within this book also cover a variety of genres (historical and science fiction for instance) and formats (with parts written in verse or in diary format to name two). How did you decide how to tell and write each quarter of the book?

MS: With four parts it seemed to make sense to write them in different ways, partly for the fun of it, partly for the challenge, and partly to help distinguish them from each other. The prehistoric part was the most important decision though; I knew that I did not want to write some horribly inauthentic dialogue for these Neolithic people. I really cringe when you see a film or read a book set in such times – they always seem so corny, usually the male characters all have names with at lest one K in them – it’s all hard and guttural. For all we know, early language was sibilant and lyrical. So I decided to tell this part in verse, to avoid dialogue for the most part and to give the whole sequence a slightly detached, mystical air, as if we are watching things that we cannot ever really understand entirely, since these people are quite different from us. Having made that choice, the other choices followed easily.

MP: Is there any character that you are particularly excited for readers to meet?

MS: Oh gosh, well, I guess all of them. I wouldn’t like to specify – there are a lot of characters in the book and I always find everyone has different taste, so I think it’s best to let people choose for themselves.

MP: Working off the last question, which scene are you most excited for readers to discover in The Ghosts of Heaven?

MS: Well, I think my answer would be the same, but that’s a boring thing to say – so, maybe the sequence when the spaceship The Song of Destiny breaks through the ‘ripped region of space’ and things get a wee bit weird…

MP: Can you tell us anything more about the numbers found on the last page of The Ghosts of Heaven?

MS: I can tell you that you are the first person to ask me about them. Maybe other people have seen them, and just thought they are a printing error or something! But no, they’re meant to be there – it’s a coded message with some more thoughts about, well, important and relevant things. I’ll leave it at that.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

MS: You must connect. You must connect to what it is that is moving you to write, and bathe yourself in that thing, whatever it is. You must feel it inside and out and even if you don’t consciously understand all the whys and whats, you need to connect your mind to the thing that started you writing, so you say what you want to say with power and honesty.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

MS: I’ve just started writing a new adult novel, so that’s going to be a while away yet… Before then I have a comic in the pipeline from First Second Books – it’s called Scarlett Hart and my great friend Thomas Taylor is working away on the illustrations right now.

Thank you to Marcus for taking the time to answer my questions and thank you for Ksenia Winnicki at Macmillan for organizing this tour and giving me the opportunity to take part.

For more information about Marcus and his books you can visit his website.

You can also read my review of The Ghosts of Heaven (starting tomorrow).

Don’t forget to enter my giveaway to win a copy of The Ghosts of Heaven to call your own.

Here is the rest of the blog tour schedule:

Monday January 5: The Midnight Garden

Tuesday January 6: ExLibris

Wednesday January 7: Teen Lit Rocks

Thursday January 8: Fat Girl Reading

Friday January 9: Step Into Fiction

Monday January 12: The Book Wars

Tuesday January 13: Miss Print

Thursday January 15: Ticket to Anywhere

Friday January 16: Alice Marvels

Midwinterblood: A Review

“The sun does not go down.

“This is the first thing Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before the forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.”

cover art for Midwinterblood by Marcus SedgwickIn June 2073, Eric Seven arrives at Blessed Island chasing a story. It isn’t the first time his work as a journalist has brought him to the far reaches of society. Nor is it the first time he has encountered strange locals.

But as Eric investigates the mysterious island and a rare flower rumored to be found there, Eric also begins to feel an unexpected familiarity toward the island–especially toward a local woman named Merle.

As Eric and Merle come closer to the truth it becomes apparent that their journey, if it is a journey, is only just beginning. Or perhaps just nearing its conclusion in Midwinterblood (2011) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Midwinterblood was the winner of the Printz Award in 2014.

Midwinterblood presents seven intersecting stories of love, loss and rebirth in this deceptively slim volume. Although the stories vary in scope, all are grounded firmly in the landscape of Blessed Island where the more things change, the more some constants remain the same.

These stories span time and theme ranging from the unique problems faced by an archaeologist hoping to unearth a find to make a career to a story of two children in a viking colony plagued by an impossible monster. The loves presented here come in all forms with varying results for those involved.

Sedgwick presents a carefully plotted and delicate story over the course of this novel. It is very rare for a book to work as well when read forwards as it does read backwards, but Midwinterblood does just that. With plot points that transcend individual stories this is a rich, meditative story that begs to be read and read again.

Possible Pairings: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher, Eventide by Sarah Goodman, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein